Friday, March 7, 2014

Ukraine Is Not For Amateurs

For four years I traveled to and from Ukraine as a medical advisor for the Ukrainian Government HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis programs.  There are few countries I've worked in with such a rich, deep and challenging culture as Ukraine.  These were four of the most interesting years of my career and not without stories.  Here is part 1.  As a preview, I would like to state that I want to bitch-slap the guy who said ‘getting there is half the fun.’


Suvarnabumi Airport, Bangkok Thailand, four  AM.

I’m standing in line at the Aerosvit Airlines counter. Aerosvit is Ukraine's one and only national airline. There is not a single Asian person in the long line that winds through the waiting area and out towards the entrance.   This is highly unusual for an Asian airport.  In this line are literally hundreds of Russians.  How do I know they are Russians?  The high prevalence of mesh tank tops, Singha Beer tee-shirts and genital defining booty shorts.   And this is just on the men.  There is a strong waft of stale alcohol and sweat coming from the crowd.  And they are annoyingly loud as if every thought needed to be broadcast.  Massive group trips to Thailand are popular in the former Soviet Union these days - the hotels are inexpensive, the alcohol is cheap  and, after all, this is Amazing Thailand.  This group obviously decided to run their vacation out to the very last second.  Commendable effort.

I shoved my Iphone ear-buds painfully deep into my head to drown out the noise - the smell I would  just have to deal with.  I took every fifth breath through my mouth.  I wasn't in much better shape: The previous night I’d had an impromptu going away dinner with my wife, my baby and some friends.  I’d had only three hours sleep since the party was over.  We’d hit a local Thai kitchen near my apartment.  The waitresses in this place move around like ghosts filling your glass with fresh beer and ice as soon as they catch you looking elsewhere.  They sell more beer this way. The customers can’t keep track of their drinking.  Everyone is happy.

When I heard that our foundation had opened up a program in Ukraine I lobbied heavily for the Medical Advisor position. I come from strong Ukrainian ancestry and would be the first member of my family to step foot on Ukrainian soil in a long time - it had been over one hundred years since my great-grandmother Fagel  and her sister had been orphaned and had escaped with their lives during the great oppression.  These were my people. The borscht was still in my blood. 

I’d been on my fledgling trip to Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk a few months earlier.  It was love at first sight for Ukraine and I.  I’d lived hard in my previous jobs in Africa and Asia.  Running hot water for three minutes at a time was considered a little piece of luxury.  Ukraine, especially Kiev is, well, Europe!  Cafés, parks, opera houses, statues of intellectuals, restaurants and beautiful crowded public squares.

The waiting line for check-in moved painfully and slowly.  My eyes burned from lack of sleep so I put on my sunglasses.  I caught disinterested stares from the Russians.  Somehow they knew I was a Western outsider, but they didn’t care what I was up to.  when it was my turn for ticketing I greeted the woman behind the counter in Thai with a well-accented “Sawadee Kropp.”  Her haggard eyes lit up with what I assume was the joyful recognition that ‘Oh thank the Buddha!  He’s not one of them!’  She looked like she’d had her fill of this impolite horde.  

Aerosvit has the only nonstop flights possible to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city; any other route on some arguably more civilized airlines adds six to twelve hours of layover time.  As I was on the clock I wanted get there as quickly as possible and at the least cost to the foundation.  Thus - Aerosvit.  The plane was a 1976 Boeing 747 fully loaded with carpeting and seats the color of mauve and puke.  My seat had bottomed out.  There was a vast hole of compressed old cushion beneath me and my ass hit metal when I sat down.  I shoved my Aerosvit blanket in the hole to pad the seat.  The flight attendant advised me that I would not be getting another one.  The seat reclined, but slammed forward like a catapult when I leaned over.  Eight hours to go.

Those days  were the dark pre-Ipad times when entertainment on a flight could be scant. I hoped to find any kind of entertainment to make the flight go a wee bit faster.  Or booze.  My fellow passengers were well ahead of me - the sound of plastic duty-free bags ripping open filled the cabin.  Cups were optional.  Their vacations wouldn't end until they said so.  Party on Vladimir! As the flight attendant pushed her cart by at lightening speed I stuck my leg into the isle to stop her.  I’d studied Rosetta Stone Russian for three weeks just for this moment.
“Prasteete!  Ya mushna Vodka.”
“Yez.  How much?” she said.
“Um, what, uh just one drink.  Wait, wait.  Ya mushna eidien matibok.”
“Yez.  We don’t sell drinks.  We just sell bottles.”
I smiled. 
“I’ll take a pint of your best, please.”
She rolled her eyes when I handed her with a one hundred Euro bill and told me she didn’t have change for just one bottle.  I would have to take two.  This was not a negotiation.  She was six feet tall, very beautiful, painfully disinterested and had an innate ability to make me feel like I’d done something terribly wrong.  I was dumbfounded and in awe.

All the entertainment you need
on an Aerosvit flight.
With the refreshment part of the trip nailed down I wanted a movie or TV show to help pass the time.  Then I noticed there were no video screens on the plane.  None in the seat, none in the wall.  Video did not exist when this plane was created.  I was curious.  I walked up to first class to see how they were traveling.  No video there either.  What I did notice was that there were about ten copies of Russian Playboy circulating about the cabins.  Then in the restroom (I’m not making this up)  There were five randomly placed tissue boxes.  You can only assume what people did to pass the time on an Aerosvit flight.  I washed up three times, opened the door with my shirt over my hand and went back to my seat.  I read a book until the Vodka put me to sleep.  When I awoke I would be in Borispol Airport, Kiev.  Thirty minutes later I’d be in the city. I had already made an appointment to meet my good friend Marina - she was going to take me to a very Ukrainian restaurant called Miami.  We would dine on pierogies and martinis.

I jolted awake to the crashing sound of an extremely hard landing.  The crackling voice in the loudspeaker was giving instructions in Russian.  They skipped the English part.  I wasn't surprised.  My comrades and I collected our belongings and filed blearily off the plane.  Hello Mama Ukraine, I have arrived.  I badly needed a cup of coffee and wondered if I could find one before getting a taxi. I noticed that the other passengers were joining in small groups and speaking excitedly.  I assumed this was standard procedure when the holiday comes to an end.  I walked past them towards immigration.  It was at this time that I realized I was not where I was supposed to be.

As my mental fog from sleep deprivation and vodka cleared, brief panic took over.  This was not Borispol Airport.  Borispol is a somewhat modern structure, very international and has English signs interspersed between the Cyrillic Russian signs.  This place had no English and looked more like a gulag.  Okay, I thought.  So I’m not where I’m meant to be and I only speak enough Russian to order duty-free vodka.  I’ve been in worse situations - just had to be functional, figure out where I am and how to get where I need to go.  This is civilization.  It should be as simple.
As I passed through immigration the uniformed agent tried to help me.  He spoke enough English to order duty-free Jack Daniels.  I said, “Ki-ev.  Ki-ev. Wheeeeeeere?”  He pointed in the direction of baggage claim.  Now, I was getting somewhere.  I figured we were diverted to a different airport somewhere outside of Kiev.

You are here.
I knew that whatever the next step,  I was going to look like some ignorant, rookie Westerner making a poor attempt at international travel.  I would be reinforcing every stereotype that Eastern Europeans and Russians believe about Americans.  I decided that I would just claim to be Canadian.

I took my bag from the 1930’s baggage carousel and left the gulag.  My choices for information in a language I understood were limited to the taxi drivers.  They huddled outside smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  Any veteran of international travel can tell you the dangers in trusting taxi drivers who claim to understand foreigners.  You will either end up where you want to go, end up in a brothel or end up in white slavery.  I scoped out the situation and scientifically chose the driver with the kindest eyes who seemed least interested in making a profit in slavery off a forty-something year old Canadian.

“Uh, privyiet sir.  Uh, Vi speak English?”
“Da.  Nyet.  Leetle.”
“OK, good.  I mean horosho.  Uh, where am I.  I mean Gdeh Ya (where am I)?”
He smiled smugly, pleased we’d made a successful conversational connection.
“Ukraina!” he said.
“Right.  Okay, good.  Uh, Gde ya?” I said pointing to the airport.
“Ah,” he said. “Simferapol!” and he made his hand move like an airplane landing on an imaginary runway.
“Sim-fer-a-pol,” he said more slowly and loudly.
“Okay,” I decided to give up any further attempt at Russian, “I want go Borispol.  Kiev. Ki-ev.” And I made the same universal hand like and airplane landing sign that he used.  “Uh, how much?  Skolka?”  I rubbed my fingers together in the universal sign for ‘what’s this going to set me back?’
He closed one eye and considered for a few seconds.
“Okay,” he said, “Da.”  He took out his phone and typed a number into it. “Hyrivnia,” he said, “Hyrivnia.”  This was Ukrainian currency.  I was willing to take anything reasonable at this point.   I just wanted to get to my hotel, take a shower and meet with Marina for those pierogies.  I did the math quickly in my head. 
“Four hundred eighty dollars!!??”
“Just a moment,” I said and walked back into the terminal.  Something was horribly wrong.   I needed more intel.   I found a kiosk that sold local Ukrainian telephone sim cards and put one in my phone, then called our office in Kiev. I spoke to Lena, our program director.
“Privyet, Lena.  It’s Erik.”
“Erik.  Where are you?  Our taxi driver says he cannot find you at the airport.”
“Yes.  Apparently we didn’t land a Borispol.  I’m in a different airport.”
“Da, we were worried about this.  The Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Finland has caused problems with the skies.  Many planes are diverted from Borispol.  But why do you not know this?  They must have told you on the plane!”
Ukrainians have a natural ability to make me feel like I’ve done something wrong at all times.
“I suppose they did, Lena, but not in a language I’m familiar with.”
“Da. Really, Erik, you must learn Russian language.”
“Second order of business after I get the hell out of wherever I am, Lena.  I’m not sure, but I think we got diverted to a different airport outside of Kiev.”
“Erikchka (the fond version of my name in Ukraine), there is no other airport outside of Kiev.  What is the name of the airport where you are?”
“Sim-something.  Simmerfol, Simmering…………no wait…………Simferapol.”
“Simferapol???  Are you sure?”
“Yes. Da.  Definitely Simferapol.”
“Erikchka.  You are in Crimea.  Southern Ukraine.  About nine hundred kilometers from Kiev.”
“Damn.  Then that would explain the taxi price.”
“You cannot take a taxi, Erik.  You must be careful if they find out you are a foreigner.  They will take advantage of you.
“It’s okay.  They think I’m Canadian.”
“Erikchka, you must go to the train station.  It makes no sense for you to come to Kiev.  You should go directly to Dnipropetrovsk.  That is only a seven hour train ride.  It would take you twelve hours to get here and you are expected in Dnipropetrovsk on Monday anyway.  Give the phone to the taxi driver. I will tell him where to take you.”

My heart sunk as the thought of a relaxing evening with my friend Marina catching up over pierogies and martinis disappeared into what was degrading into a Class One cluster-fuck of real life planes, trains and automobiles.

My Ukrainian Love
The station was only ten minutes away through Simferapol town.  The skies were dark and the town looked as Soviet as Kiev looked European.  The buildings were simple, flat and forgettable.  Most of my comrades from the flight had figured this route out long before me and were well on their way home.  I stood in line for tickets in dreading predictability of the conversation that would go badly with the ticket saleswoman.
She was a short, fat woman who looked like she didn’t put up with much nonsense and was terminally at the end of her shift.  I told her in English that I wanted the next train to Dnipropetrovsk.  She sneered at me and pointed to the large electric information board behind her.  It was completely in Russian - I could have more easily read Klingon.  She answered me back in Russian and pushed a ticket towards me.  I asked her when the train departed and she just pointed over my head.  We were done here.  After close inspection of the ticket I figured out it would leave in 90 minutes from track number 5.  A hint of contentment wafted over me.  The end of this long day was on the horizon.  I was already twelve hours invested in this trip.  By the time I got to Dnipropetrovsk, with no further fuck ups, it would be nearly twenty-four hours of travel. 
I dragged my bags to a small cafeteria and bought some coffee and a bowl of weak borscht.  I had slept through the meal on the plane and just realized how hungry I was.  Had things gone differently I would be sitting in a Kiev street café with a cool pre-winter breeze blowing on my face.  I would be staring at a massive bowl of borscht that was so thick you could write your name in it.  Not this time.  I was tired and dejected.  I don’t smoke, but I felt like I needed a cigarette.

With ten minutes until the train’s departure I headed to track number five.  This required multiple trips up and down concrete and steel steps dragging my bags in unison.  It was further than I expected.  I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Perhaps the train was delayed.  I would have no way of asking.  When twenty minutes had passed I found a maintenance man walking on the platform.  He looked nearly eighty years old, had a leathered, wrinkled face and was dressed in a bright orange jump suit
“Zdraste sir.  Train?  Dnipropetrovsk?”
“Da.”  He pointed to the last car pulling away from the train yard on platform three. I fought back tears of frustration and made the call.
“Lena.  Hi, its Erik.”
“Da, Erik.  Where are you?  On the way to Dnipro?”
“Um, not exactly.  I missed the train.”  I worried that I was giving her fuel to think that all American consultants were useless buffoons.
“Why did you miss the train?  This is not good.  When is the next train?”
“I really don’t know.  I don’t think I will ever get there.  There’s other forces involved.  Or something.  Maybe its karmic.  I’m tired and I think I’m losing it. Wait, can you speak to this guy?”
I handed the phone to the old man.  He explained the situation.  He handed me back the phone.
“Ah, now it is clear. It is not your fault. The number on your ticket is wrong.  So there we are.  This man says that he can drive you to the next station before the train arrives there for one hundred Euro, but I don’t think this is a good plan.”  The man looked at me with a wide toothless grin and shaky hands.
“No, I think don’t I need to add to the current drama, Lena.  I’ll find out when the next train is leaving and call you back.”  I put the phone in my pocket and looked at the old man.
“Nyet. Sorry dude.”  
I dragged my bags back over the mountain of stairs back to the terminal.

I returned to the same ticket line with the same angry ticket agent.  The anxiety of the upcoming exchange cut through my fatigue.  Did I know enough words in Russian to make this happen?  Is there even another train today?  What would cause her to not to remove that massive hairy mole on her nose.  As my anxiety peaked an angel was sent to me in the form of a small Asian man standing behind me in line.
“Privyet,” I said, “excuse me but you don’t speak English do you?”
“Yes, of course.”  I felt my eyes well up uncontrollably with tears.
“That’s so awesome,” I said, “Wait a second.  AND you speak Russian, right?”
“Yes, of course.  I am from Vietnam, but I live in Russia.”
This Vietnamese angel, sent from God, who would be the pivotal piece of my solution, was my new best friend.  As coincidence would have it—or was it coincidence at all?—I had just worked in Vietnam the month before.  We had much to talk about.  I explained my difficulties.  He understood.  He said no one spoke English here, but he would help me.   As I moved to the ticket window he took over.  I whispered to him, “Tell her I’m a Canadian.”

We sorted things out.  I bought the new ticket and he showed me the proper column on the electric board to check for gate changes.  There was another train to Dnipropetrovsk seven hours.  I didn’t think my heart could sink any lower. 

I tried to stay positive.  At least there was a plan.  I was tired, smelled badly and my shoulders ached from carrying my bags what seemed like several miles back and forth along platforms.  My eyes stung from lack of sleep and the hangover I'd kept at bay by anxiety began to move forward.  I moved back to the cafeteria and bought three large cans of beer, gave one to my new friend and said, “Nastrovia.”  We sat and talked for an hour and then he was off.  Before dseparting he checked on the platform numbers for me one more time.

The next five hours were spent in a dark, cold corner of the Simferopol train station floor.  I could no longer keep my eyes open, but I didn’t want to wake up being rolled and relieved of everything I owned.  I put my backpack on top of my suitcase and slumped my body over both, the corner effectively cut off two angles of approach.  I looped my arm through the straps of the bags like a crude motion detector.  I slipped in and out of light sleep for the next few hours.  I was accosted once by an old man looking for cigarettes, but just shooed him off.  Eventually I just gave up and got more coffee.

The mobile Ritz Carlton
I dragged my bags to the platform forty-five minutes before the scheduled train arrival.  I checked the platform number three times.  It was nearly ten o’clock at night, I’d been on the road since three AM the previous day.  I changed into my third shirt of the trip in hopes of feeling cleaner.  There was still a seven hour train ride ahead though the southern Ukrainian night.  I sat down on my suitcase and zipped my coat up to my neck.  The air was dark, cold and metallic in the train yard.  The old man in the orange jump suit came by again.  I figured he lived here.  He gave me a toothless smile and said “zdrastvooyte.”  He squatted down next to me and offered me a cigarette.  This seemed like an appropriate time to take up smoking so I accepted.  We had a pleasant time for the next forty minutes passing conversation in bad Russian, sign language and broken English.  We smoked a few more cigarettes. I handed him the nearly full bottle of duty free vodka I’d cracked open on the plane.  He said ‘spaseeba’ and took a healthy pull.  He handed it back to me, but I told him to keep it.  My mortal fear of Tuberculosis cut through the bad decisions usually made during moments of severe fatigue.

The silver and soot train to Dnipropetrovsk arrived on time.   I shoved my bags from the platform into the train - I had reserved a sleeper car and couldn't wait to shut my eyes.  The train was a Soviet 1970’s model with two beds to each cabin and a chipped Formica table in between.  The interior was red and a dirty white curtain covered the  dirty grey window.  The bed was a hard brown horsehair stuffed bench with a compartment beneath to store luggage.  A stack of neatly folded sheets and a pillow were in the shelves above the bench.  I was ready to sleep anywhere.  Upon arrival to the compartment, my cabin-mate was already there.  He was a twenty-something year old boy with a freakishly long nose and a brown mullet.  He was sitting on the bench in his underpants and clutching the largest plastic container of beer I’d ever seen.  I said a polite ‘zdrastvooyte’.  As a proactive move I pointed out quickly that I did not speak Russian and was from Canada.  For some reason he looked relieved.  He offered me the beer, but I said ‘nyet, spaseeba’ and prepared my bed for the ride.   

(Coming up:  Part 2:  The Dangers of Smiling in Dnipropetrovsk)

Ukrainian Charlies Angels:  The doctors of Dnipropetrovsk

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