Monday, October 2, 2017

Chernivtsi to Odessa and back again: The Spirit Train

Hello from Rakhiv, a town in the Carpathians in Ukraine! I've left the color farm on my way back to Romania, and while I plan on providing an update about my plans for the future, I now find myself in the familiar position of trying to congeal the experiences past month or so of my life into words. This will be most difficult because (A) I think it's the longest I've gone without blogging since I left Minneapolis, and (B) the past however-long-it's-been has been, while "life-changing" might be an overstatement, certainly very impactful in the grand scheme of things (as one might expect of a month in a foreign county with a family like that of Maxym and Marina's). While I could no doubt continue to wax poetic about the labor itself for sometime, there is nothing quite like setting off on an adventure of this kind (the kind full of reminiscence of good things), so let us begin.

When we last left off I had finished building a bed and had been joined in the guest bedroom by another volunteer and vagabond, Olive from England. The five of us (Maxym, Marina, Misha, Olive, and I) were planning to embark on a vacation to Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea in Ukraine. After a few days of preparation – namely, picking things and planting things (like vining strawberries – I had no idea that strawberries vined!) in case there was a frost while we were gone, and devouring in one front-porch-sitting one of the biggest and best watermelons any of us had ever seen ("Save the seeds!" instructed Marina, "So we can do this again next year!") – we walked a few kilometers to the bus stop, took the bus an hour into town, and then had some fun around town while waiting for the train.

This "fun around town" included, but wasn't limited to...
- Getting my blood tested. For as long as I can remember I've been tired 80% of the time, and Marina thought it was worth checking my B-12, and it cost only 130 UAH (about $5) to do so here. It's something I've sort of learned to live with, but if $5 can fix it, that's worth it to me (when I had insurance in the States I already tried various tests from thyroid problems to a sleep study to no avail).
- Getting food. Because in order to have the blood test done I had to fast for 12 hours, so I was ravenous. In addition to food, we also indulged ourselves in things not present on the farm, like coffee, and sugar in the form of baklava. But mostly we (namely I) ate a lot of perogis, because, as I discovered, I love perogis, and you can get them almost anywhere in Ukraine for dirt cheap.
- Visiting the market. Olive wanted halva, and with Marina's help we managed to differentiate between, as she put it, the "shit halva" and the "less shit halva" – both having things in them that were unnecessary, but the not-homemade halva, interestingly enough, having fewer things and thus being deemed the "less shit halva." Also, we got some type of fried bread that I'm pretty sure was langos (you might remember this from Hungary), but alas, I forgot to ask Marina what it was and where it came from. In any case, it was delicious, and a great way to sustain ourselves on the train ride to come.

- Visiting a cheese shop. Because I said in my last blog post that the first thing I was going to do upon leaving the farm was eating a whole block of cheese, and Olive read that and told Marina, and Marina knew of a good cheese shop in town... I didn't get the whole block, but I did try about 6 cheeses, and was pleasantly surprised with the quality. I would have liked to try a Ukranian cheese, but they only had cheese from Holland, and frankly, it had been so long since I'd had cheese I didn't care as long as it was good.

- Taking silly pictures. And dancing. And singing. Because for some reason or another – Marina would say it was not having had coffee or sugar for two weeks, fasting for 12 hours, then downing both coffee and sugar – I was exploding with energy. I kept dancing everywhere, and singing, and being my goofy self that doesn't make an appearance nearly often enough. Marina was plussed.

Eventually, the time came to board the train.

I don't have a super-lot-of-history with trains but I generally like them. They are cheaper, more spacious, more comfortable, and probably safer than planes, and well... I just like the feeling that you're going somewhere. Click-clack... click clack... The last time I rode a train was across Ireland, when I was super stressed about finding a place to sleep, so this was a nice change – an 18-hour train ride with three people I liked very much and nothing to do but, well, whatever we wanted. We played games – mostly new games taught to us by Marina or Maxym, which I'll be taking home as they were awesome – and we talked, and read, and journaled.

"Zookeeper," where everybody draws part of an animal without knowing what the other parts look like.

Bananas, bread, and "less shit halva."

The air in the train was stale and occasionally the smell of burning trash got in – all too common, sadly, in many poor countries. As a result, I spent a few hours that night feeling nauseous and sticking my head out the window to get fresh air (when it was fresh and not full of burning trash smell). The nausea precipitated an anxiety attack, which I managed to stifle by focusing on my breathing and doing multiplication in my head. Afterwards, though, Olive, Marina and I were talking frankly about anxiety, depression, anxiety attacks, etc. Marina had some advice to me which seems obvious enough now, but at the time it seemed almost revolutionary:

What if I... didn't try and control or stifle my anxiety? What was I afraid of?

Throwing up, I said.

"What's so bad about throwing up?" she asked. Usually when you feel you have to throw up, and you do, you feel better afterwards. Throwing up is your body's way of getting rid of something making it sick. What was I stifling that my body wanted to get rid of so bad that it felt the need to throw up? What if I embraced whatever that was?

So, I tried it. After the conversation died down I looked back at what was making me anxious. I accepted that this might make me anxious – though I didn't know it at the time, a technique called paradoxical intent. And I realized that I was only anxious because I was stifling other emotions. My anxiety was just a symptom of the stifling of other feelings. By stifling them, I became anxious, and by stifling my anxiety, I only made myself more anxious – to the point where my body needed to feel so bad that it wasn't afraid to make me throw up.

I didn't throw up. Quite the opposite, in fact – upon simply accepting whatever it was I was feeling, it felt as if something opened inside me. I imagined Marina and I standing on top of a tall cliff with a gargantuan bolder rolling down the side into the ocean. In this fiction, we high-fived. And whatever was under the bolder came bubbling up to make a giant fountain shooting miles into the sky, and we danced and celebrated. I felt free, liberated. In my journal I would write phrases like, "Secret room unlocked!" and "Level up!" Indeed, it felt there was a part of me that had been missing or hiding for years, and I had just discovered it and now got to go inside and discover the treasures within.

I spent the next eight hours writing in my journal and composing e-mails, unable to sleep until 5 AM the next morning. It felt as if there were hundreds, thousands of thoughts and feelings that had been bottled up somewhere and were finally free to come to the top. I wrote poetry and prose like I hadn't done in years. I wrote ideas for projects I didn't know I wanted to do. I wrote e-mails to friends and family saying things I didn't know I had to say. I was inspired and free and I didn't need sleep – I couldn't sleep. If I turned my phone off (of course I left my laptop at the farm) or closed my journal and then my eyes, it wouldn't be thirty seconds until another idea came to mind, and another thirty until the urge to write it was unpressable.

The next morning I would surmise to Marina that the fast and coffee probably had something to do with it (I'd had coffee #2 on the train), but she suspected it was the "anxiety lift" and that was my suspicion too.

After another coffee (being on only two hours of sleep, I figured I'd need another to make it through the day), the train finally came in to Odessa. This is how Olive felt about that:

We found a restuarant that had perogis and planned our next move. Olive would, sadly, leave us here, but I didn't have any qualms about another vagabonder being on the loose. The world needs more of us! Marina, Maxym, Misha and I had plans to get to the beach – before leaving the farm, Marina and Maxym had Google-Maps stalked the coast looking for places to stealth camp (these are my kind of people), and found one a four-hour bus ride away. That was reduced to a one-hour train ride and then a one-hour bus ride when we found a train going most of the way there. So we said goodbye to Olive and went on our way again.

When we got there, we didn't go swimming as the sun was almost down – but Misha couldn't resist trucking some sand around (Marina: "He's been talking about doing that for weeks"):

The next few days would consist of many things, including, but not limited to:
- Camping in the woods

- Swimming in the sea
- Getting stung by a jellyfish (it wasn't bad)
- Going for a jog on the beach as the sun rose

- Finding a clay submarine

- Gazing up at the stars
- Playing ukulele (I've started a composition)

- Cooking over an open fire

- Collecting firewood
- Meeting another cycle tourist, Walter from Germany. Marina was drawn to him in the way she is drawn to adventurous people, but mostly he and I geeked out about bicycle touring... and his rediculous, hydraulic rim brakes.

- Meeting another stealth camper (sadly I forgot to take a pictuer, but I did record the song he played us on my uke). He didn't speak English, but he was very kind, and Marina was kind enough to translate on occasion.
- Weaving coronets.

- Wearing coronets.

- Napping.

- Staring at the fire, sharing stories, singing songs, drinking tea, and losing track of time.

After a few days (four, I believe) of this beach lifestyle, the rain attacked. It came a day before it was supposed to, actually – we were planning on being in a hostel by the time it arrived. Alas, rain waits for no man and no vacation. At 1 AM on what was supposed to be a last, glorious day featuring a run on the beach, using all the firewood we had left (collected by yours truly) to make a giant bonfire, and not getting stung by jellyfish, it came.

I got out to put on my fly, got back in, and waited for it to be over. Around 9 AM though, Maxym's voice confronted me: "Kyle? We're going to get a hostel."


Beach vacation over. Time for phase II: city vacation!

We packed up in the rain and took a bus into the nearest town to wait for another bus to Odessa. As we couldn't make a fire to cook with, obviously, breakfast was ramen from a coffee shop heated by the hot water spigot used to make instant coffee. I played solitaire and tried to ignore the TV – I hadn't seen a TV in ages and I forgot how much I hated them. The news was all natural disasters and a too-smiley newscaster: the usual "the world is a scary terrible place" BS. The commercials were all fancy music and things falling in slow motion, snippets of happy, inspired people followed by a company logo: the usual "buy our product and you'll be fulfilled" BS. I could go on a tirade here about how TV melts your brain, but I won't. I was just thoroughly reminded of how it's basically my antithesis, is all.

After a four-hour bus ride we made it to Odessa, the rain stopped, and we had a half-hour walk to the hostel. I got the vibe from Marina and Maxym that they wanted to be alone for a while – we hadn't been glued at the hip or anything but there had only been one beach the past few days – so I would take the next few days to have my own adventures in the city. For the first day or two this terrified me: I thought myself bad at exploring new places.

"But isn't that all you do?" the reader may object. Well yes, I go through places, but then I am trusting mostly fate to put me where I should be. When you stay in one place though, it's up to you to venture fourth and discover what there is to be discovered... with four days and no need of any material things but food, what would my objectives be? How could I give meaning to these days without frivolously spending money? I had no idea.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the four days I felt at home and didn't want to leave. The first night there was a jazz festival which was playing mostly swing and blues type jazz, so I desperately wanted to dance... but there was no dance floor and being nobody spoke English I was too nervous to try and get someone to dance with me anyways. But I did enjoy the music and just walking around feeling the energy of the city.

Other adventures would come to include, but not be limited to:
- Going to market with Marina and Maxym (this was before the "can we be alone for a while" vibe had really set in)

- Wondering if an ATM I used had a skimmer (there was definitely some sort of metal thing in there, but the bank insisted it wasn't a skimmer)
- Discovering a hole-in-the-wall bakery that had some 8/10 spanikopita

- Wandering a maker market and buying a few souvenirs – here's a guy who carves wood:

I bought something from him which is a gift for a friend so it will remain a mystery for now. I also almost got a jewelry box for my mom, but upon closer inspection, didn't find them to be terribly well made – only glued, not formed at the joints; nails instead of screws attaching the hinges (and when I wiggled one of the hinges without a nail all the way in, he shrugged and mimed hammering it: an easy fix! I prefer however, to buy things that don't need fixing...); and when I picked one up a leg fell off.
- Watching some really good games of chess at this game spot in the park:

- Wondering if ads and products in English are geared towards the middle- or upper-class. Marina thought they were just English products, but I'm not so sure.

- Looking at overpriced bikes.

- Buying pizza by the slice.

I also got to know one of the other hostel-stayers fairly well, which was a treat. It began when I sat down for breakfast in the kitchen:

"Can I sit here?"


"You speak English?"

"How did you know?"

"Well... you understood me when I asked to sit here... and you replied in English."

Alex was quite the character. He's a freelance computer programmer, but goes to school on the side to avoid his military duty (in Ukraine, if you're between 18 and 27 and not going to school or don't have a degree, you can get drafted... and there's a war on with Russia, remember), and sometimes forgets about everything else and draws for 20 hours straight without sleeping or eating.
Entirely hand-drawn (yes, the circles too), there are four dinosaurs and each is named after a Linux operating system.

He lives in the hostel and spends most of his time on the computer, so naturally, when a friendly guy like me was all like, "Can I buy you dinner in exchange for you reading me the menu?" he was like, "Hellllll yea!"

Okay, that wasn't quite his response, but he was an enthusiastic friend. We hung out for most of two of my nights in Odessa, and he held good on his promise to read menus for me. More, though, he showed me all of his favorite places, including a macaroon place down a beautifully architected alley that I would never had otherwise discovered despite being on the same block of the hostel.

I also discovered an English bookstore, which had been overdue since like... leaving the UK. All the books were at UK prices, but they were also legible to me, so... worth it! I picked up The Hobbit and Fight Club, thus commencing my project of reading every book whose movie I've seen. I would finish them both before getting back to the farm in Chernivtsi.

I also discovered a hole-in-the-wall (or more correctly, in the basement) used bookstore, and upon running into Marina and Maxym there, Marina helped me find out that they had a book of vintage postcards for 2 UAH each (about $0.06). I had already scouted out some postcards in a touristy stationary shop for 30 RPH (more than $1 each), but not bought them because postcards should not cost $1 each... so when I found them fo $0.06 I was like, "Hellllll yea!" So if you're due a postcard about now, expect an awesome vintage one from Ukraine!

(Marina would later inform me that most of the postcards they had were "very Soviet," which seems to mean they are pictures of a single building. Something about showing strength?)

(Side note: in packing away my Odessa postcards for later sending I discovered I neglected to send my postcards from Budapest... so... sorry about that... those of you wondering where last month's postcard is will get it this month! And you'll get two if you're due one of the Odessa ones too!)

I left the hostel with the strange feeling that I was comfortable in Odessa: I'd found places I liked to visit, I'd made a friend, I felt safe there, and I knew my way around. It was unexpected, but pleasant. I did, however, have to leave. I met Marina and Maxym at a restuarant just outside the train station after getting some perogis, and we went on our way to the train (passing a building titled, per Marina's translation, "Perogi House").

A train ride (one where I actually slept) and a bus ride later, we were home. The whole eleven-day trip – round trip train ticket, one other one-way train ticket, about seven bus rides, the hostel, books, souvenirs, and food -- cost somewhere around 3000 UAH, or $120. Minus the UK-price books and it's about $90.

Place your money goes far: Ukraine.

We got back on Wednesday, September 27th, and I was already planning on leaving the farm that Saturday – spurred on by the subtle privacy-wanted vibe I was getting from Marina and Maxym. I didn't take this personally: it was their vacation, and in addition to the 11 days of vacation we had already spent about 8 together before then. I understood completely if they wanted space. But those last few days were bittersweet – whatever "vibe" I'd felt before was gone, replaced with a bit of bittersweet and a bit of longing for more. Marina and Maxym actually asked me to consider staying longer, and I wanted to, but...


But it was already below freezing at night, so I needed to run south.

But I had already booked a hostel I knew had good internet for a few days to do all those things I said I'd do while I stayed there.

But... excuses?

Don't get me wrong, those are fine reasons. But as I biked away I would feel a longing I'd not felt for a while: the longing of leaving a place where I felt I belonged. The last few days at the Color Farm were fantastic. There is little I can compare it to: the bliss of being back home (a place that felt like home to me, anyways), eating fresh food again, working to earn my keep, and being able to live out the renewed goofiness and energy (AKA "the secret room") I discovered on the train ride to Odessa. Marina and Maxym and I joked more than ever and got more done than ever – though spurred on, perhaps sadly, by the impending morning frosts that would destroy anything left outside ("It's not fair," Marina waxed one morning, kneeling by a tomato plant. "One frost and they're just all... gone"). For my last few days there I truly felt like I belonged, like I had found again the home I left so many months ago.

It didn't help that Marina kept doing things I suspect were meant to make me want to stay – preparing fresh mushrooms (we found a species whose Latin name literally translates to "Delicious Mushroom"), making my favorite tea (Camomille), baking "brownies" (remember, no sugar or oil) of apple and oats and (unsweetened) cocoa, and finally watching The Princess Bride after three failed attempts (though "watching" meant me waiting for them while they ran around outside covering things up for the next morning's frost). But I'm probably flattering myself they were for me, and she would have done them regardless of my presence. And of course, there was Misha, running around helping me collect tomatoes and "thank you"-ing at the best times and practicing "goodbye" while I packed my pack, making it quite difficult not to cry.

I finished the gravel path I began on my first day, dusted off my bike and took it out of the barn, and, mistake or not, went on my way.

Marina had noticed a habit I picked up while taking karate in Madison – when sitting or standing or falling (basically, when doing anything physical), I sometimes keyai under my breath. This started as a tease ("Was that a Kyle noise I heard?") but in the end we ritualized it – for our final goodbye we clasped our right fists in our left hands, martial-arts style, keyai'd at each other, bowed, and hugged. And then she kissed me on the cheek.

I found something, or somethings, at the Color Farm I didn't know I was looking for. I'm still struggling to put it into words, but it's strange that just a month ago I was regularly anxious about whether they would ask me to leave, and the day before I left I felt I had a second home where I would have been welcome indefinitely. Marina showed me parts of myself I didn't know existed, and taught me more about my body and mind in a month than most of the doctors and psychologists I've seen have taught me in all the years I'd been seeing them. My stay with Marina, Maxym, and Misha was wonderful, enlivening, enlightening, and I suspect I'll look back on it fondly for many years to come. At the last, I know I'll never think the same about the smell of buckwheat in the morning. Or – let's be real – fresh pumpkin, or melon, or squash...

I'm going back the way I came to my Warmshowers host Soren in Satu Mare, Romania, but I've stopped in the Dream Hostel in Rakhiv (which actually was a really nice hostel) to use their internet for three days to Skype friends, plan my route to Istanbul, and buy a plan ticket to Africa.


  1. What an enriching experience - finding a place (people) where it feels like you belong almost half say around the world. That says so much about Marina, Maxym, and Misha, but also about you, your ability to be open and connect and how much you've grown. Thanks for sharing. The photos are wonderful!

  2. Hit send too soon. The mushroom looks like a Golden Chanterelle (which I gathered and ate recently!), but I Googled and the ones Marina gathered apparently they do not grow in North America. I'd love to hear you keyai. What wonderful memories to carry with you forever.

    Love you, Mom

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