Knowing People can make all the Difference
07/17/2015 - 07/17/2015 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.