Fear and Loathing in Tuva

Fear & Loathing in Tuva
Many thanks to Lonely Planet for permission to publish the story here.

When it comes to Russian cities, Kyzyl is no gem even by Siberian standards. Hot, dry, swirling with dust and flat as a pancake, it is the capital of Tuva, an obscure republic in southern Siberia inhabited by a people that speak a Turkic language, have strong cultural links with Mongolia and are by and large Buddhists. It is one of those obscure places that only rates a mention when trouble of some kind strikes. And trouble – at least for the local Russian population, which now makes up 32% of the population – struck in a big way in 1990, when the indigenous Tuvans rioted and tossed out about 3000 skilled Russian workers.

            Tuva, with its population of just over 300,000, is also a poor region, and one that has often been at the mercy of its neighbours. It has variously been under Turkic, Mongolian, Chinese and Russian control, and has suffered the fate of being annexed by Russia twice within 30 years – the first time in 1914, when it was wrested from China and made a protectorate, and the second time in 1944, when Stalin turned it into the so-called Tuvinian Autonomous Region. In 1921, between annexations, it experienced a brief period of independence and was known as Tannu Tuva. The first Russians arrived in the 19th century and promptly began digging up the Tuvan´s gold, tilling Tuvan soil and selling the pelt of any Tuvan animal that happened to wander across a gun sight. But by 1993 its largest industry was cheese processing, which might explain why Tuvans today only earn 61% of the national Russian average income.

            Interestingly, it is one of the few regions in Siberia where you´re more likely to hear the local language rather than Russian. Tuva is also famous for throat singing or “Khoomei”, a haunting method of singing in “two voices” simultaneously, the one a low drone and the other high pitched and flute-like. In nearby Khakassia, I was told by a German I came across, the art had all but died out. Other Tuvan predilections were for cross-country horse races and wrestling. And if that wasn´t enough, it claimed to lie in the geographical centre of Asia and had an obelisk on the bank of the Yenisey River in Kyzyl to prove it.

            It´s doubtful whether Tuva really is the centre of Asia, but it´s a claim Russian encyclopaedias like to repeat. It seems to be a question of projection: Gall´s stereographic projection is the best. Balance one of those on a pin and, it´s claimed, you´ll find Kyzyl somewhere around the middle. It reminded me of all those hippies in the 1960s who stood on their heads, played Strawberry Fields Forever backwards on the stereo at the wrong speed, and claimed to hear voices pronouncing the words “Paul is dead”.

            I didn´t need to stand on my head and play Kyzyl backwards to understand my ambivalence towards this ugly capital. Still fresh in my mind was a tortuous, seemingly endless, 415-kilometre journey across the Western Sayan Mountains in a clapped out bus on on the M54 between Abakan in Khakassia and Kyzyl. The trip had taken 10 hours, and the slow pace was made even slower by the driver´s habit of stopping the bus at every river crossing and sidling down to the water´s edge to filled up a two-litre plastic bottle with water. Returning, he then proceeded to pour half the water into his belly and the rest into the bus. This was usually followed by his pouring larger, more alarming, quantities of brake fluid into the bus. He did this about ten times.

            After the beauty of the Western Sayan Mountains, Kyzyl is Armageddon. I scurried across the road to the Hotel Kyzyl, a decaying Soviet architectural time bomb with staff at the reception who make foreignors fill out a hotel registration form in triplicate in Russian.

            “Do you register visas with the police?” I asked. “Of course”, came the reply.

            I made my way to the room and unpacked some food I´d bought in Abakan. Cheese, bread, a couple of apples, but just as I was about to begin my meal, a knock sounded at the door. Opening it cautiously, I saw a thin, freckled woman of about 20 or 25 years old,  who, almost whispering, apologised for the disturbance but said she would like to discuss something very important. If I had time, she prodded nervously. She introduced herself as my floor lady.

            Curious, I invited her inside, sat her down on a pre-Revolutionary lounge chair, and asked her what the trouble was.

            “You´re a foreignor”, she said. “You´ve lived outside Russia. I want to talk to you about working abroad”.

            “Where?” I asked, angling for specifics.

            “In Greece. I want to work in Greece.”

            I was taken aback at first. Greece seemed about as far away from the dusty capital as, well, Siberia was from everywhere else. But then I caught myself, for the distance, the sheer circumstances of Siberia, always seemed to bring a surprise. In fact, I´d formulated a theory about this two days earlier over plate of bad pelmeni in Abakan. The “pelmeni” version went something like this: for outsiders – Russian or foreign – Siberia was less a geographical place than an idea. It was exile, bitterly cold winters and short, usually hot, summers. It was exiled Decembrists, Dostoevsky in chains and flogged to a near-death experience (good for world literature, but not the best cure for a dodgy nervous system); it was gold; oil; animal pelts; salt mines; fish-canning factories and localised, small-time, corrupt building industries; it was permafrost and recalcitrant public authorities; Mafia hearses angle-parked illegally on the pavement in front of the best restaurants in town; radioactive contamination; it was great rivers plied by heavily-riveted, classic rakety speed boats that had done service for 30 years; but above all else, it was, literally and metaphysically, one enormous rubbish dump beyond the Urals.

            Mention Siberia to a Muscovite and they´ll shrug their shoulders disinterestedly and, not without irony, smile: “Mm, Siberia”, they´ll say. “I can´t say I ever wanted to go there”. Mention Siberia to a German and they´ll start singing either Kalinka or a famous rock song with a reference to a certain “Natasha” in “Novosibirsk”. I´d  stayed in an appartment briefly with a Natasha in Novosibirsk, as it turned out. She was lesbian, a divorcee, had a toilet wall plastered with women in erotic poses, and spent all the rent money I gave her on French cognac. When I asked her one time where lesbian women in Novosibirsk went to meet one other, she told me the best hangout was at the foot of Lenin´s statue in front of the enormous Opera and Ballet Theatre. One night she got so drunk on cognac she mysteriously lost the bra she´d been wearing. The next morning, having frantically combed the flat before work, she knocked on my door to ask whether I´d seen it. I shook my head. She went on to say that she only had two, and that both were old. When the time came to leave, I left her a card and enough money on the fridge as a present to buy to a new one.

            The lesson I learned from my brief encounter with Natasha in Novosibirsk was that what we thought was Siberia, in fact, was simplified imagination. By this I mean that our minds leave little room in this sparsely populated, sometimes heavily polluted, wilderness for lesbians who lose half their bra collection on a cognac binge and meet their friends at Lenin´s statue.

            “What are you looking at?” my floor lady asked.

            “Greece is a member of the European Union”, I explained. It was going to be difficult to get the right documents to work there.

            “Oh, that´s no problem”, she insisted, “I can get a passport alright; I just want to know what it´s like.”

            I gave my a floor lady an apple and a piece of bread loaded with cheese that had probably just done the return trip to Abakan. I said that unless she spoke Greek she was only going to find jobs as a cleaning woman. “Wages are low in Greece”, I explained, “and a lot of women from eastern Europe get caught up in the sex industry…”

            “No, I would never do that”, she said.

            “What about France instead?” I asked. “The weather´s not bad there in the south, and the wages are a lot higher.”

            She shrugged her shoulders, looked about the room disappointed, studied her bread and cheese, was about to speak, then merely shrugged her shoulders again. Suddenly, just as unexpectedly as she´d arrived, she stood up, downed the rest of her bread, and headed for the door. “Thanks for your advice”, she said without great conviction, apologised again for the intrusion, and vanished.

            I never saw her again, and when later, in a moment of boredom, I went looking for her to tell her she should go to Greece if she wanted to, I found a different woman in the floor lady´s office. This one was plump, middle-aged and looked like the floor lady in a hundred hotels across Russia. When I asked her about her colleague, she didn´t know who I was talking about.

            I spent  the following week travelling around the countryside, then, as if drawn back by an invisible thread, found myself putting up in the grey capital, again at the Hotel Kyzyl. I filled out another guest registration form in triplicate, and I asked the woman at reception whether she would register me.

            “Konechno – of course”, she said, vigorously processing my three forms with a stamp. She allocated me to the same room I´d stayed in a week earlier. I flicked the light switch on in the bathroom and heartily greeted the resident cockroaches like old friends. Most of them momentarily pulled up in their tracks, returned my greeting with friendly waves of their feelers and scurried off in all directions to their favourite dark corners to sit out the luminary holocaust.

            That afternoon I visited some of the sights – the Centre of Asia Monument overlooking the Bolshoy Yenisey River, the local market, and the Regional Studies Museum which had, among other things a large if rather motley collection of stuffed animals and a map on the wall depicting where I might find them. There was also a model of the “Arzhan” burial mound, one of the republic´s most important archaeological finds, whose layout said a lot about who pulled the strings a couple of thousand years ago: the chief and his spouse were buried in the middle of the mound. Buried around them were their servants, and around the servants themselves were buried 160 horses. I assumed no one had asked the horses for their opinion on this.

            By early evening I was giving serious thought to returning to Abakan and a comfortable bed in the Hotel Intourist. Its Presidential Suite, I had been told earlier, was where both Chernenko and Gorbachev had been put up during visits to the city, but presumably not in the one double bed on the same visit.

            A private taxi seemed the best way back. I wandered down the main street to a vacant lot next to the Hotel Mongulek, a hotel which enjoyed the dubious honour of being the worst in town, where drivers offered rides, and was soon approached by a Russian who seemed to control a fleet of imported Japanese station wagons; but I didn´t want to commit myself until I´d seen the driver. He said the driver would pick me up from my hotel at 12 pm the next day.

            The following day, at exactly 12 pm, a second knock sounded on my door. “Abakan!” came a muffled cry. My would-be driver was a dark-haired, moustachioed Russian with suspiciously glazed eyes. Judging by the stench of alcohol, he´d reached critical mass. I politely declined, saying I had urgent business, and made my way a few minutes later back to the vacant lot.

            “Abakan”, I said to a harmless looking rotund Tuvan leaning against a picket fence away from the mob. “Abakan?” he asked back, jumped up and asked double the going rate for the trip with a full load of passengers. I haggled the price down to where it belonged, but I would have to wait on other passengers.

            “How many?” I asked. I´d left my departure a bit late as most of the traffic to Abakan had left in the early morning.

            “One more”, he assured me, taking my luggage hostage in the boot of an old Lada so I couldn´t be pilfered by another driver. At that early stage, I liked my driver. I found him affable and fair, and I wouldn´t have abandoned him for the world.

            He took up post again on the footpath, resting against the picket fence, exuding a Buddhist serenity, occasionally exchanging a word or two with his companions.

            We waited. We waited an hour; then, to kill the time, I took out my notebook and began jotting down thoughts. I wrote, “In good hands, but still don´t know what he drives like. Hot sun, must be forty degrees, driver talking in Tuvan to friends, recognise the flash white car of driver who knocked on door of hotel… family set up stall and selling fruit and drinks on vacant lot… people crossing in direction of bus station, but still waiting for another passenger for Abakan…”

            We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, spotting an old women dragging a striped plastic Chinese traders´s bag across the lot, my driver jumped up, set off hastily towards her, stumbled, almost fell, corrected the fall, lurched, and grasping his knee, set off again in an agonised limp across the road. After a few steps, he abandoned the effort and dragged himself back to his picket fence to assess the damage. It seemed serious. My heart sank.

            We waited. It was getting on to 3 pm, and I knew we´d need a good five hours in his Lada to reach Abakan. Noticing my consternation, he hobbled up to me to reopen negotiations. This time he asked a ridiculously inflated price and said he´d do the run alone. After about 15 minutes of intermittent haggling, I agreed to double my price if we left straight away.

            “Now!” he assured me, and sat down unconvincingly in front of the fence. After speaking to a friend for a few minutes, he rose unsteadily to his feet and motioned me to follow him to the car.

            I was glad we were finally leaving. Pleased with myself, I got into the rear of the vehicle, resisting all attempts by my Tuvan driver to lure me into the death seat. I´d seen the car; I´d seen the condition of the road, and I was happy where I was. My driver coaxed the engine to life and we set off. He pulled out onto the road, turned, and he headed off in the wrong direction.

            “Where are we going?” I asked. And, just to clarify matters, asked “Now?”.

            “Now”, he replied, “but first we´ve got to pick someone up”.

            This annoyed me. I´d coughed up good roubles for a solo ride, only to learn now that we would have company. We drove a couple of kilometres out of town and along a dusty, dirt road that ran first through scrub and then between rows of dilapidated wooden houses.

            “Not far”, he tried to reassure me.

            We reached a high iron fence and pulled into the driveway. Above us, standing on what must have been a high platform, a large cur, part German shepherd, slobbered and drooled in a mad barking frenzy. A blonde woman opened the gate and told us to wait a moment. We waited. Then some minutes later a small, dark-haired woman emerged with a young child I assumed to be either her son or grandson.

            Her name was Irina, and her grandson, as it turned out, was called Ruslin. She was a gypsy, and at that moment I realised I was in the gypsy quarter of Kyzyl. She stowed a few belongings next to mine in the boot and the rest between us on the back seat. “Be good!” she admonished Ruslin before he´d done anything, and nursed him on her lap.

            Much to my pleasure, this time we set off in the right direction. We left town, crossed the Bolshoy Yenisey River and climbed the low foothills of the Western Sayan Mountains making small talk. Irina was going to Shushenskoe, a town of 20,000 or so inhabitants just to the south of Abakan. Her mother lived there. So had Lenin. It was the place where he´d spent the years from 1897 to 1900 in exile with his wife. Unlike us, he´d travelled there by boat from Krasnoyarsk – in a second-class four-berth cabin and paid 8 roubles 10 kopeck for the experience.

            I put Irina´s age at around 60 years, and she had long jet-black hair, fine ivory-carved features and a graceful, composed air. More composed, in fact, than her teeth, for when she spoke I noticed most of her front teeth were either missing or rotten beyond repair. But after about 20 kilometres someone made the mistake of mentioning the Russian government and she became truculent, loud, poisoned by virulence.

            “I have to fill up”, my driver said after a while, pulling in at a petrol station. It had an abandoned look about it; a few pumps stood rusting in the forecourt as if they hadn´t seen a drop since the Brezhnev era.

            “Benzin nyetu“, my driver said, reading from a cardboard sign that hung on the building. No petrol. We tried our luck at a second and then at a third before pulling over to ask a hapless Russian whose car had broken down whether there was petrol further along the road.

            “Nyet“, came the reply. I looked at the petrol gauge and my heart sank again. It showed empty. A warning light glowed menacingly.

            The driver decided to try his luck anyway, and drove on, steering us across some low saddles of the mountains. We stopped at another station. Benzin nyetu. I was becoming irritated.

            Irina laughed and took it all in her stride, whereas Ruslin, innocent of the predicament, climbed over the seat towards me, only to be wrenched back by his grandmother and the admonition, “Ruslin, Stop that!”

            The driver shook his head in consternation. “There´s a GAI station up the road. Maybe we can get some petrol there.”

            GAI, as anyone who has ever driven a car in Russia knows, is the abbreviation for Gosudarstvennaya avtomobilnaya inspektsia. It is responsible for policing the roads. Considering the state of our vehicle, stopping there didn´t sound like a good idea to me. But there was another reason why I wasn´t keen on the idea. First and foremost was that GAI officers had a reputation for trying to squeeze money out of anything that moved.

            “Ruslin! Stop that!” Irina cried, as Ruslin started playing with himself.

            The GAI station, like most GAI of its brethren, was a hideous concrete dog box deposited at the roadside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But the emptiness deceived; we were in fact on the Tuvan side of the border with Khakassia. the GAI office seemed to double as a border post.

            The first impression we made was clearly not the best. Having pulled up near the dog box, my Tuvan driver, momentarily forgetting his knee injury, opened the door, set one foot on the ground, collapsed and, groaning miserably, rolled across the ground in full view of the two GAI officers, who looked up through a window just in time to catch the final throws of this spectacular acrobatic display. The GAI officers, emerging cautiously with Kalashnikovs slung over their backs, walked across the yard to where my driver lay making an unnatural gurgling sound

            “We´ve run out of petrol”, my driver said, as if this might somehow explain the Tuvan triple somersault roll with knee clench and gurgle. “Can you sell us some?”

            They shook their heads, ran their eyes across Irina, Ruslin and myself on the back seat, eye-balled the driver again with suspicion, and said we´d have to find a station up the road.

            We decided to wait it out. “Someone´ll give us petrol”, my driver assured me, and limped over to a bench to make himself comfortable. “A Tuvan will give us petrol.” His faith seemed boundless.

            “Why didn´t he fill up in Kyzyl?” I asked Irina.

            She shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “Ruslin! Stop that!”

            “I´ll tell you”, I continued, growing agitated, “because he´s a fool”.

            “Benzin netu“, she murmured.

            “Not in Kyzyl”, I said.

            “No. All the petrol´s in Kyzyl”, she remarked.

            Our conversation continued in this vein for about ten minutes, which is how long it took for another car to pull in. When it halted, my driver hobbled towards the driver, hesitated and, apparently discouraged, gave up on the idea. He hobbled in resignation back to the bench.

            “Why doesn´t he ask?” Irina queried.

            “He´s too passive”, I theorised. “He needs self-assertiveness training.”

            She looked at me strangely. “Ruslin! Perestan!”, she said, growing impatient. “I suppose he´s waiting for his friend to come from Kyzyl.”

            With the arrival of several more vehicles, our luck seemed to have changed. A truck pulled in. Irina disappeared from my side, leaving me alone in the car with Ruslin, who had begun playing with the contents of his grandmother´s bags. Suddenly a carton of milk plopped open, spilling the contents across the seat.

            “Ruslin!” I said, taking out a tissue to wipe it up, “perestan!” He looked at me as if a voice had just spoken to him from Mars. But by then something else was attracting my attention. It was Irina. I glimpsed her suddenly about 10 metres away. Apparently having decided to take matters in her own hands, she now hung from the driver´s door, her ankles crossed delicately in the air like a ballet dancer´s, working on the truck driver with a seductive smile that showed her teeth in full blossom. I saw the truck driver shake his head solemnly.

            “Ruslin”, I said senselessly. “You see that truck your mother´s hanging off over there? It runs on diesel.” Now he really believed I was from Mars.

            Suddenly my driver hobbled over with a wild grin. “Benzin!” he said. A Russian and his family, taking pity on us, had agreed to donate a litre or two for our cause. My driver took a hose from the boot, stuck it in the Russian´s petrol tank and sucked cautiously. Nothing happened. He sucked again, this time more vigorously. Nothing came out. He peered down the hose, into the petrol tank, and to the displeasure of the wife and two children our benefactor, who stood together in a worried cluster off to one side, vigorously poked a stick into the tank.

            “Benzin nyetu?” he asked our benefactor.

            “Yest“, came the reply. There was, apparently, but it didn´t seem to want to come out.

            My driver scratched his head. “Do you mind if I run it through the engine?” The Russian reluctantly agreed. Quickly, before the Russian could change his mind, my driver unscrewed the petrol hose from the engine and placed it the container. Okay, start the engine!” he called, and with this, petrol began trickling into the container. One of the Russian children, witnessing her family´s valuable petrol flowing into out container, burst into tears. Ruslin, who had been atoning for the spilt milk with a rare moment of calm, noticed this and joined her.

            “Ruslin!” his mother said, still smarting from the truck driver´s rejection. “Perestan!”

            When Ruslin´s shrieks became too much to bear, I got out of the car. I shouldn´t have. The commotion had attracted the attention of one of the GAI officers. He looked at me. Looked away for a moment, then, as if a rat were slowly gnawing into his brain, looked again. Suddenly it clicked. He moved slowly, menacingly, towards me, rounded the back of the car, sized me up, approached, caught me with a gaze as taut as piano wire, and, at the last minute, veered off to where my driver contentedly siphoned off petrol under the bonnet. The GAI officer, still fixing me with the piano-wire stare, bowed his head down and quietly asked the driver, “Eh, is he a foreignor?”

            My driver looked up from the bonnet, glanced at me, back at the GAI officer and replied, “Yes”.

            They demanded to see my passport. “Come with us”, the officer holding my passport said, and made off towards the dog box. I acquiesced. They had Kalashnikovs. And they had my passport. Soon, I thought, they might want a few dollars to their name, too.

            The interior of the dog box was more or less the same as the exterior, only turned inside out and with a desk and few files thrown in for decoration. The GAI officer with my passport took a seat at the desk, while the other stood beside me, glancing now and then through the window into the yard. I followed his glance and saw my driver, head bowed, still happily pumping out petrol.

            “Where you been?” the one at the desk asked.

            “Kyzyl”, I replied.

            “Where?”

            “Hotel Kyzyl”.

            “Stamp?”

            “There is no stamp.”

            He thought about this for a moment, rifled through the pages of my passport again, shook his head and asked, “Were you registered”.

            “Of course”, I replied. “But it wasn´t stamped”.

            “Hotel Kyzyl?”

            “Yes.”

            “No stamp?”

            “No.”

            He glanced up perplexed at the activity outside, at Irina in the car, at Ruslin now calmly perched on her lap sucking his thumb, at the concerned Russian family looking on. I could see he was going to tell his wife and kids about this one when he got home.

            “But you were registered?” he almost pleaded.

            “Sure, sure. I was registered.”

            He visibly relaxed and withdrew an old exercise book from the drawer of the desk and began filling in my particulars.

            “Sign here, please”, he said. “We have to record the names of all foreigners passing through the border. I signed, and he returned my passport. “You´re our first Australian in the book”, he added, and proudly snapped it shut.

            I was glad to get out of the GAI office. I was glad to be underway again. I was glad that we had petrol, even if it was only enough to carry us to the next town. The only thing I wasn´t glad about was our driver.

            “Now!” he said, climbing back into the car. “See! No problem. Benzin

            At that moment I understood the forces that moved otherwise law-abiding, good-natured people to commit murder. I decided to smoke a cigarette instead. We pulled out of the parking area just as a truck coughed by in the direction of Kyzyl. Irina, Ruslin and I stared at it in silence. Only the driver seemed not to notice it. It was a petrol tanker.

            It took us an hour or so to reach the next town, and the warning light on the petrol gauge flashed for all but ten minutes of that time. Of course, there was not a drop of petrol to be had there. But as luck would have it, two Tuvans had broken down by the roadside and were engaging in repairs. Whatever the damage, I hoped it wasn´t contagious. Beside them, buttocks firmly anchored on the lawn and their legs outspread in front of them, were two solidly built Russian women. They ate sausage and bread upright from a table cloth spread out under them.

            My driver, who in all the excitement forgot about his knee again, jumped out and did another spectacular “triple Tuvan with knee clench and gurgle” across the ground. Dusting himself off, he hobbled over to his countrymen with irrepressible enthusiasm and engaged them in conversation. The Russian women were so busy eating they didn´t even notice us.

            “Tuvans!” came the exclamation from our driver when he´d returned. And as if wishing to make a logical connection, added, “Benzin!”

            For obvious reasons, I wasn´t convinced by this “Tuvan + Car = Petrol” equation, but I was willing to hope.

            As it turned out, our Tuvan friends were generous. We had enough to reach the Minusinsk plain. There, the driver assured me, would be even more petrol.

            “How do you know?” I asked.

            “Because there was petrol yesterday.”

            “And what about all the places back down the road”, I asked, “was there petrol there too?”

            “No”, he replied.

            “But you still didn´t fill up in Kyzyl?”

            “That was yesterday”, he explained.

            I was becoming dangerous.

            The Western Sayan Mountains form one of the most beautiful ranges in Russia. Its ridges run in parallel lines from west to east for about 600 kilometres, separating the Minusinsk Plain in the north from the Tuvan Plain in the south. Craggy peaks rise to well over 2000 metres, the slopes of which are blanketed in silver fir, cedar and spruce. Its valleys contain hidden pristine lakes which provide a habitat for elk, maral deer and roe, bears, sable, Siberian weasels and wolves, most of which I´d seen stuffed in Kyzyl´s museum. Because the ridges run strictly parallel, seen from the back seat of a Lada, each mountain ridge gives the impression of being the last before the plain. But as we went along, I realised the ridges were getting higher, not lower, and each picturesque valley seemed to exceed the splendid beauty of its predecessor.

            The petrol gauge light blinked menacingly near my driver´s game knee.

            “Ruslin! Perestan!” Irina shouted.

            “Now Abakan!” said the driver, overcome with pleasure. “Beautiful mountains! Look!”

            And then suddenly, climbing over the last ridge, the Minusinsk Plain spread out like a dirty brown blanket before our eyes. Ruslin began to cry again.

            The driver killed the engine and we cruised silently down the slopes, re-starting it only once we´d reached the plain. And then little Ruslin stopped crying, climbed over his grandmother´s lap and stared out the window at passing cars.

            “There!” my driver exclaimed. “Benzin!” And sure enough, this time the petrol station was open. Feeling vindicated, my driver pulled up at a pump, whispering to himself benzin, benzin as if these two firey syllables would explain the creation of the Earth, its very reason for being, and cause of its ultimate destruction. I celebrated our success by doing something I didn´t usually do at petrol stations. I lit a cigarette. The driver and Irina climbed out, stretched in relief, and set priorities.

            “You want something to eat?” Irina asked.

            “No”, I replied.

            “I´ll come too”, my driver said.

            “You watch Ruslin, then?”

            “I´ll watch him”, I assured her.

            My companions seemed to take a long time getting the food. After several minutes, Ruslin grew restless, opened the door, and waddled across the yard. He picked up stones and tried to throw them at passing cars; he kicked a rubbish bin, causing its contents to spew across the ground. Then he made off for the mechanic´s ramp he´d noticed in the distance and tried to climb its wooden beams from behind. Abandoning that as too difficult, he decided on the easier approach from the sloped ramp. I watched to see he didn´t suddenly change his mind and run on the road instead. He struggled up the ramp, at times on all fours, sometimes erratically on twos. I had no idea what he had in mind. He looked back at me to make sure I was watching. I was. He stood upright at the top of the ramp and faced the road where cars roared by, pulled down his trousers and, arms extended, proudly shot gushes of golden piss onto the dry ground below.

            “Ruslin…!” a voice cried from the distance

            “Now!” my driver called enthusiastically.

            And then the driver stuck the damned nozzle into the tank.