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.
I finally picked up the courage to ask someone if they spoke English and two girls sent me out to the street to try my luck there. It was bitterly cold and the signs sneered down in undecipherable Cyrillic. I walked in the wrong direction for a whole block before turning back, unsure if I should persist further or return to the familiarity of the station. I was on verge of chucking the towel and stumping up for a cab when I finally spotted the stop.
It wasn’t long before a rickety trolley bus pulled in. I recognised some script on the side so hopped on – behind a granny and her shopping trolley, about as sure of where I was going as I was about why she was shopping at 6 in the morning. Maybe she hadn’t got the memo and was off to queue for bread with the rest of the workers.
Confronted with paying I stumbled: “uh, centrum?” I thrust a handful of gryvna at the driver and we were off, bumping along as the sun brushed the horizon. Another new city to explore and it all looked, well – poor. I’d been told Eastern Europe didn’t properly start til you left the EU and my experience was doing little to refute it. The Soviet architecture loomed, vodka had at least one of the proletariat subdued and the poverty was palpable. I was as east as I’d been, that was sure.
In a cinematic stroke of cliché we passed a military base as the soldiers began their dawn exercise, and I smiled as they jogged past a parked surface-to-air missile. Was this for real?
The bus stopped and everyone was evicted to their lives while I scratched my head in the new day. Fortunately there was a map at the final stop and my earlier planning finally paid off: it was the stop I’d been looking for and, orientation complete, I walked into town.
The streets were cobbled and the buildings aged. Architecture has little respect for regime changes and there was considerable overlap with the style of the shinier Polish equivalents across the border.
There was no sign at the hostel’s address and no buzzer to ring. I sat, cold and confused, on a park bench across the road, double checking I had the right place. There were discrepancies in the English translations of the Cyrillic and I wasn’t a hundred percent sure. With no one to bounce off I walked further into town and used the free wifi to see if I was wrong (full credit for the wifi goes to Ukraine’s involvement in Euro 2012 – I have never been such a big fan of football). Long story short, I wasn’t and after google led me to another non-existant hostel I walked back to the original hotel and stewed in my predicament on the aforementioned bench.
Was this to be a repeat of Morocco? Was I only capable of happiness when with others? It certainly didn’t feel anything like Morocco: it was cold, the streets seemed empty and no-one wanted me to buy their rugs. I wouldn’t have understood if they did. I still thought of myself as fairly intrepid but the facts begged to differ. My intentions had been good but the reality of that cold morning told a different story. I had been over enthusiastic and was under prepared, forced once again to stew in a soup of my own making.
Eventually the hostel opened and I checked into what was definitely not the room pictured on their site. I was to share a 6 bed dorm with a Russian mother and her sons. Fortunately, and inexplicably, they were absent (it was only 8 in the morning and shops were still slowly opening-where were all these people going?!). I had a nap and took a shower, rinsing the grime of the night’s travel away (cold – squatting in the bathtub under a leaking shower head that barely flowed). It was without a doubt the shittest hostel I’d ever visited and the whole vibe had me put out.
I decided to ditch the dingy room with its bare springs and stained sheets and try my luck elsewhere. I lied about having to meet a friend at another hostel and the halfwit stationed at reception begrudgingly refunded me 5 euros. Moral deviance aside I was free and set out to resume my exploration of L’viv.
Nearby “Old City Hostel” was everything “Retro” hadn’t been and I spent a relaxed day wandering the city with a friendly German engineer who shared my appreciation for the high-heeled beauties so ubiquitous in Ukraine.
That evening at the hostel I had the good fortune to meet Marco, a softly spoken but incredibly eloquent 19-year old from Argentina. Despite his age Marco had an ancient wisdom about him, a fact perhaps attributable to his demonstrated mastery of five languages, including the very useful addition of Russian. Marco was a teetotaller but our differences seemed non-existent in the presence of shared solitude and the experiences we had both had on our journeys. Here was a fellow soul, cut from the same cloth as my hhhudrin brethren, and his peaceful acceptance of the way of the road spoke to my own feelings.
Marco had decided to cut his trip short by six weeks and was excited at the prospect of finality, and a reunion with his first (and recent) love back in Argentina. Marco was an accepting student of the road’s many lessons and willing to share, open in that rare way total strangers can be.
We spoke of acceptance, solitude and stamina; of what it means to feel impotent and isolated; and how coming to terms with these feelings had benefits far beyond the short term. I felt a rich sense of solidarity with this gentle academic and he left me with much to think about. I was here on no one’s volition but my own; others might judge me if I came home early – but what did they know? They knew nothing of the exigencies of this lifestyle, and I would do well to disregard them. This was my own voyage; if I wanted to leave, I could.
And once I finally thought this through, I realised that I didn’t want to go home, not yet, and was at peace with my predicament. I still had pangs of that grab bag of emotions people call homesickness, but I did not feel substandard as a result. These feelings were a natural product of my submission to the road and the thoughts that a nomadic existence precipitated. It was not a grief; there was no permanent loss to deal with and for every moment my heart grew heavy with thoughts of home I reminded myself of what I would return to and was renewed. Renewed that I was fortunate enough to have such people to return to and renewed that I would return to them stronger and more resilient than ever, full of appreciation for what I had.
This process, verbose and drawn out as it is, was essential to me in those moments of doubt and loneliness and it was with great joy that I realised Marco shared them too. With this knowledge rooted deep in my heart I trumped the feelings of self-pity with the original enthusiasm that had pushed me to undergo this odyssey in the first place.
After another day of considered company, Maroc was off and I was left to ruminate on all we’d discussed. It was a strange feeling, to feel so close to someone I knew so little about, but our friendship was one of shared circumstance and honesty – and in their presence the absence of the rest didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t drink with Marco. We didn’t smoke or snort or shelve (something I have never done, but hey – alliteration!). We just sat and talked and I learned something of myself that I would have never found in the bottom of a bottle, however fun that particular pursuit might be.