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belarus Jewish on traveling

Visions of Minsk

I couldn’t quite find the heart of Minsk. Some places just feel heavier than others and Minsk seems to fall in to that heavy category for me. Life there feels burdensome rather than something to be celebrated and enjoyed. I know that is a broad brush stroke with which to paint a place, but it’s simply an impression of how it feels to me. There is some levity to be found, like when two girls laughed endlessly on a park bench when they realized that I had spied one of them playfully biting the breast of the other. But mostly this place feels heavy, especially coming from Nepal as I recently did where people commonly greet even strangers with “namaste,” which roughly translates to “The sacred in me  bows to the sacred in you.” I don’t quite get that in Minsk.

These reflections just apply to my experience in Minsk, so I’m careful to not extrapolate to all of Belarus. I have noticed, though, a common facial expression here which I would describe as a frown, a distinct downturn at the corners of the mouth which seems to become etched on faces as people here age. It’s part of the heaviness I feel, and is perhaps a reflections of an overall energy here. At one point while walking in Minsk, I had a strong impulse to get off the streets and back into my room, just to be away from that sense of heaviness. My body’s nervous system is very sensitive in that it informs me of the energy of others very easily. When it has a heavy or negative quality to it, I can personally find that very challenging.

My time here started at the airport where I managed to navigate buying mandatory health insurance, immigration, an ATM, baggage claim, getting a Belarusian SIM card for my phone and getting on the bus. I opted for a $2 bus ride rather than a $35 airport pickup, but whoa, not so easy. Figured out how to buy a ticket (don’t forget, most everything here is written in Cyrillic, which I can sort of sound my way through) from a machine near the bus and then get my luggage into the side transport storage. Getting on the bus though was another story as a mass of potential passengers all had the same intention and there were clearly more people than the bus would hold. It was a one man МинскTранспорт (MinskTransport) operation as driver who also collected tickets, loaded luggage and let people on to the bus, although not necessarily in any recognizable sequence.  I had to assert my way through the funnel of Belarusian humanity to work my way on and into one of last two remaining seats. I still feel a little guilty about the orthodox nun who was clearly there before me but didn’t get very close to boarding. I think she may have missed assertiveness training at the cloister or perhaps her religion leads her to more selfless action.

My first night in Minsk, I decided to walk around with my camera and just see what I might come across. I hadn’t gotten far when it started to rain and I found myself sheltering under a casino overhang. Curious, and with nothing else dry to do at the time, I entered. I needed to register my passport first (welcome to the Soviet block). Inside there was nothing but a bar in the corner, about 20 electronic slot machines and a large automated roulette wheel appended by electronic betting machines. I gave it a go and hit numbers on most every spin. It didn’t take me long to win 100 rubles (about $50) and I opted to cash out (always a good habit to leave when you are up) for which they again needed my passport. While waiting, I spied a stunning Belarusian female employee flipping through my passport getting a good look at the visa stamps from my travels. I asked her if she had traveled much and she said that she hadn’t. I flirtingly asked her where she she would like to go and she gave me no tether, saying, “Anyplace but here.” It didn’t have an enthusiastic “I’d love to go anywhere” sound to it, but was more along the lines of “anywhere as long as it’s not this hellhole.” I tipped her nicely from my winnings, and as I exited I noticed a man obviously trying to leave alongside me. Not trusting the feel of it, I simply turned back inside and, confirming my instincts, he did the same. We chatted some as he played a fairly statistically weak roulette strategy of betting on 35 of the 37 numbers using small change, trying to nickle and kopek his way into winning enough for a beer. As his system faltered, I devised my solo exit plan. When he officially lost his beer money I sprung into action, shaking one hand goodbye while handing him a fresh pivo (beer) in the other. I knew he wouldn’t follow me out with a cold beer in hand. Belarusian casinos are probably as bad an idea as they sound, even when simply used as a mode of escaping rain. Luckily I made it out of there unscathed, surprisingly with more rubles in my pocket than I started with. Needless to say I’ll be sure to bring an umbrella next time I’m on a walkabout in the neighborhood of Belarusian casinos.

… and yes, that’s Vladimir Lenin

I wandered the city for a few days in total and enjoyed some of it’s distinctly soviet architecture. It’s not graceful, but somehow the square edges, large uniform windows and imposing presence have a balance to them that I somehow appreciate. I rented an apartment in one of the towers in the “Gates of Minsk, ” a pair of trademark buildings just opposite the central train station. A splurge here in housing choices cost me about $50/night, but being near the bus and train depots made life much easier to navigate. Airbnb here and in Warsaw has so far been great. Oh, and Uber is such a treat in a place like this where cabbies are notorious for ripping off tourists with inflated prices or meters than spin faster than a ceiling fan. When not walking several miles a day, I would take Uber to get wherever I wanted or back to my apartment for $2-$3/ride. In Warsaw, unlike here, Google Maps is integrated with the public transit system so there I opted for busses and trams. New technologies sure can make navigating one’s way easier when navigating a new city.

The city has many parks and military-related statues too. I had to get pretty far to the outskirts of the city before finding stand-alone homes as there are mostly apartment buildings here. I also had considered going to the Great Patriotic War museum here, but after having recently visited the intensely immersive and brilliant Polin Museum of Jewish history in Warsaw, I just didn’t have it in me to wander another maze of war and misery for a couple more hours. The more I learn, the more immeasurably thankful I am that I have never experienced the pain and suffering which untold millions have through war, famine and persecution.

While in Minsk, I also visited a memorial called “Yama” (“pit”), a place in the former Jewish ghetto during WWII where in one day over 4,000 Minsk jews were led en masse to their execution. It is a beautifully haunting memorial which shows 27 people in line walking down the edge of the ravine to their ultimate execution. The trailing figure is of a fiddler, I’m sure representing a steadfast holding to Jewish traditions and beauty, even in death.

After a few days of exploring this city, I moved on to Vitebsk, my primary intended destination here since it is where my grandmother was born. I’ll write of Vitebsk in a future article, but I’ll instead end this with random thoughts from the nearly five hour train ride from Minsk to Vitebsk.

Musings from the train to Vitebsk

Owning Animals

There’s a white goat staked to the ground alongside the train tracks, probably eating a clean circle of grass during the day. Whose goat is this? Have they just one goat? Is it owned by someone at the neighboring factory who supplements his/her income with that provided by this goat? Why do humans get to own animals, especially when done for food? In my opinion, the utilization of animal lives solely for profit and/or consumption is probably the biggest ethical blindspot for all of mankind.

Factories

In preparation for this trip, I read that Belarus was considered the “assembly plant” of the former Soviet Union, and I’m seeing flavors of that now. Factories, large ones, seems to populate this country. In the distance, I see a collection of ubiquitous 15 story apartment buildings, and behind them all is a giant smokestack. To me, what this starts to look like is housing for the factory, as if the factory itself has needs which are fulfilled by the construction of these buildings and the lives which they contain. I’m struggling with how to explain this well since of course factories need workers, and people need work, but somehow it feels like the factory itself is the living entity with needs and desires all it’s own. The housing constructed and the people inside it are all provided to simply give the factory the fuel that it needs.

Lives, challenging lives.

I’ve been enjoying making new images look like old archival shots. Seems to make sense in Belarus where it feels like time hasn’t quite caught up to the present.

These large housing developments disappear from my visual world in about 15 seconds as my train passes, yet they contain thousands of lives, and there are countless areas such as this containing again more and more lives. I don’t want to minimize or imply that life isn’t good for these people. I can’t possibly know what each of their inner experiences may be, but based on my own personal life, almost nothing could appear more bleak and challenging than a life spent in one of these apartment buildings with one’s precious life energy spent to fuel the needs of the local factory. On a personal front, this is helping me to really get the utter blessedness of my own life, a life where nearly all of my life energy can be spent toward creative expression, and the betterment of myself and others. Many others have so little freedom, so little opportunity and this place seems replete with that lack, if such phrasing is possible.

Winters

The winters here must be horribly harsh. It’s still August and there is a serious chill in the air. The woman I’m sharing my train car with is wearing a turtle neck shirt, a sweater vest of sorts, a scarf around her neck, and she keeps hunching up her insulated hooded jacket which she has wrapped around her shoulders. If you look closely, you’ll also see that endemic frown I was referring to earlier in this post.

It’s a clean country

On an early Sunday morning walk in Minsk, it seemed that I saw as many people with brooms as I did pedestrians. I never see trash on the streets or anywhere really. I wonder if it’s a communist thing. People here are adamant rule followers. You’ll never see anyone crossing a busy street anywhere but at a crosswalk and only then upon signaled permission. Many places in the world have a blatant disregard for cleanliness and callously throw their trash anywhere, but this place seems to take pride in cleanliness and order.

Where are the people?

I’m passing thousands of homes as this train wends through villages and countryside, and there seem to just be a spartan few people actually in view. It seems peculiar to me, especially compared to India or Nepal where it’s virtually impossible to escape the presence of people. Not sure what to make of it, but something seems off.

Locked doors and high fences

I had two different people come to my apartment in Minsk, and each of them spoke of how safe it was in this country, but they also both went out of their way to instill upon me how important it is to be sure to lock the door at all times. This was in a building with an electronically secured main entrance. This makes me wonder if there is just a general sense in this country that one has to remain vigilant of one’s home/safety whether or not it’s truly necessary. As I think about it, I’ve noticed that most every private home in Minsk has a high wall or fence around it that usually can not be seen through. Again, perhaps this is a reflection of a collective inner sense of needing to safeguard one’s safety, or perhaps it’s more of a privacy thing.

That’s enough for now. I’ll update further from Vitebsk.

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