ODESSA, Ukraine It was the most pathetic shake down attempt I’d ever witnessed.
It wouldn’t be a bribe, they explained, but I must pay money if I wanted to leave the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.
In Transdniestria must give– give geld! the border guard insisted in a mix of tongues.
I’d been told to prepare myself for such a ritual if I ventured into Transnistria, a curious Russian-speaking territory that brought a brief but violent war of secession in 1992 that’s led to de facto independence of a strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine.
Unrecognized by every nation except Russia, this renegade province runs its own affairs in every respect it even prints its own rubles which a Transnistrian I’d met observed has the same exchange rate as a paper napkin absolutely nil.
I’d made a Swiss friend in L’viv, Ukraine who’d been shaken down for 10 euros, a tidy sum in this part of the world. I was determined not to suffer the same fate. The border guards continued to finger my passport.
Where did I intend to travel to after Ukraine?
Georgia Gruzija across the Black Sea, I replied.
Ah, you’re a journalist! they insisted. No, just a tourist. For a second I felt the flash of shame I experience whenever I fib. Then I realized that I was telling the truth; I am unemployed, and this realization depressed me.
I’d spent the past three days in Moldova proper. Its capital city, Chisinau, was the birthplace of my great, great grandfather but the zealous Hassidic Jews I’d met at the last working synagogue said they couldn’t help with any insight on the family for any less than 200 euros. Still, it’d been a curious mix of discothque drinking with Moldovan ex-commandos, picking through the ruins of a Yeshiva with some vodka-scamming workmen and generally ogling at the disparity of wealth between the German-car driving elite and the destitute in one of the poorest nations in Europe.
But no visit to Moldova would be complete without the visit to Transnistria unrecognized by all even its principle benefactor, the Russian Federation which boasts Soviet-era marble busts of Vladimir Lenin that stand watch in front of public buildings.
I’d made arrangements to meet up in Tiraspol (the capital) with a 21-year-old woman that I’d contacted through an internet hospitality forum. I sat with this fellow CouchSurfer as she explained her frustration of living in a republic that has purposefully isolated itself from the rest of the world. That didn’t mean she had any illusions about western nations being a beacon liberal freedoms. To her western media even supposedly objective voices like the BBC are propaganda machines for western powers.
As a press officer for government ministers she is part of the local machine that puts a positive spin on the doings of local officials. Her job sounded no different than any other public information officer one finds in the United States. But she’s sick of it and is also working with a non-governmental organization to work with her counterparts from other European nations. Her initiative and pluck has already landed her at least one interview with the internal security folks. She didn’t go into much detail on that except that it wasn’t a pleasant experience and I didn’t press the issue further.
There were obviously limits to the state’s repression as she blew off a meeting with local officials to sit in a cafe in the middle of the afternoon with a visiting foreigner.
We bid farewell and I caught a marshutka minivans that run short- and long-distance trips between towns back to Ukraine and it was at the border between Transnistria and Ukraine that I found myself the target of a half-hearted attempt at extortion.
They kept fingering my passport and trying to explain that I had to pay them. Something. Anything.
Tran-zit, I insisted. My plucky Tiraspolian friend had told me to stick firm; that I didn’t owe these guys a red cent if I stayed less than 24 hours. I just kept repeating the word tran-zit until the lead one began to look tired.
Good luck, he said as he handed back my passport. I exhaled with relief and stifled a triumphant smirk or at least tried to.
Back in the marshutka or, as I like to call them, Moldovan limousine, vodka had been purchased. To a kindly looking passenger, I strung together half of my Russian vocabulary into a single sentence in a lame attempt to ask which bus station we would arrive at in Odessa.
He cut me off. Maybe I can help you with something? he said in rather good English.
The next hour was spent shooting vodka and talking about how nice it is that the Cold War is finally over. My English-speaking chum, a retired merchant seaman from Siberia, and an ex-cop from Ukraine and I made short work of the vodka as our limousine lumbered through the darkness toward Odessa.
Two hours later I was in full tourist-mode, running up the famous Potemkin Steps.
Never a good idea with a bellyful of Russian vodka and Transnistrian brandy as I soon learned.