Red kalashnikov or deadly dangerous cycling in Ukraine by Paulina Okoniewska

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Very few pictures. Not even good ones. A beginning photographer being afraid to take out her camera. Cause the people are staring here. Like wild beasts. They’ve never seen any „tourists” before. Why would anyone like to come here?

Cause there’s absolutely nothing in this place. Just a few houses scattered all over the deserted countryside. One stinky lake. One monastery. Closed and silent. At least on a Saturday night. No happy faces. No smiling children. What is a blondie in a pink T-shirt doing there then?!

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To say that she is curious what’s just behind the corner wouldn’t be a satisfactory answer. To say that she got lost wouldn’t be true as well.

After all, there was a border to cross with three passport controls. Smirking officers saying to her: you wanna machaju (cycle) blondie? All right then! – permission is won. And a low mocking laugh follows it. But we may not let you out. That is what they actually said but the pink biker disbelieved. If you can get in, you should be able to get out … right?!

Not necessarily, as it turns out. Cause the regulations are not clear. Can you pass Budomierz-Hruszów border crossing between Poland and Ukraine by bike? Officers are shrugging their shoulders. If you really wanna. Why not?! Let’s pack you up on some van and take you out of the way. We’ve got more important issues to deal with.

Like smugglers. Illegal immigration. International spies. Who cares about my desire to explore?! Not the guys with kalashnikovs for sure… You know …officers with long red guns which were designed to shoot people from a few kilometre distance. Perfect for dealing with border tresspassers.

Fortunately the officers are not in a shooting mood today. Little bored, little tired with the responsibility of keeping the border safe of unwanted entries. If you have neither vodka nor cigarettes, they are going to leave you alone. Although as you are a woman … you might get useful on a lonely night shift. But somehow they don’t even care about that. Fortunately. As they stare but let me pass. We won’t let you out – they add with a perversive smile, bursting out with laughter as I’m riding away. These words are gonna stay with me, spoiling the pleasure of my escapade.

Cause they must have been joking, haven’t they? Hopefully….

The good road ends suddenly. As if the brand new border crossing was a joke. Or a way to tempt lonely bikers. A promise that there is something waiting on the other side. A possibility of a nice countryside adventure.

But the hopes are shattered very soon. Toothless farmers stare at me unwelcomingly. The lady cleaning the chapel window at the side of the road doesn’t know the way. Besides the cleaning liquid has just ended and now she has to spit on the glass to make it shiny again. To add an extra charm to all of it, everywhere stinks of petrol. Overpowering smell reaches your nostrils and waits calmly until you get used to it. Ukraine seems … a little hostile. At least at the beginning.

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By the lake moody Ukraine unexpectedly shows its friendly face. Horses are running and goats are wandering. There is even one family having a picnic. And a lonely captain who lost his ship. Actually, Iwan is still wearing a uniform as if he couldn’t face the bitter truth. With madness in his eyes, he’s telling a humorous anecdote all over again. What else can you do here? Drink, laugh and chat. The Ukrainians, just like the Polish folks, are pretty good at it. The stories to tell might be the best weapon sometimes.

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All Ukraine seems to have overslept. As if there was no European Union. As if there were no better times. As if there was still the year 1950. As if the eastern Europe, which is my home after all, didn’t make a giant step forward.

Goats don’t care. Sheep turn around their funny mouths. Only the horses can sense the danger. Cause something is wrong here. Something doesn’t match up.

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I zip up my blouse as I always do when I feel threatened. The smell of petrol fills my nostrils again. Where am I on earth? Where am I? My home is just around the corner. Have I jumped to one of the Tolkien’s stories? Have I changed the dimension?

My home is just round the corner….

But let’s come back to the 007 adventure! Mr Bond wouldn’t be afraid. I can’t be either….

A bumpy road leads through the villages. A bad quality nameless macadam road. No google maps images. I feel a little bizarre, a little cheated. A few kilometres away there was a perfect road with silky asphalt. Smooth as baby’s bottom. Flat as a pancake. Nothing like that here.

Dust is getting to my eyes and small gravel is making my ankles dirty. But that’s not what’s worrying me the most.

STARING continues. HONKING joins in. Are they so excited to see me? Should I be scared? Or maybe they’re just encouraging me to go further?

I’m continuing my crazy 007 adventure for the next 20 kilometres. The lake Szczepłoty seems safer so I decide to reach it from the other side encouraged by the shiny dome of a monastery seen from the distance.

Me and monasteries …. stormy relationship! Love is only on my side. Orthodox nuns and priests hate me. And they’re showing it I’m not blaming them. But I’ve got enough of this situation already. In Romania they shouted at me that places of contemplation are not for such girls like me. Here they seem more friendly. They just shut the door and leave hurriedly pretending not having seen me.

As if I were a ghost. A ghost of the future days they may never see….

I sigh and take a pic from the outside. The dome of the monastery seems more distant than it was on the other side of the lake. And it’s not shiny any longer. What was so damn attractive about it that made me come here?! God only knows!

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The evening is approaching briefly. Time to get back. I just can’t stay here. Don’t ask me why.

Kalashnikov people have gone home. They were replaced by a blond colleague with a short pistol. Of an opposite sex. Now she’s the one staring the most. She even places her hand on the gun. Nothing surprised her that much since the fall of the Soviet Union.

What are you doing here? How did you get in?! – she seems really curious about my adventures. I need to send her a link to my social media.

I’m a tourist. I visited the lake… – I’m pronouncing every single word very distinctly. She understands Polish for sure. And I’ve got nothing to hide. Except for a few euros which I’m not very willing to share with her. Will she insist on taking it away?

She looks at me suspiciously.

You can’t enter. Go to another border crossing Miss. It’s European Union Zone.

As if I didn’t know. Right…

But …the morning officers let me in. I’ve got a stamp in the passport. Actually I live nearby…

Go to the crossing near Medyka. They will let you in there. – she replies and turns around.

Now I’m staring at her uncomprehendingly. And open-mouthed.

Medyka it’s almost 60 kilometres from Checkpoint Budomezh-Hrushiv. It’s 8:45 p.m. How am I supposed to get there before the moonless Ukrainian night will fall on me?! I know…I’ll stay by the „short gun blondie”. Make her tired of my presence.

The seconds turn into minutes and minutes into a quarter. A dead silence reigns. And then the miracle happens.

Hey lady!! Did you like the lake?!

My luck surprises me every time. One of the kalashnikov guys forgot his dinner. Fresh fish from the nearby lake.

Why are you sitting here?! Swietłana?! – the blond officer seems to have followed the regulations too closely.

Little embarrassed with her unnecessary suspicions, Swietlana calls the border officers at the official crossing. Everybody remembers me very well. Sure she was there. Bring her to us… we’ll know what to do.

Wait a minute…have you registered before? You really crossed the border a few hours ago?!

Morning officers must have been on a hangover. Evening officers know the regulations better.

Women took over the night shift. They’re really fearless!

Small local „smugglers” are trembling with fear. Officers’ piercing eyes will find the smallest packet of cigarette. The tiniest bottle of vodka. They’re the best of the best. Shamefully… I need to admit to something. With them, I feel the safest.

I’m even taking part in one of the controls. Igor who is heading for Legnica in western Poland is going to take me to the other side. Cause the officers have found the way again. They will pack me up to Igor’s van to finally get rid of me. They wink and smile at me but as soon as they turn to Igor they’re like commanding generals!

They fire the instructions making grave, serious faces.

Open the boot.

What’s that? You’ve got to put in in the cabin.

Leave the sausage. Exporting meat is illegal.

 

Life is illegal. Breathing is illegal. Crossing the border on bike is illegal. Oh, Mighty God!!

What jerks!!!! – Maurycy, my little devil, who’s always sitting on my shoulder and mocking all my adventures, has suddenly woken up. He’s a European Union devil with aspirations to travel all over the world… he claims to have ancestors in Australia. Moreover, most of Tasmanian devils are his cousins so he asked me a few times whether I could take him there….

Devils are in Europe as well. Just look around Maurycy – I’m replying enthusiastically, trying not to make him irritated with my unstoppable desire to travel all over European ex- and current war zones.

Brr… I still prefer Tasmanian fellows. At least they know what a toothpaste is for!

Maurycy, although being a devil, takes cares about his hygiene a lot. He can’t stand neglected Ukrainian „smugglers”. Although he enjoyed Swietłana, a blond officer from an unofficial crossing.

You could have stayed there!! the night is supposed to be freezing cold which would serve well for your head!!

What do you mean by that? – I hiss at him a little offended.

How can you name somebody who decides that one day he prefers to get shot by some ...- Maurycy shakes with disgust – by some deprived of deo spray, brutal army officers instead of sunbathing on one of Australia’s sunny beaches?!

You’d call such a person Paulina 007. Besides I don’t think he really wanted to shoot me.

So what did he want to do to you, smarthead?

Something else, Maurycy. Guess what.

Maurycy, who still doesn’t see a woman in me but some crazy traveller who left her last brain cell in Ukraine, confirms suddenly.

Indeed!! – there is silence between us for a minute or two – Even if your…hm … death has been postponed… How much longer could you live in such a way?

I say nothing and I start to reconsider Maurycy’s words.

Well… hopefully your next employer is gonna be a little smarter.

Actually...- my little devil strikes a mysterious tone – If you die, I’ll have to interfere with the thoughts of somebody who is … ten times more crazy than you are!

Oh… who do you have on your mind, Maurycy?

You don’t want to now dear… and I’m not in a hurry to ruin his life either. Actually, I’m a little afraid of the guy …

I’m really curious but I say no more. Maurycy suddenly breaks the silence.

Still… you should have stayed there a little longer …And I could look at my lovely Swietłana ….ah… – he sulks to my ear although he knows very well that it’s all for nothing. I’m not gonna yield to his demands. He is just a hell expatriate and I’m an adventurewoman007. If I followed his advice, where would I end up?! Well, either in hell or in Tasmania. That’s for sure!!

So ..Maurycy … did you fancy Swietłana? – I’m trying to get him into conversation so that he would stop his sulking and ……

Did I fancy her?! And do kangaroos live in Australia?

I don’t know. I’ve never been there …- I’m replying quite honestly.

You’re not very bright… dear ….-my little devil starts to play on my nerves again.

Shut up Maurycy or you’ll stay with Swietłana….

Really? – Maurycy’s heart rises.

Yees dear …with her and her toothless Ukrainian boyfriend. Just wait until they have sex…

Oh God ..- Maurycy has forgotten he’s a devil – I mean …oh Lucifer … I mean ….I don’t know what I mean really- my small devil seems more scared that I am today- Paulina007 have you got a passport dear? – his tone of voice changes suddenly.

Ask Swietłana and shut up finally… my turn …

 

And so it is …My passport is fine, officers smile and wave at me. Toothless Igor takes me away from Ukraine driving very slowly, trying not to damage my bike.

Ukrainian border disappears and the memory fades away. I’m coming back to my city which is glamorous with loads of new European Union roads and clear border crossing regulations. With tourists and happy bikers.

Still there is something wrong in all of it. Something doesn’t match up.

And I feel I need to get back there to check it up.

This time Belarus is calling me … will Maurycy go with me again?

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I’m dedicating this article to my friend Doug Fry, who has been strengthening my motivation to write different fictional stories for the last few months 😉 hopefully I will continue as long as I live 😉 Thanks Doug;-)

But fiction wasn’t enough for me so I decided to take a risk and live a few of my own adventures changing the real-life stories into a series of articles. Hopefully I won’t go too far in it …

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