Archive for August, 2012


I. Love. Odesa. This capital of hedonism is called the Ibiza of the East and with good reason. Completely unchecked free market capitalism with no sense of social responsibility mixed with a love of sex, possibly drugs (though I’m not entirely sure on that one) and rock n roll. A complete lack of education on 2 of the 3 abovementioned items also leads to some not so nice consequences (like a 16% AIDS rate in the city), but I loved the city all the same.

Odesa is a happening city where locals and tourists alike mingle all summer long on their overcrowded beaches along the Black Sea during the day and party card at Arcadia, a 7 nights a week nightclub open until the sun comes up, all night long.  There is an excess of restaurants, alcohol and gorgeous women overdressed for every occasion. It’s not uncommon in this part of the world for women to spend over half their meagre income on looking good. Of course, they might be Ukrainian mail order brides as well. Odesa is the place to be if you are a rich man trying to find a hot, young wife. There are entire agencies devoted to finding you the perfect Russian speaking, long limbed beauty. No joke, they will match you with women based on your tastes and take you out for a date with them where they will provide a translator so you can have a chat. There are also billboards with pictures of rich American men advertising that they are looking for Ukrainian wives.

It is impossible not to feel underdressed and overweight around these women who wear heels to the beach. Lucky for me, I really didn’t care to be getting dressed up most of the time as I really couldn’t be bothered so spent most of my time either sleeping or drinking on the beach. In fact, I loved Odesa’s unchecked hedonism so much that I decided to stay an extra 2 nights!

Frankly, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot to see in Odessa. A couple of statues and the Potemkin steps which, while pretty cool, are just a set of stairs leading to the ocean. The entire reason to go to Odesa is to lie on the beach, drink, party and eat. And people watch, of course. As I stated in a previous post about creepy Ukrainian men trying to scab off my bill in Kiev, so they also did this in Odesa. I was sitting at a Mexican restaurant for dinner one night, risking food poisoning with every bite (I couldn’t help but try it and I have decided to do this every couple of countries), just minding my own business, reading a book and not looking up while I was eating until I could smell smoke in my immediate vicinity. They have no concept of “non-smoking areas” in Ukraine and as I was outside anyway I couldn’t say anything, but I was still going to wrinkle my nose at them when I realised said smoker was SITTING ACROSS THE TABLE FROM ME just smoking and having a beer. Seriously? Talk about brazen. I looked at him and said in what I thought was a very rude tone “pazhalsta?” which means excuse me and he looked at me like “What?” and then started going off in Russian. I kept saying “go away” in English because for some stupid reason I have a mental block on saying it in Russian and he just kept going on and on and the only word I could make out was “shot” which means bill. The waitress came up and asked if we were together and I said no and she got rid of him for me. Nice girl.

Apparently some of the other lovely girls that I met had the same issue with groups of guys trying to join their table as well, but it’s a bit easier to deal with if you have numbers on your side. There were also issues with a few guys at a summer all night trance festival we went to on the beach an hour outside of Odesa. Talk about an adventure. I had to keep getting the German guy from our hostel to stand between me and these guys because they wouldn’t leave me alone. Talk about persistent.

So about this trance festival. It’s called Summer Sound and this girl who had a friend staying at the hostel came down to Kiev for the night specifically to go to this big outdoor party on the beach. And when I say it was an hour outside of Odesa, I’m not joking. We took a taxi and it took us that long. Would have taken about 3 hours via bus probably. It was great fun, even though I am definitely not a fan of trance music and we danced until the sun came up. The DJ group Above & Beyond that Amelia (the girl from Kiev) came down (on the 11 hour train ride) to see had a screen in which they would put pictures up and type notes onto their computer which showed up on the screen. One of the pictures they had up was the Sydney skyline (I got so excited) and they wrote “Wherever you are, you are home” which made me slightly homesick. I miss seeing the Sydney skyline everyday, especially since I could see it from my balcony at home.

Word of caution to this tale, make sure you know how to get home from wherever the heck we were. We decided to go home around 6 am and were told that mashrutka’s stopped regularly at a certain spot every half hour. Needless to say, they weren’t  stopping on Sunday morning. So then we were told we’d have to walk half a mile up to the main road and catch a mashrutka from there. We tried hitchhiking, but as there were 5 of us that was not going to happen. We finally picked up a mashrutka, promptly fell asleep sitting up and woke up to a man yelling at us in Russian and Amelia arguing back. Apparently he wanted to charge us something ridiculous like 50 Hryvnya each when the posted price was 10 so Amelia had us get out when we had no idea where we were, pay our 10 hryvnya each and continued yelling at the guy as he drove off. Turns out he dropped us right at the edge of Odesa, so we just had to take a short mashrutka ride back to the train station and then walk 20 minutes to get to our hostel. Needless to say we didn’t get back until 9 in the morning and slept pretty much the entire day.

I did wake up at some point mid-afternoon to go get some food and can I just say that I have never experienced worse service in my life that I experienced in Ukraine. If the food in Ukraine weren’t so delicious I would have self-catered the entire time because service was so terrible, and I’m a patient person (surprising as that sounds).

So about this food which I promised ages ago to post about. There are a few foods that I fell in love with in Ukraine. One of them is one of the ‘national dishes’, (not sure whether it is an official dish or not) is salo. It’s basically raw pork fat and it is amazing. You can eat it as slices of fat by itself or with toppings such as raw garlic (I was in heaven) or you can have it chopped up and put in soups and in pots of another addictive dish called vareniki, which is a filled dumpling of sorts. I really enjoyed meat and onion or potato and onion verenyaki with salo, but if you are vego or don’t fancy salo (you should try it regardless with verenyaki) you can always order it without salo. You can also get verenyaki filled with fruits like sour cherry, which is very popular and in season during the summer. My other favourite dish which I ALWAYS ordered if it was on the menu was solyanka, which is a type of amazing soup that I really need to learn to make well.

From Odesa I made my way to the small and oft-forgotten country of Moldova so keep an eye out for my next post!

What I’m reading now: Gathering Roots: The History of Ethnic Cleansing in Kosova and Macedonia

What I’m listening to now: Fearless – Taylor Swift

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Well, it’s no secret that I love food. I’m a big fan of travelling places just to eat the food. That includes my trip to New Orleans with Ivo last year. He could not understand for the life of him why we were going to New Orleans just for food. He understood once we got there. Normally, thanks to excessive amounts of pole dance training, belly dance training and soccer training, my habit of eating 1 large bar of chocolate per day was not an issue for anything other than my likely future as a diabetic. Unfortunately, when you travel long term you either tend to put exercise on the backburner or, like me, you can’t find pole studios to exercise at regularly and training on a street pole is both dangerous and likely to get you arrested.

So thanks to the surprisingly delicious and varied food (of which I will be discussing in my next post and putting recipes up for), excessive amounts of tasty local brews and my affinity for Milka chocolate bars I have been putting on what for me would be considered a fair amount of weight while losing muscle. I may walk 20-30 kilometres per day, but that isn’t enough to compensate. Time to work on eating a healthier diet and drinking a bit less methinks. Unfortunately, that was an extremely difficult thing to do in Ukraine. Needless to say I did not succeed. My time spent in Ukraine seemed to revolve around food, football and fun. By the time I got to Kyiv  we were well into the semi-finals for the Euro Cup 2012. This meant spending a fair amount of time in the Euro Cup fan zone drinking, people watching and cheering on Spain.

Of course, I needed to eat to soak up the alcohol and I actually did do A LOT of walking in Kyiv so needed to keep my energy up. My first full day I took the metro to the city and walked in a very roundabout way to check out some of the side streets of Kyiv that most people don’t really get to. I was able to see the National Opera House which was a beautiful old building in serious need of a good scrub. In the former soviet countries there is a never ending stream of carbon emissions pollution. Old trains and old soviet vehicles with no requirement for a yearly emissions check coupled with no real regard for environmental standards in what manufacturing there is means the second you step outside your door you end up covered in grime. It became a habit of mine to wash my hands the minute I walked into a restaurant to eat and wipe them with sanitary wipes. Watching the black water run off my hands even though I’d only been walking around for an hour was fairly disgusting.

Anyway, my point is, most of these beautiful old buildings, like the nearby St Volodymyr’s Cathedral,  you see look grimy and grungy and dirty and any other synonymous adverb you’d like to come up with. I can only imagine that this type of pollution probably is not good for the buildings and the life of them could be extended by a good scrub. I wandered around after finding the National Opera House before I somehow managed to find myself somewhere outside the fan zone. As Kyiv was a host city, the fan zone was insanely huge. I found a restaurant to sit at and have a drink and some food and just before I was about to leave, lucky me, I was once again hassled by a dodgy Ukrainian. I don’t know what it is about Ukraine, I realise the poverty and unemployment rate is high, but I have not had trouble in any other country really except Ukraine.

What these men do is they try to scam you by getting you to pick up their bill. They don’t speak English and they are extremely annoying. The fact that I am a traveller and don’t look Ukrainian (and don’t speak any Russian) screams money to them. This particular man was an enormous and badly smelling guy carrying a glass of what appeared to be whisky. I had my headphones in and heard someone speaking to me so looked up and found this creep staring at me. I told him to go away, of which he apparently did not understand me or my hand gestures and decided I actually wanted him to sit down next to me and continue drinking. At this point I signalled for the waitress who brought me my bill and took my payment immediately so I could get the hell out of there.

I decided after that to just wander aimlessly (my favourite way to see a city) and see where I ended up. For some stupid reason I decided to walk up Andriyivsky Uziz which was very much uphill and I hate uphill climbs. However, the view was pleasant enough and I ended up at a random amphitheatre where some German people were performing covers of old songs. This was obviously part of the entertainment being provided by the city for the Cup as it was right next to a futsol court where anyone could play and a man was there with a couple of footballs to provide the people playing. After an enjoyable 30 minutes or so of listening to the random German singers I went and sat down in the stands outside the futsol court to watch a pickup game some guys were playing for a good 3 or 4 hours. Definitely makes me miss playing, but they were fun to watch. Especially once this super hot guy joined in and decided to take off his shirt. I didn’t think it was warm enough to warrant that, but it seems like men in this part of the world like to wear shirts as little as possible, regardless of the temperature, and it isn’t just the attractive ones unfortunately.

My last day in Kyiv was much more successful on the sightseeing front. Turned out my hostel was a mere 2 or 3 kilometres from the famous Cave Monastery so I decided to go check that out. Walking there I somehow ended up in an area I’ve started calling Embassy Row. Every country has a major city with embassies and they all tend to congregate in the same areas. You can tell these areas in the poorer countries because all the houses in the area are really nice and half of them are embassies. Turns out Nigeria has an embassy in Kyiv, which I found hilarious considering I had just that morning been speaking with Ivo about Nigerian scams.

I made it to the monastery which is actually a massive area. The caves themselves are tiny and super cramped with all the faithful coming to pray to the monks of old. There is no electricity in the caves and you must buy a candle to light your way while you are down there (only 2 Hryvnya) to see anything. It was fairly claustrophobia inducing and I felt somewhat like an intruder down there watching all these people stopping at every tiny coffin (how small were these monks?) to pray and kiss the top of them.  It’s a rather voyeuristic experience and one which frankly I wasn’t terribly comfortable with. If you aren’t Orthodox and there to pray you don’t spend very much time down there so I left after about 10 minutes (they really are very small caves) and decided to explore the rest of the monastery.

The monastery itself is actually split into two different levels. The bottom level is free to enter and there are many little churches with beautiful frescoes covering every wall and the ceiling, while only the iconoclast (the front wall of the church) is covered in gilding. I spent a good couple of hours wandering around the gardens and exploring the churches here before deciding to make my way towards the upper level of the monastery. As it turns out, the upper level of the monastery charges an entrance fee and I personally object to functioning buildings of worship charging entrance (I thnk they should only request donations) so I did not go in. For those of you who are interested the entrance is only about 4-5 euro I think. I still didn’t enter on a matter of principle though. Based on what I have heard of the building you could probably spend another 2 hours wandering around the upper monastery though.

I chose to start walking towards the city as there are a great number of things to see between the monastery and the city centre which Lonely Planet does not report on at all, so pick up a city tourist map. The first monument I came upon was the Famine Memorial. This is an eternal flame and obelisk (of course) to victims of the Ukraine famine back in fjkfewk. If you approach from the main road, rather than the side you also come upon a harrowing statue of a starving child. Below the obelisk there is a small museum dedicated to the famine, but I think finding out I would have to pay to visit the upper part of the monastery put me in a mood where I didn’t want to pay for anything so I didn’t go in. If anyone does, let me know if I missed something good.

The view from this memorial is amazing by the way. The monastery, the famine memorial and the whatever this Obelisk memorial was are all on the edge of a hill that overlooks the river running through Kyiv and you can see the tops of the churches in the monastery if you look to your right. It’s a pretty awesome sight. If you continue walking towards the city you come to yet ANOTHER obelisk (you’d think after all these years they’d get a bit more creative) with a different but equally beautiful view over the river, a park and a different part of the city. And this time when you look to the right you have both the famine memorial and the cave monastery in your sights. Very picturesque.

From here it was mainly walking through parks until you come to Mariinsky Palace just near the main city centre. I’m not entirely sure, but I think you can only view it from outside the gate as the gate appeared to be closed and no one was wandering around inside it. I used the rest of the afternoon to walk back to the city centre, look at some of the random monuments in the city centre and hang out in the fan zone before heading back to the hostel for the evening. I found out the night before that my wonderful dog, Ichia, had died the day before and frankly just wasn’t in the mood to hang out in the fan zone that night for the game so watched it at the hostel instead. At this point I’m almost wishing I had gone to the fan zone as Italy provided the crowd with a surprise upset where they slaughtered Germany when Germany should have won the game hands down. That’s the price you pay for being cocky I suppose.