We must have been about one hour outside of Mariupol and it had just stopped raining. Sasha turned his head in my direction and pointed with his stare toward a massive rainbow that extended over seemingly endless fields.
“Raduga,” he said, smiling. “And in Mexican?”
“Arcoiris,” I replied without bothering to point out that we speak Spanish, not Mexican.
He then repeated after me, “Arcoiris…,” and paused as if savoring the word. A convinced “krasibo” followed by a nod of approval was his verdict. His eyes were on the road but he seemed to be simply looking into the distance.
That day I woke up to a rainy morning in Zaporizhia. The glorious weather of the previous days was gone, which made it easier to leave the city. My next destination was Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov and not far from the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, and I had a shared ride all lined up.
I left my Soviet-era hotel and walked down to the meeting point, which was just down the street. I was looking for a gray sedan parked in front of a car as described in the ride-sharing app but couldn’t find it, so I called the driver, Sasha (short for Aleksandr), to ask him exactly where he was.
“I’m at the parking lot of Intourist,” he said—that is, he was not at the agreed meeting point.
Oh, well. Luckily I was right by the hotel, and when I got there I saw him smoking by a black van (not a gray sedan). The engine was running and Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All was blaring from the speakers. After a very brief introduction I got in the car. I was riding shotgun.
In the back seat, almost falling asleep, was a guy wearing a sports jacket whose name was also Sasha. Next to the window sat a man who was not particularly interested in talking to any of us; I think his name was Roman but I don’t remember exactly. Let’s just call him Roman. The last passenger, a younger guy with a rough look and a busted lip arrived a few minutes after me. The crew was complete and we got on our way.
It didn’t take long before our van died for the first time. “Suka blyat,” blurted Sasha as the car ground to a halt in a residential area. We still hadn’t left Zaporizhia, not even the city center.
We all got out of the car. Sasha the passenger offered me a cigarette, which I smoked as Sasha the driver fiddled with the engine; everyone around him looked on and smoked. The streets had no sidewalks and there were overgrown bushes everywhere. On the corner opposite to the car lay a dead dog.
Sasha managed to fire up the engine and we got on our way again. We sped out of the city and drove south toward the Sea of Azov.
The Road to Mariupol
“Where are you from?” asked Sasha over the music. “Mexico,” I told him. “Ah, Mexico!” The other passengers, with the exception of Roman (or whatever his name was), jumped up on their seats, and the guy with the busted lip put his elbows on the front seat and leaned closer to join the conversation.
I then had to explain, in my rough Russian, what I was doing in Ukraine and why I wanted to go to Mariupol.
“Don’t you know that there’s a war 25 kilometers to the East?” asked Sasha.
That was a rhetorical question. Sasha probably knew that any foreigner keen on going to Mariupol has done their research, as the city is a bit of a niche destination.
“You have to be careful in Mariupol. It’s not a safe city at night…” I thought he meant that because of the war. Mariupol is located very close to the front line and was even attacked in 2014. “Nah, not because of the war… There’s a lot of young people looking for trouble. If you want to be safe hang out with this guy,” said Sasha pointing at the guy with the busted lip.
The conversation took a lot of turns. The guys were particularly interested in asking me about what it’s like to live in Germany, as none of them had ever been here before. Their genuine interest reminded me of how lucky I am to travel and see the world, as for most people doing so is a privilege, and I felt bad for often taking the experience for granted.
We then talked about the ongoing war, which was a bit awkward because they wanted to know what the press in the West says about it and were bitterly disappointed when I told them that there is very little interest for the conflict here. My companions for the day were all from the Donetsk area, and all spoke Russian as a native language. However, their loyalty lay clearly with Ukraine, which I gathered from their choice of words when talking about the conflict.
The car died a couple more times before we stopped at a gas station, where we filled up on gas and beer for the road. Sasha insisted on buying me a beer and I took a PBR just for shits and giggles. From that point onward, the car basically became a pub. And there I was, a guy from halfway across the world speaking Russian with a few factory workers over beers to the sound of classic Metallica while zig-zagging our way through the pothole-ridden roads of Eastern Ukraine. It was just the type of moment why I travel, and I felt very fortunate to be there.
We were listening to Metallica’s sophomore album “Ride the Lightning” when we stopped at the second gas station. Sasha and Roman (I think that was his name) got into an argument over our car’s moribund engine. In the end, Roman got his bag and stayed at the gas station. We left without him and drove along golden fields, past Soviet bus stops that nobody used anymore and empty construction sites toward the port city of Berdjansk. Obviously, we were way behind schedule, but I was slightly buzzed and not in a hurry.
We drove for a while, but I don’t know how long. Then, Sasha stopped the car next to an abandoned construction site right outside of Berdjansk. It looked like the construction of what appeared to be a hotel had been halted a long time ago, as even the machinery was broken. I asked Sasha why we had stopped, and he just said we were waiting for someone. He might have said something else but I didn’t catch it.
After 30 minutes of waiting, during which the guys insisted we take pictures together, a car approached and parked right behind our van. The whole scene was shady as hell. Then, the passenger’s door of the car opened, and out of the car stepped Roman. I was kind of annoyed but somehow amused by the absurdity of the scene.
Sasha turned to me and asked me whether I am afraid of guns. I told him that I am not but didn’t go into more detail.
“Good, because we are about to get to the first checkpoint, and there are soldiers with machine guns… Avtomaty,” he said while holding his hands up as if carrying an imaginary AK-47.
The Outskirts of a Warzone
The checkpoint was literally just down the road—right after passing the sign reading “Donetsk Oblast,” which welcomes travelers to the region.
The soldier pointed to the side of the road and approached the car as we pulled over. Sasha asked me for my passport and rolled down the window. The soldier asked him dryly where we were going and why.
“We are going to Mariupol. We all work there, and we have a Mexican tourist with us,” he announced as if expecting my presence to be a problem. The soldier looked at us behind his dark sun glasses, paused, and then said something to the effect of “get the fuck out of here, I don’t have time for this right now.”
Sasha handed me my passport, which is American and not Mexican. I then told him that if he needed to announce my nationality again he should say I’m American to avoid any confusion (I often say I’m Mexican for the sake of simplicity).
We continued driving, passed Urzuf and Manhush, and approached Mariupol. Before finally entering the city we had to cross one last checkpoint.
The second checkpoint was guarded by military police. Sasha rolled down the window to talk to the soldier in turn, who was older and looked friendlier than the one manning the previous checkpoint.
“We all work in Mariupol and this guy is a foreign tourist!” I might have rolled my eyes.
The soldier looked at me, I looked at him and handed him my passport before he could ask me for it. He took my passport, opened it and looked at the front page with approval. He handed it back to me and exclaimed with a big, genuine smile: “Welcome to Ukraine!” He then proceeded to check everybody’s passports, while I just quietly thumbed through mine.
“Hey!” I put down my passport and looked at the guard. “Good luck!” he said and gave me a thumbs up. I smiled, gave him a thumbs up too and said, “Thanks, man!”
We drove through a short obstacle course lined with armed soldiers and huge tank stoppers made of solid concrete and exited the checkpoint. “We’re here,” Sasha said. “Welcome to Mariupol.”
Sasha dropped us off at a bus stop right by two huge tank stoppers like the ones I had seen at the two checkpoints. Before parting ways, the guy with the busted lip asked me for my phone number, and the other Sasha offered to walk me all the way to my rental apartment. I had gotten the best possible introduction to Mariupol and was reminded why I love traveling so much in the process.
Traveling is an enriching experience, and that applies not only to your time in whatever destination you visit but to the time you spend getting there and the people you meet on the road. Discovering a new destination is always amazing, but getting there is more often than not half the fun.
Sometimes the journey is indeed the reward.
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