“Even though it is in the Ukraine,” my friend told me, “it is actually just over the border of Hungary. We would drive for three hours and then take a train for four hours. It’s a short trip—and we are only gone for three days.”
They say that it is the journey that is important, not the destination, but when you are traveling for four hours in a non-air conditioned train in 85 degree (30 C) heat, somehow this saying loses its inspiring punch.
Fifteen hours after began our journey, we fell into our beds ‘just over the border’ of Ukraine, exhausted at what appeared to be the longest ‘short trip’ ever.
We were invited to come see a gathering of Roma church leaders in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine. This beautiful region is a rich cultural mix of Hungarian, Slovakian, Roma, and Ukrainian cultures—evidenced at the conference with the frequent switching of languages between Hungarian, two different dialects of Romani, and Ukrainian.
I was intrigued by Ukraine, having never visited, but apparently our travel (mis)adventure quota had not been met for the month. After a stifling hot ride and a delayed connection due to a train incident, we finally stumbled off our train after 8 p.m., exhausted and bedraggled from the heat.
We were greeting by half a dozen young taxi drivers who only spoke Hungarian and Ukrainian, and each tried to convince us that his car was the best.
I emerged from the WC to find my friend convinced that one man was the pastor who was supposed to pick us up.
“Sergei?” she asked pointing to him.
“Sergei!” he agreed, smiling.
“Svete?” she asked, referring to our translator who was supposed to accompany him.
“Svete!” he agreed, smiling wider. The rest of the guys were laughing and gesturing, and it was just about at that moment we realized that this man would agree to be anyone we wanted.
We sat in front of the train station, once in a while getting cryptic messages from our hosts.
“Our car was in the mechanics, we are coming in 30 minutes, please wait for us!” the first one read. An hour later, the phone beeped again: “We are coming, don’t worry!” Finally after two hours, we sent them a text asking if they were okay. “We’re at the border, they think we have drugs!”
We entertained ourselves by watching the taxi drivers test out each of their car’s capabilities. They would all pile into one car, speed off in a burst of exhaust with music pumping, and roar back up 5 minutes later before repeating the exercise in the next car.
Each time the train station would signal an approaching train, they would sprint past us up the stairs to try to be the first to the potential customers.
By the time our hosts finally arrived, it was close to 11 and I was exhausted. They were profuse in their apologies and bundled us into the car. Although the pastor was leading the conference the next day, he seemed unperturbed at the lateness of the hour or the drive we still had to do.
“What time do things start tomorrow?” I asked.
“We would like it to be 10 a.m., but it will probably be around 11 a.m., ” he said. (After the conference began at noon the next day, I began to realize that the concept of time is considerably more relaxed in this context).
It took us over an hour to cross the border, and then much to my chagrin, I found out we were driving all the way to the camp where the conference was being held, another 40 km. This would have been no problem on a highway, but Ukrainian roads are like an Indiana Jones adventure ride, potholes so big you could lose a tire, fender, or a medium size animal if you are not careful.
We gratefully tumbled into our beds around 2:30 a.m. “Sleep as long as you want!” our hosts urged.
The next morning, we were awakened by someone pounding on the front door, announcing breakfast…