Into the Very Heart of Darkness

The Chinese sage Lao Tsu said „the great man follows the Way - he does not seek out assignments but waits until he is called, then he goes without thinking of reward or gain, or of the dangers he may encounter." These words were visible on my desk diary when the phone rang.

The phone call was quite innocuous. Would I be prepared to teach a week at one of our many partner universities? I ignored the pile of 87 scripts towering in front of me waiting to be assessed. Sure, why not? Where abouts? „Nis". Fuck, wasn't that Serbia - these butchers running amok in their crazy nationalism sure needed some intellectual enlightenment from the west. So definitely yes.

I started getting second thoughts when I found out the next day it wasn't Nis but meant NIS instead - the Newly Independent States - the descendents from the once mighty Sovjet Empire. That changed the whole situation. You could get robbed, kidnabbed and held hostage - maybe even shot. The plane was bound to crash. The mafia would squeeze me of my tiny savings for ever. The further I inquired into the matter the more concerned I became. The last colleague who had gone east wasn't back to work yet, still recovering from his experiences. Rumour had it he was undergoing a special mental therapy in a recluse in Waldbüttelbrunn... 

At that delicate moment I decided to call Alex my dear Aussie colleague. He had a hand for surviving the worst in life. Like an affair with a cannibal woman in the mountains of Papua New Guinea and an encounter with a crocodile in the jungle of Malaysia. Actually he was the kind of person who would even survive the other way around. He laughed on the phone and told me he would love to come along - had never been to these stretches of the world before. And he pointed out that he held a pilot's license which might come in handy just in case... I couldn't else but agree.

So one day here we were on Kapitolsky International Airport, beginning the long wait until the afternoon flight to our final destination. Originally it was supposed to be a two hour flight first, then an eighteen hour train journey further inland. A few checks - you could be kidnapped, robbed, eaten by bedbugs, lice and fleas. We chose the plane instead - better an end in horror than horror without end.

A heavy group of smokers sat while a gorgeous prostitute sucked on Marlboros and eyed off the usual heavy drinking bar patrons, and dreamed that Robert Redford would suddenly arrive on the next flight with $1 million in cash. In the US she would be on the cover of Vogue. There were 20 styles of vodka on sale - two types of food - piroski and eggs. The coke cost the same as the local beer. Fifteen people worked in the small bar - giving a desperate air of trying to provide up to date modern service. 

Whenever we walked outside the terminal a horde of leather jacketed cab drivers offered us women, drugs, a good time and travel anywhere in the city. We retreated. This sense of leaving the known world had been with us all the time since we took of in Frankfurt.

Still there had been stranger places. Chengdu airport - last stop before Tibet where the twice weekly plane was forever being cancelled. Alex had stood for hours in a queue with an Australian tourist with a pacemaker. When the flight was announced the whole room had surged forward knocking over benches and people in their rush to get on the plane. Sadly it had been cancelled again, and they had rushed out again like a human tidal wave. And Daru airport - 45 degrees in 99 percent humidity - flying up from Australia to New Guinea in a cargo plane with a load of someone's personal possessions being returned from Australia so that he could serve another term in that tropical hot hole. A giant stuffed panda watched out the back window as every parcel was undone by customs and examined. They even looked at all the guys slides one by one - not to confiscate pronography - just to get a glimpse of some. And Zamboanga - better not to mention Zamboanga - gun and grenade city. Kapitolsky - no problems.

It started to get dark. We dragged our bags over to the Domestic Terminal. This was crumbling - a few broken desks and an overpriced alcohol shop. We bought another beer. There was a stir in the room and the flight to Novogriewsk was called by a gorgeous blonde model who spoke four languages, three badly. A couple of confused looking Frenchmen started to check in their bags which were 10 kg overweight. They offered a credit card. There was a hurried consultation. No credit card facilities. All of a sudden the rules changed. They could take 30 kg each.

Shuddering as if to fall apart, our bus finally set off into the dark of the tarmac, further and further away from the sparse light bulbs of the main airport building. The rain (or was it the season's first snow?) blurred the windows even further. Outside was nothing - rien, nada. The bus curved right and left and right and left and rolled forever, sometimes even straight forward. Down rows and rows of rotting aircraft - past glories of the Soviet air fleet. The ride was pretty bumpy. The many holes in the ground obviously were all that remained of the once almighty soviet bomber fleet stationed here until recently. Finally the bus stopped in total darkness somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We stumbled out into the cold. Not a sound except for a sweeping wind. Some gloomy shadows in the darkness of the late afternoon - not even a handful of small planes. 

We were herded by silhouettes with obviously guns in their hands (but then you couldn't be quite sure about that either) to a small ricket of a plane - the Yak 40 had three large engines bolted onto a fuselage the size of a Twin Otter. It had a hardly discernible big hole above our heads and we were forced to enter it via a small, shaky ladder. I pushed my luggage onto a shelf not unlike the one for preserves in my granny's cellar which compared to the interior of this jet plane seemed cozy and warm. Uncertain if to light a candle (which we had brought with us after good advice from experienced friends) we sought our way through the almost impenetrable dark to the smallest chairs I ever saw on board a plane and huddled down in the cold. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if some cattle or chicken had entered the plane at this moment as once happened on a flight in the Sudan. 

If this was the capital then what lay ahead of us? At this moment it was an empty pilot's cabin. A remarkably beautiful hostess approached us with a piece of paper jotting down our favorite drinks which unfortunately at this stage were limited to beer and soda water. Through the open hole we could hear and smell that some kind of fuel was pumped into the plane. In the crisp cold of the cabin a warm coffee would have been good, but obviously there was no electricity on board - neither for lights nor for cooking. Finally two men entered the cabin looking very much like KGB officers on a checking routine but passed us by unnoticing. They disappeared in the pilot’s cabin, the jet engines started whistling, the lights went on. Eureka! 

I looked around and checked all ten passengers on board a plane that seated 32. There was the obvious middle rank Mafia official on return from business in the capitol. The two guys who looked more or less like car mechanics, may have been his body guards. A low ranking government official (or was he a high ranking municipal officer?). One completely indifferent man who may have been a businessman or a new rich or both. A stylishly dressed young lady to whom we were tempted to impute all different kinds of erotic preferences - mistress, junior show biz, luxury prostitute on a visit to her parents or a businessman’s favorite show-off. The bewildered Frenchmen, of course. And finally we, two middle aged burned-out academics underway to an obscure university near the border of the country not too far from the edge of Europe. What a bunch of people! 

It took about one hour of flight to warm up the interior. One after the other slipped out of fur coat and parka. With sparkling villages and small towns far underneath and salmon and crab on the tray in front life began to resume some normality. But when the plane finally slid down to approach our final destination there were no lights anymore. Just blackness. Total blackness. Alex was sure we would land in the sea. I thought he was wrong. Hoped he was wrong. Prayed he was wrong. Still no lights. Then the wheels touched ground. No lights yet. The engines went into reverse as the plane didn’t have flaps. A short kind of howl, some rolling along in total darkness and the plane came to a standstill. We had actually made it to Novogriewsk!

Once the engines were switched off the interior was plunged again into darkness. We stumbled down the shaky ladder on the way picking up what we hoped might be our luggage. Outside it was dark indeed. A darkness like never experienced before on any airport in 62 countries of this world. There was nothing except a sweeping chilly wind on what felt like endless plains - Stjep and nothing but Steppe. No lights. No terminal. No building. No people. Well, the later was not quite right. When Alex shouldered his video to record the plane - just in case, you never know - out of nowhere a submachine gun was poked into his ribs. It didn’t need a translator to get the message. A cozy Gulag feeling started to take possession. A cart drawn by a type of lawn mower slowly approached from nowhere. We were not really tempted to put our luggage onto it despite inviting gestures of the driver and rather followed the other passengers who slowly processioned off into an uncertain direction. After a couple of moments of trotting into the blackness the dimly lit plane seemed like bright cascading lights. Suddenly I noticed a huge fence on the right hand side. An endless fence. At least twice the height of a human and nicely decorated with barbed wire. Gulag, didn't I say so before? I trotted on as unobtrusively as possible. 

I more felt than noticed that Alex had switched on his video while having the camera dangling from his hand - forever the true documentarist. All of a sudden there was a door. One small door in the fence as wide as one not too fat person, guarded by a silhouette in felt hat and with a sub gun. Shadows of a handful of people seemingly waiting on the outside. Suspiciously I checked but no ironic phrases written in wrought iron at the top like in German concentration camps. As discreet as possible I slipped through. No stop!, no gun point, no question. Freedom! I made it!

Five steps and the sparse crowd was behind me - and nothing whatsoever in front. (I swear: only when leaving a couple of days later did we find out there was a huge - and I mean huge - terminal building not even 10 meters to the left - desolate, empty, like from a forlorn planet). Holy mackerel, what about our hosts? Who was playing hide and seek - we or them? This place didn't teem with taxis and I was not sure if there would be any hotels in town - in case the town existed somewhere not too far away. Back to the "gate of freedom" and its shadowy human figures. These were our hosts and they rushed to embrace us.

A couple of minutes later we all squeezed into tiny cars. Mack the Prof., Olga the Head of School, Alex and me and the Dean and all the other officials who had been awaiting us. The guy responsible for foreign relations looked as if he successfully had run his business for a couple of decades with Chinese, Albanians and the rest of the brotherly bastards. But at least he wasn't unemployed today, that much for social justice. All wore furs and felt hats and the tiny cars seated five in each. They looked suspiciously like the tiniest Fiats which under a name I can't remember were produced on license way back in the good old Soviet days. The road was bumpy, the confinement breathtaking. But at least no one seemed to be addicted to garlic or vodka. Boy, how wrong could we be? 

The window panes were foggy inside. Mack in his amputated English proudly explained we were now approaching the city center and they were giving us a short tour of the major sights. It turned out our chauffeur was one of the young assistant professors. Still order and discipline in this country - Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre - you have to serve a tough apprenticeship to get anywhere. Young Einstein received some commands when we reached a traffic light in the darkness. All remained black outside as much as the car was turning, hopping and bumping left or right. I seemed to sense people on the sidewalks sometimes but was never quite sure. No shop windows. No lit facades. No street lights. In fact the traffic lights acted as the main light sources for a city of half a million people. It was like Mogadishu under curfew. 

Central Business District at Rush Hour

The second car was there when we left our tiny tin can in front of a run-down building which used to be the student restaurant. Empty most day and night as there was no money anymore to run it on a regular basis. We passed a worn down locker room and a torn down toilet room we were strongly advised not to use. Doors opened to a room with the charm of a 4th class railway station waiting room of the 30:s. Five ladies, still employed on a regular basis, had prepared our official welcome dinner. Snacks. Mainly snacks. Some tasty, some chewy. Some dry, some fat. No proper meals in this country, we soon found out. In fact the food seemed to serve more or less one basic function: as base for the drinks. Lots of drinks. The stronger the better. Vodka, Vodka with peppers, domestic brandy, domestic liqueur. We learned a few basic rules very soon - learning by suffering: 
- a bottle has to be freshly opened 
- no drop allowed to be left in a bottle 
- no dead marines (= empty bottles) to be left on the table. 

Worst of all: we had to actually drink each time someone offered a toast. And there were millions of good reasons that evening to raise a glass: friendship, bilateral friendship, international friendship, our countries, universities, families, man, women, love, food, drink, music, academia, our teaching subjects - an endless list. Maybe we went through a dictionary, I can't remember. The fun of drinking never abated. No wonder the Soviet empire crumbled and Gorbatschow was toppled when he tried to suppress the mis-use of spirits.

We were only partly distracted from our dinner by the fact that this very same room was going to accomodate a birthday party in about an hour's time. When we arrived the band had already put up amps and guitars and drums and for the last time before the proper start of their gig they went through their repertoire. The complete one. Each single song, including vocals. They had not finished when we finally left through the waiting crowd, showing respect for their elderly professors.

We stumbled outside. Our chauffeurs, not up in rank yet to be part of the dinner, had patiently guarded the cars in the cold night. We climbed in and bumped another stint through this invisible town of half a million to our waiting accomodation. 

The hotel was a shock. It must have been desperate tactic to get us drunk to mellow our tired moods. Between us, Alex and I have stayed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, the favelas of Brazil, anonymous American suburbs. Hotel "Turist" was like hitting the jackpot. Built for the working masses of gigantic steel „combinats" it must have seen its heyday a couple of decades ago. There was no bar, no cafe, no restaurant. Not even a lobby except for the chair and desk of the political commissar still watching the entrance - though probably under a new title. There wasn’t even a proper reception desk at that. It resembled more the People's Commissariat for Domestic Health - including blind glasses, the only working phone in the whole building and an employee who once in a while had the grace to be available. 

Our hosts were having a heavy argument about double rooms at the reception while Alex and I looked in despair at each other. No, we would not accept anything less than single rooms. I knew my snoring. Alex had told me his operation hadn't helped much with his snoring problems either. The empty hall and curving walls didn't forebode any good. 

Hotel "Turist" - heavy re-modelling

Finally all escorted us upwards to have a look at our luxury refuge for the next week. No elevators of course. Small stairways with crumbling walls and broken tiles. The corridor paved with carpets which had been flooded at least once and suffered from decades of drunken workers who failed to make it to the bathroom. The door to the room had clearly been forcibly opened a couple of times - perhaps because the management didn't hold extra keys in reserve. Any other explanation was to anticipate worse prospects. 

When half the group had entered, it was jammed. Still I tried to have a look around. The gigantic fridge in the middle of the room was empty except for a bottle of water on its top - outside. As a result there was nowhere to hang my clothes - implementation of sophisticated modern equipment obviously had taken its toll on more traditional furnishing. They had to save on other furniture as well: the bed was too short for me, by experience I could clearly see it. The mattress was so thin it was nearly non-existent but then the pillow was big and hard like a sack of potatoes.

Our hosts assured each other the room was fine: there was indeed a bed - and a door to a bath room. What else would you want? Besides, they could afford to pay for us as they had bargained it down to just 5 $ US a night. Sorry, no phones up here. Which was as good as the receptionist didn't understand any foreign words at all and wouldn't be able to connect to us anyway. And by the way - don’t leave the hotel in the dark, don't walk along the river bank opposite the garden - in these days you never know... After the long journey you will probably like to go to bed early so we leave you now. We'll pick you up tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock for breakfast at the student restaurant. No, definitely no use to do it earlier. Good night!

Only now alone in the room did I have a closer look. Through some strange miscalculation the toilets and bathrooms were actually larger than the sleeping area. Put your bags on the floor and it became a major chess game to get to the bed. In the toilet area a collection of straw brushes. But it did have hot water - probably good old Chernobyl fuelled hot water that came out like steam. And the room was hot, really hot! They were clearly showing off to us Westerners they had plenty of energy to waste. I looked for the thermostat but none to be found on any heating - brotherly solidarity: everything the same for everyone. When I wanted to open the windows they were nailed and sealed. They even carried a Cyrillic sign to the same effect, clearly understandable by the exclamation mark on the end. Probably meant as protection against torrential rain in typhoon weather. Or biting Siberian snowstorms. Shit, I was guest in a hotel room, not a sauna. The window broke open easily and fresh air streamed in. Part of the frame crumbled in my hands. I was only a tiny bit worried that now I would qualify for an arrest.

Alex knocked on my door. His room was no different except that it looked to the back. We looked at each other and I understood intuitively we had to do something or else we both would break down and cry. There were no drinks in the room or the house. We were not supposed to go outside for fear of life. We didn’t even know any of the language. And we had 12 hours until we would be picked up again. I thought of my wife and my little baby girl at home and my usual 7 o'clock morning meals. In despair I asked Alex for the cellular phone he had brought on good advice from seasoned travelers. But as much as we pressed the buttons through the menu: no connection to any net. We were not only stuck, we were imprisoned. 

There was only one thought in our heads: out of here as fast as possible.

It took a couple of days until we realized that our rooms offered the only toilets in town. And five bucks for a proper sitting shitting session a day undeniably was worth while.

Forward to Chapter #2