Unfortunately, this post must coincide (maybe even precede) my account of my time spent in Russia.
I write this from a hotel room maybe one mile from the Poland-Ukraine border, on the Ukraine side. It is the kind of hotel with room service and plush robes with fancy folds. There is a balcony with acutely fragrant petunias in a planter hanging from the railing.
After 16 days and 1300 kilometers, we have exited the Schengen nations with scarcely two days on our visas to spare. While being issued our visas for Ukraine at passport control, the kind officer chuckles to himself as he asks us if we have anything to declare to customs next door. Upon crossing, we are immediately surrounded by limping, filthy looking dogs, young men trying to sell us Ukrainian currency and vehicles parked anywhere their drivers were pleased to leave them.
In our hotel room, first we bathe, washing enough salt (and grime) from our skins to clog the entire plumbing system. Second, we relax.
We began in Helsinki, Finland and our crossing into Ukraine marks the end of first phase of our journey. Traveling south through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, we have undergone many transitions, some gradual and some abrupt, of language, currency, and general behavior. The further south we go, the warmer both the people and the weather become.
In Helsinki, we kick off our trip with a lazy morning, fueled by wine and cheese provided in the company of two very nice hosts, boasting a very blatant appreciation of film, fine literature, and most importantly, music. We make it to the port, catch a ferry to Tallinn a few hours after noon and arrive, refreshed by the naps we sneak into a forgotten corner of the ship to take. Tallinn is old, the streets are tiny and cobblestoned and difficult to navigate on bicycles. We meet Alberto, a lone Spanish bicycle tourist who we later, many times, feel regret for not engaging further, at the lookout of some high place of some old castle.
Like true vagabonds, the next morning we ride until we reenter civilization and establish ourselves as the daily spectacle of a small town’s central park in order to cook breakfast. Breakfast is biscuits, from scratch, while our tent dries in the early morning sun and we nurse our swollen mosquito bites.
We ride on, following a road that parallels the coast, sandwiched between rows pine forests, blanketed with the most serene looking mossy ground cover, sporadically glittering in sunlight. We pop our heads over the western bank like prairie dogs in order to see the soft blue glow that is the sea.
Then there is sand between my toes and a trail of clothing behind me and I am up to my thighs in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea while Josh erects our tent to be backed by some dry looking grasses. We make dinner and we sit on the beach in the light breeze that repels mosquitoes and we watch the almost-midnight sun sink lower to the horizon and all I can think is, maybe life doesn’t get any better than this.
A few hundred kilometers later and we are in Riga, Latvia. After riding back and forth, all over the center of the city, looking for a hostel, a hotel, anything, we fail. Instead, we sit at the patio of a bar and we drink Latvian beers before banging out another dozen or so kilometers before bed.
Lithuania meets us on day six as does our incredibly sweet lithuanian host. Her daughter finds us lost in the streets of Joniskis, escorts us to their home and we are fed and served fresh mint tea from the garden while a thunderstorm rips across the land. This night, Josh demonstrates how he makes pavlova and we eat traditional cold borscht soup.
They send us off after a lazy morning with directions to the Hill of Crosses and the chocolate factory in the next city. We find both and indulge. We ride into the “night” (at the point we have maybe three hours of darkness and we sleep with our clothes over our eyes) to make up for lost time, finding a quiet campsite down a soggy dirt road. We fall asleep with no regard to the lightness of the night.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, after my third trip out of the tent to vomit, Josh asks me how long I have been feeling like this. My body is violently rejecting my dinner and any amount of water I attempt to introduce into my system in the midst of mosquito infested, stinging plant carpeted, damp forest. We are awake the entire night and I sleep the whole of the next day, waking once to help throw the fly onto our tent in preparation for the audibly approaching storm.
We wake around 4 am, our circadian rhythms thrown off and we are on our bikes, pedaling, before six. My head throbs and my body aches but the coolness of the morning is soothing. We break often and Josh spurs us on at the end of each. I am glad to be latched into my pedals because it is all I can do to hold myself up. My legs only move because they know the work they must do. Each time we stop briefly to look at a map, to confirm our route, I am draped over my handlebars, a wet rag, until we must move again. At one point, I am so pitiful, a woman beckons us into her home and furnishes our panniers with water, radishes, and mint from her garden. We meet her family and they speak lithuanian to us, her brother-in-law, drunk or concussed, keeps asking us, sprakken ze deutsch? They all tell us farewell with what seem like highly sincere words for our health and safety, we tell them thank you with little bows of our heads and our hands pressed together, palms facing. This day we make it to Kaunas and beyond.
Somewhere outside of Kaunas, we sleep. We wake and pack our things in just enough time for the flash of lightening, the crack of thunder and the static sound of steady rain. We navigate and impossibly muddy road to return to the highway and we ride. We ride through puddles, through sheets of water, we are blasted by trucks driving through puddles. We aren’t even sure from which way the water is coming from at times. This is the part where I fall in love with my rain gear.
The end of this days sees us, warm and dry, inside a hotel room with a delicious dinner in our stomachs. We wake in the morning to more rain, reload our bikes and we go.
To Bialystok, Poland. The way is rainy, hilly and so beautiful. The are picturesque cows grazing in perfectly green meadows at every turn of the road and everyone’s front yard is a garden.
Just outside Bialystok, we sit at a bus stop (we have renamed european bus stops: Cyclist Refueling Stations; they are shady and always have a shoulder), sheltered from the rain and a woman approaches us. She says something in polish and then, oh you don’t speak polish, even better. She invites us to come hang out with her for the day and offers us showers and a place to sleep. We accept, meet her at her flat, jars of colored pencils and bits of interesting paper things tacked everywhere, with chocolate and fresh strawberries and she cooks us dinner and we bake her cookies. We trade books and journals the next morning and part, us towards the road and her to her university.
In three days, we are eating the best ice cream we have ever had in Wlodawa, PL, we are following our escorts, one polish, one ukrainian, to cross the border, and we are basking in the glow of our victory in exiting the Schengen nations in order to abide by visa regulations.