After only 127 hours that movie’s hero had cut his own arm off with a multi-tool. We were not far from doing the same thing three days ago, if only to alleviate the tension. So imagine the jubilation and tears when the post lady arrived with not one, but two letters, both containing a governor’s pardon for teams Red Thread and Jungle Bungle. Tearing the envelopes open, we shouted for joy, and a couple of high fives and let’s get the f*** out of here’s later, we were packed and heading to Moldova. Our Romanian border guard in a fetching grey knee-length pencil skirt, 3.5 inch stilettos and a ponytail flirted with Tom outrageously. The somewhat more dour Moldovian customs agent sent us off to pay a three euro entry fee and we were in at last! Three euros is a relative bargain since Ed and Jim had to pay $20US. At the Ukrainian border crossing at Bolhrad we had hit the timing about right. An efficient chap went through our ‘maschine’ documents and passports and handed us over to a young customs agent. As he was quizzing me if we had long knives, only short ones, weapons, guns? No. Drugs? NO! I asked him if he could recommend a good Ukrainian vodka.
You can drink as much vodka as you want, but you can only take one litre each across the border, he said. But can you recommend a brand? I asked. He named a couple as we waited for final clearance by a table lined with his colleagues, the others jumped in and confirmed his choice, with one dissenter recommending Finlandia - to hoots of derision. As Tom got directions for Odessa, the compact, silver haired senior officer on duty asked us if we wanted to stop for something to eat, and proceeded to draw us map that included a source of fresh holy water, a cafe recommendation complete with local specialities to try, and a store to buy vodka. As soon as we got our papers, the officer stood up and said in Ukrainian, follow me, I’m driving a black Audi, I’ll show you the sights of Bolhrad. Tom and I looked a little dumbfounded, but did as we were told.
Off we shot to the holy shrine and filled our jerry can with really nice, soft water. Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, ok?, asked our guide? Ok!, we said. In minutes we’d sped down the back streets to find a massive cathedral built by Czar Nicolai in 1839, all freshly painted yellow with an astonishingly shiny gold roof. You have five minutes?, our guide asked again. Sure!, we said. Come, I show you something. Through an avenue of low trees we walked to a memorial for the paratroopers killed in an accident in Azerbaijan in 1989. The monument was classically Russian, bold, angular and concrete covered with copper leaf. Plaques naming the soldiers were arranged in a semi-circle and our guide explained where they came from, all over the Russian federation, and that there were Muslims and Christians fighting side by side. At this memorial and the next commemorating heroes from World War II through Iraq we all silently agreed on the futility and waste it represented. From there he led us to the cafe and sadly left us to dine alone on really good borscht and braised lamb’s shank. Our guide spoke only a couple of words of English, but never had a problem communicating his love for his country, nor we’d like to believe, understanding our willingness to learn about it. This is why we travel!