The Ukrainian bus adventure

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The Ukrainian bus was a heap of scrap, as old and filthy as I hadn’t seen the like since the impoverished Spain of my early childhood, and it had no heating at all. It took us eight hours to cover the little more than 200 km between Lviv and Lublin. Those experienced passengers among us, the acquainted with the conditions, were cautious enough to wear warm clothings or blankets; but, for me, the trip meant eight hours of static and inescapable freeze, as if nothing walled me from the snowy landscapes visible through the filthy windows. The procedures in the border took close to three hours. When we finally arrived, I was stiff and frigid like a frozen cod. However, during all the trip the passengers behaved like a big family, showing a praiseworthy solidarity.

Travelling in Ukraine is always an unforgettable adventure.

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Slavic soul

[:en]At times, there is nothing like three friends chatting over a few beers…
My companions were fascinating, though they could hardly be more dissimilar: Roman, tall and corpulent, was a bachelor in his full forties, an intelectual, well cultured, the nationalist type, rather pessimistic and, most of all, deeply sentimental; Olek, on the other hand, was a womanizer in his late thirties, married of course, a merry and optimistic spirit, some of a petit bourgeois, very laid back, rather took on the pro Russian side. Each in their own way, they both were true slavic souls.
I was lucky to meet them thanks to some website. Sitting at a table in that popular restaurant near Khreshchaty, we talked of course about women, love and friendship, those three fundamentals of life. And I was moved to see how much empathy they both had for the hearbroken people, for the sorrowful ones, for the unhappy; how much sincere compassion. Also, I was surprised at their extraordinary insight when guessing some facts about my life, surprised at how they managed to read my truth through but only a few words from me. Their intuition was so piercing that, I must confess that, at first I was a bit bothered: they drilled my shell down to my deepest secrets. But I soon realized their support, their solidarity, and this made me feel understood and comforted. Pure Russian spirit, they were.
Half a dozen beers sufficed to do the magic, and it was almost with tears in our eyes that we parted. None of us dared to say what we were all thinking: that I would never ever meet them again. Roman hearfeltedly shook my hands and, after warmly hugging me, disappeared down the subway steps, resolutely, without looking back. Then Oleg and me took the same mashrutka for a strech. His stop was first. When he stepped off, he stood there on the street for a while, piercing at me through the dusty windows, like a child who’s left behind, until the bus started and our visual link was broken by the distance and the street posts…
Sometimes this wonderful, authentic people come across the traveller’s path; persons who stake out our lives and make everyone else in between seem mediocre and superficial.[:]

Andreievski

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Estación de metro Contractova Ploshcha. Se trataba de explorar el barrio de Podil: una docena de amplias calles en trama cuadrangular, flanqueadas por edificios que en su día debieron ser elegantes y que ahora, salvo algunas excepciones, presentan un aspecto decadente que recuerda a La Habana.
Podil se encuentra a la orilla del Dnipro, si bien este río resulta inaccesible desde el barrio porque entre ambos se interpone una de las principales arterias, por completo hostil a los peatones, del tráfico de la ciudad. Contractova es un “intercambiador” de transportes, y en sus cercanías hay dos grandes plazas con una multitud de llamativos kioskos donde se pueden adquirir los servicios más esenciales y cotidianos en la vida urbana: café, desayunos, almuerzos de comida rápida, tabaco, alcohol, pastas, recargas de móviles, etc., y por donde merodean siempre una camada de perros en busca de sobras y en torno a viandantes y vagabundos.
De una de estas plazas, cruzando la ancha avenida principal, arranca la atractiva calle Andreievski, rústicamente empedrada, que asciende hasta el promontorio donde se asienta la iglesia del mismo nombre y que domina toda la margen oeste o “derecha” del río (por aquello de que el Dnipro fluye hacia el sur). La calle está flanqueada por puestecillos que van menudeando hacia la cima y en los que se ofrece a la venta todo tipo de souvenires y otras mercaderías igualmente inservibles: muñecas “matriuska”, ropas folclóricas, uniformes militares, gorros, bufandas, guantes, abrigos, sellos, monedas, antiguallas e incluso unas improbables reproducciones en latón del mismísimo don Quijote. Hay también algunos cafés o pequeños restaurantes más o menos llamativos y, de uno de ellos, se escuchaban los acordes de una canción eslava tan triste que logró arrancarme las lágrimas.

The magic staircase in Andreievski

A medio camino de la pendiente, al pie de unos árboles y medio escondida entre sus bajas ramas, arranca una invitadora escalera en hierro forjado cuyos peldaños se pierden entre las amarillentas hojas otoñales; y al ascender por ella, desde lo alto, el viajero descubre, girando sobre sí mismo, una magnífica y sorprendente vista de Podil, del río con sus muchos canales, y de los edificios de la mitad “izquierda” de la ciudad. La colina está arbolada, y aquí arriba vienen las parejas de enamorados a hacerse románticas fotografías entre los ocres de la naturaleza, en la escalera metálica o contra el paisaje del fondo. También un grupo de cuatro o cinco jovencitas llenan el aire con sus cristalinas carcajadas mientras posan en cómicas composiciones ante la cámara.
Barrio de Kozhumiatska

Y siguiendo un poco más hacia allá, salvando el collado, de repente aparece ante la vista otro distinto paisaje: es un estrecho y profundo valle que se abre casi en cortado entre dos colinas, y cuyo fondo está edificado con un cúmulo de hermosas casitas perfectamente cuidadas, asemejando un edén urbano, una aldea de cuento de hadas; y la aparición es tan inesperada que el viajero se sorprendería sólo un poco más si viera salir volando, de alguna de las ventanas de estas casas, a Peter Pan acompañado de Wendy y sus hermanos, o quizá una calabaza convertida en carroza. Se trata de Kozhumiatska, un barrio construido en tiempos de bonanza que se halla no obstante medio vacío, a falta de quien pueda pagar las hipotecas o las rentas, y en espera de mejores tiempos.

The change

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The mashrutka was, as usual, crammed with people. No way to get to the driver and pay. ‘What’s the fare?’, I asked to my young, pretty and kind travel mate for the occasion. ‘One seventy five’, she said. I handed a 2 hrivna banknote to the passenger in the seat ahead of mine and instinctively gave up the change: who would care to pay me back 25 kopeks, scarcely 3 euro cents?
To my astonishment, a couple of minutes later some passenger put into my hand the despised quarter coin…
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Who says..?

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The Polish-Ukrainian border of Hrebenne is only meant for road traffic; it can’t be crossed by pedestrians. Therefore, the traveller who wants to use it must get on board some motor vehicle before entering the restricted area.
When I arrived, on foot, on this beautiful snowy, sunny but freezing December morning, there was already an Ukrainian man standing there, waving at the cars to stop and help him cross. I joined him. Was he angry to see a competitor? Not at all: he welcomed me and we started talking (or as close as a talk we could have, considering my poor Polish). He seemed to have crossed quite often that way, and despite our little success at the beginning, he wasn’t discouraged at all.
‘Polish drivers’ he was explaining to me ‘almost never stop. We’d better trust the Ukrainian ones’.
He being Ukrainian himself, I didn’t give much credit to his words; but, effectively, during the half hour we spent there together, none of the more abundant Polish cars that passed bothered to even acknowledge our presence, while several of the Ukrainians stopped by us and, at least, gave some explanation why they couldn’t take us.
And indeed it was an Ukrainian driver who finally put me in his van and gave me the required ride through the border controls. My hitching companion had yielded his precedence to me.
Now, who says that Ukrainians aren’t nice?
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