Thursday, June 25, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us--in Turkey

Today is our (religious) wedding anniversary, and yesterday was the anniversary of our civil marriage ceremony. We celebrated yesterday by going to the Grand Bazaar in an old area of Istanbul (yes, we're in Turkey, now!). Rashed bought me a beautiful antique-y-looking necklace of silver and blue stones, and I got him a striped cotton shirt, cool for summer.

The market itself is sprawling and covered, with painted designs on its arched ceilings. You can easily get lost wandering its streets among shops selling carpets, clothing, soaps, and jewelry. One passage we followed led out into the shaded courtyard of an old caravanserai which now contains jewelry-making workshops. Another led to a large public drinking fountain, complete with dented metal cups hanging from chains.

After the market, I walked around Istanbul University, and Rashed went for an evening scrub in the hammam (bath)! He sweated in the hot room, was soaped clean by an attendant, cooled off in the cool room, and got an oil massage. He emerged glowing, a shade lighter (a layer of tan had been removed), with rosy pink cheeks.

We had a quick supper of döner (a meat plate for Rashed) and pide (bread with melted cheese for me). Then in the cool of the evening, we headed back, crossing the Golden Horn by tram, climbing one of the city's many hills by funicular, and finishing our trip with an air-conditioned metro ride and then a long walk downhill to the apartment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Beware: Wild Boars!

Rashed and I got back last night from our trip to Belavezhskaya Pushcha, a mouthful to say and a national park featuring old European forests and rare wildlife--such as the European bison--that have disappeared in Western Europe.

Belarusians love to do things in groups, and it was hard to break away from the hotel complex, with its hotel restaurant, its zoo full of forest animals behind fences, its bus tour packages through the forest, and its official stamps on everything from restaurant bills to zoo tickets: this piece of paper has been authorized to exist in its paperness by the Office of the President of the Republic of Belarus. But we finally managed to rent bikes and get away on our own, following a map to various sites in the forest.

We saw centuries-old oaks and pines, stopped to have pancakes at a cafe at the house of Dzied Maroz (Grandfather Frost--kind of like Santa Claus), and were alternately rained on and chased by swarms of mosquitoes and flies. But we had other, scarier adventures, too.

When we had only gone about 5 kilometers (the whole circle route was 29 km), I was pedaling fast on a straitaway to gain speed to help me up a small hill (the bike I was on was a one-speed) when suddenly I heard a clink and there was no more resistance in the pedals. I wobbled, then coasted to a stop. The chain had come off the back gear. I thought our day (and our whole trip) was ruined and we would have to walk back to the rental place and demand our money back, but Rashed said this used to happen to his bike all the time when he was a kid, and it wasn't too hard to fix. Twenty minutes later, after almost getting blown from the side of the rode into the forest by one of those giant tour buses, Rashed's hands were covered in grease, and I had a working bike once again. I was determined to ride slowly and walk up hills from now on. It wouldn't do to get stuck with no bike if we got any farther from the hotel complex.

We got back on the narrow road, the dense foliage pressing in on either side. We had ridden, slowly, for less than a minute, when we heard a loud snuffle-grunt, then a crash, on our right, and jerked our heads back in time to see the ferns and lower branches of the trees swaying in the spot I had just ridden by. We rode forward as we craned our necks back, trying to see the animal (we never did), hearts pounding.

From then on we sang off and on, and I rang my bike bell every once in a while to warn any scary creatures. I couldn't even count on riding away from them anymore because my chain might break.

We went for several hours and were on the home stretch, having seen bogs and a reservoir, birches and birds, when I spotted something in the forest, ahead and on the left. We were passing through a marshy area, and we could see out into the forest, though the day was cloudy, and the trees overhead added to the the gloom and shadow. As we got closer, the thing moved, and I recognized one, then two wild boars, rooting around in the mud of the marsh. They were pretty far from the road, but there might be more nearer to us. I hoped they didn't have babies on the other side of the road. I started ringing the bell to warn them of our approach. I've been told to scare bears in this way, but I never had to try it, and I was never trained in defense against wild boars. In historical novels I had read about the Middle Ages, someone would always get gored by one... As we got closer and they heard the bell, more shadows in the forest came alive, and we saw more adults running away from us, deeper into the forest. Then, in the mud nearer to the road, we saw a flash of light brown stripes, and a group of piglets began squealing and darting after their parents--wait for me!!! As they fled and we passed by, still ringing the bell in case there were stragglers, I estimated that there were almost ten babies and about as many adults. I felt bad for scaring them; I hoped they would settle down again soon.

We rode on, getting jumpy at every sound and shadow, passing by a border post protecting the area between Belarus and Poland, until we reached a two-lane road, and, feeling safer, coasted home, the rain and bugs gone, the wind in our hair.

The chain stayed on until we turned the bikes in and headed back to our hotel room, saddle-sore but exhilarated. We had had the forest adventure we wanted.

That night, we took a final walk in the woods. Rashed called me his wood elf because I like the trees so much.

The next day, we ate our enormous hotel breakfast (authorized by the President, mind you) and headed to Brest, a nearby city in western Belarus. We explored the city a bit, including the Brest Fortress, a site of World War II fighting. Then we got on the painfully slow, five-hour bus to Minsk, arriving back at the house at 9:00 pm, where family friend Ira gave us an enormous supper, including borsch and 6% milk.

From My Journal

Based on my journal, Sunday, June 14, 2009:

I'm sitting on a mattress stuffed with sweet-smelling hay, in a room decorated with wildflowers, in the eastern Belarusian village of Belaya. Uncle Kolya calls this his barn (there are cobwebs everywhere), but it is really a delightful country house. The town consists mostly of nice brick houses with indoor bathrooms (brick and indoor plumbing are still luxuries in some villages) because it is a planned community for evacuees of the Chernobyl region. Little kids walk their baby sister in a stroller on the road outside. Cows are led down the street in late afternoon. A friendly gray cat stalks the big overgrown backyard that also hides strawberries and potato plants.

I can't remember when I last wrote. Did I mention Vilnius in Lithuania (June 8-10)? Many churches, winding stone streets? The Virgin Mary gazing down out of a painting in a chapel high in the Dawn Gate, protecting the entrance to the old city?

Hrodna (June 6), where we visited more churches and an old, abandoned synagogue, where the curved streets were a bit wider and more recent, where the ruins of a castle perched on a steep, protective hillside overlooking the river. On a big screen in the main square, people gathered to watch a soccer game--Belarus versus Andorra--and I bought the fluffiest cotton candy I've ever eaten.

In Mahilyow on Thursday, the 11th, Rashed gave a speech and was honored by a Belarusian journal he writes for. People kept coming up to me and telling me how excellent his speech was, that he is a genius, that only a couple of other people in the whole country have such a wide base of knowledge and the skill to articulate it. One of the journal's editors says that there is a contingent among the other editors that doesn't believe that Rashed himself writes his articles in Belarusian--he must be getting them translated: look at his South Asian name! It's nice to see other people's opinions of the man I berate for sleeping in too late and procrastinating. He's going to be mad when he reads my bragging...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Nature in Belarus

In Belarus, too, I've been so grateful for those moments of closeness to nature that allow me to relax and be myself. I feel naive, in a way, for craving forests and complaining of pit toilets. Am I in love with a sanitized, cartoon version of the wild? Am I separating civilization and the wild in an artificial way? I've decided to appreciate what I can and admit some of my limitations.

Several times in this country I've been able to have a little excursion into nature.

First, Rashed's aunt took us from her apartment building in Mahilyow to a trail through a forest near a housing development and to a sacred spring with an Orthodox church next to it. I was hot and annoyed with the sun in my eyes as we walked on the sidewalk and then on a path in a field. But as soon as we stepped into the cool shade of the forest, I felt myself relax. A smile crept onto my lips and stayed there, reminding me of when I was a kid at Disneyland and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. The forest made me feel safe and competent and distracted me from the yammering in my head. The spring was interesting, but there were many people there, and I preferred the peace of the forest. I was sad when we went back another route, through the housing development.

For most of our time in Mahilyow, we were staying in the apartment of Rashed's aunt and uncle. On Sunday, May 31st, though, we visited Rashed's great aunt and another aunt and uncle at their house. They live in an old, wooden, village-style house that is reached by descending a long, steep staircase down from the modern part of Mahilyow. In their front yard is a dog chained and barking. Next to it is a stable that they used to use for pigs. Stretching back behind the house is a huge garden, water pump, sheds, small pond, rabbit hutch, and beyond that is a meadow in which they've begun to plant trees and more crops. The meadow stretches far away to a river, on the other side of which are more giant apartment blocks. But this side is peaceful. After a lunch of salad and cheese and sausage and bread, Rashed and I go on a walk with two sets of uncles and aunts. Again, I have that feeling of finally! we're doing something. We walk past goats grazing, people tending the gardens they have created in square plots in the meadow. There are unknown birds and white and yellow flowers. The uncles and aunts point them out and discuss what they are like it is a very important and enjoyable matter. I breathe another sigh of relief at this welcome change from many of the modern city-dwellers, who scorn the old country ways. We reach the river and watch the water flow. Young people are fishing and lighting bonfires. The sun is warm, and the air is fresh. We pause to watch a motorboat hum by (a rare occurrence), then continue walking along next to the water. Someone points out a ditch and old cement blocks, saying they are remains of a World War II trench and pontoon bridge foundations, whether German or Soviet they're not sure. We try to imagine battles in this peaceful place. Rashed hands me a sprig of pink flowers, which I tuck behind my ear. I feel like skipping and running. I can't understand everything people are discussing, but there is goodwill in the air, and the birds are singing. We have the whole field to cross to get back to the house, and I'm happy.

Somehow at Home in Nature

Though I'm visiting alien lands, if I focus on nature, I feel at home. Though I can't communicate with people around me, somehow I can commune with nature. I feel the space around my body extend and flow into the trees and fields and clouds. They receive my energy, breathe it in and then, softly, whisper back to me, and the perfume of their breath is so sweet.

In Wales, riding in the back of the car on our way to Snowdon, I ceased to focus on the conversation of my companions and my personal worries, and became still, my gaze and my concentration resting lightly on the passing countryside. I felt the border between me and nature open, and, like kids playing in the schoolyard, teasingly jumping over the marked line and then running back, some of my team chanced a walk on the other side and some of nature ventured towards me. I felt a humming that, to my delight, turned into a song. It sounded like a folk song, though it was new to me; and I couldn't make out the lyrics, though perhaps, again like a child, I molded some of the unfamiliar sounds into English words. Nature sang the song to me, with melody and chorus and beautiful changes in harmony until it had played out and I was brimming with feeling.

I sang the chorus to myself until we were climbing Snowdon, and I tried to keep myself open to more, though I realized I also had to interact with humans once in a while. I haven't figured out how to combine the two, though I know they must be combined somehow. During a difficult section of the climb, surrounded by steep hillsides and big, open sky, I felt the aliveness of nature again, and I tried to listen using that part of me that had heard the song. This time I saw, though, rather than heard. I saw a trail other than the one in front of me, flowing upwards, and when I focused on it, I could climb much more easily. I felt more of these presences in the surrounding countryside, glimmerings of something magical. But when I talked to Rashed, I lost my focus, and went back to huffing and puffing up the path; walking then felt like lifting legs of concrete rather than dancing with the fleet feet I had felt for those few long seconds on the shimmering escalator.

The Land of Ice Cream

We've been in Belarus for a week and a half. It's a land of paradoxes: modern, super-dressy women coming out of old two-room houses with no indoor plumbing; these same houses with backyard livestock and small farm plots nestled next to concrete high rises and the mansions of the nouveau riche; cows and goats grazing next to the bus stop; headscarves and miniskirts; giant bronze Lenins looming over massive squares bedecked with hammers and sickles and red stars in a no longer communist land. I'm tempted to complain about the irritable van driver whose head looked like it would explode as he yelled at passengers and swore at his van when it tried to stall, but he is cancelled out by the busload of helpful ladies who spent 20 minutes discussing with one another what stop Rashed and I should get off at. One minute I'm enjoying the amusement park rides in the many wooded parks, and the next I'm wishing I had stayed home so I don't have to use the questionable public bathrooms. One day Rashed's relatives praise the free dental care, and the next they laugh at the fact that they are eating food that might contain low-level radiation. But instead of complaining, I'll try to focus mostly on the good, including one unanticipated discovery.

Belarus is the land of ice cream.

At every newstand, at almost every bus stop, at every train station, in carts along the sidewalk, ice cream is waiting. In bars and cones and sandwiches. In the hands of passersby. It can be yours for the equivalent of about 35 American cents. What are you waiting for? The ice cream here is less sweet than its North American cousin. It's creamy but doesn't melt and drip out of the cone. Top it with homemade berry jam for a special treat. Look out the 8th-floor window of your Soviet-style apartment block in a major Belarusian city and you might just see, in the untouched field across the street, a cow, oblivious to the concrete towers, ignorant of whether it is a communist or a capitalist, munching tall, green grass diligently until evening, when a bent babushka will lead it back home to the village house in the middle of the city, and the cow will give the lady cream, and maybe she will eat ice cream, too.