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Focus on Safety

I wake. It's bitterly cold. As I lie in bed I can hear the snow striking the window pane softly, and then more loudly with each successive gust of strong wind. It's still dark.

From habit, I reach for my watch on the nightstand, and then realize there is no nightstand. Feeling stupid, I put my hand to the floor and fumble around, recognizing objects by their shape: computer, CD player, book, extra blanket (no wonder its so darn cold!)...the watch. A quick press on the backlight button reveals it is six a.m.

Six o'clock and time to make my first crucial decision of the day: get up or not? If I get up, I freeze. If I don't I stay in Belarus.

I get up. A wave of cold courses through me. Is it possible to be this cold inside? Why don't they turn on the heat? Why don't they have heat?

I quickly throw on my clothes, even putting on a jacket over my sweater. Another important decision looms immediately thereafter. To shower or not? In Belarus, it seems, there are no easy decisions to make. If I don't shower, chances are that I will look scruffy all day. And I tend to start looking scruffy very quickly. If I don't shave every day I rapidly begin to resemble Charles Manson, he of the thin beard and dirty hair.

And I have an important meeting to conclude, so it's really not an option. But if I shower I risk hypothermia because the odds of getting warm water are less than mine of getting into heaven.

I decide I will shuffle into the bathroom, turn on the light and let a glance in the mirror make my decision for me. If the scruffiness factor is less than 50% then I will d without. I walk to the bathroom, finally find the light, and look at myself in the corroded mirror.

I have to shower. No doubt about it.

Resigned to my fate, and only allowing an unguarded whimper to escape my lips, I lay my sweatpants and T-shirt near the shower so I can use them to towel off with (the rough little rag they gave me for a towel is not going to do). My tights and long underwear are laid next to them so I can put them on rapidly. And then the blanket which I have torn off the bed. I'm going to need it.

I turn on the hot water in the vain hope that something lukewarm might dribble out. I haven't taken off my clothes because that's something I'm going to leave until the last possible minute. I brace myself for the shock that will come, and put my hand gingerly under the stream of water...

And it's hot! The water is yellow, yes, but it's hot!

There's not a second to waste! Hot water coming out of a tap in Belarus is an unbelievable blessing; hot water that continues to come out for more than two minutes is a miracle. In total panic mode, I strip off my clothes, turn on the cold water tap to regulate the temperature a bit (cold water comes out too, bless God and all the saints!), and leap under the stream.

It's wonderful. It's bliss. I quickly scrub myself in case the hot water runs out, but it doesn't. More and more gushes forth. It is simply amazing. I relax and begin to enjoy the nicest shower I have ever had in my life.

And then a searing pain courses through my thigh! I jump back reflexively, and note a long red line running vertically across my thigh. I turn around to see what has hurt me so.

It's the hot water pipe. Where else but in Belarus would the hot water pipe come out near the bottom back of the shower, and then run along the side where anyone using the shower could easily get burned by the pipe, as I just have? The plumbers who installed it must surely have doubted that hot water would ever course through the pipe. It's logical, really, no hot water, no chance of burns.

I keep a wary eye on the pipe and cut my shower short. I fling back the shower curtain and am instantly hit by a blast of frigid air. I jump out on the dirty linoleum and dry off as fast as I can, shivering violently all the while. I throw on my clothes in a desperate race to beat the approach of hypothermia.

Even with my clothes on I am still cold. Having damp hair doesn't help. I busy myself by preparing for the morning shave and turn on the tap. Cold water comes out. My grace period has expired.

Somehow, I seem to always forget to bring a comb with me on business trips. I am thus resigned to finger-combing my hair and smile to myself as I notice that my hair is stiff with the cold. My effort accomplishes little, as everything is frozen into position as it was shortly after I got out of the shower. And the result is not impressive.

Resigned to looking stupid the rest of the day, I walk to the window and await Youri. Outside, snow is coming down hard, swirling, biting. Mothers and fathers walk their children to school. I'm struck by how loving they appear, all bundled up heavily against the cold, walking to school hand in hand.

I watch them carefully; almost every child holds their parent's hand, even the ones who would be considered too old to do so in America. I am charmed by it.

Belorussians may not have hot water. They may not have sufficient food to eat. But they are rich in many other ways, and the closeness of their families is one.

Youri knocks on the door, startling me out of my reverie. I unlock the door and he enters. I notice he hasn't showered, no hot water for his apartment block this morning, evidently. We greet each other and he helps me collect my bags.

We walk down the fetid hallway to the cubicle housing the woman in charge of the keys. He knocks on the door softly and the door whirls open. Has she been waiting for us? The old crone snarls something at Youri in anger and throws a portion of her shawl back across her shoulder. Youri calmly says something to her and gently hands over the oh-so-precious keys.

She grabs the keys from him roughly. Then, noticing me, she unleashes an extra baleful look and gives me her best farewell glare. It is impressive in its malevolence.

Outside, it's cold, but not that much colder than inside, which surprises me. We eat in the canteen, just the two of us, with the lights out. Cabbage soup and bread, with a cucumber salad on the side. It's delicious. Why can't I have breakfasts this good every day?

As I eat, I realize I get to leave today. I will see my son and wife again soon. I can't help but smile at the thought.
My mind casts back to when I was a young child in Belgium, and had been sent to a convent to regain my health after returning from Africa with malaria. My memory brings back the image of a skinny little boy in shorts, sitting all alone in the cafeteria on a table, legs swinging, and counting off the hours until his mother and grandfather would come and get him. He sits and waits, so eager, so expectantly. It's exactly the same feeling.

I smile again and tick off the agenda. An hour or so of meetings, a drive to the airport, a quick flight and one more night in Austria, and then I get to leave for home the next day. It's a wonderful feeling.

Breakfast over, we walk across the street to the factory office where Ivan awaits us. We have a short, pleasant meeting. At the end, Ivan stands and gives me a warm hug. I realize that I will miss this gruff, rough man. In fact, I will never see him again. He is fired by the state a few months later.

Youri and the factory driver take me to the airport. I gaze at the war monuments as we pass: memorials to a people who will not be beaten. Napoleon came. Hitler came. The people remain. They, and their children, who fight the present to attain a distant future.

"I would like to give your little boy a present," Youri says. He reaches into his wallet and hands me a series of Belorussian bank notes. I protest, knowing he doesn't have enough money to spare and should safeguard what he has. Youri waves my protests away and explains that each bill is worth next to nothing, and that he felt my little boy would like the illustrations on them (they are indeed very pretty). I accept and thank him.

We arrive at the airport a few minutes later. I count fifteen cars in the parking lot; must be a busy day for departures. Our driver pulls right up to the main entrance. That is one thing I love about Minsk International Airport Number Two--the walk from the car to the front door takes less than ten seconds.

Youri and I walk inside the terminal. It's dark inside because all the lights are turned off. The flight schedule board announces the sole flight out of Minsk that afternoon. Nothing has changed. I realize that the standard check-in routine is about to rear its ugly head. I brace myself for the ordeal.

Little do I know that ahead of me lies a visit to the proverbial bathroom from hell.