Katya and I were taking an overnight bus to Yalta, located on what was still at the time, the Ukrainian province of Crimea, located on the Black Sea (before Russia decided to take it back). I was looking forward to leaving the dirty, claustrophobic confines of industrial Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. But little did I know that I was simply trading that in for the dirty, claustrophobic confines of Yalta.
Dnipropetrovsk’s bus terminal was a depressingly dingy building with a pervasive Soviet feel to it. After waiting far too long in a line not nearly long enough to warrant the wait, we were finally able to purchase our bus tickets from a less than enthusiastic and clearly bitter ticket agent, before setting off on our journey to what many considered to be the crown jewel of Ukraine – so much so, “Mother Russia” decided to recently re-claim it as hers.
We climbed into the hot, stuffy bus to begin our own personal Crimean adventure. I was hopeful that the air conditioning would be turned on after we left, but going on previous experience, I knew it was a losing battle. And of course, I was right.
Our twelve-hour journey into southern Ukraine began. Despite the oppressive heat, the air conditioning was never turned on (assuming there was any to begin with).
“Do you know if these busses have A.C.,” I whispered to Katya.
“What’s A.C.?” Katya asked in response.
“Air conditioning,” I replied.
“Oh, no … I doubt it,” Katya said “And if there was, it’s probably broken or won’t be turned on.”
What was turned on instead was the cinematic masterpiece Taking Care of Business, starring the legendary Jim Belushi. In fact, little did I know that this bus ride was about to become a full-blown Jim Belushi film festival. As if one Jim Belushi film wasn’t enough, Taking Care of Business was followed up with Red Heat and K-9. To make matters worse, these three films were looped over and over again throughout the entirety of the trip. As Katya later explained, Ukrainians love Jim Belushi, who is apparently to Ukraine what Jerry Lewis is to France, and David Hasselhoff is to Germany.
As we drove through downtown Dnipropetrovsk, I began to notice something rather unusual. Every couple of minutes or so, the bus driver would pull over and another passenger would climb on board, paying the driver cash before finding a spot to stand in the aisle. After observing this several times, I asked Katya what was going on. She explained that these were people who had made arrangements with the driver to pick them up at a pre-arranged location. It was cheaper than paying for a route van and the driver was able to make some extra money on the side. It was a perfect arrangement, because for once, nobody was screwed over (well, except for the system itself, which made its living continually screwing the entire nation). Some of these rogue passengers were dropped off along our route before we left town. Others were dropped off along the main highway outside of town. These people were villagers who worked in the city and were looking for a cheap way to travel.
Soon, night fell. I tried to doze off, but felt nowhere close to sleep. I would have read or written in my journal, but there were no reading lights. Nor were there any streetlights. Talking to Katya wasn’t really an option, either, since she had advised me not to speak English, out of fear that I might be “stolen” if the driver—or passengers—knew that an American was on board. I had thought to ask her exactly what she meant by “stolen” but thought it best simply to take her advice.
That left me no choice but to watch Jim Belushi’s antics and attempts at humor, dubbed in Russian, as my fellow passengers rolled in the aisles with laughter. I never saw Ukrainians look happier.
About three or four hours into the trip, a rancid odor filled my nostrils. Wow … that’s different, I thought to myself. The stench was a little on the sweet side—a cross between bacon, burning trash, and body odor—with a slight hint of nut. And it was drifting in from somewhere outside. It lingered for miles.
“What the hell is that smell?” I finally whispered to Katya.
“No idea,” Katya replied.
As curious as I was to find out what it was, I was also relieved not to know. For all I knew, it was an unregulated chemical plant leaking toxins into the environment. Eventually—and thankfully—the mystery stench dissipated.
Katya fell asleep against my shoulder. I was left with two choices: stare at the pitch-black darkness outside; or watch Jim Belushi bicker with Charles Grodin, a German Shepherd, or the Soviets. I decided to go with the pitch-black darkness.
At some point, I finally began to drift off to sleep. Just as I reached that half-asleep, half-awake state, I was jolted awake by the loud hiss of the bus’s air brakes and bright lights that the driver turned on without warning. We had pulled into a market area literally in the middle of nowhere. The sole purpose of this area was for the use of travelers en route to Crimea. It was the Ukrainian equivalent of a rest stop.
I stepped off the bus, slightly dazed and trying to adjust my eyes to the light. I couldn’t help but dread the thought of being stranded out here. We purchased some snacks and I asked if there was a restroom nearby. Katya pointed in the direction of a small, brick building that looked like a nineteenth-century jailhouse.
“That’s a bathroom?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said, handing me some change.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
“To pay, of course,” Katya replied.
“You’re kidding, right?!” I exclaimed.
“Why would I be kidding?” replied Katya.
“I have to pay? To piss? In that?” I said, incredulous.
“Hey … people have to make money somehow,” Katya said, matter-of-factly.
I reluctantly took the money. The stench was noticeable from the first second we had exited the bus, which was parked a good fifty yards away. And now I was heading closer to the source. As I drew closer, the stench became unbearable. I held my breath and entered. But that was still no defense against the putrid odor. I gagged. A babushka bathroom attendant glared at me from behind her desk. Yes, there was a desk inside the outhouse. And upon the desk sat a rusty moneybox.
I decided that I had seen—and smelled—enough. You couldn’t pay me to piss in that stink-hole, let alone make me pay! I turned around and headed out, deciding that my best course of action would be to head toward some nearby bushes. But before I got there, I realized that I was being followed by the babushka bathroom attendant. She was wearing a dirty apron, suggesting that she was also responsible for cleaning the outhouse, on top of collecting money for it—therefore making it highly advisable to carry exact change.
Realizing that I put myself into a potentially tricky situation, Katya quickly rushed to my aid as the attendant yelled at me in Russian:
“Hey, boy. Where are you going? I’m sick and tired of you rich assholes always pissing in the bushes instead of my toilet!”
“You can keep talking all you want,” Katya told her in Russian. “He doesn’t speak Russian.”
“Is this your foreigner?” the woman demanded to know.
“Yes,” Katya replied.
“Then you tell your foreigner if he dares piss or shit in the bushes, I’ll throw chlorine on him. You hear me?”
Clearly, the chlorine wasn’t being used to clean the outhouse.
“Bobby, I strongly recommend that you pay this woman and use her toilet,” Katya said.
Realizing that I had no other choice, I reluctantly paid the babushka and headed back toward the foul-smelling outhouse—refusing to take my change from her shit-stained hand.
I struggled to hold my breath for as long as possible as I pissed into a seemingly bottomless pit. An empty toilet paper roll hung on a roller, which was loosely anchored to the vomit and shit-smeared wall.
And before I was finished, the babushka entered the bathroom and—standing no more than five feet behind me—continued to berate me in Russian, which, of course, made it almost impossible for me to continue to pee, despite that my bladder was still half full. Meanwhile, Katya stood outside, listening to all of this take place.
“You rich assholes think you can piss and shit wherever you want and go to Yalta, while I spend my life slaving away in this restroom.”
I tried my best to ignore her and to continue peeing, knowing that it would be my last chance for a while. After I shook off the last drops of urine, I walked past the attendant and over to the sink, where I washed my hands with water more yellow than my pee. I decided to pass on using the filthy remnants of what used to be a bar of soap.
“You’re lucky I don’t lock you in here!” the attendant shouted, shaking her ring of keys, reminiscent of a prison warden, before returning to her desk.
As I walked out, I nervously smiled and muttered a meek “Spasibo,” but was quickly reminded again that Ukraine is not for the meek and mild. The attendant gave me the Ukrainian equivalent of a middle finger—putting her thumb between her fore and middle fingers. I had learned this earlier when playing a seemingly innocent game of “got your nose” with Katya, standing there in confusion as she slapped my hand away, deeply offended.
Katya was waiting for me outside, shaking her head, and laughing at the absurdity of the situation. She took my arm, and as we headed back toward the bus, filled me in on what the babushka attendant had been shouting at me.