Jeffrey Andreoni and Giulio D’Eramo paddled the length of Ukraine’s Dnieper River in 2012. As the country they came to love faces its greatest crisis of this century, we take a look back at their journey and the people they met along the way.
Arriving in Cherkasy we are greeted warmly at the Yacht Club “Parus.” It’s a regional cooperative supported by the members, and has survived privatization thanks mostly to the energy of Alexander, the soul of the club. Alexander was a trainer of champion triathletes during the Soviet era but is now retired and sticks to sailing and regattas. He is very humorous and manages to fit swear words into sentences in ways that Pushkin or Ukraine’s revered national poet Taras Shevchenko would be jealous of. His cursing is an art form; poetry in emotion.
Alexander tells us to set up our tent in the club’s yard and come join everyone for dinner posthaste. In the meantime another club member pulls up in his giant Landcruiser and invites us on a light-speed tour of the city, using the curbs as a mere navigational suggestions.
Dinner at the yacht club is a festive affair. We exchange jokes with some of the members, but spend most of the meal laughing at Alexander’s quips (“Less bullshitting, more eating,” which sounds far more witty in Russian) while simultaneously reflecting on his philosophical toasts (“Let us drink to those who are no longer with us.”)
Night falls and it’s time to hit the town. We go to Cafe Habibi and watch the finals of the Olympic 100 meters, with Usain Bolt well ahead of the pack. Later we’ll learn that we’re capable of similar speeds, when we begin to see the swimming vipers that Zhenya warned us about a few days earlier.
Along the way to Cherkasy we had been inquiring about taking a van around the lake with the baidarka on top because of hurricane warnings for the coming week. We opted not to take the spray skirts at the Neris factory, and have been regretting that decision ever since we arrived at the lake, where wind waves can reach up to five feet. We were now about a third of the way down the lake, and eager to hitch a ride back to the moving water below the dam.
However, every driver we asked gave us the same price—1,000 Griven, or about $125. They thought they had us in a bind, but they didn’t know that our Neris baidarka is completely collapsible. The boat folds up into two rucksacks—one for the skin and another for the frame. We packed up our craft and headed to the train station.
The ride to the train station was unforgettable. Alexander drove us in his friend Ura’s Volkswagen bus because Ura was too drunk to walk, let alone drive. The whole ride Ura kept trying to engage us in conversation while Alexander kept interrupting him:
Ura: “What do you think of the trees in Ukraine?”
Alex: “Shut the fuck up Ura, what do you care about trees? You can’t drink them, so shut the fuck up.”
Ura: “I have known Alexander for 15 years and we are best friends, I love him”
We couldn’t stop smiling until the station when Ura insisted on seeing us off after having known us for only a few hours. It ended with his kissing and group-hugging us in front of a fairly packed waiting room.
We didn’t realize how large the trains in Ukraine are (European trains have to change their wheels to fit the wider gauge when entering the country) until our train arrived and we had to run down the track to the 17th car with all of our hefty bags, dropping items left and right. Finally on our train we somehow manage to fit everything into the compartment using every nook and cranny available. In a few hours we’ll be back on the Dnieper below the dam, riding the river’s broad shoulders toward the Black Sea.
Follow Jeffrey and Giulio’s Ukrainian River Odyssey
Episode 1: Olympic Refugees
Episode 2: Setting Sail
Episode 3: Welcome to Ukrainka
Episode 4: A Day in Town
Episode 5: Hornets
Episode 6: The Yacht Club
Episode 7: The Shortcut
Episode 8: Snakes
Episode 9: The Dam
Episode 10: Take Out