Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dudutki Tour, Belarus

Today's Belarus adventure was a trip out to Dudutki.  Дудуткі is an open-air folk museum about 45 km (28 miles) from Minsk.

The first stop was the windmill.  It was built from 1903 to 1905 and was functional until the 1970s.  It was originally located in the village of Berezovka but when the owners were exiled to Siberia it was allocated to a local communal farm.

To the right of the windmill is the miller's house.
Actually the miller's guest house.

When people would bring grain to be ground, this is where they could have a meal and rest before their journey home.  The inside is decorated as a traditional Belarusian peasant house.

Near the entrance of the complex is the St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church which was built in 2007.  The wooden church was consecrated in 2008.

The leaves and the top part of the doors are made from straw.  Not quite sure how, but that's what I understood.

The complex has a number of craft exhibits with traditional artisans, everything from straw weaving, to pottery, beekeeping, woodworking, and masonry.

There's even an exhibit of vintage cars.

We were given samples of the homemade rye bread and cheese, plus tea.  Most people were more interested in the shot of traditional vodka we were given.

The whole tour, including the return trip from Mink, was about 4,5 hours long.  I was proud of myself for managing another day with my poor Russian.  Fortunately, I was provided a headset with English language commentary during the tour otherwise I would have been lost during the craft exhibits.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Brest & Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park Tour, Belarus

Going to Brest was my main reason for coming to Belarus. Брэст sits just across the Polish border but of course it's not as simple as just catching a train from Poland because I needed that tourist visa.  So today's adventure was a 16 hour, Russian language road trip (800 km / 500 mile) from Minsk to Brest and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.

In medieval times, Brest was part of the Kingdom of Poland before becoming part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania followed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, until it was incorporated by the Russian Empire in 1795.  After WWI the city as again part of Poland until it was taken by the Soviet Union.  Today, Brest is firmly a part of Belarus and is home to over 310,000 people.

On 22 June 1941, the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa.  The 19th-century Brest-Litovsk Fortress was home to one of the first battles.  The Germans expected to take it in a few hours.

The Soviet army managed to hold out for over a week before it was taken.  It became a symbol of Soviet resistance and in 1965 the fortress received the title of Hero Fortress.

In 2004, it was placed on the tentative list for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

In 1971 the memorial complex was opened.  The museum tells the story of the defence and is very interesting.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church

Aside from the monuments and museum, you can walk around to see the barracks, bunkers and forts.  There is also the St. Nicholas Orthodox church.

The Russian film Брестская крепость, Fortress of War, released in 2010 is about the battle as narrated from the perspective of a 15-year old boy.  Here's the English language movie trailer that I found out on YouTube.

Here's a RT broadcast about the battle as part of their series on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.  In former Soviet republics it is known as The Great Patriotic War.


After touring the fortress we went to the city and had lunch.  Then it was off to Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park.  The park is 70 km (43 miles) north of Brest.  It is a biosphere reserve with a museum and a small zoo.

European bison
The park was established in 1932.  It is 1500 km² (579 square miles) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The forest is home to Wisent, the European bison which is the continent's heaviest land animal.    

The tour at the park was supposed to include a visit to see the residence of Ded Moroz.  Grandfather Frost is the Eastern version of Santa Claus.  I wasn't able to understand the reason why we didn't go but I was fine skipping it as it had already been a very long day.  Plus I was mentally drained having to do the entire day in Russian which now is pretty much rubbish.  Fortunately most of the museum exhibits did include English titles and/or descriptions.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Finally Made it to Belarus

I finally made it to Belarus which is the only country in Europe that I haven't been to.  It took just over seven years but now I've done the 50.

I thought once I had my Belarus visa that the hard part would be over.  Of course not!  So here's a bit about my travel adventure today.

I took the Student Agency bus to the Vienna Airport.  No problem.  I was supposed to catch a Ukrainian Air flight to Kyiv and then a connecting flight to Minsk.  Sounds easy enough.  I checked in, dropped off my luggage, and went to the gate.  Then my flight to Kyiv gets delayed.  And then it gets delayed again to the point where I won't make my connecting flight to Minsk.

My name is called and I'm told that I will be rebooked on a later flight with Austrian but it's a direct flight so I should arrive two hours later.  The catch is that I need to leave the security area and go to customer service in the main departure hall.  I will have to reclaim my bag but I'm told it will be easy so off I go.

Once at the customer service desk it took a while before the clerk could figure out what was going on.  He did manage to rebook me on Austrian.  He should have given me an airport food voucher but he claimed that it wasn't required.  I however know the rules and his supervisor agreed and I received a €10 voucher which isn't a lot in Vienna Airport because a latte runs €5 but at least I got it.  Now about my luggage...

The clerk told me that I had to reclaim my bag at baggage claim.  However, that is back behind the security area.  I had already passed security once so my boarding pass wouldn't work a second time.  He told me to go to the security kiosk, explain everything and that they would let me pass.  Fine, that worked.  But at the luggage claim my bag wasn't there.  I was told that it would be about 20 minutes or longer but that it would arrive.  Meanwhile, I checked in online for my new Austrian flight and selected my seat.

An hour later and still no bag.  They can't find it.  They "expect" that it went to Kyiv on my original flight and that "it should" make it to Minsk.  Between the service desk and the baggage claim departments it's a good thing that I speak German because who knows what I would have been told.  So I then had to exit the baggage claim area and go through security again, with my online boarding pass, and find a place that would accept the €10 voucher because of course it is only good in select places.  I managed to grab something for dinner and made it to my gate.

I was among the first in queue to board the flight.  But the Austrian gate agent would not let me on the plane. Although I had an Austrian boarding pass she said that there was a problem and that I had to step aside.  She boards every other passenger and I'm left standing there.  By the way, the flight is a few minutes delayed and they're rushing to close the gate.  The gate agent checks her computer and makes two telephone calls to her supervisor about me not having a valid ticket.  Again, a good thing that I speak German so that I understand exactly how rude she was.  Apparently it was my fault that Austrian had not properly internally billed Ukrainian Airlines and my fault that the Austrian computer system issued me a valid boarding pass.  It was also my fault that the delay was causing the flight to be delayed and that she would have to issue me a new boarding pass and a new seat.  Bitch!

I used to like flying Austrian until I had that glitch flying to Brussels.  I think it's time for a break and it will be a long time before I fly with Austrian Airlines anywhere.

I finally made it to Minsk.  Fortunately my suitcase was there waiting for me when I arrived.   I've made it to my hostel and they registered me with the foreign police.  Now it's time to catch some zzz's before my early morning tour to Brest.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Nat's Visit

Natalie's back in Europe!  Well at least for a visit.  She needs to go to Italy which means that she's made sure to spend a few days here in Brno.  Which is great for me as now I don't need to wait until November to get my Nat fix when we go to New Zealand.

Tünde loved spending time with her godmother.  I see Tünde about every week so I know how much she has grown.  For Nat it was a surprise to see what a big girl she has become.  And that she speaks English, German, Hungarian and Czech.

It's been so great having Nat back in town but her visit has been way too short.  At least it won't be long until we visit her in Kiwiland. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Brno Water Crisis

Since Thursday, Brno residents have been advised not to drink the water.  Due to the recent hot weather there have been high levels of bacteria detected in the local water supply.

The problem was detected in the water outside of Brno in Žebětín and Komín.  The city advised boiling tap water prior to drinking it.

During the school year Brno has a population of 410,000 which meant that every store was completely sold out of bottled water.

Tap water in Czech Republic is safe to drink.  I do find it a bit chalky though which is why I use a Brita filtration pitcher.  During the ban, I boiled water prior to using the pitcher and I didn't have a problem.  I use my Brita everyday.  I always get my replacement filters in either Germany or Ireland because they are much cheaper than buying them locally.

The ban ended this evening at 6 PM.  Aside from a lack of bottled water in shops the biggest inconvenience for me was not being able to get coffee or tea at work but I probably drink too much caffeine anyway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Czechland Ranks #9

Back in February, GoBankingRates published a list of the cheapest countries to live in / retire in.  Based on various indices they ranked Czechland as the #9th best country.  While I do find this a great place to live I'm not quite sure I buy in to how accurate these rankings are.

First of all, every place was compared to New York City which is among the most expensive places in the world.  Virtually everywhere is a bargain compared to NYC.  Here are the four indices used.

1.  Local purchasing power index:  how much one can buy with a typical salary compared to NYC.
2.  Rent index:  compares the typical rental prices to NYC.
3.  Groceries index:  compares typical grocery prices to NYC.
4.  Consumer price index:  compares the the costs of local goods and services, including restaurants, utilities and transportation.

Here's how Czechland scored.

Local purchasing power is 8,4% lower.  Rent is 87,8% cheaper.  Groceries are 63% cheaper and local goods & services are 57.7% cheaper.

GDP here per capita is around $19,500.  Due to lower costs and a higher local purchasing power, Czech Republic came in 9th.  Though compared to New York City of course Czechland scored well.

According to this study, South Africa came in #1.  Local purchasing power is 26,9% higher, rent is 87,5% cheaper, groceries are 71% cheaper and local goods & services are 65,8% cheaper.  So while South Africa may be the cheapest country to live or retire in I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

Though it may be cheap it is certainly not one of the safest countries to live in.  South Africa has been on my list of places to visit for years but I also have too many friends, including South Africans, who have a long list of reasons not to live there.

But still, kudos to Czechland for coming in at #9.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Pac-10 is now the Pac-12

In the USA, collegiate sports are a big deal.  Many people go from collegiate athletics to professional athletics.  Collegiate sports is not something that exists in Europe.

The governing body for American collegiate sports is the NCAA - National Collegiate Athletic Association.  Schools are broken down in to different divisions and based on skills and geography.  Division I is the highest level.

Having grown up in California we had the Pac-10 Conference which was made up of the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, University of California - Berkeley, University of California - Los Angeles, University of Oregon, Oregon State University, University of Southern California, Stanford University, University of Washington, and Washington State University.

I've been living in Czechland so long that I didn't know that the Pac-10 is now the Pac-12.  In 2011, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado - Boulder joined the conference.  Pretty bad for a California boy to not know that the conference expanded.

Then again, I moved to Atlanta and lived there for 13 years before moving here.  So while I grew up in California, I would say that the South was home.  Well that is prior to moving here.  But that requires explaining my permanent address which is a story for another time.

In the South, we have the SEC which is the Southeastern Conference.  The SEC is a powerhouse for collegiate athletics.  The schools making up the SEC are the University of Florida, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, University of Missouri, University of South Carolina, University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, University of Alabama, University of Arkansas, Auburn University, Louisiana State University, University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and Texas A&M University.

In the South you cheer for an SEC school and the rivalries between the various schools is quite fierce.  I graduated from Georgia State University which is well known for academics and less so for athletics.  GSU belongs to the Sun Belt Conference which also includes Appalachian State University, Arkansas State University, Coastal Carolina University, Georgia Southern University, University of Arkansas - Little Rock, University of Louisiana - Lafayette, University of Louisiana - Monroe, University of South Alabama, Texas State University, University of Texas - Arlington, and Troy University. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016 Q3 Team Building Event

Yesterday we had our third quarter team building event and this time we held it in Hungary.

I was excited about this because it was held at Lake Balaton and it's been on my to-do list for quite some time.  Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe with give or take 236 km (147 miles) of shoreline.

We held it at Zamárdi which is on the south bank of the lake.  It is a small town of around 2,300 people.  It's a popular holiday spot so this was a great location to hold a party.

Aside from taking time out to enjoy the lake we had a number of activities to keep people busy.  The tug-of-war seemed to be the most popular.  That and just relaxing in the sun, eating, drinking, and generally just having a relaxing time.  This was also the first of our big team building events that my group wasn't in charge of planning so we just got to go and enjoy ourselves.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Belarus Tourist Visa

Most people who want to visit Belarus need to arrange a visa in advance.  It tends to be a bureaucratic pain in the arse but there's no way around it.  The easiest one to get is the 10-day maximum tourist visa.  Here's what's required for an American citizen to get one of the single-entry 10 day visas.

  1. A copy of your passport
  2. A completed application form
  3. A passport photo
  4. A confirmation letter from the hotel/hostel 
  5. Proof of travel health insurance showing worldwide or Belarus coverage
  6. Proof of payment for the visa fee
Belarus Embassy in Bratislava
Normal visa processing takes 7 - 10 business days unless you double the fee to receive your visa in 3 - 5 business days.  Two visits are required; the first to apply and the second to pick it up.  Belarus has embassies in Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna.  I would loose two full days of work travelling back and forth to Prague so this became my third choice.  The embassy in Bratislava handles visas between 9 AM - Noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  This worked great because I could do what I need to do at the embassy at 9 AM and then I could work the rest of the day from the IBM office in Bratislava and catch an eventing train home.

It used to be pretty expensive for Americans to get a visa.  Something like $120 or $160 but a couple of years ago the price dropped.  The problem is that the cost seemed to vary a bit depending on where you applied.  I e-mailed the Belarus Embassy in Bratislava and they confirmed it would cost €60.  The embassy does not accept money so you have to transfer the money to their Bratislava bank account and bring proof of payment.  

So two weeks ago I caught an early train and was at the embassy by 8:20 AM.  By 9 AM there were four others in line behind me.  The clerk spoke to me in Russian but my Russian isn't what it used to be.  I asked her in Czech if she spoke English or Czech.  She grunted and nodded her head.  But she didn't actually indicate that she spoke English.  Since I figured she had to speak Slovak I decided to just go with Czech.

That's when the questions began.  Why do I want to go to Belarus?  Have I ever been to Belarus before?  Do I know anyone in Belarus?  Where will I go in Belarus?  What will I do there?  

She went through all of my paperwork.  She told me that she did not know the hotel I booked.  How did I find this hotel?  Why did I book this hotel?  

Since I have permanent residency she also wanted a copy of my Schengen ID.  I knew to come prepared so I just happened to have a photocopy of it.  I also had copies of my flight itinerary/receipt which she took even though I doubt she really needed them.

I provided a screen print showing the bank transfer to their account for the €60 fee.  No problem.  She took my passport and told me to come back in two weeks to pick up my visa.  They would hold my passport until then.

All said and done and I was done by 9:15 AM.  I wasn't thrilled about leaving my passport especially since I just got it.  I don't need to carry my passport in Czechland because I have my Czech residency card but technically I need to carry both when I am outside of Czech Republic.  I didn't have any trips planned and figured I would be fine between CZ and Slovakia with only my ID.  Besides I went through this before when I applied for my Azeri visa which required three visits - the first to apply, then once approved you go back to give them your passport and finally on the third visit you get your passport back.  I defiantly don't want to deal with that sort of drama again.  

The entry for visa services
Two weeks later and I was back at the embassy first thing this morning to pick up my passport.  It was a different clerk this morning but I explained that I was there to pick up my passport and visa.  She took out my file and went through every document.  She then asks me for my receipt for the €60 fee.  I explained that I provided a screen print with all of my paperwork.  She looks through everything again.  She can't find it.  She tells me that I need to pay €60 for the visa.  I tell her again that I provided proof of payment.  She pulls out my passport and the visa is in it but she needs proof of payment.  This is starting to feel like a shake down and I'm not rolling over for €60.

I explain to her that why would they have accepted my application in the first place, or even processed the visa, if I hadn't already provided proof of payment.  Now I'm getting annoyed and switch to Russian.  Then the supervisor comes in and she briefs the other woman what's going on.  The supervisor just happens to be the clerk I dealt with two weeks ago.  I see her look through all of the same submitted papers again and she asks me about the receipt.  I explain that I provided a screen print from my bank when I applied.  Who did you give this to?, she asks.  My response...I gave it, to you, with all of my other paperwork.  She then hands me my passport and I check that the dates on the visa are correct and I left.  The whole thing still only took about 20 minutes.  What's interesting is that on the visa itself it says how much was paid.

I don't know if this was an actual shake down.  I don't know if they relented because they saw that I wasn't going to give up or maybe things changed once I switched to Russian (even though it's pretty rusty).  I don't really care because the main thing is that I now have my visa for Belarus which is the only country in Europe that I have not been to.  Belarus will be #50.
My Belarus tourist visa
Update:  As of 12 February 2017, Belarus will now issue free visas on arrival to passengers flying in to Minsk.  The visas are for a maximum of five calendar days and, again, are only available to tourists who fly in to Minsk National Airport.  This is available to citizens of 80 different counties, including the USA.   

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bratislava Penthouse

This week I was back in Bratislava.  Not a big surprise.  Sometimes I feel that I spend more time in Bratislava than I do at home in Brno.  Heck, I'm here so often that I know in Slovak the city's nickname is Blava.  Short for Bratislava.

Since July the city has been crazy busy and there is lots of security everywhere.  That's because from July until the end of December, Slovakia holds the presidency of the European Union.  Every six months it rotates to a different country.

Here's the logo for the Slovak EU presidency.  The three diacritics that make up the logo's happy face are the three different accent marks used in the Slovak language.  Pretty clever.

This week I had to attend a workshop.  The problem has been that getting a hotel room in town has been very tough due to all of the extra people here for the six month term.  So rather than stay at the Sheraton where I normally do, next to the office, this time I rented a studio flat.  I'm going to have to do this again.

The flat is practically next door to the office, I don't feel like I'm stuck in a hotel room, and at €50 a night it is much cheaper than staying at the Sheraton.
Plus it has a little penthouse vibe to it.  I'm sure that the travel department will give me a hassle for getting something on but I'll deal with that later.