Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

4 Aug 2012

Staying with a family in Ukraine and selling melons in Moldova

Posted by Will

I cycled out of Kiev with no trouble at all as the pavements are about three times wider than in Britain. After 70km I had overheated in the high-30s sun and so stopped for a rest on a shady roadside bench which usually would have been occupied by an old woman selling vegetables. I hadn’t sat there for 5 minutes when a man approached me and motioned that I was welcome to lunch in his home. I answered with a vigorous nod of my head and followed him through a little wooden gate.

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His house turned out to be a fully functioning farm equipped with an enormous vegetable patch, chickens, cows and lots of other farm-style stuff like bits of old machinery, dirt and half-collapsed sheds. Outside on the terrace, shaded by a big parasol, I was treated to a large bowl of milk, slices of tomato on bread, cucumbers, eggs, some kinds of seeds, honey and a big lump of lard. All this in the company of husband and wife, 27 year-old son, neighbours who were invited around to stare at the weird Englishman and grandma, who had lived here her whole life. The conversation wasn’t spoiled by the lack of a common language; in fact that just made everything more lively. They asked me how old I was, what my parents thought of my trip, why I was doing it (harder to answer!) and about all the places I had visited. Two hours later I wheeled my bike back out the little wooden gate with a pannier stuffed full of fresh vegetables.

Skip forward 6 hours and darkness was creeping up on me. I had cycled another 70km down the road with the jelly-legs to prove it and so started to set up my tent on a flat patch of field which I had ascertained wasn’t crawling with ants and mosquitoes. As often happens in this situation, a man suddenly appeared out of nowhere. “Damn”, I thought, “I’m going to be moved on”. However, he couldn’t have been happier to see me. I spoke more Ukranian than he spoke English yet he still managed to communicate that it was his great honour to invite me to his home for the night. At first I was slightly hesitant as it was now fully dark outside. But his enthusiasm swayed me to throw all my stuff in the back of his beaten-up old car and follow him to his humble abode.

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His house lay in a tiny village with no running water and the only road leading there had long since given up being a road and become more of a dirt track. The house had 3 small rooms: an entrance hall cluttered with furniture and two bedrooms, one of which also served as the kitchen and living room. I was shown the pit-toilet down at the far end of the yard and also the wash-pit where I found a bucket of water recently drawn from the well. Despite the basic facilities it felt incredible to have a good wash after a long day’s cycling. The family couldn’t have been kinder and spent most of my stay making sure I was eating and enjoying myself. For supper that night and breakfast the next morning, me, husband and wife, and all 8 children (!) crowded around a small table and tucked into potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, lard and something I can only describe as ‘pig’ as my queries where met only with the “oink, oink” noise. They showed me family photographs and I showed the younger children some magic tricks (which had them quite confused). I had a fantastic night’s sleep despite sharing the small room all the children, aged 3-14. I really couldn’t have had a more insightful experience into the lives of the people out in these remote Ukrainian villages. Some people’s capacity for kindness will never cease to amaze me. Again, I set off the next morning with a pannier full of bread and vegetables.

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A few hundred kilometers and a lot of hills later, I found myself in Moldova without any of the local currency to buy food. I hadn’t seen a cash machine for 100km, nor a currency exchange place, and was puffing my way hungrily towards a largish town called Orhei. Lucky I met Nicu then, a 13 year old boy selling melons out the back of his Dad’s van. He spoke extremely good English which he explained to me was a result of playing internet games on English servers. The melon business was his own: he had planted the melons in May, had tended to them, and was now selling them so that he could make enough money to buy a printer. What a guy! He let me sit in the van and we talked while sharing a huge melon, every now and again interrupted by a customer, and for Nicu the money piled up. He confided to me that he already had enough money to buy his printer. This money was for the next phase of the melon business. What an entrepreneur! We exchanged emails, I said goodbye, finally found a cash machine, cycled up a big hill with the setting sun behind me, had a hot night’s sleep in the tent, and finally arrived in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, the next morning.

From what I’ve seen so far Chisinau is nothing to write home about. That’s probably an unfair judgement as I’ve only been here for 2 days but there doesn’t seem to be much to see. Plus the constant barrage of 30 degree heat makes it difficult to move at anything faster than a snail’s pace. The heat was similar in Kiev but that is where the similarities end. Kiev is a spectacular city and one which I am convinced you could spend two weeks exploring and still not even scratch the surface. The sheer quantity of beautiful buildings is astounding and range from old golden-domed cathedrals first founded a millenium ago to grand, imposing, Soviet buildings which have as much artistic merit as any other feats of architecture I’ve seen. I rode the Kiev Metro where some of the stations are adorned with chandeliers, mosaics, statues and marble. A statue on the bank of the Dnieper river commemorating the Second World War is over 100m tall. It’s a city whose centre is flush with wealth where smart-suited men talking importantly into iPhones and BlackBerries are as common as in London, Paris or New York. It’s a million miles away from the villages in the countryside. For anyone looking for city to explore, Kiev won’t disappoint.

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Right, I need to pack my stuff up and get out of this hostel before the check-out in two hours time. I will be heading almost directly west (completely the wrong direction to go round the world) across Romania aiming for the Serbian and Bosnian cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo respectively. This will be the most mountainous cycling so far. I expect this leg of the trip, with the heat as well, to be one of the hardest to date. And that’s not to mention that the mountains I’ll be cycling through have by far the largest concentration of bears in all of Europe. Wild campers are regularly visited by these furry friends in the night. Don’t worry though – I have a penknife.

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5 Comments already on “Staying with a family in Ukraine and selling melons in Moldova”
  1. 12:43 pmpermalink
    04 Aug 2012

    Peter Rowland

    Will

    An inspirational blog! Great to hear your take on the cultures and people you’re meeting. Good luck and well done!

    Peter

  2. 11:32 ampermalink
    05 Aug 2012

    Fran

    Thoroughly agree with Peter! Well done you.
    Watch out for those bears!
    Love Fran xx

  3. 3:01 pmpermalink
    06 Aug 2012

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Well done William. Love hearing your tales and the photos are hilarious! How many languages will you be fluent in on your return?!

  4. 11:22 pmpermalink
    13 Aug 2012

    Jackie

    Reading that post was a great break from my very boring dissertation about global culture – meanwhile you get to be experiencing it!!! And I’m glad it was a much happier post after the last one… maybe you should try writing happy poems too. I secretly really want to see your poem – I bet it is good. Or at least funny :)
    I really specifically loved two bits of this last post – the description of the first family and imagining you trying to explain what the heck you were doing there (!) – and also the little boy, Nicu (?) who learned English from video games. That is sooo interesting.
    Anyway, hope you’re having fun and have moved on safely or found something nice to do where you are!

  5. Will

    11:44 ampermalink
    14 Aug 2012

    Will

    Peter: Thank you very much!
    Fran: I wrestled with no fewer than 4 bears and am currently running (cycling) from the Dedicated Establishment Arranging Defence for Bears’ Equal Advantage in Romania (DEADBEAR).
    S,G,T,E: Hope you are having a nice time in Portugal. I will have amalgamated the basic words of all the languages into a new super-language.
    Jackie: What a coincidence – I just sent you a long email!
    Thank you all for your comments! Much appreciated.