Ukraine, to the best of my knowledge, does not have a Formula One driver. If, however, they were considering an attempt on driving’s most famous championship, they could do no worse than interview the driver of the 14.25 Odessa to Kilya bus. Granted he may be a little older than the average F1 driver, and certainly many kilos heavier, but his ability to overtake on blind bends, tailgate 5cm from the rear of the car in front and to drive his vehicle to the edge of it’s envelope, would strike fear in to all of his opponents. In much the same way that it did to all of his passengers. You see the 14:25 is an 18 seat Mercedes minibus, not a 1000hp Maclaren.
Tania and I had boarded the bus in order to journey out to a remote part of south western Ukraine to photograph a friends wedding. By the time we were half way into the journey, the birth of a baby girl by another friend at the beginning of the week, combined with the impending nuptials happening the following day, were conspiring to make my mind work overtime. It seemed the grim reaper was lurking around every bend of the not so smooth road to the west.
To be fair, the main Odessa-Ismail road is not bad by Ukrainian standards, it’s fairly wide, has almost decipherable white lines and not overly busy. Unfortunately the last hour of the journey was not on this road. After a brief stop for absorbing and expelling fluids, we hit the road again. Literally. The road to Kilya is not so much a road as a moon simulator with free roaming cattle on it. There were craters and potholes so big that the previous users of this thoroughfare had given up with the tarmac and cut a gravel track to the side of the road along 50% of it’s length. Of course this did nothing to deter Ayrton Sennaski, who had now made the subtle change from Formula 1 to World Rally Championship. The Mercedes, unfortunately was still a mini bus and a two wheel drive one at that, its contents were now being shaken to death as well as scared to death.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, Shevchenkovoe, a small town of 5000 inhabitants, none of whom were visible as we debarked the bus. What was visible was a strange, dusty town square and several million mosquitos. Our friend, the groom, lived in another village, even more remote than this, and was on his way to pick us up, but the news of strange, new people in town, especially one that spoke in a strange foreign tongue had reached the villagers. One by one, they began to appear, I was half expecting to hear the banjo tune from Deliverance or at least be able to order a pint in the Slaughtered Lamb. Intense, mildly threatening looks were thrown our way, before, eventually, and inevitably, we were approached by an obviously drunk old man. I looked at Tania who threw a look my way as if to say keep quiet, I will handle this. Then her phone rang. The man approached me instead, his eyes fixated on one point very close to his nose. Through his slurred words and my limited Russian, I realized he had obviously been drunk since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was asking me for one Ruble, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gorbachev was no longer in power and that he no longer had to queue for six hours for a cabbage sandwich. Tania, who by now had finished her call, gave him one Ruble, or at least that’s what the old man thought as he walked away with ten Grivnas in his hand.
As the old drunk retreated we saw a middle age man, on the other side of the road, trying to mount a bike. I say trying, because if you have ever seen those comedy sketches where a drunk tries to mount a bike, this is what we were seeing. Several times he threw his leg over the cross bar only for it to return to him like a boomerang. Dazed by the fact his right leg was still next to his left he would have another go, with the same results. It took him a good five minutes before he was astride the machine and another five minutes for his feet to find the pedals. When they did, he of course, headed our way. When he reached the kerb where we were standing he promptly fell off the bike, staggered around the side of a building and had a loud and somewhat smelly piss. Fortunately as this was happening our friend arrived. We loaded up our gear into his truck and set off for his village. As I looked around, the drunk was now lying, motionless, in the middle of the road, alongside his bike, forcing cars to drive through a large pothole to get around him. And this was just the start to the weekend.
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