Gonzo in Ukraine – part three: vertigo

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I am not what you might call a risk-taker. Yes, I did a buy a company in the throes of death, in an industry that more and more resembles the sun deck on the titanic and yes, when most tend to treat their bodies as temples, I mostly manage mine as a casino but my tendency to imagine the worst possible outcome, usually prevents me from being a daredevil. Occasionally though, often helped by some lubricant or other, I can conjure up some bravado and accomplish feats that with hindsight, always make me say “what was I thinking”, on condition that those “feats” fulfil either one of two criteria: they have to be productive or they have to be fun.

The previous day had been a write-off. After our never-ending party on the first night, we’d emerged rather broken at five in the afternoon. With the sun coming down fast, it was too late to setup another interview and in any case, we were supposed to go to a club a couple of hours later. We reinvigorated ourselves by stroking the hair of the dog and went for a walk around town to end up in a shady tavern where groups of men with haircuts a little too short were shouting at a football game on the TV. Sasha, Phil, Kuba and I were sampling the local brew when Yuliya appeared to take us to our destination for the night.

The club, Closer, somewhat misleadingly named seeing as it was as far away from anything of interest as you could possibly get in Kiev, would have put many of my old London hangouts to shame. I remember the London party scene as one long waiting line, one you had to pay through the nose to join. You queued to get in, you queued at the cloakroom, you queued at the bar, you queued at the toilets and finally back at the cloakroom on your way out. Everything was upwards of a tenner except for the tip you were supposed to leave the toilet attendant for the pleasure of eavesdropping on his phone conversation. Maybe it was just me. I’m glad I got out.

No such thing here though. We were whisked onto yet another patio, this one with an open-sky dance-floor which then led to a chill-out garden. The place was busy but you never bumped into anyone. I never had to wait for more than a minute at the bar and by my third visit, the barman had my order ready at first sight of my approach. I was fairly jacked by the time we got out but I don’t think I even spent a tenner. The vibes were good too and after a few hours, people started hugging each other on the dance floor. In my fragile state, I thought: Jesus, Mary and Joseph Stalin, these people know how to enjoy themselves. London has had it and this is where it’s at. Most people I spoke to weren’t Ukrainian though. Maybe that was why the place felt so airy. To them, I had just blown a week’s wages. I tried not to think about it as I made my way to the toilets which, I was grateful to find out, weren’t staffed.

When dawn broke, I knew we were dangerously close to wasting another day. Over a little more than 48 hours, we’d only managed to film one interview and I’d also self-medicated rather liberally. I can’t remember going to bed but we were up before lunch the next day. Kuba thankfully informed us that we had two interviews lines up over the next couple of days with potentially a third one. Today would be dedicated to getting street-scenes and a feel of the city, which we’d so far mostly experienced indoors, under neon lights. Maidan was our first port of call.

I only managed to get a glimpse of it though, for mere minutes after we got there, Kuba rushed us back to the car. The man had an idea, the best shot of the city we could hope to get: a bird’s-eye view. And then, for the first time since I’d arrived, the Fear got to me.

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As I explained earlier, I am not a risk-taker. I had seen the videos taken by those crazed kids, often Russian, climbing towers, buildings and cranes, hanging by their fingers above the abyss and I remembered clamping my seat as I was watching these on youtube. Ukrainians have no time to waste on such trivial matters as health and safety. They are an adult people, one who does not need its hand held at every turn and the two silhouettes at the top of the bridge offered a perfect demonstration of that. There was no one to stop us and Kuba got on the ladder. I hesitated, knowing that each passing second was getting me farther away from following him, visions of the worst outcome and all that but, before I knew it, I was on the ladder too.

Going up is not that difficult. You concentrate on the ladder, your hand reaching up and your feet following suit, one step after another. You can’t help but think of the fall which, if you’re lucky, will kill you for this is not a fall you’d want to survive. Eventually, I got to the top where a helping hand from one of the kids who was there, got me onto a rusty platform. The rather undignified manner with which I landed drew a few laughs but answering their query as to where I was from with a loud “London”, settled the matter for good.

Kuba had been right: the view was something to behold. The sun was setting on the city, derelict buildings with names and purposes I was never to find out, were casting long shadows on the dark and oily river. We’d made it and for a moment, I felt on top of the world. A top where the ground is very real and very visible, so I made my best to keep myself busy. We setup our tripod and Kuba started shooting 360s of the city whilst I smoked cigarette after cigarette, trying to keep my compulsion to jump in check. It really was spectacular and I was glad I’d got on that ladder. There I was, hungover in a country I knew nothing about, climbing bridges to film top-down cityscapes for a documentary. It felt great but I couldn’t stop thinking of the way down. 

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I was convinced that falling then would have been worse than falling on the way up. I felt elated at having done it and I didn’t want to be the cyclist about to win the Tour de France, riding the last stretch hands-free in celebration, only to wobble and collapse yards from the finishing line, his sneering competitors all thinking “you’d made it, you idiot”. But I tried to be as focused as I had been earlier and soon enough, I was back on terra firma.

The buzz didn’t leave me for a few hours after that. We’d gone to the nearest bar we could find for a celebratory pint, an empty Cuban themed dive with a portrait of the Che hanging above the door.  We drank and raved for a couple of hours, laughing giddily at everything, glad we were alive, in one piece and in possession of breathtaking shots of the city. The Fear had nearly got the best of me, standing in the way of a great experience, yet again. It certainly wasn’t bravery that got me on that ladder, nor was it stupidity either, even though if felt a lot like it. It was looking at a friend climb up and not wanting him to go alone, not that I could have done anything to save him if things went south but whatever happened, I wanted to be there to see it too. One of those moments that makes you say “never again, but I’m glad I did it”. As we left, I threw a last glance at the inscription below the Man. Hasta la Victoria indeed. 

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