Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Inept Corruption

Going back in time a bit to near the beginning of the Ukrainian trip, after we'd landed in Kiev and found that the Brits had lost some of our luggage enroute (and found it again in London!), we made our way to the train station. The plan was that we were going to go from our flight that landed in Borispol to the Kiev train station and catch the next train that makes a stop in Gorlovka. If we'd been fast, we would have been able to catch the train at 17:30 +/- to arrive 12 hours later. We weren't because of the baggage issues. So the next one was going to be around 20:30 +/-. So, we hopped the bus from Borispol to the train station...

When Tom and I were unloading our plethora of bags, Lyuda started talking to this guy that appeared oh of nowhere asking where we were going. At first, I thought he was one of those types to make a quick buck moving our bags for us or trying damned hard to get you to use them as a taxi. Those taxi guys in Ukraine are damned pushy and you have to treat them like they are the worst, foulest creatures if you want them to leave you alone. They swarm like ants and most of the time won't take 'nyet' for an answer. Esp if they notice that you're a foreigner and I don't have any features that make me look like a local. They peg me as either an American or German off the bat, former for the clothes and the latter for the facial features. So I get the swarm two fold over the locals at least. This guy wasn't a cab driver though...

After Lyuda told him Gorlovka or the Donbass, or something like that, he quickly whipped out his phone and called someone. He replied to Lyuda that there were no tickets, but he could make arrangements...Lyuda thanked him, but declined. We then started our moving our logistics train, ahem, baggage, into the nice, shiny, and new train station. Lyuda, Tom, Avrora, and I trundled up the the ticket counter and Lyuda engaged the woman selling tickets. Nope, no tickets she said. The guy was still hovering around. He pounced again.

He stated that he could get us all first class tickets. The price was 450 hryvna ($90) for the four tickets and he'd need our passports. Y'see to buy tickets on the train in Ukraine, they need your passports. That's normal. Lyuda would have needed all of our passports to buy us tickets. They want real people associated with real places on the train, so goes the theory. This guy had shown some random woman's passport to Lyuda and us at the same time he was rambling on in Russian: he told Lyuda something to the effect of 'see, here is someone I am already getting tickets for...' The problem was something felt wrong. Very wrong. Tom and I immediately spouted out 'nyet' as soon as Lyuda translated. Tom and I pegged the guy as a scalper: he and his friends had bought all the free the tickets already and were going to charge more....plus the added bonus of having all the info needed to make some very convincing fake passports. We weren't going to have that.

Some dickering went on back and forth. We told him we'd pay him and if Lyuda went with him when he got the tickets then she could take the passports. He wasn't going to do that. He suggested that if he could have the information from inside the passports, he'd not take them. Uh uh, no! He then said he wanted to talk over in a little cafe there in the train station. He counteroffered again with that he'd get us the tickets without any info if the price was higher. The amount slips my mind. About then, his buddies started showing up. That's when I got the feeling this wasn't merely a lone scalper. Something else was up. When Lyuda stated that he'd basically said, 'his way or the highway,' we all agreed 'no way'. We left the cafe. Lyuda went off to see if there was some other way to get tickets. She was pretty despondent though. She said, 'These are the Mafia.'

Tom and I stood around with my daughter and the bags as the 'Mafia' types circled from a distance. They never took their eyes off of us. They moved like sharks around us too. If we watched them watching us, they'd move to another place until we'd stop watching them. It was a little eerie. Lyuda came back with a negative report. She was getting really upset. She lashed out at us for not watching the bags closely enough because the bag theives are really fast. Given the weight of the bags - they were fscking heavy! - I had this image of some idiot sprinting over and grabbing a bag as fast as he could...only to fall flat on his ass as he tried to run off! Tom lent her his cell phone - hers wasn't working in country despite setting it up to do so at the Cingular store the week before - and she called her sister. Lena started working the problem from her end too, but stated that a friend of hers had dealt with the some sort of characters we were facing without problems despite giving up her passport (and getting it back).

Then the original twit came back. He talked more with Lyuda and he tossled my daughters hair despite my glares. He and Lyuda started getting heated with one another and he stalked off. He'd been going on about the stupid Americans and that they didn't understand how things worked here in their country. That ticked off my wife: she's starting to seld-identify as an American too...not all the way...but she's getting there. She realized that then at that moment too. She and Tom went off to see if they could find a driver that'd take us to Gorlovka instead. If we couldn't get a train, we'd drive. Preferably a native driving, if not then one of us through a car rental.

Lyuda and Tom disappeared for a while with Avrora this time. I was left with the bags. The twit and his buddies continued to circle. However, whenever there was a cop, they moved away. It wasn't that the cops didn't see them or realize what they were up to, or so it seemed, it just came across as the twits and cops were under the mutual agreement that the twits didn't conduct business under the cops noses or do anything that would require the cop to step in (like if thw twits hurt someone). After Lyuda and crew left and the cops were at the far side of the terminal, the 'Mafia' types starting playing theater.

Well, that's what I call it. They started staging, rather badly, selling tickets to men for train rides to Donetsk. Or Gorlovka. They did it loudly enough that I'd hear them. They did it with a few times. One was obviously to the guy that was their boss (I'd seen him talking to them and nodding to us earlier when I was watching Avrora). Another was to someone that was obviously another twit. None were to people I'd recognize as standard Ukrainians. Or tourists. It was a theatre act, and a poor one at that, so that they could say they were doing 'honest' business and possibly jack up the price later. Or get me mervous about all the tickets that had been sold already.

Tom came back with Avrora. We talked some more. It was after 19:00 and getting to 19:30. We didn't have food, which wasn't horrible for the adults, but Avrora needed to eat more than cookies and juice. The train was leaving shortly, or so I thought...and Lyuda was missing. I got nervous when 19:45 rolled around and Lyuda wasn't there. I asked Tom to go looking for her. He did. Avrora was getting pissed off from boredom and no real food: she loves her meat and cheese! And brocolli, damnit! Feed ME! She let loose. Some kids came over and gave her a balloon to play with which worked for a little while until she chased it to tackle hug it and...it popped out from under her. She smacked her forehead on the stone floor getting a small bump. Tom came back then sans Lyuda and Lyuda showed up from somewhere else at the same time. Avrora was crying (bumped head) and Lyuda was getting very upset.

We thought at first that someone had threatened her. After all, these guys were getting to look a little pissy at this point. We weren't taking the bait and they weren't getting paid. No, Lyuda was jsut getting uberupset and was double plus uber tired: she'd not slept well in two days. She went outside to call her sister again on the cell phone. With Tom and I both glaring at them, the twits moved back a little more and left us be. Lena had been working to do something at the same time. She'd been placing calls to old friends of Lyuda's and friends of her own to see what she could arrange. One guy said he might drive all the way to Kiev to get us and Lena was trying to get ahold of him for confirmation. Lyuda came back and Avrora was crying again.

Lyuda lost it again. Exhaustion and frustration again. It was almost 20:00. The guy wasn't going to drive all the way to Kiev to get us. Tom and I convinced her we needed to go find a hotel for the night. She agreed and we moved our bags out of the terminal to get to a hotel. That's when the first twit got desperate. He bolted out the front door to meet us outside. He talked fast to Lyuda. Lyuda translated saying he'd get us the tickets, altogether, no need for the passports. We all consulted and glared at him. Fine, we agreed. Tom and I would prefer to spend more money and not abide the corrupt, than save some and help that festering wound...but Lyuda really wanted on the train and we weren't going to

He led us down to the train track. We piled our bags together in a defensive huddle. Iw as a little worried because he'd taken us down to the far end of the track and a lot of his buddies had shown up. They looked like a bad movie's Russian Mafia types. It was a little worrisome. Our train showed. The conductor popped out and started loading people into her car. The twit started negotiating with the conductor. The conductor kept trying to ignore him: she didn't have any space. He got threatening. No space. He argued, cajoled, many things. No space. The twit pulled in his buddies. The conductor called in hers.

The twit came over saying that they had room for my wife and daughter, but no one else. Rejected that. Then he came back with anotehr deal that was unacceptable. Still wasn't what he'd promised. This BS was said and that. Lies and more lies. The conductor was just pushing him away and he was trying to make money off us. One point it sounded like he was going to try to least steal the bags.

He went back to the conductor again with all of his buddies. They argued quite loudly. That's when I noticed someone stick a camera phone out the window of one of the other trains and snapped some photos of them. The twit came back. I handed Avrora to Lyuda and stood a little bit away from the bags, but close enough to them that he couldn't grab one and run. His buddies watched. IDK if Tom had the same idea or not, but Tom is a big guy. I'm tall at least and to these shorty twits a little imposing. The twit tried to look threatening, but it didn't work. He growled at Lyuda and looked at us. Then he stomped off. Lena called. Their cousin was enroute. He'd be there and help us with a place to stay. Just stay where we were.

The train left. Without us.

The twit came back. The twit yelled something at Lyuda and it seemed to be as much for his friends as for us. According to Lyuda, we'd broken the deal, he said. He stormed off with the entourage in tow. Lyuda looked a little bleak and stated that now no one was going to sell us tickets. Her cousin showed up - a charming guy that was quite striking. His gf was nice, but...he could have caught a lot better. If I'd dragged him to the States, he'd have the girls cooing. He's a student at the University, an EE. Ah, fellow geek to the rescue.

We crashed at his parents place. They were as poor as church mice. The next day we ended up getting tickets - "Lux Class" aka luxury class - despite the problems with the very inept 'Mafia'. That was due to The Fixer though. He was a very charming guy in Donetsk that used to work with Lyuda. At the National Police. He was a character. He is worth a post of his own. That's the least I can do.

The twits of the so-called Mafia were just incompetant. Their theatrics were stupid. Their threats were empty. Tom and I could have taken at least half of them without even getting very hurt. They kept doing all the wrong moves: showing the woman's passport, threatening, cajoling, and, frankly, if Lyuda would have lightened up, we could have played them like a good violin. I've dealt with far, far better before. I've encountered men that were both corrupt and scary. To be corrupt, you need to be scary, convincing, have half a clue, and follow through on what you promise. These guys were just plain stupid idiots.

I'd never seen these types at the train station before in my three prior trips to Ukraine. It makes me sad that they were there at all. Even with as stupid as they were. It makes me sadder that the cops didn't just walk over and give them the boot. The cops looked more frightening than this shark-finned minnows. Alas. Poor Ukraine. I hope to not see them next time. After all, something did give me a little more hope.

Once we were on the train, Avrora met a playmate. Am-(mumble) and parents were going back to a small town outside of Donetsk to visit his babushka. They were obviously pretty well off for Ukrainians and I'd even say he looked like upper middle class American by the dress of he and his wife. Not to mention the stone in her ring. He struck up a conversation with me. He was a minor executive in the railway company's international department. The conversation went from introductions to discussing what we do to politics and my opinions of Ukrainians and Ukraine. He was especially interested in those that had immigrated to the States (he was worried they were all criminals, actually!). The conversation turned to the Rule of Law by the end. It was a topic that wasn't just on his lips. It had been on Lyuda's uncle and cousin's lips. It was on the Fixer's lips too over dinner in Donetsk. It was on a lot of Ukrainians' lips.

And that gives me hope. A lot of hope.

Maybe, just maybe, Ukraine won't fall to those shark-finned minnows.

No comments: