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 90ยบ 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.

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