7.01.1997

Sasha who

It was fortunate that I packed my umbrella. It rains here almost every single day, some days a lot more than others. So it was that I, brolly in hand, made my way towards McDonalds in downtown to have a quick and cheap lunch. I woke up at around noon, and only because the maid wanted to clean my room. Last night was way late. After an excellent dinner of lagma and plof at the "Uzbegisthan", Don and I went to the Art Cafe Disco in the Trade Union Building. It was not a good night, as no one really wanted to dance with us. Finally, I joined a group of people, who turned out to be students celebrating their graduation from the Minsk Institute Physics Department. I sensed a good party in this, and immediately decided to buy them some champagne on a congratulatory note. Many drinks later, I was discussing Lenin and Lukashenko, Bill Gates and Chicago Bulls, India and Belarus, with these students. In true nineties fashion, we exchanged e-mail addresses, though only one of them had access. (hotmail.com, just like so many of y'all). As I made my way back to the hotel Belarus past McDonalds on main street, through Old Town on the cobbled roads and finally by the cemented banks of the Villye river, it was 4 a.m. There was not a soul on the streets, and I suddenly realized that it was Summer Solstice -- the shortest night of the year. This enabled me to say that I spent all night at the disco. I went in at 10:30, while it was still dusk, and out at 4 a.m., when dawn had broken. I checked the time on my newly purchased Soviet military watches that are now publicly available since perestroika, from the Vostok Military Watch Company for $18. It is a good watch, though I have to remember to wind it up daily.

I had written a long piece last week-end. While trying to retrieve it for e-mail, I found that I lost it all due to something called "Unrecoverable Disk Error". I knew that in some form I would pay the price for buying pirated software here.... Anyhow, I was in a funny mood that day, which has abated some owing to passage of time. It is just that last week in some way was like the end of the project, and I had a dull feeling. The grand finale took place in the form of the site visit by all the attendees of the fourth annual environmental conference at the Academy of Sciences in Belarus. It was a grand success for us, though not without plenty of alarms. Now, it is left to finish our training and there is still a good three weeks left. Last week though, it felt like it was all over. I was mulling over such thoughts while lazing next to the Afghanistan Memorial on a sunny day by the river, and I fell asleep on a park bench. When I woke up, there were about 10 wedding parties, all of whom come to the memorial to place flowers and take the ceremonial picture. I, as usual, was without a camera.

Like the song says, "Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it's been". This project started for me back in the days when I was unemployed in Boston. Since then, I have trekked forth across the US to San Francisco, then Alabama, then back to San Francisco, a trip to Denver, and finally in Belarus. In the middle of all this, I even got married. I have stayed in Holiday Inns, Comfort Inns, You name it Inns, but nothing beats the Gastinitsya Turista Naroch where every night is Disco Night, and our bar is full of live adventure, drunken men and women doing absurd things, we trying to compete with them. Dogs running around the bar, the bartender pulls our beers when she sees any of us walking in through the door, "our" table is almost always left empty for us, though of late some upstart Mafia type tourists have been spotted sitting there. This may be because we spend a lot of time nowadays in the Sauna, from which I have a blister on my ear (120 degrees C is not what is used to be). Anyhow, to get back, I used to spend once a week involved in a ritual teleconference with people from across the USA. It was the most boring and pointless exercise imaginable, and I used to turn on the speaker phone, put it on mute and do other work. All of a sudden I met all of them, yes, ALL of them, during the conference. I used to hear names being dropped as if they were colleagues down the hall. Suddenly, they came alive as I entered Belarus: Doropyevich, definitely the most sensible member of the Ministry of Extra-ordinary Affairs, although he did a pretty good Macarena at the banquet, Chepyk the Mayor, at whose parties the table are set with two vodka bottles per person, Colonel Levsha, who will always break out into deep rumbling song at any vodka-fest, even inside a crowded restaurant with strangers, and Eugene Borovko, the only English speaker in this crowd. He was involved with the program since its inception five years ago in some retreat out in New Hampshire, maybe Bretton Woods.

Finally here, my worlds have collided. Now, when I hear some music and start tapping my feet, I do not know if I knew the song in the US or heard it in Belarus... I have my own favorite Rusky pop songs. We spend our days doing fairly strange and irregular things during the course of work (which I am going to describe later), and though we used to joke about it earlier, it's become normal now. I go around Minsk 9 to 5 on Fridays running personal and business errands, mostly without interpreters or any assistance. Yes, worlds have indeed collided. I know Minsk better than I know San Francisco, though I have spent a combined total of 12 days in the city. I know where to have a good haircut (I have had one), where the best little coffee shop is, which bars to avoid, which short cuts to take, where to change lines on the subway, which place to eat khalodnik in, and where the best sashlik is served. I know it when there is an exhibit of Chagal at the Fine Arts Museum, and walking down the gallery, I even see familiar faces -- Don West, Lyena (daughter of Vladimyr, our interpreter) and the man from whom I buy pirated software.

Incidentally, talking about Chagal, he is from Vitebsk, which is near Postavy. Some years ago, the city of Vitebsk denounced any affiliation with Chagal, and Yuri Pan, because they were Jews. They actually sawed his portion off a bust comprising of major Byelorussian artists, in a public ceremony.

We describe restaurants by their proximity to landmarks. (Conversations are as follows: "well, we could meet by the IBB, and maybe go on to Bergamo's for dinner. If you are in old town, make a left by the footbridge and cut across the park. I'll see you in front of the Circus.) I arrive in town wearing faded jeans and dirty sneakers, and am invited to a party at Levsha's house... Nyet problyem -- I am at the G.U.M. sans interpreter, buying an outfit for the occasion, through the universal languages of signs and calculators. My Russian is improving. At least I read decently. I have been to the opera, and at the first chance will go to the ballet. I have ridden the metro, the tram, the trolley bus, though as yet not during rush hour. (It's very much like Calcutta then...).

I had a date in Naroch. Shasha Batanov is one of the interpreters for ADL. I met him first in Alabama many months ago. He is an extremely jovial guy, reminds me a lot of Selim Sanin, my Turkish friend from Duke. We had initially requested for him to be our interpreter, but ADL pre-empted us. Anyhow, last week, I went to the disco, fresh from the sauna (the sauna sessions are interesting - one enters a blisteringly hot and dry room, sits there till one can no longer endure the heat, jumps out, takes a shower, plunges into the swimming pool, and then after some swimming/wading/ relaxation, back to the little hot room. This continues for an hour and a half, about 4 rounds). At the disco, I met Tanya, Shasha's wife, who informed me that he was baby-sitting, and she really wanted to dance. So we danced till the disco shut and the next morning I informed Shasha that while he was in his room, I danced the night away with his wife. He told me "I know, I have heard and I must have my revenge... So, tonight, I will go to the disco and dance with you!!!!” (This makes a better story told, because he really has a good way of speaking...)

While on the subject Shasha, during WW 2, one of every 4 Byelorussians were killed. For new born babies, one of every 2 was named Alexander = Shasha. My opinion is that if one is in trouble in Belarus, it is easier to obtain assistance by shouting "Shasha" because for any situation or circumstance, there has to be one of them around. Besides, I do not really know the Russian for "help". We have four Shasha's in our group, and they have been nick named for clarity. Shasha Vidayev from Moscow who works for ADL is Shasha Yankee, Shasha Batanov is called Shasha Bellaju, after the name of a new product we are planning to help him launch in the USA -- an alcoholic drink from birch sap, Sasha Egdakimov, another interpreter, is called Shasha Coffee, for he has managed to find a way to brew some at HQ in Kostinyi base, where the power supply is irregular and there is no running water. Shasha coffee also introduced us to the sauna, so essentially, during the day he is mild mannered Shasha coffee, but at night he changes into Banya-man (banya is the Russian version of sauna). Finally, there is Shasha Lukianov, our driver, who is called Shasha rectifier. The story behind the name is one of the best till date, and it is what I typed last week, only to lose to equipment malfunction. I will have to do it again at a later time. Other than that, I have met about 50 more Shasha's.

I have to leave to go to another of Levsha's singing parties. Let me end with a new one from the trainees:
A man is being trained to be a chauffeur. He is shown the car, the interiors, the controls, the steering mechanism, the engine, the pistons and cylinders. Then, he is told to present any questions that he may have. He says "just one. Where do you attach the horse?”

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