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Travel writing: Silk Trail Expedition: Odessa

silk trail odessaWaking in the Ukrainian town of Odessa to learn that you are tasked with finding seven sleeping bags, all of which must be capable of withstanding temperatures as low as minus five degrees Centigrade, and knowing that you speak no Ukrainian, speak no Russian, have no local currency, have no local knowledge, and have only two hours to get the job done, what would you do?

Find a taxi driver, of course.

Except taxis aren’t available at my mission’s starting point, the Londonskaya Hotel, because the promenade in front of it isn’t a through-road. Soon after stepping out of the hotel’s lobby, I stop a fellow pedestrian to ask for help. I repeat the last word of my question – “t-a-x-i” – slowly, in the shameless way of an Englishman abroad who cannot speak any language other than his own but considers any non-speaking native an imbecile. The lady I’ve apprehended clearly thinks I’m the imbecile and walks away.

The next person I accost is a middle-aged man selected for no better reason than he wears a Union Flag T-shirt. This time the question meets with a big toothy smile and a zealous ‘Hallo!’ This is encouraging. With sustained zealousness the man looks me in the eye and delivers the rest of his answer: “Yes, very nice!” I ask again where I can find a taxi and am told again, with undiminished enthusiasm, “Very nice!”

Resorting to the kind of blind faith that you kid yourself is self-sufficiency, I walk up a gradual hill for about quarter-of-a-mile towards a busy roundabout. I‘ve been walking through the morning heat for 15 minutes now. A couple more minutes tick by before a taxi approaches the roundabout and, seeing that it is carrying only a driver, I wave it down. It drives on by. Twice more taxis approach, twice more my arm does its best impression of a windmill, and twice more they drive by. I’m going to be hard-pressed to get this job done and back to the hotel, to join the rest of the expedition team, within two hours.

One of the roundabout exits leads down a wide boulevard lined with trees and shops. Parked cars jam the road edges on both sides and among their roofs I can see two taxi signs sticking up. The first taxi I reach, an elderly burgundy Audi A4, has a man at the wheel. When I approach his open window to speak, his hand flaps out, waving me away. Just to be sure I don’t attempt to engage in conversation, he turns and faces the other way.

I walk further, to the next taxi, a white Lada with a brown back door. As I approach the driver he looks at me with a troubled expression and nods towards some distant point down the street. “I wait for passenger,” he says. “He get money for me.” He jabs a finger aggressively at his watch. “Long time now. He no come back. But I wait.”

At this moment another taxi looms into view, a white Toyota Corolla estate heading along my side of the road. On this occasion the driver sees me waving. Climbing into the front passenger seat, I show him the piece of paper upon which the hotel receptionist has written-down for me in Cyrillic the Ukranian word for sleeping bag, to which I’ve added ‘x7’, and the indecipherable name of a department store. When we get to the store ten minutes later, it has yet to open for the day. I have to be back at the Londonskaya Hotel in just over an hour. I tell the driver, whose name is Slava, we must hurry. He understands my gesticulations, if not my words. His eyes light with an idea and he smiles with a certainty I would like to find reassuring. Suddenly we’re on our way again through Odessa’s tree-shaded streets.

Ten minutes later we pull to a halt in what seems to be a sleepy residential neighbourhood. Slava points triumphantly across the street at a shop titled Adrenaline. He shows me a photo on his mobile phone of his four-year-old son snowboarding. The implication is that he knows this shop. Once more I would like to feel reassured. But time is slipping away and, as we march up the steps to the shop’s front door, it is closed and locked.

Back in the taxi, Slava points to a clock showing that it is nearly ten o’clock. “We wait,” he says, then contorts his body to reach behind the driver’s seat. Looking at me for my reaction, and with all the theatre of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he lifts from the car’s back floor a small black laptop. This he places on his bare knees (he is wearing shorts and flip-flops) before opening a small cubby hole in the central console to extract, from its place next to religious icons of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, a dongle stick. Inserting the dongle in the laptop, Slava taps at the keyboard and connects via 3G to the internet. He shows me proudly how he is checking the performance of his shares on the Forex money market.

“Look!” Slava exclaims delightedly, pointing to some company names on his screen whose share values have gone up. I can’t help thinking in that precise moment of Saturn rockets – they go up, they come down, and sometimes they crash spectacularly.  This is the brave new capitalist frontier open to ordinary working people, and they’re crossing it with all the pent-up energy of explorers previously held back by communism. Investing, gambling, call it what you will, online share-trading grips the imagination of ordinary working people like Slava.

When the shop opens, Slava is keen to demonstrate further his trading skills. As we enter the shop, he tells me in conspiratorial tones that he will negotiate a discount for me.  To my astonishment we quickly find sleeping bags, and seven of them labelled to -5 degrees C. Moments later Slava and I stand together on one side of the shop counter facing a lone shop assistant on the other. Slava speaks at the shop assistant in a hurried and incomprehensible tongue until eventually she seems worn down by it all and agrees to the discount.

Remembering I’d said I was in a hurry, Slava drives me back to Odessa’s seafront promenade with alarming enthusiasm. We halt at the steps of the Londonskaya Hotel with five minutes to spare – just enough time to photograph him with his taxi beside one of our Silk Trail expedition’s Range Rovers.

Thanks Slava, tip well-deserved.

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