Saturday, December 31, 2011

Adjusting to Minsk

Our plane got in late yesterday, and I was surprised to discover that the sun hadn’t set by the time we got home. I knew in the back of my mind that Belarus never went back from daylight-saving time last autumn, but didn’t fully appreciate what that would mean to me until this morning.

I had another surprise, too. It’s been warm here all week and if Minsk ever got any snow thus far, it all melted long ago. After unpacking most of my stuff, I decided to go off to the supermarket and get a few basic supplies. Keeping my jeans on, I threw on a jacket and cap and walked to the store. By the time I got there, I’d unzipped the jacket and had already begun making plans to get my bike on the road right away.

At the store I had to recalibrate my expectations too. I picked up a little bag of rice and saw that it cost 24,000 rubles. Momentarily, my hair stood up. Then I remembered that we’re now getting more than 8,000 rubles to the dollar. OK, the bag of rice was worth about three dollars, not eight dollars. I’ll get the hang of this.

Some things may adjust faster than I do, however. Recent developments suggest, for example, that I may not be riding my bike after all. I couldn’t even see the street when I woke up this morning because it was so dark out. This came as a bit of a surprise, because the streetlight outside our bedroom window bathed the whole back yard in light when I went to bed at 11:00. Apparently they turned it off after midnight and whoever controls this stuff didn’t see any need to turn it on again in the morning. We felt our way to the light switch and lit up the apartment this morning. I kept looking at the clock because I imagined I was confused about the time. Can it really be daytime when it’s so dark out? Dawn finally began breaking around 9:30. By ten or eleven o’clock I could see outside well enough to discover that the weather had changed. As I write this, it’s snowing hard.

I guess I’d better pull on my warm pants and go out to buy Alla a pair of ski poles before they sell out of her size. I don’t think the sporting goods store restocks after the New Year’s rush, so if they don’t have her size today they will never have it. At least, they never got any last winter, when we had snow to ski on. I’m not so sure that today’s snow will change anything fundamental, but I am still committed to those ski poles. I want to be prepared.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Charlie Cards

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority never seems to get public transit exactly right. We were all excited when they started a new system five years ago, with plastic stored-value cards. I keep my card in my wallet and just tap the whole wallet on the gate sensor as I enter the system. I even used to turn around and back up against the sensor without withdrawing the wallet from my pocket, but this got me into trouble with one of the MBTA shortcomings.

We use the same gates to enter and to leave the subway system. This means that an unsuspecting passenger can spend money from his stored-value card to open an entry gate only to be swept away by somebody emerging from the station. We all struggled with this when the Charlie gates first arrived, but now most people have gotten pretty good about joining a stream of traffic going one direction or another at each gate. Notwithstanding this cooperation, I confused a lot of people when I used to back up to the gate so it would read the card I was too lazy to get out of my back pocket. Not surprisingly, I kept getting overrun by people leaving the station when I was trying to enter backwards.

We all started getting new surprises in the last two or three months. Apparently it’s been exactly five years since Charlie Cards came out. We learned this because the cards expire five years from their first use. Lots of disappointed people discovered that their stored-value cards suddenly stopped working, regardless of the amount of money they held the day before.

I got caught with an expired Charlie Card today, and asked the station manager to give me a new one. Instead of a card, he gave me bad news. Everybody has been asking for so many new Charlie Cards recently that the entire MBTA system has run out of them. He didn’t know when they might receive new ones, so everybody is struggling with different forms of payment until the MBTA sorts out its supply problem. What I want to know, then, is why do these cards expire at all? I just can’t imagine how the MBTA gains more from killing old cards than they lose by facing a flood of free-card requests every five years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Transferrable skills / deflated prejudices

While living in Belarus I often wrote with amazement about the way people on the streets and in public transport would meet my gaze and return a smile. It seemed special to me, unique to the place or at least unique to the fact that I’m readily identifiable as a foreigner there. In another post I commented on my delight in discovering that the young women in Belarus didn’t display much doubt or awkwardness about dancing with me in spite of our age and availability differences. I attributed both of these graces to special characteristics of Belarusian people and did not expect to find them back in Boston.

This summer I realized that people treat me much the same way in Boston. I can still catch the eyes of strangers who smile back, and I can still dance with young women who accept willingly. Having noticed that, I stopped to wonder why.

My favorite theory, since it makes me feel good about myself, is that I’ve learned something or changed in some way that makes people feel more comfortable with me. When I first moved to New England I used to embarrass myself by trying to start conversations with strangers in elevators who would invariably act as if I were not even there. Foreigners would acknowledge my glance or join in casual chat, but the “yankees” generally would not. In Belarus, my outgoing nature generally resulted in smiling acknowledgements and heartfelt greetings. I can imagine that I’ve become more comfortable with myself and with strangers, and as a result the strangers act more comfortable with me.

Of course maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe the times have changed, or maybe people are just more comfortable with a guy who looks, shall we say, a little more mature. Realistically, it’s possible that all of these factors contribute to the change. Anyway, I enjoy feeling welcome, at home and accepted in a variety of places, and I wish the same for my readers.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Swimming to the ocean

I wanted to do this from the first time we saw Tres Rios three years ago. Today we kayaked up First River to the cenote where it originates, and then I swam all the way back to the ocean. Last time I swam downstream here, I left Alla and some friends at the cenote. After going about half-way downstream, I turned to swim back to the group. Those figures of speech about swimming upstream really mean what they imply. I struggled with the current, and where the river narrowed I had to grab the mangrove roots and crawl hand-over-hand against the flow.

It's not so difficult to paddle upstream in a kayak, and we've done it several times already. Today I brought my swim goggles and left the boat with Alla, who wanted to paddle back down. I enjoyed the scenery as I floated over crazy tangles of mangrove roots, underwater caverns, big schools of fish in a variety of sizes, crabs, stabs of sunlight, and even patches of white river bottom.

I couldn't dive down to see what made those white spots on the river bottom because I wore a life jacket, both for security and to stay a little warmer. I suppose I saw ocean sand that washed upstream during a big storm. Anyway, I was in a big hurry because I had a macho problem. Early in my voyage, I passed a kayak while the paddlers were goofing off. Not wanting to hold them up and certainly not wanting to be passed, I stayed pretty focused on my swimming. I reached the ocean with a comfortable gap between myself and the boat.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bird blessing

Alla reminded me of a scene in a movie where a bird soils a visitor’s head and her Italian companion remarks that this indicates good luck ahead. Alla thought of it yesterday after dragging her sleeve through a huge and gooey dropping on our table at an outdoor café at the Tres Rios resort. We found ourselves eating at the café because we arrived early and our room wasn’t ready yet. Mysteriously, the woman at the desk said that she needed to figure out which room she should assign to us. After dragging her sleeve through the bird droppings, Alla announced that this was an omen that we would receive a great hotel room.

In fact, we received two great hotel rooms, interconnected. I can offer two or three guesses as to why we received this surprising luxury, but we’re not worrying all that much about the details. While we don’t need it, we do find it pleasant. And I did like having someplace to go when Alla started snoring last night and I couldn’t wake her up easily.

Our rooms face the ocean, a manmade lagoon, and the well-landscaped pool area. Tonight as I write this, a mariachi band plays in the courtyard below us. They played really well at first, but they’ve been playing for about three hours now and I think they’re getting a little tired. Still, we enjoy the serenade and trust that they’ll quit by the time we go to bed.

We spent much of today in the pool area because it’s sheltered from the wind. While the wind blew down the ocean beach all day today, we didn’t notice it near the pool. A rather tame coati came out of the jungle to steal food from the diners at one of the poolside restaurants. She came back after stealing an entire calzone from the table beside me, and let me pet her even though I didn’t share any of my pizza. The fur at her neck is pretty soft, but the fir down her back was stiff like a brush.

We saw other wildlife yesterday when we walked along the jungle trail through a mangrove swamp and past numerous cenotes. I particularly liked a big yellow bird and I was quite amused by the little crab that crawled onto my foot as I dangled my feet into the biggest cenote. Just as I was about to call Alla’s attention to the cute little guy, he pinched my toe hard enough that I kicked him off of my foot. Unoffended, he came back after a few minutes and tried to crawl onto my foot a second time. I didn’t stay this time for him to climb on.
From 2011-11 Cancun

Friday, December 2, 2011

Such a busy day

This morning we decided to go back to Isla Mujeres for more seafood tacos at Avalon. Originally we intended to do that tomorrow, but the resort folks changed something so we rushed out the door on about five minutes’ notice and caught the 10:00 ferry. Because the sea and air were perfectly calm when we took our early-morning walk on the beach, we expected a fine day at Avalon beach. At least we got the sun, but the calm blew away during the ferry ride.

We keep running into Russians, and we found them at Avalon beach too. A little tour group of eight friends from Nizhny Novgorod spilled into the chairs next to us. We conversed a bit and then left them for fish tacos. Alla and I tried to eat outdoors, but the wind kept blowing our stuff around and we finally gave up and went into the restaurant. As we passed the bar, Alla noticed one of the waiters bringing in an armload of fresh coconuts, so she went to find out what she could drink out of one. I asked her to order a plain coconut for me at the same time. Her beverage was called a coco loco, and it included tequila and a face made of fruits. She liked it a lot.

Because of the wind, we decided to come home on the 3:30 ferry, which proved to be a very good idea. After a soak in the hot tub and a quick sauna, we came back to our room and found a voicemail from some new Russian friends who had an invitation for four people to the horse show at Hacienda Andalucía. We got the message exactly in time that we could still say yes.

Many of the guests at this show, like our friends, had just bought timeshares. The horse show is a regular thank-you gift, and as a result the resort people are pretty generous about the free liquor. Alla, Alexei and Natasha enjoyed lavish amounts of tequila reposado while I consumed an obscene number of virgin piña coladas. No doubt everybody felt really good about their timeshare purchases by the end of the evening, and the show was pretty good too.