14 - Hitting the Open Road

Elena and Meg at a truck stop outside Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-1] Elena and Meg outside Kyiv: a truck-stop, once decorated to resemble a Swiss mountain chalet.

A couple hours south of Kyiv, Andre pulled into a grotty truckstop, yanked the keys from the ignition and jumped from the car like it was on fire. Apparently, he explained over his shoulder, he urgently needed to: "Telephone to wife," and his, "Mobile-nik not work-ink outside Kyiv."

Puzzled, I eventually followed him into a rundown roadhouse -- done up in USSR fake tacky to resemble a mountain chalet -- hoping desperately they had something coffee-like inside. Oh my dog, just let it have caffeine! A bank of payphones by the door were vacant: no sign Andre. Aye, he was probably taking a leak. Then I saw the toilet doors, planked and nailed shut. Not working, spray bombed across them.

Bloody great, the toilets weren't just outdoors. They were the outdoors. Squatting between piles of rusty metal, trying not to pee on my boots, a scrapyard dog sniffed at my privates. That's when I spotted Andre engaged in a rather animated conversation on his mobile-nik that didn't work outside Kyiv. The increasingly curious canine put paid to any eavesdropping I might have done. "Good dog. Pretty dog. Go away little doggy." I cooed in my best Russo-Ukrainian puppy-speak.

Truck-stop toilet outside Kyiv photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-2] With the toilets boarded up, it was every man, woman and dog for themselves in the great outdoors.

Eventually, Andre swaggered back to the car. "Oye, I forgot! it's a long trip. I need snacks and Pepsi." He stuck out his palm.

I looked at it. "What?"

"Money. I'm not driving all the way there on an empty stomach."

I rolled my eyes, pulled some Ukrainian cash from my wallet.

"Dollars! Give to me, dollars." He snatched a US twenty. Turned, "You want something?"

"Can't afford it. Bring the change and let's get going."

highway from Kyiv to Odessa photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-3] The highway from Kyiv to Odessa -- So hard... to... stay... awake... zzzzz.

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On the road again, Andre chain-chugged can after can of ultra-caffeinated, energy drink. Elena slept blissfully in the back seat, and I stared at the Ukrainian steppe going by; an endless, undulating prairie of snow and stubble. Occasional clumps of brush, rusting machinery and lonely, decaying buildings broke the monotony, but still... it was so hard... to keep... my... eyes... open.

"Aaargh!" I awoke to a nightmare of swerving, honking and revving engines. Andre was in the heat of a caffeine-fuelled, highway duel with a delivery van. I didn't know a cargo van could actually go one-hundred and eighty km/h! "Break it off! Or your three-hundred goes out the window!"

He slowed. My threat worked. Or it could have been the police roadblock over a rise. We were signalled over. The van was waved through, of course.

I groaned -- nah, that's not right. I probably cursed, like a teenager caught blootered with Chanel No. 5 on her breath -- and peeled a couple of twenties from the wad in my pocket.

I slipped them to Andre.

"You've done this before." He sneered and got out to intercept the officer on his way over.

In front of the car, they blathered away like old muckers. I scanned the ditch, the frozen fields, and ran the odds of Andre shopping us for a bigger prize than my three-hundred.

Highway, police roadblock photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-4] Meg snapped this shot, terrified their driver would sell them out at the roadblock.

By late afternoon, the motorway widened into six or more lanes slicing through a valley of unhealthy moorland, abandoned factories and fields of tangled metal. Ah, Odesa!

Closer in, Soviet suburbia assimilated the outlying, industrial wasteland, and Andre shattered my highway-head hypnosis by suddenly bellowing, "End of our long road, girlfriends! We must celebrate by dining and drinking together."

"Right." The truth of the matter was, I didn't know where in hell we were going, or what we'd do when we got there. Andre was getting more than a little creepy. I hadn't slept in two days, and we had nowhere to stay. Dining wasn't first and foremost on my list of priorities; especially knowing bloody well it would be my treat.

I fought my seat belt, and rigor mortis-like stiffness to peer into the back seat. Elena was sprawled out, blissfully comatose, drooling on my Roots Canada rucksack. How I hated to do it, but I needed her tact and Russian language skills. "Lenna?"

Nothing.

"Hon, we're just about there." I shook her knee.

"Grrrr" She tried to roll over.

Andre sensed life and emergent sentience in the back seat. He shoved his face into the rear-view mirror and projected, "Where are you girls staying in Odesa?" He nearly rear-ended a lorry doing it, but covered nicely by leaning on the horn, flashing the high beams and declaring the driver a reproductively challenged eejit.

"Where are we? Meg! What is going on?"

Andre answered. "We are in Odesa. Where are you staying?"

"I don't know." Elena said, pulling herself up on a Jesus handle.

"You twits don't know?! Bladt, I have to take you somewhere!"

The Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-5] The Potemkin Stairs on Odessa's downtown waterfront.

"In town is fine. Near the Potemkin Stairs." I thought fast. "Anywhere on Primorsky Boulevard would be fine." I knew The Stairs. It's a famous Ukrainian landmark. It would be the right place to ditch Andre and crash in a posh hotel.

"Problema!" Then, he went on in English, sort of. "Not know-ink where is."

"Primorsky Boulevard?"

"No, centre of town."

"Bloody bollocks on a stick!" I saw direction signs to the train station, pointed them out. But still, it took a random drive and stopping to insult someone on the street for directions, just to find the train station. Elena and I were done. "Hey, that was way too fun, mate. We have so, totally, not got to do that again. Ever." I pulled his three-hundred from my pocket and slapped it on the dash.

"But girlfriends, we agreed to dine, to celebrate. I must eat before my long drive back to Kyiv. We have become such good friends." You know, he might have invoked a tear or two before unleashing his ultimate weapon: puppy-dog eyes.

Odessa train station photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-6] Odessa's train station, seen from the platforms and undergoing a major face-lift at the time Meg took this shot.

I swallowed the lump in my throat, shoved the fist-full of twenties back in my pocket and suggested the food floor at the Athena mall.

Andre insisted on the smoking section.

"But, we don't smoke."

"It makes no difference. There is nobody here." He whapped down his tray. "Natalia, Alexis, sit."

Oh yeah, our fake names. I wondered how many times we slipped up, but so what? This was dosvedanya, sayonara, so-long babe. A safe and speedy trip back to Kyiv and out of our lives.

Andre shoved his chair back. "Bladt, I need a smoke and some fresh air." Was the guy nuts!? We'd barely sorted out the condiments, napkins and plastic cutlery, and he was already pole vaulting from the table.

Elena dug an elbow into my ribs.

"Ouch, what?"

She pointed at the pack of fags lying beside Andre's abandoned food tray.

He was back a few minutes later, staring at the mobile-nik. The one he claimed, only worked in Kyiv. "We need to find a place to stay tonight." He said between hurried mouthfuls. "And, I think you are going a lot further than Odesa. Out of the country, probably."

"What do you mean, 'We need to find a place?'" The rest, I ignored.

He stabbed at a Tater Tot -- one of those delicious, salty-greasy, deep-fried, processed potato and saturated fat nodules. "Do not worry about it. I know an excellent, cheap hotel near here. It will not cost many of your precious dollars."

Crumbling 19th century buildings in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-7] Something like Andre's, excellent, cheap hotel in downtown Odessa.

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Dinner was done. The moulded, plastic seating had well and truly exceeded my arse-max tolerance. I was dead tired, and Elena had that same freaky stare students got when they fell asleep with their eyes open during my lectures. Andre was nursing his third or fourth diet Coke, chain-smoking, and deflecting can-we-go-now moans with, "Just a few more minutes."

In a far off corner, a floor polisher whirred, hails and commands were barked in an unfamiliar language. Chairs were being stacked on tables. Lights switched off in empty sections. The stainless-steel food tubs in the labyrinthine buffet were disappearing. We had to be the only non-employees left in the place. Until, that is, a wiry, older man in a leather cape and tall riding boots clomped down the motionless escalator. He cast his gaze around the deserted eating area, like he was looking for someone he knew in the crowd, or maybe, an empty seat. Then he threw back his cape, strutted through the imaginary throngs and took a seat mere inches from us.

"Anybody know this bloke?" I asked.

Elena was silent. Andre fiddled with his lighter. Maybe I was hallucinating. Blimey, I needed sleep. I shook my head, took a deep breath to fight off the waking dream.

It didn't work. The sod was still there, blatantly eavesdropping. He scribbled away in a notebook, gazing intently at us while we spoke; which we didn't do much of. Andre was asking questions I wasn't going to answer. I really hoped Elena wouldn't either. Like, where to next? How long in Odesa? Does the American embassy know you left Kyiv?

I glowered over my shoulder.

The eavesdropper sneered at me.

I shot to my feet and shoved my face into his notebook. What the hell!? It was full of numbers, formulae, coordinates. Even little sketches that looked like coastlines. There was text, neatly printed. It wasn't in Cyrillic, wasn't in English or French. Familiar though -- mein gott, it was German! Under the notebook was a neatly folded, maritime map: the port of Odesa. Weird!

Odessa Ukraine passenger sea-port photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-8] Odessa's passenger sea-terminal, a gleaming new hotel and ultra-swank casino are seen in this shot from Primorsky Boulevard.

"I'm Captain Alexander Laddin: ship's captain at your service." The caped interloper introduced himself in startlingly, well-spoken English.

Well, well, well! Serendipity certainly seemed to be on our side. I shot Andre a sideways glance.

He turned to me. "Money, give to me! This man, he can to help. We buy more, how you call these?" He picked up a greasy, cardboard container and waved it at me.

"Tater Tots." I reminded him.

"Yes, tea-tear-tawts! Need some more Tater Tots, then we talk." Off they went, sounding out Tater Tots over and over. How I wish we'd just left the three-hundred on the table, abandoned the baggage and scarpered.

Where they got the Tater Tots is beyond me, but they had a small pile of them when they returned. Captain Laddin, looking disturbingly SS in those tall boots and cape, had forsaken English for comically pompous Russian. He informed us -- sounding like a megalomaniacal windbag reciting late, nineteenth-century poetry -- that our business partner told him of our need for discreet, safe passage out of Ukraine. Then the good Captain wrapped up his monologue by deigning to meet with us the next day.

Freighters at dock in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-9] Freighters loading in Odessa's picturesque port.

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The excellent, affordable hotel that Andre took us too, was either condemned or should have been. I stood in the sagging lobby, looking at holes in the walls, ripped carpets, dripping ceilings and dangling wires. Andre bellowed down a barely illuminated corridor.

Nothing answered back, but I caught movement at the limit of my vision. Mutant rats, maybe. "Right, this place isn't open. We better try something else. Come on, let's go." The carpet squished. I was afraid to look down.

He insisted on carrying my rucksack with our money and documents. Basically, he called the shots. "You know nothing about Odesa!"

"I know we're not staying here!" I reached for my sack. "I'll give you the three-hundred and an extra fifty. You can stay here, and Len-- ah, Alexis and I will be on our way."

He yanked my rucksack out of reach. "I brought you to a modest place to save your precious dollars. I can even sleep in a chair or on the floor in your room. How can you treat me like this?"

"Fine, I will give you an extra hundred dollars. Stay where you want or not. I don't care!" My creep-O-matic detector was off the scale by then. I just wanted to be rid of the berk, into a hot bath, between clean sheets and safely off to dreamland. "We'll find our way from here."

"You can't."

"What do you mean, we can't?"

19th century corridor in ruin photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-10] Slightly less than five stars.

"It is after ten. There are no taxis, no buses. The streets are unsafe. This isn't Kyiv. You are not in the capital, tourist-girls. There are gangs. There are criminals. You are not safe without me."

"I agree, this area-- hell, this, this--" I struggled with my limited Russian for a word they called places that rented rooms by the hour. "-- this pigsty is dangerous. Len-- err, Alexis and I are going to stay in a hotel on Primorsky Boulevard."

"You are crazy! Only Mafia and hookers stay on Primorsky, but if that is what you want, you are the boss, Miss American Natalia."

We peeled out of our parking spot, narrowly missing a trolley car. Within minutes, we were cruising Primorsky Boulevard, Odesa's miniature version of Kensington High Street. I scanned invitingly floodlit awnings, foyers, and entrances with doormen; no gun-toting mafioso in sight, but there were tourists.

"Pull over. Let's see if they have vacancy." I pointed at the last hotel on the street.

Primorsky boulevard and promenade photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-11] Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa's version of Park Avenue and its promenade by day. The Hotel Londonskaya, where Elena and Meg took refuge, is to the left.

Andre slammed on the brakes, getting a satisfying shriek from the tyres.

"Classy driving."

"It shows we mean business." Andre beamed.

"It shows we're arseholes. I'll see if they have room." I popped my door, hoping Elena would make a break for it. She didn't: absolute deer-in-the-headlights.

"The girlfriend stays with me!" He snarled. "I have your bags and your money. Do not forget."

An elderly doorman dressed vaguely as a Beefeater started toward the car. I jumped out to intercept. "If you have security, please call them." I chanced his knowing English.

He changed direction, beating me to the leaded crystal doors. "Welcome to the Londonskaya." His English was impeccable.

Meg and Elena in Londonskaya Hotel dining room photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-12] Meg and Elena in the Londonskaya's deserted dining room.

A couple of well-dressed, brawny, young men strode into the lobby. The doorman briefed them and told me to wait inside. I watched the three of them head out to the car. Moments later, Elena came through the front door. Looking dazed, she put her arms around me, her head on my shoulder and relaxed with a long shuddering breath.

The doorman couriered payment to Andre, and then, made sure he was safely on his way to Kyiv and out of our lives.

Checking in at the front desk, I heard tyres squealing, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Elena and Meg in front of the Londonskaya Hotel in Odessa Ukraine photo elenameg.com

[Image 14-13] A paparazzi's shot of Elena and Meg leaving the Londonskaya hotel.

[[ updated Apr 23, 18:51 ]]