Wednesday, September 21, 2005

At the risk of becoming tour-guide Jared, I feel I should mention another moment where my sense of Lithuania experienced a significant shift. We visited an abandoned Soviet missile silo.

Tourist attractions often seem like shortcuts to me, almost a way of cheating. There's a sheen that hints at something slightly distasteful underneath. I guess I'm still swayed by the argument that "raw" truth is somehow more "real." Probably it's just that I'm media-saturated enough to resent manipulation--whatever the case, I prefer to take my experience unfiltered when I can get it.

Sometimes, truly, the mundane is more moving. We turned off on a non-descript gravel road, drove for a while, then hung a right onto a concrete pathway made up of oddly-shaped blocks. "That's for tank treads." Ah, that makes sense--as if the sense it made somehow detracted from the unconcealed military intent.


The silos themselves were carefully unassuming. Again, the field under which lay the facilities and equipment needed to launch four, 72-foot, nuclear-capable rockets within 10 kilometers of a designated target resembled nothing more than a pasture with a few concrete lumps. Only barbed wire remained of what was once a system of guard towers and electronic intrusion detectors.

A Missile Silo Site

We explored the grass and rust of the abandoned field for a while, but when a tour bus showed up the experience took a turn for the surreal. My friend Thor was along and managed to hitch us on to the tour group, which was an odd assortment of older and younger Lithuanians. A youth group of some sort? None of them seemed visibly foreign to me; this was no internationally advertised site. They carried open beer bottles nonchalantly, smoked a cigarette or two, and generally made up the type of wise-cracking, studiously uninterested tour group you see the world over.


There were no safety rails or guideposts, only the stripped-down, swiftly rusting remnants of what was once the focal point of a global tension that skirted some pretty severe consequences. A few remnants of Communist decor and some soldiers' equipment. A uniform and the radio room. The tunnels were damp, the stairs unsafe, and the ladders and platforms precarious.

A Tunnel Underground

A Crumbling Doorway

It was small. If you were to imagine being stationed there, it would seem claustrophobic, boring, and humming with a slightly hysterical tension, all at the same time. Walking through the rooms was a bit easier to grasp, something one could probably get used to, but the greater significance of the place was difficult to ignore.

Standing at the Lip

The silos themselves were full of water... ground seepage due to the lack of maintenance. Surprisingly, the site was operational as late as 1978. Indeed, the compass markings on the metal housing were still clear, and as we circled the lip of the silo it was easy to imagine the soldiers and engineers clambering around, keeping everything working. The group was jocular (though when some joker turned out the lights the collective gasp was perhaps a touch more frightened then it could have been), and Thor translated some of the facts the guide was sharing. Peering through the rusty grating underfoot and tapping the metal to hear the boom was quite the experience, especially surrounded by a foreign language in a context out of some disconnected past.


But the truly sublime moment came when some of the men began singing a foreign anthem in their deepest and most operatic baritone. Many of the others joined in. I don't know what the song meant to them, and I suppose I never will, but hearing their voices echoing through the crumbling chambers--the container of what was once the delivery system of human-engineered, large-scale destruction--struck a chord somewhere deep, deep inside.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Orvidas' house

Has it really only been three and a half weeks? Extraordinary. Something about traveling makes life seem more intense... the past few weeks still seem vivid, full.

And by full I mean busy. Whew. In the past ten days I've taught my first ever university classes, toured the countryside, succeeded in purchasing a cell-phone (but not yet an umbrella), and finally (hopefully) figured out a bus/food/sleep/prep schedule that won't leave me curled up on the floor of my office sleeping for a few captured moments between lesson plans. I mean sure, I knew teaching was a lot of work, but this? Okay, so it's not that bad, but I'm finding that the learning curve is steep and the constant pressure to keep the quality lecture output going will take some getting used to. Tonight, the prospect sounds like a rush... last Wednesday? Not so much.

Still, in between the fourteen some-odd hour workdays, the staff has been conspiring to snatch as much time as possible away from the LCC bubble in order to capture more pieces of Lithuania. It's one of those cases where the more you learn, the less you know--a slow, complex realization. Someone used the phrase "subtle beauty" in describing Lithuania, and that has proven itself true to me several times over in the last few days.

The first real cultural heritage site I visited said "Orvidu Sodyba - Muziejus" on the sign at the entrance. Hidden away in the countryside is a small farmstead owned by the late Vilius Orvidas. Originally a monk, the Soviet occupation forced him to abandon monkhood and take up a trade; he chose to carve wood and rock sculptures for gravestone markers. However, in the collection of sculptures he kept in his yard he hid Christian artwork salvaged from local cemeteries: cemeteries being taken down under Soviet rule.

The resulting collection is moving: haphazard, unorganized (perhaps by some unknown system?)... a strangely fitting setting for both salvaged and self-taught art. Tourist books give it several monikers: "The Absurd Town," "open-air museum," but none of them do it justice. To come across an old woman in her garden, supported by those who pay a few litas to see the work of someone from her past, is a humbling collision of histories.

The original farmhouse:

Orvidas' home.

Many of the carvings blend naturally into their surroundings:

A Tree-Person

Others are forgotten in untidy corners:

Tucked Away

And some seem to whisper at the intrusion:

Up to no good.

We spent a long time clambering over rocks and under logs that were notched and decorated with metal and greenery. As we left, we took some final pictures: of a tank that had been abandoned in a nearby ditch after WWII and placed near the entrance of the museum. To someone from the dusty openness of Canadian prairie, this culture seems rich, sombre, and deeply layered.