Posts filed under 'Ukraine'

Crossing the Ukraine border into Poland

On Friday morning Heather and I woke to my alarm at 5:00AM. At 5:30 AM Roman called to tell me my taxi was downstairs waiting for me. The taxi took us to Roman’s place where he was waiting outside, we all then rode to one of the main bus stations on the edge of town. Around 6:00AM we arrived at nearly the same moment as Alex and some of his friends. We were all headed to Katowice, Poland for Metal Mania! The ~2 hour bus ride to the border was followed by sitting at the border for nearly 6 hours. Those combined 8 hours were filled with moments that I hope will have you laughing as hard as I was.

We boarded the bus around 10 minutes before our scheduled departure of 6:30. Walking onto this bus wasn’t much different from what I expected. The bus was a bit ugly: dirty, worn seats, smelled a little bit, dark. Above my seat part of the faux-ceiling that usually has reading lights had been removed.

Not more than 5 minutes into our bus ride the vodka was out. It’s ~6:35 AM and we’re drinking Vodka. Actually, I should say, I only had one shot. That was plenty for my weak, American belly. These guys killed a bottle of Vodka and then went straight into their beers. A few stops into the trip and after we had picked up a few more passengers things settled a bit. At this point and I could hear someone behind me unwrapping something. The unwrapping seemed to go forever. It sounded like a plastic wrapper being peeled off of something. What the hell was this person unwrapping?

The Ukrainian countryside is definitely neat to drive through. Despite rain showers visibility was ok out of the windows. You could see large fields that, at least in California, would definitely be covered in crops. Here most of the open land wasn’t being used. Some of the houses were rather new looking and quite large. Others were visibly older, many having hand-operated wells out front.

As we got closer to the border activity on the bus seemed to pick up. People were constantly swapping seats, standing up and talking to other like-minded individuals, most importantly they kept bumping into me when they walked by :) . Roman ended up moving from his seat in front of me to one in the back. The man who took his seat was later paid 5 hra (hryvna, ukrainian money) by another man to sit next to him. I’m not making this up. I promise.

Before coming to Ukraine I had done at least some research on the country. I had come across a blog posting (that I can’t find today) from some guy who when making this same border crossing by bus had an interesting encounter with a woman smuggling cigarettes. Apparently cigarettes are roughly 2x as expensive in Poland than in Ukraine. Legally you can take one carton of cigarettes across the border and 1 liter of alcohol.

Activity on the bus continued to rise as we got even closer to the border. At this point the woman next to me was making the same plastic unwrapping noise I had been hearing earlier. She had a roll of cellophane tape that she was using to tape together boxes of cigarettes. Her bag was full of many cartons of cigarettes. She would open a carton and tape together, with incredible speed and precision, 4-5 boxes and put them aside. Once this was done she removed many black socks from her bag and began putting the taped rows of cigarettes in them. Moving my eyes back and forth from her taping activity to her bottomless bag of cigarettes I noticed that this woman had large feet. Size 12 in mens maybe?

The activity on the bus is a function of your distance from the border. The closer you get, the crazier it gets. At one point the aisle was filled. There are people squeezing up and down the aisle to talk to their partners in crime. Cigarettes, taped together and covered in socks are being placed under seats, in the backs of luggage racks and in willing-participants bags (I was, surprisingly, never asked). Then it gets really interesting. Remember the hole in the ceiling above my seat, oh yes, that’s there for a reason. In go the cigarettes. See where the seam was removed on the bottom of that seat back? Cigarettes go in there. If you use your thumbs you can wiggle it around just right so its less likely to be seen during customs inspection. This bus has air vents like on an airplane above each seat. I don’t think they work on this particular model of bus, however, they do unscrew and come off. In go cigarettes. There used to be recessed lights along the walkway in the bus. A thumbnail is all that’s needed to pry one of those bad boys off; in go cigarettes.

At this point I’m bursting out into moments of uncontrollable laughter. Where the hell am I? What am I doing? How much was the plane ticket? The Ukrainians have a nice word for this activity “contra.” I’m pretty sure that’s short for contraband. It’s so common it has an abbreviation.

There are apparently too many contra people on this bus, they have more cigarettes than hiding spots. I think I can “remember” 7 faces of active participants. And there was one guy that wasn’t exactly passive but didn’t appear to be active either. Remember the guy that got 5 hra for the empty seat next to him? It was time for him to come into action. He stood up in plain sight in the middle of the bus and pulled his left arm out of the sleeve of his jacket, tucking it into the middle. Remember this as a kid: “Look, mom, I have no arm!” The man that paid him helped zip his jacket halfway up and then began putting cigarettes into the empty jacket arm. He then tucked the sleeve of the jacket into a pocket. “Look, mom, my arm smokes a lot when it burns, may cause birth defects and we’re pretty sure it causes cancer!”

The Poland Border At around this point in the contra preparations we arrived at the border. Entering the border (it’s about a half mile wide) is fairly easy. Ukraine doesn’t care too much who leaves. Everyone gets off the bus, stands in a short line to have their passport stamped, and then gets back on the bus. We would sit in line for some 4-5 hours before having our turn.

While sitting here in this line the smugglers are still hustling around getting their contra in just the right place. Remember the woman with the size 12 feet? Yeah right. I think she had 2 packs of cigarettes in each shoe. We got outside of the bus and walked around several times. Here Roman explained a few interesting things to me “See that old Mercedes over there, it has a huge gas tank in it.” Whoo hoo! That’s great! “Yeah, gas is much cheaper in Ukraine.” huh? “They drive across the border and then siphon the gas out to be sold in Poland.” I won’t be buying any gas from border towns in Poland.

The guys we’re traveling with find a duty free store here on the border and buy some whiskey and coke. They go through the bottle, quickly. This livens the mood for the next hour or so. These guys are hilarious. And they can drink. A lot.

Some point while we’re outside a dude pushes his motorcycle with a ~1 gallon can of gas strapped to the side up next to our bus. He then leans up close to our bus, as though to pee on it, and begins putting packs of cigarettes down his pants. You should have seen him walk his motorcyle after this.

The Polish immigration guy finally gets on the bus and takes each of our passports, then leaves. We wait for another ~30 minutes before he returns with our passports, stamps and everything. We wait for another ~hour. This bus is really starting to stink now. We get off the bus and enter the inspection area. We stand there for 15 minutes wondering why we’re standing there. Then we each walk through a little gate into another holding area as the guy visually inspects each of our passports one more time. Then we wait. And we wait. And we wait. The bus is being searched, I can only imagine how much crap they’re finding. Finally someone from my group of METAL MANIA! fans starts talking to the official. Apparently we’ve decided to skip this bus crap and just walk through the border. We’re escorted from the bus area to the people area (filled with contra-carrying people walking through the border) and straight to the front of the line. The Ukrainians in front of me and Heather have their bags searched. I, not even thinking about it, lay down my bag while holding my US passport out. Before I can even get my bag unzipped to be searched I’m waived through customs. This US passport is the golden ticket to entering Poland. I should have brought some cigarettes.

Welcome to Poland Welcome to Poland. After that big huge wait in line this is what you get to see. What a dump. Apparently the smugglers debadge their cigarettes here. You see people taking their shoes off and removing boxes from their nether regions. We took a shuttle to the train station and continued on a rather uneventful trip to Krakow where we stayed the night before going to Katowice the next morning for METAL MANIA! I’ll write more about the rest of the trip later. We had a fantastic weekend.

8 comments March 26th, 2007

Water in L’viv

Water is an interesting thing to talk about here. I haven’t figured out exactly why yet but depending on who you talk to the water is either plentiful and as pure as the purest water or scarce and filled with parasites.

Not more than 2 days before Heather flew out here I found sand in my glass of water. I had been happily drinking water from the tap since the first day I arrived and this was the first time I had seen anything other than, well, water, in my glass. This immediately prompted me to begin boiling water (mmm, a refreshing glass of warm water) and start talking to my apartment’s owner. She said the water from the tap is fine, everyone drinks it.

Yuriy has always told me “the water from the tap is fine to drink, but we always boil it.” Well, why does he always boil it? “Because we don’t drink water, we drink tea.” Interesting. That’s a lot of tea. The first few days in the office I got interesting looks for using the cold-water spigot of the water cooler. Who the hell drinks plain water in Ukraine? I think I’m the only one. It’s tea, juice or coffee, in order of perceived preference.

After that first night of drinking sandy, warm water I stopped doing that. The sand remained in the tap water for the next many days. No big deal I figured, the water is fine.

A few days after Heather arrived we started having problems with water pressure. It just wasn’t what it used to be but I didn’t think anything of it. Depending on who you talk to here the water in L’viv actually only runs from 6:00AM to 8:00AM and again from 6:00PM to 8:00PM. But if you talk to someone with a little bit more lenient a water policy it runs from 6-8 and then from 6-11. And if you talk to someone a little more knowing, water runs all day long. I have no idea what the real story is. I know that I typically have running water all day long; I’m told there’s a storage tank somewhere that buffers the water for the out of service periods.

The hot water heaters here are tankless ones. These work “on demand” by sensing when there is demand for hot water and immediately heating the water then and only then. To avoid turning on needlessly, the “sensors” aren’t exactly sensitive. You need to be pushing a few gallons per minute of flow of hot water before the heater will turn on.

On Friday of last week I got my first taste of a hot shower turned ice cold. The water pressure had finally dropped to the point that the flow through our pipes wouldn’t turn on the water heater. Oh. No. As you’ve probably seen on my little weather gauge here on the site it isn’t exactly warm here. Water from the outside isn’t warm either. This is ice swimming water.

After a weekend of no shower I got up early on Monday to take my shower under the guaranteed water’s flowing time of 6-8. No hot water. No pressure. Not good. I went to work without a shower. Without a shower in the past few days. Yikes. I talked to the owner, she sent her parents over to the house that night to check if the problem was related to the water filter or the pipes outside the building.

Turns out it was the water filter. It was completely clogged with sand.

For whatever reason I drank a lot of tap water that evening (yes, I ran the water for a while first). Heather didn’t drink any. I stayed home from work in the morning to let my system “cleanse itself.” Heather didn’t drink anymore tap water. I won’t drink anymore tap water. Prep for India I guess :-)

2 comments March 20th, 2007

My Take on the Subject :)

As everyone now knows, I made it Ukraine safely, and with all FOUR of my checked bags, which is a miracle in and of itself. Unfortunately I had two explosions in my suitcase, one with my shampoo and the other with lotion, but luckily both had been double bagged ☺ Thank goodness for my paranoia of traveling with such items.

Although I managed to snag an upgrade to economy plus on the flight to Frankfurt, all that was left was middle seats – which made it next to impossible to snuggle up to my pillow and sleep (next time definitely need Bob next to me so I have a shoulder to lean on). I did however get the emergency exit row, talk about legroom. I could completely extend my legs and still have several feet before the next row of seats (technically the stewardess seats, but she was really nice, so it was cool). The only bummer was being right next to the bathroom. And although I as really stuffed up the whole flight (bonus for not being able to smell the bathroom), I did get stepped on a lot. In general people were really nice when they were standing in line basically staring at me and my two row-mates, but a few definitely gave the evil eye when they saw how stretched out we were. Oh well, not our problem that they didn’t upgrade, right? ☺

The flight to Frankfurt had amazing winds or something, because we were almost 45 minutes early upon arrival. So early that we had to taxi to a different gate, because our scheduled gate wasn’t ready for us yet. Luckily the new gate was even closer to my layover in the second terminal. The walk to the tram took forever, but it was well marked, and once I found the skytram that Bob kept telling me about, it was smooth sailing. I’m almost a little bummed that I didn’t get to see the big plaza of gates that Bob had to find his way through, but really I have no problems living without :) I did, unfortunately, have a little trouble in the restroom figuring out how to open the stall doors (I’m chalking that one up to complete and total lack of sleep), once I actually got in the stall apparently I couldn’t figure out how to lock the door, because I got walked in on twice, doh.

I found my gate and checked in with the nice ladies at the counter (even though they did laugh at me when I had no idea how many kilos my baggage weighed, the first of many laughs to be sure). It was really great that my flight had arrived so early, because I only sat in the “waiting room” for my flight for about 20 minutes. Life definitely would have been interesting had my flight from the U.S. not been so early. We got on the funny looking bus and drove out to the airplane – this is so weird to me. Even stranger were the Volkswagens zipping by the bus and planes like it was business as usual. I kept expecting to see a little blue car like ours fly by. I had the whole row on the plane to myself, score, and got to watch out the window as at least two of my bags were put on the plane (hooray, at least I knew some of my stuff would in fact make it to the correct country).

The flight taxied forever before takeoff, and I do mean forever, I think I saw the entire airport from end to end. Other than that the flight was smooth sailing, I tried all of the interesting food they served, and felt proud of myself when the lady offered me “chai” and I knew it was hot tea ☺ Approaching L’viv was like a scene out of The Wizard of Oz, the houses in the “country” outside of the big city looked like little model houses for a train set. Then out of nowhere, with nothing surrounding it would be a gorgeous church – we definitely need to try to explore some of this. The landing was bumpy just as Bob had described, my seatbelt actually wasn’t fastened tight enough and I was bouncing around quite a bit in my seat.

I got off the plane, and am so thankful for the VIP service, and they’re attempt at spelling my last name was so comical. Thankfully Williamson is a nice long name, and I figured if I saw a really long name, with at least a ‘W’ in it, then I was good to go. I don’t remember exactly how it was spelled, but it was something like Mr. M. Wiiljemsans… or something, regardless it was me ☺

Wow, can’t believe I typed so much just about getting there. Bob was waiting for me, and after listening to a funny German pilot (or something similar I’m guessing from his uniform) vent about no credit cards in L’viv, all four of my bags were brought out, and my passport was stamped, wahoooo, I had in fact made it.

We got to out apartment, and it was almost exactly as I had imagined it. I took a shower and we went for a short walk around the neighborhood. At that point, all of my exhaustion finally caught up with me and with the fear of my legs completely giving out we went back to the apt and I got to take a much needed nap.

We went to a really yummy dinner, and as Bob had posted, I got my first taste of what it is like to be an English speaker in a country/city that is really not used to seeing ‘Western’ travelers/tourists. Regardless, the food was excellent, the beer tasted good, the ice cream tasted fabulous, albeit incredibly unhealthy, and I was so happy to finally be with my husband.

I really don’t know how the woman in this city walk to fast, so smoothly, and so coordinated on the cobblestone sidewalks and streets with their stiletto boots – I certainly will never master this trick. I decided to forgo what little blending in I could do, and toured the city with Bob with my comfy sneakers on. I figure, people are already looking at me funny, my feet and ankles might as well survive. I have definitely noticed that the woman here dress significantly different than they do in the states, and seriously, my respect for mastering the four inch heals is incredible. I have noticed that very few women wear glasses, so already I stand out so much, oh well.

We walked all over the place, yet I still never felt like I knew how to get back to the apartment. We went grocery shopping for some basics, because believe me we had nothing. As Bob posted we got a few of the basics, which was good. I never really realized how much I depended on so many things in my kitchen until I cooked dinner that night. Something as simple as spaghetti and tomato sauce used every pan we had, and wow, it’s so nice to have more than one wooden spoon back home. So many little things that I never imagined I would have missed.

Thursday and Friday were very mellow for me, mostly unpacked and tried to get used to everything here. Made our apartment feel a little more at home with the pictures and such I had brought. And it was nice to be able to devote some time to the many books I brought that I have wanted to read.

One of the nights we went to pizza near the house, it was mostly good, and Bob was so happy that the one girl he knows speaks English was working that night. She was so very helpful. I had my first of many ‘wow, I’m such an idiot’ moments, when I accidentally knocked over my mostly full beer glass, spilling much of it on Bob, and shattering the glass. Seriously, glad to know that my clumsiness followed me across the Atlantic. I guess some things never change ☺

Saturday was another successful day of sightseeing, and I now think that I can get to the tram, the grocery store, return trip on the tram, and all the way back to the apartment by myself – which is a huge relief. Thursday and Friday I was filled with so much anxiety about not being able to find home, I definitely felt locked in. I think I might even be able to find the city center all by myself too ☺

Already Bob and I have a list of things we want when we get home, mostly junk food of course, but man, to get a good burrito right now sounds so good. And to walk into the grocery store and know what words mean, and be able to find my way around, what a luxury. At least a lot of the food has a picture of what it is – i.e., in the frozen food section, when something that looks like a tortellini has beef filling, there is a small image of a cow on it, pork yields a pig, mushroom yields a mushroom – you get the idea. And oh my goodness, finding “GB” on the back with some English description/instructions is so exciting to me ☺

Ok, I think all of this is enough light reading for one blog!

2 comments March 19th, 2007

Homeless, Drunk and Fighting

Saturday morning began with Heather and I getting out of a bed a bit late. We ventured over to one of the many little stores (продукти – pronounced pro-dook-teh) that are in our neighborhood to get some fresh pastries for breakfast. From there I took Heather down for her first tour of the center.

Kid Skateboarding After walking around for a bit we spotted these kids ripping it up on their skateboards at Ivan Franko park near the center. This park is actually halfway between my apartment and the center. Unlike, for instance San Francisco, the cops don’t seem to care about these guys being out here. This little guy was tearing it up.

My Dream Car We walked down an alley in between bigger streets and caught glimpse of this sweet ride. The license plate is odd because it does’t have the UA (Ukraine) flag on it. Further, I can’t understand at all the paper over the broken windows?

Kid on toy car Eventually we met up with Yuriy in front of the opera. In the large open area in front of the opera house they rent these little big wheel things for kids to ride on. This picture, to me at least, captures a lot of what I find interesting about this city’s people.

After meeting up with Yuriy and grabbing some lunch we headed over to my favorite mall at the end of the tram line. We shopped around and got numerous translations from Yuriy and his wife bringing further understanding to what we were looking at at the grocery store. This was tremendously helpful. I’m not sure anyone (including Yuriy) will ever understand exactly how helpful he has been. It’s literally the difference between surviving on the bare minimum and living a decent ~4 months of our lives.

After shopping we went our separate ways. Heather and I took the tram home and Yuriy took a bus toward his place. We boarded the tram near the back, there were, surprisingly, a ton of open seats. Unfortunately, this tram smelled like vomit. I’d like you readers to pause for a moment and imagine getting on a tram and smelling vomit.

Ok. We sat in the middle of the tram (these are roughly the same size as the muni lightrail things) because the vomit smell seemed less pungent there. A few more folks got on the tram and the lady that takes the money was adamant about not letting anyone be near the rear of the tram. I guess rather than clean up the vomit keeping people away from it is ok?

After the tram started moving she opened a window near the back. This seemed to make things worse, the vomit smell was now being blown toward the front of the tram.

At the second tram stop the money-taker walked to the back of the tram and began smacking around and yelling at what I’m guessing was a homeless man. There was no vomit on the tram; just a man that hadn’t bathed… recently. This woman was smacking this guy around apparently telling him to get off the tram. He didn’t budge. Can you imagine smelling so bad that you stink up an entire tram? This guy had something to be proud of.

Two stops later, my stop, the woman had had enough. She threw him out of his seat onto the tram floor, stood behind him with her two arms under his and dragged him off the tram. I only wish I had my camera out.

I didn’t see him until now, but the stinky homeless man’s partner in crime apparently deboarded the tram at the same time. After the tram drove off I couldn’t help but keep watching these two men. As drunk as you should ever be, these two were, and they began fighting. It’s the sort of fighting you do around 3am when you’ve been drinking all. day. long. You know, your arm just doesn’t seem to move as fast as it normally does. And you still miss your target.

Ok I’ve never been that drunk before and I can’t normally stay awake past 10:00PM. But I can imagine.

This wasn’t quite as funny as the drunk guy singing Smoke on the Water while laying down on stage but it was close.

Today Heather and I took the helicopter out for a flight. The soccer field was being used for soccer so I picked out a much smaller area to fly around in. Despite the location’s small size I didn’t crash and Heather managed to score this cool video of me cruising around.

After that we went and walked around a bit more on the other side of town. I think I’ve written enough for today so I’ll just share these pictures with you in closing.

Fancy Apartments
Unfinished Overpass

1 comment March 18th, 2007

Heather Arrived!

Finally, my wife of 5 weeks, the woman I haven’t seen in 4 weeks, arrived on the ground here in Ukraine. All of her bags arrived on the same flight as her (amazing) and Ivan took us back to our apartment.

After we unloaded her stuff we went for a short walk around the block. With Heather’s extreme lack of sleep kicking in I think she was somewhat shocked by the sights. At this point I’m pretty immune to a lot of the normalcies of life here: stray dogs, dog poop on sidewalks, cars parked in the middle of the road and the sidewalk, people drinking beer anywhere, buses filled beyond capacity, beautiful buildings directly next to run down ones. I’ve been saying it since I started writing: It’s different here. If you’re planning on visiting Ukraine anytime soon don’t underestimate that: EVERYthing is different.

That evening we visited the “famous” seven piggies restaurant. I’d heard lots about this place from Lohika and IronPort guys alike since the Lohika guys traditionally take IronPort guys there on visits. I took Heather there because it’s supposed to be good and its not more than 2 blocks from our apt. So we went.

The restaurant itself feels like Disneyland. It’s very cartoony inside; surreal I suppose. There are stairs going up and down, left and right to various tables.

Now Heather gets a feel for what it’s like speaking to someone that speaks hardly any english. We got our english menus. We ordered drinks. Now tell the waiter you want 1 more minute to decide what you want for dinner. Go ahead. Try :-) It took us 1 minute to get him to go away.

We eventually ordered food. I had something with turkey, rice, raisins and dried apricot. It was very good. Heather had veal with yummy sauce that had dried fruit in it. Again, quite good.

Around when we were finishing up our meals stumbling down the stairs came, with the assistance of his friend, what had to be the drunkest man I’ve ever seen. He looked dead. Maybe he was dead? It was borderline scary watching him get taken outside.

The next morning we walked over to the park and flew the helicopter. We had a bit of a crowd at one point, even a police-looking dude was watching. I guess it’s legal :-) Then we went to the grocery store. We took the tram, the same tram I’ve written about before. You pay for your ride on the tram when the woman wearing the “uniform” walks up to you with tickets and money in a pouch. You give her your 1/2 hra and she gives you a ticket.

This time I gave her (2) 1/2 hra (1 hra total) for me and Heather. This created far more confusion that I could have ever imagined. It started a one-sided conversation that I simply could not understand. I couldn’t grasp at all what she was saying. I just kept holding up 2 fingers and pointing at Heather. I wanted to pay for both of us. At this point, the entire rear of the crowded tram knew we were tourists. Great. Eventually the woman gave us two tickets and walked away. On the way home I gave Heather her very own 1/2 hra and she bought her own ticket, problem solved.

We bought pasta at the store and tried to figure out which of the many tomato-based sauces (соус) was spaghetti sauce. Most of these jars of sauce were ~5 hra ($1) except for the Heinz-brand sauce which was $3! Yeah right, I’m going to pay $3 for spaghetti sauce? If I come home and I’m a super cheap bastard, please understand.

We didn’t buy much. Pasta, sauce, flour, oil, a big bag of cereal, cheese, I forget what else. Total including the most ridiculous 20% VAT: $15.

4 comments March 15th, 2007

A Photo Tour

After going to the grocery store today I walked around town with the sole intent of taking pictures. I’ve chosen a few to share with you here.

A Dead Cat While walking back from the grocery store this morning I spotted this sharp-looking kitty. I’m not exactly sure how it died. It’s sitting at the base of this tree and I assume its possible that it fell (for the 10th time, of course). The mouth open and eyes open kind of make me wonder though. The tree just isn’t that tall. Who knows. It’s now one dead kitty.

A street in Ukraine Around the corner from the dead cat is this typical L’viv street. It’s typical only of the nicer neighborhoods in town, however. A lot of the poorer districts don’t have this same eastern-european flavor. A lot of them are dirtier and feel much more Russian with their square architecture.

Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Down the road a ways and as you get closer to the center you come across this building with the fancy statue in front. The building, if I’m remembering correctly, is the “Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” The sign is actually in english. The statue out front is a guy on a horse killing a very large snake. Yuriy told me the story behind it a few weeks ago and I can’t remember exactly what it was.

I walked down to the center and then started making my way back up from the center. I spotted this handy shot of Shrek and couldn’t pass up looking like a tourist as I took this photo. Shrek’s in Ukraine

For some reason that reminded me of a trip to an electronics store this morning. I was walking through the CD section and spotted a copy of Offspring’s Ixnay on the Hombre. I pulled it out, looked it over, and put it back. An employee walked over and, can you guess, said something to me in Ukrainian. I replied back “I only know english.” She smiled, I laughed. I pulled the CD back out and was like “this is from home.” She knew they were the Offspring. The CD cost $4; I already own it, I put it back.

The local circus here in L’viv I had seen an ad for this place on the tram this morning. It’s a circus. I was actually able to figure that out on my own. The 4 letters across the top (цирк) could be transliterated to “serk” and the picture on the advertisement has some dancing ladies, a seal with a ball on its nose and something else. A very nice house here in L’viv I’m definitely going pro on this whole reading cyrillic thing :-) The other interesting part about this photo is to compare the circus building here in front with the super-fancy church up on the hill behind it. California has its share of poor people and rich people but the two hardly ever live near each other. Here in Ukraine you’ll find incredible pieces of wealth smack dab between two very poor buildings.

3 comments March 4th, 2007

Finally Some Pictures

Melted SnowmanRemember the photo competition from two weekends ago? One of the pictures I took, the one of the melted snow man, was printed, in very large format, on the front of a local newspaper. By very large I mean the -entire- front page. Kinda neat :-)

Last night we went to dinner at some steak house that Roman likes. It was he and I, Mark (he’s a US-based Lohika employee) and Bohdan. As we checked our coats the band for the evening was just about to begin playing. They started playing some blues songs, in english. We ordered some beers. Then some more beers. I ordered a filet mignon, it cost $8. It wasn’t quite the same as a $40 filet back in the states but it was still good. At some point around now the band began switching to classic rock covers. They played some AC/DC, Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, The Beatles, “Smoke on the Water”, some other songs I knew, “Smoke on the Water.” That’s right. They played “Smoke on the Water” three times. Each time was slightly worse than the first. The lead singer was drinking with a rate of intoxication that was at least as fast as my own.

At one point he sang an entire song while laying down on the stage. It was one of those things where you’re just drunk and you sit down and then you lay down and then you don’t feel like moving. Except that he was performing. The singer’s best friend was actually sitting at the table next to us and I think he is the one responsible for all of the smoke on the water. Each time they played the song he was sure to be on stage singing along. This was by far one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

The best friend’s wife happened to notice we were speaking english and she started talking with us. Soon I was bragging about being from the US. Now it was “American! Where is your glass?” referring to the fact that the waiter hadn’t brought me my next beer yet. I told him I didn’t have it yet. He pulled out a shot glass from their table, filled it with the Vodka that he and his singing buddy had been drinking all night and handed it to me. Free booze for the american! This happened again later. So I had a bunch of beer mixed in with our neighbor’s vodka and then we capped the night off with some cognac.

Perhaps now needless to say: I woke up this morning with a bit of a headache.

I walked down to the center to meet the guys for some tourist activities today. Along the way I snapped a few pictures, one I’ve even decided to share with you all. Buildings. I believe the building most prominent in the picture is a government building, hence the reason it’s so clean. The statue out in front, honestly, I didn’t even stop to look at it, I was going to be late.

We walked around the city a bit going in and out of art galleries. Some of these were very dark and -very- musty. Like all art: some is cheap and some is expensive and it often seems to have nothing to do with the actual quality of the work.

We walked by an open-air book market.Book Market. I spied copies of “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” that had been translated to Ukrainian (or maybe Russian?). There was even a used copy of Playboy in one of these slavic languages available for purchase. Who buys used playboys?

We ate lunch at a place called “Veronica” I think. The place was nice and the first thing you notice about the menu (that has english subtitles throughout) is that the prices are high. The 4 of us had black caviar, sala (thin slices of pure pig fat), mushroom soup, salad and then I had some lamb with mint sauce and rice. We were there for 3 hours. That’s what I call eatin’

2 comments March 3rd, 2007

2 Weeks Down

It’s been 2 weeks. As you regular readers have probably noticed things are going a whole lot better now than they were those first few days.

Yesterday Yuriy set up a lunchtime meeting between us and a guy named Sashko, a member of L’viv’s Off-Road club. That’s right, wheelin’ in Ukraine.

Sashko was a pretty cool guy that spoke pretty decent English. He’s got a Land Cruiser of some sort and was fairly familiar with what the Hilux is (The Tacoma is called Hilux just about everywhere except the US). I tried explaining to him what I had done to my truck and I think he understood most of it. Too bad I can’t just point at it in the parking lot :-)

Around halfway through our lunch I noticed off in the back of this well-lit cafe on the 4th floor of the mall a man showing off… you might not believe this. The guy was showing off his shotgun. “Shotgun” isn’t slang for anything when I say that. He had a shotgun, a large firearm capable of destroying humans, -inside- the cafe on the 4th floor of this large mall! This was damn near the funniest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here. You can’t take your backpack into the grocery store but you can bring your shot-gun into the cafe!

I don’t fully understand what was decided at the meeting with Sashko but I think I’m going wheeling sometime soon. Apparently these guys do lots of last-second informal runs, sometimes even mid-week. And then 2 weeks from now (2 days before Heather comes) there’s a competition of sorts in Kiev. It sounds like I can go to that as well. My only concern is its a 10hr drive… That’s a long drive. Could be awfully fun though.

4 comments February 28th, 2007

A Ride on the Tram

After the SnowI haven’t written in a few days because I haven’t had much to say. It snowed on Thursday and it’s been -freezing- ever since, however, that’s not exactly big news.


I’ve been waiting several hours to tell you all about my ride on the tram this morning. This tram is almost exactly like the muni trains in San Francisco. You know, they run on railroad tracks but are electric powered.

I walked down to the tram. When I left the apartment this morning Yahoo! Weather thought the temperature was 12 degrees fahrenheit with a wind chill of -4 degrees F. That’s right folks, it’s cold out here. The sidewalks that haven’t been shovelled yet are either snowy or covered in ice.

I missed the first tram by a few seconds and waited for the next. I got on board with everyone else and grabbed a seat. The tram proceeded forward for about 100 yards before slowing quickly and honking the horn profusely. I figured there was either a car or a dog parked on the tracks. Finally the horn stops, the driver comes out of the little drivers area, oh this will be good I think, opens the fuse panel, I shit you not, proceeds to change 3 or 4 fuses, closes her up, goes back into the driver area and starts things moving again. I just kind of smiled at this point. No one else on the tram seemed bothered by this and the black smoke stains on the fuse panel door, certainly left from prior fuse explosions, helped me to understand this is normal.

So we’re cruising again. Again the horn honks, the train slows, we stop. The driver gets out, checks the fuse, yep, its busted. She goes back into the drivers area, pulls a rope that I am left to believe disconnects us from our power source above, opens the doors and walks outside with some sort of stick. My only theory is that she was removing snow and/or ice from a special place on the tram that was causing our problems. She came back in, changed the fuse, put us back on the power, fired her up and we were off.

At this point I just had a big smile on my face. I looked around and no one else seemed to think anything of this. I enjoyed it :-)

I found the grocery store that Yuriy had been telling me about, it was large, even had its own mostly-empty parking lot. I passed through security (you’re not allowed to carry in any backpacks or the like) without much issue and grabbed my mini-basket. I found some food that any idiot can cook. I found some TP, Kleenex brand even. I found some soap, Dove, around twice as expensive as the local brands, around $1 for a bar. They don’t appear to have paper towels here and despite the freezing cold there’s no tissue to blow your nose with. I picked up some laundry detergent, Tide. At this moment a store employee, a young girl, walked up to me and in Ukrainian said something; I have no idea what but in the middle she said “Tide.” I waited until she finished before saying, yes in english, “I have no idea what you just said.” I smiled, we laughed. She stood there and watched me check my list before I turned around and walked off to another part of the store. It’s as though she expected me to say something she understood.

The woman at the checkout register asked if I wanted a bag for my groceries; unlike everyone else in the store I didn’t bring my own plastic bags. Well of course I figured. She scanned the bag. That’s right, I had to pay for the bag that I then got to put my groceries in. I don’t actually know how much it cost, even if I could find it on the receipt the prize patrol took it from me.

I turned from the checkout place and began walking to the exit. Before I could get there, however, I was stopped by another employee, a typically-good-looking young Ukrainian woman. She asked “do you speak english?” I never thought I’d love that phrase so much. I said “Yes.” She then proceeded to tell me that I had won some prize and if I wanted to claim it I should follow her. I asked what the prize was. She repeated “a prize.” Yeah. WTF is what I was thinking too.

She led me no more than 20′ over, still in front of the exit of the store where we met with another young employee, the prize distributor. I apparently won this prize because I bought the Tide laundry soap. Remember the girl from earlier talking about Tide? Yeah, me too. She asked me to pick a card from the ones she had fanned out in her hands. I picked a card. The other girl scratched off the lottery-ticket-scratcher-style stuff on the back of it and there, in Ukrainian, were the words detailing my prize. She said “see” I said “right.” :) She handed me my prize. I had just won… drum roll please… A scoop to measure my laundry detergent. That’s right folks. I had just won the scoop that comes in every box of laundry detergent you’ve ever bought. Ironically enough the box of detergent I had just bought, shaped similarly but smaller than a typical box of cereal, doesn’t actually have a scoop in it.

I walked back to the tram, had an uneventful trip to my stop and then walked back to my apartment.

Later on this same day I finally paid visit to a local McDonalds. A cheeseburger is still a cheeseburger. The fries are pronounced more like “freeze” and a soda, I have no idea. I just say coca-cola. I spent just less than $4 for 2 cheeseburgers, fries and a soda. Slightly cheaper than what it would cost at home. The fries taste exactly the same, coke, of course, exactly the same and the burger tasted slightly less fatty; less flavor. But it was food, and there was no smoking. I won’t be going there daily but I’m sure I’ll return.

8 comments February 24th, 2007

One Week Down, Many to go

As of this very moment I’ve been living in Ukraine for 7 days and a couple of hours. The past week has been, to say the least, interesting.

Last night I went to bed at my usual time but woke up around 3:30 with some lovely stomach pain. As I described in my last posting the restaurant I went to for dinner seemed great. It looked a whole lot less interesting going out. Thankfully, as Heather points out, it was coming out “the bottom” instead of the same hole it went in. Not too bad though, I made it almost an entire week without having trouble with my food.

My 1.5mi walk to work each morning is becoming, as you can imagine, monotonous. Walk walk walk, avoid the puddle, walk walk, don’t get hit by the bus, walk walk, wow that’s a hole, walk walk walk walk walk walk [take a breath] walk walk walk walk walk walk walk walk walk.

Today I ate the lunch that is catered for us at the office. As usual I’m not sure what I ate. The “main course” was what I would call a seafood-meatloaf with mashed potatoes. The side dish was a salad consisting of mushrooms, some form of large bean, and then maybe beets? I don’t remember exactly.

This evening I was at the office until around 9:00pm. On a Tuesday night a majority of places for food are closed at this time. I stopped at what I’ve been calling a convenience store on the way home hoping to pick up some dinner. After waltzing around for a bit having only found really old, frozen potato pancakes I decided just to buy breakfast for tommorrow. I picked up some Nestle Kosmostars and some 3.5% milk (молоко). Unlike the last time I bought milk I actually knew what it was called. Whether or not I pronounced it properly is a different question. Then comes the how much it costs routine. I shake my head. She says it again. I shake my head. This was great. Instead of lolly-gagging around she just grabs a piece of paper and writes down the numbers. No problem. дякую (Thank you).

I decided not to eat the Kosmostars for dinner and braved the outside world to find an open restaurant. I was pleased to stumble across a cafe (remember this one: кафе) where they have “point to order” food. I pointed at something that looked an awful lot like what I had for lunch yesterday and some fries. Altogether this cost 38 UAH, around $8, not terribly cheap by Ukrainian standards and I don’t know why.

7 comments February 20th, 2007

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