As I stepped outside this morning, I was struck by the crisp chill in the air. It is the lingering mix of winter air as it fights back the impending spring. I love it. It’s cold, but I can hear the birds chirping in the distance and the air feels and smells so clean and fresh.
As I breathed in deep, I had a flash back to a similar morning nearly 12 years ago – October, 1998. The situation and circumstances were so different, but the experience is one that shaped my life and is, perhaps, one of my favorite moments in life.
It was a crisp, clear morning when I stepped off the Ukrainian train and stretched my arms up over my head. I tried to shake the sleep from my eyes as I looked around the strange platform. Not paying attention, I turned and hopped back on the train and sat down on the bottom bunk in my small room. I had had an amazing night’s sleep. The train pulled out of the station in Kiev at 11:00 and I had promptly fallen asleep and been rocked most of the night. Except for the occasional stop to pick up new passengers, I had been uninterrupted in my sleep.
Now I was ready to fold up my bedding, pack my backpack and prepare to arrive in Prague, Czech Republic where I was to meet my friend Wanida and the group that she was travelling with for a semester abroad. I had been in Kiev for roughly a month and half so far and I craved the companionship of fellow Americans.
As I leaned back against the cold train wall, I looked outside at the sterile platform once more. And in that moment, my heart sank. The signs were in Ukrainian.
This startled me because my host family in Ukraine, a young couple who were dear friends, had assured me that the train I was on to Prague was an express train. You will be there in 12 hours, Sergei told me proudly as he handed me the tickets. And yet here I sat, 11 hours after boarding the train and I was clearly still in Ukraine. Which means we still had to go through Poland before we would make it to Czech Repbublic.
I hurried out to the conductor - a kind, round faced little Ukrainian man who spoke no Enlgish but communicated well through hand gestures and facial expressions. In my broken russian I asked him how much longer until we arrived in Czech Republic. 25 hours, he said.
This isn’t a 12 hour express ride? I asked.
And then he laughed. Hard. Shook his head and said. Nyet. This is a 36 hour train ride.
Awesome. I returned to my room and sat down hard on the bed. I had nothing to read and no food. I had been planning on buying food when I met up with the group in CR. I was worried that they would be looking for me and I had no way of communicating with them, or my parents for that matter, that it would be another day before I arrived.
Then the situation got worse…much worse.
The conductor came by my room, his eyes full of apology, and told me they were out of room and he needed to add a passenger to my room. And in walked a short, stocky Iranian man who clearly hadn’t showered in some time. His eyes lit up when he saw the blonde haired, blue eyed 20 year old sitting in front of him. And I got very uncomfortable.
It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that this guy was a mouse – a dorky mouse. Had he been anything else, I may have been in trouble. His name was Cameron. He was Iranian born, but had been raised in Germany. He spoke no russian (I never could figure out why he was in Ukraine) and his English was limited to phrases like, I love you and Will you sleep with me?
The beds in the train were narrow cots that folded out of the wall. Mine had been the bottom cot, but I quickly realized that sitting down there gave Cameron too much access to me. As soon as he started stroking my leg and professing his undying love to me, I folded down the top bunk, hopped up and did not remove myself.
By this time it was 2:00 and I was famished, tired and in need of some toothpaste. I hadn’t brought any, of course, thinking I could just borrow Wanida’s. The sweet conductor brought me some bubbly mineral water and a couple pieces of bread and glared at Cameron for good measure before leaving again. He also brought me a russian newspaper, which I spread open and worked at reading to distract myself from Cameron’s persistent stares. Everytime we made eye contact he would raise his brows and point at his cot. I would, in turn, roll my eyes, shake my head no and stare at the paper again.
Finally, it got dark enough to try and sleep. But it would be a long night. As we crossed from the Polish border to the Czech border in the wee hours of the morning, several men came into our room to check our passports. Cameron’s looks brought on immediate suspisions, unfortunately, so the men kept coming back in and trying to question him – the conductor among them. Finally, feeling a little sorry for my bunk mate, I told the conductor to tell the men that Cameron was merely travelling for pleasure and that he was planning to head back to Germany from Czech Republic. I’m not sure if that was true or not – I just wanted to sleep.
This seemed to satisfy the men and they finally left us alone. After they left, Cameron got up and shut our room door, something that I had already told him more than once was not acceptable. He stood up on the bunk and ran his hand over my hair. I pulled the blanket over my head.
Sank you bery much, he said.
You’re welcome, I replied.
Keeelli, he whispered. Come down wis me.
Uuuuuhhhh…Cameron no! Go to bed.
Then he pulled the blanket back and leaned in close, his mouth puckering. And this, my friends, was perhaps one of my finer moments in life. I shot up and grabbed Cameron by the shirt collar and yanked his face close to mine.
Cameron, I swear to God, if you touch me again I will scream so loud that the Ukrainian police, the Polish police and the Czech police will all come running to my rescue. But that will only be after I beat the crap out of you first. Don’t. you. dare come near me again. Do you understand?”
Then I shoved him all wide eyed backwards off the bed, reached down and flicked the door back open, laid back down and yanked the covers back over my head. Then I started laughing and shaking all over. I heard Cameron slowly settle himself back down in his bed. A few minutes later, very softly, he said. Keeeellli. Come down pleeze.
The guy was persistent, I’ll give him that.
Finally, we made it to Prague, 36 hours after departing Kiev. And as I headed one direction, Cameron headed another to catch his next train. But not before trying one last time to steal a kiss. I managed to turn my head fast enough for him to merely slobber in my ear.
And that was only the beginning of this adventure…