Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Messages from Minsk


Message 1 - Message in a Bubble

This entry comes to you from a city at the end of the world.

To reach this forgotten and isolated place, I had to travel thousands of miles by land and air. I also had to travel back in time, back to a time when the hammer and sickle ruled Eastern Europe.

I am writing from Mogilev, a small city of a few hundred thousand people close to the Russian border.

This is not my first visit to Mogilev; I have visited this off-the-map place many times. In fact, I lived and worked here for six months in a nearby orphanage when I was 26 years old. Now I am back, back at the end of the world, back in the USSR.

A few days ago I had a party in this flat with a Mexican, a dozen 19-year-old Belorussian girls and plenty of Soviet vodka. Written on the bottom of the cups we were drinking our vodka from were the words: Made in the USSR. On a shelf in this room are an assortment of books dating back to the early days of the Soviet Union. Believe it or not, there are also a number of magazines, dated 1990 - 1991, which appear to glorify Stalin (the covers show photos of Stalin meeting The Workers, Stalin hugging a little girl).

A few days ago I said goodbye to the Mexican as he boarded a train to Moscow at a station which has changed little since the days when Khrushchev and Castro were sharing vodka and missiles.

Perhaps this country's Soviet past is not so much in the past after all.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let me get back to the very beginning, back to where it all began.

Message 2 - Condoms for Breakfast

Picking up from where I left off, I departed Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on 15 February. I managed to have more adventures and misadventures during my final hours in South America.

I arrived at Quito airport with $25 to pay the necessary departure tax, only to find that the $25 tax had become a $32 tax.

I had a grand total of $31.75 in my wallet and my Visa Electron cash card which would not work in the airport cash machines. I was 25 cents short and the airport staff would not let me proceed through security until I had paid the departure tax in full.

I was facing being stranded in South America because of a tiny sum of money, and could well have been, had an American tourist not learned of my plight and stepped to give me 25 cents.

This little episode made me angry and so when, after proceeding through security, I was approached by a young woman who started asking me questions about why I was in Ecuador, I was more than a little rude with her. I was in no mood to explain I had been living with Indians in the Amazon rainforest for the past four weeks.

With a smile, the young woman asked me to follow her into a nearby room. She was going to exercise the little bit of power that she had and she was going to teach this angry Englishman a lesson.

She pointed to a sign on the wall, written in Spanish, of which I could understand just one word: NARCĂ“TICO. That one word was enough.

After putting my signature to a sheet of paper, I was instructed to drop my trousers and place a protective sheath over my private parts. I was then x-rayed to see if I was carrying any illegal substances in my stomach.

Of course there was nothing of any interest in my stomach, other than plenty of boiled and fried bananas, a liquidised Mars Bar, a rusty licence plate, the remains of a young female bather and a small wooden puppet going by the name of Pinocchio.

After an apology from the young woman, my stomach and I were allowed to go on our way and I finally boarded my flight and left Ecuador and the Amazon far behind.

Message 3 - Trials and Tribulations in Toronto

After another pit stop in Panama and a few days in Mexico City with my friend Cesar, I flew on to Toronto where I had a ten-hour wait for my connecting flight to London.

I had intended to spend the day discovering Toronto, but it didn't quite turn out that way. In fact, it didn't turn out that way at all.

I arrived at the airport with no cash. I planned to use my Visa Electron card but I could not find a cash machine that would accept it.

I spent five hours walking around Toronto, through slush and snow, in freezing temperatures, searching for that elusive cash machine, but I could not find a single ATM that would give me cash.

After almost being stranded in Ecuador, I could have been stranded in Canada too. Luckily the airport bus driver accepted my Visa Electron and so I was at least able to get to and from the airport.

After walking the streets for the afternoon I headed to the CN Tower where I had arranged to meet the infamous David Shakespeare, the star of many of my mass emails.

But David turned out to be just as elusive as that cash machine and we did not meet. (I found out some days later that David was waiting for me on the opposite side of the tower).

After an hour I headed into the tower. They accepted my Visa Electron card and so I was able to reach the top of the CN Tower.

Standing 553 metres tall, attracting around two million visitors every year, the CN Tower is an icon of Canada and currently holds the title of the world's tallest freestanding structure on land.

Near to the top of the tower is a glass floor which I stood upon and looked at all of the cars and crowds far below, smaller than ants, wrapped up in their lives, thinking about money and sex and family and money and sex, most of them unaware that the foreign policy of the world's major powers is endangering all of our lives.

Next to the glass floor is a sign which states that the glass is strong enough to hold 14 hippos (or three average-sized American teenagers) but despite this many of the people around me were still too afraid to walk onto the glass. People are such wimps.

After scaling the tower I made my way back to the airport to catch my flight to London.

Looking back, I did not enjoy my brief stay in Canada.

After a month in South America and a few days in Mexico, returning to a capitalist country was not pleasant and I found the people of Toronto to be rude and insincere. In fact, I saw little difference between Toronto and any US city, with people hanging around on street corners selling hockey tickets and the awful Support Our Troops posters scattered across the city.

A Canadian told me that Toronto is possibly the worst city in Canada to visit, and perhaps I am being a little too judgemental, but I really did not like Toronto or the people and I have no desire to return.

Message 4 - Perchance to Dream

I arrived at Heathrow the following day and boarded a coach that took me from London to Liverpool.

I arrived at my Mother's house around midnight and after unpacking and repacking I set my alarm and fell asleep at two in the morning. A little under two hours later the alarm woke me and at 4.30am my Mother, my brother and I made our way to a local bus stop where we boarded a coach that would take us to Ostend in Belgium.

By this point I was exhausted. I could barely think, let alone speak, and all of my energy was spent just trying to keep my eyes open.

In the past three days I had been to Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Toronto, the UK and now I was on my way to Belgium. I had barely eaten, barely slept and had gone from unbearable heat in Ecuador and Mexico to six below zero in Canada to rain in the UK.

In a word, I was tired.

A day later my family and I arrived at our hotel in Ostend and I was finally able to get my head on a pillow. I closed my eyes and slept for more than fourteen hours - and woke up feeling tired.

Message 5 - Feeling Old in Ostend

Exhaustion aside, I enjoyed my time in Belgium and I was glad that I got to know my Mum, Jackie, and my brother Mark a little better.

I am not close to my family; we are very different people I think, and this was our first family holiday for years and years and a chance for us all to enjoy ourselves and spend some quality time together.

I enjoyed the holiday too, though spending my days with a bus load of people twice my age is not normally my idea of fun.

Still, they were pleasant days. I got to explore the beautiful city of Bruges and, after my ordeal in the Amazon rainforest, a short holiday in Belgium was a welcome prescription for rest and recovery.

My family and I returned to the UK on Friday and on Sunday I packed my bags once again and headed to Liverpool John Lennon airport where I boarded a flight to Riga in Latvia. Once there I made my way to Belarus and to the Soviet Union.

Message 6 - Back in the USSR

The Republic of Belarus really is an anomaly.

It is hard to believe that in the year 2007 this throw-back to the Soviet Union still exists.

Everywhere you go in Minsk there are reminders of the past: Statues of Lenin, Soviet symbols, the KGB - still called the KGB - driving around in their 4x4s, silently observing the population.

Belarus is stuck in a time-warp; it's not that things in Belarus aren't changing, they are, they are just changing very, very slowly.

A black hole in the centre of Europe, the Republic of Belarus is trapped, trapped in the past, perhaps a little afraid of the future.

Life is different here, different to any other country I have visited. Belarus is cocooned, protected by a bubble.

There is almost no unemployment, no risk of terrorism and very little crime. The problems we face in the West don't apply here. Life is safer, different, unique and a little detached from reality.

It's difficult to put into words, but this is similar to what life was like in the Soviet Union. Simply, people felt protected.

Unfortunately, because Belarus is still pretty much the same as when Gorbachev was in power, life can be frustrating. Nothing works and when things do work they mostly work badly.

Common sense could not get a visa for Belarus; bureaucracy rules, the transport system is a mess, things are old and getting older.

Belarus does, however, have one redeeming feature: its people. Belarus is home to the finest people in Europe, possibly the finest in the world. Warm, friendly and sincere, these are good people and they have not yet had their souls corrupted by capitalism.

But things are changing. But we'll get to that later.

Message 7 - Message from Minsk

Undoubtedly the most surreal moment of this visit to Minsk occurred when I went with Emily to the funeral of her uncle who had died some days earlier.

Emily had just buried her beloved hamster Pushok and she asked me to accompany her to her uncle's funeral to give her support. It was a bizarre experience.

It started with Emily and I meeting her uncle's grieving relatives outside his flat. After a long wait, his coffin was brought out and placed in the street on four wooden chairs. The lid was taken off and we took it in turns to place flowers on his body.

I had never met this man before and the first time I saw him he was lying in a coffin, his skin a horrible yellow colour, almost translucent.

I placed a red rose on his chest and the coffin was sealed and placed in a funeral car. We clambered into a Soviet bus and followed the coffin to the cemetery where Emily's uncle was cremated.

After the cremation, we made our way to a cafe where I sat for four hours, surrounded by the man's wife and daughter and grieving relatives, a stranger in their midst, as everyone took it in turns to stand up and make a speech about the dearly departed.

My God it was so awful! It was such a depressing experience and so weird, being there when I didn't know any of those people.

I hope that when I die my funeral is nothing like that; I don't want people to cry and tell sad stories about me, I want people to celebrate my life and the fact that I lived.

Other than that, that month in Belarus was one that I enjoyed; basking in Emily's love, visiting the kids at the orphanage, eating in restaurants, losing money at the casino and doing the normal things that I do when I visit the last surviving remnant of the USSR.

After the month was up I returned to the UK and tried to make some money. In early May I boarded another flight and made my way back to Belarus once again.

Message 8 - Message from Mogilev

On April 26, 1986 there was a huge explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. A plume of radioactive fallout drifted over Europe. Most of the fallout fell over Belarus.

Mogilev - along with Gomel - was one of the cities in Belarus most affected by the accident at Chernobyl. When I first visited Mogilev in 1999, I was told not to drink the milk or eat the mushrooms.

Eight years later here I am back again in Mogilev and yes, I am drinking the milk. I try not to, but faced with a calcium deficiency or possible radiation poisoning, I usually opt for the radiation poisoning.

Besides, the girls of Mogilev drink it and they are beautiful, so I think I will take my chances with the milk.

It's just a shame it's in those damn bags.

Message 9 - A Mexican in Mogilev

Until a few days ago my friend Cesar was here with me in Mogilev.

He flew to Belarus a couple of weeks ago and we spent our time visiting classes at a local university so that the language students could hear native English and Spanish speakers in action and ask us questions about England and Mexico.

We invited most of those students back to our flat and have had lots of parties, spent lots of money, drank lots of vodka and played lots of drinking games.

My time in Mogilev has been enjoyable enough. The people in this part of Belarus are friendly, warm and communicative. But they seem to have changed since I first arrived in September 1999.

Back then if I visited a cafe with someone they would insist that they pay for themselves. Now people are more than happy to let me pay for them and, to be honest, I have gotten pretty sick of it.

It is not nice to go out with someone - both men and women - and have them order things from the menu and then just assume that I will pay for them. On the whole, the people I have met have been very nice, but because I have met so many, I feel now that a few have been taking advantage of me.

I guess it was inevitable simply because Cesar and I met dozens of people. Nonetheless, it has put on a dampener on what otherwise would have been a nice time. It never use to be like this; like everyone else, the Belorussian people are changing.

When I return here later in the year I will not be so foolish with my cash. I have been a little stupid, and next time I will be much wiser and more careful because these incidences have almost ruined what otherwise has been a nice fortnight in Mogilev.

Message 10 - Putting My Passport to Sleep

So, this is my final message.

I have just re-read this entry and realised that there was nothing much to report.

No getting lost in the Amazon rainforest, no great cliff adventures. I didn't even get arrested in Latvia.

Cesar is back in Mexico now, no doubt drinking his USSR vodka and, I hope, remembering the days he spent with me in this crazy country in a flat in a little city at the end of the world.

There are no lessons to be learned from this entry, no great wisdom shared. Just a tale of an Englishman who went to the USSR and came back a little poorer and a little older.

It's time to put my passport to sleep for the next few months. But it won't be resting for too long. There are many more people to do and things to see.

Until next time, take care, Emily. Take care, Cesar.

Thanks for reading this.

Skyler Black.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.