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Focus on Safety

I stand inside the darkened, grimy lobby of the Minsk International Airport. Above me the giant departure board lists the only two flights in and out of the country that day. I don't think the flight details have ever been changed.
The standard check-in procedure is about to rear its ugly head. I steel myself with a deep breath and start off to the first cubicle. Youri follows, chatting amiably with me. But he is nervous too.
Step One. Walk to the Lufthansa desk to make sure nothing is wrong with either my tickets or the flight.

I come to a halt outside the cubicle and peer through the glass partition. No-one is inside. Long minutes pass as we wait. Youri swivels around nervously (he recognizes a bad sign when he sees one). Moments later a woman saunters in, cigarette in hand, and seats herself before me.

I slide my passport and tickets through the slot provided. She takes no notice of me and rummages through the papers strewn on her desk. I wait patiently. At long last she reaches over, examines my tickets cursorily, and dismisses me with several waves of the back or her hand. Evidently everything is fine.

Step Two. Fill out the customs documents.

When one arrives in Belarus you are given the option of filling out your customs declaration in either German or Russian. You need to fill out a customs declaration on arrival and departure, and heaven help you if there is a discrepancy.

I can bash my wash through the German forms, so this is not much of a hindrance. However, I realize that the only forms available to me are Russian language forms. Youri and I search through all the forms, hoping to find a German one, but no luck.

Youri volunteers to translate. He frowns a lot, seems hesitant. "This is difficult to translate properly," he says (which is what he says whenever his English ability fails him). This is not good news.

I fill out the document as best as I can, doing my best not to make any errors. Belorussian customs officials are not to be trifled with as they make French train conductors seem charming in comparison. Youri is a great help to me and I appreciate his efforts.

Step three. Going through customs.

A dour looking man in an ill-fitting uniform snatches the customs declaration from my hand. He begins to read, then notices Youri standing near my side, ready to help. The agent reaches and slams the partition shut. Youri disappears behind frosted glass. He shouts a soft goodbye over the partition.

The agent studies me closely. He points to the first line of the declaration. "U.S. dollars?" he asks. I reply in the affirmative.

"Show!" he commands harshly. I open my wallet and hold out the dollars. The agent takes the bills from me and counts them out carefully, once, then twice, and compares his total with the one I have declared on the arrival and departure customs forms. They match.

(As an aside: I have since learned to steal a few extra copies of the arrival customs document and make several copies. I have no idea what would happen if you lost your copy of the document, but I'm sure that hard time, and sharing a confined space with ugly, desperate people, would be involved).

The agent hands back the money to me and reviews the document again. "French Francs?" he asks me. I tell him, yes.


Is this the only word of English he knows? I show him. He counts again. Again no discrepancy. Once again he consults the document, frowns and gives a deep sigh. "Belgian Francs?" he says wearily. I tell him yes again.
"Show!" Again I hand over some left-over francs from my stay at home. There isn't much. But I notice that he even counts the change. Again, no discrepancy.

The agent consults the document again, sees another currency declared and rolls his eyes. He gives me one of those "Are you screwing with me?" looks, then consults the form again. But then his brow furrows. He looks at me with great suspicion.

"Belorussian roubles?"

Yes, I say, and reach for the Belorussian bank notes that Youri had given me as a present for my little boy. I hand them to him.

"Naaaah!" he growls and throws his arms in the air in total disgust. He holds one of the notes in front of my nose derisively, makes a "Pfffft" noise, and lets it go. The bill flutters to the ground. He waves his hand at me with a sneer and turns away. This evidently is not real money.

I bend over to pick the bill off the floor. The agent gives me a final stare and then irritatedly motions for me to get out of his sight. I am only too happy to oblige.

Step Four. Get the bags x-rayed.

"Open!" another mono-syllabic man in uniform, this time hidden behind an x-ray machine, shouts at me. I wonder why I have to open the bags if they are going to x-ray them, but say nothing. I've learned that saying nothing and saying nothing (two things totally contrary to my nature) are good things to do in Belarus.

The man glances at the bag's contents from behind the machine. He is satisfied and points to the next desk, where a weary woman in her 40s sits on a lime-colored plastic chair.

Step Five. Get a Boarding Pass.

This is the quickest step of all. Barely giving me a glance, the woman hands a boarding pass out to me. It has no unnecessary information on it like the flight number, my name, or my seating arrangement : it's a generic boarding pass. And you need it. So I take it.

Step Six. Seating Assignment.

A young man takes my boarding pass from me, asks for my tickets, and after consulting them he laboriously handwrites my name in a spiral notebook. This is my seating assignment. I ask for a non-smoking seat. He smiles. Thinks it's funny.

Step Seven. The dreaded Immigration stop.

I wait my turn in front of the Immigration cubicles which resemble hamster cages knocked together by someone who should never be allowed to wield a hammer and saw. This is the last serious stop, so if I can just get through this one...

When it's my turn I hand my passport, visa, along with any piece of paper I've collected to that point, to the agent behind the glass. I am relieved when I am allowed to go on. The agent actually smiles at me when I leave. It's amazing what a nice thing a smile can be.

Step Eight. X-ray Machine number two.

I have my bags x-rayed again. As the man hands me back my bags he bends over close to my ear and whispers "Would you like to buy some caviar?" I tell him no. My wife later tells me I should have said yes.

At this point I am allowed to walk to the boarding gate (there is only one) where an armed guard stands at the door. The door closes (and locks!) behind me as I enter. Forty to fifty people mill about in the departure lounge; reading newspapers, drinking, smoking...but mostly smoking. Almost all are Germans.

I've made it! I let out a deep sigh of relief and sink into a nearby chair. I glance around. The gift shop, which sells straw dolls and embroidered linens, is to my left. Next to it is the duty-free shop. It sells canned peaches and asparagus, Coca-Cola, and beer (hard currency only). The attractive woman manning the booth ignores the customers lined up in front of her station and listens to the radio.

The man sitting next to me lights an awful-smelling cigarette and blows its smoke in my direction. I glare at him. He notices me, glances at my clothes and recognizes me as foreign. I can see the gears in his brain whirring as he draws the necessary conclusions: Foreign...possibly American...definitely American...Americans are dangerous and violent...most of them are armed...he doesn't like my cigarette smoke...I'm going to die.

I pick up my briefcase and find a seat as far from the smokers as possible, and do a bit of work on my laptop. As I type, I realize that I urgently need to go to the bathroom. But I am firm in my decision to wait until I board the plane. And then I hear an announcement being broadcast over the loudspeaker: our flight is being delayed two hours because of a snow storm in Austria. To make up for the delay, passengers with valid tickets will be treated to a complimentary Coca-Cola or beer at the duty-free shop.

Right, exactly what I need! The woman at the duty-free shop gasps at all the grey-clad men, more a mob than anything else, jostling in front of her (europeans have never learned to line up properly).

There is no way that I am going to last two hours without a bathroom stop. I stroll to the men's bathroom, wondering on the way how bad it will be. It's unbelievably, unspeakably bad. Even worse than I might have imagined.

A single toilet has been mortared into a raised platform. Astoundingly, the toilet has been set back three feet from the edge of the platform. Hundreds of travellers before me have used the toilet, long-range fashion. And they've missed. Missed badly. The platform, the toilet, the floor I am standing on is awash with stale urine. It's ghastly.
I admit to being marginally higher on the evolutionary scale than Cro-Magnon man, but there is no way that I am going to use this bathroom. Being Belgian, I know just what to do: I head for the women's loo.

It's worse.

What do I do? I'm ending my day in Belarus the way it began: with a horrid choice to make. In this country one is always given a choice and are ostensibly free to do whatever you want. But none of the options ever seem to be pleasant either. But I have to go to the bathroom, that fact is inescapable. And I have to go to the!


I resign myself to the inevitable and return to the men's bathroom. I lock the door and face my enemy. How, in heaven's name, am I going to use this toilet without having my pants touch the floor? The floor is awash with urine, it is simply an impossibility.

I spend long minutes observing the situation, trying to find a way out of the inevitable. But I cannot. With a long sigh, I unbuckle me belt, and try to hold the pants off the floor as much as I can. I fail at this. I use the toilet.

And then I realize there is no toilet paper.

I bite my tongue, anger welling up from deep inside me. How many indignities do I have to face? But a certain sense of peace flows over me as I realize that these are indignities that Belorussians must face every day. And like a good Belorussian I need to find a way around the problem. I need to stay positive and think good thoughts.

I gaze around the room and spy a wicker trash basket nearby. Could it be that someone has thrown away some paper that I could use? I nudge the basket nearer with my foot, and am relieved to see that it contains a single piece of wadded up tissue. I realize that someone has probably blown their nose with it, but my desperation is evident and immediate. I grab the tissue eagerly.

And discover that someone has used it for toilet paper. My hand is a mess.

At this moment, a wave of despair crashes over me. I sit there a long time letting the indignity, the humiliation of it all, wash over me. My head is bowed. I use the paper as best I can and carefully buckle my belt with one hand, like a good Muslim.

I stagger to the wash basin and turn on the tap. Nothing comes out. Will this ever end?

I wander back to my seat in the departure lounge and then have a moment of inspiration. I take my place in line at the duty-free shop, am given my complimentary Coca-Cola, and wash my hands with it.


Two long hours later the plane arrives. We are quickly ushered on board. I head for the bathroom and properly wash my hands. Will I ever be clean again?

It is getting dark. Lufthansa, ever efficient, has everyone on board and the plane ready to go in less than 15 minutes. Our plane taxis to the end of the runway, the engines roar as we race along, and then we pull into the air. Someone cheers wanly.

Through my window, in the fading light, I see the spruce and birch forests, the farmfields covered with grey snow, the solitary roads. It is a sad and dreary landscape. Then, low clouds begin to obscure my vision of Belarus, a land I have come to love.

The plane banks to the left, and I can see the sun fading behind clouds in the distance: To the West.