The rocky road to Shalanki

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Ukraine  , Zakarpats'ka,
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

This was the Big Day.  I repeated to myself the traveler's mantra about the need for flexibility.  But with a history of so many roadblocks (both real and metaphorical) we agreed that if we didn’t get to Shalanki today we’d give up and return to Germany.  So the stakes were high.

At breakfast Yelena was all smiles now that the police were gone and there was no brain tumor.  "Today at 11:00 for sure you go," she said with surprising confidence.  “We’ll be ready!” I replied.

At 10.55 we sat on a bench in front of the guest house, backpacks loaded, bundled up against the cold.  At 11:10 the translator, Boris, appeared with warm greetings.  “I’ll just have breakfast," he said cheerfully "then we’ll go.”  So much for an on-time start (not that in our hearts we really expected one), but he said he’s going, so that’s positive.

  • 11:20. Boris reappeared.  For a millisecond I foolishly thought he was going to say, “OK, we’re ready to go”.  But, more predictably, he recited a phrase that's all too common in this part of the world: “Unfortunately, there is a little problem.”  This particular little problem was that the previous day he had driven to a small village with very bad roads.  Two tires had been damaged.  I of course refrained from asking why he didn’t tell us this last night.  But “no worries,” he said (the counterpoint to 'we have a little problem’), his friend has a car and will come in one hour to take us.

  • 12:00.  Boris popped up and said that his friend would be delayed for another hour.  We go to lunch.
  • 1:00. Boris says “My friend will be coming soon.”  We again go outside to wait.
  • 1.30.  No friend yet.  We walk around the guest house and see Boris’s car parked in the back.  The tires all look fine.
  • 1:45.  A big blue Mercedes van pulls up.  We cringe—is it the police once again? The driver gets out, lights a cigarette, and immediately starts talking on his cell.  He doesn’t acknowledge us. Is this a cop, or Boris’s friend?
  • 1:50.  The driver says simply, “OK” and motions us into the van.  Boris is nowhere to be seen.  Is this really Boris’s friend?  Or maybe whoever it is will take us to the police station for another shakedown.  He speaks no English, so we can’t ask him which side he’s on.  With some trepidation we get in.  We're followed by a worker from the guest house who has suddenly appeared.  There are no seat belts.
  • 1:55.  We’re driving out of Uzhgorod, fast.  With my basic understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet I puzzle out the road signs, but don’t see any that say “To Shalanki.”
  • 2:10. In the semi-countryside we pull up across the road from a big bureaucratic-looking building.  The driver gets out.  He says nothing.  We sit.  A gypsy family drives by in a horse-drawn cart.  Suddenly Boris appears from within the building, warmly shakes the driver’s hand, and again disappears without a word to us.  Then the driver wanders off, along with the worker from the guest house.  We are alone in the van.
  • 2:15.  We notice the driver across the street, near the building.  He’s smoking and talking on his cell.  In fact, about half a dozen other men are doing the same thing.  Are these yet more plain-clothes police, or do all Ukrainian men do this?
  • 2:25.  The guy from the guest house reappears and gets back in the van.  He still speaks no English.
  • 2:30.  Boris appears and motions to the worker to get out of the van.  They both cross the road and re-enter the building.  Again we're alone in the van.
  • 2:45.  Boris, the guest house guy and the driver all reappear and get into the van.  Boris says, “OK, time to go.”  We agree.
  • 2:50. We pull into a gas station to fill up.  We of course pay the driver for the gas.  It occurs to me that Boris will now say it’s too late to go to Shalanki and the driver will take us back to the guest house.  At this point Carole and I confer and agree that the odds of ever getting to our grandfather’s village are about 1 in 4.  Yes, we’re both optimists.
  • 2:55.  We drive deep into the countryside.  Tentatively we ask Boris what that stop was all about.  He said that the building belonged to the Customs Ministry.  The orphanages that the guest house supports used to be able to freely accept donations of clothing and furniture from abroad.  But after the last election, won by a convicted and jailed rapist who barely speaks Ukrainian (he was raised speaking Russian and is closely allied with Putin), Soviet-type bureaucracy reasserted itself.  A group in Germany had sent a contribution of tables and chairs, but before they could be released by Customs there were endless forms to complete.  “Excuse me,” said Boris, “but these are stupid forms that don’t mean anything.”  I excused him.  He told us how endemic corruption has become.  He said he has a friend who is a guard at the Slovak border.  He says that “earning” $2,000 a day is considered a bad day.  Every second car out of Ukraine is stuffed with very cheap vodka or cigarettes which, eased across the border with a bribe, can be sold for a great profit within the EU.

For the first time it felt that we were really on our way.  We drove south and a little east toward our initial destination, Berehove.  This was the administrative center of the small district around Shalanki, which lay 30 km to the east.  As we approached the town we saw tiny stands, or sometimes just an old metal stool, displaying a pyramid of apples or a few onions or some potatoes.  A huge ancient wine barrel drove by, strapped to the roof of a rusty Lada, an old Russian-made car.  Then we passed a horse pulling a rickety wooden cart filled with junk, bouncing along on old car tires.  Ever optimistic, Carole and I agreed that the odds of reaching Grandpa Klein’s village had improved to 50: 50. 

In Berehove we parked at what seemed like a random place on the street, and Boris told us all to get out.  Then, magically, his friend Igor appeared, with cigarette and cell phone. The two vigorously shook hands.  And indeed, Igor looked like an Igor (see photo).  To our surprise, Boris told us that he was a professor of economics at the Berehove University, where the courses are still taught in Hungarian.  Boris said that Igor was essential to our mission since he was fluent in Hungarian, the language of our grandfather and still the language of not only Shalanki but this entire region.  And, equally important, he was also a self-described “expert in the Ukrainian system.” 

Igor led our little party to the archives, which served the entire oblast (district).  He said this would be the best place to obtain information about grandpa Klein and his family before setting out for Shalanki. 

We followed him through the streets of Berehove, past the grand but crumbling fašade of the university,and down a narrow path.  Then, white rabbit-like, he disappeared through a low doorway in an old building painted the color of stale French’s mustard.  Igor had several lengthy and undoubtedly important conversations with functionaries in the tiny reception area, then we were ushered down a musty hallway to a room that looked like a set for an old Russian spy movie.  The floor was of worn, unfinished wood.  An equally worn red wool rug covered a rectangular bit of it.  The walls had once been painted white.  A large safe stood in front of an old ceramic Russian-style fireplace, which was tucked into a corner.  Light was provided by a brass ceiling lamp with four arms.  Glass globes, each filled with a dim bulb hung down from three of them; the forth arm looked like it had been broken off about 75 years previously.  

A well-nourished woman in a black and maroon sweater sat regally behind an old wooden desk.  At the near end of an adjacent desk was a similarly-nourished woman with high black boots.  Igor talked, in turn, to each of them in rapid-fire Hungarian. We later learned that in the course of the conversation, which eventually involved Boris as well, the language veered from Hungarian to Ukrainian to Russian.  Clearly much vital information was being exchanged. 

Annie, Carole, and I sat bemused for about 15 minutes during this extended exchange.  We were only asked a single question: did we know Benjamin Klein’s exact birthday?  My reply was simply, “No.”  Immediately I realized how out of sync such an answer was with the ambient conversational style.

Finally Boris turned to us and solemnly said, “There is a little problem.”  Without the exact birth date, the ladies said, it will take months of searching.  I said that we knew the birth year within a year or two—somewhere between 1889 to 1891.  That wasn’t good enough; it would still take months.  Also, by the way, the officials said that the relevant archives had been moved to Uzhgorod.  So, I naively asked myself, how would the exact birth date make a difference?  Then I remembered Boris’s wisdom:  if you want to understand the system, think illogically.  I strived to do better.

Igor, the master of the Ukrainian system, suggested that we should leave.  I, for one, was happy to comply.  On our way back to the blue van there was talk about how a little baksheesh may have greased the bureaucratic wheels and enhanced the projected time frame.  But as Igor had guessed, we weren’t in the market. 

We assumed that after leaving the archives we would immediately race off to Shalanki.  But that would have been too logical.  Instead the crew--Igor, Boris, the driver, and the mysterious guest house worker--decided it was time for a hot dog break.  Annie, Carole, and I were graciously invited to belly up with them to the mobile hot dog stand with the hanging hamburger (see photo), but being vegetarians, we demurred. We were pretty sure that Garden Burgers hadn't made it to Berehove quite yet.  After an excruciatingly leisurely luncheon, followed by cigarettes and phone calls, they returned to the van.

Our little band of three bundled into the van after them.  We didn't fasten our non-existent seat belts and headed east, toward the ever-elusive Shalanki. 
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Hillary on

Each of your posts from Ukraine read like scenes from a movie. Really, I think you should write a screen play! I can't wait to read about the actual pilgrimage destination.

Andrew O on

So near and yet so far! Any thoughts of trying to track down information on my grandmother are completely gone. Well, I have even less information than you do!

Julie on

Isn't it at least midnight by this time? Can't wait for the movie. I am forming some vague images of who might play the various characters. HMMMM!!!

Manfred on

great writing - this is a "cliff hanger" !
I guess every reader is hooked by now. So am I - although I know the outcoming as I belonged the four travellers: but I ain´t telling.....

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