New monthly travel column is up at 3 Quarks Daily. Read it here.
My monthly column is live on 3 Quarks Daily. Read it here.
Our countdown is on now toward a three month+ round the world trip starting in mid-April. I’ll be traveling with my wife, the fearless Finn Mirja Murray. She and I will set out next month bound first for Saigon, ATL-IAD-BJS-Saigon. We’ve rented an apartment for three weeks:
It’s just off Le Loi and just above the Ben Thanh Market. We are coming from the ethnic food-constrained southern Appalachians and looking forward to eating well. Destinations beyond Saigon are up in the air for now. While we’re in Vietnam we hope to get up to Hue for a look at the work my friend Chuck Searcy is doing with Project RENEW. Chuck says, “A visit there brings into sharp focus the continuing legacies of the war that we’re trying to mitigate, unexploded bombs and mines (UXO) and Agent Orange / dioxin.”
Our ultimate mission is to make it to Finland by the time it’s summer there, sometime in June. We have a mökki, a cottage by the lake there. We’ll have to work out the route between Southeast Asia and Northern Europe. Just now I’m keen on flying HAN-IST-Tbilisi and enjoying some fine Georgian hospitality while we wait another few weeks for Finland to warm up, but that is subject to, even likely to change. Any other suggestions?
Meanwhile, from now to then, we’ll try to post a photo a day from previous trips to Vietnam on Twitter, where I am @BMurrayWriter, please follow, and all the photos we post will propagate day by day on Earthphotos.com, too, at this URL: https://www.earthphotos.com/Other/Around-the-World-Slowly-2019/.
This is a wide open, open ended trip. Please help us by lending your expertise. Do weigh in. Or, if you’re local in any of our destinations, please allow me to buy you a beer.
My monthly article is up on 3 Quarks Daily. It’s a brief tour of what happens when governments fiddle with time. Please go and check it out. It’s right here.
Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.
by Bill Murray
John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.
Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.
My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)
Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more.
No tour groups clustered around leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab units half the length of a single-wide, where wives and children spilled onto verandas. I expect they’d have preferred thatch.
We shared a ride with a trader from Osaka to the Hotel Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate, color of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.
The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short bottles of beer. Bony chicken is bony chicken, but they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.
A small plane carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a tight short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a bathroom scale, weighed up his passengers (just my wife and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.
He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map but as far as I could tell, nothing more than a grass landing strip and six buildings. With road access north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.
The entire Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. Nobody but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of shower.
The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. Every day they had fits trying to start its outboard motor.
The old beast juddered to a stop beside canoes carved from single trees, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s home.
Typical Sepik River Village
All these houses of trees and vines stood higher than a person off the ground against animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under a mosquito net, one of not many concessions to the modern age. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.
Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from down toward the mouth of the Sepik. A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Below it was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.
The elder Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. He said his father was bombed in this same place – just right there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His house, identical, stood directly behind Namba’s.
With a ceremonial fuss Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, a bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around. Lawrence, our guide, went full reverential.
“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.
I suggested it took weeks to weave.
Namba walked us down to his front step and bid us farewell leaning heavily on his cane, wearing a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal tradition, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.
Ancient pipe-smoking women sat cross-legged along the path from Namba’s house, weaving baskets. A knot of men advised two others with Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets how to carve a table into the shape of a crocodile.
Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on fire. When river folk caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.
Family in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River
Elsewhere by ritual you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small talk before negotiating can begin. Impecunious Tambanum got right down to business. When a boat tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And came too quickly with their fallback position.
“Second price twelve kina.”
They had no jobs for there were no jobs, 3000 people with no power, ice or medical care. They built their own houses and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their kids. Their food lived in the river and the trees.
We gave them their first price. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of hand-carved tourist masks for a village to save up for something useful like an outboard motor.
At twilight we’d sit on mats up front with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no light from shore to chase it back. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck would be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clean.
At sunup, river glassy smooth, we crawled onto the landing craft, destination Angriman village. As soon as they were freed from the ship, the deck hands broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.
The people of Angriman were the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When maybe four years old, a medium sized croc fourteen inches around might bring 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in every three or four months. The biggest would bring 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a wooden stockade.
The croc stockade at Angriman
Each Sepik village selected a councilman. The Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke, and elected a representative to send to parliament.
Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from where we lived, a place with skyscrapers. Four teenaged girls sang The Wonder of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, and then we stood in a receiving line as the congregants each shook our hands.
The Seventh Day Adventists got here first. Just sailed right up the Sepik winning converts. Now they were losing ground to the Catholics because they’d tried to banish traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.
Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With more fruit and vegetables than it needed, crocodiles for sale for currency and fish in exportable quantity, Angriman prospered. But Angriman wasn’t served by a road and unfortunately, it was no longer on the river.
The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the main channel. Still, the crocodile trade yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.
Upstream that night, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t to be used lightly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, came to life as positively mercenary.
One man had brought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. With the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the artifact trade. Prices were higher.
Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a frame of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence explained. Planed wood is just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With factory wood there was more to buy. Like nails.
A man named Wesley invited us into his house.
Up the stairs (watch your head!), three women cooked lunch and minded the kids, everybody on the floor. With a shower dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy, several cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.
To make the staple food you cut down a sago palm, drag it to the village, skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and finally sluice it through banana leaves into a paste and dry to a powder.
Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press each into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled we all tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme said his wife added powdered coconut for a little flavor.
The sun would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sunset. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots down to burn his fingers while steering through swamp and short grass. The forest rolled back to reveal mountains under cumulus.
We eased up along the north bank of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a basic provisioning center where we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets sold for fifteen toea.
Outside, imposing, voluble men loitered, but offered only friendly chews of betel nut, gesturing amused instructions. We split ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, generating saliva, and spit the juice through your teeth, retaining the meat.
The juice is white. You dip a bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice bright red. Chew, spit, chew. It’s a little bitter and it gets your heart moving a bit, a little blood rushes to your head, everything’s a notch more intense, and then it fades. Think kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.
Going for a swim from the old landing craft
After darkness spread full and complete, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Insects threw up a wall of sound while canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the windows.
Lawrence had a story to tell.
“Now I will tell you how our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.
“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”
Still, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.
“It was frightening. We would start at six p.m. and they kept us awake until six in the morning. For days.
“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fire and told us to run as fast as we could and squeeze through that little door, and not to get burned by the falling ashes.
“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”
The squeeze symbolized the return to the mother’s womb, because you must reunite with your mother’s spirit as a rite of passage before your father can teach you the spiritual secrets.
“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit. Ohhh, and it hurt!”
Lawrence grimaced and held his forehead. His eyes widened so that white showed clear around his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.
“And now it was late, about five in the morning. They gave each boy a betel nut. My grandfather told me the one he gave me was a special one. They told us to chew them, it would be good for us. We spit out the juice and kept the meat inside our mouths.
“They gave us pieces of ginger and told us to chew them. They played drums and these flutes at the same time. I felt like maybe I had a gin and tonic!
“I was dizzy and then I started seeing skeletons dancing and then I had these incredible dreams. And I believe in Jesus and Mary but since that night I have also known that spirits are real, too.
“We believe the father gives us the knowledge but the blood comes from the mother and so it must return to her. So my mother’s brother came from another village.
“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”
Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the sofa.
“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”
With a flourish he raised his right sleeve to show the results.
“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”
He had to have time to heal.
But he didn’t heal. He was infected.
“I asked for medicine but my grandfather refused. He asked me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I said nothing, nothing over and over but he kept asking me until finally I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night before.
“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”
His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training that he would have unbelievable opportunities in the future. One of the people he had led on a cruise like this recently offered him a trip to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof positive it was so.
More photos from Papua New Guinea at EarthPhotos.com.
This month’s column in the Monday Magazine at 3QuarksDaily is Inside Papua New Guinea. I’ll publish it here later this week.
Cuba celebrated the 60th anniversary of its revolution last week, with 2018 tourist arrivals at 4.75 million, as Jon Lee Anderson points out, “nearly double that of just four years ago, when President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, which restored relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century’s rupture.”
Admittedly, U.S. citizens came late to the Cuba tourism game. Canadians and Europeans have been flying in for years, but often for package beach vacations, on which they’d be shuttled from airport to (government-owned) resort for a few days in the sun, never having contact with Cubans other than government-approved resort workers.
My wife and I spent a long weekend in Havana on an early Obama administration “exchange” visit. Here are some first impressions I wrote on our return in March, 2012:
Havana, Cuba: We jump into a priceless, ‘50s vintage yellow convertible taxi and ask for a ride to ‘Old Havana.’ Where in Old Havana? We don’t know. We shrug, everybody smiles and we just go.
Ramon the Cabbie pulls to the curb, fumbles in the glove box, pulls out a preposterously big cigar, stuffs it in my mouth, gives me a light and puts his cowboy hat on my head. Everything is fabulous.
We’re out on the Malecón, Havana’s beloved corniche, the sea to the left, Havana on the right. There’s a couple of side-by-side soccer matches going on in front of a Communist-era grandstand. You can tell Communist design. Not a lot of traffic on the Malecón even though it’s midday.
Down toward the old center buildings fast shedding paint look to have been real showpieces in the past. The past is slipping away fast, though. Water came over the sea wall in one hurricane or another, flooded this part of the city for five long blocks inland, and nothing’s been done to fix it.
Ramon drops us beside the Plaza de Armas. It’s a gorgeous day with a breeze off the sea. People doze in the shade, kids play. There’s a game of checkers. A dog chews a bone.
The little park is a flea market of revolutionary history books, musty encyclopedias, Hemingway novels, and Tarzan comics, but the booksellers aren’t terribly mercantile. They read their books.
Cubans are proud of their collective literacy, a pet Castro project of the early revolution. Kids as young as 14 were sent into the countryside to raise Cuban literacy, from 23 percent at the time to nearly 100 percent today. Literacy and free medical care – those are the Castro legacies you’ll hear about again and again.
The whole afternoon we’re lost in old Havana. We do the slow walk up Obispo Street, the cobbled pedestrian thoroughfare into town. Hemingway’s old haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, is in fine repair. There’s a shrine where they say he wrote The Old Man and the Sea beside a turtle pond. Each turtle is perched on its own rock.
Five old men sing and play over a big spread of sidewalk. A lady shakes a maraca and holds out a hat. Can’t tell if she works for them or she’s the boss, driving these doddering old guys to keep playing.
We hear a good, salacious rumor that famous Americans have been here lately for medical treatment. Who?
The man who tells us can’t name names, but “They can be actors, singers….”
They come in secret because it’s no good to be treated by Communists, “Evil Red,” he grins.
“In Cuba we need a new generation of leaders,” he offers. Right, we say, because Raoul is 80.
“Anyway, Fidel will choose when to die,” he says, and announce it in one of his hours-long speeches.
“Next Thursday at 11:45,” he’ll say.
In 1956 Fidel Castro and 81 other revolutionaries sailed from Tuxpan, Mexico to foment revolution. Granma was the name of his ship. Now it’s the name of the party paper.
The headline in today’s Granma is “Revolucion no, Zarpazo!” It’s a full page potted tract by Fidel Castro, a rant against the coup that brought Fulgencio Battista to power (that’s his predecessor) in 1952.
This morning’s Granma is tiny, just ten pages. It costs 20 local pesetas, less than a penny, but the press run is limited, so some buy an early copy, read it, then resell it after the newsstand sells out.
Granma, the ship, is on display in a pavilion behind glass. You know how when you go to a stadium or arena, it feels smaller than it looks on TV? Granma the ship is the opposite.
You stand alongside a soldier-guard on an elevated platform. The Granma’s all polished and shiny and looks for all the world like Fidel scored a party boat and it would have been more fun just to hang out on board, smoking cigars and drinking rum.
The founding Cuban legend describes steely determination, rationing and hardship on the crossing to Mexico, but I’m skeptical. There’s an enclosed cabin just behind the wheel. I imagine a seven-day interregnum of air-conditioning, alcohol and comraderie before the more poignant (and dangerous) business of revolucion.
Next door in the Museum of the Revolucion, the former Palace, you’ll see Battista’s gold-plated phone, the Presidential toilet (tiled and bare), and a trick door attached to stairs for a quick and sneaky exit from the Presidential suite. Too many rooms of fatigues, boots and war-fighting memorabilia later you’ll see, I guess, the revolutionary omelet maker, a pan in two fold-over parts.
There hasn’t been a Cuban Congress in 53 years. When it last met, in 1959, all these museum relics were brand new. Now the Capitol building is the Academy of Sciences. It’s huge and imposing like the U.S. Capitol, but the buildings directly across the street are run down and propped up, fast slumping into tropical torpor. Buildings are collapsing in Havana at an alarming rate.
Now, revolutionaries don’t arrange flowers. They’re otherwise focused and just don’t have time for aesthetics or city planning or urban design. With the Cuban revolución in it’s 50’s, and no pocket money for beautification, it shows. Havana is listing to the left.
If a building was built before the revolución it’s architecturally Spanish, it’s old and it’s falling apart. If it was built during the next thirty years it’s architecturally Russian, made of concrete and also falling apart. And nothing much besides a few tourist hotels has been built since.
Entrepreneurs stake out the Capitol with their antique cars, sit a tourist down behind the wheel of, say, a sky blue Ford Fairlane with fins, give him a cigar and snap away with the tourist’s camera. Two minutes, ten bucks. It’s smart business, but hang on to that old Fairlane. Don’t even think of buying a new car with your tourist profits because sooner or later you’ll have to prove where you got the money without earning it privately, which is not a good thing to go around doing in Cuba.
It never would do for the self-employed to become wealthy, and it won’t do now in the new, government sanctioned but tightly watched “bonsai businesses,” as the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe describes them.
Mind you, if you can show that you’ve left your wife and six month old daughter to go off to Venezuela on an approved contract job to earn the money, now that’s just fine.
A chapter about travel along the Trans-Siberian railway, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.
The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome. The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.
In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.
As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station. Six litres of water is heavy.
Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.
Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.
The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.
Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: “If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation.” And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.
Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.
Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.
During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.
In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons.
In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”
E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.
Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals.
If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.
The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.
Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.
The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.
Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.
The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.
My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:
On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood
In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.
Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.
Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.
A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.
No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.
In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.
Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.
The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.
Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.