UPDATED October 25th, 2019 — this is a dispatch from my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings this past Summer with my partner Nastia, an open project on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — check out the project page more information, and sign up for my newsletter if you would like to be notified when it resumes 🙂
It’s been a couple of weeks since i started my ongoing cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings with my partner Nastia.
If i were to superficially acknowledge the kindness and generosity of just the people who helped Nastia and i find a place to spend the night so far, it would read something like this:
Most of you already heard about Liubomyr and Anastasiia, who gave me a bed in their apartment on my first day on the road, some cycling apparel, and some company next morning on the way out; on my second day, Vitaly, another Vitaly, Mariana, Ivan, Yura, and Vasyl’ offered me a tour of their village and a taste of their lifestyle, including a lake where i could take a dip and a sweet spot for my tent. Krzysztof and his family (11 people, if i didn’t lose my count) made room for the two of us in their home while we got a bicycle for Nastia and she practiced riding it loaded; after we left them, Piotr, his mother Marta, and his fianceé Alicja found time for us in the middle of wedding preparations, making Nastia’s first day on the road (by bicycle) a smooth, short, encouraging ride; we then moved into Aneta’s bare apartment one day before she moved in herself, and there we were invited to “camp” for as long as it took us to sort out the pannier bags we still needed to complete Nastia’s cycle touring set. Now on our way back to Ukraine, we were offered shelter from the rain, smiles, and good vibrations by the jolly Podolec Family; next day, Maria allowed us to set camp in their front yard; the day after, it was Shakhlar’s restaurant backyard. We finally made it to our friend Dima’s in L’viv, where we now rest for a few days — and run yet another few cycle touring errands.
On-the-road hospitality, spontaneous or pre-arranged through friends or social networks such as Warmshowers and Couchsurfing, don’t just make my travels possible — they’re a large part of what has made them worth it. My encounters along my way have shattered my prejudices about people in places i knew little about and startled my expectations about how they might treat a complete stranger like me.
I have already shared a fair lot about that in reaction to my previous tours in 2016 and 17 — not the least about Ukraine, where the bulk of this one will take place. What else can i say about the topic?
Here are some of the thoughts that arise when i reflect on this question:
- It was more convenient to express my gratitude for my hosts when i used to share my experience in real-time on social media. I reckon it was also more convenient for them to continue following my journey onward there. That’s not the headspace i currently inhabit though, and i’m not sure how to handle this on a (supposedly) weekly newsletter — definitely not with such run-on paragraphs at the beginning of every issue.
- Although that was already a mouthful, it doesn’t do justice to how those encounters developed and felt like — it doesn’t convey my relief when Liubomyr answered positively to my request to spend the night at his place, or the encouragement when he rode the first 30km with me the morning after — it doesn’t track the progress from my initial hesitation to approach Vitaly, Vitaly, Ivan, Yura, and Vasyl’ (then nameless able-bodied, adult males expressing some apprehension themselves), to our assimilating each other’s peaceful motivations, to feeling comfortable following them into a swamp looking for crayfish.
- Even that is just part of how i experienced our chance meetings, and might not duly reflect what my counterparts would have liked me to emphasize in sharing them forward.
- Indeed, my perspective in writing about this so far has been the perspective of a relatively clueless observer — i knew little about the places i was visiting, and couldn’t speak more than a handful of words in their respective languages. I could read the energy underlying our encounters, which was overwhelmingly positive, but i’d be left wondering — is this guy always so jolly when he drinks? — how often does his wife reach an orgasm when they have sex? — how do these people feel in general? I was unequipped to approach even far more superficial questions.
- I’m mindful not to take any of what i have for granted. I’m privileged to have so far gained access to just about everything i’ve ever felt i needed, and at the expense of comparatively little compromise.
- I don’t believe any higher power watches over me — the boundaries between the people i meet and me are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. I find that hard to do even after two or three years of practice almost every day, sometimes several times a day. I nevertheless find my present circumstances more comfortable than the abundance that i left behind to live like this — at least so far.
- I don’t expect things to be much different going forward either.
- Thanks in no small way to the support from some of you, i’m not (or at least no longer feel) as strapped for cash as i did in earlier expeditions. So, i also expect to be less dependant on local generosity where it may not emerge.
What are people getting from helping me? Actually, what am i getting from being helped by them? I got my bath at the end of the day, and a safe place to sleep — but do i want to be drinking this much vodka this often? Have all expectations been set clearly enough, and are our mutual needs being met?
I’ll leave it at that for now — i’ve been dwelling on this for a couple of days already, and it’s time to let it out.
So, we’re in L’viv now.
This is my third time arriving here on a bicycle — the first time was when Nastia and i met, the second one when i came back a few months later, and we moved in together. This time i arrived here with her.
I don’t have much to say about L’viv as a tourist. I lived here for a year, and my most active association is a common feature of the whole former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence — the microdistricts and Khrushchyovkas (panel buildings). They remind me of my hometown’s superquadras, and this yields a sense of familiarity i believe has something to do with why i like it here.
After tens of thousands of kilometers of overland travel adding up to hundreds of days across dozens of countries, i thought i had mastered the art of long-term travel in general and cycle touring in particular — i thought the underlying process was committed to my muscle memory and intuition — that i’d have plenty of space in this framework to pursue experiments beyond the practicalities of how to make it all happen on a budget.
That might have been the case if i’d continued cycle touring solo. But i decided to wait for Nastia, who had never traveled by bicycle before. This brought the master back to school — many of the solutions that had become second nature to my process don’t quite work for her, and some are even incomprehensible — even what does eventually work for her also is not always easily implemented.
I’d like to think we both find the disruption mostly welcome. She didn’t know she could climb a 100m-high hill on a loaded bicycle — i didn’t know those were edible berries. I push her to explore her limits — she draws my attention to things i’d filtered out before knowing they even existed.
There was no doubt plenty of drama, but these are the main ways in which i noticed we might add to each other’s process after a week together on the road, and i want to end this week’s note on a positive note: there’s potential — it might just require a tremendous amount of trust and patience from both of us.
Featured photo: “muda de roupa” (Poland, Summer ’19)
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