CAT | Travel
I arrived at the airport in Minsk late Sunday the ninth, in a state of some trepidation.
When the mission was first conceived among us, the original thought was that it might be a “witness bodyguard” mission, i.e. to live in the lap of a person in danger of assassination on the assumption the dictatorship wouldn’t want to murder a dissident in front of a foreign witness – or be forced to murder the two of us with all the resulting complications.
Thankfully, before I left it was established that Jaroslav Romanchuk, though under pressure by the Belarussian KGB and threatened by imprisonment, did not appear to be in immediate danger of liquidation. Though of course, that could change.
I tried to contain my disappointment.
The purpose became a fact-finding mission after claims by some factions of the opposition that Jaroslav had caved under pressure and made statements against the interests of the pro-freedom movement.
Nonetheless, I was worried. Did the “organs” (KGB) know I was coming to make contact with a prominent dissident? Would customs get suspicious about my camera, digital note taker, and Flip video camera? Had my emails been intercepted? When I contacted Jaroslav, would his apartment be under observation?
I passed through customs without incident. I must say it’s a weird experience to fearfully approach an intimidating Soviet-style uniform – filled by a beautiful Belarussian blond. No inconvenient questions, no demands to know why I was in the country, no bag search – that I know of. I’m still trying to find an address book.
I checked into my $20-per-night room, located in the heart of downtown Minsk, and made contact with Jaroslav the next day. I had arranged with a friend to call him and give a phrase with an allusion he’d recognize so he would know who was coming.
Jaroslav appeared shaken, but not broken. He had a touch of something flu-like, which hardly seemed to slow him down. He’s free but has been interrogated by the KGB three times (as of now.) However many of his comrades are still incarcerated, threatened with long prison terms on charges of attempting a coup d’etat. A charge that could get them fifteen years hard.
It also appears the KGB hinted broadly they could be killed if he didn’t cooperate.
Jaroslav is walking a tightrope, keeping the lines of communication with western countries open through interviews and negotiations, while bearing the awful responsibility for the lives of his friends and countrymen.
I conducted three interviews on wide-ranging topics with Jaroslav, over the course of three days. I am currently transcribing and editing the audio and video.
On my last night in the country I attended a small party in his apartment where I met a couple I knew from the our Liberty English Camps, and a few new friends. I also met Jaroslav’s fiancée, a beautiful young lady and fellow-economist, who stuck with him through the stress of the presidential campaign and the aftermath.
When the transcript is ready, we will be looking for a venue that will give it the widest possible distribution.
And my sincerest thanks to all the donors who made this trip possible.
“The secret to happiness is freedom. And the secret to freedom is courage.” – Thucydides
Note: I emailed this in last Thursday for the paper’s weekend edition. Orgeon, Washington, and the northern coast of California are the states to be for those who have a taste for mountains, seacoasts and deserts. You can live on the slope of a mountain with forrest all around, and high desert at your back across the peaks.
I reminded myself of why the late Charles Kuralt had the best job ever.
On the road across America
By Steve Browne
Today I’m on the sixth day of a road trip across the north western states with my son, and preparing to return home tomorrow with the greatest reluctance.
We left Valley City on Saturday and headed west down I-94 to Billings, Montana and from there to Yellowstone National Park.
I last saw Yellowstone when I was about my son’s age, so this was a real treat. He’d read about Old Faithful, so he had to see it. We were not disappointed.
Well, perhaps about one thing. We saw elk and buffalo close up, but no bears. When I was a boy bears were begging everywhere along the roads, fed by idiot tourists from their cars in spite of all the signs telling them not to. I was told that doesn’t happen anymore. After a few tourists were killed, they really started enforcing regulations.
From there we took old U.S. 20 across the high desert country of Idaho to Boise, where we picked up I-84 to Portland, Oregon.
We’ve crossed the same territory it took the Lewis and Clark expedition a couple of years and tremendous effort. We’ve gone through different ecological zones, sometimes in a matter of minutes, and reset our clocks three times.
We’ve seen the truly breathtaking beauty of the high western mountains, the rugged volcanic landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument, high plains, deserts, the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.
When I think about it, I am astounded that we’ve done this in a matter of days. What a time to live in when such things are possible!
I find myself possessed of a longing for contradictory things. I want to keep on the road for… a lot longer. Maybe forever.
On the other hand, I’ve seen intriguing little communities I’d like to settle down for a while and get to know better.
There’s a little town called Arco way out in the Idaho desert, population about 900. Yet it manages to have a thriving Main Street, and a nuclear submarine museum. Why does this little place seem to thrive when small towns are dying across the country? Could it have something to do with the top secret-looking energy laboratory in the desert.
Arco boasts it was the first town in America powered by nuclear energy.
Then there’s Baker City, Oregon, population 9,000. A town of well-preserved historical buildings set between a steep mountain gorge and a fertile valley. We stayed in a motel there one night, because our tent needed fixing.
In the motel office the manager lady had turtles, a ferret, an iguana, and a bearded dragon lizard, literally running around loose.
“Are you a collector?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” she replied. “I got the iguana from an animal rescue group. Then when word got around I had him, people started giving me other abandoned animals.”
We saw people coping with the recession by starting small coffee and food kiosks. We encountered waitresses in diners who passed a word of encouragement to my son when I had him doing his homework on the table. We met Americans, a people of diverse origins scattered across an immense land, but all still recognizably my countrymen.
Travel writing is a thing of extremes. On the one hand you have John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charlie,’ and William Least Heat Moon’s ‘Blue Highways.” But most is filler for tourist brochures.
It’s difficult to describe what you see driving across America and the people you meet. But when you start to travel, it’s difficult to stop. It’s like a hunger, you want to eat the life of this country.
And that’s when you have to remind yourself to slow down, stop and savor the place you’re in before you move on.
Well, maybe next trip. We’ve got a lot to see yet.