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Focus on Safety

This year's trip to Belarus started at the airport, which seemed cleaner and much busier than I'd seen it in years past. The customs agents and airport personnel seemed nicer too.

Vladimir greeted me in the arrivals area and we drove off immediately to visit the National Outdoor Culture Museum of Dudutki.. I was told. that this would be a special visit for me, one that would give me an opportunity to see Belarus the way it used to be.

As we drove to the museum, I couldn't help but think--as I saw horse-drawn carts on the freeway--that perhaps the Outdoor Culture Museum of Dudutki might only succeed in showing me the way things still are in Belarus.

We drove through the pine forests and rolling hills of the countryside just outside of Minsk. Clouds hang low here and it was very pretty. It was early spring and snow lay on the northern exposures of most shrubs, but a valiently striving sun overhead did its best to turn this into a pretty day.

Vladimir turned off the main road and followed a broad graveled road into the farm fields. In the near distance I saw an ancient wooden windmill standing Brueghel-like on the horizon. It was quite pretty.

The road flowed to the left of the windmill and led the entrance of the museum, which rather reminded me of a concentration camp. I'm willing to bet there are not many museums in this world which see the need to encircle their compound with barbed wire. We parked the car and stepped out to total stillness. It was very peaceful here, very rural. The wind sighed through the tall trees, breaking the silence. Across the fields, hidden by the freshly plowed clods of earth, a songbird gave a tentative tweet.

I followed Vladimir for a few minutes as he, puzzled by the closed gate to a museum which clearly was supposed to be open, rang the bell, pushed the buzzer's button, called out, and then finally just snuck through a gap in the barbed wire. We walked up to what appeared to be the main building where I was told to cool my heels while Vladimir went inside to enquire. "You're supposed to have a private tour," he said.

I stood in the spring sunshine, cooling my heels, as ordered. A few minutes later, Vladimir appeared, a wild-haired young woman in tow. They strode up to me, where I was introduced to my guide, Solanya, a florid faced, orthodontially challenged, young woman of twenty-two.

Solanya's most obvious feature was her hair, which incorporated a wide variety of different hairstyles. Curls, bangs, aggressively teased sections, frizzy regions, and even sgements which were ironed straight competed for stylistic dominance. (none achieving dominance).

"First we go horse-back riding," Solanya said curtly. This didn't fill me with warm, fuzzy feelings as I have a bit of a hate-hate relationship with horses. I was greatly relieved when a fearful clop-clopping sound coming from the barn next door turned into a stylish burgundy carriage. This was more like it. I love a carriage ride, even if it is connected to a horse.

"We will ride the horse to the windmill," I was told. This was just fine with me. We rode along soft, sandy roads still damp from the prior evening's rain. This was a most delightful way to travel: The smell of spring in the air, a gusty wind at times making its presence felt, and a sun doing its best to be warm. I was having fun.

We followed wooden signs featuring Don Quixote to the windmill, which stood an impressive 90 feet tall. Its exterior was beautifully weathered and looked exactly like the windmills we have in Belgium.

"I will tell you story of the windmill," Solanya said as she herded us toward its entrance. "The windmill is six hundred years old and burned down a hundred years ago. A great master was then asked to make an exact copy.

"Excuse me, I think I missed something," I said. "The original was built six hundred year ago, correct?" Solanya nodded. "And the copy was built a hundred years ago, correct?" Again a nod.

"Wouldn't that make the windmill a hundred years old?" I asked.

Solanya took this in for a moment, and then resumed lecturing as if I'd never said a thing. "During the Stalin years," she continued, "The master who built it was exiled to Siberia. There, the commander of the concentration camp treated him so badly that he died. Many years later his sons rebuilt the windmill on this exact spot (I didn't question her about the third building of the 600 year old windmill).

"And then one day," Solanya said, stepping far too close for comfort to us, a finger raised in the air for emphasis, "The commander of the camp visited the windmill." Solanya stepped back, watching us closely to see if we were becoming involved in the high drama and passion of the moment. Somehow convinced we were, she continued.

"As he was walking on this very spot, the windmill bent over and hit him in the head with its blades, killing him instantly. The great master was avenged!"

I looked up at the windmill's blades, forty feet in the air. " an amazing...story," I said, emphasizing the last word. Solanya smiled enthusiastically, not catching my facetiousness.

"Now we must visit the windmill," she said, "But first, there is tradition which must be followed! You must emter the windmill with the left leg first, and say three times ''Zibliyat, Ziblyat, Ziblyat,' as you cross the threshold."

"What does it mean?" Vladimir asked.

"I don't know," Solanya replied. "It's a tradition and you must do it."

Sheepishly, the two of us mumbled the requisite words and entered the windmill It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the light before I was able to make out massive beams criscrossing the interior in ramshackle fashion. Large machinery took up the middle.

We followed Solanya as she led the way along a jambled maze of low-hanging beams and rickety, low stairs. She stopped on the lower edge of a steeply sloping floor. "It is here that the great master invented an ingenious system for loading the windmill," she said as she pointed to a door at the side of the windmill. "Farmers would bring in their sacks of grain (she walked up the steep slope) and load them into the hopper, here, without having to walk through the front door. It's amazing and an example of Belorussian ingenuity."

"Why wouldn't he make the floor level?" I asked. "That way, the farmers wouldn't have to drag a 50 lb. sack of grain uphill to the hopper. If it was level they could cart it in."

Solanya gave me a long, dark look. "Why do I even open my mouth," I wondered to myself. Behind me, Vladimir (the coward!) nudged the back of my leg with his knee as a warning.

"It is better system," Solanya said darkly. "And that's all there is to it." Wordlessly, she turned and led us higher into the bowels of the windmill. We scrambled ever higher, over dangerously exposed bracings and beams, until we reach the top.

It was beautiful. A small window gave wide views over the countryside. Vladimir and I leaned outside it, our shoulders touching in the narrow confine of the window opening, enjoying the sweet smelling spring air and the wind in our hair. We grinned at each other like kids.

Solanya coughed to catch our attention. "There is another tradition of the windmill," she said eagerly; "It is a tradition to hide a present in the windmill for guests," she smiles. "You're guests, so you must find it.

It's not easy to find something in a windmill, there are just too many potential hiding places. Figuring that Solanya was a tricky devil, I first looked out the window, figuring it was hidden there. But no luck. I then switched to checking above and underneath each of the many large beams holding the structure up. Again nothing. It was Vladidimir who eventually "found" it, nudging a block of wood absently with his foot--but that was enough for Solanya.

"You have found it!" she shrieked with the unrestrained enthusiasm of a five year old at an easter egg hunt. She bent eagerly down and picked up the wooden block, showing it was hollowed out inside. Inside, nestled in a cavity, lay a bottle containing a clear liquid, along with several glasses and black bread.

"Vodka," Vladimir groaned.

Solanya uncorked the bottle greedily and poured herself a glassful. "This is a very good tradtiion," she said and drains the glass in an aggressive gulp; obviously a girl who is no stranger to a bottle."Now you must drink," she said..

Vladimir shook his head negatively. He drinks the odd beer but is pretty much of a teetotaler;. Ånd I quit drinking in college. "Thank you very much, but we don't drink," Vladimir said in a soft voice.

Solanya apprised him coldly. "It's a tradition," she whispered. "Drink, it's good for you." Again she proffered the bottle.

"You're very kind, and we thank you for showing us the windmill," Vladimir said uncertainly. "But we have a lot of business to do today and we shouldn't be drinking this early,"

Solanya wasn't happy. Her little piggy eyes narrowed. "You must drink," she said hissed.. "It's a tradition."

Vladimir tried again to explain--but...

"NO!" Solanya exploded.. "NO, you must drink! It is an insult to the nation of Belarus! It is an insult to the cultural patrimony of the Belorussian people! " She waved her arms high in the air, eyes flashing with anger as she searched for--and then found--her trump argument: "IT IS AN INSULT TO THE WINDMILL!"

She shrieks this last out wildly, a woman gone berserk. Vladimimir looked at me beseechingly and held out his thumb and finger a centimeter apart. "Just a very small bit? Please?" he begged me.

.How do I get myself into these situations, I wondered, and nodded curtly. This was not going to be pleasant. Vladimir poured a few millimeters into my glass. Solanya grunted. He poured in more and looked to her for approval. It didn't come. He poured in even more.

I decided I was not about to have this harpy get the best of me,. I held the glass in my hand, tilted my shead back and drained it in one gulp. Which was a big mistake. It almost knocked me down. The back of my neck felt like it had been hit with a baseball bat. I staggered. So much for my manhood.

Now it was Vladimir's turn. Putting on a brave front, he also threw it back neat. It was pretty funny, really. Vladimir's eyes bulged nd he put his hand to the side of the windmill to steady himself.

Theatrically, Solanya then showed us how a man drinks. She poured an extra large amount into her glass, and then smirking at us condescendingly, drained it to the last drop. A wipe of her mouth with a shirtsleeve finished the demonstration.

"Now we go down," Solanya said and nimbly led the way down the windmill. She was steady as a rock.

And I, as I tried to negotiate the rickety stairs and open boards with my head spinning, couldn't help but wonder: How many people have died on this tour?