Thursday, 21 September 2006

Kisses from Kiev

First Kiss

Upon my right hand and scattered across parts of my body are a number of mosquito bites.

The bites don't itch anymore and they are gradually disappearing, as my body recovers from being a six foot buffet for these annoying little creatures, but when these bites are gone for good, I will feel a little sad, as these bites are all I have left to remind me of a time and a place I am leaving behind forever.

Today it's one month since I left the United Kingdom. Without a doubt, this has been a bizarre month, even by my standards.

The last thirty days have seen me fly from the UK to Riga and then on to Simferopol in the Crimea, where I spent five days lying on the beach and eating in restaurants with Emily, before getting stuck on a cliff and being rescued by a man named Dima.

A few days after my adventure with ants and lightening came to an end, I left the Crimea and travelled by bus to a small provincial city in the Ukraine called Berdyansk.

There I took part in a two week project aimed at educating young people about gender issues. I was one of a number of volunteers, from the UK, USA, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy.

We stayed in a camp together next to the Sea of Azov and visited a number of local universities and schools and prepared workshops and led discussions about gender issues in the Ukraine.

I found myself doing things that I thought I would never do, like facilitating presentations, and speaking to classes full of Ukrainian students. It was a very nice, very good experience and one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is hard for me to believe that only five days have passed since I left Berdyansk. I find myself missing the other volunteers much more than I thought I would, even the people I didn't speak to often.

This surprises me a great deal. My experiences with Westerners are generally not positive, and it is difficult for me to be in the West because of British and American foreign policy.

Last year I had a terrible time when I took part in a project with paraplegics in Slovenia and met four female volunteers, four nasty, sex obsessed harpies, who spent most of their time gossipping about me and doing all they could to make my life unpleasant.

Because of that I was unsure about taking part in another project and really didn't know if I would go to Berdyansk, right up until the day before the project began, but today I am very glad that I did.

With the exception of the project in Slovenia - which was a great work camp but was spoiled by those nasty imps - the people I meet on these projects are very different to the couch loving, TV obsessed, general population who work in offices or stack shelves in supermarkets or clean toilets for a living.

Volunteers who take part in international work camps are - most of the time - interesting people, with ambitions which stretch beyond planning their next holiday lying on a beach in Spain.

The project in Berdyansk was no exception.

I met some of the finest people I have met on a work camp. Laura, Miriam, Fiona, Sybil, Celine, Wyatt, Davide, Karen... shy people, ready to take a risk and try something new, each venturing into the unknown with just a backpack and no idea of what to expect.

The time I spent with these people, and the camp leaders, Olga and Anna, and many of the students we met can be summed up in a single word: Lovely.

How nice it was to avoid the back stabbing and nastiness. How strange that the person I communicated with the most was an English girl. My problems with the fairer sex in my home country are well documented in my emails, but Laura, a young English lass, was simply a lovely, sweet and kind person. A rare find.

I miss her and all of the volunteers, especially first thing in the morning, when I wake up and realise that now I am alone.

My time in Berdyansk has given me another gift box of memories to add to my collection for me to take out and cherish in years to come.

From drinking vodka while sitting in a small wooden boat on a beach to numerous restaurant visits, from one of the strangest nightclubs I have ever seen to encountering Peter, a crazy student, destined to be a dictator in later life. ("No, no, no!").

If I had to think of a single highlight of my time in Berdyansk, it would have to be the afternoon that myself and a handful of volunteers and students took a ride on an inflatable banana boat.

This basically involved being pulled across the Sea of Azov (the shallowest sea in the world, fact fans) by a speed boat. We skimmed the sea at break neck speed, before being thrown off.

In total we were thrown off three times.

It was exhilarating and scary as hell, but it was also very wonderful and very funny, and I loved every minute of it. How sad I feel now writing these words, now that those moments are memories, and those people have become a part of my past.

Last Kiss

On Saturday I boarded a train to Kiev, leaving Berdyansk behind.

I shared a compartment with Davide, an Italian boy who was leaving the same day. How glad I was for the company, as it saved me the loneliness of a 17 hour train ride to the capital. We ate potato together and passed our time speaking, smiling and sleeping.

On Sunday we arrived at our destination and I was met at the train station by Emily who was joining me in Kiev for two days. At the station I said goodbye to Davide and came close to shedding a tear, spared only by the dim hope that one day we will meet again.

Shortly after Davide left, Emily and I were met by a Ukrainian woman. She was the landlady of a flat I was renting for our time in the capital. She showed us to the flat and left me to take my first hot shower in over two weeks and to go to the toilet alone in peace. My return to civilisation was complete when I plonked myself in front of the TV and watched a few minutes of BBC World.

Emily and I spent the next two days exploring Kiev together. The city was very different than I had imagined. Very westernised, almost like a European city, and nothing like Minsk, it's Soviet neighbour.

Despite still being quite a closed country, the Ukraine boasts a bustling and thriving capital, both expensive and ultra cheap, with super wide streets, plenty of Soviet architecture, and plenty of shopping malls, McDonald's restaurants and Starbucks cafes.

Despite the Westernisation, I liked Kiev a great deal and enjoyed the two days I spent there.

The Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe (if you ignore Russia) and Kiev is a worthy capital. While we were in Kiev, Emily and I visited the Caves Monastery. Kiev's most famous attraction, the Caves Monastery is a labyrinth of caves and tunnels.

It was interesting enough, but when Emily had to wear a head dress to get inside, and when we saw the body of a child wrapped in cloth and on display in a glass coffin, along with a dozen other poor souls, it reminded me of just how much I dislike religion.

Religion played a part in the invasion of Iraq (though of course oil was the main motivating factor). It also played a part in the bombing of Lebanon, where Israel concentrated a great deal of its bombing in mostly Christian areas.

Millions have died because of something that, if you look at it with an open mind, seems preposterous.

Two hundred years ago we were burning witches at the stake. Religion was created by man thousands of years ago and yet people still cling to these beliefs. I am going off the subject here, so I will save that story for another time and another blog entry.

Despite the Caves Monastery leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth, I enjoyed Kiev, and will return.

Emily left the Ukraine on Tuesday and returned to Belarus. Before she left, we met up with Laura and Karen for a few hours and ate borsch together (a lovely beetroot soup, the national Ukrainian dish).

Now we have left the Ukraine behind. I am currently making my way to Lithuania, which I will use as a stepping stone to get to Belarus.

More adventures await me in Minsk and beyond. But nothing I experience in that mixed-up and Soviet playground will compare to my time in the Ukraine.

There will be no banana boat rides or drinking vodka while sitting in a small wooden boat. No crazy nightclub visits. No reflection groups or discussions.

My month in the Ukraine, both terrible and wonderful, is over now.

I did not take a camera with me and so did not take a single photograph. I have nothing to show that I was ever there, nothing to remind me of the people I met, nothing but memories and these rapidly fading mosquito bites.

And when these reddish souvenirs, these tiny kisses, are gone forever, my time in Berdyansk will truly be consigned to history.

The people I spent time with, and laughed with, and drank with, will, for me, remain only in my memories. I will never see those people again. We have all left for different places and different people, now that our time together is at an end, and life is moving on.

Take care all.

I will miss you.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Crisis in the Crimea

This is an entry I thought I would never get to write.

I thought about writing this blog entry, even constructing sentences and the odd paragraph in my head, but I was certain that it would forever remain unwritten, as I was sure I would never see a computer again.

Everything you are about to read is true. It all really happened, a little over five days ago.

My story begins at 7pm on Monday 28th August 2006. I was walking across a path leading through the hills and cliffs of Balaklava, a small town in the Crimea in the Ukraine, bordering the Black Sea.

I arrived in the Ukraine on Tuesday 22nd. The same day that I flew in, a severe thunderstorm gripped parts of the country and brought down a Russian airliner near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

All 170 people on board were killed.

I considered this to be a near miss. My own flight from Riga in Latvia to Simferopol in the Crimea was delayed for some hoursdue to a 'technical difficulty' and earlier in the day a plane crashed just a few hours from my destination. A lucky escape, I thought.

But my real lucky escape was yet to come.

So, I was walking across this path, admiring the view, picking my nose and minding my own business, when I slipped, fell off the path and landed on a ledge about seven foot below.

I dusted myself off, wiped the snot from my cheek and thought about climbing back up to the path. But it would have been difficult.

The way down looked easier, so I decided to climb down instead. It was my plan to make my way down to the ocean, change into the swimming trunks I was carrying in my backpack, place my clothes in my bag and swim around the cliffs until I made it to a nearby beach.

With this in mind I began my descent.

After about ten minutes of climbing, I realised that it was going to be more difficult than I had thought. What had started off as a steep slope was rapidly becoming a cliff face and many of the rocks I was using as footholds were loose.

There were two moments as I climbed that I was paralysed with fear. I was holding onto the rock and simply couldn't find anywhere to put my feet. I was afraid that my next move would send me tumbling down into oblivion. Going back up was now going to be extremely difficult, and I figured I didn't have far to go, so I continued my perilous descent.

Two hours later I was still climbing. And now it was beginning to get dark. I got to the point where I couldn't climb anymore and so I came to a stop on a ledge next to a small branch jutting out of the rock.

I realised then that I was stuck. I was stuck on a cliff in the Crimea and nobody knew I was there. Then I remembered that I was carrying my mobile phone in my backpack.

Unfortunately, I had no credit, and couldn't connect to anyone, either in the UK or the Ukraine, other than the Ukrainian emergency services. Worse still, no one could connect to me either.

After being put on hold and being forced and listen to awful Ukrainian music, which I thought would be the last music I ever heard, I got through to a woman who spoke English relatively well.

I explained my predicament, but she was having difficulty understanding the meaning of the word "cliff" and when she asked me where I was, all I could say was I was on a cliff in Balaklava, and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of cliffs in Balaklava.

I convinced her to call Emily in Belarus. Emily had been with me in the Crimea until Sunday. I was able to pass details of my location to Emily via this woman. Convinced I would now be saved, I settled down beneath my little tree and waited for morning.

Around about midnight I watched as a storm began to form miles out to sea. Two sheets of lightning lit up the night sky. One, to my right, forked across the sky while the other, directly ahead of me, was a simple, single bolt which kept striking the sea.

The thunder, which had began as a low rumble, steadily grew louder, and I realised that the storm was headed right for me. Worse than that, the bizarre bolt of lightning was headed right for me too.

All I could do was wait.

The first drops of rain hit me an hour later. By 2am the storm was right above me. I found myself in the eyes of a storm like no other I had ever witnessed.

My little branch and I bore the full brunt of Nature's rage. This was an ocean storm, born from the Black Sea, and I was hanging onto a cliff beneath a branch directly in its path.

For more than two hours I crouched there, drenched in sweat and rain water, a soaked towel covering my head, as the storm lashed the rocks around me.

The wind and rain began to loosen the rocks and every so often one would break free from the cliff and whizz past me before falling into the sea. The worst thing was that although the lightning was illuminating the cliff face every couple of seconds, I couldn't see the rocks. But I knew they were close.

There was one, that came within about fifteen feet of me, that must have been huge, because even over the storm I heard it come booming down the cliff, break in two and go crashing into the sea.

The cliffs in the Crimea are the most unstable I have ever seen. Erosion to the extreme. And the storm was weakening the cliff face ever more.

By about 4am the storm had began to move off towards Balaklava. It seemed that my prayers had been answered. I had not been fried and my little tree had not burst into flames. The closest that strange bolt of lightening had come to me was about 60 feet.

That might seem like quite a distance, but it was enough for me to be blinded for a second, a bolt of blue seared across my mind, and enough for me to shout "Fuck!" at the top of my lungs!

So, I was thanking my lucky stars that I had not been barbecued, when shortly before 5am I watched in disbelief as another storm began to form a few miles out to sea.

I cursed my rotten luck.

With the exception of the storm that had brought down the Russian airliner a week earlier, there had been nothing but clear skys and calm seas for the past seven days. Now on the day I become acquainted with my little tree, Mother Nature decides to vent her fury.

I prayed that daylight would come before Storm No.2 made land. This was not to be. Fortunately however, the second time round it was not so bad. There was little thunder and the lightning was not quite so awful.

At about 6am the first signs of daylight started to poke through the clouds. I thanked the Lord for that.

Then at about 6.30am it started to rain. And rain. I tucked my t-shirt away in my backpack in a vain attempt to keep it dry and sat there, bare chested, as the Lord emptied His bladder upon me.

To get a feeling of what this was like, imagine taking a cold shower. For two hours. Now imagine that cold shower is on the edge of a cliff.

Eventually the rain stopped, but not before it had clouded over, and the lightning had made a very brief reappearance. Just to let me know it was still around.

By 10am on Tuesday morning the rocks (and my jeans) had almost dried off and I was ready to consider my options. Looking around, I was startled to see that beyond my branch was a sheer drop of about two hundred feet to the ocean below.

I understand that when people tell stories, especially death-defying stories, there is a temptation to embellish or exaggerate. But it is no exaggeration to say that I really was just a few foot away from being dashed to pieces and sprinkled over the Black Sea.

During the night I had taken some comfort from the fact that my little branch had some foliage attached which I took as a sign it had not been struck by lightning. Looking at it in the daytime, I realised that the inside of the bark was almost completely burnt out.

My branch had been hit by lightning. Quite recently.

To add insult to injury, the branch had since become home to an ants nest, and the ants were just waking up, and coming out to inspect this stranger who had taken up residence on their patio.

By 10.30am I had convinced myself I was not going to be rescued. Was anyone even looking for me? I had not received any texts and nobody could phone me because I could not receive calls.

So, I called the Ukrainian emergency services again and got through to an obnoxious young woman. After explaining my predicament to her, she offered to put me through to the police in Balaklava.

But the police in Balaklava do not speak English. Of that I was sure. So I asked her to pass on a message to them. She thanked me for calling and abruptly hung up. I called again. She hung up. And again. She hung up. I couldn't believe it.

The bitch left me to die.

So, at 10.35am I began climbing back up the way I had came. I tied my towel to my little tree, to give me something to cling on to in case I came sliding back down and missed my branch. Slowly, and ever so cautiously, I began my ascent, climbing parallel to the branch.

It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

If I fell and couldn't grab that tree, I was dead. My throat was dry. I would have been perspiring but I had nothing left to perspire.

After an hour, I realised I could climb no further. The rocks were too loose. I put my foot on one boulder, about half my size, to test it, only for it to break free, covering my face in dust, and tumble down the cliff, splitting in two, missing my little tree by about a foot.

I was clinging onto the cliff, considering my next move, when I felt a single drop of rain on my forehead. I turned to face the sea and what I saw filled me with dread.

There, coming towards me, was a wall of rain. I had perhaps a minute before it hit land and I was washed away. I had no time to get back to my little tree. To my right was a narrow shelf in the rock with a stone jutting out beneath it. There was no time to test it. I made the decision to leap and grab the rock.

If it was loose, like so many others, I would plunge to my death. I jumped. The rock held. I pulled myself into the shelf and moments later the rain hit.

I got completely drenched. That was the very worst moment for me. Lying there, on that narrow shelf, in a puddle of water. I was up so high and all I could see was ocean. It was a very depressing moment.

I lay there for half an hour until the rain came to a stop and then lay there a while longer to give the rocks a little time to dry. Then I made my way back down to my little tree.

By this time it was midday on Tuesday and the sun made its first appearance of the day. I decided that the best course of action for me to take was to simply wait for a boat to pass.

I was too high to be seen, but had found the remains of an old beer bottle, and planned to use it to reflect the suns rays and catch someones attention. On any given day, dozens of boats passed this cliff, taking eager Ukrainians to the beach.

So I watched. And waited.

That's when the wind, which had been quite strong up until then, really picked up. It started blowing a gale. The Black Sea, which until that day had been this peaceful, serene and beautiful thing, became a raging monster. The biggest waves I have seen crashed into the cliff below me with terrifying ferocity.

The ants retreated. My little tree shook and swayed. I held on for dear life. The hours passed and I didn't see a single boat. Not one. The sea was just too damn rough, even for fishing boats.

By four o'clock in the afternoon I was starting to feel the effects of dehydration. I was dreaming of shashlik (a Georgian invention, meat on a stick. Love it) and a cold glass of Diet Coke.

All the while this was going on, my bodily functions were going into overdrive. I was burping and farting away. I thought it quite bizarre that my organs were continuing to function normally, blissfully unaware that they might soon be littering the cliffs of the Crimea.

I needed to open my bowels in a big way. It had been 30 hours since my last meal, and it wanted out. With one hand clutching the tree, I did my business, instinctively attempting to look around to make sure no one was watching. Funny, because if somebody had been watching, it would have been wonderful!

By the time I was finished, the sturgeon I had eaten a day earlier proceeded to roll off the ledge and returned to whence it came.

By this point I had accepted that it was more likely that I would die on this cliff than be rescued. I started to think about the futility of my situation and how stupid I had been. I didn't want to die here, in this lonely spot, only to be found months or years later, an old skeleton wearing Versace jeans.

I thought about jumping from the cliff. I thought that perhaps I could escape with a few broken bones. Looking back now, in the cold light of day, I realise that I would not simply have broken a few bones. It was more likely that my spine would have been ripped out or my head cracked open as I bounced from rock to rock.

Another option was simply to stay there, next to my little tree, and allow myself to die of thirst. As the hours went by, that seemed like an ever more appealing option.

Instead, I decided to set my sights on a ledge about thirty foot above me. It was wider than my ledge. I had even seen some grass on it. It was the penthouse of ledges compared to my bedsit ledge. The ledge became the Promised Land and I set my sights on reaching it once the gale had died down.

I continued to take shelter beneath my little tree when, quite suddenly, I was jolted out of my thoughts by the sound of a man calling my name. I looked up and saw three concerned faces, looking down at me from my penthouse ledge.

The name of the man who rescued me was Dima.

He brought fifteen colleagues with him. It would have been impossible for me to remember all their names, and so I resolved to remember just one, the name of the man who reached me first.

My rescuers were all very kind, very polite and very professional, despite carrying old, Soviet equipment with them. They came down from an angle, so as not to send rocks crashing my way.

A safety belt was tied to my waist. A helmet was shoved on my head. I was given a piece of rope to cling to. And then Dima and I and two of his colleagues all climbed the cliff together.

As we made our way to the top, rocks continued to break free, plunging into the ocean below. I understood then that had I not been rescued I would have died on that cliff. I would not have made it back to the top. The rocks were too loose, the cliff too steep.

I would have joined the boulders and remains of the sturgeon I had eaten a day earlier at the bottom of the Black Sea.

After giving me water and coffee, my rescue team took me to a local fire station (with two fantastic Soviet fire trucks outside) and I was given a bed. Everyone was very nice. They all wanted to shake my hand, they took lots of photos and someone even produced a video camera.

On the walls of the fire station were two pictures of a forest and one poster of a little girl holding a dog. I remember thinking how nice that was. Visit any fire station in the UK and all you'd see is tits and arses.

After a short rest and about fifteen minutes of saying thank you, I was driven back to my hostel by one of the firemen.

Once there I had a wonderful hot shower. It was incredible, the best I have had. I attempted to wash the stones, dust, dirt and crap from my hair. After that I was given a meal by one of the women who works at the hostel. It consisted of a boiled egg, a piece of bread topped with ham, and a tomato. Shortly afterwards, Emily's Aunt visited me and brought me some bread rolls.

A little later, after telephoning my Mum and Emily, I visited a local restaurant where I was finally able to live my dream - I ordered hot shashlik and an ice cold glass of Diet Coke.

Then it was back to the hostel. By 11pm on Tuesday night I was exhausted, I had aches in places where I didn't know I had places, and it was time for me to sleep, which I did, for about eleven hours.

I found out the next day that a Ukrainian rescue team began looking for me at 8pm on Monday evening.

The search was later abandoned due to the storm, which was so bad that it had uprooted trees. Early the next morning the search began again and two more rescue teams joined in.

Emily had spent the night worrying and crying. She had called my Mother and she too, along with my sister, had spent the night worrying and crying. Emily also contacted her Mother and her Aunt in the Crimea and they spent the night worrying and crying, along with Emily's uncle, who spent the night worrying but not crying.

A great deal of pressure was put on the Ukrainian emergency services, and this was why so many teams joined the search, and perhaps why it had only taken about 24 hours to find me.

Today I am a very minor local celebrity.

There is a story about me in the local paper. They spelt my name wrong and they have written that I fell 30 metres, but still, the bulk of the story is true.

Now that the experience is over and I have escaped almost unscathed, I do not regret that it happened. (I say almost unscathed, because this morning I woke up with two very long white hairs on my head. I hope this is not a sign of things to come).

What happened on that cliff has given me a benchmark, an experience so awful that I can compare it to lesser events in my life and suddenly they don't seem so bad.

I often have problems with people. Shortly before I came here, I had my mail stolen in the UK and I was threatened, but it all pales into comparison next to the 24 hours I spent on that cliff.

The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill and Found A Mountain.

A few hours ago I returned close to the spot where I spent my 24 hours in hell. It was important for me to return. Venturing down a little, I was even able to make out my branch, way down below.

So, on my very last day in Balaklava, I leave here a little stronger. I also leave a towel, tied to a branch, on a ledge, on a cliff in the Crimea, not far from where I write to you now.

Take care. And thanks for reading this.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.