I left for Ukraine on Thursday August 26th, in the early evening. My mother drove me to the airport, and when she said goodbye, asked me to come home before the allotted 10 months.
I was just able to haul my two carry-ons, and two check bags without a cart. I had to transfer eight pounds from one check bag to the other to avoid a $150 fine. I was very early for the flight, and the check-in area wasn’t crowded. I transferred items without having to empty either bag, and without even opening them entirely. From deep within my memories echoed a sergeant yelling at all of us ranger students for living like a bunch of gypsies, and knowing nothing about fieldcraft.
At the Chilli’s in JFK airport, there were no prices listed by the beverages. I ordered a coke without asking and a meal. My salad and enchilada soup tasted awful, but I enjoyed looking at all the travelers and imagining their lives. The coke cost $3.79.
As we were being seated on the plane, missionaries loudly introduced themselves to one another. The man behind me, an older gentleman flirted with the stewardess, he was a heart surgeon, he said, and traveled to Ukraine to visit friends, and bring gifts of orphanage. The stewardess was very attractive. Later in the flight, she stood by his seat to make small talk, and eventually gave him her number. I decided that I didn’t care for heart surgeon who brought gifts to orphage.
The night is shorter when you fly east. I had two seats to myself, but couldn’t sleep. The sun came up, spilling orange and bronze over the softest, cleanest, most grandiose and unlikely landscape of clouds which stretched to every horizon. The photo doesn’t do it justice.
I imagined it to be the terrain souls might cross on their walk to heaven.
My checked bags were the second, and second-to-last bags to emerge onto the conveyor belt. Customs consisted of passing everything through an x-ray scanner.
Before crossing pushing my luggage cart through the doors which separated the customs to the public area, I prepared for battle. Valuables stowed securely. Wallet and passport in the least pickable pockets. Shoes double knotted. Baseball cap in my bag to look less foreign.
A cabby immediately approached me and spoke to me in Russian. I stammered a little and spoke in broken Ukrainian, not used to the language. Where am I going? To the center of Kyiv. Do I know the street? I pulled out my notepad, searched for the page, and read the street very slowly. One of my fingers was bleeding slightly from where a hangnail tore off handling my luggage, and I smeared the paper as I read. Very desperate looking, I thought to myself. I’ve messed this one up already. The only thing left was to ask the price for the sake of future comparison. Come with me, I’ll take you, he said in Russian. How much? 350 hryvna (UAH). Maybe later. Why? I started walking away. Because I’m not going yet. I walked off, trying to look like I knew where I was going.
The cabby followed me. What are you looking for? He asked in either Ukrainian or Russian – I couldn’t tell which. Nothing, I said. He watched me. You can change your money over here, he said. I’m going to eat, I said.
I walked among the restaurants until I thought I had lost him. It was crowded. I sat down and ripped the tags off my luggage to look less like a target. Perhaps I could be confused for a Ukrainian leaving the country.
I make things hard for myself. There are many websites which tell you the price of a taxi. Part of me enjoys the challenge of negotiation, but part of me finds it stressful. I can’t stop worrying about my personal security. I’m very alert, like being out on missions. My mind never stops speculating about the next blind corner, the next turn, fields of fire, weapons, communications, etc. I think I’m too tense for my own good. It probably shows in my expression. It’d really be easier to just reserve a cab.
I got on line to change my money and saw the cabby still had an eye on me. He looked like he was giving the scoop to one of his colleagues.
The line was very slow, and people crowded around the single window through which money was being changed. As I waited, I calculated the the conversion of $200 to hryvnas (UAH) to several decimal places to ensure I wasn’t going to get cheated. I also estimated the cab ride in dollars 350 UAH ~= $40. It didn’t seem unreasonable for a 45 minute trip. I also rewrote the address of my apartment (kvartyra) so I wouldn’t have to reveal the bloodied page again.
I had no privacy at the window. I did my best to keep my luggage cart near by, but out of everyone’s way. The old babushka lady in front of me had changed $10 to hryvna (UAH). I was changing $200, and it almost burned a hole in my pocket. I had worked out the sum she owned me, but the lady rejected one of the $20 bills without giving a reason, throwing off my calculation. It seemed close enough. I stuffed the cash in my pocket as discreetly as I could and turned around to find the cabby’s colleague.
300 hryvna to . . . he named my street. I was emboldened a little and walked past him with a dismissive wave of my hand, again trying to look like I knew where I was going. This time, I ended up at an exit. I paused, opened my notebook, and memorized the name of my street before exiting. I had to very carefully wheel my cart down a ramp, my luggage tipping back and forth.
Another cabby approached and put a hand on my luggage to help steady it. I did not appreciate that. Where are you going? He asked in Russian. He seemed a little more polite than the other two. I told him the street without stuttering, then looked him in the eye and said, how much? In Ukrainian.
He thought for a moment and said 250 UAH. I should have done what I’ve done before during other travels, and blindly undercut the stated price by at least 50%, but the Russian word “Davai” was on the tip of my tongue, and flew out.
It’s a good, bold word. It means “give,” or “let’s go,” or “giddy-up.” If you’ve ever watched Russian soccer hooligans go at it on Youtube you can usually hear someone screaming “Davai” as his bros let fly the fists and boots. This was the edge and credibility I strove for, and I jumped at the opportunity to say it, ruining any chance for negotiation.
I didn’t like that the more polite cabby put his hand on another’s shoulder, and told him 250 hryvas and the name of my street. He will take you, he said. I didn’t like that the new guy was young and stocky, nor the long walk to the far end of the parking lot, nor the miniature boxing glove dangling from his rear view mirror. I memorized the license plate as we loaded the trunk.
Nevertheless, I felt somewhat relieved, and after watching the outskirts of Kyiv passing my window for a while, I felt the adrenaline dump. Not the sort where the mission is over, and you can pull off your heavy armor, and sweat-soaked uniform, but the smaller kind when the most dangerous part of a mission is behind you, like when the helicopters would pick us up, and although I recognized I wasn’t out of danger, I knew I was past the point of having to make any decision, or when after putting behind us that awful knot of highways we called the Mixing Bowl as we returned to Forward Operating Base Saint Michael, or after a long day of winding up capillary valleys, and sitting with elders, anticipating trouble at every turn, when we’d return to the main valley and the hard ball road, and we’d see outposts Shilo and Bull Run smiling down at us.
I told myself that next time I’d arrange a car ahead of time. I noticed that I didn’t have exact change – a tactical mistake. I should have known what money I had before negotiating. I had two 500 hryvna notes, and two 200 notes, and I couldn’t make 50 UAHs with the smaller ones.
There was some confusion when we arrived about which door the street number referred it – my door turned out to be through an alley and behind the building. The cabby parked and did quite a bit of walking back and forth, trying to determine the address.
He didn’t have change. I offered a 200 note and a $10 bill, which would have been a surplus, and he initially accepted it, but then handed back the $10 because a corner was torn.
I changed one of the 220s at a small bank several doors down. The cabby looked at me and asked if we were finished. Finished, I said.
The door code I’d been given worked, and I dragged my four bags into the foyer, then waited outside. The alley smelled like piss, but there were very nice cars parked behind the building. After 15 or 20 minutes, a kindly, elderly lady arrived, identified me right away, and led me upstairs.
The building super joined us. We were all exceedingly polite. They tested lights and plumbing and the television and phone. She put some water on the stove, and found some tea.
The correct price for a taxi is about 140 UAH.