The energy starts to change in February in Belarus. You’ve gotten through the worst of winter, the days start getting longer, and the early beginnings of Spring start to show. Yes, there was still snow and I still needed my parka, but there was a sign of hope that we made it through the worst. February in Belarus positively changed my mentality of Belarus, which was undoubtedly struggling. I was excited for all the adventures to come, and it started in February in Belarus.
Health Care in Belarus
I was participating in the Milestii Mici Wine Run in a few days. It’s the longest race through a wine cellar in the world, held in Moldova annually. Due to the dust and mineral levels inside the wine cellar, the race organizers require an EKG done to participate. It was my first introduction to Belarusian and Eastern European healthcare.
I called the local private clinic for an appointment. The receptionist was frustrated with my Russian speaking level, and it took several attempts for me to explain what I needed, but an appointment for an EKG was finally confirmed for the very next day.
I showed up to the clinic 15 minutes prior to my scheduled appointment time and checked in at the front desk. The receptionist told me to wait. Finally, at my scheduled appointment time, she called me up. The receptionist instructed me in Russian how to get to my appointment room. I listened intently and asked for clarification a couple times, but thought I finally understood. I thought it strange to me that no nurse would walk me to my physician’s room and that I could freely walk around the clinic. Another cultural difference, I thought to myself as I tried to breathe away the anxiety of facing a new and scary situation alone.
I looked for stairs, but was afraid to open random doors, so I opted for the elevator instead. It pinged on the third floor and I walked out expecting to find another receptionist or nurse to guide me to the correct room. Instead, I found a dimly lit and empty hallway. I knew my appointment would be in room 302, but the door was locked and I could see through the filmed door that there weren’t lights on inside the room or any shadowy figures suggesting someone was inside. There were a couple plastic school chairs, so I sat and wait for my doctor to come for me. After 20 minutes of sitting and waiting, I built up the courage to knock on room 302’s door. There was no way someone was in the dark room, there, but I was out of ideas.
Turns out, the doctor was in that room waiting for me the entire time. He opened the door a whole minute after I knocked and asked who I was. I told him my name, which he recognized from his appointment book.
“Oh. I thought you were a man.” Everyone thought that because my name ends in a consonant instead of a vowel, which is the norm for male names in Eastern Europe. “You’re twenty minutes late,” he said with a huff.
I babbled, apologetically. “I’m so sorry. I’m American and foreign and don’t understand Russian very well. Everything is new and different. This is my first time in a Belarusian clinic and the process is so different than in the United States…”
He cut me off. “Oh, American!” He ushered me quickly inside his office. Apparently Belarusian physicians have their own offices, which is also where they see patients. “Tell me about American clinics. What is it like?”
I explained we’re not allowed to walk freely in the clinic. Nurses get the patients from the waiting rooms and take our blood pressure. We wait in a room for the doctor to arrive. Doctors have an office, but that’s only where they do paperwork. They rotate rooms to see patients.
The Belarusian doctor couldn’t comprehend such a system. Wasn’t it expensive to have duplicates of all the equipment? How do the doctors afford so many nurses and staff? I never realized how commercialized our healthcare system is until the short conversation with the Belarusian doctor.
The EKG took five minutes to complete. He told me to pay at the front desk and if I ever needed other healthcare he’d gladly treat me.
I paid the equivalent of $5 to the receptionist in cash. Later, I looked up the cost of an EKG without insurance in the USA–over $100.
The race operators never asked for the EKG results.
Moldovan Wine in the City of Comrat
One beautiful thing about the Fulbright experience is the ease of visiting new countries because you have friends scattered across a region! This time, I visited my friend Santiago after running in the Milestii Mici Wine Run. He lived in a city called Comrat, which we made plenty of jokes about. Comrat is in the region of Gagauzia, so we joked a lot that we were in the Land of the Gagas and mentioned Lady Gaga in all our Instagram stories. The famous singer/actress never responded.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Santiago sharing his life in Moldova with me for a few days.
Wine is one of Moldova’s largest economies. Yet, I was still surprised to see wine served on tap!
We grabbed a couple of empty one-liter plastic bottles to bring to the small corner store. An old woman welcomed us and offered us either dry red wine or sweet red wine. She grows the wine in her backyard down the street, and also offers wines from other grapes from her neighbors. We asked for a liter of each and handed her our bottles. She stuck the bottles under the tap and pulled the lever, revealing a wine as red as blood. My brain stared in awe, processing that taps could pour more than beer.
Santiago and I happily returned home, with wine-filled water bottles for the both of us, for a grand total of $3. It’s the most eco-friendly, cheap, and local wine I’ve ever drank!
It was delicious too. I typically dislike red wine, but this Moldovan red wine was delicious. Be careful though–the wine takes a minute to kick in, but when it does kick in it hits you hard.
International Aid in Moldova
“Everything nice you see is only nice because of international aid.”
That’s what my friend explained to me as we walked on bumpy dirt sidewalks to a cute pizza shop.
The local pizza shop purchased a stone fire oven thanks to Turkish international aid. Locals flock towards this Western-style pizza with its smoked flavors. The shop’s popularity grew with locals and travelers alike thanks to this stone fire oven, which is uncommon in the area. In only a year, the small store hired more employees and completed some renovations to increase the aesthetic of the shop. International aid certainly improved the livelihoods of the workers at this shop.
The benefits of international aid didn’t end there. Truly, everything aesthetically pleasing in Comrat was thanks to international funding. I commented on how much pride Moldovans must have because their country’s flag was in great condition and hung frequently along crippled public roads. Yet again, the Moldovan flags were purchased with international aid–this time American aid.
Tourism is a huge global economy–worth over $4.7 trillion in 2018–and one that the Moldovan region of Gaguzia hopes to tap into with a brand new tourism building and a tourism director. We visited the tourism center to meet the tourism director.
Santiago works with the tourism director sometimes to share business and marketing ideas. He pointed out a stone plaque outside the building that stated the building and tourism concept was made possible thanks to EU and American international aid.
The tourism director described to me all the ways the Gagauzia region’s cultural diversity makes it unique and worth a tourist’s visit. She explained how she increased marketing of local festivals, such as the annual wine festival, to draw in tourism and, thereby, tourism dollars. Her passion for Gaguzia seeped into the air as she explained her vision improving quality of jobs and life in the area through tourism.
When Santiago and I left the tourism center, he made a comment about the director’s purse. It was an expensive name brand purse. How does a tourism director of a small region in the poorest country of Europe afford such a bag? I assumed the international aid funding the tourism center paid a good salary. It does in comparison to the normal Moldovan salary, he commented, but not enough to afford a name brand purse. Apparently the tourism director goes on several international trips annually, something a-little-bit-better-than-a-normal-Moldovan-salary salary couldn’t afford.
International aid helps create a more peaceful and prosperous world, but it’s not perfect, as witnessed in Gaguzia.
Transnistria–An Unrecognized Good Time
The next stop on my Moldovan travels was Transnistria to visit another Fulbright friend, Ian. I only had time to visit for a night because it was organized a bit last minute, but I figured that was plenty of time for me to be a daredevil and visit a territory controlled and monitored by Russia. Yup, it’s an independently-recognized republic within Moldova controlled in proxy by Russia.
Transnistria is not recognized as an independent country according to the United Nations. This means it’s illegal for the Transnistria border control to stamp in my passport. Instead, the border control gives visitors a piece of paper that acts as your visa. It doesn’t cost anything monetarily to enter the country, but it certainly cost me my sense of peace and security.
Process this–these border control agents and the weapons they carry look very real and could cause very real harm on you. The questioning to enter the unrecognized republic is intense and thorough. Yet, none of it is real. The border control is not an internationally recognized border control. The currency is not an internationally recognized currency. The Transnistria residency cards inside each Transnistrian’s Moldovan passport are not real forms of identification. Everything looks and feels real, but none of it is politically or systemically real.
What would it feel like to live in a place that is unrecognized…that isn’t real?
Well, life felt normal. In fact, life seemed better in Transnistria then a couple of hours away in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. Russia poured money into Transnistria, which makes everything feel real. Nice roads, well-kept buildings, stylish restaurants and cafes, stringed lights along a city block, parks, and actually some decent things to see and do in the area (at least for daring travelers like me…definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a hot destination for an annual family vacation!).
Russia shifted away from investing in Transnistria in the last few years, though, undoubtedly to pour money into its wars in Ukraine. Ian said locals are feeling the affects of this, but Russian surveillance keeps things orderly.
My heart rate was elevated for the entire day I was in Tiraspol. Russia knows I’m here? Russia is watching me right now? What if I say something they don’t like?
Since I’m writing this now, you can safely assume I made it back fine.
Well, Moldovans/Transistrians don’t run on strict timelines like many other countries. I thought I would miss my flight when I waited an hour for a marshrutka that eventually arrived. Then the other passengers and I waited until the driver felt like leaving, about another 20 minutes. We made up time with speed though. Those marschrutkas can move faster than you’d think!
Oh, and there’s no actual bus stop at the airport. To get the marschrukta to stop, you yell at the driver to pull over where you want and he’ll fling the marschrutka to the side of the road and kick you off. Then you have to walk across a four-lane divided highway to the airport.
Before I visited, Ian told me Transistria is an unrecognized good time. It certainly is.
Canvassing in Brest, Belarus
Shortly after my whirldwind Moldovan adventures, another Fulbrighter invited me to Brest to help canvass surveys there. She teaches sustainable travel and was researching sustainable travel in Belarus. Brest was the last major city in Belarus that she needed to gather surveys from and I was overjoyed to join her students and her on this quick one-day educational trip.
We went to one of the main historic sites in Brest–the Brest Fortress and the large memorial also on the site, which honors courage. I walked around asking foreign visitors if they’d like to participate in a study. If anyone needs someone to translate a survey synopsis in Russian for them, I’m your girl because I got several hours of practice doing exactly that!
A Sick End to February in Belarus
I think several weeks of moving around non-stop caught up to me because I caught a really bad sickness at the end of February in Belarus. Looking back, it could’ve been COVID considering I was traveling frequently and there’s a good amount of Chinese visitors in Belarus. At the moment though, I thought I had gotten the worst fever and cough of my life.
Thankfully Belarusians are some of the kindest people on the planet. My coworkers, students, and friends checked up on me frequently and offered to bring me whatever I needed.
The only thing that helped my throat was fresh ginger tea. I was sick of laying in bed all day that I bundled up and walked to the local farmer’s market to buy fresh ginger. I stopped at the first stand selling ginger and asked to buy one piece of ginger. The old lady–who most likely grows the ginger in her backyard and sells it as extra income–heard how sick I was and gave me her entire bowl of ginger for the price of one. She wished me well and recommended a specific tea recipe to help me feel better.
She likely had no idea I was American because our conversation in Russian was very short. All she knew was there was a very sick girl standing in front of her asking for ginger and decided I needed that ginger more than anyone else that day or more than she needed the extra money. It was a lovely reminder of the generosity of people.
February was a turning point for me. I became more grateful for living in Belarus after seeing how much more difficult life is in Moldova. I finally felt like I was getting the hang of Russian language and Belarusian/Eastern European culture and life. Some of my acquaintances were deepening into friendships. The weather was showing signs of the coming Spring–more sunshine, increasingly longer days, and slowly warming weather.
As soon as I was finding my place in Belarus. the world changed forever. Stay tuned for my final diary-style post from Belarus–experiencing the early days of Coronavirus in Belarus.