Lost in Translation


If you have ever had the unenviable task of using public transportation anywhere within the United States you have faced the potential challenges of arriving to your destination incredibly late, or incredibly early.  I dealt with this issue numerous times in my short stint in D.C., a city known for mass public transportation.  From the metro to bus lines, using these systems are less than ideal.  However, this is not to say that they are not much welcomed and necessary, only that if one had the option to use them or not, most people would choose the latter. So far, my experience with public transportation in Ukraine has demonstrated the same results.  With one small exception, no one here speaks English.

In Chernihiv, and throughout much of Ukraine, people use a system of buses to reach their destinations.  Much like in the United States, there are bus systems that are run by tax payers’ dollars and operate on a small passenger fee.  These buses look much like one would expect, large, can hold numerous people, and relatively official looking.  Unlike the United States, however, there is another group of buses that run through and between cities that are privately owned and ran.  These buses are collectively known as marshrutkas.  Marshrutkas, can vary in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and, despite their outward, are surprisingly efficient. Riding a marshrutka has proven to be an experience in and of itself.  Even though there is a convenient numbers system detailing each marshrutka’s route, the language barrier has shown to be quite cumbersome.  This past week I learned this lesson the hard way.


The simple fact of marshrutkas, the 27 line in particular, is that unlike conventional buses they do not take a looping route.  Each marshrutka, I learned after my excursion, takes a specific route with an end destination depending on what side of the road it picks you up on.  Where my troubles began, even though I did indeed get on the right bus, was that I did so on the wrong side of the road.  The way marshrutka rides work is that you climb onto a crowded bus, possibly grab an open seat, or pack in tight next to strangers who you cannot even say excuse me to.  This particular time I was able to procure a seat in the back left next to a window.  I had 4 hryvnias (Ukrainian dollars) ready as the ticket taker came around taking up money.  The sun was setting to the west and I settled in for the long trek back to my apartment.

It did not take long however, for me to begin to realize something was amiss.  The scenery outside became increasingly rural as we began to move further away from the city and into the countryside.  I nervously checked google maps and knew that we were moving further away from the city center and my host family’s home. Even though I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my possible journey back, I continued to reassured myself that even if the bus did go outside the city, their route would bring them back through the loop and I would eventually get back.  Much to my dismay, I would eventually find that this was not the case.  Dusk was setting in as we continued to move through the countryside. I became more and more anxious as the bus’s passenger numbers continued to dwindle.  As night closed in around us, I suddenly realized I was the only passenger left on the bus.  Not being able to read the passing signs or communicate with the driver and ticket taker I was oblivious to the situation and the eventual destination.   In a fleeting moment of hope, it appeared as though the driver was turning around in a cul-de-sac and going to begin the long commute back towards the city.  My hopes were dashed however, as the bus suddenly came to a halt.  The engine stopped and both driver and ticket taker, the only people besides myself left on the bus, turned to me and began speaking to me in Russian.  In this moment, Ukrainian hospitality revealed just how deep it runs, and how basic kindness transcends language barriers.

I shuffled nervously up towards the front of the bus, the two caretakers talking in Russian the entire time.  The three of us proceeded to say our piece and play charades calmly with one another, trying to get our message across.  I pulled out google maps and found a location near my apartment and began to say one of the few sentences I knew by heart, “красная площа” which means, “Red Square,” which is also the city center, near my apartment.  Following more charades I tried another phrase I knew.  Unfortunately, I did not remember the word for walk.  I did however remember the word for run.  So I began to tell them that I would, “run home.” At least I think that’s what I said.   Thankfully, these two individuals demonstrated true kindness. If not for them, I would have been stranded across an unknown city with minimal language skills trekking back to my host family’s home.

From what I found out later, these two were at the end of their shift, ready to head home for the night.  That is until a dumb American unknowingly got onto the bus going the wrong direction.  The ticket taker looked at me and pointed at a seat near the front, the marshrutka cranked back up and these two kind souls proceeded to take me all the way back to the bus stop by my apartment.  I have since used and will continue to use marshrutkas during my time here.  They can be a bit of a hassle, but if these two individuals represent the character of the people I will continue to feel safe. If not for these two, I would have been stranded across an unknown city with minimal language skills trekking back miles to my host family’s home.  The event itself was relatively miniscule regarding the overall interactions I will continue to be a part of throughout the next two years.  However, the kindness these two individuals showed to a foreigner in their land, who spoke none of their language, speaks far more than words ever could.

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