Odessa immediately had me in love as we entered the outskirts of the city and were greeted by the tall, ubiquitous post-Soviet architecture. I knew these skyscrapers were a misnomer for the beauty in the center of the city, giving way to incredible Austro-Hungarian architecture that I had come to love about past cities I’d visited in Ukraine three months prior. I was met at the bus station after seven hours of being in transit from the unrecognized state of Transnistria by Alexandr, a Russian Moldovan living in Ukraine after having finished university and currently working in the country. We shared similar music interests and talked a lot about our travels + hitchhiking adventures, and he was a very generous host, going out of his way to cook me a meal and give me some Ukrainian Budweiser (which is way better than its American counterpart for some odd reason).
Next I met up with Daniel, an intelligent and driven student from a small town that relocated to Odessa to focus on his education. I was amazed at his commitment to scholastic studies at such a young age, and wished I had been so devoted to my education during that time! He showed me the main attractions of the city, helped me to purchase an opera ticket to see the last symphony performance of the year, and walked me past the best architectural buildings within the center. Not only was his English spectacular, but he was keen to learn as much as he could, and we got along extremely well. It was an awesome day.
During the night, I went to a local showcase of Ukrainian DJs celebrating the sixth birthday of a local record label, with some of their best artists playing. In the basement cellars that made up the venue, I found a seat to write for a while and enjoyed the energetic techno tunes.
In the morning, I met up with Eugene, a cataphile who’d grown up in Odessa and began exploring the catacombs underneath the city at twelve years old. His interest in photography was peaked at a young age and he’s worked in Scotland as a National Geographic videographer, and lived in Tanzania to be a guide on Mt. Kilimanjaro for two years, among other wild adventures. As we drove out of the city, I eagerly awaited what was in store.
Eugene had agreed to show me the catacombs, something I’d wanted to check out for years. Odessa is unique in that it has the largest set of catacombs in the world, spanning 2500 km of underground space beneath the city and its outlying villages. There are over a thousand documented entrances, and lots of old historical markings on the tunnel walls as troops and families lived inside them during the first and second world wars. Arriving in a small village outside the city that bordered the Dniester River, we unpacked and repacked our bags to the bare essentials, as the terrain under the ground is difficult in some locations. The last thing you want to do is be lugging extra gear along with the ever changing elevations, uneven ground, and balancing acts through underground rivers. Our goal for the day was to reach a flooded area that Eugene had found, and then for Eugene to put on his underwater gear and see how far he could make it down the shaft.
Before we arrived at this location, we had to navigate the labyrinth of ever changing directions, misleading markings on the walls, flooded areas where we balanced on small rocks while ducking our heads to avoid collisions with the ceiling, and everything in between. Luckily for me, Eugene was an expert navigator and stopped all the time to point out interesting historical points such as areas that had been used to sleep soldiers, families, and even the location of a kitchen facility. Seeing these signs of life in a place so devoid of sound, light, and out of touch with reality made me wonder what it was like for people to experience such a parallel universe to their previous city lives on the busy and bustling streets above. The loneliness, solitude and moments of boredom must have been unbearable.
Another thought that kept infiltrating my mind was the number of historical relics that must be hidden still in so many parts of the catacombs that have yet to be catalogued or explored. To date, there is not a single map of the whole tunnel networks, and hundreds of kilometers have yet to be touched since their mining back in the late 1880s. Who knows what could be concealed in their depths? Eugene said that in the past he had found old guns and we passed an area where the remains of a rusting saw were lodged in between rocks from cutting parts of them within one tunnel. He also told me that an acquaintance of his had disappeared a year or so prior, and his remains were never found. He fathomed that the guy had framed his death in order to leave the country and start anew somewhere else, which sounded like the plot to a Quentin Tarantino movie.
I had no idea how physically exhausting exploring a system like the catacombs could be. My legs ached as I crouched, climbed, jumped, balanced, ascended, descended, crawled, and sped-walked to keep up with the others, but it was all such a thrill to be doing underground. We eventually got to the flooded area, at which point we took the bags we’d be carrying off our backs, unpacked our pairs of waders, and suited up. The water was pretty chilly as our feet penetrated the clear stream, shallow at first but making its way past our waists at other points. Once the water would reach various parts of the rubber suit, it suffocated itself around your body to hold in warmth and acted as a vacuum seal to make sure no water could infiltrate. It was definitely an unusual feeling.
Meanwhile, we put the rest of our clothes, boots, camera bags, and other belongings into the waterproof bags previously holding the rubber suits, and waded our way through the clear, serene water. Once we reached our pre-determined destination, Eugene made sure his full body outfit was securely sealed, and made his way into the submerged path. We watched as the light from his GoPro slowly vanished around the corner, and waited for his return. After about ten minutes, his small shimmering presence reemerged at the top of the tiny sliver of airspace above the watery canal, and he looked drenched. It turned out that his arms and legs hadn’t been secured as well as he thought, and his feet and hands were soaked. He had however reached the ending of the tunnel, only to find that it eventually became completely immersed and he would need to drag scuba gear all the way back down into the tunnel to explore further.
Excited and exhausted after having gone spelunking inside the largest man-made network of catacombs in the world, we retraced our steps and finally exited into the light, which we hadn’t seen for over two and a half hours now. The colors were overpowering as my pupils dilated, hungry to absorb the light they had lost, and sought to regain. I could immediately understand why Jeremy had told me colors were very odd to see after spending ten days in meditation, secluded from the wide array of visuals normally present in everyday life. We unpacked and then repacked again, shaking out our clothes to disperse the dust and pieces of rocks that had collected in our hats and jackets, and then got back into the car to return to the city.
Hungry as we all had not eaten within a couple hours, Eugene and friends took me to a traditional buffet-style restaurant that I had been to in Lviv three months prior and I gorged myself to the point of food coma status from all the calories I’d burned off earlier. Then, the three musketeers left to finish some work, and I wandered the streets before the performance I was to see in the beautiful Odessa Opera House. I arrived a half hour before the show was set to start, and was the only one there for a while to wander the immense, breathtaking main room. It felt odd to know an hour prior I had been traversing the underbelly of the city, and now was about to sit in a posh Opera House listening to classical music.
I laughed at this thought, and gazed around in silence, as the Opera House was everything I had hoped for and more; the $1.50 ticket price was worth paying just to see the inside of the building! Included in this price though was the final year-end performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Nostalgia filled my mind as I eagerly anticipated all the music I was interested in pursuing with my clarinet once I was home from this year of travel, and I couldn’t help smiling to myself on multiple occasions at this new sense of excitement. Never would I have thought in the past couple years that I would be so inspired to pick the clarinet back up, but seeing the sheer talent of the musicians made me remember how proud I had felt while putting in the time and effort to reproduce masterpieces by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and others.
It made me overjoyed to see the progress my mind had went through in those years of being overwhelmed by playing; the last thing I had wanted to do was pick up my instrument. Now I saw it in a whole new light, with the potential to bring back something that at many times had given me much joy. Tired but inspired by a day spent with incredibly talented, unique, and influential people, I was picked up by Eugene, went back to his apartment with his girlfriend Masha, and passed out after a deliciously filling dinner. In the morning I’d have to go back to Chisinau, to get a bus back to Bucharest, spending a whole day in transit. Then, I’d have two days in Bucharest before flying to Madrid to meet my friend Mal for a month of adventures in Morocco.