(Editor’s note: this is a continuation of Crossing the Black Sea (Part 1), the story of my five day Black Sea ferry ride from Ilyichevsk, Ukraine to Batumi, Georgia)
My heart sank when I heard the announcement that the Port of Batumi was closed. It was Sunday afternoon, my third day on the Black Sea ferry from Ukraine to Georgia, and I was getting antsy. By Saturday I had finished all the writing I wanted to do, read two books and totally exhausted all topics of conversation with my cabin-mate, Paul. Not only that, he was starting to really get on my nerves, criticizing or disagreeing with just about everything I said.
I also had planned to go to the Azerbaijan embassy first thing Monday morning to apply for my Azeri visa, which was supposed to take three business days to process. Needing to be in Yerevan, Armenia by the weekend meant I was under a time crunch.
I was beginning to feel like taking the ferry had been a big mistake.
Monday morning came and unfortunately, so did more bad weather. It stormed overnight and another round of hail, wind and rain blew in just after breakfast. As I was getting hit on by a chubby Georgian man named Kvicha, they announced that the port was still closed. I wanted to cry. While the romantic overtures of my new friend were amusing (if not a little creepy), I was getting close to my breaking point.
However, by early Monday evening, the skies cleared and I watched with excitement as we headed directly to the shore. The lights of the city of Batumi glittered in the distance and I was already thinking about what I would do once I was all checked into my guesthouse.
We seemed to be docked just after 7:00 and they called everyone down to the reception desk to turn in their room keys and pick up their passports. Paul and I tore the linens off our beds, packed up our things and hauled our backpacks down to the smoky reception area to wait for the next step.
And then we waited.
Until finally they announced that we weren’t getting off the boat after all.
There was some sort of problem with the ramp, which meant we had to stay on board until morning. I heard this news from Paul, who heard it from one of the German truck drivers. I thought he was kidding. I thought he was lying, just trying to get a rise out of me. I swore at him and when I realized it was all real, I broke down crying.
I struggled to understand why the non-driver passengers couldn’t leave if it was just the vehicle ramp that was broken. Even the drivers initially thought that the tourists would all get to leave. It made no sense to me, but no one spoke English well enough (and I didn’t understand Russian well enough) to explain it to me.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Paul went and drank himself into a stupor.
After a night of vodka shots with the German truck drivers, he came into the cabin around 2:00 a.m., stumbling around, knocking things over, repeatedly mumbling “God is great” in German, and eventually writing the same phrase in black marker on one of the bunk beds. When I asked what he was doing, he stopped and bolted out of the room. I lay in bed, slightly terrified of his eventual return. He seemed to be in a crazed state and it would not have surprised me at all if he had ended up falling (or jumping) overboard.
Sure enough, an hour later, he returned, pretty much falling over every step. His mumbling turned into chanting (the same phrase) and he punched the wall several times, knocking the headboard down, before curling up on his bed in the fetal position and bursting into tears. I just tried to lay as still as possible, not wanting him to realize I was awake. Eventually he passed out, but not without some more chants in his sleep. When the sun rose the next morning, he jumped into the shower, clearly still drunk, mumbling and making all sorts of weird noises. Then he grabbed the blanket off his bed and disappeared again out of the cabin.
As soon as he was gone, I got up and looked out the window to see dark skies and rain blowing sideways, waves crashing against the side of the boat.
And I completely lost it.
I was so tired of being on the boat. Tired of Paul, even before his drunken escapade. Tired of not having anyone else to speak with in English. Tired of not being able to eat half the food because it contained gluten. Tired of my stomach rumbling because I ran out of snacks after two days and they didn’t sell any on board. Tired of being cut off from the rest of the world aside from very brief and occasional stints of getting 3G access on my Kindle.
Tired of stressing over trying to get my Azeri visa and tired of working through different scenarios in my head of how I would get myself to Tbilisi and then on to Yerevan to start my volunteer assignment on time. Tired of walking through the smoky reception area and being stared at by all the truck drivers. Tired of our bathroom that smelled worse than the outhouse I had to use during my homestay in St. Petersburg.
At that moment, I never wanted anything so badly as to get off that damn boat.
After crying my eyes out all of Tuesday morning, I turned a corner by late that afternoon. I hate to give Paul any credit because he drove me nuts, but in his hungover, possibly still drunken, state, he gave me a lecture I probably needed to hear. He reminded me how delays happen while traveling and you just have to go with the flow – it is part of the adventure.
He encouraged me to make the most out of the delay instead of wasting my energy being upset. He implored me to think about all of the good times on my trip rather than focus on the bad, which I admittedly had a hard time doing because all I could think of were my miserable homestay experiences, hitting the wall around the holidays, and freezing my butt off for three weeks in Ukraine.
I was just wondering what I did to deserve this. Why me?
But Paul made some good points and by Tuesday evening, I had finalized a few blog posts, edited all my photos and started reading a third book. At dinner that night, I was thrilled when they served ice cream for dessert – my first sweets in four days! I went to bed confident that we would finally reach port for good Wednesday morning.
Sure enough, I awoke Wednesday morning to cloudless blue skies and by 8:00 a.m., we were clearly headed directly for Batumi. I went up on deck to take pictures and enjoy the view of the city in the daytime.
And crazily enough, the next two hours were the best two hours of the entire trip.
It started when one Georgian, Tomas, approached me while I was on deck taking pictures. We chatted in Russian and I learned that he thought Paul and I were married. When I told him I wasn’t, he grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek! Soon, I had Tomas’ phone number to go along with Kvicha’s that I got on Monday. Then I met Ilya and had almost the identical conversation with an identical reaction.
A few minutes later, I encountered Tomas, Kvicha and another Georgian in the hallway near the cabins and they all insisted on taking turns taking pictures with me. Finally, I met an older Georgian woman named Londa who invited me to stay with her in Tbilisi and gave me her phone numbers in both Georgia and Ukraine.
When I finally set foot on dry land for the first time in 137 hours and waved goodbye to Kvicha and Tomas, I couldn’t help but think how much more fun the entire journey would have been if I had all those encounters on the first day instead of the last!
But in retrospect, I probably brought a lot of my misery on myself.
I could have made more of an effort to socialize early on. I could have not let myself be intimidated by all of the truck drivers on board. I could have given myself more wiggle room in my plans, especially because I had heard the ferry could be unreliable. I could have brought more snacks. I could have been more laidback and not stressed about things I could not control.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda.
In the end, a 60 hour Black Sea ferry ride turned into nearly 140 hours and, for better or for worse, it was an experience I will never forget.