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What I Learned from a Nightmare
I knew that something would go wrong. I felt it in my heart, a bit of woman’s intuition. But, but as usual, I didn’t have a real reason to sense this, so I never mentioned it. Besides, I reassured myself, it’s just a day trip to Belarus, only a short excursion across the border of Poland. What could happen? And yet, there was this lingering sensation that something wouldn’t unfold as planned. I ignored it.
We piled into the car, a whole lot of us. My mother in the driver’s seat, staring determinedly at the road ahead, my grandfather beside her, mellow as usual. I was squished in the back, in between my bratty little brother and my talkative grandmother. “Babcia,” I called her, which means “grandma” in Polish. She explained to me how eager she was to return to Belarus, where she had grown up as a kid before the Second World War. I immediately felt guilty for my initial hesitations about the trip.
As we reached the border between the two countries, I groaned quite audibly. The line to cross the border into Belarus was three hours long, dotted with cars that spread out thousands of meters! But, my mom is a smart woman. With a little finesse, she managed to convince a border patrolman to move us to the front of the line, because our car contained two elderly persons and two young children. At the age of eleven, I was a little grumpy after being described as a “small child,” but managed to keep my complaints to myself.
We successfully entered Belarus. Diligently, we searched for the house that my grandmother had been raised in as a little girl. About a street before we reached this destination, our car was sent hurtling forward with a low pitched thump followed by a high pitched squeak. We had been hit from behind by another car! Mom immediately regained control of the automobile and enquired if we were hurt. My grandmother had a slight pain in her back, which we later discovered was the result of a broken collar bone. Other than this, we were unharmed.
Mom exited the car to speak to the driver. He was drunk. This was turning into a nightmare! The driver begged us not to call the police, but my Mom knew better. The cops arrived about ten minutes later carrying various forms and legal papers. At this point, all of us were hungry, so my mom sent my grandmother and me to search for food. We found a small deli that accepted Polish currency, and we bought some ham and bread to distribute among us. This would be the last nourishment we would consume for the next twenty-four hours.
Let me explain, because it is hard to grasp, how insignificant and small this town we were stuck in happened to be. There was not a single hotel in sight. Not one Bed & Breakfast or even a hostel around for fifty miles. And, our car accident seemed to provide the locals with more entertainment than they had had in months! Clusters of townspeople gathered around our ruined vehicle, offering help and words of encouragement. Their kindness was astonishing.
The police asked my mom to file an accident report. The only problem: it had to be in Russian. Unfortunately for us, my mom couldn’t read or write in Russian. A bigger problem: the car was not registered under her name. We had borrowed the vehicle from my uncle, which apparently made things even more complicated. Three hours later, it was dark, and various complicated tasks remained uncompleted, despite my mom’s desperate yet futile attempts.
And another thing: the drunken guy that had collided with our car belonged to some sort of gang. He hung around our family shadily, with his tattooed and pierced friends sending us threatening looks from street corners. My mom decided that to be safe, all of us had to stay inside of the warm, well-lit sanctuary of the post office. Well, to her, warm and well lit, to us, stuffy and irritatingly bright.
Grandpa snuck out to get some air while my Mom got busy with the paper work. I will never forget the look on Mom’s face when she realized Grandpa had left the security of the post office. She demanded I locate him immediately, and informed me nervously that the man who had caused the accident was angry that we had called the police against his wishes. It was then that I realized the full extent of the danger we were in. I rushed outside and found Grandpa resting on a curb corner, opposite of a few members of the threatening gang. They loomed in the distance like predators spying dinner. I dragged him, against his protests, back to the post office.
Mom was dealing with a new problem when we returned. There was no place for us to spend the night in this little town. The Police Chief generously offered to let us stay at his house. My mom asked me what to do, and I told her much too confidently that I would not sleep in any strange man’s house. She decided that the lot of us would sleep at the police station.
It was no Hyatt Regency. We slept for about an hour in cold uncomfortable chairs. My brother was the lucky one: he got to sleep on the hard metal table. I needed to use the restroom, and I was directed towards a dark room in a dark hall in a dark part of the dark police station. Not only was this situation scary (and dark of course), it was uncomfortable. There was no toilet seat. Only the ground and a drain. The smell or urine lingered everywhere. I had a distinct feeling that the police where making this hard for us on purpose. Again, I ignored it.
I asked my mom once more why we couldn’t just drive the car back to the border. She explained that while the car was still running, it was liable to break down any minute. In addition, a dark forest separated this little town and our destination at the border. This was not a place filled with chirping blue birds and doe-eyed deer. This forest provided a sanctuary only to criminals and murders, and if we broke down there, we would be in grave danger.
As my mom explained this all to me, she must have noticed the wariness and hopelessness in my eyes. Abruptly she stood up and spoke to one of the policemen. She negotiated a deal: in exchange for the protection of a police escort through the dangerous forest, she would surrender two hundred dollars. Here is where things really went wrong.
The family piled into the car, slightly nervous but relieved, knowing that we were on our way to safety and comfort. I remember noticing how quickly the policemen had locked the doors to the station. As soon as we stepped out of the building, they slammed the entrance shut and turned the key. Almost as if they were waiting for us to leave. And, who ever heard of a police station closing? It was all very weird, but none of us voiced our uneasiness.
The police drove behind us for a couple of miles, into the forest. And then they signaled for us to pull over. They wanted us to stop in the middle of the forest where no one could see us?! Something was definitely going on. To this day, I will never know what would have happened to us had we stopped. Because we offered them two hundred dollars for their services, the police must have assumed that we were carrying plenty of money on us. I believe they wanted this money. Either way, no one wanted to stick around to find out. Mom realized that the police were not trustworthy, and slammed on the gas, accelerating us at speeds up to a hundred miles an hour. We were hurtling forward through a dark forest in a tiny broken down car in the middle of the night with no cell phones and no other options.
Years later my mom confessed to me that at that moment, she thought we were all going to die. She honestly believed that the police would rob and kill us for a few hundred dollars. I can only remember that my youth made me blissfully unaware of the exact source of the danger around me. I couldn’t understand that a policeman would ever try to hurt me. At the time, the concept of a dirty cop flew straight over my head, but now as I recall the situation, it makes perfect sense. We were in a dark forest. If we had stopped, if we had allowed the policemen to approach us, we could have easily been killed without the knowledge of anyone else. The isolation, the cover of the trees around us, and the aid of night would have all concealed our murders. I realize this now, but at the time, I had just prayed that my mom wouldn’t crash into anything as we had hurtled through the night air. The policemen never followed, and we were running from an invisible assailant, but the tension was still almost unbearable. Eventually we reached the border unharmed, and joined the line of cars waiting to cross. Soon, the whir of the engine became a soothing sound, and I drifted into an uncomfortable sleep, believing that our adventure was over.
It was far from over. I woke up a few hours later, famished and dehydrated. I was confused, and asked where we were. We were still at the border, and we had been there for the last five hours. I didn’t understand why the process of crossing over into Poland was taking so long. Twenty or so cars stood in front of us, all being forced to endure the same boring fate we were. I asked my mom why the border patrol was taking so long to let us through. She looked at me hard, as if debating whether or not to inform me of a grim fact. Eventually, she explained that the Belarusian police were deliberately taking a long time to check the papers and passports of cars trying to cross the border. Deliberately? Yes, she informed me, because they wanted to be bribed by people for faster service. For a hundred dollars, we could buy ourselves a spot at the head of the line and be in Poland in less than fifteen minutes. Of course, this injustice angered us to the point that we refused to bribe the policemen, just for the sake of principal.
Hours past. Fifteen hours, seventeen hours. The sun beat down on us, and the hunger made our bellies growl. Only ten cars had been allowed through the border since we had joined the line. I observed the policemen with anger. They were sitting at tables, eating donuts and drinking coffee, waiting for people to bribe them. No work was done, no passports were checked, and rarely did they allow anyone through.
Grandpa started feeling nauseous. He was already an unhealthy man, and his heart had started hurting from the heat. My mom pleaded with the officers. I have a sick father, she said, we need to get through to Poland. Call an ambulance, they replied indifferently. My mom was just about to surrender the money to the dirty cops. But, our turn to cross finally came, and we were allowed into Poland with out ever having to pay a bribe.
Coming home is like falling into a fluffy pillow that feels like silk and tastes like marshmallow. Every tree in Poland, every apartment building, and even every homeless person, I welcomed back graciously with open arms. The feeling of security is one, I had learned, that should never be taken for granted.
As I recall the memories of this disaster trip, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride. Not for myself, but for my mother. She had the lives of four individuals in her hands, and faced with one challenging situation after another, she never broke down. The strong character she demonstrated during this trip helped me to appreciate her for what she is: a remarkable women who is able to persevere in the face of adversity. She emerged from this trip as my hero, and one day I hope to be a strong as she is.
I remember the day I returned home to Poland. I had wanted to kiss everything around me, like a crazed maniac. And yet, as much as I was glad to return to Poland, I hadn’t regretted the trip to Belarus. I believe that any time a person travels anywhere, they learn something new about themselves. In a strange way, my travel experience helped me develop a sense of my character. Now that I have been through a life or death experience, I know that I was capable of enduring anything. So thank you Belarus, thank you Drunk Driver, and thank you Border Patrol for teaching me just how invincible I really am!