Exploring Ukraine - A Taste of Kharkov, Odessa and Kiev

I have been to the Old Soviet Union before. The first time I visited Ukraine was during the recent political unrest in 2014, about a couple of weeks after John McCain visited Kyiv. I rented an apartment from the USA, and to my surprise, it was in the middle of an army camp and battleground that was Khreshchatyk Street, the main street of Kyiv. Flowers lined the road to mark where people were killed the weekend before. Broken tanks and other forms of military equipment were scattered along the street. Buildings showed signs of recent damage, and soldiers were cooking food over small fires in and out of uniform. Meeting were going on in the tents that were all over the street. Despite all the chaos, everyday life continued at the Macdonald's restaurant adjacent to my apartment. As I entered MacDonalds to get breakfast, a man grabbed me and asked in English, "What are you doing here?"  I responded that I was a tourist and I was there to meet friends.   He said that he went to school on Long Island and was happy to practice his English with me, so he invited me to have breakfast with him and his family. 

Later that day, I walked through the army camp towards the stage in front of the Maidan. The loudspeakers were playing recordings of recent speeches with a few people sitting and listening. Many eyes followed me, but I did not feel afraid. "Are you Ruski?", A voice shouted. I smiled and continued. I did not think I looked Russian even though I was well dressed in my black suit. I walked up the hill to St Michael's Golden_Domed Monastery overlooking the Maidan. I sat down to give my mind time to take in this unique environment. Some young schoolchildren saw me, encircled me, and asked me to take pictures with them because they did not often see a black face in their world. I did. And for a few minutes, I felt like a celebrity.

However, I could not escape the war as different men would confess their exploits to me. "I killed two people last week. I was a sniper shooting from my apartment window."  I am not sure why they choose to confess to me. Maybe it was because they thought I was from the West and I would be sympathetic to their actions. I saw many young boys carrying guns openly and acting as guards. I was unsure who the enemy was since these were all the same people from the same country. However, as a precaution, I did not go out at night while living in Khreshcatyk because it felt problematic, but when I moved to a new apartment two blocks away, there were little signs of war as people went on with their daily lives.

My next visit to Ukraine was very different from my first. I visited Odesa, a seaport town on the Black Sea hotbed for tourism. People were everywhere on Deribasovskaya Street, taking pictures, riding horses, and enjoying the sidewalk cafe in front of the Mcdonald's. In the nearby park, a group of people, young and old, was dancing the Argentinian Tango. The dancing grabbed my attention, so I walked over to watch. After a good fifteen minutes, they invited me to join them. I did, but I struggled to learn the steps. However, I was happy to be asked to participate. They extended the invitation to a party they were having on Saturday night, but I had to decline since I would have left town by then. 

I spent dinner that night talking with a Ukrainian couple about how it felt to live under the control of the Soviet Union and was surprised to hear that it felt stable. They knew what to expect. They had somewhere to live, and education and many other services were free. A drawback was that the government could move another family into their home if this were needed. They did not like this idea, but it was one of the prices they had to pay for the stability they valued. We continued to talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union and how the breakup affected them. They told me that the people received shares in the country's resources during the fall. However, people stole some claims. Some were wealthy, while others became destitute. They worried about the uncertainty they felt now with the Ukrainian Hryvnia dropping precipitously against the dollar. You could get eight Hryvnia for one dollar two and a half years ago. Now, the exchange rate is twenty-six Hryvnia to one dollar. When you couple this with the fact that the average Ukrainian makes three to five thousand Hryvnia per month, which is about 200 dollars a month, you can see that life is tough for Ukrainians today. 

 During this trip to Ukraine, I could sense quiet desperation among many people. I got the impression that most people saw me as a bottomless American bank account. So, there is always a scheme to extract some money from me. A young boy ran up to me with a bouquet begging me to buy them. I refused. He threw his arms around me in what seemed like an embrace, and as I pulled away, I realized he was going for my wallet in my back pocket. Luckily, I wore a jacket, and my purse was in my coat pocket. And that was not the first time I was a scam victim. One day during the war, a young man in a bunny rabbit suit asked if he could take a picture with me. I said yes because I thought it was the easiest way to get out of the situation. He had his arms around me in a flash, and one of his friends took my camera and snapped away. This activity attracted attention because a man brought over pigeons and placed them on my head.

Click, Click went my camera, and it woke me up to the fact that I was in the middle of a scam. The man in the rabbit suit said, " That is enough. Pay us." "That will be 200 Hryvnia for me and 200 Hryvnia for my friend."   400 Hryvnia was equivalent to 50 dollars at the time. The young man with the pigeons stuck his hand out, and I paid him twenty American dollars.

In summary, I paid 70 dollars for pictures I did not want. When I tell these stories to other Ukrainians, they say, "This is Kyiv. What do you expect.?"

There are expectations of fraud and deceit in the minds of many Ukrainians. They believe the government is crooked and that anything, including university degrees, can be bought. Despite this dark cloud of deception, There is also a beautiful side to Ukraine. The food is good and very inexpensive. I had a beer, a bowl of soup, and a main course of pasta in a meat sauce at a nice restaurant for less than eight dollars. Public transportation is twenty cents, and you can rent a decent apartment for two hundred dollars a month. The women are beautiful, in good shape, and dressed well. I don't know how they do it with the salary they make. Many people are kind and will go out of their way for you.

I arrived at the Odessa Airport and was looking for a ride into the city. Many cab drivers offered me rides to the town for 1200 Hryvnia. I did not bite because I felt that price might be high. I was right. A woman who overheard the prices offered by the taxi driver intervened. She said they were cheating me and would call me a cab. She decided to stay with me until the taxi arrived. However, since the cab took a while to get to the airport, she decided I should share her cab. The taxi dropped her off at her house and then took me to my hotel. The ride cost was 100 Hryvnia, 1100 Hryvnia less than my first offer. This act of kindness was not a unique event. A young man noticed my confusion as I wandered around trying to find my way and called me a cab, waited with me for the taxi to get there, and explained where I needed to go in Russian to the taxi driver. Ukraine is a country trying to find its identity between deception and caring for others. I found both types of people there.

When I visited Kharkiv, the old capital of Ukraine, I was most impressed by Gorky Park. Maxim Gorky Central Park for Culture and Recreation was built on 130 hectares of land, and nearly 130 football fields, in the center of Kharkiv. This park was impressive. It was full of activities for children and populated by families. When I visited Gorgy Park, named after the influential Russian writer Maxim Gorky, I fell in love with it and wondered why we did not have more free facilities like Gorky Park here in the West. The only inconsistency at Gorky Park was that people were not allowed to walk on the grass. Everything was pristine, and they wanted to keep it that way. 

 I spent my birthday in Odessa this year among Europeans and Ukrainians. Two Ukrainian women approached me on the street and started a conversation. They were Jehova Witnesses and wanted to invite me to a meeting later that day. It was my birthday, and I had nothing special planned, so I accepted their invitation. They came to my hotel to pick me up, and we were off on a bus to their meeting room. When we arrived, a line of people was waiting to get in. The guy with me had the keys; he opened the doors, and we all entered. There were around thirty people there, with about two-thirds of them women. We prayed, sang songs, and had a lecture in English. They had these meetings in different languages, which was the English meeting. It was nice to meet more Ukrainian people. Since I am not religious, I was not a good candidate for further recruitment. Later that evening, I had a birthday drink and dinner with an Englishman staying in the hotel across the street from me.