Travelling is a rite of passage for so many young Australians, including myself. A tale of the first time I was truly lost in a foreign country.
The man climbed out of the car and beckoned to me.
I clambered out and stared at the neglected stretch of road as he pulled my pack out of the trunk.
“You walk from here,” he told me in his thick accent.
I nodded, dazed, not even sure how to begin to protest. Not sure how to tell him I had not a clue in hell where “here” was.
I glanced helplessly at the girl in the passenger seat. She eyed me briefly through the side mirror, spat out another sunflower seed, replaced it and rested her head against the back of the seat with her eyes closed. I wasn’t surprised. This had been the extent of her engagement since we left Romania. She didn’t care what happened to me. Her job was done. I was just another bit of cargo to take across the border. And probably less lucrative than whatever it is they’d moved from their boot to another one a few minutes ago.
The man thrust the pack at me, climbed back into the car and swung into a wide u-turn. I stood there, pack at my feet, and watched the car careened back down the highway at the pace it had come.
I was on my own.
In my most recent book to be published later this year, called Point of Departure, four girls fresh out of high school take their first trip overseas together. This trip will mark their transition from high school to young adulthood.
Travel as a rite of passage is not uncommon in my country. Australians are surprisingly enthusiastic travellers, given how long it takes to get anywhere from our shores. And how much it costs. From my home city it’s a fourteen hour flight to the west coast of the States, and it’s a twenty-hour flight to Europe, not counting the stopover in the Middle East or Asia on the way. Despite these obstacles, we are relentless in our wanderlust.
Travel was always on my radar. My childhood atlas is a testament to this. A voracious reader, I mapped all my characters’ travels in it, tracing their journeys. This a habit I bequeathed to one of my characters, Olivia.
Once I finished high school I started to travel frequently and early. My first trip was to New Zealand with my best friend, a ticket bought on a whim and a trip taken entirely unplanned. Later that same year I would take off for five weeks alone, hanging out in San Francisco and then Vancouver. I travelled alone, but rarely was. There were so many people to meet. And every trip I took over the next few years made me crave another.
It was this hunger that brought me to this intersection, abandoned by my sunflower seed-chewing friends, clutching my backpack.
I’d been travelling steadily east through Europe with two of my friends, but parted ways at various points. Leaving my friends in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I travelled by train to Suceava, a little city huddled in the tight little corner created by the borders of Moldova and Ukraine. At that time, Suceava was one of the few spots you could get across the border to Ukraine without a car. According to the little information I’d found online, the other crossings were closed to public transportation due to ardent cigarette smuggling between the two countries. But in Suceava there was supposed to be a daily bus.
I stayed in the only hostel in town, a guest room full of bunk beds in the home of a kind, busy woman whose proudest belonging was her garden bed full of tulips. As she showed me the array of tidy blooms in the small backyard, she told me the police had stopped the bus, too, due to the smuggling. Instead I would have to present myself at the local market and find a driver who was carting contraband to take me with them for a payment.
Until now, I’d only ever crossed borders in the required orderly fashion, in a train or plane, passport firmly in hand. Paying a goods smuggler to take me along with his contraband was a whole new world of border crossing for me. I was instantly nervous.
Sure, I’d had my hairy travel moments. I’d been strip-searched at the US-Canadian border for no good reason. I’d been grabbed out of the blue and handcuffed and thrown into the back of a cop car outside a bank in San Francisco in a case of mistaken identity. But the whole time these mini-nightmares were happening, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, if they throw me in jail, some student Aussie documentary–maker will make a film about that innocent backpacker in the US prison system, and I’ll get out of there’. Not entirely logical, but definitely comforting. But I couldn’t convince myself any amateur would find me in this lesser-known corner of the world.
But I had no choice but to take this car option. I was to fly home out of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, the following week. If I wanted to get home, this was my only way to the airport. So the next morning I did as I was told and turned up at the market. It was a large patch of dirt crammed with haphazardly parked cars and free-wheeling enterprise. I’d been there a half a second before three different guys sauntered over.
“Ukraine?” one asked before the others could.
I nodded. He thrust a piece of paper at me and pointed out a sleek black car covered in dust. “Fill this out. Wait here.”
I did as I was told.
An hour later we took off. Our driver chatted with a skinny teenager who’d climbed into the back next to me, clutching a can of beer at eight o’clock in the morning. The driver’s girlfriend sat up front, entrenched in a sullen, seed-cracking silence.
We careened through town, battling traffic through the winding street, the driver holding a constant, noisy second conversation with his car horn. We stopped briefly at a house where he and the girl loaded up the trunk of the car with boxes. Then we were off again, hurtling down a long, straight stretch of highway. We shared that road with everything from other cars to horses and carriages, to aproned old ladies clutching the hands of small children, to stray livestock. This driver didn’t see these things as obstacles to avoid. He saw them as challenges. He simply sped up, veering around them, letting out the occasional bleat of his horn.
Techno music bleated from the speakers and the girl kept up a constant rhythm with a bag of sunflower seeds. Crack, spit, chew. A nervous car passenger at the best of times, I clutched my bag in my lap and prayed we wouldn’t crash.
At the border checkpoint, a stern blonde woman, every bit the Soviet cliché, barked at me as she scrutinised my visa. She’d been doing this for fifteen minutes already. Every now and then, my driver would mutter something to her, clearly trying to hurry things along. Her problem, it seemed, was that I didn’t have the exact address of where I was staying in Ukraine. How could I? I barely knew where I was, let alone where I was sleeping that night.
I was vaguely terrified. What if she didn’t let me in? What would I do then? I’m pretty sure the help I was getting from this driver was about to dry up any minute, along with his patience. I couldn’t help wondering what world this was this guard was more upset by a mildly disorganised backpacker with a valid visa than the fact I was travelling in a car full of contraband being carted routinely across a border,
Finally, I proffered the address of a hostel I would be staying in a few days from now in Lvov. This seemed to satisfy her. All she needed, it turned out, was something to write in the blank spot in her paperwork. So this was that famed Soviet penchant for bureaucracy. Still at work decades later.
No sooner had we screeched out of the checkpoint than we stopped again. Beyond the border were lines of cars, idling in the grey morning. At first I thought they were waiting to cross, but then I realised this, barely out of naked eye range of the border guards, was the place where goods were exchanged. We parked next to an ancient, sputtering Lada and there was a quick trade of boxes between drivers. The skinny boy and his beer leapt out of the car and trotted away with a mere wave, disappearing into the trees at the side of the road.
Five minutes later, there I was, watching the car disappear.
But where was I, exactly? All I knew was that I was in Ukraine, somewhere on the outskirts of Chernivtsi, a university town in the south of the country. The sun was hot, my backpack was heavy, and already the shoes I’d been forced to buy in a Romanian op shop to replace my broken ones were hurting
It was the first time in my life I was faced with the fact that I had absolutely no idea where I was, and no idea how to get where I was going.
I stared at my surroundings, trying to make sense of them, but I couldn’t. What struck me, though, was how familiar everything looked. If you exchanged the Cyrillic for roman lettering, updated the cars and got rid of the occasional stray dog that passed on by, minding its own business, this could have been any abandoned, ugly commercial/industrial strip in any city anywhere, including home. This was oddly comforting.
I hovered at the unsigned intersection for a while, wondering which way I should go. I had three options, ruling out the way I’d come. Eventually, logic and deduction broke it down into two options. Buses were regularly going back and forth along one route to my left and right, suggesting the city centre was either up the slight incline to my left, or down the slight decline to my right.
Logic told me I should head up hill. So far, so many of the older sections of cities I’d seen on this trip so far were set on a hill. I wasn’t really sure I was right, but I had nothing else to go on until I found a landmark that might appear on my map.
I began to walk. And the further I walked, the more certain I was that I was right. Tall apartment blocks began to block out the sun. Then there were parks and people and shops open to passersby. It never felt so good to be right. I had figured it out.
This small triumph gave me the energy to get through the rest of that day. But it was not easy. I walked for an hour and a half as the stiff leather shoes grazed the back of my ankles raw. Buses passed me every minute or two but I had not one Ukrainian cent (Hryvna) to my name. The one hostel listed in my guidebook was not where the map said it would be. In fact, it was not anywhere, and I was forced to fork over three times more than I wanted to pay for the one hotel I could find.
Later, I hunted down the train station to buy my ticket to the next city. I stood there, terrified, wondering how I was even going to ask for a ticket. It didn’t matter, because when it was my turn in the line, the ticket seller, a carbon copy of the woman at the border crossing but ten years older, shut the window in my face. I moved to the next one. The same thing happened. Then again at the last.
Furious, but with no one to understand my complaints, I returned to the hotel. There, I sat in my my little white room that stank of a thousand cigarettes smoked and studied the Ukrainian phrases at the back of my guide book that would get me a train ticket out of here. I woke early the next morning determined not to be defeated. I’d gotten myself across the border. I’d found my way from a stretch of highway into this city. I would get myself a train ticket.
I marched back to the station and waited in the queue. This time, miraculously, the window stayed open. And with the help of my guidebook, I mangled a request for a ticket. Two minutes later, I emerged from the train station, a rectangular card peppered with cyrillic clutched in my hand. Elated, I looked around for someone to share my joy. But at that hour the only other beings were the ubiquitous stray dogs outside the station, curled in a sleepy, tangle. One of them deigned to open half an eye at my muttered, grinning “I got a ticket!”
I grinned as I walked. Because I was not lost any more. I was here, and I was going there.I was a traveller again. And it felt like winning a lottery.
I spent the day exploring Chernivtsi. I visited its stunning old university with its Persian tiling. I walked through the abandoned, beautiful Jewish cemetery. At a market, a kind woman sold me a cabbage pie so shockingly good that I’d take that entire journey back to eat it all over again. I even braved the trams, where I met an old man who spoke six languages, including English, but who didn’t quite believe in this place called Australia I spoke about.
After that first day, everything about Ukraine was easier as I figured out how everything worked. On my train to Lviv I shared a carriage with a boy who spoke impeccable English, who explained the mysterious but delightful mysteries of train travel to me. In achingly beautiful Liviv, I met Polish and German backpackers and we explored the city together. We drank beer in ancient courtyards, fossicked in little book markets and attended the ballet for a few hyrvna.
Alone again, I explored Kyiv, the only occupant in a hostel on the fringes of the inner city. I still got lost, but never felt as profoundly un-anchored as I did that day in Chernivtsi. Because I was on the map again.
What I learned on that trip was that you are never entirely lost. There is a pattern of being that we share. All over the world humans do things the same way. We build cities on hills or by water. We place our industry on the outskirts of town. Buses and trams may travel on different sides of the road, but they always go back the way they came. Corner stores carry the same things with different labels. People are either friendly or they are not. The semiotics of the everyday are the same. You just have to look for the clues.
I have travelled many times since that trip, to places far more exotic and unfamiliar, too. And I would be lost like that again, too. I never felt the same way about it, though. I just looked for the familiar in the strange. And it was always there.
This is why we should travel. And this is why I wrote a book about girls that do. We need travel to learn we are not alone in the world, to be challenged by lives and places and views that are not your own. But also to learnt that there is as much that is similar as there is that is unfamiliar in the world, no matter where you go. And I think every young person should experience both the fear of being lost, and the victory of finding your way out of it again. Because it’s exhilarating.
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The A Story of Now Series is available for purchase in hard copy of eBook at Ylva Publishing, or on Amazon.
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