Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Transition Day: Down off the Mountaintop (Part 1)

Last evening I caught the 22:18 train from Donetsk, Ukraine back to Rostov-on-Don, a 115 mile trip. Eight hours later, we pulled into Rostov right on schedule at 6:31, a golden morning with cumulus clouds back-lit beautifully by the rising sun.

But back in Donetsk, just before heading to the train station, I tweaked a little essay that I'd been writing, hit SEND and shared it with several special friends. I named the story, His Eye is on the Sparrow. . . and I told about what a faith-building experience the last two weeks in Donetsk have been and the overall tone was effusive. But see, that's how I am sometimes. When I recall how the good Lord holds me, a trembling little bird, so tenderly in his hands I go beyond gushy. (Time out while I get myself a tissue or two. . .)

But today it was down off the mountaintop and back to reality.

True, there had been no particular hassles at either the Ukrainian or the Russian border. Although that has not always been the case. . .

* * * * *

You see, there are two particular soft spots that I’m still trying to work out in my travels. One is arranging ground transport from the train station to home. What the national folks do is have a family member meet them at the station and that includes help with the luggage and probably catching a bus.

Call me stubborn or fiercely independent (oh, now there's a joke) but I’m just not going to bother somebody with fetching me at the train station any time of day. Especially at 6:30 a.m. Unless of course that person is a taxi driver. For one thing, I need help with my bags since not much of anything is easily accessible – sure there’s an elevator and escalator – but expect them to be out of order. Expect to be hauling things up a long staircase that goes over the tracks and then down to ground level. Oh yippee.

Taxi drivers are waiting out front of the station, that is true, but they’ll overcharge significantly because that’s how that bunch operates. We call them the taxi mafia. For me, the perfect thing is to call my favorite taxi company in advance and have the driver come meet me at the train. That’s an extra level of service that I need. Although their usual policy is to wait in the parking lot and let the traveler met them there. But hey, word gets around when a person leaves a respectable tip for the extra help. And that I do.

The only catch is, that plan requires calling in advance and I have yet to work out just how to do that. I figured it would work for me to call the taxi company from Donetsk the day before departure.

Dispatcher Lena answered the phone.

Lena, this is Eileen – and I’m calling from Ukraine. Can you hear me?

Don’t ask me how, but she seems to know me.

Eileen-oochka? (That suffix makes it a dimunitive meaning sweet Eileen - not something I necessarily hear every day. . .) Oh Eileen-oochka, I can’t hear you. . . our connection is so weak. Please call back.

Tried, nothing better. Tried again, no luck.

On to Plan B: I would call from the train an hour before arrival in Rostov. A lovely plan. Truly it was.

The train was set to arrive 6:30 a.m. I set my cell phone alarm for 5:30 which would allow me to be first in line to the wagon’s facilities next morning. And I then could make my phone call. The train would stop briefly in Tagenrog like 30 minutes before we reached Rostov, it would be a little quieter, that should work. Lovely plan.

Things were fine until I was compelled to swap SIM cards, trading the Ukrainian service for the local Russian service. Nice in theory. But the cell phone suddenly wouldn’t recognize my local SIM card.

Hmm. This little strategy has always worked before. On planes as we taxi into somewhere, I change SIM cards and it works slick as a whistle. Hmm. Tried several times and no dice. Oh my. Things weren’t looking good and we had already pulled out of Tagenrog. . . (Of course in hindsight, I realize that I probably could have swapped back to the Ukrainian SIM card, used roaming services and made the call. It would have been significantly more expensive, but I think it would have worked.)

Anyway, I casually mentioned my SIM card dilemma to the 40-something lady on the bunk opposite me. I need to confess that up to this point, I had found her annoying. She had major rolls of, um, fat lopping her waistband and hanging off all over. And then at regular intervals she would rub her knees through her polyester knit pants which made swishy sounds during the night. (Arthritis setting in?) And she kept guzzling from her 2-liter bottle of water during the trip making gurgling and gulping noises. (Diabetes?) But what really irked me, was her unsolicited advise that I, as a foreigner, didn't need to fill out the documents I was completing as we approached the Russian border. Excuse me little Mrs. Busybody, but obviously you have absolutely, not one iota of a clue about this. (Bossiness setting in.) So I had decided hours earlier that we would not be swapping email addresses and we certainly would never be best friends.

But then she offered to help with my SIM card. It was then that I noticed BusyBody's nice smile and kind eyes. And besides she was equipped with special tools for cell phone surgery. Yes, they were delicate bits of plastic glued to her fingertips probably at some beauty salon, I'd guess.

Well, sorry to say that Mrs. Busybody had no luck with the SIM card either. She tried several times, just as I had. And the cell phone still wasn’t recognizing it. Drat.

Then Busybody offered to call the taxi company on her own phone. This was a generous offer. And it was supremely thoughtful because that meant she had to wait around with me until the taxi driver appeared on the scene - so that the taxi company could call us when the driver arrived.

So finally a taxi driver made it to our platform 20 minutes later after we had pulled in to Rostov. Seemed he had worked all night and so he didn’t win any awards in the charm department. Later when he and I arrived at my apartment, he wanted 200 rubles, around $8.00. I’d say 150 rubles would have been reasonable. But by then I was just glad to be home. I told him he was overcharging but resisted the impulse to add some remark to teach him right from wrong - which, if I'm not mistaken, is one of the duties of a first-born child. Thing is, I was just glad to get home.

But those annoyances faded when I opened my door, or rather, when I tried to open it. Oddly enough, I had been locked out of my apartment from the inside. I wasn’t expecting anybody to be there. And that brings me to the second soft spot, an area to be smoothed out when I’m on the road. (To be continued. . .when I'm good and ready. . .)

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