Ordinarily, I wait to do my “observations post” until after finishing a given country’s narrative – but because Odesa felt so different from the rest of Ukraine, almost like a second little country of its own, I’m going to split things up and handle it ahead of time.
But first, a few points I’d like to reiterate about this unique city’s reputation (from Odesa: Hotspot of Hedonism):
First, its nightlife; Odesa is known for going wild until dawn nearly every night of the week. Second, its women; described by countless observers as some of the most beautiful on earth. And third, its visitors; Odesa is renowned as a top hangout for vacationing Russian mafia (due in no small part I’m sure to the previous two points).
So with those in mind, let’s get started with my Odesa observations. General Ukraine observations will follow a bit farther down the road.
• One particularly hilarious phenomenon that’s extremely common in Odesa is that of the “odd couple.” Day in and day out I’d notice young, perfect-ten caliber women walking hand-in-hand with fat, hairy old men. Hmmm…I wonder if this could possibly have anything to do with mafia money? 😆
• Another common trait I observed, especially at the beach, was that a disturbing portion of the males seemed to have massive knife scars on their heads or bodies – with head scars being by far the most common. I mentioned one such individual in the Sergei post, but I just wanted to point out that this was not an isolated incident. Such scars were surprisingly common.
• I found the Odessans’ personalities be quite polar: either they were extremely friendly and helpful, going to great lengths to leave a positive impression, or totally rude and stonefaced, unwilling to crack a smile and sometimes even ignoring you completely. I found this a bit surprising because residents of countries with relatively few Western visitors are often the most eager to meet and speak with a traveler. Peder posed an interesting theory for how this behavior may’ve developed, based on his experiences traveling in Russia. He thinks it may stem from old habits developed under Stalin, when people were generally afraid to talk to anyone. In a society where undercover agents, secret police, and KGB would ruthlessly accuse and murder based on mere suspicion of “anti-government tendencies,” the risk of accidentally saying the wrong thing was just too grave. So a culture of “never talk to strangers” was born – and to a certain extent, has persisted. Of course this is just a theory, but I thought it was a pretty interesting one.
• Another observation with regards to people’s behavior applies exclusively to women. I was surprised that in general, they almost instantly reject any unsolicited conversation at all – even if it’s just an innocent question like asking for directions. It is true that I’ve heard Odessan woman are unusually hard to meet – but I found it to be an almost shocking extent. It didn’t take long to learn that if I need help or directions, it’s almost always easier to just ask a guy. Perhaps this behavior stems in part from their reputation of beauty – because I can imagine that getting hit on every 5 minutes by star-struck tourists would grow pretty tedious, leading to a tendency to avoid unsolicited male contact altogether. Like how a traveler starts to feel after getting hassled by touts or beggars every 5 minutes – “Geez, just let me walk down the street undisturbed for one minute, would you?” Again, just a theory – but it seems plausible enough.
• I’ve mentioned periodically how, the farther East I head, the more difficult it becomes to communicate in English. The most extreme country of the trip has so far been Moldova, although unlike Odesa, we didn’t really spend enough time there to get a strong feel for its people. Here I’ve been even more shocked at the lack of English, right down to the educated youth: out of a group of ten college-level students maybe one or two will understand some basics…maybe. It’s way different from Western Europe, and indeed most countries I’ve visited: even on the distant corners of the globe, university students can be pretty reliably assumed to understand at least some fundamental words and phrases. But here, that simply hasn’t been the case. Coming across someone who can hold a fluent conversation is in fact so rare that when it happens, it surprises me every time.
• It’s really nice that public transit is SO inexpensive; one ride is one UAH, the equivalent of about 10 cents. Compare that to Budapest where it’s more like $2 – twenty times as much – a disproportionately high price relative to the general cost of living (which is why so many people ride without a ticket in Budapest).
• It’s truly a strange phenomenon when the people you fear most are the police. After barely a week in the country, it’s abundantly clear that their goal isn’t to enforce laws or prevent crime – it’s to extract bribes. After one shakedown you give them the benefit of the doubt, but after five in a week, you quickly learn that they’re not to be trusted – so whenever we saw an officer we’d quickly fall silent and walk the other way, hiding the fact that we’re visitors. We’d avoid eye contact and specifically take routes we knew to be less likely patrolled. I know I’ve mentioned this several times already – but it really was such a prominent aspect of our visit that I felt I couldn’t leave it out of the main “observations post.” Ukraine apparently has such an issue with police corruption that in 2005, President Yushchenko actually sacked the entire traffic police force in disgust, after being continually pulled over himself while driving an unmarked car to Poland (See here). A little excerpt from Lonely Planet on the matter of hassling tourists (taken straight from the Odesa chapter):
“Back in the late 1990s, it used to be de rigueur for cops to hang out on the pedestrian alley leading to Arkadia Beach and cherry-pick foreigners out of the crowd for a little shakedown. Surely this very Soviet practice had gone the way of the dezhurnaya (hotel floor attendant) in the post-Orange Revolution, visa-free Ukraine? Uh, maybe not. My first night in Arkadia with a friend it took all of about eight seconds for a pair of cops to accost us and demand our passports, which neither of us had with us. The routine hadn’t changed a bit. We were herded to a courtyard and the phrase ‘big problem’ was repeated over and over again. The negotiation process begins with a threat of arresting you and ends with a 50uah note (about 20% of the original asking price) being exchanged. If you speak some Russian, there tends to be a lot of smiles and back-slapping throughout the negotiation process. The ritual concludes with an earnest handshake, as if both parties were perfectly pleased with the deal.”
Odesa really is quite a cool place with a lot to offer – good cheap eats, nice beaches, stunning women, plentiful monuments, convenient transport, and pumping nightlife. But the corrupt police and, to a lesser extent, seedy mafia undertones, were sadly just a bit too much for me to rate it as the top destination I’d initially expected.