You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

You’re Going To Miss…Ukraine & Poland

 

Pictures courtesy of Mandy Cheuk, Simon Lu, Kai Tan, Cynthia Koo, and yours truly.

With contributions by Cynthia Koo.

 

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“…Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” – Jack Kerouac

 

You’re going to miss…

 

You’re going to miss that first meal together, the seemingly unending introductions to the 16 other people you will spend the next 6 days with, the mental scramble to match faces to names and pictures from a blog.

You’re going to miss the butterflies before waiting to board airplanes going halfway around the world, those moments leading up to a trip promised to be filled with first-times and new experiences and unknowns.

 

You’re going to miss those first moments of dawning realization that barely a day into the trip you are already lost, navigating signs and subways in a language you can’t read, trying not to lose anyone in a city you know of only from the first scene of “Mission Impossible.”

 

And you’re going to miss the comforts of your first overnight bus into Odessa, being bored to death by what seems like your 5th walk around the city’s pocket-sized city center, your 2-hour wait for the group that was flying in later, and the subsequent joyous, movie-like reunion of 15 strangers amid the backdrop of one of the world’s most famous stairways on the other side of the world.

 

You’re going to miss breaking bread over a belated Christmas dinner with new friends, followed by standing on random street corners trying to find a way to the supposed “spectacular” nightlife of Arcadia beach.

 

You’re going to miss arriving at a deserted carnival that is Arcadia in the dead of winter, suspecting that zombies might be lurking in the fog, but heading in anyway only to stand on a forsaken beach, staring off into an uncertain abyss over the Black Sea.

 

Arcadia Beach, Odessa

You’re gonna miss taking photos of yoga poses next to crashing waves before crashing a dance party for old people, and then passing out in an empty restaurant before assumingly missing the last tram back to the city and, to the chagrin of several curious Ukrainian locals, subsequently haggling down 4 taxis that could help you make it onto your overnight train to Kiev.

 

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You’re going to miss waking up on a moving vehicle to a snowed-in Eastern European city and trying not to slip on ice-covered streets to get to your hostel before catching a 10:30am bus.

 

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And you’re going to miss the 4 hour bus ride passing through barren Ukrainian landscapes during which you finally found time to write in your journal, stopped by a roadside gas station to pick up cup ramen for lunch and a supply of cookies, meat chips, and candy that would last you for days. You’re going to miss eating the aforementioned ramen with coffee stirrers, and you’re going to miss belting out the lyrics of “Drops of Jupiter” before drifting off to sleep to the lyrics of “Just Breathe.”

 

You’re going to miss the feeling of knowing you are in the middle of nowhere, being unable to pinpoint where you are on a map, and juxtaposing the thought of being in universally-unknown Pervomaysky, Ukraine (did any of you know that was where we were?) with the thought of having just 2 days ago been in universally-known NYC.

 

You’re going to miss being shown what the end of the world might have looked like, and climbing down to the “safest place on Earth.”

 

You’re going to wish you could once again celebrate your birthday in an underground bar in Ukraine.

 

And you’re going to miss the $12 steak dinner, the endless orders of beers, and the anticipation of participating in the next random Ukrainian drinking “tradition.”

 

 

“No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.” – Anonymous

 

You’re going to miss the 4 hour dance marathon…

 

…and you’re going to miss waking up to the sight of one of your group leaders passed out on the floor next to a freshly opened beer bottle, that WTF moment when your hostel was raided by Kalashnikov-wielding cops looking for a massage because they mistook the place for an Asian brothel. And you’re going to miss realizing that you spent that 1 night when you had a proper bed by partying in Kiev instead, heading to bed a mere 3 hours before you headed out the door again.

 

You’re going to miss getting on the wrong train during your adrenaline-fueled rush from your hostel to catch buses that would take you to Chernobyl — the feeling of searching for a needle in a haystack in Kiev’s sprawling Independence Square, the uncertain dread of whether you’ve missed the opportunity to visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. And you’re going to miss that sigh of relief and a renewed belief in miracles when a stranger approaches you to ask if you’re looking for the Chernobyl buses, 35 minutes after you were supposed to be there.

 

You’re going to miss the moment when you arrived at a destination that until then, had only existed for you in Wikipedia articles, video games, and bad horror movies.

 

You’re going to miss witnessing landscapes of a nuclear wasteland, the awkward reluctance and willingness of eating a “radioactive-free” lunch, the eerieness of naked abandonment as you navigate a ghost town that’s been stuck in a time warp for 26 years.

 

And then you’re going to miss that second adrenaline-fueled dash to the bus station that night, that momentary panic when you count up your group and realize you’d left one of your compatriots behind, the relief at having him make his way to the bus station in time anyway (leading to jokes afterwards that never got old). And you’re going to miss biting into one of the 100 last-minute orders of shawarma sandwiches made at the bus station to hold you over on your 7 hour overnight ride, and you’re going to miss those late-night conversations about politics, race, sex, and civil rights.

 

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You’re going to miss standing for an hour in the shivering cold while making crude jokes and waiting for the morning bus, telling horror stories on the way to Lviv’s train station, and spending the 3 hours before shops opened at one of the sexiest cafes you’ve ever stumbled upon.

 

You’re going to miss dancing in the streets to music blasting over speakers and you’re going to miss that awkward moment when a passerby gives you a 50 cent Ukrainian coin for your efforts.

 

And you’re going to miss wandering through Lviv with a local, warm from honey vodka shots required of you before you entered that password-protected underground bar, and buzzed from champagne popped at the top of a viewing tower overlooking the city to celebrate having just climbed a million flights of stairs (…and being in Ukraine!).

 

You’re going to miss taking photos in a random car at the top of a restaurant…

 

…and you’ll miss popping another bottle of champagne just in time for a fiery red sunset on High Castle Hill…

 

L'viv Opera Bar

…and you’ll miss that last-minute costume party under a legendary opera house.

 

You’re going to miss trying to figure out the ‘Ukranian Bear’ as he cargoes you across the Ukrainian-Polish border at 1am in the morning, debating conspiracy theories as you’re told to wait in an interrogation room while your vehicle is searched in a sketchy garage.

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country after driving for hours, dumb to the awe of Wawel Castle at dawn as you get out of the van, taking over a nearby Sheraton bathroom – the nicest you’ve used in days – walking through atmospherically serene Krakow before anyone else is awake, and getting a rushed breakfast before scrambling for seats on a standing-room packed bus to Auschwitz.

 

You’re going to miss contemplating the range of emotions that overtakes you when walking through one of the worst tragedies in modern human history, learning about the horrors of a place where horrible things happened to good people — a place you had only heard of from high school history class.

 

And you’re going to miss the bitter aftertaste of anger and disappointment when your group leader tramples upon his own schedule and totally lets everyone down (okay, you might not miss that).

But you’ll definitely miss the group dinner afterwards (at least this humbled writer hopes you do), courtesy of a jerkface who learned his lesson.

 

You’re going to miss those first few goodbye hugs as flights started to leave, the serendipity of arriving at the airport a few hours earlier than scheduled, that impromptu 2 hours spelunking through Warsaw in the middle of the night on the vodka, and the gratefulness for a last night of being so far away from routine.

 

And you’re going to miss the impromptu 2 hour tour of Frankfurt on another layover, the unexpected cherry on top to end the trip.

 

And you’re going to miss the feeling of arriving back home, just in time to ring in 2013, just in time to reflect on 2012 and realize you ended the year with a series of 6 days that you’ll never forget.

 

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But most of all, you’re going to miss the first time when it’ll hit you: that nobody else for the rest of your life will be able to understand what 17 strangers went through together in only 6 days.

 

 And yes, most of all, we’ll miss each other.

     “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

 

Punta Cana For Rent

Punta Cana For Rent



Panorama of Punta Cana's Bavaro Beach; click to enlarge

Punta Cana is usually synonymous with the word “paradise.” And you really will find paradise once you see its beaches…but Punta Cana can also become synonymous with the word “commercialized.” That’s because the *entire* beachfront is owned by mega-resorts; nowhere will you ever find the kind of privacy and total “end of the world” solitude that we had at Playa Blanca in Cartagena, Colombia. So no matter where you go in Punta Cana, you’ll never really be alone.

Since we didn’t want to go for the all-inclusive resort on this trip, we hunkered down at Bavaro Beach, checking into Bavaro Hostel for $20 USD a night. It’s an extremely well run hostel (probably the only one in Punta Cana) and you’ll meet like-minded young travelers who eschewed the resort-life but still wanted a tan at one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.

We all went out to Alibabar last night to dance away at a great open-air nightclub and hookah lounge:

 

So if you want to come to Punta Cana and don’t want to spend exorbitant prices for an all-inclusive, you can still go on the cheap and get a great tan: by law the entire beachfront is public and is open to everyone, whether you’re an all-inclusive resort patron or independent couch-surfer. Being part of an all-inclusive simply gets you a free chair and towel to sit on whereas everyone else can get their beachside chair by eating at any of the beachside restaurants and then vegging out afterwards.

 

My fresh red snapper at a restaurant in El Cortecito

 

Nothing much else to say about Punta Cana. Just enjoy it.

 

 

- At time of posting in Punta Cana, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds

 

Santo Domingo Chinitos

Santo Domingo Chinitos


 

We set off on a late morning on a search for Santo Domingo’s Chinatown.

 

By Calle El Conde

Calle El Conde in the morning

Grabbed a breakfast at the 200 year old diner joint, Cafeteria la Colonial, and then walked north up Duarte Avenue (with Parque Duarte behind us) for about 1/5 of a mile until we hit Chinatown:

Nobody famous, just a statue of a "sample Chinese immigrant"

They placed this statue to inform Dominicans what a Chinese woman looks like

Santo Domingo’s Chinatown consists of approximately 4 city blocks total, and is easily walkable in 10-15 minutes even if you take your time. All it has are restaurants, eateries, take out joints, and maybe a small goods store or two. There’s also a random South Asian-run jewelry shop here.

As for the Chinese community itself, the only local Chinese people you’ll find are behind the counters and the managers overlooking their staff in the restaurants. We couldn’t find any Chinese people merely strolling about the streets enjoying their day; they were all working indoors. Not much of a visible community here (like a Chinese school, community center, etc.) other than ex-pats coming to make a living here.

Afterwards we headed back down Duarte Ave, admiring last night’s ruins of the Hospital from a park behind it:

 

 

Afterwards we hailed a 150 peso taxi ride to the Expreso Bavaro buses heading to Punta Cana from the corner of Ave. Maximo Gomez and Juan Sanchez Ramirez (NOT Juan Sanchez Ruiz — this is an error that Lonely Planet lists, and it led to some confusion with our cab driver in getting there).

The times of the Expreso Bavaro buses to Punta Cana also changed; instead of 7am, 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm as listed on websites and in Lonely Planet, buses now leave at 7am, 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Ticket fares also have increased to 400 pesos a person.

Punta Cana beaches, here we come!

 

- At time of posting in DR BALAGUER INTL, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds

 

Zona Colonial At Night

Zona Colonial At Night

The oldest military installation of the New World just got served

The oldest working church of the New World just got served

 

After arriving in from Haiti, we dropped off our stuff at a hostel in the Zona Colonial district of Santo Domingo. Zona Colonial is the oldest city of the New World as the oldest working church and the oldest military installation of the New World can be found here. This is also the very city where Christopher Columbus wanted to be buried.

Zona Colonial is best explored by a leisurely stroll, where you’ll notice the seamless marriage between beautifully maintained historical buildings and boutqiue modern-day restaurants.

We started our walk appropriately at the church.

 

Catedral Primada de America: The oldest working church of the New World

The Zona Colonial hospital that withstood invasions and earthquakes, until a 1911 hurricane sealed its fate

The most western point of Zona Colonial ends at Parque Independencia, where the 3 founding heroes of the Dominican Republic are buried in a mausoleum:

 

Then do an about-face and head down Calle de Conde, the main pedestrian street of Zona Colonial where all the action takes place. It’ll remind you of the “Las Ramblas” of Barcelona, but on a much smaller scale:

Then turn north once you hit Parque Colon, where you’ll see a few amazing building facades to your left and your right before you hit Plaza Espana:

We decided to head inside Panteon Nacional, where many of DR’s most important dignitaries are memorialized:


Then it was back out again towards Plaza Espana:

Towards Plaza Espana

Plaza Espana

In Plaza Espana you’ll find some of Santo Domingo’s best restaurants. Pick one (we chose Pat’e Palo) and feast away at some of the best fine dining in the Caribbean:

The lamb

The "Irish Coffee" for dessert

Not a bad way to spend our first evening in the Dominican Republic.

 

- At time of posting in DR BALAGUER INTL, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds

 

From Haiti Into The Dominican Republic

From Haiti Into The Dominican Republic

Today we crossed over from Haiti into the Dominican Republic; we took an 8am Caribe Bus from Cap-Haitien to the Jabon border, and then continue onwards towards Santiago and into the capital of Santo Domingo.

The simplest and most time-saving method is taking the direct 8am Caribe Bus from Cap-Haitien, located on Street 29 and Avenue A. The ride is about $30 USD per person, one way, which also includes a meal and a bottle of water.

 

 

2 hours in you’ll hit the less popular northern border crossing at Ouanaminthe (second in popularity to the southern border crossing between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo) as you head towards the Dominican Republic border town of Dajabón.

 

The northern border

Heading towards Haiti Immigration Control

Getting stamped out of Haiti

We then drove across the river from Ouanaminthe to Dajabon by the border, the very site where 20,000 Haitian migrant workers were massacred by the DR government in 1937 as a result of intense competition for jobs:

 

Then we realized we were crossing on a Friday, which is “Market Day.”

“Market Day” is when the Jabon border opens up a little bit between the two countries to exchange goods and trade; essentially it really means when thousands of Haitians cross over into Jabon carrying only cash and they return back into Haiti with bags, baskets, crates, carts, and jeep-loads of food, fruits, supplies, and the kitchen sink.

Take a look at the pictures…Haitians heading to the right into the DR aren’t carrying anything, while Haitians heading to the left into Haiti are carrying almost everything under the sun.

 

Haitians doing market day trading are not allowed past a certain point into the DR

 

It was interesting to see what I’ve read about in the news come to life before my eyes.

The overland border crossing is simple: pay $10 for the tourist card into the DR (DR citizens don’t have to pay this) and $10 for leaving Haiti. For us, Caribe Bus made us pay $20 ahead of time when we bought our tickets in Cap-Haitien. Then Haiti stamps you out, and we got back on the bus, gave our passports to the Dominicans, drove a bit to a warehouse and got our bags searched:

 

We noticed in the warehouse that if you’re not Haitian, the Dominicans don’t even bother looking through your stuff other than a quick look and patdown. If you are Haitian, however, they go all out on your luggage looking for smuggled items/contraband/drugs.

We then got back on the bus and picked up our stamped passports from the Dominicans. Then you’ll see things you never saw once ever in Haiti: paved highways, road dividers, traffic decals. Now you know you’re in the Dominican Republic.

Thanks for the warmth, the hospitality, the views and the memories, Haiti.

We arrived into Santo Domingo around 9 hours later since boarding in Cap Haitien, at around 5pm.

 

Arriving into the DR

 

- At time of posting in Santiago, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: scattered clouds