• June 1, 2012
  • 313

Vilnius Wanderers: journey makes man better

Klub Wileńskich Włóczęgów

Almost all continents. By sea, air and land. Through mountains, steppes and woods. On foot, by bike, plane, train or kayak. For over 20 years now, the Vilnius Wanderer has been traversing the globe.

 “On a journey, it’s important to be able to surrender yourself to the place visited. It’s important to forget about such thing as time, to feel each gust of wind, to greet the sun, to provoke smiles and to respond to them. To get satisfaction from rain, wind, clouds and the sun,” says Bożena Mieżonis, the current Wyga of the Vilnius Wanderers Club. Wyga, an ‘old-timer’ – or the club’s head.

A big white fridge and the lack of Serbian-Kosovan border

The Vilnius Wanderers Club (KWW) is over 20 years old. It’s chalked up such places, exotic to the average Lithuanian, asCaucasus,Siberia,Latin America,Central Asiaor the Balkans. And that’s not even mentioning the neighbouring and familiar countries:Poland,Belarus,Latvia,Estonia,Ukraineor theCzechRepublic. Each expedition was filled with countless adventures.

During their journey to Central Asia, the male Wanderers were offered “rich gifts” by the locals in exchange for their female companions. “In Samarkand, we were offered camels and a ‘big white Finnish fridge’ for our girls. At first we thought they were joking, but they were absolutely serious,” recalls Michał Kleczkowski, the club’s first Wyga.

 “In Kosovo we had trouble leaving, as many of the roads were obstructed. After long search and many chats with NATO representatives and the locals, we found a way. We got to the border, and there, at the metal booths, we were met by gentlemen with Kalashnikovs. We showed them our passports, but they told us sorry, we can’t let you through. You’ve got Kosovan stamps in your passports, and there’s no such country, and you can’t enter Serbia from a non-existing country, and in any case, this isn’t a border, it’s only a check point,” Bożena Mieżonis shares the experiences of the last journey, undertaken in the spring this year.

Sometimes the adventures were more dramatic. In the summer of 2003, the Wanderers took off to climbMont Blanc, the heat was sweltering, and the glaciers began to melt. “A piece of the mountain came off during the night and everything around us changed beyond recognition. The rock killed, I think, two or three students fromWroclaw. Later we saw their bloodied backpacks. The French didn’t send helicopters to come and get us, so we had to go down at our own risk,” Romuald Sieniuć recalls the dramatic situation.

The journey, however, isn’t a goal in itself. “It’s wrong to assume that the KWW’s aim is the journeys. The journeys are a mean to an end, and the end is self-improvement. On a journey, people become better – by exploring the world, by getting to know their friends and themselves,” explains one of the club’s veterans, Waldermar Szełkowski.

Szełkowski says that in the past two decades the club has organized not only expeditions, but also discussions, that its members gave lectures and readings (mainly on the history and architecture of Vilnius), as well as arranged meetings with interesting people (e.g. the famous Lithuanian mountaineer and traveller Vladas Vitkauskas). “The most important thing about journeys is getting to know yourself and getting to know other people. It’s as though you know the man, but in extreme conditions you get to know the real person. I was surprised on many occasions, because I thought I knew someone, but in extreme conditions they showed their nasty side,” Michał Kleczkowski agrees with his colleague.

According to Bożena Mieżonis, the physical journey only complements the spiritual one: „This is one of the main goals of KWW, along with spreading smiles and propagating exploration of the world. I completely agree with Marcel Proust’s statement: ‘The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new lands, but in seeing with fresh eyes.’”

Laga from the first Wyga

As most things in life, the club came into being by accident. During the surge of national revival, between 1989—90, the idea of establishing a Polish student society was put forward. The idea, however, as Michał Kleczkowski recalls, was only moderately successful, as the entire activity came down to meetings in a café and chats. But he and a group of friends wanted a more active way to spend their spare time. “It was proposed to create a sort of student-tourist society, so we would not only meet and talk, but also do something else. We had some idea of the bustling student life inVilniusin the interwar period. We found out about the pre-war Wanderers, and we decided to follow their example. That meant not only attending meetings, but actually getting together for a reason, to get something done,” the club’s first head explains its beginnings.

The club’s official starting date is considered to beFebruary 13, 1990– even though Michał Kleczkowski thinks this is largely arbitrary. It was then that a group of ten Polish students, gathered in Elwira Ostrowska’s flat, brought the extraordinarily lively organization to life. Some of them soon backed out of the initiative, but six people – Michał Kleczkowski, Artur Ludkowski, Elwira Ostrowska, Kszysztof Szejnicki, Władysław Borys and Ryszard Skórko – got involved in the club’s further activity.

Soon, a meeting with the legendary Wacław Korabiewicz, the founder of the interwar Vilnius Wanderers Academic Club, took place. “One day, some girls we knew, students from Warsaw, came to visit and we were telling them that we’d started this Wanderers club, that we wanted to follow the example of the pre-war Wanderers, that there was this one Wacław Korabiewicz… And they said: ‘Why are you saying – ‘was’? He’s alive. He lives in Warsaw,’” Kleczkowski recalls. The meeting took place despite the problems of crossing the Lithuanian-Polish border at the time, and the Wanderers’ first Wyga passed the club’s “standard” – Laga – on to the new generation.

Laga is an almost two-meter long pilgrim’s staff, with the rising-and-setting-sun-coloured “Cord of Unity” attached to it. It was made in 1924 and is now practically a museum piece, but it still serves its purpose. The song “Kurdesz” is the club’s anthem, while its emblem is a wanderer’s sac with a pilgrim’s staff.
Each Wanderer needs to undergo the “newborns’ christening”. The club’s members are divided between “newborns”, “wanderers” and “arch-wanderers”.

The meeting with another legendary Wanderer, the famous poet and Noble Prize winner Czesław Miłosz, was less successful. “When Miłosz first came toLithuania, the meeting took place here. It was authors’ Wednesday. I stood with a beret in my hand, but still I didn’t find the courage to approach him. Even though Korabiewicz had said, ‘Make a beeline for Czesio!’ But there was Landsbergis and others, all jumping around him. Someone was reading out poems. So somehow I didn’t put that beret on,” Kleczkowski laughs.

At first, the club functioned as part of the Association of Poles in Lithuania (ZPL), and was only registered as independent organization in August of 1995. In compliance with the statutory requirements, the club’s charter was translated into Lithuanian. Its name was “Valkatos” – the translation of the Polish word włóczęga, which in Lithuanian means ‘vagabondage’ rather than ‘wandering’. “Oh, did we laugh about it! During registration, the setting up of a bank account and other such ‘bureaucratisms’ in various offices, Władek Wojnicz and I heard all sorts of comments: ‘oh, we haven’t seen anything like that’, ‘vagabonds getting a bank account’, and so on. The Lithuanian version sounds too pejorative, and it was only later that we came across a translation by one Lithuanian professor who’d written on Czesław Miłosz and found a more appropriate name. We still didn’t change it, though. After all, the pre-war organization was also after a pejorative name – ‘Włóczęga’ – just like the 19th c. Scumbags Society. And so, the ‘Vagabonds Club’ works just fine, and in any case it attracts more attention,” Waldemar Szełkowski recalls the registration of the club.

Journeys small and great

The club’s first independent expedition was toBelmont.Polandwas next. The first serious visit abroad, toCentral Asia, took place in 1991. Travelling back then was far more difficult, there was no specialist equipment etc. On the other hand, getting around was much cheaper. In 1991, the ticket toSamarkandcost 3 roubles, and there were concessions for students. “We also smuggled through a group fromSzczecin. Back then, nobody at the airports checked passports. It was a conspiracy of sorts, so we told them not to speak a word. They couldn’t be there at all, since it was the Afghan border. But they flew in with us then, for next to nothing,” Kleczkowski says about the adventures of the first expedition.

“I can’t tell you which one was the best – there were so many… I can mention the one that was the furthest, the longest, and the highest – the journey throughLatin America, through theAndes, mainly inPeruinBolivia,” says Waldemar Szełkowski. “The journey toAmericawas certainly the most memorable, but there were many smaller, but still interesting ones, for example when Waldek and I travelled aroundBelarus,” adds Roman Sieniuć.

The younger generation of the Wanderers thinks fondly of the trip toMorocco. “So far,Moroccohas been the journey of my life. It’s a very rich country geographically and very different to ours culturally, so it’s impossible to remain indifferent to it,” admits Alicja Wołodko. Zbynia thinks alike: “The trip toMorocco. I remember the nature. Amazing colours and flora. It’s a different world.”

The less exotic travles can be interesting, too. “I liked the week-long trip toLatviathe most. It was my first longer stay with the club outside ofLithuania. While there, for four days we kayaked down the Gauja river. We met Latvians, everyone was nice and cheerful, we found common ground pretty quickly. The landscape along the banks was really pretty, it was the first time I saw sandy rocks,” says Czarny.

“For me, the best trips are the canoeing rallies, when you adapt to the river and enjoy every moment, because each one is different. The more unpredictable the river, the more beautiful it is. I especially remember the feeling of sitting in the kayak and singing (even though I can’t sing), my partner sleeping in the front, the sun shining, and I can see that we’re approaching a massive rock and we’re going to keel over in a moment. Then I light up a cigarillo and let the river do all the work,” says Julia.

Beyond politics

Just as its pre-war predecessor, the club officially dissociates itself from politics. The pre-war club included people of sometimes completely opposing political orientations. Some of its members were to become socialists, or even communists, like Stefan Jędrychowski, others belonged to the Sanation movement, like Teodor Nagórski, or else stayed close to the National Democrats, like the author Wiktor Trościanko. “Today the club also remains an apolitical organization. True, some of our members are active politically, but that’s outside of the club,” Waldemar Szełkowski points out.

„The pre-war Wanderers stood out not only because of their clothes, but also because of their views. They were fellow countrymen. What I still like about them, what is still an example to me, is that they were vocal about what they didn’t like about Poland and about what they didn’t like about Lithuania. They fought against and condemned all forms of nationalism,” Kleczkowski adds.

Nowadays, if the club’s members are active politically, they usually subscribe to the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL). Waldermar Szełkowski has on few occasions run in parliamentary and self-government elections as the party’s candidate. Artur Ludkowski, currently the director of Poland House, is AWPL’s councillor in the capital self-government. Michał Kleczkowski is involved in the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association inLithuania.

University students, but not necessarily

Vilnius Wanderers Club has never been a mass organization. It currently has 32 members, while over the past 20 years over one hundred people got involved in total. Before the war, only university students were admitted, while today the membership rules are more liberal – school pupils are also accepted. “Many decades have passed, and time brings about adjustments. When the young came, there was no reason to tell them: ‘get lost, you’re too young’. Age is important, but not the date in the passport, Bożena Mieżonis explains.

The path to the club was individual for each Wanderer. “I’ve been in the club for six years now, ever since I went on a trip organized by it during my second year of studies. I liked the unaffected nature of the trip and the friendly atmosphere. I went to a meeting and realized that this was my kind of thing, that I could come into my own here,” admits Alicja Wołodko. Her sister’s story is similar. “I stayed, because the people I met here seemed ‘unusual’. For example: a history teacher, father of two small children, roams around Kyrgyzstan and kayaks about in Karelia, instead of spending the summer at the Baltic seaside or some lake, like any other ‘usual’ citizen,” says Jola Wołodko. By the way – both sisters already were the club’s Wygas. “I became a Wanderer many years ago, so long ago in fact, that I can’t remember it now, although I do recall the reasons – a boy I liked suggested that we go to a meeting, because interesting people, who like travelling, gather there,” Julia says about her way to the club.

Michał Kleczkowski says that at the beginning the club looked for new members by placing an ad in a paper. Today he’s surprised that anyone responded. This is how Waldemar Szełkowski got to the club. “I heard about it from my father, and he’d read it in a newspaper. The club seemed back then something distant, ‘out of this world’. However, when I heard that one of my friends already belonged to it, Olek Kisielewski and I began to press her to take us there. It was somehow awkward on our own. We got there, I think, in February of 1991, right before the first anniversary,” says Szełkowski.

Szełkowski, in his turn, brought in Romuald Sieniuć, who was doing teaching work experience at the Józef Kraszewski school in Naujoji Vilnia, Vilnius, at the time. “This was in 1994, I actually became active in the club in 1997, but our paths always crossed. Anyway, I was brought up on adventure books and this was a way to realize my dreams. If it wasn’t for the club, my life certainly wouldn’t be so interesting,” Sieniuć says.

Another significant difference between the current and interwar Wanderers is that before the war the club was exclusively male. If girls came along on trips, they were friends or girlfriends from the Vilnius Women Wanderers Academic Club. “From the start, there were girls among us who were worth two guys. They were even Wygas. Unfortunately, the way it is now, the girls are more active than the boys,” Michał Kleczkowski explains the change.

Generational change

Just like any other social organization, the club is changing. In the ‘90s it published a bulletin, while today it has a website and a fanpage on Facebook. “Perhaps there was more patriotism in the ‘90s – that’s what the times were like, after all. People today are a bit different, but certainly not worse – the world is moving forward, and so the Wanderers need to find new ways to come into their own. Of course, travels are the basis,” Waldemar Szełkowski explains the differences between the two generations of Wanderers. “I tried to go to them, explain this or that, and they just smirked at me, as if they were saying, ‘blab on, blab on’. But that’s normal. I remember that I myself didn’t like it when someone lectured me. The most important thing is that they’re getting together and want to do something,” Michał Kleczkowski says with certainty.

Source: http://pl.delfi.lt/kultura/kultura/wilenscy-wloczedzy-podroz-doskonali-czlowieka.d?id=58836763

Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Musiał w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Musiał within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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