WARNING: this blog post contains repeated requests for funds!

We wrote a while ago that we had learned about the inevitable mutability of plans. Tuesday showed that in spades.

This is what was meant to happen:

  • a bit of a lie in, breakfast at the amusingly named Hotel Hubertus in Rzeszów and then a leisurely drive towards the border
  • arrange to meet the impressively large Oleksandr to say hello and wish him all the best with his new (second hand) German fire engines
  • head back towards Kraków with more time on our hands than we know what to do with, leave Sunny at aid worker Paul’s hotel for him to drive into Ukraine the following day
  • taxi into Kraków old town to enjoy a lazy lunch and then taxi to the airport in good time for our 9.40 pm flight to London, get home far too late but a bit of tiredness is nothing when set against the suffering of the Ukrainian people
  • feel noble

In subtle contrast this is what actually happened – see if you can spot the differences:

  • woke up a little earlier than planned but well-refreshed after a lovely night’s sleep. Enjoyed a very pleasant breakfast and got on the road
  • pretty soon Daniel missed a right turn on the satnav but that’s now a tradition so we laughed that off, it only set us back 10 minutes or so. Today, for a change, we’re not “against the clock”
  • agree with Oleksandr that we’ll coordinate meeting at the border – comfortingly we’re a couple of hours ahead of him (he hasn’t yet left the more distant Kraków)
  • pull in at a rest stop near the border, mull on how deserted it is and wonder whether we ought to spend a bit of extra time there as we’ve got nothing better to do. We probably won’t have quite as much time in Kraków now as we would have liked
  • decide that we might as well push on to the border and find somewhere to wait for Oleksandr there – Daniel has noticed on Google maps that there appears to be a bus park of sorts at the border, Eleanor was concerned that we might be trapped in some kind of one way system but it seemed to make sense to find that out sooner rather than later
Oleksandr leaves Kraków bound for the uncertain challenges of Odesa
  • get trapped in a one way system (which crept up on us because there was absolutely no queue at all – not what we’d been led to expect) pull over to work out what to do, receive a call from Aliya (who organises this whole thing) and a nice but concerned border guard with an Uzi lets us out – head back towards the rest stop
Absolutely no queue at all – to reach Ukraine drive through here and turn left … or pull over to worry about how on earth you do NOT drive through what looks worryingly like a point of no return and receive a call from Aliya
  • Aliya tells us that the ambulance that was driven out from London last week (now called Cher) is still in Poland. Could we meet aid-worker-Alan who has Cher, take her to our meeting with Oleksandr who will then drive her across the border? Fine – we’re here to help after all
  • aid worker Alan is about 45 minutes away in Przemyśl, his car has broken down and he doesn’t have Cher’s keys but he can get them. Oleksandr needs printed documents in order to import Cher and he only has them in pdf form. Can we print them?
  • meet aid worker Alan, squeeze him into Sunny’s two front seats with us (don’t tell anyone …), drive him to print the documents (in colour), then to the ambulance. Now we can go to meet Oleksandr at the rest stop at which we had a break a couple of hours ago. Still plenty of time
Shhh – there aren’t actually three seats across the front of Sunny’s cab …
  • aid worker Alan needs to get to the border (a different crossing to our one). It’s 15 km away and since his car is broken he could walk there but can we give him a lift? It’s in the wrong direction but will take us 15 minutes and save him 2 hours
  • OK but let’s make it snappy. Oleksandr has a schedule to stick to and needs to get as close to Odesa as possible before curfew. We set off with Sunny and Cher (geddit?) in convoy
  • we meet Oleksandr (he’s even broader in real life!) with a colleague of his and their newly acquired German fire engine, but it turns out that there’s an additional document that Ukrainians need if importing a vehicle that foreigners don’t need to have
  • it seems that there are a few options. We’ve still got a couple of hours but the lazy afternoon in Kraków is now definitely off the cards – perhaps grab something in the airport? We could take Cher back to aid worker Alan to await the document or identify another way across the border; we could leave Cher at the rest stop and hope she’s safe; we could take Sunny and Cher both to Kraków or … wait a minute … Daniel’s a foreigner so wouldn’t need the extra document … we’ve already seen that there’s no queue at the border so it won’t take all that long to get across. He could then hand over the keys to one of the firemen and then walk back across the border. Simples! But there’s no time to waste. It’s gone 2.30. We need to leave the border by absolutely no later than 4.30 (5 or so at an absolute push but Eleanor won’t be happy). Two hours should just about do it
Heading off to Ukraine – don’t worry, won’t be long
  • follow the fire engine to the border where there is still no queue – tick
  • Oleksandr’s friend gets out and (through his phone doing an excellent translation job) tells Daniel that he has to be in a different queue to the fire engine so he should follow a minivan; there’s no need for one of them to go with Daniel as there will be no need to translate
  • there’s a bit of a queue to get to passport control but it’s not too bad, produce the passport and the vehicle ownership document (a V5C) and hand them over to the pretty blonde lady checking passports (PB1), accompanied by a winning smile. Receive in return a request not to smile followed by the documents with a small, square, stamped document (SSSD). Drive as directed across to a second window
  • produce the same documents (plus the SSSD) confirm the presence of humanitarian aid, get told to park over there with the other vehicles and go through that door – no, not that one, that other one down the stairs and go to the small windows
  • arrive at the small windows – gosh it’s Soviet era down here. Updated signage but otherwise pretty awful. A cheery “hello do you speak English” and a winning smile will doubtless do the trick. “Busy. There.” (indicates windows to the side), try the same routine at another window “Wait there”. Less punctuation; must mean progress. After waiting a minute or so try the routine a third time with a pretty blonde lady (PB2) at a different window
The border – complete with Ukrainian flags and massive sky
  • PB2 can’t help (and her English is such that she, too, resorts to her phone for assistance) but imparts that this issue should be raised with an office upstairs
  • upstairs is a bright, airy and entirely empty customs hall. Empty, that is, but for an airport-style X-ray machine. Nobody at all is around. No doors appear to lead anywhere promising. Go back outside
  • PB1 sticks her head out of a passport control booth to help, confirms that the first venue (the dingy, Soviet, downstairs destination – DSDD) is indeed the correct one
  • return to DSDD and to PB2. Assure her that this indeed is the correct place. Be rewarded with a sigh but PB2 accepts the paperwork. Seems understandably mystified by a V5C and takes a very long time indeed before she returns both passport and V5C with the word “Kopye” together with a gesture towards a corridor. A mystified look in response encourages the additional clue “Zero”. Time is running short and it’s important to solve this puzzle, notwithstanding the impenetrable nature of the proffered clues
  • a little way down the corridor is an office containing a middle-aged man (MAM1). It’s clearly time for the winning smile again. “Kopye?” he says (oh good!) he gestures brusquely further down the corridor
  • further down the corridor it is almost entirely dark and there appear to be small, earthy excavations at intervals. Perhaps one door says “Zero” on it? None does and in fact all the doors are locked (except for that which leads into a staff canteen). Following the corridor around simply leads back MAM1 and the Office of the Brusque Gesture. Brusque gesture or no, time is now even shorter but at least walking across the border with no luggage should be quick. A second attempt is needed even though someone else is by now sitting in there. The courage required to walk into the office a second time is not rewarded with success
  • however, a far kindlier man (FKM1) appears. “Kopye?” he enquires “yes please”, a gesture of “follow me” is made and FKM1 leads back past PB2 in the exact opposite direction to that which had originally been indicated, ending at a different office containing MAM2. FKM1 says “Kopye” to MAM2 who then photocopies (aaah! “Kopye” much mean “photocopy” and “Zero” must be Xerox!) a document for FKM1, takes the V5C and copies that
  • a triumphant return to PB2. Winning smile. “Passport”. An embarrassed return to MAM2 who photocopies the passport, a humbler return to PB2 who proffers forms in duplicate to be executed and returned to her before returning a single copy, the V5C, passport and SSSD – “done”!
  • return to Cher, drive to the gate, hand in the SSSD and enter Ukraine!

By now it is 4 pm. Oleksandr is struggling to get through the border and Daniel is sitting at a petrol station just inside Ukraine wondering whether or not he should just leave the ambulance and hope Oleksandr collects it or … anything else. Fortunately Oleksandr and Aliya had been in touch and decided that the key should be left with someone behind the counter at the petrol station for later collection. Daniel buys a couple of small packets of Ukrainian sweets in the petrol station by way of souvenir for the children. Having done this Daniel ran for the border in order to walk back across. It was 4.15 pm but Eleanor was only 10 minutes away. The border has a queue of traffic further than the eye can see but no pedestrians, so that aspect must be flowing well.

The queue of traffic at the border is actually directly away from the camera, a large red minibus is in the foreground …

Upon asking an English-speaking heavily armed guard (HAG) how to cross the border on foot Daniel is informed that in fact this border crossing is now closed to pedestrians. This is a recent change but there is hope. The next crossing accepts pedestrians. Good. Unfortunately it is 45 km away. Bad. Asking HAG if there are any options, HAG helpfully suggests going to the crossing 45 km away or asking if one of the vehicles about to cross will carry him. Option 2 is by far the more appealing even though it is tantamount to asking complete strangers to smuggle him across the border from Ukraine …

At this point, however, Daniel notices that no vehicles whatsoever are flowing through the border. The small number of vehicles beyond a gate closing off access to the border appear to be off to the side of the road and there is the worrying sound of a machine sawing through metal suggesting that things are not going uniformly well for the cars of those who have recently attempted a crossing. Daniel asks when the border might again open to vehicles. HAG replies that this may happen in five minutes or so. Time is very short indeed.

  • Daniel makes several fruitless attempts (both with and without a winning smile) to hitch a lift across an international border but eventually finds a driver unable to speak English with an English-speaking passenger (FKM2) who was willing to plead Daniel’s case (which he did without use of any form of winning smile). The vehicle transpired to be a type of informal cross-border minibus taxi transporting a number of unconnected groups of people into Poland (coincidentally, the large red minibus in the foreground of the photo above). 4.28 and the border gate reopens
  • cars are being processed in batches of about six (corresponding to the number of Ukrainian passport control huts beside which cars are stopped to allow for document checks). Daniel’s car is in the second batch which is called forward and documents are handed over
  • FKM2 was in his early thirties, able bodied and Ukrainian. He was therefore a fighting age male and not generally permitted to leave Ukraine. In fact he lives in Milton Keynes in England with his English wife and family and had all necessary documents in the necessary numbers and with the necessary stamps. This was insufficient for the unbelievably strict and charmless passport officer (USCPO) who held Daniel’s group at passport control
  • 45 minutes pass giving Daniel plenty of time to practice his winning smile. A one year old boy in the minibus found this delightful

It was now well after 5 pm and we were attempting to work out if Eleanor could leave for the airport and Daniel could get back from the border some other way to return to London the following day. But even if Eleanor left at that point, her making the flight (after doing Sunny’s handover to aid worker Paul) seemed a remote possibility. Perhaps a slightly adjusted plan (leaving Sunny in an airport carpark?) might save time if Daniel could do something to get himself released?

  • PB3 (one of several HAGs all of whom at this point in the security apparatus were for some reason pretty, blonde and female – the men had handguns and batons and seemed to be employed doing electrical work!) seems susceptible to the winning smile (it must have been improving!) becomes chatty but reluctantly shares that her boss did not allow the guards to take selfies with people. She unsuccessfully pleads Daniel’s case with USCPO’s boss
  • Daniel tries asking USCPO if he could possibly have his passport and walk the rest of the way (through Polish passport control and customs). Knocking on the small closed window of USCPO’s hut he is rewarded with the window being opened “BACK TO CAR” being barked at him and the window being slammed shut. No chance even to attempt a winning smile. Daniel’s fate appears tied to that of FKM2. It has gone 5.30.

Some time earlier Eleanor had driven to a point near the border to be ready to collect Daniel the moment that he crossed. It being yet another hot day Eleanor chose to stop in the shade under a bridge. She was not the only one. Numerous other vehicles were stopped there, doors open, waiting. Eleanor thereby joined what appeared to be a community of jolly people smugglers. The other people smugglers weren’t there for quite as long as Eleanor who was especially concerned when a black-clad HAG drove past at extremely slow speed taking a very close look at Sunny and Eleanor. Clearly puzzled the HAG nonetheless found nothing overly suspicious and thankfully moved on.

  • it is 5.45 and after many arguments between FKM2 and the authorities Daniel’s group is released to crawl towards Polish passport control and customs
  • 35 minutes later and the passengers and luggage are turfed out of the large red minibus and a further 15 minutes later are released into Poland
  • 6.35 and there is absolutely no chance of making the flight. In an odd way it is comforting to know that no amount of trying will save us from the expense of another night in Poland, new flights etc.

To cut an even longer story short everything now improved. We booked a stay in a lovely hotel in the old town area of Kraków, arriving at about 10 pm and went out for a late dinner of traditional Polish food in the glorious square before a good night’s sleep. It turns out that Kraków is a very, very pretty town. It would have been lovely if yesterday’s plan had worked out as originally envisaged but then there would be one fewer ambulance in Ukraine and that seems worth the (relatively modest) inconvenience.

Despite appearances this wasn’t all for Eleanor!

It was genuinely quite hard to leave Sunny but she is going to be doing a lot of excellent work for people in Ukraine who really need her. We do hope that they appreciate her and we look forward to keeping in touch with her through aid worker Paul. Go well, Sunny.

We’ll miss you!

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