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Through the city traffic we crawled closer and closer to the bus station and the anticipation of seeing Mike was causing excitement. We couldn't wait to meet our mate who we shared all those fantastic experiences in Prague, Bratiaslava and Budapest with a few years before. Life's circumstances have dictated that we (the 3 Amigos as we were once calling ourselves) never really get to spend that much time together any more.
The only backpackers hostel in Odessa opened 2 weeks before our arrival, it still only had a couple of rooms and was pretty much a building site. It was a relief though, we'd had no luck trying to organise any other accommodation. We were right on Deribasivska, the main pedestrianised street that runs through the centre of the city and serves as what we came to call "Sex Tourist Central". Of course, this is Ukraine, a country infamous for it's sex tourism and Odessa seems to be the epicentre. Whilst a beautiful town and a top holiday destination for Russian tourists it does have an incredibly dark and seedy side. Not overtly though, unlike Prague or Riga where the seediness is in your face with masses of strip
clubs and street prostitutes; Odessa is a little more subtle. The clues lie in the numerous marriage agencies dotted about and the regular occurrence of seeing an overwight middle aged guy holding tightly to a beautiful 22 year old. Not to mention what an unforgettable visit to the Irish Bar, Mick O'Neills will provide... but we'll come to that later.
The Black Sea Backpackers was run by an Aussie called Kerry, he liked to organise nights out to the Arcadia Nightclub Strip by the beach and well, today was Saturday so it was looking like a big one. The hostel guests fell distinctly into 2 categories, backpackers and Sex Tourists. That night there was us four, an American girl and 3 English guys on one side. On the other side was Kerry's big brother and a retired dentist from Texas. I thought that maybe I was being a little rash in my judgements but then I saw them both checking out a Ukrainian Escorts website so told myself that Odessa is one of the few places on earth where being judgemental will usually end up with you being correct. We all jumped in taxis and headed down to the
The Staff & Guests of the Black Sea Backpackers
Arcadia and paid a rediculous amount of money (well, rediculous for Ukraine anyway) to go into Itaka, a massive open air club that looks like it should be in Ibiza. We'd been drinking pretty much since Mike's arrival, catching up and telling stories. The vodka had flown pretty well and we were happy floating around the club. The good thing about us when we go out is that we will all split up, talk to random strangers, meet up again, introduce each other to our new friends then split up again and be fine with it. And that's how we whiled away our evening in this crazy club, dancing to tunes like 'World Hold On' by Bob Sinclair that had haunted me every day since crossing the Russian Border last month, we hated it at first but learned to love it. I spoke to a Russian for a while, amazed at how I can actually have a very basic conversation in a language I hardly understand. It's amaing how many words you can pick up just from being in a country. I remember back in March when I was in Belarus I had to stare at a Cyrillic word for
ages before I could read it, now it's pretty much instantaneous. The sun came up and Kev and I decided it was definitely time to go home, Mike was having too much fun dancing in the daylight and Nick had taken an early night. We started to argue about something or other, as friends do sometimes when they're drunk and they've hardly been apart for a week. Mid arguement we tried to get a taxi and the driver quoted us about 5 times over what it should be, Kev and I laughed at the guy and forgot our arguement, that's part of what good friendship is about: to both have the ability to put things in perspective in a moment and forget it all. We walked down the road, the further away from Arcadia we got the more reasonable the fares became until we managed to get one back to the hostel and to drop into bed at some stupid hour.
Like I might have said a few times before: I hate coming home in daylight.
We were understandably fragile the next day, what goes up must come down and down and down. We had a couple of
chores to do and found ourselves at the train station where we needed to buy our tickets to Kiev. Like every single Eastern European train station there's a stupid number of counters dotted around all selling different types of ticket, you can always bet that the one you go to is wrong. We eventually bought our ticket with other people breathing down our necks. One thing I must say about the Former Soviet Union is the fact that personal space seems a non-issue. You can be queuing in a massive room and everone will be pressed up against each other, there will always be someone looking over your shoulder when you make your transaction and you can pretty much expect someone to ignore the queue completely and just come up to the counter. Anwyay, we got what we needed and took a slow walk back to the hostel for a much needed power nap. On our way back we caught the eye of the most persistent begger I've met whilst on the road. She was a pretty girl, maybe about 15 but had the face of someone who had taken a few too many class A substances and been a
a fair few street fights. She said she was hungry and needed money. I have a policy when it comes to beggars, in fact I had just given a few Hryvna to a guy with no legs by the station, but essentially I won'd give money to people who ask for it unless they are honest enough to say they want a drink or cash for a hit. I usually just give to the people sitting solemnly on the pavement. But this girl wasn't taking no for an answer. She walked between us saying 'Please, I hungrys' whilst deciding to latch onto me, I don't know why... maybe I have a kind face or something. She walked next to me for a good 5 minutes, 'Please, I hungrys'. Nick offered her a bottle of Coke but she didn't want it. At one point it was like a pantomime. 'Please', No, 'Please', No, 'Please', No, 'Please', No, 'Please', No, 'Please', No, 'Please', No and so on another 20 times. 'Please give me one Hryvna', No. 'Okay, you give me 10 Hryvna'. You had to admire her sense of humour I suppose. Eventually she gave up and went away.
I feel a little bad but I shouldn't.
The World Cup Final was on today. We were upset that it wasn't England V Ukraine but then again that was hardly likely was it?. In fact, I remember mentioning the possibility to Kev in a pub in London back in February, a guy standing near us just started laughuing his head off. So, it was the more credible France V Italy in a pretty excellent game of football within which I found a new hero in the name of Zinedine Zidane. You have no idea how much I admire somebody who has the balls to give a running headbutvto someone in the chest during the closing stages of the World Cup Final on his final game before retirement. Anyway, it was a dissapointment to see Italy win, I had Italy in a sweepstake but I wanted France to win. Not that I particularly like France as a team but after the way Italy cheated their way past Australia in the 2nd round there's no way on earth that they deserved to win the tournament.
We decided it was time to be tourists the next day and we headed to
In the Catacombs
the catacombs. With us was an American couple who had been doing voluntary work in Moldova. There are many English language tours of the catacombs for an extornionate price so we decided to take a reasonably priced Russian one. We got on a minivan at the train station and headed out of the city to the village of Nerubaiskoye. The Catacombs is a network of tunnels where the resistance was commanded from during World War II, I can't really tell you much more I'm afraid because our guide only spoke Russian. At one point she looked at our bemused faces and said in Russian 'The English don't understand' whilst the rest of our group would laugh. Instead, we just wondered around admiring the caves. We made friends with a Law Student from Moscow called Marina who was in Odessa visiting her aunt. She spoke no English whatsoever, but it's suprisingly easy to communicate in a mixture of awful Russian, body language and songs (ever want to make a Russian smile, sing Hotel California to them). Back in Odessa, Nick, Mike, Kev and I took Marina for lunch and completely exhausted our supplies of stuff to say to someone you can't
Hank, Go Get My Gun
understand. We agreed to meet her later and went to look at the Potemkin steps.
In 1905 the crew of the Russian Battleship Potemkin mutinied against their officers in what was seen to be one of the pivotal steps towards the Russian revolution. Flying a red flag, the battleship sailed into the Port of Odessa where workers were carrying out a general strike. The strikers crowded onto these steps and were fired on by armed cavalry. In the silent Movie Battleship Potemkin
it is shown more as a massacre than it really was. The ship fired on the Tsarist Headquarters before sailing out of port past battleships that had been ordered to fire on Potemkin but refused and one even defected and joined Potemkin. They sailed to Romanian, most of the crew only returning to Russia only after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But of course, that's the history and the steps were the usual anti-climax you get with such places. We sat down and said 'nice steps' before getting bored. It's a really big tourist centre in Odessa and is full of hawkers and men with monkeys you can have your photo taken with. Nick, being the kind of
Marina, Kev and Nick
guy who will say anything to anyone, asked a monkey guy the day before where the monkey went tot he toilet seeing as he has to sit on the guy's arm all day. "He is going in his pampers". An old man came to sell us some old communist medals, I was more interested as to why he was wearing a London Underground Uniform.
We headed back for a power nap, sleep had become disjointed at this point of the trip and we were getting into the habit of catching up the hours missed at night during the day. After waking we discovered another demonstration of how small the world is in Ilza, the Latvian receptionist at the hostel. I recognised her, she used to work at Friendly Fun Franks, the awful hostel we'd stayed at in Riga. She was nice, extremely friendly and she even remembered me and Kev and when she saw us. It also turned out that Kerry was friends with Frank and that he had been staying at Frank's at the same time as us. I rewound my memory and found an image of Kerry sitting at the bar in Frank's Hostel back at the
start of my trip. I love when things like this happen. We headed out for a drink at Mick O'Neills where we'd agreed to meet Marina but she didn't turn. We sat and sipped a pint in Sex Tourist hell, we had made our own fun during the day by pointing out STs to each other whilst walking down the street but sitting here was simply depressing. On the next table was the Aussie brothers from the hostel with a few sad middle aged men. I really think Kerry was cool, a real businessman and not an ST. But his brother? I'd overheard his brother talking to the Texan guy about a girl he'd met the other night 'Yeah I was well pleased with that little piece, I fired into her good and proper'. Another aussie tourist was talking 'I'm here for a month and man are the girls hot'. Meanwhile an ugly fat guy sat necking with a beautiful local and a stunning looking girl walked along the street whilst a haggered and scrappy looking westerner violently tugged at her arm. One table away a slimy old Californian guy in his sixties came over and spoke to us in
The English Don't Understand
Russian in a 'Hey, look at me I can speak a few words of Russian kind of way'. He introduced himself and asked where we were from, he feigned shock when Nick said he was from Detroit, 'but you're not black' he said. What an asshole, not just a dirty old man but a racist. After proclaiming 'Yup, I hate Niggers' he went on to talk about how beautiful women were here. He revealed he had kids back in the US. You have no idea how much I wanted to ask him how his kids felt about having a dirty, slimy, racist c*nt for a father. But I'm not that confrontational, I just sat in silent contempt. He picked up that we all despised him and went back to he seat. He called back over to me and Kev and asked where we were from in London. I was proud that I shouted back 'the part where we hate racists'. He chose to ignore it. I told the otheres how depressed this was making me, I try my best to be open minded and to live and let live but the constant sight of flabby old men with beautiful young
girls just depressed me immensely, I know they're both consenting adults but it's a sad state of affairs if you ask me and was becoming too much to handle. I have to be honest, we had all received a hell of a lot of female attention in Moldova and Ukraine but we are on a backpacking trip, we're all young and reasonable looking guys. There's a difference. These men seem to have travelled here for the sole purpose of sleeping with women who are young enough to be their daughter. I asked Kev to set me straight if at any point in my life I find myself doing what they do. I really hope that it never comes to that.
Just as we were about to head off for dinner our friend Marina turned up. It seems that 45 minutes late counts as 'fashionably late' in this part of the world. She was dressed in a black dinner dress and had done her hair and everything... we were all in scraggly jeans and T-shirts. Yes, we felt a little underdressed. We all went to dinner at a Turkish restaurant and ate Shwarma kebabs which are without doubt one of the tastiest things a human can eat (and you can hardly seem to get them in British Kebab Shops... we have to suffer the awful Lamb Doner). Minus Mike, we decided to head down to Arcadia in a Lada. Nobody really takes taxis in Ukraine, you just stick out your thumb and someone with a car will usually take you where you want to go for a fair price. We went to a club called Ibiza which seemed to be the nightclub version of Mick O'Neills. We decided not to let it get us down and sat drinking vinegary white wine whilst laughing at the 50 year old guy dressed in a yellow shirt tucked into his beige trousers whilst trying to touch young girls' arses.
It's not worth geting depressed about really... it's not my life. But this is something that's developed in me recently, other people's misery upsets me. I feel sad for the man who has to come to Ukraine in order to get sex as I feel sorry for the girl who finds herself in the circumstance where she has to get with such a man. A few days later in Kiev I met a really pretty woman in a club who was about 30, she was chatting to me at the bar and showed me her fat, bald boyfriend who was nearly double her age. Later in the evening I was talking to a Ukrainian guy who spoke better english than her. I asked him what was up, told him how it is somehting I've seen ever since crossing the Ukrainian border and how sad it all seems. He was bold enough to ask her why she was with this guy and came over to me with a solemn face 'She has a child and she has no money. It's her only choice. Life is hard in Ukraine'.
We didn't sleep well again, a couple of hours maybe. We went for lunch at an American Sports Bar. Any thrift I'd had throughout my trip had dissapeared, I was in the last few days and wanted to eat nice food in nice places, gone are the days of counting the pennys and cooking pasta in hostels. We spent the afternoon sleeping, again catching what we can when we can. A Canadian girl moved into our room, she was cool and came to dinner with us for some good old Ukrainian service. It's the same in most former communist countries, service is awful. I suppose capitalism is still a relatively new way of life and the importance of customer service is yet to fall into place. On this occassion the waitress came to us an hour after we ordered our food and told us that they didn't have what we wanted. The cheeky woman then added herself a tip onto the bill, our Canadian friend made a point of taking it off.
Night was setting in and our train for Kiev departed at 11pm, we grabbed out bags and went to the station. There's something about trains, especially Soviet era ones with opening windows and slam doors. Despite the numerous journeys I've taken recenty I still find it quite romantic travelling on them. Mike likened the train station to a scene from a James Bond movie. It would fit well. One of us had to sleep in a different cabin from the other 3, Kev lost paper, scissors, stone on that one. We asked the girl in our cabin if she'd swap with him but she wouldn't. The last train journey I took I hardly slept, this time I was out like a light. Burning the candle at both ends had really taken it's toll. I even slept through the Provinitsa waking us up before arrival. Nick shook me 'Andy, we're in Kiev'. And we were... the final stop on my journey.
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