My brief encounter with Ukraine

I can say with all certainty that being a shy child taught me to be a careful, confident solo traveller once I reached adulthood.

Something you will only understand if you have ever been one of those people who is terrified of everything is that the whole of life can sometimes seem like an exercise in calculated risk taking. Every word that passes your lips is an exercise in not stuttering; every set of stairs you walk down is an exercise in not falling; every foray out of your front door comes with the utterance of a prayer that you will not embarrass yourself today.

For the duration of my childhood, I felt like I was constantly in a state of having to pluck up the courage to do anything — all the while attempting to keep my real self a secret in order not to attract any unwanted attention (a consistent goal of the painfully shy).

What I ultimately wanted at this age was just to be left alone so I could get on with reading for pleasure (tres uncool), going to ballet class (not cool after the age of eight), climbing trees and playing football with my brother and our friends (not cool for girls) and writing stories (just plain weird). Unfortunately there were perils everywhere.

Grown-ups who asked lots of questions! Hostile kids at school! Girls who only wanted to talk about Coronation Street! Boys who hogged the climbing frame and were LOUD! Evil maths homework! Scary older kids who hung around in gangs on bikes! Monsters under the bed! Stranger danger! It was exhausting.

Being a shy child has its benefits in the long run, though. When you are naturally inclined to be suspicious of everything and everyone, you learn how to judge things — both situations and people — and how to trust your instincts. By the time you reach proper adulthood, you are well-practised in being brave when you really don’t want to be, because you’ve had to do it all the time.

All of a sudden you’re a grown-up and you realise that the fear of being and doing that has haunted you for years has taught you how to do and be. Public speaking doesn’t seem like a chore because you already did that bit when you learned how to talk to people who weren’t your mum or your best friend. Getting lost doesn’t faze you, because you always feel a little bit disorientated anyway, even when you’re technically in the right place (plus you know how to read maps — ohhh yeah). Making decisions about how to weigh up and tackle risks in a potentially scary situation has become second nature.

I’m not saying it happens like this for everyone of course, but this is the way I experienced it. This learned ability to overcome my own instinctive cowardice is how I made myself get on a plane to Kenya on my own after university, how I dealt with my death-defying daily commute in Nairobi and how I’ve subsequently travelled solo across East Africa having the time of my life.

You might wonder why I’m telling you all of this. The first reason is that I’m aiming to be more honest when I write blog posts — not about the places I review  — but about the emotions I feel along the way. The second reason is that I recently took a trip that people around me were telling me were not to go on. I went to Ukraine. My loved ones practically begged me stay — they told me I was being naive. This was obviously before the devastating Malaysia Airlines crash occurred, but Ukraine was still in the news frequently and the news was never good.

While I was in Ukraine I spoke to a soldier who had been temporarily in the east. I won’t say how I spoke to him, or where, as he was on duty and not supposed to be talking to me. He was very young; he told me in his very limited English that things were terrible there, that he was glad to have left — that he felt safe now.

Kiev was safe and is safe, and I knew that I would be safe there before I left the UK.

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The first reason I knew this was because the FCO told me so. I signed up to travel alerts well before I left the country so that I would updated regularly and immediately about any changes I should know about. I was warned not to travel to Crimea and that all flights to Donetsk had been cancelled, but I was not aiming for there anyway. The distance between Kiev and these regions is about the same as the distance between London and Frankfurt. Following the Maidan protests that kicked off in Kiev in November last year life went on pretty much as normal in the capital and the central and western regions of the country, the FCO said. All the reading I did corroborated this.

The second risk assessment I did was totally in my head. The decision-making department of my brain sucked in every morsel of available information I could get my hands on, scanned through it and spat out the verdict: the risk is low, don’t doubt yourself, go.

As a result, while everyone around me was flapping, I calmly got on the plane to Kiev and enjoyed what will no doubt be both a highlight of my year in travel, and also one of the most unusual and memorable trips of my entire life. Most importantly, the people I met — especially those from Ukraine and Serbia — taught me so much

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I was in Ukraine with work to cover an investigative journalism and digital activism festival. I stayed in the grounds of the ex-president’s former private residence, which was reclaimed by the people of Ukraine when he fled the country earlier this year.

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The estate was a remarkable place — about half the size as Monaco, and twice as lavish. It was split between dense woodland brimming with wildlife and impeccably manicured and highly decadent facilities.  During the day I wandered between seminars accompanied by curious butterflies and watchful rabbits. I spent warm clear evenings drinking local beer and listening to people’s politics and laughter, while dipping my toes into various rivers and ponds.

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You can read about my full experience in Ukraine in my piece over on Wired and check out more of my photos too.

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Being brave is not always easy, so if you are thinking about taking a trip — particularly a solo one — and are worrying about whether or not to go, here are some tips to help you decide:

Do your reading. You need to know a place by its past, present and future in detail before you can truly judge whether it is safe for you to visit. Has there been any trouble over the past few years? What are the big news stories right now? Are there elections coming up? The FCO is a wonderful resource that will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about terrorism, health risks, politics and threats posed to tourists, but don’t stop there. Read the international news and the local versions of the news too. Bloggers — both local and expat — can give you a fantastic insight into what daily life is like in a place

Don’t necessarily listen to the advice of others who haven’t done the kind of research you have. It may seem selfish and they may be frustrated with you, but despite having your best interests at heart, your loved ones might try and dissuade you from particular adventures. Seek advice from experts and trust yourself and what you know.

Do be honest with yourself about how resilient you are. Are you naturally independent? Do you have a good sense of direction? Do you tend to make good choices in high pressure situations? Most importantly, do you trust your own judgement?

Don’t take unnecessary risks or arrive at your destination ignorant of what trouble you might face. Common scams, local laws and customs, areas to avoid — you need to know these things off by heart. Your foresight and understanding will help you avoid danger, make wise decisions and also spot any real problems if they should arise.

Finally, if there are things you want to do and things you wants to see, no-one else can do or see them for you, so remember these words by Ralph Waldo Emerson — they have got me far and helped me be brave even when I’ve felt like it the least: “Always do what you are afraid to do.”

Oh, and try and enjoy yourself too 🙂

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4 Comments

  1. August 7, 2014 / 3:53 pm

    I went through pretty much the same experience as you as a shy child. But now nothing stops me from doing what I want and travelling to places other people might be nervous about. It’s nice to hear some positive things about Ukraine. I’ve been wanting to go there and to Belarus but the visa issue is a bit of a pain for me (I’m an Aussie) but I’ll get there eventually.

  2. July 29, 2014 / 7:39 pm

    I love this! I went to Russia a few months ago and there were loads of people warning me not to go – but when I got there I felt safer than in many European cities. It taught me to do my own research and not necessarily listen to the hype. I’m glad Ukraine was a positive experience for you!

    • July 29, 2014 / 11:53 pm

      Thanks! And I’m so glad Russia was a positive experience for you! It can feel counter-intuitive going against the advice of people you would usually turn to, but feeling confident in your research abilities and your own instincts is massively satisfying.