Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the U.S.A.

I've been back in the U.S. since Tuesday afternoon, reconnecting with my family, dealing with jet lag, and learning that my injured finger is healing pretty well. And now I'm reflecting on the experience. I'm happy to report that despite the complications of near daily medical visits in my last two weeks in Belarus, I kept myself joyfully busy.

This included a chance to enjoy a front-row viewing of Madame Butterfly with Clark​, Will, and Ace; and an invitation to present a new lecture, "Critiquing the American Technological Sublime: Alternate Futures Beyond The Gernsback Continuum," at the American Studies conference hosted by Minsk State Linguistic University as a plenary speaker. Even more importantly, I shared celebratory meals with friends from Epam, Belarus State University, and the Fulbright/English Language Fellow community before departing for home.

A highlight of those last two weeks was the chance to join Katya Sadovskaya and a large group of BSU students and faculty for a bus tour around northern Belarus. We visited towns and villages, stopping at monuments, churches, and ruins, and I got a chance to see northern parts of the country that had so far eluded me.

Along with a delightful ongoing conversation with Katya, I suppose my favorite part of the day was a brief breakdown near a small farming community, which afforded us a chance to walk through fields and small windy roads, photographing colorful village homes and joining some brave students determined to pet a cow.

I remember thinking, "It's just this sort of silliness that nearly cost me a finger on Victory Day," but I felt compelled to offer my healthy hand in hopes that the creature would be friendly. She was wary, of course, wisely so. But she allowed us to gently pet her, and then followed us a while before we boarded the bus. You never know how a new friendship can begin.

With all the final meetings, packing, and logistics, I was amazed at how fast the last days went. And then suddenly it was 4 a.m., and I was awaiting the embassy driver who would offer my final Belarusian handshake. I still feel somewhat guilty that I was so affixed on my phone that morning, sending a few more goodbyes and plucking some other weeds from my email, that I barely noticed our trip through Minsk on the way to the airport. I'd become so familiar with the road out of town, having taken it for so many occasions, that I nearly forgot to focus on the unfolding scene outside my windows. I'm glad I took lots of pictures!

Back in the States, one of my first tasks was to prepare a report of my Fulbright experiences. Here's some of what I wrote: Living in Belarus for four months provided me an opportunity to develop new curricula, travel to dozens of cities and villages throughout the country, and rethink what it is to be both an American and a citizen of the world. I presented courses and lectures for over 1,000 people, and I made many new friends along the way.

This experience boils down to an unofficial motto that guided me these past four months: "Always Say Yes." In other words, when the embassy asked me to develop workshops or prepare talks, I opened my calendar. And when representatives of schools, libraries, and businesses asked me to drop by, I did my best to oblige them. Because with every new conversation, I discovered new opportunities to improve my intercultural competence and learn something new about the world.

Living in Belarus was challenging, exhilarating, and surprising. I saw the limitations of regional and national stereotypes - and I hope to have complicated a few assumptions that Belarusians have about Americans. And now I look forward to a range of burgeoning collaborations. I plan to do some writing with at least one colleague at Belarus State University, and I will certainly keep in touch with my new pals. Best of all, I will return to this country if at all possible. I enjoyed Belarus so much, but left so much yet to see!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Adventures in Belarusian Health Care

I've taken a couple weeks away from blogging, but a nearly severed finger tends to obstruct even the most disciplined writing regimen. Here's the story: I was attending the May 9th Victory Day parade with Clark, Will, and Ace when I noticed that folks were climbing atop a mobile rocket launcher for photos. So I hoisted myself upward and did the typical tourist thing, taking silly "look at me" pix. As I began to navigate my way back to the ground, I remember thinking, "This is much higher than I expected. I'm gonna have to let myself drop a couple feet. The landing will hurt a bit, but not too much. I can handle it."

I dropped and felt the expected lightening bolt of pain upon impact, but not where I anticipated. Turns out, as I fell from the vehicle I caught my wedding ring onto a hunk of metal and damn near peeled my finger off. Steadying myself and spotting red splotches on the ground, I stared at the digit that now resembled a mushroom cap. The thin gold band was cut and corkscrewed in and out of my skin. I said to the ashen faced people nearby: "I can handle it. I can handle it." Then as the pain started to dial up, I told Clark, "I think I've got a real problem here. I think I need help." Clark jumped into action and flagged down a soldier who directed us to an ambulance across the parade route.

At first the medics drove at what seemed like a leisurely pace. "Great," I thought, "a frickin' tour of the city." But as my breathing grew more pronounced, the driver kicked on the siren. "спасибо," I whispered. "I can handle this." The driver sped up. Elena X. Karpovich met me at the hospital, wrangled the insurance paperwork, and got me seen by a doctor: a young guy - maybe thirty, possibly younger. I vividly remember how he laid out a piece of brown butcher paper and positioned a big scalpel next to my finger. I thought, "Well, shit. This is it." I was sure he'd amputate. Instead he snipped some chunks of flesh and unhooked the ring from inside my finger.

His priorities, naturally, were the mechanics of the job, not my feelings. Thus when he cut a piece out of the gold band to ease its removal, I felt like I should cheer him on: "Yeah, cut it, cut it." He stopped and stared at me strangely. Then he spoke; the words were English, but the sentiment was all Russian.

"Don't speak."

A few minutes later, as he was injecting the wound with jabs of anesthetic, I started to recite a mantra to help myself manage the pain.

"This is a good pain. This is a good pain…"

Once more, he stopped and stared into my eyes:

"Don't speak." 

So, yeah, at first I thought he was a jerk. But I gradually came to appreciate his no-nonsense style. He knitted together dozens of stitches where the ring had been and up both sides of my finger (I later asked him how many, but he'd lost count). The doctor also developed a long-term treatment plan that involved him going well beyond the call of duty to ensure that I received excellent follow-up care. And with two subsequent meetings, he grew kinder and more patient with me.

A few days later, Elena transitioned me to a local clinic. There another doctor and nurse changed the bandage every couple days, checking to see if infection had set in. That meant me donning surgical slippers, walking into a treatment room, and waiting for the inevitably sharp pain as the nurse would gingerly remove the old bandage. Afterward I would sign a form and pay at the desk. All communication at this point was in Russian.

Elena, always calm and almost impossibly nice, endured many phone calls when I needed the doctor to translate his instructions. And day by day my finger began to feel better. I wore a splint for more than a week, getting it removed only yesterday. Oh, and what about the cost? Well, that annoying insurance that folks must pay at the Minsk airport covered my emergency care, and the subsequent clinic visits cost 96,000 BY Rubles each: the equivalent of $7.00 a visit. A pretty good deal if you ask me.

The EMTs, doctors, nurses - and most definitely Elena X. Karpovich - helped me through a scary time. Health care in Belarus is by no means a perfect institution, neither for visiting Americans, nor for local folks who lack an embassy representative. And each stage included plenty of hassle. But good people cared for me throughout the process, and I am grateful. Indeed, during my last visit with the ER doc, I learned how close he thought I'd come to losing my finger. At once, his scary instruction "Don't speak" made more sense. He was concentrating on each snip and every suture to keep me whole.

I await a visit with my primary care physician to check on infection and determine when the stitches can be removed. I hope she'll give me good news. But no matter what happens next, I am thankful for my adventures in Belarusian health care.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Homemade Video: Victory Day

Here's some homemade video of Minsk lit up to celebrate Victory Day. Note: I shot this hours after nearly getting my finger severed in a poorly executed plan to hop off a mobile rocket launcher. A combination of adrenaline and painkillers inspired me to get out of my apartment and gather footage from one of the prettiest evenings I ever saw in Belarus.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chernobyl and Pripyat

My daughter Vienna and I have a joke about Homer Simpson arguing with Jean-Luc Picard. In The Simpsons episode entitled "Lost Our Lisa," Homer convinces his daughter to break into a museum so they can see a special exhibit. They enter the building but stop at a velvet rope that intimidates Lisa. Homer takes a more adventuresome view: "You can't go this far and then not go farther!" In response, Captain Picard affirms the value of limits, especially when faced with a grave threat. Thus he replies in Star Trek: First Contact: "The line must be drawn here. This far, no farther!"

As far as I'm concerned, Homer wins the argument. Thus I went to Chernobyl. I mean, I was in Belarus. It was just a one hour flight to Kiev [Kyiv, around here] and a two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone. And my friends know, I am fascinated with relics and ruins. There was no way I'd miss this chance. I'd walk if I had to…

Of course, "one does not simply walk" into Chernobyl. It is a highly secure, undeniably dangerous place, that also happens to be quite beautiful in springtime. So I joined three other tourists - Yasushi Oizumi and Chihiro Kino, from Japan, and Olivier Wullen, from Belgium - and took a tour led by SoloEast. During the drive north from Ukraine's capital city, we learned about the disaster - and about the heroism of the "liquidators" who marched and flew into certain death to secure Reactor Number 4, sometimes by dropping armloads of sand, lead, and other absorbing materials into the burning core.

While scientists debate the possibilities, folks around here claim that an uncontrolled meltdown and subsequent follow-up explosion would have destroyed Kyiv and likely rendered Europe uninhabitable. Is this a fact? Did the world come this close to such a catastrophe? I haven't a clue. What I can confirm is that the radiation hazard is relative. Igor, our guide, demonstrated this fact by showing us a meter in downtown Kyiv: 0.15 micro-Sieverts, which is much lower than one encounters on an intercontinental flight. Weirdly enough, the level was also slightly lower when we passed the 30K checkpoint of the Exclusion Zone. But step near a hot spot and the levels exceed measurable amounts. All the more reason to visit Chernobyl with an experienced guide - and respect the signs.

Passing the guard-post required a display of our passports and careful scrutiny of our vehicle and tour-group paperwork. We then commenced to a rigid but fascinating itinerary of overgrown buildings, abandoned villages, crumbling Soviet propaganda ("Communism Lights the Future!" "Lenin is Always With Us!"]. In one room, early in our tour, I spotted a doll covered in dust. Igor downplayed the discovery: "You'll see lots of those."

Driving further into the Exclusion Zone, we passed an old woman named Rosalia Ivanovna who was walking the road from Chernobyl City to the village of Zales'ye, where she lives alone in a wooden house surrounded by pear and apple trees. Local authorities have begged her to accept a free flat outside the contaminated zone, but she insists on staying put. Normally she walks, but today she accepted a ride.

After we pulled off the weed-pocked road and begin tramping the winding path to her door, my memory drifted back to the Dark Walks of old English pleasure gardens, some of which were outfitted with freshly constructed ruins. Occasionally, their owners would install a real live "hermit" whose job was to offer benedictions of "Memento mori" to revelers wandering the pathways, and perhaps hoping for a little earthly romance in the cool of the evening. Igor reminded us that Rosalia doesn't often chat with strangers; he assured us that we were quite fortunate to meet her. And naturally we felt gratitude as she picked us tulips from her garden and presented a bag of bread for our day, reminding us (via translation) how Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves.

Suitably inspired, we picked our way closer and closer to the infamous reactor, detouring though to visit the "Russian Woodpecker," an early-warning radar system built to safeguard the Soviet Union against American nuclear missiles. The structure, formally the Дуга-1, earned its nickname from the chirping sounds it produced that could be picked up on televisions and radios all over the world.

Today the towering device is being devoured by forest, its control stations dripping and dank. I was therefore especially surprised when Igor announced, "We are not supposed to go inside. We will go inside." And so we did, making our ways down dark corridors, lit by the flashes of our cameras and phones.

Later in the afternoon we visited Reactor Number 5, crossing a rickety wooden bridge toward the interior of a vast cooling tower. We stared at the blue sky as birds wheeled lazy circles above us, and we clanged pieces of metal debris to produce creepy echoes of our presence. Following recent rains, the ground was moist and spongy, redolent with mushrooms, and a few sun-dried bones that seemed incongruous to this place.

We then drove next to an artificial canal where Igor pointed out monstrously (but naturally, he emphasized) huge catfish. How nice, I thought, that Rosalia had furnished us with a bagful of bread. The fish gobbled each slice without taking time to chew. Once more, the "loaves and fishes" story swam through my mind.

Finally we drove to a viewing stand next to the sarcophagus of Reactor Number 4, the plant whose explosion was caused, we are told, by a steam turbine test gone catastrophically awry. Yes, the radiation levels are somewhat higher here, but not excessively so - at least not for controlled visits. In fact, most of the truly dangerous stuff is found further north of this place, crossing over into Belarus. It was all a matter of prevailing wind patterns. We stood in silence, checking meters and photographing the rusting structure built to contain the damage.

An international array of countries and companies is erecting a new sarcophagus nearby, which will be rolled by rail and bolted over the existing container. The job was scheduled to be completed by now, and even when the new sarcophagus is fitted over the old, perhaps in a few years, no one expects it to last more than a century.

Because Chernobyl is, in its own way, still a working nuclear facility, undergoing a dismantling process that will take decades, this was one of the few places where our photography was closely monitored. Igor said we could take pictures of the reactor and the new container, and the monument, but nothing else. At least from this vantage point.

We concluded the day with a trip to Pripyat, a model town completed in 1970 as housing for Chernobyl workers and as a showcase for Soviet urban design. The city was developed to accommodate 50,000 people. This was a young town. The average age was 26, with about 1,000 children being born each year. Just prior to the disaster its people were buzzing with anticipation for the upcoming May Day celebration.

When the reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, few local people understood the significance of the event. And it took two days for officials to order that the city be abandoned. To reduce the risk of panic, evacuees were instructed to pack only documents and other essentials. No need to bring more than a 72 hours worth of supplies; they would, after all, return soon. Now Pripyat is called a ghost town, which is mostly true. There are some workers here, however, and a growing population of animal and plant life who have fitted themselves to the lethal environment.

Our group stayed at a tourist hotel outside the 10K Exclusion Zone and was reminded to obey the 10 p.m. curfew. Having heard of wolves that roam the area, the curfew seemed like more than a reasonable idea to me. The next day we returned to Pripyat for a more in-depth tour, which included a police station, a fire house, an experimental green house, and several schools. As Igor promised, we found lots of dolls, and in School Number 3, a pile of child-sized gas masks. I also found a booklet containing monthly dues stamps for a trade-unionist amid a pile of children's alphabet flash cards.

I held the artifact in my hand and wondered about its provenance. It might have been from someone who lived in Pripyat before the disaster, or it might be from a worker trucked in to decontaminate the city afterward. Either way, just a quick slip into the pocket, I thought, and I can bring it home. What a souvenir, from Chernobyl! With much reluctance, I laid it back upon the pile. Just walking through the places so quickly abandoned by people who thought they'd return in a few days makes me feel guilty. There's no way I would disturb this place any more than necessary.

Throughout the two-day trip, I frequently thought about the reasons why some wags dismiss this place as a "Radioactive Disneyland." One cannot doubt the pathos of this place, the reality of loss - even as one may hardly forgo the reality that every photograph taken by every tourist (mine included) have been well rehearsed.

But given the constant crunch of broken glass, Chernobyl is no theme park attraction. SoloEast recommends that visitors wear thick-soled boots, which is damned good advice. Because I wanted to limit the weight of my travel bag, I seriously considered bringing shoes better suited for a business meeting than for this decaying place. Only at the last minute did I realize the foolishness of my plan and dress for the environment. And sure enough, with every creaking floor and sagging roof, with every breaking shard of glass under my feet, and with every scrape against some protruding jab of rusting metal, I grew ever more grateful for those bulky, uncomfortable, heavy shoes. The song in my head all day? That silly Australian PSA jingle, Dumb Ways to Die.

We concluded our tour by climbing the steps of a 16-story building to get one last view of the region. We huffed and sweated our way to the roof and stared down at the city. A breeze blew and birds sang, and we could almost imagine the forest plodding its way toward the center of Pripyat, consuming the concrete and metal and moldering paper, transforming all that dead material into some new living thing. Clouds rolled overhead and the sun glowed silver. Then Igor announced one last stop before we descend the stairs: a special treat, he said, for the two Japanese tourists in our group. A dead dog on the 16th floor. He told me that some folks from Japan claim this to be the most meaningful and memorable part of their visit. Igor mused that one guy photographed the decaying animal for 45 minutes.

Yasushi and Chihiro, however, were not excited to photograph a dead dog. I snapped some images, but I soon wished I had not. If there is any moment that signifies why some critics refer to these trips as "Disaster Porn," this was it. Nonetheless I understood what Igor tried to do. He was evoking the Japanese concept of Mono no aware, an encounter with transience that is sad and wistful but also appreciative. It would be silly of me to ascribe my own reasons to visit Chernobyl to this concept. As I lack the linguistic flexibility to properly speak Japanese, I also lack the cultural nuance to fully contemplate Mono no aware. I was a Chernobyl tourist, no different from the thousands that have proceeded me.

So I bought cheesy souvenirs and took typical pictures. I then used Photoshop and HDR software to enhance the images, to convey some sense of my experiences here. With each step, and with every story I will tell about this place, I grow more and more removed from that final glimpse at the tower overlooking Pripyat. It becomes a series of self-contained moments, anecdotes, picturesque frames. Nonetheless, I can still hear those birds singing in the empty town, and I can remember the dance of dust particles as I swatted debris from my shoes and clothes.

And then it's time to leave. To depart the Exclusion Zone you pass through a minimum of two radiation detectors. The process is strangely perfunctory. You stand in an upright machine, your head resting against a gadget and your arms raised to either side. You place your hands into reading devices and wait for barely a second, wondering if the Russian word for "clean" will glow its faintly friendly affirmation. It does, but you're not sure if you can proceed, even as you feel the metal door unclick beside your waist. Later you learn that only a shrieking alarm will signal that you've carried some radioactive particle on your shoes. Otherwise you are clean. The machine says so. Still, you will always wonder.

One additional note: I took over 700 photographs in two days. This blog-post includes a small selection of them. Want to see a few more of my favorite images? Point your browser to my Facebook Album.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Road Trip Belarus: Grodno and Brest

A quick exchange during a Route 66 lecture yielded a four-day road trip this week, featuring a first-time visit to Grodno, a pleasant return to Brest, and a sublime stop in the village of Ružany. It all began when an audience member at the Minsk International Book Fair last February asked an especially interesting question: "What should I pack for a road trip?" I replied, "Your sense of adventure," which seemed to strike a chord. A few days later, that participant, Irene Altukhova, emailed an invitation to present a lecture on American culture at the Belarusian IT company EPAM where she works. You might recall that Irene's the person who baked "Pigs in a Blanket" to provide a special ambiance for that talk. Turns out, she coordinates English training for their employees throughout the country, and she thought it'd be a good idea for us to take this presentation on the road. Thus we met at a bus stop a few days ago, loaded up with drinks and snacks for the road, and headed west.

We quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm of conversation and story telling, with her driving and me using Google Maps to supply directions. She'd recommended that I pack some CDs, so I also took great pleasure introducing her to some of my favorite road trip tunes. Her colleagues at the Grodno EPAM office warned of an impending thunderstorm, which inspired plenty of gallows humor about how the lovely blue skies that spread above us were merely a prelude to a vicious downpour threatening to explode at any moment. The Weather Gods were kind, however, allowing us a few hours to tour the city on foot. As usual I made a beeline to the Lenin statue [pretty much every town, and most villages, still have some commemoration of the man in this country]. We also visited the Jesuit Catholic Church, the Pakrouskaya Orthodox Church, and strolled Zhiliber's Park and Sovetskaja pedestrian street.

That evening we made our way to the EPAM office. All day I'd quietly fretted that I'd been having so much fun when perhaps I should be thinking more intently about the presentation. Happily, though, I've thoroughly internalized the talk after more Belarusian lectures than I can easily count by now. The venue was well organized and audience was friendly and engaged. At one point, we were comparing U.S. and Belarusian attitudes toward saunas and I was reflecting on most Americans' comparative reticence to disrobe in public places when one attendee playfully invited me to share a sauna with him the next day. "If only I could!" I replied, "But Irene's got me on such a tight schedule!"

The post-lecture conversation flowed for another hour. Indeed, though I grabbed a cookie after the talk, I never had a chance to eat it; I was so engrossed in chats with participants who had stayed after work to visit with me. Best of all, two Grodno EPAM folks treated us to dinner and an evening of conversation (and lots of пиво). I particularly recall that moment when the four of us were walking the streets toward our restaurant, sharing umbrellas when a slight drizzle began to fall, thinking how wonderful it is to make new friends and feel, if only temporarily, at home here.

The next day was dedicated to more sightseeing and travel. We began with a hike to Grodno's old and new castles, where we took a brief museum tour. Then we departed the city - stopping for Irene to snap a picture next to a sign for her husband Dmitry's hometown - and headed southwest around Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Despite warnings of miserable weather, the clouds parted and revealed a friendly afternoon. Given my growing fascination with Belarusian village homes, especially the ones festooned in combinations of yellow, green, red, blue, and sometimes purple, I was grateful for Irene's invitation that we could stop along the way for some photography.

Irene Altukhova
Larisa Chulkova
That's how we found ourselves in Ružany, walking a road whose delightfully gaudy houses stretched toward rolling green hills. A woman came by and pointed out some tulips nearby, and then she invited us to her home where she grows her own. Irene and I shared a conspiratorial laugh, imagining our spouses back home telling the sad story, "…and they were never heard from again," but we plunged ahead anyway. Later we asked for directions to the ruins of a palace that beamed with orange light. The sight of tiny homes on distant hills through the glowing arches was nothing less than beautiful.

Departing Ružany, where storks build nests atop tall poles, we saw sheep and lambs standing at a bus stop, like they were queuing for the next ride. As the sun set over the bogs and swamps, I switched us to my "nighttime driving" playlist. Before too long - after some fear that we might run out of gas - we made it to Brest. After splitting up to unpack in our rooms, Irene and I grabbed a quick dinner in the hotel. She introduced me to Пельмени, a hot pot filled with mushroom sauce and doughy "ears" of succulent meat, and I found myself thinking, "Why did I wait so long to discover this dish?" We also chatted about ways to improve the presentation. Her advice, as usual, was impeccable.

Since I'd been to Brest twice before (most recently within the past few days), I was happy to wander the streets the next day with no special aim while Irene attended to work at her office. The spring weather brought cherry blossoms that drifted through the air and blanketed the sidewalks. Still, I sometimes prefer a city's funkier environs, so I ambled along the railroad tracks for a while. Later when I stopped to grab a soda at a convenience store (where the cashier required that I pay first before she'd unlock the soda stored in a refrigerated container), I met a ruddy-faced dude speaking an impenetrable Russian. He took out a small bottle of vodka and seemed determine that I should share a snort with him. Then he followed me several blocks, inviting conversation sprinkled with liberal repetitions of the words for vodka and beer. Eventually he peeled off and I returned to my room to prepare for the evening presentation.

The Brest EPAM folks were welcoming and fired up to discuss American culture. And one of these folks had followed Irene's lead and prepared Pigs in a Blanket! I launched into my talk, taking a quick detour to a mini-roadside Americana lecture and singing "Get Your Kicks [on Route 66]" for the crowd, savoring the opportunity to bypass the script and respond to impromptu questions and comments that often surprised me with their passion.

Since this might be the last time I present the "American Dreaming" lecture in Belarus (for a while, at least), I was most grateful to receive mementos of my visit, including a souvenir spoon and a t-shirt signifying my status as an official EPAM trainer. Later that evening Irene and I shared a celebratory meal at Times Cafe and agreed that our trip had been a success.

Our final day afforded me a chance to practice my old school mapping skills, when I realized that I'd left my phone's charging cable at the EPAM office. Even without Google Maps, though, we managed to navigate the city and find the M1 highway that leads to Minsk. On the almost four-hour drive back, we shared stories about our spouses, discussed some of the finer nuances of our cultural differences, and anticipated ways for Irene to visit the United States. As usual, my American optimism led me to affirm that, "Of course, you'll come!," even though costs and visa hassles make traveling from Belarus to the U.S. a complicated process. Still, I hope that Irene and Dmitry will make their way to California one day. They'll certainly find friends in Scotts Valley!