I was walking alongside the road, in a Ukrainian village I couldn’t have pointed to on a map before this trip, when I met Vladimir. We had been riding on the same bus, but he discovered I spoke English when, after a group of us had disembarked, one of the young women turned to me and said–
“Sorry! I only speak English,” I replied with an apologetic smile (which, by the way, I do know how to say in Russian but it generally seems to confuse people when I try).
“Oh. Is that your jacket?”
I looked up. The bus had pulled over, fifty feet in front of us, and the woman I had been sitting next to was waving my jacket out of the door. I ran to get it — though they couldn’t wait, of course, and she gently tossed it onto the grass on the side of the road before they sped off.
Despite my sprint (which, to be fair, was neither very fast or far), Vladimir quickly caught up with me. I forget which question he asked first, where I was from or what I was doing there, but I’m sure it was one of those two. We started chatting, and I told him I was traveling through western Ukrainian and was spending the afternoon visiting Nevtysky Castle. I asked him about directions, though we could see the ruins from the road, and he confirmed and told me it was just up the hill. And then he said–
“But there’s nothing to see there.”
“Well,” I said, irked that he could so easily disparage the ordeal it had been to get to that dusty patch of road, “we don’t have castles in the US so it’s always interesting to us.”
We eventually parted, though not after he invited me to eat shashlik with him and his friend later. I declined and started hiking up the road towards the castle.
I was irritated, my blood-pumping already even though I had taken three uphill steps, and now I was starting to sweat too. I blamed this man.
Because maybe he was right. Maybe I had come all this way, and there will be nothing to see.
In truth, Ukraine has awe-inspiring medieval castles, but the friend who had recommended this particular castle to me hadn’t tried to sell it as such. Instead, he had pitched it as undiscovered. When he and his travel buddy had explored it, they were the only ones there (granted, it was also dead winter and covered in snow when they visited, so I expected a few other tourists). And honestly, I almost hadn’t come. I knew it would be much easier to laze around Uzhhorod, café hoping through the few coffee shops available, reading and occasionally journaling or staring off into space and wondering if I would have cake or ice cream that afternoon. It would have been easier, but it wouldn’t have been very interesting.
And that’s when I realized – it wasn’t about the castle.
What Vladimir didn’t know was what it took for me to get to that dusty patch of road. I don’t speak Ukrainian, and the last five days of traveling had been exhausting and humbling (and not in the, “I’m just so humbled to be here” sort of way, but the “I got lost trying to find my hotel room and had to ask an employee for directions because I don’t understand Ukrainian” sort of way). Physically, I was fine – well, as fine as one is when they eschew any form of physical exercise – but emotionally and mentally… travel has a way of wearing on you. And it was very tempting to take the easy route, I would have had ever justification for it, and just stay in Uzhhorod
But that wasn’t what I really wanted. That’s not why I travel.
What I really wanted was to go forth, to conquer obstacles, to summit that mountain (well actually, I hadn’t thought about the castle being on a hill when I started out, which may have changed everything). So I noted down the name of the castle in English and Ukrainian, strode confidently into the bus station, and apologized for knowing only English as I held up the paper.
The bus ticket lady shook her head and her finger at me, a steady stream of Ukrainian coming from her mouth.
“Oh, not here? Sorry!” I said and backed quickly away.
Well, I tried. I thought, as I sat down a bench. I could go have ice cream, as a reward for my valiant attempt to catch a bus that I’m sure existed.
But no. I remembered my friend had mentioned catching a bus to the next town, so I wrote that down in English and Ukrainian, went to a different ticket window, and tried again.
I could tell the woman was pained at having to help me, but help me she did. She slowly, and with reproach, showed me my ticket and pointed out the departure time, the platform, and my seat (which is never used in marshrutkas). The bus didn’t leave for three more hours, so I happily went off to reward myself with ice cream all the same.
However delighted I was about getting a ticket and securing the outbound part of my journey, I was a little skeptical about the return part.
“Just ask the ticket lady when the return bus is,” my friend wrote me (giving credit where credit is due, he had heavily coached me through the entire self-loathing ticket buying process). He even sent me the Ukrainian translation.
I got back to the bus station ridiculously early, because in truth there is very little to do in Uzhhorod and also I am constantly stressed about missing my bus/train/plane. I eyeballed the ticket counters. The only two women were the one who had denied there was a way to get to Nevtysky from Uzhhorod and the woman who had sold me the ticket herself. I didn’t want to bother either of them, because, you know, selling tickets and judging people is just their job.
But then I realized, What have I got to lose? They already think I’m maybe the most useless person on the planet, and decided to go to the one who had sold me the ticket, since we had a shared history.
I tried to read the Ukrainian aloud. I tried to sputter out “Nevtysky-Uzhhorod?” I tried even showing her the text my friend had sent. She just got very irritated and repeated the same thing louder and louder, which is actually not a very useful tactic when talking to someone who doesn’t understand the language in the first place, as it tends to just make them nervous and lose track of whatever thread they can follow. She switched and said, “DRIVER.”
“Oh,” I said casually, as if she hadn’t been scolding me. “Ask the driver, ok.”
There was no way in hell I was asking anyone any more questions.
I know this doesn’t seem so intimidating, unless you’ve experienced the dark energy of Ukrainian ticket ladies for yourself. But after being denied a ticket the first time, getting yelled at, leaving my jacket, and wondering if I’d be able to get back home, I was drained. I felt inconsiderate, incompetent, and stupid. Sometimes traveling makes you feel that way. I’ve experienced very few things that bring such highs and lows so close together as solo travel does (partially because I’ve never raised a child or made a breakthrough scientific discovery after decades of research). It would have been easier for me to bypass all those negative emotions by staying in Uzhhorod and being bored out of my mind.
Or I could stop being scared and I could go adventuring to find a very well-known and mapped out castle.
So that’s the thing, Vladimir. It didn’t matter if nothing was there because going to Nevtysky wasn’t about the castle, really. It was about leaving the safety of the coffee shop, braving terrifying bus ticket ladies, problem-solving to overcome language barriers, and trusting that if I got on that bus, I’d find a way to get back. It was about getting to the castle a hot sticky mess and snapping some unflattering selfies to prove that I had made it.
Sometimes it’s not about the castle at all. Sometimes it’s just about going.
That being said, it’s quite alright to take a break too. Which is why I won’t feel bad if tonight, after I get off the Uzhhorod-Mukachevo train, find my way to my apartment rental, and pantomime my way into getting the keys, I won’t be bothered if I spend my evening sequestered inside eating take-away pizza and binge-watching TV. There’s a time for everything, and I think tonight is the time for Netflix and a truly excessive amount of carbs.