William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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Odessa, more

This is the sixth (and essentially the last) entry in my Ukrainian Vacation Series – but there’s still lots more stuff to come!

Let me see, where was I? More than a day passed; I made it all the way back to Ostroh and well into the following week (October 25th) before I forced myself to compose this. Fortunately, I need not worry that my memories have faded so much as to make blogging trouble- or tiresome. My second and third days in Odessa contained, almost indisputably, the most profound travel experiences of my short life.

Our hotel rooms included breakfast, which was buckwheat-intensive, but tasty and filling nonetheless, and who can argue with ‘free?’ Shelley’s task for the rest of the day was to find a way to get to Kyiv to see her relatives, and mine was to explore.

So I walked in the general direction of the north end of the city, with the intention of finding the coastline somewhere above downtown and then following it east and then south, past downtown and to the outer parts of the city. The map indicated that the east shore of Odessa was one long beach. At this point, I hadn’t yet seen the Sea except for small glimpses, so I was very excited to get an uninhibited daytime panorama.

In my travels, I walked past a gorgeous redhead with freckles. We exchanged grins – why did I keep walking? That bugged me in a happy way for the next half-hour or more. By then I was starting to go downhill, a good sign, I thought. I was in a pretty rough-looking part of town, but it was daytime and there were genteel-looking children walking on their ways to places, so I didn’t feel the need to be on guard. I stopped for a moment and composed a goodbye text message to one of the Ukrainian guys in the CWY Youth Program. I suppose they’re in Edmonton by now. I wonder what the Canadians on the NetCorps program (essentially my successors) will be like…

I crossed six lanes of traffic and two trolley tracks with the aid of a traffic light, which was observed by some drivers - unfortunately not the ones driving the rather imposing SCANIA trucks. I walked under an overpass and around a few blocks, got a hunch that I was going in the wrong direction, and so I abandoned my northward journey and headed east and south. I was about to walk all the way towards another street that caught my attention, but then I found a passageway into the flea market under the aforementioned highway, and my curiosity led me back there. I thumbed through some DVDs, but nothing looked like it had anything for English speakers (as usual), and so I decided to walk under the elevated road for a short piece, until I got to that eye-catching street.

I probably should have noticed that the only locals traversing this piece were doing so on scooters. I saw two very aggressive dogs – I tried to ignore them, but I probably blinked the wrong way or something – and before I knew it I was almost running back to the flea market, punctuating my retreat with defensive kicks towards the dogs in question. Once I got back among the people they eased off, allowing me to relish in the stares I was getting. Now they all knew I was a foreigner. Hey, if someone invents an invisible camera bag, can you give me a heads-up? So I smiled and blushed my way on out of there and reached the sensible route with my heart still pulsing like a rotary-dial phone.

So now I walked, and walked, and eventually I came to a street corner where on my left I saw a seaport entrance, and on my right and up in the sky I saw a gigantic pedestrian bridge connecting a park (beside me) and a acropolis-like monument (on the southwest corner). So I poked around looking for a way up, and I briefly considered scrambling right up the bluff, but then I decided it would be better to try and look for stairs, as I knew that I often go up to something the hard way before discovering the easy way. My search paid off, and I was astounded to find myself back in civilization – the buildings here were in much better repair, and a high-rise Western hotel with a security gate was to my right.

Crossing this bridge was an adventure in itself. For one thing, it offered an interesting panoramic view of the shipping piers and my first real look at the Black Sea; for another, it was covered with persistent Gypsies that could walk faster than I could walk and take pictures. I steadfastly ignored them, not even making eye contact, nor even flinching when they touched me, tapped on my shoulder, or tugged at my clothes. These gypsies are like spiny shells in Mario Kart – they’ll follow you anywhere; right back to your hotel if they think you’ll give in.

I should probably learn the Russian phrase for, “I’m not a foreign tourist; I just like taking pictures.” There’d be a grain of truth in it – I can be just as photo-crazy back home. Not that it mattered much here, these Gypsies were on me as soon as I set foot on the bridge, and I’d be d****d if I was going to let them spoil my shots.

Not long after this, I found the famous Potemkin Stairs. I started at the top and came down, capturing the view from both ends and in the middle. And I noticed dozens upon dozens of Ukrainians taking photos, so I felt quite at ease here, and amused that all of their cameras were nicer than mine. As for the stairs, they’re mildly impressive and well worth checking out. They weren’t too crowded when I was there, and they’ll hardly gas out your legs, but there’s a lift nearby in case they would.

After the stairs, I crossed over to the cruise ship pier; a huge complex that includes a hotel, an art gallery, a mall, a boat station that’s like a small airport (but for boats), and two or more truly enormous vessels. It’s definitely worth exploring if you’re ever in Odessa.

My sense of touristical duty led me into an art gallery, which was closing for lunch, and in the end, it’s for the better that I kept on going. My curiosity led me into the boat station, where I found a guy walking down the stairs wearing a Nova Scotia ballcap! I ran after him and asked him where he got the hat.

He was a really nice Turkish fellow. He told me he got the hat while he was working on a cruise ship that was docked in Victoria, BC. (Sure, that’s like getting a New York souvenir in Los Angeles, but hey.) However, there was a purpose, as he was going to be in Nova Scotia on a different ship in 2006. (Incidentally, he thought that I was working on the Holland America ship currently docked. Right now he was working on the Maxim Gorky, docked on the opposite side of the pier.) We exchanged e-mail addresses and happily parted.

I continued along the street (no beach yet, just one very long seaport) and found a gently sloping street that led me to a quiet neighbourhood which in turn led me to the park, where I was finally able to sit and stare off into the horizon. I did this for minutes on end in several different places. I’d never before known what it was like for the sea to be so mesmerizing, as I’m used to seeing it off-and-on all through my life in the Maritimes.

This park was huge, but eventually the lower levels became a beach, which was also huge. This wasn’t exactly a stereotypical quiet seaside beach, however. This beach was punctuated by discos, cafés (mostly closed for the season), tacky children’s playgrounds and even a “dolphinarium,” which was busy with children and parents even on this late October day. So my beach photos aren’t exactly the same kind I’d take at Basin Head (PEI). Except maybe for this:

enthused step enthused step
William, on the Black Sea shore of Odessa, Ukraine.

That picture was taken with the “No Friends Technique” (patent-pending), in which I pat down some sand to make a hard spot which will support my little mini-tripod. The funny part is that none of the locals were giving me any undue stares. I guess they’re kind of used to strange tourists. I encountered another guy who was probably used to tourists further down the beach. I saw him get out of the water and start lifting concrete blocks. The guy was built. I gestured to my camera bag, and he set down his block and got ready to take a picture of me. Ha-ha, no, I indicated that I want a picture of him, and he humbly declined. So I kept walking.

Actually, among all the tacky detritus, I found a topless beach.

It was empty.

Eventually either the beach tapered off or I got tired of it, so I walked up a little bit and re-joined the park. By now it was a major multi-use trail with painted lanes that seemed to go on for kilometres. In fact, it did. Along the way there were a few diversions, including a wall-climbing attraction and an ad-hoc stunt area for trail bikers.

After some time (the sun was setting by now), I found a huge sand cliff at a point. Instead of sticking to the lanes, I climbed the cliffs, just to see what was on top. I wandered and wandered, probably going places that few travellers went. I don’t know. But my premonition about the easy way up certainly came true – I found a street and then another (more ornamental) park at the same elevation. But to get down from this park, after having a “I’ll never forget this, ever,” moment and staring into the dark blue expanse, I climbed down the edge of the cliff again. Why? Well, the park came to such an uncertain end that I didn’t know where else to go but back to the multi-use trail, a few hundred feet below me. I also didn’t want to take chances with the dogs I could hear (but not see) seemingly just a few metres in front of me.

So I picked my way down and emerged from a pile of garbage and nonchalantly strolled past a group of older men and back onto the trail. Ah, relief!

Eventually I came to Arcadia, Odessa’s most popular and famous beach area – unfortunately, it was getting dark at this time, so I didn’t get to see much. Some dogs chased me again, right in the middle of a crowd – maybe I was unknowingly wearing cat-scented deodorant or something. These Odessa dogs on the whole have been a lot more aggressive (and often much larger) than the Ostroh dogs – in any case, I feel like I can handle just about any dog situation in Canada now. However, I’m still generally a bit afraid of dogs. Ironically, that’s my animal sign in Chinese Astrology.

I walked up a darkening pedestrian boulevard and hopped on a tram that promised a ride to the bus station back in downtown Odessa, which I knew to be but a few blocks from my hotel. I rode for an hour, and why didn’t I get off when all the youngsters got off, which was probably downtown? No, I stayed on until the end, and ended up in the sketchiest part of town imaginable. At night. And lost. Uh…

Well, at least I knew better than to haul my map out in public, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone on the street in that area for directions. Luckily, I found a nice little convenience store where Ukrainian was spoken by the proprietress and the customers, and so I was able to get my bearings. Unfortunately, they couldn’t point out where I was on my map, and neither could anyone at the next store I found (well, they did point out a place, but when I finally got back to the hotel and figured out where I had been, I discovered they were about ten blocks off – heck, at first they were pointing to and reading the streets in an entirely different raion (municipality), which really freaked me out)… much to my relief, I eventually found something familiar, and I was home again and generally astounded at how I could get lost such a short distance from the centre of town.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly helping that many of the street names had changed since Independence, which is fine as far as my map goes, because it has all the updated names – except that many of the buildings at the street corners still sport the old names. Also, nobody understood me when I asked what the names of the streets were, because I was asking in Ukrainian.

On that note, the State Tourism Administration of Ukraine’s official tourist map of Odessa has the following diplomatic comment about language: “Ukrainian is the state language of Ukraine. The majority of citizens of Odessa can also speak Russian.” I told Olexi about this, and he laughed, “In reality, only Russian!”

Still, Odessa is a porto franco, with its own life and its own rules. All the time I walked, I was struck by the reality that Odessa is not spiritually connected to Ukraine. The Ukrainian flag flies in the city, and a few advertisements are in Ukrainian, but that’s about it. But Odessa isn’t Russian, either. It’s nobody’s. It’s the quintessential free port.

Back to the story, I found Shelley at the hotel, and she’d had a bad day, to put it mildly. While I was out on my epic adventure, she was spitting bullets at the hotel counter, the bus station, and just about anyplace else where she needed assistance. She was understandably frustrated about the language situation; just before we got on the train in Lviv, a shopkeeper complimented her on her Ukrainian. Now she’s in Odessa trying to get to Kyiv to see her relatives, and nobody understands her without great difficulty. She also got lost like I did on the way back from the bus station (where she gave up the plan and decided to accompany me back to Rivne / Ostroh instead), but she found her way. To top it all off, she was feeling sick, and her feet hurt.

Our discussions were interrupted by a sudden series of explosions seeming to come from right outside the window. After a few blasts, I nonchalantly lay down on the floor. Shelley started laughing hysterically.

“It’s probably just fireworks!”
“Yeah, well until some bright flower* comes up and wishes me to have a nice day, I’m staying here.”

* - You know, like a flower-shaped firework.

Of course it turned out to be fireworks – but there should be a law or something that you have to use a bullhorn first and say, “Okay, relax everybody, we’re just going to set off a few fireworks. That cool?” which would be especially helpful when your hotel room window is aligned so that you can’t see the reflecting colours right away (again, to reassure you that they’re fireworks and not a rebel insurgency).

We had one thing in common – we were both hungry – so we set out in search of food. At length, we came to a classy pizza place. While we waited, I saw some people being served – it looked incredibly delicious. The menu selections were enticing, and the atmosphere was comfortable. I could say more for the service, though, because we waited half-an-hour to order, and then waited another half-hour to be told that the cook had left for the night and that we wouldn’t be served. This went over with us (at least on the inside) like a ton of bricks. Still, I tried to look on the bright side as we stalked off into the night:

“Well, I’d still like to give this place a second chance. It won’t be this trip, though, but maybe next time I’m in Odessa–”
“You’re f*****g kidding me, right?!” Shelley asked in a frenetic whisper between her clenched teeth. “You’re full of s**t, right?!”
“Well, they had a really nice menu-”
They made us wait for an hour!!

We went to and fro, but for one reason or another, we didn’t find another place to eat, so I sent Shelley back to the room and promised to bring food. Ideally the Turkish falafel stand would have been open, but Odessa past midnight was far from ideal. It would have been far, far easier to find food in Halifax. Why does Halifax have such good late night food when it is only a third the size of Odessa? It was our fault for waiting too long to eat, though. I found some cheese-flavoured potato chips, some Snickers Super and a bottle of Sprite, and those with our bananas and crackers from the morning was our meal. I munched on my treasure while flipping through the aforementioned guidebook, which must have been a massive editorial project no matter which way you look at it, and as fascinating as it could possibly be, if a bit dated.

Day Three was more subdued and Odessa was cold and grey. We took our things to the train station, and Shelley got her ticket to Rivne. We were sitting on the couch in the lounge for a few minutes, and we got to talking about our previous exchanges. I've been telling people about mine in bits and pieces when there's occaision to, but I've only treated one person (Heidi in the other CWY group) to a blow-by-blow rendition.

Shelley looked at me after picking up a few more details and said, "Wow, I knew your exchange was f****d, I didn't know it was FUBAR." Really, that about says it. When Vlad was here before mid-project and telling us stories, Lee asked him, "What's the craziest experience you've had last year?" Vlad just looked at me with a huge grin. I really want to thank Jen for helping to give me an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes.

After the train station, we came back towards the downtown to visit the Museum of Western and Oriental Art. We saw all kinds of interesting paintings there – it was a little bit dingy, but it was a good jumping-off point to learn about art history. I copied down the names of some of the paintings so I could research them or their artists later, and this is an anecdote in itself. I didn’t have a pen or paper on me in the gallery, as I’d left my things at the coat check. So early on I was recording the names as a draft text message. Unfortunately, one of the gallery’s formidable babushkas took a serious objection to me using my cell phone (even though it was silent and I wasn’t actually calling anyone or using the network in any way), and kept indicating that I couldn’t use it, but I (now shaking in my shoes and barely able to press the keys) persisted, trying to make her understand that I was simply copying the names of some of the paintings so that I could research them at home. I don’t know if she understood or not, because she came at me again in the next room when I did the same thing again. I pointed at the English title of the painting and at my cell phone display, but nothing seemed to reassure her, and I think even if she knew I wasn’t doing harm she would just get grouchy anyway for looking in the wrong. So Shelley lent me some tissue and a pen, and that was the end of that problem.

Towards the end of our stay, we saw an exhibit by Sergei Lykov, who does some really interesting things with perspectives – many of his paintings look like Photoshop filters have been applied to them (such as ripples or radial blurs). Of course he also paints really intriguing portraits – and now you’ve reached the limit of my art vocabulary, because I only stayed at NSCAD for two months. Anyway, I was intrigued enough to want to know more, and sure enough, he has a brochure and a website: www.lykov.net.

After the art gallery we went out for pizza ("Pan Pizza") and actually got served this time (tip: if you want slow service in some Odessan restaurants, speak Ukrainian), but this was more of a street place, and my lukewarm, slightly bland pizza just wasn’t worth the 30UAH ($7.25) I forked over for it. That was the most I’d spent on a single item of food since I’d come to Ukraine, and I guess the experience taught me that I need to spend more wisely. Okay, sure, $7 doesn’t sound like much, but that can buy a lot here if you’re savvy. However, this place did have an English menu, of note because it was the best-translated English menu I’ve seen in Ukraine.

The train trip back to Rivne was uneventful. Our companions didn’t speak English, though they spent almost the duration of the trip talking about their experiences dealing with English speakers. At 7:15am I got a gentle touch on the foot by a cabin attendant, and so I got up and got ready – and at 7:30am, we pulled into Zdolbuniv. Of course, I thought it was Rivne – why else would he have woke me up earlier than I had set my alarm? So I told Shelley it was probably Rivne, and so we rushed and tore and it ended with the attendants laughing their heads off at us.

We finally hit Rivne, and getting out was easy – we found a nice cab driver who understood our Ukrainian and took us to the marshutke gathering place. We found one to Ostroh ready to go! We were also lucky as far as our stuff was concerned – we just put it in the very back of the aisle against the back window, and it didn’t get in anyone’s way. This was a huge stroke of luck because by the time we got through Zdolbuniv, there were probably twenty people standing in the aisle, and this vehicle really isn’t all that much longer than a big pick-up truck. In fact, it may even be shorter.

We could have gotten off the train at a station closer to Ostroh, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere at seven in the morning looking for a way back into Ostroh. As things often go here, I find it much easier to go with what I know. Sure, in Canada I play around with my transportation options all the time. Maybe there’s something about the language and cultural barriers that makes me less creative. =)
Tags: beaches, best of ukraine, cwy, language, odessa, programs, travel

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