Odessa: Hammerman Destroys Viruses

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That’s what they call me

After a week of ups and downs, the time has come for us to turn our backs on Odessa, and to head back north to Kiev, Ukraine’s industrious capital city. It would take the obliviousness of a legitimately insane person to suggest that Odessa isn’t by far the ‘nicer’ city of the two we’ve been to, in all its neo-classical glory. Compared to Dnipropetrovsk, it’s more lively, cleaner, prettier and a lot less weird. But I guess that same weirdness is what made Dnipro so stupid and so loveable at the same time. Even through visuals alone, one can tell that Odessa has stood as a vital cultural hub for the Ukraine (and the USSR before it) since its inception – it’s church after church and opera house after opera house. The city is literally the antithesis of Dnipro, which was factory after factory and concrete high-rise after concrete high-rise. And yet, while I’m sure you’re expecting me to finish this meandering paragraph by choosing one over the other, I’m not going to. I like them both equally and for very different reasons. Deal with it.

Although Dnipro is the Ukraine’s main purveyor of that ‘weirdness’ I mentioned earlier, Odessa can – occasionally – still hold a candle to Dnipro. As many of you more seasoned nomads will know, sometimes when you’re travelling, there are days when nothing of interest will happen. Then there are days where you’re kept pretty busy and captivated by whatever your current location has to offer. And then – every once in a while – you hit the jackpot. On Saturday night, Elliot and I found ourselves exploring the city (Jake had excused himself to hang out with some local friends), and as we approached the top of the famous Potemkin Steps, we noticed a vaguely-musical sound coming from below the edge of a 30-40ft drop from a park at the top of the steps.

As we got closer, we realised a gig was going on, so we sat on the wall and had a listen. However, as we discovered, this was no ordinary gig. In a pub garden down below, a large stage was set up, and, in front of an audience of around 20 people – many of whom appeared to be straddling the line between interpretive dance and interpretive seizure – a man was absolutely freaking out to the sound of a bizarrely-remixed version of David Bowie’s Changes. Yet, just as this was clearly no ordinary gig, nor was this an ordinary man. Save for a cardboard box on his head and a printout of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers covering his manhood, he was completely naked.

And as he switched from extremely camp prancing around, to suddenly dropping to the floor and doing push-ups, the crowd – and two members of the audience in particular – could barely contain their feverish delight, clapping and yelping uncontrollably in what was the icing on the most perfectly surreal cake I have ever seen baked. We sat and watched as the tunes kept coming, the crowd growing more and more animated. The following morning, after a ludicrously difficult few hours of sleuthing, I discovered what we had just witnessed – a two-man band called Хамерман знищує віруси (‘Hammerman Destroys Viruses’). Upon watching further videos, I am none the wiser as to who they are, why they are constantly either naked or in skimpy outfits, what they’re singing about, or why they occasionally perform with a clarinetist with a hat shaped like a giant penis. The mystery goes on.

Yesterday we decided to do as the locals do, and went to a Ukrainian league football match. The mighty Chernomorets Odessa would be taking on FC Oleksandriya. The teams were level on points in mid-table, and after getting suspiciously cheap tickets off a tout, we made our way into the surprisingly nice brand-new stadium, grabbed some beers, and watched some of the most desperately awful football we had ever borne witness to. Both teams were misplacing passes, misjudging crosses, and misfiring shots. Until one decisive moment in the second half; as the ball gently rolled across the six-yard box during one of very few attacks by either team, the Chernomorets left winger sprinted onto the loose ball and smacked it back into the centre, where it proceeded to hit an Oleksandriya defender on the ass, and rolled pitifully into the net for a beautiful own goal. All 2,000 fans in the 35,000-seater stadium went wild, including the small section of ‘ultras’, who took a break from banging their drums to have a 100-man shirtless bundle on the concrete terraces. The game finished 1-0 and everyone went home happy, save for the 50-or-so away fans who had been placed far, far away at the top corner of the stadium like a leper colony.

Of course, Odessa has not been without its resident heroes either. And by resident heroes, I mean one guy in particular who was neither resident nor hero, but instead an inadvertently belligerent older guy from Perth, Australia. There’s a bar in Odessa called Шкаф (pronounced ‘Shkaff’), and it basically became our go-to hangout whenever we needed a drink. Every time we went, something interesting would happen. It could be good, it could be bad, but we knew it would be interesting. However, on our final trip there, we flew a little too close to the sun and ended up talking to this guy from Perth, cos, y’know, he’s an English speaker. And from here on out, the night became a dense whirlwind of clingyness, ignorance, and saying the word faaackin’ ahead of every noun. As we climbed deeper into the evening, PerthMan slowly evolved from talking about why he was in Ukraine – a perfectly acceptable topic – to some of the most bizarrely contradictory nuggets of self-satisfied wisdom that ever floated into any of our ears.

After we and PerthMan had agreed not to join a bunch of bulky Ukrainian programmers to the strip club across the road, he then proceeded to drag us over to it, ‘just to have a faackin’ look, y’know?’. And by this, he meant literally bargaining with the very confused and bored bouncers to let him stand at the entrance and stare longingly into the club. Like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, Elliot ended up taking the bullet and ‘having a look’ with him. However, after PerthMan  had imparted such age-old wisdom as ‘what man doesn’t faackin’ love tits?’ and ‘a woman is a faackin’ woman, am I right?’, he then immediately changed his tune, and after berating me with a ‘where the faaaaaaack did you go mate?!’ once I had sneaked away from his sordid bullshit, stated ‘if these faackin’ Ukrainian c*nts wanna see some faackin’ naked ladies, they just need to open their faackin’ laptops and have a faackin’ wank, am I right?!’. His statement was met with aggressively British silence.

Luckily, Jake had stayed in Shkaff, meaning Elliot and I could forcefully state to PerthMan that ‘we’re going to get Jake from Shkaff now’, i.e. ‘please no more’. Yet instead of understanding any part of what that statement meant, he then had a go at us, telling Elliot ‘you have to faackin’ say goodbye to the Ukrainians. You can’t just faackin’ leave without telling them where you’re going’. So after alerting the Ukrainians to our imminent departure (even though they weren’t even aware we were still there), we walked back over to Shkaff, only for PerthMan to walk with us, telling us we all needed to go drink somewhere else, cos 30 hryvnias for a beer is way too expensive. For those not familiar with Ukrainian money, 30 hryvnias is 85p. Ukraine to us is cheap, hence we can afford 85p for a beer, and hence why we get taxis everywhere. However, once we told PerthMan this, he proceeded to berate us yet again, saying that we should get trams everywhere instead of taxis because getting taxis is ‘not supporting the faackin’ economy mate’, despite the fact that a taxi journey costs £3-4, while a tram journey costs 14p. As these words fell from his lips, we realised the nonsensical wisdom of our perilous pal would continue to hang over us like a fat fart no matter what we did, save for jumping in the nearest taxi and telling the driver to get us as far away from that man as possible. So that’s exactly what we did.

Gabe

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Odessa: Give ‘Em A Hundred

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I call this one Slavs Squatting

As much as I can see that Odessa is an exceptionally pretty city, it is difficult to fully gauge the qualities of a destination that you’re supposed to be able to analyse if you wake up at 1pm with a thunderous hangover and attempt to explore it in 34 degree weather. Last night inadvertently involved drinking a literal 15 litre tower of beer (among other things), so apologies if this post is not exactly enlightening about what is, based on all evidence we’ve gathered so far, a lovely place. So while I can’t tell you which statues and monuments are the most historically significant, I can tell you which is the most comfortable to sit down and catch your breath on.

Yesterday we swam in the Black Sea after being raced across town by a taxi driver who we’re convinced gave us a discount because he was aware of his own batshit insane road rage. After speeding down every sidestreet at 70mph, he then decided to beep furiously at a decrepit old man who was driving slowly in the car in front, and ended up getting so worked up that he not only swerved into (subsequently equally furious) oncoming traffic to overtake him, but then did a fake swerve to the right and pretended to ram the old dude. So he only charged us 100 hryvnias (about £3) for a 20-minute journey.

Speaking of which, Jake has developed a rather cavalier attitude towards his hard-earned hryvnias, and has coined a catchphrase that will go down in the annals of time; ‘Give em’ a hundred’. No matter the cost of an item, Jake will offer 100 hryvnias, which could be seen as either a great deal or a grave insult. A taxi driver charging 60 will give us a big old grin and a thanks as we swing him 100, but when a woman in a shop is asking for 150 for a bottle of wine, the tactic often comes apart at the seams.

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Last night before things went dark

In fact, if we’re all picking up our own little tactics. After one of our longer and more painful nights out, we needed to get home. Despite Jake being our designated Russian speaker, instead it was Elliot who stepped up to the plate when we were offered an 800 hryvnia taxi ride (8x the going rater). Instead of our usual bargaining (give ’em a hundred, am I right?), Elliot decided that a more effective tactic would be extended his arm entirely, putting the palm of his hand up to the taxi drivers nose and shouting NYET!right in his face. While it may have been a simple drunken misjudgment of volume, it certainly did the trick, and the toothless driver sheepishly retreated back into his 1970s Soviet shitmobile.

We’re about to head out again (kill me now) and are inexplicably sat around bleary-eyed in our underwear waiting for a washing cycle to finish, at what looks like the start of a porn film that even the most depraved gay men would shy away from. And when that’s done, we’ll have to deal with the fact that the washing machine becomes electrocuted when plugged in, and shocks you if you try to touch it.

This blog post is about the best I can do in my current state. I will post another tomorrow, promise.

Gabe

 

Dnipropetrovsk: Gogl-Mogl

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Time to statue!

I promised myself (and of course all you tragically bored readers) that I would finally get this blog up and running again, and that I would be so on the ball that said ball would slip out from underneath me and I would crack my head open on the Dnipropetrovsk concrete, in a manner not too dissimilar to an exceedingly drunk club-goer I stumbled across in the midst of having his pockets ransacked by a bunch of burly gangsters pretending to help him last night.

As the mercilessly hangover-inducing unfiltered lager of eastern Ukraine flowed through my veins (that’s not good is it?), I stumbled up to this helpless man, passed out face-down on the concrete, while I waited for Jake and Elliot to emerge from the already-infamous Club Rio on the banks of the Dnieper River, its unusual girth measurable only by the blurry twinkles of streetlamps over a mile away on the opposite bank. As I stretched out a tentatively violent foot to nudge him (or kick him depending on my inebriated lack of judgement), two skinhead men appeared from behind a tree, and with an almost routine-like efficiency, power-walked up to the man, knelt down at his side, and rootled around in his pockets, stuffing his copious wads of Ukrainian hryvnia into their own coat linings, before locating his phone and tucking that into their waistlines. After that, they helped him to his feet, slapped him in the face to wake him up, and vanished into the darkness, leaving our drunken victim drooling long chains of saliva down his own shirt and onto the feet of a statue of Taras Shevchenko.

While I imagine this is the kind of story you were expecting a lot of in a blog about Ukraine, this is just about the only moment of genuinely reprehensible behaviour we’ve witnessed in our time here. I mean granted it’s only been four days, but it must be said that – what with everyone questioning our choice to head to a recent war zone – Ukraine is no more dangerous than any other country in Europe, unless you feel like taking a couple of shells to the face in Donetsk or Luhansk. The vast majority of this country is perfectly safe. Sure, the infrastructure is a little shonky and it does feel somewhat impoverished in places, but it’s not Mogadishu – people aren’t going to kidnap or murder you for being a foreigner.

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Shevchenko Park, Dnipro

So, after about 24 hours in Kiev (during which time I of course had a chicken kiev), we took the six-hour train to Dnipropetrovsk at 7am, weaving through the floodplains of the Dnieper across the flat interior of this vast country. We decided to spend the extra £3 to get a first class ticket, complete with reclining chairs and a buffet car unfortunately called the WOG Cafe. After knocking back a couple of hot dogs and watery americanos on our arduous march across the former UkSSR, we shuffled down the aisles and off the train, squeezing past the buffet car’s trolley service which we affectionately dubbed WOG-On-Wheels.

Dnipropetrovsk is an interesting city. It’s got a really post-industrial, post-Soviet hinterland vibe about it. It’s in the middle of nowhere, stranded hundreds of miles from the coast, with one big wide avenue (named after Karl Marx, of course) slicing through the middle of the city. Thick black smoke billows from the chimneys of factories that flank the edges of every panorama of Dnipropetrovsk, their corresponding high-rise apartment blocks for workers visible in their shadows. However if there was one trait I had to select as the most noticeable in this city, it’s that the Latin alphabet is nowhere to be seen, and if you’re hoping anyone can speak English, dream on, friend. In most Eastern European cities, signs will be written in their native Cyrillic, underscored by the Latin version, so us heathens can have a crack. However, in Dnipro, there is no Latin alphabet – it’s just thick, imposing Cyrillic, and there’s somewhat of a British mentality about your average Ukrainian’s attitude towards the English speakers of this world; if they don’t understand your language, say it again, and louder. We’ve had Ukrainians repeat phrases we already don’t understand twice as loud enough times to truly understand how infuriating it must be when English people do the same to unassuming foreigners trying to ask for directions.

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The sign in the background says Gogl-Mogl. We felt it deserved some reverential respect.

And no scenario saw as much heightened repetition as when our beloved Jake proceeded to leave his Sainsbury’s bag of valuables in the back of the taxi taking us from the bus station to our AirBnB. After rushing back to the station to find the driver, we found that he wasn’t there. He seemed like a nice enough guy and were convinced he wouldn’t steal someone’s stuff, so we approached another driver who saw us get into his car and asked if we could phone him. After the longest phone conversation in modern history, we were told in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that the driver was asleep. Then that he was driving around. Then that he was at home. Then that he had the bag. Then that he didn’t. Then that it was still in the boot. After about half an hour, a different taxi driver showed up with the bag. In our euphoric relief, we ransacked the bag to discover that Jake’s phone wasn’t in it.

Oh typical, bloody taxi drivers giving back the bag but pocketing the most valuable item in it. After it slowly dawned on us that he may have stolen the phone, we continued to quiz the other drivers about the whereabouts of the phone. Yet again, we were told that he both did and didn’t have the phone, that he was both asleep and awake, that he was both at home and still out driving around. Defeated and a phone down, we trudged back to the apartment to unpack. I hung up my clothes, did some laundry, drank some beer, and then unfolded the sofabed to reveal underneath a sight all three of us both wanted to see and didn’t want to see at the same time; Jake’s phone. For God’s sake.

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A disappointed selfie on Jake’s newly-found phone.

Gabe

Tokyo: Onion!

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My boy Isaac modelling with the limited edition cherry blossom Asahi can.

Japan is proving to be hard work in more ways that I had originally predicted. While talk of Tokyo’s notorious intensity and extremely crowded nature both rest on fairly well-trodden ground, they are actually fairly inconsequential features of a city that literally could not be more indecipherable as a Western tourist. I don’t understand any of it. While it certainly does possess a looming intensity unmatched by any other city on Earth, that’s not what makes Tokyo a challenge – it’s the much smaller things.

The Japanese, as many of you will know, are fiercely nationalistic and isolationist. That is obviously not to say their patriotism spills over into aggression; they have remained one of the world’s most outspoken pacifists since 1945. However, there is an obvious, almost tangible sense that the Japanese are aware of their remarkable technological and infrastructural advancement, and thus, like I’m sure many Americans would, believe everything they do is how everyone should do it. As a result, there is extremely little room for negotiation and even less room for compromise, and thus people visiting Japan may either struggle to get to grips with various facets of Japanese life, or may find themselves getting frustrated at how illogical some of it seems to an outsider.

Some things frustrate me massively. The most notable example for me personally is that the Tokyo subway system, though extensive and metronomic, is an absolute shambles. The layout makes no sense, the trains are ridiculously slow and uncomfortable, the platforms are all about a mile apart from each other if you’re changing lines, and most annoyingly, there are lines in on the platform that denote  a queuing space for each door. If you don’t stand in it, people act like you’re a bellend and give you dirty looks. Then lo, the train arrives and the queue falls apart, only to be replaced by a crazy shoving free-for-all, the likes of which I’m sure would also be the end result of not having this stupid queuing system in the first place.

Another example would be the country’s attitude toward smoking. I sat down at a restaurant on my first day here, only for the guy next to me to suddenly get out a cigarette and start smoking away. OK that’s a pain, it must not be regulated here, I thought, but no; I stepped outside to head home after eating, only to see signs painted on the floor saying ‘Do not smoke in public!’ and ‘No smoking on the street!’. What in the hell? You can smoke into my face in a dingy little hut while I’m trying to enjoy a bit of ramen but you can’t smoke near me when I won’t actually be inhaling it? As Frank Costanza once said, ‘well that’s perverse’.

But beyond moments where I find myself getting simply worked up about stuff that confuses me, there are moments where I find myself in hysterics as a result of that wonderful occurrence we all know and love when in countries with a massive language barrier; the misunderstanding. Two have stood out for me since being here. The first was two days ago, as I was attempting to buy some food. There’s a weird little self-serve shop around the corner from my hostel, where you can fill up a container with all sorts of strange food, and they price it based on weight. I stocked up on my fair share of something chicken-y, something tofu-y, something with potatoes and garlic, and then a cheeky scoop of prawns. I handed it over to the cashier. 599 yen appeared on the till. That’s about…. £3.50 I think? Either way, Japanese yen coins come in varieties of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. One yen is absolutely useless and I hate having them on me, so I handed over a 500 and a 100 and bowed, extending my hand, gesturing ‘keep the change’. He nodded like he’d understood. I left the shop and realised I had a train to catch and was running later than anticipated. I started running, at which point I heard someone shout something behind me, but it was muffled by my headphones, so I kept going. I got maybe 150m from the shop, but I was being slowed down by my luggage, and behind me the shouting was getting louder. Confused, I turned round to see the cashier, who, having thought I’d forgotten my futile one yen change, had run down the street after me shouting ‘One yen! One yen!’, though obviously he was not aware of the ‘y’ sound at the front of the word ‘one’, so to any English-speaking onlookers it would have looked quite a lot like I was being chased down the street by a lunatic in a chef’s uniform shouting ‘ONION!’ at me. He gave me my change, gave me an extremely apologetic extended bow. I said ‘Oh, arigato gozai mas’ (‘thanks very much’), to which he softly repeated ‘… onion’, and headed back to his shop. I threw the coin in the bin and continued running.

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The extent of Tokyo’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Three days after St Patrick’s Day. I have no idea either.

The next night came another misunderstanding. Me and a group of people from my hostel decided we needed to head out to grab some food, so we walked up towards Asakusa to find somewhere. Asakusa is fairly touristy due to its proximity to the Tokyo SkyTree and the local shrine, so we passed a number of restaurants that looked to be closer to the higher end of our respective budget, until we stumbled across a strange building, the likes of which you see fairly often in Tokyo. Rather than having a restaurant district or area filled with different places to eat, you’ll often find one building with nine or ten floors, with a different restaurant on each. The one we found had nine restaurants and after much deliberation we decided on the third floor. After Finn, my hostelmate, smacked his head on the ceiling attempting to navigate a flight of stairs, we entered, taking our shoes off and putting them in the usual shoe-locker arrangement, and sat down. After a few beers and a couple of octopus balls, we noticed a small sign on the wall advertising a ‘sushi roulette’ plate, where you get a plate of sushi, one piece per person, and one of them will contain a large amount of wasabi and, presumably, blow your head off if you get it. However, it didn’t quite work out like that. We pointed at the sign as the waiter came around, and he attempted to ask how many we needed. So we said five, one for each person. He looked shocked, as if it was way too much. We assumed he thought we meant five plates, so we said ‘Oh OK just one plate’. Cut forward half an hour (seriously how did it take this long?), and the waiter reappeared, holding a plate high above his head. With great anticipation, we watched as he lowered it to reveal… one piece of sushi. This wasn’t sushi Russian roulette, it was sushi suicide. Or so we thought, until Finn took the hit to reveal it was a non­-spicy piece. In one fell swoop we had gone from sushi suicide back to Russian roulette, but this time with a toy gun.

Apart from generally soaking up Tokyo’s omnipotent saturated nonsense, the only other thing I’ve done of note was visit the Golden Gai with two people from the hostel. One of the strangest places I’ve ever had a drink, the Golden Gai is a row of six tiny alleyways in the Shinjuku district, all crammed with pubs and bars barely bigger than a toilet cubicle. We found ourselves in a sort of treehouse/lookout above a tiny bar, drinking pint after pint of Kirin (with the occasional sake which I don’t remember being quite so disgusting). One missed last subway home and one strange decision to walk across the entirety of Tokyo until 6am while still drinking later and I ended up still very drunk when I was woken up at 11am by a little hostel worker telling me it was my time to check out. After almost falling over in the shower I decided I would sit downstairs and eat sushi until I stopped feeling like I may pass out.

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A failed attempt at a timed selfie

Today I’m heading to Kyoto. In fact, using my Japan Rail Pass, I’m currently on the bullet train as I write this, in the shadow of a snow-coated Mount Fuji. I’ll be honest, this is pretty awesome; in fact, when I set foot on the train and the electronic ticker at the far end said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen’, I’ll admit I got goosebumps. In all honesty the train is rather simple; sure it’s fast but really it’s just like any other commuter train. Although, it is also complete with an absolutely insane seat reservation system that makes no sense. I’m not even going to explain how little sense it made. That’s how little sense it made. Long story short; three hour train journey having to change seats five times.

Also on the way to the station a wheel fell off my suitcase while I was eating sushi. A low moment. I now carve a line through every neighbourhood I drag my suitcase through.

Will report more from Kyoto once I’ve had my next helping of ramen. And maybe a nikuman. Look it up.

Gabe