Brest, Belarus (2011)

More correctly, only the train station in Brest, Belarus. I was there when I arrived in Belarus, and again eight days later when I left Belarus.

Photo below: mosaic mural at Brest train station.
On a curved wall in the building where tickets are sold is the mural pictured below. It's about 14-feet high, made of small mosaic tiles. It appears to show people of different cultures and classes, all traveling.

Photo below: waiting room at Brest train station, in daylight.
I arrived in dark and departed in daylight. Along the sides are small shops that sell food, cosmetics, books, women's clothing, religious items. At the far end, to the right side of the doors, a business sells computer use time and internet access time; I had my own laptop, used a purchased password, and got on the internet sitting in that waiting room. On the left side, down a corridor, a small "pub" serves beer, vodka, juice, and pre-made food. The pub is open all night long. Opposite those entry doors in the middle of the photo (at the opposite end) are the toilet facilities for folks at the train station. You'll need 700 rubles (less than 10 cents U.S.), and you'll need to brace yourself for using a "pit toilet." Ladies, THAT is why it's smart to wear "walking skirts" rather than jeans when you expect to be in a train station in Belarus. My traveling advice for women: Keep in your handbag at all times flushable sanitary wipes, hand sanitizer, and a squeeze bottle that you can fill with water.

When I'd obtained my visa from the Belarus embassy in D.C., I had been told that I MUST purchase health insurance for my stay in Belarus: "You must purchase insurance when you pass through customs." Nope. The Belarus customs officer never mentioned health insurance, and there is no place in the customs building to purchase health insurance.

However, at the hotel in Novogroduk, a desk clerk asked for my health insurance number. By then, my guide was there. She realized that the only health insurance I had was from the USA. The guide said in English, "Just make up a number. They don't care."

As I was ready to leave Belarus, I saw a business in the train station waiting room and asked an English speaker what it was: "It's for buying health insurance while you're in Belarus." The business was open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; closed Sunday. Trains arrive and depart at that station all night long.

When I had arrived in Brest, it was almost midnight (Brest time), and I was on a train by 4 a.m. I never saw that business until I was ready to leave the country.

Photo below: The business that sells health insurance.

Photo below: A homeless cat at the train station.
There are several homeless cats at the train station. They act not like pets and not like feral cats. They come close enough to see if you'll give them food, but stay far enough away that you cannot pet them. If you travel through Brest and other cities and towns in that part of the world, carry a long sausage link in your pocket for feeding the homeless cats; it's more pleasurable than feeding pigeons. :-)

The official currency in Belarus is the Belarusan ruble. There are no coins; it's all paper money, with each unit a different color. When I was there, the exchange rate was 7,450 rubles for one U.S. dollar. A month later, it took 8,649 rubles to equal one U.S. dollar. In all but government-owned businesses, the Belarusan people with whom I dealt preferred to be paid in U.S. dollars. They'd pull out a calculator and figure the exact price in U.S. dollars. I don't know whether U.S. coins would have been accepted, but they accepted right down to one dollar bills. It did not seem to be so much a "black market currency" as an alternative currency. An ATM at a bank in Pinsk gave customers the option to withdraw cash in Belarusan rubles or U.S. dollars.

As I waited in the train station to leave Belarus, local women walked around offering a variety of food -- from fresh-picked raspberries to home-cooked chicken. ALL wanted payment in something other than Belarusan rubles. Their first choice was U.S. dollars, but they also would accept euros, Polish zloty, and even Russian rubles. They would not sell for Belarusan rubles.

Photo below: 2,580 in rubles; about 36 cents in U.S. money.
A month later, it was worth less than 30 cents U.S.

An interesting thought about those women selling freshly picked fruit, and roasted chicken, and homemade deserts in the train station in Brest: The food they offered looked tasty, and they were carrying their offerings directly to people who sat in the waiting room. There were also food shops in both the waiting room building and in the ticket-sales building. The food sold in the food stalls looked pretty good too. The shopkeepers in the food stalls knew they would be getting competition from the women. Almost certainly, the women were not "licensed vendors" as they would have to have been in the USA. But no local cop tried to shoo them off, and their presence accomplished two things: (1) The competition likely forced the shopkeepers to sell better food. (2) The women found a way to turn their efforts into cash to help support themselves and did not have to look to "the government" for support.

It was low-level capitalism, but it was being allowed in Belarus. In the USA, it's likely that a poor person trying to earn some money in the same manner would be arrested for selling food without a license and because the kitchen the food had been prepared in did not have the proper government-issued seals of approval.

The Belarusan people are doing without, and doing without lots and often. Belarus, however, is a new country. It has been its own country only since 1991. Before then, it was fought over and claimed by Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. The Belarusan people were not recognized as a people with their own nationality and language, and they were not allowed to determine their own destiny. We (Americans) come in and make judgments about how things should be, and we're doing what has been done to Belarus for centuries -- trying to impose our choices on them. They are a new nation, and the people seem to be struggling very hard to make their country work.

Belarus has lots going for it: In autumn, at least, the country is beautiful. It fills with glorious fall colors the likes of which I'd never seen. The place is about 40% forested, and the forests are all state-owned. Anyone who is in the country legally may camp in the forests without any permit. Hunting (in season) is allowed, and fishing is allowed. The place could be an outdoorman's paradise -- IF it were easier to get visas and to extend visas.

Instead, getting a visa is complicated. Cost was $140. It was a two-page application, and it was a week after submitting the application when the visa was ready to be picked up. In addition to the two-page application and the cost, I had to have an "invitation" from someone within Belarus. My solution was typical: I dealt with a travel agent who booked a room for me in Novogrudok. Then, I paid the travel agent $30 to send me an "invitation" which I had to include with my visa application. Thus, the bare cost of permission to enter Belarus was $170.

Each invitation must state an exact entry date and an exact exit date. While one may come late or leave early, one may not come early or leave late. My invitation allowed me to enter the country as of September 28, and I had to depart no later than October 5. It was about 9 a.m. on October 5 when a train took me from Brest across the Bug River and back to Poland. What would have happened if I'd stayed past my visa dates? In a country that is run by Alexander Lukashenko and has pit toilets in the train station, I did not want to find out.

  1. Incoming, I went from from Brest, to Baranovichi, to Novogrudok.
  2. Leaving Belarus, I went from Brest to Warsaw.

2011 Trip