Further adventures in a Crimean cab
After our long day trekking around southern Crimea and being hustled by our cab driver, Andrei, we drove back to our town without further hassle. Then it came time to drop the fiancée off.
She got out of the car quickly, and was about to walk off when he stopped her, opened up the trunk and talked with her behind the car. My grandmother saw him give her a 200 hryvnia note, which she tried to refuse, but he insisted she take. As she walked off the dirt road to her home, my grandmother mentioned that she was wearing a completely different outfit than she arrived in that morning. I wondered if that was where some of our money had gone. Andrei gets back in the car, and had some bad news for me. Once he assumed that I had minimal Russian skills, he stared using English that he had not had the day before. An accented, “Sorry” was used to preface most of his sentences now.
“Sorry. I have to stop by the store to pick up some butter,” he says. “It will only take five minutes.”
“Alright,” I say, “no problem.” But then he drove past three stores.
Shops in Ukraine and Russia don’t always have names. The sign usually just tells you the type of store it is. A small shop where you can buy food will usually only be named “Magazine” or “Produkti” (“store” and “products”), whereas the store Andrei finally stopped in front of was named “Avto-mekanic,” and his neighbor was named “Bar.”
A short blonde man walked out of the store called Bar and Andrei stepped out to meet him. They were behind the car, and Andrei’s back was turned to us as he pulled out something from his pocket to show the blonde man. I knew it was the money we gave him — he was so proud of it when he had bragged to his fiancée. Andrei then walked off into the orchard across the street, and the other man walked back into the bar. I wondered what exactly Andrei was doing, but I wasn’t worried until a few minutes later, when the blonde man exited the bar and followed Andrei’s path into the dark orchard.
They stayed in there long enough for me to construct and abandon no less than five escape plans. I imagined them planning how they were going to get the rest of the money from us (remember that Andrei had seen my grandmother’s money belt, when we had trusted him). Did they have guns hidden somewhere in the orchard? My deepest fear was that the blonde man would drive on ahead of us, and that Andrei would pull over on one of the stretches of lonely highway between us and our safe hotel room.
My grandmother and I sat in silence. I was too scared to voice my fears. I considered stepping out and flagging down another car going in our direction, as hitchhiking is common in Eastern Europe, but even on this road the cars were infrequent, and Andrei would most likely step out of the orchard and see us trying to escape him before anyone pulled over. Also, Andrei was a professional driver, not someone who would pull over to pick up a young woman and her grandmother. As soon as they figured out that we were American, everyone assumed we were filthy rich anyways, so I classified hitch-hiking as an “out of the frying pan, into the fire” option. Could we tuck and roll out of car while he was driving, and then run away (just like I had been planning on doing to that cabbie in Kiev)? That might’ve been a viable worst-case scenario if I wasn’t traveling with someone in her 70s. I knew that I could run for miles if I had to, but could I outrun two men while carrying my grandmother, piggyback race style? Maybe if I asked Andrei and the blond guy to also chase us riding piggyback — it would only be fair to even our odds of survival.
As the minutes oozed by, I felt the chances of us getting out of this unscathed dwindling. It wasn’t the thought of being robbed that frightened me — money is just money. What frightened me was the growing certainty fed by fear that if they took us out into a deserted area we would also be beaten, raped, maybe even killed. My heart raced while I sat frozen.
Finally Andrei and the blond man emerged from the orchard. They walked toward the car, and the blond man called to Andrei, “Wait, are they in the car right now?”
“Yes, yes,” Andrei said, “now go away.”
The blond man tried to see through the windows of the car as he walked off toward an abandoned factory across the street. He craned his head, desperate to get a look in the back seat, where I was staring back and him, grateful that the windows were so darkly tinted, but crippled by fear. I imagined him going to get the car that was parked somewhere among the empty buildings and piles of gravel.
“Sorry,” Andrei opened with again, “The store did not have any butter. I will need to come back tomorrow.”
He turned to look at me as he said this, but I couldn’t even muster a meek “Harosho” (“Alright”) to play along with this absurd statement. Instead I answered him with the look that I’m sure is universally understood to mean, “Really? The closed auto-mechanic that you didn’t even go into did not have any butter for sale? That’s a shame. You know, I had always hoped that if I was gruesomely murdered in a foreign country it wouldn’t be at the hands of a complete moron.” He turned back around. As he drove out of the parking lot, he picked up the phone.
“No Mom, they didn’t have any butter… I’ll get some for you later, don’t worry… Yes, I’ll be home soon. Love you, Mom. Bye.”
Here I was thinking that my grandmother and I were going to be the unfortunate victims at the beginning of one of those true crime shows, but it turned out that we were characters in an absurdist play.
We headed down the road to Koktebel’. We had only known Andrei to drive at breakneck speed while passing large lines of cars on a two-lane highway, but now he seemed more restrained. His safer driving terrified me so much more than his recklessness. I hoped it was just my fear altering my perception of time, but my grandmother mentioned it as well. This played into my theory that the blonde man would be up ahead on the road, and Andrei was giving him time to get to the meeting spot. My mind raced beyond the car, and a feeling of dread and powerlessness seeped into my body. Everything was topsy-turvy. My grandmother, who has supported me throughout my life, was now in my care — the man we’d hired and trusted so recently had become our captor. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Can you please drive a little faster? We are so tired from today and we just want to get back to our hotel.”
It was a test. If there really was no reason for him to be slowing down, or no blond man to be met, maybe he would speed up.
“I would, but you see that the highway patrol station is on the road up ahead, I don’t want to be pulled over.”
“Oh, I understand.”
I worried that I understood too well. He had driven past this station before, with no change in speed. My fears increased. At least now he knew that I’d noticed what he was doing. The exchange also reminded him that, yes, I still spoke and understood Russian. He took two more phone calls, each time he spoke so low that I couldn’t hear him over the sound of the car.
We kept moving forward, and as we got closer to the gates of the city I hatched my final plan. I feared that we would never make it that far, but we’d passed the most deserted stretches of road. Now I had a new fear — what if he was going to follow us up to our hotel room when we got to our door? The tourist season hadn’t quite started, and our hotel was very nearly empty. If he followed us, no one would notice. I had one last question to test him with.
“Can you drop us off at the market? We need to buy some food for dinner.”
I said this when we were hardly 50 meters away from the market. This building was located right on the stretch of highway that bisected Koktebel’, and it was a cross between a grocery store and a farmers’ market. The front was large and open, inside were 20 little booths for vendors.
“Sure,” he said, stopping immediately, “Would you like me to wait for you?”
My “no” could have curdled milk. I saw that my grandmother got out of the car quickly, closed the door, and I hurried her into the market. I explained the exchange that had happened, and why I stopped us here. As we walked through the market, I was glaring through the crowds for any sign of an Andrei who had doubled back or a blond man who had just caught up with us, and the vendors we’d met the day before called out to us.
How did you like the wine you bought, would you like to try any more? How did you like the cake? The meat? The fish? It was comforting.
For the most part, when I traveled alone I felt safe because of people like these vendors. They saw that I was foreign, young, alone and female, and they crowded in around me protectively. In banks, on trains, in hotels, people stood up for me even when I wasn’t being threatened. This only increased when I joined my grandmother. Older women in Eastern Europe garner a respect of epic proportions, and as a friend put it to me, “If you’re ever out alone late at night, find a babushka. Not even the Neo-Nazis would hurt a babushka.”
After a few minutes, we crossed the street and walked the two blocks to our hotel. Once we locked the door behind us, relief flooded in. We could talk about it now — we had made it. My grandmother and I compared notes of everything that we had noticed. I told her everything that had been said in Russian, and she told me everything that she had observed while not understanding what had been said.
Her insight actually provided our most logical explanation for what had happened. The fact that I only heard parts of what was being said and had my own set of fears filling in the gaps had dramatically affected the narrative in my head. There was one glaring fact that didn’t support my armed robbery theory: Andrei let us out of the car. I even remember him smiling as he said goodbye.
Now we looked back through the events through a completely different glass. He showed the blond man money, met him in an orchard, returned and told the man not to come near the car, called someone to talk about buying “butter,” drove so cautiously that there was no risk of being pulled over, then gratefully unloaded us earlier than planned.
Andrei bought drugs.
It was my grandmother who realized it. Once we figured out that he was probably a dealer, it all fell together: his far-too-fancy car, his expensive clothing, his beautiful fiancée who might have been a prostitute. We were far too euphoric to be judgmental though. It was nice to look back and think that we were never in harm’s way in the first place. True, Andrei didn’t have our best interests at heart, but we were already in his dealer’s town, and we couldn’t really fault him for being economical and environmentally green by not making two trips. Or maybe we were just feeling magnanimous because of the whole “not being dead in a ditch” thing.
That night we laughed and drank and told stories. We had spent 45 minutes being throttled by dread. Even though I thought we were in imminent danger, part of me still didn’t believe it, even while sitting in that car. I’m still not sure if it was because of blind optimism or because my rational brain was still speaking below my fear. Andrei could have robbed us at any time if he’d intended to — there was no reason for him to set up the elaborate plots that I’d accused him of in my head.
We went to bed that night happy, calm, grateful, and believing we had seen the last of Andrei when his swanky car pulled away from the market.
Of course, we were wrong.