Getting Gonta is a story, written for bluetoyellow.com by Alex Frishberg.
Based on a true story, Alex tells the tale of two Ukrainian friends who set off across the globe to rescue their beloved Gonta.
Getting Gonta part one.
It was nearly midnight, and Nikolai was in the later stages of getting smashed on cheap vodka with his best buddy, Alexei. They were in a blue-collar pub called Matrosskaya Tishina, in a rough part of town, the notorious Troeschina. That’s when an old, gnawing feeling began to haunt him again. Staring into space, Nikolai said longingly with tears in his voice, “she’s somewhere out there. So what am I doing here? Hell, what are we both doing in life, besides getting pissed drunk after work, night after night?”
“Why do you always have to start with that old same shit?” Alexei replied, slurring his words. “You’ve got to learn to look at life realistically. She’s way over there and you’re right here.” Alexei pointed in opposite directions and slowly finished his thought, “so let’s just order another round and leave it at that.” Even when tipsy, Alexei was the more reasonable of the two.
“But we built her from scratch with our own two hands,” Nikolai sobbed quietly, so that the other patrons would not hear him. They could be a violent lot once everyone got truly loaded. “God damn it, Alyosha, she’s ours by all logic and reason!” Nikolai pleaded hoarsely. “You’ve got to admit that much…”
But Alexei knew better than to give his buddy even an inch in this increasingly dangerous argument. With each passing month it was getting more difficult to persuade Nikolai to stay put. “Look, she’s somewhere on the other side of the world,” Alexei tried to reason with his old friend once again, “and we have no money to get there. Even if we did, how would we ever bring her home? We don’t even have the title documents!”
Nikolai looked away from the communal plate of black bread and salty pickles, a working man’s appetizer. Though he had trouble focusing on Alexei’s face, Nikolai continued to press his case. “Fact number one: she’s sitting over there, in a place called Perth, somewhere in Australia. Fact number two: Yatsenko has forgotten all about her. Logical conclusion: it’s fate, knocking on our door! And you keep refusing!”
“Let’s order another round,” Alexei skillfully avoided the question, raising an empty vodka bottle towards the waitress. “I’m with you on that one.”
“No, you don’t get it,” Nikolai insisted with a hint of accusation in his voice, “I’m talking about our baby. Remember her, or did you forget already?”
“You’re joking,” came back an honest response. “See these two hands? I built her with them.”
“And these are my two hands!” Nikolai shouted back, raising his powerful, calloused fingers in the air, as if to prove his point. Then he grasped Alexei’s cracked hands with his own and broke down. “I’m begging you, Alyosha,” Nikolai pleaded, “we have to get her! We made her! She belongs to us! Who else will look after her like we would?”
This scene began to draw unwelcome stares from the other patrons, but Nikolai didn’t notice. “Do it for me, Alyosha, just this one time, or we’ll both regret it for the rest of our lives,” he begged. “Instead of sitting here, night after night, we’ll get to see the whole wide world! Just picture us, fishing off our own luxury sailboat in the middle of an ocean, think of the sunsets, the coconuts, and those sandy beaches! That’s real life, my friend! We’ll see it all, and bring back our Gonta, too!”
The way Nikolai put it, Alexei paused to visualize tall palm trees and endless beaches in emerald waters. For a brief second he saw topless natives with almond skin, too.
Other clients in the bar are puzzled by the depth of Nikolai’s emotions.
Sensing his hesitation, Nikolai added acidly, “and if you say no, then we’ll simply rot away in our crummy old apartments, like everyone else here. Just look around you! Is this what you really want?”
Alexei looked around the dark, smelly room, and he did not like what his eyes saw: mean and angry drunkards, always sporting for a fight. Nikolai continued, “so what do you say, Alyosha? Please don’t let me down. I’m begging you, buddy… Just this once?”
It was a pitiful sight, to see a proud man humbling himself in such a way, but it worked. By the end of their last bottle of vodka that evening, Nikolai finally managed to wear Alexei down.
Alexei briefly pauses to consider Nikolai’s suggestion
“Well, she is ours,” Alexei’s mumbled the words that Nikolai had been waiting for. “What the hell, let’s go get her.”
“You won’t regret it,” Nikolai nodded, offering his hand. He was quite drunk, and equally excited. “Put it there, pal!”
That’s how the whole deal was sealed, with a handshake and a few shots of good old pertsovka.
Once upon a time, in a country that no longer exists, there lived a successful director of a very large cement factory. His name was Comrade Dmitry Sergeevich Yatsenko. Like many other Soviet factory directors of his time, Comrade Yatsenko was well-connected, wealthy and powerful. Unlike his other colleagues, however, who regularly gorged on fatty sausages, potatoes and vodka, Comrade Yatsenko was an avid sportsman, a true sailor at heart. And yachting was his greatest passion, followed by beautiful women and the finest champagne.
In October 1991, shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Comrade Yatsenko had decided that it was a perfect opportunity to enjoy the life of luxury as a multi-millionaire in sun-drenched Australia. To fulfill his life-long dream of having “open seas and wind in your face,” the director instructed two of his factory’s finest masters, Nikolai and Alexei, to build for him “a yacht that can cross the ocean from here to Australia.” This was not a frivolous request, either.
While nobody at the local cement factory had ever constructed a sailboat before, it was equally true that Comrade Yatsenko’s direct orders had never been denied before. And so it was done. The finest hands in Kiev, supplied with unlimited financial resources of the cement factory and blueprints for the latest yacht designs, hand-crafted a 32-foot miracle called Gonta, a sailboat equivalent of Rolls Royce — not in luxury, but in her sleek style, speed, and basic sea-worthiness.
Since no spare parts were available anywhere in the former Soviet Union at any price, everything on this boat (in fact, the boat itself) was hand-made. Upon completion, a crew consisting of very nervous factory staff tested Gonta on the Dniepr River during a mild thunderstorm. The boat was a wonder, everyone agreed, even those who became seasick and vomited overboard.
Shortly after that successful test run, Comrade Yatsenko arranged for Gonta to be sealed in a container of grain (so that nobody would notice it) and had the container shipped off to Perth, Australia. As life would have it, however, before visiting Australia, Comrade Yatsenko briefly vacationed in America. After seeing some of the mega-yachts in Los Angeles and San Diego harbors, and salivating over young blond ladies with hard bodies on the sunny beaches of California, he impulsively decided to view several beach-front mansions that were for sale in the neighborhood.
That is how Comrade Yatsenko came to settle down in Southern California instead of Australia. Naturally, Gonta was quickly replaced by a 72-foot Bavaria, which contained the latest equipment that money could buy.
Alexei waited until the last possible moment before telling his life-long suffering wife, Nina, about Nikolai’s plans to rescue Gonta. By that time Alexei had already collected what he considered to be basic essentials, namely his warm, winter clothes, including thermal underwear, several rolls of color film and his old, trusty Zenit photo camera. After neatly packing these items in his beat-up brown suitcase, Alexei safely stored it back at Nikolai’s place, just in case Nina went completely ballistic, as she was expected to do.
“You’re planning to sail where? With that alcoholic idiot friend of yours?!” were Nina’s first words after she recovered from the initial shock. “And you’re leaving me to take care of your crazy mother, all by myself? For just a few months? Is that what you’re telling me?! For God’s sake, Alyosha, listen to me: Nikolai will get both of you killed! You don’t even know how to sail!”
The sound of Nina’s fury was still ringing loudly in Alexei’s mind, even though Kiev was several thousand kilometers behind him. Fortunately, Nikolai’s cheerful voice interrupted his dark thoughts.
“Hey, Alexei, looks like we’re approaching another station,” said Nikolai. “Another bottle or maybe we’ll get two this time? My heart is yearning…” Nikolai rubbed his hands in anticipation of yet another train stop, an opportunity to joke with the grandmothers who would crowd around him as if he was a movie star, offering mouth-watering local delicacies like vodka, herring, potatoes and even cigarettes.
Up to this point, they had been cooped up on train #20 for more than a week, staring out the window at the passing countryside. That’s when Nikolai and Alexei would share a few drinks and pass the time, comparing crabbing in the Bering Sea with shrimp trawling in the Bay of Bengal, talking about feeling the salty spray of mist in their faces. Most of all, they spoke about bringing Gonta home.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad, or simply Trans-Sib to the locals, is the longest single rail system in Russia, stretching 5,778 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, connecting European Russia with Siberia and the Russian Far East. It spans across eight time zones, fourteen provinces, three regions and two republics.
During their nearly two-week journey, Alexei and Nikolai went through them all: Yekaterinburg, capital of the Urals, where the Romanov family were murdered in 1918, then Novisibirsk, the capital of Siberia, Irkutsk, plus numerous bridges, tunnels and rivers.
Somewhere near the shores of the enormous Lake Baikal, the deepest lake on the planet, at a train station called Slyudyanka-1, Nikolai got off again to buy a few more bottles of home-made vodka from the grandmothers. The train next moved through the remote Siberia, with its harsh climate, finally ending in their destination, Vladivostok.
It is not entirely surprising that neither Alexei nor Nikolai could recall much of the journey on their party train in the so-called platskart section, where the cheapest tickets allow passengers to sleep in the same wagon with everyone else without any privacy. Along their journey, they shared quite a few drinks with the rest of the passengers. While munching on dried salami, salted fish and boiled potatoes, Alexei and Nikolai thoroughly enjoyed magnificent views of snowy mountains, the transparent waters and forbidding landscapes.
Each day, as they sampled the finest quality grandmother-brewed moonshine, Nikolai would swear upon his mother’s grave that he was looking at the most beautiful place on earth, all the while chatting away with excitement about the upcoming adventure. Alexei was equally impressed with the scenery, nodding with appreciation at the wild nature around them.
On the train, while drinking with their new-found friends from all walks of life, they picked up a lot of useful information about the famous port city of Vladivostok. For instance, Nikolai was surprised to learn that the name means “Lord of the East” in the old Russian language. One sailor explained, heavily slurring his words, that the naval outpost, the home base of the Russian Pacific Fleet, was founded in the 1850’s and was modelled after a Russian fortress in the Caucasus, Vladikavkaz. At the time, the way the sailor spoke of the fort’s glorious past, it sounded so romantic that Alexei and Nikolai could not wait to reach the majestic city itself.
As the train came closer to Vladivostok, the local cuisine improved greatly: instead of sausages the grandmothers switched to selling black and red caviar from large buckets. The prices were laughable by Kiev standards; even Nikolai and Alexei could afford a healthy dose of beluga to accompany their vodka. So far the trip was coming along marvellously, even better then expected, as far as they were concerned.
One morning, however, the party came to an abrupt end as the train finally pulled in the central station in Vladivostok, which was conveniently located next to the Ferry Terminal. The arrival to their destination was rather anticlimactic. All of the vodka bottles and glasses, mostly empty, came crashing onto the floor, waking up the hung-over passengers from their deep, much-needed sleep. The train conductor’s message was clear: everyone had to clear out, once and for all.
The next thing Nikolai and Alexei noticed was a pungent stench of dead fish and sewage. The reason was simple: due to Vladivostok’s geography, winds cannot clear pollution from the most densely populated areas, but Nikolai and Alexei did not know this fact. Nor were they aware that Vladivostok had more then eighty industrial sites that are environmentally unfriendly, with industries such as shipbuilding and repairing, power stations, printing, fur farming and mining. The soil around them contains extraordinary levels of heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, cobalt and mercury, which severely affect the respiratory and nervous systems. In fact, the whole city was sufficiently polluted to be officially classified as an ecological disaster zone.
As if this was not enough, a one million ton dump of unsorted garbage, which sits on a nearby coastal site, always creating an underwater slick fifteen kilometers long that shows up in satellite images. For all those reasons it did not take Alexei and Nikolai long to acknowledge that the great fishing port and the key node on Pacific shipping routes, the great Vladivostok, was the single most polluted town they had ever seen. The overcast sky and rough, weathered faces around them added to a depressing scene.
Fresh off the train, Alexei and Nikolai looked at each other and paused before going straight into the lion’s mouth.
“So what’s next?” asked Alexei, setting down his little brown suitcase on the oily pavement. “Which way are the boats?”
“Hold on, buddy. I suggest that we get the lay of the land from the natives before we undertake any drastic actions,” Nikolai replied, scratching his head. “I mean, how do we know which boats are good and which are bad?”
“Makes sense to me,” Alexei readily agreed.
They needed some background information prior to making any serious decisions. Their lives depended on it.
“And I already see the perfect place for socializing with the local working class. See that little joint on the corner?” Nikolai nodded discreetly towards a run-down bar called The Arena. Two drunken sailors emerged from there, propping each other up as they stumbled down the street. Nikolai winked and added, “that’s our place, buddy, right over there.”
The dark pub, with its smoked-through walls, was very much like their own Matrosskaya Tishina back in Kiev, with a remarkably similar cast of customers. Even the greasy menu was the same. After a few drinks, Nikolai and Alexei fit in perfectly.
They ordered the usual: a bottle of vodka with pickles and a plate of boiled, salty crayfish. Being strangers, they generously shared a few shots of vodka with an older fellow who happened to be sitting nearby. In exchange, he had plenty of advice for the newcomers, who were eager to learn about life on the long-distance fishing, with an emphasis on vessels going to Australia.
“…then there’s saltwater boils, plus all that noise and vibration,” the old man rambled on, “some men get asthma, others are crushed by heavy equipment or washed overboard. Everyone eventually loses their hearing. Plus, you’re standing out there on that slippery deck, in the freezing rain, for 15 to 20 hours without a break, so you get frostbites, hypothermia. You’ve got to consider these things before you boys sign up.”
“Any other words of wisdom, old man?” Alexei asked, pouring him another generous shot of vodka.
“If you have to go out there, whatever you do, don’t get near a processing line. Do something nice and easy. Mechanical engineer, that’s the ticket! Or maybe a cook. Now, that’s what I call a great job!”
After the second bottle of vodka, the old sailor entertained Alexei and Nikolai with stories of fatal accidents, capsizing, and collisions. The third bottle allowed him to cover all sorts of skin and respiratory diseases, eye damage, as well as lip and skin cancers due to excessive exposure to sun.
The fourth, and final, bottle was reserved for simple infections, lacerations and minor traumas of hands and wrists, followed by amputations of arms and legs. By that time, the afternoon had turned to evening without anyone noticing the difference. The light drizzle outside only added to the cozy atmosphere at their table. In the end, the old sailor gave Alexei and Nikolai invaluable advice, and even offered them his place to stay for free, which made the whole afternoon well worthwhile.
The next day Alexei and Nikolai signed up to work on a longliner instead of agreeing to the more lucrative positions on the ships that processed fish. There, according to the old man, fishermen had to work close to powerful and dangerous machines, where the risk of being crushed by heavy equipment was practically a certainty. In exchange, they signed up for a return journey. It was the captain’s only condition of employment: no jumping from the ship in some exotic location, where no replacement could be found. Naturally, Nikolai and Alexei shamelessly lied without any reservations, knowing full well they would remain in Australia, should they ever get there.
Getting Gonta is a story by Alex Frishberg. Part Two will be published next week.
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