Monday, February 24, 2014

Paradise in Punsk

This story is from the little town of Punsk. We were riding all day having a philosophical discussion.  The view that seemed to take precedence was that life is a predestined string of events which we have no control over them; therefore, we could then trust anyone as they were put in front of us since. The other view was that we make choices and some of those choices work in our favor and some do not; as long as we believe and trust in our choices, all would be good choices.  Again, we were faced with having to find a place to stay the night. Being along the Polish - Lithuanian border, we had a lot to pick from. I was hoping to find a nice lake side campsite so I could wash up and cook dinner, a nearby water source is great to have; in fact when water is present its a paradise. Kryszek wanted to have a television so he could watch soccer championships. The other guys just wanted to rest. 
We came to the little town of Punsk.  
In the Puńsk region first inhabitants’s signs were dated from 10000 BC. There lived the Yotvingians in the firsts part of the Middle Ages. A castle hill in Jegliniec (9 km from Puńsk to the north) is their inheritance.The Yotvingians had lived there till the 13th century, when finally they were invaded by the Order of Teutonic Knights. For long time the land was overgrown with forests which were started to colonize by Lithuanians, Poles and Russians in the 15th century. Only Lithuanians and Polish people stayed there till these days.In the historical documents Puńsk is mentioned in 1559. The forester Stanisław Zaliwski established there a village. In 1606 Puńsk is called a town. Thet period is very important in Punsk history because it was developing very quickly. There were a school and hospital. Unfortunately, the plague killed lots of the inhabitants and later after the division of Poland, the town belonged to Prussia, and later to Russia. 
The economy got worse and that was the reason that in the 18th century civic rights were lost. Later there were opened a school, various associations, a small bookshop. A lot of Jews lived there. Nowadays you can see their old buildings and cemetery. German Evangelics also lived here. Their cemeteries remained in Puńsk and Poluńce village.Sejwy is mentioned in the same year as Puńsk in 1559. In Sejwy a mansion established by the village’s headman. Next the mansion there is a lake called “Seivis”. According to the storiesof old people, on the island of the lake there used to be a castle. On the lake’s ground (from Vitakiemis-country side) there is a big stone (about 2 metres height) which top is seen on the shore. Nearby Sejwy there is a lake called “Bokšis”.Smolany belongs to Puńsk community. It is mentioned in 1642 as a small mansion, from the 18th century as a village. The name of the village comes from “smaliokai” which means the producers of  tar (pitch). Habermanas was a lord of this land, he bought it and wanted to enlarge it to the town. He tried to stablish the cloth manufacture. He built a church and monastery. But the civic rights weren’t got. Other Puńsk countries were establishing in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is worth to mention such countries: Jegliniec (“Eglinė”) and its Yotvingian castle hill; Krejwiany where is the monument of illegal books distributor P. Matuklevičius; Trakiszki where the old train station was built by tzar; Giełujsze in which forest there is a badger’s hill. On its top there was a chapel. It is thought that in the old times there were the pagan places where the sacred fire was burning and the gods were honored.

We stopped in the center of town and took out our maps as was the routine. I argued with Kryszek that we could choose any site and it would be the best and he said we could just as well trust anyone who points us the way and it would be the best site.
Just then, a man came staggering out of the local pub. He saw us and made a huge effort to walk toward us. When he got close, he got very close to me and started to ask what we were doing, who were we, where were we going... his breath could have been cut with a knife. Needless to say, I called to the guys to step in so I could breathe. We told him that we were looking for a nice place to put our tent for the night. And, he said he had just the right place, a paradise in fact. He asked if we could wait while he got his bicycle so that he could show us the way. Ironically, Kryszek protested and said that drunk has no clue what we are talking about, or what we need to do, its getting dark. I said, let us follow your view on life and go with this man, he says he has a paradise for us. The man came back with a broken down bicycle and attempted to ride it. He went 5 fit and fell over. He got up and went farther but the chain came off the bike. He fixed it and got back on. He turned to us and said come on. So we went. We rode around the village and he told us all about himself that he was a big shot in government ministry and owned a lot of land in this area. He could even speak a little English. He kept falling down or having to fix the bicycle chain and it seemed that we would just keep circling the town until he spotted a path into the woods and we went after him. It crooked around between trees and bushes, luckily they were raspberry bushes so in the moments of his picking himself up from the ground, we enjoyed a handful or two of berries. It was starting to get dark and still no paradise. We looked at each other and thought maybe on his next crash to the ground we would turn around and disappear. But, we kept going. Suddenly, the woods opened up and there before us was a lovely meadow with a big new built house and behind that a large clear blue lake with a covered picnic area nearby. There was even a small vendor with beer and pop to offer us and he had a tv. Needless to say, we found our paradise for the night. The next morning the man was nowhere to be found.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Looking for a Pot... to cook in

Looking for a pot on the trail of the Curzon Line

Bright and early we headed out with what looked like tons of gear, piled on 5 bikes and still we were without a large pot. We had one but it was to be used for coffee or tea over the fire. It was decided that somewhere along the way, we would buy an additional cooking pot. It needed to be large enough to cook spaghetti for five hungry people (four of whom were men).
As I remember, we took the train riding in the bicycle car and the plan was to get out up by Suwalki, this is a small town by the Polish Lithuanian border. Suwalki is a northeastern Polish town and the capital of Suwalki County. This town in Poland is around 30 km from the Lithuanian border in an area known as Suvalkija, sometimes referred to as Sudovia. This region has been in controversy over the true nation that Suvalkja should really belong to since World War II; however, the majority of Suvalkja has remained a part of Poland. If you don't know the history of Poland and its Polish towns is always intriguing and Suwalki is no different.The village was founded by Camaldolese monks who in 1667 were granted the area surrounding the future town by the Grand Duke of Lithuania and theKing of Poland John II Kaszimir. Soon afterward the monastic order built its headquarters inWigry where a monastery and a church were built. The new owners of the area started fast economic exploitation and development of the forests and brought enough settlers to build several new villages in the area. The village was first mentioned in 1688; two years later it was reported to have two houses. In 1688, Suwalki Poland was only a small village that was home on a trade route that connected Godno and Merecz with Koenigsberg. .By 1710, permission from King August II the Strong was given to Suwalki to hold markets and fairs. The small village grew with the population tripling by 1827. Suwalki Poland thrived during the inter-war period due to its position as a town in Poland dependent of commerce and trade. World War II came to the area, and Suwalki was then only a town that was incorporated into East Prussia. In the center of Suwalki, there are two parks and the Arkadia Lake that offers a variety of recreational activities and there are other attractions such as the monument and museum dedicated to Maria Konopnicka, the brewery of Waclaw Kunc, and the St. Alexander’s Church. Many of the cemeteries throughout Poland were desecrated by the Nazi’s, with one being in Suwalki. Today, at the Suwalki Jewish cemetery you will see a memorial at the location of where the cemetery once stood along with a few gravestones and only portions of markers left behind.

I love Poland for its people and natural landscapes and water; lakes are pristine ironically thanks to communism. In this northern region begins my favorite river the Czarna Hancza, cold cold cold. However, after a long train ride in the bicycle car, a dip that river was not what I was thinking of doing first. I was so ecstatic to discover that on the train station a pay as you use hot shower was available. I jumped right in.  Soon enough after my blissful experience at the train station, we were riding the open road and making interviews with locals. Later on, it was time to look for a place to pitch our tent. That night I think it was by one of the shallow sandy bottom lakes, crystal clear with swans swooning across. Dinner was scramble eggs with wild mushrooms done on rotation since we had only the one small pot. Of course, I was unsettled by not having a proper outdoor cooker but the guys did not seem to mind. However, the next morning nobody liked the taste of scrambled eggs in a pot after coffee and especially the way it was made, boiled grounds. So, we were all the more eager to buy a bigger pot.
We went from town to town making our way south. I was getting more and more desperate to find a bigger pot to cook our meals in, the odd thing was that not one store had a larger pot to sell us.  So we rode on and on... as it was on many day rides we stopped to talk to a local man sitting by the road, who was resting a bit since he was just after picking up some mushrooms. He told us that he was a beekeeper, Lithuania by blood, living locally in the area where generations of his family came from. We came to learn that borders did not matter for these people living on this Curzon line. They identified themselves as from here or there and or not over there but from here cause that is how it has always been.
The afternoon came quickly and so we left him continuing on our way hungrily discussing what to eat for dinner and I said "if only pots on trees"... rounding the road not much than a sandy path winding through the forests and meadows when one of us spotted something growing on a tree- it was a large blue pot.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Doctor's Mother

We were traveling on bicycle along the Polish eastern border with Lithuania. Our task was to interview local people; to learn how they were dealing with transition from a communist country to a 'free market' democracy but even more to better understand how they identified with themselves in a place since the time of the drawn Curzon line (named after the British foreign secretary Lord Curzon) of WWI.
The Curzon Line,  established a demarcation line between Poland and the Soviet 'Russia' Union that was proposed during the Russo-Polish War of 1919–20 as a possible armistice line and became (with a few alterations) the Soviet-Polish border after WWII. After WWI, the Allied Supreme Council, which was determining the frontiers of the recently reestablished Polish state, created a temporary boundary marking the minimum eastern frontier of Poland and authorized a Polish administration to be formed on the lands west of it (Dec. 8, 1919). That line extended southward from Grodno, passed through Brest-Litovsk, and then followed the Bug River to its junction with the former frontier between the Austrian Empire and Russia. When a subsequent Polish drive eastward into the Ukraine collapsed, the Polish prime minister,Wladyslaw Grabski, appealed to the Allies for assistance (July 1920). On July 10, 1920, the Allies proposed an armistice plan to Grabski, designating the line of Dec. 8, 1919, with a southwestward continuation to the Carpathian Mountains, keeping Przemyśl for Poland but ceding eastern Galicia; the following day the British foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, whose name was subsequently attached to the entire line, made a similar suggestion to the Soviet government. Neither the Poles nor the Soviets, however, accepted the Allied plan. The final peace treaty (concluded in March 1921), reflecting the ultimate Polish victory in the Russo-Polish War, provided Poland with almost 52,000 square miles (135,000 square kilometres) of land east of the Curzon Line. Although the Curzon Line, which had never been proposed as a permanent boundary, lost significance after the Russo-Polish War, the Soviet Union later revived it, claiming all the territory east of the line and occupying that area (in accordance with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939) at the outbreak of World War II. Later, after German had invaded the Soviet Union, the Red Army pushed back the German troops and occupied all of the former state of Poland by the end of 1944; the United States andGreat Britian  then agreed to Soviet demands (Yalta Conference; Feb. 6, 1945) and recognized the Curzon Line as the Soviet-Polish border. On Aug. 16, 1945, a Soviet-Polish treaty officially designated a line almost equivalent to the Curzon Line as their mutual border; in 1951 some minor frontier adjustments were made.Encyclopedia Britanica retrieved from online -

So, it was this line that we traveled by bicycle the summer of 1998 and the following summer of 1999.  Who were we (me and colleagues- Mirek, Arek, Martin, Kryszek) We had all our gear on the back of our bikes, little money and lots of enthusiasm. The story of the doctor's mother takes place south of Bialystok.
We had bad weather, lots of rain and I was soaking wet. Though we found shelter in a bus stop in a small village on our route, it did not provide much in keeping us from getting even wetter. And, of course, I had to use the bathroom. I learned early on that flush toilets were far and few between. So, somewhere behind the bus stop among the tall weeds I went. That night, I realized that I had gotten into some weeds that caused a rash, itching and lots of pain all over my legs, behind and feet. Needless to say, I was miserable. The next morning the rain had stopped but my misery grew. I could not even sit on the seat of my bicycle. I pleaded with the guys to stop in the next village and help me find a doctor or pharmacy. We found a doctor and I was so relieved. He gave me some topical cream and tablets for allergy and itching. I was so thankful. With that taken care of, we continued on our way. We rode about 60ks further south and soon found ourselves at a crossroads in yet another small (very small) village. It was already evening and we needed to find a place to pitch our tents. We took out the maps and checked out the area and the route we intended for the next day. So, imagine this... there we were the five of us in this grassy crossroads  intersected by dusty village roads scoping out the area when from down the long driveway of a small hut a man walked toward us. We did not pay him much attention until he started waving his arms and yelling something. We thought like other local encounters, he wanted to meet us and find out who we were and what we were doing. Of course, this was our work to talk to the locals and we intended to do that once he was upon us. We kept scoping out a place to pitch our tent and he kept walking toward us... still waving his arms and yelling. When he was closer we finally heard what he was yelling at us "I m the doctor"!   It turned out that he was the doctor who treated me earlier 60ks back. He had finished his work and drove south to visit his mother. We did make our interview with him and his mother who lived in the tiny hut. We also stayed the night with her sleeping on bright white sheets that smelled like sunshine. More incredible is that she made us a delicious breakfast the next morning of homemade donuts fried on a wood-burning kitchen stove.
I will never forgot that encounter, I am truly amazed at the simple life of those people in that region of Poland.