Rashed and I got back last night from our trip to Belavezhskaya Pushcha, a mouthful to say and a national park featuring old European forests and rare wildlife--such as the European bison--that have disappeared in Western Europe.
Belarusians love to do things in groups, and it was hard to break away from the hotel complex, with its hotel restaurant, its zoo full of forest animals behind fences, its bus tour packages through the forest, and its official stamps on everything from restaurant bills to zoo tickets: this piece of paper has been authorized to exist in its paperness by the Office of the President of the Republic of Belarus. But we finally managed to rent bikes and get away on our own, following a map to various sites in the forest.
We saw centuries-old oaks and pines, stopped to have pancakes at a cafe at the house of Dzied Maroz (Grandfather Frost--kind of like Santa Claus), and were alternately rained on and chased by swarms of mosquitoes and flies. But we had other, scarier adventures, too.
When we had only gone about 5 kilometers (the whole circle route was 29 km), I was pedaling fast on a straitaway to gain speed to help me up a small hill (the bike I was on was a one-speed) when suddenly I heard a clink and there was no more resistance in the pedals. I wobbled, then coasted to a stop. The chain had come off the back gear. I thought our day (and our whole trip) was ruined and we would have to walk back to the rental place and demand our money back, but Rashed said this used to happen to his bike all the time when he was a kid, and it wasn't too hard to fix. Twenty minutes later, after almost getting blown from the side of the rode into the forest by one of those giant tour buses, Rashed's hands were covered in grease, and I had a working bike once again. I was determined to ride slowly and walk up hills from now on. It wouldn't do to get stuck with no bike if we got any farther from the hotel complex.
We got back on the narrow road, the dense foliage pressing in on either side. We had ridden, slowly, for less than a minute, when we heard a loud snuffle-grunt, then a crash, on our right, and jerked our heads back in time to see the ferns and lower branches of the trees swaying in the spot I had just ridden by. We rode forward as we craned our necks back, trying to see the animal (we never did), hearts pounding.
From then on we sang off and on, and I rang my bike bell every once in a while to warn any scary creatures. I couldn't even count on riding away from them anymore because my chain might break.
We went for several hours and were on the home stretch, having seen bogs and a reservoir, birches and birds, when I spotted something in the forest, ahead and on the left. We were passing through a marshy area, and we could see out into the forest, though the day was cloudy, and the trees overhead added to the the gloom and shadow. As we got closer, the thing moved, and I recognized one, then two wild boars, rooting around in the mud of the marsh. They were pretty far from the road, but there might be more nearer to us. I hoped they didn't have babies on the other side of the road. I started ringing the bell to warn them of our approach. I've been told to scare bears in this way, but I never had to try it, and I was never trained in defense against wild boars. In historical novels I had read about the Middle Ages, someone would always get gored by one... As we got closer and they heard the bell, more shadows in the forest came alive, and we saw more adults running away from us, deeper into the forest. Then, in the mud nearer to the road, we saw a flash of light brown stripes, and a group of piglets began squealing and darting after their parents--wait for me!!! As they fled and we passed by, still ringing the bell in case there were stragglers, I estimated that there were almost ten babies and about as many adults. I felt bad for scaring them; I hoped they would settle down again soon.
We rode on, getting jumpy at every sound and shadow, passing by a border post protecting the area between Belarus and Poland, until we reached a two-lane road, and, feeling safer, coasted home, the rain and bugs gone, the wind in our hair.
The chain stayed on until we turned the bikes in and headed back to our hotel room, saddle-sore but exhilarated. We had had the forest adventure we wanted.
That night, we took a final walk in the woods. Rashed called me his wood elf because I like the trees so much.
The next day, we ate our enormous hotel breakfast (authorized by the President, mind you) and headed to Brest, a nearby city in western Belarus. We explored the city a bit, including the Brest Fortress, a site of World War II fighting. Then we got on the painfully slow, five-hour bus to Minsk, arriving back at the house at 9:00 pm, where family friend Ira gave us an enormous supper, including borsch and 6% milk.