Mukachevo on $5,000 a Day

Howard Englander

© Copyright 2018 by Howard Englander


Honorable Mention--2018 Travel Nonfiction

Photo of a rusted train car.

 Thinking about the travel experience two decades hence I marvel at the positive reviews of tourism in the Ukraine found in Trip Advisor and similar travel sites… when I visited the country a working toilet was a technological marvel.

Old Hungarian Joke: An old man is being interviewed. He tells the journalist that he was born a Hungarian; then he became Austrian, then German, then Russian. "How lucky you are to have traveled so much," says his interviewer. "I never left my village," the old man replies.

The city of Mukachevo is not among the glamorous destinations described by the colorful brochures on display at your local travel agent’s office. It’s barely on the map of the Ukraine, where it’s been located ever since the Soviet Union split into smithereens. It’s hard to find because the city keeps moving, from Hungary to Czechoslovakia in 1919, to German-Hungarian occupation from 1938 to 1944, and then secession to the Ukrainian USSR in 1945. My wife Arlene and I are traveling to this Transcarpathian city of sullen Ukrainians, scowling Gypsies, dour Romanians and gloomy Slovaks to find a link to my past.

Astonishingly, while going through boxes of photographs and papers collected from my father’s apartment after his death, we uncovered a yellowed document indicating that one Samuel Lewis Englander arrived at Ellis Island in 1902, a passenger on a ship from Hamburg, Germany with the family’s town of origin listed as Munkacs, Hungary. I had assumed Dad was born in America because I had never heard a word to the contrary from my father, my grandmother or my aunts. What was it that impelled them to leave? What experiences had they suffered and stifled for so many years? Perhaps I would find out. For my 60th birthday Arlene gives me a staggeringly generous gift: a trip to Budapest with an excursion to Mukachevo to excavate the past as well.

In September, 1992 Ukraine has been an independent country for only a few months. Its budding bureaucracy has yet to create the most fundamental of infrastructure never mind a Department of Tourism. It relies on the Russian Tourist Bureau, known as Intours, to make the travel arrangements for Americans delusional enough to want to visit the forlorn city in the middle of nowhere. The agency, evidently, had yet to be advised that the Cold War was over; a rotating roster of irritably sullen and churlish agents takes turns questioning us with the subtlety of a KGB grilling. Before they’ll issue visas from their office in Toronto a fully paid itinerary is required, a financial arrangement that will allow the Russians to recoup a high percentage of their annual budget. The cost of seats on the night train from Budapest to Mukachevo with reservations at the one hotel in the city that offers an en suite bath is equal to a portside stateroom on the Queen Mary with a penthouse suite at Claridges on arrival. We know we’ve been had when we collect our travel documents at the train station in Budapest. If we had walked up to the ticket window and purchased them on the spot the fare would have been about $80 versus the $2000 we paid! When Arlene asks how close our seats are to the dining car the agent convulses with laughter. If we want to eat on the train he suggests we purchase a sweet roll and a bottle of water before boarding.

The three-hour ride listed on the timetable takes more than eight hours. The delay comes in the middle of the night at the Polish-Ukraine border when suddenly the compartment door flings open. Ignoring our shrieks of protest, several workmen burst into our cubicle with massive wrenches slung over their shoulders. Without explanation, they set about to take apart three square feet of floorboard as Arlene and I huddle in disbelief on our cot-sized slab of a pull down bunk bed. They are laboring to reconfigure the train wheels to the gauge of the tracks in the Ukraine, which are inches narrower than the width in Hungary. A cold breeze swirls up the gaping hole in the floor as the workers struggle to reconfigure the width between the rails. When the adjustment is completed, they replace the flooring and leave without a word.

The border belies its thin red line on our map of the two countries. It is a wide swath of no-man’s land through which we bump along a few miles at a time stopping intermittently for interrogation by Hungarian border guards, Ukrainian Para-military patrols and several squads of custom officials from both countries. Their uniforms are parodies of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta but the interrogations of the officials are not in the least bit amusing. The last intrusion is particularly frightening, the customs officer in charge becoming increasingly irate because of our inability to understand his demand to fill out a document written in the Cyrillian alphabet. “Ma-don-nah, ma-don-nah,” he shouts at us red-faced, his voice growing progressively louder as we stare back blankly. Our bewilderment is turning into abject fright when Arlene suddenly “gets it.” He wants to know if we’re bringing any religious objects into the country! Our hasty disclaimer cools the situation and explains the near apoplectic fit that took place earlier while he was screaming “Nar-cot-ticks, nar-cot-ticks” into our uncomprehending ears.

A guide is waiting for us as we stumble on to the Mukachevo station platform at 6am on a rainy morning, stinking from the swill of the train’s overflowing bathroom and sucking on stale hard candy to mask our morning breath. Our hired “guide” to the city is a father-son tandem from nearby Lvov; the older man our driver, the boy our translator relying on English courses taken in high school. It becomes clear instantly that he was a “D” student at best. The guide informs us that there is no record of “Englander” at the city hall, the burial office, or any public archive. In fact, there are no records of any kind to be found prior to the Russian occupation in 1945. Every shred of paperwork, deeds, birth certificates, death records, all disappeared. The only evidence of centuries of Hungarian culture is an occasional house with a checkerboard style, wood border inlaid into the façade.

For the next two days we eat at restaurants where the only food served is cabbage and blood sausage. There is no bread to be had; no coffee. In the shops that are open the few gifts displayed on the shelves are crudely crafted wooden boxes and clumsily painted wooden dolls. We pay for everything in American dollars as the country has yet to print any money, using script in the interim, the value of which shrinks daily as the populace waits for the government to issue the official currency. After paying for our meals, our guides’ meals, gas and oil, and any and all expenses incidental to sightseeing our total out-of-pocket cost is less than a hundred dollars, a striking savings compared to the earlier, wildly inflated charges, but a flagrant overcharge as far as I’m concerned! The hotel room, for which we have prepaid a rate equivalent to the country’s gross national product, features a massive, tarnished copper samovar as the centerpiece of the décor and a four-poster bed with linen so grungy Arlene sleeps in her raincoat. The water runs from 6am to 8am, then again at 5pm to 7pm and don’t bother to turn on the hot water tap.

There is nothing attractive about the city or the countryside; the people are unsmiling, anti-American, and not to be trusted. The river is turgid; the foliage is wilted; the mud soaked pedestrian walkways reek with a fetid vapor when the sun manages to shine. The closest structure resembling a landmark is an unremarkable stone fortress supposedly dating back to the time of the Ottoman conquest. The Palanok Castle was a prison throughout the 19th century and the graffiti scrawled on the walls suggests it is not revered by the descendents of the Magyars that occupied the Carpathian Basin. The most interesting sight is an endless row of abandoned Russian trucks lining the highway to the city, literally mile after mile of rusting hulks slowly disintegrating. As for the influence exerted by the enviable lifestyle of America-the-mighty the sole import is the hip hop music blaring endlessly from the car radios of the vintage Škodas parked permanently on the side streets of the petrol-starved town. Rump Shaker by Wreckx-N-Effect and Jump by Kriss Kross have left no airspace for the traditional lute-like instrument known as the Hungarian bandura.
If there’s a molecule of my family’s essence floating in the sour air, I can’t sense it. What is immediately clear to me, however, is why they got out of there when they did! The mood is ripe with the odious warning that Jews have learned to sense after centuries of bigotry and persecution: the sons and daughters of Judea are not welcome here. It is easy to imagine what life was like for my grandparents at the turn of the century, imperiled and impoverished as they must have been. Surely they had sniffed the air as I was doing now, prescient of the brutal anti-Semitic legislation introduced by the Hungarian authorities in 1939 and the deportation to Auschwitz in 1944 by the Nazi Eichmann Commando that sent 15,000 Jews to the gas chambers and left the city Judenrein, free of Jews. I shuttered to think what the fate of my family would have been had they stayed.

The afternoon before leaving we drive several miles outside of the city to a sprawling landscape park on a remnant of the Great Steppe that stretches west from the Ukraine through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Amid the wild flowers and grasses a small collection of primitive dwellings have been erected, simulating life on the once-wild plains. Among the huts and cabins is a yurt, a domed, wood-frame structure covered by animal skins for insulation and weatherproofing; the entrance flap opening on a dirt floor where the animals bedded down. The warmth rising from the huddled sheep and pigs and cows provided heat for the family living overhead on a rough-hewn, wooden planked floor reached by a ladder from below. The crude dwelling is painfully similar to the one pictured in a small, grainy, sepia toned photograph found among my father’s papers. It is not inconceivable to imagine his father, my grandfather, actually living as a child in this heatless, antediluvian dwelling! I imagined his unrestrained amazement as he left the shelter of Ellis Island and encountered the modern day marvels that existed beyond his wildest imagination. When he was a child, most of the world’s Jews lived in feudal economic systems, deprived and powerless. Now his first generation American born grandson has gone from a berth in the steerage class of the Hamburg-American steamer line to a Business Class seat on a transcontinental United Airlines Jet.

Our guides are waiting for us as we check out of the hotel. It’s a short drive to the railroad station and we are fortunate they accompany us to the ticket window to help with translation -- to our dismay there is a mix up in our tickets. The train back to Budapest does not stop at Mukachevo. We must board at Chop, a city located near the borders of Slovakia and Hungary where the Lviv-Budapest line stops for passengers.

On a night when the windshield wipers are useless against the hammering rain we jolt our way over the rutted road to Chop, a three hour ride that tests the limits of our resolve. The scene at the depot is a Dickensonian nightmare. Immense murals of rural peasants with bulging muscles compete for attention with busty milkmaids with implausible rosy cheeks, heroic solders in shiny jack boots and defaced portraits of Lenin and Stalin. We fight for room amid the huddled crowd of waiting passengers, gagging from a choking stench fused from excrement, vomit and rancid sweat. With no place to wait, our guides say their goodbyes over our protests. We are left alone.

Arlene looks at me in dismay but the scene is so far from what we envisioned in the comfort of our pricey Chicago townhouse, we can only laugh at the situation. In our gabardine, military style trench coats we are Signe Hesso and Paul Henreid in a black and white B-movie, leaving behind the forsaken streets of Mukachevo and the forgotten ashes of my ancestors. After hours of waiting the train arrives in the pounding rain. Undeterred we are caught up in the crowd racing down the platform to find the cars that match the number on our tickets.

There are no surprises on the train ride back to Budapest. We are unflappable when the dance at the border is repeated. When the train slows down as it passes through the small towns along the way we reach out the window and press our script into out-stretched hands in exchange for fruit kolaches rimmed by puffy pillows of dough. Exhausted, we arrive back at our hotel in Budapest, where after long, steaming hot showers, we happily splurge calories and forints on a chocolate crepe flambé at the world-famous Gundel Restaurant.

Howard Englander is the archetype of the new retiree, the so-called senior citizen who refuses to be retired.  His weekly blog, “Cheating Death,” focuses on the realities of aging, making it a point to debunk the Hollywood and television stereotypes of “the grumpy old man” and “the ditzy grandma.”

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