Hi, I'm Lee. I'm currently walking from Madrid, Spain to Kiev, Ukraine on foot. Click here to learn why.
A grim day, today. I spent most of it walking around Majdanek, a concentration camp just outside of Lublin. This was the second-biggest camp in all Europe, 275 hectares of barracks, guard towers, crematoriums, barbed-wire fences and gas chambers. Here the Germans used all the engineering and science they had to accomplish the murder of some 235,000 Jews and other "undesirables".
And there at Majdanek, the few remains of these victims: some grainy photographs, hair clippings, tens of thousands of shoes, eyeglasses, childrens' dolls. Behind it all, a hill of ashes, huge and incomprehensible and covered over with dirt.
It's the kind of stuff that makes one embarrased to be human.
Before I started walking, I wasn't sure whether I'd visit a conentration camp along the way. It isn't my intention to make a film about the Holocaust, and I reasoned that even a casual mention would be like adding a drop of red dye to a glass of water. It'd turn everything red.
But I decided it isn't something I can ignore, especially since I've found incipient Nazism in the minds of some people I've met along the way.
And another thing's got me in a sad mood. I just learned, via email, of the death of Gerard Edon, whom I wrote of here in my entry on April 26th. Gerard was a gifted painter and as friendly a man as I've ever met. He had a weak heart and had to take a dozen or more medicines every morning to keep it going. Last week, it stopped.
Gerard told me his great regret in life was never learning English. I told him I intended to send him a postcard for the generosity he showed me and he told me to wait until I got to Kiev to send it. It was one of the first things I intended to do as my journey ended. I hope I can buy one of his paintings some day, as a remembrance of him.
It's fragile, this life, isn't it?
My sympathies to his family, particularly his wife, Christiane.
I'm in what you might call the home stretch. I'll cross the border into Ukraine in just a few days, and from there it's perhaps three weeks straight-ahead to the capitol.
Not that it's an easy stretch, this home stretch. Ukraine is truly a blank slate for me, the most foreign country I'll have ever been in. I can't even read the Cyrillic alphabet, for one thing. For another, I don't know how to say "hello" or "goodbye" or "please help me, I'm bleeding from an open wound".
I'm jumping in feet first.
And yet I can't really self-dramatize here. As I walk further East, I think more often about my grandfather, Kazimierz Ostrowski, pictured above. He was born in Kiev and grew up in Lomza, Poland. He fought against the Russians in the war and they captured him, put him in a POW camp in Siberia where his spit would freeze before it hit the ground.
That's real crisis, and something I cannot replicate, no matter how spartan a traveler I try to convince myself I am.
Talking of my grandfather, I met with a funny coincidence in Radom last week. As I finished my meal in a restaurant, a kind-looking old fellow came and took the table next to mine. We got to talking -- his English, though little, far outstripped my Polish. I told him where I was from and he mentioned there were a lot of Poles in Chicago. Sure, I said, and told him my family name was Ostrowski.
"But that's my name!" he said. Krysztof Ostrowski, pictured above, was blown away by the coincidence. "Two men, different countries, sitting next to one another in restaurant with same name. It is one in a thousand -- no, one in a million!"
I don't know about Krysztof's math, but I was glad of his friendliness and for the conversation. Krysztof was horrified at my plan to walk to Kiev.
"Ukraine is danger," he said. "No money, no jobs. You walk ten miles, twenty miles and nothing. Then you come into little town or little country and there is trouble."
"Will I be killed there?" I asked him.
"Maybe," said Krysztof. "Maybe."
I couldn't help but burst out laughing at the gallows humor of it all.
"Is not a joke," said Krysztof, no trace of a smile on his face.
So we'll see. For my part, I think the greater danger in Ukraine will be the same as the great danger now: the fast-moving cars and trucks that hurtle past me on the pavement.
My thanks to the new Fellow Travelers: Ewa Fiszka-Borzyszkowska, Marianne Malaychuk, Jeycob Carlson, Stephanie Stilling, Susan Maloney, and further help from Tien-Ann Shih.
I don't have high hopes vis-a-vis Internet access in Ukraine, so there's an outside chance this may be my last entry until Kiev.
Ultimately, and despite my dreams to the contrary, I'm ready for this to be over. Today marks five months on the road. I miss my family, my friends, my girlfriend. I miss reading books and watching movies and the chorizo and eggs at Hollywood Grill.
And it's a kind of torture to have to go this long without editing my footage. I'm playing with it in my head all day, but since I haven't seen it I can't know which scenes will be rendered unusable due to dropouts or sound problems, or which scenes will provide unexpected surprises. After Kiev begins the cutting, a process sure to last as long as the walk itself.
Subject: Still kicking.
I remain, so far, unstabbed, unshot, and otherwise unbothered after about a week in Ukraine.
Crossing the Polish-Ukranian border was a nightmare itself, though. They don't allow you to cross it on foot. You have to be in a car. I don't know why, but I was in no position to argue. One of the guards convinced an older Polish couple in a small sedan to let me in the backseat and cross with them.
The line was hundreds of vehicles long. It took more than three hours to get through, just cutting and starting the engine, waiting for movement and listening to lousy FM radio.
In the boredom, the nice Polish couple asked to see my passport. I showed mine and they showed theirs. Turns out their surname was Nowak, same as the maiden name of my grandmother Sophie Ostrowski. I arrived in Madrid to start this journey on what would have been Sophie's birthday, March 1st. This coincidence, along with meeting Krysztof Ostrowski in Radom the week before, has convinced me I've got some guardian angels working overtime for me.
At the last checkpoint I showed my passport. The skeptical lady guard gave me a sheet of paper and a pen and demanded I reproduce the signature within. I scribbled my autograph. The guard was not happy, didn't think it matched. She let me try again, this time holding open my passport for me so I could better reproduce my real signature. This is the absurdity of the Ukraine.
The emptiness I was warned about is real. At no point on this trip had I walked for thirty straight kilometers along a major road without finding a bar, restaurant, shop, or anywhere else to eat food or drink water. It happened here. That day I seriously considered lapping up the standing rainwater from potholes, so thirsty was I.
Next day, water was again my problem, but this time there was too much of it. The winds came strong and flipped my umbrella's cage and canvas inside out, snapped it off mid-stem. The umbrella top flew into the road just as an eighteen-wheeler rolled past to crush it dead, as perfectly-timed as a gag in a film. I did not laugh.
And later I saw that action repeated, except it was a little dog who ran out into the street as a car passed. The car smacked the dog across the street. The dog kicked once, twice, remained still. I yelled out, briefly considered going for help, but there was no use trying to save him. There was nothing left to save.
But contrary to the menace everyone told me I'd find here, my encounters with the locals have, in addition to their expected weirdness, a kind of openness I'd never found before. I guess they regard me as some kind of novelty, some freak, to judge by their smiles and laughter.
A woman on bicycle rides up and asks if I want some coffee. I do. She produces plastic cup, instant grounds, sugar, and hot water from a thermos.
A man repairs his broken-down tractor at the roadside. I film him as he works and explains his methods.
I walk along and hear some voices coming from a tree. I'm confused. A football drops from the branches. Two boys have climbed up it and look concerned when I snap their picture.
A woman well into her eighties, with a mouth full of gold teeth, recites a dirty nursery rhyme. A pack of turkeys gather on the sidewalk, and a boy on bicycle rides up and tells me how to say "turkey" in Ukrainian. A girl with Downs syndrome picks fruit from a fallen tree. I help another old lady carry a couple bags of apples up a hill, and she insists on paying me with three of the apples. Two drunks try to sell me a large photograph of Greta Garbo. And so on.
Presuming I can avoid the fate of the umbrella and the dog, I should be in Kiev by month's end. The road signs, whose cyrillic letters I'm getting better at reading, provide a kind of countdown for me. Kyiv in 498 . . . 422 . . . 386 kilometers.
If you donated to my project at any time before I left Poland, you should by now have received a postcard in the mail. If you haven't, it was either a fault of some postal service or my oversight, so send me an email and I'll be sure and send another before I leave Ukraine.
Apropos, the new Fellow Travelers are: Sean Carter, Casey Knight, Susan Goodwyn, Jamie Bialek, Eleanor Vaughn, and further support from Julia Stanton, Mia Bass, and Bob Dantzer.
Do I err in thinking that the tar patterns and holes on this patch of road resemble some kind of Gospel figure? Someone alert the Vatican.
Of late I've had a kind of euphoria overcome me while walking. I haven't had this feeling in a long time. Looking back, I realize I wasn't ready for this trip even as I began it. Only by blundering, dumb persistence, and a fair amount of hospitality and luck have I got this far. But it's just as well. As Errol Morris said, "If one thought clearly about what one's prospects were, one wouldn't do anything. One would just go home and live with mom."
Subject: Fragments from a notebook.
So it was cutlets and mash every day, and bread and borscht served by the same woman who works every roadside restaurant here, or maybe it's her and her hundred twin sisters.
No, we have no milk, they say. No, we have no cheese.
And there's a dust fleck inside the lens, a single white dust fleck.
The mind won't quiet down. Some nights almost entirely sleepless, turning over what ifs and what nexts.
Leave the main roads, take the rural roads through hollow villages. Not a short cut, a long cut. The roads turn to sand on the long stretches between hamlets, and nobody drives on sand at this hour so you might as well walk by starlight until you're too tired to go on.
Summer's ending. You can see your breath fog again.
But then a car does pass. You see the light coming for five minutes, engine going, wheels turning in the sand and gravel. It's murderers in that car, obviously, and murderers should be hid from. Get off the road, get down in the bushes. Don't snap twigs. Do not snap any twigs. Murderers know to listen for twigs snapping.
Sleep slept in the tent is sleep at its most basic. Heavy rain plays drumrolls on the outer skin all night, resonating best inside the acoustic cavern you call a bedroom, so good luck with that.
And when sleep does come, you dream of being back in high school every single night, yonks behind on your math homework and no way back.
The mind is telling you something: you're behind on something, you've neglected something.
And that little white dust fleck won't come out. Lady MacBeth. Bluebeard's Wife.
In the tent comes a certain vulnerability. One morning you wake to find a farmer unhappy with your choice of real estate, denouncing you in fire-and-brimstone cadences. Perfidy does not follow, not yet.
Another morning, a rustling in your tent wakes you. It's this hobo (you hear him calling your name), this down-at-heel fellow (you met him last night) whom you know to have slept nearby under a rain shelter.
What's he want? Get away, you tell him. Buzz off. Or words to that effect.
And when he's gone, you find that all he intended was to slip a bag of bread and tomatoes into your tent. A gift from one hobo to another. This catches you between the ribs.
News comes. Plane down over the Ukraine. Assure the loved ones back home. Nope, haven't won some ridiculous death lottery, the prize for which is to have a plane crash down on you.
Dust inside a lens should not affect image quality, they say. It's too far from the focal plane. Pure physics. Still, it's there.
Yesterday was Ukranian Independence Day. Next week comes another, more personal one.
Last lap, boyo. Thirty-two thirty-thirds of the way there. And when you get there, don't be surprised to feel the ground fall away from under your feet.
Thank new Fellow Travelers: Crystal Genes, Diana Swisher, Gregory Formosa, Daniel Gerling, Taras Gula, and four donations from the Strik Family of Holland. Done.
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Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video all rights reserved, etc. etc.
Dec. '05 - Jan. '06.
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writing, photographs and video
all rights reserved, etc. etc.