The following piece was awarded silver from the Society of American Travel Writers for best special-purpose travel story. The SATW awards are the oldest and most prestigious awards for travel writing in the U.S. They are effectively the Oscars for Americans writing about far-flung places. This piece originally ran in Peloton Magazine, Issue 15—Padraig.
A dozen friendly locals, three Russian motorcycles with sidecars and two liters of homemade wine add up to one bewildered writer
When I heard the motorcycle’s engine begin to wind out third gear, I realized that my driver, Ilya, meant to shift the thing into fourth. That realization made me nervous. No, not just nervous, but scared. And frankly, I had a half-dozen reasons to be scared. First was the fact that I was riding in the sidecar of a World War II-era Russian motorcycle. It had broken, expose wires protruding from components that suggested the last time this thing was in proper working order John F. Kennedy had yet to deliver his, “ich bin ein Berliner,” speech, which is just a fancy way of saying it was older than me, perhaps older than its driver. The sidecar featured a seat so worn it had been covered with shag carpet. And my companions in the sidecar? Two two-liter bottles, one of beer and another of wine.
Second was the fact that we were zooming away from my bicycle—which I’d left leaning against a tree. Third was the fact that that tree was outside a bar and though it was only 11 o’clock in the morning, that bar had plenty of patrons who might possess larcenous ideas; the bike was probably worth more than most of the town’s cars. Fourth. Whew. Fourth was that we were now going more than 40 mph over roads that were difficult to ride on my bike at 20 mph—Ilya was showing off. Fifth, I had no idea where we were headed and you can’t really get the magnitude of that until I tell you about my sixth reason to be scared. Number six was: I was in Moldova. Moldova. I was ten time zones from home going for the first motorcycle ride of my life (I swear it was the first time I’d ever ridden any sort of motorcycle) with a guy who spoke—actually I’m not even sure what language Ilya spoke. It occurred to me that if anything happened to me there would be no sympathy; those who knew me would exclaim, “He was in Moldova. What the hell was he thinking?” Yeah, I had a reason or two to be scared.
So you know what I did? I grabbed on to the sidecar for dear life and laughed like a toddler being tickled.
I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of very unusual, very unexpected and very interesting experiences on bike tours, experiences that wouldn’t have happened had I stuck to the normal touristy stuff, experiences that required being on a bicycle out, away from the usual commerce of the city. Unscripted is the word my friends who work in TV would use. But my experience with Ilya was so beyond anything I anticipated I think they would say I was off-set.
It all started when I pulled over to take a picture. I just wanted a shot of the cool, old motorcycle with the sidecar. After all, you don’t see a motorcycle with a sidecar every day. Something about it looked really familiar, though. I couldn’t recall all the details, but my memory said the design dated from WWII; once I looked it up I realized I was right. Ilya was driving a Ural M72, a design the Russians either stole from or were given by the Germans on the eve of WWII, depending on which version of the history you buy into. This one had the front-wheel drum brake original to the design.
I am, fundamentally, an introvert. Left to my own devices, I’ll head out for the day’s ride, stick to the route as planned, stop at little stores and cafés to refuel when the van isn’t around and finish off the ride with as few surprises as possible. You might say I take the path of least resistance. Bridging the gap between my silence and the engaging world around me is an inexact science. As much as I like finding those unusual experiences, I tell people I’m really not very good at it.
On this occasion the simple act of pulling the camera out and smiling at the bar’s patrons was enough to initiate an epic détente. The moment I snapped the first image Ilya rose from his chair and strode over to his ride. He pantomimed a throttle-twist with his wrist and went, “Vroom vroom”, which is the universal charade for a motorcycle ride.
I’m still not sure which gesture I made in return, but as it turns out I was able to capably communicate the equally universal, “Dude, I so want to go for a ride with you on your cool moto.” Not that I meant to, mind you.
As it turns out, Ilya’s town was lousy with Russian M72s. I know this because I saw two more as he took me for a tour of his town’s war memorials. I shouldn’t have been surprised; by 1950 the factory in Moscow had produced 30,000 of them. We visited two different monuments to his town’s war dead as well as a graveyard. I’m assuming these were soldiers who gave their lives in World War II, if only because up to this point all monuments I’d seen were either to commemorate lives lost in WWII or to promote the superiority of the great Soviet Union.
The steps of the monuments were carpeted with broken glass. Either the townspeople did a lot of drinking here, or a very few people had been drinking here for a very long time and no one owned a broom. There was no way to tell which theory was more accurate.
At each of our stops Ilya took the big bottle of what I was to learn was Cabernet and at the foot of the monument he would pour out wine in the figure of a cross. Even though he had mugged for some touristy photos with me, I took this as a sign of great respect, reverence even. Honestly, I thought pouring beer on a grave was strictly something gangstas did for homeez. Noted.
On our way back to the bar (where my bike was sitting, untouched), we passed a couple from our trip and while they got a good laugh seeing me sitting in the sidecar, that was nothing compared to the shock and wonder Ilya’s friends felt as they saw their friend with a guy covered in Lycra, wearing a spaceman helmet and glasses like the petals of some hybrid flower covering his eyes.
The moment we pulled up back at the bar his cell phone began ringing. I thought nothing of it at first, but what had been five friends was suddenly 11. The phone would ring and someone else would arrive. But I didn’t piece that together until later. No, the first order of business—I thought I was just going to get on my bike, say thanks and be on my way—was for me to sit down and drink with them. Someone handed me a plastic cup, roughly 6 oz. (whatever that works out to in liters) and then poured something deep ruby to the brim. I had no idea what it was. Only after I was into my second cup did a teenage boy I am guessing was 16 at best, but was hanging out smoking and drinking with the others guys, manage to convey that I was drinking Cabernet.
I looked at the bottle. I took some Russian in college. So while I can remember fewer than a dozen words, I can still read the Cyrillic alphabet. A great many words are just transliterated from other languages—their word, funky alphabet. It helps me know when I’m standing in front of a restaurant. But the bottle in question was a beer bottle.
I was drinking someone’s homemade rotgut. Yeah bitches! These guys know how to party! I began trying to find out who made it. No dice. But one guy pestered the kid for something.
The kid asked me, “You like this?”
“Yeah, I like it,” I told him. Then I added, “Eto horosho,” which is Russian for “It is good.”
So then the guy who had pestered the kid leaned forward and asked, “You like?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I like.”
Mind you, it wasn’t a good wine, per se. But there was plenty of bright fruit and a lingering sweetness that demonstrated they knew a thing or two about growing wine grapes to maturity, though maybe they could benefit from some non-native yeasts. It wasn’t terribly different from a non-fizzy wine cooler. I could drink this stuff all day.
Somewhere between the end of the first cup and the beginning of the second, someone handed me a slice of bread with a homemade sausage aboard it. If there was anything ground up in the sausage I didn’t want to know about, I was never going to find out; it was spicy as a sailor’s tongue.
Around that time some of the guys began checking out my bike, which by this time amused me, rather than concerned me. And I don’t think that was just the wine working its magic. One of the guys tapped my Garmin unit and then drew an imaginary line up to the sky and then back down to the Garmin.
With the raised eyebrows of someone about to ask a question he inquired, “Spootnik?”
As in Sputnik, the very first satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit.
“Da! Da! Spootnik, GPS,” I said, as I nodded emphatically. Hey, this communication thing is going okay, I thought.
As each new comrade arrived at our table, we’d shake hands, we’d toast and then they’d kill their glasses, while I took a few obligatory sips. The toasting thing was difficult to catch on to. I tried “na zdorovje”, which is supposed to be “to your health” but they looked at me a bit quizzically. I also tried “skål”, which was no more successful. Someone said “budmo” which, upon some research, I’ve found means “shall we live forever” and suggests I was hanging out with a bunch guys of Ukrainian blood, which makes sense, given I was less than 10k from the Ukrainian border.
We all said “budmo” a bunch.
As each guy shook my hand I couldn’t help but notice that every one of them, to a man, had the hands of someone who did manual labor. Ilya had mechanic’s version of the French manicure—black under the nails. His and his friends’ grips were firm and steady and their hands were tough as untreated leather. I can hardly imagine what they thought of mine. Remember when Quint rails at Hooper in “Jaws” and says, “You’ve been handling money your whole life”? I’m not rich, but I know my hands are that kind of soft.
What I couldn’t figure out, and this was something that had been nagging at me for the whole of my trip, was how these folks had the constitutions of people who had worked very hard labor over long days for years and yet here they were hanging out drinking at a bar even before it was lunch time. It was a setting I’d seen several times daily for more than a week. I could find no formula to parse its least-common denominator. It just didn’t make sense.
The master plan
After finishing my sausage sandwich and polishing off another cup of wine, I made mention of my need to be on my way. Ilya had a better idea. All his friends thought it was a terrific plan. Instead of leaving, I would stick around, drinking with them until some as-yet-undetermined time; maybe dinnertime, maybe midnight—I couldn’t tell. Then, once we had finished off every fermented beverage this side of the Ukraine (this part is a guess, but their progress suggests I’m not far off), Ilya would put me back in the sidecar. Either I would hold my bike or they would tie it to the side of the sidecar (I couldn’t tell) and then we would use Spootnik to guide us to our end-of-day rally point for the tour.
It was a genius plan. All except for the fact that something in me said that I had gotten off lucky the first time but the combination of a lot more wine, me, that motorcycle and a precarious perch for my bicycle was less a recipe for disaster than a paint-by-numbers map straight to its heart.
Saying goodbye took 15 minutes, maybe more. There were the photos with my new comrades and attempts to sway my will, some with smiling entreaties, some with offers to pour more wine. My final goodbye was with Ilya. We shook hands and then he struck his breast. That move needed no translation. I echoed his gesture by striking mine and nodded in ascent. This had been something special; we had shared something neither of us had expected, something neither of us will ever forget.
As I walked—with something approaching a sway—over to my bicycle, I thought of the event that started it all. I’d been on my way up a hill to leave this little town I hadn’t even bothered to stop to check out, when I spied the motorcycle with the sidecar sitting beneath a tree and behind it some guys hanging out before the day’s heat arrived.
I can’t say there is any rhyme or reason to the events that precipitate these experiences; I put myself out there and they just seem to happen from time to time. Isn’t that the way it usually works? But I figured I should capture an image of that motorcycle. What I took was so much more.