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american roads


American Roads: US Highways in Decline

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american roads


American Roads: US Highways in Decline

I grew up in a town too small to have its own interstate exit, too small at the time for even its own McDonald’s or Burger King, just a dot on the map of Iowa. It sat at the intersection of two two-lane highways—US 218 and State Highway 3—and I couldn’t wait to leave. 

As soon as I got a car, I began traveling as far as my meager gas money could take me, and as time passed, I got further and further away. Cornfields lined every road, but there was something magical to me about moving, about the solitude of these highways, about the paradox of immersion and isolation that comes from being somewhere new. 

So the impulse to drive thousands of miles along the old US Highway system was not a surprise to me. There is something very American in these towns, these cities, these desolate stretches of highway, that has always been appealing. 

It is not a unique compulsion. Central to the American idea is hitting the road. In the early days of the country, it meant loading up a covered wagon with everything you owned and traveling from the East Coast to the unknown wilderness out west. But after the automobile was invented, it meant something entirely different. It took days rather than weeks to transverse the country. 

People drove two-lane national highways connecting small towns, cities, and the rural landscape to see the vast geography and cultures that spanned the nation. People passed through cities large and small, stopping at a diner for lunch or dinner, taking a break at a shop or antique store or kitschy tourist attraction. It was fast, but not so fast that you didn’t have time to engage in local culture.

That world began to die in 1956 when Eisenhower pushed for the national interstate system. It bypassed small towns, circumvented the restaurants and hotels and tourist traps that lured millions of traveling Americans in the past. Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, US 50 (the loneliest road), and so many others became backwaters of American culture, destined to die a slow, decaying death in the face of progress. The interstate system was fast and efficient, avoiding all those little towns so that you could get to one “important” place from another. 

This essay explores the ways in which the old two-lanehighway system served as a stronger linkage between city and country, rural and urban, modern and classic. I have traveled many thousands of miles on these old, two-lane roads, documenting an American that only really existed for a short period. It is not meant to romanticize the past. Rather, it tries to show American creativity, commerce, and passions in an honest way. I have tried not only to honor the places that the interstate system bypassed, but also to explore in urban areas a world which is slowly dying on its own. 

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saving hearts


Tiny Beating Hearts

saving hearts


Tiny Beating Hearts

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Svetlana Dovzhenko wasn’t worried when she took her three-month-old son, Ivan, for his regular checkup at a local clinic on March 1. He had been a typical newborn, eating and crying like any other baby. But instead of getting his injections, doctors at the clinic noticed something was wrong with him--a congenital heart defect that put his life at immediate risk.

Frantic, she went to two more clinics to confirm the diagnosis, and one of them referred her to the Institute of General and Urgent Surgery here, where a worldwide team of cardiac pediatric surgery specialists was just arriving for a two-week long mission to help children in Ivan’s exact situation. The doctors saw him immediately.

“Saturday morning, the American doctors did another ultrasound and put us on the schedule first thing Monday morning because it was urgent,” Ms. Dovzhenko said on Wednesday, gently caressing her son in the pediatric ward of the hospital. 

Dr. Christian Gilbert, the American surgeon who led a team of Ukrainian and global specialists that saved Ivan, explained that Ivan’s aorta had narrowed so that his heart wasn’t able to effectively pump blood through his body. Without surgery, Ivan was unlikely to see his first birthday.

“He has a good chance of living a normal life, of never having to return to the (cardiac) unit,” said Dr. Gilbert. 

Ivan’s story is just one of thirty similar cases during the past two weeks at the institute. Sixteen doctors and nurses from the International Children’s Heart Foundation, a US-based charity that is battling childhood heart disease, arrived last week to work with the cardiac team at the institute. 

ICHF has been coming to Kharkiv since 2008, visiting four to six times a year. The foundation has two full-time surgeons, including Dr. Gilbert, who travel around the world performing life-saving heart surgery in countries as disparate as Nicaragua, China, Iraq, and Nigeria. The foundation also has more than 2,000 volunteers--all specialists in pediatric cardiac surgery--who sacrifice their vacations for missions around the world. 

Dr. Igor Polivenok, head of the cardiac unit at the institute, said the program provides both medical benefits in terms of skills and training, and social ones in terms of friendship and a growing sense of philanthropy among his team members. In 2007, his unit performed only 21 cardiac surgeries, mostly of older children with simpler problem. Last year, the unit did 156.  Not only do the missions provide the opportunity to help many children with complicated issues, but they also grow the local staff’s expertise so that some cases can be handled when the ICHF team isn’t here.

“I’m very happy with this program and so is my staff,” Polivenok said. “ICHF has helped in all fields.” 

Volunteer Dr. Yves Durandy from Paris enjoys taking his vacation time to work with ICHF because he learns something, too. 

“Everywhere you go, you learn something,” he said. “Everyone has a way of going from one place to another; all these ways are different, but they work.”

In addition to the training, ICHF also works with local business, government, and international foundations to fund desperately needed specialty equipment and supplies for the cardiac unit. Simon Gale, ICHF’s global ambassador for Ukraine and local businessman, pointed out that Gov. Michail Dobkin recently donated two pediatric critical care beds to the intensive care unit, and the local Rotary Group has also begun to fund improvements in the unit. 

He described speaking at a Rotary meeting about the problem of heart disease--one percent of all children are born with it--and they simply didn’t realize the problem. 

“Now, they’re passionate” about helping out, he said. 

The long-term goal, Gale said, is providing enough financial support, training, and experience so that ICHF no longer needs to come to Kharkiv. Gale is working on creating a transparent charity specifically for ICHF Ukraine to enable local businesses to donate more easily, which will allow local surgeons to purchase the necessary tools and supplies for the very complicated job of repairing a baby’s heart. 

Ivan was, in a sense, lucky. He arrived at the hospital just as this team of cardiac surgery experts arrived in Kharkiv. ICHF and the team at the institute are both working toward the day when children like Ivan don’t need lucky timing to survive.

(originally published in the Kiev Post in a slightly altered form)

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trans-siberian


Torture and Smoked Fish on the Train to Vladivostok

trans-siberian


Torture and Smoked Fish on the Train to Vladivostok

Mile 3,800: On the Trans-Siberian Railway near Ulan Ude, Siberia

Russia (2006)--The three men, hands rough and skin sallow, were well into a bottle of vodka when I arrived in the dining car. It had been two and a half days since I boarded the No. 8 Sibir Trans-Siberian train in Novosibirsk and was hungry for conversation—so far no one spoke English, and my Russian was nearly useless. I was also hungry, having already eaten all the loaves of bread, cheese, and candy bars I had brought on board with me. 

When I asked the waitress if she had a menu in English, one of the men leaned across the aisle and held out his hand.

“Americanitz?”

“Da,” I answered. “Vy ponamayte pa Englsiki?”

“Yes, yes,” he said, shaking my hand. His hand engulfed mine, and I could feel the calluses on his palm and fingers. “I Andrei. Drink.” 

He motioned to his two friends, Vasily and Yegor, who nodded my way. Vasily looked like a boy, with short brown hair and an easy smile; Yegor had the eyes and the body of a man who had been drinking all his life. Andrei poured four shot glasses to the rim with chilled vodka.

This was not an optimal time for me to be getting drunk—with strangers, in the middle of Siberia, no one to watch out for me, outnumbered—and I wasn’t an experienced drinker in the first place. Not that anyone can out drink a Russian. I had practiced at home in Arkansas—first with vodka tonics, then lemon drop shots, and finally to straight vodka—for just such an occasion. And I was four weeks into my cross-country trip through Russia, so I had experienced this kind of hospitality before. When the waitress returned, I ordered something with chicken in it, bread, and an orange juice. Andrei lifted his glass.

“To America,” he said.

“America,” we responded, each downing our 50 ml glasses in one gulp. Then they chased their shots with tomato juice, I with orange juice. We drank again. Another frozen bottle came. We drank. And drank, each time toasting something else—Russian women, Lake Baikal, good vodka, and friendship. My meal came and I drifted into that comfortable drunken and satisfied state where nothing seems unusual and everyone likes me.  

Andrei and his friends were on their way to Vladivostok to buy Japanese cars, drive them back to Irkutsk, and sell them. He explained that it cost only a couple hundred dollars of gas to drive the cars home, but they commanded a $1,000 to $2,000 premium there. Russians understand capitalism pretty well, I thought. As each bottle was drained, I kept thinking I had made it through this ritual that seemed uniquely masculine but not purely Russian.  Then Andrei would order another, and our heavy-set blonde “devuskha” (Russian men called all waitresses “girl”) would bring it from the freezer. He made fun of her size and showed me a photo from his cell phone of an attractive woman, topless and smiling seductively into the camera. Andrei pointed at himself. 

“My woman,” he said. “Beautiful, yes?”

“Very,” I said. 

“Have you had any women here?”

I just smiled.  Andrei talked about motoring on the deep waters of Lake Baikal in his boat, the great fish he caught, the liters of piva (beer) he drank. 

“You,” he said, “go hunting and fishing with me. Lake Baikal is most beautiful lake in the world. And biggest. You will see. Clear. Cold even in summer. Great fishing.”

He insisted on writing down his phone number for whenever I came to Irkutsk. “You will call me,” he said, not so much asking as expecting. 

Andrei reached for my glass again, but I was at my limit. I tapped my finger to my throat, signaling that I was drunk. The dining car seemed unstable, and the usually-soothing clack of the train pounded in my head. Andrei, who first seemed simply friendly, now had begun to seem sinister. His eyes narrowed further. He seemed not to be affected by the vodka. The train began to slow. 

“You come with me now,” Andrei said. “I will show you real Russia.”

Andrei said we should get a truck and driveIt was mid-afternoon and we were near Ulan Ude, a good three days train ride from Vladivostok. 

“We will shoot bears,” he said. “Come. We have time. Devushkas.”

Andrei grinned. His eyes twinkled.

“I need some air,” I said. I stumbled out of the restaurant car, trying to remember which way it was to my compartment. The afternoon sun was warm, and I was sleepy. I turned to see if Andrei or his friends were following me. They weren’t. I ducked into carriage 5, seat 21, and quickly fell asleep. When I woke up, my compartment was dark and everyone was asleep. I felt uneasy.

Mile 0: St. Petersburg, Russia

Russia is huge, more than twice the size of the entire United States. Much bigger than I even imagined when I came up with a plan to travel across it by train. But ever since I was a boy listening to the Disney version of Peter and the Wolf, hearing President Reagan call the USSR the “evil empire,” and trying to read about the Siberian gulags, I had wanted to see Russia. My interest only increased as I read the great Russian authors and studied the country’s long and varied history, the mythology of its elusive, tortured soul.

Yet something else drove me to go alone. I had enjoyed several solo treks across the highways of the United States since getting divorced several years before. It was a kind of freedom I felt I had earned, one of the few benefits of being a truly single person, living alone every day. And all that living alone had taught me something: My life is boring. I was about to be 40, single, unemployed, barely employable with a graduate degree in creative writing, and feeling like a failure as a writer, photographer, and human being. So each time I told someone where I was going, I reveled in their admiration and fear. I enjoyed people telling me I was crazy. 

In June 2006 I departed for a four-week writing conference in St. Petersburg. I would sort out the train journey when i arrived in Russia. The conference sponsored a welcoming reception, and I tossed out my plans to several of my newfound friends.

“I’m taking the train from here to Vladivostok,” I told a prominent Russian poet. 

He laughed.

“You cannot,” he said. “You cannot travel through Siberia on a train!”

“Yes, on the Trans-Siberian,” I said. My chest puffed out a little under my new quick-dry shirt. 

He laughed a little more and then turned away from me as if I were some crazy person. I smiled. It was true I did not have tickets, and my visa was set to expire before I could make the 6,200 miles to my departing flight from Vladivostok. I felt a little silly but not yet afraid of the trip. I began asking around.  had anyone taken the Trans-Siberian? No. Always thought about it. Had anyone been East of Moscow? No. No. The director of the conference walked up to me. 

“I’m taking the train across Siberia,” I said. “Have you been?”

“No, never,” he said. He was an American who spoke Russian, married to a woman from Russia. I smiled. “You’re brave.”   

Anna, a conference assistant and English lit grad student who had helped me get set up in my apartment the day before, smiled. “Or stupid,” she said. “Just joking.”

 Anna, like many Russians I eventually met, wondered why I’d want to make such a trip—for them, the train was an unpleasant necessity, safer and cheaper than airlines, but still not something to do for fun. But it seemed like fun to me, or at least an opportunity for a thrilling war story or a way to stand out, to feel special—something that I couldn’t seem to find at home. I walked to my new apartment after midnight, the city’s White Nights illuminating the canals and bridges and streets as if it were late afternoon. I could hardly sleep. 

Three weeks, a hundred dollars (for my visa extension), three hours in the train “service center” with Anna, and six thousand rubles later,  Anna ushered me into a cab and hugged me goodbye. Now I was truly on my own. I would take a fast day train to Moscow, the Ural train to Sverdlovsk (known as Ekaterinburg everywhere but the train station), the Sibir train from Novosibirsk to Vladivostok, plus a plane to connect Sverdlovsk to Novosibirsk. I was not going to ride the most famous Rossiya trains, which go from Moscow to Vladivostok, at all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this selection of trains proved to be perfect. 

I pulled into Leningradsky Station in Moscow eight hours later under a heavy rain and carried my bags to a taxi.

Mile 403: Moscow

After two days of blustery weather in Moscow that made the city look even more grey than usual, I prepared for the real first leg of the Trans-Siberian—the Ural train that terminated in Ekaterinburg, 24 hours in an 8-foot by 8-foot compartment for four. When I entered the cabin, escorted by a smiling provodnista, or carriage attendant, I understood that I would need to pay for my linens. I had gotten the 70 rubles ready for her as she handed the others their pillow case, blanket, and sheets. But the providnitsa skipped me. She smiled, held up her finger telling me to wait, and walked away. A few minutes later, she returned with a pretty young woman who introduced herself as Katya. She had long blonde hair and the pale gleaming skin of so many young Russian women, with bright blue eyes that made a crescent when she smiled. 

“I am studying to be a translator,” she said. “The provodnitsa is very nervous about having an American in her carriage and asked everyone in the train who spoke English.”

Katya explained that linens cost 70 rubles, which I handed to her, and told me that if I needed any help that she and her husband were traveling in the first compartment all the way to Ekaterinburg. As she explained this, the provodnitsa quickly made my bed, smoothing the sheets and fluffing the pillow. I thanked her in Russian as she quickly left my cabin. Katya followed shortly after. 

My bunkmates were two women traveling alone and a man who tossed his coat on the bunk above me and then quickly wandered out. Neither woman spoke English or had any interest in meeting an American, it seemed.  Tonya, a trim professional woman in her 50s who sat in the bunk across from mine, spent the trip staring out the window, playing crossword puzzles, and manicuring her nails. She never took off her jacket. After much prodding, she explained that she was on her way home to Ekaterinburg after visiting her daughter in Moscow. The man above me, Volodya, was drunk (at least that’s what Tonya suggested), and wore a blue and white checked shirt and blue nylon warm up pants. He also wore a Stalin-style dark mustache that made him look like a KGB agent from some Bond movie. As the train pulled out of the station, he offered me a drink of his warm beer. I declined; he laughed. 

“Steve,” he said. “All right! Stand up. Sit down.”

I think that was all the English he knew, and every few hours he would return from somewhere, poke his head in, and say, “Steve! All right!” and give me a thumbs up. Then he would laugh and walk away. As we raced by dachas and small villages connected to each other by dirt roads and the railway, I watched an amazing orange sunset fall under heavy clouds after ten p.m. and then fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train. 

Mile 2,481: Novosibirsk

I had made one contact before arriving in Russia. Julia, a 24-year-old graduate student in engineering, had responded to my pleas for English-speakers along the the railway, and we had been corresponding regularly for the past six months. She had promised to show me around Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia and third largest city in modern Russia (behind Moscow and St. Petersburg), and to perhaps even go to the country to meet her friends. She had always seemed ready to laugh, to joke, to tease. About anything--her, me, politics, and everything about Russian daily life.

My hotel, located on the Ob River which cut through the middle of the city, was a refurbished Soviet-era concrete blight. No air conditioning or screens on the windows. But I did have a tiny, private bathroom and a thin twin-sized mattress., a TV that received only local Russian channels, and an empty mini-fridge that was so loud I unplugged it at night so I could sleep. My room was ready when I arrived and I slept most of the day away, waiting for Julia to meet me at the hotel that night.

She entered the hotel lobby wearing off-white pants and a sweater, her long blonde pony tail bouncing. Her eyes, stunning blue in photos, were deeper and sharper in person. Her makeup was perfect—lined lip gloss, soft glow on the cheeks, and a little eyeliner—but she didn’t arrive with the glamour and risque dress I had so often seen in young women. She wasn’t even wearing heels. I rose to meet her; she turned toward me and broke into a devilish grin. We hugged tightly. 

“Well,” I said. “Thanks for coming.”

Julia laughed, not a polite little giggle or chuckle, but an honest, mouth-open laugh that seemed to ring through the long lobby of my hotel. 

“Did you think you could come thousands of kilometers to Novosibirsk and I would not come across town to see you? Of course I am here.”

She asked me about my trip so far and I filled her in on the canals of St. Petersburg, the magnificent spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the worn Altay Mountains. And all the people I had met.

“You crazy,” she said. We had talked a few times since my arrival in Russia, and each time she had warned me about one thing or another. Pickpockets. Thefts on the train. Not drinking the water. Getting lost. Steering clear of the police. She could hardly believe I had made it, which of course made me smile. We went to dinner at a nice Japanese restaurant and talked late into the night. I told her I wanted to see how real Russians lived. She said she wouldn't show me her apartment (“My bathroom, it’s disgusting,” she said). I fell asleep that night smiling deeply, happier than I had been in weeks. 

Misha, a doctor and personal trainer (nobody had only one job in Russia if he wanted to pay the bills), invited us to a retreat on the shore of the Ob River. The retreat was built as a perq for workers at a munitions plant during Soviet times, sort of like a summer camp in the United States, with a large mess hall, individual cottages, dormitories, and a wide beach. Misha’s father had worked at the plant. Kostya, a truck driver, chef, and good friend of Julia’s, drove Julia and I to the compound. The poplar fluff fell like snow, coating the grass, getting caught in people’s hair, and tumbling in clumps across the sand. After unloading the truck and taking a quick tour of the camp, Julia and Vika, the only women at the picnic, spread out the food on one of the picnic tables.

“Za zdorovye,” Misha said as we all drank our shots together, or “to your health.” Julia kept urging me to drink more juice, to eat more, so that I wouldn’t get sick from the vodka. The bottle went quickly, as did two of the three three-liter bottles of beer we had bought straight from the tap at the grocery store. I was a little drunk, as was everyone else. When the talk turned to sex, the women spoke up. Vika, the only other person at the table who spoke English, told me that women who eat a lot of cabbage are said to grow large breasts. 

“I love cabbage,” she said, smiling. Each guy stared at her ample breasts under a baggy sweater. “I like my breasts.”

Julia pulled her sweater tight and pointed them around the table like headlights. The men laughed. Julia beamed. 

As the night became dark and the alcohol loosened everyone up, they began to try out their English. Russians often take English in high school, but few ever use it enough to become fluent.  Kostya, who spoke no English when the night began, asked me to walk down to the lake with him. “See,” he said, pointing at the moon, nearly full and illuminating the sandy beach. “Russia beautiful.”

The moon reflected off the slowly undulating lake. A breeze kept the bugs away, bringing the smell of pine to my face. Across the lake, a fire burned on the beach and lights shone yellow from the windows. 

“Yes, beautiful,” I said. 

Kostya gripped me firmly by the shoulder.

“Brothers,” he said in Russian. “We. Brothers.”

He pointed to him, then me, and back again. “Brothers.”

I shook my head yes and gripped his shoulder, too.

When we stumbled back to the table, the beer was almost gone. We were ready to go to bed, but the family from across the picnic area walked toward us. 

“Zdrastvuetye,” the father said. He was holding an almost full bottle of vodka. “Vie Americanitz?”

“Da, da, da,” I said. 

Julia whispered in my ear, “Don’t drink any more. You have had enough.”

“Drink?” the father said. “Vodka.”

He spoke halting English and explained that he had been to the United States once, in Buffalo, for something related to his work. I believe he was an engineer. The three of us finished the bottle while the daughter eyed us from behind her mother. I finished my orange juice and explained I was traveling across the country.

“No,” he said. “Why?”

“I want to see the real Russia,” I said. 

“This is it,” he said. “Here. Vodka. Nature. Friendship.”

The streetlight overhead cast a green glow over the campground, and the smell of burning coal hung in the cool, damp air. I could not be further from home, in less-familiar surroundings. But I truly was happy—glad to be meeting friends, to be enjoying the night, to be laughing and smiling through our occasional miscommunication. I could think of no way to express my gratitude for all these strangers who had welcomed me into their lives. After finishing the bottle, we hugged and Julia guided me back to our room. 

“If you need to, you know,” she said, sticking out her tongue as if she were throwing up, “wake Kostya.” 

She laughed. I told her I was fine. And at that moment, looking into her eyes, drunk on Russian vodka, on the shore of a beautiful Siberian river, with this beautiful, brash, and funny woman, I was fine. I tried to kiss her on the lips. 

“Cheeks,” she said, kissing my cheeks. “You’re drunk.” 

“Yes,” I said as she tucked me under the covers and fell fast asleep.

Julia and Kostya met me at the station. We exchanged gifts, each of which seemed puny in comparison to the meaning behind it.  I gave them each dollar bills that I signed; they returned the favor with 10-ruble notes. As my train began to fill up,  they walked with me to my compartment. Julia explained to a kind pair of doctors who occupied the two bunks opposite mine that I wasn’t getting off until Vladivostok and that I spoke virtually no Russian. They looked quizzically at me, spoke to Julia, and patted her knee. 

“They will make sure you don’t get lost along the way,” she said. 

Julia kissed me on the lips, I shook hands with Kostya, and they were gone. 

I sat on my bench, recalling the feel of her soft lips on mine. The wind from the open window blew the curtains around and made me shiver as the train left the station. The late summer sun faded. The doctors were quiet, with the wife smiling maternally my way now and then. The husband worked crossword puzzles. I played solitaire on my bunk until it was too dark to see the cards. The sky glowed midnight blue from the train window, and Ursa Major turned slowly overhead as I lay on my bunk listening to the wheels sing slowly below me—funiculi, funicula, funiculi, funicula—a slow, creaking tune that should have been settling me to sleep. This was why I came to Russia—to experience Russia like a Russian, to travel in a world where I had no bearings, to test my self-sufficiency. I was afraid; with nobody else ahead to help me, I was truly alone. The doctors, whose names I had already forgotten, had kissed each other goodnight and were sleeping. The husband snored. The woman above me slept silently. 

Over the next two days, I stood for hours with my cameras in the hallway in front of an open window, waiting for something interesting to appear—the poplars and pines that lined the tracks, the small villages with rustic wood-log houses and brightly-colored window trim, streams that crossed under the tracks, and, at each stop, people milling around, smoking cigarettes and buying wild berries, ice cream or beer. The roads everywhere were dirt. The houses were hand-hewn. People cut hay with scythes and picked wild berries by hand for selling at the train stops. They plowed the grey earth with animals and hand tools.

My doctor comparment-mates also took care of me. When we got near Lake Baikal one morning, they bought fresh smoked Amur caught in the lake. They bought enough to share with me, so as we rounded the southern edge of the lake, shrouded in morning fog,  I ate the fish with my fingers, smiled, and offered them many thanks. They shared fresh berries, jam, and honey as well, always ready to split whatever they had. In all that time, I met no one who spoke English, let alone anyone who actually was from an English-speaking country. The doctors and I traded sentences from my Russian phrase book; we got along just fine. 

I met one other person besides Andrei in the dining car who spoke English. Lena, a college student from Semay, Kazakhstan, was traveling with her family to Vladivostok to see their uncle.  She translated for the doctors, filling in the details of several confused conversations we had attempted in the first half of the trip. We talked about Siberia, about their careers (both are OB/GYNs), and literature. Everyone I met loved Pushkin and Chekov and Dostoyevsky. They looked at me like some sort of rock star when I told them I was a writer and photographer. 

Later, Lena and I talked alone. The words spilled out of her mouth, explaining that she had translated for a group of American college students who had spent a month in Semay earlier in the summer and that she had missed them, missed speaking English, missed Charles, an American she had dated. She told me about Kazakhstan; she told me about her life. Her brother died of cancer last year. Then, less than two months before this train ride, her 11-month old baby boy died of heart failure. He had been just two weeks away from a potentially life-saving surgery for which she had been saving since the boy’s birth. Then her husband left her for another woman. She explained these things matter-of-factly, like reciting a childhood story. I didn’t know what to say.

“How are you doing with everything?” I asked.

“It isn’t something you get over,” she said. “ But having the Americans was good for me.”

“You mean Charles?”

Lena blushed, looked into her lap. “I think about him every day. He always was smiling.”

She paused.

“I ought to get back. My mother will be wondering about me. Come to meet them. See how real Russians travel.”

We walked to her third class, or plaskartny, car with open compartments and sleeping room for eight in the space that four slept in my cabin. It was packed with people in t-shirts and shorts, smelled like fish and cabbage. They peeked from behind the partitions and sheets hung from the rafters to see the American. Lena said word of my presence had made it all the way up and down the train. Lena’s three-year-old nephew, the son of her dead brother, started out playing peek-a-boo with me from around a partition. Then he sat on my lap and I bounced him on my knee, reciting nursery rhymes.  

I didn’t meet any other English speakers, either native or otherwise, partly because I got lucky choosing trains. Most foreigners take the Rossiya trains, which start in Moscow and Vladivostok, respectively. They are among the nicest trains and travel the entire length of the Trans-Siberian. But I took trains that the Russians take, one an alternative train between Moscow and Ekaterinburg, and another that starts in Novosibirsk. So while I began as an oddity to be avoided, eventually they saw that I suffered and enjoyed the ride just as the locals did—bought food on the platforms and from the vendor’s cart in the hall; gave myself sponge baths in the stinking bathroom every morning; asked for and received no special favors. 

I was allowed into cabins of other travelers to see families playing games of cards or reading books and magazines. I developed a set of friends in my carriage who kept an eye out for special photographs on the way, even though we could barely communicate. Each friend I made, each smile, moment of accommodation, both comforted me and shredded the vision of myself as a solitary traveler, adventurer. It made the trip pleasant, comfortable, and relaxing. Sure, I was faced with hardships like sponge baths rather than showers, a shortage of fresh food, and an uncomfortable bench to sleep on. But so was everyone else. It did not make me adventurous. It didn’t prove anything.  

Mile 6,200: Vladivostok

I lugged my two bags out of the station to Vladivostok, closed to foreigners until 1992 because of the naval base there. I wished my compartment mates goodbye and left the train with Lena and her family, who got me a cab to my hotel. I spent two drizzly days in the city, touring a WWII-era submarine with Lena’s uncle (who spoke fondly of Stalin’s power and control of the country), and walked the city up and down, testing my new-found fitness on the hilly streets. The day I was to leave, I went to the hotel’s business center to check email, as my computer had died on the train. Next to me sat two older women, speaking loudly in English. I introduced myself and they told me they were from Texas and Oregon. 

"We're going on the Trans-Siberian," the Texan said. 

"I just finished that trip," I said. "Started in St. Petersburg three weeks ago." 

"We're just taking the short ride," she said. "Only five days. We're going to see all of Moscow." 

She meant Russia, of course, and she obviously didn't realize that St. Petersburg was only an overnight train ride away from Moscow. Later, as she continued to speak loudly on her phone, complaining about how hard it was to dial the international connection, she told her daughter that she was in "Vleedimost or something, the naval port. I can tell you the food isn’t very good, but we just got here." 

I overheard another American couple who were astounded that a hotel wouldn’t have air conditioning, and still others complaining about the bad weather and the slow service and how the restaurants didn’t have ice or Diet Coke. 

I nearly ran out of the hotel and out into the cracked sidewalks of the city to seesailors in their white and blue uniforms, women in high heels and short skirts, babushkas selling shell necklaces and fresh vegetables from stands on the street, and young kids on skateboards. The sun was out for the first time in days, and it seemed like the whole city had come to the beach and boardwalk at Sportivnaya Harbor, embracing the wind blowing in from Japan. 

I wandered silently and listened to the sometimes harsh and sometimes melodious Russian language. Kids gathered around a pair of monkeys dressed in baby clothes, men walked the beach with their bellies proudly protruding over Speedos, women wore bikinis or even went topless, toddlers chased the gentle surf.  Two boys swam to a half-submerged stone mermaid about thirty feet in the bay and clambered onto her exposed breasts. A father rowed his children out into Amursky Gulf, where huge tankers and cargo ships dotted the horizon. 

Summer would end soon, and we all wanted to absorb as much warmth as we could before the trees lost their leaves and the harsh, long, and dark Siberian winter returned. The sun skirted the clouds, reflecting gold off the tranquil bay, and I stood still, letting the warm rays enter me, tickling my brain, making my heart glow, radiating into my barely-tortured soul.