Monday, July 15, 2013

Josh's return trip home

When I finally got my "get out of Ukraine" date I can't lie, I was excited.  Its hard being in place where you don't speak the language and don't know your way around.  So first chance I had, I was ready to get back.  Just a little back story.  The days leading into my heading home, Kiev had received the most snow they had had in around 100 years.  Flights were delayed, cars were stuck, the freeway was deadlocked, and people were actually skiing around downtown to get where they needed to go.  So back to present time, my flight was due to leave around 5 am from Kiev, and I was still in Kharkov.  We booked a 7 pm express train which was due to arrive around midnight.  Tack on a 40 minute cab ride and I'd be at the airport with about 4 hours to get checked in and relax before departing for Germany.  All is fine.  I've got my wife's giant suitcase and my own, as well as a carryon backpack (I was trying to lighten the load for my wife and mother-in-law for their return trip).

  I made the 7 pm train no problem.  It was cold outside, like really cold, around 0° F when I got onto the train.  I had my Turkish winter coat on and a beanie, with jeans and tennis shoes.  I was plenty warm inside the nicely heated cab.  Train departed on time and I could taste the end.  Then about an hour in the train slows to a stop.  I'm thinking, no big deal probably just making a quick stop for more passengers, but then I looked out the window and there were no lights, no roads, nothing but snow and dark.  An attendant came on over the PA system, but of course it wasn't in English, so I had no idea what he said.  We sat there for about 45 minutes.  I was in contact with one of the facilitators at this time and she was positive but sounded worried, which didn't sit too well with me.  But then the train started back up.  I checked my watch and thought, oh good, still have a three hour buffer.  Then about 30 minutes later the train goes black.  Now the first time the train stopped everything still worked, the heat, lights, tv's, everything.  This was black, no lights, no sound, no heat, the train just rolled to a stop in the middle of nowhere.  Now the attendants started running back and forth thru the cabs yelling updates as they passed, again, not in English.  Some people started getting off the train, but others stayed.  I started to freak out a bit.  I had no idea what was going on, and without being able to communicate I felt helpless and for the first time, really scared.  I started asking everybody around me if anyone spoke English or if they could help.  But nobody seemed to even acknowledge me.  We sat there for around an hour and with no heat the cab turned into a giant ice box.  I threw on my coat and tried to stay as warm as possible, all the time trying to find anybody who spoke English and would help.  More and more people started to exit the train.  Then finally a younger girl, probably in her early 20's came up to me and said "English?"  I have never been more thankful for somebody.  She told be the train was broken and another was on its way.  We needed to wait outside for the other train and it should be there in 15 minutes.  So I packed up my two giant bags and my backpack and trekked out of the train and into knee deep snow. 

  I managed to get all of my stuff through the snow and onto the train platform where we waited, and waited, and waited.  For anyone who has been to Ukraine you know that things often don't quit work on a timeline.  15 minutes turned into an hour and a half.  The temp dropped and with a wind chill I was told it hit about -15° F.  I have never been so cold in my life.  When the train finally arrived I had to look at my hands to make sure they were grabbing the handles of my luggage, because I couldn't feel anything.  I had to watch my legs walk in the snow because I couldn't feel my feet touching the ground.  But I made it on the new train, found my cab and called our facilitator.  We were now running way late.  She made the calls and had a taxi waiting for me.  When I arrive at the train station in Kiev I had an hour and a half until the plane departed, and a 40 minute taxi ride still to come.  Remember how I said that Kiev had recorded a record amount of snow?  I was expecting Niko and his giant van, which I suppose would be awesome in the snow.  But Niko's van had broken down so I got a front wheel drive Hyundai.  I was stoked we made it out of the parking lot.  First thing I did was check for seatbelts.  There were none.  But I was in the back seat and cramped, so I wasn't too worried about that.  But then about 2 minutes into the ride we go thru a red light.  My eyes must have been about the size of dinner plates because the driver looked back and smiled and said "its alright, its early".  These guys know what they are doing, it is their job after all.  We bombed onto the freeway and I felt like I was in a movie, where drift racing was the main theme.  The massive amounts of snow had been pushed up on either side of the road making the normally three or four lane freeway a two lane freeway with walls of ice on either side.  I was fine until I looked at the km/h and realized our speed, on the ice, with a front wheel drive Hyundai.  I'm not sure I would have wanted to know that speed in a tank.  Then we started passing cars in a new "third" lane that we somehow invented along the way.  As I heard the ice scrapping the side of the car I wondered if this was indeed the end.  Then we pulled up to the airport, safe and sound.  I would have tipped that guy a million if I had it.  I had about 40 minutes to get checked in, through security, and boarded for my flight. 

  I was exhausted as I had been up since the previous morning at around 6 am.  Then I got to the lobby and saw the line.  Easily 150 people in line.  The thing was the flights had been canceled for two days due to the snow and this was the first flight out.  So everybody was there.  I waited in line for about 5 minutes then went to the front and let them know that my flight was leaving in 35 minutes and I needed to get checked in, was there anyway I could get up to the front.  The lady stared at me, then said no.  I said "so what then, this line won't move that fast, should I just re-schedule my flight"?  Her response was, "I don't know, probably".  So I went to the back of the line and waited another 20 minutes.  By this time I was tired, hungry, frustrated, and starting to get a little pissed.  So I did what any Ukrainian would do.  I cut to the front of the business class line.  I then was able to get the attention of the lady in the economy line and told her my flight left in 10 minutes.  She checked her computer and waived me up.  The people behind me started yelling but honestly I didn't care.  I was out of there in ten minutes and I would never see them again.  I booked it thru security and found my gate.  About three minutes later the plane was boarding.  I found my seat and prepared now to be without my family for a minimum of 2-1/2 weeks.  Despite being up for 24+ hours at that point I was wired.  I landed next in Germany, made it to my next flight and arrived in Denver, Colorado.  For whatever reason I could not sleep during any of these flights.  Maybe it was the excitement of the previous days events, maybe it was that I'm 6'3", 200+lbs and was seated between two men my same size.  Whatever it was I was exhausted at Denver and had a 9 hour layover.  I couldn't fall asleep there either, I was terrified I'd sleep through the announcement for my flight.  So I stayed awake until I boarded to Spokane.  That flight I slept, solidly, for an hour.  I arrived at midnight local time, 39 hours after boarding my train to Kiev, and roughly 53 hours after the last full nights sleep.  The trip back was not fun, but it did provide for an awesome story.  And in the end I'd do it a thousand times over, because as a result of our travels we got our little girl, and that was worth it.

Here are some pictures of Kiev during the snowstorm.

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