This was first posted on July 23, 2007 8:14PM as “Stranger in my room” on lalarimando.multiply.com.
I was on my way back to my hotel room in Kiev when a Ukrainian guy, rushing to make it to the same elevator which I just entered, dashed in. He chatted with me at once but was speaking in a foreign language so the best I could do was nod when he asked me if I am Filipina, and smile when he seemed to be referring to my speech in a Corporate Social Responsibility forum organized by the UN in Ukraine and attended by media representatives from Eastern Europe and former USSR states.
When the elevator door opened on my floor, I stepped out and, surprisingly, so did he. I waved him goodbye after I realized it’s futile to communicate productively if we were both speaking in tongues. All that I understood was that he was one of the interpreters during the forum (there were three types – Russian, Ukrainian, and English) where he translated Ukrainian speeches to Russian. Then he took the elevator back to the ground floor, which all the more made me wonder if that was a chance encounter or there was more to it.
Nevertheless, I was too preoccupied with my aching feet (from exploring the city) and I just wanted to enjoy the ice cream which I just bought and the local acquaintances recommended I should try. It was about half past 7pm, but the sun was still bright and would not set until two more hours later. It’s spring time in that part of the world.
Then came the knock on my door. Weird, I thought. I did not order room service, did not call a hotel maid, have no outstanding business with the forum organizers, don’t know anyone in the city (the only Asian I saw was the Thai masseuse at the hotel). Anyone who needed anything from me called me on my room phone. I’ve heard enough horror stories about hotel crimes, so I and my partner decided not open the door. Lo and behold, the Russian-speaking guy in the elevator opened the door himself!
He went straight to where I was, sat on the bed, and began blabbering something and tinkering with something in his bag, oblivious to my shock and frozen state. No, he did not bring out a gun – thankfully – but a brief on the forum with my picture and professional description on it. He started speaking Russian again (or was that Ukrainian?) and I just snapped out of my shock to try to tell him I really could not understand him. He then said something like getting a translator on the phone to bridge between us. On his mobile phone, an English-speaking guy with a thick accent (lots of krrrr’s and schkrytzzz’s) told me that the guy in my room and he are local journalists and would want to make some alliance or friendships of sort with me.
I calmed down a bit there. So they just want to make friends. Whew!
It’s my first time in an Eastern European country. I have heard and read a lot about them, met some Slovenians when I was in school in the UK, corresponded with a Slovakian in the past, heard first hand accounts about their tourism and economic potentials from my European friends, and watched and read about how Western Europe and the US are trying to accommodate them, if not prioritize them over other labor exporters, like the Philippines. I almost did not make it to Kiev for the UN forum because of the flight arrangements, but I decided belatedly that I did not want to pass up the opportunity to feed my curiosity.
The other speakers and guests in the forum who are from Western Europe are first timers in Kiev like me. One even remarked, “They (the Ukrainians) look Europeans too.” Duh? I guess if my part of the world where Indians and Chinese and Malays all call themselves Asians despite the obvious difference in chinky-ness and color of skin, I learned first hand from this trip that they too have lots to learn and myths to dispel about their own neighbors. So there I was, an Asian, trying to absorb as much as I can in only a few days how and who these Ukrainians are.
Well, on Day One, I already wanted to leave Kiev and rush back for a flight home. Just to make the story short, I landed in Kiev at 11am (about 4pm Manila time) but had my first meal of the day at 5pm (that’s about 10pm Manila time). All the while I thought starvation as way to welcome a guest was a universal no-no. How wrong I was. Back home, on days that I have tons of work, eating would usually be relegated as last priority. But never deliberately or as a consequence of lack of planning efficiency. And never after a 25-hour flight. Anyhow, a hefty serving of cooked rabbit(!) afterwards cured my foul mood.
Kiev is a beautiful city, with a number of 1,500-year old Orthodox churches, cobblestone streets, and surprisingly lots of greeneries – and I don’t mean just in the parks. An acquaintance from the forum offered to bring me to the St. Laura (Lavra, in Ukrainian), where I particularly enjoyed a gold museum. Apparently, the gold collection and jewelry-making skill from pre-civilization era would eventually be applied during the ostentatious centuries of the Christian churches. I have never seen chalices, priest vests, Bible covers (it was for display only at that time, not to be read by common people), even the verse pointers (they believed the Bible was too holy to be touched by human hand), and other bling-bling materials during church ceremonies were so intricately and ostentatiously designed. These must have fed the shock and awe strategy of the church then.
And the people, especially the women, seem to always look set to party. There were lots of skin showing, in terms of plunging necklines, and are in figure-hugging dresses or tops. Most, if not all, are well made up, even if they were just strolling along Kryschatik, the main commercial street from the Independence Square where people gathered in 2004 during the Orange Revolution, when they ousted their Russian-backed leader.
But Kiev is not all of Ukraine, nor is it in the same league as the other Eastern European countries nearer to the far more progressive Western Europe. There is still a lot of maturing to do, in terms of politics and business practices, as I learned during a session I facilitated on the Role of Media in CSR. Despite their separation from the USSR in the 90’s, their socialist background has left them a baggage they are still struggling with. There are still companies, some of them considerably prominent, which don’t pay salary levels as mandated by law, yet get away with it because owners are chums with the powers that be. People are generally apathetic because they know that the rich accumulated their wealth during the post-USSR privatization phase where the influential grabbed as much as they could. In other words did not earn their wealth through hard work. And these manifested in how they deal with people– like me. When they say this is the only available flight, even if I checked the internet and saw there are better choices, that’s it. No suggestion or question entertained. When they say there is only one meeting, instead of the originally discussed two meetings, that’s it. There is little effort to be flexible or to go out of way to make things more workable.
But the progressive thinkers know this could not go on forever. Companies trying to attract foreign investments are learning that they must have CSR programs way beyond the usual sponsorships of street concerts, opera shows, or some sort of artsy affairs. Kevin, the speaker from BBC, aptly said it during the last Q&A session that “You cannot ignore these global trends. The only choice you have is to do it fast or do it slow.”
Otherwise, as my new hotel room-intruder-turned-friend and his English speaking colleague told me when I met them up at the hotel lobby a few hours before my return flight: “We are ready for another revolution.”
The English speaking journalist, who, by the way, is also a cabinet member, said he was tortured for writing about a journalist murdered over some expose published years back. He and a nationwide group of journalists and “other concerned” citizens are tired or keeping on exposing corruption and bribery practices, as these do not result to any investigation or public outcry. The only way they know is to get catalysts or outsiders to help them stir change. We exchanged contact details and promised to keep in touch.
I’m just glad to be back home.