Sunday, July 31, 2016

Two apples

We're on our way from Minsk to Braslav, riding in a bus. A few minutes ago, we stopped in Byagoml' for a ten-minute break. I wandered around the bus station, and found a woman setting up a table facing the street, preparing to sell apples and mushrooms. I figured we'd enjoy eating a couple of apples, so I called to her.

"Would you sell me just two?" I asked.

She nodded, "30,000 rubles."

Her apples weren't big enough to command that high a price, a dollar and a half, even in an expensive city. I frowned. Maybe she thought to take advantage of the foreigner. "That's expensive," I complained.

Thinking I may not have recognized that she was talking about old rubles, she persisted, asking incredulously, "three rubles is expensive?"

"For two apples it is," I replied.

"Oh," she said. "I misunderstood. That was for a bucket full." She withdrew four apples from one of her buckets and handed them to me. "Just take them."

I put the apples into my pockets and called her back. "Miss..." I handed her 5,000 rubles. "Thank you very much."

Before the bus left, I still had time to go to the toilet. That privilege generally costs 5,000 rubles in Minsk, but here it was just 1,300. I handed the attendant 1,500 and she scrabbled about in her box for change. She only had a single hundred-ruble note and no new kopeks. I thanked her and told her it was OK, but she promised to reimburse me, if she could, as I left. She didn't catch my eye as I went out, though, but she came to find me at the bus a few minutes later, a hundred rubles in her hand.

People here are very nice.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Adventures in international commerce

One of the big cell-phone companies in Belarus announced a tempting promotion, now that they’re rolling out 4G data in Minsk. You can buy unlimited 4G service for $.05 per day. That’s right: a nickel a day. And since there aren’t many clients yet, it’s amazingly fast. I’m getting speeds of up to 65 Mb/s, but right now I’m powering everything through my tablet because I don’t have a regular 4G modem.

I was aware of the promotion, and I could have bought a 4G modem from Amazon before I left the USA, a modem intended for sale in the Russian market. I wasn’t 100% sure that was what I needed, however, and decided I’d wait to buy my modem directly from the folks promoting the 4G service. Unfortunately, though, they don’t sell 4G modems. Nobody does.

I tried really hard to find one, and finally persuaded a guy at a local computer store to scour his favorite online sites to see if he could find one anywhere in the country for me. Yes, he found one. Just one, priced at $110. The one from Amazon was going to be $50. I cheaped out, and decided to look farther. I finally found an online merchant in Moscow selling the same thing as Amazon for $60, so I ordered it. They added a delivery fee, but it still felt like a deal, so I pressed ahead. Next, I had a really hard time with the payment.

They said I could pay with Yandex Wallet or by bank transfer. I took a look at Yandex and thought about opening a Wallet account, but I don’t have a local bank account and worried about giving my only credit card number to some Russian website that looks like an attractive target for hackers. Besides, I don’t really even know what’s involved in the setup after the first page, because it got stuck on my computer and I gave up and went off to the bank.

To be more accurate, I went to several banks. The first bank without a huge waiting line said that they could complete the transaction for an $18 fee. Frustrated by the size of the fee, I moved on. I also asked a couple of savvy (I thought) friends whether they had Yandex Wallet or knew anything about this. They didn’t know anything. Not even the one who works at the National Bank of Belarus. Now I do.

I learned about Yandex Wallet after I finished the transaction during my second visit to my bank of choice, only one mile from home. On foot. The bankers warmed to my predicament and even talked to the merchant in Moscow to try to figure out a cheaper and faster way to send the money. It took two bankers fifteen or twenty minutes, and I ended up paying $7 in commissions for a SWIFT transaction that will take several days. Unfortunately, I didn’t mention the words “Yandex Wallet” until too late. It turns out that anybody can send money through Yandex from automated pay stations located pretty much everywhere, and the commissions are generally around 3%.

One day I’ll receive my modem. Today I got an education. Yandex Wallet is (theoretically) easy. I should tell my friends.