St. Petersberg Stadium: England vs Belgium

What 10 days of flitting across Eastern Europe taught me

By Abhishek Sengupta

So, I returned from my ‘epic’ solo-backpacking trip across East Europe last week. And exhausting as it was, it is incredible to be able to say, I went to see the World Cup too.I got back with a broken camera, a sore back and shoulders after having tugged a 16-kilo rucksack across nine countries in 10 days, and distinctly poorer — shorn of a few extra thousand dirhams — since I had to buy another ticket for a return flight (despite a confirmed ticket, I was denied boarding at Minsk). Yet I am glad I made the trip, one that my mum would have certainly described as foolhardy.

It was across seven countries —  nine, if you consider unplanned stopovers in Ukraine and Jordan on my way back to the Emirates.

With neither hat nor sunscreen, but in my comfiest walking shoes, I would start my daily footslog at around 11 am, grab lunch on the way at inexpensive delis (and more often than not, McDonald’s) and finally stop only at midnight. In places like Tallinn and Helsinki, the sun would still be up when I would retire to my hostel at night. The sleep of tiredness and satisfaction carried me for those ten days, so much so that it didn’t even matter that I was roughing it out. I returned to Dubai thinner, as I must have walked 120 km in 10 days in the blazing East European sun. That’s 1,58,500 steps, if my free fitness app is anything to go by.

It began with Minsk, where I needed to check two ‘not-so-touristy’ sites off my list, including the KGB headquarters, one of the few intelligence agencies that kept the Russian name ‘KGB’ after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as Wiki attests. I then swung by the erstwhile house of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of US President John F Kennedy. You could well mistake the pale apartment block by Victory Square for just another Minsk building, preserved well from Soviet times.

Besides fond memories of digging into the national dish, Draniki, a fried, floury potato pancake, and Kvass, a Slavic-Baltic drink made of rye bread, in my two days in Minsk, I also picked up the Cyrillic script. After all, it was the only way to navigate the metro lines and streets of the Belarusian capital. I felt adventurous trying to say “cześć” (Polish for ‘hello’, pronounced: chuh-esch) to the gruff immigration policemen at Terespol’s border crossing, as I boarded the train to Warsaw.

Often it felt like the trip, that I had been planning since October 2017, was flying too fast, as if I wasn’t absorbing enough of one place. But you do what you can to make the most of limited time. On these journeys, from one place to another, I found pockets of quiet. I never would have imagined watching the near-midnight sun set over the Daugava River in Riga as sea gulls ran amok. Yet, there I was staring at a disappearing horizon on board a seven-deck $19 per person commercial cruise liner, while crossing over the gulf to Finland. And now, I have an excess of seagull photographs in my stash of memories.

In Helsinki, I almost learnt up a portion of the Google Maps trying to locate in Espoo the home of Nokia, the 153-year old Finnish pride. And I also learnt how to use a digital lock to access the shared male dorm in an ultra-modern Helsinki hostel that offered a free morning sauna (sadly, didn’t have the time for it), a wifi router in every room, and that digital lock without which you couldn’t access even the lift!

And besides picking up life lessons in every city, I made at least one good in every place along the way.

I met Anna, a Belarussian national and English teacher-turned-yogi, who became my guide in Minsk. On the train to Warsaw, I met Greg, the Pole who I connected with instantly because of our common love for Arsenal and club legend Dennis Bergkamp. Then while waiting endlessly for the bus to Vilnius, I met Raimundo, the archetypical backpacker from Chile, who worked for a year in Sydney as a mason to earn enough before embarking on his travels across Asia and Europe.

Not all were strangers. I bumped into an old friend after 15 years at Tallinn, and caught up with another in Warsaw. Over football matches, I made new pals in St. Petersburg, a city that will stay in my memory for another reason.

It’s here where I smashed my camera lens at the security checkpoint just as I was rushing to enter The Hermitage, the world’s second largest museum (after the Louvre). With less than two hours to go for the day’s closing time, I thought every second counted but moments later after the camera fell headfirst, I picked up yet another life lesson: the importance of taking it easy!

The best doesn’t necessarily always come last but it did this time. There were several highlights of my trip, and of course, football was at the centre of that experience. I watched the England versus Belgium match in St. Petersburg, and the final between France and Croatia in Moscow. I didn’t have tickets (I could have if I coughed up another $1000 to touts per ticket) but watched both matches from the FIFA Fan Zones where thousands gathered from all over the world making it no less a spectacle.

But towards the end of the 10 days, I thought: watching the World Cup might have paled just a little bit in comparison to the other aspect of my trip: that in however haphazard and back-breaking a manner, I was able to experience more of the world. And I hope everyone gets to do this at least once in their lifetime.

Abhishek is a debating champ, a language junkie and a travel buff

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