Thursday, December 31, 2009


Minsk is a lot warmer than I expected. (Around freezing.) We spent most of the day running errands, and I went out wearing my shearling coat. I’m glad I’d been smart enough to leave my fur hat at home because I was too warm anyway. Moreover, I had too much stuff in my backpack because I wanted to have my computer with me in case I had time to sit down someplace with an internet connection. Wearing that on top of my zillion-pound coat, I was feeling pretty overloaded by the end of the afternoon.

There’s about six inches of snow on the ground everywhere except the streets and sidewalks, which are scrupulously clean. My favorite thing about the snow removal job is that they don’t use salt here, so one can wear nice shoes without destroying them.
Amerikanetz, I am wearing rubber boots at least until we retrieve my dress shoes from Gomel.

We had a little excitement along the way. Alla’s favorite was the time I lost her at the airport. She had preceded me as we went through the “nothing to declare” lane at customs. When the inspector saw that she intended to stay for six months, he waved her into the baggage-inspection queue. I walked up behind her, waited in line for a moment, and then realized that nobody had told me to wait there. I asked the agent if I should wait there too. He asked me my nationality, and when I told him I was American, he allowed me to leave immediately. (Belarusians generally take pains to show me that they hold no antagonism toward Americans even though our governments aren’t highly pleased with each other.) Alla tried to weasel out of the line too, showing her American passport, but she was already busted because she showed her Russian passport first and he made her wait.

When I walked out, I saw our driver’s car at the end of the walkway from the main door, so I went out and found him near the car. We loaded my stuff and got into the car to wait for Alla. No Alla. Alexander and I talked and talked, until nobody was walking out of the airport any longer. Puzzled, I went back to see what the customs guys were doing to Alla. There she was, right inside the door, stewing over the fact that I had disappeared. She imagined first that I had gone to the restroom, and then that I had been abducted for questioning by officials somewhere. She even had me paged. After all that, I’m not sure she was actually glad to see me when I came walking back in through the front door.

Her frustrations were compounded by the fact that my phone wasn’t working and she somehow couldn’t manage to phone Alexander either. My phone was our main mission for the evening, because my prepaid SIM card had been canceled and the company had unassigned my phone number. First indications were that the number had been reassigned to somebody else, but when we got to the central office they discovered that it was still in the free-number pool and they retrieved it for me. For bureaucratic reasons this was a bit tricky, but Alla insisted and the woman at the phone company took what she felt was a small liberty to help us out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Amazing "fashion"

I took these pictures at a fancy women's clothing store in Harvard Square. I don't think I really need to say anything, because the signs in the windows parody the clothing perfectly.

From Drop Box

From Drop Box

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Radio Swiss Jazz

I just discovered this, and I love it:

I recommend the aacPlus 64 kb/s feed. (Windows users will have to install a plugin. Mac users can click on WinAmp and iTunes will know what to do.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

My brother doesn't understand me

I like the Boston Red Sox, and I was disappointed to see on the TV at my health club that they had just lost the playoffs three games to nothing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. My brother lives in Los Angeles, but he’s a Dodgers fan so we generally get along just fine. We even speculated on the possibility of watching a World Series between his team and mine. So, I naturally assumed when I left the club that I’d find a voice mail waiting for me on my cell phone commenting on this sad day in my life.

There was no such message, so I called him. He hadn’t watched the end of the game, figuring that the Red Sox had an insurmountable lead. Unfortunately, no lead is insurmountable in baseball, and I sadly informed him that the Sox had lost. “Oh,” he said. “I’ve been playing a new version of Halo on my X-Box.”

I tried to return the conversation to baseball, commenting that a Dodgers-Angels World Series would be really boring. “Yeah,” he said, “people would rather see the Dodgers play the Yankees. By the way, I’ve been writing some interesting stories for the Los Angeles Times.” I didn’t ask. He writes business stories, not baseball stories.

Only a Bostonian would understand that even though I didn’t watch the game I was in a shocking state of grief and pain at that moment. Now I hope those damn New York Yankees go and teach the people of Los Angeles a lesson.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Alla and I decided to take a walk through the Arboretum today. We usually roll through it on our tandem bicycle, but today we went on foot. We experienced things on foot that we certainly would have missed on the bike, just as other slow adventures on the bike reveal things we never would have seen in a car.

For one thing, I ate a lot of stuff. This time of year lots of nuts and berries are mature, and I experimented liberally. Dogwood, for example, has an amazing fruit. I ate quite a few dogwood berries and foisted a few off on passers-by. I also ate something called a Princeton nut (it's orange, the color of Princeton University, but I can't find you a link. It's not very tasty.) The only berry I tried was mountain ash. Alla knows this tree from Russia, where she says people use the berries pretty commonly.

Late in the afternoon, we saw a large family group harvesting something from the ground and we went to see what they were doing. The family turned out to be Chinese, and they harvested bagfuls of Chinese chestnuts. First I confirmed with one of them that these aren't horse chestnuts and that they are indeed edible. So, of course, I picked one up, peeled it, and ate it raw. I liked it. Alla wouldn't eat one of these nuts raw, at least not until I'd survived for a while after eating that first one. But we did become engrossed together in harvesting some nuts for ourselves.

Alla teased me for making it into a competition, but I am who I am... We harvested into our own bags and weighed our take when we got back home. For the first time ever in any kind of harvest competition, I kept up with Alla. Jointly we had 3¼ pounds of little chestnuts. We roasted a handful of them this evening, and we look forward to enjoying them on quite a few evenings ahead.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chillin' on the roof

After a week of sleeping outdoors at the family cabin in California, Alla and I decided to extend the pleasure by sleeping on our roof deck. Mostly, it's been quite pleasant. We'd burrow under the blankets and examine the few stars bright enough to overcome the city's glow, and then we'd sleep soundly until awakened by sunlight in the morning.

Last night was a little different. First, we were distracted by lots of sirens and other city noises as we waited to drift off to sleep. Second, we were further distracted by high winds. We put an extra sheet over our three blankets, hoping it would prove to be some sort of shield. Maybe it worked, but it's hard to tell. The wind blew hard all night, but we were fairly protected by wool caps on our heads and mounds of fabric over us.

In the middle of the night we evaluated whether we should abandon our rooftop outpost. Well, to be truthful it wasn't a very scientific evaluation, as we were both half asleep. I just knew that to get into bed downstairs would require removing the stuffed animals and the bed spread, while staying on the roof simply required that we sleep as close as possible to each other. We (or was it I?) selected the latter option.

We had no idea when the sun rose because both of us ended up with our hats pulled over our eyes. All I can say is, we survived.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

At the cabin

We spent a few days at my family’s cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From 2009-08 Cabin

I spent lots of time here as a child, but only see the place infrequently now. Before me, my mom and her family spent vast amounts of time here since she was a girl.

It’s a great place to gather with family and enjoy the many things we have in common. This time we achieved nearly 100% attendance and collectively brought far more food than necessary. Alla and I stayed beyond the reunion weekend, along with an aunt and uncle, and tried pretty hard to eat our way to the back of the refrigerator.

Our friends Lonnie and Rocky thwarted our efforts with the refrigerator. They came up for a day and two nights with us and brought up a whole lot more food. In between meals we hiked, swam and slept under the stars.

We have a few photos here. I need to ask my cousins to send me pictures of the reunion.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Now I can write about it

There were a few odd things about Saturday’s bike ride, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to make a story out of it. Now that I know some more details, I’ll tell you what happened.

I started out on my favorite road, towards the Minsk Sea. Thoughtlessly, I turned right toward the Presidential Compound, following my early-morning route rather than going straight to the sea as I intended. I thought I could correct my error if I rode across a field and figured out how to get across the highway that encircles the city.

As I approached the field, I noticed an unusual number of highly-attentive policemen just before I saw a busload of young men in white shirts with walkie-talkies. I figured they really didn’t want me in the neighborhood so I went directly across the field. There was another person in the field with me, in a car, and I was weirded-out enough that I took the road he didn’t take. I ended up riding up to a cop anyway, so I asked him how to get across the highway. I tried to ask him if I could get through the culvert I saw up the road, but didn’t manage to make myself understood. Nevertheless, he wanted me to go that direction anyway so I did.

When I went down to see if the culvert were big enough and dry enough for me to cross under the road, I saw a single figure sitting on the ground at the far end of the ditch. What the heck; I went. When I got closer, I realized that it was a soldier in uniform, which felt a lot safer to me than the derelict I had first imagined.

I explored several beaches along the Minsk Sea before heading back home. I wanted to go back around the Presidential Compound because it’s the quietest way back. I had previously discovered some pathways from the Minsk Sea along an inlet and a river, and I proceeded that way towards the city.

I passed an amazing number of cops and military guys, especially under every bridge and overpass. I figured there was some reason for extra security but couldn’t figure out what it would be. Finally, as I approached the end of the bike path, one of those white-shirt guys stepped out and asked me to get off my bike and take a break for a few minutes. OK.

Other people began accumulating under the tree with me, but the guard on the other side of the road was letting people by. I think my guard was more cautious than the other, but I didn’t argue with him. I figured we’d see a presidential motorcade soon, and maybe that would be exciting somehow.

Things reached a frenzy for me when I heard the roar of a lot of motorcycles. Some of them sounded distinctly like Harley-Davidsons, but not all of them. The volume rose and fell as the motorcycles went by unseen, on the main road perpendicular to the presidential-access road where we were blocked.

We waited some more.

Finally, the presidential motorcade came by: One nice Chrysler lead car, a black Mercedes with a flag on the fender, and another nice Chrysler. That was it? What was the deal about all the motorcycles I heard. And why all the cops? Do they do this every time the President goes out for groceries?

The Secret Service guy let me get back onto my bike. As I approached Drozde, the presidential motorcade returned, the flag removed from the Mercedes. As I rode around the compound, I finally saw a few police motorcycles. The Belarusian cops ride sport bikes with blue lights on the front. I’m sure they are much faster than the Harleys our cops drive, but they’re also a lot quieter than the bikes I heard earlier. No story here.

Then today Alla challenged me to read an article in the newspaper. It was about President Lukashenko’s adventure on Saturday when an international motorcycle festival came to Minsk. At the culmination of the festival, one of the organizers offered President Lukashenko the opportunity to ride on a Harley-Davidson. The president put his young son on the seat in front of him and led everybody down the street where I could hear it.

I’m not sure I fully understand this security system. The President was out there riding around on a huge motorcycle without a helmet on while hundreds of security people protected him from bad guys. I wish one of the cops had handed him a helmet. And I wish I were there to see it.

Here are more pictures for you.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Good chocolate

I like chocolate. Around home, I always have a couple of bars of dark chocolate on hand, and it takes me a few days to nibble through each one. I broke this habit right away when I got settled in Minsk because I just couldn’t find any chocolate I enjoyed well enough to munch on. It wasn’t a big deal, of course, because it’s summer and I’ve been very well entertained snacking on fresh fruit. Still, every time I saw a new brand of dark chocolate I’d buy it, hoping to stock my selves with a few bars I’d enjoy nibbling.

I had pretty much given up on the chocolate project when I discovered the Korona supermarket. (Actually, they don’t even call it a supermarket. It’s a hypermarket. For my American readers, it’s something between a shopping center, Costco, and a gourmet supermarket.) Korona has a bigger variety of products than any store I’d ever seen in Belarus, so much so that Alla was overwhelmed and wanted to flee. I bought real Parmesan cheese, which was the priority that brought us there in the first place, and bought one of every kind of plain dark chocolate they had on their shelves.

I was pretty excited about all the chocolate. I prepared a piece of paper with all the brand names and took notes every time I tried a new one. They were generally a little better than the stuff I’d been buying previously, but not always by much. My favorite of the lot was A. Korkunov 72%, made in Moscow. I found it a little sweeter than I would have liked, and the texture seemed a little soft, but I thought it was good enough to buy again. Actually, that was the only one I thought was good enough to buy, but there aren’t many at home that I buy repetitively either. (Scharffen Berger!)

A couple of days ago, however, I went into a little supermarket Alla discovered really close to our house. It’s closer to us than the place where I did most of my shopping, but I didn’t realize it was even there because it’s in an underground mall I didn’t bother to explore. These guys had more brands of chocolate even than Korona, and I splurged on a couple more bars that looked promising. Wow! My new local favorite is Favarger Noir Plain, from Geneva. I like it well enough that I no longer wonder about schlepping a supply of chocolate on my next trip over here. Hooray!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

K tests library security

I am not at liberty to divulge the name of a fellow student who came with us today to the National Library for lunch and a quiet place to do homework. Let's just call him K. Pretend you're Australian while you pronounce his initial.

When we had finished our homework, we went together to the wardrobe to pick up our bags. K opened his locker and found it empty. We foreigners were alarmed, but the library staff was simply helpful. First they took us to the lost-and-found locker, where they had one item that was left overnight. We explained that K's bag had only been there a few hours, and they summoned the Militsia. The attendants assured us again that everything would be alright.

We described K's bag to them. Worst case, we understood, they'd review the security tapes and see who took it out of the library.

K admitted that he had been a little distracted when he loaded the locker. Maybe he had put his bag in one locker and locked another. We joined forces to check all the unlocked lockers in the area, but they were all empty. So the head of the attendants asked the Militsia guy if she could open the neighboring lockers. OK.

On about the third try, she found K's bag. He withdrew his passport from the bag to prove that it was his. We were satisfied and prepared to leave, but the attendant wouldn't let us. "Where's the key?," she asked. Nobody knew. But to be good sports, we all checked our pockets. K dug deep. What do you know? He found another key down there, the key to the locker in question.

I think our stuff was all quite safe, under the watchful eyes of this attentive staff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Eating at the Library

Arif and I talked last week about eating lunch at the National Library, but we were afraid all we could buy might be cakes and sweets. Then last weekend I took a tour with our house guest and learned that they have a restaurant. I had to try it, so Arif and I rounded up three classmates and took our library cards for an adventure.

From 2009-07 PhonePix
First we stopped at the foot of the statue in honor of Francisco Scorina, the first person to print a book in the Belarusian language. Then we found our way to the cafeteria.

My goodness, this is a wonderful cafeteria. In the first place, we get to eat with beautiful metal knives and forks; not the flimsy plastic stuff we get at the university. Next, we realized that the food is presented beautifully in substantial portions on full-sized china. Finally, we discovered that not only is this food priced similarly to the food in the University cafeteria, it's also delicious.

I made one mistake. I didn't realize that the plate of fish in the warming oven comprised three servings. I opened the door on my side of the warming oven and put this huge plate of fish onto my tray. I shared it, and I made a heroic effort to eat the rest. Oops. But it sure did taste good.

Luis helped us figure out how to check out a couple of copies of the textbook we use in our classes, and we took them into the reading area near the language dictionaries and we worked on our homework together. What fun!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


One of our young friends told me about a tradition among kids in Minsk to undertake some sort of performance art. Maybe they’ll all wear pajamas and take their pillows onto the Metro. Or pass out balloons. I think we saw the tail-end of a balloon-passing-out event a couple of trips back. At the time we couldn’t figure out where everybody got the balloons. Today I finally saw one of these events unfold. I was coming home from the renok (market) and saw a few kids with signs that said in English and Spanish “Free hugs.” I wasn’t interested in hugging any of those kids at that time and I continued ahead. Next I saw some kids with signs in Russian, but I didn’t know what the signs said. Maybe it was “Free kicks in the groin.” How would I know? I kept walking. Wave after wave of these “Free kicks in the groin” kids came by. Finally one of them came and gave me a hug. Then a bunch more of them came by and gave me hugs. This wasn’t just twenty or thirty kids, it was a very seriously organized project. I wonder how it was communicated and organized.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Language in life

As I walked into the subway this afternoon I heard a very little boy asking his mom “Из или в?,” which might be translated “From or in?” My first thought was that he was trying to learn Russian grammar just as I was.

Hold that thought. I need to digress. That Russian letter that looks like a Latin B is actually a V. It’s a one-letter word, and it’s not a vowel. This concept is a real stretch for most of us who grew up speaking English. What? “V” is a word? My classmates have a devil of a time pronouncing it. They want to say “vee.” It’s not “vee. “ It’s “v.” Just put your lower lip against your upper teeth and make a little sound. Don’t move anything while you are making that little sound. Good. That’s one way to pronounce it. Depending on context it may sound more like “f” but in neither case is there any need to add an “ee,” however short, at the end of this word.

That’s the most common of the one-consonant words in the Russian language, but there are more. I know of k and s. Perhaps that completes the list, or perhaps I will get another surprise later. I think the language often avoids stringing three consonants together without a vowel, but pretty much any two consonants are compatible together. It's a heck of a task just learning to say hello. “Zdravstvuite. “ Try it. Don’t forget to roll the r. You can drop the v if you like. Isn’t that nice?

OK, back to my little boy and his mom. If my first impression was right, it’s heart warming to know that a little boy who can walk to the subway under his own power is still struggling to know which of several little prepositions to use when you’re trying to identify where something is, where it came from or where it’s going. Subtle changes in the way you construct a sentence may change the necessary preposition. If he’s been speaking Russian all his life and hasn’t mastered it then I’m doing OK. I’m afraid, however, he was just clarifying a point in conversation.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Independence Day

What an amazing weekend! Our weekend started on Thursday evening, with a party hosted by a fellow student. At his party we met a couple of kids who apparently work for some sort of pro-democracy movement. I had a hard time getting one girl to tell me about her job and she finally told me enough that I understood why she didn’t want to say much to a stranger. Nor did I feel comfortable asking anything more.

On Saturday at the Independence Day parade we got a taste of “opposition.” (I use quotes because I have no idea whether they represent any kind of an organized movement.) The kids around us at the parade felt free to ridicule the patriotic demonstrations and pretty much everything else about the parade. Unfortunately, all these kids expressed was negativity. One of the government’s complaints about the opposition groups they suppress is that said groups only want to tear down and that they don’t have any positive ideas. I didn’t believe those official views, but I think they accurately described what we overheard at the parade.

I can understand how folks pretty much anywhere would like to make adjustments or improvements in their government. Any government is likely to do things inconvenient for various segments of their population at certain times, and any government is likely to be imperfect. I can also understand that governing a country-sized group of people is hard work, takes a lot of training and cooperation among people smart in different ways, and is not something everybody is qualified to do. I really hope that anybody wishing to change a working status-quo has a really good plan in mind before they start messing around, and I fervently hope that changes should be evolutionary and by consensus rather than forced down by a group of new elites without a solid foundation of public support and rational thought.

Perhaps I’ll say more about this at another time. I happen to find a lot of appealing aspects of life here and I am saddened to imagine that negative thinkers like I overheard at the parade might destroy these appealing things. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and could write many more paragraphs, but I really want to tell you about the rest of the weekend.

I really liked the look of the light utility vehicles that led the parade. These reminded me of American Studebaker automobiles, and I didn’t know if they were historic or current vehicles. It turns out that they’re current. I saw another one at the air show we visited yesterday and the car’s occupant told me that his was two or three years old. I’ll post some pictures soon.

At both the parade and the air show, the Belarusian Air Force showed off their fighter aircraft with performances reminiscent of The Blue Angels and other elite flying groups I’ve seen at home. My favorite part was when four or five planes with huge engines came in low, lit the afterburners, and shot straight into the sky. The engines made a HUGE noise.

Today I went with a couple of friends to see a historic reenactment of battles between Soviet and German forces over a Belarusian village. This took place at a camp called “The Stalin Line,” and the camp itself is a marvelous museum of World War II history.
(Pictures) My favorite thing there was going into a bunker at the forward edge of the camp. The guns and communication gear are all still in place and well maintained. It was nothing like the “imagine what this looked like before it deteriorated” stuff I’ve seen around home. Everything was real, quarters were tight, and you could just imagine the chaos of trying to fight a war in such a cramped and dangerous place.

After the historic reenactment, which involved a lot of explosions and explained the war much better than many movies, we went back to catch the bus we’d taken to get there. This trip was really the inspiration of my friends Kari and Irina, so I deferred to their preference of waiting for a bus rather than ask anybody for a ride. Cars poured out of the parking lots. We waited. The parking lots began to look rather empty. Irina assured me things would be OK. I wanted to go do homework. The bus came. People were standing in the bus and there was no way for even one of us to jam into the doorway to stand for the 40-minute ride to the train station.

I said goodbye to Kari and Irina and walked back to the parking lot. I flagged down the second car to emerge and made two new friends, who drove me all the way to my door and wouldn’t even accept money for gas. They like Minsk and they like Belarus. So do I.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is the firewall in place?

Tomorrow is Belarusian independence day, and there have been MANY rehearsals. We've seen and heard jets flying overhead in formation, my friends have seen tanks rolling down the parade route four abreast, and we've seen students in the grandstands beside the parade route practicing with color-cards. We're pretty excited about joining the festivities.

Security will be tight. Last year somebody brought a bomb into a crowd of people dancing at the festivities following the parade, and this year we expect significant precautions. One example is control of the parade route. When they had the rehearsal for the parade, apparently the president rode along. My friends in the dormitory above the route were not allowed to open their windows at the time of the rehearsal. It got pretty hot in their rooms while they waited and watched.

The other security appears to be technical. Suddenly we are unable to log into our e-mail accounts at Yahoo and Google. I can't imagine we're the only people with this problem. I tried all night to send an e-mail and never succeeded until I routed it through a proxy.

I'll update this post or post again once mail starts operating normally again.

[My classmates also expreienced the outage, but mail started working again a few hours after I first completed this post.]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Overwhelming generosity

A few days ago on one of my morning bike rides, I discovered a little community of dachas outside of Minsk, near the village of Zatsan. I stopped to take some pictures of the gardens around me, and I introduced myself to a couple of people on their way to one of the nearby dachas. Anna and Vanya invited me into their yard and ended up sending me home with a lot of dill, crisp radishes, and some green onion. Grateful, I returned this morning to give them a little gift.

As I leaned over the fence, debating whether to enter the yard and leave my gift on their porch or to leave my gift hung on the gate, Vanya came out in shirt and underwear to greet me. Excited by my little gift, he pulled me into his yard and asked me if I wouldn't take something else from his garden. I declined, but he really wanted me to take some more dill when I told him how much we had enjoyed the previous dill in borsch soup. So I said "just a little."

Before he harvested any borsch, however, he wanted me to see his garlic plants. He was unsatisfied that they weren't as big as he would have liked, but they were actually quite tall. He pulled one from the ground and asked me to wash it off for Alla. As I did, he asked me if I wanted another. I demurred, but he felt that no less than three would make any sense at all and he gave me two more. Then he harvested a bunch of green onions. Then he went to get the dill that started it all. He harvested a big handfull. I tried to stop him there, but suddenly he became crazed and whacked down almost an entire row.

I managed to get it all home. I don't know what to do next. I think any reciprocation must happen in the dead of night or away from their dacha. Alla is very excited about the variety of garlic he gave us, which is rare anyway and apparently unusually large.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

History lesson

My homework assignment included a little story about the 9 May holiday from our basic textbook. As you remember, this was the end of World War II, and it’s a huge holiday in Belarus. Our little story ended by stating that the holiday isn’t just celebrated in Belarus “because in May of 1945 the Soviet Army freed Europe from fascism.”

As soon as I read this I called Alla, who was in Gomel at the time. I read it to her, confirmed my translation, and expressed my surprise. She was not surprised. She matter-of-factly told me that’s indeed the way it was. I reminded her of the efforts of the Allies, and after a little thought Alla allowed as how it would have been better to mention them.

Still a little worked up, I went to class. On the way I thought “well, maybe they simplified the story for this language textbook because we don’t know the Russian word for ‘ally.’” Since I was the first to arrive, I was able to ask my teacher about it. I read her the offending sentence, and she calmly explained to me that the textbook was right. I tried to ask her for the word “ally,” but it was so far from her thought that she had no idea what I wanted when I asked her for the word for “friends in war.” So I got out my dictionary.

“Oh,” she said. “Well how many Americans were killed during the war?” I waxed eloquent, even with my still-limited vocabulary. I reminded her of all the war materials we sent over, asked her if she were familiar with Normandy, and then went on to tell about how my first father-in-law struggled to the end of his days over the devastation he caused as a bomber pilot who flew a lot of successful missions over Germany. (He never told exactly what he destroyed, but he sure never wanted to go back to Germany to see it.) To her credit, she got my point and added “and its allies” whenever we talked about that last sentence in the story.

Later in the lesson, one of my Spanish classmates commented that he thought the fascists would have won the war without Allied support. Svetlana disagreed, and the rest of us hauled out a few more facts. Seeing that she was heavily outnumbered, she let it drop. But I think I just learned something about the way history was taught in Soviet schools.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Honking and blasting

A while back I went to a jazz concert at Philharmony. That’s the big classical music venue here, and so far it’s been a safe bet that whatever happens there will be more than worthwhile. Reviewing their program, Alla noticed a jazz concert featuring a guy named Mats Gustafsson from Sweden. The picture on the poster showed him with a saxophone, so she figured “what the heck” and bought me a nice ticket just before leaving town.

A few evenings before the jazz concert I went to Philharmony to hear a couple of Tchaikovsky programs, one of which included Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto. Both of these classical programs were really great, my seats were superb, and the tickets cost something like eight dollars.

For the Swede, of course, the tickets were priced higher. I’m sure his cost of living is much higher than the Belarusian musicians I generally hear at Philharmony. I had a middle-priced seat at the front of the first balcony for $20, and found myself beside an outgoing woman willing to talk slowly enough that we could converse. Like me, she had no idea what Mats Gustaffson would sound like, but she was curious and there we were.

Presently, the introducer came out and told us about what we would be hearing. I couldn’t follow him very well, but did understand the phrase “free jazz.” This worried me. And it turns out I was right.

Mats came out alone and stood before the microphone. He rocked back and forth soundlessly, demonstrating intense focus as he prepared to play. He clicked up and down on the keys and holes of his saxophone, which the microphone picked up. I think the mic was turned up pretty loud because we could also hear him breathing and sucking on the mouthpiece. Finally he took a huge breath as he rocked back, and he swung forward blasting a huge barking sound of no particular pitch. Thus began the concert. Here’s a sample of his music.

A couple of people downstairs left after about a minute, but I lasted for the entire first piece. I’m not really sure what would define this as a piece, since for me it had no structure at all, but I left as soon as the guy stopped playing. I really expected the hall to drain at this moment, but I was the only refugee.

The usher tried to talk me into staying; assuring me that it would get better. I asked her if she were familiar with his music. No, she was not. I asked her if she had heard what he just played. Not really. We chatted a bit and I returned to a sunny evening too nice to waste on Mats.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting lost on my bike

I thought about entitling this entry "Katatsa na velocipedye," but most of my readers wouldn't know what that meant. For me, it means getting lost on my bike. I had a great time doing that on Saturday morning. I saw rivers, woodlands, fancy neighborhoods and simple neighborhoods.

As usual, I got a little confused about the best way home and found myself on a road I wouldn't have chosen on purpose. The best thing about that was finding my way to the Minsk Tractor Works, a huge operation with a fabulous Soviet-era facade. I took a few pictures for you. Here are two pictures of the factory, the first tractor they made and the last tractor of the 20th century. The old tractor has new tires and new paint, and it's easy to imagine starting the engine.

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

From 2009-06 PhonePix

Friday, June 5, 2009

Crazy Weather

The weather around here is driving my classmates and me out of our minds. Every day we get numerous intervals of sun, but they’re seldom long enough to go out and do anything serious outdoors. In between we get gray and cloudy with outbursts of heavy rain.

I’ve stopped carrying an umbrella because I know it won’t rain for a long time. Instead, I watch the sky, choose opportune moments to step out, and seldom stay outside more than half an hour.

I’m hoping to take a bike ride tomorrow morning. The hourly forecast from Accuweather says I can get away with it. The hourly forecast from Weather Underground says I might get wet. The long-range forecast says never to expect anything different, and my professor says June is often like this.

No wonder Belarus has so many bodies of water. Why is it such a problem to deliver some of this water to my apartment (and heat it along the way)?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Family lore

I remember my mom's stories about her grandmother who would test the temperature in her oven by putting her arm in. If it was hot enough to singe the hair on her arm, it was hot enough for her to begin baking.

Our range is not that basic, but it's pretty basic. Neither the cooktop nor the oven has a pilot light, so you just light a match before turning on the gas. The oven also has no thermostat, but unlike my great-grandmother's oven this one has a thermometer on the door. You adjust the height of the flame to maintain whatever temperature you want inside the oven. Since the temperatures are in centigrade, I really have no idea what I want anyway and don't use the oven much.

Tonight, however, I wanted to bake some chicken thighs. I lit a match and held it over the lighting hole in the oven before turning on the gas. I heard the familiar "whump" as the gas ignited (so I thought) and blew out the match. Presently I noticed a stale smell in the kitchen and opened the window a crack, thinking the oven's jets must not be properly adjusted.

A little later I remembered that Alla had left me some nice packets of herbs and I decided to deploy some of them atop my chicken. I opened the oven and took out the pan with potholders. I decorated the meat and returned it to the oven. Then I finally noticed that the oven was cold.

Readers in North America may be a little puzzled at this point. Why didn't I notice the smell of the gas? Well, it turns out that natural gas doesn't have much of a smell. To most people, in fact, it's odorless. But gas companies in our part of the world add a stinky chemical to the gas so it's really obvious if it's escaping in the wrong place. Apparently gas companies over here don't do that.

A stupid thought passed through my mind. I wanted to eat. I'd better light that thing. Fortunately, another bit of family lore came immediately to thought. My grandfather made that very mistake and had a large explosion as a result. It burned his face badly and, the part I liked hearing about as a little kid, it burned off his eyebrows. Remembering that I already missed my eyebrows, I opened the windows wide and went out to dinner. After turning off the gas, of course.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Water (again)

I've been without hot water since last Thursday. The sign on the building promises that it'll be back after a two-week outage. Apparently this is normal. Every building gets cut off for two or three weeks each summer for "prophylaxis." I don't know what kind of prophylactic treatment requires a two week outage, but I hear it involves cigarettes and beer.

I am bathing at the health club or else I'm pouring water over myself from a pan I've heated up in the kitchen. Everything takes longer in Belarus, sometimes even bathing at home.

Nesvizh & Mir

--- Warning --- I think this post is too long. You can skip it because I can't figure out how to shorten it and it's my own dang fault. -S

We had plans last weekend to take a packaged tour to the town of Lida, where we expected to see a reenactment of a historic wedding at a medieval castle. The tour didn’t fill up, however, and the operator canceled. When we learned this, Alla looked around to figure out how best to get to Lida on our own. In the process she discovered that the historic reenactment might be a little hokey and we decided to take a different trip, to a couple of historic towns easier to reach.

It seemed most convenient to travel on our own rather than on a packaged tour, but we did run into a couple of wrinkles at the beginning of our trip. Alla learned that the buses to Nesvizh start at a secondary bus station a few miles from our apartment, and she learned that the #30 and #20 trolleybus lines would get us from the train station to this bus station. So, we started nice and early in the morning so we would have time to get to the train station and reach our bus. First we got onto a #30 trolleybus and passed within a block of our apartment on our way to the bus station. (First note to selves: Catch #30 trolleybus closer to home.) We nearly missed the bus to Nesvizh because the sign on the bus named the final destination and we were waiting for a bus with the word Nesvish on the placard. Anyway, once on the bus we rode back to the train station where we started our day and then proceeded to Nesvizh. (Second note to selves: ...)

We really loved Nesvizh. It’s a cute little town on a river, with just enough restaurants to support a few tourists and several interesting things to see and do. We started in the old town hall, which dates back to the 1500’s, visited a church, and headed on to the main attraction: a beautiful palace on the banks of the river with many hectares of parkland surrounding it. We hired a horse and buggy for an introduction to the parkland and decided that Nesvizh is worthy of a return trip simply to go to the park and swim in the river.

We wanted to take a bus from Nesvizh to Mir, but were mistaken about the schedule and got to the station too early. Rather than wait, we hired a taxi. Far down the road we passed a solo cyclist we’d seen a couple times earlier that day in Nesvizh. She was making good progress and reminded me how much I enjoy bicycle tourism.

Mir’s biggest attraction is a beautiful castle, also on a river. We explored the castle in some detail before walking toward the bus station. It was at the moment we approached the bus station that I realized we did well by coming to Mir on our own. We stepped into a little church and saw a chamber orchestra set up at the front. It turns out that we’d stumbled upon the Belarus National Chamber Orchestra, 22 extremely talented musicians playing in an acoustically wonderful location. We took the last two seats and enjoyed a phenomenal concert. This was the first concert in the church in 130 years and there were certainly no tour buses anywhere in sight.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Why go home?

My classmates asked me a provocative question today. The teacher was trying to find out how many people would continue to study in our group during the summer months because the university is considering combining two groups. (That would be a bad idea, considering the different abilities of the two groups.) When it came out that I’m planning to go home at the end of June, everybody asked me why.

That’s actually a good question. So I can pay my real estate tax? So I can throw away all that junk mail that our son keeps piling up behind our front door? So far I haven’t thought of any good reasons to be home any sooner than August first, except for our plane reservation. And we could probably even get away with staying until late in August. The longer I stay here, the more I will learn. If I go home, well, I won’t learn so much.

Besides, I have a new business idea to mull over, and this is a good place to do it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I miss my eyebrows

Yesterday I got a haircut. Alla selected the hairdresser, thoughtfully choosing the most ordinary-looking woman in the shop. She stayed long enough to make sure we shared a mutual understanding of what we wanted for a haircut and then she left me alone with Rita.

The first thing Rita did was to prepare me for the work to follow. In Boston I would prepare myself by taking off my shirt and putting on a clean smock. This shop offered me no such luxury, but instead Rita tore off a length of crepe paper and wrapped it around my n
eck above my shirt. The tape stuck to itself and I found myself in a snug but high paper collar. Next, she wrapped a waterproof cape around me and turned the crepe paper collar over the neck of the cape.

Thus prepared, Rita washed my hair. In Boston I would be lying on my back at this point. In Minsk we lean forward in the barber chair and stick our faces in a sink under the mirror. This seemed fine at first, but when the water ran around my cheeks and mounted an assault on my nostrils I adjusted my head angle and tried to breathe out more than I breathed in.

Once she had me dried off, Rita gave me a pretty normal haircut. That is to say, she cut it shorter than I wanted. When it was all over, she asked me if I would like her to trim my eyebrows. Knowing that I have a few wild hairs up there, I said yes and closed my eyes. She combed and trimmed. I didn’t really think about the result until I looked into the mirror to shave the next morning, but now that I’ve noticed, I’m quite aware of the difference. I wonder how long it takes for eyebrows to grow back.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I’m not used to thinking much about water. Sure, I know that clean water is a limited resource and we’re not supposed to waste it, but I’m pretty confident at home that when I turn on the tap water will come out. Every time.

I think the converse is true around here. When I go out for my early-morning bike rides I have to watch out for the water trucks that wash down all the main streets. Clearly there’s plenty of water to splash around. Just not at home. I wrote earlier about an incident in October, but May has been really interesting. The first time the water failed was late one evening when I really should have finished washing the dinner dishes. When I finally did get around to washing them, there was no water. I called our landlady’s representative, who could have understood me in English but who took my call as an educational opportunity so we discussed my problem in Russian. She promised to call the city authorities the next day to find out when I might expect to get my water back. By that time my water was working.

I looked outside the building to see if I’d missed any notices, but there were none.

A couple of days later the water went out again, for a few hours in the daytime. I resolved to fill an empty 5-litre bottle and keep it under the sink, just as soon as I finished drinking the clean water it contained. Well, I finished drinking the water and left the empty bottle in the kitchen until yesterday, when the water failed again. I had more dirty dishes too. Rats!

Fortunately yesterday’s crisis was fairly short and I did get to fill my bottle before going off to class. A couple of my classmates entered the classroom about an hour late, explaining that they had no water at home and were unable to leave any sooner. (If I understood this I would explain it to you.)

Today there was a notice on the front of my building announcing that the gas would be shut off from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. I don’t think I care, as long as I take a warm shower before 8 a.m. Oh, and I want to run a load of laundry. I hope the water is working in the morning.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I've used a few different athletic facilities in Belarus, and of course a wide diversity of restrooms. In the course of these activities, I've noticed that Belarusians are a lot less squeamish than North Americans about the possibility that the cleaning lady might intrude on some guy's privacy.

Yes, restrooms and locker rooms are always cleaned by women. I haven't seen a single exception. The public restrooms are generally quite clean because the women dart in to make commando cleanups frequently when they think the room is reasonably unoccupied. You pay them 500-600 rubles for the privilege of using their toilets (about 20 cents) and they make sure the room is in good shape.

In athletic facilities, I don't think I've ever seen a locker room that doesn't open directly onto a public area. There are no anterooms or zig-zag privacy entries. If you're changing your clothes when somebody walks into the locker room, well, somebody in the hall might just catch a glance. And then again, there's always the cleaning lady. If the cleaning ladies think it's time to clean the locker room, they just open the door and look to see if the room is empty. If so, they go in. If not, they close the door again. Generally. Yesterday the cleaning lady apparently did a double-take. I heard the door swing twice, but I was facing away so I don't know what she was looking at. I think she really wanted to replace the mat that was supposed to be under my feet but which she'd removed for cleaning.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Suburban Minsk

I think I know where the president lives.

There’s some folklore going around about President Lukashenko. One person told me that he lives in an apartment just like everybody else. Another person told me that nobody knows where the president lives. Both of these stories seemed implausible to me, but I enjoyed knowing a little about the mystery surrounding the man.

Well, today I may have penetrated the mystery. I started my day with an early bike ride. My delightful route began along a riverside bike path and continued past a monument on the edge of the congested area; past an exposition center with tanks, tractors and heavy equipment on display; and into a suburban area at the edge of a huge park.

I explored the residential area, violated the rules by riding my bike on a fantastic 5-K rollerblade path, and explored peripheral paths in the parkland. Birds were chirping, the sunlight drenched the open areas and blasted into the wooded areas, and the air was perfectly cool and fresh for riding. When I felt that I had seen all I could in the park I found a bridge across the river and I set out to find a way home on the other side of the river.

I really enjoyed all the roads out in this area because they were completely uncongested. Unfortunately, I felt like I was riding perpendicular to the river and I wanted to turn right. Presently, I reached a T intersection. The street sign and the paint on the road indicated that traffic should all turn left, but the street to my right looked perfectly good so I took it. After about a mile, I saw a serious-looking gate ahead of me.

The gate didn’t completely block the street, and I could have ridden my bike through a gap to the right of the gate. I slowed down as I approached this to ascertain whether a cyclist might be allowed even though cars could not. Before I even reached the opening, however, an especially-crisp military guy jumped out to stop me. I asked him if the property were closed and he replied “Nil zya,” which might be translated “No way.” OK. I turned around.

As I turned back I noticed that the concrete fence to my right was topped with unspooled razor wire and that there were TV cameras every 100 meters or so. A black car with heavily-tinted windows exited the compound and passed me. I figured it was best not to try to look into the car, but it looked to me like the same car by which President Lukashenko left the Monument of Victory after speaking to the people on May 9. This time, as at the monument, there was no motorcade. But I think it’s possible that I saw the president’s limo this morning for the second time.
I rode all the way around the perimeter of the compound. It’s beautifully located, a heavenly camp within a beautiful park. At the back of the compound the wall turns away from the road and the road leads to a typically delightful Belarusian village. I’ll be back to explore the village at another time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tall women

I am sitting in study hall right now, and I'm moved to write because I saw a T-shirt across the room. On the front of the shirt it says No Ma’am. On the back the acronym is explained: National Organization Men Against Amazon Mastery. I had planned to do a little more research before attempting this posting on tall women, but the T-shirt drove me over the edge. The post will be better if I don’t do any research that might undermine my flimsy conclusion.

I noticed an unusually tall woman the other day, at least six feet tall. Given that Belarusians tend to be shorter than Americans are, she really stood out. Then I began to notice a surprising number of Belarusian women in the six-foot range. As I stood on public transit this morning and surveyed all the heads I could see I hypothesized that there are roughly as many six-foot-tall women here as men of that height. And this phenomenon isn’t even assisted by high-heeled shoes! I should really attempt to confirm that hypothesis at least over a few more rides on the Metro, but the presence of the T-shirt suggested that at least some of the regular-sized guys around here might feel a little threatened by tall women.

Maybe before I return to the USA I’ll get to talk to some of these tall women and find out whether their height is a nuisance for them. But I think I’d have to know somebody pretty well before attempting to talk about differences. If I do learn anything, I’ll let you know. Maybe I should interview some of the regular-sized guys first.

Alas, after writing this little essay and before posting it I took another ride on the Metro and saw a fair smattering of tall men but no tall women. My demographic theory appears to be failing, but there are a few very tall women around here somewhere.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I'm beginning to understand this stuff!

I really enjoyed class today. We're going over stuff that never made sense to me, and suddenly it makes sense. I can only credit those Pimsleur tapes I borrwed from the library. And, of course, I have a great teacher here.

Actually, all kinds of things are coming together for me right now. I was feeling bored not having a newspaper to read over breakfast so I turned on the TV. I found a talk show on Channel 4 that I could follow reasonably well. That's a first!

Yesterday the librarian loaned me a new book on Russian grammar in English with lots of tables and diagrams. (Once again, I feel privileged. Technically it's too new for circulation yet, but she saw how interested I was in it, coming back to read it in the library. She admitted that she had a second copy and she let me take it home.) The book elucidates topics I had found hard, and I'll continue to work through it at home.

I think that by the time I come home this time I can tell you honestly that I speak Russian. When I said that in the past,I was exaggerating badly.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Children's Railway

 We noticed signs on the Minsk subway announcing that the Children’s Railway is running. I figured it would be like the little trains I rode as a kid in various zoos and amusement parks. I was surprised, then, to see that it’s a fairly large-scale model of a real Belarusian passenger train. We saw the train running along the edge of a city park where we had gone for a walk, and we decided to see about taking a ride.

Following the train, we found our way to a little  station not far from the main park entrance. The architecture reminded us of many Soviet train stations, though in this case it was scaled down in keeping with the Children’s Railway idea. Whereas in a real railway station they play tinny patriotic music when a train arrives, here they played tinny children’s music continuously. There was also an actor or actress who kept reappearing in various animal suits reminiscent of cartoon characters. My favorite character was the wolf, and the person inside the costume let me pose with my head inside the wolf’s huge mouth.

Since we arrived just after a train left, we had a 20-minute wait for the next train. I toured the exhibits inside the station, which included a fine electric-train diorama operated by kids in railway uniforms. At the back of the station I found a huge classroom filled with kids in railway uniforms, including giant hats like the ones police and military officers wear here. If I spoke more Russian, and/or had paid attention, I might have realized that these kids were in training. As it was, I just figured they were on a school outing, took a couple of pictures, and went back outside to wait for our train.

When our train arrived we realized that there are two of these trains and that they take a surprisingly long excursion. My real surprise, however, was to discover that the train was operated almost entirely by  children in uniform. Each car had at least two conductors, and the engine carried one adult engineer and two or three apprentice engineers. I think there may have been a second adult on the train somewhere, but as far as the public is concerned the operators are all children.

The train cars even have little cabins for the conductors. I believe each car has a separate P.A. system. In our car we saw a conductor in his office talking into the microphone to announce our trip.

When the train pulled out of the station, all the conductors stood in their doorways holding yellow flags straight out. As each door passed the end of the platform, the conductor would lower his or her flag with an authoritative snap. (Later I paid attention when a real train left Minsk station. In real life, most of the conductors take their arms inside the train long before their cars clear the platform. Only the last conductor shows the flag until the last car passes the end of the platform.)

The children’s train runs about three kilometers through woodlands and stops at a secluded picnic area. We debarked there and waited for the next train back, giving us a chance to understand more of the children’s duties operating the railroad. They are very serious and I suppose many of them will end up working in railroad as adults.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I always feel special here. Today I started my classes. After my class, I wanted to use a computer but the computer lab in my building closed for a «technical break» as I walked up. I went to the study hall in the next building and asked to sign in. Somebody stepped up to the last free computer just as I was asking for permission to use it, but the supervisor told me I could still use one immediately if I went to the something-or-other hall "down that way." Well... That's as much as I understood anyway. I couldn't even get my head around the words that preceeded the Russian word for hall, so I just walked around in the direction she sent me, looking around for the word "zall" on one of the door signs.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood her gesture and only looked on the right side of the hallway, and found no room claiming to be any kind of "zall." So I went back and confessed that I hadn't understood. This time, the other supervisor took me personally to the hall of computers she had in mind, but we found that they were all occupied.

No problem, I said. I have homework to do and I will just work in the main study hall until a computer becomes available. Or something like that. My Russian is highly imperfect. Anyway, I didn't have to wait. I had barely seated myself when the first supervisor came back and told me that she had a computer for me right now. She led me into a back room I had been curious about from my last visit here. It leads to a hidden hallway that I had surmised from looking at the outside of the building but had never entered. There is a VERY nice computer lab off the hallway, complete with printers (wow!) and even a scanner. I am in heaven.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May Day

There is a pun in the title of this blog. First we had a “mayday” experience of the sinking-ship kind, upon our arrival at our apartment on April 30. While I was getting registered at the university, Alla was working out the final details with our landlord. She called me in the midst of my official business to let me know that I might like to return home as soon as practical.

When I came into the apartment, she and the landlord were struggling over matters of my official registration as a resident. The landlord said that he couldn’t register me at the place we were renting because somebody else was registered there already. Based on previous experience, I really didn’t want to mess around with my registration. We got nowhere, and decided to go with registration at another address as the landlord proposed. But then he said that he’d only register me for one month and he’d extend my registration only upon receipt of the second rent payment. Alla made a call and found that if he did that, the University would be unable to register me for the second month and worst case I’d have to leave the country.

We discussed and discussed the issues, trying to propose protections for the landlord that would make him comfortable about registering us. The longer we discussed things the more we realized that he was doing everything to protect himself all along the way and that he’d never offered anything to protect us. We had struggled from the beginning to get our covenants onto paper. We understood during this process that we couldn’t place our trust in this guy and we wouldn’t commit to living in his place even for a month. Two nights seemed about right.

Alla called a realtor she had met earlier and got an introduction to a rental agent. The rental agent had a few immediate ideas and took us yesterday morning to see the low-priced option. For $800 per month we got a beautiful two-room apartment that we like a whole lot better than the more-expensive place we started in. We will move in today.

Yesterday was International Labor Day, a holiday here. We joined the celebrations at the local park. The city brought various amateur singing and dancing groups onto a rickety wooden stage. We particularly liked the dancers, who presented well-choreographed performances beautifully. Their lavish costumes matched their dances. The only disappointments for us were a couple of hip-hop performances, which weren’t up to American street-performance standards. One of the songs they chose included “motherf___er” in the lyrics, which seemed odd in a public performance in a children’s park. But I guess the censors didn’t understand the charge that expression brings to English speakers. We saw the same word scrawled in the elevator of the apartment building we are leaving. Is this really the best stuff we can export from America?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Almost ready for Belarus

I am almost completely prepared to return to Belarus for two more months studying at the Minsk State Linguistic University. I have my visa, we've found a place to live, and I've even gone so far as to order a cheap bicycle to bring along. I tried to order the bike in Minsk, but the stores we found didn't have many choices in my size and what they had was pretty heavy.

We will arrive on the last day of April, just in time to add a data plan to my telephone's SIM card before the new month. And with any luck there will be another concert at the State Library on the first day of May. We had a great time at last year's concert, and I'm hoping to invite my former classmates to join us for shashleek (shish-ke-bob) at this year's concert. Looking for the concert, I stumbled across a wonderful blog entry about Belarus, reflecting much of what I have enjoyed and observed about the place. Take a look here.

I can hardly wait. Meanwhile, I'm working hard on improving my Russian and already starting to pack my bags.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Back in Mexico

Ik-Kil Mexico—Friday, February 20, 2009

We had a great time doing unusual stuff today. We earned this pleasure by a bit of work getting here yesterday. We flew to Cancun, rented a car, and drove to Ik-Kil. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The map we received from Avis was one notch better than useless, and the Avis lady’s description of how to get onto our toll road left out an important detail that led us to drive all over creation before we finally got under way. We created some problems of our own too, primarily because we shot through the airport without getting any Mexican money. I really should have gone back inside when we circled back after figuring out where we really wanted to drive. I won’t tell you about all the troubles this caused, so you’ll just have to imagine.

Our difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that most of my Spanish language skills fled since I started studying Russian. I expect my vocabulary to come back any minute now, but it definitely hasn’t happened yet.

We did arrive successfully at Ik-Kil before the manager went home for the night, and he sent us to a huge and sparkling cabin with a thatched roof and colorful garden. It’s got a “king sized” bed, but the royalty here must be a little shorter than up north. Alla compensated by building an extension on my side of the bed with a luggage table and a pillow. We both slept very well and woke up only when the birds started singing in the morning.

Today made up for all of yesterday’s travail. We drove down to an archaeological site called Ek-Balam and bought a couple of admission tickets. As we turned to walk into the site, a guy behind a desk deep in the office asked us in perfect English if we’d like an expert tour of the site. He said that he was a leader of the archaeological team since 1994 or 1998 and he offered to show us around for a little more than $20 U.S. We’re really glad we said yes.

His name is Juan Canul. Juan warned us that some guests find him a little long-winded and he wanted to know how much time we had. Alla offered him as much time as he wished to offer. So he said to stop him if he talked too much. He did talk a lot, and I worried at the beginning that we’d be bored too. But Alla got right into it and started asking him questions, memorizing statistics, and egging him on. Our tour lasted two and a half hours. I gave him a 33% tip but I still feel a little sheepish about getting such a bargain. The reason he’s leading tours is that the government only funds archaeological work about ten weeks each year. He continues to supervise three guards and oversee the site and its maintenance, but he is seriously under-employed.

He read the hieroglyphics to us, corrected the misinformation we’d received in last year’s tour at Chichen-Itza, and regaled us with stories of which archaeologist made what discovery and when. (The Chichen-Itza misinformation relied on early archaeological theories, discredited by more recent research.)

On our way back from Ek-Balam we drove through a little town where we thought we might be able to buy lunch. A local police officer sent us to a restaurant we didn’t find appealing so we headed out and figured we might just buy some fruit to tide us over until we could get to a bigger town. Fortunately, Alla noticed a clothing store she wanted to visit, and when we turned around we found ourselves facing a tortilla factory. This place ground its own corn and cranked out tortillas. I bought a stack about an inch high for three pesos; less than 25 cents.

The still-warm tortillas tasted great and we were filling our faces with them as we walked toward the clothing store. We saw a meat market and looked in. Not realizing that they had cooked meat, we turned to leave. The owner called us back and said that some smoked pork would be really great with our tortillas and he cut us a sample. Wow, was he right. So we bought a hunk of meat and the owner took us back to see the huge smoke oven where he was cooking another batch of food. We sat on a bridge and ate our food with great pleasure. I think the whole lunch cost about a dollar and a half. It made our breakfast seem particularly ridiculous.

Our last adventure took place when we bought gas. The guy at the station engaged me in conversation and assured himself that I was a tourist. Then he pulled a little trick. I gave him 200 pesos for gas and then fished a coin out of my pocket because the total bill was 210. He pointed out that I’d only given him a five-peso coin instead of ten, so I fished out another five-peso coin. Then he pointed out that I’d only given him a 20-peso note instead of a 200-peso note. This was surprising because I organize my money by size in my wallet and I gave him the note at the very back of my wallet, knowing that I’d just gotten a bunch of 200’s at the ATM.

I drove away sure that I’d just let myself be cheated. Alla made me stop the car and re-count the money in my wallet. Since I’d been broke shortly before and had then gone to the ATM, I knew that either the ATM gave me a 20-peso note instead of a 200 or he had pulled a switch. Alla wanted me to go back, but I despaired because my Spanish is so weak. Still, she was firm and I complied. I asked the guy to re-count his money. He said simply that my 200-peso bill had fallen. I started to argue and then realized that I was happy to pretend to agree to his claim. So I held out my hand and he gave me a 200-peso note. It seems I made 20 pesos on the deal.