Just showered and as yet under-caffeinated, I fixated on the magnificent silhouette of the mountains filling up the picture windows on the west side of the hotel, just across the hall from my room. Dark in the early hues of dawn– the sun still pushing up from behind – I was reminded of a mirror view from a lifetime and a world away.
As a kid in the San Joaquin Valley, we used to take an annual field trip to Yosemite National Park and walk along the manicured paths next to freezing cold, crystalline, rivers and creeks. Shaded by the giant sequoias and California black oaks and Ponderosa pines, we’d play hopscotch in the beams of sunlight that fought their way through the lush foliage. The days were always comfortable, if not crisp. At least until the sun ducked down behind El Capitan and the mountains went from alive and vibrant to dark and ominous, as if the peaks slipped on a cloak for the evening to morph into shadowing images that brew nightmares in the minds of over stimulated children.
I reached down for my bag, feeling for my iPhone, which had long replaced the boxy camera with the flashbulbs of my youth, when I noticed the pointy black shoes planted silently next to my own. The presence of this guy with the dark shades in the pinstriped suit who studied my every move reminded me that I was not in California. These were not the Sierra Nevada. These were the Caucasus. This was Russia – North Ossetia-Alania to be specific. And this man was armed.
While some might find my work risqué – I was an HIV-educator working for the United Nations – I don’t believe anyone considered it risky and certainly not worthy of carrying protection, at least not anything thicker than latex. And yet, here I was in one of the more volatile hotspots less than a two-hour drive from the heart of Chechnya, and me, my wooden penis – Woody – and my silicone vagina – Sil (I traveled so extensively with these two anatomical models, that I finally gave them names) – were being followed by men with guns.
I’d been warned by my colleagues in the nation’s capital about this leg of my Russian journey, “Prepare yourself,” they said, “they are like wild peoples in the south, no culture.” I was shocked and, of course, terribly curious. Wild peoples appealed to me much more than the seemingly miserable, overworked and underpaid robots of Moscow who reminded me of the citizens of any major metropolis. We’re like ice cubes popped out of our trays in nice tidy shapes in the morning and which then drip home disheveled and in need of resetting by the end of our long days of work and commuting. Exhausted to a point of humorlessness. I understood them. I even felt for them in a way. Hell, in New York I was one of those worker-drone ice cubes. But somehow in Moscow, I didn’t want to be counted as one of them. I wanted to be among the wild peoples of the south.
And so off I went on my S7 flight – formerly Siberian Airlines – with the slightly splintered wooden toilet seat in the lavatory and the electrical wires dangling from the reading light embedded into the overhead luggage bin. I stored my carry-on bag with Woody and Sil under the seat in front of me and rested my feet on them for the two and a quarter hour flight.
The landscape below shifted from urban to sprawling suburban to nothing to green foothills fronting jagged peaks. By the time we landed at the airport in Beslan, the site of the tragic school siege and massacre of nearly 400 children and adults back in 2004, I did indeed sense that I was in a very different place. The blue-eyed blonds of the north seemed to be overwhelmingly replaced by olive-skinned brunettes with green or hazel or brown eyes. Some faces hinted of Asian roots and probably had migrated from further east in the central Asian republics, all former pieces of the now defunct – but not at all forgotten – puzzle that was the USSR.
I removed my sweater as the sun beat down on my face and I breathed in the air that even at the airport moved more freely and wafted hints of countryside. I registered the relative quiet after the never-ending hum of Moscow and felt myself relax. I slowed my pace to fall into step with these sauntering people who were not rushed by the modern hassles of city life.
A UN driver collected me and as we drove along the one lane streets towards Vladikavkaz, the capital of the autonomous republic, I admired the contrast of the boxy multi-floored apartment blocks, stark and practical, against the majestic mountain just beyond. The airport could have been in any developing country; these buildings in any eastern European country and the mountains definitely rivaled the Alps or the Rockies. I felt a sense of calm the shadow of the Caucasus, as life seemed less harried here.
At least until I noticed the car that was following us and the tension crept back into my shoulders. Even more so when I noticed the passenger shift a medium-sized weapon from the backseat to his lap, the tip of the gun pointing towards the lock on the inside of his car door, just where he’d rest his elbow on a sunny day. If he’d had the window rolled down. And if he wasn’t holding a gun, following my car.
Only three months prior, I’d been in Abkhazia, the breakaway state just on the other, southern, side of the Caucasus on the border of Georgia on the Black Sea. I spent my time then with UN Peace Keepers, as I did on many of my work trips, so I was more or less – more less than more, actually – accustomed to being around weapons. But having one following me and seemingly poised to shoot in my direction was anything but reassuring.
As we pulled into the UN compound to our security offices, I felt the growing pools of sweat spreading under my armpits. They inched closer as we pulled into the parking lot but the men stayed behind and sat in their car. Once inside the UN office, I was issued a temporary badge, a radio and escorted up one flight of uneven brick stairs to the dispatch room for my briefing. Oversized maps were flipped and pencils tapped to draw my attention to where the most recent ethnic clashes had taken place and were likely to erupt in future – probably the very near future. But I would only be there a few days, and my only task was to train the fifty or so UN staff based in Vladikavkaz on HIV awareness and perhaps show them a few handy tricks with condoms. Like how to use them, when and why.
When asked if I had any questions for the local security officers, I responded yes.
“Who are those guys who have been following us?”
“The ones in the black SUV parked just outside the entrance to your parking lot.” I said. “The ones with the guns.”
“Oh, those guys. Well, for one, everyone has guns,” said a middle-aged guy with silver hair who rocked back on his chair. “But those guys are for you, well, one is, anyway.”
“For me? Like a gift?” I asked as they laughed at my naïveté.
“No, to protect you. So you don’t get killed or kidnapped or nothing, you know. For protect you.” “Seriously?”
“Seriously. You came a long way to be here, we protect you so you go back in New York safely.”
And so it was that the man in the pointy shoes who stood beside me that morning had become my shadow. I, along with Woody and Sil, had been issued our very own body – or should I say body parts – guard. His car drove behind mine. On foot, he walked ten paces behind me. He ate two tables over in the restaurant where he did not, I’m pleased to say, bring the bigger gun but rather just his handguns in holsters on his hip and, I’m guessing, at his ankle. Either that or he had broken it and it had never set properly because it definitely had an odd angle, that ankle.
When he followed me to work the next morning, and stood in the back of the room to observe the group as I did my training, his face turned a shade of red that rivals borscht as I unpacked my bag. His eyes locked on to Woody and I was so amused – and slightly evil – that I waved a few circles in the air with it just to see his head spin. Sil was less simple to identify – a ballet-pink gelatinous squared silicone blob – until I inserted a female condom inside of it, at which point my poor bodyguard seemed to contract whooping cough. He followed along the entire training and, I am quite certain, learned a few new methods of self-protection that he’d probably not been taught in any security drill.
We spoke only once, just before the photograph I took of the mountain that morning. As I exited my room at the Hotel Vladi on my third day there, he blocked the door. Exhausted from the extensive hospitality and late night dinner I’d enjoyed the night before, I had forgotten about my bodyguard.
“Доброе утро” or “good morning,” he said in Russian. “You break now?” He was slightly disheveled and his suit wrinkled and I guessed that he’d probably slept in a chair outside my room.
“Break?” I asked wondering if he wanted to dance or perhaps snap me in half. “Break. Fast. You break fast?”
“ Да, спасибо – yes, thanks, but first, please, let me admire the view.”
I pointed and he smiled, revealing the yellowed teeth of a smoker and allowed me all the time in the world to admire his gorgeous Caucasus and the Terek River that passed below in the shadow of the mountain. When I was ready, we each instinctively double-checked that we had our respective weapons. Him, the handgun on his hip. Me, Woody and Sil, and off we went to make the world a safer place.
This piece was originally published on Travelati.com and Travelati for iPad in 2013