"European Russia 2006" story # 6

Ertyl, Russia           July 31, 2006

The road going east from Staryy Oskol, Russia, was gray and thin. It passed flat, smoky-green fields and stagnant air that supported lives but not fun ones. The cars and trucks which rolled on the road and excreted exhaust were sharp-edged and old and white, gray, or black. The day was sunny, with a hazy heat.
     My acquaintances drove me a ways outside of Stary Oskol, where a delivery-truck driver named Aleksei immediately agreed to take me further.
     Like most twenty-something Russians, Aleksei was married and a father. We spoke about the U.S. and traveling. He drove me to and through the city of Varonez. One road in the city which we drove was so beaten up with pot-holes that it seemed like it had been bombed.
     I had to wait a long time for my next ride. At some point, I began to wonder why anyone would stop for me. I was very different from these people. We had almost nothing in common, nothing to talk about.
     Finally, late-forties Sergei stopped. He drove an old, beaten-up, brown compact car - probably a Lada. We didnīt speak much. I asked about the old music playing on his old radio, and I wondered if a dance accompanied it. I asked what his job was. He paused long, before finally saying oddly, "Obichno ... obichnaya rabota." (Normal ... a normal job.) He nodded, satisfied, as if proud of himself for thinking of that answer. I wondered if he worked for the mafia. He was nice to me, at any rate.
     When he stopped to drop me off, I had to push his car so it would start again. His didnīt seem like a mafia car.
     There were eight or a dozen small brick houses near me. They were spaced apart, and wild plants grew between them and overwhelmed the small village. (Brick, countrside houses in Russia often have modest amounts of gingerbread-color paint on them - purple, green, or blue - on their shutters, for example.) Many humongous crop fields surrounded, and a glider plane currently crop-dusted one.
     A second Sergei drove me then. He listened to cool, high-fashion music and hunched in his seat. He looked like a yuppy, and I thought he might be gay. But, he wasnīt. He was going to visit his son and mother at their cottage.
     The day was nearly dark by the time Sergei dropped me off. (Iīd begun hitchhiking in the afternoon.) I was in a village of about fifty houses, with one giant, wooden wheat mill in the middle. I turned from the highway and walked past modest houses, where old-style people and little barking dogs lived. The place seemed peaceful and safe.
     I walked past the last house and down to a brown lake. Fish jumped from the lake after hovering insects, and I thought of my Grandpa Breen, the fisherman.
     At first, I wanted to avoid what I thought was a jeep parked by the lake. But, then, I realized I had to start trusting and befriending the scary Russians, or else this hitchhiking trip wasnīt going to be much fun. I walked towards the jeep, only to find out it was actually an empty trailer.
     I planned to camp near the lake. I almost couldnīt hear the highway anymore. I was in a land of green, with tiny mounds bouncing up around me and the lake. I felt like I was in the countryside of the American Midwest, fifty years ago.
     Two men quickly drove up. They were apparently the managers of a private hunting-and-fishing operation, and I wasnīt allowed to sleep on their land. I argued with them. One of the men was very happy and friendly, and he said I spoke great Russian after only two months in the country. He asked if I liked Russia. I said no (because Russian men are agressively power-hungry, and therefore many people are left with almost nothing).
     They said I should go and sleep in a cabin with two of their employees. That didnīt sound safe to me. I argued with them, and they gave up and said I could sleep by the lake.
     Just as Iīd won the argument, I decided I didnīt want to win it. Seeing an opportunity to be with some Russian people for the night, I told them Iīd go sleep in their cabin.
     As they drove me, the friendly man asked if Russia didnīt have beautiful nature. I grumpily said it didnīt. (This place here was the first or second beautiful one Iīd seen, and I wasnīt even free to go there!)
     At the cabin, I was introduced to Dima and an old guy who liked "samogon" (homemade vodka). The managers left.
     Mid-twenties Dima had choppy blond hair and tan skin. He had a personality that was as naive and innocent and pleasant as the lake. He liked that I was from America.
     The fifty-eight-year-old seemed bitter and mean. He wanted me to drink; I couldnīt due to a vow Iīd made.
     They gave me sausage and bread and tea and a sweet pastry and cucumbers and tomatoes, at a square wooden table in the dark night. Dima went to ride his bicycle and patrol the property, and the old man made a fire.
     Dima returned. Both of the men were married and lived in nearby villages. We ran out of things to talk about, and Dima encouraged me to sleep: "Spish, spish."
     I lay down under a warm, fluffy blanket, on a bed in one room of the tiny cabin. I still wasnīt sure if this situation was completely safe. I laid my belt on the door-knob, figuring if someone opened the door in the night, the belt would fall and wake me. I was quickly asleep.
     A short time later, I woke up. The employees were still outside by the fire, surveying the property and perhaps drinking. I could easily hear them talking through the cabin wall.
     The old man was talking. I sounded like he was saying, "Umiraet ... on umiraet." (Will die ... he will die.) Then: "denge ... ezdet ... bogaty." (Money ... he travels ... rich.)
     Oh no, I thought. They were planning to kill me!
     Perhaps Iīd misheard them. But, I didnīt think itīd be wise to go back to sleep. I put on my clothes and walked outside. It seemed like the old man then said, "Vstrelat, vstrelat." (Shoot; shoot!) I walked down into the plants by the lake and hid.
     I hid there for hours. It was cold. The sky was clear, and I saw two falling stars.
     I thought long and hard about giving up on my proposed eight-month stay in Russia and going home. If I couldnīt even trust two guys in this peaceful place, I probably wasnīt going to feel good with practically anyone the whole way across Russia.
     Nevertheless, I decided finally to continue with my trip. ... woohoo!
     I wondered what some of my friends wouldīve done if theyīd been in my situation in the cabin. It seemed like they wouldīve done something better than go hide in the plants. I felt like a girl, hiding there. (No offense meant to girls.)
     I needed to start asserting myself more.
     I had originally planned to wait in the cold until sunrise, then return to the cabin for my bags. But, then, I decided to assert myself.
     I went back to the cabin. The old man was sleeping. I grabbed my bags (the guys hadnīt touched them), went to the fire, and told Dima I was leaving.
     Dima seemed as friendly and harmless as ever. He was possibly one of the most harmless guys Iīve ever met in any country. He recommended I go back to sleep.
     Oh no, my host tells me to go to sleep at four in the morning; he can only be a murderor!
     I said good-bye and walked towards the highway.
     I was rather disappointed in myself. It seemed Iīd gotten scared too easily ..... or, who knows? maybe Iīd done the right thing by leaving that cabin.
     I was proud of myself for one thing: Iīd decided to continue following my dreams. Sometimes I think a man can be judged by what he believes is possible.
     I hadnīt slept much. I put up my tent beneath a fresh, comforting tree near a field and slept through the morning.

peace, Modern O.

Thanks to Aleksei; Sergei; and Sergei for rides!
Much thanks - that is, if they didnīt want to kill me - to Dima & the old guy for letting me sleep in their cabin!

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