Sunday, August 7, 2011

Day 26. On the Rails to White Russia

As a foreigner bouncing along on the bumpy train to Minsk, the feeling is somewhat akin to slouching in a hospital waiting room, before an operation. You have no idea what to expect, but know the outcome is going to go one of two ways: either you’ll end up better than before, or you’ll be dead.

Crazy Russian rap blared through the carriage as we rolled out of Vilnius. We were zooming towards what has become known in newspapers as “Europe’s Last Dictatorship,” the capital of Belarus.
Not exactly the darling of travel brochures, all reports had alerted me the rail to Minsk was more like a time machine than a train.
Just three hours away from Lithuania’s capital and you enter a zone known like North Korea, what can today safely be described as a living Soviet museum.
The intrigue had always been inside to explore this unknown city- probably primarily because authorities always tried to keep you out of there. There were steadfast visa restrictions for outsiders, and you needed an invitation from somebody living inside to be allowed into what were, presumably, their huge cast-iron gates.
Now pocketing my accepted, stamped and raring little visa card, I was boarded and off, being showered on by rowdy Belarusian Muzak.

It happened as such: After a cyclone of organisation, tableside discussions with distant cousins, it had become evident- there was a link awaiting me in Minsk.
The daughter of the deceased brother of my mother’s cousin’s father: obscure to understate it mildly, lived within the borders of dictator Lukashenko’s love-in.
The relation was unknown to me as the country she slept in.
From family broadcasts, the latest report was the young lady was accustoming her mirror to a recent bout of rhinoplasty, so even if I’d ever seen a photo of her, chances were slim as her new sinus for an automatic recognition.
But, all the same, the generosity from the unknown is often incomparable, so I gratefully accepted the offer, and happily took the stranger’s candy.
So with all the legwork done, I leant back in the anti-chamber of this crazy commie caboose, and let the scene flow over me.

Outside the window, a lush wash of absinthe appeared to have been doused upon the fields. Everything was sparkling in a somewhat surreal tinge of green.
But maybe it was merely my eyesight.
Synagogue domes burst out through the rooves of farmhouses, suicidal billy goats strayed close to the tracks, and villagers in army get-up visored palms over their working brows to catch a look at the steaming engine speeding by.
Inside the cabin, it was a slightly scarier story.
Passengers in my vicinity ranged from garish princesses to bearded vigilantes, none of whom I could brave eye contact with at this early hour of the AM.
I ignored the squeeze and kept busy percolating over my migration forms, trying to maintain a steady pen grip.
But it worked for only so long. My brain was whipping up a blend of thoughts: What could be expected within the borders of this, a landlocked country so regularly vindicated by global media as being chock full of abuses on human rights?
I had read profusely about the amount of journalists they had locked up in Minsk for expressing their views in the free press.
I double checked my visa form:
Occupation: NONE.
I was safer as a drifter than a journalist, I surmised. I leant my head back, clamped my eyelids, and tried to block out the commie crud serenading from the speakers.
The Belarusian border was sidling in out of the distance.
The border crossing was less of a bullfight than predicted. A few minor discrepancies did arise, however. A rather severely handsome woman placed my documents upon her reader. All seemed okay…’but what kind of planet are you from?’ steamed from her glare.
She shot me a threatening question in Russian.
Non comprehendo, lady.
The surname ‘Garrick’ suddenly threw her into a tailspin of confusion and disbelief: as if its utterance brought on some kind of perverse and powerful curse, or were the secret codename of her turbulent lover lost in battle an eon ago.
Though, after some repugnance at my lack of comprehension, she tossed me my papers and left me to transfix on my thoughts once again.

Soon enough the train would be rolling in. Soon enough we would see what all this hubbub was about.
As if someone had quickly changed the slide on the projector, the backdrop altered completely from just ten minutes prior. The farmers toiling in their trenches, their cows half-dazed by the passing commotion were no more to be seen.

Now outside the glass, hundreds of obelisks, like the anthills of the Australian outback, though on a rather grander, greyer scale, jammed the horizon. These were the housing complexes, brimming from the million plus population of Minsk. Manmade escarpments of gritty greys were juxtaposed between brazenly bizarre buildings painted in the fluorescent fashions of Gold Coast teenagers.
Alongside of the train tracks, construction workers leant against crates of supplies, wiping perspiration on already soaked shirt sleeves.
The interesting aspect: some of their caps donned the hammer and sickle slogan.
A rising intensity grew from inside me. I swallowed it down as if it were medicine, and carried on looking.
The station was blooming into focus now. The brakes tweeted out in the universal language, “we’ve made it,” jangling us around like seeds in a pod. The lulling Russian strumming began to peter out.
We had made it to Minsk.
Scrambling rather than stepping out of the carriage, the station immediately dizzied me. I became aware, if these mysterious cousins weren’t here to meet me, I would have to toil with public telephone boxes, a feat comparable to opening the tomb of Tutankhamen.
For forty seconds standing motionless, I waited for fate to guide me.
Behold! I was greeted by amiable countenances, excited to see somebody from the strange kangaroo-eating village of Australia.
The lady there to greet me, to save confusion, ‘my aunty’, was a striking character. Her face was dwarfed by magnificent pink-rimmed spectacles, and a firestorm of curly red hair, dangling each which way, down to her shoulders. A chunk of amber was slung around her neck. My cousin was black haired, youthful, and, thankfully, English spoken.
“Hi! You made it! Are you really from Australia?”
At this point, I was no longer sure. It felt as though I’d been living in space for the last years, but I decided to let it drop.
“Sure! Great to be here!”
And no sooner had these words been spoken, did I notice the so-called City Gates dominating the backdrop.

Soviet statues lined the gates like snipers. Somehow, it was a refreshing sight to see all these hearty soldiers, buxom farmer lasses, beckoning the crowds, all of us equally, with fearsome waves of welcome.
Again the intensity rose, but once more it was swallowed back down like a bad batch of cough syrup.
“Mother asks, are you hungry? She’s just made a big batch of borsch,” my cousin questioned.
Multiple hungers were writhing within me, but I couldn’t be sure if one of them was borsch. But hastily I shot back a,
“Sure, I’d love to!”
And without further explanation, we dove down into the Minsk city metro, bobbing like pinballs through the socialist streams of peek hour workers.

(To Be Continued…)

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