Here I am back in Odessa. It happened this way…
After sending my Russian visa application and passport to Washington, DC, I left Odessa somewhat sadly and slowly. The skateboard boys staged a going-away party the night before, a big one, a late one. I spent four days riding through flat agricultural land and sandy pine forests, camping in nice places and enjoying some smooth roads for a change. Towns and small cities were busy because of a Russian holiday, and I made pleasant noontime stops each day to check e-mail and have a beer or a snack at an outdoor cafe. The weather was very fine, sunny and hot in the daytime with cool nights.
Just after I entered Crimea I got an e-mail from my friends in Odessa informing me that my mail had bounced back. It is illegal in Ukraine to mail passports, and I got caught. That is, we got caught, because I had used Andrey’s address in the “from” section on the shipping form. I took an overnight train back to Odessa, got us off the hook without too much trouble, and found myself back where I was a week earlier, without a Russian visa. The American Embassy in Kiev was no help, suggesting that I fly to Washington with the passport myself, and hinting that they had more important issues to deal with.
After an evening of head scratching and Internet research I was still stumped. Russian visas are only issued in the passport holder’s country. Even if I sneaked my passport through the Ukrainian mail, there was no assurance that I could get it back again. And the clock was ticking: after my Western European delays, some hard pushing through Eastern Europe had put me within reach of my originally planned June 1 entry into Russia. Now I was losing days. For a while I considered skipping Russia altogether and changing the plan to Turkey (which I always wanted to visit anyway), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But I was discouraged from that after reading about the complicated visa application processes for four of those six countries.
I considered returning to Romania, where my friends Florentina and Andrei in Constanta would surely help. But as close as it is, a couple of hundred miles, the connections by rail, bus, taxi and ferry (including walking a few kilometers through Moldova, which has no rail, bus, or taxi connections in that area) are ridiculously complicated, expensive and slow.
In the morning I came up with a plan. I will travel by boat across the Black Sea to Istanbul, Turkey, where I can mail my passport and visa application to Washington, go cycling through the countryside for a couple of weeks while waiting for the visa and passport to return, then steam back to Odessa to resume my eastward path toward Russia. I’ll get to see some of Turkey, and the boat ride will be fun. It is early in the season for the cruise ships and luxury ferries, and they are expensive. But I found a cargo vessel that takes passengers in the few crew bunks that were freed up when technology reduced the number of crewmen needed on board. The ticket is cheap, no frills; I will bunk and eat with the crew. It will stop in Bulgaria for a day, so I can visit there. The whole process, including the time I have lost already in Odessa, will put me about ten days behind my June 1 target for Russia. I’m sure I can make it up on the 2500 kilometers of flat farmland between Odessa and the foothills of the Ural Mountains.
Waiting for my boat, I spent the day at the beach with Andrey and two new friends, Sergey and Volya (sorry about the spelling, boys).
The semi-crowded city beach has clean sand, clean water, small waves and busy ship traffic on the horizon. The people-watching was unforgettable. Sorry fellas, I didnt bring my camera, but here’s one Sergey took.
In the meantime, here are some random notes from my recent ride down to the Crimea.
Like the western part of Ukraine, there is a big contrast between the countryside with its peasant culture and small, underdeveloped, decaying villages, and the bigger towns and cities, where the centers are busy with modern shops and streets busy with well-dressed shoppers. Here the road surfaces are better, and the highways more often go through the cities instead of around them. I saw some huge modern factories that were freshly painted and clean-looking, with mowed lawns and cheerful signage, nothing like the dystopian industrial landscape I saw in other parts of Eastern Europe.
In addition to roadside vegetable stands I frequently saw old men or women sitting by the roadside with an upturned bucket or cardboard box with just a few eggs or scallions or apples for sale, desperate looking figures who don’t look up when I pass.
When I camp, washing up in the morning is limited to a quick face splash with a water bottle. I always stop at the first opportunity for a more thorough job, usually at a gas station. Some are disgusting, some are nice, but if there is running water, even just cold, I can wash, shave, rinse clothing, and feel good. The people are almost always nice, and I always buy something if it’s available, water or soda or peanuts.
One gas station I stopped at last week, at a crossroads far from town, was over-the-top nice. Spotless chrome, glass and tile inside and out. Four attractive women in uniform (black skirt and shoes, white shirts, perky hats like airline stewardesses used to wear) were cleaning, stocking shelves and pumping gas. The single male employee was cleaning tire marks off of white-painted curbs. The bathrooms were as you would expect in a fine restaurant, with three shining sinks and a mirrored wall. Espresso and pastries were available. At a small counter were four upholstered bar stools and three of these…
…for charging your phone, and a sign inviting you to use the free wi-fi. As I was leaving, the staff was lined up for inspection by a stern female manager in the same uniform, but with stripes on the epaulets.
I have a lot more observations I’d like to share, but it’s time to catch my boat. I expect that I’ll have plenty of time in the next few days for more blogging. Thanks for visiting!