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Focus on Safety




It's ten-thirty at night when my train from Vilnius finally pulls into Minsk. Bleary-eyed, I stumble off it, dragging my heavy suitcase behind me. I don't say goodbye to my beer-guzzling train companion of the past four and a half hours (see prior newsletter), the less than attractive woman who first drank herself blotto and then proceeded to undress (demurely, she mistakenly thought) beneath a blanket before falling asleep. She tossed and turned, moaned and snarled in her sleep (delirium tremens?) and the cheap Russian blanket covering her eventually slid to the floor. I saw things that night I never want to see again.
The train station is surprisingly crowded so late at night. Long lines of tired-looking travellers stand in the chill of the evening and wait for their trains to arrive.
My phone didn't have satellite coverage, so I couldn't contact Vladimir in order to have him pick me up. I'm on my own. I hope against all logic that, with this many people around, the tourist office or a snack bar might be open. But that's a silly thought--in Belarus places are often closed in the middle of the day with no explanation given. A quick walk through the station proves it. I drag my suitcase outside. I've now got to find a taxi driver who will take Lithuanian litas as payment, a problem because dollars count in Belarus. Not roubles, not litas, dollars and only dollars. And I have none.
The first taxi driver waves me away dismissively when he sees the Litas in my hand. So does the second. I continue walking down the row of taxis parked at the curb, striking out left and right.
This is not working. It's cold. It's dark. It's definitely unfriendly.
Toward the end of the row of taxis, a young man with a kind face waves me over. Using a mixture of bad Russian and equally bad German I attempt to explain my predicament. It's only when, in desperation, I turn on my computer and show him Vladimir's name and phone number that he brightens. He pulls a cell phone from his jacket and dials. On the other end of the line, I heard Vladimir's voice answer. The taxi driver passes the phone to me. We talk. Vladimir tells me his apartment is only five minutes away and that I should sit tight until he arrives.
I motion to the young man that I'll wait on the sidewalk so I can free up his cab, but he shakes his head and gestures I should stay. Sadly, our mutual language incompatibility prevents us from chatting. I offer him the litas I have in my hand as a thank you, which the young man gently refuses.
Vladimir arrives a few minutes later and yanks open the taxi door.
"Let's go," he says and reaches for my bag. But I can't leave the driver like this. He showed me a kindness where noone else did. I know things are always tight for Belorussian working people. I offer him the money one more time. "Puzhalsta," (please) I say. He smiles and accepts.
Vladimir drives me to my hotel where I collapse on the bed, utterly exhausted. It's been a horrifically long day. I wake early the next morning and throw back the blinds of my window. I've had the same room at this hotel for years and love the view: a beautiful, open grassy field with a hamlet of ramshackle--yet attractive-- wooden houses to the left. Years ago, I saw two men sitting in the long grass, sharing a cigarette as they watched the sun go down over Minsk. It was a beautiful scene I'll never forget.
And it's gone! My field is gone! A modern, high rise apartment block stands where there was only grass before. To the right, another. And then another. It's such a disquieting change that I have to take a look--now!
I wander the neighborhood, for that is what it is now. What I see leaves me slack jawed with amazement. These aren't the 'falling apart ten minutes after they've been built' Stalinist apartment buildings of old. You never really wanted to stand too close to them for fear they might collapse without warning at any given moment. They sagged, they leaned, they peeled. They were horrible.
And now, progress? Modernity? Those aren't words I'd ever have used before in association with Belarus. An old English language newspaper I find in the hotel's reception area provides the answer. According to the International Monetary Fund, Belarus' economy weathered the global economic crisis well, the nation's GDP being projected to grow by 7.2 and 6.2% in the next two years. That's about double the USA's tepid growth rate!
This is happening in Belarus?, an economic basket case if ever there was one? A country so pathetically run as to stretch the bounds of belief. A short time ago, things were so bad that the Belorussian government called neighboring Russia and asked if they would be interested in having Belarus join Russia as a new province.
Russia coughed, and politely declined.
Vladimir picks me up for our first meeting of the day an hour later. As we drive through the capitol, I notice all the cranes which dominate the sky line, each building a new apartment building like the one I'd seen earlier. Impulsively, I count the cranes which are in view at that moment. There are twenty-three. In my home town, nothing is being built at the moment!
Has Belarus become the China of eastern Europe? It used to be such a fun place. Horrible, actually, but in a fun way.
"We have a problem with the director of the printing factory," Vladimir says. For some reason, Belorussians refer to every little shop as a factory, as in "My tooth was hurting, so today, I went to the dentist factory."
The director of the printing "factory" had misprinted much of our music a month earlier. We were scheduled to meet with him to discuss the money he owed us as a consequence.
"A week ago the people at the factory said the director would meet with us today, but when I telephoned this morning they said they couldn't find him."
"Couldn't find him?" I question.
"No, gone." Vladimir says. He holds his hands in the air as if performing a magic trick. "Disappeared. Poof!" he says.
I smile. This is more like the Belarus I'm used to..
"So, I will take you to a good place until they find him," Vladimir continued. "My Elena found a job at a paint factory and wants to give you a tour," he says.
Elena is Vladimir's girlfriend...sort of. A small, dark haired and very pretty girl, she likes parties, restaurants, all-night discos, fast cars, jewelry and travel. Vladimir likes to go fishing (not romantic fly fishing--but the messy worm on a hook kind).
If ever there was an incompatible-appearing couple in the world, Elena and Vladimir are it. She is always impeccably dressed and groomed, jewelry around her neck and dangling her wrists. Vladimir's uniform is always the same: an old t-shirt tucked into shorts which are dismayingly too short. He'd also gained a lot of weight during the past year.
"How long have the two of you been together now?" I ask as we drove along.
"Five years," Vladimir answers. "Only the last two years...not so much."
I wince. Vladimir is maddeningly frustrating to work with. He still does business in the tried and true Communist way. Information (like production status or shipping details of Music Makers) is something to be shared with the greatest reluctance--even with someone he's worked with for almost two decades. His invoices are always wrong. He can't count. He has a strong paranoid streak and sees plots (against Belarus, against himself) everywhere.
But he's nice person and I don't want to see him be hurt, which I know Elena is going to do one day.
We park and enter the factory. Elena is waiting for us, smiles and shakes my hand. Behind her, rows of shelving, paint cans stacked on them, run along three of the room's four walls. A dozen employees huddle in a group in the background, watching my every move. They seem to be fearful of coming close to me, as if I have some dreadful disease.
I know this story. Helena has told her coworkers an "American businessman" is coming to visit her, demonstrating to everyone at the factory that she is a person "in the know".
"This is lacquer," Elena says in English as she points toward a silver can. Her facility with the English language impresses her co-workers, who follow us around the room in a tight huddle--always keeping a safe distance..
"That is blue paint," Elena observes. "And this is red paint" There are hundreds of cans on the shelves. This is going to take some time.
Thankfully, Vladimir interrupts the tour halfway between the yellow and greens. "I've spoken to the printing factory," Vladimir announces. "The director of the printing factory has gone to the hospital. He is critically ill and must be operated immediately. He will only be better in two days."
"I leave in two days," I say to Vladimir dryly. "What a coincidence."
And then I smile. "He's not sick, Vladimir," I say, "He's hiding from us. This way he doesn't have to try and explain how he screwed up the printing of the music so badly."
Vladimir is shocked. "No!' he insists. "He's very ill and has gone to hospital. It's a very critical issue."
I touch Vladimir's on the arm. "Vladimir," I say. "Tell me the truth. He's not sick is he? Really?"
Vladimir hesitates. "No, he's not sick," he admits. "He's afraid."
I smile again. Belarus' leaders may build all the beautiful apartment buildings they want, but the Belorussian people are never going to change. Obdurate, maddeningly incompetent, suspicious, fumbling, bumbling...that's the Belarus I know. And absolutely love.
I turn to Helena. "Show me some more paint," I suggest with a smile..