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. Here where I had my first lesson in Ukrainian queues—or shall I say lack thereof. 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, 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 was 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.
As I approached the booth, I nervously dropped my passport, clumsily picked it up off the dirty, grey floor and handed it to the official, who hovered over me like a judge holding court. He flipped through the pages, feeling them for authenticity and periodically looking at me with utter suspicion.
This is how people disappear, never to be heard from again, I thought. Hold your composure. You have nothing to hide. And yet neither did many of those jailed under Stalin.
As the official 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 that, in turn, would give him reason to think I actually was.
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 those other guys who were 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.
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 broken English.
“I’m visiting a friend.”
“What is your friend’s name.”
I gave them her name.
They stared at me, as though trying to burn a hole through me, and sweat began to drip down my forehead.
One of them muttered something in either Russian or English. I couldn’t understand.
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 reluctantly, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me in a manner that suggested disappointment for not being able to place me under arrest. He added: “Welcome to Ukraine.”
And with that I was on my way to the next obstacle: baggage 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’d ever encountered, which allows luggage to continue to go round and round until claimed, this particular carousel didn’t provide such convenient luxury. In fact, carousel would not be the proper term to describe it. It was simply a conveyor belt that dumped your luggage at the end of the line, forming a heaping pile of luggage on the floor. This caused passengers to swarm the pile like vultures on a carcass, searching for their belongings.
Despite my impatience, I decided to avoid the frenzy and wait for the crowd to thin. As I waited, 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 that 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. I took some 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 hoped and prayed that my luggage 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 suddenly there were no bags or suitcases left; my luggage was nowhere to be seen.
I poked my head through the portal. Nothing. 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. I waited and waited. Lo and behold, there it was. My suitcase! Fully zipped. I grabbed it and headed to the next chaotic stop: luggage inspection.
After my suitcase passed through the X-ray machine, I was ordered to open it. 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. While digging through my toiletries bag, the inspector pulled out my prescription allergy medication and held it up to me as though he’d just found a brick of cocaine.
“What’s it?” the inspector said.
The inspector was clearly confused.
“All-er-gies,” I said, but could not get my message across.
The inspector became frustrated with our inability to communicate. This wasn’t good. He opened the bottle, sniffing the contents before dumping a couple of pills into his hand.
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. 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. Fortunately another inspector came to my aid and sat on my suitcase.
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, they do not like moving out of the way for somebody trying to get through. If that weren’t enough, hustling taxi drivers, eager for business, tugged and grabbed at me and my luggage in an attempt to take me to destinations unknown. I had no choice but to plow my way through. Somehow, I survived.
Bobby Fox's works have been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, Lap Top Lit Mag, The Path, The India Contemporary Review, Yareah Magazine, One Title Magazine, The Knotted Beard Review, The Lyceum, Detroit News, Dearborn Times-Herald, TravelMag and InTravel Magazine. This piece is an excerpt from a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka about his travels in Ukraine.