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Published: June 13th 2012
A lonely track winds its way along the Kola Peninsula's Tersky Coast from one log cabin village to the next, its orangey-brown earth taking up the majority of the narrow space between trees and sea. The taiga forest, its floor turned to swamp by the coming spring, ends abruptly on one side while on the other the White Sea, afloat with vast chunks of melting ice, laps the shore and fills the lungs with its fresh, salty breeze. A blazing sun beats down from a clear sky on this May morning, its rays sparkling on the sea's dark blue surface, illuminating the barky browns and mossy greens of the forest nearest to the road while leaving its depths utterly impenetrable to the eye.
Half an hour after leaving the village of Varzuga our van stopped. Vasily, the already fairly tipsy driver I had hitched a lift with, poured himself a large mug of vodka and downed it in one. I got out and wandered up to the shore to photograph all the floating ice. As I was doing so something exploded deafeningly from just behind me and to my right, while a puff of snow and ice erupted from one
of the icebergs. Spinning around I saw Vasily cocking a shotgun, smoke dribbling from it and from the cigarette hanging at the corner of his mouth.
"Here, have a go, Ed," he said, coming over and thrusting the gun into my arms. He never seemed to smile either with his mouth or with his glazed eyes and, despite having polished off nearly a whole bottle of vodka by himself before noon, you could tell he was drunk not from any slurring or swaying but only from the stench of vodka that was noticeable even when standing a few feet from him and by the fact that he got too enthusiastic occasionally, nodding or gesturing exaggeratedly and talking too much without listening.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "It's been a while..."
"Go on, go on, aim for that piece of ice there," he said, pointing at the nearest one to the shore. I did as told and again, a split second after the boom and the kick a small shower of ice was thrown up into the air.
"Nice one," he said, clapping me on the shoulder, taking a violent drag on his cigarette and coughing. "If
we see a bear later I'll let you shoot it. Fancy a sausage?"
The inhabitants of the Tersky Coast, with one of whom I now found myself eating sausage with breaad and mayonnaise out of the back of his van, are called Pomors and are descended from people who left Russia in the Middle Ages to live here in the Arctic. Despite being annexed by Moscow in the 16th Century, Pomors remained free from the yoke of serfdom that allowed peasants elsewhere in Russia to be bought and sold as goods and there were no landowners in Pomor regions. Living so isolated from the rest of Russia, they developed their own accents, traditions and sometimes even their language and religion would become affected by indigenous tribes. To this day some villages remain unconnected to the outside by any road, their inhabitants living much as they always did by fishing or hunting seals, bears and other creatures.
A few days previously, after a long day hitch hiking south from Lovozero to Kandalaksha then east along the peninsula's White Sea Coast from there, I had arrived in Umba and stood on the road outside the village early in the evening.
It was getting cold, the sun was inching towards the horizon and the idea of walking back into the village to look for accommodation had began creeping into my mind (two firemen who I had hitched a lift with had invited me to stay at the fire station) when an old, military green Soviet truck stopped for me.
"I'm heading to Varzuga," I explained after they had opened the door. Inside a forty-something women with short brown hair and a sad expression sat in the passenger seat and a red-faced man of similar age dressed entirely in camouflage gear was behind the wheel.
"We're going home to Kuzreka, it's just 28km from here," the woman said, "but you can come with us if you want."
I took them up on their offer and clambered in. They introduced themselves as Natalya and Kolya.
"Where are you going to stay in Varzuga?" the woman asked. Varzuga was where the road ended. To villages further down the Tersky Coast access was by boat, snowmobile or tank.
"I don't know," I replied. "I was just planning to ask locals when I arrive."
"You'd be better off staying with
us in Kuzreka and going to Varzuga tomorrow morning," she replied. "There may not be any cars on the road at this time. You were lucky we happened to be passing."
Half an hour later we arrived at a spot where a still-frozen river spilled into the gradually melting White Sea. A couple of hundred metres before the ocean the river began widening so that its mouth was ten times wider than its original breadth and on both banks wooden bungalows and log cabins spilled down to the ice's edge. At the border between river mouth and sea a few streaks of dark brown sand were visible between the house-sized chunks of ice that pressed up one against the other from bank to bank. Just after crossing a bridge over the river we turned off to the right and trundled a short way down a dirt track between the wooden cottages that lined the bank.
We got out in front of one bungalow, Natalya pushed open a thigh-high swing gate in the picket fence surrounding it and we trooped inside through the unlocked door.
"People here generally don't lock their doors," Kolya told me, "although more and
more are starting to."
"When did they start?" I asked.
"When the road arrived," he replied.
"When did the road arrive?"
"About fifteen years ago. In villages like Chavanga which the road doesn't reach nobody locks their doors."
The cottage consisted of three rooms - a utility room with a cubicle containing a hole-in-the-floor style toilet, a kitchhen and a bedroom-cum-sitting room. Kolya sat on a chair near the door then one by one lifted his feet less than a foot off the floor while Natalya knelt down and took off his shoes. We sat down around the kitchen table while Natalya heated up some fish and mashed potato in a frying pan with copious amounts of oil, then served it with tea and strips of lard.
"So what do you both do?" I asked.
"Kolya's a hunter and fisherman," Natalya replied, "and I'm in the process of putting together a little museum here in Kuzreka."
"A museum of what?" I asked.
"Pomor culture, history of the Tersky Coast and also dolls. Dolls are my speciality, I can make traditional dolls from lots of different regions of Russia."
have to have a look after dinner if that's ok," I said. "And what about you
Kolya, where do you usually fish?"
"When it's accessible I go to Chavanga, where I keep a tank, and I use the tank to get out into the taiga to a lake where there's great fishing. At other times of year I go to rivers, or the sea, it depends on the season."
"I'd like to get to Chavanga after Varzuga," I said. "What's the best way?"
"It's impossible now," Kolya replied. "It's a long way through the forest, then there's a wide river crossing, then even further through the forest. So you need a snowmobile or a combination of tank and boat. But right now there's not enough snow for snowmobiles while the ice is too thin for tanks but too thick for boats. The only way is helicopter."
"Are there any regular helicopter flights?" I asked.
"They fly from Umba now and then," he replied, "but they rarely touch down in between there and Varzuga."
"Anyway Ed," Natalya said, collecting our dishes, "go and have a walk around the village if you want while it's still
light then we'll need you to help us with a few chores. This track we're on now though - it leads through the village and out of the other side. Don't go too far out of the village on it as there are loads of bears around there."
After a wander through the village then back hopping from chunk to chunk of ice along the river, Kolya asked me to help him unload the truck. Over a period of ten minutes we took out a few dozen thin tree trunks and several canisters of water then Natalya called me into the house.
"I need ot take these up to the museum," she said, pointing at some boxes. "Will you help me?"
We left through the back door of the bungalow and climbed up a grass slope that must have been 45° to another wooden hut that stood at the top of the hill. She opened the front door with a creak and took me into a room whose walls were lined with dolls, pictures, tools and all sorts of items of clothing. She began by explaining the origins of the dolls hanging from the log walls and
the unguessable uses of the old wooden tools lining the shelves. She stopped at a little square table with a few tiny brown model animals on top.
"Here, take this as a present," she said, giving one to me, about three inches long, one inch tall and with a kind of 360 degree fan around its neck that reminded me of some sort of dinosaur. "These are called kazouls. The one I gave you is a sun reindeer. Pomor women used to bake them out of flour and give them to the men to bring luck in hunting and fishing. Every house would keep them beneath its icons."
The next morning I awoke to find Natalya cooking in so much oil that in my semi-awake state I thought someone was letting off firecrackers in the kitchen. Soaking up all that grease was an omelette and several strips of lard. We had breakfast together then I left to go and stand out on the road, armed with an invitation to return in August to go fishing in the taiga with Kolya, the name of Pyotr Zaborshikov who I should seek out upon arrival in Varzuga, and a large block
After half an hour a grunting, clanging, mud-bespattered old Lada crawled over the top of a hill, rolled down it with a slight increase in speed and creaked to a halt next to me.
"I'm hitch hiking to Varzuga," I addressed the burly, shaven-headed, camouflage-clad men in front after they had opened the door. "Could I go with you?"
"We're going to the garrison at Kashkarantsy but you can come with us that far if you want," one of them said in an almost shy voice, forcing his words around the edges of a gargantuan smile that had appeared as soon as he head heard my foreign accent.
Immediately after Kuzreka the potholed asphalt of the road finished to be replaced by a dirt track, every rock and even pebble of which threatened to overturn the Lada whose suspension had evidently long since failed it.
An hour of semi-shy England-related questions, that massive unfaltering smile and invitations to stay with them at the army barracks later I got out in Kashkarantsy, a small village of grey log cabins spread over a long, thin peninsula jutting out into the White Sea. I wandered through
the orangey-brown earth streets past a man chopping firewood, an elderly couple bent double and working in their tiny picket fenced garden, someone rummaging around under the bonnet of a Lada. All the while the fresh, salty sea air filled my nostrils and for the most part the loudest sound was the cawing of the gulls that milled around on the ice lining the shore. I passed a cottage with a wooden well and a wooden wheelbarrow behind its picket fence and began photographing them. The wooden door to the cottage swung open.
"What are you doing?" asked a babushka in a white apron and head scarf who bustled out.
"I just wanted to photograph the wheelbarrow," I replied.
"Oh well, photograph it then," she said, quite pleased. "We made it ourselves for carrying firewood. It's very convenient, very convenient indeed. Where are you from?"
"England," I replied.
"I'm from here, from Kashkarantsy," she told me. "Born and bred. Well, have a nice time!"
I continued down the street to where the houses began thinning out near the end of the peninsula then walked in between two of them to emerge onto the stony
beach. I walked back, past the occasional wooden boat, until I was almost at the road again.
"Have you come from far away?" called out a woman in her forties, leaning on a fence.
"From England!" I replied.
"From where?" she asked.
"From England," I repeated.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I'm hitch hiking to Varzuga," I told her. She raised her eyebrows and stood back a little.
"And?" she asked. "Do you like it here?"
"Of course!" I replied, and continued on my way.
I stood on the road for an hour this time before a truck appeared. They picked me up and we rode in silence all the way to Varzuga. They dropped me off at an area where four wooden churches stood on the bank of the river, looking very pretty in the snow that had begun to fall in huge, wet flakes. A few houses stood on this side but the main part of the village appeared to be on the other bank a few hundred metres away so I descended some steps behind the churches and walked across the ice.
On the other
side the houses were closer together. Some of the wider streets had wooden planks laid down as gangways but in general the spaces between the rows of wooden houses were filled just with snow that came up to my knees when I trod on a patch soft enough for my foot to crash through the surface. There was not a single car, and indeed no vehicle larger than a snowmobile would have been able to squeeze its way through the village.
I noticed an old man trudging through the snow and changed my course to intercept him.
"Excuse me," I called out once I was within earshot, "Do you know where Pyotr Zaborshikov lives?"
"Yes I do," he replied, "he and I were classmates. We're both 78 years old. What do you want him for?"
"I'm hitch hiking along the Tersky Coast. Last night I stayed in Kuzreka and they advised me to see Pyotr Zaborshikov here as someone who knows a lot of interesting stuff about the area."
"Well yes, he knows a bit," the man said. "Come on then, I'll take you to his house."
We tramped through the escalating blizzard together,
faces down and shoulders hunched against the wind, making slow progress through the deep, snowy streets.
"So where are you from?" he asked me.
"England," I replied.
"Where?" he asked.
"England," I repeated.
"Good heavens above!" he exclaimed. "Well it's not often one gets a chance to talk to an Englishman!"
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I just do stuff for the community now. I look after the War Memorial - so many people from here died in the War - and I sing in the choir. We sing folk songs from the Tersky Coast. I don't know about you as a foreigner but for us they're really meaningful, they affect you on a spiritual level, get your heart going and make you feel proud and sad at once."
"Interesting," I said.
"I used to play sport with Pyotr and that, young man, is the key to long life and good health, it's as simple as that. I've always been active, never smoked and even on holidays or festivals I'll just have one small glass of vodka and no more."
We came to a small house enclosed by a
picket fence. The old man, Valentin, took one look at it and said, "Pyotr's not in, let's go to mine. I'm proud to say I built it myself."
His house consisted of three rooms. In the middle one, the sitting room, he bade me sit down at a table against the wall on which stood a bottle of cognac and a saucer with some teabags and a single shot glass on it.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but as you see I don't have much to offer you. I'll make us some tea though."
He brewed the tea and brought it to the table along with a few biscuits and a second shot glass.
"Let's have a drink, to our meeting," he said, filling the two glasses with cognac. We each downed our glass then he went over to a box, rummaged around and pulled out a sheet of paper so stained that at first I thought it was papyrus.
"If you don't mind," he said, "I'm going to read you a letter I wrote several years ago. 'To the government of the Russian Federation. I am writing to you as someone who has worked hard
in loving and loyal service to his country all his life, as an upstanding and sobre - absolutely sobre - citizen of this great nation."
He then got distracted for a moment and put the letter down, his face turning red and his voice becoming louder as rage got the better of him. He stood a few feet from where I sat, demanding to know what I thought of people who were willing to steal more money than a human being could ever possibly need, thereby impoverishing an entire nation of the very people who had worked hardest to preserve that nation's freedom, who had sacrificed 27 million of their youngest and best in the fight against fascism, who loved their country more than anything else, who the politicians and oligarchs owed all their power to but who they were abusing without conscience. I replied that I did not think very highly of those people.
He went back to his letter, pouring us each another glass of cognac. Much to my regret I did not have a dictaphone with me so cannot reproduce the exact words of what he had written. What I do remember are the emotions
he expressed in that letter: the sadness, the pride, the outrage, the despair, the heart-rending sense of betrayal. He said that the government were behaving badly, were enriching themselves and Moscow while ordinary Russians were being forgotten in the depths of the outback. They were destroying the very country and betraying the very people who had fought for them and put them in power.
"How is it possible," he asked after he head finished, pouring two more glasses of cognac, "that some criminals and politicians can become multi-billionaires in the space of twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union but I can't even afford to make a trip to the nearest town or eat anything but the most simple food? Under Communism we were all more or less equal - people from Varzuga could afford to go on holiday anywhere in the Soviet Union! Now, I don't want an apartment in Moscow, I don't want to go on holiday abroad, I just want to spend my old age respectably and comfortably in my own village. But you don't want to hear all this, let's listen to music instead."
He then took out something resembling an accordion
and began playing it, the anger melting from his face to be replaced at first by calm and towards the end even by a small smile and closed eyes.
"Anyway," he said, putting the accordion down after several minutes, "let's have one more drink. It's just nice to drink with an Englishman."
We downed another shot each then he went over to a rotary dial phone on the wall and called Pyotr Zaborshikov, who now turned out to be in. We crunched through the snow for a couple of minutes before we arrived back at his house, shook hands and said goodbye.
Zaborshikov invited me in, sat me down in his kitchen and put a glass of tea and a bowl of porridge in front of me. He was tall but extremely skinny and, though almost completely bald, two small tufts of grey hair stuck out from either side of his head like wings.
"So," he said, "Natalya and Kolya told you I can tell you something interesting, eh? Well, what do you want to know?"
"I'm just interested in Pomor history, culture, anything really. I..."
"That," he said, interrupting me, his eyes wide
open, nostrils flaring and lips quivering like an angry missionary giving a sermon, "has all been written about before. Don't you want to find out about something new and completely undocumented?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He stood up, turned around, walked to the other side of the small kitchen and picked up a coverless, crumbling, yellowing book from a shelf and brought it back to the table. He opened it immediately to the right page and began reading.
"'It seems to me,'" he began, then stopped. "By the way, this is a biologist talking who visited Varzuga in the 19th Century. 'It seems to me that the abnormally high populations of both Atlantic salmon and pearl mussel in the Varzuga River, found nowhere else in the world, suggest that some sort of symbiosis exists between these two species. More research must be done on this matter.'"
Zaborshikov put the book down and stared at me wide-eyed with a questioning, almost accusatory look.
"Interesting," I said. "Did they do more research?"
"During the Soviet Union they did, and the researchers began to suspect that the secretions and excretions of the pearl mollusc were
indeed useful to the salmon population, but money ran out and they never got to finish their research. Wouldn't you want to write about something like this?"
"Well I do like to write but usually more about people than about animals, I'm not great with biology, even at school I was useless..."
"People and animals," he said, tightening his lips during a split second pause after these first few words and staring at me again in that accusatory way, "or rather people and nature, are so intertwined that it's impossible to understand one without understanding the other. Russians have been hunting and fishing in the Varzuga area for a thousand years. The first mentions of a permanent outpost here though are from the 13th Century. A permanent village is first mentioned in the 15th Century. Why did they choose this spot? Probably because of the unusually high salmon population in the Varzuga River caused by that species' symbiosis with the pearl mussel. Why did Varzuga develop from an outpost into a village? Because the inhabitants met the Saami reindeer herders, learned how to train reindeer for transport from them and were able to start fishing in inland lakes
and transport their catches to the coast. The industry expanded and the population grew. So you see, you can never understand humans unless you think about their relationship to nature and animals. Each depends on the other. Everyone's forgotten that now though. If they could people would fish these rivers until there was nothing left and log this forest until it was gone. Everyone's out of sync with nature, even the time is. I've lived here all my life so can tell you for sure that the official time as they've set it now is two hours out of sync with nature, in terms of when it gets light and dark, what birds should be singing when and so on."
Zaborshikov was different from Valentin in that the former was slightly manic and uptight while the latter was cheerier and more relaxed, as long as he was not talking about the government at least. They had one thing in common though: get either of them onto any subject whatsoever and you could not get a word in edgeways. During my stay in Varzuga the ratio of words I said to words I heard was around 1:10,000.
started to respond to what he had said.
"What do you think about Russian politics?" he asked loudly, sitting bolt upright and never taking his eyes off me.
"Well," I said, smiling. The hint of a smile flickered over the corner of his mouth too. "I don't really know enough about it to..."
"In the West they love to paint us in a bad light," he said, "because we want to do stuff our own way and not the way America wants us to. And why shouldn't we? We're not invading anyone, unlike America, we just want to be strong, be able to protect ourselves and live how we want to live. America constantly criticises our government for being corrupt, for having no real democracy, but what about them? George Bush got into power by faking the elections. And in Russia you don't need democracy, you need a strong government and army. Our border is 60,000km long and we're the biggest country in the world! Without a strong army we'd have lost the Far East to China or Japan long ago and probably other parts of our country too. Since we've become democratic the country's fallen into
disorder and chaos, as you can see for yourself. Whereas in Belarus, right next to us, they've still got a dictator but they have less crime, the streets are clean and the police aren't corrupt. They found the people guilty of that terrorist bombing and they shot them, and they did the right thing!"
"I don't think anything warrants killing people..." I began.
"What do you think of Stalin?" he demanded.
"Well, like I said, I don't think it's ever right to kill people..."
"Stalin did what he had to do!" he exclaimed, speaking in such a loud but serious tone, his words filled with such import, that once again he seemed like a missionary giving a sermon. "We were fighting fascists who wanted to take over the world. He had to protect Russia by making sure that any potential fascist sympathisers were sent to Siberia. He, like every Russian, knew he had to play his part and he did it. In our village we understood perfectly what we had to do - everyone worked longer hours than ever togather on an extra field to grow potatoes which we sent off to the front. My father
knew what he had to do and he came back in a coffin one month before the end of the war. But of course now everyone in the West paints Stalin in the same light as Hitler, when all he did was his duty as a Russian."
I said nothing and looked down at the table. The tightness of his drawn lips loosened, his arrow-straight back slouched a little, his shoulders relaxed and his face softened.
"Look," he said, "I'm sorry if I've said something offensive."
"No, it's fine," I said. "I agree that the way Western media portrays Russia is pretty ridiculous."
"Exactly," he said. "So, tell me, as a foreigner, what are your impressions of Russia?"
"Well, for example," I said, "I like the fact that outside big cities, and actually usually even inside them, people have preserved a level of hospitality and personalness that has been lost in the West. Like if a Russian wandered into an English village nobody would have time to give him the time of day let alone invite him into their house."
"Exactly!" he said, smiling, and was about to say something else when the rotary
phone on his wall rang.
"Hello?" he said, picking it up. "Ah hi, how are you? Yes, I'm fine thanks... I'm sitting here discussing politics with an Englishman... I don't know, I think he's collecting material or something... yes, yes, we understand one another very well, he said Russians are much more hospitable than the English... yes, I'll definitely take him to the museum, we've just been having a chat first..." and so the conversation went on.
"That was my daughter," he said, putting the phone down. "She lives in Umba."
"So there's a museum here?" I asked.
"Yes, my museum," he replied. "I restored one of the oldest houses in the village myself and now I'm collecting exhibits to go in it as a museum. I just asked everyone in the village to contribute any interesting old tools, clothing or anything else they had at home and to explain their understanding of what it was used for. I'm also restoring some other old buildings. And those churches on the other bank of the river? It was me that restored them. I spent nine years on them."
"Wow," I said. "So could I have a
look at the museum?"
"All in good time," he replied. "First I'd like to read you some poetry. Do you like Pushkin? Well it doesn't really matter, you're my guest so you'll have to listen to it whether you like it or not."
He took out a notebook and flicked through the pages, every one of which was covered top to bottom in his own writing.
"Ah, here we are," he said, stopping at a page near the end. He read me a quote he had jotted down from Pushkin, then flicked to another page and read out another, then another, then found a quote from a different poet who I had never heard of and read that too, and so on over the course of an hour.. Now, even in English I find it quite hard to appreciate poetry but, my practical Russian being quite good but my literary or poetic Russian being non-existent, I found it a very trying hour. Finally it was over though and we were off trudging through the streets of Varzuga, the snow storm of earlier having completely disappeared and a warm, "Hollywood hour" sunset lighting up the village.
the one-room log-cabin museum was a selection of old instruments and implements whose uses were unguessable until Zaborshikov explained them and whose names probably no longer appear in any modern dictionary.
"You're staying at my house tonight I take it?" he asked as we left the museum.
"Well, if you don't mind, that'd be great."
"Of course, you've got nowhere else to go and I'm hardly going to throw you out on the street," he said, smiling slightly.
Back at his he cooked us a supper of potatoes and we accompanied it with two shots of cognac each. The softening process that had visibly but gradually been taking place in his attitude towards me since we had met was cemented by those two shots and our conversation became full of smiles and even marked by laughter on both sides. Occasionally he would try to go back to his straight-backed, tight-lipped, wide-eyed, important-voiced missionary self but could not keep it up for more than a few moments.
To my horror, however, the notebook reappeared after a while and the readings of jotted down quotes from various different Russian poets recommenced. My eyelids began drooping and I
allowed myself to deliberately not stifle a yawn.
"Are you tired?" he asked. "Well it's nearly time to go to sleep I suppose. Let's continue for a little longer though."
I continued not stifling my yawns until he put the notebook down and, visibly disappointed, showed me to a bed in one of the house's two other rooms.
I woke up early, as this part of the world was by now only receiving an hour or two of fairly light darkness every night. Zaborshikov was up already and cooking us porridge.
"So what are your plans for today?" he asked me. "Feel free to stay here again if you want. I won't kick you out on the street."
"There's a helicopter going from Umba to Chavanga today, you said yesterday?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied. "But you should go and ask in the village administration if it's going to be touching down here or not."
"Ok," I said, "well I think I'll try to catch that to Chavanga and if not I'll start on my way back to Umba by road."
The village administration turned out to be a three-room wooden bungalow with a narrow path cleared between mountainous snow drifts leading up to the door. One of the two women to be found in the place phoned Umba on my request and ascertained that the helicopter would not be touching down in Varzuga.
"If you want I could phone around the village and ask if anyone's going by snowmobile or tank?" she suggested. I said that would be great, but after half a dozen phone calls it became apparent that the villagers' unanimous verdict was that for the moment it was impossible to access Chavanga by anything other than helicopter, at such a stage of melting was the ice on the river between here and there.
"Sorry I couldn't help you," the woman said as I got up to leave. "What do you think of Varzuga anyway? You're probably surprised that people can live like this."
"Not at all," I replied, "it's great."
"Well," she summed up, "we like it."
I wandered past the churches to the square where the village's handful of cars were parked. I waited a couple of hours until a yellow van came around the corner and drove into the village. A short, grey-faced man with clean clothes, a black leather jacket, long but well-combed hair and a stench of vodka climbed out. A snowmobile with a sledge attached to the back came down a hill and together its driver and that of the van unloaded some stools onto it then began arguing over the price of three large fish which the van driver wanted to buy from the snowmobile driver.
"Excuse me," I said, walking up to Vasily the van driver, "I was planning to hitch hike to Umba. Could I get a lift with you?"
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