Taking a cab in Ukraine is taking your life into your hands
Crimea, located at the south of Ukraine and almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea, was one of the greatest gems of the Russian Empire. The czars and czarinas often built palaces along the coastline, and would live there with their families for parts of the year. Chekov, the Russian playwright, also had a dacha (which is kind of like a summer home) there, along with the other literary types who all believed that the beauty of Crimea had a way of inspiring their muses.
Russian doctors often recommended to their wealthy patients that a summer spent in Crimea would be the answer to all of their woes. The allure of Crimea didn’t wane with the fall of the empire either. The palace that had belonged to the Romanovs became Stalin’s dacha, and was the setting for the famous Yalta Conference. Even now, the beaches and resorts are crowded with Russians and Ukrainians all soaking up the sun on towels laid out along the pebbly beaches. As you can guess, Crimea is the place to go in the summer if you’re interested in Russian history, literature, and language… and also sunbathing.
After my program in St. Petersburg ended, I traveled to Ukraine to meet my grandmother for a couple weeks of vacation. It was a fascinating country and decidedly Eastern European. As soon as I arrived at the train station in Kiev, I was met with a familiar sight — the gypsy cab. A gypsy cab is a car for hire driven (invariably) by a man who happens to own a car and maybe a sign that says something along the lines of “Car for Hire.” In other words, it’s sketchy as hell.
American students were advised never to use one of these cabs, especially women. We were told a horror story of a young man who had gotten into a gypsy cab after a night of drinking, only to be taken to the outskirts of the city and robbed at knifepoint. He had to walk back to the city center. Because of stories like this and a modicum of common sense, I had never taken one of these cabs before.
That changed my first 15 minutes in Kiev. I got off the train and onto the platform, and the first face I saw belonged to a toadish man who croaked at me, “Devushka, nada?” which literally translates to “Lady, need?” and is a brusque way of asking, “Lady, do you need a cab?”
As I dragged my lonesome self and four months worth of luggage through the station, I could hear a chorus of other voices. Devushka, devushka, devushka. I got out and tried to read the city map posted near the entrance. Of course, doing this only hastened another man to my side, asking if I needed a ride. I told him the address of the hotel, and he pointed to the place in the air that the hotel would have been printed if the map had been made that big. We negotiated a price and I got in his car.
There were no seatbelts in the back, so I just settled in and held my backpack on my lap as a makeshift airbag. The driver’s seatbelt hung uselessly from the car frame. As we drove through the cluttered, bustling downtown, all I felt was relief at almost being back with my grandmother. Then it became clear that we were headed for the outskirts of town and somehow my mind more clearly registered that I had no real idea where we were going, or whether he was taking me toward the hotel at all. I started to feel panicky.
He took a phone call, speaking Ukrainian, which is close enough to Russian that I could understand the gist of his half of the conversation, but different enough that several words slipped past me completely. One phrase I understood was “Yes, forty kilos,” and my fight-or-flight brain flashed at me that NOTHING GOOD COMES IN KILOS, European metric system be damned. I had all of my important documents and cards in the bag on my lap; I reasoned that all my other luggage could be jettisoned. I was calculating how many more miles I would allow him to take me out of the city center before it would be safe enough for me to bust open the door and roll out onto the — and then the hotel came into view.
“Vot,” he said, pointing. There. He helped me get all the luggage out of the car, which was great, as I’m sure any further strain on me could have led to a heart attack. I got into the hotel, found my grandmother, and we laughed over the story.
But our misadventures with sketchy cabbies were far from over.
(Part one of a series… stay tuned.)