Hello from Minsk, the capital of the Republic of Belarus. I'm taking my 1st rest day today since leaving Moscow 17days ago & I am really in need of it! I crossed the Russian/Belarus border last Wednesday but not before having a rather unfriendly farewell from two men who thought it would be a good idea to try a belt me up & take my backpack. It was a bizare set of circumstances. As I approached an interchange on the highway I could see another guy with a backpack in a 'Rumble in the Jungle' fist fight with a guy dressed in black. I couldn't believe how severe there punches were & that they were both still standing. The fight quickly broke up, the guy in black retreating back up the highway exit & the guy with the backpack running up the other side of the highway past me while trying to thumb a ride. I yelled out across the highway asking if he was ok & he half acknowledged me but kept moving. As I walked past the exit I looked up & there was the guy in black, running back down with a mate by his side. They locked on me & increased there pace. I knew they had the wrong guy but how to tell them! They stopped at the highway because of traffic & as they looked up the road noticed the other fellow with a backpack & they were visibly confused. They had a quick discussion & then must have decided that I was closer & thus a better target because they promptly ran across the highway to me. I kept walking as they fired a few questions at me. I didn't understand a single word they said & explained that I didn't speak Russian. I had both walking poles in my left hand with one strap firmly around my wrist. After a quick discussion & it looking like they weren't going to be any trouble at all the 2nd fellow made a sudden lunge at my poles & tried to reef them from me while the 1st bloke scruffed my backpack. It was on. I couldn't let go of the poles very easily because of the strap around my wrist but I certainly wasn't trying to hand them over either. I pushed the 1st guy away with my right hand & with my hand around his neck held him at arms length for a short time. Eventually he twisted in closer & grabbed hold of my backpack chest strap, ripping it clean off. At that point I got a huge wif of alcohol & realised they were heavily intoxicated. There were fists & boots flying everywhere but incredibly not one landed on me. I'm not quite sure how it happened but somehow, at one point, I ended up with the 1st guy in head-lock & the 2nd guy pinned to the ground under my foot at the same time. He still had hold of the walking poles though & eventually they gave way, breaking at the middle join. The force of the poles coming apart sent me flying back down the road a few metres in the direction I wanted to head so without a moments hesitation I brought my strength into play & ran. It appears that a 12kg backpack is less of a hinderance than a litre of vodka because I was able to out run the guy giving chase. A 3rd guy then came into play (bottle in hand) as he ran down the highway exit. I didn't hang around & as painful as it was to run with my strained archilles tendon & stiff knee I reckon I put in a pretty solid 400m before eventually feeling a little asthmatic! I was concerned that they may come back after me (do something stupid like jump in a car) so I was really on edge as I hastily made my way up along the highway through thick snow-covered forest. I was still holding the walking pole handles & realised that blood was dripping down along them. The webbing between my thumb & fore-finger had been torn & blood was running down across the Canadian smiley-face stickers I put on there at Christmas. What played on my mind a lot at that point & right through to today is that at that very moment I was meditating & praying on the passion of Christ, in particular, his silence before his oppressors. There was a point during the fight where I had both men at arms length (that's called multi tasking I think) & I was thinking, "This is not what Jesus did!" I realised that I may have the strength to fend off two men but I don't have the strength to be silent under persecusion. "Lead us not into temptation" means a whole lot more now. It was around 2hours worth of shoulder checking & quick walking before I finally reached any form of civilisation, a petrol station. While I was about 200m off from it a bus drove past me & in the front seat was the 1st young man in black. He was staring at me as the bus went past & then the indicator came on for the bus to make a stop. I put my head down & started running for the service station, hoping to make it there before he made it to me. As I approached the entry I was dismayed to find that it was under construction & not yet open! I looked up & watched the man in black step off the bus. He looked at me & then walked off down a dirt track. I looked again, it wasn't him at all! Then on the other side of the road 3 men walked out from the forest, all dressed in black & staring at me, again, I thought I was them & I started to run for the bus but as i did they sat down on the other side & cracked open a drinking thermos. It was like a horror movie! Everyone looked the same & there was no safe place. They were all wearing the same black clothes & had similar haircuts. Up close it was easy to tell people apart but from a distance it was a different story. I eventually gained a little composure & with some prayer, walked on down the highway. That evening I slept at a truck stop in the truckies hostel & found that I had lost the ability to move my left hand. It had the pole strap around it & all the pulling & heaving on it had, I think, sprained it. I couldn't even undo my shoe laces. The next day, with a gimpy ankle, knee & wrist & minus walking poles I hobbled across the border into Belarus. I was at a lose as to where to go (it wasn't as neatly set up as other borders) but thankfully Gabriel was standing there, a Polish man I met last week at a hotel. "You made it!" He was a welcome point of familiarity. He's a truck driver & was on his way back home. He found all the information I needed & got me on my way with his address in my pocket for when I pass his place in 2weeks time. Belarus has a been, unexpectedly, a very different story to Russia. Belarus is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe & very anti-western in their policies, however, that sentiment has not, in any way, filtered through to the people. Of all the non-english speaking countries, the Belarussians are the most patient & helpful people I've met. I've been blown away with their generosity & willingness to at least try & communicate with me. While walking down a back street in Barysav I came across a mother & her two daughters trying to get their cat down out of an oak tree. One of the daughters was up a rickety old ladder reaching out precariously trying to grab the scared tabby. After a few minutes with no success the mother asked me if I could have a go. So up I went, mum holding the ladder firm on the iced footpath, and I introduced myself to the cat. It took a few minutes to gain its trust but eventually I was able to reach out & pick it up & as soon as it was close enough it dug its claws into my shoulder & sat there quite happily. Once we reached the bottom it was very quick to run back inside the yard & hide under the gate. The mother then sent the two girls off with me to show me the way to the towns hostel. They happily showed the way through the town & wished the best in the limited english they had. The people here are very genuine. I'm pleased to report that the weather is making a few turns for the better. After two days of rain (not snow) I enjoyed two days of sunshine & watched the snow all but disappear. The countryside is looking green & ready to burst into spring. I haven't come across many chruches this past week & so most of the invitations to pray for unity have come through the everyday meeting of the people here. The walking has been tough & the loss of the walking poles has added a new pressure to my feet. My knee has seized up a few times again & I usually have to physically hold my leg & bend it into action again. It's pretty painful. I'm looking forward to a few more rest days :-) I was thinking that everthing I used to protect myself against the Puma in Venezuela has now been stolen. The torch was nabbed in Costa Rica during the mugging & now the poles are gone & the chest strap had built into it the high-pitch whistle that I also used. So I hope I don't come across any more big fury animals because I'm running low on defenses. I do still have that one lonely glove (see last weeks blog about the whereabouts of the other) so perhaps I can use it if I come across a brown bear of a wolf. I could present the glove, slap it around the face & declare, "I challenge thee to a dual!" It'd be funny, but I just may get myself mauled doing that. I'm staying with Dan & Rose Waterman here in Minsk (thanks for the contact Heather & Ernest!). They are originally from Canada & are english teachers here at the Minsk International School, where I'm headed off to right now to meet the 30-odd students. I'll hopefully be in contact again next week, so until then, God bless & peace be with you. Sam.
"If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic." Luke 6:29