Sunday, September 25, 2016

Minsking Words


Earlier this summer I remember asking Michael more than once to "remind me why we are going to Belarus?" I am pretty sure told me about an article he read a few years ago in his beloved Economist magazine that describe the president of Belarus as "the last dictator in Europe." Add that to his avid interest in 20th century history and the collapse of the Soviet Union plus a goal of visiting as many former Soviet Republics as possible while we in this far flung part of the world, and you've got your answer. 

Minsk was a mixture of Soviet architecture hovering over what remained of the old town.
It was motivating enough for him to jump through a few hoops to get us the necessary visas while we were in Den Haag in the Netherlands - which he did of course. So now there was no going back. I was just waiting for him to tell me that he'd also arranged to have coffee with president Alexander Lukashenko! Mr. Lukashenko has been in power for the past 22 years and it is probably a safe bet to say he will be in power 22 years from now as well - democratically elected, of course.

It is a brave man who goes up against the Belorussian government.
On our team of two, Michael is the Chief Travel Planner. I am Head of Procurement as well as the Entertainment Director. In other words, I leave our itinerary and travel plans to Mr. Campbell (unless it looks like they might result in bodily harm or kidnapping - which seems likely lately) Meanwhile I make sure we have food, water, fun and at least some of the comforts of home.

So far it has worked well. Even during this stretch in Eastern Europe we are managing to hit all of our goals as Senior Nomads: Learning everyday, having fun, staying close to budget (easier in this part of the world), and still in love. So far so good.

Who wouldn't want to spend time with this funster - especially at Funny Chicken!
I do have to mention, however,  that the CTP has been a little less forthcoming about our travel plans than usual.  Details like middle of the night flights with long layovers, dodgy bus connections, registration at police headquarters, and flying over conflict zones have not been openly discussed over breakfast.

Because the Minsk airport was a long way from the city, and with several unknowns ahead of us, we accepted our host's offer to send a private driver to meet us. The value of the Belorussian Ruble has fallen dramatically over the last two years alongside it's cousin, the Russian Ruble. So, for only a few dollars we were whisked to the center of the cleanest city you have ever seen outside of Disneyland or maybe Pyongyang. Seriously - you would be hard pressed to find even a cigarette butt on the streets of this city.

These posters were everywhere - it's not easy changing your entire currency system!
Speaking of money - we arrived in Minsk just one month after the entire country was switching from their antiquated currency to a new one.  Really it was about lopping several zeros off of the paper money, so now a 50,000 note became 500 and for the first time, coins were introduced. This made for some head-scratching calculations at the check-out counter at our local grocery store. Like so many trusting tourists, we just put down our money and let the clerks choose whatever worked best. Luckily, since the dollar was so strong, it would have been hard for anyone to take advantage of us.

Our Airbnb was better than most in this part of the world and was ideally located across the street from a very upscale shopping mall with a grocery store and three decent restaurants. The apartment was nicely decorated and certainly functional - although the only cook-top was a fussy two-burner portable stove. Minsk Airbnb

Our host Olga. She was a great help in getting us our visas and registering our visit.
Fortunately, once again, eating out was cheaper than eating in so other than boiling water to make coffee we enjoyed exploring Belarus cuisine. Okay. We had lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken (twice). I know, I know - but sometimes you just have to have it.

It quickly became apparent that the Belarus government has a big presence in the daily lives of its citizens. No litter. No graffiti. No jaywalking (we did not see a single person even consider stepping into the street before the little green dictator gave the signal), and an appearance of prosperity.

The stores in Minsk were filled to the brim with goods - not so once you left the city.
As for Belorussians - we didn't find many English speakers but for the most part we we encountered friendly people going about their daily lives - just with the "freedom guard rails" pulled in about as tight as they could be while stilling calling it Democracy with a straight face. 

Besides the fact we could tick the Previous Soviet Republic box there was another reason we added Belarus to our swing through the far edges of eastern Europe.

Last November we were invited to speak to the host community at the Airbnb Open in Paris. One of the Airbnb staffers that helped up prepare for the event was a young man named Dzmitry Bazhko - Dima for short. Michael, as he does with most everyone he meets asked him where he was from. When he said Belarus, Michael just about flipped out. He'd never met anyone from the former Soviet Republic which was known until 1991 as the Socialist Soviet Republic of Belorussia - for him it was like meeting Bruce Springsteen. He and Dima quickly bonded and over the next 6 months they plotted our trip to his homeland.

Dima help was crucial. He helped get our visas by listing his parents as our hosts. Then he recruited his sister Marina to pick us up in Minsk and drive us an hour and a half away to meet his parents on their farm in the village where they grew up. She took us on a side trip through an ancient village and then stopped at the daily farmer's market closest to her parents.

I picked up these beauties and a bag of chantrelles for about $2.00 at the farmers market.
Dima's father works the farm and builds tractors from scratch. His mother is an amazing cook and fed us from the moment we arrived until she handed us a bag of leftovers to take home.

The food never stopped coming at Dima's parents table. Note Dima's dads amazing woodwork.
We had the chance to flip through albums featuring dear Dima from birth on, and assured his parents he was doing well in America. We also visited the family pig (not long for this world I'm afraid) and the smokehouse next to his sty. Along with their spacious home, Dima's dad also built an amazing bath house with a sauna and a soon to be completed cold pool. Outback was a great kitchen garden.

I know Dima must be cringing to know we poured over his baby albums.

A great time at the daily market in the village with Dima's sister Marina.
This trip to the countryside was a rude awakening from the sleek, seemingly prosperous westernized city of of Minsk where Dima gave us a long list of must see sights and destinations - we did our best to do it all!

One way to see the sights on the list was to take our usual free walking tour. Those of you who read our blog know that we try to take one of these tours in every city we visit. In major European cities there are multiple companies offering tours all day, every day. In Minsk however, the one and only free walking tour required you to sign-up well in advance on their website. No doubt so Big Brother could keep track of who, what and where. 

Michael contacted the organizer of the tour the week before we arrived. After a few e-mails back and forth, Alina, the organizer, fell in love with our story and asked if she could invite a newspaper reporter to join us on the walking tour. Of course! We arrived on the appointed evening for a 7:00 pm start. Alina greeted us and introduced us to a young woman reporter and a photographer from the largest online news site in Belarus, TUT.by. Since the reporter only spoke Russian, Alina served as our translator.

Over the next two hours we learned about the history and highlights of Minsk including a look at the building where a young Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy's assassin, lived and studied in the early sixties. So yet another conspiracy theory suggests he might have been groomed by the KGB before being sent to live in Dallas with all of his expenses paid to carry out a certain act of terror. Worth Googling.

In between stops, the reporter asked us questions which Alina translated including our answers.  Afterwards we went to a bar for dinner with our fellow tour members plus the reporter and Alina to finish the interview. The story came out a few days later and the reporter, Maiya Kohno, must have done a fabulous job because it was so popular that it generated an unheard of number of comments - over 1,000 983 thumbs up and 86 thumbs down. It is very odd to have press coverage about yourself and not be sure what it says. The Google translate app is a good tool - and can give you a laugh, but still, it would probably be a good idea to get real translations of our recent coverage. Here is a link to the story with some odd photos. If anyone reading speaks Russian, we'd welcome your comments as well! Minsk press coverage.

We came to really like Stanaslov, our driver from the airport so we used his services to take us to a few of the sights a little further outside Minks. And the grocery store. He didn't speak more than a few words of English, but once again, Michael's new favorite app  ---  iTranslate Voice solved the problem. Watching Stan and Michael make a statement and then pass his iPhone back and forth was almost like sitting in on a session at the United Nations.

So many sights - so little time!
He took us both to see two very moving memorials to the thousands of Jews killed here. Then he took Michael to visit Pavel Sheremet's grave which is just the kind of thing Michael would do. Who was Pavel Sheremet you might ask? Turns out that Sheremet was a Belorussian journalists whose political perspectives got him in trouble in his home country and unfortunately in Moscow as well. A few weeks before our visit, as Pavel was about to drive to work in central Kiev a bomb that had been planted under his car exploded and he died instantly in broad daylight. He met the same fate as his close friend and Russian dissident Boris Nemstov who was gunned-down while walking home in Moscow in February 2015 for his political views - not uncommon in these parts of the world. Side note - Michael also visited Nemstov's ad-hoc memorial on the bridge when we were in Moscow last summer. 
The Monument to Fallen Jewish People. was a haunting sculpture of victims going down into the pit where many of the were executed inside the city limits of Minsk.

On our last day in Minsk,  Stanaslov took us back to the airport and when we got in the car he proudly showed us he had TUT online story queued-up on the iPad mounted to the dashboard of his taxi. Meeting Olga our host, Dima's family and everyday people like Stanaslov is what makes this whole crazy adventure worthwhile.

We boarded our third, and hopefully our last Ukraine Airlines flight in Minsk. This time, we were going to spend most of our flight time over the Donbass Region of Eastern Ukraine on our way to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I asked Michael if we were traveling the same route that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 took two years earlier when it was shot from the sky...but I'm not sure he heard my question.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

6 comments :

  1. Great recap! Makes me laugh always. Be safe!!

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  2. I truly enjoyed seeing your incredible journey. And that haunting sculpture, it broke my heart. You two make friends wherever you go, and that's what makes this so much fun to read about. The whole airbnb idea has changed in my mind because of your travels. Such a MUCH better idea than staying in some European-style hotel! :-)

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  3. Thanks so much for this wonderful trip. I'll never go these places you do, but thanks to you we are there also.

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  4. I've been to many soviet republics, but not to Belarus. I appreciated your perspective on Minsk. Thanks Michael and Debbie!

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  5. I've visited Russia several times, but only a few of the former Soviet republics. They are definitely on my wish list, and I appreciate your reports on them. This is definitely an under-reported area of the world.

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  6. I've visited Russia several times, but only a few of the former Soviet republics. They are definitely on my wish list, and I appreciate your reports on them. This is definitely an under-reported area of the world.

    ReplyDelete