Well, I’m back in Amsterdam, having finally gotten out of the Ukraine. I thought I’d post a number of random observations about the country, the people, and the culture, in addition to posting a bunch of pictures.
Overall, I had a very good trip. The meeting in Chernivtsi, Ukraine went extremely well, and I developed a number of important new contacts, planned new collaborations, and made new friends. I was even surprised to have one of the ‘distinguished founding fathers’ of singular optics, who was presiding the session in which I spoke, stand up and declare that my talk was ‘the best of the conference’ (I was tempted to immediately point at a friend of mine who had spoken before me and shout, “In your face!”, but I didn’t think people would realize I was kidding).
The Ukraine is an interesting country in that it is one that is struggling with modernity and what you might call ‘civil society’. Though of course many people there are good, civilized sorts, there is also below the surface for many people an attitude of ‘every man for himself’ which doubtless comes from a society which has been poor and oppressed for a long, long time.
The most striking aspect, however, is that traveling in the Ukraine sucks. My own experience began when I missed my very short connection to Chernivtsi from Kiev because of delays out of Amsterdam. My only recourse was to join some of the other conference goers in a conference-chartered minibus to Chernivtsi.
First, we ended up having to wait at the airport an additional two hours longer than expected because one of the attendees lost his luggage (he hadn’t received it by the time we left). So, at about 6:00 pm, we set off on our supposed six to seven hour trip to Chernivtsi. One of my first pictures from the window while passing through Kiev is below.
The trip which should have taken six hours took ten hours. We were driving in an ancient minibus which had a shoddy suspension, over roads which were loaded with potholes. Most of us tried to sleep, but couldn’t because of the harshness of the ride, although everyone inevitably passed out from sheer exhaustion. We arrived at the meeting at 4 am, and since we had to catch a bus at 8 am, I had about 3 hours sleep for the first day.
We only stopped three times on the drive, once to relieve ourselves by the side of the road, once for fuel, and once, sometime after midnight, at a themed cafe with lush green tropical foliage:
The pictures are somewhat blurry, but that fits my state of mind at that point. It was surreal to be out in the middle of nowhere at the middle of night, in 45 degree F weather, at a little lush paradise. The surreality helped me concoct two Phillip K. Dick-esque story ideas during the remainder of the voyage.
The rest of travel in the Ukraine is not much better. Airports passport control is a bureaucratic mess, taking several minutes per person. There are no orderly queues, and people are constantly trying to ‘edge’ ahead of you in position.
City travel is also horrendous. Traffic, even in Chernivtsi, was backed up at nearly all times of the day. Rules of the road seem for the most part optional. My taxi driver into Kiev, faced with a backed-up line of traffic, drove into one of the oncoming traffic lanes to travel about a mile further down the road; about six other cars that I could see followed. This is almost understandable; because of parking limitations, cars are parked haphazardly and illegally throughout the city:
And, of course, even the ‘legitimate’ taxi drivers are not above completely bilking a foreigner. My driver out of Kiev tried to charge me twice what the driver in charged; fortunately, I didn’t even have enough money to pay him, and he had to settle for significantly less.
Finally, public transportation also appears treacherous. The metros in Kiev are reasonable (a bit more about them later), but the buses look to always be packed with people, and long, long queues build up during the busy hours. One of the buses is shown below:
It really hit home, wandering the Ukraine, how fortunate (or spoiled) we are concerning travel in the west. Ukrainians and other easterners put up with traffic and travel that would drive an ordinary American insane.
Anyway, I wanted to rant about travel a bit; my next posts will be a bit more cheerful!