In planning our itinerary for Opening Our Eyes, I needed to ticket a flight from Warsaw to Moscow. There was nothing direct – most European airlines went back to their hubs and thus took more time, going out of the way. I thought about the train, but I saw warnings about going through Riga and having to pay for high transit visas so I avoided it. I opted to fly Belavia Air, the national airlines of Belarus. Every flight went through Minsk (its hub), but at least that was going in the same direction. But little did I know what was awaiting us in Minsk.
We had a scheduled layover of 2 ½ hours in Minsk, which quickly dwindled to less than a half an hour because the flight was 2 hours late taking off from Warsaw. The problem was with baggage – they couldn’t match the baggage tags with the passenger roster so everyone needed to get off the plane – identify their bag on the tarmac and then reboard.
When we got to Minsk we were in a hurry, but we needed to pass through passport control. I thought since we were in transit, it would be like most transit flights and we’d whisk right through. But when the official asked us for our Belarus visa – we knew we had a problem. We quickly went upstairs to the visa window and were encountered by a stern blonde woman who looked like she was straight out of a 1960’s Cold War novel, who asked for our passports. When she saw the US passports she told us it would be $300 – I was shocked. And then when she informed us that was for each one of us – my shock turned to outrage.
I wasn’t traveling with that much cash so I needed to go to an ATM. Of course the ATM would not accept my card so we were ushered to a small currency exchange kiosk. It was closed and wasn’t going to reopen for another 40 minutes. And that’s when I started to panic a bit, knowing that our flight to Moscow would leave with our bags – but without us. Not something you want to have happen as we were due to arrive in Moscow after midnight. After waiting over 45 minutes she opened the kiosk and people started pushing their way to the window. I finally got my “usury” money and paid the “bandit” immigration authorities after an hour and a half of stress and agony.
The only saving grace was that the airline officials held the flight for us. My daughter was wondering why they didn’t have direct flights from Warsaw to Moscow since it would have taken less than 2 hours. I know why now – the routing is designed to hold anyone with a US passport hostage until they pay these exorbitant fees. No pleading or explaining that we were only in their country for 15 minutes would do any good. I have never seen such callous and rude people in all my years of traveling and I will never return to Belarus.
But I do hope someday that I will come upon a Belarusian visiting the United States. I will go out of my way to treat them with the kindness that we never received in their country and perhaps that will filter through. I can only hope.