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Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

Soccer and Sushi in Ukraine

The weekend started off with a disappointment. Although my brother and I had made the necessary reservations in advance, the Ukrainian authorities unceremoniously cancelled our planned trip to Chernobyl. The good news is, once we were over this initial letdown, the weekend could only get better.

I find that emerging economies are the most interesting places to visit, precisely because the rules of order (I would say over-order) we have become used to in the United States and Europe are nonexistant. The first sign of this unorderness for me was the “taxi” from the airport, which was a normal, unmarked car called up by the hostel to pick me up. Unmarked, and ready to drive me 30 minutes to downtown without a seatbelt.

After checking in at the hostel (Marshall is working there for the summer) it was already 11pm so we went across the street to a bar where we ordered beer, pizza and hookah, normal fare for that place. Then, before putting away the menus, I realized that there was an entire menu just for sushi. It seemed odd to me that a pizza, beer and hookah place would serve sushi, but Marshall told me that apparently, the Ukrainians are obsessed with sushi. I would soon find out that “obsessed” is an understatement. There is sushi on every menu in ever restaurant in the city.

While we were sitting outside eating pizza, we were fortunate to witness another incident. Across the street, a SUV was pulled over by a cop car. One cop got out and went to the window and started talking to the driver, a young woman in her 20’s. After a couple minutes of talking, the cop stepped away from the vehicle and looked back at the road, where he flagged down another car. The second car was not speeding–and we know, because we saw several speeders go by in the short time we were there–but it pulled over anyway and stopped a couple parking spaces in front of the first car. Meanwhile, the girl in the first car had gotten out and went to sit in the police car with the other officer. We could clearly see money changing hands from our vantage point. Then, she got out, went back to her car, and drove off. Evidently, the second car was in the process of bribing the cops as well.

Marshall tells me that cops taking bribes is about as normal as it gets in Ukraine. When he was in Odessa, he and his friend were stopped for drinking in public (in reality, for talking English in public) and had handcuffs dangled in front of them before one of the cops took him into an alley to negotiate a bribe of about $30. Such is how justice works in Ukraine.

On Saturday, we walked around the city, covering a good third of the city center. It’s a decently large city, with normal city things (shops, parks, the Dnieper, and churches, lots of churches). The day was largely uneventful, although we did visit the deepest metro station in the world, which took two escalators over at least seven minutes to get to the bottom of, and we met some heavily accented eastern Europeans who said they lived in Hartford, Connecticut.

For lunch, we got traditional Ukrainian food–sushi at Yellow Sea, a restaurant decked out like the Japan stall at Disney World. The exclusively white staff wore ninja headbands and kimonos. The walls were ornamented with Chinese characters. There was, of course, the obligatory water-wall. The waiter poured tea from a 15-inch spout. And when the sushi came, it was on a wooden boat in classic junk style. Surprisingly, the sushi was delicious, and to my delight, the yellow tail was actually fresh. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

We got back to the hostel late afternoon and we took a siesta. I powered through the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapágos, which was alright, and napped for a bit. Then we met up with a bunch of other hostel goers. There was a girl from California who was teaching English in Kiev. A Polish stoner from Krakow. The hsotel owner, whose name escapes me. An Irish guy and an English guy who just met while travelling over their love of football. And there was Kevin, a Northwestern student we had met the night before and with whom we had shared pizza, hookah and beer.

We started the evening by trying to get a “Taxi,” which I soon found out involved flagging down cars on the street and asking to pay for a ride somewhere. Apparently hitchhiking is not only common in Kiev, it’s the only way to get around reliably. We found that all “Taxis” were such glorified hitches. Our car was driven by an African immigrant who agreed to drive us to our destination for $4. On the way, he had Lady Gaga pumping through the sound system on repeat.

That destination was a bar, “Room 6,” which was in the basement of an old hospital or sanitarium. The bar is unmarked but evidentally enough know its reputation. We had steaks which went for $5 a pop–excellent meat–and had a beer while watching the pregame. (One of the reasons Marshall is there–and why I wanted to visit–was because the EuroCup is happening right now in Ukraine.) The bar is staffed by “nurses” and “doctor” bartenders. One of the specialty shots they do is called the “Straightjacket,” where they put you in a straightjacket and lie you in the lap of a large-breasted nurse who spoons you a drink.

Marshall tells Kevin and me that we will be spared the “Straightjacket,” but we have to do a “Flaming Head” shot instead. They take us to the bar and seat us, and strap a World War II helmet on our heads. They then dab lighter fluid on each helmet, light it on fire, and start blowing whistles. They take three shots–red, white and blue–and successively bang them on our heads to activate the latent carbon, then blow whistles as we shoot them. While one is going down empty, the next is being banged on our flaming heads. Then, when all three are empty, they take a beer keg and bang that on our heads, too. Then they extinguish the flames and the whole bar erupts in applause. The whole ordeal lasted maybe two minutes, but it was memorable…and somewhere, I’m sure, there’s a video. We then went to another bar to watch the game, but it was pretty empty, so we went to the FanZone instead.

There were no games held in Kiev this weekend, but the “FanZone” attempts to give you the game experience. It is in the center of town decked out with jumbotrons, and thousands of spectators gather in drunken tidal pools to cheer on the matches. Ukraine had long since been eliminated. Tonight was Spain vs. France, and it was a boring, boring game. About two hours later, Spain had won 2-0 and the night was still young. Much jubilation and reverie ensued–indeed, the Ukranians are well suited for their drunken reputation. I have never been so impressed by the amount of alcohol that can be dispensed of by a population. I think I ended up getting back to the hostel at 4am, although my phone and only timekeeper had long since died. Some point in the evening, we went to a run-of-the-mill coffee shop and had sushi. The Ukrainians really like their sushi.

In all, it was a perfectly fine experience exploring a new city like Kiev. We could have gone to Chernobyl, which would have been amazing, but I guess it just leaves something for me to do when I go back. I also know now that if I want good sushi, Kiev’s only a short distance away.

June 25, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Updates from Africa 11

Updates from Africa 11

So New Year’s was a blast.  We had a slow evening.  We went to the shopping mall and bought smoked game, potatoes, vegetables and spices, went back to the room and cooked a New Year’s feast for dinner.  We had a kitchen area in our room which we used–and abused.  When we were done there was a pileup of dirty dishes and leftover food that would make a garbage man weep.  We didn’t feel like cleaning that night, or the day after, so our room began to faintly smell like day-old potatoes and rotten cabbage.  The food was delicious though.

We got a ride to the Beach Bar around 9.  The Beach Bar is a year-round operation but their biggest party is New Year’s to which the entire population of Swakopmund swarms for a night of champagne, dancing, and bonfire.  I have mentioned that while we were travelling from Livingstone we had met several people along the way, including The Girls, The Second Girls (another pair with whom we took the shuttle to Walvis Bay a week ago), Aaron from Vancouver and Scott, Lindsay, Quentin and Desmond, the latter of which had to go back to Canada early because he’s a seventh grade teacher.  We never expected to find anyone we knew at this party, which covered 500 meters of beach, a picnic table area, the wraparound bar which could accomodate 200 patrons at once, and the dance floor where American techno and pop music boomed base tones relentlessly into a sweating, thumping, fleshy orgy of post-colonial white African hip hop culture.  As it turns out, we ran into the Second Girls twice, found Scott and Lindsay on the dance floor before Scott went off with Quentin to be his wingman, and most importantly we ran into Ginelle, who had served us at the Swakopmund Cafe the day before.  We found out from her that she only received $18 of the $60 tip we left her, which was probably part of the reason she had quit that day.  Ginelle is only 17 and applying to Universities this month, but it was interesting hearing, once again, the same talking points we heard in South Africa about the blacks and why they were bad and why the whites couldn’t get jobs, etc, etc. This time, though, I had to reconcile what we had learned from Herman about how much better Namibia is than South Africa with what Ginelle was saying, and ultimately I determined that the key difference between the white Namibian and the white South African is political; in Namibia, whites are not bothered being represented by an all-black government because they don’t see the political system as a racially divisible one.  Ginelle also enlightened us on a new race, the Coloreds, which are apparently non-whites who “Are basically white,” so they are distinct from blacks.  She listed a bunch of types of Coloreds, including Indians, who apparently “Act white” as well.  The whole thing is very confusing for me and I don’t know how I’ll be able to cope with this racial logic which saw its last major incarnation in American culture forty years ago.  This is apparently the post-colonial mind; especially from the side of the ex-colonizers. Although I don’t think it’s appropriate to label whites who live in Africa as ex-colonizers, because they’re just people and families living where opportunity took them.  I don’t think it’s fair to blame whites in Africa for the poverty gap, just like it’s not fair for whites to lash out at blacks for their recent post-apartheid misfortune.  I do feel for people like Ginelle who feels a real threat to her opportunity due to Affirmative Action and other policies enacted to combat the racial poverty gap.  Maybe all is needed is time for old wounds to heal, and it seems to me that Namibia is allowing the healing process to happen a lot easier than in South Africa.  As Ginelle called over a dark-skinned friend of hers from high school, to kiss her on the cheek and wish her a happy new year, I could only wonder what the charge of her generation will be if Namibia, and other ex-colonies in Africa, is to rise out of the economic and political consequences of colonialism.  I guess that’s what this study abroad program is going to be all about.

There was no countdown for the new year; instead, people checked their own cell phones and improvised one.  When the organizers of the party thought it was time (by our calculation they were a minute early), they lit a massive bonfire which had been prepared out of fruit cartons, tree branches and forklift pallets.  It was 2009.  We toasted our champagne with some new friends we met from Walvis Bay and brought in the new year, feeling the intense heat of the fire on our faces and looking at the bright orange flare, beyond which was a black ocean where the last remnants of 2008 were rotating slowly towards midnight.

We got back around 3 in the morning.  The next day, we slept in until 10, stayed in the room until 5 and went out at 8.  It was a completely unproductive day, but a needed rest.  Besides, everything was closed! We went to dinner at the Western Saloon, which served up a delicious line fish for our last meal in Swakopmund.  Ioana went to bed and Codrin and I played blackjack at the casino for a couple hours, finally turning in at 2.  In the morning, Michael picked us up at the guesthouse and we drove 5 hours back to Windhoek.  We bought two large suitcases in town, to carry our souvenirs.  We already have a new suitcase we bought a couple weeks ago.  We have so many masks we could start a store.

We’re excited for our return to Johannesburg and our reunion with Sara, her husband and Antonio.  We should be in Cape Town the night of the 4th.  Incidently, the mayor of Cape Town won the 2008 World Mayor award.  Cool, huh?

Happy new year, all, welcome to 2009!

January 2, 2009Comments are DisabledRead More