Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
“I can’t believe you’re eating that!” My friend Ellery exclaims as he walks out from a gas station and finds me eating a big juicy pear. “Remember how close we are to Chernobyl?”
My hand holding the delicious pear falls to my lap. I chew the fruit in my mouth with distaste and swallow.
The word Chernobyl resonates worldwide. In April of 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, then part of the former Soviet Union, was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
The tragic accident began when one of Chernobyl’s four nuclear reactors blew up. Further explosions released at least 100 times more radioactive material into the air than the atomic bombs dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The worst fallout, or radioactive dust, was blown by prevailing winds into the nearby country of Belarus, but increased radiation levels were recorded as far away as Scandinavia and Ireland.
This afternoon I bought some pears from an old Ukrainian woman. Throughout Eastern Europe, people sell homegrown fruits and vegetables by the road. The tantalizing sight of ripe pears in a wooden basket, and my fondness for fresh produce, made me forget that Chernobyl is approximately 70 miles northward.
Harmful nuclear radiation can be spread to humans through air we breathe and the food chain by plants grown in contaminated soil. More than 350,000 people living in the Soviet Union near Chernobyl were resettled to avoid radiation contamination, yet 5 million still live in the areas considered worst affected. Although eating fruit grown in eastern Ukraine years after Chernobyl might be fine, I don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I throw the pears away in the woods.
Radiation released by Chernobyl was disbursed on the earth unequally. Wind and rain contaminated some areas more than others, which makes determining the adverse health effects on people living near Chernobyl a difficult and controversial subject. Just 56 people, mainly workers in the nuclear plant, were killed directly by the accident. But today increased instances of thyroid cancer among those living near the contaminated area is evidence that Chernobyl caused many long-term health problems.
After disposing of the pears, I recall speaking with Dr. Norma Iglesias, a professor of Chicano Studies I met while studying in Mexico City during college. “Chernobyl made the world accept that one country’s actions don’t just affect citizens within its own borders, but people worldwide,” she told me. “I mention Chernobyl in my introductory classes because it helps students understand how issues like American immigration policy affect the lives of people abroad.”
Today I am far removed from the time and place where that conversation in Mexico occurred. Cycling down the road, I futilely try to fathom the tragic accident which happened just 70 miles away. We ride through small towns where Ukrainians sit by the road selling locally grown potatoes to passing motorists. There is no overt evidence of the Chernobyl accident here.
Issues like environmental disasters occurring abroad can rarely be observed in our own backyards. But while traveling, every aspect of a foreign country’s reality affects our lives, making us live and think differently. Arriving in Russia last winter, I learned that 35 rubles were worth one dollar. In days, I had mastered the 35 times table, and could speedily calculate how much thousands of rubles were worth in dollars with the speed of a mad scientist.
Humans become very adaptive in foreign countries. Accepting the strange ideas that fruit is deadly and one dollar is really 35 can quickly be accepted as fact.
Cycling 6,500 miles across Asia and Eastern Europe into Ukraine, my friend Ellery and I have constantly adapted to different ways of life around us. In Central Asia, running water and indoor plumbing were nonexistent outside of major cities. Using wooden outhouses and makeshift sinks consisting of basins of water with spigots hanging over small basins soon seemed normal.
Experiencing new ways of living is the alluring aspect of travel and part of the adventure. Nevertheless, even if I don’t like to admit it, I have recently found myself wanting to be somewhere that feels more like home, a place where indoor plumbing is something you take for granted. After traveling so long, we are no longer sure when we will reach this point.
“Is it possible they use outhouses in Poland, too?” We often wonder.
In Ukraine, we have finally noticed subtle changes. Unlike the small wooden houses we saw for so long in Russia, most Ukrainian houses are constructed from bricks. The houses may look more modern, but people here still live simply by raising livestock and growing vegetables to sell by the road for money.
The road itself is also changing. We now enjoy the luxury of a wide shoulder to ride on away from passing traffic. Gas stations containing small stores and bathrooms with running water line the highway. Oftentimes, a dilapidated outhouse, long since abandoned, sinks into the earth behind them.
But in Ukraine, the dogs stand out most. In Siberia, The Asian part of Russia, dogs don’t bark when they see strangers; they calmly walk by or approach you hoping for a belly rub. Strays do not exist. Each dog has a home, even if that means just a doorstep to sleep on and a bone to chew. The mentality of Siberian people belongs to another time when animals were valuable creatures, not just pets.
In Ukraine, I fight an urge to turn back when I pass the first gated house and hear a small dog bark. I stop and watch it lunging at me against its leash, teeth gnashing at the fence that separates us.
As the days pass, dogs begin barking at us routinely. Over time, we have slowly passed an invisible border from a more lawless world into one with boundaries and property lines.
We are nearing civilization. Even the dogs can feel it.
I feel stuck between two places right now. The best example of this statement is illustrated by a break we took at a gas station in western Ukraine the other day. Every gas station in the former Soviet Union contains one or two resident dogs. Pulling into this one, we met a charming mutt, tale wagging, who wanted his back scratched. Soon another more combative cur appeared and loudly barked at the intruders who arrived on strange bicycles. I wondered if my days of making furry gas station buddies had just ended.
Like a painter’s brush stroke blending two colors together, the real changes you see traveling on a bicycle sometimes appear difficult to see. I often feel myopic on this trip passing through places so quickly. We have cycled near one of the world’s worst disaster sites, yet we did not spend enough time there to understand what life is really like for those who still live there. I leave feeling like I have seen nothing; the presence of Chernobyl is barely palpable.
The more sociable hound follows us as we leave the gas station, but we are too fast for our friend to keep up. It suddenly seems to me now that the world contains many invisible borders and details that you can only see on a bicycle seat.
Riding away the image of the friendly dog behind me sticks in my mind; the barking of the other resonates in my eardrums. We are slowly edging closer to a different world. It amazes me how much you can see by seeing so little.