UVic Torch -- Spring 2003
Autumn 2003,
Volume 25, Number 1

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Strings Will Travel Strings Will Travel
Photograph by VINCE KLASSEN

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 heart."

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."

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