Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Missing Moldova, and Leaving for L'viv

Today I packed my backpack with mixed feelings about leaving Kiev.  It’s been the only home I’ve known for the past two weeks, and I’ll be especially sad to leave my friends at the Coffee House on Ivana Franca street, where I’ve been coming nearly every day to struggle with the next great American travel memoir.  But I’m excited to be moving west, and feel confident that my decision to skip Moldova is the right one.

Here’s what happened with Moldova.  Part of my travel plan – picked up from Rick Steves’ Surprising Bulgaria DVD -- includes going to the Rila Monastery near Sofia, Bulgaria, where I can have my own digs for $15 a night.  I don’t know why; I just feel that that’s the place where I’m going to make more-than-serious writing progress.  I’ve been imagining myself hunkered down, laboring under a rigorous, monk-like writing schedule, and really getting some good chapters laid down.  According to my map, the only logical way to get from here to Bulgaria overland is by way of Moldova, so I had planned to take a train to Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, stay for a week, and then move on to Sofia.  

But then things are never that easy.  I learned—on a tip from Scottish Janine—that there’s a strip of land on Moldova’s northeastern border with Ukraine where foreign travelers should take extra care.  The region is called Trans-Dniestr, or Transnistria and, according to Wikipedia, it’s a “breakaway territory” that declared independence in 1990, and which neither the Republic of Moldova nor any United Nations member-state recognizes.  By all accounts I’ve come across, travel there is “at your own risk;” meaning, if you get yourself into a fix, there’s  not much Hillary Clinton or anyone else from the State Department can do for you.

Of course I did some homework and learned from reports on the ground that the main cause for concern surrounds purported money-shakedowns by alleged lawless, Transnistria border guards.  It seems some foreigners were pulled off trains bound for Moldova in the middle of night, taken into a “little white hut,” and told they must pay for a “visa” in order to travel onward.  Other travelers, on the other hand, reported sailing through the border checkpoint without so much as a sideways glance.  The tie-breaker, though, was a recent report from a man of good, Lonely-Planet authority, who says the shakedowns now seem to be a thing of the past. 

So I was leaning toward taking my chances when I turned up at the Kiev train station to investigate the train schedule to Chisinau.  I showed a woman behind a ticket window a note from my hostel administrator containing relevant inquiries written in Russian.  The woman read the note, wrote “Kaca No. 9” at the bottom, and handed it back to me.  I took that to mean I should go find Kaca No. 9.

I searched the train station high and low and became convinced that Kaca No. 9 was nowhere to be found.  I went to the main train information board and figured out for myself that each of the three Kiev-Chisinau trains were either departing or arriving at dangerous hours in the early, early morning or in the late, late evening.   I stood before the board, sighing with a helpless and exhausted frustration, when I heard a big commotion behind me.  It sounded like someone was falling down stairs. 

I turned around to see a man in his mid-20s indeed tumbling to the bottom of a flight of marble-granite stairs, and then I heard a loud cracking, thump that I can only imagine was his skull hitting the hard floor at the bottom of the landing.  The fifty or so people shuffling through the train station lobby turned their attention to him, but no one said a word or made a move toward him.  I was about 50 feet away, and could see the man’s head was bleeding.  Twice he tried to get off the floor and walk, but each time he took a few fluttering steps forward like a bird trying to fly with a broken wing, and each time he flopped back to the ground.

People continued to stand and stare as he finally came to a resting position in the center of the lobby.  The blood was forming a larger and larger pool around his head when three train-station officers surrounded him.  They stood over him, just looking at him for what seemed like a long minute, and then one bent over him, grabbed him by his elbow, walked him over to an adjacent set of stairs, and sat him down kind of hard, it looked like.   There appeared to be zero sympathy or tenderness involved in the entire scenario.  No one yelled “someone call an ambulance!” or “is there a doctor in the house?” like you would expect to hear in America, regardless of whether someone is just another drunk who lost his footing on some stairs.

I crossed the train station lobby to continue my search for Kaca No. 9 and got a good look at all the blood and what looked like a piece of flesh lying in the center.  (Sorry if you’re eating your lunch.)  The train station officers were still standing by the man over in the corner, but it looked like no medical help was being offered, and I stood for a moment dumbstruck by the collective apathy and the almost complete absence of assistance offered or given.

I was still mulling over my plans when I remembered someone telling me that “Moldova is even worse than Ukraine” in terms of the language barrier and general harshness.  And while I don’t mean to indict an entire country over one passing and probably-careless comment, I suddenly had a strong need not to go further into an abyss of non-communication and possible non-caring.  Between this bloody bird-man and the potential for trouble in Transnistria, I decided I had had enough.  So I rejiggered my itinerary, and decided to head west to Poland, which I understand resembles my neck of the woods a good measure more than does Moldova.

The truth is, I have no idea if Poland is a place in which someone might show concern were I to tumble down a flight of stairs and crack my head open.  But I have heard that most people speak English there, so I figure someone might at least understand a plea for help, should I need to make one.  

Tonight I leave for L’viv, Ukraine (which I understand actually used to be part of Poland), and, after a week or so there, it’s a straight shot into Warsaw.   And I also have a lead on a cheap flight from Berlin to Bulgaria, so the monastery plans are still in play.