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Word Travels - Behind the Scenes in Ukraine by Robin Esrock
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Behind the Scenes in Ukraine
by Robin Esrock / Published November 24 2008
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First off, it’s Ukraine, not THE Ukraine.    When people ask me what was my favourite country during the summer shoot, I answer Ukraine.   Bare in mind, it had without doubt the WORST food, and the accommodation, well, lets not talk about the accommodation.   But the stories we uncovered there, Chernobyl and the Missile Base, had a profound impact on me.   Nuclear disaster seems so…80’s these days, but feeling the cold cement of the missile silo, or the sinister silence at Prypyat, brought it all home.  

Esrock meets SatanI’m writing this on a plane (of course), and I just watched a movie I downloaded called War Games, made in 1983 starring a very young Matthew Broderick.  I was 9 years old when it came out, and I still remember learning the phrase  “Global thermonuclear war.”
It was chilling then, and it was chilling now, especially the scenes in a command centre when two soldiers are commanded to initiate missile launch and realize the millions of lives they’ll be destroying.  I felt that emotion, in that Ukrainian missile bunker, decommissioned or not.  I believe that energy leaves a resonance. You can feel the positive energy on a beautiful beach, just as surely as you can feel the negative energy in a site of tragedy.  In that bunker, the hair on my arms were sharp as pins, and the former general, the man who sat in that very chair with his finger on the button, made no bones about the severity of what happened here.  

I used my People Chain to connect with Vlad and Anastasia, young Ukrainians who are as addicted to travel as the rest of us.   They took me to a beer garden festival, where I got the chance to mingle with the people, soak up the good cheap beer, take some local transport.    Some parts of Kiev belonged in Western Europe, others in Eastern Europe.  Rents are high, people struggle, but everyone loves their cellphone.  The service industry leaves much to be desired, but for the meantime, it seemed like everyone was working too hard to make money to care much about the few tourists who bother to visit.   A few months later, when the economy collapsed, Ukraine was one of the first countries in Europe reaching for the IMF panic button.     But you have to admire a country that feels constantly threatened by the growing might of its aggressive Russian neighbours, yet chose to voluntarily to disarm the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal.   

PrypiatWelcome to the Hotel Chernobyl. Plenty of vodka at the Hotel Chernobyl.  Crank up the creepy factor here, especially when the Geiger Counter rocked itself to 2.000 at one hot spot.  Kiev was about 0.007.   You hear about places like Chernobyl but you never expect to find yourself walking in an abandoned city, the rust of Soviet iconography making it look like some cold war movie set.  The food is all brought in from outside, not that it made it any more edible.   Ukrainian vodka is amongst the finest, and in keeping with our ongoing tradition of watching new Word Travels rough edits in strange places, we gathered around my laptop in the sparse room of the sparse Hotel Chernobyl (or whatever its real name is) to watch an episode that had been FTP’d across to us.  It’s always an exhilarating experience to see how our team back home interprets the footage that gets sent to them.   

Judging by the amount of people who live and work in the Zone of Alienation, I do not believe we were in harms way in Chernobyl (although I can’t say the same for anyone who ate the food that week).   But I’m not about go recommending the place as a must-visit for global tourists.  Fascinating, unforgettable, bizarre, and a story to tell the grandkids.   Which pretty much sums up Ukraine in general.  


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