Friday July 8, 2005
We boarded the plane for Минск, the capital of Беларусь (Belarus). Getting on the plane, the attendant at the gate made us check our bags. It seemed unusual since our bags were okay in the overhead compartment before that. We tried to explain this, but the attendant was having none of it. Of course, they lost Julia’s bag, which was filled with Russian-to-English Bibles, candy and other things for the kids.
Arrival into Минск was an experience. The airport is one of those Soviet-style concrete-bunker-looking designs (honestly, could they not find real architects to design European airports?). It was very dimly lit and you walk through a mini labyrinth to get to the first checkpoint. You are, most assuredly, not in Kansas anymore. If it is possible for a place to feel like it is/was behind the Iron Curtain, this place has it in spades.
Елена (Elena, our translator) and Марат (Marat, who is the head of the Belarus Peace Foundation, which brought us over) met us there. I liked them both immediately. They got us around the first checkpoint and took us via an express route to the passport area. One by one, we walked up to the passport window to face security. When I walked up to the passport window, I smiled at the woman there…then thought better of it. I got the sense immediately that passport checkers in Belarus are not noted for their jovial personalities. In fact, I got the sense that they are not noted for having personalities at all. I’m not sure if it’s a prerequisite for the job or if it’s removed after you get the position…either way, the end result is more than a little unnerving.
So we get through that and go downstairs to baggage claim. We got our bags, less Julia’s of course, and went to the checkpoint area. We knew our bags were close to the fifty-pound weight limit, except for one. One of the things we were bringing in was a horse bridle and harness for the local horse and cart where we were going. The bag containing this was probably 10-15 pounds overweight, and there might be a significant fine for this. We were thinking that if we put the luggage on several carts and had Marat guide us through, it might go easier. It did not, but I did learn an important phrase: "IT’S COMPLICATED"
It seems they train people to say this when things are, quite obviously, not going to go your way. They look down slightly to the left, shake their heads, sigh and say, "It’s complicated." Marat was not able to get us through and we had to pair up with the respective bags we were bringing in to the country. We were all fairly certain we would have to get our bags weighed and possibly pay some fines. At some point, the woman who was making things difficult had a change of heart…I’m still not sure how or why (God does work in His own ways), and how we got through, much less without paying fines, but we did.
We loaded up the van and went back inside for lunch: Chicken and cheese, with French fries, cucumbers and tomatoes. Oddly, the worst part of the meal was the fries. Perhaps because when you come to a meal that is visually recognizable, your taste buds arrive with the same level of expectation. Sadly, in a country such as Belarus, there can be only one outcome: the bitter sting of crushing disappointment. But let’s face it: If I was looking for high cuisine, the airport in Минск is NOT where I would start. It did give me a new appreciation for American airport food, though (REALLY!).
We took the shuttle bus/taxi to the Hotel Planeta. The hotel was very nice, actually. We got settled, then went out and did a little shopping. It’s come a long way since the days of the old Soviet Union, where people had to stand in line (that’s "on line" for my New York friends) for hours for bread, then go to another store and wait in line for chicken, then a third for milk, etc.
Some interesting observations: a lot of cities have shops that cater to tourists. There is obviously not a thriving tourist industry here because few of the shops have Belarussian things; they seem to have an abundance of Made in China, American-style clothes, knick-knacks, etc. The people in the stores were friendly and forgiving of my limited Russian…except in the grocery stores. The cashiers there are gruff and unsmiling, and just want to get the Rubles and move on to the next customer. At one point, a cashier just took the money out of the hands of one of our party and then made the change. I think they are in training to become passport checkers…. There are a lot of people walking around the stores and looking at things, but very few buying. Back out on the streets, people stop to stare at us as we walk. In America, everyone is different, and if you spent time staring at people who were different from you, you’d never get anywhere. Here, we stuck out like sore thumbs (but I did NOT wear black socks with my shorts…even I have my limits). It is a Twilight-Zone feeling to be stared at by a city full of people…who don’t smile.
We went back to the hotel to wash up for dinner. I took a shower and the water smelled decidedly bad. It had an odor (that’s "odour" to my Canadian and European friends…I’m trying to keep this blog internationally friendly) like dirt, vinegar and sulfur and it burned my eyes. I didn’t stay in for long. I got dressed, hooked up with some people from our mission and walked in to the empty restaurant. This is part of a trend we’ve noticed: restaurants are invariably empty or near-empty…it costs money to eat out.
So, we walk in and someone in the room next door is belting out THE WORST RENDITION OF "FEELINGS" EVER! Let’s face it: There isn’t a good rendition, but this one set new standards for LOW…. There was a divider between where we were eating and where this party was going on. However, the divider didn’t close all the way, so we were treated to Belarussian wedding music all night long. About midway through our meal, the bride and groom arrived where we were and we gave them a big round of applause as they went through to the other side…
Dinner was salad and chicken with cheese. They also gave us a great slaw with meat (I’m assuming pork), carrots, cucumbers and sour cream. It was very good, especially on the homemade rye bread. After dinner, Marat delivered a message to the people of America, the people of Pennsylvania and especially the people of Aldersgate Church. He said that, just like in the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the spirit of cooperation between our two countries would help free people, and that when people who are different find ways to work together, amazing things happen.
Tomorrow afternoon we leave Минск to see the kids!