A couple’s take on International Travel. Catch the podcast here, and be on the lookout for the full book (coming soon!)
Chapters will be added on a regular basis.
“A Ukrainian Zipline”
Our wanderings led us to the shores of the river, near the more industrial portion of Kiev central. Only a handful of boats traversed the wide channel. I could see gravel bars and exposed ground in all directions. It did not look very deep, so I wasn’t surprised we didn’t spot a single commercial or shipping boat, just police and the odd pleasure craft.
“My map says there’s like some park on the other side of the river,” I pointed out. “It’s got restaurants and music and theme park stuff.”
“Neat. Can we take this bridge?” Ashley asked.
Three bridges spanned the crossing. A low, two-lane street further downriver, and a wide highway that looked closer to the airport. The one nearest to us had high, metal supports like a miniature Golden Gate. A concrete barrier prevented us from approaching, though, and I saw grass cracking through the bridge’s base. Only when we neared the entrance did we realize that the bridge supports actually stopped in its middle, and had turned orange from rust.
“Looks like they’re still working on it,” Ashley noted.
“I don’t see any construction workers. And that barrier looks pretty permanent, not to mention the erosion,” I noted.
“I guess we’ll have to take the other bridge.”
On the way to the next bridge, we came across another silvery monument, a wide arch cresting a hilly plateau. A plaque named it the Friendship Arch, and said it symbolized the ‘never-ending friendship between the Soviet Union and Ukraine.’ Sickles and hammers gleamed all over it, next to smiling children and stoic, barrel-chested men engraved in metal.
“I don’t understand why they don’t tear this stuff down. I thought they hated Russia. Didn’t they just have an uprising? I’d go after this stuff first if I had an uprising here,” I noted.
“Maybe they like it,” Ashley suggested.
“They like the symbols of the nation that starved millions of their people and oppressed them for generations?”
“Why else would they keep them?”
“At least change the symbols. Might be a start and it doesn’t take much.”
Across the bridge, we saw the many outdoor bars and restaurants. There was even a beach along the river’s edge. An old man wandered about the narrow line of sand, the dirty beach’s only visitor. Upon closer inspection, we had no desire to even put our feet in that murky water.
“Looks like they have a grill over there,” I said, having spotted what looked like a seaside tavern complete with barbecue and cushioned lounge.
Only the waitresses and cooks were at the bars, and no smoke came from the grill.
A waitress stopped watching the television hanging from the ceiling long enough to deliver our menus.
She pointed out that the only warm food they had was a sausage sandwich. I had that and a beer. Ashley got a salad.
“Didn’t you say there were attractions here?” Ashley asked.
“Maybe it’s a night spot,” I guessed.
“It’s the middle of summer, and a hot day. Looks like a day spot.”
“It’s a weekday.”
“I think there’s some sort of obstacle course up ahead. Do you want to do that?”
Ashley looked toward the plastic barriers, cargo nets, and tires hanging from ropes high in the trees. Platforms built around the trunks twenty or so feet in the air formed the start and stop of each obstacle, with a guide wire indicating the proper direction.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“You’ve never done a ropes course before? I think that’s what they’re called,” I said.
“You know I’m afraid of heights.”
“I know, but you’ll be connected to a tether. There’s a guide wire and you’re strapped in the whole time. They’re safe.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just give it a try.”
“I don’t like heights.”
“It’s not high. You’re just in a tree.”
“It’s high enough.”
“Just give it a try. It’ll be fun.”
“Fine, but if I break my leg I’m breaking yours.”
Three men smoked over a checkerboard set up on a table below the ropes course. When we approached, one of them put out his cigarette and stood.
“Hi, we’d like to do the course please,” I said. I pointed to the sign showing the price. It cost about ten dollars for the both of us.
The ropes course operator nodded and another man rose from the checkerboard. He grabbed three harnesses from a box, put one on, and then gave the other two to the operator. The third man kept smoking.
The operator led us to an aluminum ladder that led up to the first obstacle. He showed us how to put our legs into the harnesses while the second man scurried up the ladder and started on the course.
“Where’s he going?” Ashley asked.
“He’s probably the guide or something, getting the course ready,” I noted.
The operator tightened our harnesses around our waists. He didn’t ask for money, in fact he didn’t say anything. I assumed we paid after we finished, and that he didn’t speak English and knew I didn’t speak Ukrainian.
When I’d added a good tug to the harness straps, the operator pointed to the ladder, indicating we were supposed to climb.
“Joe, I’m not sure about this,” Ashley said.
“It’ll be fine. See this?” I said, and held up the rope secured to our harnesses. “This is the emergency tether. You strap the carabiner to this guide wire, and you can’t fall.”
I clicked the rope around the guide wire and looked at the operator. He nodded and gestured again for me to climb.
“See? It’s safe,” I said.
Tree branches shook overhead, dropping twigs onto the vacated checkerboard as the guide progressed along the obstacles.
“Look, the guide’s already halfway through the course,” I pointed out.
“I don’t know,” Ashley repeated.
“I’ll help you. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
The rope and carabiner trailed along the guide wire as I climbed. When I reached the top, I found a series of planks secured to several ropes. They formed what looked like a bridge with wide gaps between the steps.
The guide, far ahead, weaved through a tire barrier and climbed a cargo net suspended high in the trees. I smiled, adrenaline focusing my vision on the bridge and hardening my grip on the ropes.
“I don’t know about this,” Ashley warned.
“Just watch what I do,” I said.
I stepped onto the first plank. It swung a bit, so I had to rebalance. With the next step I steadied my stride and bounded from one board to the next, finally reaching the platform on the far side.
Ashley’s legs shook.
“You can do it. Just step onto the plank,” I instructed.
“What if I fall?” Ashley asked.
“That’s what the emergency tether is for.”
I tugged on my own rope. I had to pull the carabiner around the other side of the trunk to prepare it for the next obstacle.
“You can do it,” I encouraged.
Ashley stared at the bridge, and grabbed hold of the rope. She managed to step onto the first plank and swung back and forth with a low scream.
“You’re good – you got it,” I said.
“Don’t talk to me!” Ashley scolded.
She glared at the ropes, demanding they stop swinging. When they finally did, she repeated the step to the next plank.
“You got it,” I told her.
“I said don’t talk to me!” Ashley warned.
Rather than walk across the broken bridge, she swung from one step to the next, always waiting for the shaking to cease before releasing her death grip on the ropes.
When she finally made it to the far platform, she grabbed hold of my arm and I felt like the entire tree was shaking.
“Great job,” I said.
Ashley didn’t reply. She just stared at the tree and pointedly not at the ground.
“See, the guide’s nearly done,” I said. “Now, next obstacle.”
A ten foot gap separated us from the following tree. The platform was a little lower than where we stood, but I’d need a running leap to get there.
I looked around, wondering if there was a trick to the obstacle or some other way of bridging the gap.
“Are you… are you supposed to use the emergency tether for this?” I wondered. “I can’t jump that.”
“Joe, I want down,” Ashley said.
“Come on, we just started. This one’s odd, though. Are you supposed to zipline with the emergency rope? It’s an emergency tether not a zipline.”
The guide strapped himself in to the final obstacle: a stiff-cabled zipline that concluded just above the ground.
“Looks like the course ends with a real zipline. I wish he hadn’t gone ahead, maybe he could help us with this one,” I said.
“Joe, I want down,” Ashley insisted.
“I’m sure it’s fine. If the guide can do it, we can.”
The guide hurled himself along the zipline.
The cable snapped.
The guide slammed into the dirt alongside cracked pieces of the obstacle’s metal frame.
“Joe, I want down,” Ashley repeated. “Now.”
“Okay, you might be right,” I conceded.
“I am not going any further – I want down.”
“How do we get down? He just broke the way we’re supposed to get down.”
The guide wiped the dust off his pants and limped back to the operator. He didn’t say a word, just sat at the checkerboard table, lit a cigarette, and resumed his game.
“Maybe we can go back along the bridge?” I wondered.
“I am not going back – I want down now!” Ashley demanded.
“Yeah, I’m not sure I trust these emergency ropes all the sudden.”
Images of me breaking my leg and having to spend the rest of the trip in a hospital, or forced home before we could make it to Istanbul, weighted my feet to the platform.
“Hey, hey!” I shouted to the operator. “We want down.”
I waved at him, and he waved back.
“I want down,” Ashley repeated.
“I’m trying to figure out how to do that,” I told her.
The operator untied the ladder from the tree and brought it over to us.
“Here, see, he’s got the ladder,” I reassured Ashley.
“Thank God,” Ashley said.
“I’m going to have to unstrap you so you can get down. You ready?”
Ashley wrapped her arms around my waist while I unhooked her carabiner. She pivoted toward the ladder, and I worried she wouldn’t let go. Once she neared the ladder, though, she scurried down it without a second thought and stood shaking beside the tree.
I followed after, and when I reached the ground, I took out my wallet and showed the operator enough bills for twice the price of the course.
The operator held up his hand and shook his head.
“I am never doing that again,” Ashley vowed when we got out of our straps.
“I could use a beer,” I said.
“God, me too.”