After a much needed day of rest on the beach, we packed up the campsite, an exercise that was becoming skillfully routine but not quite monotonous yet, and focused on having a productive day of driving towards Ukraine.
Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be a main road directly to Ukraine from Constanta, at least not one that we trusted was in existence, so we had to backtrack a little bit. We revisited the town of roadside fish salesmen as well as the town of hugging men before heading north. Thus far in the journey, we’d been blessed with properly maintained roads that were smooth to drive upon. We knew that upon entering Ukraine, this would all change as roads were rumored to be “rough”, whatever that meant in terms of specific road conditions. Thinking that we still had several hours left before, we attempted to enjoy the drive when no sooner than making the turn north did the road conditions in Romania quickly degrade. At the time, we were amazed at the abundance and random placements of all of the seemingly shallow potholes. It was almost a novelty and we were slightly excited to start shooting video of our first road obstacle course.
In spite of the slightly weathered roads in Romania, we still made it to the border of Moldova at a reasonable hour in the morning. We actually had been hoping to avoid this extra border crossing and drive straight through to Ukraine but apparently, the only place these Romania and Ukraine could possibly place a main road was through the 3 kilometers of Moldova that separated them. As Moldova was our first border crossing with cause for concern as we learned from lessons of other teams that the farther east you go, the bigger the hats are for government officials, and the bigger the hats are, the more likely it is that you will find yourself trying to talk your way out of a bribe. Our mutually agreed upon strategy was the smile and feign ignorance of the situation for as long as possible. For the Moldova border crossing, this was a strategy we didn’t have to utilize just yet. The border crossing was smooth as could be, though it did require a certain level of patience for sitting around in your car.
After entry and being the ever conscientious visitors that we are, our first task of importance was finding the elusive insurance agents. We spotted one lone building through a gap of freight trucks in waiting and marched over with all of our paperwork. We politely lulled the bored agent from her afternoon nap and easily walked through the process even though it seemed she was genuinely shocked that anyone coming through this border actually needed third party motor insurance. After a few signed documents and the bargain price of $15, we were well on our way through the remaining 2 kiliometers of Moldova until hitting the Ukrainian border. We had actually debated whether or not to even bother getting insurance, but erred on the side of caution. When we came up to the exit border for Moldova, we soon found out that this was one of those few times where an investment in insurance was actually worth the cost. Our insurance was the first document he checked and after meeting up with another team in Ukraine who didn’t purchase the insurance, we learned that we saved ourselves from a $60 fine by doing so. It was a small victory for us, but a victory nonetheless and I did do my best to not gloat too much about it in front of the young trio of dudebros who informed us of such victory.
The border to enter Ukrainian was by far the longest and most convoluted in terms of processing. We had to wait in no less than 4 queues to progress through various checkpoints, none of which were clearly marked. This was one of those instances where it helped to observe everyone else to see how the flow of transactions worked and then proceed. After a little over 2 hours, Money Pit and ourselves were granted entry to Ukraine and we set about finding our next campsite for the evening.
Before we started the rally, Dillion and I had read that Ukraine was meant to be the worst country to drive through in terms of being shaken down for bribes by crooked cops and road conditions. I kind of dismissed the cautions about the roads, thinking that surely the roads would have been vastly improved since the last reports I read, and instead focused on crooked cops. I’m still quite sensitive when it comes to any transaction involving the criminal element, so for me, getting through Ukraine as quickly as possible without drawing attention to ourselves was a priority. Throughout our introduction to Ukraine, we were met with desolate villages, beat up Ladas and almost no presence of law enforcement officials. My former concern was proving to be energy wasted, but the fumbling road conditions made sure neither myself nor Dillion got too comfortable in Ukraine. For the 4 hour drive from Reni to Odessa, it was a very slow driving obstacle course of mid-sized potholes that threatened the integrity of our undercarriage. We often looked on in envy at the seemingly disheveled Ladas passing us whose one advantage over our Suzuki Alto was the raised suspension. Our longing looks didn’t last too long though, as the roads did punish your car if your eyes weren’t focused on the next pothole.
We pulled into Odessa with another rally vehicle just after nightfall and ready to give the car a break for the day. Finding accommodations was a less than organized operation this time around as we were desperate to stop driving and ventured towards the first hotel that came up in our GPS search. Taking a wild shot in the dark, I chose the Hotel London, completely unaware of its status as a 4 Star hotel. Seeing this designation on the entrance, I laughed at my skill for making decisions that end up emptying our pockets, but reasoned that because we’re in Ukraine, these hotels are still cheap compared to European standards. Wrong I was and unaware was Dillion. I asked him to wheel and deal with the front desk clerk as his basic Russian was still better than my non-existent Ukrainian. Before we actually knew what the nightly rate was, Dillion had a key in hand and I knew then that this would be a heartbreaker. Dillion, still unaware, I quickly looked up some exchange rates and did a calculation and determined that we just paid $170 for tonight’s stay in Odessa. I laughed again like I did when Money Pit died on the M4 and broke the news to Dillion who was shattered. I was still laughing all the way up to the well-appointed room and fully stocked bathroom until I realized Dillion was genuinely upset at this financial setback. I tried rationalizing this by playing up the two free drinks that were included and pushing the complimentary pillow chocolates in front of him, which only succeeded in getting him out of the room and into the Glasgow bar downstairs where we shamelessly ordered the most expensive drinks we could stomach.
We did have our final redemption in the morning though as we feasted upon the included breakfast and eavesdropped on a conversation between an American or Canadian man and his Ukrainian escort. Unlike most hotel breakfasts, this one probably did warrant the $170 rate. Every food item, breakfast related or not was on offer and again we shamelessly made it our mission to eat as much as possible and stuff my bag with as much as possible. Divided though we were on the hilarity of this particular situation, uniting together over our cheapness was one of those special moments when I realized Dillion is the man of my budget savvy dreams.