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Focus on Safety

Another year, another trip to Belarus. My plane slowly began its descent, leaving the sunny, blue skies overhead behind and merging with the thick, slate-grey Belorussian skies. The clouds became thicker with each passing moment and the light inside the flight cabin changed from filtered to murky. "Hello, old friend," I muttered as we broke through he low cloud layer and I saw the snow covered farm fields below. I wouldn't see blue sky again for four days.

Surprisingly for such a storm-wracked region, landings in Belarus have always been extremely smooth. We landed gently and taxied our bumpy way toward the terminal, guided by a rickety and quite rusty civilian car with a flashing amber light on its roof. It was so grey outside that I could see the orange glow of the light reflecting off the interior of the plane's cabin.

As I gathered my things together I began to mentally prepare myself for the difficult check-in period ahead. "Keep calm," I told myself. "Make sure you have all your papers. Don't let the guards intimidate you." I said all of these things and more, believing some of them. But I knew, deep down inside, that the entry process was always bad, no matter how much preparation I did. Zen and good thoughts can only take you so far in this world.

But what I saw when I stepped out of the airplane and walked into the terminal shocked me to the core.

They had completely remodeled everything! The terminal shone, sparkled, glimmered. The floor was clean, all the grimy seats had been replaced, there were even attractive marble panels on the walls.

Even worse, I discovered that the attitude of the people I interfaced with had been upgraded as well. For the first time ever I was welcomed to Belarus. People smiled, and it didn't even appear that it was the first time they had ever done so.

I felt thoroughly and completely cheated. "Where are the machine guns?" I wanted to shout out. "What have you people done with all the dirt?" I wanted to ask someone. "Why are you people smiling?"

It was just...not...right. Passengers around me didn't have that deer in the headlights look. No one raced to the immigration desk, elbowing women and children out of the way, in a desperate attempt to be one of the lucky few who was able to procure a non-Russian language customs declaration form. Honestly speaking, the most uncivilized thing around

After quickly and courteously being checked through the customs and immigration stops, I found myself standing, more than a little bit bewildered, in the arrivals hall, suitcases in hand, and looking for the person who was to meet me, Vladimir.

I had met Vladimir the year before when he worked for a shipping company which transported our Music Makers. Vladimir proved to be an extremely competent and trustworthy person, something not recognized by his odious employer. This man heavily criticized Vladimir for his willingness to take on air freight orders. Since Vladimir had single-handedly increased the air transport business of the company in only one year, one would have expected that praise, not condemnation, was due.

Not so. Vladimir's superior was distrustful of air transport and threatened dismissal if Vladimir continued to accept air transport orders. Vladimir countered that air transport and not truck transport (which his superior felt more comfortable with) represented the most profitable part of the entire company and that it would be a crime to ignore it.

Vladimir was then given the option of doing what his superior demanded or joining the vast legions of unemployed people in Belarus. After some discussion, I suggested to Vladimir that he work with me. He quit his job that week.

I had asked Vladimir to join me because loveable, loud and brazenly drunk, Ivan Jancik had been fired and replaced by a new director of the zither factory. I was going to meet the new director on this trip and wanted everything to go smoothly. I asked Vladimir to sit in on the meetings and translate for me.

But Vladimir was a no show. All around me, people were being met by their hosts; they smiled, shook hands, picked up luggage and departed. The crowd quickly thinned out and I was soon one of the few people left in the terminal who wasn't wearing a green uniform, pushing a broom or sporting a beehive hairdo.

I was a bit concerned. I knew where the hotel was, but how was I going to find a taxi to get me there? And what about my meeting in an hour with the director? As I was considering my limited options, I heard the clicking of high heels behind me. I turned around and saw an extremely attractive woman walking by. She smiled at me and said, "It's nice to see you again, Mr. Peeleman."

She even pronounced my name correctly--something that people who have worked with me for years fail to do. I was stunned Had we met before? If we had, I certainly would have remembered. She opened a security door and closed it behind her, leaving me once again baffled at the riddle that is Belarus.

The sound of someone running rapidly through the hallway made me turn my head back,and I saw Vladimir rushing toward me. He was "all a'twitter" as the English so quaintly phrase it. He ran up to me, shook my hand enthusiastically, picked up my bags and said "Sorry, I'm late, let's go." He was still breathing hard.

And his face was a mess. His nose was visibly dented in. He had a nasty, bluish cut across one eyebrow and a swollen lump under his left eye. The right eye, miraculously unblemished, was balanced nicely by a crooked gash on his jawline.

Vladimir noticed me studying his face. He straightened out and puffed out his chest with pride. "I've been boxing!" he said proudly. "Perhaps you should consider giving it up," I responded. "It doesn't look like you're very good at it."

Vladimir took the insult well. He smiled and gave me an ebullient slap on the back. "Nah," he said with a wide grin. "Too much fun."

He then asked me to wait for him while he "ran" to get the car. And run he did, at an impressive rate. Since only two cars remained in the arrivals lot, I surmised that I would either be travelling in comfort in a new Mercedes or rattling round in what passed for a poor man's armored vehicle.

It was to be the armored vehicle. We threw my bags in the back and scrambled in, trying to tuck our arms and legs in the small space that could only euphemistically be called a back seat. Vladimir leaned forward and said something to the driver, who glared at him sullenly in response, started the car and drove off, shifting angrily.

Our driver turned out to be spectacularly uncommunicative. And if I may be unkind, he was an ugly bugger too; with an attitude to match. He was unshaven, unwashed and unhappy. He never said a single word as we first drove along the lonely stretch of highway leading away from the airport, then on the pot holed main road to the town, finally turning onto the bumpy road to the factory itself.

Calvin Coolidge's Slavic descendant parked the car in front of the factory's main entrance, switched off the ignition, and lit up a foul-smelling cigarette. Vladimir and I, neither of whom smoke, bolted out of the car. The driver then opened his door and placed one of my bags on the dirty ground, ignored my 'thank you' and walked away. Clearly a man who likes to think deep thoughts.

An old woman was bent double, cleaning the snow from the concrete steps with a flat-bladed shovel. She stepped to the side as we approached, and bowed deferentially. This always makes me feel so uncomfortable. I hope the time is close at hand when the common people of Belarus see a dramatic improvement in their living standards. They certainly deserve it.

We entered through freely-swinging wooden doors, and Vladimir announced our arrival to the security guard; an old woman sitting on stool. Workers rushed through the turnstiles and made their way over the slush and mud covered floor. Grey coats, oversized fur hats, bent backs. The developments at the airport had not made their presence felt here. Nothing had changed.

Youri, the young man who had previously been my translator at the factory, met us a few moments later. He led us along the darkened hallway, up the grand stairs, and down another dark hallway covered with peeling linoleum, to the new director's office. He gestured us to enter. As the door swung open, I wondered what kind of man he would be.

He was on the phone, a strong man in a dark suit. He exuded an air of modernism and confidence. We stood near the door, waiting for our presence to be acknowledged. This looked promising.

We stood there for a very long time as the director continued his conversation. He faced us, but never gave us a glance. It was difficult to believe that he had not noticed that three people had entered his office. Nervously, Youri suggested we sit at the nearby conference table to await his finishing the call.

We sat and waited, as Winnie the Pooh might term it, "a very long wait." The director never looked at us, never took notice of our presence as he took, and made, call after call. At last he put the phone down. Youri breathed an audible sign of relief.

Just then the door opened. The director's secretary stuck her head in the gap, smiled, and asked him something in Russian. The director looked up from the document he was reading, did not let his gaze shift toward us still seated at the conference table (a remarkable feat of self-control) and gave her an affirmative nod. She smiled and brought in tea on a pewter tray. The two of them chatted amiably as she poured out his tea: two lumps of sugar, no milk.

She then left the room and the director turned back to his telephone and dialed another number. At this point, my hackles up, I began to stare at him, challenging him to notice my presence. There was a clear message being sent here. And I didn't like it.

The door opened again. A factory official entered the room unannounced and spoke to the director in low tones. Both lit cigarettes and reviewed some documents, which the director initialed. A quick glance at my watch confirmed that we had been waiting over 15 minutes. I cast a rapid glance at Vladimir, who arched his eyebrows every so slightly in response. Youri fidgeted in his chair.

At last it was our turn. The official said something and gestured toward us. The director measuredly turned his head in our direction and appraised us coldly. Setting back in his chair he made an imperious gesture with his hand: permission granted to approach.

We stood up. I was fuming. This was going to be an interesting meeting.