A 1999 travelogue in three parts.
(1) A tale of a fateful trip.
I knew we were in trouble from the moment the weather-beaten boat came into view. It had been hired by Allan Gamborg to take us out into the expanse of water that he swore was a river, but looked to me like a vast inland ocean.
A handful of pasty male natives in flowery swimming trunks eyed us with curiosity from behind their reeking cigarette stubs. There was an odor of gasoline in the air … or was it vodka?
It had taken more than three hours just to reach the village. We began the day in central Moscow on the inner ring road, with Allan pointing the car north through seemingly limitless, shabby cement towers, until at some point approaching sheer urban claustrophobia, we shot into the open countryside.
A couple of reassuringly reform-proof collective farms were bisected, and we probably passed through a time zone or two before finally arriving at the Russian equivalent of Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes, a big piece of land wedged between the confluence of three rivers, terrain dotted with venerable rural homes made of peeling painted wood, weekend houses (dachas) of the high-rolling city folk, and numerous indications that the short-term visitor would be utterly removed from the fast pace of urban life.
Allan’s dacha, a nicely built house of recent vintage, was being tended in his absence by a neighbor. Among her advance instructions were to garner and prepare food in anticipation of the arrival of the vacationing foreigners: The two oversized Americans (myself and Barrie Ottersbach), as well as Allan’s fellow Dane, the ever-energetic Kim Wiesener.
Scouting a rare opportunity for profit, a stereotypically scarfed, elderly woman met us at the rickety gate of the compound, displaying a rather large and odiferous fish that she excitedly explained might well be the absolute high point of our visit to Russia. Allan bought it for mere kopecks, and with only slight trepidation it was slated for the ritual outdoor grilling of meat and vegetables set to follow the afternoon’s boat trip to Sand Island.
Settling into our evening accommodations, we secured the perimeter of the kitchen against horse flies and bees, then examined the afternoon’s provisions. Bottles of expensive imported Budvar beer from the Czech Republic, each costing the equivalent of 50 cents, American, had been purchased from the Caucasus Kiosk outside Allan’s building. A huge peppercorn-encrusted salami had already been road-gnawed. Hunks of regional cheese and crusty bread were thrown into a carry bag.
I slammed a clip into my camera and reached for Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” some sunscreen and a vial of insect repellant. The four of us strolled down a gentle slope to the marina, which proved to be a rectangular patch of murky river water enclosed by a rough concrete wall randomly pockmarked with stray rebar, all gray and rust, perhaps a suitable home for pocket submarines during the late, lamented Cold War.
It isn’t known whether our small boat was named the Minnow, but its tiny, coughing outboard motor sputtered asbestos like a leftover Trabant. The grizzled captain welcomed us aboard, his metal teeth reflecting the hot sun, and our long-awaited Volga cruise began.
The motor died more than once, but the captain expertly revived it whenever necessary, and the boat was steered into the middle of a huge open lake — an impoundment, to be sure; even Russians don’t make rivers that big. It was a brilliant summer’s day with enough wind to cool the glare and create choppy waves, which our small craft struggled valiantly to conquer. After twenty-five minutes, we slowed and began chugging toward a long, low island carpeted with pine trees.
When we closed to within a hundred yards, I noticed something peculiar about the shoreline ahead: There was no dock jutting out from it. In fact, there appeared to be no structure of any kind of to calm the nerves of an inveterate non-swimmer – namely, me. Actually, being neither a swimmer nor a naturalist of any remote sort, I asked Allan: “Uh, well, exactly where’s the dock?”
“There is no dock,” he said cheerfully. “Have a beer.”
Wonderful. We’d have to wade in like so many returning Douglas MacArthurs, except we’d be bearing Budvars and sausages, not guns, and we’d be wading right back out again whenever Captain Ahabski returned for us – assuming, of course, that his long-suffering outboard didn’t go the way of Dzerzhinsky’s toppled statue in front of the Lubyanka prison back in Moscow.
It was later that Allan made the offhand comment that proved to be the mantra of the trip: “My shoes are filled with Volga mud.” I could accept that, just so long as my lungs weren’t filled with Volga water. In the meantime, I held my lagers close to my heart and stuck a naked toe over the side.
Next week: (2) The future is the past.