Tuesday, 23 November 2004

Back in the USSR

A few days ago I found my brother David living in an orphanage in Belarus.

I didn't expect to find him there. It came like a bolt out of the blue, something that I could never have anticipated, and it upset me a great deal. For the first time in over a year and a half I had to fight to hold back the tears.

I was visiting an orphanage in Minsk - where I've worked with children with mental and physical disabilities for over a year - when I met a little boy called Artur, twelve years old, who reminded me so much of my brother David, it was uncanny.

He looked like David, he had the same mannerisms and gestures. David, who is now 22, has not spoken to me for some years. He ignores my calls and my letters go unanswered. David had a very difficult childhood and my Mother often mistreated him or did not give him the affection and love that every child needs.

I too picked up on this and was unkind to David, not as a brother should be, which is probably the single biggest regret of my life.

As a result, David has grown up angry. He has a chip on his shoulder. He has no contact with me or my Mother. He is very much alone.

Meeting this little boy, dressed in old clothes and torn slippers, who tried to impress me with his break dancing, really brought home to me the plight of these children. At the same time it brought back memories of David and for some minutes I was overcome.

It's rare for me to get so upset. Normally I enjoy visiting the orphanage and I have a lot of fun with the kids. I've known most of them for a year, we've forged a bond, and I've come to care about them and I believe that they care about me too.

These kids, and my dear Emily, are two of the things that bring me back to this crazy Soviet republic; a land of milk in bags, speeding metros and general all-round craziness.

I arrived in Belarus almost one month ago after spending a wonderful 2 weeks in Poland. This is my 10th visit. I will leave here tomorrow and head back to Warsaw for a few days before returning to the UK on Saturday, where I will recharge my batteries for two weeks and then hopefully set off on my travels again.

It has been snowing heavily in Belarus these past few days. Minsk looks very pretty today, covered in a blanket of white. Despite plummeting temperatures - a couple of night ago it was six below zero - it's nice to be back here in this wintry wonderland.

Belarus is indeed a strange and incredible place. It has changed little since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is full of old Soviet lorries and statues of Communist heroes.

Many Belorussian people - including Emily, who is only 27 - look back on the Soviet period as a golden era, when life was simpler and problems were few. Lukashenko takes advantage of this nostalgia, which has probably helped him to remain in power for so long.

The Belorussian people themselves are very nice, very hospitable and very friendly. They are always kind to me, and Emily has as ever been simply wonderful. But there is a lack of common sense here, an absence of logic, that often irritates the hell out of me and sometimes just drives me mad.

Take today for example. I was walking down the main high street in Minsk, picking my nose, minding my own business, when I turned round to see a tractor rapidly approaching me. On the pavement.

The driver made no attempt to slow down, he was too busy concentrating on the snow that he was meant to be clearing. I moved to let him pass and watched, in amazement, as children went running for cover and elderly women dived out of his way.

The crazy thing is that at the time it was snowing heavily, and less than an hour later the pavement was once again deep with snow. (Maybe next time they'll use two tractors?)

This is just one example of the craziness of this country. I've given many more examples in my other entries from Belarus. Common sense still hasn't been able to get a visa for this country.

But if you can learn to live with - or at least tolerate - the killer tractors, the milk in bags, the speeding drivers, the speeding metros and the bowel busting food, it's possible to have a very nice time here, simply because the people are so wonderful, and unlike any I have met before.

I've noticed that my life kind of grinds to a halt while I'm in Belarus. When I visit other countries I get out a lot and visit new places.

But here my life revolves around Emily, Patio Pizza (my favourite restaurant in the world, and one of only a handful of good restaurants in Belarus) and visiting the kids in the orphanage.

Still, I do enjoy my time here, and I will at some point return to Belarus, though I have no idea when. For now there are other places to see, other people to meet, and it's time once again to leave this wintry wonderland behind and head to pastures new.

I will write to you again as my travels continue.

Until then, it's time to say goodbye to Minsk, goodbye to my angel Emily, to Artur and all of the children I know and love here.

This is an Englishman, leaving the USSR, wishing you well.

Take care Belarus. Take care Emily. Take care David.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

P.S. Emily has asked me to make it clear that she in no way shares my opinion about the craziness of this country. She doesn't believe it's crazy at all. Which only goes to prove my point...!

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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.