It was 5:30 a.m. and I’m usually halfway through a good night’s sleep. But now my alarm was going off. I had an hour to shower, get dressed and finish my packing. My boss Kim and I were beginning our marathon day that would take us from Augusta to Atlanta to New York to Paris to Kiev to Odessa.
The two of us were asked to take part in the Ukraine Media Partnership Program this year, promoted by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev.
Our newspaper, The Augusta Chronicle, was paired with a newspaper in Nikolaev, Ukraine, called Nikolaevskie Novosti. It’s an independent newspaper with a staff of fifteen that’s published three times a week.
At first we were very excited about our trip. But soon, we started having second thoughts.
Our flight from Atlanta to JFK in New York arrived 30 minutes late. As a result, we had to scramble to the gate to make our next flight, finding our way to another terminal and passing back through security. As we’re waiting in the security line, we hear the final announcement for passengers Todd Bennett and Kim Luciani to proceed to the gate for departure. When we finally made it, we saw the plane being pushed back from the gate. We’d missed our flight.
Luckily, Delta was able to get us rebooked on a flight through Amsterdam that left about an hour and a half later. It would take us that much time to get back through security.
We were back on track.
Arriving in Amsterdam, we had a small layover. Long enough for us to get something to drink and for Kim to grab a smoke or two.
The flight to Kiev was uneventful. When the plane touched down, we both realized we had finally made it to Ukraine. Unfortunately, our luggage didn’t.
We waited patiently by the baggage carousel as the bags went round and round, passengers plucking their bags off the conveyor as they passed by. Slowly, the numbers dwindled down until the carousel finally came to a stop. At this point, Kim and I realized our bags hadn’t made it. They were stuck somewhere between New York, Paris and Amsterdam.
At this point, we began to worry that we may never see our bags again.
Before we left, Kim had mentioned to me that I should pack a change of clothes in my carry-on bag. I did. Unfortunately, Kim didn’t follow her own advice. She only had the clothes on her back and her pocketbook. It would take us two days to get our bags and Kim a fresh change of clothes.
As we walked through customs empty-handed, we were greeted by a smiling face and a sign with IREX written on it. It was Olena. She had arranged our trip and was the best thing our travel-weary eyes had seen in 20-some hours.
Our next flight was leaving in five hours for Odessa. We’d spend the night there and it’d be our first chance to get some quality sleep in 30 plus hours.
As departure time arrived, all of the passengers were crammed into two buses and taken out to the tarmac. The plane was an old 737 that had seen better days. As we made our way to our seats, we walked through the first class cabin, if you want to call it that. It had the same seats as coach, separated from the rest of us by an ugly yellow curtain, probably as old as the plane itself, that was drawn after takeoff. The plane on our return trip would come complete with ashtrays in the armrests.
The plane landed with a thud and came to a screeching/grinding halt. We thought the brakes were going to fall off.
As we exited the plane, we were again crammed into two more buses and shipped to the terminal.
Now claiming your luggage at the Odessa Airport is a journey in and of itself.
Instead of a carousel, bags are dumped outside a set of windows, where passengers grab their luggage from several large racks. It’s pretty much a free for all. Luckily, by fate, Kim and I didn’t have to partake in this melee. Olena wasn’t so lucky and waited a bit as the mob swarmed around the bags. It was like a pack of hyenas feasting on the carcass of a dead zebra. After a while, Olena was finally able to get to her bag. When she returned, I was surprised she hadn’t lost a limb or at least come away with a few bite marks.
We piled into a cab and headed for our hotel. This was probably the only sane taxi cab driver in all of Ukraine. He got us there in one piece.
After about 36 hours and five airports, we had finally arrived at our happy places. They came complete with pillows and blankets.