I arrived at the UkrFerry office promptly at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday morning and asked for Vladlen – the faceless man with whom I had been exchanging emails for the last month about the ferry from Ilyichevsk, Ukraine across the Black Sea to Batumi, Georgia. In our most recent email exchange, Vladlen informed me that the ferry, which should have boarded on Wednesday, February 29 and left on Thursday, March 1 was delayed by one day. So there I was on Thursday, paying for my ticket and receiving final instructions to hopefully board that afternoon.
Vladlen greeted me with a huge smile and extended his hand, practically shouting “Miss Kaaaahteeee.”
I couldn’t recall the last time I met someone so incredibly excited to see me.
I sat down at Vladlen’s desk, handed over my passport and 1450 Ukrainian hryvna (about $180), and listened to him explain in broken English how I should make my way from Odessa to the ferry office in the Borey Business Centre in a village called Burlachya Balka. He emphasized that I should be there promptly at 2:00 p.m.
It was already nearly 11:00 when I left the office, so I quickly stopped at the grocery store to buy some snacks, a currency exchange to change most of my remaining hryvna, and Puzata Hata one last time for lunch. By 12:00, I checked out of my hotel and headed to the train station, from where I was supposed to catch the #25 bus to Ilyichevsk. I found the bus (far, far down the right side of the station) and told the bus driver where I needed to get off. Although Vladlen told me it would take 1 hour, the driver motioned to me after just 30 minutes that we were at my stop.
I walked into the lobby of a brand new office building seemingly in the middle of nowhere and received my boarding card from a stone-faced woman named Natasha. Then, I spent the next hour waiting for a mini-bus to take me (and any other passengers) to the customs and immigration office. Promptly at 2:00, the bus arrived and just an older Ukrainian gentleman, a young German hitchhiker named Paul, and I hopped on. A few minutes later, we stood in a poorly lit room with about twenty other people waiting for the border control to check our passports.
Officers questioned us twice, both times in English. The first asked me how long I had been in Ukraine, how much currency I had with me and whether I was carrying any medicine. The second officer asked again how long I had been in Ukraine, confirmed that I came in from Moldova, asked how long I was in Moldova, asked why I was going to Georgia and where I was going after that.
By 3:30, everyone climbed onto a bus that took us to the actual ship – a huge combination cargo and passenger ferry. I managed to snap a few photos before an 18-year-old decked out in a military uniform nicely told me “no photo.”
An hour later, I had checked into reception and was shown to my room – a good-sized 4-person cabin that I would share with just Paul (I suspect that they threw us foreigners together on purpose). After my long train rides in cramped compartments, this room was a definite luxury with normal twin size beds, a large table, couch and an in-suite bathroom.
Oh, and did I mention it was on the 8th level so it included a nice view out the front of the boat?
They served dinner that evening at 9:00 in the 7th floor restaurant. Although a woman earlier told me it was cafeteria-style, we arrived to find all of the plates already set with plov (rice and chicken), a pickle and salad. Like a normal cruise ship, we had assigned seating, which seemed to be based on nationality. Thus, Paul sat at table #5 with a group of German truck drivers and I sat at table #11 with….a group of Georgians. That makes perfect sense because there’s a Georgia in America and all, right?
As I scanned the room during dinner, I noticed that I was one of about seven women on board the boat, out of about 70 passengers. I was clearly also one of the youngest. Serving primarily as a vehicle ferry, the vast majority of those on board were truck drivers accompanying their large semi-trucks across the sea, many of which I later learned were carrying livestock. Thus, the next day after lunch when I went up on deck to take some pictures, I also saw many of the drivers down below heading to their rigs to feed their “cargo.”
We finally set sail around 11:00 p.m. and Paul and I stood with the window open, cold sea breeze blowing in, watched as we very slowly passed by all of the lights in the harbor and drifted out into the open sea.
As I fell asleep that first night, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how smooth and quiet the ride was.
Our first full day aboard went by surprisingly fast. We left the curtain open at night so we awoke with the sunrise.
Breakfast was promptly at 8:00 a.m., after which I returned to the cabin to read before falling asleep for a couple hours. I don’t think I realized it, but the previous few weeks really wore me out! I was also pleasantly surprised to discover the 3G on my Kindle worked as we passed by the Crimea midday – the last land we would likely see for another two days.
I admittedly didn’t spend much time outside of my cabin and there were a few reasons for that. One, I really felt like I needed the rest. I saw the journey as the perfect time to catch up on reading, writing and editing photos without any distractions. Two, the truck drivers could be an intimidating bunch and many were French or German and spoke no English so a complete language barrier existed. And three, most of the “common” areas allowed smoking and people took full advantage – just walking through the TV area to the restaurant irritated my eyes and left me coughing. The thought of hanging out in the cloud of smoke and trying to socialize did not appeal to me.
The second day on board was lazy as well and by then, everything was starting to feel routine, like afternoon naps and prompt announcements in Russian inviting us to the restaurant for each meal. We thought we might arrive in Batumi as early as that evening, but since land was not even in sight as the sun went down, we assumed it would be Sunday morning instead.
We got our first clue that we may be delayed beyond Sunday morning when we went down for breakfast and saw a menu posted for the entire day. Sure enough, shortly before lunch, they announced that the Port of Batumi was closed. Upon further investigation (i.e., asking the bartender who spoke some English), we learned that it was closed due to high winds and that we may arrive as early as 8:00 Sunday night, or perhaps not until Monday morning.
And thus, the waiting began.
To be continued…