I have a problem.
I see a cheap flight to a random place, and I go.
And that’s how I wound up in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.
Dnipro is a fairly nondescript industrial city in eastern Ukraine. When I arrived, I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Not at the airport. Not at my hostel. The receptionist had to use Google Translate to check me in. No one on the streets or in the cafes could form a sentence in English. I’ve traveled a lot, but I’d never felt more helpless.
Eventually I connected with a friend of a friend—a local who spoke English! She was so shocked that I had come at all.
“Why would you come here?” she asked.
“It seemed like an adventure.”
After three days in Dnipro, I went to the bus station to book a trip to Kiev. I waited in line, but no one at the ticket window spoke English. And no one else in line did either. I walked around the station asking strangers if they spoke English. I was met with suspicious looks until I stumbled onto a teenager who was nice enough to act as translator at the ticket window.
The busses were sold out for three days. And so were the trains. Oh wait, she said, there is one overnight train at 10 p.m. But I would have to change trains in a small town in the middle of Ukraine at 2 a.m. It was a seven-hour trip and the tickets were only about seven American dollars.
The train was old. I mean Soviet Era. There was wood paneling and it smelled like a football locker room. I had a ticket, but I couldn’t tell which bunk was mine. The beds were like those brown vinyl tables that you lay down on at the doctor’s office. People were shouting in Russian and I tried not to make eye contact. It was a hot summer day and there was no air conditioning. The windows were cracked, but that didn’t help much. The heat didn’t seem to bother the burly Ukrainian men who had all taken their shirts off.
Every fifteen minutes the train would stop at unlit and unmarked stations. I was so anxious I’d miss my stop that I couldn’t sleep. Shirtless men walked up and down the aisles with serious faces. I kept my head down, hoping no one would identify me as a foreigner. As two o’clock approached, I showed the conductor my ticket and I mimed that I was confused. He babbled something in Russian.
“English?” I asked.
He shook his head. He thought for a minute and counted on his fingers, “one… uhhh… two…?” Then he shouted something to his colleague across the compartment.
“Three,” the man shouted back. I took that to mean three more stops. I waited with my bag by the door.
I got off the train and sat outside the railway station in the middle of Ukraine in the dead of night. I didn’t know where or when the next train would arrive. I found a young girl who spoke broken English. She couldn’t have been more than 15 years old. She and her mother were also going to Kiev on the same train. It was delayed and they had changed the track number, she told me. We walked together through an underpass to the other side of the tracks. It would be overly dramatic for me to say that she saved my life, but it felt like that at the time.
I woke up in Kiev. I walked through the station and bought a coffee. “кoфе и молоко, спасибо,” I said. Over the loudspeaker, they began to translate the announcements into English. I had never been more happy to hear my own language.
That summer, I visited 32 cities in 17 different countries. I worked as a pub crawl leader at a party hostel on a Croatian island. But when I think about my most memorable experience, that train rolls through my mind.
Want to hear about more adventures? Check out my book about fighting professional MMA in Peru: The Cage: Escaping the American Dream.