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Gentlemen (and Women) of Florence and Verona

A Day of Renaissance Splendor and Art

overcast 86 °F

A typical Florentine scene...light reflecting off the water and one of the city's bridges
Day 7: Florence and Verona
Our days were winding down, with only two days of sightseeing left. We started off the morning with a quick drive from the spa town of Montecatini, where we'd been staying, into Florence. We began our tour in the Piazza del Duomo. The soaring Gothic front of the Duomo was richly decorated with statues, marble carvings, and brightly-colored mosaics. Popes frowned down on the square which was thronged with visitors, locals, and the occasional truck that honked its way through the crowds, doubtless hoping to annoy some tourists while taking a dubious shortcut through the narrow streets of this Renaissance era city. Our guide collected us together and pointed out the important sights and details. The overwhelming facade is often called Neo-Gothic for its intricate patterns and detail. We then moved across the square to the smaller Baptistry building, whose doors are a masterpiece of bronze scenes from the Bible carved by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is one of those oddities that what you see in Italy is sometimes a replica. What we were seeing in the square was a replica, and the originals that took Ghiberti 21 years to carve were safely tucked away in a museum. It is an odd feeling, as you wonder, "Should I take a picture or not?"

The Neo-Gothic facade of the Duomo
The guide then had us step off into a corner of the square to get a good look at the Duomo's crowning glory, it's brick dome completed in 1463 by Filipo Brunelleschi, and is the largest brick one in the world. Many thought he was insane for attempting to creat such a large, unsupported space. They were sure it would come crashing down, and that is unique system of an inner dome and outer one would not work. I teach my students a lesson about this achievement of Renaissance engineering, so it was inspiring to see it in person. In this case, Brunelleschi's dome IS the original...not tucked away somewhere like his arch-rival Ghiberti's accomplishment.

Brunelleschi's architectural masterpiece -- the largest brick dome in the world
From there, we walked to the Piazza Della Signoria, which was the heart of Florence during its transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Palazzo Vecchio dominates the square, with its slender, castle-like bell tower rising from its front. The palace was completed in 1322 and sits in splendor amidst numerous famous works of art and bustling throngs of tourists. Here many of the Renaissance's most famous statues seem almost randomly placed. The Fountain of Neptune draws your eye, celebrating the naval victories of its rulers, the most famous of which were the Medicis -- those renowned patrons of the arts. Almost as an afterthought, you notice there stands Michaelangelo's David, looming aloof and satisfied in its perfection above the crowds. This is a copy, though, as the original reins in honor in the nearby Academia Museum. Many others tucked under the Loggia dei Lanzi are originals, including Jean de Boulogne's Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus (1599), and his Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) -- which isn't nearly as X-rated as it sounds. Another teacher and I remarked on the Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, a nearly 2,000 year old "copy" of a Hellenistic era original.

Michaelangelo's David stands aloof above the crowds in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
From there, we walked to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the only Medieval or Renaissance bridge to survive the devastation of WW II. A classic scene is Florence is of its bridges lined up and the glow of Tuscan sunshine reflecting off the water. Once again, there were throngs of tourists here and in all of Florence. Those who know me as a traveler recall that I do my best to visit places when the crowds are at a minimum. I felt bad that my students were getting a look at Florence only during school its most bustling time and not when it was quieter, and they could take their time and contemplate what they were seeing. But that is the nature of a tour. The more sights you can pack in, the more alluring it becomes. Besides, hadn't they tossed a coin in Rome's Trevi Fountain ensuring they will be back to visit Italy at a more leisurely pace? I would like to come back to Florence one day in the off-season, and spend more time savoring the places we only sipped at on our itinerary.

The interior of Santa Croce church
At this point, our group split to utilize the hour and a half free time as they wished. I made sure each group of students was accompanied by an adult. I tagged along with the last group to depart, a half dozen headed to Santa Croce, led by my fellow chaperone, Mr. Barkhurst. I had actually been here briefly on my one visit to Florence, decades ago. It was nice to take my time and pace around the interior of the 13th century church. Many, many famous Italians are buried inside, including Michaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Ghiberti, and Donatello. The floor of the church is a mosaic of marble tombstones, and nearly everywhere you walk, a famous Italian lies buried beneath your feet. Although the altar and stained glass windows are beautiful, the focus of Santa Croce is on the tombs. All are beautiful in the simplicity or splendor. The vast, dimly-lit interior seemed empty compared to the thronged squares,and was a peaceful breath of fresh air in a frenzied day.

The tomb of Galileo inside Santa Croce
After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed northeast. Four hours away, our destination of Venice awaited. However, one of the other groups on the tour proposed a side trip to Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet. My group sportingly agreed to pay the 20 Euros for the excursion -- even after they had vetoes our earlier suggestion of a walled, hilltop town, San Gimignano. We ended up with about an hour and a half in Shakespeare's setting for his most famous play. Medieval walls and gates still surround parts of the city. It's streets are a colorful blend of Renaissance era palaces, churches, towers, and pretty pastel-colored buildings. After visiting the courtyard reputed to be the home of Juliet, and taking pictures of her balcony, the kids took turns being photographed touching the heart of a bronze statue of Juliet. The history of these sights is dubious, but as with all Shakespeare, it is the feeling that they evoke that is important. Once again, we fragmented for about 45 minutes of free time. The group I chaperoned made an obligatory gelato stop (my favorite flavor -- and a great word to say in Italian -- is Straciatella). After taking pictures in the atmospheric streets, especially if the 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater (the third largest, after the Colosseum), we reboarded the bus for the drive to the Venice area.

The streets of Verona are colorful and historic
It was hard to believe at this point that we had only one day of sightseeing left. My students had been wonderful. All the adults on the trip praised them for their behavior. You could tell they were equally amazed that our time had flown by so fast. Despite all the wonders and beauty we had seen, I assured them that Venice -- La Serenissima -- would be a fitting finale to our trip.
Is this really Juliet's balcony? Like Shakespeare himself, it makes a good story

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:32 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Italy's Grand Finale: Venice

The Most Beautiful City in the World

sunny 87 °F

Venice's waterfront in the late afternoon sunlight

Out last day of sightseeing dawned, and it was another magical, sunny day in Italy. We loaded up on the bus from where we were staying in Treviso, and drove about a half hour down to the docks of Venice. We boarded a chartered boat which dropped us off at the Isle of Guidecca, where we would attend a demonstration in the art of Venetian glass blowing. Glass is one of the city's most famous souvenirs, and this place was justifiably famous as making some of the best. After the demonstration, we were ushered into the gift shop -- surprised? The glass here is very high quality, but also very expensive. A pair of wine goblets bought by one of my travelers was 150 Euros.

Beautiful, waterfront scene in Venice
We reboarded the boat and were dropped of along the Grand Canal, that backwards "S-shaped" waterway that is the main thoroughfare in Venice. There are no real streets in this city. No cars or trucks -- only boats of various sizes glide along the large and small waterways which are traffic web of Venice. Pedestrian walkways and alleyways run throughout Venice, crossing the water in quaint arches. This is an artist's city. Plop down your canvas nearly anywhere in Venice and you can paint a gorgeous panorama or lovely, little backwater street. I often categorize cities into "laundry list" cities (like Rome) where you have an expansive tally of places you want to see before you leave. Or I label them "experience cities," where the goal is to just absorb the vibe and color of the city. Venice is the second type, and to this day I still call it, "la piu bella citta" (most beautiful city) in the world.

Atop one of the bridges across the Grand Canal
We met our guide, who began his commentary about the city's layout and sights. He walked us along the Grand Canal past the Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Square, then plunged into the city's back streets and alleyways. He stopped at various churches and buildings and explained the history, art and life of Venice. He took us to some hidden spots that were definitely off the beaten path and very colorful. However, for my taste, he did not spice up his delivery with questions or pauses to make sure everyone understood. Unfortunately, he kind of pressed "Play" and began his lecture and continued it nonstop. After a half hour or so, I could tell he was losing some of the travelers. The Whisper technology's sound was always a bit shaky, and when you throw in the accented English with the nonstop monologue under the hot sun, the kids began to fade a bit. We retuned to St. Mark's Square, where the guide finished and handed it back to Elvira.

An iconic part of any Venice visit -- a ride on one of its gondolas
From there, we walked to where she'd arranged for us to hire gondolas for a ride through Venice's canals. The price of 20 Euros each was excellent, and all of my travelers took advantage. We gingerly stepped on board, six to a boat, and they began to pole us through the waters. We began along the bustling and choppy Grand Canal, then quickly ducked into the quieter side canals. Our gondolier did not sing (though apparently if we'd tipped him he would have, I found out later), but instead bantered back and forth with other gondoliers. Still, it is a cool experience to quietly float through the canals, passing beneath arched bridges as you watch people walk by overhead. Seeing the homes along the back alley canals is always atmospheric, too. It is as if you are getting a secret glimpse into someone's gorgeous, backyard patio.

Venice's Rialto Bridge along the Grand Canal
After disembarking, we followed Elvira through the streets to a square which housed a number of cafes. Everyone was hungry, so we scattered to check out menus, eventually splitting into several contingents. Once lunch was over, I collected most of our group and told them I would lead them to the Rialto Bridge, one of the most famous and picturesque of the three over the Grand Canal. I used the map Elvira had given each of us, supplementing it with the my iPhone's map app (which tracks your location with a moving blue dot). We stopped a couple times for souvenir purchases, but I was pleased to navigate us through the back streets to exactly where I wanted to emerge alongside the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, half of the Rialto Bridge was covered in scaffolding. So much for my postcard view I wanted to give them! At this point, our group splintered. Some wanted to take their time and shop, while others wanted to explore the city. I led the exploration group across the Rialto Bridge and we plunged through one of the city's markets. This led to frequent shopping stops. Some of the group began to worry about our pace. Our goal was to return to the meeting point in time to visit both St. Mark's Cathedral and the Duomo's Palace. We worked it out, though, and found a happy compromise. We even found time for a gelato stop in one of the squares. I was happy with my navigation, leading us into only one dead end. We made a circuit of the opposite side of the Grand Canal through the Santa Croce, San Polo, and Dorsoduro districts before emerging at the Accademia Bridge. We took numerous photo stops along the way, and I think my travelers got a good taste of Venice's beauty.

St. Mark's Cathedral, bathed in the golden rays of the evening sun
I left us with about about a half hour less time than I'd aimed for to explore St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace. We managed to get inside both, but for abbreviated tours. I had visited St. Mark's before, and love its dusty, golden glow of the mosaic and fresco-lined walls. There is a definite Eastern feel to the church. You can see and feel the Byzantine influences. This was my first time entering the Doge's (or Duke's) Palace. It was much more sprawling inside. Magnificent chambers stretched away before your eyes, decorated with the wealth and taste you would expect of one of the Medieval and Renaissance period's most powerful cities. The merchants of Venice showed off their riches by decorating their homes and buildings. The palace -- actually all of Venice -- is a testament to their proud role as patrons of the arts.

Exploring the back streets, canals, and alley ways of Venice
We had to cut our exploration of the palace short to reach our rendezvous with Elvira and the rest of the group. Previously, I'd made arrangements for any of the group who wished to extend their exploration of Venice to stay on with me and travel back by train. The rest could return to the hotel with her. I could tell that the long day in the sun had worn many of them out. They were ready to return to a shower in the hotel and relax in the air conditioning. Three students chose to stay on with me, though. We returned to the square for some photos, and then decided to take the elevator up the Campanile, or bell tower, for its views of Venice. The panorama of the world's most beautiful city laid out beneath us was exhilarating. I could feel it inject fresh life and energy into the kids and myself. When we first arrived top, one student pointed out the massive bronze bells above our head. They asked if they would ring while we were up there and I said I doubted it. At 6:30 pm, I was proven loudly and clamorously wrong. The ringing was deafening, but we were all laughing at the hilarity of the situation.

The Campanile, or bell tower, and my three travelers who took me up on the option of an extended, evening tour of Venice
The kids and I began a slow, evening tour of Venice. I had wanted to show my travelers what Venice was like after the hordes of day trippers and cruise ship passengers were gone. Our stated objective was to visit the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, but it ended up being too far of a walk from our starting point. We did explore quiet squares, bustling waterfronts, and streets shaded by the slanting sun of early evening. We enjoyed a dinner on a waterfront cafe, watching people cross the bridge or stroll along the streets. We then boarded our train, and headed off towards Treviso and the rest of our group. It was an extra taste, a dessert of sorts, to our grand finale of our tour of Italy -- my favorite city in my favorite country, Venice.

As the darkness descended on our ride back, I knew the memories of my students would forever be lit up by their magical week in Italy. Before I left, I wasn't sure how I would enjoy leading a student group overseas. Normally, I don't take guided tours and prefer individual travel, instead. True, we did not always get to spend as much time at every place I wanted -- nor to see everything I hoped to show them. Deep inside, though, I knew one of my goals was to open up their eyes to the world out there. I wanted them to get a taste of overseas travel, to experience a different culture. It was every bit the success I had hoped for. What I hadn't expected, though, was the warm glow it gave me to see their joy, wonder, and excitement light up their faces. Through them, my heart experienced the same magic they were feeling.

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:23 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Heading to Ukraine tomorrow...!

Yes, I am staying away from the East, Mom...

overcast 79 °F

I had always called Ukraine "The Ukraine." Not sure why...maybe I just heard it referred to that way more than once. However, I learned during my research that it is just "Ukraine"...kind of like England is "England" -- not THE England. Of course, that immediately brings to mind a certain university in my hometown of Columbus that IS a "the"...ha, ha!

Anyway, I will be in Ukraine for two weeks, with most of my time in Kiev, Lviv, and short stays in the Carpathian Mountains and an incredible fortress town called Kamyanets-Podilsky. Lately, I've added another component to my research. I joined an internet forum run by expatriates living in Ukraine. They're mostly Brits, Americans, Aussies, and other Westerners. Not only have they given some great advice, they are incredibly welcoming. I met a forum member here in Columbus for a beer, and he regaled me with hours of stories and advice. Upon arrival, another American forum member will be waiting for me at the airport to show me the ropes of riding public transport to my hotel.

So, sit back and get ready for stories and pictures from my country #77 -- Ukraine!
Ukraine Flag.jpg?itok=3v4G9l0l

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:18 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Easing my First Day in Kiev

Knowing People can make all the Difference

sunny 80 °F

It took two tries, but I finally made it to Kiev. On my first day, my flight from Columbus to New York was cancelled. I spent two hours on the phone with four different Delta agents. Two were useless and unhelpful, one I was disconnected with, and only the fourth tried her hardest, but unsuccessfully, to find a way to route me there that day. No luck. I went home. My second set of flights went smoothly, though, and I touched down in Kiev-Borispol airport shortly after 1 pm on Friday.
Michael was waiting for me once I breezed my way through customs. I'd contacted him on an Internet forum before I left and he'd volunteered to help me around. He is a retired American who has lived in Ukraine for six months, and married a Ukrainian woman. I hit up the ATM, and bought a SIM card for my iPhone so I'd be able to use Internet to help navigate. It was an experiment to see how useful it would be -- particularly the Maps GPS function -- which allows you to zoom in and see where you are and which direction your moving. Michael's wife had arranged a cab for the "local's rate" of 190 Hrivyna -- as opposed to the 400 my hotel would charge, and the 550 another traveler I would meet later said he paid. The exchange rate is very much in the dollar's favor, right now, at just over 20:1. That makes the above fares about $10, $20, $27.
At the hotel, I checked in and then went up to my room and unpacked. Michael said he had free time and would wait in the lobby, then walk me around Kiev some, so I could get my bearings. Much as a nap sounded good (as usual, I could not sleep at all on the flights over), I knew I had to "power through" on the first day to avoid jet lag and reset my body clock by going to bed at a normal hour. That would turn out to be no problem, as I actually did not get to bed till well after 11 pm that night!
Michael navigated us towards the main thoroughfare in Kiev, a busy street with the tongue-twisting name of Kreschchatyk. We decided to stop for a beer. He had to phone his wife Anna, who was at work, to hone us in to the place he wanted to stop. We were only a block away, and I was happy to actually recognize the neon sign in Cyrllic first. Katyusha is a pleasant restaurant to dine or have a couple beers in -- something we ended up doing. Anna joined us, and suggested typical Ukrainian fare that fit with what my friends (unfairly) label my "picky eater's" palate!
After our meal, the couple took me on a walking tour of Central Kiev. We walked down Kreschchatyk, admiring the 17th-18th century architecture. We were hitting it at a perfect time, as the westering sun made the stonework glow. It was Friday evening and the streets were coming alive with strollers and entertainers. My favorite was the old man dressed up in traditional Cossack costume. He was playing a large stringed instrument and singing a folk song. In other places, there were people dancing as a crowd gathered around to watch, a young man on a guitar, and even a young lady dressed in a mermaid's costume!
Our first stop was Maydan Nezaleznhosti -- Kiev's main square, and renamed in honor of the 2004 Orange Revolution that essentially freed the country from its post-Soviet, Communist grip. All over the square and up the neighboring streets, official and unofficial monuments are set to honor the ordinary students, workers, and people who demonstrated and said no to continuation of control by the Kremlin's cronies. There were also displays honoring the soldiers fighting against the "Russian separatists" and actual Russian troops who have grabbed land belonging to Ukraine. This is actually one of the things that tipped the scale for me to come to Ukraine. I figured if any county needs my tourist dollars, it is one fighting off Putin's aggression and Stalin- like attempts to reconstruct the USSR at the expense of nations who have finally attained independence. The fighting in Ukraine is confined to the East, along the Russian border, where Russian "humanitarian aid" composed of tanks, armored cars, and soldiers can easily cross into Ukraine to support the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have unwisely stepped forward to be the front for Putin's land grab. It is also why Ukraine is so inexpensive for Western travellers. The economy is suffering inflation, tourists are avoiding a "war zone," and hotels have slashed prices to encourage visitors. For example, my 4-star hotel near the center (Premier Hotel Rus), is costing me $27 a night.
The little memorials set up featured pictures of those who died in the fighting, along with implements like construction helmets, a bottle representing Molotov cocktails, and other improvised tools the rebels had available to fight the government during the Orange Revolution. It is always gets me to see the faces of those who later died in combat: grim, determined, happy, laughing...when those pictures were taken, did they have an idea of their fate? Anna told me Ukrainians want the street renamed in their honor and the memorials to become permanent and official.
We continued our circuit stopping at the Chimera House, a truly wild-looking building adorned with dozens of concrete animal "gargoyles" -- rhinos, frogs, elephants, you name it! Humorously, the animals stare directly at the Presidential Palace, which is next door. Anna and Michael turned down the streets that showed off their town's architectural flair. It was a great way to unwind after the stress of cancelled flights and acclimating to a new place. They were great unofficial tour guides, and very helpful. After awhile, I needed a break. I could tell Anna was tiring, too, as she had been at work early that morning. The couple graciously walked me back to my hotel, where I went in, finished unpacking, and rested up for awhile.
Later that evening, I went for another evening stroll. I ranged pretty far and wide, heading down to the Dneiper River, admiring the lights of the city from a pedestrian bridge. I walked back through the Maydan Square, had a beer in a cafe, and because I was so far from the hotel, rode the subway back and headed home for the evening. It was a great start to my two weeks in Ukraine. I was grateful to Michael and Anna for their help learning the ropes of their city. It usually takes a couple days before you really know your way around, but they shrank that process down to half a day. It had taken longer than I thought to get here and get my trip started, but I truly felt it was underway and going well, now.

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:42 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Diary From Chernobyl

Unquiet Dreams in a Nightmare Man Made Real

sunny 79 °F

This was supposed to be Day 3 of my trip, but with the cancelled flight, my day trip to Chernobyl would be the very next morning after I arrived. I'd arranged it ahead of time using New Logic Tours, who were recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook. It was the single most expensive item planned on my trip other than airfare, at just under $150. It was slated to last almost all day, though, and was the only option I found to do the tour. Most agencies booked only groups, and New Logic let me join an existing group as an individual.
The bus would leave from the Maydan Square, so I left early to make sure I got there I time. The only thing I don't like about my hotel is the 20 minute walk to the center. I did two round trips yesterday, and would likely do the same, today. I showed the guide my passport and he gave me a cautionary statement to read when I got on the bus. It was actually kind of unintentionally humorous. No drinking the water. No eating any plants from Chernobyl. There are three sets of checkpoints we have to pass through in the "Exclusion Zone" -- called that because no one is supposed to live there except for people working there. It is only in the final zone that there are levels of radiation considered "unsafe." Your time is limited there. So, in the end, they say you are exposed to less radiation than you would be flying here from America.
We learned more about that in the documentary they played on the bus AV system as we got underway. Actually, it was a series of different video clips, beginning with a U.S. network news summary of the Chernobyl incident. The videos were fascinating, and I learned a lot that I had never known about Chernobyl and radiation. For example, There are strict rules for how many years an airline pilot can fly intercontinental routes. After five years of doing it, pilots may not donate blood. After 10 years, they cannot donate any organs. The most shocking and sobering part of the videos was how close Chernobyl was to becoming an even more severe disaster. When Reactor #4 overheated, and it's fuel was turned into magma, the super hot material began to eat away at the flooring. Had it reached the unspent fuel deposits underneath, it would have ignited a catastrophic explosion. The blast would have been 10 times as destructive as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in WW II. The resulting radiation would have made the entire continent of Europe unlivable, it said. Imagine that! One of our wealthiest and most populous continents was almost wiped out in 1986. The effects on our world had that happened would have been staggering.
Equally shocking was the way the Soviets handled the disaster. I think no one was surprised that they denied it at first, and went to great lengths to conceal Chernobyl's magnitude. However, the callousness in the way they sacrificed their citizens' lives to put out out the reactor fire was appalling. Yes, they had to do it quickly to avoid an even greater disaster. But rather than ask the world for help, they ordered wave after wave of helicopter pilots, soldiers, miners, and firefighters in unprotected. They did engineer robots to try to use them to do the most dangerous work. The radiation played havoc on their circuits, though and they broke down. People -- or Bio Robots, as the documentary called them -- were ordered back in to toss sand bags on the fire, shovel highly radioactive debris, and more. The film interviewed some of the heroic survivors, and to a man, almost all admitted they had no idea how deadly the radiation levels were at the site.
Some of my fellow travellers on the tour had rented Geiger counters to measure the radiation. At each stop, the guide brought out his and showed us the readings. At each check point we got off the bus and the guards checked our passports against their list. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the guards or the checkpoint. So, Soviet paranoia lives on in Ukraine! One of my fellow passengers was from Oklahoma City, and we hit it off really well. We shared travel stories on the ride and reflections after each stop. One of our first stops was at a formerly-secret, Soviet radio listening base. It's huge antenna array stretched on for more than 100 yards. It's task was to spy on Western radio transmissions. The base was abandoned during the Chernobyl disaster, and it is slowly crumbling and being overtaken by nature. We checked out a couple rooms, then walked through the woods to the antenna array. Each tower stretched skyward, and the patterns created by lining up identical tower after tower were cool. I snapped lots of photos, of course!
Our first abandoned village we stopped at had the requisite creepy doll lying abandoned in the grass. By the end of the day, I suspected these were being planted there by someone for atmospheric effect. I probably saw a dozen or so abandoned dolls during our visit. The first building was an abandoned school, and it was simultaneously spooky, sobering, and fascinating to see the detritus of a village full of people who had to pack up and evacuate, never to return. Broken glass crunched underfoot and rotting floorboards creaked ominously as we explored the school. Tiny metal frames of beds sat rusting in rows in two of the rooms. Schoolbooks lay open and yellowed, and everywhere was the dust of crumbling walls.
As we neared the reactor, we passed our final checkpoint. Simultaneously, all the Geiger counters on the bus started beeping insistently. The guide pointed out each of the six reactors as we drove into view of the facility. I was surprised to hear that, after the accident, the Soviets fired up two of the older reactors and used them to generate electricity. Two additional reactors under construction (#5 & #6) were never completed, though. Behind all six rust-streaked buildings was the gleaming, metallic structure that is being built now to enclose reactor #4. Cracks have begun to appear in the concrete and steel sarcophagus that has enclosed the reactor for decades. Once the new structure is completed in a few years, it will be slid on rails over the top of the existing structure, that was built at the cost of so many lives after the accident. This final entombment is supposed to seal off any leaking radiation forever.
Before we visited Reactor #4, our guide said he wanted to take us fishing off Catfish Bridge. He chuckled at our quizzical looks, but we duly followed him off the bus out onto a railroad bridge in the shadow of the reactors. He pulled out a bag of bread and tore off chunks and tossed them into the water. Monstrous catfish rose lazily to the surface and sucked them down. Were these nuclear, mutated monsters? No, simply a fish with no natural predator growing to its size -- or at least that is what he assured us. Some were easily three to four feet long. I would not want to go swimming in there! I took pictures of a memorial park nearby, too, and then we boarded the bus for the reactor.
Our guide warned us again to stay in the allotted area, and not to do anything foolish to antagonize the guards. We followed him to a monument to those who lost their lives to seal up the reactor. He pointed out the radiation levels on his Geiger counter, which were "beyond safety level." Workers rotate through the site, he explained, with those in the most deadly areas being able to work only a few minutes a day to avoid overexposure to radiation. The sealed up reactor itself looked no more dangerous or ominous than any other large industrial building. It was hard to believe that inside was a pile of deadly plutonium which would kill you if you got too close. We stayed for the allotted time, then reboarded the bus.
Our next stop was the town of Pripyat the "company town" the Soviets built for the workers of Chernobyl. For three days after the reactor explosion, life went on as normal in town. No one was informed that most residents were receiving lethal doses of radiation. No scientist or technician hurriedly abandoned the town, or even sent his family away to safety. To me, that is the most unconscionable part of the Chernobyl disaster. How could a scientist or technician working there NOT send his family to safety? How could he come home every night, kiss his wife and his children, and act as if all were normal? Knowing your family was going to die? It boggles my mind how servile and afraid of the government you would have to be to do that. How easy would it have been to say, "Honey, you need to go visit your mother out of town -- now!"...?
If a Hollywood set designer ever needs idea for what a post-Apocalyptic town should look like, Pripyat is where they should go. Trees and bushes randomly sprouted from concrete and even buildings as far as you could see. Patches of woods had overtaken neighborhoods so that they looked like forests instead of streets. Streetlights arched alongside the trunks of trees as if they were trying to revert to nature, too. Signs leaned drunkenly and broken windows gaped like the hollow eye sockets of skulls. And just to make sure everyone understood this wasn't make-believe, our group's Geiger counters measured their highest readings of the day. Although life and nature was attempting to reclaim Pripyat, it was a life with poison in its veins. I recalled the pamphlet's warnings about eating fruit from Chernobyl as I passed apple trees tempting us with golden apples.
One of the most atmospheric spots is the town's amusement park. A dozen bumper cars, are frozen in place as if the ride were stopped abruptly. Their bright yellow paint is scarred with rust and buckled with dents. Their steering columns lay broken across split vinyl seats. The Ferris wheel immediately catches your eye. It sits, in perfect shape, as if waiting for some ghostly operator to return and crank the lever to make it spin once again. The cars look inviting. What better way to survey Pripyat's state then to glide high above? A tilt-a-wheel is a leering skeleton next to the Ferris wheel, though, it's rusting bones mocking its hopeful and patient neighbor.
We explored the town's movie theater, where dust rose in clouds as we creaked along sagging, wooden floors. We climbed to the second story of the recreation center, walking across the warped and ruined basketball court to enter the town swimming pool. It's vast walls were peeling flakes of paint that were coming loose in Palm-sized sheets. The deep end of the pool, with its shells of diving platforms, was littered with garbage. Even more ruinous was the secondary school. Books lay strewn about the floors and were ankle deep in some rooms. Everything seemed to be aged with a layer of gray from the dust. A lump rose in my throat as I imagined my own 7th grade History room transformed into a ruined shell like this. What would survive? What of my things that decorate the walls and room would be crumbled and hidden in a blanket of plaster dust? Who were these teachers and their students that learned in these rooms before the disaster? Did they all die of radiation poisoning, or are some alive today, experiencing their invisible nightmare over and over again in their dreams?
We filed back on board the bus, some silent, some talking excitingly about what they had witnessed. From there, we drove past the first checkpoint, and each of us had to go through a radiation check. It was a device that you stepped up on, placed your hands and feet in the appropriate place, and a light would tell you in Cyrillic whether you were safe. No one failed the check at this spot, or at the five times more sensitive checkpoint as we exited the Exclusion Zone. It had been a full, but fascinating, day. Everyone seemed worn out by our explorations or perhaps the magnitude of what we'd experienced. I had fully intended to spend the two hour bus ride checking out my pictures, cropping them, and maybe even beginning this blog. My eye kept drooping shut, though, and I gave up. I sat back, let the gorgeous sunshine streaming in through the window bathe my face, and surrendered to unquiet slumbers of Chernobyl.

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:55 Archived in Ukraine Comments (1)

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