Belarus: Europe’s Last Frontier

Hailed as the last European dictatorship, Belarus had long been on Loc’s radar – and mine, once I met him. See, Loc has been on a quest to visit every country in Europe, and after visiting both Moldova and the Ukraine last year, he was down to just one, and I, along for the ride.

There was just one problem: Belarus didn’t want us.

We booked our trips to the Ukraine and Belarus at the same time last fall. At the time, such a trip required that we purchase travel insurance, a visa, and a tour guide’s company for the duration of our stay; it could easily cost $1,000 just to get past customs. Nonetheless, we booked our flight, then scoured the shoddy English of the state’s poorly maintained immigration page, then canceled our flight – more courage required.

This past January, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that he would be opening his country to the residents of 80 nations globally, including America, provided that a) they fly into Minsk, but not from Russia, and b) they spend no more than five days in the country. He announced his policy a month before it came into effect, so we waited our month – and then some – before booking our tickets.

Our first inclination that this hermetic nation still didn’t reeeealy want us came when I purchased our flight: goodbye, hello? I’d never seen such an itinerary before – every other

Flight Itinerary - Goodbye,Hello

Our second inclination came when we checked Apple Maps, simply to find our hotel: nothing.

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By contrast, here’s a map of Vilnius at the same scale:

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We teased out the location of our hotel through Google Maps, which, for some reason, has markedly better imagery than its competitor. We booked it, paid for it, and laid on parking at the Prague airport as well.

In the interim, our car died. Fortunately, we were not in it when it died. Unfortunately, it could not be revived. So, we made other arrangements. Fortunately, we had an afternoon flight.

To get to the Prague airport, we left our apartment at 0540 to walk the 900 meters to our train station, from which we caught a train into Nuremberg. We arrived just before 0700 for an 0720 departure via bus to Prague. After grabbing a coffee, we walked over to the bus station to catch our scheduled bus. The appointed time came and went, and still, there was no bus. There were, however, three German women waiting to catch the same bus, and they allayed our fears. Twenty minutes later, our ride arrived, and we boarded and departed in short order.

It’s a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Nuremberg to Prague, and ours was largely an uneventful one. DeutschBahn buses are a lot cleaner than Greyhound buses, and our fellow passengers were an almost uniformly tidy lot. It had wifi too, which an automatic voice announced over the broadcasting system… in Czech and English. I could have streamed movies on that wifi. Instead, I tried to check in to our flight, but was denied: check-in opens two hours before departure and closes eighty minutes later, full stop.

We took a different route into Prague than we normally do when we drive, and it brought us up from the south along the west side of the river – it was beautiful. We arrived at Prague’s main bus station, which is likewise beautiful, and wandered around a good twenty minutes looking for the ticket counter to procure our bus tickets to ride a half hour back west. We found them and fell in line behind a busload of people… we boarded, standing room only.

Check-in was indeed limited to a very precise window, and we made it just in time for its (grand) opening. Though entirely old school, it flowed smoothly, and we had our boarding passes in hand within minutes.

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Customs, however, was a monstrosity. I typically allow Loc to go first through security, as he is my sponsor while we are in Germany, and my paperwork is all linked to his. However, a new line opened up next to mine when I was the third person back, and I quickly jumped into that new line, beckoning to Loc to move over too. Alas, this grumpy German couple fell in between the two of us, and I went into the maws of the beast all alone.

Ten minutes later, I was still standing there. The Germans were audibly disgruntled. I was physically shaken… I’ve never been held up at customs before. The officers had never seen anything like my SOFA card and didn’t know what to do with it. Their superior had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to do with it either. At this point, Loc came forward and provided his passport and ID card, which helped the Czechs sort things out, and we were both through in relatively short order. I opened a new account in my empathy bank that day.

Our plane boarded late and departed about fifteen minutes behind schedule. It must have been a 1970s-era plane, as it had absolutely unintelligible overhead compartment clasps; I was surprised that it didn’t have ashtrays in the armrests. Takeoff was smooth and silent – no headphones allowed. What a pity.

After we’d reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants distributed boxed lunches. I wish I’d taken a picture of these. My meal included a white roll, a wedge of Laughing Cow-like cheese, three small dry pickles, two small dry black olives, two slices of a cheddar-like cheese, three pieces of gummy mystery meat, and a small bar of chocolate. Loc warned me that the meat was inedible as a sandwich, though I found mine quite chewable. Everything was wrapped in bulky cellophane – it reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors.

The flight was a short one, about an hour and a half, and shortly before landing, the flight attendants came around with migration cards. I drew two, which was fortunate because absolutely no mistakes are allowed on these cards. They asked for simple things like my passport number, my birthdate and nationality, my destination hotel, and departure flight – the most important of all bits of information. We are allowed but a five-day stay, and an unauthorized extension comes with complications and fines.

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Passing through customs was surprisingly easy. We had been advised to purchase travel insurance through a Belarusian agency, and a machine was available to do just that before you reached the queues. Loc had purchased our insurance at a rate of $7 for our stay; this piece of paper coupled with our migration cards was required to enter the country; the customs official took the arrival half of our cards and stamped the front side of our departure half.

The tourist information booth was open and helpful, though under stocked and a bit strange. The attendant spoke English and helped us book a taxi at half the rate of the drivers hawking their service outside. The informational pamphlets were few, and exclusively in Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese. It was really no bother; we had a tour guide waiting for us at our hotel.

Even Minsk has a rush hour, and it happens to be the five o’clock hour. Our taxi driver took an odd turn heading into town, and we spent fifteen minutes slowly inching our way up a six-degree slope… in a manual. He did this cool thing where he’d pull the emergency brake when he stopped, then accelerate out of his position with the emergency brake still initially in place. It was a much cooler alternative to rolling backward a bit and potentially bumping into your new friend.

Migration_backLoc had booked us a stay at the President Hotel, which happens to be right next to the presidential compound. It’s a gaudy thing, with lots of translucent beads suspended from a backlit-mirrored ceiling. The attendant there took our migration cards, returning them with a signature atop the hotel’s stamp. Our tour guide was waiting for us, so we dropped off our bags in our room then returned downstairs to head out on our way.

Of note here: Loc and I took off our wedding rings in the Czech, or Czechia as they now like to be called. We would not be the remotest bit gay in Minsk, because homosexuality is still listed as a psychiatric disorder and same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned. Same-sex activity is legal, but same-sex couples are not afforded the protections given to their heterosexual counterparts.

Anyway, Minsk is built in the Soviet authoritarian style. On the outskirts of the city, there are monstrous apartment complexes that must house thousands of people apiece, but in the city proper, all of the buildings are the same height. You can get a same idea of the effect in eastern Berlin – Karl Marx Allee, to be precise. The city is home to two million people but has an incredibly abundant amount of green space – made possible, no doubt, by stacking people sky high.

Only a handful survived the Great Patriotic War, and they’re all made out of stone – a few churches, an art gallery, a circus. These have positions of prominence in the city, and they’re all in pretty good condition. In fact, Minsk as a whole is in very good condition; the streets are wide and clean, and much busier than I’d read they’d be. There were actually a good number of people on the streets, both young and old, and smartly dressed: there is no hipster movement there, yet.

LeninThe most iconic square in town is Independence Square, one of the largest in Europe and a landmark of the 15-kilometer Independence Avenue. It boasts a triumphal obelisk, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a monumental statue of a very intense Vladimir Lenin in front of one of Minsk’s oldest buildings, built in 1934 (the city was first mentioned in 1067). That building has a Belarusian flag on it, and we were advised against photographing any building with such a flag on it. Nonetheless, we did snap a few shots, and no green men came in pursuit.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and self-declared Marxist, spent three years living in Minsk, from 1959-1962. While there, he built a life and took a wife – all under the watchful eye of the KGB, who assigned him both an apartment and a job, then monitored him around the clock. His apartment is still standing in the heart of the city today, but it is deliberately unmarked, lest some sadistic form of tourism arise akin to that of Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Paris. Our guide, Andrei, pointed out the bland building as we passed but could not – or would not – provide more specificity. We walked on.

Our next stop was the Isle of Tears, just a brief distance from the apartment. Inaugurated in 1996, the Isle of Tears commemorates the 700 Belarusian soldiers who died in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989. It features a small chapel that’s seemingly borne on the backs of grieving mothers facing the four cardinal directions. Behind it, a small Madonna and Child stands enshrined in a stone alcove; I can find neither literature nor photography to expand upon its meaning there. And most poignantly, at the opposite end of the small island, a single angel stands weeping over a pool of tears; he symbolizes the grief of those who came home whole in body, but not in spirit. Today, newlyweds rub his genitalia in the belief that the act will guarantee the bride children.

Darkness having fallen, we retired for dinner. Our guide took us to a basement restaurant near our hotel; a shiny TripAdvisor sticker adorned the door. We entered, checked our coats at the bottom of the stairs, then proceeded to our table inside. A woman sang traditional folk songs to the accompaniment of a guitar – it was lovely, though our guide could shed no light to its authenticity. Surprisingly, the menu was not just in English, but it had a full three pages of the history of Belarusian cuisine, with further paragraphs explaining each unique item on the menu. We had a delicious savory mushroom soup with a course of potato pancakes and a cup of Kvass, a drink traditionally made of rye bread. It was delicious – and they took card! Our local restaurant scene is still very much a cash economy.. oh Deutschland.

With that, we turned in for the night. I took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend via Facebook video chat – the hotel wifi was strong enough to stream live video feed! We went to bed shortly thereafter and fell asleep to the rhythmic thump of club music ten stories down – across the street from the presidential compound.

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In the background, the presidential palace

Breakfast at the hotel was a steep 25 Euro, so we balked and headed out into the streets to find our own fare. The first plausible spot we found was a McDonald’s, which we passed up in favor of whatever the locals were eating along the long plate glass windows next door. They were eating pastries, and we ordered with pointed finger – croissants and madeleines, with a cappuccino. Following breakfast, we climbed up a set of stairs to the grocery store on the second floor. I picked up a few bottles of water, a Snickers bar, and a pint of milk advertising a fat percentage between 3.2%-4.0%. Realizing we were running up against our next appointment, we returned to the hotel, put the milk in the fridge, and met Andrei in the lobby.

On our drive to Nesvizh Palace, Andrei delivered a century-by-century history of the Republic of Belarus. It’s long and full of occupational forces and fires. Nesvizh is some 120 kilometers from Minsk, so we saw a lot of the very flat countryside, broad and deep swaths of farmland for days. The country’s growing season spans from May to October, so the most we saw was tilled or fallow fields. At one point, we did drive through a cloud of topsoil sweeping across the road – I wonder at the agricultural practices in this windy place.

Nesvizh PalaceFacing a rainstorm, we ran from our parking lot to the palace. Inside, we paid our entrance fee and donned little plastic slippers over our shoes before touring the building. It’s a fairly typical European country palace, though I suppose not at all typical for Belarus. It’s nicely situated on an ornamental lake with gardens around it. The interior is simple with touches of myriad European cultures inside. Most amusingly, only the lady’s chambers feature a double bed; the lord led a life of some poverty in his own opulent chambers. He and his entourage got their entertainment afield; a downstairs room boasts hunting trophies and some pretty fancy cannons.

Back in our van, we retraced our route a bit, then Mir_Fortressdetoured off the highway a bit to Mir Castle. Similar in landscaping to its palatial cousin (they were owned by the same family), Mir Castle is much more of a fortification than a palace. Andrei told us that the interior wasn’t worth the price of admission, so we had borsch, bread, and potato pancakes in the castle’s basement restaurant before exploring the town – shabby but proud. We also picked up a handful of souvenirs from the parking lot souvenir tents by the castle.

Our tour concluded, Andrei dropped us off back at the hotel. We regrouped briefly, then went out on our own to hunt for souvenirs and see the sights on our own timeline.

By intuition more than anything else, we worked our way towards the historic old town, where we found information boards in English amidst beautiful white church architecture. We also found souvenir kiosks in a square there, meeting Loc’s quest. Exploring the surroundings, we walked past a band of four teens playing music, with a fifth teen aggressively shoving a cup in people’s faces – that was a bit weird.

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Wending our way back to the murals of the day previous, we stumbled onto the People’s KFC, so I took a picture. Okay, I took a few pictures. We then found a Papa John’s! Loc didn’t want pizza though, so we continued on to the murals, near which Andrei had told us there were great burgers. We did burgers before photographing the murals; I got their signature burger, and Loc got one with bacon and an egg. Loc’s burger was simply bacon and egg… but it was delicious, and the service staff spoke English too. Following, we shot photos of our murals, then turned in. I was super excited for my morning’s pint of whole milk – easy calories.

I ended up dumping that milk; I’d been looking forward to drinking it all day Saturday, but it smelled so strongly of sulfur when I opened it that I couldn’t stomach the thought of tasting it. So, down the drain it went. With a fat content range of .8% in one carton, their whole dairy industry seems mighty questionable to me…

We caught an uneventful taxi ride back to the airport and arrived 30 minutes before the check-in window opened. A souvenir shop proved a worthy distraction; we bought a lot of stuff there.

Outbound passport control was surprisingly easy; they just took our migration cards, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way. Security was interesting; I began to pull out my computer and liquids but was told to stop. I placed my entire bag, computer on top of tablet on top of toiletries, on the belt; doffed my jacket and belt into a bucket; and went through security. Too easy.

There are thirteen gates on the departure floor of the airport; access to each of them hinges on successful navigation of heavily perfumed commercial overload. We made it.

The flight again featured mystery meat; Loc and I both passed, having eaten at the airport. Upon landing, the people clapped; it was a much smoother landing than our outbound flight. Passport control was easy – I made Loc go through first – and two good friends picked us up to whisk us away to Deutschland.

Loc had met his goal: all 44 European countries in five years. I’d explored a quirky hermetic kingdom. And we’d both evaded the clutches of the KGB.

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The Dinner Crew Does London

A few months ago, as Loc and I were contemplating the remainder of our time in Europe, we cajoled our dental dinner friends into coming to London with us, simply to watch The Lion King and have a good ethnic meal. That trip, long scheduled, came due this past Friday.

As arranged, the Lassiters met us at our house at 1900, and we left for the airport consolidated in our one car. This worked nicely until a fierce red ‘Generator Werkstatt’ message came on, complete with bright red lights and jarring beeps on a three-second interval, as we were approaching the highway. Kevin directed us to a parking lot just beyond the junction, and we flipped a U, beeper beeping and lights alight, and drove home. With no time to troubleshoot our vehicle, I backed it into a spot outside the garage, and we transferred both personnel and baggage to the Lassiter’s vehicle. Disaster averted, we departed anew a mere fifteen minutes after our first attempt. The ride passed without incident.

We met Griffiths at the airport, got our visa stamps from the counter, got the Lounge Pass card from the information desk, and went through security – an easy process at that hour. Boarding was called as we processed through security, so we briefly went to the lounge, grabbed a few snacks, then walked to the gate. RyanAir is getting smarter – they scanned our tickets on our way into the gate’s waiting area, and once we began moving, we boarded the plane without any delay. Sweet.

We landed at 2320, short the trumpet fanfare typical of RyanAir. It was a decent flight by RyanAir standards, though the kid behind me woke up to a nightmare or sinus pressure or something of the like as we began our descent, and he whined and whimpered the whole way down – and substantially beyond. Clustered together as we were, we all appreciated stepping off that plane.

Border security was not terribly scrutinizing, nor busy at 2330. We managed to get through it all by midnight (yes, that’s typical of the London border fence), then walked to the rail station to take the Stansted Express into town – a 45-minute ride. That ride was uneventful, and a few of us even managed to stay awake. I love Liverpool Station – it is an awe-inspiring building from the early 20th century with almost cathedral-like architecture and much wrought-iron embellishment. We walked the platform at our leisure, then got shepherded out of the atrium in single file by transportation workers clad in neon yellow, who hustled us out along a narrow corridor into the night.

We queued (because that is what one does in Britan) to purchase Oyster cards at the metro station across the street, but there was only one machine functioning, and the line to use it was both very long and very drunk. Recoiling from the mess, we opted to take an Uber, which Kevin requested in short order. We walked a few hundred yards down the street, passing a number of embarrassingly drunk and scantily clad girls in 3” heels… on cobblestones. The common sentiment among us was one of thanks for having made it through that phase of life with our dignity intact. Our car arrived, and we took it to the traffic jam a few hundred yards from our hotel. Checking in was a breeze, and we all turned in for the night – it’s been a while since any of us have been up that late.

Our plans for the day were few. They included breakfast, then a stop at Anthropologie for Ellie and Made in London for Loc, then the show that evening. We did breakfast at Muriel’s, which is a cute pastel-colored restaurant with a swinging table and chairs at the front window. We were too numerous for said table, but we enjoyed a hearty breakfast all the same. Ellie and Kevin then split off to get a tag removed from an article of clothing she’d bought in the States, and Loc and I led Bethany and Ryan to Made in London, where we picked up a lithographic print of London by air – it’s cool. We moseyed up the road after that, meeting the Lassiters at Hamley’s. where four employees danced cheerfully to an earworm-worthy tune in the street. We all agreed that mustering such cheer all day must be exhausting… they reminded me of David Sedaris’s Santa Diaries: so much secret snark. We explored the basement Star Wars section, but made it no further; it was enough.

IMG_5037Inspired by an ice cream join, we took the metro up to Camden, where we spent the day in the Horse Market – a market in a massive complex that was formerly a stable. There’s a bustling counterculture scene there, with lots of art and solid street eats. The architecture is all brick, with hints of Spanish influence in its adaptation to its modern purpose. Loc and I bought a bunch of small superhero prints, then joined the crew at Chin Chin Ice Cream, which advertised razor-thin ice cream scraped off of a nitrogen-frozen slate board; it was good, but not *THAT* good. We wandered, ate, wandered some more, ate some more, (I) burned a little, and then took the tube to Hyde Park to see the blooms.

Row upon row of browned daffodils greeted us; the blooms were past their prime. Loc proposed, then led, a course from our location to our hotel through various gardens. We passed in front of Buckingham Palace and got our fill of vibrant and orderly floral arrangements, then walked through St James Park and enjoyed more traditional English gardens and a diverse array of waterfowl. It seemed that the whole city was out, soaking up one of the few dozen sunny days they get a year – there were even sunbathers aplenty in the park! Before we knew it, we were again at our hotel.

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Opting against the typical dinner before the show, we took an hour to refresh, then capitalized on the hotel’s three-hour happy hour – wine, cheese, wine, and ice cream! Those of us drinking drank the better part of a bottle apiece, and we all enjoyed our second helping of ice cream that day – vacation is nice, eh? To balance the heavy snack and aid in restful slumber, we booked a reservation at a Japanese restaurant near our theater and left around 1840 to wind our way over there.

We had prime tickets to the Lion King, and Loc picked them at 1900 while we waited outside the theater. We then we descended on the Wellington, the bar at the corner, for a drink. I thought it would be a stodgy British place, but it was pumping club beats and churning out pre-theater drinks. It was a quick one – by the time I was halfway through mine, the theater workers were calling everybody inside… curtains up at 1930 sharp. Bottoms up, we filed inside and to our seats.

Ours were six seats right of center in rows I and H. Loc and I sat behind our four friends, two empty seats to our left. After the awe-inspiring opening number, probably a dozen people filtered in to fill their seats in the front ten rows (I could write a volume on why this irks me); a large Syrian man and his wife filed in next to me. Of course, the man sat on the inside to protect his wife, and of course, he had the widest leg stance he could possibly have, which he maintained for the entire first act; I felt my Arabic returning to mind as if I’d spoken it yesterday. I held my tongue, happy for their happiness.

The show’s a good one, and largely true to the movie. The set, costumes, and stage work impressed me most – they’re simple, yet wonderfully rich in their simplicity. In our final tally, Loc enjoyed the opening number most, while I favored the opening of the second act – He Lives in You; I was blown away by the kaleidoscope of puzzle pieces that coalesced into Mufasa’s face, and then faded away just as fluidly into the night. And, well, Elton John wrote the score – what’s not to love?

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Satisfied by the performance and worn out from our travels, we emerged from the theater and walked to dinner, where we found my friends Megan and Annette waiting. We enjoyed a wide array of unique and delicious sushi and sashimi while discussing the show and catching up with my friends. Megan is moving back in with her parents in New York in 17 days and is super anxious about it all – I don’t blame her; moving, especially transcontinental, is stupid stressful. Following dinner, we parted ways with Megan and Annette and went to the hotel and up to our rooms – no alarms set, thank you. The girls went out; I just couldn’t.

Loc and I woke up around 0800 and checked out around 0930. Our friends decided to go to church for Good Friday mass, and we considered watching Power Rangers in Leicester Square. We opted instead to have a small breakfast at Muriel’s, then worshiped in our own chapel, a bookstore (I opted against mass because I felt underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt). We emerged with books on Brexit (for those who still trust experts), urban gardening, and a xenophobe’s guide to Americans – a solid win; check out their work at http://www.xenophobes.com!

Instead of fancy dining, we all opted for a burger at Shake Shack, where we all convened following the church service. ‘Twas a satisfying meal; the strawberry lemonade was on point, and I’ve never enjoyed cheese fries quite so much. Even we European-minded foodies sometimes pine for the fast food of our home country.

Loc and I had passed a Harry Potter ephemera store on our way up to Shake Shack, and we broke away to work our way back down there after our communal lunch. The store is four floors of limited edition Harry Potter prints, the work of the two artists behind the movies. There was some really impressive art, though prices were a bit more than either of us was willing to pay. We may regret our choice someday; the premium stuff was all signed by the artists. We burned the rest of our time at a TK Maxx, where I acquired two Pyrex loaf pans for a song, the French stuff. My pack gained ten pounds in two days… worth it.

With that, our time was nigh, and we returned to the hotel to secure our baggage and begin the trek to the airport. Our friends met us there, and we took the metro to the train and the train to the airport. We made said train by a whopping 70 seconds, and only found seats in the last car – but we found seats, by prodding people to remove feet and luggage from otherwise vacant spots. It was hot – warmer than yesterday – so we opened the windows in our compartment. I dozed off in the heat.

Stansted Airport is… a zoo, but one that played to our advantage. We made it through security, by my count, in seven minutes and thirty seconds, then through the commercial melee and to the Escape Lounge in another fifteen. Credit for the short security line goes to a worker who opened a new lane and ushered us from the middle of the queue to it. That latter part was utter chaos; whoever designed the terminal did not design for traffic flow. Thus, the Escape Lounge was truly an escape – good food and drink in a peaceful setting. My greatest regret there was that I did not grab brownies earlier; as I closed in on them to grab them (there were six little bites remaining), a worker picked up the slate slab that held them, and took them away. I skulked away in defeat – wah. Loc and I walked up a few minutes later to ask for them, but were rebuffed; a cake slate took the brownie slate’s place.

In compensation, I bought a bag of M&Ms at our gate. We boarded the plane and found ourselves in the company of an American family, father, mother, and three girls. They were a boisterous lot that calmed after takeoff, and the most eventful in-flight happening was a sunset that I managed to capture – schön.

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It turns out that that American family was both American and military, as were a number of families on the plane. This one, however, had a trick to clear customs up their sleeve. They deployed daddy, looking worn, to weave his way from the back of the customs line to the front, then mommy conspiratorially coaxed her three daughters, from youngest to oldest, to go stand with daddy; I watched this all from the baggage carousel. The only two people separating the family were… Kevin and Ellie. Traffic in another lane flowed by as a man ahead of them worked through documentation issues for his young child; I watched the Rasta family who joined the line last pass through while the Lassiters waited. As this drama unfolded, Ellie turned around and asked the woman bluntly if she’d like to pass her. The woman stuttered, sputtered, and choked, then passed anyway, caught red-handed but carefree. Kevin was the last passenger on that plane to clear customs – it made for good comedy on our ride home.

We arrived home to find our car truly dead, five weeks short of our homebound flight. I suspect marmots, but it is an eighteen-year-old car, so perhaps it’s just lived its natural life.

Watch this video. Get hyped. Go see Lion King.