The breathtaking Carpathian Range stretches in an arc from the Czech Republic through western Ukraine to Romania in the south.
"Dude, I think I want to go to Ukraine,” I told a friend over a beer-battered fish taco in cloudless San Diego.
"What are you looking for in Russia? Women of dreamy, unworldly beauty, cheap vodka that flows like the Niagara, and one season all year round – winter?” my friend asked.
To be quite honest, I didn't know what I wanted, only exactly what I didn't want. Much to my friend's surprise, I wasn't chasing any of his preconceived notions about the newly formed country of Ukraine, not Russia. Maybe I wanted to break away from the idea of stale, packaged vacations routinely thrown at the middle class: "A week in Hawaii, all food included!" "Paris, see the Eiffel Tower and eat crepes!" "Cancun, Mexico, where every Frat Boy parties till they drop!"
Maybe it was the fact that this type of trip simply takes the punch out of “getting away.”
Whatever the cause, I one day asked myself in a moment of floored inspiration, "Where would nobody go for a vacation?"
I was searching for a place unrevealed and unheard of. A place where butterflies would fill my stomach and the dark corridors of my mind would be lit with eternal magic. I wanted to live the jam.
So, I decided upon Ukraine. I boastfully located it on a map, then proceeded to sit dumbstruck in my attempt to evoke any further information. Who brags about going to Ukraine for spring break when the pack was heading to palm trees, beaches, all-you-can-eat buffets on cruise ships and fine tanning weather? Well, I did – with unparalleled enthusiasm.
Who knew a "black" sea was this blue...
Operating as a democracy since 1991, Ukraine has been free from the iron fist of the Soviet regime for some time now, and free with style.
Until just recently (the Euro Cup 2012 soccer tournament was held in Ukraine this past summer), the country’s sheer beauty – with the Carpathian Mountains in the west, as-yet untouched by herds of European tourists, and the fairy-tale landscape of the Black Sea (left) along its southern coast – has been underrepresented in the world spotlight.
After the conversation with my friend, I eventually arrived in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, welcomed by cold and the brute force of the Russian language (people think Spanish is a tongue-twister!). Sure, there were women of angelic, incomparable beauty, and vodka was, in fact, the local drinking water, but there were more signs of life not webbed into the stereotypes of people like my friend – signs of life that were nonexistent in California culture.
Stepping off the submarine-like metros deeply embedded in Kiev's underground, you ride an escalator that takes literally four minutes to get to ground level. The city then hits you with a labyrinth of diversified mazes.
If you’re an architecture admirer, fix yourself on the towering 1967 Mother Motherland statue, the largest statue in the world at the time of its creation. The glistening silver monument is larger than the Statue of Liberty and sparkles at sunset with towering prominence above the Dnieper River. Feast your eyes on the gold-domed churches resembling Hershey Kisses wrapped in golden paper.
Food critics, head to the soup kitchen outside of metro stop Maidan Nezalezhnosti and start your meal off with a bowl of aromatic borsch (a traditional Ukrainian soup typically composed of potatoes, meat, cabbage, beets, onions, a touch of garlic, a spoonful of sunflower oil, topped off with a dollop of sour cream) to drown out the cold. Then, stuff your faces with peroshki (a hot, doughy, potato-stuffed roll) and vareniki (a pasta-nugget contraption stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, onions or creamy cheese, all smothered in thick sour cream).
After your taste buds have been left in a frenzy, make sure to save room for the Ukrainian ritualistic endeavor of tea-sipping after every meal, known as "chai time" (chai means "tea" in Russian).
Music lovers need to go for a post-meal stroll down Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where herds of youngsters dressed in ‘80s hip-hop attire breakdance over cardboard platforms to the sound of Ukrainian pop beats. Flower fetishists, embrace the soothing sights and aromas of the M. M. Gryshko National Botanical Garden, a place that not only boasts romance and botany, but stunning bird’s-eye views of Kiev. Daredevils, simply try crossing the street at a green light and cars will attempt to either inch in front of you, or, preferably, stop inches from your shins.
"Dude, so I went to Ukraine. I'm actually still here now. I don't know if I'm ever coming back," I told my friend.
"Why would you want to live in Russia, man?"
“Ukraine, not Russia, man,” I say.
“Whatever dude, same thing,” he says.
Some people will just never understand the experience until they live the vibrating reality. Put your finger on a map, hold your breath, and buy the ticket to Ukraine!