Wednesday, September 20

Pleasures of travel

Vilnius, Lithuania, New Year's Day

I still recall the difficulty I had in trying to get out of Lithuania during the trip on which I took the above photo. The Gulf War was about to be engaged by the coalition forces, and the Soviet leadership was preparing to use the conflict as cover for their violent suppression of political dissidence in Lithuania. The parliament building in Vilnius was surrounded by barricades. The retail and grocery stores were nearly barren. As of January 1st, a new law would severely restrict movement out of the country by requiring a hefty sum -- something in the neighborhood of three months' wages for the average worker, as I recall -- for permission to travel abroad. Little did it help that I had a US passport. The trouble I faced came from the crowds that swarmed around the train ticketing agency and, later, at the train station platform. At the former, enraged crowds literally pushed their way through glass doors to demand tickets be sold to them before the end of the year; and several people, including myself, were nearly crushed or smothered in the surge of bodies over shattered glass. Days later, at the station platform, the mass of hopeful travelers clung magnet-like to the sides of the approaching train, with many people swinging arms into open windows and hoisting themselves inside before the train had come to rest. If it were not for the quick-wittedness of my host mother, who, with bottles or Orangina, bribed three overweight men into saving a seat for me among them, I would not have been able to use the ticket I had risked my life in acquiring.