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Friday, April 15, 2005

Naked in Belarus

I have some other things I need to write this morning, so I am going to post something I wrote more than two years ago. Some of you have read it before in a slightly altered version.

Naked in Belarus

My second visit to Vilnius is coming to an end. It is with reluctance that I am leaving, but it is also a necessity. I have friends to visit in Helsinki, Lahti, and Kuopio in Finland. Then I am going to Stockholm to visit one more friend before catching a flight to London. I will fly home the day after that. Seven months in Europe are coming to an end.

I am leaving on a bus tonight, heading to Tallinn where I will wait for one hour before catching a ferry to Helsinki. The end to a two week visit in which I lost a beautiful girl, saw George W. Bush, and met the group of people with whom I will share today’s adventure. They will soon be out of my life like the beautiful girl, unless we meet by chance again in a random locale. None of us are big on e-mailing.

It is early afternoon and we are gathered in the common area of the hostel. A group of young dancers from Riga have just left and the room is quiet for the first time in two days. This is good because I am on the tail end of a four day string of parties. This morning I stumbled home at 8:30 after spending the night with some Russians somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I remember that to get there, I was driven by a young man who flaunted all laws of driving and almost got us arrested. Besides the speeding and running a red light right in front of a cop, he also drove through the Gates of Dawn, the famous shrine to the Virgin Mary that also acts as the main entranceway to the old town of Vilnius. It is also a pedestrian only walkway. That same guy also dry humped his sister after they danced in their underwear to Radiohead. Last night seemed rather normal to be honest. It has been a long seven months.

As we sit waiting for a van to pick us up, I reflect on the fact that I am leaving the city again. Why? I ask. I love it here. When I was here for two weeks in the summer, I had semi-serious discussions over vodkas and potato pancakes about what it would take to open up a business here. I had potential partners lined up – still do for that matter. I had visions of me sitting in my bookstore / Internet café / bar after hours, reading to my hearts content and writing the great novels for a new lost generation. Who needs Prague?

I had a girl then, too. Well, as much as you can have a girl when you are living out of a backpack with four changes of clothes, two notebooks, five books, and an assortment of toiletries. Her name was, is Jurga, and she bears a striking resemblance to Cate Blanchett. In the summer we spent hours walking the city streets, talking, laughing, being silent. Holding hands and kissing on the hills looking over the city. I left then because I had to make haste to Italy to meet friends coming to visit Italy and Croatia. I came back because what could be more romantic than Vilnius under a blanket of snow, and sitting in a cozy café sipping hot tea and beginning my education in Lithuanian.

I’ve been called a dreamer once or twice.

Who am I kidding? I’m not reflecting on anything. Once upon a time my nights were ruined by absinthe. Now it is vodka. One vodka, two vodkas, three vodkas, four. I drink vodka, I dance. I chat up beautiful women and eventually kiss one, maybe two of them. Maybe I go home with one of them like last night. I have not talked to Jurga in a week, and I know I never will again.

I have just finished telling my new friends about last night because I am trying to make sense of it. I can’t. The one girl in the group, Yvonne, looks at me with concern in her eyes. Though she doesn’t know me well, she knows that I’m not acting like my better self.

“Be careful,” she says. She is Dutch and finishing a year long journey with her fiance Denis. They have been through Asia and will be home in a few weeks. Denis, it turns out, is a writer, too. The three of us are very supportive of each other. They were out last night as well, and at some point we shared a sing-a-long and danced together. They left well before the 5 AM last call, though.

There are three others with us. Steve is Canadian. He has been travelling for more than two years and has countless amusing stories. He has one for last night, as well, but it is not as good as mine. We have been talking a lot the last few days. He is the reason I went out last night. And the night before that. Bastard.

Sanford is a fellow American. He is the cynical type. The kind you meet who has nothing but bad things to say about America. He missed it when G.W. was here last week. He would have enjoyed it. The speech was terrible. Sanford has been travelling for nine months and has no intention of going back.

The last of our group is an Australian I have only spoken to a few times. His name is Martin. He’s been in London for the better part of the last two years, and is travelling for a bit before returning to Australia. He will be home in less than two weeks as well.

We have been together as a group now for three days. Steve and I for five. The others will stay after I leave tonight, and for a few days before we stop writing each other, I will get tales of debauchery. I will feel left out, like I left too soon. Like I’m in the wrong place. Like I always do. I am getting depressed. Drinking too much does that to me. I want to go to bed. I want to get on my bus. Instead we hear the doorbell. The van is here to pick us up. It is time to go to the sauna. The last thing in the world I want to do.


Steven has bought a bag full of beer and as we climb into the van, he passes them out. I take mine with great reluctance. It tastes terrible. My stomach is revolting. This is not helped by the fact that we are sitting in the back of a van with no windows. There are no benches, either, just free standing stools, like the kind you might use to step on while changing a low-hanging light bulb. We can see only a small sliver of the outside world through a gap between the passenger seat, where a girl of seven or eight is sitting, and the driver’s seat. Our driver speaks no English. He has the rough look of a man who has lived through a lot and survived by fighting. That and drinking vodka.

None of us are sure where we are going. We know the sauna is somewhere in some woods, somewhere within an hour of Vilnius. There are photos at the hostel to show that others have done this. I assume they all came back, but as we drive on, and the road becomes rough and narrow, the view in front full of trees, I am not so sure. Actually, they did tell us one more thing about where we are going. It is in Belarus. Somewhere in the border netherworld between the two countries.

“Don’t worry,” the organizer told us. “You shouldn’t need your passport. The odds of encountering a border patrol are quite small.” I really don’t want to be here. I want to be in bed.

The van comes to a stop and we pile out. Though it is only three, it is almost dark. We are indeed in the woods, outside a wooden house. Behind that, there is a small wooden barn, quite rundown. Beyond that, just visible down a small hill, is the sauna. Two cows amble by, wooden bells clanking. It is all very pastoral but for the fact that the mud-covered ground has a vague decomposition-like smell to it. I did not wear a coat and I should have. It is cold. I forgot to mention that all my wonderful dreams of snow in Vilnius never came true. Just rain and mist and fog. Two weeks of rain and mist and fog.

We look around at each other and wonder what we are supposed to do. An old Russian woman comes out of the house with her husband and waves to us. She points to the sauna. We follow our driver who walks down towards it. It is hard to see and each of us nearly falls as we descend the muddy slope. The driver indicates we should wait as he readies the sauna.
“This is crazy,” Yvonne says.

“I feel like I’m in a horror movie,” Sanford adds. “One with an ax murderer.”

This is exactly how I feel. Off to our right is another hill, this one a little steeper than the one we just came down. We climb it and find a lake surrounded by the outlines of pine trees, and stretching far into the distance, or so it seems. It is a black lake. Everything is black. The ground, the water, the sky. I can only make out the outlines of my friends. Steve walks to the edge of the lake. There is a narrow wooden plank that wobbles as he walks on it. He almost falls in. A stiff breeze picks up and drops the temperature further.

“I hope he hurries up,” Mark says.

We go back to the sauna and find it is almost ready. We know this by the fact that the man is almost naked. We take this as our cue and take turns stripping in the narrow entryway. We stack our clothes and return outside. Now we wear only towels. Now I am really cold.

The ground is squishy – a very uncomfortable liquid squishy – beneath my feet. Here, so close to the lake, the smell of the mud is stronger. I think of wet leaves, piled for a week, just turned over. I feel as if I am walking in the lake, afraid of what I might step on next. We are milling around, waiting. Waiting. Finally, the man is there, surrounded by the one rectangle of light in the entire world. Home is very far away for all of us.

We go into the sauna. I have been in saunas in gym clubs before, but never one like this. It is hot, but not as hot as I expected. Disappointment is ready to set in, and I have a feeling it won’t be long until I’m just plain pissed off. Then the man pours water over the coals. It takes about five seconds before I realize I have never felt heat like this before. I can not breathe. My skin is prickling. I bury my face in my hands and pray for it to go away. The others do the same. I feel something beating me on the back. Reeds. It feels wonderful on my back, on my legs. A bucket of cold water is poured over my head. I pull my hands away from my face and find that I can breathe again. I look at my companions and laugh. We all do. More water is poured on me. This is not to make me feel good, I now realize. It is the young girl having a laugh. I grab a handful of water and splash her. She giggles and we have a short water fight. I take the reeds then and slap them against Steve. He then uses them on Sanford, who uses them on Dennis, who uses them on Yvonne.

We are naked. Six men, a woman, and a young girl. We are sweating and beating each other with reeds. In another place, I realize, this would be disturbing. Beyond disturbing. Now it is glorious.

The man points to the door and indicates that we should go outside. Steve and I go right away. The others wait a few more moments before joining us at the top of the hill.
“Should we go in?” Steve asks.
“I think so,” Dennis answers.

The breeze feels good now, the temperature pleasant. The idea of going into the water – and God knows what in that water – is not appealing. Steve and Dennis, I imagine, smile at each other. Steve’s body is pale and white. I can see him. Dennis, still dark from his time in Asia, is harder to see. They run to the edge of the lake and jump in. I hear a splash. They are in. What the hell, I think. Everyone else, it seems, has had the same thought.

Nothing has prepared me for what this cold feels like. My body feels as if it has ten thousand nipples, and each of those nipples has an icicle hanging from it. My breath is a memory, and for a moment the beating of my heart is as well. I come up and gasp. Around me the others are splashing and laughing. Yvonne is scrambling out of the water. Soon all of us are, and sprinting and sliding down the hill for the warmth of the sauna.

We repeat this three or four more times. Breathless heat, breathless cold. Sweat wet, lake wet. The moon has broken through the clouds. It feels as if time has stopped. I know, though, that it is just after four.

In the sauna we laugh and tell stories of travels past. We revel in what has become an experience we will not forget. Towards the end, we do not speak. Our bodies are in shock. Exhausted, open, content. Our minds too confused by the stimuli to know what to do.

At last I know that we are going to leave soon, and I am ready. I still have to pack, and I know that if we stay much longer, the heightened level of consciousness, of awareness, of connection will be lost. The others are still in the sauna. I leave them and walk to the top of the hill. The mud no longer bothers my feet. I look at the lake and then to the horizon. The moon is gone again; the breeze is not.

I am on a hill, naked in Belarus. It is below zero and so dark I can not see my own body. I have never felt so at ease. I have never felt so free. Jurga is forgotten. My bus ride is forgotten. Home is forgotten. This is the time for a breakthrough, what I started this trip hoping to find. Something should come to me now. A reason. An idea. A bestseller.

Nothing does.

I hear noise behind me. Two wooden cowbells. The sound of a door closing, and wet sucking sounds as people climb the hill. The others join me. We stand, me with my hands out to my sides, spread like wings, silent. Again I am the first to leave, to get dressed. The others do the same a few minutes later.

Before we leave, we drink vodka with the old Russian couple. The man cries as we make our toast, but he is smiling as he does. Perhaps he sees lost youth, or maybe he knows what it means to be creating a memory rather than trying to relive it. He knows what it means, but it has been too long since he has been involved with the creation of a memory. He is thankful for this chance, so much so that he cries. He knows he may not have many more.

Or maybe he is just an old, sentimental drunk. I don’t know.

We return to the van, and then to Vilnius. On the way back we drink a beer. This time is tastes good. The others are talkative, but I am not. I am silent, a small smile on my face. I don’t want to talk to them right now, even though out time together is almost up. We have shared something but I don’t want to ruin it with words. I’ve done that too many times in the past.

I realize now that this is why I have not called Jurga. This is why my companions will be out of my life very soon, like so many others in the past. I see why I travel. Until I can learn when to share, and when not to share, I want to be alone. Until I learn how to express what I want to share, I want to be alone. I want to be alone with the memories I have and the memories that are created. Each one another one night stand. This, I know, is sad. I don’t know how else to live though. I can’t always be naked in Belarus.

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