Today, I'm a little late in getting to the office, but I'm excited to welcome romance author Mona Risk to SlingWords. (If you visit Mona's blog, you'll find her social network links.)
In a past life, as Mona says, she was a chemist who mixed solutions, dipped her gloved fingers in dirty waste, and ran complicated equipment in order to declare drinking water safe for consumption.
In 1995, Mona won an international contract to refurbish laboratories in Belarus, and that's really where this story begins.
Travel Provides Backdrop For Novels
by Mona Risk
When I won the contract to refurbish labs in Belarus, I pulled several maps and opened the Internet to learn as much as I could about this new country. The entire prospect was rather frightening.
However, my fear of the unknown subsided when several officials from Washington, DC accompanied my team to introduce us. I was holding a large purse and pulling two carry-on's, one with official papers and the other with my supply of drinking water for the week along with apples pre-washed with safe American water and a box of crackers I planned to survive on. No wonder I was slim at the time.
We landed in Minsk without problems, excitement bubbling up in me. Things deteriorated as the passengers pushed each other toward an wobbly old escalator. Two of my chemists preceded me with as much luggage as I was dragging. My first step on the damn escalator sent me flying and screaming straight into my companions’ back. One caught my carry-on and the other saved my neck.
Later we were well received by everyone: officers, directors, chemists, journalists. I worked with colonels and generals, was invited to theirs homes, and became friends with their wives. I traveled fifteen times to Minsk over the course of three years and appreciated the Belarusian hospitality. During the inauguration of the lab we were featured on their national TV several times. Needless to say, I fell in love with Belarus.
My contract also encompassed business trips and lab refurbishments in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. I enjoyed visiting Moscow and Sergei Possad, in Russia, and I didn’t mind a tour of Kiev in the Ukraine.
Unfortunately, the lab where we worked was located in Ouman, a small city where running water was available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. You had to save water in a pitcher to flush the toilet and store your supply of drinking water in another pitcher.
In both cases, it was the same water that sat in the rusty pipes for ten hours prior to use. I also filled an aluminum bucket—they call it a tub over there—and heated the water with an electric coil for my weekly bath in a freezing room! I couldn’t wait to get out of Ouman.
In winter, Kazakhstan looked like the North Pole. An icy white desert stretching to the horizon. The spring offered beautiful scenery. I have gorgeous pictures of hordes of wild horses running free in the country side. I could have enjoyed Kazakhstan, but Stepnogorsk, the god-forsaken place where we worked, was infested with mosquitoes that delighted on sucking my blood. So I spent more time smacking and squashing the pesky suckers than admiring nature.
Stepnogorsk boasts one large avenue but very few paved streets. Is it any surprise that I broke my knee while strolling through the so-called streets? I listened to local advice and rubbed my knee and leg with vodka to disinfect and numb the pain, but I refused to be treated by “a good doctor from the old communist regime.”
When I almost got arrested at the international airport of Almaty, the capital, for carrying a lovely little icon I bought in Moscow and still had in my suitcase, I swore to God I would never return to that place.
Vodka, Vodka, Vodka
In Belarus, I learned the many uses of vodka. Shot glasses of vodka were shoved in my hands to celebrate contracts. Bottles of vodka were generously passed around when we walked in the freezing cold. When I ran out of apples and crackers, I had no choice but to share the official dinner, sitting next to a general who gallantly filled my plate with greasy morsels.
My stomach revolted. Before dessert, I excused myself and made a beeline for the nearest restroom and later locked myself in my hotel room, wondering if I was going to die alone in a Belarusian hotel. Not to fear. The general sent two colonels with a bottle of vodka and orders to cure me with as many drinks as they deemed necessary. After four doses of vodka, I forgot my stomach cramps, my headache and even my name.
People were genuinely nice but totally ignored the meaning of deadline. Patience and resilience were necessary virtues when working in Eastern countries. After so many trips and incredible adventures, we accomplished our mission, and I had fascinating stories that needed to be shared.
Five years later, I took an early retirement to write my first book. My husband and I moved from Ohio to sunny Florida and never regretted leaving the cold and the snow. During my career as a lab director, I traveled to over fifty countries for business or vacation. I like to write contemporary romances so I set my stories in the fascinating places I had visited.
To Love A Hero, the sizzling romance of an American scientist and a Belarusian general, blossoms amid a web of intrigue and a clash of two cultures. Through my novel, I relived my fantastic trips to Belarus. My novel highlights the hospitality and warmth of the gorgeous and gallant Belarusian officers who sing, toast with vodka, and make a woman feel like a goddess.
Also set in Belarus is RX in Russian.
My travels have provided exciting and exotic backdrops for my novels. Along with the two books set in Belarus, I have two set in France: French Peril and Right Name, Wrong Man. One book is set in Egypt and the Seychelles: Osiris' Missing Part.
Last but not least, two romance novels are set in my home country of the U. S.: Babies in the Bargain and No More Lies.
Joan's 2 Cents
Thanks, Mona, for the fascinating look at countries most people never have the opportunity to visit.
Emily Dickinson wrote: "There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away...." Do some armchair traveling today with a good book set in a foreign locale.