Ukraine

I Crain? No, Ukraine! Day 36

We arrive, and we still can't read a darn thing. Our tiny street map is written in Roman characters, so every street sign we see must be translated.

Alright, what does B - Pi symbol - H - R - Airplane beverage cart - V - backwards N spell?

But, hark! Aimless wandering led us to a woman with a visor, a fanny pack and a camera...an American!

Do you know where we are?

I haven't a clue, but our driver will...though he only speaks Polish...let's give him a try.

The following scene would have fit really well in an Audrey Hepburn movie. The tour group surrounded us on all sides, asking how they could help, where we were trying to go, where we had already traveled, if we spoke Polish, the works. When they realized how aimless we actually were, Roger, the self-proclaimed group leader, invited us to come along with them to see the sights, have some lunch, and represent our generation among his posse of WWII Polish refuges. This wasn't just some Contiki bus tour.

Each one of those 70+ year old tourists were displaced from their homes in Poland during WWII, their houses bombed or seized by the Nazis during their invasion, some even in L'viv. They were shipped away either to Siberia or eventually to London, where they all met. No one had a local friend or contact nor a £1 in their pockets, but they attended school and university in England, building their life foundations from there.

When all had finished schooling, the English government offered them to choose a new home of either the USA, Canada, Australia or Europe, since the UK was off the table. After they parted ways across the globe, they had no contact between each other until fifty years later when an effort was made to have a reunion back in their home country.

For the last couple years, they join together for moral support and socializing as they reexperience the mixed feelings of their childhood. Some of these trips prove to be intensely emotional as they are reminded of the travesties they experienced. The man who asked me, having seen the patch on my backpack, if I had been to Malaysia, was a young messenger boy during the Warsaw Uprising. When they toured Warsaw a few days prior to our meeting, he set his eyes for the first time on a sculpture of a young boy wearing an oversized German uniform. It was the monument for the Warsaw Uprising. He cried on the spot, seeing himself 70 years earlier in the statue.

Our conversations with each person were soaked in history and drama. They were eager to teach us from their personal experience, and we felt quite honored to be on the receiving end. They left us with full bellies at the town center where we found a hostel for less than $15 a night. Our luck left us astounded as the day ended. We surely could have hated our day in L'viv - the hot, complicated city of L'viv - but instead we witnessed such heartfelt hospitality from people who were busy reliving their mixed and painful memories of the past. We left first thing the following morning, knowing we already experienced the highlight and magic of that destination.

Shakin' it up: Day 35

Game plan review: we want to go to Krakow. We've got gobs of time. It's hard to go direct from Eger. Where should we go en route? More mountains? Ukraine? ...wait...the Ukraine?!? Where did this choice come from? We first move closer to both options in Kosice, Slovakia, where we stop to make some Slovakian memories. We were not expecting such a darling town with an impressive church at its heart and a musical fountain nearby with "local color." Little boys dared each other to stand in the middle of shooting water jets, fully clothed and toting their backpacks-o-fun. Music blared through surrounding boulders or from a bell sculpture, all synced to the visual orchestra of gravity-defying H2O. A flutter of white out of the corner of my eye and there goes a wedding party, taking pictures of the new couple in front of city monuments. And another bride...and, yup, one more. I was a witness to multiple nuptials except the one I should have been at in Terre Haute, Indiana. The universe kept rubbing it in my face. It sort of made the 7th of June a hard day to enjoy with the constant reminder of my two polar lives. It's amazing how much of a stronghold time and money have on my present condition. Ah, semi-deep thoughts flow in and out...

Flip a coin. Heads is L'viv, Ukraine. Tails is the Tatra mountains because these here on the back of the €1 look like hills. ¤clink clink cla-clink¤ the Ukraine it is! Oh boy. We better bring some vodka.

Normally our limited knowledge of local public transportation gets us by as we traverse the globe, but there are the few instances when we fail to ask little questions that later are pivotal OR we rely far too much on the sometimes faulty word of our friends at Lonely Planet. Our 'sleeper bus' across China is an example. These moments when we expect one thing and experience something quite different often present more difficulties and ALWAYS produce fantastic stories. In this instance, we thought we were taking a night train to the Ukraine. Let's see how this goes...

We board train #1...it's not too shabby, standard for Eastern Europe. Two people can sleep on the benches and one on a mat across the floor. Perfect! Now we can let loose. Ah, but no...our new conductor friend informs us to pack it up because this isn't our only train this evening. Oh crap.

Already becoming sleepy, we left our 'sleeper train' around 11pm only to wait in the rain for the next one. All conductors left for the night, and our stop didn't have a sign or a nearby city. Our only instructions were to follow three other people waiting at the stop. We followed without question, even after we watched them load at least twenty bicycles onto the train, this most pitiful excuse of a train. And I'm not kidding, this train could have killed us Final Destination style. If someone sat down on the holed leather seat, the entire bench would fall to the floor, causing the cabin walls to shake down the asbestos in the broken ceiling. Exposed insulation would rain down from above and cover said unsuspecting victim with bits of itchy fiber, which they would immediately attempt to avoid by jumping up and grabbing the non-existent table, then the rusty trash bin, and finally the exposed electrical wiring, shocking them senseless and sending their wrecked body out the crooked window to the unknown world outside. At least it made a fun setting for a few documentary videos. And to top off all this fun, I sat in gum.

Accepting our fate, Garrett took to the restrooms only to return smellier than when he left, while Alexis and I tried to sleep on the tottering benches. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Chop, Ukraine for immigration. The power blondes were out this midnight hour, and they meant some business. Half-awake and draped with our sleep bags, we attempted to face the bereted blondes with purpose and wobbled into the main station area, where we suddenly stepped into an old propaganda film. The large open room was made of imposing stone, blocky and plain as can be, except for a massive mural depicting hard working civilians under the hammer and sickle regime. We had definitely crossed over.

This is where we could have panicked. We couldn't read the time table, which was written in Russian alphabet. Our tickets could no longer take us to L'viv, and the unhappy ticket clerk didn't appreciate my attempts to speak in Russian. Ukrainians are quite proud and not so much hospitable. A night chocked full of dilemmas; we could have lost our lids. Instead, we got excited...OUR FIRST ADVENTURE!!! Garrett and I ventured downstairs, past the old bomb shelter/raccoon den and bonded with the baggage holder, who was surprisingly nice for living in a room with no windows that hadn't been dusted since the birth of Communism. As he stuffed our bags in the corner of an empty room big enough for a thousand bags, my favorite song came on the radio, and this recognition and subsequent sing-a-long was a bonding moment between all of us. Our new friend, What's-his-whatever, held our bags for three hours as we went into Chop for the cheapest beers to date. How does $2 a liter sound to you. Sounds like great success to me. After we had to peel Alexis away from a homeless, blind puppy wandering around town, we booked it to our 3:30am train to L'viv, at last!

Don't sigh yet; more from the Ukrainian urban jungle to come.