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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

I'm at Minsk International Airport #2, trying to find my bags. It's a bit of a challenge since everyone's luggage has been thrown together in one huge pile on the floor. In a warped way, I rather like the Belarussia system. I don't have to wait for my bags to trundle onto the luggage carousel. I'd appreciate it if they would clean the floor, though. What could that greasy floor be doing to all our bags?

Bags in hand, I walk up to the last government official, who checks my papers one last time. Everything is in order, which seems to ruin his day.

Immediately behind this man is a long panel of rippled glass, the kind you often see in 60's era bathrooms. Hazy figures move behind it. Every now and then someone presses their face against the glass in a vain attempt to peer through. The glass distorts their face grotesquely. It's surreal.

I am cleared to pass and walk through a partition into the arrivals area. A mob of shabbily dressed men swarm through the area. Most hold hand-lettered cardboard signs with names on them. I look with some trepidation for a familiar face (what if he's not here?) and then spot my translator, Youri Sakovitch.

Youri, who is in his early twenties and charmingly sincere, shakes my hand eagerly. Even though we are indoors, I notice he is wearing a heavy coat and Russia fur hat. Perhaps because of the stress, but I had not noticed that the airport terminal is unheated. It's darned cold in here.

Youri takes one of my bags and leads the way outside. A blast of frigid air hits me flush in the face as we walk outdoors. I instantly realize how warm it actually was inside; it's all a matter of perspective.
Youri sees me shiver and laughs. He cheerfully tells me that the weather has turned much for the better and that it was really cold the week before. I shudder.

Thirty feet away (there is no such thing as long or short term parking in Belarus) lies the public parking lot. It is covered with a layer of slippery snow. There are ten cars in it. One wonders what happens during rush hour. The, again, perhaps this is rush hour.

We walk to the company car, which is a Jeep-like knockoff with a canvas top. Youri and I get in the back seat. The interior is so small that he and I snuggle shoulder to shoulder. Plastered all over the dashboard are stickers of various size and color which share only one thing in common: they're all in English. In Belarus, English is cool.

Ivan Jancik, the general director of the factory, always waits for us in the car. He is an older man in his middle sixties, and in obvious failing health. His frame is thin, his hair white and closely cropped, and his teeth, I'm sorry to say, have never seen a dentist. His face is flushed red (heavy alcohol consumption) and his voice is raspy. I love the man.

We perform our annual ritual. He shakes hands and asks if I would like a beer. I tell him no, whereupon Ivan shrugs his shoulders and eagerly pops the pull-tab of the beer he has in his hand. Foam explodes all over the interior of the car. Little flecks of it sparkle on Youri's fur hat. He has some on his neck. I wonder how much I am wearing myself.

Ivan settles back and contentedly sips his beer. He quickly finishes it and pops another. We drive along in silence. Measured by American standards, the factory should only be about a 25 minute drive away. But this is Belarus: the roads are terrible and our brave little Jeep can't do more than 35 miles an hour downhill. The drive takes 45 minutes.

We drive along the empty highway. A sea of conifers blanketed with snow stand to either side of the road, broke only sporadically by open stretches of farmland. Youri points out one farm and tells me that he and his wife helped with the potato harvest there last fall. "All students and military personnel must do it," he tells me.
I can't help but feel a profound sadness whenever I think of Youri. He is a dedicated, sincere, hardworking young man. Highly educated, he represents one of the more skilled workers at the factory. But there, he works long hours and earns the equivalent of $20.00 per month.

Often, he is not paid for months at a time, and must borrow money from his parents to buy food. To compound matters, Elena, his wife, an engaging and beautiful young woman, is ill. Youri tells me it is a question of vitamin deficiency caused by her not eating enough vegetables and fruit. At Youri's salary level, he cannot afford to buy his wife fruit, and it gnaws at him.

We drive on monotonously. Suddenly, the driver says something in Russian and Ivan and Youri stiffen noticeably. We swerve to the edge of the road and come to a hard stop. Everyone is tense.
I look behind us. In the distance, a cavalcade of eastern European limousines (definitely your father's Oldsmobile) drives down the middle of the two lane highway. A dilapidated police car drives at the front of the phalanx with its lights turned on. Only one of them works.

They pass. Ivan turns to me and wordlessly raises his eyebrow. European body language translation: something going on that we don't want to be involved with.

After a few more minutes of driving we exit the highway and turn onto a two lane road. Beside the limousines we haven't seen a single car on our side of the road. The war memorial lies to the left. It's comprised of a great mound of earth several hundred feet high with a stark obelisk at the summit. There, an eternal flame burns in the chilly air.

My reading before my trip had told me that Belarus lost more than 25% of its population during the second world war. The Nazis were particularly savage here, a fact attested to by the many war memorials we drive by.

I turn away from the memorial because I've noticed that our driver is trying to pass a tractor which is taking up most of the road. I'm not sure this man has ever passed another car before, because a huge truck lumbers slowly toward us in the other lane. This does not look like a good decision on his part...