Wednesday, June 20, 2007

So, Belarus, eh?

I believe I may have mentioned (eleventy billion times) how unprepared I was for last week's humanitarian adventure, having been roped in just 2 weeks beforehand. Man, did I underestimate the impact it would have on me. Okay, I knew (as did everyone else who knows me) that the cycle would likely kill me. As it happened, the mosquitoes got there first, so I was spared the indignity of falling off my bike and instead suffered the indignity of 3 days on a bus with my legs in the air (which is not nearly as kinky as it sounds) and dropping my pants in the back of an ambulance (which, again, is not as fun as I'd like to imagine). Those days on the bus were hard. 35 degrees outside, travelling along at 4mph behind the cyclists, smiling at the jibes from my fellow travellers about how this was a handy excuse not to cycle and trying not to hate them as much as I hated the mosquitoes. I had some low moments, and were it not for the company of a fellow banjaxed budgie and our two medics I think I would have been on the next flight home.

But the cycling (or not) was only for 3 days, and for me was never the real point of the trip. Having spent two rowdy nights in Minsk at the start of the trip, we left the small village of Babruysk and headed for our first destination, a sanatorium in Svetlagorsk. The institution on whose grounds we pitched for the night acts as a sort of summer camp for local children, something that is apparently very much a Belarussian tradition. Sort of like my brother and I being packed off kicking and screaming to Stewart's Hospital for 3 weeks every summer, I suppose. Tightly controlled fun is the name of the game! Still, this was a gentle introduction to the mindset and culture behind the places we would see during the rest of our trip.

I hadn't appreciated how different the Belarussian culture would be to Irish culture. Belarus is effectively a dictatorship, and that much is apparent the moment you step off the plane in Minsk. We'd been forwarned that the militia are not to be fucked with, and one look at them was enough to reinforce that. I met a group of musicians on the last night of the trip (a Beatles tribute band from Amsterdam... you'd wonder) who told me of a scene they'd witnessed at the festival they'd played at the day before. A group of young lads were set upon and batoned by the militia and when the band asked why, it was explained to them that the kids had been waving the old Belarussian flag, rather than the new one approved by President Alexander Lukashenko. Jeez. I know the GardaĆ­ come in for some flak here, but you'd generally have to be properly acting the cunt to get a kicking for it. Anyway, we learned quickly and coped with the politics the same way the locals do; keep a low profile, and don't piss people off.

From Svetlagorsk we travelled on to Rechitsa, where we had a charming welcome from the resident kids. The director of the institution in Rechitsa is the local hero, Ivan Ivanovitch, a military man who runs a tight ship but must have a huge heart. We didn't get to spend long with the kids there as we'd be interrupting their routine but the ones we met were gorgeous, and made everyone feel that their suffering (be it bike or bus related) had been worthwhile. The kids put on a concert for us that night, shouting tunelessly to the rancid strains of a piano accordion, and I don't think there was anyone there who had ever clapped harder at a gig. To see kids so happy to engage and so eager to befriend us, despite their sad circumstances and limited prospects, was truly a lesson in humble optimism.

At this stage of the trip, everyone was feeling the emotional strain as well as the physical, and it showed. We dealt with it each night in the way that large groups of relative strangers with limited options tend to do (vodka was readily available at about €3 a bottle). Not exemplary behaviour, I grant you, but as a social lubricant and a short-term coping mechanism we owe a lot to the boozing we did on the trip.

Fuck it, sure I didn't have an 80k cycle ahead of me the following morning. What did I care?

Our final port of call before heading back to Minsk was a place called Vasilevka, near Gomel in the south of Belarus. The institution we visited there played host to us for 3 days, and will play on my mind for the rest of my life. But more anon. It was a long week, and I need a stiff drink.