I walked up to the group and set my daypack next to my feet. I heard someone call out, “Mindy?”
Wait. I knew a Mindy who was heading into Ukraine to bring humanitarian supplies. She traveled here from Utah and would go with a guide named, Allen.
A woman answered the call. She had long, dark hair, just like the Mindy from last year.
Oh, wow. I think that is the Mindy I know.
Someone said, “Holly, do you know Mindy?”
Mindy turned to me and yelled, “Holly?”
I said, “Oh my God. I can’t believe you’re here.”
We stared at each other, opened mouthed. Her husband asked, “How do you know Holly?”
I laughed and said that I knew him too.
She said, “From the Free Shop. We volunteered with her last year.”
I don’t think he remembered me.
Mindy and I met in a hug with a jumble of “I didn’t know you were here.” “I can’t believe you’re traveling with this group.” “I’ve been checking your posts on Instagram; I thought you were already there.”
While we were lost in a flurry of seeing someone we knew at the most unexpected of times, Luksaz, the man who would guide my group into Ukraine, said, “That’s how it is in America. It’s such a small place; Everybody knows everyone else.”
Our two groups would travel to the boarder of Ukraine together, and then separate when we got into the country. Mindy’s group would go to villages north of Lviv, we would go to the Lviv train station and take an overnight train to Kiev.
At first there wasn’t room for me on the trip; I was so bummed. I wanted to take as many trips into Ukraine to help as possible. But the caveat was that I only wanted to go with Luksaz. He was an organized, flexible guide with hundreds of contacts in Ukraine. I took one four-day trip with him already and now I only wanted to travel with him.
Four hours ago, Luksaz called to say there was room for me on this trip, but it would be a tight fit. Four of us would have to sit together in the back of his car.
I wasn’t going to offer to ride on the roof but was perfectly willing to squeeze into the back seat.
I spent the afternoon charging my power banks, buying snacks and packing carefully. I might be hot. It might cold. It could rain. I wanted to wear clothes to show I wasn’t rich so nobody would target me.
I couldn’t hide the fact that I was American. People could tell that I didn’t belong by looking at me. I couldn’t tell if it was my wide-eyed observer stance or if it had more to do with my insistence on not wearing makeup and wearing my hair in a tight bun so I didn’t have to fiddle with it constantly; European women always look so put together.
Ukraine has been locked in a war with Russia for over 500 days. I would be entering a war zone, again. This time I would not be going close to the front lines, but you never know how war works.
If something happened and Russia showed up at the exact place where I was, surely I would be coveted as a morsel-of-delight.
Wouldn’t they love to have a feisty American woman on their keychain?
I’m not sure if it’s become a habit of luck or a proven strategy to always dress down when traveling solo. And now I was using that same wardrobe for traveling in a war zone.
I tucked my day pack into Luksaz’s trunk and climbed into the backseat of his car. On my right side sat a mother and daughter who were going into Ukraine to visit family. On my left side sat a 14-year-old girl from Washington state, USA who was going into Ukraine to visit family friends. Her father was in Mindy’s van.
Jullia, Luksaz’s girlfriend, a woman from Ukraine, sat in the front seat next to him. Her English was spotty, but she was always willing to use her translation program to communicate with me, or ask Luksaz to translate.
It was hot, sitting there scrunched between strangers, but I was as excited as ever to have a seat.
We had about a four-hour drive to get to the Lviv train station. Add to that a stop at the border, which could take anywhere from a half hour to four hours—or even longer.
Luksaz said, “We are tight on time. Everyone please use your powers or prayers or ideas to get us through the boarder checkpoints fast. Or we will miss our train.”
As I visualized our speedy entry, I used simple English to ask the mother and daughter their story.
They lived at the refugee center close to Luksaz’s apartment.
The mother said, “My husband is a soldier. This is a way it is. I accept it. I can’t change. This is way life is now.”
She continued, “It matters for our children the most.” She pointed to her head. “That’s what matters the most.”
I agreed with her, the mental health of her children mattered the most, which is why they left the country. I asked how long since they had been home. They were a two-hour bus ride from the Lviv train station, so for them home was more or less 6 hours away – plus the time at border crossing.
“August.” She said.
I didn’t understand. This is the month of July. What does she mean, August? I was trying to puzzle it out, then realized that they hadn’t been home for a visit since August off 2022.
“You’ve been away for almost a year?”
The mother and daughter both nodded, sadly.
I asked the mother who is there, at home. “My husband. My mother and father. My whole family. Everybody.”
I asked the girl if she was excited to go home. You never know with thirteen-year-olds. Maybe she would rather stay in Krakow than return home.
The daughter said, “Happy.”
I smiled and told them that I was happy for them.
The mother said, “It’s important they see her. She growing. They missing her grow.”
I nodded again.
In a moment of synchronicity, Luksaz blessed her in Polish, I said it in English and both the mother and daughter said their pleasantries in Ukrainian.
It was a three-language sneeze blessing. With all of that positivity, I was mostly sure that she would never sneeze again. Not on this trip.
I asked the Teen to tell me her story and this delightful young woman told me about friends, foes and her family makeup, which is complicated.
Due to my confusion, I suggested she call her adopted father, the man she was traveling with: father and that other man could be called: birth father.
She agreed, that would make things clearer.
The girl’s mom is deaf so she communicates with her through sign language. She told the story of her dad meeting her mom and how he started learning sign language right away so he could win her heart.
When we stopped for a bathroom break, the Teen was able to make gestures towards her father—who was across a large parking lot. He answered her with his own gestures, all without speaking.
They were able to communicate quietly; sign language is a civilized language.
I experienced a lack-of-language envy; how cool to communicate so secretly in public.
After we piled back into our vehicles, Teen explained to me that American Sign Language is different that Ukrainian Sign Language.
I stopped her. “Wait, are you saying that Ukraine has their own version of sign language?”
I am constantly amazed by how little I know of the world.
Teen told me about having all four of her wisdom teeth out. On the same day. One week ago.
I asked her if it still hurt, and she said not much.
She told me about a dream that she had under anesthesia that was so real that as she was waking after the surgery, she told her father. Yes, he recorded it.
She was embarrassed by the dream because in it Spiderman was shirtless.
I laughed with her.
“I can’t believe I told my father that dream.”
I smiled. “When you have a dream that good, you have to share it.”
I asked if he had his pants on and she screwed up her face and said she didn’t know.
I wanted to ask more questions. But thought it might be best to let that go.
At our next rest stop, Teen was sent to the van. It was important that she cross into Ukraine with a family member.
After she left, I asked Luksaz how she fit into an already full van.
“I don’t know.”
The border entry has four stops. The first two are on the Poland side, the second two are on the Ukrainian side.
At the first stop a guard talked to Luksaz and then gave him a ticket to proceed to the next stop.
Jullia collected our passports and handed them to the border agent at the next stop.
She held each passport, then checked carefully to be sure that we were an exact match.
The Ukrainian side was a little slower. At the first stop they looked into the trunk and into our car to be sure we had nothing illegal, but they didn’t make us unpack.
At the next stop, we had to get out of the car and line up at a little window for another passport/ID check.
Time was ticking. If we didn’t leave soon, we would miss our train.
Finally we were cleared.
We waved to our friends who were lined up at the small window and wished them well, jumped back into the car and sped off into the night. We would make it to the train station with a half hour to spare.
As we entered Ukraine, I tensed. This is a war zone. I have to be on my guard.
But when we entered this different country, the mother and daughter both relaxed.
I smiled at them.
The mother said, “Now we are home.”
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