June 28, 1997: Minsk, Belarus

Here's another travel story from my diaries. This one's from my trip to Russia and Belarus on a Sophomore Year Study Abroad. Enjoy!

As someone once told me, "the afternoon already knows what the morning has no idea of," today I learned that God's plan is already established and we just need to trust and walk forward in it. I felt that feeling this morning when I arrived in Minsk, it was very similar to hanging out in populated place just coming back from an extended camping trip: no money, yet you're surviving and enjoying newness for free. I sat down on a park bench with all of my things and read a Bible for inspiration. I questioned my sincerity of loving my neighbor and leaving my nets for Christ. In terms of nuggets for the day, I had a whole mine full!

I next proceeded to change money and learned the lesson of reading fine print, I was charged 15% commision of travelers' checks. My first impression of the city outside the hectic train station: clean, quiet, and the buildings are grand, all-be-them Stalinist in architectural style [after being obliterated in WWII]. Minsk is 930 years old, but all history here says 1946.

My contact at the youth exchange camp didn't work on Saturdays as I found out arriving at Karl Marx 40 Street, but the receptionist was nice enough to let me drop my bags off and search for a hotel. I walked around town, saw the victory obelisk, and checked out the Hotel Sviclach, which was said by Lonely Planet to be nice and cheap. Price have gone up to $15/night and that would wear hard on my wallet at this point in my trip. I had read about the International Tourist Center of Youth and gave them a call. Through a bad connection, I thought I heard one room costs $2/night. Excellent! Little did I know of the trial that lay ahead of me in trying to find that cheap night's stay.

The guidebook was vague on directions. I struggled with my neck-high camping backpack and over-the-chest bookbag to negotiate the summer sweating streets towards the bus station. When I finally got there, I was first in line for the bus out of town in the direction of the Hostel. Unfortunately, I wasn't too seasoned in Belorussian bus jockeying tactics. When the bus arrive, I was trampled from behind by the veterans. As I tried to avoid bumping anyone with my two bags, they threw caution to the wind and marched aboard to get a window seat. When I finally got aboard, it was standing room only for me and my 50 pounds of gear. As we pulled away, two girls tried to make eyes with me and laughed either at me or their own silliness. I tried to ignore them but after a while it got annoying just trying to ignore them. The bus was crowded Russian-style [aka no personal space for Americans], the ticket lady was impatient with my lack of knowledge for my destination, and my bags were like buckets under a waterfall. Did I mention that it was about 90º today?

I asked a lady where the Minsk Sea stop was, and she said the next. Seeing no 14-story youth center in sight, I was confused and didn't prepare for my exit. I ended up missing it. Giggles in the background from the girls didn't soothe my boiling anxiety that my plans were on the wrong route. Sizzle. Pop! I signaled to get off at the next stop and threw down my stuff. Something had to be done.

I questioned the contents of my backpack and realized some things wouldn't thoroughly used. The trash can got a nice meal. Extra clothes, tapes, a Chicago Bulls shirt and other trinkets became a nice donation to the next passerby. I had no "ties to the flesh" and I found one net to leave today. I walked on without looking back and was relieved by my new freedom.

The country was pretty out there and I walked for a good hour before asking a couple where this mammoth hostel was. "On an entirely different road" the man said. I took a bus back, and would you believe it? the same annoying girls got on it later! Arrgh! I got off at my prior missed stop and asked around. "Way far off, you need a different bus". I decided to walk, they thought I was crazy. I thought I could truck it. I traversed some pretty lakes and got concrete directions from a nice man. Found the road and yup, started walking in the hot sun again. Just when I was fed up, I found the next bus stop and waited. The shadows were getting long. The bus came. Salvation at last!

I got off and the hotel really is some complex on a very beautiful lake. I entered, noticing the rows of washtubs and sinks lining the foyer. I asked for a room. They said, "we're closed." No place to stay, no hot water, and anyway the cost was like 500,000 Belorussian rubles for foreigners. I guess she didn't want me to stay there. Oh, one last perk for my visit, the last bus back to Minsk was the one that just dropped me off at the hotel.

So there I was without a place to stay, no ride back, and dusk coming in an hour or two. It was all I could do to fight back the tears for my lack of experience. I set off walking back on the road and "onward Christian soldiers" came to me. Some relief. I knew I had three options: take the electric train back, hitch, or sleep in the woods. I saw another couple's car off by the side of the road. They were at the forest's edge, hunting mushrooms. I told them my sob story.

There were receptive and didn't give a flat out answer. They just put my stuff in the trunk and we were off. Tamara and Ivan were mushroom hunters and nice to give me a ride. I had once read a book called, "Europe on 84¢ a day". It sang praises of traveling around Europe by hitch-hiking and staying in drivers' homes to reduce costs and build international relations. I tried to keep this conversation going in spite of my exhaustion. We arrived back in Minsk, and Ivan starting driving to hotels that he knew. We tried one on the outskirts, but it was hauntingly empty. Then we went back to Hotel Sviclach, they dropped me off and we shook hands farewell. They didn't leave. They wanted gas money. I guess in a town without taxis, the people are taxis and expect money. I gave them 100,000 BR and they were a little disappointed with my payment. Well, at least I was in a place.

I asked the hotel administrator of he had an available room, and the man he was talking to broke in to our conversation. He asked if I was a student, then said in English that he knew a place where I could stay for $2 a night. Like an answer to my prayers! We loaded his cargo and mine and set off talking.

Yevgeny worked at a music school, went to Paris, and has written several books. Now he's a pensioner adn works part-time at the hotel. He asked about me and my frown was turning upside down. he had some preconceived notions about Blacks in America as theives and I was glad to dispell some myths for him.

Finally, we arrived at a massive apartment complex and Yevgeny asked me to wait in the courtyard while he made arrangements with the babushka on the third floor. Zhenya steps out of her doorway to the staircase and looks me over with a concerned look that evaporates to a smile. She has an extra room and keeps a clean house. She fed me tea and even prepared a warm-water bath for me to clean away the sweat and frustration from my day. I feel blessed to have such accommodations close to Belarussian people. Thank you, thank you. Lord. Peace at last.


The snake and the field mouse

As promised, here's a story from my previous travels. It takes place in November, 1999.

There's something about realizing one's own mortality in a place, or furthermore on this Earth, that liberates him to try something exotic that he otherwise wouldn't. I realized this as a neophyte Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa.

I was training in Parakou, the gateway to the Sahel region in the North of the country. For two months, I had been negotiating for my future in the country; to have the right to pray for myself first before taking the mind-boggling anti-malarial drug should I contract the disease. Ironic, I never got sick a day while I was there. Still, I would go into town every two weeks for a phone call with the country director.

On this day, I had made a final decision: to transfer from Benin to another country's program yet to be determined. After two months of wrangling, I felt at peace. Although my time in Benin would be coming to an end, I finally felt free to enjoy my time there at it's fullest. I hung up the phone at the work station and walked outside to catch a Zemidjan. "Zeh" as they are affectionately called by locals, are scooter taxis that whisk Beninois around towns. I put on my casque, helmet, but left the visor up to catch the cool breeze as my zeh picked up speed on the western road out of Parakou.

With my mind free to reflect on the back of that scooter as I rode to the compound of my host family, I thought about my time there in Benin. How it was fraught with mental struggle to understand a new culture, included brief highlights of insight, laughter with host brothers, and fear of wild creatures and voodoo religion. The closer I got to home, the more I felt free of those limitations to my experience there.

By the time I arrived at the compound, I was like a released prisoner, given a second chance on my experience in Benin. So when there was an unusual amount of activity in the common area of the compound, I wasn't surprised that it was an extension of my new attitude. François, the teenage cousin of my host brothers, Muhammed and Fatau, was turning circles around them with what looked like a thick rope. When I got closer, we exchanged bonjou's and sa va's and I got a look at what François really had: a four-foot-long snake! It was dead, thank goodness. Muhammed and Fatau had catches of their own: two field mice.

The boys had been out working in the fields when they'd come upon this snake in the middle of ingesting a field mouse. Temporarily disabled in its gorging, the snake was vulnerable. François took his cutlass and chopped off that snake's head. What would they find not too deep in that snake's belly but another mouse. A double whammy!

Now don't think that these mice were finger length. In Africa, everything wild is so much bigger than what we imagine them to be from the comforts of our TV room in USA. These field mice were a full six inches long, not including the tail. Any catch of meat in this part of Africa was a special treat. My meals consisted mostly of pounded yams and potent soup base to dip it in. Certainly filling, but lacking in protein for sure. So when we had two kinds of fresh meat to eat, you can bet that was a treat!

Muhammed and another cousin prepared the fire, while François cleaned and gutted each creature. Fatau, about six years old with a belly rounded by vitamin deficiency, carried himself with a jollyful gait as he walked around the compound with the expectation to eat well that evening. I watched carefully has each boy set about to enjoy their feast.

How do you know when snake is boiled through? You don't. You just know how to cook something safely and then you apply to whatever mystery meat you find that day. As for field mice, Muhammed gutted them, skewered them, and then singed the hairs off them with the brightest of the flames on the fire. Then they set about cooking them shish-ke-bob style.

All the while I was savoring this moment of raw excitement and embracing of the surprises that the African earth could give up. This was the boys' feast, but I would certainly take a taste. What does snake taste like? How do you eat a mouse? Like itself, one bite at a time.

The meats were cooked and we boys sat around the dwindling light of the fire sinking our teeth into our dinner. The snake didn't break down without a dogfight in my molars. The mouse was moist, oily, and rich, almost like he came from the Nigerian soil to the East. I ate them without care for tomorrow. I ate them just savoring the experience of immersing myself in something so foreign and exotic to everything I'd grown up in, that nothing could hurt me. And nothing did. My subsequent visits to the latrine were regular and routine.

It's eight years later now. I look back on that experience with great treasure. My moment of eating in what Benin had to offer. In a month, I would board a jet plane for the States. In two, I would be in Jamaica. And another eating experience would begin.


LA Times Travel & Adventure Show

Gilda and I went to the Long Beach Convention Center to hear Rick Steves give a talk on travel tips for a "backdoor experience". I've been a fan of Rick and his PBS show "Europe through the Back door" since 1998 when my college roommate and I would watch episodes and wonder who this guy with two first names was.

After watching so many episodes, listening to his podcast every week, and travelling to Berlin in 2003 using a few of his tips, we pretty much knew everything that he talked about. Still, there's something about seeing someone live and the interaction between audience and speaker that made it just as thrilling.

Rick emphasized that you should "psychologically immerse yourself in the culture and information of your host country" and "travel engaged in what you have an opportunity to learn". That means do your homework before you go and use local news sources while you're there.

After his 90 minute talk carried over into 120 minutes, we stayed after to get a book signed by him. His off camera persona is just as kind as his on camera one. Despite the 1000+ crowd thronging him, Rick still manages to keep things in perspective.

While my current financial situation makes our hoped trip to Turkey this year a murkier dream, I have come up with another idea to keep the travel theme to my blog more vibrant. Every week, I'd like to recount some travel story from my experience. It will help me to hone my travel writing skills and interest my readers. See you then!

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA