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2013-02-07 | |
Welcome to Dnepropetrovsk
by Bobby Fox
When I finally disembarked off the third plane on my journey to Ukraine, I was greeted by a foreboding single, small, grey, Soviet-era terminal.
Inside, the stuffy, dingy building, I followed the herd to the passport control room. It was here where I had my first lesson in Ukrainian queues – or shall I say, lack thereof. The concept of forming a line is pretty much reduced to a survival of the fittest free-for-all. Perhaps years of Soviet control is to blame for this. I was later told that I wouldn’t survive in Ukraine if I had to live there, where the weak are truly eaten. This is both a compliment and an insult.
After I allowed several people to push their way past me, frustration set in and I started standing my ground by inching a step closer toward the customs booth. As I waited, two Ukrainian men in front of me argued with an official in Russian before being rather forcefully arrested.
With my turn quickly approaching, anxiety crept in. The grim-faced officials with their Soviet-looking, olive-colored uniforms didn’t help matters. As threatening as their stern demeanor appeared, I would soon discover that this expression status quo for all Ukrainians when out in public. In private, it’s a different story all together – warm and hospitable would best describe it.
Before I knew it, my time had come. It was time to meet my maker. As I approached the booth, I nervously dropped my passport, clumsily picked it up off the dirty, grey floor before handing it to the official, who hovered over me like a judge holding court. He proceeded to stare at it for what felt like at least a full minute, flipping through the pages, feeling the pages, as though inspecting it for authenticity and periodically looking at me with complete and utter suspicion.
This is how people disappear, never to be heard from again, I thought to myself. My thoughts continued: Hold your composure. You have nothing to hide. Neither did many of those jailed under Stalin.
As he continued thumbing through my passport, I suddenly grew paranoid that he was somehow reading my thoughts, therefore making me feel like I was doing something wrong, which in turn, would give him reason to think I actually was. I was certain that I was about to become victim of the thought police.
He looked at me again. Yep, he’s on to me, I thought.
And that’s when he called over another official. They’re closing in on me! Just like that other guy who was arrested.
The second official flipped through my passport, just as his cohort had, then stared at me, likely confirming the suspicions already placed upon me as he nodded to his comrade.
And then, in Russian: “What is your purpose visiting Ukraine?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Russian,” I said.
He repeated himself, in very broken English.
“I’m visiting a friend.”
“What is your friend’s name.”
I gave them her name.
Both officials proceeded to stare at me, as though trying to burn a hole through me, as sweat began to drip down my forehead.
One of them muttered something in either Russian or English. I couldn’t understand.
Dumbfounded, I asked him to please repeat himself. So he did. And I still didn’t understand, nor did I the third time, either.
Frustrated, he finally, however so reluctantly, stamped my passport, handing it back to me in a manner that suggested disappointment for not being able to place me under arrest, before adding:
“Welcome to Ukraine.”
And with that, I was on my way to the next obstacle on the obstacle course known as Ukraine: Luggage claim. How difficult could that be? I approached the squeaky luggage carousel, which was distinguished by a truly unique feature. Unlike any other carousel I ever encountered, which basically allows luggage to continue to go round and round until claimed, this particular carousel didn’t provide this convenient luxury. In fact, carousel would not be the proper term to describe it. It was simply a conveyor belt that rudely dumped your luggage at the end of the line, forming a heaping pile of luggage on the floor, which in turn caused a feeding frenzy of passengers swarming the pile like vultures on a carcass, searching for their belongings.
Despite my growing impatience, I decided to avoid the feeding frenzy and wait for the crowd to thin out a bit. As I was waiting, I noticed something rather peculiar about the luggage itself. Almost every suitcase was wrapped tightly with cellophane and packaging tape, covering every square inch. It didn’t take me long to realize why. Most of the bags that had not been wrapped like mummies were opened – or at least partially opened – with personal belongings hanging out. So naturally, I assumed this would be the condition I found my luggage in.
As luggage and miscellaneous personal items that had fallen out of it continued to cascade into the stockpile below, I began to panic. Where is mine? I took comfort in the fact that new luggage continued to come through the portal, but it was clearly winding down. And then it came to a stop. I figured, hoped, prayed that it was somewhere in the five-foot pile that had formed at the end of the line. Meanwhile, two people began to fight over the same suitcase, before realizing who its rightful owner was (as it turned out, it didn’t belong to either of them). As the pile grew smaller, so did the crowd swarming around it. And then, there were none. And my luggage was nowhere to be seen.
Desperate, I poked my head through the portal. Nothing. I had no choice but to seek help. I scanned the room and noticed what I assumed to be an information booth. Just as I turned to leave, I heard the conveyor belt hum and buzz, struggling to ramp up before finally starting again. I stared at the portal. Nothing. Waiting, waiting. And lo and behold, there it was. My suitcase! Fully zipped. I grabbed it and headed to the next stop of utter chaos: luggage inspection.
After my suitcase passed through the X-ray machine, I was ordered to open my suitcase. Once again, I was overcome with that irrational paranoia airports create when you begin thinking that maybe you are doing something illegal. As the inspector proceeded to remove every item from my suitcase, I was reminded of how painfully difficult it was to fit everything in there to begin with. And now, I was being granted the opportunity to do it again. While digging through my toiletries bag, the inspector pulled out my prescription allergy medication and held it up to me as though he just found a brick of cocaine.
“What’s it?,” the inspector said in an accusatory, broken-English tone.
The inspector was clearly confused.
“Allergies. All-er-gies,” I said, still not getting my message across.
The inspector began growing frustrated with our inability to communicate. This wasn’t good. He opened the bottle, sniffing the contents before dumping a couple if pills into his hand to examine them.
I decided to try a different tactic, mimicking several sneezes, and pretending to blow my nose.
The inspector nodded in understanding and dumped the pills back into the bottle. It worked! Twenty minutes later, everything was jammed back into my suitcase, but zipping it shut was another matter all together. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to close. I re-arranged some of the items, but this did little to help, but fortunately another inspector came to my aid by sitting on my suitcase.
Once my inspection was over, I passed through the opaque sliding glass doors leading to the lobby, where I was greeted by a mob of people awaiting their loved ones, holding enormous bouquets of flowers. And just as Ukrainians don’t like waiting in line, nor do they like moving out of the way of somebody trying to get through. And as if that wasn’t enough, hustling taxi drivers – eager for business – tugged and grabbed at both me and my luggage in a desperate attempt to take me to destinations unknown. I had no choice but to plow my way through them. Somehow, I survived.
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