May 4th - 6th: Three days of hell: The Ukraine Incident...Ukraine, Russia (again), Lativa, Lithuania and Poland:
The backstory: We are supposed to meet our friend Ri-otch in Bucharest on May 5th, the Ukranian embassy in Moscow had been closed for 7 of the last 10 days, and visa laws between the US and Ukraine were changing at a rate that no one was quite sure if we could pass through without a visa (although they were 90% positive that we couldnt). And we aren't the type of people who wait around to "find out if this is legal or not"...we hopped on that train without a clue, a prayer, and most importantly a visa.
Fast forward through 10 hrs of train ride to the good part. Its 4 AM and I am woken up by a Russian soldiers (commonplace by now). After inquisitively taking away my passport, calling his superiors, and flipping through a GIANT binder we are allowed to exit Russia. 3 hrs later we arrive in Ukraine. I handed the soldier my passport with my green Ben Franklin visa tucked inside. He handed me my hundred dollar bill back and walked away with my passport.
I remember the sad look in our cabinmate Borgat's eyes when they pulled us off the train. He knew we were completely fucked and he couldn't understand Joey's happy-go-lucky grin about having something better to write about than some boring old miltary citadel or endless yellow canola fields swaying in springtime sunshine.
So we were taken through the metal gates with the man and the machine gun guarding them, down the concrete steps and into a building with bars on the windows. We sat in a plastic chair while 10 soldiers shouted in Ukranian and we gathered that the problem was that none of them spoke English so they couldnt even harass us properly. Amist the shouting, the dogs, the machine guns and confusion, I clearly remember that somewhere in the background I vaguely heard the melody line to Vacation by the Gogos.
They were stamping papers and I giddily thought that I was receiving the "travelers urban legend" of the on the spot Ukranian transit visa. My candor changed as I looked through the barred windows and saw my train rolling away.
After a spell, a posse of 10 soldiers and 3 big dogs led me out of the holding area and back to the train tracks. The only words I can understand are terrorist americanitz. We are stuffed into a train alone...in an empty wagon with a group of conductors who were shouting at each other and reading the countries off of Joeys passport. The train took off and we had NO passport and NO idea where we were headed towards...
After 3 hours of confusion, curiosity, and bad coffee, we arrived at a checkpoint that was unmistakenly Russian...
We are again escorted out of the train by different soldiers...these ones were attractive Russian females soldiers who were welcome to detain us as long as they saw fit. Again we are taken into a holding cell. It was not so bad when it was just a lot of flirting in broken russian and broken English but then the commanding officer came in and flipped out and most the 12 soldiers (including all of the hot female ones) were dismissed and it was us and 3 big male Russian soldiers. I remember the green paint flaking off the wall in huge chips and the most wretched smell of body odor in that cramped concrete room.
The problem was that Joey had a single entry visa and he had been stamped out of the country and was trying to re-enter Russia on an already cancelled and hence illegal visa. A nice soldier allowed me to go outside...concrete walls topped with barbed wire but at least the smell wasn't as bad. After a few hours the one nice, soft-spoken male soldier simply said "You're free." We walked to a train station, bought a ticket to St. Petersburg, still not knowing where the hell we were.
In hindsight, the two soliders (Russian and Ukranian) who were our points of in-communicable contact for the day treated us with complete class and were total gentleman. (Even the Russian officer in Rambo 2 is classy and well spoken when he electrocutes Rambo but I digress). Our hats off to them.
On to St. Petersburg, a lovely day of riding boats through the canals, hanging out on the same Nevsky Prospect that the great Dostoyevsky is always writing about and an improptu tour from a lovely Ukranian named Ira who didn't care that we had just been thrown out of her country.
Now that the holding cell novelty was wearing off we decided we must avoid Ukraine and Belarus and head through the Baltic states. A train to Vilnuis, through Lativa and into Lithuania. Hung out and had our last (of this year) Baltica beer while wondering the streets of Vilnius. Another train to Seskotai. In the tiny town of Seskotai, it was great to find out that we had no ATM card, no credit cards, and only 20 Euro (in a country that doesn't use the Euro)...
A kind-hearted train attended saved us from being stuck in a tiny phoneless, hotelless village and sold us a ticket to Warsaw accepting Euro...
We arrive in Warsaw at 10 PM, pouring rain, only a few Euro in our pocket, no friends and no where to go. With the remainder of our money we go to an internet cafe, find out Riotch is in Budapest and buy a ticket to Budapest. While wondering the streets of rainy Warsaw, we find all accomodations that we could afford were full and finally an angel named Olga took us in and let us shower and sleep on a couch of her hotel and made us breakfast as long as we left before her boss got there.
We spent the next day wondering the lovely royal gardens of Lazienki Park, watching peacocks, squirrels, rose gardens, babbling brooks, arched bridges over swam filled streams, and reading Steinbeck with a Polish Dostovesky-reading vegetarian spa-owner Ph.D student named Monika who we will someday return to marry. We watched a traditional Polish dance competition that involved a group of mentally challenged people pushing a goat around on a skateboard and free entertainment doesn't get much better than that.
We had long since forgot about the Ukraine incident and we were quite refreshed when we left Warsaw to head towards Budapest to meet our friend Riotch...