Monday, August 22, 2011

The Odessa Underground- Catacombs

My overnight train pulls into the station at 6:10 AM. I offer a surly cab driver more than he can refuse, though he does initially until I make the offer to someone else.
The farther from the city center my taxi takes me, the more run down the roads, the cars, and the buildings become. The architecture swiftly morphs into pure Communist Vomit, and my hostel/hotel, while getting a decent location rating online, is out in the middle of nowhere, the streets a maze of windy, twisty passageways all alike.The cabbie has troubles finding my lodgings, irritating this unhappy man even more than usual.

I get dropped off in an impoverished neighborhood. No one speaks any English. and I'm no better at reading Cyrillic. There's no reception at the hostel, and no one to let me in. I explore the surroundings in the meantime, the breeze blessing me with the fragrance of raw sewage as stray dogs eye the unusual foreigner walking their neighborhood with interest. There is little if any beauty to be found in this rapidly decaying concrete jungle. Eventually I ask someone to call me a cab, which arrives a good 40 minutes later. I ride back to the center of town, switching hostels.
It's much nicer downtown, although I'm certain that the poverty I witnessed in the outskirts is how most Ukrainians live.
Restaurants catering to foreigners abound, and the architecture in this part of town is largely pre-Soviet, and therefore quite beautiful. A large church acts as my geographical marker, and the surrounding square has children's rides draw which draw me in like the Pied Piper.
"Get off the trampoline!!" yells a woman in Ukrainian, translatable merely via voice tone and body language, "50 kilos maximum."  
Get OFF the trampoline Rich! But I'm not "on it"
Odessa Communist Market
I meet a tall Russian girl , Anna (20), her father ex-KGB. Should be interesting to hang out with. We bring with us Claus, a Danish giant, to insure our safety I assume. Anna wants to go to a flea market. Normally the idea of shopping makes me nauseous but this market is exceptionally cool, a sort of outdoor mini-museum to Communist Times.
Lady selling her wares at Odessa Communist market
I find a plethora of World War II Nazi Germany and Soviet Medals. I pick up an Iron Cross, "Is it real?" I ask the seller, with Anna translating.
"Yeah, yeah, real of course."
Everything about it says it's brand new ... "It doesn't look real," I retort, "The paint, the colors are too fresh."
"No no. Real. Old. Real."
"Okay, you want real?" he calls over to a neighbor vendor, "Oksana, this guy wants real. Show him real."
It ain't easy trusting people out here.
And that goes for me too apparently. Now, I am trying to purchase a cute little backpack for my Goddaughter. The old lady offers it to me for 20 grivnas ($2.50.) All I have are 200 grivna ($25) bills, the largest denomination in the Ukraine. I offer her one, immediately she shies away, telling me she has no change.
Anna tells me the lady is a pensioner, and her income is $100 a month, which she augments by selling her superfluous items on the street. The woman is worried that she'll get stuck with a fake bill, which are common in the Ukraine, and be out 25% of her monthly income.
Eventually she makes change for me.

Just Ain't No Debating
While Claus and I see eye to eye on many subjects, our female companion views the world "differently." We attempt to engage Anna in a discussion about her beliefs that women should largely be subservient to their men, killing is not such a big deal, and that democracy is "unnecessary." While it's interesting to see such a different model of the world, a completely foreign reality, she's also very rigid in her beliefs, Claus and I wave the off-white flag of truce pretty quickly. We're not changing her mind.

The Catacombs of Odessa

It's illegal to enter the catacombs, a fact which excites several members of our five person tour. Of course, the primary reason entry is prohibited is because any section of the catacombs has the potential to collapse at any moment. "Oh, what fun." 
Non-decript entrance to Odessa catacombs
Located 10 km outside town, what was once an underground rock quarry, was used as a center of resistance during World War II. Ukrainians spent 18 hours a day underground emerging only in the evening to replenish their supplies and make raids against the Nazis. Before venturing out, they had to use make-up to hide their yellow skin, a consequence from lack of sun.
The Nazis knew about the catacombs and who lived in them, but they were unable to do much about it. The catacombs are comprised of over 2,000 km worth of tunnels, so trying to gas everybody to death didn't work, and if you try to enter, walk past a certain point, a voice asks for a password. Don't respond with the correct answer in 2 seconds in a Ukrainian accent- ratta tat tat tatta- the machine gun stationed directly in front of me would make mince meat out of your body. The Germans tried everything, from sending in Russian POW's as body armor ahead of them, to attack dogs. Nothing worked. I ponder momentarily just how many people died on the very spot I was standing.

Translation: Blood for blood, dead for dead.
Blood for blood. Life for life. Impossible to conquer a people who will fight you to the death.
A depiction of a World War II Ukrainian mother on the walls of the the catacombs, weeping over her dead sons
a photo of Lenin on the walls- to inspire hope for Ruskies
To end on a fun note, exploring the maze of the catacombs, there was a shortcut, a very narrow worm like passageway that we were dared to try to make it through. Everybody but me passes (I was dared, right?) and so I squirm on my stomach over the ground, realizing momentarily that I'm at least six feet under, and as I get to the end of the tight tunnel I find its radius decreased. I push. Why am I not moving? Oh my God, I am stuck in this underground tomb. There's only darkness other than that emanating from the light strapped around my fore-head, which I cannot even reach up to adjust, because my noggin's already through the hole. I push, I pull, but my shoulders are too broad to make it through.
Now I can't go backwards. I'm stuck like Winnie The Pooh leaving Rabbit's House after too consuming too much honey. Is the end of me? I'm really struggling, I'm not moving. There's no grease down here to lube me through. I haven't eaten anything. I'm not fat, it's not my fault I'm buffed!
This is not how I want to go! And as everyone lines up to try to pull on me like I'm the rope in a tug of war, hoping their combined strength will pull me out the rabbit hole, just like in Winnie The Pooh.
They're counting up to three. I halt them on two with one final request:-- "Before you guys pull my arms off, can someone please bring me some honey?"

1 comment:

  1. look here is our wild tour to odessa catacombs:


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