After a paranoid night of intermittent naps, I woke up with relief at not having been emotionally or physically scarred by a disturbance in the night. Knowing full well we’d have another challenging day of border crossings and grappling with insurance agents, we got an early start to our 10th day of driving across Europe.
Not much changed in terms of scenery or logistics for us as we continued through the last bit of Ukraine. More sunflower fields stretched across the landscapes and more potholes threatened to toss our car off into one of those fields if we got too ambitious with our driving speed. Our last city stop was Mariupol, an identical twin of Melitopol, with an equally unwelcoming feel to it and probably more so to unassuming Dillion who didn’t understand traffic protocol in this city, which was to blatantly disregard the meanings of stoplight colors. Up until this point, I don’t think we haven’t driven through many cities of significant size and we haven’t been in any city traffic jams. We still weren’t technically in a jam when Dillion offended a random driver’s sense by not going through a red light. Lots of car horn honking ensued and Dillion even spat out a little bit of Russian at the impatient driver. I looked over shocked but impressed because I was certain he had yelled a complicated epithet in Russian. Turns out though he was just trying to harshly state the obvious to this man by saying, “red”, multiple times. Oh. When I tell the story to my friends though, I’ll just say it was the former.
With Dillion properly angered at Ukraine for lack of excitement, unreasonable drivers and some other mysterious transgression for which I’m still trying uncover, it was a good thing that the Russian border was now within our sights. Though I wasn’t as angered at Ukraine as Dillion was, I was still excited about entering Russia because it seems that in the midst of this journey, I’ve prioritized smooth roads in the list of things I need in my life.
Once again, we had anticipated a dramatic exchange of bribery and unnecessary paperwork to get through to Russian territory and once again, we were wrong. As it turns out, the only things you really need to cross these borders aside from visas, are a lot of patience and a strong bladder. Our only hiccup was the customs declaration in Russia. Being the paranoid accidental saints that we are, we were overly truthful in our declaration forms, noting every bottle of wine and every currency we were carrying. After a couple of tries, the customs agent tells us not to fill in any of that inconsequential stuff and just note details about the car. Excellent. We both did that and stepped up to another man with a big hat and a Busta Rhymes ringtone on his smartphone. Someone’s a gangsta it seems! That was a cute moment as he nonchalantly ignored the call, no doubt his girlfriend asking him what had he done for her lately. Getting back to business, he asked us who the driver was and I pointed to Dillion. He then proceeds to dramatically rip up my form like a school teacher trying to emotionally torture me into submitting better essays in the future. I quietly sobbed but then he moved on to Dillion’s form and explained that that was the only one needed. Dillion’s was reviewed and was sent to redo it just once more which I think is the equivalent of getting a B in Russian Customs Control 101.
With all of the formalities take care of, we set off once again into a new country, but this time with greater expectations than before. Here in Russia we were promised smooth roads and a really huge memorial statue in Volgograd to remember the Great Patriotic War or WW2 as Americans know it. Our first stop in Russia was Taganrog and as was becoming daily practice, this city stop would be to sort out all of the logistics of entering a new country – exchange money, withdraw money, and find a place to sleep in the next town. For the first time on this trip, all three of these transactions happened with lightning speed and incredible speed. We were so shocked with all of this that we also did another first and actually sat down at a restaurant to eat lunch.
Feeling refreshed and motivated due to our small victories in Taganrog, we headed off to Rostov-on-Don where we’d attempt to find another crude campsite. A trend was starting to develop here in Russia and that was: everything coming easily to us. After searching for maybe 20 minutes, we spotted a couple of tents on the outskirts of town and along the river. It seems that wild camping is quite popular in Russia and seeing all of the locals engaged in this activity made me feel more comfortable about setting up shop myself. We found our own little section of nature not too far from the others and could clearly see where a fire pit had been started. Now we were living in the lap of luxury. Not only would we eat shrimp pesto again for dinner tonight, but we’d have a romantic fire going as well.
As if that weren’t enough, next came what for me, was the highlight of this trip. A small stray dog came wandering over to investigate our little operation. At first I was standoffish because I knew for certain this dog was going to bite me and give me rabies. Dillion, being a little less cynical and more informed about dogs, went right up to the little puppy and started petting it. He assured me that it wasn’t an aggressive dog and wouldn’t be a problem so my heart melted and I joined in. Dillion took his disarmingly gentle manner towards dogs to the next level and even shared our dinner with the puppy. At this point, the puppy, who I’ve named, Puppy, was hooked on us. He loved us unconditionally and I had to admit, now I did too. He was a sweet little creature who just desperately needed love and affection from humans, and in the most disarming of all gestures, he even took up post at the front our campsite to guard us. Sleep would come easily to me now knowing we had a guard dog.
Puppy was one of the nicest surprises in this whole trip and having him around was a nice reminder of what life would be like back home. That’s why it came as a great disappointment in the morning when we had to leave him in Rostov. I especially felt guilty about leaving him because I felt like I didn’t treat him as well as I could have. Why did I feel this way you might ask? Well, I peed on him in the middle of night. Yup. Puppy apparently does not sleep much as soon as I stepped out of the tent to pee in the middle of the night, he was excited and started jumping all over me. Frustrated and feeling full, I yelled at him to stop and held him against a tree while I tried to do my business. Not wanting to hurt him, I didn’t have much of a grip and lo and behold, he did break away. Normally, you’d think that a creature would shy away from another creature expelling liquid but no. Puppy ran directly into my line of fire and worse yet, then jumped all over me again. It was a disaster and I yelled some more at Puppy for turning me into Michael Vick and R. Kelly’s twisted love child. I went to bed in protest and then complained some more because Puppy still proceeded to rub up against me from outside the tent. In the morning when I was somewhat clean, I felt awful for yelling at and peeing on Puppy. Tears actually started to form when Dillion bid Puppy one last goodbye and he hugged him. I also cringed though because I didn’t think Dillion should be petting him after what happened, but emotions were ruling our judgment at the time. We sadly drove off in the rain and I daresay both of us were sobbing about our little friend and worry was being passed back and forth about whether he’ll be okay and if there will be somebody else who will treat him well. Still even today, 2 months after the fact, Dillion and I semi-seriously discuss going back to Rostov and bringing Puppy back home with us. Yes, it was a sad emotional drive to Volgograd that day.