You can eat the pear
People warn me all the time about official corruption in Ukraine. I personally haven’t experienced this as I haven’t dealt with any Police. Although what I will say is there are lots of signs of taking advantage of the “system”. Often I don’t get receipts at stores for higher-end items (sports stuff), though merchandise has a price tag on it. So the store probably reports less profit than they actually get and pay less tax. Also a worker at a hostel I stayed at admitted she officially works at her Aunt’s business – but only two days a year – to claim some sort of minimum wage and pay less tax. I don’t think I have that story completely straight, but the fact of the matter is there is distrust in the system that goes all the way down to the minimum-wage worker. Lots of favors and gifts are exchanged. I wonder how much Orbital has to pay as a “commission” to do business with Yuzhone to build the first stage of the Antares rocket.
There’s not a whole lot of rules if you’re willing to ignore them or pay to get around them. I participated in this system on the night train from Odesa to Kyiv. Alcohol is prohibited on the train, of course, but it was hard to turn down a cold beer from our cabinmate in the sauna of the train. The AC doesn’t start until the train starts moving. They were making jokes that the conductor probably took out the pump to fix his car. After a few weeks in Ukraine, I realize that’s only slight hyperbole. Anyway, our cabinmate wanted to drink more than a beer, so he left the cabin and returned five minutes later with a bottle of Cognac purchased from a train worker in our car. Subsequently, another bottle of Cognac and mineral water were also acquired. The experience was reminiscent of drinking in your college dorm room, making sure to not make too much noise to alert the resident assistant.
We learned that the acquirer was a railroad worker himself, he was the one that went to cargo cars (not on this train) and inspected the contents and stamped official documents certifying proper loading. He told stories of shipping oil around the country – sometimes the tanks would be 10 tons heavier than the manifest, so he just sells it to the weigh station employees at a discount and pockets the money after giving a cut to his boss. The cars are filled on a volume-basis, so a temperature compensation is applied to ensure the above issue doesn’t happen. No problem, they adjust the volume based on the thermometer which is broken and reads -25C.
Fast forward a few hours and the acquirer couldn’t handle his alcohol and the other cabinmate and Boris were furiously whispering in Russian for him to calm down or we would get kicked off the train – with me giggling at the whole situation, fairly helpless as only Boris spoke English. It’s a blessing and curse traveling with a native language speaker.
I could eat Ukrainian food every day. Traditional vereniki dumplings and borsh are delicious, simple and hearty. Certainly my favorite cuisine on the trip so far. While in Kyiv, Boris showed me some Russian drinking processes beyond the after-shot pickle! Russians have a separate word for a solid chaser (coincidentally I don’t remember it) and a slice of pickled herring is the chaser of choice for good vodka. We toasted to the past, the present, the future and some other time periods that slip from memory as we listen to an amazing Ukrainian band singing 1980’s Russian songs in a pub.
Pickled herring is used for more than aiding bourgeoisie intoxication – placed under a gelatinized beet salad it makes “Herring under a fur coat,” a tasty cold appetizer. Another favorite is Kvas, a non-alcoholic fermented beverage. I’m drinking it right now. It tastes a little like a combination of root beer, stout beer and honey – absolutely the most refreshing drink on the planet.
I spent four days in Kyiv with Boris. A nice city, as much as I like cities. Time enough for me to move out, though. Boris left for the airport this afternoon and I went to the train station to buy my overnight ticket back to Odesa where I hope my bike is still locked firmly to the hostel’s balcony. I finally get to the front one of the forty cashier lines to buy my ticket – none left. The cashier didn’t speak English well, the younger man behind me translated a bit. He told me I could get the train next afternoon (8 hours, ugh. At least it’s better than the night train which takes 12 hours and averages less than 40 km/h) or take a 5 hour bus which would be a little more expensive. I decide to try my luck with the bus. I find the one with Одеса in the front with a man smoking on a small stool outside the driver’s seat in the shade. I go up and motion to my watch, attempting to ask when the bus leaves (I know the word “how much” in Russian so that’s usually the second question). He seemed surprised that I asked and quickly understood that communication was impossible with an American and we walked around the front of the bus. Two skinsheads were sitting on the stairs, one playing with a flexible black object that looked like a cross between a baton and a dildo. While I gawk, the smoker locates an English speaker in the bus – a third skinhead with some serious lightning tattoos. The third was nice and said the smoker wasn’t the driver, but the smoker would call the driver, I just had to wait 10 minutes. I said I’d be back in ten and decided the afternoon train was a good idea.
This guy in a swimsuit and ridiculous star shaped novelty sunglasses was paddling a homemade raft in the Dnipro river. His paddles are fishing nets, which seem like the worst decision he made that day. The river is huge and heavily trafficked so eventually somebody rowed out, towed him to shore (while he was helping by paddling his nets a little) and left.