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Travelogues

Focus on Safety

It's always nice to come to Belarus, but it's even nicer to leave.
I find myself at the end of this year's trip and have a long voyage facing me. The only train of the day leaves at five in the morning, which is why I and my fellow passengers headed north find ourselves stamping our feet on the platform in the early morning cold to keep warm. The train is by no means an Express. It will take almost five hours to cover the 112 miles which separate Minsk from Vilnius, an average speed of 22.4 miles per hour. That's not exactly my idea of rapid transit, but then again--a ticket only cost about twelve dollars--so I don't have much to complain about on that score.
I don't want a repeat of my disastrous trip on the way in (see: 'Beer, Illicit Electronics, and a Beautiful Woman') so the first thing I do when I'm let on the train is to bolt for a booth with proper seating, one not shared with a woman who belches loudly between (far too many) beers, and is nowhere near the toilet. That last bit is very, very important.
I find a spot on the sunny side of the train, one facing forward (I get train-sick otherwise) and slide the window open a bit to allow for some ventilation. This is important because smells (I can't properly refer to them as 'scents') have a tendency to "collect" on Russian trains. I then stow my suitcase above my seat and settle in.
The train fills up quickly. A young soldier takes the seat opposite me, followed moments later by two older businessmen who immediately bury their noses in paperwork. A university aged girl takes the last spot available in the compartment.
The train lurches into motion a few minutes later and a metal rod, which doubles as a coat hanger, immediately detaches from the wall, bounces off the young girl's head and falls to the floor with a clatter. She's embarrassed and tries to reattach it, but it falls off again moments later. The two businessmen laugh and motion she should hide it behind the luggage above our seats, which she does.
I open my book and begin reading, but immediately after I feel the young soldier's eyes on me. This happens all the time in Belarus and I never get used to it. I find it annoying and look up. The soldier immediately looks away.
It's not surprising. State run media tells the Belarussian people, almost on a daily basis, that Americans are their enemy and the United States' government has openly expressed its desire to effect regime change in Belarus. So it's no wonder that Belarusians are curious.
No sooner do I return to my book than I feel the soldier's eyes on me again. I look up anew, and the soldier pretends he's looking at the scenery outside the window next to me. He's uncomfortable, and I immediately feel bad for making him uneasy. It's not his fault. He's just young and curious. He's young and has a kind face. Now it's my turn to examine him. A crucifix dangles from his neck. He's a good boy.
I wish I could speak Russian, and he probably wishes he knew some English, so we're reduced to the universal language of a smile.
Freezing cold air begins to flow into the compartment as the train gathers speed. As I've taken a window position, and have chosen to face forward, almost all of it lands on me. Hoisted by my own petard, I believe that's called. I'm getting all the "ventilation" I wanted--and then some.
I stand up and try to close the window but it's stuck. Miserable, I take my seat again and try to move as far from the artic blast as I can--without making the businessman seated next to me feel uncomfortable (because we are definitely getting cozy).
A godsend--in the form of an old woman pushing a tea trolley--appears moments later. I have no idea how much a cup of tea costs and don't know enough Russian to ask. (Wouldn't understand the answer anyway.) I try to make out which bills are being handed over to the old woman by everyone in the compartment, but fail.
In desperation, I turn to the soldier, and rub my thumb and forefingers together, suggesting money. He understands, smiles, and holds out one finger ("One"), then ten fingers ("thousand") and then three. 1,300 Belarussian roubles, or about 35 cents. Ridiculously overpriced, but that's the way it is with public transport everywhere.
"Chai spasiba," I say and hand over three chipmunks and a bear (Belarussian money features native animals rather than political leaders).
The tea is delicious and more important, piping hot. I cup the glass in my hands and hold it to my chest so as to gather in all its heat.
It's true what they say about simple comforts. I sip my tea gratefully and watch the beautiful Belarussian landscape go by. A stork flies over the trees, framed by the soft light of the rising sun. I'm amazed at how fast it flies. Most large birds are ungainly, but the stork's steady, metronome-like strokes cut through the air with impressive speed. It easily keeps up with the train.
Deep purple drifts of lupines, virginal white bunches of viburnums and soft pink of wild rose thickets announce we're entering the forest. Old villages, half-hidden in the foliage, appear sporadically and then disappear. Not a single part of the buildings are straight. Roof lines sag. Eaves are warped. But they're so achingly beautiful! Originally painted in bright pastels, the houses retain a patina which blazes in the sunlight.
I feel the train turn toward the northwest, toward Latvia. Over time the sky becomes cloudier, no doubt due to the influence of the Baltic sea. I should never have opened the window. The change in the train's heading resulted in a change in the wind, and now the train's diesel fumes flow into the compartment as well. My fellow travellers must hate me.
To get away from the cold and diesel fumes, I opt to take a bathroom break. I'm halfway there when I realize I've left my computer case, with the computer, wallet, passport and all my cash in it, lying on the seat. For a moment, I panic. But then I remember. These are Belarussians.
For the most part, Belarussians are extraordinarily law-abiding. There is little or no crime. If I were in the USA or Belgium I would rush back to my seat. Here, I take my time.
The train begins to slow as I return to my seat, which means we're arriving at the border. The soldier gathers his gear. I give him a goodbye wave and he gives me a shy mile in return. Everyone else in the compartment gets off at this stop as well.
I turn again to my book but find it difficult to concentrate because I realize I'll soon have to deal with Belarussian customs. Minutes later, when the door at the end of the rail car crashes open with a bang, I know the moment has come.
A middle-aged man wearing a forest green uniform set off with bright red epaulets strides toward me languidly. He's in control. He's got all the power. And he knows it.
I was nervous about facing customs on the way in because my luggage was chock to the gills with contraband electronics I was smuggling into the country for Vladimir. An iPhone, a new computer, illicit cash. I had it all on me then. But now I'm clean as a freshly scrubbed baby.
The customs officer stops before me, legs spread wide authoritatively. "Passport" he demands roughly. I insouciantly hand it over. The agent frowns at the sight of my Belgian passport; he's not seen one of those before. He leafs through it cautiously, page by page.
All is in order, and the agent doesn't like it. "Valisja," (luggage) he says. It's not a request bit an order. I point wordlessly to my suitcase in the bin overhead.
"Open!" he barks. I'm surprised that he knows some English (and am glad I didn't meet him on the way in). He's tough.
I retrieve the suitcase from the rack and unzip it, revealing nesting dolls, two painted Music Makers, books, and lots of dirty, wrinkled clothes within.
The customs officer nudges me to the side with his elbow and begins to rummage through my belongings. Halfway through, he suddenly stops and steps intimidatingly close to me so he can scrutinize my face for any nervous reaction.
"Do you have cigarettes?" he demands.
Cigarettes? That's what he's worried about? "I don't smoke," I reply calmly.
"Vodka?" he questions and points at my suitcase. I shake my head negatively. "I don't drink," I reply.
The custom agent's eyes squeeze closer together ever so slightly, indicating a difficult question is on the way.
He steps closer to me. He's a smoker. "Do you have drugs, or smuggle drugs, or have on your possession, drugs?"
If I did, does he think I'd tell him? "No," I reply. "I don't do drugs."
The customs agent is almost out of questions, but he doesn't want to let me go just yet. His instincts are tingling. I say I don't smoke, don't drink and don't do drugs. Even old women in Belarus do two of three. There's something suspicious about me, he's sure of it.
The customs agent steps even closer to me, if that were possible. I can't identify what he's eaten for breakfast, but cabbage is definitely involved. I step back a tiny bit, which confirms his suspicions. He has the upper hand now and closes in for the kill.
"Do you do...politics?" he asks, his eyes darting back and forth, analyzing my every reaction. The question is so ridiculous and unexpected, that I burst out in laughter.
I can't vote because I'm not an American citizen. But how am I going to explain that to him? "No politics," I say, keeping it simple.
The customs agent considers this, then waves me away from my suitcase. He bends over and again begins digging aggressively through my belongings. With mounting frustration, the agent works his way to the bottom of the suitcase, throwing my dirty clothes on the bench seats on both sides of the compartment.
And then, when he turns over my sweatpants, he sees a white envelope folder lying beneath...and stiffens.
The customs agent has just hit the mother lode and knows it. He lets out a quick breath and removes the folder.
Written on the outside of the envelope in my monkey-like printing is "INTRODUCTION TO MUSIC." It's the accessory packet of music I've been reworking whenever I've had some spare time on the trip. The agent waves it in my face.
"Is politics?" he demands.
"No," I say simply.
The agent pulls back the flap and removes the sheets of paper within. He flips through the pages and sees only music notations, "Mystery Songs 1, 2 and 3" and such-like.
"Muzika," I say, approximating what I think is the Russian word for music.
The customs agent ignores me and flips further through the packet, encountering nothing more threatening to the Belarussian state than an explanation of how to read time signatures and a definition of "allegro." No documents from the CIA. Nothing pilfered from the Belarussian Soviet. Just stupid music stuff.
The customs agent holds the sheets and envelope before me and lets them drop on the suitcase. Then, he turns and walks away without a word. I'm free to go.
The train starts into motion a few moments later. I repack and take my seat again. I look out the window at the pretty scenery passing by. I've seen so many amazing things on this most perfect of business trips: beautiful scenery, Khatyn village, and now, an incredibly surly customs official.