Letter #4. Jail and Freedom

Hello, my poor ones back there.

Since I'd sent you the previous letter, I had many adventures, not all of them pleasant.

Austria wasn't a good place to travel around. Hitchhiking was always difficult, and I had to avoid train stations because of police checks. In a whole month in Italy nobody had ever asked to see my documents, but here it looked like a World War II movie. Every time I saw a policeman, I had to smile as friendly and happily as I could. Smiling people don't look suspicious. Reading a large book is also a good way to avoid their attention.

Once I was spending night in the cellars of a town hall, and noticed that a street light on an intersection below was broken. It was very late, and cars passed by place once or twice per hour. But all pedestrians stopped and waited for green light for ten to twenty minutes before realizing something was wrong. Some never dared attempt the crossing, and walked to the next crossroads.

I remember seeing a similar situation in a small Transcaucasian town a few years ago. A local driver waited for two minutes in front of a broken street light, then got a machine gun from the back seat, shot a few rounds into the red light, and drove on. I don't know which type of behavior is more crazy.

From Vienna I took a train to Bratislava in Slovakia. I was leaving Austria, and didn't expect any trouble. But the border guards arrested me. I tried to explain that I was hitchhiking from Germany to Slovakia, and a truck driver who didn't speak English accidentally took me to Austria. But they demanded a $50 fine.

I had about $60 left: twenty dollars in my pocket and the rest hidden in my sleeping bag. The guards only found $20, and they couldn't take less than fifty. They didn't believe I was traveling with such a small amount of money, so they put me in jail for twenty-four hours. Two Turk drug dealers kept me company. At night they had acute withdrawal, so it wasn't boring. In the morning the guards took me to Slovakian border and said:
"The checkpoint is right ahead. If you pass, you are lucky. If they send you back, we'll arrest you for repeated offense."

There was a long line of trucks waiting to pass the checkpoint, so I simply walked along the other side of that line, and wasn't even seen by the guards. I would've never believed I'd be so happy to get back from behind the Iron Curtain! Three hundred meters inside I got a ride on a truck all the way to Eastern Slovakia.

Hitchhiking in this country was easy because there were almost no freeways. Lifestyle is more like in Ukraine than in Czech: people are very relaxed, and constantly talk about drinking (local palenka is probably the best vodka in the world). But it is still Europe: fields are dotted with pheasants, partridges and huge hares.

Next day I visited High Tatry - a short but high mountain ridge, all crisscrossed with ski routes. I liked Low Tatry more: they were covered with beautiful forest, although there was a dense network of marked trails, and tourists were everywhere.

Growing up in Moscow had its advantages. We had almost pristine taiga forests within a hundred kilometers. For most Europeans there's no place to see large blocks of unihabited forests anywhere nearby, except in Northern Scandinavia.

I met a group of tourists from South Africa who had reserved a hotel room, but had to depart two days earlier. So I had this room for myself for two nights. It was a double luck: someone left a pack of pasta in the desk, and some eggs and ham in the refrigerator. I used that time to explore Slovakia's unique caves: Aragonite Cave, Black Cave, and some small ones. The largest cave is called Yaskina Domnitsa. It has an underground river, and it is possible to follow it by boat into Hungary. But I had to turn back into Slovakia, because it wasn't an international border crossing.

I had less than fifty dollars left, but I knew that if I returned to the Soviet territory, I'd not be allowed back into Europe unless I get some other country's visa, and that could not happen in many years. So I decided to keep traveling for as long as possible, and crossed into Hungary through knee-deep snow.

Hungary doesn't look much different from Slovakia, but talking with people is difficult, because the language is not Slavic and not even Indo-European. Magyar is close to Hanty and Mansi languages of Western Siberia, but I only know about five words from both of them. One of these words exists in Magyar. I also found two words from Nenets language: ton (lake) and varos (city, similar to Nenets veier, camp).

From Eger (a small town that once successfully resisted a siege by a 100,000-strong Turk army) I got to Budapest, a beautiful city with some Roman ruins and nice Nature reserves in the grasslands nearby. I lived on a railway station (there was a train that departed at 7 am, but stayed at the station since 11 pm). I met some Arab money dealers, and sold them 80 Belgian franks as French franks, earning $10. I made side trips to Pecs, Lake Balaton, and tried to visit the former Yugoslavia. But I only barely made it into Slovenia and had to turn back: transportation still didn't work much, and many roads were said to be closed or too dangerous.

Planes carrying Jewish emigrants from Russia to Israel make a stop in Budapest. Tomorrow I'll try to get on board of such a plane using my Russian passport and Jewish origin. Meanwhile, I'm sending you this letter and ten small boxes of strawberries. I met a guy who is leaving for Moscow, and he agreed to take this package if I let him eat one box. (At that time strawberries in March were something unbelievable for most people in Russia - V.D.) I'm planning to get back home within a month or two.

Budapest, Hungary

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