At Kiev-Boryspil Airport, the taxi drivers are full of shit and their shifty grins let you know it before they offer you a price or a ride. When they give me a price in Euros, they actually chuckle along with me when I laugh in their faces at their quoted price, as if to say “I knew you wouldn’t fall for that, but I had to try anyway.” Boryspil is much closer to the airport than Kiev, but naturally the drivers attempt to charge 20 Euros, the same exorbitant cost to get to the city, for the much shorter ride. No one bothers me after that, and they actually continue smiling at me as if I am somehow complicit in their scheme. I only have US Dollars on me, so I buy some Ukrainian Hryvnia at the currency exchange before searching for the bus that will take me to the small airport town of Boryspil. I wait nearly an hour for the bus, but when it arrives there is no one there to sell me a ticket. Therefore I get a free ride, wedged uncomfortably between bagless airport workers. It is clear to them I am a tourist; it is unclear to them why I am going to Boryspil.
Northwest Boryspil is likely similar to the image you have in your head of Ukraine. Parts of the city are urban, and others practically rural as the eighth-acre Soviet-era dacha plots have been reclaimed by nature. While small flower shops, grocery stores, and banks line the main street, an eerie lack of activity emanates through the town on a sunny weekday in early July. As I stroll off the main street, shops become rarer and rarer, until each block becomes an odd assortment of abandoned cottages, vacant lots, and semi-vacant apartments with brawny babushkas selling beer in ground-floor bodegas. By the last block, where my hostel is supposed to be, there is nothing but a single low rise and abandoned cottages. My hostel seems to be located in the apartment building, but no signs point to it and Booking.com provides little more information.
Finally, a young woman comes out with her child and directs me to the nondescript gray door which she believes to be my hostel. Sure enough, the door opens and a long hallway leads me to a couple of dorm rooms, a kitchen, and two separate bathrooms. The only thing missing is the owner; I have the place to myself for several hours before she finally returns, taken aback that I broke into her house and hostel. She gives me a price a dollar over the quoted Booking.com price, but I give it to her because I figure that my chipping in an extra buck might help her, some day, to be able to afford a lock on her front door. Besides, the extra dollar only makes it an 8-dollar hostel, and it figures that I finally “get what I pay for” after relative success in booking mostly agreeable cheap hostels in Europe.
Dinner consists of borscht and a small skillet of meat and potatoes. Boryspil’s version of Central Park is enchanting, and children play and families stroll as I sip cider ordered from the Ukrainian-only menu. The word “post-Soviet” doesn’t even deserve to be uttered here, and this is not the Ukraine I saw near my hostel. Excitement permeates the air like in the entrance to an amusement park, and garden-side cafes abound with young Ukrainians sipping coffee in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses. Full of beets and meat, I waddle back to the hostel and collapse in the un-air-conditioned bunk-room until I finally get to sleep.
I had told the hostel owner I would get up at 6, but I awake at around 5 and my intercontinental flight-anxiety makes it hard to fall back asleep, so I start packing and try to leave the hostel. When I realize the door is completely locked from the inside—and I am trapped in the building—I go to knock on the door to the owner’s room. She is snoring like a tractor on the other side, and when I rap the wooden door she awakes immediately and groggily escorts me outside.
The morning stretches out ahead of me like the morning of an important exam or school presentation. What will home be like? Has it changed at all since I left? Is this the right move, going back for two weeks, or will I realize what I am missing and not want to leave again? These fears roll through my mind for the next few hours as I walk the few miles to the airport. Buses of commuters to the airport pass by but I stroll onward, taking in this tiny town I will never see again.
Just before the sidewalks turn to dirt, I come across a “memorial complex” of monuments to the dead of WWII and the Chernobyl disaster. They say you can tell a lot about a culture by how they bury their dead. I believe you can tell much more by how they resurrect, how they memorialize, those lives lost in human-caused catastrophe. Death and life are inextricably linked. In a nation that saw years of violence and abuse under Soviet rule, and incredible destruction as a result of what we know as the Chernobyl disaster, death is didactic. There are several signs and stanchions explaining what radiation is and how those memorialized died, which many people in the west may find disturbing. Imagine walking through a cemetery, and each grave had a plaque saying how and why the resident passed on. It may be strange, but we, as a race, have always learned from death, and used our failures to propel us forward. I leave the park, passing a family stopping by to pay their respects and play in the grass. The park is not only there to teach survival, but to celebrate life and all we can do with it, and to implore those entering to treat it as sacred.
Gravel and grass appear on the roadside as the exit for the airport veers away from the main avenue. No one walks ahead or behind me, and I begin humming Vanessa Carlton’s seminal musical work “500 Miles” until I come to the airport. On the plane home, I sit between a Libyan-American man returning to his home in Ohio after visiting family in mercurially violent Tripoli, and a Hasidic Jewish man who asks if I, too, am a Jew when he and his colleagues start to pray before landing. All flights lead to Kiev, it seems, and Ukrainian International Airlines has a broad customer base. I try to write but instead jab the back of the seat for hours playing Tetris and watching films I wouldn’t watch normally. An idle mind is a horrible thing on a plane. What was life like when our entire lives were on airplane mode? It is the Fourth of July and when my parents pick me up at the airport, we get some tacos and I settle down for a couple weeks of life at home.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.