So my journey westward to Central Europe finally begins, but not before a brief, 19 hour layover, in Kiev. I suppose thats what I get for booking the cheapest available flight with a Ukrainian airline I’ve never heard of (Aerosvit). Turns out that the layover became quite the travel experience in itself, below is an account that will hopefully help one of you out one day, should you find yourself in a similar situation.
Unsteadily stepping out onto the sun drenched tarmac of Kiev airport after 11 hours of flying, I was greeted by a welcoming cool breeze and delightful lack of humidity. In direct sunlight it was still hot as balls, but Bangkok it was not. The flight crew herded the other passengers and I into the terminal and within two minutes of wandering around looking for a way out I realized: I am totally unprepared for this country. Cryillic words everywhere, not a single sign in English and no hope for a WiFi connection. Culture shock much? I stumbled around the airport aimlessly for at least 30 minutes hoping for inspiration to hit me. I managed to find an ATM and withdraw a couple hundred Ukrainian Hryvnia (8:1 USD), then I found myself walking outside toward the parking lot. I instinctively spurn the pushy cab drivers and recall I had read somewhere that the bus is the best way into town. Scanning the area, I spot some buses and head in their general direction. Once I reach the buses I realize that none of them have readable destination signs in English and there are no translators around to tell me where they are going. After sitting on a bench and gathering my thoughts for a few long minutes, I get up the courage to simply step inside one of these motor-coaches and see where it takes me. Even though I have no idea where the bus is going, my instincts tell me that it will ultimately lead me into town and if not, heck, I’ve got to waste 19 hours somehow.
25 Hryvnia and a 50 minute sweltering bus ride later, I find myself dropped off at the main train station (to my relief, in the middle of the city). “Sorted”, I briefly celebrated, I’m pretty good with trains. Come to find out, not so much in the Ukraine. The train maps were unintelligible and the, “help”, doesn’t speak English. Another dead end. I plop down in the only oasis I can find, a McDonalds, and I am relieved to find that free WiFi is available, my savior has come at last! After putting Google Maps to the test, I realize that I am not too far from the city center, a walkable distance by my estimation. I load up my 60lbs pack once again and start my trek towards what I hope will be a cold shower and a soft bed.
Huffing it through the city with a heavy pack turned out to be a sweaty endeavor. Even though Kiev was much less humid than Thailand it was much more hilly and the mid-afternoon sun just has steamy. With every inch of my clothing sticking to me and my shoulders aching from the elephant on my back I finally arrive to a very busy main drag, Kreshchatyk St.. The street is flooded with people, beer stalls and police, “but it’s 2pm, don’t these people have jobs to do?”, I thought. It was then I realized that today was the day of the first Euro 2012 game in Kiev, featuring Ukraine against the mighty three lions (England), it’s gonna get wild.
At that moment, I was too overwhelmed by exhaustion that all I want to do is find my Hostel, so I soldier on past the shady tents offering cold Carlsberg. It takes me a while, but I find my Hostel on the 5th floor of an unmarked, nondescript building, thank god for the pin dropping feature on google maps. Finally I get to shower and rest my weary bones. Once I got settled in and was laying down for a snuggle session with my iPad, what appears to be a new hostel resident walks in the door. He sets up shop in the bunk across from me, but he has no luggage and has a more than friendly relationship with the girl at the hostel desk. Being my typical introverted self I do my best to ignore him, but after 5 minutes of avoiding eye contact he takes the initiative and swoops in with his introduction. Roustam, from Kiev, firm handshake. Upon hearing the first words out of my mouth he immediately knows I am an American and proceeds to profess his love for Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton music. I cant say much but agree that I do indeed know who those people are and I ask him the fruitless question of if he’d ever heard of Dollywood. Apparently me being American was simply all he needed to launch into a 30 minute one-way conversation. Even though his English was terrible and consisted mainly of hand gestures, I gathered that he was a local and frequently stays at this hostel to get away from his family who live right down the road. All I really want to do is take a nap, but Roustam is determined not to let that happen, my southern politeness gets the best of me and I entertain his conversation until I am past being tired and move into stomach churning hunger. I finally interrupt my Ukrainian acquaintance to let him know that I plan to go get some food and he immediately volunteers to show me the best spot for authentic local cuisine. Even though his interest in talking to me is starting to creep me out, I consent, I don’t want to be rude to a local after all. Roustam proceeds to show me to a cafeteria-like eatery around the corner that caters to the eastern European palette. Since all the food labels are in cyrillic, I simply point to the stuff that looks good and the attendants load my tray up with a cucumber and radish salad with dill, Borsch, fresh bread, a purple fruit juice and a Russian ratatouille topped with a giant chicken thigh.
After filling my belly to the brim (it was all delicious, especially the Borsch), Roustam is back with the suggestion that he show me a few sights around town. His generousity as a tour guide is starting to give off the hint of a scam, but I swallow my suspicions and let him carry on his merry way. He takes me to a local market just off the main street where dried fish and fresh meats are on display, along with a multitude of colorful fruits stacked higher than my head.
When I am finished browsing we head further down the street towards the mass of humanity that is preparing for the Euro Cup game in the cordoned off party zone. Tons of fans from Urkaine and England as well as Sweden and France (also playing that night) are in the streets guzzling beer and singing fight songs. Now I consider myself one of the more fervent sports fans when it comes to my North Carolina Tarheels basketball, but these, “Football”, fans put me to shame. Their face paint, chanting and drinking make for some of the best people watching I’ve ever experienced. As I walked down the street I even encountered a local dressed in traditional Cossack garb.
I was also able to gather a bit more information on just who this Roustam character actually was; apparently his father is a Judge in the downtown courts and his mother a doctor. He is from Kiev but claims strong Russian roots and shows a deep appreciation for the military. Things are starting to come together a bit, but I’m still on my guard since I refuse to easily trust a populace so invested in Capri pants. I begin to notice that Roustam seems to know a lot of people around town. We are frequently stopping to chat with everyone, old and young, from security guards to local partygoers. At one point a cabbie pulls over and begins to talk to him, after they converse for a bit, Roustam tells me he has offered to take us somewhere. Now this is getting sketchy, but my conversation and observation of my happenstance tour guide has instilled a wee bit of trust that was not there upon my first impression. I climb into the cab, albeit reluctantly. A few minutes later we arrive at the riverfront of the Dnieper and climb out of the cab. Roustam urges me toward the boat docks where he says he has a plan. Lined up along the river are several large ferryboats which are being boarded by locals and tourists alike.
Roustam pays for my entry and at the same time picks up a bottle of authentic Ukrainan cognac. I soon come to realize why, as this vessel is in fact a party barge. The dico lights turn and the captain shoves off down the river on a combination sightseeing/dancing cruise.
As Roustam and I attack the cognac, I start to get his full story and begin to understand the psychology behind his random acts of kindness. Roustam is the only child of a very prominent (and wealthy) Kiev family. His parents are overbearing (evidenced by several nagging phone calls he received during our voyage) and pressure him to also become a doctor or a lawyer. As a rebellious twenty-something often does, he has resisted that pressure and instead prefers a noncommittal life living with his parents and off their wealth in the city. When the weight of their expectations becomes to much for him he withdraws by escaping to the Hostel where he works part-time and has discovered that he can meet new and interesting people who don’t know him and don’t judge him for who his parents are. It guiltily dawns on my that I am just another enabler to his behavior, fostering his avoidance and keeping him in the cycle of hiding from his responsibilities. Ok, so maybe I wasn’t that guilty, I was getting treated to a all expense paid night out in Kiev, just because I am an American. Living as a vagabond, now in the more pricey territory of Europe, I am going to take what I can get. I simply relaxed and sat back to watch the sun set and the sights pass by on the river.
As the boat/night carried on, we joined the dance party with the other boat guests and Roustam put in request after request to the DJ for more Russian music. My western dance moves didn’t seem to mesh with the strange Russian music, but no one seemed to notice. Soon the boat came to a halt and we disembarked. Roustam’s cabbie friend met us at the street corner and took us back to the center of town to watch the end of the Euro match. The game atmosphere was exciting, but deflating as the Ukrainian team lost and were summarily eliminated from Euro 2012. I was surprised that the majority of fans remained in good spirits, even in defeat. Instead of rioting and looting (as the number of armed police in the area would suggest) they left the streets still chanting for their squad with only a minor contingent chanting slights agains the referees. At that point in the evening I glanced at my watch and realized it was past midnight. My pumpkin flew out of Kiev airport promptly at 6:40am so I thanked Roustam for his generousity and said my goodbyes. Roustam only made me promise that I would show him the same hospitality should he turn up in the United States. Fortunately for me and my bank account, he forgot to get my contact information