"European Russia 2006" story # 10

Udi, Ukraine           August 22, 2006

It's easier to go from a country you're not supposed to be in to a country you're supposed to be in than it is to go from a country you're supposed to be in to a country you're not supposed to be in.
     But, it's still not that easy.
     On July 8th, two months after my illegal entry into Russia, I found myself eager to return to Ukraine. I left the house of engineer Igor early in the morning and boarded a bus for Belgorod, a city which sat 100 kilometers from Kharkov, Ukraine.
     I wasn't quite sure how I was going to cross the border this time. This time, I didn't have the help of my wise Russian friend in the Czech Republic. I was more determined and foolhardy than worried, though.
     At first, I thought I would hitchhike on a large highway to a busy border crossing. There, I would get out of the car or truck, walk towards the border booth, and act like I was coming from Ukraine to Russia but had just gotten lost and confused. I figured the border patrol would be too overwhelmed with vehicle traffic to care much about me, and they'd inform me I needed a visa to enter Russia and send me "back" to Ukraine.
     But, I didn't execute this plan. Instead, I looked at my Russia map-book about a bazillion times. And I decided that a little village named "Shelobka" would be the perfect place for my migratory border-hopping.
     It was a hot and sunny early afternoon. I bought a plastic-cup-ful of "Kvas," the Russian cola which has a keg-y taste to it like beer. And I rode another bus to get closer to the border.
     Shelobka wasn't the kind of place buses ran to. I paid a dusty-skinned, oval-shaped, moustachioed taxi driver 150 rubles (US$5) to take me there. As we drove through countryside, I scanned the barely-dipping green land to our left that led somehow to Ukraine. He began talking about why I was going to Shelobka, and I agreed with him that I was going to visit a girl.
     We arrived in the quiet, one-dirt-road village of Shelobka. I instructed the driver to wait for me, and I ran into the one grocery-store/hair-salon and asked a thirty-something, black-haired woman with a harmonious face where the road to Udi, Ukraine was. She nicely came out of the store and gave my driver directions.
     I told the driver my real plans. He said he'd take me further, but it would cost extra. The road led quickly through the village and to a whole bunch of corn-fields. He said he wasn't going further and something about "contrabandista". He pointed me straight, but motioned to a farm road going left.
     I happily thanked him and gave him 150 rubles more. The taxi had cost less than a bribe to the "miliciya" (police), at least. Ukraine can't be far now, I thought. I walked to the left with my two black bags.
     I soon met a fork in the roa... er, corn-fields. I opted to go in the direction that had been straight, instead of continuing to the left. The last thing I wanted was to get lost here in this heat. To my dismay, the sound of a car coming towards me suddenly puttered.
     Oh, no, I thought; it could be patrolling "miliciya"!
     I quickly ran into the corn plants with my two bags and ducked down. The car appeared and turned in my direction at this time.
     My effort at hiding was horribly pathetic. Comical, really. The car had probably seen my orange shirt entering the corn plants, the plants swayed near me, and I in my crouching position was still visible from the farming road. Nevertheless, I continued to crouch as the car - not a police car - hurried past. It was probably just a friendly contrabandista.
     I continued my walk. I came to an enormous cabbage patch. Dark soil and little, green leafy vegetables not big enough to hide behind were the only things visible for kilometers. I followed a small forest parallel to the farming road. Then, I dangerously visibly cut across the huge cabbage patch. No cars came as I walked the final kilometer to a lone, blue sign on a post in the middle of nowhere that represented the border with Ukraine.
     All right. A lone human amidst a sea of fields, I rejoiced. I figured, because my passport said I was supposed to be in Ukraine now, I was home-free. Safe and sound. Legal and law-abiding.
     I walked alongside a one-tree-wide, dry forest separating fields. I left the road and dipped through a shallow swamp in an effort to avoid what looked like a watch-house straddling the border. I crossed another field and came to a fluffy field of alfalfa played by the wind. It was such a quiet, remote place, I just wanted to camp there and meditate all night. The hot sun and the alfalfa and the quiet all could've put me asleep, a happy, happy man.
     But, I kept walking. Two cars used my dirt road then - both probably farmers - and I hid from one of them on a hay mound.
     After approximately three hours of total walking, I came to a (dirt) road that probably connected two Ukrainian villages. I put my bags down and waited to hitchhike.
     The second car, coming from the direction that I wanted to go, stopped. A man peaked out and said, "Dokument?"
     He asked me where I was coming from and what I was doing. Taken off-guard by this, I babbled my answers like a nervous idiot. He didn't seem to care, fortunately. I said I'd come from Kiev, Ukraine, hitchhiking, and a man had taken me there, where I camped out.
     The guy said we were near the "granice" (border). I said the equivalent of, "Oh, really?" He said nobody would pick me up hitchhiking there. He recommended I walk the five kilometers to the next town, but that I'd better hurry, because army patrolled that road. He drove off.
     I quickly walked to some trees, where I threw my Russia map-book and Russian coins into the forest. Earlier in the day, I'd finished all my food products bought in Russia. At this time - if I hadn't done it already - I hid my Russian bills in a corner of my wallet.
     After a kilometer of walking, it happened. A van rumbled to a stop beside me. Although it wasn't camouflaged, it belonged to the local army. "Dokument?" they asked. I figured I could handle this.
     Three guys got out. They asked me questions.
     It had occurred to me recently that I'm incompetent at, almost incapable of, lying. I'd been trying to tell a tall tale to a little kid in Russia, but after just two minutes I gave up and said the equivalent of, "You're right, fella, I was making that all up." I can't lie ...
     or can I? Facing the situation I was now in, with three army men trying to infringe upon my freedom, I didn't flinch an inch. I told them I'd been to Kiev for the past two months, where I'd rented a room and learned Russian. I said I'd left the day before and hitchhiked in the direction of Kharkov. A man going to Udi had picked me up, told me the nature there was good, and so I'd opted to camp there for one night and face big-city Kharkov the next day.
     "Gde v Rossii bil!?" one of the young men shot at me. (Where were you in Russia!?) This man, the white-skinned one of the three, seemed to think he was going to trick me into accidentally answering him.
     They looked quite thoroughly through my bags. They looked especially at my photographs, trying to determine if I'd been spying or not. But, I only had pictures of dance lessons and balls in the Czech Republic. The white-skinned guy said he liked a Czech girl who wore a dress showing her cleavage.
     I began to understand how serious this was when they called to their superiors, and a girl who spoke English asked me about thirty questions. A big fine was probably waiting for me if they busted me.
     But, I answered the questions slyly and ably. The white-skinned guy, while looking through my bags, asked if he could keep one of my music CD's as a souvenir. I was so scared, I said yes.
     One of the guys noticed my water bottle. He asked where I'd gotten it. I'd gotten it in Russia. I said I'd gotten it in a small village while hitchhiking, and he dropped the subject.
     They looked at my wallet. As I showed them my only three, practically worthless, Ukrainian coins, a remaining Russian coin fell out on my shirt. I held my hand over the Russian coin while they watched me, and I stomped it into the road when they looked away.
     I asked innocently, in which direction is Russia, anyways?
     "Ty nam obmanuesh?" the white-skinned guy said, competitively. (Are you "obmanovani" us?)
     Of course, I fully understood that "OBMANOVAT" means, "to deceive, to fraud." I think it says a lot about Russian culture that this word is used so, so often in Russian literature and in real-life conversations.
     But, I said, "Ya ne ponyal." (Sorry, I didn't understand that.)
     As you can see from that, I understand the word, "obmanovat."
     They told me we were going to have to wait for their superiors to come meet us. I spoke about wanting to go, already, to Kharkov. The white-skinned guy said, "Ty budesh do Ameriku." (You're going to America.) He was a funny guy. He soon got picked up by another passing vehicle and left, leaving me in the hot sun to wait with the quieter, brown-skinned guys wearing camouflage.
     At my first opportunity, I threw my water bottle into the wheat field behind me. I thought about the things I had which could incriminate me: addresses of Russian friends, tucked inside my little orange book; many pages of my journal, which was even written in Russian for them to read; those Russian bills in my wallet; notes on other pieces of paper; etc.
     I wasn't all that worried. The browner-skinned guys and I waited a long time. We sat down together in their van. We spoke, friendly, about America and the army and how hungry we all were. I asked if I could have one of their army hats with the Ukrainian flag on it, but they weren't scared so they said no.
     Finally, we were told to come to the army base. They were just going to take pictures of me, apparently. We drove through the tiny village of Udi and its chickens and old men walking and little, blue houses.
     Behind the army base's gate, the low-ranking men got yelled at when they looked through my photographs, interested.
     Their superior was a young guy like myself. In his office, he took pictures of me and xerocopied my passport. He was smarter than the other guys, and I was fatigued by now, so he worried me a little bit. He even caught me in a lie. He asked if I'd ever been in Kharkov. I said no. He said it was impossible to get to Udi without passing through Kharkov. Oops.
     He'd already made up his mind to let me go, though. (I didn't have a laptop computer; I probably wasn't a spy.) He hung out with me for a bit, first, and we even exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
     I camped that night under a bright moon in a big field - this one belonging entirely to Ukraine. I found an incriminating paper in my shirt pocket then, and I was sure glad the army guys hadn't looked there. On the paper were written directions on how to ride a bus to a Russian town near the border.
     All right ... I fought the law, and I won.

"'The law.' ..... Ha!" - Pee Wee Herman

- Modern Oddyseus.

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