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Minsk in April, Part One: Getting There

May 2, 2014

I meant to post more than one entry last month. I think about writing here, have topics in mind and everything, but then get distracted and busy with other things. Most recently what pulled me away was a business trip to Minsk, Belarus. As of the beginning of April, I had no plans to go to Belarus, then suddenly I was filling out a visa application and getting photos taken for that and making flight arrangements (well, talking with the person who was talking with the person who was making them for me, I should say). I was somewhat apprehensive about the whole thing, being that it was so far away and so foreign, and I was going alone. A few of my colleagues had gone over earlier this year, so I got some tips from them and answers to questions I had based on my research, but still, I was feeling more anxious than usual when I boarded an Air France flight the Monday after Easter, heading to Paris, where I arrived sleep deprived and slightly out of sorts the next morning to connect to a Belavia flight to Minsk.

At CDG airport after an overnight flight

Belavia flies out of a different terminal than Air France flies into, so I had to go through another security check, which oddly happened before I left the first terminal; apparently the bus I took over to the second one was a secure area, as I wasn’t scanned again when I got there (I did have to wait for a guy to unlock the door and let me in, though, which also seemed odd). At this point in my journey, I was convinced I’d lost my ipod, maybe left it on the first plane or had it fall out of my bag on my way over to this new gate, as I couldn’t find it in any of my stuff. I thought about whether I had time to try and find it or report it or something and while I was thinking, decided I needed to deal with a hangnail, and when I went into my purse to get my file, there was my ipod, in what must have been the one pocket I hadn’t already looked in. That was a relief.

I’d been waiting for agents to show up at the gate so I could get my boarding pass, but before I noticed they were there, they paged my name to come to them. They looked at my passport/visa and asked about my checked luggage and issued my boarding pass and soon enough it was time to get on the plane. I’d never been on a flight with announcements and magazines and signs in Russian, so this is when things really started to feel foreign (though there was enough English still that I mostly knew what was going on).

On the Belavia flight

Upon arrival in Minsk, we deplaned down stairs and got on a bus that was waiting on the tarmac. The bus then drove maybe 100 yards and let us off in front of the doors leading to passport control. Inside, I spotted the stairs to the right that the guys had told me was where I needed to go to buy the required health insurance, so I headed up and took care of that. It cost $6 for the week I’d be staying, and they took US currency. Then it was back downstairs to look for the immigration form, but none were to be found. I asked a woman filling one out where she’d got it, and she said from the officer in one of the booths. So I waited in line and got a form. I figured I might as well use the toilet since there was one right there in the area, and by the time I’d done that and filled out my form, I didn’t have to wait very long for a passport officer to look at my documents (I’d been told to hand them over one by one rather than putting the insurance policy and form in the passport lest it look like I was trying to slip a bribe in there, too). Everything was inspected thoroughly and then I was cleared to pick up my luggage. One of the advantages of being one of the last to clear was my suitcase was waiting for me, so I grabbed it and went to find the driver who’d been arranged for by the company I was visiting. I found him no problem and we were off. The drive to the hotel took around 40 minutes. Everything was interesting—the billboards, the houses, the gas stations, the apartment buildings, the stores—everything. I didn’t try to take any photos, just looked at all the scenery and drank it in.

Check in at the hotel went smoothly. Being impatient, I did not wait for bell services to take me upstairs but went myself, which was fine until I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights. I mean, I saw the switches, both on the wall and on the lamps themselves, but flipping them had no effect. I found a fuse box on the wall and flipped some breakers to no effect (yeah, maybe that wasn’t the smartest move, but if they didn’t want me in there, they could hide or lock it). I couldn’t figure it out, so went downstairs and confused the woman sitting at the concierge desk—she spoke fine English; I just am not sure she’d had to deal with this particular stupid foreigner trick before. After a few false starts, I found the right words to make my problem clear and she told me the secret: I had to put my room keycard into a slot by the door to activate all the wall switches and allow the lamps to work. I don’t remember ever seeing that feature before. It does keep people from leaving lights on when they leave the room, I suppose.

The secret to getting light

It wasn’t quite dark out yet, so I went for a short walk near the hotel, starting to fill in a mental map of my environs. Here’s a little park, here’s a big plaza, here’s what appears to be a drugstore, here’s a very long and imposing building , here’s a bus stop (not that I planned to take the bus anywhere). I hadn’t eaten the sandwich I’d bought in the airport as it turned out they served lunch on the flight to Minsk, so I had that for dinner in my room when I got back from my walk, flipping through the television channels, which were in a variety of languages: Russian, of course, but also German and French and English. I checked out the view from my window with the buildings all lit up, even the one under construction across the street.

View from my room in Minsk

Then it was time for bed and to try to rest up for the reason behind the trip: working. There’ll more about that in my next entry, but not much more, because working is not that interesting. The sights of Minsk are, so there’ll be a lot about those, at least the ones I was able to fit in around work.

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