I travel to get away and relax. But sitting on a beach can get old, so I like mixing things up. That (and love) is why I went to Ukraine in late September this year.
My wife is from Ukraine (she’s a U.S. green card holder) and went there for a few months for work. I felt compelled to share in a blog what it’s like to travel to her hometown of Mariupol in Southern Ukraine.
When traveling to Ukraine, if you’re from anywhere other than a neighboring country (like Poland), you will be flying to Kiev. Going through Customs is usually fairly quick for an English-speaker because most of the Customs agents don’t speak English very well. On this trip, the Customs agent just said “New York?” I responded that I’m from Arizona and had layovers in Detroit and Amsterdam. His reply: “New York?” Realizing that that was the only English word he apparently remembered, I said “Okay. Yes. Da. Hamburger and pizza.” He laughed, stamped my passport and waived for the next person.
My wife met me at the airport, and we boarded a bus to her hometown. Let me explain that there are only two real ways to get to her hometown. We could take a 23-hour train ride, or we could take a 13-hour bus ride. It sounds like a no-brainer. Which one is shorter? But like most things in life, you first have to make sure you’re asking the right question. In this instance, the right question is whether you can sleep? It turns out that it’s almost impossible to sleep on the bus. Not just because buses are inherently uncomfortable. But also because you’ll be traveling through war zones and most of the roads were filled with holes by bombs three years ago. The government has no incentive to fix the roads because it assumes the roads will just get bombed whenever they get fixed.
On this trip, our bus stopped at what you might call a strip mall with little businesses selling pastries, fresh produce, and coffee. We bought a quart (approximately) of fresh wild raspberries for around 50 cents. Then I bought a cup of tea for about the same price.
**WARNING: The next two paragraphs discuss bodily functions. If you prefer not to think about such things, you may want to skip to skip ahead.**
And then I wanted to go to the toilet, which cost around 40 cents. Yes, I just said that. There were two kids (early teens) manning a ticket counter at which they accepted payment. I then went to the toilet stall and found a hole in the ground. Most of the public toilets here have kind of a urinal laid horizontally on the ground. The fancy public toilets have a way of flushing. But in the past, I had to fill a bucket of water and use a broom to coax the little bits that didn’t want to wash away into the sewage system. Luckily, I was a former Boy Scout and have some experience with what muscles to tense and which ones to relax when I squat to do my Number Two.
At the end of my squatting exercise, I looked around to discover that there was no paper. I delicately assembled myself so as to investigate if any of the other stalls had paper. Nope. Then I walk-waddled to the ticket counter and asked about the paper. Apparently, that was what the 40 cents was for. Ok. I grabbed some and went back. It wasn’t enough. I went back again for a second go-round. Then … voila! Mission accomplished. Plus, I’m happy to report that this was one of those upscale public toilets that offered a flushing mechanism on the hole in the ground.
On the bus, they were playing Ukrainian TV shows on a TV screen at the front of the bus. They looked like they were from the 1980s, but I was told that they were only 5 years old. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It made me realize how much American television and movies have pushed the envelope and wiped away most elements of human decency and normality. It is now standard for American TV programming to make fun of all grown men (Simpsons and Family Guy). Having affairs and raising kids in divorced families are considered the norm. By contrast, the one show that we were watching had the type of humor that used to be in the Gilligan Island show from the 1970’s. Except the people were living on family farms. They made jokes such as sending money using “Cryptic Currency” and chasing someone who was driving a tractor into a local pond.
With that, I wish you happy and safe travels.