Friday, August 21, 2015

Visiting Riga

We decided to go visit Riga because Latvia isn’t far from us and the Baltic Sea sounded like a pleasant alternative to the heatwave occupying Minsk when we made the decision. While the train and the plane cost about the same amount, we imagined that we might prefer the train because we sleep well on trains and we’d travel overnight. We forgot about the border crossings, which happen in the middle of the night in either direction. First you get passport control from the country you’re leaving. Then, about the moment you’ve fallen back asleep, you get passport control from the country you’re entering. Soon after, you get a third visit; this time, from the customs officers who want to see the luggage under your bed. We liked being in Latvia, but I’m not sure I’d repeat the train.

Except that by train we got Masha, who served as our conductor in either direction and kept our train car immaculate and beautiful. Alla said it would have been offensive to offer a gratuity to a Belarusian train conductor, though I strongly feel that she deserved one.

I liked the receptionist at our hotel in Riga, too. We arrived well before the Wellton Hotel expected us, but Alisa smiled brightly as she negotiated with the maid staff to set up a room we could take over soon. She works long hours, and we saw her often during our three days in Riga. She radiated a charming smile that warmed our hearts every time we passed through the lobby.

We discovered that we’d arrived on the second day of the City Day weekend, and we enjoyed special music and exhibitions as a result. I danced with some of the locals at a rock ‘n’ roll concert while Alla enjoyed the sun and the music, and after a long walk along the riverfront, we stayed to hear delightful modern folk music at another stage.

On Monday we took a local train to Jurmala, a district along the Baltic Sea just 25 minutes from Riga. While we didn’t enjoy swimming weather, we had a great time walking along the beach and through a district with many restaurants and shops. After a false start at another restaurant, we settled in for lunch at The Lighthouse. Dear Readers, I highly recommend that restaurant. We liked our meal so much that we came back for dinner, even though we weren’t even hungry yet. We liked everything we ordered, and exclaimed often over the flavors and textures of each dish. The duck breast, by the way, was exquisite.

On our last day in Riga we toured farther afield and tried to take in as much as possible of the city’s diverse and interesting architecture, winding streets, colorful parks, and waterways. We had a blast, and we’re already talking about when we can go back.

For more photos, click here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Shoe repair

The strap came unglued from a pair of Birkenstock sandals and I was lazy about going to buy the right glue to fix it and wasn’t sure I how to clamp it as it dried anyway. I knew the local shoe-repair people didn’t charge much so I took it down to them.

I asked the lady if she could glue it, and she said yes. Then I asked if she had a good way to clamp it and she disappeared with my sandal into the back of the workshop. When she came back, she offered to glue it and stitch it down, for about two dollars. That sounded highly satisfactory to me, though I worried that the stitching on rubber might work out badly. I shouldn’t have worried. Look what she did:

Monday, August 3, 2015

Long walks in the country

Yesterday we went off to pick berries in the woods near a Presidential Reserve in the Braslav Lakes National Park. I got all charged up over the beautiful places we passed on the way there, and resolved to return today on foot. It would be about twelve kilometers one-way so I encouraged the others in our group to return to the area for more berries and to give me a ride home.

I began in our village, Ustse, and walked down a smooth dirt road with views of several different lakes, woods and meadows, punctuated occasionally by cute little villages. I only carried a small amount of water because I knew I’d pass numerous wells along the way and I imagined somebody would allow me to pour myself a little. The first time I emptied my bottle, however, I found myself beside a modernized home with an outdoor spigot. An old lady waiting nearby told me I could try the spigot because the owner of the house was away. I’d actually seen the owner in the yard before I got there, but she had disappeared by the time I approached so I just filled my bottle and proceeded down the road.

I should, in fact, have turned the corner just there. Distracted by the water, I proceeded ahead and marveled that I had failed to notice those beautiful homes yesterday. One place especially stood out because it had a huge expanse of manicured lawn leading down to the lake shore, multiple buildings on the compound, and a gorgeous main house. I didn’t try to take a picture of the main house because I figured I didn’t want to mess with anybody who’d managed to get that rich in Belarus. After a while the road petered out into a dirt track and I finally realized that I’d never been there before.

I turned back and returned to my corner, now with more elderly ladies. I stopped to greet them before turning down the road I should have taken in the first place. One of them took me to task: “Where have you been?”

“I haven’t been anywhere,” I replied. “I got lost. But if I go this way I’ll get to the asphalt road, right?”

“Yes,” they said, “but why do you want to go there?” The one who asked where I’d been looked especially concerned. If I went too far down the road I indicated, I’d end up at the Presidential Reserve, where uninvited guests are not welcome.

I explained that I’d be meeting some friends down there, but my explanation didn’t lighten that lady’s face. Finally I added the fact that my friends were gathering berries in the forest. This brightened the mood immediately, since they could all identify with forest berry gatherers.

The next time my water bottle started to run dry, I noticed a couple of people carrying buckets of water and looked over to see where they’d been. I saw a public well and went to fill my bottle with cold and delicious water.

In the next village after the well, I stopped to talk to three people sitting in a particularly beautiful yard. I asked if I could photograph the yard, and after consideration, they said yes. First they wanted to discuss what I might do with any photos. They told me I could put the picture on the internet but that I shouldn’t do anything bad with it. Later they even agreed to let me photograph them.

They live in Latvia but have this summerhouse in Belarus. I asked them what people usually ask me: “Do you prefer one over the other?” They replied to the effect that each has its plusses and minuses, and then asked about where I live. I told them that I divide my time between Boston and Minsk, and for me each has its plusses and minuses too.

I walked ahead, overshooting my destination, and finally got a ride back. I’m really glad I took this trip on foot. I saw much more per kilometer than I would have seen in a car, enjoyed the exercise, and got to chat with several interesting people. I wonder where I can go for another walk tomorrow or the next day.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Zarina's vacation

I’ve written before about my friend Zarina. Because of a visual impairment, she can’t go anywhere without a guide, which often means me. She was on vacation when I came back from Boston. Her vacation spanned the whole month of July, and she started it at home with her mom. However, she asked if I could take her to another Lightsound concert, and she came back to Minsk specifically for that.

The concert was a dud, but I finally got her to understand that I was serious about forming an organization to provide volunteer guides for any of the visually impaired people in Minsk. I needed her help finding somebody to act as coordinator for the service. We had several opportunities to discuss the idea over the following days because Zarina didn’t have much to do when she didn’t have a guide.

She kicked things off by asking me to help her get an updated photo of herself for social media. Her boyfriend and I took her for a long walk through several downtown parks. We had a nice walk and I took lots of pictures. After a couple of these outings she relaxed and became more talkative, telling me that she’d lived all her life in programs for the blind and that she had until then felt that she didn’t know what to say in conversation with a sighted person. This melted my heart enough that I took her for some more walks and pressed the idea of building an organization to make more volunteers available to more people.

Finally, Zarina found me the right person: her roommate. Masha has a degree in social work and she can see well enough to use a computer and even ride a bike. We all sat down together last week to talk about how the service might work, and Masha effectively led the conversation. She has far more ideas than I did and she has the time and enthusiasm to make them happen. Now it’s time for me to round up a bunch of volunteers. So far, so good.