broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “October, 2015”

Travel and Worker Rights

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When I was young, I dreamed of traveling the world.  In high school, I was nominated to be part of a People to People exchange, once to Ireland and another time to Russia.  However, it was far too expensive for my family to afford.  I went to an information session and my mother very honestly told me that we couldn’t afford it.   During my first year of college, I met many students who traveled.  They went all over the world, spending their summers in Greece or service trips to Central America.  I didn’t have any class consciousness.  Somehow I figured that they were simply lucky or even better than I was to have such marvelous adventures.  My limited experiences were framed as personal failure, rather than the outcome of growing up in a town of 250 people to a teen parent and working class family.  In any event, hearing about these adventures made me hunger for travel even more.  It was an obsession.  I did travel.  When I was 19, I went to Paris and London on my own with money I saved from the three jobs I was working at the time (housekeeper, waitress, Headstart classroom helper).   I also went to Mexico that same summer.  That was the first time on an airplane.  It was my first passport and first times outside of the country (aside from Canada).  And, I did it entirely alone (at least the London and Paris trip).  The airport in London was far larger than the cities and towns I grew up around.  I am proud of my 19 year old self (a small town girl with many anxieties) for the bravery.

I have traveled a lot since then.  There was a great deal of longing and desperation for travel.  There was saving and creative financing (such as donating eggs to help pay for a trip to Cuba).   I’ve seen some amazing things.   I saw Hugo Chavez (the deceased former president of Venezuela) speak to crowds of socialist youth.   I’ve seen Lenin’s embalmed body.  I visited schools and universities in Cuba, even learning about the Cuban approach to sex education.  I spent a semester in Ireland living in a cottage on the sea.  I’ve been to Chernobyl and Hiroshima.  Ukraine.  Belarus.  North Korea.  The Great Wall.  The Acropolis.  Mayan Ruins.  The Colosseum.  Auschwitz and Baba Yar.   Bosnia and Serbia.  Albanian bunkers and Jeju Island.  I love lists.  Let me tell you, I make lists all the time.  Not to brag or bring others down, but I love to remember and organize those experiences.

Despite the travel, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to think of travel in relation to the rights of workers.  In my mind, it was always a precious luxury.   I think this is how most people from the U.S. view travel.  For most Americans, this is true.  Most people don’t travel unless they are college students or retirees.  In my observation, this is not the case elsewhere.  For instance, last year I spent a month travelling around eastern Europe and the Balkans.  During my travels, I met many Australians.   The majority of the Australian men I met worked in construction, mining, carpentry, engineering, or generally speaking, in areas connected to trades.   Not only were they working in largely blue collared jobs, they were taking extensive vacations.  My month off was enormous by American standards, but many were traveling for two or three months.  Some for more.  I thought it was quite astonishing that these Australian men could partake in such fabulous vacations, vacations that would seem impossible to the average American worker.  In the United States, many blue collar jobs still pay rather well, at least compared to many other jobs.  So, monetarily, it would be possible for U.S. workers to do the same.  The big difference though is vacation time.

1 in 4 Americans get ZERO days of paid vacation time each year.  The federal government does not required to provide even paid holidays!  So, many workers do not even get paid extra for working Christmas or Thanksgiving.  In contrast, EU nations receive a minimum of 20 paid vacation days.  Austrians receive 38 paid vacation/holidays.  Brazil provides 30 paid vacation days with 11 paid holidays.  France 30 days.  What would you do if you had a month off of work and it was paid?  Even a lower income worker might be able to travel around the United States, go to Mexico or the Caribbean, do camping trips, or spend more time with their family in their community. (This data is based upon 2014  Mercer’s Worldwide Benefit And Employment Guidelines and the Center for Economic and Policy Research)

This summer, I traveled again and this time, I observed the same trend of blue collar Australian men travelling, but also observed some people from the service industry traveling.  For instance, I met two cashiers while traveling.  In the U.S., those are minimum wage jobs.  Rent can barely be paid at those wages, yet, elsewhere, even service industry workers can expect to travel.  Both individuals traveled extensively, though on a budget.  I thought that was wonderful.  Even without the paid vacation, perhaps if our service industry employees made $15 an hour, the dream of travelling would be realized.  And yes, I do idealize travel.  I do understand that it can be wasteful and damaging to the planet (in terms of green house gas emissions from planes and the commodification of nature).  But, I don’t know that travel must be inevitably damaging and that some of the negative consequences could be remedied by greener, mass transportation systems.

I think of the Bread and Roses song.  The labor movement typically demands bread, or at least bread crumbs.  Of course, this is the most basic thing- safety, security, wages, benefits.  But, maybe those things that make us more human and alive get forgotten.  It is hard to imagine travel or extensive paid vacation as a legitimate demand when there are so many other demands to be made.   At the same time, those who have it are so much better able to live full lives outside of work.  Travel also, in a way, helps people to see how things can be different.  For me, it helps me see myself as a part of a wider world, rather than just an American.

I feel guilty for my travels- as many people are strapped down by poverty (well, I have endured poverty as well for most of my life), children, responsibilities, jobs without benefits, part time work, a patchwork of full time work consisting of various part time jobs, etc.  I am privileged in many ways.  But, why can’t we all enjoy these things?  What would need to change?  The countries that offer paid time off differ in some ways.  It seems that they have Labor Parties and more aggressive labor movements.  My own job does offer several paid holidays and some rather flexible vacation time (I had three weeks off this summer for my vacation).  We also have a union.  I think then, that while the demand for more vacation time seems trivial compared to the more pressing demands of living wages, any expansion of unions, labor movements, and alternatives to capitalist political parties could potentially work towards this cause.  There is also no reason why workers couldn’t start organizations that make legislative demands for more vacation time or raise awareness of this issue.  I am not aware of any such organizations or movements, except Take Back Your Time, which seems to be driven by the tourist industry rather than workers themselves.  Since workers of the tourist industry (hotels, cruise ships, shops, resorts) are highly exploited, I am suspect of this industry’s self-serving promotion of vacation (without accompanying worker rights).

In the Republican debates the other night, Jeb Bush accused Marc Rubio of his “French work week” senate attendance.  It made me laugh inside.  If only we were so lucky.  But, there are so many myths that prevail.  Somehow economies with vacation are inferior or less productive, as if productivity is the sum of human existence.  8 of the 10 highest GDP countries have fairly generous paid vacations (well, Japan only offers 10 days).  Only Chinese workers on this list have fewer paid vacation days than us.  Of course, GDP isn’t everything.  If 40% of the food we grow is wasted- the GDP would appear high, but would not account for wasteful economic activity.  If there was a natural disaster, again the GDP might grow as more resources must be used to fix the problem- but again, this doesn’t mean that society would be better off.  Anyway, productivity and growth are not necessarily good things. Even if a person accepted this as truth, vacation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of productivity.  I would like to work like the French, the Australians, the British, or the two dozen or so economically developed countries that offer paid vacations.  I only regret that it took me so long to connect my love of travel to a larger issue of social class and worker rights.

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Brainy Scarecrow Halloween Costume

 

While shopping at Savers I found the perfect hat.  It appears to be made from a burlap rice bag, perhaps from India or Bangladesh.  I knew I had to have it and this would be the foundation of my Halloween costume: a scarecrow.

Scarecrows are a bit overdone, so I decided that I would be a Brainy Scarecrow.  My reasoning is that there is this awful stereotype that scarecrows are brainless.  Like many stereotypes, this has been reinforced by the media, namely, The Wizard of Oz.  So, I sought to present scarecrows in a different light.

So, the costume consists of a plaid shirt, the aforementioned hat, a craft crow that I found at Michaels, overalls, and a scarf.  To make the costume more brainy, I am wearing glasses from a nerd costume and carrying a calculator, pens, and pencils.

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What does a brainy scarecrow do?  Well, they enjoy reading.  This is me reading a brochure about composting.  The environment and green living are probably very important to brainy scarecrows, as they spend so much time in fields and gardens (when not in libraries and classrooms).

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Brainy scarecrows also have a complicated relationship with crows.  The purpose of scaring crows is to protect crops, but crows are intelligent, beautiful birds that should not be starved or frightened.  So, brainy scarecrows appreciate and study crows as their comrades of the field.  After all, scarecrows are put into the fields by farmers and never paid for their labor nor allowed to benefit from the farming enterprise (but for the hats and overalls they are given to wear).

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Brainy scarecrows are often critical of capitalism.  Thus, here is my hammer and sickle Jack-o-Lantern.

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Brainy scarecrows are also critical of patriarchy and don’t believe that reproductive choice is scary.  They are wiling to raise their voice in support of women and won’t tolerate any “staw man” arguments that we want legalized murder.

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Sinking in a Sea of Cultural Appropriation

It seems that this past year when I go clothes shopping, I find that most of the clothes are inspired by cultures that are not my own.   Aside from the Halloween costumes of gypsies, Native Americans, Mexicans, Hawaiians, etc. are the everyday fashions that seem quite popular now. I have seen a proliferation of “South Western” prints (those inspired by the Native Americans of southwest), as well as feather and dream catcher motifs. Leather, beads, fringes, turquoise, and other Native American inspired materials and patterns are also common. African prints on pants and dresses seemed popular last year. In a way, shopping seems like navigating a mine field of stolen artifacts.

I don’t have a clear litmus test for if a particular clothing item is cultural appropriation.   Different patterns, materials, or motifs may mean different things to different people in different contexts. Some may be sacred and some may be shared. At the heart of the issue though is power.   The most obvious example are the Halloween costumes, which are often a racist and sexualized caricature of an oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural group. The group that is represented benefits in no way from these costumes, as they perpetuate a hateful image that the oppressed group is not in control of. They dehumanize oppressed groups by making them into a joke, sex object, or even non-existent. For instance, a gypsy costume renders real Roma people as non-existent by depicting them as a fortune telling character of fantasy.

Most things are not so obvious. Fringes, leather, beads, turquoise, etc. may not be uniquely Native American but culturally associated with them and may have specific cultural meaning. Stripped away from their cultural context, it is hard to know what this meaning is. They are just cool, trendy items that look vaguely earthly. Again, power is important. Within capitalism, nothing is sacred. Because we, as workers, do not control production (that is, we are often estranged from the source and process of production) consumer goods appear to us as both mysterious and meaningless. A neon patterned Navajo printed poncho may have been sewn in Bangladesh. The dye and cotton may have come from other countries. The design for it by someone in an office. By the time it reaches Target or Ragstock, it is just one item of many- as mysterious and meaningless as any other.   The pattern may not be recognized as even Native American or southwestern in origin because the history, art, and culture of Native American is not a social priority.  Capitalism functions better if history is disjointed and people are atomized. Even if it is recognized as inspired by Native American motifs, this may not be seen as problematic to the white consumer. Why not? Well, a person could justify that in a global society there is so much exchange that the lines between cultures are blurry. A person might also think that it is a way to express appreciation for a culture. While this isn’t entirely false, the invisible force is power. Why are these things sold in Target or any other store? Why is it popular now? Why is it made in Haiti or Sri Lanka instead of by an actual Native American? How do Native Americans feel about it?

I can’t speak for how Native Americans may feel about the trendiness of cultural motifs. There are some things that have received a lot of attention, such as head dresses and Halloween costumes. So, clearly these things have been identified as either racist, disrespectful, or cultural appropriation. The general trendiness of patterns or materials that may not be specific to a particular tribe or tradition (a generic Native American-ness) gets less attention. However, as an outsider, I feel cautious about these items because A. Native Americans certainly aren’t benefitting from them (at least not when they are bought from mainstream stores that profit white people) B. They aren’t in control of fashion trends. C. It reinforces an idea that looking Native American is cool, but does nothing to actually promote social justice or end prejudice against those who actually look Native American-because they are. D. Culture becomes a fetish (i.e. meaningless and mysterious).

Still, shopping is a mine field.  A solution from some environmental minded, do-it-yourself people would be not to shop and just make your own clothes or thrift (though, these items also appear in thrift stores). Education is perhaps another solution. However, quite honestly, even the best historian probably does not know the history of every material, pattern, or motif (as this would require an extensive knowledge of many cultures over many time periods). Nevertheless, it might be useful to educate yourself if a particular design catches your eye. Another option might be to buy things from Native American producers. This at least connects a person to the production process and supports the livelihood of that producer. Still, these are individual solutions that rely on consumer sovereignty to solve social problems- like racism. Social problems need social solutions.

Focusing on the individual or the product is often difficult because there is no universal meaning on particular cultural items. For instance, there might be some Native Americans who are happy that fashion is popularizing certain designs. There are others that may even partake in selling sacred items in order to make money. These examples can then be used to justify cultural appropriation. The truth is, among any group there is disagreement, as everyone experiences their culture and oppression slightly differently.   Beyond this, because there has been both cultural exchange and cultural appropriation for so long, it is hard to see the difference between the two. For example, does this mean that white people can’t take belly dance lessons, yoga lessons, karate classes, eat tacos, eat sushi, believe in non-Western religions, etc?  What about eating pumpkins, chocolate, or owning Chihuahuas? Some people would argue yes. Some would argue yes for some and no for others. Really, has anything been exchanged or given freely? European people have a long history of colonization and imperialism. Even when things are given, as long as there is unequal power the exchange is at least somewhat coerced.

That leads back to the same question, if so many things have been taken (many so long ago that there is no longer memory or resistance to it) then why bother? Why care? Again, this matters as much as a person wants to build better relationships with oppressed people and wants to promote social justice. With that said, if these are important goals (which I believe they are) then a person should be mindful of how their presentation of self and consumption may dehumanize or render invisible others. And while there is no perfect road map of what to wear and what not to wear or what to eat or what not to eat, mindfulness is important. But, mindfulness is individual. Another idea is to take cues from social movements. What do Native American or African American social movements say about particular items or behaviors? Finally, there is the building social movements component.   Social movements that promote worker rights, environmentalism, indigenous rights, anti-racism, feminism, etc. can each work to solve the problems that cultural appropriation is symptomatic of. We need to know history. We need to be connected to production. We need to be connected with one another. The more that African Americans or Native Americans are treated like full human beings whose lives matter, they less they will be erased by fashion trends, Halloween costumes, police, disease, and poverty.

(As a side note, I don’t proclaim to be perfect on this issue.  I am sure that many of the things I do or wear may be stolen without even noticing it.  Also, while this piece uses Native Americans as the example, it should be extended to any oppressed racial, ethnic, or cultural groups)

Why I Fight for Reproductive Rights

Once again it is the 40 Days for Life, when pro-life activists stand outside the Building for Women for 12 hours a day…for 40 days.  It is a national campaign that began in 2004 and manages to mobilize its supporters twice a year for 40 days of protest and prayer.  I must admit, this is impressive dedication and ability to mobilize people.  I am a part of the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition and we go there once a week on Fridays from 12-6.  It is hard to mobilize people to the same degree that the pro-life side can.

While many women support the right to choose, few feel the need to go out and picket in support of this right.  It is the same with many causes.  Those who go out and protest are a very tiny minority of the mass of people who may support the cause.  But, doing this remains very important.  Here is why:
We are losing:
The fact of the matter is that while many people are generally pro-choice, the right to abortion has been whittled away over the past 40 years.  It has been 40 years of defeat.  This defeat comes in the form of waiting periods, parental consent, admitting privileges, funding, restrictions on abortions after 20 weeks, and the vast swaths of the country where it is impossible to get an abortion owing to distance to a clinic.   89% of the women in this country live in a county without an abortion provider (and that is from 2011 so it is probably more now.)  95% of MINNESOTA counties do not have providers.  Of course, there are some women, such as those in the military or in prisons, who have no access to funding or freedom of access at all.
Beyond losing in this legislative sense, we have lost in discourse.  Once again, many (well, stubbornly around half depending on the measure) people support legal abortion, but with caveats.  It should only occur early.  It should be rare.  It is shameful.  Abortion is inferior to birth control.  It is sad and tragic.  It is better to allow it than to punish women and doctors.  There are hundreds of caveats like this.  Rather than abortion on demand and without apology, most people accept it only as a necessary evil.  To me, the pro-life movement has been very successful at helping people imagine blobs of cells and tissue as human.  It is sad that so few people can imagine the humanity and worth of an adult female.   I want to be a human.  I want to participate fully and equally in society.  Honestly, as dramatic as it sounds, I would rather DIE than be forced to endure pregnancy.  It seems dehumanizing and disgusting.  I am more than just an incubator of life.  For me, abortion is a legitimate choice.  Anything less is an insult to my humanity.  With that said, we need to protest to remind people that women’s lives matter and to stand against the endless onslaught against our right not be forced to give birth!
No one will fight for this but us:
There is this misplaced notion that if we elect pro-choice candidates that the battle is won.  Well, for 40 years these pro-choice candidates have not been able to stop legal restrictions on abortion.  It might be easy to blame pro-life politicians, but really, can you think of a mainstream candidate who has truly advanced the cause?  If they have, it is with those hundreds of caveats.  In fact, they are a source of the caveats!  The Clintons helped to add “rare” into abortion discourse in the 1990s.  Hilary called it a sad and tragic choice.  Carter supported the Hyde Amendment.  Obama has in quotes and voting record, sought middle ground with anti-choice activists, sought to ban later abortions, wants teens to see the “sacredness” of sex, and voted present rather than “no” on several anti-abortion bills in Illinois.  In trying to compromise or appease less radical voters, they inject the discourse with poison.  Mainstream reproductive rights organizations place their hopes in the electoral system, and as such are restricted by the stifling discourse.  They are pro-choice yet fail to see any choice in the political system.  And so the conversation is less radical.  It is accepted that abortion should be rare, it is regretable, it should be ended, it is tragic, no one wants it…  cautious caveats that shame women and justify restrictions.
The truth is that no one will fight for women, but a women’s movement.  Politicians may give lip service to the issues of women, but in the absence of a strong social movement there is little incentive to make good on promises.  An agenda regarding women will never get pushed beyond what is comfortable and electable.  Who would put themselves out on a limb?  No one…unless of course there is a vibrant social movement pushing for more change.  This is why democracy is in the streets.  It may not feel this way when there are six people standing on a corner- but it would if everyone who believed in the issue showed up.
There is nothing wrong with protest:
I’ve said it before, but protesting isn’t very respectable.  People understand volunteering at a soup kitchen.  They get it and they idealize it.  They don’t get standing on a corner.  Worse, there is even a sense of cynicism about it.  It doesn’t change anything.  It is pointless.  It just copies the tactics of the pro-lifers.  It antagonizes people.
Protesting does change things.  It forces people to see things and deal with issues. It draws attention to a cause.  It shows people that they are not alone in their opinion or struggle.  When we counter picket the pro-lifers we show that there is another side and that the other side isn’t content to be invisible.  We want to be seen and heard.  We want our view represented on the street.  We are not there to harass or antagonize women.  We are there to show them that there are people who support their choices…so much so that we are willing to publicly proclaim it.  We also show the workers in the building that we support them.  They can’t protest because of a conflict of interest, so we are a voice to those who can’t speak out but want to.  Protest shows that the fight isn’t over and the discussion is ongoing.
Conclusion:
So that is why I protest the 40 Days of Life.  I protest because of the losses, because no one will fight for me, and because it is a way to promote my views. I fight because I am terrified of the day that I am forced to be pregnant….and it isn’t about being responsible or making smart choices.  It is about enduring patriarchy…rape culture…and the fear that I could be a victim.  It is also a conviction that I matter.  My life matters.  My hopes and dreams are more than a biological capacity I was cursed with on account of my biological sex. I hope that others will join in.
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A Trip to Belarus

This  past summer I traveled to Belarus.  This was part of a larger trip to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden.   To begin, Belarus never played a large part in my imagined travels.  Belarus was one of those formerly Soviet countries that I memorized for a geography test in Mr. Bergstedt’s class.  The first conversation about Belarus that I ever had was with Adam.  Belarus was featured in the 1980s Soviet Life Magazine on our tabletop.  The magazine mentioned that some marshes were drained near Pinsk to make way for agricultural land.  We debated if marshes should be drained.  I thought it was a terrible idea and he thought that marshes were mosquito spawning wastelands.  His opinion on this matter has since moderated.   In any event, it planted a seed in my mind that somewhere a country called Belarus exists and that it is marshy.

I read a book about Belarus last November.  It was Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Andrew Wilson. There aren’t many books about Belarus.  I learned a bit more about Belarus and its slow start at becoming a nation and the flip flopping policies of the Lukaschenko regime.  The idea of going to Belarus became a little more concrete.  At least, I could imagine it as a nation…albeit a forgotten nation with a dictatorship and dim sense of nationalism.   With that said, I decided that since I was planning on going to the Baltic countries, it would be easy to visit Belarus.  After all, Minks is just a few hours from Lithuania.  And so, I did.

Travelling to Belarus was not terribly easy.   Belarus requires a visa.  To get a visa, a person must be booked with an official tour.  However, I was traveling on my own.  In lue of this, travelers can get a letter of invitation or an official document from their hotel.  I stayed at a hostel and found it was challenging to get the hostel to send me the appropriate document with the official stamp-so that this could be included in my visa application.  They did oblige, but there seemed to be confusion over what I was asking.   I used a visa service in Washington DC, so that my documents would be delivered to the embassy there.  In all, I had to send them that official document, a photo, my flight information, and my hostel confirmation.  I also had to send them proof of travel insurance that specifically covers Belarus.  In total, my visa cost about $300 with all of the fees and postage.  The visa itself was only good for three days.  In this respect, Belarus was rather spendy.   Beyond the initial challenge of getting a visa, there isn’t much tourist infrastructure.  There is some, but none of those common tourist features such as day tours, English websites, Hop on Hop Off buses, kiosks selling maps, etc. are absent.  I booked a private evening tour of the city with Andrei, who offers a variety of private tours and who is a fixture of tourism in Minsk.  Again, a private tour is spendy but I wanted to get a good sense of the city.  Andrei was very well informed about the city and was the most knowledgeable tour guide that I have encountered.  So, it was well worth the additional expense.  There are also minor challenges of visiting Belarus.  I found that the currency was extraordinarily confusing.  The exchange rate was about 15,000 Belarussian Rubles to the Dollar.  Because of this, I found myself giving people bills that were off by a zero.  So, a bottle of water that may cost 30,000 BYR I would give 3,000.  I was seeing too many zeros to make sense of the currency as there are no coins, only bills.  Another item of confusion was that streets and metro stations had both Russian and Belarussian names, though maps or directions might only list the Russian names and both names did not always appear together.  On a side note, Russian is taught in schools and used in public life.  Belarussian is actually less used than before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Language aside, I felt a little confused and challenged during my visit.

The country was certainly unique.  I flew to Minsk from Kiev, arriving at the airport, convienently located over an hour from the city.  Still, I was proud to navigate the airport to city bus, saving money on a cab.  Leaving the airport, I was met with forests and fields.  Within my first half an hour in the country, I saw three shiny blue Belarus tractors.  It was odd to see agricultural land outside the capital.  Rather than sprawling subburbs were villages and expansive farms with herds of shaggy round haybales.  I got off the bus at the last stop on the metro, which I took to my hostel.  I stayed at Hostel Revolucion, which was tucked down Revolution Street near the older part of town.  The hostel had charming revolutionary décor, a tortoise, a spiral staircase, and was pretty inexpensive-which was good, considering how much I spent on the visa.  It was oppressively hot during my stay in Belarus.  At least the upper 90s.

My hostel:

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Something like 90% of Minsk was destroyed during WWII, so I expected a dreary, gray Stalinist city.  Actually, where I was staying there were areas that had not been destroyed in the war or older parts that had been rebuilt.  My hostel was near a Jesuit church, a Catholic church, and a mideival townsquare.  On my first evening, I explored the area around my hostel and took a city tour.  I think the highlight of the city tour was the giant library that looked like a Droid cube spaceship and the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald.   Other sites included various churches, government buildings, war memorials, etc.  Interestingly, tourists are not allowed to take photos of government buildings.  Government buildings are marked with Belarussian flags.  Unlike other places where flags may appear anywhere or are waved around patriotically, the flag is used sparingly and mostly to mark government buildings. Again, like the Belarussian language, there does not seem to be strong attachment to the flag.

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On my second day I was supposed to take a trip outside the city to The Berezinksy Nature Reserve.  However, because of the extreme heat, the reserve closed.  This was very disappointing, as I had been looking forward to seeing zubr (bison).  Instead, I went to The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, or as we would call it, a WWII museum.  Belarus suffered terrible losses during WWII.  Minsk was bombed and occupied, as well as the site of a large Jewish ghetto of 100,000 people.  Belarus also served as a site of resistance-such as the Jewish resistance of the Bielski brothers who hid in the Belarussian forests and .  The museum was interesting because it still flew the Soviet flag.  This is also something worth noting.  Whereas most post-communist countries have renamed streets and torn down soviet monuments, Minsk has not.  The streets are still named things such as Marx, Lenin, revolution, October, victory, etc.  Buildings still featured red stars and sickles and hammers.   With the large police and military presence, tractors driving in the city, and older ladies sweeping debris from the street, there was a sense that communism had never left.  Of course, this would ignore the Chinese and Iranian investment in hotels, apartments, and other buildings, along with McDonalds, Papa Johns, sushi, casinos, luxury cars, and Starbucks.  Anyway, the museum was quite interesting, with large dioramas and local art.  Not far from the museum was a large park and a nature reserve called the Island of Birds.  I spend the afternoon in the shade of the island, avoiding the sinister heat with a book about Hitler and Stalin’s atrocities in the lands between Germany and Russia.  An intoxicated man from Uzbekistan chatted me up while I was reading, trying to become friends and get me to agree to meet him later.  I pretended not to understand and wandered away after he didn’t move along on his own.  This ended my relaxation on the Island of Birds.

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Another highlight of my visit to Minsk was a visit to the Museum of the Founding Congress of the Social Democratic Labor Party.  The green building was tucked behind some trees, not far from a WWII memorial and the apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald.  The small museum contained some early 1900s art along with some artifacts from this meeting and other events hosted at the house over the years.  The museum was mostly in Russian so I did not leave with much additional information.  The visit to the house was mostly symbolic or historical as a site of the origins of the Bolshevik party.   The green hammer and sickle fence around the house was a highlight of this visit.  Afterwards, I visited a park, an amusement park, and the National Art Museum of Belarus.  I enjoyed becoming familiar with Belarussian art.  The museum housed a very large collection of icons.

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Overall, Belarus was interesting.  It is a place where I saw almost no tourists and heard very little English.  Unlike other formerly communist countries, there is less distance between the communist history and symbols.  This isn’t to say that globalization and capitalism are absent, but there is less idealization and strong ties with the West.  While I was there, I saw people petitioning to have candidates on the ballot in the national elections this October (which Lukaschenko just won…making this his 5th term as president).  In the past, the police would have cracked down on this.  I also saw a lot of construction and a disparity of wealth between luxury and everyone else.  Minsk felt rather safe if not sleepy.  The sense of safety might arise from the number of police and how common it was to see families in public spaces, going for strolls and enjoying public fountains.  With that said, as with everything, the experience was dialectical.  Forces of change clashed with forces of conservatism.

Travel Tips:

Apply for your visa early (I gave myself about a month and a half and felt stressed that I hadn’t given it enough time.)

Carry a calculator (for currency conversions)

Study or brush up on Russian (I used Russian in museums, shops, tourist sites)

Buy a map (I had a hard time finding a city map in stores)

Books to read:  (There are not many books to read on Belarus, but the ones I read during and before the trip were: Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder as well as The Reconstruction of Nations by the same author and Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Wilson)

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