Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sex, Drugs, Electronica, and a Bliss Attack in Kazantip

Kazantip
The party began almost twenty years ago when some wind surfers at a summer competition started a bonfire on the beach and added music. The celebration grew and grew, day by day, summer after summer, until today it is the premiere party in Eastern Europe, lasting from the end of July to almost September.
The party consists of two parts, one being the recently added sports games, an eight day event, the former Soviet Bloc's answer to the American X-Games; the second being a huge rave, where Kazantip Nation attracts in excess of 10,000 youth a night.
There's a very small subset of Eastern Europeans that can afford the $250 for the month long KaZantip ViZa (everything here has a "Z") , not to mention additional money for lodgings, transport, food, alcohol, drugs, and the vacation time needed to make the long journey out to the middle of nowhere. Why do they make the trek? Aside of probably the nicest, least polluted beach on the Black Sea, it's like pilgrimage for youth, the Mecca of raves, something you can always say, "Yeah I did that."
Many compare being here to Burning Man in the States, or the party in Ibiza. Over the years this two square kilometer "nation" has really built up some infrastructure- bars, restaurants, sculptures, a skyway, and stadiums that line the beach. It's actually quite impressive.
Many of the creations in Kazantip are modeled after drawings drawn-up by Soviet engineers who imagined what life would be like on the moon; from the rocket ship below-

nest of eggs atop spaceship in Kazantip
to the Star Wars like moon like residences- Kazantip


(check out this video of the scene in Kazantip- from day to night)
Drugs-
A plethora of drugs exist. I was warned not to consume any drinks that didn't come straight from a bartender as they could very likely be spiked, namely with Speed.
Fortunately, I never have to worry about being offered drugs, I know I'm not cool enough. (plus I don't speak Russian)

kazantip Bar on "skyway"
Sex
Boobs. You'll see lots of boobs on the sand here. I told you it's a nice a beach, right? It's clothing optional in the Z.
yes please
However, due to the huge expense associated with Kazantip, the majority of girls that arrive are attached. According to Dmtryo, very few Ukrainian women can afford to make it here on their own, but that doesn't mean hooking up is unlikely.
In my last post, I told you I was viciously attacked by mosquitoes at dusk, and while purchasing my pass to the sports game portion of the party ($25) I was taking my revenge on the little vampires resting on the walls, swatting about six of them while i waited for my ViZa to be created. I turned around and exchanged eye contact with a blond girl who was looking at me horrified.
"What are you doing?"
"Killing vampires."
My ViZa is ready so I walk away, probably looking like a weirdo in her eyes.

She sees me on the dance floor the next night. "Hey, you're the American that was killing mosquitoes!"
"Maybe."
"Can I talk to you?" she asks.
Great, now I have to explain my Hitler like actions towards these blood sucking parasites. She takes me aside, and sits down with me, but thankfully insects are the last thing on her mind.
She's a 25 year old Russian diplomat, hence the good English, recently divorced, and is here to party cause she's "too young to stop drinking and having sex." And that's what she's here to do ...
  
Flying bicycle- Kazantip
Electronica
24 hours a day, disc jockey's are playing electronic music in every bar on the beach. Aren't grooving to one DJ, walk twenty seconds, you'll find a different flavor. Unlike city clubs, even in the evenings, you'll find very little male/female grinding, most people are trance dancing by themselves, and there are some really excellent dancers here. I don't happen to be among them, but I love it when I allow music to take over my body, and I just let go. When thoughts cease, the dance of pure expression take place.

Bliss
I'm trying to decide whether to stay for the rave portion of the party, and pay the $250 for the new ViZa. Outside the ticket office, I run into Kate, a Russian girl. She and her friends are leaving in a couple days, and can't afford the fee. She strikes up a conversation with me and invites me to hang out with them. When people invite me to do something fun, I'm usually a Yes Man.
Me, Kate, and two Russian friends
We go and get some Koniak at the local store, and head to a neighboring beach. No English is spoken aside of Kate, who speaks poorly anyways, so I'm just enjoying their company. We're the only ones there and it's well after midnight. The sky here is clear, and outside of the lights coming from the party area, the entire region is shrouded in darkness for fifty miles in any direction.
I have never seen so many stars. It's magnificent. 
Stars in the night sky above Kazantip (Big Dipper)
As I sit there with my new friends, looking at the night sky, and its glowing stars, I think about how I am created of the same energy that created the dynamic lights that illuminate the cosmos. Their size, the billions of miles of distance, their age, and me, a tiny speck of a microcosm of this vast expanse of space, yet in total unification. There is no separation, I feel part of a greater whole.
Tears roll down my eyes, a release of whatever negativity might have been in me, the problems of my mind dissolving as the purifying gratitude of existence washes over me. Some people have panic attacks, I get bliss attacks. Right Now, is holy. I need nothing, there is only deep peace and love. Kate looks over at me. I smile. "I see the Universe in your eyes," I whisper. And I'm not lying. You're no different than me, are you?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Center of the Middle of Nowhere- The Clean and Beautiful Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine

We get off the train in Simperofol, and take a bus towards Kazantip. The moment we're out of the terminal, the driver stops and picks up a new passenger in what is certainly a pre-arranged plan to bypass the full fare, a way for the driver to augment his meager income. Along the way, he picks up several more paying hitchhikers. Common in the Ukraine.

There's almost no civilization over the two hour ride, just vast expanses of flat, largely barren ground. It's hot outside, so I purchase three ice creams at a stop, and try to gift them to my new friends Viktoriia and Dmytro, but they refuse the sugar. I'm not eating three of these ...
I hand one off to the cliche fat guy sitting next to them, and start scanning for another worthy candidate. I spot a small boy 50 feet away whom I walk to. He shakes his head at the offer.
What? Seriously?
The ice cream cost a dollar, and given that Ukrainians earn $500 a month, this likely isn't an everyday treat. I return and relate my surprise to Dmytro who opens his eyes wide, and warns that someone is going to call the cops on me. I guess it's been awhile since I wasn't allowed to take candy from a stranger. I sit down for a moment and ponder what to do with my rapidly melting gift.
My answer approaches, it's the little boy nodding his head excitedly, extending his hand; he smiles enthusiastically as he walks away with his treat.
Minutes later, like any narcissist, I check in on my work and observe the boy sharing the ice cream with his sister. I smile at his parents who nod back. There will be no police line-up today.

Kazantip- not exactly on the map
At last we arrive in Kazantip, located on the Black Sea in the Crimean Peninsula of the Ukraine, in the center of the middle of nowhere. Surrounding Kazantip (which technically is just a large gated party area on the beach) are two tiny towns and then a vast void of nothingness for a fifty mile plus radius.
The woman who owns the small apartment building we're staying in, its tiny rooms essentially just a bed and bathroom, explains that all money is made during the summer months, the rest of the year the area is a complete ghost town. She makes enough during the summer, she tells me, to be able to to hibernate through the winter.
The rooms rent for $25-$35 a night (depending on if you have AC) and go up in price when the party in Kazantip really kicks into gear. They'll also be happy to cook for you, and meals are very reasonably priced, the food fresh, grown locally, and all organic; farmers here can't afford pesticides. Thank God right.

(I'm also introduced to a Ukrainian beverage called "kvass." Learn a little about in this video.)

The people here are much friendlier than Kiev. The waitress who served me was absolutely elated when I taught her how to say, "Enjoy your meal," in English. Every time she served me over my week long stay she would proudly use the phrase and walk away with a huge smile on her face.


(just see how desolate my surroundings are, as I explore the area)

Communistic Storefront
The grocery store of the neighboring town is managed like a relic of Communist Times, a model of complete inefficiency. You wait in line, and when you finally make to the front, you tell the clerks what it is you desire, they go and get it for you, then come back to the counter and ring it up. Five people in line ahead of me buying less than five items each, and I waited 15 minutes just to purchase a bottle of water. One line too. In fairness, they don't call it "the express."
The only logical reason for this set-up that I could think is how common theft appears to be in the Ukraine, and this is an attempt by the shop to combat it.
I'll tell you this, leave something out in the Ukraine, kiss it good-bye. Left a bottle of water atop my suitcase lugging it around Simerafopol, come back two minutes later, I'm going thirsty. Leave my flip-flops beside some other shoes while I run on the beach, come back, and have to walk barefoot back to my lodgings.

My strategy for purchasing anything in the Ukraine was to put whatever I was buying on the counter, or point to what I needed, let them tell me in Ukrainian how much I owed, nod my head as if I understood, pull some money out of my pocket and pray they gave correct change. At no point should you open your mouth. The moment they realize you're American it's game over, here comes the surcharge.

Clean and Beautiful
The weather is warm, and the sea refreshing, the water an almost tropical blue and surprisingly clean and translucent. Being out in the middle of nowhere, there is zero pollution and the sky is crystal clear. This isn't a beach of Southern Thailand, but it's far nicer than I expected.
The Black Sea in Crimea- Kazantip is clean!
Mozzie Magnet
I go at sundown to meditate on the beach, which is normally a great plan in Los Angeles, but not the best idea here. Within two minutes I've been viciously attacked, and am left with what I consider to be massive injuries- twelve mosquito bites. I beat Usain Bolt back to the motel.
My whole body is in utter despair, I don't have enough hands to scratch where I need. It gnaws at my mind which I feel like tearing out of my skull so I won't feel the burning itching sensation over every square inch of my body. There is absolutely no relief from this. I'm in the center of the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an army of mosquitoes, and no way out. I wonder what drew me all the way out here begin with. I must be insane.
Dmytro sees me scratching. "Don't you know how active mosquitoes here are at dusk? Everyone hides til it gets dark. Only an idiot goes to the beach at this hour. Didn't you wonder why you were the only one out there?" He leaves shaking his head.
I think about what he's said and look at the bright side. At least 'idiot' is a big step above insanity. I feel a little relieved. An encouraging word can do wonders now and then. Thanks Dmytro!
Mosquito magnet, Dmytro (sunburnt), Viktoriia
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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Riding The Crazy Train to Kazantip

I never know where I am going to end up next; heads I go to the former top-secret Nuclear Submarine Base city of the USSR, Sevastopol, tails I head west to Bulgaria ... *Heads*
I purchase one of three remaining tickets at the train station and my eleven hour window leaves me ample time to go for a run one the shores of the Black Sea.
The beaches of Odessa are not nice, the waters of this port city dirtied by the huge cargo ships arriving into the deep water harbor. Venture more than a few feet off the beach and you likely won't be able to stand. I'm not sorry I came to Odessa, but I'm certainly ready to move on.

Losing My Computer
The owner of my hostel is a very nice, very tall Polish girl named Silva. She calls me a taxi, and has arranged for me to stay in her boyfriend's hostel in Sevastopol. She scribbles some directions on how to get there from the train station on a piece of paper as the cabbie calls to say he's downstairs. She hugs me good-bye and sends me on my way.
Ten minutes later I am at the train station. I grab my backpack, jiggle my suitcase out of the trunk, and pay the cabbie. I take four steps towards the tracks and stop cold, something is dreadfully wrong ... My computer bag is not slung over my shoulder. The taxi is gone! Fuck! That's my life support.
What can I do? Silva gave me that paper, maybe her phone number is on it. Just the number of her boyfriend Adam in Sevastopol.
RING, "Hello."
"Adam! Your girlfriend put in me in a cab to come to come visit you, but I just left my computer inside!"
"I'll call you right back."
Two minutes later my phone rings. "Hey, it's Adam, they called the driver, meet the taxi back exactly where he dropped you off, he's on his way."
Oh my God, am I going to get lucky beyond belief? Others might describe him as an old man driving a beat-up taxi, but I see a noble knight, riding in on his trusted white steed to save the day. I quickly open up the back door, my black and white striped computer bag still there. I'm beyond relieved. I pull 50 grivnas out of my wallet and hand it to him as a tip. Gratitude crosses his face, he takes a deep breath and extends his hand to me, wanting to thank me for my generosity.
I have to be honest, a little quick thinking, caller ID, and an ample amount of good fortune is all that saved me. I never expected to see my computer again. A few minutes later, the taxi would have picked up another fare, and the passenger would have likely seen the computer as a month's wages. Honesty is far more difficult when you're poor.
The Beach in Kazantip- way nicer than Odessa
The Crazy Train
My ticket is printed in Cyrillic, and I have no clue where to go, or what car I'm in. There is almost zero English spoken here. An agent is stationed in front of every car checking tickets. They don't even make a cursory attempt to speak English, they just point me in a direction and send me on my way. Might as well be playing "hot or cold" with my eyes closed.
Eventually I find my car and hand my ticket to a surly female employee. She takes it, motions for me to get on, but won't hand me back my voucher.
"Huh, what proof do I have when I'm on the train that I paid?"
There's not even a glimmer of understanding in her eyes. She's impatiently waiting for me to board. I clearly can't argue with this wall, I'll have to take my chances.

This is an overnight journey lasting twelve plus hours. Each compartment has four bunks, two on each wall, and I have to assume I just choose an empty bed since I have no ticket telling me which is mine specifically (not that I could read it anyways.) I open a random door, stow my suitcase, brush my teeth, and climb into bed as it's well after midnight.
An hour later I'm dead asleep. The door opens, it's Surly. She looks up at me and yells at me in Ukrainian.
"You took my ticket! I paid," I retort  to whatever she said.
She's clearly unhappy with me, and motions for me to come down. I can't imagine the others in my compartment are thrilled that their sleep being is disturbed by this ruckus. I need to find someone here that speaks English. I'd also like to win the lottery.
I am made to understand that I'm an idiot for getting into the wrong compartment; like that's my fault. I gather my luggage, double checking my computer bag, and head down the corridor with her. She opens the door to another room and ushers me in. "Wouldn't it have been easier just to put the other person in my place?" Wasted breath.

There's a young couple in this room who speak, can it be, some English. Dmytro and Viktoriia introduce themselves, they're casino dealers from Odessa, working on Celebrity Cruise Lines, an American company, on vacation, thus back in the Ukraine. It's late, we'll talk in the morning.

Change of Plans
Dawn arrives and everyone's up an hour later. We start chatting, they're quite nice and amicable people.
"You're out here, in the middle of the Ukraine, alone?" Dmytro asks.
"Yup."
"You're brave."
I don't see what's brave about it. If I die, I die, no big deal, but it's not the first time I've heard this refrain. I think of brave as travelling around the Mexican/US border and telling everybody you're DEA, but maybe that's just suicidal.
"Why are you going to Sevastopol? There's nothing there except a naval base," explains Dmytro.
"Where are you guys going?" I ask.
"Kazantip. I'm going there to learn how to kite surf, and there's a big party electronica party there."
"That sounds more fun than a naval base."
"I'd say do."
"Mind if I join?"
Dmytro looks at Viktoriia, they shrug their shoulders.
"Sure, we'll even call the woman at the place we're staying and see if she has an extra room to rent,"
That's called changing plans on a dime. Brave? Crazy? Or just a impulsive? One thing's for sure- I never know where I'm going to end up next.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Euro Cup, Bad Runways, and Gypsies

Kiev- Euro Cup 2012
As I'm sure you know, Europeans are nuts about soccer, or these crazy cats call it- "football." Ukraine and Poland are sharing the hosting of the 2012 Euro Cup, with the championship game to be held in Kiev. Ukrainians are beyond excited. There's no escaping it either, no matter where you go billboards, graphics, and T-shirts remind you of what's coming. Nowhere is this more apparent than Kiev's center, where a huge stop watch counts down the 350 days left before kick-off, second by second.

Euro-Cup Countdown billboard in Kiev

It was assumed that Odessa, Ukraine's second largest city, would undoubtedly be awarded at minimum a group stage competition, possibly even a semi-final match, and when the head of the European Soccer Commission announced he was personally going to Odessa, its citizens began an early celebration. Today they regret he didn't arrive by train ... 

The Odessa Airport

Odessa Airport

My friends Dmytro and Viktoriia, from Odessa, describe a rather bouncy landing on a recent return home, one that will remain lodged into their minds forever.
"So we're in a small plane, about to hit down in Odessa, and I do mean 'hit.' As we approach what constitutes a landing strip, all twenty people on board start praying and kissing the crucifixes they've worn specifically for this occasion, and we touch the ground and bounce sideways, then we hit a hole, which pops us the other way, the baggage compartments open up, stuff's flying everywhere, we're like a top rattling from side to side, trying to decide which way to ultimately fall. The wheels hit one side, the plane jumps back to the other, which is good, because with every bounce we're slowing down, the bad news is my head's involuntarily rammed into the seat in front of me. Then we hear a giant screeching sound, and I look outside my window, and see our wing dragging on the ground as a brake. Now I'm certain death is imminent, so I close my eyes and hold on tight, before we finally come to a stop. There's a moment of silence as we wait for the gas in the engines to explode. The captain rushes out of the cockpit, opens the door, looks outside, turns to back to us with a surprised look and states, "Hey, our wing is still attached, how about that."
"Seriously?"
"That's the Odessa Airport," Dmytro replies, "a giant, uneven, pot-hole field. It's like landing on a farm."
I stand up, turning into the pilot: "Watch out! A cow!!!" I exclaim, earning heavy chuckles from the rest of my audience, but not Dmytro and Viktoriia who are still living out the nightmare in their heads.
"That's not funny," retorts a smirk-less Viktoriia, "it's too close to the truth."

So the head of the European Football Commission experienced a similar "landing," and the city of Odessa was reportedly crossed off the list of suitable cities before he even exited the plane.
Even twenty years later, most of Eastern Europe still does not have the infrastructure to rival the West.

Gypsy Tales

Gypsies, also known as "Romas" as the majority of them are based in Romania, are dark skinned and of Indian heritage, and considered a plague throughout Europe. My friend Zuzana from Prague, describes a Czech bus stop as a family of Gypsies approaches. "Everybody instinctively puts two hands over their purse."
She'll readily admit Czechs are a little racist, but when it comes to Gypsies, she, an educated and intelligent lawyer, doesn't hold back, even when trying to be politically correct: "For the ten percent of Gypsies who are actually decent people, I'm sorry, the other 90% ruin it for them."
And believe me, she's not alone. No matter where I went, I never heard a single nice word coming from a European about Romas.
Interestingly, the two countries where the rhetoric is most dialed down? The Axis countries of Germany and Austria.
Why? The human tendency of when erring so badly in one direction, the backlash shifts you to the other extreme (drunken womanizing gambler to Born Again Christian.)
 Let's say, just for arguments sake, the Germans made a few mistakes over the last century, what with starting two world wars (winning none), declaring themselves the superior race, and killing half the population of Europe to prove it, which even the most stubborn and prideful German of today will admit were "minor errors."
Actually, that's me being totally unfair, the Hitler Youth of yesterday has given way to shamed and overly politically correct politicians of today, where if you say anything remotely bad about another race, people will point fingers and call you a Nazi, no matter whether or not the content of your speech has any basis in reality.

I meet Ingo, an Austrian investment banker who's used his two weeks vacation to motorbike from Vienna all the way to the Black Sea and Kazantip. He's a very likable, funny guy, and a good story teller.
He related the following two stories about Gypsies in his native Austria.

Lift No More
To deal with it's Gypsy infestation, one Austrian town decided it was better to build them an apartment building, which quickly became known as a breeding ground for rats.
Romas are notoriously filthy, and when the lift stopped working, rather than wait for it to be fixed, they decided the elevator shaft would make an excellent garbage chute, Take the trash out to the dumpster? Why? The lift is so much closer. A week later, when the city finally sent a mechanic to fix the elevator, the workers found the shaft completely stuffed with garbage, from top to bottom.

And if you've ever been to India, this story is totally consistent with what you'll see there. I swear to God, atop many many Indian houses ten feet high, is twelve feet of trash. It must be genetic.

Gypsy family
New Store
Romanian Gypsies have their own mafia. Part of their racketeering business consists of sending out Gypsy beggars to Western Europe, with the majority of revenue making it's way to the top. Ingo's friend, Marcus, being of Romanian descent, had a favorite grocery store in his in Austrian town that he swore sold the freshest and tastiest produce. He would refuse to shop anywhere else.
Then the Gypsy beggars started arriving. Everyday he would walk into his favorite store and get mercilessly hassled for money. Everyday he would ignore them. After two weeks of this, he finally grew tired of it, and hoping to shop in future peace, exploded at the beggars, answering them in Romanian to be certain they would understand, "NO! Stop bugging me! You will never get anything from me! You fucking gypsies, stop fucking asking me for money every time I come in, do you fucking understand?!!"
You could hear a pin drop in the store. For a moment no one moved. Then came the response ... Sadly, it did not end well for Marcus.
The Gypsies were excited. They gathered round Marcus, and just about hoisted him on their shoulders in victory. "Hey! You are one of of us! You are Romanian! We like you very much! Come have a beer with us!"
Marcus's response, "Fuck. I've got to find a different store."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Strip Clubs and Clubbing in the Ukraine

Clubbing
Koz takes me out for my last night in Kiev with his friend Alex, who's job is protection of human rights in the Ukraine. I'm impressed with his chosen profession, and am absolutely certain it doesn't pay as well as other vocations such as "mobster." Trust me when I say he has his work cut out for him.
Koz tells me we are going to the hippest club in town, the newest, the best. He's concerned as there is a dress code, and I have no real dress shoes. Alas, he's correct, the surly bouncer at the door points to my foot wear and refuses us admittance.
We go to another nearby club. There's a $20 cover on this Saturday night, which is a tremendous amount of money for Ukrainians to pay merely for entry. The price of drinks approximates that of Los Angeles, which insures my ten-plus year streak of sobriety remains in tact.
The ratio of women to men is far better than any American club outside the Playboy Mansion. The 56% to 44% female/male ratio I mentioned before holds true, and it's like this all over the Ukraine. Men here still do the hunting, but the gazelles rarely run away.
We see three girls we met outside the last club. It's Oksana's birthday but she behaves as though she was dumped, fired, and lost both her parents a few hours earlier. As powerful as my great mood and energy usually are in cheering people up, they are no match for this Ba-Humbug Superstar.

The club itself is lively, not just with a good DJ, but sexy performers on stage, dancing, doing their best to whip the crowd into a frenzy. 
1:30 AM
Blond girl, we start grinding on the dance floor without a word spoken. A half hour later she voices above the earth shattering noise using sign language that she wants to smoke. We walk outside. She asks me something in Russian, I answer in English. Her eyes go wide with surprise.
"Where are you from?" she asks.
"California," I respond.
“California??!”
I nod my head.
“California??” she questions again, as if she had misheard my head nod.
“Yes, California.”
“You vacation in Ukraine?!”
“Yeah.”
“Why??”
“Why not?"
“Why you vacation in Ukraine?!!” she asks absolutely bewildered.

The Vodka Bar
At 3 AM we walk to a club called the Vodka Bar. I think they specialize in rum.
It's another $8 entry. Ukrainians on average earn $500 a month. An equation factoring in cover, the price of drinks, and volume of alcohol being consumed, provides mathematical proof many here have taken out a second mortgage on their home to pay for the evening.

Koz heads to the bar to get drinks, a girl overly suggestively blocks access to the counter, "You don't get to order a drink without talking to me," her body language states loudly and clearly. Her boyfriend reads the same. He doesn't so much glare at Koz as emit a violent death-ray from his eyes. I'm surprised Koz didn't just keel over right there, mortally wounded.
He's in Koz's periphery. I take not one, but two steps towards them so I can intercede should this large brute try to sucker punch Koz as he walks by, which looks increasingly likely. Somehow he makes it to the bar unscathed, I keep my eyes trained on Brutus, his death glare slowly dissipating as his girlfriend turns her attention back to him. Finally convinced that all is safe, I put my body between the doomed couple and my friend.
"Dude, I thought her boyfriend was going to attack you for a few seconds there."
"I saw his look," answers Koz, shuddering slightly, allowing the death ray energy he absorbed to fall away.

The blond I was grinding with at the other club walks by, grabbing my ass as she does. I laugh, momentarily wondering where her boyfriend might be.

It's late, many people are blitzed drunk. One unhappy looking man walks past us. He feels like a hurricane of negative energy, blowing away anybody in his path.
"Did you feel that? See that?" I ask my friends.
"Big time," Koz and Alex reply, a repulsed look on their faces. It doesn't take a psychic to know how this man feels inside.
The challenge is, there's a lot of that energy in this crowded Kiev bar, more so than anywhere else I've been. A little bit of alcohol tends to turn up the level of joy and ease in happy people, and conversely acts as a radioactive marker to identify the sad and unhappy, letting Darth Vader know whom to recruit for his army on the Dark Side. That wasn't Darth Vader who just walked by though, that was the fricking Emperor.
I feel uncomfortable, it's nearing 5 AM, I tell Koz and Alex I had fun, excuse myself, and start walking back to my hotel.

Penthouse Strip Club, Kiev

Invariably I make a wrong turn. I come to building with a neon sign, "Penthouse" printed vertically in red letters, the icon of a nude woman beside it. I have to at least check it out. I walk up a set of stairs, a bouncer escorts to me to an elevator which has an operator on duty- the first midget I've seen in Kiev, a 50 year old woman. The doors close, she presses a button, the elevator lurches from side to side. Different colored lights pop on and off in seeming random succession. I can't tell if I'm we're going up or down. With the light show, the unpredictable movement of the lift, and the elderly midget guiding this machine at 5:30 AM, I wonder for a moment if someone slipped LSD into my water.
Ukrainian pole dancer
The doors open, the female dwarf extends her arm and opens her palm, graciously inviting me to exit. I'm greeted by a female hostess who walks with me down a posh corridor, mirrors on one side, white sofas on the other. I get to the main entertainment area. Three men receive the affections of twenty women, a girl with fake breasts gyrates to a Motley Crue song on stage, waxing the pole with her oily body. Even in the ultra-dim light, one can discern the very heavy make-up being worn. These aren't strippers in the American sense, all these girls are pros.
The naturally long legs of Ukrainian women, augmented by high heels is rather tempting, but they're not doing this for enjoyment, it's all about "Showing them the money," and I'm not spending any here. I quickly excuse myself. There's no elevator out. I walk up a set of stairs and exit out on the street. As always in the Ukraine, it's buyer beware, the "Penthouse" was in fact, a basement.

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."
"Fake."
"Real."
"Fake!"
"Real!"
"Fake!!"
"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
Winnie
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?"

Monday, August 8, 2011

Corruption, Larceny, Economics, and American Envy in Eastern Europe (Ukraine)

We continue our discussion about Ukraine with our distinguished panel ... (here is part I if you missed it)


Me: Okay, I want to turn the discussion away from women, which is the primary reason most men make money, or really, do anything ... to economics and money of the Ukraine. Now, the Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991, tell me about that.
Anna: Families used to be far larger. But chaos brought on in the 1990's created so much uncertainty, most couples had only one child. I am that child.
Anna
Me: What happenned?
Kos: Well, the evening the Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, Moscow withdrew all the gold that was backstopping our currency. Overnight, paper became worthless. 
Dmytro: People that had saved up and were on the verge of purchasing a car for cash, might be able to buy a only decent dinner with the value of their left over paper. Entire life savings were wiped out that night. No one had any money whatsoever. 
Kos: Weapons that were in the hands of the army were sold cheaply for gold. There was no one to report to, their commanders were back in Moscow.
Viktoriia: Almost everyone was starting from zero. Mass poverty throughout the nation.
Anna: Without law and order, crime rose to catastrophic levels.
Viktoriia: You couldn't step foot outside without fear that some thugs might pull you by gunpoint into their car, rob you, put a bullet in your head, and toss your body in the river.
Kos: That was especially true if you were any sort of businessman, like my Dad. He was worried every time he went out that he wouldn't return. 
Me: And what does your Dad do?
Kos: Wholesales wheat, and makes bread. 
Me: And they were going to kidnap him??
Kos: They would kidnap whoever.
Kos
Me: So what happened? I have felt pretty safe here so far.
Kos: The criminals realized they would make more money in politics. They vacated the streets, and used their ill gotten money to buy the capitol building.
Viktoriia: Talk about a good investment.
Anna: My Dad is ex-KGB. In the 90's, he was chasing after these guys, after a while, he was reporting to them.
Viktoriia: Now they rob the entire public at once, instead of an individual at a time.
Dmytro: 20% VAT and the majority of it ends up their pockets.
Kos: All the money that is supposed to go to state sponsored medicine--
Viktoriia: -- And the medicine cabinets and supplies in our hospitals are completely barren.
Kos: And do you know how hard it is to run a business, what you have to contend with?
Me: Tell me.
Kos: First of all everyone is looking for a bribe. You are working for the police, for the local officials, for whoever thinks they can shake you down. 
Dmytro: My friend opened up a very small amusement park for children. he had to pay off the cops, the local politicians, everybody comes with their hands out. Then, when he thinks he is finally ready to open up shop, after forking out a lot more than he originally bargained for,a priest from the nearby church comes and tells him that his kid's fun park is too close to his church. He has to pay the guy $200 extra.
Me: The priest?
Dmytro: The priest!
Me: And if he hadn't?
Dmytro: Then the priest would have organized boycotts, protests, complained to the local authorities with the "will of God" behind him.
Me: Jeesus.
Dmytro: Exactly.
Kos: And then the government institutes price controls. After they rob you, they tell you can't raise your prices, and if they catch you, then you have to pay more out in bribes/fines, which are really the same thing. The only way my Dad could eke out a profit was to cut costs bare. When the price of wheat rose, sometimes he was losing money selling bread to the public. Then the Ukranian version of the IRS comes to look over his books. He opens them up. What they want is a bribe to go away. My Dad said "fuck that" look over my books. They spent 28 days, 28, investigating his bakery books. Finally my Dad got fed up with it and asked them if they wanted to take over his office cause spent more time there than he did.
Me: Did he pay the bribe?
Kos: No, he stuck to his guns, and eventually they went away.
Dmytro: It's is hard here. Very hard to have a business.
Kos:  And for foreign investment. Almost impossible. You have to have so much money and contacts to even consider investing here. In fact, without them you'd be absolutely crazy to.
Me: Why?
Kos: Let's say you and I wanted to start a hotel, a serious investment which takes a lot of planning, money, and a ten year forecast. So we get the financing together, we bribe all the necessary officials, we get our deed to the land, and we start work. A year later, our hotel almost done, some local "businessman" shows up with the exact same deed to the land, only it says it is from one day earlier than ours. We go to court with all our documents, evidence, and high priced lawyers, but it makes no difference, we lose the case and our investment. The government, the lack of certainty and rules, makes it impossible to create any serious investment.
Me: So not only does the government steal money directly from the population, but via the selfish graft and corruption of public officials, and the implausibility of doing business it creates, the average Ukranian citizen is robbed their opportunity of better employment.
Kos: Exactly.
Me: Now that's tragic ... So what are the good jobs someone can have?
Viktoriia: Anything in the private sector. The last place you want to be working is for the government. Preferably you're working for a foreign company rather than a domestic one.
Me: And what is a good salary to be making?
Dmytro: The average right now is about $500 a month. If you work for a foreign, private company, you can make up to $2,000 a month. That is a really good salary.
Maria: As a translator, there are days that I will make what is really good money for us, like $150, but there are many days where I will be have no work.
Maria
 Kos: But if you really want to make money, you get into government. Not working for the government mind you, but running it. A place where you can take bribes. Our ex-leaders are billionaires, all money stolen from citizens.
Me: You said the medicine cabinets here are barren. In America, being a doctor generally pays well. What about here?
**Everybody laughs**
Me: What's so funny?
Dmytro: As a doctor you work for the government, the worst job you can have.
Kos: A doctor's salary is $300 a month.
Me: $300 a month?! For all the work and expertise that it takes to become one? I took Maria out to a dinner that was like $60 for two people, which isn't cheap even by standards in the US. And a Ukrainian doctor, cannot come close to affording that!
Dmtryo: No, they cannot.
Kos: Of course, doctor's salaries are always augmented with bribes.
Viktoriia: Medicine is supposed to be free in the Ukraine. but you go there, everything has a price.
Dmytro: There is the stated price for something, and the actual price. Everybody pretty much knows what something really costs.
Viktoriia: And you generally have to know someone to have something done. The more people you know, the cheaper things usually are. "Oh you know Kos, okay we can talk ..."
Me: What about education here? 
Dmytro: Same thing, teacher- government job. $300 a month with no room for advancement. Only the stupidest or the most golden hearted people even consider going into the teaching profession because you simply cannot survive on the salary.
Dmytro
Kos: Which doesn't give future generations much hope as it stands now, cause it's hard to have a golden heart when you cannot even feed yourself.
Me: Geez. I feel so lucky to be born in America.You guys have been to America, what did you think?
Kos: I would LOVE to build a business there. Business is like a marathon here, all uphill, at high elevation, with no oxygen, with Russian bears running after you trying to take as big a bite out of you as they can. And when you cross the finish line, you're lucky if you get $100 as your prize. In the United States, comparatively, you run a leisurely 5 kilometer race with people handing you water as you go, and all you have to watch out for is a couple pebbles on the ground. And when you finish, everybody cheers, and a million dollars worth of gold falls from the sky.
Me: I don't think that's accurate.
Kos: I said comparatively. In the US, you get rewarded so much more, for the same efforts.
Me: Well, that's pretty hard to deny. Anna you've been quiet, what do you think?
Anna: I shouldn't say.
Me: Go ahead.
Anna: I think the US profits off the blood sweat and tears of the rest of the world. Your people are fat and lazy, and expect everything, and wish to contribute nothing. The US is a parasitical regime feeding off the other countries. And I think for the views most Eastern Europeans have towards America, that is euphemistic way to put it.
Me: Wow. Come on. Euphemistic? I'm going to tell you this Anna, there are really hard working Americans.
Dmytro: Viktoriia and I work for an American company. We net $1,500 each a month, which makes us upper middle class for the Ukraine. We are grateful for the opportunity we have with the company, but I will tell you this, in the Ukraine either you work or you don't have food on the plate.
Me: Wait wait you guys want me to apologize for the little social safety net America has?? Seriously? One, what's wrong with it? Two, assuming you believe there is, are you going to find fault with Scandanavia? Three, are you serious?
Anna: We work so hard for so little. You can be so educated, so smart, and if you stay here and take an honest job, you will never make as much money as a union factory worker in America.
Me: Anna, that might be true. But blaming the American people for the fact that other countries have utterly corrupt governments who steal, who deprive their citizens of the opportunities that they deserve, is not the fault of the average US Citizen, who also wants to lead a prosperous, nice life. Let's end the conversation there ...

I hope this gives you a flavor of life in the former Soviet Union. 

(here is part I - about dating, clothes, and prostitution in Ukraine if you missed it)


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Life in Ukraine (Money, Clothes, Family, Dating, and Prostitution)

The following is a round table discussion between my various Ukranian friends and what they have taught me about their country. They are all in their early to mid twenties, and are smart enough and work hard enough to know English quite well in addition to their native language.
Here is a brief description of the players--
------------------
Julia (22) an accountant, and a very cute one.
Anna (20) Tall Russian/Ukranian girl. Her father is ex-KGB. Overly patriotic, has a very dismal view of America.
Kos (22) In America they called him "The Crazy Russian" cause he was willing to work so hard in the summer he spent there. Currently works with one of Ukraine's leading businessman. Bold enough to tap me from behind when he noted I was lost on the subway and offered me help. Future millionaire, guaranteed.
Maria (27) Professional translator. Most beautiful eyes ever.
Dmytro (25), Viktoriia (24) Engaged to one another, casino dealers from Odessa who work now aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines in that capacity.
Me, Dmytro (very red from kite surfing) and Viktoriia
-----------------
Me: Below every large street crossing in Kiev, they have a pedestrian underpass, and in every underpass they have a subterranean mall. So I'm looking at the various products for sale, and I pick-up a pair of high heels in case I ever feel like cross dressing, but they were selling for $300, in what is, literally, the underground economy. Now, I don't want to cross dress that bad, but in the Ukraine, where the average monthly salary is $500 a month, every single woman is parading the streets at 10 AM in designer clothes, full make-up, and expensive heels. Wearing a full month's salary ain't cheap walking. I mean, how do they afford anything else?
Viktoriia: Many women have only one or two nice outfits.
Julia: Some have 'boyfriends.' 
Silva: And the others are willing to forgo the essentials, to look good.
Maria and me.
Viktoriia: The competition to look better than the next woman in Ukraine is immense.
Me: Why is that?
Silva: Well, for one there are many more females in our country than males.
Me: Really?
Viktoriia: Between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five the ratio of females to males in the Ukraine is 56% to 44%.
Me: Why such a high disparity?
Dmytro: Smoking leads to a greater number of female births, and there are a lot of smokers in the Ukraine.
Kos: And what's more, of the limited male population, another 5% or so have a drug or alcohol problem which pretty much eliminates them from the dating pool.
Vikktoria: When I first met Dmytro, we were working together in the casino, I had absolutely zero interest in him because he was smoking, and drinking excessively.
Dmytro: I must have asked her out twenty times, and she said 'no' every time. I had to con in her into a first date by inviting her over to watch a soccer game, and telling her that twenty other people would be there, and I only had one other girl show up, and she was instructed to leave before halftime.
Me: Talk about romantic. Question: Do you still smoke and drink?
Dmytro: I stopped, because I really wanted to be with Viktoriia.
Me: Now that's romance. What is it like dating here in Eastern Europe?
DmytroWesterners are too greedy for Ukranian women. 
Viktoriia: Here, the male always pays for the female. 
Silva: It's not "let's go dutch," like it is in Holland and the West.
Me: Is that where the term comes from??
Julia: Most Western men will never surprise women with presents, flowers, and gifts as a Ukranian man will do.
Julia
Dmytro: When Victoria and I first started dating, we were working at the same casino, with the same salary, the same position. I was making $600 a month, double the Ukranian average income in 2007, and I was spending $400 of his salary to take her out.

Me: Wow. You could barely afford to feed yourself.
Dmytro: But I was feeding her.
Me: You know that in the West, Eastern European women have a reputation of being very easy, is there truth to this?
Anna: I am offended! Of my friends maybe one out of thirty is like that. At the age of twenty, I have only had sex with one man.
Russian Anna
Me: Well Anna, you are also in the top 1% of your academic class and got into one of the most prestigious Universities in Russia. It is certainly possible that most of your friends might be more like you. Anybody else?
Julia: I tend to agree with Anna. The most important thing for the average Eastern European woman is to find a good man, not to give away our bodies to every passer-by.
Anna: In Russia, family is far and away the most important thing. Family first, always.
Silva: It's like that throughout the entire former USSR.
Me: Anna, tell me about your family. You were an only child right?
Anna: Yes, Russian families used to be fairly large, but when the turmoil of the 1990's came along, there was too much uncertainty to raise many children, it was a rough time for everybody.
Me: And what are the family dynamics like?
Anna: In Eastern Europe, 'men are the head ,and women the neck.'
Me: And what does that mean exactly?
Julia: Men think they make all the decisions--
Silva: But women, as the neck, change the position the head is looking.
Me: It is funny Anna, during the two days we spent hanging out in Odessa, you were incredibly deferential towards me and all decisions about what we did were mine. Whether that be how long we spent somewhere, where we went, etc. It felt different than in the West where it is much closer to 50/50, though still naturally tilted towards the male. So who actually has the power in a relationship?
Julia: Women. (at same time)   Anna: Men.
Viktoriia: Women just behave that way at the beginning of a relationship to win the man. Once married, the neck controls the head.
Me: With the disparity of females to males, how loyal are men in relationships?
Anna: ALL men cheat. I have never known a man who didn't. As a woman in Eastern Europe, you just accept it and turn your head the other way if he supports the family and is a good father.
Me: Anna, what is your father like?
Anna: Well, my Dad is over ten years older than my Mom. This is common in Eastern Europe, and women actually look for this. Young men are too immature to marry. Also, my Dad is ex-KGB.
Me: I never touched you!
Anna (chuckles): Yeah, guys in high school were too scared to date me.
Me: I can imagine. And since you said many marriages have a ten plus year disparity, at what age do most girls get married?
Julia: It used to be that you were expected to be married at the age of 22. It has moved up a little to 24, but pretty quickly, if you aren't married, most people start to think there is something wrong with you.
Me: What I found interesting is in 2009, before I left to Prague for the first time, someone who had been years before, told me that there would be hookers in the hotel lobby. I didn't find any prostitutes in any of my hotels in the Czech Republic, but in Kiev, there were at least five looking for work at the Hotel Rus. Is it that the economic situation over the years has gotten better in the Czech Republic, while the Ukraine is still mired in the effects post Soviet collapse?
Julia: Well, I think some girls do it, because it is just easy money.
Kos: There are girls that I know, from good families, that might not do it all the time, but if the opportunity arises, they certainly will. Prostitution here, is fairly widespread.
Kos
Dmytro: I worked in the Black Sea Casino in Odessa. The casino would comp the high rollers their women. I spoke with many of the girls, and I can tell you that at least half of them were from the Eastern Ukraine, which is the industrial part of the country, and all the men are working in mines and steel production, and drinking very heavily. These girls have very little opportunity to find a husband, and they just want to make some money for their families, so they come to Odessa and Kiev which is where the foreigners are, and try to make a decent living.
Me: That is a lot like Thailand. Most girls can either work as a maid or waitress for a couple hundred dollars or so a month, or make that in a night of work selling their bodies. Most are from the poor part of the country, and send the majority of their earnings back home to their families, and are the primary breadwinners. The majority of the working girls in Thailand I spoke with have a heavy indwelling sadness associated to their choice of profession ... so is it mostly about economics then?
Dmytro: Yes, economics plays a huge part. It is so hard for Ukranian women to find a good husband, that some take up prostitution to remain financially viable.
Me: Oh my God, I just had a brilliant idea. In China, because of the one child policy, most families who wanted a boy aborted many many females. Young Chinese men are now having difficulties finding a girl. In Ukraine- more women. Have a mixer in say Dubai. Kos, Dmytro, you recruit all the Ukranian women, I'll bring the Chinese. We'll make a fortune!
Dmytro: Sorry to disappoint you, but Chinese men in the casino were scared of Ukranian girls and their long legs. Their model of beauty is the small, diminutive Chinese girl.
Me: Dammit! I thought we were going to get rich! ... (thinking about it, then imitating Homer Simpson) mmmmmm ... long legs.
Long legs- Ukranian model
Up next: the discussion turns to economics with my esteemed panel. Click here for Part II of discussion

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Utter The "C" Word in Kiev

Kiev, Ukraine

Whiplash! Every girl is dressed to the nines: colorful outfits, full make-up, their height augmented by four inch heels that perfectly match their ensemble. Hot night club? Nope, Kiev city street, at 10 AM.

Japanese restaurant. Prices here- Eastern Europe or the center of London? There doesn't seem to be much difference at the moment. Miso soup and some sushi please. Scarf it down. Gotta run, "Check please ... Hello? Anyone?" ... I start waving my hand, surely one of eight waiters will notice ... seriously, no one? The radius and speed of my hand gestures increase til I become a windmill on a blustery day, but still Don Quixote takes no notice of me. I can't help but laugh. Only when I rise to leave does my original waiter rush over with my check.

Hurry back to my hotel. Maria has agreed to show me around her city. The most gorgeous blue eyes I have ever seen (really) set against the contrasting background of dark hair ...

old style architecture (b-e-a-utiful)
 The center of Kiev is comprised largely of beautiful old style Eastern European architecture, along with "Stalin Architecture" that has a certain charm to it, and the buildings apparently are made to last.

"Stalin style" architecture. 
Of course, there is still post-Stalin architectural vomit. (below)

The Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and went through enormous upheaval immediately afterwards; law and order ceased, paper money became worthless, and if you were any type of business man, it wasn't safe to step foot out outside. Thankfully, the Ukraine is a much safer place now, as organized crime has moved from the streets, and into the Capitol Building. Change is good.
Independence Square in Kiev
As I mature, I have actually come to love entering churches, especially the beautiful Orthodox ones I found in Kiev. Their mammoth size, and the beautiful attention to detail takes my breath away, which creates a space where thoughts cease, and joy spreads throughout my being. The awe inspiring nature of these "houses of God" creates an opening for God to remember itself inside my body. Good bye thinking, at least for a moment.
Beautiful Orthodox church
You'd have to be color blind not to be mesmerized when looking into Maria's eyes, so I don't hear half the things she says, but walking together, I get the distinct feeling we are taking a liking to one another.
We descend down a hill with a torn up road close to the Dnipro River, and get stopped by a musician who implores me to listen to his music. A retro 1985 CD Walkman acts as his display. I can't resist, and end up buying a disc from him. Someone's got to support the arts.

me supporting arts in the Ukraine

We arrive at one of Kiev's many parks where a fiddler and drummer are playing traditional Ukranian music and teaching a dance that must have originated eons ago. "Let's join them," I suggest to Maria.
"I can't," she objects softly.
The exact wrong words to say around me. When Dannika uses this horrific word, I cover my ears, and bitterly complain, "Ow, my ears! My ears! My ears! You said the 'C' word!"
When she was four years young, my girl told me she "can't cross the monkey bars," and technically, she was absolutely correct, it was 'impossible,' her arms were too short to reach across and grab the next bar. I still was not about to allow this awful word to become part of her vocabulary so I asked her to find a way. Unable to envision one, she got frustrated and started to cry, so I suggested that she hold onto the bar and stand on my shoulders when she couldn't reach across, and grab onto the next one this way. When she finally reached the last bar, hanging on it, a happy monkey, I gently placed her on the ground, knelt down one knee, and explained to her that she is never allowed to tell me what she "can't do" because there is always a way to do it.
And poor Maria had just used the "C" word. I lean into her, nose to nose. "If you can't then you must," I explain, grabbing her hand and leading her into the dance circle.

The old lady attempting to teach us floundering newcomers the steps was pretty much a saint. Long after the recording of this video ceased, we got the hang of it and had fun :)

Come here baby, give me a kiss ...
If you can't, then you must.
Maria and me. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

No Smiles in Kiev- Ukraine

I am in the mood for adventure, and opt to take the bus from the Kiev Airport to my hotel rather than a taxi. The cabbie calls me "crazy." It's not the first time I have heard that refrain, and I'm more likely to win the lottery than to have it be my last.
Discovery leads to the following: I need to exit the bus at the main train station. Wait! What stop is that? No one on this bus speaks English! The alphabet is in Cyrillic, I am fricking illiterate. Oh dear! Will this bus fall off the edge of the earth before it dons on me that I should have got off one stop earlier? 
"I speak," states Anya with a British accent. "Auntie and I will help you." A pleasant conversation, with Anya translating occasionally for Auntie, we eventually exit one stop prior to the edge of the earth (the poor suckers who continued)
Auntie is a pensioner and public transit is free for her so she offers me a free subway token (SCORE!!!! -- 25 cents worth)
"You are very lucky to meet nice people like us here in the Kiev," Auntie explains to me via Anya.

They aren't kidding. While I believe the subway to be a crucible for people's inner feelings, the heavy energy most people carry being magnified by the close quarters, frowns abound here more than any place I have been besides Moscow. 
Soviet architectural vomit
beautiful old style Eastern European architecture, the funny thing is these two buildings were side by side
I happily exit the exit the subway car, but have little idea how to find my hotel. I quickly learn the old generation speaks zero (count it) English.
Well Helllloooooo, a pretty girl, let's ask her ...
While technically attractive, as she approaches, I am repelled by the scowl she has etched into her face, her energy for that matter. I literally jump out of the way to let this poisonous snake pass.
Another girl approaches carrying a kitten, "So cutteee!" I exclaim. She cracks a quarter smile. I'm starting to think that counts for Kiev. Standing in the subway system, I feel like a street entertainer performing for smiles in the poorest place on earth.

To the Rescuse
Meet Kos, 22 years old, spent a summer in America and a very hard working, determined guy as I will discuss later. He walks with me and points me in the right direction. I climb a hill, my seventy pounds of luggage slowing my ascent to the speed at which people climb the upper peak of Everest.
Huffing and puffing I finally arrive at my hotel, the first I have stayed in over two months.
As I walk up to my room, I think the cab driver might be right. I am crazy. I spent an extra two hours getting to my hotel, complete inefficiency, a poor use of energy, and now I'm tired to boot ... but I don't regret it for a moment.
at Independence Square, Kiev- Ukraine