2003-04-27 7:37 PM
VOYAGE OF THE BLUE TURTLE, Part IV
I'm sorry I haven't made any entries to this journal in so long... I'm in China at the moment, and my Internet access has been restricted by the Great Firewall put up by the Chinese government. Thanks to Kerri Hicks, Nicholas 'Nicko' Kriho, Dag Agren, Bryan 'Jarai' Chase, Jacob 'JWGH' Haller, Nick 'Pentomino' Bensema, Joe 'Manfire' Manfre, John 'Talysman' Laviolette, the people at peacefire.org, and everyone else who helped brainstorm a way through the Wall. Information wants to be free, and it could also use a cold beer if you've got one handy!
...CONTINUED FROM LAST UPDATE
The afternoon was dying. Low in the sky, the Sun burned an octagenarian orange, and the chill of outer space began to slowly but surely overpower the ecstatic heat of the warm day, like an arm wrestler finally winning a tough match. The fields streaming by me on both sides of the highway were a singed golden color, their sameness interrupted only by sparse clumps of trees and the criss-crossings of rutted dirt tracks.
Four people and two small motorcycles stood in a gulley just below and to the right of the highway. Their heads turned at the sound of my engine, and they waved their arms wildly in greeting. I waved back and rode past them... but then it struck me: maybe they were waving because they needed help?
It wouldn't hurt to check; they didn't look dangerous, and if I could lend them a hand, I figured that was the right thing to do. I turned back and found the narrow inlet that led to the gulley they were in.
They were grinning like fools when I pulled up beside them. "Ural! Cool!" shouted the rangy kid nearest me. He was dressed in hand-me-down military clothes and leaning up against a little red two-stroke, his overdue haircut twitching and dancing in the capricious breeze as he threw me a thumbs-up.
"You guys need help? I saw you waving."
"No, no, we were just waving because you are riding an Ural." They gathered 'round and inspected my machine, then inspected me with equal interest when they realized I was a foreigner. They were teenagers. They seemed friendly enough, and too underfed to be any threat.
The usual questions came in rapid-fire bursts:
"Are you really American?"
"Why are you here?"
"Do you like Russia or America better?"
"Where do you live?"
They weren't broken down, they were just hanging out. In the dirt. Why not? There was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do in the tiny village where they lived.
They showed me around, not that there was much to see. A handful of houses in various stages of decay, some fields lying fallow, everything dressed in weeds and dust and stiff old dried mud baked into rough cement by the summer heat. A small river meandered through it all, with a rusty old beached trawler serving as a diving platform for swimmers. The village was too small to support even a meagre little kiosk selling vodka and cigarettes, so trips to the gas station out on the highway for supplies were the main source of excitement.
We hung around by the river for a while, watching the water and the fish, skipping stones and talking bike talk, swatting insolent mosquitos and just enjoying the hell out of one passing moment after another. Our little group had more than doubled while we were riding around town. Word travels fast where there's nothing to do but talk.
I figured I'd camp out by the river. It was getting too late to keep riding, and I felt as safe there as anywhere. I asked my new friends where I could find some firewood.
"Firewood? You're going to stay here tonight? No, no, you don't have to sleep outside. You can stay at my house," offered one of the boys through a grin.
"Fuck off, Sasha, he's staying at our house," insisted Sergei, the tall kid I'd met first.
"No, you fuck off! I asked him before you did," retorted Sasha.
They fought over me. Nothing too rough, just a bit of brotherly pushing and shoving and name-calling and goodnatured roughhousing. Sergei was older and a little bigger than his buddy, so in the end, it was decided that I would visit Sasha's house for tea, then spend the night with Sergei's family. I smiled and shook my head ruefully as I gave in to the plan, in spite of the fact that neither of them had bothered to consult me before arranging my social calendar to their own liking.
Our little caravan of bikes wound back up the trail away from the river and back into the cozy little huddling of tumbledown dwellings these kids called home. The sun was down now, really down, and the darkness closed in on us like a wolf pack.
I was a little worried about what Sasha's family would say when we showed up unnannounced, and especially about what Sergei's family would say. There was no need to worry; the grapevine had informed everyone well ahead of time that I was coming, and I had underestimated the hospitality of Russian country folk anyway. Sasha's parents met us at the door, Papa with a pair of house slippers for me to wear, and Mama with the kettle whistling on the stove. We gathered at the family dinner table, and the folks just sat there beaming at me, former Soviets overjoyed to see that the "enemy" also enjoyed tea and cookies and good company.
Ah, but Sasha's grandmother lived there, too, and the old babushka was a different breed altogether. She doddered out of a back bedroom and peered suspiciously at me. Her face was seamed and scarred, one eye looked dead in her face, and her knobbly hands clutched a hand-carved hardwood cane that she used to support her bent, nearly hunchbacked old body. Mama and Papa quickly tried to reassure her that I was a friend, and at first she seemed to relax a bit and even gave me a gummy, toothless grin by way of greeting... but then I spoke.
When she realized that I was American, the old woman recoiled in horror and hissed at me like some kind of venomous old snake. She began cursing fluently and throwing me the Evil Eye as she backed away, her poor family doing their best to calm her down, and for a moment I thought she was going to lash out at me with that cane of hers. Nothing they said to her meant a good goddamn to grandma: as far as she was concerned, I was one of those hell-spawned baby-eating monsters from the bad old decadent West she'd heard so much about in her youth, come to enslave the decent hard-working proles of rural Russia as mere chattel in the depths of my personal money factory. She might have reacted a little bit worse if I had been wearing a top hat with a dollar sign on it and holding my dick in my hand, but I doubt it. I beat a hasty retreat.
Sergei had a babushka too, but she was a little more progressive in her way of thinking. The whole big family gave me a warm welcome, and laid out their good china for me so that we could sit down to a good home-cooked meal. Sergei had a brother, two sisters, an aunt, his mother, and his grandparents all living together in that dilapitated little house, but I can't remember when I've seen such a harmonious family in such close quarters. Maybe they were on their best behavior because they had a guest in the house, but I never saw the tiniest hint of discord, and that's pretty unusual even when people are trying their hardest to get along.
None of them had ever seen a foreigner before, except on television, so they were fascinated with me. Everyone wanted to put food on my plate. Now, if you're a Yank like me, you probably figure that the polite thing to do when you're eating dinner at someone else's house is to clean your plate and then refuse seconds with a cheery patting of the stomach to show how full you are. In Russia, this doesn't work. Food is the one thing that is plentiful there. If you clean your plate, you must still be hungry, so they don't ask you if you want more or wait for you to take more, they just shovel it onto your plate for you. I thought I was going to throw up before I figured out how to say "NO MORE FOOD, THANKS" without giving offense... and the family dog, a gregarious little hairless thing with huge eyeballs, got very well taken care of under the table when nobody was looking.
Speaking of Russian dogs, there's something I'd like to get off my chest. Sputnik 2, the second spacecraft to orbit the Earth, had a passenger when it launched on November 3rd, 1957. Her name was Laika (which might be translated as "Barky" since nobody would call a dog "Barker"), and she was a mixed-breed dog, the first Earth creature ever to visit outer space. The Soviets never expected Laika to come back from her mission; they locked her in a cramped little padded cell and sent her up with a ten day's supply of food and water (in gel form), a bag around her ass to catch urine and feces, and no heat shield. She died, scared and alone, in a space too small to turn around in, and her body burned up along with Sputnik 2 when it reentered the Earth's atmosphere on April 14th, 1958.
There's a big, ugly statue of Yuri Gagarin in Moscow. It's a pretty tasteless piece of sculpture, stylized in an angular and vaguely aerodynamic way that is meant to make it look like Gagarin is about to lift off and head for the stars under his own power, thrusting heavenward like some Soviet Superman on a mission to save the universe from intergalactic Capitalism.
Gagarin got to volunteer for the mission. Gagarin got to come home again.
Where is Laika's statue? Laika was FIRST. Laika DIED up there. Gagarin gets a statue? I want to see a statue of Laika, First Earthling in Space, Laika, Heroine of the Soviet Union, Laika, the Very Good Dog. Now, damn it!
After dinner, we sipped tea and talked while the night outside got deeper and colder, and the rotting old house creaked and groaned quietly around us. I was pretty tuckered from my long ride, and I guess it showed, 'cause they bundled me off to bed early.
It was like going back in time. I was led to a bedroom, which proved to be not a guest bedroom, not a bedroom vacated for guest use, but the bedroom used by the whole family, grandma and grandpa excluded (they had their own room). The boys slept in the same bed that night so that I could have one to myself, and they gave me the best bed in the place. It was ancient, with a swaybacked set of springs rusting away underneath, and a fat feather mattress on top, sagging like a wino on a parkbench. The quilt was rough, but it was thick, handmade by someone who really needed a quilt, not patched together by some spoiled hobbyist in her spare time. We all snored away together that night, just like kinfolk.
There was a bookshelf next to the bed, and I noticed a book there that looked like it might be science fiction. The author's name was printed on the cover in Cyrillic, so it took me a moment to recognize it: Robert Heinlein. I can't imagine that good Soviet citizens would have been allowed to read anything written by Heinlein. It was really quite a surprise to see, a little piece of evidence that the minds of rural Russians are slowly but surely opening in spite of all the economic disadvantage they are suffering under.
Those of you who know me know that I'm no Christian, but I have read the Bible (how can you understand Western culture and literature without reading the Bible?). There's a passage in the Bible about a rich man who gives bags and bags of money to charity, and a very poor woman who tithes away a pittance that is all she's got in the world. The point of the story is that, since the poor woman gave more than she could afford, and the rich man gave only money he could easily stand to lose, the poor woman's contribution was the greater one, spiritually speaking.
These Russians, these country folk, these peasants in a house of worm-eaten sticks held together by threads of rust, had next to nothing for themselves... but they gave me the very best of everything that they had to offer. I had good company, a very good meal, and a happy, comfortable, warm night's rest nestled in the very bosom of the family. Before I left the next morning, I tried to give the lady of the house some money to pay for my room and board, but she was having none of it. After she refused three times, I gave up, and she cooked breakfast for me. As I prepared to ride off toward the highway, the townfolk gathered on the common green to shake my hand and wish me a safe journey.
Nope, Oscar never wrote another word in this journal, but I wish he would.