Monday, August 25, 2014

Buying a TV

The title of today’s post is misleading. I did not buy a TV. At the time, I was trying to buy a new lock for our mailbox because the Belarusian lock we put on there a couple of years ago gave us endless problems and finally failed altogether. So I went to the biggest locksmith I know of and asked whether he had something better, but he didn’t have anything at all. He sent me to TSUM, the big government-owned department store where Alla bought the previous lock. TSUM didn’t even have any flimsy Belarusian locks today, but the sales guy thought he might have some more in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, I walked past the TV department. Alla’s been watching a lot of TV lately because she likes to get the official Russian point of view on what’s happening in Ukraine. Our old TV has a lousy sound system, unintelligible at low volumes and intolerable at high volume. And there’s no place to plug in headphones so everybody in the building knows when she’s got the TV turned on. I figured it might be worthwhile to buy a new TV if I got a good enough deal. Alla could watch her Russian programs without speakers blaring and I could hook my laptop up to the newer TV and we could watch movies in the living room instead of crowding around my desk.

At TSUM I saw a Belarusian 32” LCD TV for 300 bucks. “Hmm,” I thought, “this might be OK.” But I had a nagging concern in the back of my mind because somebody some time advised me never to buy Horizont (the Belarusian brand). I asked the sales guy about it and he reacted with surprise. “What do you mean,” he asked, “that Horizont TVs are bad?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Tell me about your experience. Are they good TVs?” “We don’t have any trouble with them,” he assured me. He went on a bit, explaining that they’re fine TVs. I asked him if he had anything else he’d like me to consider at the same time, and he showed me a Samsung for $100 more. I asked why I’d pay more for a Samsung when the Horizont is such an excellent product. He explained that 78% of the parts in the Samsung are manufactured in Korea and that the TV itself is assembled in Russia. “It’s better. The parts are better. I recommend that you buy Samsung.”

I came home really confused. Horizont is really great but he thinks I shouldn’t buy one. So I cast about online looking for reviews. Mostly I found praise for old Soviet tube-style Horizont TVs and horror stories about unreliability and the inconvenience of repairing newer LED TVs with the same brand. Alla called some friends, who said they bought a Horizont and liked it fine. It failed after two years, was deemed unrepairable, and they received a certificate for a new TV which still works. Except that they dropped the remote control and it’s impossible to replace. They’re happy with theirs, but I’m not feeling so confused any more. As much as I’d like to support the local brand, I’ve been scared away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

1001st place

Years ago, a friend gave us a book called “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” The book doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Eastern Europe and leaves out Belarus altogether. Now that I’ve seen Braslav Lakes, I can only say that they’re wrong. This is an undiscovered paradise, and while I worry about what will happen as it’s discovered I think my readers would like to know a little more about our visit.

I wrote in my previous post about where we stayed, near Nedrava Lake and the village of Slabodka. We stayed longer than we planned and we’re already looking forward to returning. But today I want to say a little about the surrounding area. I have no idea how many lakes make up “the Braslav Lakes Area,” but Wikipedia calls it 30 and I suppose that’s about right. In between, there are hills, forests and bogs. I get special pleasure out of the hills because the area around Minsk is so flat that the rivers meander in crazy loops and the water barely seems to flow. While the river near us in Braslav didn’t offer a strong current either, at least it flows fast enough that the water looks fresh, and we could enjoy lots of panoramic views from the tops of various hills as we toured around the region.

Victor and Natasha drove us to see lots of interesting places, from the historic town of Braslav to the quaking bog near a Presidential retreat. Natasha took Alla out for a very successful day hunting egg mushrooms, which fetch a couple of bucks apiece in Minsk. They brought back a lot of them, most of which they peeled and put into a three-liter jar of vodka. This concoction is said to have some sort of medicinal benefit, though I have a really hard time imagining Alla doing anything with three liters of vodka. (I use vodka to wash windows, but that’s another story.)

We went swimming at the deepest of the lakes, whose name escapes me now. We started by walking out onto a peninsula. On one side, the shore plunged downward steeply and a few meters out it was already deeper that I was willing to free-dive. On the other side, the shore sloped very gradually over a shelf of blue clay. We lost track of Alla and Natasha, so I finally went over to the clay side of the peninsula to look for them. I found them wearing only their bikini bottoms, slathered in clay. Really, all I could see was their eyes and hair. After the clay dried, they came to visit us before disappearing to rinse off and come back to tell about how wonderful their skin felt after the mud bath. You won’t find any pictures of this online.

Back at the homestead, I really enjoyed village life, the inter-connectedness of the people and the way their lives differ so strongly from anything familiar to me. Sometimes the next-door neighbor brought over fresh goat milk, still warm. I had no idea it would be so delicious. Another neighbor raises chickens and tomatoes. A third raises ducks, and makes fresh dairy products from their cow’s milk. We ate lots of farmer cheese one morning for breakfast, with fresh applesauce and fruit preserves on top. I peeled a big pot of apples so Alla could make more applesauce. They have a delicious variety of apple from the Gomel region of Belarus, where both Alla and Victor grew up, just a few years apart. This is agro-tourism. This is living. This is Belarus.

More pictures here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Braslav Lakes Region

We kept hearing about how beautiful it is near Braslav, but never got ambitious about visiting until this week. After a week of hot weather and facing another overheated week, I found a website summarizing resorts around the Braslav Lakes and urged Alla to look for somebody who had a cancellation or any little gap in occupancy. On her first call she lucked onto Natasha.

Natasha owns or manages several properties, but couldn't offer any vacancies in the near future. Fortunately for us, however, they hit it off somehow in the course of conversation and Natasha offered us a bedroom in her own house. We took her up on it, and booked a ride in a minibus leaving the next day at noon. That morning Alla began to panic. She had booked us a stay with we-don't-know-whom in unknown circumstances in a remote village. Would we be bored to death? Starved to death? Wasting away scorched in the sun? Grossly disappointed? I tried to reassure her. Surely somebody in the village would have some kind of food to sell us. And if we hate it, we can always go back to Minsk.

As it turns out, the worst thing about this adventure will be the fact that we must at some point leave. Natasha and Viktor are generous, gregarious and interesting hosts. Their place is simply heavenly. And I can only describe the region as idyllic. (Though the grocery selection is, in fact, limited and it helps to have local connections.)

This morning I went out to the garden for my customary quiet time before starting the day. I sat in a comfortable hanging chair surrounded by flowers and fresh air. A flock of little birds chirped in the tree overhead and the family cat curled up at my feet. Bugs buzzed, cows mooed and a warm breeze trickled over my body. I thought of the swimming hole in the river behind me and the watermelon in the kitchen. I already didn't want to go home.

Today we aren't going too far, content to read, converse, swim and explore locally. Tomorrow our kind hosts promise to show is around in their car. We're definitely not going back when we said we would. We're got way too much swimming and sightseeing to accomplish.