Vicky Tang’s Diary
Belarus Wetlands

August 14, 2009: Homeward
August 12, 2009: Completing the survey
August 10, 2009: An eventful day
August 8, 2009: Lake!
August 6, 2009: Labrador Tea
August 4, 2009: Road trip
August 2, 2009: Journey to Minsk
July 17, 2009, Checkin
June 28, 2009: Gearing up
June 18, 2009: Contact
May 5, 2009: Ready to go
April 17, 2009: Thanks to everyone
August 13, 2009: Picnic dinner
August 11, 2009: Concert
August 9, 2009: Polatsk
August 7, 2009: Banya
August 5, 2009: We go to work
August 3, 2009: Beet soup and Wellingtons!
July 18th, 2009: Layover
July 13, 2009: Credentials
June 26, 2009: 3 weeks to go
June 2, 2009: Learning the lingo
April 18, 2009: Where are the Wellies?
March 20, 2009: Big news

August 14, 2009: Homeward

Packing samples On our final day, we get a hearty breakfast of oats, fried field mushrooms, fried potatoes and the ubiquitous pickled cucumber. We head upstairs to pack samples. Even with the whole group involved, it takes us almost an hour to retie all the bags. We collect our socks, pack our bags, the bus and thank our hosts. Team at partisan lake We get in the bus for the journey back to minsk. We stop for lunch at the defence line near Polatsk. There are remenants of the trenches to be seen. We also stop at Khaytn, a village burned to the ground during World War II and maintained as a peace memorial.
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August 13, 2009: Picnic dinner

Vicky mastura at partisan house Bbq shashlik Final day on the bog today. Natasha plans to only conduct one plot today, so we start a bit later to compensate for the late finish yesterday. We have breakfast at 9 am. Even though we have all enjoyed our time on the bog, we are also glad this is the final day. As a reward for our hard work, we are taken to a Partisan camp by a lake to enjoy our dinner tonight. The camp was used by local groups providing resistance to the invading Soviet forces. They built underground houses, banyas and kitchens. We explore the dwellings and take photos by the lake before sitting to a traditional dinner. They serve fish soup, and shashlik (kebabs). This is accompanied by rye bread, tomato, cucumber, bilberry juice and the obligatory celebratory vodka!
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August 12, 2009: Completing the survey

Vicky surveying Our bog work is nearing the end. Today is our second to last day and I am determined to try the other jobs available to ensure I get a full experience, so I volunteer to go with Oleg and assist in the completion of the profile survey. He carries the heavy tripod viewer and takes measurements whilst I steadily prop the measuring stick beside each profile picket. I had been warned by others that this is an extremely boring job due to its solitary nature. But I relish the time alone to clear the mind. After lunch, I swap the ruler with Peter and join the group to count small trees. This involves identifying small families of trees, counting them, taking an average height, then choosing a representative specimen and noting age by counting the spaces between nodes. As we work, we notice the sky getting quite overcast. The original target of three plots for today is reduced to two. We head back to the bus at 4 pm to avoid inclement weather. We wait patiently for Natasha and Tanya to complete some profile descriptions and water quality measurements. They take water samples to measure pH and mineralisation. On the way back to the bus, we pass Victor the driver, who has spent the whole day collecting bilberries for his wife to make jam. It has been a very productive day for all. We only expected to wait an hour for the rest of the team to reconvene, but Oleg is very keen to complete the profile today so that he can do other studies tomorrow. The rain begins. It pours down, hard and fast! It is really beautiful on the bog, but we do worry about the team getting drenched. We finally pick them up at the end of the profile at 9:30 pm. It is an unexpectedly late day, everyone is tired and hungry, but there has been some great research conducted. It just proves the tough conditions that the researchers go through in order to take advantage of limited summer holidays to collect data in the field. Due to the cost of mounting such expeditions, it is imperative to make the most of the time available.
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August 11, 2009: Concert

Concert1 We return to the bog to carry on with the study. The group is in high spirits because we know that we only have a short day planned. There will be a concert in town tonight. Everyone is expected to be there to enjoy the music of Irina Dorofeeva. She is a very popular singer, having performed in EuIrina and group rovision 2006, and is often referred to as the “Face of Belarus”. After a day on the bog, we head home to a meal of stuffed peppers and a quick walk down to the concert. Although there are police present, the crowd is very civilised. I think they are secretly here for the show too :P
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August 10, 2009: An eventful day

After our usual breakfast at 8 am, we are joined by Dima from the Forestry Commission. He guides us to a very interesting bog. On the way, however, we encounter some low lying ground that is prone to flooding. The boys are called from the bus to help create a bridge for the bus to cross. This requires a chainsaw to cut down a number of small trees and lay them down on the roadway. The bridge will be used on our travels to and from the bog over the next four days. Bridge We also pass by a very beautiful lake. We are going to bring our swimming costumes to swim after lunch tomorrow. We get to the bog site at 11 am. The research team get off the bus to inspect the bog. The volunteers are left to explore the area within sight of the bus. We find many varieties of mushrooms, cowberries (similar to cranberries – very tart!) and fields of blueberries. The sweetest ones face the sun. The research team return with long faces. Natalia explains that there are many types of bog in this area, and although this Beautiful lake one is very interesting, it falls outside the scope of the Earthwatch briefing. Any results will not be able to be used in the current study. They have collected some plant samples, noted the GPS coordinates and may return Bogged bus 2 at a later date. It is already 1:30 pm and we haven’t started the next profile yet. The research team is disappointed but realise that it is time for lunch. They decide to take us back to the lake for lunch. We admire the view and take many photos. There are a couple of dragonflies, but they do not land close enough for us to take their picture. Natasha and the team have decided that for the next attempt, we will go to the southern region. It is a much longer walk into the second profile through fields of blueberries. We complete one plot. The drive back the the village is late. Everyone is tired and hungry. Victor the driver takes a hairpin turn a little too fast and manages to bog the bus down in lBogged bus 3 oose sand. Again, we get off the bus and the boys are seconded to do some hard labour. Many attempts to push the bus out are unsuccessful, so more trees are sacrificed for our safe return.
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August 9, 2009: Polatsk

Fabio making a wish Since it is not a work day, we elect to sleep in before our visit to the oldest city in Belarus, Polatsk. While there, we visit the Russian Orthodox church and monastery started by Euphrosyne of Polatsk, which also houses a replica of the famous Cross of Euphrosyne. We also see the Church of Saint Sophia, make our wish on the Boris Stone by placing all ten digits in a indent in the rock and making a wish. Across the other side of town, we see the monument to a letter – the Short U (Ў, ў) which only appears in the Belarusian alphabet.Letter monument  There is also a monument to the Geographical Centre of Europe.[photo] That evening after our dinner of stuffed chicken wings and buckwheat, half the group make presentations on their country of origin. Lucia starts off by talking about the Czech Republic. She shares cheese [photo: Czech cheese] and Becherovka (a traditional spirit made with 30+ herbs.) Fabio does a presentation on Brazil and the Amazon. In particular, he outlines his job role for Alcoa and the effects not only on the environment but also the local community. He works as a Sustainability Consultant to South America and the Carribean and lives in Juruti, the site for construction of Alcoa’s latest mining development. It has a population of 34,000 inhabitants, of which 60% live in rural communities that largely depend on nature for survival. The challenge is to provide support for these people as the environment around them changes. Fabio shared with us the huge effort that goes into sustainability that includes not only the environment but also safety and social responsibility projects. Mastura speaks about traditional Uzbec culture, shows us photos of her home town, Pushkin and her past volunteering projects. She also shares traditional dried fruits (apricots, figs, currants) and walnuts with us before presenting us with beautiful traditional hand-crafted gifts. I also make a presentation on Australia, share photos of beautiful landscapes, and learn that there are also bogs in Australia (apparently in Tasmania!) before sharing the story of Yennora and the benefits of can recycling.
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August 8, 2009: Lake!

Nick and lucia at lake Anticipation is high today as we head for the end of the profile. Oleg promises that there is a beautiful lake. However, we will have to cross some very wet areas. He has placed branches across the wettest ones, but we have to be careful and sometimes deviate from the profile in order to move forward. We complete one plot before lunch, before trekking across the wetlands. We leave the wooded areas to open plains with few trees. The ground is wet and marshy and the going is slow as we spot carefully the best place to step. We reach the final plot and dump out backpacks and equipment to explore the lake while Sasha and Dima create the last 20 square meter plot. Natasha warns us to be careful and not go too close to the edge. It is beautiful and very peaceful here. We take many photos and are tempted to swim. However, we are warned against this by Oleg who says there are many reeds below the surface that would easily entangle our legs and make it difficult to get out. The last four days on the bog have been tiring and repetitive, but the trip to the lake has been well worth the toil. We look forward to our day off tomorrow and our excursion to Polatsk.
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August 7, 2009: Banya

Drosera We continue further along the profile and complete another three plots. We are also introduced to Drosera, a carnivorous plant. For the past few evenings, we have been enjoying banya (sauna) after our long days. In the village, every house has a banya in the back yard. It is customary for the family to enjoy banya weekly. It is similar to the western steam sauna. The girls wear chapkas to protect the hair and allow higher temperatures to be endured. Their wooden cabin has a pre-room with benches and refreshements, and the steam room. There is a wood stove in the corner, above which are hot rocks (this is where the water is thrown to create steam) and a water tank, so that one may bathe afterwards. The process of banya involves staying in the steam room for 10-15 minutes, then retiring to the pre-room to cool down and enjoy a beverage. Some of us run outside and are hosed down with cold water to increase the circulation. In winter, it is customary to roll around in the snow, or jump in a nearby lake. This practice is repeated a number of times. After the third repeat, we are patted (not whipped) with venik (bunch of birch tree twigs with leaves (the leaves ensure that there is no pain). This increases the convection and cleanses by steaming the toxins out of the body.
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August 6, 2009: Labrador Tea

Vicky and lucia complete plot 1 After breakfast, we return to the profile. The team splits up. Due to our experience from yesterday, Lucia and I are asked to complete the vegetation study on the second plot with Olga as our guide. It is covered in many grasses and doesn’t contain many trees. We complete all five quadrants while Olga completes the population study. We are also introduced to a new species, Labrador tea. Its structure is similar to bog rosemary, but it has a red stem and distinctive smell. We join the rest of the group for lunch. They too have completed a plot. For the afternoon, we complete a plot together while Fabio and Oleg continue with creating the profile.
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August 5, 2009: We go to work

Blinchiki For breakfast the next morning we have Blinchiki served with sour cream and bilberry jam. We put on our walking shoes for a tour of the village. We stop at a Dacha (summer house) which is decorated in the traditional Belorussian style. The walls are covered in textured wallpaper, there are carpets hung on the walls and plenty of embroidered linen covering the tables and adorning the doorways. Girls bedroom 1 We also pass by the local preschool that has very brightly painted outdoor equipment before visiting the local war monument. It lists the names of all the villagers who lost their lives in the war. Above the column, we note a birds nest. It houses a stork which is the symbol of Belarus and thus the nest cannot be removed. We return to the big house, have a cup of tea and a cookie and listen to Natasha's introduction Olga in linen decorated doorway to Belarus, the project that we will be contributing to and the bogs. After lunch, we head out to the 1st bog plot. Oleg and Thanos head off to create a profile. It involves chopping down small trees to create pickets and placing these at 10-15m intervals in a straight line. They place a small bundle of spaghnum moss on top of each of the pickets so that they are easily seen. Each picket is numbered sequentially for identification. Dima and Sasha measure a 20m x 20m plot for us. It is marked by four corner posts and we string Preschool tiger tape to ensure that we don’t go out of bounds. Nick and Peter are seconded to count small trees. They note the type and number of trees in each cluster and estimate the age of the average height tree in the group by counting the spaces Profile marker between nodes/branches. Each tree that is counted is then marked with chalk to indicate completion. Mastura, Alina and Fabio group together and count big trees. They also note the type and diameter of the trunk at chest height. The total height for each diameter group is measured for three trees on the plot. Natasha guides Lucia and me to cut vegetation. It involves creating a quadrant Marking large trees by placing four 50cm sticks down in a square formation. We then cut the vegetation, and sort it into different groupings. These are then identified and placed into labeled sample bags. Common species include cotton grass, cranberry, bilberry, bog myrtle and bog rosemary. Olga is busy doing a detailed study of plant population. She notes percentage ground covered of each species in a 1m square. She repeats this for 25 plots. She works her way across the two diagonals.
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August 4, 2009: Road trip

Kolduni The team share breakfast together at a nearby café and then we pack our bags, ready to be loaded on the bus. We wait patiently in the lobby for the big red bus to arrive. The bus is exactly as described in the briefing, not luxurious, but hopefully strong and reliable enough. We stop for supplies at a hypermarket on the way out of town. The team buy essentials like tea, coffee, sugar, biscuits, and toilet paper. We get chocolate, lollies, soft drink and chips. Back on the bus for the long drive to the Poozerja region (Land of the Blue Lakes). At some point, a pack of cards is revealed. We share card tricks. It is difficult to play a game that we all know that doesn’t require a table. The ride is extremely bumpy. Most of us sleep for the remainder of the drive. We enter Klyastitsy late in the afternoon. It is a small village with less than 3000 people. There is a bar, supermarket and small post office. The closest large town is Polatsk (approx. 40kms, pop. 79,000). Before we start to unpack the bus, we have to decide on our Soup every night accommodation. Apparently due to the large group size (we are the biggest team to date -- 8 volunteers and 6 researchers) the team will have to split up. The second house only has beds available for 6 volunteers. The other two will have to remain in the big house (where all the meals will be served) which also has no hot water. It is suggested that two of the boys stay behind in the big house. The trouble is in deciding which two boys. All sorts of suggestions, including the ubiquitous “scissor, paper, rock” and draw a card, come out but the boys can't seem to decide how to decide. The girls are upset the team will be split up at such an early stage. We ask to see the other accommodation conditions to see if there is a way for all of us to stay together. After long rounds of negotiation, it is agreed that we will all stay in the second house. The girls pair off and share the two bedrooms. The boys are to stay in the closed off lounge room containing two sofa beds. They volunteer to sleep on the floor and alternate after a week. Although it will be tough, we agree that this is the best way to keep the team together. After unpacking, we return to the big house for our first Belorussian meal. It is a traditional one, starting with beet soup, and a serving of Kolduni (potato pancakes stuffed with meat). The meal is delicious but oily. We finish the meal with tea, coffee and cookies. We go home and shower after the long journey. We are all glad to be together.
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August 3, 2009: Beet soup and Wellingtons!

Beet soup The team arranges to meet for breakfast: Mastura (Uzbekistan and perpetual translator), Peter (Canadian living in Amsterdam, Netherlands). Lucia (Slovakian working in Prague, Czech Republic) and Nick (Devon, UK). We go for breakfast at a local “KAФE” They have cold beet soup, a variety of salads and also hot food which consists of fried fish or pork, many topped with cheese. There is also a traditional local drink called kompote made from dried fruit (raisins, prunes, apricots, etc.) boiled in water with sugar and left to cool and infuse. Sightseeing next! We check out the National Library, three churches and the old town. The exploring ends with a stop at the local shopping centre. Lucia and I purchase rubber boots. There are not too many to choose from but at least they have my size. We don’t think they are high enough, definitely not the knee high version recommended in the briefing, but we are hoping they will suffice. We return to the hotel where I meet Alina (a fellow Alcoan from Samara). I have 20 minutes to freshen up before the first team meeting. The team gather in the foyer of the Academicheskaja hotel. For the first time, we are all together.
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August 2, 2009: Journey to Minsk

Small plane 1 The man at the hotel gives me the timetable for the train to the airport. Upon arrival the staff tell me that there are no trains running due to track work. Fortunately there is an airport express bus that leaves every 10 minutes for Alexanderplatz. Check-in and customs is a breeze. In the waiting lounge I don’t notice many people; perhaps I might get a spare seat beside me. I hear the boarding call and go downstairs to the waiting bus. We drive across the tarmac to the small plane. It is a 52-seater (13 rows, 4 across). The men have to duck their heads as they walk down the aisle. This is definitely the smallest plane I haven’t jumped out of! The air hostess hands out sweets to combat the air pressure change as we take off. Upon arrival at Minsk I follow the crowd to passport control. I hand over my passport and letter of invitation. She scrutinises my Inside small plane documents and says “visa?” I explain that there is no embassy in my country and that I was told to purchase one at the airport. Mind you, this is all in slow English, my Russian is not nearly good enough and I hope she understands. She points me towards a set of stairs. It is dark upstairs and the door is slightly ajar. I knock and call out “Hello?” A kind man appears and helps me to complete the lengthy 2-page form. I pay my money and head towards the insurance desk. There is no one there. I don’t ask the man because he has disappeared back into the office. Maybe I don’t need to buy insurance any more. I attempt passport control again. “Medical insurance?” She points. I explain in English that there is no one upstairs. I hope she understands me. She shakes her head and continues to point. I have no choice but to leave the line. Fortunately I see the friendly visa man descending the stirs. He ushers me to the insurance lady standing by the immigration counter. I pay my money (€7, hardly worth the effort) and hope that I will be successful on my third attempt. Another plane has arrived and I have to queue behind 20 noisy young schoolchildren. My turn comes and I am ecstatic to finally get through. I pick up my lonely bag from the long still conveyor and head for the bus stop until I realise that I don’t have any local currency. I head down the hall looking for a currency exchange desk of ATM. The CE is already closed and the ATM is upstairs. I am glad I bought a new trolley bag with backpack straps as there is no lift or escalator in sight. I go up two flights of stairs and along the terminal eagerly looking for more signs. The building is empty. There is no one to ask for directions. I appear to be on the departure level. I see the sign for a bar. I make the hand motions for inserting a card into a machine and getting cash. She points to the right. I have no other option but to trust that she has understood. I walk and I walk and I walk. Finally, I see an ATM. It has the ‘blue screen of death’. I am deflated. I look around for another ATM. I walk further up the never-ending terminal. I see a sign for another foreign exchange office. I practically run there. There are already two guys in the queue but I am happy that the office is still open. I try to change my remaining Euros but he refuses because there is a small tear in one of the notes. I am almost ready to cry. I pull myself together and withdraw from my credit card. I ask for the equivalent of US$200 and get BUR600,000 in return. WOOT! I am an instant half millionaire. Finally, I am off to catch the taxi to town ... I don’t think I can stomach the drama of the bus and train. I get a text message from Mastura. They are having dinner. I choose to join them directly rather than stop at the hotel first. It has been 8 hours since my last meal. I am starving. I get them to order first. I hand the phone to the driver so that Mastura can give the driver directions to the restaurant in Russian. I begin to relax a bit. More than an hour after touchdown. I am in Belarus and about to meet some of my fellow bog mates. It is a short subway ride and 3-minute walk back to the hotel. I check in and enter my room. It is clean and sufficient. The walls are covered in textured wallpaper and the bed is covered in jacquard.
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July 18th, 2009: Layover

The announcement comes over the speakers – “passengers transferring to Frankfurt HAVE missed their connection. Please see ground staff on arrival”. Luckily I have landed in Singapore and there are plenty more flights to Frankfurt after midnight. Lufthansa airlines puts me on a flight just 30 minutes after my previous one. I hope my bags follow suit. The transition in Singapore is seamless. I get to Frankfurt at 7am. My flight to Estonia leaves after 2pm. I have 6 hrs to amuse myself. Airport staff advise me to leave the airport and catch the S-Bahn to town. It is after all, only 15 minutes away. I find my way to the train station, buy a ticket with leftover euros from my European adventures last year and look around for a train map. I see a couple of westerners peering over a map and hear Aussie accents. I greet the guys and discover that they are waiting for a 3pm flight to Madrid. We head into the city together and grab breakfast while we wait for the shops to open. They are two guys from Melbourne: Boris (Croatia), lawyer, and Igor (Russia). LOL! I haven’t even reached my destination and I’ve already picked up a Russian. We are lucky to arrive on the weekend of the Italian Festival AND their “Christopher Street Day” Celebrations (gay pride parade.)
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July 17, 2009, Checkin

3pm – I check-in, get through customs and claim the GST back on my recent camera and ipod purchases without drama. I am fearful that my cough will come back and that I’ll have to travel in the cargo hold with a suspected case of swine flu. It doesn’t eventuate. I am thankful. 4pm – the flight was due to leave 30 minutes ago, but we are still on the tarmac. Something about the toilet drain overheating. Hope they sort it out in time for me to catch my connecting flight. 5pm – we finally take off, 1.5hrs later than scheduled. ETA = 9 minutes before my connecting flight is due for takeoff…it is not looking good.
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July 13, 2009: Credentials

I finally pick up my passport (with Russian visa) from the travel agent. What a relief. Only 3 more sleeps to go. I still don't have my wellies, but a Russian friend assures me that they will be really cheap and easy to find in Russia, or at least in Minsk. I have a day to source them. Back to clearing the work in tray before I leave. I am nervous about my packing, but colleagues and friends assure me that whatever I have forgotten, I can buy when I get there. I'm sure they are right.
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June 28, 2009: Gearing up

I purchase a camera to take plenty of photos and an iPod, so that I can listen to language lessons on the long flight to the other side of the world. I wonder how many lessons I can absorb in 23 hours of flying?
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June 26, 2009: 3 weeks to go

It is exactly 3 weeks till I leave Australia! Since winning this fantastic opportunity to study bogs in Belarus, I decide to make the most of the opportunity and indulge in my love of travel. I have also booked myself in for a two week tour of Eastern Europe. This will include visits to Estonia, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Berlin. Not much time left, my bags aren't packed, I still haven't got my wellies, my tour or flight tickets and I only know 4 Russian phrases. "Hi! Excuse me. I don't speak Russian. Do you speak English?"
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June 18, 2009: Contact

I receive an email from fellow expeditioners. They will be arriving a day early too and have invited me to join them in a brief exploration of the Belarussian countryside. They seem like a fun bunch. I think I might just join them.
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June 2, 2009: Learning the lingo

I find a really useful language learning site on the internet: www.byki.com. I download the lists for Russian and vow to myself to learn a little bit every day.
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May 5, 2009: Ready to go

8:30pm -- Still sitting in the office, patiently waiting for the conference call to begin. This will be my first live chat with the Earthwatch support team. I've had my dinner and just reviewing all my forms in preparation for the call. I submitted my passport renewal application form today and have made my appointment to see the doctor to get medical clearance, collect my first aid kit and check that all my vaccinations are up to date. My flights are booked, and Wellingtons ordered.
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April 18, 2009: Where are the Wellies?

Wellies "What do you mean you don't stock Wellingtons in a size 38!" I exclaim to the man in the fishing supplies shop. "I'm sorry, but fishermen are usually of the larger male variety," he tries to explain. "Aren't there any short fishermen out there?" I ask. "Well, I'm sorry, but there are no Wellingtons in your size in the country. I'll have to order some for you, can you come back next week?" 
[1 week later]

"Nooooooooooo. I meant a Ladies' size, 7, not a Men's size 7!"

"Try it anyway."

I'm convinced some men will never understand shoes!

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April 17, 2009: Thanks to everyone

The official announcement is made on the MyAlcoa employee Web site. Thanks to all the wellwishers out there only too eager to learn more about the bogs and Belarus. I think I have read just about everything available on the internet about the Wetlands of Belarus.
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March 20, 2009: Big news

Woo Hoo!!! I got it! I got it! I got it! Yipee for me! Yipee for Yennora! I will be the first successful Earthwatch candidate from my location. Everyone is so excited. Looks like I'll be off to the Belarus Wetlands in August. Where in the world is Belarus? "Somewhere in South America?" was the first guess. A quick Google check verifies that it is in fact in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. I love to travel, so this is a great way to not only see more of the world, but to help the environment at the same time. Another Google check tells me that the weather will be just fine, a balmy 18C, so no REAL need to splurge on a whole new adventure wardrobe. It will be summer and no trudging through snow and battling sub-zero temperatures required.
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