My arrival in Ukraine was once again a strange one. As expected the bus got in stupidly early – leaving me to wander the looming bus station under night’s last hour of darkness. It was eerily quiet and the only other people present were those from my own bus. None of them seemed remotely Western. Russian was the lingua franca here and I was, once again, out of my depth, misguided and mute as I searched the different levels for some clue as to how I might get into town.
In the upstairs waiting room I found a man passed out face down. He was still kneeling and his forehead rested on the bench where it must have fallen during this silent prayer for salvation. The empty vodka bottle clasped in his hand confirmed that his plea had gone unheard and I went back downstairs.
It was a slow day on the roadwork ridden Polish highways. By the time we arrived in Katowice our hangovers had well and truly fermented and we were glad to be free of the bus. Town was packed for the festival and the meagre selection of hostels in Katowice was fully booked. Ryan had made the executive decision that campgrounds weren’t for us and instead had booked us in for a few nights in a hotel (yup, no spelling mistake there).
We were treating ourselves for the princely sum of 25 Euros a night and if nothing else about Eastern Europe appeals, then this alone should get you there. Despite our southern origins we were Western Princes, wealthy beyond belief and keen to splurge. What time would we be taking breakfast? Would we like the spa heated up now or later? I didn’t even know you needed to heat spas up.
The engines roared and the plane pulled up off the runway. I settled in for the flight and as Morocco fell away my mood lifted. I was still a bit shaky, but the prospect of some friends and Eastern Europe’s notorious nightlife had me well on the way to recovery. I transited through Madrid and, with a full day to kill, walked tentatively down her wide boulevards, still not entirely trusting of my stomach.
It was hot work and I was soon hungry, seeking shelter in the air conditioned aisles of a supermercado. The Spanish on the shelves was too easy after Arabic’s unfamiliar script and I felt strangely at home. I grew bold and, in what could well have turned out to be a foolish move, purchased a beer to have with lunch.
I’m not sure how you picture an exchange, if you’ve never been on one. I’m not even sure that I had a picture in my mind when I upped and left Auckland at the end of last year. The Exchange Office’s propaganda promised “international experiences” and “new friends;” and the walls in their office were crowded with pictures of people in exotic locales smiling maniacally for the camera.
At the final meeting there were murmurings that things mightn’t all be roses and sunshine, and that we should prepare for “culture shock” – but I paid them little heed. I’d been overseas before and knew what was to come, more or less: crazy nights, hot girls and little responsibility getting in the way.