By Sarah Handyside
Onești, Romania to Kyiv, Ukraine, March 4-5, 2019
We board a train in Onești, Romania, at 7:36am. We ride to the town of Adjud and switch. For the next six hours, we’re crammed into a tiny rectangular compartment with four other people and no moving air. The room might be as big as a queen-size mattress and the windows are bolted shut. A row of seats lines each wall, arranged so as to force three strangers to stare at three other strangers. We’re knee to knee, so close together that getting up to go to the bathroom means playing Twister with everyone else’s legs.
After having ridden quite a few trains in Romania, I know the bathrooms will be like a porta potty on a construction site—one that gets rolled down a hill at some point and is never cleaned but continues to be used. On this train, one of the bathrooms is hazardous—not just to your health and sense of smell, but to your life. The fiberglass floor is badly cracked and there’s nothing underneath to reinforce it. I can see the tracks flicking by below.
“Imagine how much that would suck,” my partner says. “You’re in there sitting on the toilet and the floor falls out and you end up underneath the train…”
Given the difficulty of leaving my seat and the unpleasantness of using the bathroom, I only brought one liter of water, and I’m not going to drink it unless I feel like I’m going to die.
At one point, four other people get off the train, leaving the compartment to the two of us. I’m staring out the window, lost to the world, when he says, “What do you think?”
We say this to each other all the time, but this is one of the times he really wants to know. It’s like he’s saying, “Please, let me in. I have no idea what’s going on in there.”
For a moment, my mind is still. I used to feel like I had to answer right away, so he wouldn’t get frustrated and angry and give up. These days, I figure if he can’t wait patiently for me to speak, it’s his loss, not mine. I wait for some truth to float up and form words…
“I think a lot about how repetitive everything is. About how people haven’t evolved at all, how they’re just going to keep having the same conflicts over and over again, for the same reasons. Stupid reasons like racism and nationalism and imperialism. I used to get an adrenaline rush thinking about being in the middle of a revolution. Not just because it’s violent and dangerous, but because the idea of changing something was a power I wanted to feel. Now, I know it’s just going to lead back around in the same circle, to the same place. What do you do with that?”
I can’t remember much else about the conversation, but it ended at a point that seemed to make sense. It felt like all the windows on the train had blown open and the end-of-winter chill had swirled in to stir life up. I’m not sure who I am or what I’m supposed to be doing. I never have been. When the wind dies down a bit and the dead leaves fall to the floor, I’ll see a clearer image of the next version of me.
I like these moments, the ones in which you can physically feel how impossible it is to know who you’re going to be. Allowing myself to change without knowing what form I’ll take, that’s my real rush now. The one thing that’s always remained true, no matter what, is my conviction that not knowing what lies ahead, not being able to predict life, is the only real rush.
I’ve barely tried yet to find out what I’m capable of. My abilities and boundaries are a mystery to me. I feel like I’ll find them if I keep trudging toward the edge.
At 2:16pm, we arrive at Vicsani, the last stop on the Romanian side of the border with Ukraine. Our tickets end here. We need to buy new ones for the ride from Vicsani to Kyiv. You can’t buy them online and they wouldn’t sell us international tickets at the station in Onești. The problem is, we were unable to get Ukrainian money before we left Romania. Ukrainian money is called Hryvnia. There were about eleven-hundred currency exchanges within a block of our apartment in Onești, but none of them traded in Hryvnia. I guess because Ukraine is somewhat volatile right now and other countries don’t trust their government to remain stable, especially with a presidential election coming up.
We also have almost no Romanian Lei. We knew we weren’t going to be able to spend them in Ukraine, so before we left Romania, we put all but 40 of our Lei in an EU bank account we’d just opened, thinking we’d definitely be able to use our debit card to buy train tickets from Vicsani to Kyiv. If not, we’d definitely be able to exchange our US dollars for Hryvnia at the border.
By the time we reach Vicsani, we’re the only ones left on the train. Apparently, this is not a popular route between the two countries, not even for locals. As we step off the train, a conductor waves at us from the car behind ours, so we run over to him. He asks us where we’re going and when we answer Kyiv, Ukraine, he tells us to get back on board. This same train continues over the border. In really bad Romanian, I say, “We don’t have tickets and we don’t have cash to buy tickets. We only have a card.”
He waves us aboard, follows us to our seats and sits down across from us. He speaks no English, but I eventually figure out what he’s trying to tell us. We can’t buy tickets to Kyiv at this station. This train will stop again at Vama Siret, the first town on the Ukrainian side of the border, and we’ll have to buy them there. A Romanian border guard comes by, takes our passports. While he’s off sticking them with Romanian exit stamps, I try to ask the train conductor how we’re supposed to pay for our short ride across the border, from Vicsani, Romania, to Vama Siret, Ukraine.
“Do we pay you?” I ask.
My partner gets out his wallet, which contains our debit card and the 40 Romanian Lei we’d save in case we wanted to buy a coffee during a layover. Seeing this, the conductor says, “No, no…” But he doesn’t leave. He just sits there, smiling.
“We don’t have to buy tickets for the ride to Vama Siret?” I ask again.
The conductor smiles, reaches over, takes 20 of our 40 Lei and stands.
“Bine, bine…” he says, walking out the door. Everything is fine.
“I’m not sure what just happened,” I say. “But that guy just took half the cash we had on us.”
“Yeah, not long ago, that would have left us utterly screwed.”
Twenty Lei is only about $5, but on many past occasions, that was all we had.
A few weeks ago, we were traveling around Romania on trains with our friend who grew up here. He kept telling us about this scenario. Romanians call it “Going to the Godfather.” If you can’t pay for your train ticket, you just get on, and when the conductor comes around, you give him whatever you can. Doesn’t matter if it’s less than an official ticket would’ve cost because he gets to put the cash directly into his own pocket in exchange for acting like you were never there.
The border guard comes back with our passports, which now bear new stamps with little trains in the corners to indicate our mode of travel, and we start moving again.
Still unsure if we’ve just been taken advantage of, or if we just took advantage of a somewhat sleazy cultural loophole, we rattle across the Romania-Ukraine border and arrive in Vama Siret. The station is deserted. Two border guards come to our compartment, these ones speaking Russian. The man takes our passports to stick them with Ukrainian arrival stamps. The woman asks, “Do you have anything to declare?” As in customs. As in, they’re about to take away my peanuts, my oatmeal, and my soymilk.
“You mean fruit and vegetables?” I ask? “No, I don’t have any.” Which isn’t technically a lie. I don’t know how to say peanuts, soymilk, or oatmeal in Russian and, although they’re probably not allowed, they aren’t technically fruits or vegetables.
The guard glances at our backpacks and shrugs, not even pretending like she’s interested in bushwhacking through tangles of zippers, straps, and pull-ties, or digging through innumerable pockets only to discover that everything is wrapped in layers of drybags and Ziploc bags she would actually have to open to determine their contents. She tells us to wait in the station.
It’s a nice building with a tall glassy front. Inside, a huge, ornate chandelier reflects off a floor of immaculately shiny tile. It’s totally deserted. Soon, the border guard returns our passports. Now that we officially exist in Ukraine, we should be able to buy our tickets from here to Kyiv. This station looks brand new. It definitely takes debit cards. My partner approaches the window and shows the ticket agent the card. “Niet,” she says. No is one of the few Russian words we understand.
The train to Kyiv leaves in a little less than two hours. We must venture into town and find either an ATM or a currency exchange. This is a border town. It would make no sense to not be able to exchange money here.
We shoulder our packs. We’re set up for train travel, which means we both have our massive backpacks and a day pack. We don’t have time to sit around consolidating, so the big ones go on our backs and the little ones go on our fronts. Weighted down in this ridiculous way, we trudge out into Vama Siret. We walk for almost an hour and find no banks, no ATMs, no exchanges. This is just some podunk village that only exists because the border is here. I do see the one horse from which towns like this derive their names, but it’s busy pulling a wagon full of tree branches and it doesn’t speak any English. Neither does anyone else. We can’t understand a word anyone is saying. We can’t even read the words on the fronts of buildings. Unless we go inside, we don’t know the difference between a barber shop and a grocery store.
Also, the sun is setting. If we can’t find a way to get Hryvnia, we won’t be leaving this town tonight. We’ll have to trudge all over looking for a place to set up our tent before it gets pitch dark.
“And in the morning?” I ask. We’re still not going to be able to buy train tickets if we have no Hryvnia.
“Well, we can hitchhike…”
“We’ve had some pretty stupid experiences hitching in places where we couldn’t understand people.”
“What other option do we have?”
Essentially, none. No cash means no buses and no cabs either.
We head back to the train station. By the time we arrive, we’ve been walking for almost an hour and a half and I’m sweating through all three of my shirts. The hidden money belt underneath them soaks up sweat too. I’ve got 500 sweaty US dollars around my waist and they’re absolutely useless except as unnecessary insulation.
I find my mindset curious. I’m not thrilled about the prospect of going to sleep all sweaty in a tent and waking up to a day of hitchhiking that might complicate and prolong our trip in unimaginable ways, but I feel remarkably unstressed about it. This is just what we do. We haven’t had to do it in a long time, but a couple of years ago, this would have been our normal. Every once in a while, it’s good to have to remember not to take anything for granted.
At the train station, we drop our bags on the platform and loiter. We haven’t missed the train to Kyiv. It should arrive any minute.
“Usually, if you show someone that you have money and they understand that you’re stranded and willing to pay, they’ll help you work something out,” my partner says.
A train rattles in. He walks over and asks if it’s going to Kyiv. It’s the right route, but it doesn’t go all the way there. It stops in Chernivtsi, a much bigger city, where we can finally buy tickets all the way to Kyiv. But what about tickets from here to Chernivtsi? We have no way to buy them. All we can do is get on the train and hope they don’t drag us off in the middle of nowhere and cart us away to some awful Ukrainian prison. We sit with our packs on some wooden seats that look like park benches. We look out a streaked and scratched window with a wooden frame. We try to act normal. The train strains forward and works itself into a painfully slow but steady roll.
“We’re not winning any races on this train,” he says. “But this is a nice speed for looking at the scenery.”
The forest outside is gray and leafless. Snow still clings to the roots of trees. Big, brand new houses dot the cold rolling hills.
“It would be pretty easy to hide our tent out here if they kick us off,” I say. “And the longer we’re on this train before that happens, the shorter our walk to the next town will be.”
A squat, pudgy woman comes down the aisle, scanning people’s tickets with a hand-held machine. When she gets to us, my partner holds up his EU debit card and some American cash and says, in Russian that’s even worse than his Romanian, “We have problem… only cash and card…” clearly no tickets. A weird moment passes, then the woman shrugs her shoulders, rolls her eyes and says a couple of words, one of which he recognizes as “So…” and she waddles on down the aisle. Once again, we have no idea what just happened. Was she utterly unconcerned, or is she going up to the engine room to press some kind of red button? Will machine gun-toting men in camouflage meet us at the next stop?
For an hour and a half, we sit nervously in our hard seats, looking out at the slowly passing, slowly darkening countryside. All over the hills, fires burn. Some are attended, some not. Some of them burn very close to the train tracks. Logically, we figure it’s some kind of trash burning day, but given our somewhat uncomfortable situation, the flames seem sinister and foreboding to me.
When we arrive at Chernivtsi, we’re not confronted by Ukrainian men in military uniforms. As we step off the train, we give the woman who “checked our tickets” some US dollars to thank her for acting like we didn’t exist. This time, it was a Godmother. Hopefully there’s a currency exchange where she lives.
Inside this much bigger, much busier station, we approach a ticket window and again hold up our debit card. “Niet.”
Inside the station, there’s no currency exchange, no ATM. Because we’ve crossed the border, our phones no longer work, so we can’t use Google maps to find the nearest exchange. Our only option is to speed-walk through this unfamiliar city at random, in the dark, and hope we stumble across an ATM or an exchange before our train leaves. Speed-walking is not a realistic option given our double-backpack situation, and once again, there’s no time to consolidate.
“I’m just gonna go find us a hotel,” my partner says. “I can pay with the card and we’ll be able to use their wifi and figure everything out for tomorrow morning.”
“You walk really fast,” I say. “If you see an exchange or an ATM, just get money instead. We still have time to buy tickets.”
According to the schedule on the wall, the train to Kyiv departs in just over 15 minutes.
I’m eating peanuts and contemplating the cathedral-like dome ceiling of the station, when a voice wafts into my tired, fogged-up brain: “Sarah! Passport!”
The words hover for a second, then disappear. Then I realize that was my name, and someone was shouting at me in English. I look around. He’s standing at a ticket counter across the station, waving frantically. I reach into my bag, grab my passport and run over to him. He’s found an ATM, gotten Ukrainian Hryvnia and slipped back in without me noticing.
Tickets finally in hand, we hurriedly throw on all four of our packs and run out to the platform. Approaching the first car we see, we hand the tickets to the conductor and mumble something incoherent at him. He waves us aboard with about eight minutes to spare.
The train smells vaguely like a porta potty, that sickly smell of turds masked with chemicals. The entire car is sleeper rooms, each the length of a person and the width of three average-size men standing shoulder to shoulder. We clog the narrow hallway with our bodies and our packs, people pushing and squirming past us while we analyze our tickets, squinting at the incomprehensible Russian print by the light of a phone. We have no idea which of the many numbers on the tickets represent our room or bed numbers. This feels like that scene in Titanic where the people down in steerage are trying to translate signs as icy water rushes in around their feet and other passengers are barreling past with screaming children.
We finally decide which room is ours. There’s an upper and a lower bunk on either side, and barely enough space between them to squeeze in with our backpacks on. Ours are the upper bunks. They’re hard to get into without kicking someone in the face. Luckily no one else is here yet. The beds are narrow and they remind me of a jail cell I was in once. I shove my pack in a corner, unroll the thin mattressy thing, throw a lumpy pillow on one end and lie down. Who knows when these linens were last washed, who slept on them before me, whether they drooled in their sleep or had herpes… whatever. I’m just really glad that we didn’t get stuck in that godforsaken one-horse border town, glad that in Romania and Ukraine, a few bucks buys you a Godfather who keeps you from having to hitchhike across a foreign country when you can’t even have a conversation. All I have to do is lie here, comforted by the knowledge that it’s someone else’s responsibility to get us to Kyiv. For the next 12 hours, I don’t have to figure anything out. Which is awesome because not drinking water all day has given me a bad headache.
During the night our roommates show up. They’re both middle-aged men and one of them snores louder than a chainsaw all night long. With four bodies breathing in it, our tiny room is about 85 degrees. Not a whiff of moving air passes through. Grease and sweat ooze out my pores. My jeans get that uncomfortable not-quite-sticky feel. At 5am, I finally have to get up. I don’t really need to pee since I’ve drank virtually nothing, but I need to get out of that tiny room.
In the narrow corridor, threadbare gold velvet curtains hang from the dark windows. Except for the rattle of the train, all is still and silent. The whole atmosphere reminds me of The Shining. Like every train I’ve ridden so far in eastern Europe, the bathroom has no toilet paper and is covered in grime and who knows what kinds of bodily fluids. I have learned to bring my own toilet paper, and this time I even brought anti-bacterial wet wipes. I try to step lightly on the aging fiberglass floor.
We roll to a stop at the Kyiv station just before 8am. I’m tired and greasy and all I want to do is get out of the cramped, suffocating compartment. The two guys sleeping on the bottom bunks take their sweet time getting dressed and checking their phones. They know full well four people can’t fit in the space between the bunks, that we have to wait until they leave to get out of bed, put our boots and layers back on and get our packs from underneath their bunks. This does not concern them. They are in no hurry. Deciding I don’t have the patience to be nice to people who are not being nice, I swing my feet down over the side of my bed, lowering my sweaty socks down next to one guy’s face. Finally, he gets up and heads for the door.
In the train station, we get SIM cards for our phones so we can communicate with the person renting us our apartment. The first thing we see upon leaving the train station is a McDonald’s. We know it’s a McDonald’s and not a barber shop or a grocery store because the homogenizing effect of globalization has reduced the Ukrainian-English language barrier to a set of glowing golden arches that no human alive could possibly misinterpret. We go inside, order some coffee, drink it on a balcony overlooking the city of Kyiv. Jazz plays on a speaker overhead. Pigeons flap around the edges of the balcony. The tall buildings visible from here look crumbly and bleak, but the energy is high, and the people are stylish. I like this combination. It reminds me of Santiago, Chile. It kind of reminds me of myself.
“There’s something I really like about these cities,” I say. “They’re kind of like me. I was never really that cool, but I wasn’t tremendously uncool either. I had this other thing going on that wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. People had to make a lot of effort to figure out whether I was interesting or not because I wasn’t going around making a big deal out of myself. These cities, they’re really interesting and there’s a lot to do, but they’re not the kind of stylish metropolis that every hip tourist wants to go to, the ones that have like 8,000 guidebooks written about them. I think they’re a taste I’m acquiring.”
He smiles, kind of laughing at me. I like him because that made sense to him. Right now, we’re sitting at the kitchen table in our 5th floor apartment. We have a stove, a microwave, a washing machine for clothes. We have a big bed, high ceilings, wood floors and a small balcony. I can drink as much water as I want and use a gleaming clean toilet that stands on a solid floor. I can shower off the sweat, grease other weird gunk I acquired on the trains. We’re a five-minute walk from Maidan square, where a revolution happened four years ago. We’re reserving tickets for the opera tomorrow night. They’re about two dollars. Kyiv is not a place “cool” people want to come to. But here, I can do things I wouldn’t be able to do in Paris, London, or any of the other places those people like. And I can pay my way in with Ukrainian Hryvnia from one of the dozens of ATMs or currency exchanges surrounding our apartment. Or maybe I don’t need to bother with those. Maybe there are Godfathers at the opera too.