Sunday, 19 November 2006
The Amazing Race 10, Episode 9
Antananarivo (Madagascar) - Helsinki (Finland) - Tampere (Finland) - Turku (Finland) - Lohja (Finland) - Helsinki (Finland) - Kiev (Ukraine) - Oster (Ukraine) - Kiev (Ukraine)
Over the course of the most recent two-part episode, The Amazing Race 10 made its way to Ukraine.
This was the first ex-Soviet country other than Russia to have been visited by the race. Ukraine is the largest country in land area, and fifth largest in population, entirely in Europe. Not surprisingly, it looks to a future in which it is an important part of European continental affairs. Yet the race -- like too many potential tourists -- sees it more in terms of its Soviet past : aging Soviet cars the racers have to drive, military bases selling tourists like the racers the opportunity to drive tanks (would that American military bases were deprived of government funding and forced to convert themselves to tourist playgrounds!), and so forth.
That depressing picture is consistent with what news we get from Ukraine. What's "newsworthy", though, is often what's least typical of a place. And the public face of a place like Ukraine is a very poor guide to what goes on behind closed doors. Decades of life under a Stalinist police state trained people to mask their thoughts and feelings in public, so that much of what we think of as "social" life happened in private homes rather than the "public" spaces where Americans might expect to find it. The warmth of community life remains, but you need to crack the door of trust with local people to find it.
Once you do that, what's Ukraine like for tourists? Your mileage may vary, but I had a wonderful time in Kiev a few years ago, visiting a friend's family and venturing out to the small town about 100 km. (60 miles) away where my partner's grandparents were born:
None of my partner's family in America had kept in touch with anyone still living in Ukraine, if indeed any of their relatives survived the Czarist pograms, the wars, and the Nazi Holocaust, and are still there. We didn't find anyone in Skvira who recognized the family names. But we didn't really expect to -- mostly, our search for family history was an excuse for a trip, and an explanation for our otherwise curious and perhaps slightly suspicious presence, in a place of no particular touristic interest or distinction, that isn't listed in any guidebook and where no tourist would normally go.
In other words, a recipe for a really wonderful and completely "authentic" Ukrainian experience. Perhaps it's not apparent in the photograph how pickled I am on some of the harshest pickle-jar homebrewed alcohol that politeness has ever obligated me to drink, served up with smiles across the language barrier by our insistent impromptu hosts as soon as they understood the reason for our visit to their town.
As for what Ukraine is like for more recent visitors, I'll leave that to my Ukraine-born friend and colleague Eugenia Sukhenko's excellent survey a year ago in the Airtreks.com newsletter.
As in previous years at this time, my own viewing of this episode of the race was interrupted by a week in Hollywood at the PhoCusWright Executive Conference . It's a chance to hear what travel executives say among themselves, with almost no other consumer advocates in the audience. As usual, the news for travellers from the travel "industry" was mostly bad, with ever more focused effort being placed on tracking and manipulating us and our travel behavior, all in the name of "marketing". I came home sick (the air in L.A. would tend to do that to me, even if the content of the conference didn't) and struggling to catch up -- I'm supposed to be completing a new edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World . Don't despair, though: In forthcoming columns I'll be reporting on some of the most significant developments, and companies to watch out for, that I learned about at the conference.Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 19 November 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)