* - Going to Eastern Europe? If you don't speak a Slavic language, German is by far and away the next best thing. This may change with time, though, as English becomes the primary foreign language taught in public schools.
It's good that they do that, though, if only to make sure I understand Ukrainian numbers. If I didn't know them, I would have been screwed. That's as it should be, but it's still a scary thought.
I intend to use this bus trip to brush up on my Polish. I like Polish. Sometimes I just like to say Polish place names: Grudziądz, Wąbrzeźno, Łódź. I wish you could hear what they sound like.
Looks like we're getting underway ("I'm going to Poland!"). I took advantage of the time between ticket purchase and departure to go to the Syrpo. I wanted to leave my handcase in the lockers at the station, but they used some kind of unintelligible set-your-own combination locks with cyrillic symbols – the unit looked like it was installed in the Krushchev administration. So I carried my things over to the Syrpo. The lockers there were large enough for my backpack but not for my handcase. Huh, problem.
I stood there for a few minutes wondering what to do. Maybe they'd make an exception for me and let me take my case in. Hmm... that'd look awfully weird, though. I asked a man standing next to the door if he worked there. Judging from his response, that wasn't what I actually asked, linguistically speaking.
I found a woman selling flowers at a small kiosk, and we had the following interaction, approximated into English:
"You things do here?"
"Uh... I don't understand you."
"I'm sorry... I have a small problem. Do you understand my words?"
"I want to buy in here now, but my...” I lifted my case and pointed at the lockers. "No close."
She understood immeadiately and got the attention of a store monitor, who told me he'd watch my case while I shopped. Nice! Within seconds I was hoisting bananas and clementines into my cart and waiting in the line to weigh and label them. (They do produce like we do meat and fish – the weighing is done before the point of sale. It took a few visits for me to get used to that.)
Shopping was so much fun. I got shampoo and deodorant, a chocolate bar, two packs of gum, and 1.5L of my favourite juice (carrot, apple & peach), some tissue and toilet paper, and the produce I mentioned. I went nuts and spent nearly $11. I'm going to miss Ukrainian prices.
Rivne, all in all, was very friendly and welcoming. Sure, I was hearing "Kanadyy" here and there in the store (you can imagine how much attention I draw as soon as I open my mouth), but I didn't sense any derision – just curiosity.
This bus isn't bad, either. The seats are more or less comfortable and I have two to myself. (It's kind of a ghost town in here.) My Rivne to Warsaw fare is about $25 – and this is a compromise between dirt cheap and expenso-reliable methods. The driver's pretty nice too, and the passengers are congenial and friendly. It's a world – nay, a galaxy apart from the local marshutkyys.
I was putting my coat up in the overhead compartment when the driver told me, "You're going to get cold." "Yes," I replied, and now I'm wearing my fuzzy liner as a psuedo-sweater – only the shell is on the shelf.
This is going to be a long trip. It's 5:15 alreay (we left at 3:20) and we still haven't reached Lutsk, much less the border. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying this. It reminds me of when my old NetCorps team was travelling through Poland at the end of the program. And as far as the train goes, I've been there and done that. I'm just as happy to do anything different.
Dubno really didn't get a fair shake on my previous descriptions. There are some parts that are absolutely charming. Lutsk also deserves special mention. It's like Rivne and Lviv put together, and shinier.
* * *
I'm sitting in an all-night cybercafe in Warsaw now. I was drawn here, and because I was, everything worked out really well. It's loud in here, but I haven't attracted any attention since I came in, unlike what usually happens in Ostroh, so it looks like I'll be fine. I'll be going to Giżycko this afternoon to meet Czarek and go to his home for a day or two.
As we neared the Polish border, one of the women on the bus came up to me and showed me a carton of cigarettes. I know how this works; it happens every time you cross the border into Poland – that is, I've heard it from acquaintances who have done this. What you do is you take some cigarettes and alcohol across the border, and if anyone asks questions, it's your personal property. This way a lot of things can be smuggled across duty-free. There is a nominal danger here, and ordinarily it's an incredibly bad idea to take things across a border on behalf of others. But it's a custom here. A custom for customs, ha-ha, get it?
So knowing all this beforehand (thank goodness; otherwise I would have been asking too many questions), I tried to appear as agreeable as possible, but she was asking me if I understood something which sounded really complicated with a lot of words that I just didn't understand. Maybe there was some other strange wrinkle that I wasn't aware of? So I had to say I didn't understand her, yet I thought I knew what she meant. Later she accepted this, but at first she went around the bus asking if anyone spoke English (no one did). It was really rather amusing; we were all in pretty good humour about it.
At last, we reached the border, and Ukrainian passport control. The lineup of cars was horrendously long, but we skipped past it and had our time of scrutiny almost immeadiately. First a Ukrainian border guard came on and gave our passports a cursory examination (well, he looked twice at mine, the only non-Ukrainian passport), and after that we all got off the bus and went into a cold prefab and waited for another guard to show up to take our passports. One by one we filed through, although I noticed that everyone even partially in front of me seemed anxious to remain in front of me.
It didn't take long to see why; when it came to be my turn, the inscrutable guard looked at my passport photo, looked at me, stared at my passport photo, stared at me, gazed at my passport photo, gazed at me, examined my passport photo, examined me, etc.. I stood in front of him for probably the longest two minutes of my life. He looked at my visas... among other things, I assume he was wondering why:
1. I had a Ukrainian visa issued to me that I never used (courtesy of my previous Poland-diverted NetCorps program).
2. The immigration card associated with my second visa said that I'd be leaving on an airplane – a specific flight on a specific date – and yet here I was leaving by car.
But, at long last, he let me pass and held my passport with the others. I got back on the bus, where we waited for what seemed like an eternity (perhaps half an hour) for our passports to be stamped and returned. Eventually, they were. My Ukrainian visa now had a black exit stamp with an icon of a car. And just like that, I'm no longer in Ukraine. (Of course, I'm going back, and the only reason this trip is even possible is that Canadians no longer require visas for short-term stays in Ukraine.)
So, off we go, across the river Bug and into Poland, right? Wrong. Now we had to clear Polish customs. This was quite a bit different, and a lot less sketchy than Ukrainian passport control. (Speaking of, the left-hand bridge over the Bug was jammed with stationary cars and tractor-trailers. I wondered how it could support so many vehicles.)
You could tell the European Union had laid it's touch on the place; although unmistakably Polish, even the words "Republic of Poland" (in Polish, I just can't spell it yet) were laid within the EU circle of stars. The customs buildings were clean, bright and modern, and there were even facilities handy (including a bar!) for the waiting future patrons po polska.
First, we had to clear passport control. The first words out of this one's mouth, though, were not, "Present your passports!" but "Good evening!" He turned out to be a comedian. He took his job seriously, though, and gave everyone the attention they seemed to require. As for me, he just said, "Oh. Canada. OK," which was disappointing because I was sort of hoping to have a repartee with him.
It wasn't too much later when I realized how much more serious this was for the Ukrainians than it was for me. They all needed visas just to enter Poland, which means that they'd had to make a special trip to an Embassy or counsulate. Whereas I – by virtue of being born in Prince Edward Island, Canada – have free run of the country.
Anyway, we got through passport control, but then we had to go through customs control. They required us to open up our bags, but again I was subjected to very little scrutiny. They asked me if I had any alcohol, and I just pointed to the gift bag I was carrying. "Oh. ... Go sit please." So that was all.
Now we waited for a very long time; fortunately, seats were provided. I had a great dictionary-aided conversation with a lady who spoke a few words of English – she even read the first few paragraphs of the introduction to my Ukrainian Phrasebook to me. We talked about where we were from and where we were going – I guess in a way it was kind of simple, but it was greatly enjoyable. She also got a kick out of my Polish Phrasebook Dictionary and used it to ask me a lot of questions.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity (although one I'll always be thankful for, as it makes a pretty good story), we were on the road again, about two-and-a-half hours after we first pulled up to Ukrainian passport control. After a few minutes, we finally passed the last of the trucks lined up to cross into Ukraine. I'm not kidding; the line stretched for miles! I couldn't believe it, and it became a great temptation for me to go back by train. You still have to wait a long time at the border, but it's a fixed time: only two hours. The reason for the wait is that they have to lift each car off the track and back on again – there's a change in gauge from Western to Soviet. Lee tells me from his travels last winter that it's an interesting experience. Maybe I will absorb it after all. I really liked the spirit of my bus, and my fellow passengers were very kind to me, but if there's a chance that I'll have to spend half a day (or night!) at the border again, I think I'll pass. There's a good reason why Ukrainian international busses only schedule departures and not arrivals.
By the way, you'd have to be a special kind of stupid to jump over a fence in a commercial or customs lot here in Poland. You should see the size of the dogs!
One thing that shocked me instantly about Poland was how smooth and well-marked the road was. It was actually better than most Canadian two-lane roads. I was really impressed with the super-reflective highway paint and how it shone despite the snow.
I asked the driver when we'd reach Warsaw, as I promised Monika I'd tell her when we would, even though we wouldn't be meeting. The answer: 0300.
I dozed as much as I could, but I was awake for the final drive up the main street in Warsaw, which was a good thing because a "24-hour cybercafe" caught my eye. I'm here right now, as you know. Besides that, I was simply in awe of the billboards, the lights, the buildings, the bridges, and everything so familiar and yet so different. I love this city. And, just like last time, it was in the midst of a blizzard. Snow was blowing everywhere.
We pulled into a deserted bus station (apparently the terminal was closed between 2300 and 0500), and that was that. I stood at a bench for a few mintues, organizing my things and wondering what to do. How would I survive the night comfortably? Well, that cybercafe seemed like a good bet, since I had to blog anyway. So I followed the tracks of the bus back onto the main drag, all the while thinking, "Tracing vanishing bus tracks in a blizzard in Warsaw at 3am! This is travel the Will Matheson Way!"
I noticed a more congenial entrance to the terminal (where I was informed by sign of the times it would be closed... amusingly, inside was a "Non-Stop Bar"), and in front I saw two cabs. Hmm... So, for $6, I got a ride back into the centre of town. I asked him to stop as soon as I saw the cybercafe sign.
I paid the driver, got out, and went down the stairs underneath the street so I could walk underneath it to the side where I saw that promising sign. I soon realized I was in the train station. What luck! Now I don't even have to go anyplace else when I want to leave for Czarek's!
At length, I sat in the lobby and tried to write in Polish what I needed. I got to the counter (yes, there was a ticket counter open at 4:00 am, and people were using it) and began my queries – mercifully, they were interrupted by a kind man who spoke English without a hint of an accent. He helped me get the information I needed to get the ticket I wanted. Again, what luck! I told him that I had lost almost all my Polish and that everything's coming out Ukrainian now. (So far, when it's something non-critical, I babble occaisionally in Ukrainian. Maybe someone will understand, who knows?)
And now it's almost 7am and my train leaves just after 10am. Oh, yes, my handcase is safely stowed in a locker – these ones are computerized and coin-operated with electromagnetic locks. Cost: $1.25. Not bad; I've seen worse. And that's how much this cybercafe charges per hour, which is suprisingly comparable with Ukraine.
And now – breakfast!