Let’s start from the end! The direct bus ride from Kyiv, Ukraine to Riga, Latvia takes almost 29 hours, crossing western Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. After I bought the return ticket, the thought of this long trip would make me tired. Afterward, I realized that it depends on the traveler and the reason for the journey. Where does it take you? Closer to home or further away from it? Who is waiting for you at the destination? Are you looking forward to it or do you dread it? Do you have a choice?

I spent one short week in Kyiv. Way too short! It was hard to say see you later to my friends who had so generously hosted us. I had to return to Riga because of work, but my husband Gary was going to Poltava and Kharkiv. In the morning, we took the subway/metro to the bus station Vydubychi. At the station, it was easy to spot the people traveling on the same bus. Mostly women of all ages, a few small children, and a few men. When I saw the men, I thought, “It will take longer to cross the Ukraine-Poland border.” Most of the passengers had luggage with them, presumably, with personal belongings and favorite foods from Ukraine. Most of them had made this journey before. There was no excitement or happy chatter, just patient waiting for the late arrival of the bus.

Of course, I wondered who would sit next to me. It would be many hours side by side, and I hoped for a friendly, preferably, skinny person. As it turned out, the person seated next to me was Igor. Not so skinny, but very cheerful, curious, and talkative. I could not have asked for a better and more interesting companion. Especially, since my TV screen did not work so well and I could not watch any movies. We probably talked for half of the trip. Igor’s background was in the film and TV industry. He was on his way to Riga to work on Ukrainian TV series as a camera assistant. It would be his first time in Riga, and Igor was looking forward to it. At the same time, I could sense a certain anxiety. “What about the food prices in Latvia?” he asked. “I heard that everything is expensive.” He had a full bag of homecooked food, which he generously shared with me for dinner and breakfast.

Where he and the other men on the bus got seriously anxious was at Ukraine – Poland border. Since the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the Ukraine government issued a Decree and Martial Law. Males aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine as long as this martial law is in place. There are exceptions like wounded men (military and civilian), military persons going for training, artists going for fundraising around the world, special permissions for work, etc. Of course, there are stories of those who have paid someone to let them through. Besides me and one other man with a Latvian passport, everyone else on the bus was from Ukraine. It was a bite tense when the border guard ordered all Ukrainian men off the bus. “Only Ukrainian passports,” he said. Somehow it felt unfair. Another reminder that I can cross this border as many times as I would like to, and that I can choose to come to Ukraine. These men had to get lots of documents to prove that they had a legitimate reason to leave Ukraine. In the end, all of them were allowed through.

Later all of us had to get off the bus and present our passports. I saw how one of the young Ukrainian guy’s hands were shaking as he showed his papers to the border guard. I don’t know what the border guard asked him, but you could interpret it in different ways. Possibly the border guard has done this for many months. Possibly he was unhappy about these men leaving Ukraine or suspected their reasons as an excuse for cowardice. Or he was just tired and grumpy. Most people in Ukraine are feeling fatigued after 14 months of full-scale war.

Crossing the Polish border was another story, but I will leave it out. Finally, we crossed into the free and peaceful space of the European Union. There is an invisible, but clear marker. You know that you don’t have to worry about the air alarms, checkpoints, uncertainty, danger, and all sorts of interruptions because of the war. Yes, most of the road was still ahead (Poland is such a big country to cross), but I could start counting the hours. At the same time, each mile and each hour that was bringing me closer to my home in Riga was taking the Ukrainian women, children, and men farther and farther away from their homes. I could not sense any excitement in them. They were simply doing what they had to do. There was a certain sense of resignation.

Except my new companion Igor. He was commenting on everything‚Ķ “Look, how well kept and orderly are the villages in Lithuania! Look, how different are the cemeteries in each country, and how nice are the sidewalks! Look, how low are the clouds, how low is the horizon! Look, at how the scenery changes! We are going north. I start seeing more and more birch trees. Well, your soil does not look so fertile.” His comments had an interesting effect on me – I started seeing things through his eyes. Through the eyes of a traveler, a visitor who is seeing something for the first time. Each scenery became a unique frame. I was invited to appreciate and enjoy things that I took for granted or didn’t find special. Like the fact that Latvia truly is a Nordic country and the sky is a different kind of blue. The horizon is much different and the sky and the earth seem to be pressed against each other. Maybe this makes us, Latvians, so bound to the ground, to the soil?!

Finally, we were at the bus station in Riga. Tired bodies got off the bus. Few of the travelers were greeted by happy friends or family members. It was obvious that there were some family reunions after many months of separation. As I walked through the bus station and looked around at the people, I was overcome with the sense that I returned from another planet, another reality. It was all so familiar, yet all was so strange. It was strange to be back in Riga. This strange sensation that my whole sense of things is out of sync. For 29 hours the bus was carrying my body, but some significant part of my being could not catch up.

One thought on “Homebound from Ukraine

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