Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Chernivsti, Ukraine: The Color Farm

This trip has landed me, for some time, for better or worse, in rural Ukraine.

I like it here, but at least a few people have asked: Why Ukraine? So, before I regale you with tales of the little life we live here, I will answer that question:

Why not?

I more or less looked at a map, picked somewhere I had never been to before that not a lot of other people had been to before either, and happened upon a family whose desciption of themselves I liked who also like my description of myself. People are kind everywhere. I picked Ukraine because I knew nothing about it, and I wanted to learn more.

Turns out, it's also well-positioned to be a staging point for my upcoming travels through the Middle East. While I'm trading labor for room and board, those are also cheap here, if I decide to take day or weekend trips (recall the day of biking before I arrived here: $17 for food, including a pizza, and a nice hostel with a shower, bed, and internet).

So, that's why.

I found this family using an organization called World Wide Organization for Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF runs a website with a small fee ($15 when I paid) to make sure you're serious. Pay the fee, and for a year you can contact any farm on the site and arrange to stay with them. The conditions are room and board in exchange for labor.

I've landed myself on a farm affectionately known as the "Color Farm" with Maxym and Marina and their 3-year-old son Misha (short for Mishael). It's delightful here – secluded, fairly self-sustaining, and the landscape is as charming and beautiful as the family. They live in a two-room house: their room, which is also where we cook and eat, and the guest room. It's not a commune or anything; we have neighbors a field over, but for the most part they keep to themselves.

Marina speaks Russian (as she is from Russia), Maxym speaks Ukranian (as he is from Ukraine), Misha speaks both (at three years of age!), and they all know varying amounts of English. Which is good, because I know neither Russian nor Ukranian, and my efforts to learn so far have been utter failures.

Just to reiterate, Marina does not speak Ukranian and Maxym does not speak Russian – they both speak in their native tongues to each other, they both understand each other, and they both reply in their native tongues. Misha does speak both languages, but he sometimes gets confused when they use similar words: the word for "man" in Ukranian conflates the word for "human" in Russian, so he often says to his mom in Russian that he's a boy now, but when he grows up, he'll be human.

You'd think on a farm the "labor" I exchange would be something like bailing hay or driving cattle, but the "farm" is very small and young so I've actually been doing mostly carpentry. When I arrived, there were two beds: one for the three of them and one for me. I built them another bed, much larger than the one they had, and now there are three beds – just in time for another guest, Olive.

Olive is from England, but she left in 2013 and she's been vagabonding ever since. She's spent most of her time between Australia, India, South America, and Portugal, and only in the past year or so started traveling Europe. I often meet other cyclists, but rarely do I meet someone who has been so open-endedly vagabonding, so it's been fascinating to get to know her and hear her stories. "It's not travel, it's just my life," she says. After five months on the road, I have only just begun to feel that way.

In addition to building the bed, I've also picked, sorted, cut, and dried basil (for eating, as well as the soaps, creams, and lotions that Marina makes and sells); tied tomatoes up so they grow better; collected, sorted, and cut apples; cooked; done the dishes; made tea; and hunted for mushrooms in the forest. It's a delightful variety of labor.

Life here is simple. We get up when we get up, do work until breakfast is ready (usually pretty late as farm as I'm concerned, anywhere from 9-12), take a break while Misha takes a nap, then work again until dinner (anywhere from 4-7 – it's ready when it's ready). All the soap is handmade by Marina; except for the grains (usually buckwheat or millet, sometimes rice or oatmeal), the food comes from the garden (fresh pumpkin!); and, there is no sugar or fat in any of the food (it's vegan – no butter! Or cheese...). Marina doesn't cook with oil, since heating oil is a great way to make carcinogens. If you want oil in your food, you add it after – a bottle of olive oil is permanently on the dining room table. All water comes from the well, and the shower is outdoors and heated by the sun. Internet has to be dialed-up, but it comes in through an antenna, so it's... wireless dial-up? And there's no wifi, so there's one computer that can access internet very slowly between Marina, Maxym, Olive, and me.

The first thing I'm going to do when I leave is eat a block of cheese... and probably take a hot shower.

But, I like it here. Marina, Maxym, and Misha are endearing – in their compassion, generosity, and desire to learn English. Every now and then I'll use a phrase they don't recognize and they'll ask me to explain it. Once I taught them "kind of" and then asked if there was going to be dessert.

"Kind of," said Marina.

"Dessert" was cocoa powder mixed with honey and oatmeal. It was good, just not as sweet as something like brownies or cookies. It was... kind of dessert.

(I'm not a nutritionist but I don't think we need "added sugar" in our diets, so the only thing that's been suffering is my desire to eat sweets...)

Misha doesn't speak English so much as he picks a phrase or two a day and repeats them. It's adorable having your conversation periodically interrupted by a 3-year-old repeating what you say. When picking tomatoes Maxym asked me for the scissors and then said thanks, and I replied, "You're welcome." Misha asked Maxym what that meant. Later, I was washing some plums and Misha was standing beside me. He said something in Russian to Marina, who relayed to me in English that he wanted a plum. I gave him one.

He stood there for a few seconds with the plum, thinking intensely. Finally,

"Thank you," he said, then looked at me, waiting.

"You're welcome," I said.

He nodded satisfactorily and went back to Marina.

This may seem an odd observation, but they are strikingly human. I've biked more than a quarter of the way around the world and still the people are not that different. Yes, they speak different languages, they look a little different, but they still have families and homes, and we still talk about what makes us happy. We joke and tease and laugh, and every now and then just look at each other and smile. Maxym and Marina take turns reading to Misha at night; Misha is sometimes desperate for attention but more often than not able to entertain himself in the yard, in the kitchen, or on the trampoline. We share cultural obserations, whether it be about politics or movies (I recently discovered that Marina has a copy of The Princess Bride, which I haven't seen in ages...) or music. Most endearing, I sometimes get to listen to Marina sing Russian lullabies to Misha. I feel like I belong here not because we connect on every level or because we're bffs or because we stay up late sharing travel stories and hopes and dreams, but because the things they care about are the same things other people care about – the same things I care about. They are good, imperfect people, and that is exactly what the world needs more of.

Life here is, in many senses, dirty. We eat apples with bad spots. We leave our apple cores and uneaten parts of fruit on the table until putting them all into the compost, and wiping the table. We dump heaps of basil on the bed, bugs and all, to be sorted and cut. We leave the front door open all day so there's always fresh air in the house. Since we don't cook with oil, we rarely do the dishes with soap. It's very un-American. But it's also very simple and very easy to get used to once you let go of your preconceptions. Eating an apple with a bad spot hasn't given me the bubonic plague. Nor has just doing the dishes with water.

When Marina mixes lye for her soap, however, we evacuate. If you've seen Fight Club, lye is the stuff Tyler gets on his hand that burns all the way through to the bone. Apparently it will actually do that to you – that wasn't an exaggeration for the movie. Marina puts on her "space man uniform," as she calls in, including a very WWII-looking facemask with air filters, and dons gloves and boots and locks the door so Misha doesn't accidently get in.

I've hunted for mushrooms in the forest and had Marina tell me which are good to eat, and brought them home and cooked them with onions and beer and a bit of flour to make them creamy, and discovered that fresh mushrooms are infinitely better than all the grocery store mushrooms I've been eating all my life.

I finished their bed and then had them decide it should also function as a sitting area when the mattress is rolled up during the day, so then I finished it again... and then again... and then again. And still we have visions of tree branches "growing" out of it, turning the kitchen into a forest with their bed as a pagoda.

I've gotten excited about building a rocket stove, but it was to be built after redoing the path to the door... and then after tying the tomatoes... and then after finishing the bed. And now after our trip to Oddessa.

Yep, they are going to Oddessa for a ten-day vacation and I've been invited along. To the sea! On a train! It's all very romantic.

Then we'll come back and I'll build the rocket stove, and then I'll be off to Greece. And then Istanbul. And then, probably, Africa.

Ukraine is pretty great.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Chernivtsi, Ukraine: What's next?

The more astute reader, who has been around for a while, might notice that I've deviated significantly from my originally proposed route through Europe. This route would have put me in Africa for the low low cost of a boat from Gibralter to Morocco sometime around November. While I don't have any regrets about my deviation, I am now in a bit of a pickle... because... you see...

winter is coming.

While this is actually an ideal time to do some parts of the Middle East (the otherwise very hot parts), it's a less-than-ideal time to do some other parts (the very cold parts – yes, there are cold parts of the Middle East). As I'd like to be able to mix the two (in particular, I'm dying to do the Pamir Highway, which includes some mountain passes at 4,000+ meters – often impassible in the winter months), I need to figure out a way to (A) occupy myself until it starts getting warmer, not colder, and (B) end up about where I am now so I can continue on my way through the Middle East when the weather is right.

My thinking is... fly to Africa.

Which would make me regret, if only slightly, not sticking to my original plan. And only because flying to Africa would cost money.

BUT... can I say I biked around the world if I don't at least touch Africa?

This is a dangerous road. What's next? Can I say I biked around the world if I don't at least touch... Australia?

(A host of mine had this take on Australia: "You bike to the end of the world to see white people.")

Can I say I biked around the world if I don't at least touch... South America?

There is something alluring about Africa. I would rather say I biked across Africa than Australia. Also, another cyclist I've been meaning to meet up with is currently biking across Africa. So, I'd have company.

That's one option.

The cheapest, but arguably least exciting option, is to WWOOF around where I am. But four months of sitting on my butt? I think I'd go crazy (I do like my current WWOOF. It will get its own post shortly).

I could also bike to Turkey, fly over Syria (much as the people there are worth visiting, now is not the time), and... big as Saudi Arabia is, I think I could only kill a month there. I can't visit Israel until after visiting Iran, because you can't get into Iran if you have an Israel stamp in your passport.

I can't really come back to the US because I no longer have health insurance. Not to mention the flights would be even more expensive than flying to Africa and back.

So... I think I've pretty much stuck myself with:
(A) Stay in Europe, dance between countries to stick to visa-free time limits, and WWOOF. Travel a bit, but at some point I'd only be left with so many countries that aren't cold and that I still have free entry to. (B) Fly somewhere else. Like Africa.

Right now I'm thinking:
- Bike to Italy via Venice. Because... I want to see Italy.
- Bike down Italy and take a boat across the Adriatic.
- See Greece. Because I also want to see Greece (noting that I have only 35 days left in Schengen countries, which includes both Italy and Greece).
- Bike to Turkey.
- WWOOF until my flight.
- Fly to Nairobi (about $500), where my friend will be in early November.
- Bike to Cape Town. This should take until February or so. There is a path from Nairobi to Cape Town that doesn't require visas.
- Fly back to Turkey (about $500).
- Continue through the Middle East as planned.

I am, of course, open to other suggestions... preferably ones that don't cost any more than flying to Africa and back.

In the longer term, I've also been offered a job in India. I don't want to reveal too much about it, but suffice to say I've been to India before (in 2013) and some of the people I worked with want me back. So it's possible that when I get to India (hopefully mid-2018) I'll have a job waiting for me, which should help recoup the costs that haven't been made by selling postcards, and either become a permanent position (that is, I'd live in India indefinitely) or serve to fund the next part of the trip. I'd plan to work there for at least a year and see how I feel afterwards. It's possible I'll stop the tour in India; somewhere in India is halfway around the world from where I started in Minneapolis. I also still have a deferral to study psychology starting fall 2018, if I so desire. Options...

If the job in India does wok out, I'd probably learn Hindi. More than I know from my last trip, that is.

So, that's where things stand. I'm hoping someone will drop an awesome, free, totally-feasible winter plan on me, but I got myself into this mess by not following my original plan... how I get out of it is, almost certainly, up to my planning as well. Come to think of it, the ideal plan would be that someone donates the "Get any story anywhere in the world" option for a story in Africa. But I'm not betting on that.

Even if you don't have a solution, dear reader, your thoughts are always welcome.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Satu Mare, Romania to Chernivtsi, Ukraine: I'm in Ukraine!

Internet here can best be described as "wireless dial-up" so there won't be any photos until I take a day to bike to an internet cafe. Sorry!

After a much needed and well enjoyed rest day in Satu Mare with Soren and his wife – I had the privilege of choosing what to eat for lunch (a salad of my own creation, which they liked so much they said they'd be making it again) and dinner (pasta with cheese, because it had been too long) – I left for Ukraine. It was more than three months ago I committed to this WWOOF, so it had been a long time coming. Finally, I would enter Ukraine!

Just, y'know, some more busy narrow-margin roads and a border crossing to endure.

At a checkpoint before the border crossing I was stopped by a guard and told I couldn't bike across the border – it was motorized traffic only. I asked why and he said he didn't know, but that was the rule. Okay... annoying, but not his fault. He spoke very good English, so as we waited for someone willing to take me across we got to know each other a bit, and when another guard showed up with lunch he even offered me some. Despite the annoyance of having to find someone to take me across (which he would do for me) I felt very welcome there at the border.

In 30 minutes only three cars went through and only two were big enough to hold my bike. The second of these was willing to take me and was big enough we didn't even have to disassemble the bike or take anything off of it. At first he seemed very kind and unassuming, but 20 meters after leaving Romania (eg in no-man's-land) he pulled over and seemed very insistent that I bike the rest of the way. I tried to tell him that I couldn't, I needed him to drive me, but he was really, really insistent that I get out of his car. I'm not sure what the deal was (he spoke no English and I spoke no whatever-he-was-speaking, I assume Romanian), but not wanting to cause a ruckus, I got out of the car, got my bike, and pedaled on after him.

100 meters later, I was stopped at the actual border by a very buff woman with a machine gun who also didn't speak English. She was very kind, though – through about 5 minutes of gesturing and pointing it was established that I would wait by the side of the road while she found someone willing to take me the rest of the way. The first car that pulled up was willing, though as it was a sedan I had to take off all my baggage and lay my bike sticking out the back of the trunk. In any case, he took me through the Ukranian side, and seemed content to drive me home with him, but about 500 meters from the border I decided I'd rather not overstay my welcome and motioned I'd like to get out. He held my bike for me while I loaded it, we shook hands, and went on our ways.

Everyone I encountered seemed surprised that an American was coming through. It was no problem at all, it seemed, just not something that happens often. I'm not sure how many Americans come to Ukraine, but I'm sure most of them fly in (P.S. I am aware it's more accurate to say "US Citizen," but everybody here refers to me as an American, so I'm just going along with it...).

So, crossing the border took a little longer than expected, but... whatever. My first day in Ukraine was fairly uneventful, except some of the roads were terrible: my odometer disappeared at some point, and I'm almost certain it was bumped off by the road quality, not stolen.

None of the banks would exchange my Hungarian Florint, so I ended up withdrawing about $20 worth of Ukranian Hryvnia from an ATM, enough to get me by until I could find a currency exchange. Since getting to Eastern Europe I try and shop at supermarkets whenever possible because they seem to have more quality control than the mom-and-pop shops. I feel ambiguous about not shopping local, but I'd rather know what I'm eating. The only place I could find was in what appeared to be an old airplane hanger. A song from Greece was playing outside, and as I entered, it got all echoey and creepy in the large space, as if I was entering a grocery store in a horror film...

Food here is cheap, sometimes almost absurdly so. I paid 170 RAH, about $7, for what I usually pay $15 for. Cascada was playing when I left. I could have taken the main road all the way around town or a side road through it, so I took the side road, which ended up being dirt and, in some cases, mud.

Another few hours back on the main road and I stopped at what appeared to be an outdoor church of sorts to take dinner. After dinner I decided just to go to bed early and put my tent in a field out back.

Around 4 AM I started dreaming that it was raining, and then I woke up and it was raining. I cursed, jumped out of the tent and put on the fly, finishing just as the rain stopped. Life of a cyclist...

The next day I continued along the main road (there aren't any intercity side roads) which followed the Ukranian-Romanian border for some time. It's very common to see people selling food on the side of the road here -- even just a single basket of mushrooms or a few jars of fruit. I was good on food but at one point passed a jar of raspberries which I just could not pass up. It ended up being 30 RAH, just over $1, for about 2 pounds of raspberries. I ate a few handfuls then and there before realizing I should maybe find a picnic table...

I found one later, and while eating was approached by a soldier in full camoflauge with a machine gun over his shoulder. He put his fingers to his mouth, then said something in (presumably) Ukranian. "English?" I said. "Smoke?" he replied, putting his fingers to his lips again. I shook my head. He went off about 30 feet down the road to make a phone call. Then he returned and held out the phone. "It's for me?" I said. He just kept holding out the phone.


"Hello," said a voice.

"What can I do for you?" I said.

"I need you to please speak very slowly and simply since I am just learning the English," said the voice.

"Okay," I said, slowly.

"Do you have your documents?"


"Can you get them?"


I got my passport and showed the guard the ID page and the page with my entry stamp to Ukraine – on page 47. Why they couldn't put it on page 2, I don't know.

After giving me a thumbs-up the guard disappeared. Where he came from, where he went, I have no idea. But, I would see many more soldiers along the border for the next few miles. Presumably they are keeping an eye out for illegal immigrants – though I'd later be told the problem is Ukranians that steal things from Romania and bring them back to Ukraine to sell.

After a while the road left the border and turned north into the mountains. I would pass a Museum of Mountain Ecology which sounded very interesting, but was, unfortunately, closed. Since I'd only spent $13 that day I decided to see how much a hostel was. I had it on good authority it would be less than $10. For giggles I picked one called "Dream Hostel," rated 9.5/10 and priced one dollar sign out of three. I was sure anything called "Dream Hostel" wouldn't be much of a dream, but actually, it was really nice. And only 100 RAH, $4.

My roommates that night were a couple backpacking the Carpathians from Kiev. They spoke very good English, but after pleasantries didn't seem too interested in talking. Later that night another couple would join us, but we were ships passing in the night. I spent the night applying for health insurance for when I leave the EU, got in a video chat with a friend from back home, and went to bed. That day I had food, a shower, internet, and a bed for $17. Not bad.

I awoke to the sound of heavy rain, but it would clear up by the time I left, making for a beautiful ride through the mountains. At the summit there was a market of sorts and a beautiful hand-carved pipe caught me eye, but the owner wasn't willing to bargain at all (or didn't understand that I wanted to), so I left empty-handed. Around 4 PM it started raining on and off; at first I played tag with it by hiding under bus stops and porches and covered alters; around 6, I decided I just needed to book it to the next city to find a hostel. It poured and poured and finally at 7 I rolled in to the 9-rated, one-dollar-sign hostel... well, I had to find it first.

I walked around in the drizzle looking for a sign or anything, but the building had only two entrances. I poked my head in one and found two guys hiding from the rain. "English?" I said. One of them did speak English and informed me that there were "other Americans" staying in "rooms for rent" upstairs. Okay, usually that means "rent" on a monthly basis, but I'll give it a shot... so I carried my bike up two flights of stairs to a door with some Ukranian, the words "Rooms for Rent," and two phone numbers. I tried knocking – no response. I opened the door to reveal a hallway with many doors – definitely a hostel, but nobody was home.

I went downstairs to try one of the numbers. A voice answered in (presumably) Ukranian. "Rooms for rent?" I said – surely they must understand the very phrase they put on the sign. "One minute," said the voice. Another voice said, "Hello?"

"You have the hostel upstairs?"

"Say again?"

"Rooms for rent?"

"One minute."

From a door behind me emerged two teenagers, one of them with the phone. "Hello," he said. These kids were in charge of the hostel for the night. One spoke limited English. Actually, the limited-English one was in charge of the cafe they had just come out of; fortunately, he appeared to be friends with the other, who was actually in charge of the hostel, but didn't speak any English.

This time it was 120 RAH – about $5. I was glad to be out of the rain. I got dinner from a pizza place next door, 58 RAH (just over $2) for an entire pizza and a drink.

The next day the rain was kind enough to hold off until I had to turn off the main road for my WWOOF. These side roads were bad – really bad. Potholes upon potholes. But, I made it to the village nearest my WWOOF and turned off onto a dirt road, whereupon the rain was kind enough to stop. Up a few very steeps hills, and there was Maxym and his son Misha (short for Mishael) waiting for me. They led me another 500 meters by foot through some woods and some fields, and finally, I'm at the WWOOF I said I'd be at. A bed of my own for more than a few days, a break for my behind (much needed after three days of crappy roads), warm food, and friends I get to keep for a while. And also figuring out what to do now that winter is coming. And how to get through the Middle East.

Welcome to Ukraine!