Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hotel Inturista Brest, Belarus 11:09 PM

You know its been a long day if I’m thinking of sleep anytime before 1 am. Today was just that. We successfully rented a car and drove across the country of Belarus – All in a day’s work.

Wake up was supposed to be at 6 but 3 hrs was not enough sleep so instead we got up around 7. Breakfast was an all you can eat buffet on the 22nd floor of our hotel. The hotel was the main Minsk hotel so basically anyone staying in town is there, and even yes the four typical American tourists showed up at breakfast – but what a great view. We had a big breakfast thinking we’d use it for lunch too. Great apple juice and tea, eggs, hashbrown type things and even some cereal and of course delicious pastries.

Ready to go by 9, we headed to the car rental agency in the hotel to see what we could muster. We thought we might need an international driver’s license but these countries usually make flexible laws when it means money coming their way. The woman (aka 22 yr old girl who explained to us she had way too much to drink the night before) happily rented us the car – and Virginia doesn’t have her license with her – so this means I’m driving a stick in Belarus until Monday!

After precisely 15 seconds, driving in the car felt just like driving anything back in the states. I thought after a 9 month deficit I might be a little rusty but it came back like clockwork.

Ok so let me just get you in the right frame or mind. Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe. And yes I mean dictatorship. Two Americans accidentally flew into Byelorussian airspace during a Hot Air Balloon race around the world and the president commended the Byelorussian air force for shooting down the balloon and killing the pilots. He also has required that 75% of the music on the radio be Byelorussian, and welded shut the gate to the US Ambassador’s Residence sparking an intense diplomatic battle. So yea that’s the setting for driving a car 350 kilometers to the city of Brest. Needless to say the last thing we want to do is get pulled over. The whole trip I’d say we’ve been a bit on edge just wondering what we’re not supposed to do.

After an hour of paper work we finally got into the car and we were set. I’m pretty sure I opened the door and looked at Virginia and said, “Virginia, what the hell are we doing.” After just a little while, though, it felt just like all the road trips we’d done before. At times with the rolling hills of trees, huge fields of yellow flowers, we thought we were in Illinois on our way home from Middlebury.

Anyway we made it out of Minsk fine, just a little bit of being lost and made it to the interstate to Brest. Luckily we had no problems along the way though we saw lots of cops pulling people over. Also the speed limits aren’t very well posted so we were mostly just hoping we were going the right speed – tough to do when there aren’t any other cars on the road.

Ok so I should mention that the purpose of this trip is for Virginia to do genealogical research on her great grandparents that left Belarus ahead of World War I. It’s actually a really cool story of how the great grandma and three kids journeyed from Belarus all the way across Russia via the Trans-Siberian railroad, sailed to Seattle, and made it to her waiting husband in Pennsylvania. Yea ok romantic I know. Anyway the relatives departed from a little village outside of Brest and we were hoping to do research in the archives in Brest and then find the actual village.
Our map of Brest was actually pretty good and we made it to the archives. The lady there was really helpful, though she wouldn’t let us do any research because they didn’t have any records before WWI. She wouldn’t tell us how to get to the village either so we were on our own.

We checked into our hotel – not as nice as last night but a great view of a beautiful Orthodox Church. The room shines in 70’s bright orange. We went over to an internet café to try and find out how to get to the village. Virginia had looked it up before but didn’t have a print out. Using google earth we just happened upon the village – it wasn’t labeled but VA recognized the streets. Using a satellite image we traced the roads back to the city of Brest, tried to memorize some landmarks and just got in the car and hoped for the best. We only made one bad turn and after about 30 minutes we found ourselves in a village of about 100 people with only two streets at running perpendicularly to each other. We had found the countryside. I don’t know how we would have done it without a car.

As in Romania and Transylvania, people often just sit for long hours on the benches in front of their houses. After taking a turn down through the village we stopped at one such bench and Virginia plowed into finding info about her relatives.

I should also mention how there is no way I would survive here if she didn’t speak Russian. In all the other countries I’ve been to, you say you don’t’ speak the language and they’re like oh stupid tourists. Here they’re like how the hell did you get here. Most places at least have Latin letters and you can figure out the basics like internet, toilet, etc. Not here. Not to mention that Virginia is fluent and can have full conversations about relatives, wars, etc. The few minutes when I have to go park the car or while she checks out a restaurant I’m scared someone might actually talk to me.

So she launches into her story and the village people (pun intended?) turn out to be very helpful. This one guy leads us into like 5 different houses and talks to people all over the town. They were really helpful and explained that the town basically got burned down during the war and people only came back after a few years and most were new residents. We did happen upon one lady that Virginia thinks she is related to. Her uncle had the same last name as that of Virginia’s relatives. I think she might call her tomorrow and find out some more info about the family.

I can’t explain just how bizarre this whole time in the village was. Virginia is walking up and down this one road talking to all the residents in Russian and I’m standing there useless. I figure I’ll just be the cameraman/driver and try to take as many rustic photographs as possible. I have a few favorites. I also played this game with myself where I tried to take pictures of all the people without letting them know it. Crossing my arms and sneaking a photo, turning the other way.

Also a highlight was when I tried to walk back into someone’s backyard and take a picture of a goose. I heard yelling and VA tried to translate as quickly as possible that I would be eaten by a big scary dog if I went any farther – I stopped. Virginia found out a bunch of useful info about the relatives. Funny how all these people in this old abandoned village were encouraging her to use the internet to contact the Byelorussian archives. Small world.

I can’t explain how nice it is to drive. Even though I’m in a town in Belarus, it still seems like I’m just at a stop light in Iowa. I’m always impressed when Western culture permeates these countries. Hear Eagle Eye Cherrie’s Save Tonight while waiting for a stoplight. Hear some rap music while parking the car. Got back to the hotel and turned on the TV with choices of Tin Cup or Jackie Chan for entertainment. You can’t escape it.

After our tour in the village we headed back to Brest to get dinner at this restaurant in the “Park of Culture and Leisure.” Awesome food and cool view over this artificial lake. There was a huge concert going on and the whole park was like a mini carnival. Apparently it was the place to be on Saturday night. Its tough to get an act to fill such a crowd because all the bands protest the government so only state-approved acts are allowed to perform.

After dinner we used the car to check out one of the nicest train station’s I’ve ever seen. A beautiful, clean interior with neo-classical motifs that look like they belong in the US Capitol. Also saw a nice big statue of Lenin and some colorful Orthodox Churches. We also got a head start on the Brest Fortress which we’ll be seeing tomorrow.

I know I’m getting wordy here but there’s so much to say. Byelorussians are obsessed with World War II, or as they call it “The Great Patriotic War.” Russians and Byelorussians are taught in school that THEY won the war and no one else. Ok so the point of all this is that you see tributes to WWII everywhere much disproportionally than anything else. Brest was awarded one of eleven “hero cities” under the USSR and apparently still supports this identity. Even in the village there was a monument to honor those that died in that war and no other monuments.

We’re back in our orange room and sleep is setting in. Tomorrow we’re getting breakfast and then back to the village for a bit more sight seeing then back to Minsk. It seems like I just got here and I have to fly out on Monday already. Its been a productive trip so far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.