Jul 10, 1997

From Belaurus, with Love

The last week is turning out to be better than I expected. The trainees are fairly in control of the equipment, and I spend my time walking around the base taking photographs. Other times, I am in the control house, where I tend to give advice in order to maintain the image of my usefulness. Sometimes I type such as now. Else I listen to their banter through the interpreter.

Anatoly gave Franz some money to buy cigarettes. Franz came back without any cigarettes. Anatoly asked him: Where is the money? Franz said: Inside the bags. Anatoly asked: What bag? Franz said: the bags under my eyes.

While we were all laughing, Franz said: I have a head-ache, the money is gone. Vodka is shit (Vodka kaka). It is unfortunate how much people drink here. Most people drink since morning, vodka is cheaper than chewing gum, and apparently the situation is much worse in Russia. It is a nation with a terrible drinking problem, which I fail to understand given that the male/female ratio is 1:5.

I am sitting eating wild strawberries and blueberries that Vladimyr picked in the forest ten minutes ago. This is the right time of the year, and the blueberries are delicious. Also, at this time of the year, Russians look for mushrooms with which they make great soup. (Supa gribi). When Russians go for a walk in the forest, nobody looks at the sky, but all eyes are on the ground, searching for mushrooms.

So our training is a success. First, the site visit by conference attendees was a huge hit, although the system ran on borrowed power and jerry-rigged starters. Then, the trainees learnt to use and operate the unit, albeit with minor hiccups. It is my belief that they may even trouble-shoot soon. As to their future after we leave, no one knows. I have bought 30,000 liters of diesel and will leave it for them to use. I doubt if any more will be purchased later, in a country where pilots join and retire from the army without flying a plane because of lack of fuel. I have tried to advise these guys on how to convert this technology into an asphalt plant maybe that will provide them with some stable income.

Jul 5, 1997

Independence Day

This may well be my last note on Belarus before I leave, unless I can sit down and re-write the weird story of the site visit and the conference banquet. It’s pretty much my last e-mail session from Minsk, the grand old city which celebrated it’s 930th year this week-end. I am glad, cutting and re-connecting wires in hotel rooms was just a bit much. I’m also glad, because like I said before, it will be good to get back. It has become noticeable, sometimes during the middle of the work day, I let off this statement “I wanna go home”. The Byelorussians are concerned and they say “Shouvik, you may want to go home now, but in a week, you will miss this place.” I know they are right, and my statement is half in jest. It is a curious phenomenon for me. In reality, what is home? I have never hankered for home, because I move from one place to set up in another semi-hotel accommodation. Home is where I hang my hat. Talking about hats, I bought two here.

The first hat is the leather working class hat. It reminds me of the one that Yuri Zhivago’s brother wore (played by Alec Guinness in the movie version) when he assimilated among the marching crowds. My interpreter does not like me to wear it, as with the fall of the Soviet Union, class distinctions are back. It looks cool. I used to wear it during the days that I needed a haircut, but did not have the time to find a barber. I almost need another haircut now, may wait till the USA for that one.

The other one is a black hat worn by cadets in the Naval Academy, during Soviet days. I bought it in Lenin’s hills off MGU as a present for someone. It has the red Soviet star and three cyrillic “slavs”. I was thinking about buying one of those really Russian looking fur hats, but finally gave up the idea.

I attended the parade in Minsk. It was pouring, so clutching an umbrella I set out for independence square. Along the way, I got stopped by policemen, who had cordoned off the street leading to it. I was unable to understand a word they said, so I stood there till a group of people came marching down the road carrying flags and banners. The militia opened the road for them taking care to still cordon off the rest of us. In a jiffy, I slipped through the police line, joined the march and hiding my face with my umbrella went down the road, in solidarity with people with scores of medals on their chest, clutching pictures of Stalin, and carrying the old Red Soviet “hammer an sickle” flag. Soon, we were at Independence Square. I am, of course, making my trip to the square sound like a James Bond movie. Although factually, this is exactly how it happened, I don't think the militia really cared if I went or not. They were just following orders.

The parade was quiet impressive, as parades go. When it was over, I walked over to Victory Square where they have the eternal flame for the Unknown Soldier. Atop the monument is the famous star, which has been awarded to only five people, Stalin and Zhukanov among them. Four young cadets stood at each corner of this monument, while little children played among the flowers that are placed on the monument perhaps every day. There must have been a million people on the street. I walked through Gorky Park, and Ivan Kupala Park, amidst the music and gaiety. There was a theatre going on, with men dressed in armor and fighting dragons, with a guy in the background playing a bagpipe. Just a very lazy afternoon, and of course me without a camera. I drank gin and tonic with new found friends, university students who spoke a little English. They sell this mixture in both bottles and cans, and it is a favorite among young women here. The alcohol percent is lower than a regular gin and tonic. The Byelorussian name (note: Byelorussian and Russian are two fairly different languages, and Byelorussian is spoken only in very rural areas. Everyone else speaks Russian, some with Byelorussian accent) for it is “djin djer tonic” which I managed to pronounce correctly after a few attempts. To do it perfectly, one has to drink a few gin/tonics first.

The city has gone crazy for a few days. There is the Minsk marathon, the fireworks every night, music in the park and other ethnic entertainment. The fireworks were really very good, my favorite being the one which exploded creating a white circle with a red star in the center. Way cool!!!!! People throng the streets, till about 4 am. Many among them are extreme pianitsa’s, who my friends describe as “crazy Russian boys”. Actually, they said “Kray-zee Rush-an bow-ez”. My new theory is that communication here is simple. A lot of these people know broken English. I know about 50 odd Russian words. The only other thing I need to do is tune my English accent to make it palatable to the Russian ear. And it seems to be working in moderation.

I walk by the Stella monument, dedicated to the mother of dead war heroes. Bright flags of every color adorn the steps leading up to it. Stella looks like any other statue/mural in the former Soviet Union. Glorious face held high, with a beatific smile. I am on my way to a farewell dinner for our team. We eat at the Spanish Corner Restaurant across from McDonalds, two of the cities most expensive restaurants. (McDonalds is not that bad). I mail five post cards that I have written, and then stop at a Post Office to buy more stamps. I realize then that I am being charged more for the stamps, and find out that the postage has gone up since June 20th. I have thrown five post cards into a black hole. At the little post office in Postavy, perhaps nobody has sent a letter outside the Soviet Union for decades.

I ended the night drinking some vodka with friends, who follow the strange custom of buying a bottle of orange juice and vodka, and will drink the orange juice, then swig some vodka and then drink orange juice again. Why not mix it in one glass?

When I leave Belarus, the following changes will happen:
• Bedtime will shift from the average one a.m. to 11 p.m.
• Daily sleep quota will rise from 5 hours to 8&1/2 hours.
• Vodka consumption will take an incredible dive down (My blood potato level will decrease)
• Will no longer trade vodka for spare parts.
• Will start having milk again. (I went through two months with bare minimum dairy products.)
• No more cabbage, beet and fish for breakfast.
• Raw meat intake may all but disappear. (I will still try and eat caviar).
• My disco attendance will be badly affected (though in truth I have gone to a disco maybe once in the last two weeks.)
• Will not hear any more diatribes on Lukashenko from drunken people on the street. (Lou-ka-shane-ko is beeg bool-sheet)
• Lose my Russian accent.

Life, in short, will really suck. ;-)

Jul 2, 1997

All Men Are Equal in Poverty

Moscow is a grand old city. The city has changed significantly since I was last here, for one it is extremely crowded now. It resembles New York in some ways. It is also beastly expensive. We arrived and sat at a small cafe for breakfast, of pancakes with caviar, eggs and orange juice (actually, only I ate caviar, the rest had pancakes with butter, not being too enthused about fish eggs in the morning). The bill came to $60 for five people! Since then we always checked the menu first, but it was still harsh. Our hotel, the Belgrad, was right off the Arbat. The street is lined with stalls selling tourist trinkets, artists selling paintings and cartoonists. Its cobbled streets give it the European look, not really found elsewhere in Moscow. It seemed to be a good place to be at night, but it poured the only night I spent in Moscow, and I went to sleep reluctantly at 11 PM, watching Bernie Shaw of CNN talk about the “Hong-Kong Handover”. What will they think of next? The Congo Chaos!!

I have always tried to assimilate. Well, at least externally. I was one of the boys at Kharagpur, for sure, wearing rubber slippers to class. At Boston, I wore a tweed jacket with leather patches, hung out on Harvard Square reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In Alabama, I drank beer and shot pool with the good old boys, all dressed in Harley Davidson T’s. In California, I drink mango smoothies with 50 gm of bee pollen, wear shades and look cool. In Red Square, Moscow, it was easy to assimilate. The area was full of tourists taking photographs, and I joined the gang. Click - St. Vasilis. Click - A group of young Russian militia men. Click-Young girl dancing in front of Lenin’s mausoleum. Snap-umbrella shop in the GUM. Click-Tsar cannon inside the Kremlin. Click - Post perestroika Russian rebel youth in torn jeans. Bang-Accident with hawker selling Moscow T-shirts). The camera I am using now has no zoom feature, and I try to create the frame by walking around with my eye to the eye-piece. I have run into Byelorussian peasants, street-walkers in Minsk, ADL honchos, Naroch tourists. My favorite Russky phrase is “pzhalsta, prastitye” (please, excuse me).

The old Soviet architecture is striking. If Van Der Rowe (spelling?) visited Moscow, he must have gone back feeling ill. This is definitely not “less is more”, this is “big is beautiful”. The main building at the Moscow State University stands like a staggering Goliath, by mere presence crushing all the applicants that stand before it, waiting for results from the entrance exams. It probably has more rooms than the entire Kharagpur and Duke University campus buildings did. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is monumental, as I look at it from my hotel window. The unique style, with the star on top. The Kremlin has the highest church in the whole of the former Soviet Union. It was impossible to build a higher one in the land. I like the word “impossible” the way it is mentioned by a former Soviet Union resident. Vladimyr said that it was impossible to construct a higher church. Why impossible, I asked him. Well, it was made a law that no one could build a higher one. A physical capacity was reduced to null by a mere law. They tried to build a higher church in the Ukraine, but were forced, forced to reduce the height of the cross in order to meet the decree.

At the Moscow State University, all buildings are entered from the side doors, the front ones are barred. This happened from the time of the October Revolution. At that point, only the gentry entered from the main door, stepping on plush carpeting. The doors were blocked since then, and all men were created equal. Dave asked Vladimyr “So Lenin never really understood the concept, did he? All men are equal, but Lenin was more equal than others.” Vladimyr said “No, Lenin understood, in his special way. The way is that “All men will be equal in poverty”.

I also visited the Exhibition for Achievements of the Nations. This place, with very striking architecture, and many beautiful fountains, have buildings that were dedicated to exhibitions , as I mentioned before, of achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, education, agriculture, metallurgy, and the cosmos. The place is now a giant “mela”, selling JVC TVs and Vidal Sassoon shampoo. The saddest is the building dedicated to Cosmos. It is almost empty, with one end having the remnants of a magnificent model of the Lada, and a towering photograph of Yuri Gagarin. It used to be a great museum, but now there is no money to heat it in winter. The place is a little dilapidated, and looks like an old hangar. Actually, it looks a little like the missile silo that I crawled into over at Kostiny. It is sad because this is truly one of their achievements and a lack of funding has lead to the decay of this monument. On the wall is a quote by Lenin which I mis-phrase (it was in Russian). “Man has learnt and will continue to learn many secrets of the environment and through his knowledge will strengthen the same environment”.

In Moscow, they consider Minsk to be provincial, which may be true. Also, they hold it in very low esteem from an aesthetic point. “Stalin architecture” said the street vendor on the Arbat.

Jul 1, 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?”