Posts Tagged ‘Belarus’

Well, I made it. And with minimal bureaucratic nightmares or anal-probing. I attended the welcome dinner last night, where the American team (as well as the other guests of the team and Nick Baxter, the team captain) seemed more than willing — enthusiastic, even — to “talk puzzles” with me. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news:

  • My flight out of JFK was delayed by 90 minutes, which was exactly the amount of time of my connection, so I spent most of the first 12 hours of the trip freaking out that I would have to spend the following night roaming the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, waiting for the next flight to Minsk. Fortunately, Aerosvit’s (“Ukrainian Airlines”) pilot made up about an hour in the air (which made me wonder, as Seinfeld once quipped, Why don’t they always make up an hour in the air??…), so I made it to Ukraine with plenty of time to catch the connecting flight. My luggage, however, was not as fortunate, and I was forced to spend my first night here without dental- or armpit-hygiene products.
  • I couldn’t sleep on the flights, and so I arrived not only jeg-lagged but sleep-deprived. I set my wake-up call for 9:00 a.m. (no alarm clock in the room) and, figuring 10-11 hours of sleep would be enough to catch up, went to bed around 10:00 for the first time since maybe junior high. Next thing I know, it’s 10:30 and I’ve missed breakfast. Apparently wake-up calls from high-end Belarussian hotels neither call nor wake up.
  • Fast-forward one hour. I arrive in the lobby for the WPC-organized 12 o’clock field trip to a local farm (“lunch and dinner in tradition Belarus folk style!”) to discover that they apparently decided, extempore, to move the trip up an hour; no one called me to let me know. According to Lonely Planet, “If you only make one day trip from Minsk, let this be the one.” Great. Even worse, I was planning to use the outing — the only extended period of relaxation in the WPC schedule — as my best opportunity for informal interviews and eavesdropping.
  • I called the airline to recover my luggage. No dice. Call again tomorrow, she says, mostly in Russian.
  • And so, here I am, in the lobby of the Hotel “Belarus” (as they endearingly punctuate it), blogging to you from a laptop that has 9 minutes left of battery time, and with my volt-converter in a suitcase that may or may not be on a runway in Kiev somewhere.

Thus, no time for further updates. No time for new Puzzles of the Day or answers to old ones. No time for anything other than:

More to come tomorrow. Perhaps.

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I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable guy, geography-wise. I read the paper. I travel. I know what Kyrgyzstan is, even if I can’t pronounce it. I’m good at the blue questions in Trivial Pursuit, and I have a t-shirt with the outlines of Hungary and Turkey on it that says, “I’m Hungary for Turkey.”  (Ladies?)  Yet a little over a month ago I probably couldn’t have pointed to Belarus on a map.

I knew that it was a former Soviet republic. I knew its people were called Belorussians. (Or, apparently, Belarussions, or Belarusians, or Chanukah, or Hanukkah…) I knew Minsk was where Rochelle traveled from Milan. That’s about it.

Now I’m on my way there.

And I’m scared for my American life.

After buying my plane ticket, I began to conduct some research on the place. (And yes, I’m aware that the traditional order of operations is to conduct the research first, then buy the plane ticket. Deadlines, however, were lurking.) In short, Belarus is not really where you want to be right now if you’re American. Or, simply, if you’re not Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian.

Our recent relations with Belarus and its authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, have been, um, frosty. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Europe imposed sanctions against Lukashenko for cracking down on a peaceful protest over his re-election, which was widely seen as a sham. Then, in March, the U.S. embassy in Minsk temporarily stopped issuing visas to Belorussian citizens in response to pressure by the government there to reduce embassy personnel. Several weeks later, Lukashenko responded by expelling ten American diplomats. Our State Department was not amused. The latest chapter in the “diplomatic deep freeze,” as the Times called it, occurred just this month: the E.U. imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko himself, which they lifted on Oct. 13th.

Belarus, “which is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe,” as one of those Times stories declares, “is widely regarded as having one of the world’s most repressive governments” (as a different story above states). In 2005, Condoleezza Rice did the Times one better: she labeled Belarus one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny.” (These are not to be confused, of course, with the “axis of evil,” though two of those three (Iran & North Korea) were tyrannical and evil enough to make both lists.)  I’m not sure what distinguishes Belarus’s tyranny from, say, the “mere” genocide in Sudan; but, at any rate, it can’t make Minsk the most alluring of tourist destinations.

Which brings me to: my visa!

I don’t have one.

I tried to get one at the Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian consulate here in New York (for the low, low price of only $232), but the woman on the phone explained, in a thick Russian accent, that they stopped processing visas on October 10th.

“Can I ask why?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Okay. Why?”

“Because an occasion happened.”

Right. Well, since an occasion happened…  It’s understandable. When an occasion happens, these things take place. Happenings occur. Events transpire.

(Very) long story short: I would have to go through the Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian embassy in D.C., and it was too late for that. The only option left: to get one upon arrival in Minsk. Not exactly ideal — once I land, they’ve sort of got me by the balls, no? But hey, what’s a little pre-Second-Cold-War travel without a little post-Soviet-bureaucracy anal-probing?

I figure, worst-case scenario is that I’ll end up like Emanuel Zeltser, the American lawyer who was detained earlier this year by Belorussian/Belarussian/Belarusian authorities at the Minsk airport and held captive on undeclared charges. (As far as I can tell from a quick Google search, no one even knows if Zeltser is still alive, much less how he’s doing. The last update seems to be from Aug. 7th.  Scary stuff.)  I take comfort only in the fact that my ex-girlfriends — both of them — would surely set up a “Save Michael Wolman” fund (complete with http://www.savemichaelwolman.com website) to extradite me from such tyrannical outposting.

As final words tonight, I’d just like to thank my family and friends — one last time, perhaps — for encouraging me to do this project. When I told certain people in my life about possibly traveling to Minsk to write an article about the World Puzzle Championship, certain people told me it sounded like a great idea. “Sounds awesome!” they said. “You should do it!”  “I’d read it!”  Now how do you feel about it? Huh?

To Karin, Todd, Lauren, Jon, Richard, and Lashon: If I’m not home by November 2nd, not to worry. It simply means I’m being interrogated in a cold, windowless room by three beefy guys in suits named Vlad. And I’ll blame you. And so will the world.

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