Friday, August 6, 2010

Driving with Igor -- My Taxi Driver in Yalta

I made it back to Massachusetts last night after almost two weeks of travel, including eight flights, to speak at conferences in Vienna, Austria, and in Yalta, Ukraine.

I was feeling like George Clooney in the movie, "Up in the Air," and even a Lufthansa stewardess told me that my schedule had been much worse than hers. Also, Clooney never had to speak anything but English during his air travels.

But this is not a blogpost about my adventures in flight (those will come later) but my experiences driving in Ukraine with Igor, my taxi driver.

As I had written earlier, I landed at the Simferopol airport last Saturday as dusk was approaching on a flight from Kiev. Simferopol airport is in the Crimea, Ukraine, and I have never been to such an unusual and tiny airport. I was met by a swarm of taxi drivers (some of my colleagues call them sharks but I recognize that they just want to earn a living) and was able to identify my prearranged driver, "Igor," by his white cap, big smile, and his sign with an "A" on it. When I asked him, in Russian, what his name was, he answered, "Igor," so we were on our way.

The one and a half hour drive from Simferopol to the Hotel Yalta, where the second conference of my journey was taking place, was rather anxiety-provoking, since there is only one road between these two points; the road is shared by 70 year old trolley busses, and the road is extremely curvy, with the Black Sea on one side and the Crimean mountains on the other. Also, cars pass one another regularly on this road. (I have taken taxis in Naples and have been on a bus up to Anacapri on the island of Capri, so I have had my share of scary land-based travel experiences abroad).

Plus, Igor had a tv set on (he was very proud of his German-made Opel car), and, every once in a while, he would answer his cell phone calls. To distract him from using the cell I engaged him in conversation in Russian and got a lot of practice. He paid me what I consider to be a compliment. He identified me, given my accent, as being from Western Ukraine (and not a US citizen).

Igor told me about his life, about his going to school in Chechnya, and having been trained as a military parachutist and serving in Pskov, Russia. He, ultimately, fell in love with a girl in Crimea and decided to settle there. He regalled me with stories of some of the passengers that he had transported to/from the Yalta Hotel, which is a 1,000 room amazing hotel that I stayed in that dates to the Soviet era.

When we reached the hotel, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, paid him $50US (he preferred this method of payment to the Ukrainian currency), and told him that I would probably be using him again the following Wednesday for my morning return trip to the Simferopol airport for the flight to Kiev.

When Wednesday came, Igor was waiting for me at 7AM at the Hotel Yalta and my journey back began. Driving with Igor in the daylight was delightful (since, in a strange way, we had become friends). Frankly, he reminded me a bit of of the gentle giant Shrek (see photo above), which, coincidentally, was the movie playing on my Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt back to Boston.

Igor displayed such joy in his family, in his garden, and in his cats and dogs, and in his job of being a taxi driver, that it was very refreshing. We laughed a lot during our journey back.

He stopped the taxi to show me some magnificent views featured above (but his photo of me did not work). Upon our arrival at the Simferopol Airport, he treated me to an espresso at a tiny cafe opposite the terminal.

I have Igor's business card and would definitely use him again should my travels take me back to Yalta or the Crimea. He has even driven passengers to Kiev (10 hours) when flights were canceled due to bad weather.