A Travellerspoint blog

8th September

“The time has come the Walrus said,
To speak of many things,
Of ships and shoes and sealing wax,
And cabbages and kings.”

And our time has come too. We spend the morning cleaning and tidying the apartment and making sure we have left nothing behind. I venture out on my own mid-morning to go back to the “tunic shop” to buy more postcards. This is my first time out on my own without Marina looking after me. I feel confident and quickly find the street I’m looking for. But do you think I could find the arcade? In no time at all I’m lost. I spy one of the “Militsyar” (A cross between Police and Military) carrying a machine gun. He’s giving directions to a tourist couple who have driven the wrong way down a one-way street. While I’m waiting for him to finish, I practise how I’m going to ask him in Russian for the directions I need. This bit goes real well- the Russian flows from my lips, I understand his reply, and I thank him. Then in perfect “American” English he asks me how I’m enjoying my holiday. Turns out he has spent several summer vacations on work exchange programmes in the States. He almost recognises my accent- asks me where in Australia I am from.

I find my way back to the apartment, sign the papers with the apartment manager, and we catch the taxi to the airport. While I was out Marina has rung every taxi company, found the cheapest and ordered a cab. She saves us 20 UAH, about $3NZD. (Every little bit helps as the monkey said when he peed in the Nile.)

The airport is a very emotional time. All too quickly I get the boarding call, we embrace, say good bye, and I disappear into the bowels of Ukrainian International Departure processing. It is now seriously hot, there is no aircon, and once again I feel like I am in an All Black ruck as all the local people push and shove and take every possible opportunity to queue jump.

I get lucky at check-in, I am able to get a boarding pass not only for this leg, but the next one as well. I am able to get an emergency exit seat for the Vienna-Bangkok leg. This is good because this is a night flight and the extra leg room will enable me to sleep.

Once again there are no air-bridges. This time instead of a bus to the plane, we have to board an articulated trailer towed by an old old truck. Our driver is smoking, something that would never be allowed in NZ. I wonder if perhaps their aviation fuel is not as explosive as ours, then I wonder if that means that their planes fly slower than ours. Just as we are about to mount the stairway into the airplane, a couple of gun toting guards tell us to step back because there is a “veep” coming. Turns out they mean a VIP. A magnificent limousine pulls up at the plane and out steps a black woman who looks for all the world like Condelisa (sp?) Rice (sp?). Maybe it was her, there have certainly been many diplomats in Ukraine this past week as they celebrate 20 years of Independence.

Eventually this VIP is settled in her seat and we allowed on the plane.

Vienna airport is one of the great boring places of the world. There is almost no shopping, only 2 food outlets, insufficient seating, piss poor flight information and I’m stuck here for 7 hours. I make friends with a mother and daughter who have Kiwi emblems on their bags and clothes. Turns out they are going to athletic meeting for some world junior championship being held in Albania. They have missed their connecting flight after a delay getting out of Heathrow.

About half an hour after our plane is supposed to have left we are told by Austrian Air that our aeroplane has what they euphemistically describe as a “technical problem”. We are to be bussed to a hotel for 3 hours sleep and will depart in the morning. We are then abandoned and left to our own devices to find the buses that are taking us to our hotel.

NOT REALLY GOOD ENOUGH AUSTRIAN AIR!!

Posted by chrisbakernz 21:41 Comments (0)

9th September

After 2 hours of sleep I get the wake-up call and begin the process of getting ready for departure to the airport. As a morning person, normally when I wake my mind alert and ready to start the day. Not this time. My brain is sluggish and my body does not want to work.

We get to the airport and Austrian Air give us breakfast- well done! By now I’m starting to wake up and I’m feeling good about life again.

We check in and the problems begin. Our plane has been changed and the seating configuration is different, so I’ve lost my seat in the emergency exit. I ask if my seat can be changed but apparently no. I try to explain, but the guy is using his 1 mouth and 2 ears in inverse proportion. He tells me that he every day he hears my story 4 or 5 times which I take to mean that he doesn’t believe me, or if you like, he thinks I am lying.

NOT REALLY GOOD ENOUGH AUSTRIAN AIR !!!!

He gives me a business card and tells me to complain when I get home, then he turns his back on me and walks away. I thank him for the card and promise that I will put it to good use.

Our new flight is a daylight flight and I have a window seat. I find the views fascinating- really eye opening.

The plane is less than one third full so there is plenty of room for everybody.

We arrive in Bangkok and of course I have missed my connection. There are people meeting our plane taking care passengers going on to various destinations in Aus, but nobody taking care of the lone Kiwi. I eventually find an Austrian Air counter manned by Thai girls. Their English is crap, and their instructions minimal. I get the distinct impression that they don’t care. They tell me that I am rebooked on the same flight as my original one but 24 hours later. I ask them if there are any other earlier “Star Alliance” flights. The answer I get is evasive- I suspect that I am booked on the earliest available Thai Airways flight and that there are earlier flights on other Star Alliance airlines that I could have been booked on. Further research required.

Somehow I manage to figure out that I am to stay in a hotel tonight at Austrian Air expense. I have to go through immigration and then make my way to Gate 4. It takes me forever to find Immigration- I think that they should rename their “Information” kiosks “Dis-information”. When I get to Immigration there are about 30 queues each with about 50 people and it’s bedlam. And wouldn’t you know it- there are no Declaration forms anywhere. Every uniformed person I ask just shrugs their shoulders.

NOT REALLY GOOD ENOUGH BANGKOK AIRPORT !!!!

Eventually I see a tour guide with a handful of declaration forms for his tour group. He has a couple of spare ones and gives me one. Thank God for that. Then of course I get into the wrong queue, an immigration officer under training. I finally get through and the bus to our hotel is still waiting for me- I am the last one to make it through.

The hotel is fabulous- the service is wonderful- such a contrast from the Thai people at the airport. I’m showered, fed, watered and ready for bed.

Posted by chrisbakernz 21:40 Comments (1)

7th September

Our last day- tomorrow I fly out and back home to little old NZ.

Today we plan a very quiet day. Some local sight-seeing, pack the bags, go to the ballet and get a good night’s sleep in readiness for the long haul home.

Marina has run out of steam. Walking 10-20 km each day has taken it out of her despite the fact that she’s 15 years younger than me.

We go to the Pushkin Museum, a major disappointment. Apart from that, we spend most of the day in quiet introversion, lost in our own thoughts about what a great time we’ve had and how it will all end tomorrow.

I spend much of the day looking for the 3 final souvenirs that I want- a distinctly Ukrainian beer mug, some Odessa Postcards and one of those traditional embroidered tunics. Alas I am unable to find a beer mug that I like. All the ones that I saw in both Kiev and Odessa were unattractive and/or poor manufacturing quality and/or nor genuine Ukrainian. I finally give up on this. We get lucky and finally find some of the traditional tunics, including one that I like that fits me. The lady in the shop was delightful and she gave me as a present a pack of about 20 Odessa Post Cards.

The ballet was great. We had booked a box which was a new experience. Ever since I saw Dr Zhivago 45 years ago I’ve always wanted to go in a box at the theatre. To be honest, the view from cattle class seats is better.

When we return to the apartment we begin the process of packing. A very interesting experience. After 12 days we finally experience tension between us. I should have known better. I have very poor spatial ability and Marina is CNC Machine Programmer which means she has great spatial ability. We pack, unpack, repack, unpack, repack etc. Finally the bags are packed, everything fits and we get to bed.

Posted by chrisbakernz 21:37 Comments (0)

6th September

Looks like I got the date wrong for my last entry. Can't figure out how to change it. Too bad.

OMG- my back is so stiff today. That bus trip was a killer. I take it real slow for a start this morning.

We decide to have a quiet day just walking to a view locations real handy to the apartment. By the time we’ve finished breakfast and showered my back is fine again. We head off for the Greek Quarter.

Over its life Odessa has had massive strategic significance as the port providing access between Central and Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. For this reason many cultures have found it advantageous to have a presence here and there have been many many invasions from many many countries. Among others, there is a powerful Jewish community here as well as Greek and just about every other European and Middle Eastern culture you can think of.

The Greek Quarter is particularly well developed and well worth a look. More fantastic architecture.

While we’re there we go into the “Athena” Centre, a seriously massive shopping mall, like Westfield, only on 7 floors, each one as big as Westfield Albany. Most of the shops sell very very expensive high quality fashions, homeware etc etc, with a lot of Western brands well represented. We do a lot of “shopping”- it is here that I introduce Marina to the difference between shopping and spending.

From there we go to the seaport. This is a huge place that is crammed full of cargo ships and other commercial shipping. On the way we go past statues to Pushkin (The Ukrainian equivalent to Shakespeare) the “Duke” who is credited with founding Odessa and many others. The area is full of avenues lined with beautiful trees that are preparing themselves for the Autumn leaf drop.

When we get to the port I realise that Ukrainians are colour blind. They call this the Black Sea- well there is no flipping way it’s Black. It is as blue as blue as blue. Beautiful deep blue. The sea is full of sardines- clouds of sardines. There doesn’t seem to be any bigger fish or birds chasing them so they just bask on the surface. There are a few expensive boats and yachts, but not many, not like Auckland for instance.

On the way back to the apartment we stop off at the local Opera Theatre and buy tickets to tonight’s opera, a play about the time that Odessa was ruled by the Turks and ending with liberation. Marina tells me that the theatre was rebuilt only a few years ago and is now rated as the second most beautiful opera theatre in Europe. I’m thinking to myself, “Yeah! Right!” Marina insists that we get dressed for the occasion. I am wearing the new suit that I bought in Kiev and the white shirt that Marina bought me from Marks & Spencer in Kiev. She is dressed in a beautiful black dress and some costume jewellery.

When we arrive at the theatre I discover that I was right. There is no way that this place is the “second” most beautiful Opera Theatre in Europe. No other theatre could possibly be as beautiful as this place. Words cannot describe the beauty, the power and the atmosphere. We take a few photos and then we ask a couple if they will take some photos of us. They are an absolutely delightful couple from Vladivostok, Siberia. They take many photos, taking great care to set up each shot.

In talking to them we discover that they have lived all over the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago enjoying a wonderful life. They’ve been together 25 years and their eyes tell the story of a couple still very much in love after all this time. For about the 20th time Marina introduces me as “a famous psychologist from NZ doing a research project in Ukraine”. She asks me to tell them about themselves. I’m starting to get good at this now. I take her by the hands and look into her face, and in particular her eyes, then I do the same with him. Then I tell them what I see.

The Opera was great. Sitting next to us were a delightful French couple. They spoke reasonable English, however their accent meant that Marina couldn’t understand a word they were saying and they couldn’t understand her English. So we had this delightful situation where they would ask in their English what was happening, I would translate into English that Marina could understand, she would reply in English and I would translate into English that they could understand intermingled with the final vestiges of my schoolboy French from 45 years ago. This was great for me because it was all in Ukrainian which is sufficiently different from Russian that I understood almost none of the story line.

The final scene was what Marina calls Kazak (Cossack) Dancing. These guys were so so good. They must have longer hamstrings than the average NBA basketball player. The dancing went on for maybe quarter of an hour. I hoped that they would do some more as part of the encores, but alas, no. I guess they were buggered after the final scene.

On the way out we see that tomorrow night there are 2 ballet performances. As tomorrow is our last night we buy tickets for that.

And so my second to last day ends.

Posted by chrisbakernz 21:34 Comments (0)

4th September

Today the alarm goes off at 05.00 because we are catching a bus for Nikolaev at 06.00. Our main aim for the day is to meet Marina’s mother and spend the day with her.

We’re a bit slower getting ready than we planned and miss the bus so have to wait an extra 40 minutes for the next one. We’re going in what they call a “mihi abtobys” which translates as “mini bus”. There are about 18 seats and it is packed. Even at this early hour the temperature is heating up.

Our driver stands outside the bus topping up on nicotine and caffeine in readiness for an hour and a half of driving before the only stop. When we finally get going I’m beginning to think that it was a bad move to miss the first bus. This guy drives like a maniac weaving in and out of rush hour traffic. The roads are in a terrible state of repair as well.

We eventually make it out of the city and begin driving through beautiful rolling agricultural land. The soil is black and looks rich with fertility, the hills are more gently rolling than English countryside, and everywhere there are crops growing. It is almost harvest time and the countryside looks great. The most common crop by far is sunflowers, so the fields look like a scene out of a van Gogh painting. There are also cabbages, onions, peach trees, other fruit trees, olives and many many other crops. But there are no animals.

By now the road has improved markedly and we are on a 4 lane motorway with a big traffic island down the middle. It’s scary shit though because there are actually 3 lanes heading into Odessa and 1 heading out so we have opposing traffic. I soon realise that our driver is extremely good at judging when he can and cannot pass so I settle in to enjoying the countryside.

The first hour and a half passes quickly and the driver pulls over at the route stop for a 10 minute break to top up his nicotine and caffeine levels. We are near a ginormous lake which is dotted with people fishing from boats and fish farms. The sea gulls look identical to ours, the only difference is that they don’t know how to land on the water. They cautiously make up wind approaches to their landings and when they are about 60 cms above the water, they stall and “plop” onto the water. It looks particularly clumsy.

We carry on for another hour and a half and soon we’re at Nikolaev. We catch another local bus, then a taxi and we are at Marina’s mother’s place. Vira (Vera) greets us with a loaf of bread, a dish of rock salt and a cloth. Apparently the traditional welcome is to offer bread and salt and the guest is expected to three ties pick bread from the offered loaf.

Vira takes me around her vegetable/flower garden explaining to me all the plants as we go. There is everything you might expect in a comprehensive NZ garden- peas, capsicums, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers, several varieties of tomato, there are 7 apricot trees from which they picked 500 kgs this year, pear trees, apple trees blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and much much more.

Then we go inside and in broken Russian Vira shows me the family photo albums. At last I can understand what she’s saying (Until now she has only spken to me in Ukranian because she knows little Russian)- I know all the Russian words for relatives. Finally we settle down to a sumptuous Ukrainian lunch time feast. Once again I am pleasantly surprised at how good food can taste. There are 2 pieces de resistance- prunes (plums came from their own orchard) stuffed with walnuts (again from their own orchard) drizzled with clotted cream) and then an amazing chocolate cake with cream and chocolate sauce.

All too soon it is time to say our good byes and head off for the bus station and begin the 3 hour journey back to Odessa. As we wave good bye I realise that today I have had the privilege of spending time with one of the world’s nicest people. A woman who has survived many more life challenges than I will ever know and yet her heart overflows with kindness, goodness and love. I know I will spend a lot of time thinking about her as we drive back.

Posted by chrisbakernz 00:20 Comments (0)

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