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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

Lufthansa flight 13-A begins its slow descent through the clouds, signifying that we are close to the airport. The clouds are almost frighteningly dense. Periodically, they part, offering a brief glimpse of what appears to be a dark, brooding taiga below, but then quickly close up. We seem to hang in the air; little bugs trapped in amber.

Our plane slams heavily into some turbulent air and drops precipitously. A woman screams. I look through the window and see that we have descended below the cloud layer. Seemingly endless forest lies below. There's not a single sign of human habitation, no roads, no houses, nothing. Just fir trees. The great forests carry to the horizon.

Slowly but surely we drift lower. The plane banks left and I see the airport through the windows opposite me. A single, totally straight two-lane road leads from the airport into the distance. There are no buildings on the road. There is no traffic.

We bank again and begin our final approach. When we are only a few hundred feet in the air I see a security car parked at the very end of the runway. A man, heavily bundled against the cold, watches our plane land. He smokes a cigarette indifferently.

Our plane lands and begins to make its way bumpily to the gate. Since there are only a handful of flights a day, there is never a delay at Minsk Airport #2. The runways are covered with a thin layer of slushy, grey snow. A woman in a tractor works at removing the snow.

The pilot stops the plane and turns off the engines. The gate doors are opened scant moments later and we disembark at what must be the airport's only operating gate. People waiting to leave Belarus are already standing in line, eager to leave. They look at us sadly, pitying us because they're leaving and we're staying.

An armed guard with a machine gun directs us down the rickety escalator which leads to the floor below. There is a mad scramble as everyone rushes to fill out the arrival papers. He who fills out the forms first gets through the process first.

There are many forms to fill out, and they are only printed in German and Russian. Savvy Belarusian travellers always have a pen handy. Those who do not look around forlornly.

You can always spot those who are making their first trip to Belarus. They're the ones with the confused, frightened looks.

I stand in line, getting myself into East-European mode. It's a Zen survival thing. What will happen will happen. And at whatever pace it choose to happen (if, of course, it actually happens). I remind myself to go with the flow, not to rush. And above all, not to make a fuss. No matter what happens, do not make a fuss.

There is always some poor soul who has something wrong with their papers. In this case, an older Scandinavian man, who speaks neither German or Russian, is trying every language he knows in order to communicate with the sullen woman sitting at the desk. Nothing is working. And she's not making any effort to help him. I notice that the man's wife is beginning to cry.

My papers are given a perfunctory glance by a young man in a spring-green uniform. He stamps the forms noisily, then rebukes me, telling me I did not have to fill out the papers as my visa was in order. I smile at him (not returned) and apologize. Sometimes you have to fill out the papers, sometimes you don't. In any instance, you always fill out the papers.

I bid him a fond farewell and carry on down the dirty, unlit hallway to the next stop, leaving the Scandinavian couple to their fate. Sadly, there's a certain lifeboat mentality which crops up in Belarus.

The next stop is visa control. Three small cubicles resembling outhouses are protected by rickety K-Mart turnstiles. It's always been a fear of mine that I would break the turnstiles as I pass through them (they are only held together by a single bolt, the others having long ago given up the ghost) and that this would constitute a grave enough offense to state security to be thrown me in jail for the rest of my life.

A uniformed immigration officer, none of them older than 20, sits in each whitewashed booth. I line up, realizing this phase of the entry process can take forever. And it does. I try to decipher the Cyrillic announcements posted on placards, but fail. I am quite amazed to see an advertisement for a cellular phone service and--one of the new wonders of the world--a casino! I shudder at the thought of what that must be like.

It is finally my turn. I wiggle my way past the turnstile without touching it, and hand my passport and visa to the young man in the ubiquitous green uniform. He stares at me suspiciously, opens the passport, reads, then again turns to me. He frowns.

Not a good sign.

My East-European mindset, earned after many trips, is definitely an aid at this moment, but I can't help but be concerned. He looks through the back of the passport and finds the stamps indicating my previous trips to Belarus. Again he frowns. He scrutinizes me at length, comparing the photo in the passport with the person standing in front of him. He is clearly unconvinced. I want to tell him that it's really not that bad a photo!

He leaves the cubicle without a word to me. I wait. A few minutes later he returns with someone who has an extra stripe on his shoulder. They look at the passport together and again at me. Pages are flipped. Another look at me. Mutual frowns.

They huddle and whisper, casting the odd look in my direction. The first young man leaves and returns a few moments later with a heavy set man in a black sweater. He has a big, black moustache and carries a walkie-talkie, an obvious sign of rank.

The three of them look at the passport together, then again at me. All three frown (my good Zen thoughts are rapidly eroding). They flip through the pages, their three heads crowding together to look at some of the pages more closely. More looks at me. They whisper.

The man in the black coat says something and leave the cubicle. The first young man stamps my passport a few times and hands it over with a smile, gesturing pleasantly that I am free to go. I'm stunned. No matter what I do, regardless of how much I prepare, Belarus continues to consistently throw me for a loop. The only thing left to do is collect my bags and make contact with Youri , the factory representative who is supposed to meet me here.

Will he be there?