Saturday, August 23, 2008

UA - Odesa

It was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had this whole trip: good temperature, my feet could stick out into the aisle… ahh. I only awoke 3 times:

1 – When Svitlana was standing beside the beds (she was roasting up on the top bunk) and talking to the person on the opposite top bunk.

2 – When our wagon was switched to a new engine – involving a stop of nearly 2 hours. All the other wagons were headed to Kyiv, with ours being the sole one destined for Odesa. The normal Odesa train passes through Moldova, which I can’t go through without a visa.

3 – And finally when a baby in the next bunk room over began bawling loudly. This ultimately got me up and moving – just when I thought the baby would stop, she’d start right back up again. I decided to give in after perhaps 15 minutes.

Our time in Odesa was cut short as we immediately boarded a marutshuka bound for Illichevsk. This is a mid-sized beach town north of the considerably larger city of Odesa. I had planned to return to Odesa early so I could explore it a bit, since I’d hate to come to Odesa and not see Odesa. However, as we were walking from Illichevsk’s arrival bus stop to the beach, Svitlana forgot to show me where the departure bus stop was located. For some reason, they were not located at the same place (this is why I hate buses), and since I thus didn’t know how to leave town: this set the stage for the drama to come later.

We initially laid down in the shade, up at the top of the beach’s gradient and furthest from the water. I watched our bags while the girls went to swim. During this time, my Jersey beach bum roots came back and as soon as they returned, I relocated myself right beside the water. The shade is for retirees; not me (yet).

This part of the beach was terraced, and I settled on the first terrace above the water with my feet dangling over the edge. The sound of waves (albeit very small) breaking on the shore made it all so perfect. The view over the Black Sea was lovely. Sure, it was just water all the way to the horizon, but that in and of itself reminded me of the shore back home. Throw in a horizon full of massive freighters and now you’ve just got yourself one cool view.

The land was made of sand. The water was the perfect temperature: a slight shock when you first get in, but warm enough that I didn’t have to inch my way in. I could see down about 5 feet, which certainly beats Jersey. There was a sand barrier a bit further out after a portion which was about 8 feet deep), and this sand barrier was a mere 3-4 feet beneath the surface. I found whenever I’d evaporated off the water from my previous swim & was beginning to feel toasty again, a swim out to the sand bar and back was the perfect amount to cool myself down.

The scenery on the beach… well… any warm-blooded male that enjoys the opposite sex is dearly due for a visit to Ukraine’s beaches. This country of beautiful women has thoroughly embraced the tanga bikini. In every direction I saw the Moon Over Miami; a total eclipse; and a downright cheeky view. At one point I noticed my sun was blocked… I opened my eyes to find I was being eclipsed by Venus… except Mars was laying just behind me.

The caveat, however, is that Ukraine also has an abundance of perhaps the most ripply babushkas I’ve ever seen… some of them also embracing the tanga bikini (or their rolls of cellulose achieving the same effect). This was also the first beach in Europe that I’ve been to which wasn’t topless, with the exception of women laying face-down and the aforementioned babushkas being unable to contain themselves within their tops – not really topless per se, but again the same (unsettling) effect. This all really helped to keep the libido in check.

I was ready to return to Odesa at 1530, after about 4 hours of sun. Leaving at this time meant that I should be in Odesa by 1700. I got up and went back to the shade for the girls, with whom I left my camera, wallet, and passport. Can’t leave without the passport; not going anywhere without cash; and I keep my camera closer to me than I do my passport. They were nowhere to be found, however.

So now I’m a bit worried. Did they leave? Did they move to the sunlight? If the latter: where? I aced one way and didn’t spot them among the crowds; I paced the other way – nothing. After a couple minutes of trying to think of what to do, I put my stuff back where I had been laying – it was a great spot and I figured that if I was going to have to spend more time here, I might as well at least enjoy it. I returned to the next terrace up so I was plainly visible and could always keep watch on my stuff.

Svitlana came walking up after about 15 minutes total of searching and standing. They were seated in the direction I first looked, but even with Svitlana pointing toward Anastasia: it was still like Where’s Waldo. I hopped down to grab my stuff and, after only seconds had passed, turned around only to find that Svitlana had disappeared. I was hoping she’d show me where the bus stop was located, but even after going over to Anastasia: Svitlana was still nowhere to be found.

I left my things with Anastasia then went to change back into my regular clothes. Upon my return, I was further confounded to find that Anastasia had also disappeared. Fortunately, all the stuff was still there. With adjacent sunbathers staring at me like I’m a criminal (albeit doing nothing about it), I pulled my camera, wallet, and passport from Svitlana’s bag and was on my way. I had left those items with the girls for protection, and here I easily snatched them and departed. That was a bit disconcerting.

Where was I going? No idea. I walked back to the main street where the marshrutka had dropped us off. I just couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be able to catch a bus at the same approximate place as where it’d dropped us off. I hailed a marshrutka with a sign that had a sign with Illichevsk on top and Odesa on bottom, the driver responded “Odesa, nyet.” So I tried a marshrutka with Odesa on top and Illichevsk on bottom… “Odesa, nyet.” I was further confused in that both of these marshrutka were going the same direction. Giving in to the very reasons why I despise bus transport, I made my way back to the beach.

Upon my return, not only are both girls still missing, but now their stuff is gone, too. No towels; no bags; they’re gone. I contemplated splurging for a taxi, but I knew that it’d readily become apparent to the driver that I didn’t speak Russian. While I’m confident I could get by with just saying “Odesa”, when it came time to pay: I’d have no idea what price he was trying to give me.

So I’d probably do what I’d been doing with the marshrutka and buses: just give a large bill and let them give me the change back. A taxi driver, with their variable prices, would surely give me a higher price in the end. The only alternative would be to try to negotiate a price before we left, using my guidebook’s number translations to make the offers; and judging the driver’s facial reactions as to whether or not I was in the right ballpark.

Just as I was about to turn and leave, I hear a stranger’s accented voice behind me asking “Hi… Andrew?”

“Yes” or “Da,” I replied. One of Svitlana’s friends recognized me from photos. She called Svitlana – reaching Anastasia – whom instructed me to wait for them. They had gone to the showers (which you have to pay for: bah to that). I waited… and waited. The friend and her other friend left for the water, so I moved out of the crowds and waited some more. At about 1715 they arrived & we walked half an hour to the bus stop – no where near where I’d headed, though I think it may have at least been the same main street I’d reached earlier.

In Odesa, we walked along the road from the train station directly into town – vul Pushkinska. This street was absolutely beautiful with its tree-lined corroder, and I yearned to have more time to explore the side-streets. However, Svitlana pointed out that the other streets are all the same. I later realized she was right: all the streets between the train station and historic core really do all look the same. If you’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all.

We parted ways in the core – they headed toward the shopping core and I headed to the historic core. We agreed to meet at the train station at 2210, that is 10:10 pm. I explained that was happy time – if you look at a clock face at 10:10, it just looks happy. Clock stores even exploit this, often setting static analog clocks to 10:10 to try and, psychologically, make their customers happier and hence more willing to spend (or so the thinking goes).

The girls didn’t seem to amused by this anecdote, which again reinforced why much of my time with the two is spent wishing I could be on my own: I can’t be myself. It often doesn’t feel like there are three of us on this trip, but rather two of us and one of us.

- As an only-child, I’m fiercely independent; but when I’m with them I end up depending on them for everything.

- I say lots of off-the-wall things and like to act weirdly, as I believe that everybody needs a daily dose of weird; but cultural and language barriers don’t help on that end (such as with yesterday’s talk about my running for President in 2020 and whole taking over the world bit).

- I like to add on to conversations, but because they talk to each other in Russian: I have nothing to play off of.

- In Russia and Ukraine, it seems, people don’t tend to go outside between 11am and 3pm during the summertime, as it’s too hot. This is in stark contrast to westerners, where this is often the time of day where it’s best to get out and explore. So right when I anticipate I should be hiking far off in some remote area, they anticipate being somewhere air conditioned.

- We have totally different interests. As I said before, I like history; they don’t. I’ve noticed that the Slavic people love to take photos of eachother, and a photo just isn’t complete unless there’s somebody in it; but I tend to feel like people get in the way and will wait several minutes for a room to clear just to get that perfect shot.

- Our interpretation of this holiday is also completely different. They see it as a chance to relax from a hectic schedule of work and school. I see it as a chance to finally live vicariously, in contrast to my relatively boring life as an engineer and student. So I always want to move when they just want to stop.

On my own in Odesa, I excitedly went to the attractions and toured the streets – trying to make the best of what little time I had. I thought back to my visit to Montreal in July: this Quebecois city was neat in that it had an active industrial port, but still drew tourism to its piers. Odesa’s port is even more industrial, but still draws the tourists down to its central pier; and the cranes and chimneys were all surprisingly beautiful against the setting sun.

After photo ops at the landmarks, I searched for food with my Lonely Planet guide leading the way. Not one of the places in the guide was still around. I couldn’t find a single one. I spent so much time getting photos and searching for food that I ran out of time to eat, anyway. I grabbed a shwarma at the train station – always tasty; but not exactly local cuisine.

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