I traveled to Kiev to meet my good friend and one-time roommate, Becca, for one last summer hurrah. I had gone to visit her for Spring Break in Cairo, to get away from one of the coldest Ukrainian winters I’ve ever lived through, and Egypt complied with nice warm weather. Becca arrived to a cool and rainy Kiev, and coming from Cairo, she couldn’t have been happier. She was leaving Cairo to get away from Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday of fasting all day, so she was most looking forward to eating in Ukraine. At the top of her list was eating lots of sausage and other pork products, which she doesn’t get in Egypt. Ukraine has pretty tasty food, and I was sure Becca wouldn’t be disappointed, especially coming from a country where most people are fasting!
When I met her at the airport, exhausted from a long night on the bus, I found her in less-than-perfect condition too, suffering from some serious stomach issues. Unfortunately for her, we had a long train ride ahead of us to Odessa. Usually we’d go on the overnight train, but it was sold out, so we took the day train. Taking trains is a unique experience in Ukraine, and Becca got to experience it the Peace Corps way, meaning we did it cheaply–third class, also known as platzkart. Having spent a pretty penny on my adventures with Tori, I was trying to budget my trip with Becca carefully. Now that I’m at the end of my two year commitment to Peace Corps, its becoming very apparent that I need to go home and get a real job and replenish my dwindling bank account 😉
Becca and I got caught up on the train ride, and I told her all about the places I’d been to with Victoria over the summer. Her stomach ache made the ride less than enjoyable, but we finally made it to Odessa at 11pm that night. One of my best PCV friends, Michelle, was in Odessa entertaining some of her friends who had come to visit from America, and they had invited us to spend the night at the apartment they were renting. This is a very common practice in Ukraine when traveling; instead of staying at a hostel or paying for a hotel room, you can rent an entire furnished apartment, often for cheaper than a hotel room would be. Then you have a full kitchen at your disposal, and your own private area to hang out.
We took a taxi to their apartment, and gratefully collapsed on the bed they offered. The next day we spent wandering around Odessa, going down to the pier and admiring all the beautiful boats in the harbor. It was Michelle and her friends’ last day in Odessa, so we indulged by having lunch at the tastiest Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to outside of the North American continent. We even had margaritas to boot! After Michelle and her friends left, Becca and I checked into the hostel where we would be spending the rest of the weekend at, and quickly made friends with Svieta, who works at the hostel. This place was actually recommended to me by Svieta’s cousin, Olha, who is a friend of mine who runs a hostel in Kiev. I love Olha, and her cousin Svieta was just as cool. Svieta knew an underground local bar that was having a night dedicated to alternative rock music (my personal favorite), and we made a plan to go together.
This was one of my favorite memories from Odessa, because Becca let me doll her up and even borrowed some of my clothes so she would fit in better at the bar. Coming from Cairo, most of Becca’s clothes are incredibly modest, which means she doesn’t fit in at all in Ukraine ; ) Doesn’t she look hot?
We had a fun night at the bar with Svieta, the music was incredible and we even danced a bit. I’m not a fan of the usual techno music blaring in every Ukrainian bar or club, so hearing alternative rock was a huge treat for me.
The next day we did a bit of site-seeing, because the weather was cool (70s) and not quite warm enough for lounging on the beach. We found a free walking-tour in English, and it ended up being just Becca and I so the tour was very personalized. There is a very quaint pedestrian zone in the heart of Odessa, and we enjoyed getting better acquainted with it. Here are some pictures of the tour highlights.
Becca posing with the statue of Bronislava Prokopovna, a rich but homely heiress who avoided marrying a gold-digger and ended up staying single the rest of her life. She’s been immortalized in the Odessa Bazaar, which is the biggest bazaar in Ukraine. I’m not sure what the moral of her story was, maybe its better to be alone than with someone who doesn’t love you for the right reasons?
Our hostel was located just around the corner from the Odessa Orthodox Cathedral, which would’ve been lovely if it wasn’t a religious holiday the weekend we were visiting… it was a feast day celebrating the Holy Transfiguration, which meant the bells started ringing at like eight in the morning and didn’t stop until noon. Not pleasant if you stayed out late the night before 😛
One of the most unexpected sites on the tour was the Odessa Passage, which is located in the pedestrian center of Odessa. Its like a tiny mall, and the first three floors are full of boutiques, while the fourth floor is a hotel. Going inside the passage, you felt like you’re leaving Ukraine, kind of like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia. The skylight in the Passage reminded me of the Galleria in Cleveland, Ohio, if you’ve ever been there. And I inevitably felt a twinge of homesickness. Just when you think you’ve beat it, it pops up and says “don’t you miss me?” and the answer is yes.
The famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, spent more than a year living in Odessa in the 1800s, establishing his reputation as a Russian Casanova, until he seduced the governor’s wife and was expelled from Odessa. Oops. Behind Pushkin’s monument there is a museum dedicated to his works, so I guess he wins in the long run because everyone knows his name and nobody remembers which governor’s wife he seduced.
To be honest, I have no clue what this monument is for. We just took a picture because we thought it should be in a collection of the world’s ugliest monuments… I think its supposed to be a baby coming out of a womb? Its an established Odessan tradition to rub the baby’s toe for good luck. I passed, but Becca wanted a picture. Becca, I hope touching this ugly baby’s toe brings you your luckiest year yet! 😛
Our last day in Odessa, Becca felt like we needed to do something touristy or educational. There was information on the board at the hostel about some famous catacombs beneath the city, and she thought it’d be fun to explore. I was ambivalent, but I figured it was her vacation and if she wanted to see the catacombs I would go with her. So we arranged the tour and woke up early to be ready for it. One of the tour guides picked us up at our hostel, took one look at my shoes and said “no” in Russian. First of all, the tour was supposed to be in English. Second of all, they were the only shoes I had, besides heels. Becca laughed and said I could borrow her sandals (which were way too big), and we joked about how when we go to the club she needs my clothes, but when we go roughing it, I need hers.
We took a public bus to the edge of Odessa where we met our other tour guide, who did speak some English… but not much. And what he did say was confusing and not very clear, so I had low expectations of the tour. Its get worse though! He leads us to a courtyard in the middle of several apartment complexes, to a garbage dump, points down, and informs us that this is how we’re going to enter the catacombs. If I could’ve backed out then, I would have.
The tour guide tried his best to explain the significance of the catacombs in Odessa, but I think my prior experience with catacombs (the religious type, in Rome and Alexandria) had given me unrealistic expectations of a peaceful, underground mausoleum, complete with religious art and well-lit corridors. The catacombs in Odessa are the result of sandstone mining, and have no religious significance whatsoever. There were disgustingly dirty, not lit at all (we had to carry flashlights), and at points completely underwater so you have to wade through. I think there is some interesting history to the catacombs, which our tour guide attempted to impart (but failed), regarding how Soviet partisans used the tunnels to hide from the fascist invaders in World War II. Other than that, their only significance is their popular use by smugglers.
After we got home, I googled the Odessa Catacombs to get an idea of their importance, and what I read made me nearly pee my pants.
“Today they [the Catacombs] are a great attraction for extreme tourists, who explore the tunnels despite the dangers involved. Such tours are not officially sanctioned because the catacombs have not been fully mapped and the tunnels themselves are unsafe. There have been incidents of people becoming lost in the tunnel network, and dying of dehydration or rockfalls.”
I guess I should just be thankful Becca and I survived!
Once Becca and I made it back to the surface of the earth, thankful to be breathing fresh air and walking on solid, dry ground, we decided the rest of our day should be spent on the beach. The weather had finally warmed up to the 80s, so we took a bus across town and spent our last few hours enjoying Odessa’s best attraction–the beach on the Black Sea!
That evening, we had a bus to catch. We were taking an overnight bus from Odessa to Chernivtsi, a whopping 14 hours sitting upright and wishing we were on a train laying down and sleeping! We made it to Chernivtsi early the next morning, where I had a meeting with a textbook distributor about books for my grant. Becca was a great sport and tagged along, and after my meeting we caught another bus to Sokyriany. I was excited to show Becca my hometown in Ukraine, and also happy to be on my way home again!
Check out the next blog post to hear about our camping experience on the Dniester River, our trip to Kamyanets-Podilsky to see a medieval castle, and our last day in Kiev before Becca flew back to Egypt!