Give Jill Wiwcharuk her violin and backpack and
she's ready to go anywhere. Even hitchhiking
solo through Siberia.
IRKUTSK IS THE MAIN CITY OF
EASTERN SIBERIA-the "lighthearted" place where,
as the tourist information tells you, "political
rebels lived in serene exile." It might not be
the first choice for most travellers, but don't
tell that to Jill Wiwcharuk. In her uncommon
journeys, she has taught violin to the children
of Calcutta's lepers. She earned a lot of money
busking in Switzerland. There was a year in Holland.
Then she gave in to a long fascination with Russian
music and literature-and the pull of family roots
in the Ukraine-and accepted a job teaching English
in St. Petersburg. The job didn't work out but
it set up the next chapter of her itinerant lifestyle:
a trans-Siberian hitchhiking tour.
"I'm always up for an adventure," says
the 28-year-old violinist with the brilliant
smile that instantly marked her as a foreigner
in the 18th-century capital of Russia.
When she quit her job in late
February she set her sights on Siberia and beyond,
writing to friends: "I'll set off on a three-month
trip that will take me east to the middle of
Siberia, north to above the Arctic Circle, west
to Finland, and south to Ukraine.It would be
crazy to go back to Canada having only seen Moscow
and St. Petersburg."
Wiwcharuk didn't plan to view
the forests and thousands of lakes on the Kola
Peninsula or the wooden lace on old houses in
Irkutsk. "Travel isn't about seeing the sights," she
says. "It's about meeting the people." And the
best way to meet people, for her, is to hitchhike.
She said goodbye to her English students, to
the sewer-dwelling street kids she taught to
play violin, and to the babushkas who had taken
her under their wings. Shouldering her backpack,
she stuck out her thumb.
"I got picked up by ambulances,
cops, postal employees. If people had no back
seats, I sat on potato sacks." Across the low-lying
fertile plains of western Russia, over the Ural
Mountains, and through the swamps of Siberia,
she travelled 7,000 km and "didn't even reach
the other side of the country." One Ukrainian
driver took her 2,000 km. Others brought her
home and made her sandwiches. And everyone talked:
about the old USSR, Stalin, jobs, the future,
their marriages, the grandma who'd lived through
the Leningrad blockade.
Long distance truckers are
Mon, 10/20/03 unpaved-trans-Siberian highway. Prostitutes are
their most common pick-ups. So a foreign woman
travelling alone might seem to be placing herself
in a precarious position. "I'm not naive. There
are a lot of things I do for safety," Wiwcharuk
says. To ensure there'd be no doubt she was a
foreigner, she always stuck her thumb up (Russians
waggle a hand up and down for a lift). She stood
firmly behind her big backpack and dressed "very,
very modestly." She also held up a sign with
the name of her destination, she recalls, laughing.
There's only one road through Siberia, where
else could she be going?
Growing up in Kamloops, Wiwcharuk
and her siblings always got excited when their
parents brought out popcorn and soft drinks.
That was the signal of the beginning of the slide
show: pictures of mom and dad hitchhiking, all
over the world. "Since I was 13 I knew I wanted
to see the world. I knew Canada was just a small
part of it."
She also learned the value
of giving back from her father, a civil engineer,
who would pick up hitchhikers on the Trans-Canada
Highway and let them pitch their tents in the
backyard. It was his way of returning the generosity
and hospitality others had shown over the years.
Wiwcharuk, with UVic degrees
in Spanish and music and a diploma in applied
linguistics, now intends to take that generosity
of spirit and yearning to travel in whole new
directions. She has applied to medical school.
Retired Astronomy Prof. Ann Gower, one of Wiwcharuk's
former violin students at Old Town Strings, says
it's a natural step: "She cares deeply about
people. She has great integrity and her communication
with people is remarkable. She speaks from the
There were two key turning
points along the way. In India during the late
'90s, Wiwcharuk worked for eight months with the
children of lepers, teaching English, music, and
computer skills. When the region had a major earthquake,
she offered her services but the community desperately
needed people with medical skills. In Russia, she
discovered the basic social infrastructure isn't
advanced enough for what a music teacher can offer.
There just aren't enough instruments or the means
to obtain them. So medical training is the natural
next choice for a caring young woman who was born
to travel. "As a doctor I can go anywhere. It's
such a practical way to help people, to really
improve the quality of people's lives."