My eyes are closed.
The rhythm of the bus ride is lulling me to sleep. It’s cool on board, which is surprising, considering most places I’ve visited in Kyiv have not had air conditioning. There has been little relief in the 90-degree heat, and I’ve been sleeping in my underwear for days. As someone who typically can’t sleep without something covering her, there have been quite a few restless nights.
I’ve almost drifted off when I feel a knee sink into the back of my seat. My eyes flutter open, and I see two large, hairy arms reaching over me. In one hand, a crusty breakfast danish with gooey icing. In the other, a cell phone. The camera is on, and I see a part of myself in the frame of the photo that’s about to be taken.
“Excuse me!” I say sharply, sitting up abruptly.
I look behind me and quickly realize the miscommunication. The man who was reaching over, likely around my age, is trying to take a selfie of him and his friends, who are sitting behind me. They’re crunched in the backseat of the Mercedes Benz Sprinter we’re taking to Pripyat.
“Oh,” I say, with a heavy sigh. “Would you like me to take your photo?”
“Yes,” he nods, with a thick accent I do not recognize.
I take the camera in my hand and snap a few photos of them. I hand the phone back and wait for him to give the nod, the recognition that yes, these will do just fine on Instagram.
I’ve been in Ukraine for a few days now. With the exception of a night to the opera, I haven’t done many touristy things. I’m what I call a “drifty” kind of traveler, the type that prefers to wander around a city, sometimes for hours at a time. Once in Porto, a charming city in Northern Portugal, I sought off on a quest for tile that resulted in a six-mile hike.
Another time, I decided not to take an Uber, and instead, walked to a tattoo appointment in Reykjavik. It was February, and it was ten degrees. It was nearly two miles in knee-deep snow. And in Kyiv, I wandered the streets for hours, wanting to “see” everything for myself.
I had visited Edinburgh a week earlier, and Olivia, an artist who welcomed me into her studio for a few hours, gave my drifty nature a name.
“Ah, you’re a flaneur,” she said when I explained I had come to Scotland with no plans.
However, despite my best efforts to “stay drifty” and avoid things I perceived as tourist traps, I found myself on a group tour to Pripyat, Ukraine. Pripyat, you know, the home of the Chernobyl Power Plant. One of the most catastrophic disasters in the last hundred years. During the tour, we’d visit a few places within the exclusion zone, including the Duga radar structure, the town of Pripyat, specifically, the hospital, town center, and infamous yellow Ferris Wheel.
Everyone on the bus is excited.
I am quiet.
You may be wondering why a woman in her early thirties, who doesn’t particularly want to see Chernobyl got on the bus in the first place. Or hell, why she was even in Ukraine. I suppose I could have spent my summer at the beach. I could have opted for somewhere more exotic and Instagram-worthy, like the Amalfi Coast or Tenerife. I could have gone back to one of my favorite countries to visit, such as Iceland or Costa Rica.
Instead, I chose Ukraine. Because I am Ukrainian. My mother was a full-blooded Ukrainian, and her mother was a full-blooded Ukrainian. My grandfather, who died a few months before I was born of lung cancer, was 100% Ukrainian. Both sets of my great-grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants, making their way to Philadelphia in the 1910s.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place a year before I was born. It was almost exactly a year before my grandfather, Frank, passed. It was a few months after my older sister, Sharon, was born. My parents were newly married (1985), and living what some would call The American Dream in the suburbs of Philly. They were married, owned a home, and had started a family. It was the life that my family came to America to find.
Even at that point in time, little was known about our family back in Ukraine. My great-grandparents and many of their siblings had been living in the United States for decades. Their children lived in the United States. My grandmother Olga, Frank’s wife, tried her best to educate us about our heritage, bringing us to Christmas bazaars and teaching us how to sing Happy Birthday in her native tongue.
But my childhood was an American one. I knew nothing of Kyiv’s independence from Russia or the Orange Revolution. Instead, my memories are of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. There are of my parents, huddled in the kitchen and talking about Saddam Hussein. Of New Year’s Eve 2000 with my cousins, blowing noisemakers. I remember sitting in my junior high auditorium on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, listening as our principal struggled to explain what was happening to the Twin Towers.
My friend, Emily, did a much better job. I had worn a black t-shirt to school that day, covered with glitter and a screen-printed image of the New York City skyline. JC Penney sold various bedazzled t-shirts with cities and landmarks that year for their Back to School season. I had gotten the t-shirt only a week or so before.
After being released from homeroom to attend the emergency assembly, she ran up to me in the hallway.
“That tower,” Emily gasped, hysterical, pointing to my shirt. “That tower no longer exists,” she screamed.
After school, I went home and embraced my parents. They brought us to a church service, where our Priest prayed for the dead. When we got back from mass, I went to my room and lit a candle. And I wept. Before that day, I did not know that you could mourn for strangers.
I still have the t-shirt.
So until a few weeks before my visit to Ukraine, I didn’t know much about the Chernobyl disaster. And honestly, even as an avid traveler, I never had that much interest in visiting the country at all. The idea of visiting the country did not spark until 2017 when I was cast in a community production of Book of Liz.
Book of Liz, written by Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris, is a goofy play about the family you have and the friends you make. It’s about self-discovery and the unknown. In the show, I played Oxana, a Ukrainian immigrant.
Oxana had a cockney accent, an eclectic wardrobe, and a job as a sign-spinner. In my first scene, I danced and gestured on the side of an imaginary, unnamed highway…
… dressed in a peanut costume. I can’t make this stuff up.
The show ran for a few weeks. In every performance, I’d dance in the peanut costume and say the line, “I’m from Kyiv!” and the audience would laugh. Each time I said it, “I’m from Kyiv!”, I felt an unexpected pang of guilt. Oxana, an immigrant who came to America in hopes of a better life, was no different than my great-grandparents.
I was already in transition, having ended a nearly two-year relationship with my live-in boyfriend and contemplating leaving my then-job. The play made me question my identity even more. Who was I? What was I looking to achieve with travel, anyway? What was I looking for?
So after the show wrapped, I booked a ticket to Kyiv. I was already going to be in Europe, visiting London for a month and housesitting a friend’s flat. Before the trip, I spoke to my mom’s cousin, who shared a few small details about my family’s origins. They were from a small town outside L’viv, he said.
Around the time I took the trip to Ukraine, the HBO show about Chernobyl was popular, and my older sister challenged my refusal to visit there.
“You’re going all the way to Ukraine,” she said, exasperated. “Why would you not go?”
Her insistence is what got me on the bus.
Shortly after the selfie incident, we stopped at a small gas station outside of Kyiv for snacks and drinks. Our guide advised us to bring bottled water which, she reminded us could not be consumed outside of the bus in Chernobyl. I was examining a bag of rice cakes when the selfie taker approached me.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“America. North Carolina,” I specify.
He chuckles and lets out a big, deep belly laugh that I’m convinced only Santa Clause and Eastern European men can effectively do.
“And you came all the way from America alone to go to Chernobyl?”
“No, I’m Ukrainian,” I correct him. “I came to see my country.”
Was that really why I wondered as I got back on the bus. Before this year, I hadn’t bothered to learn about Chernobyl. Even though it was a tragedy that happened to my people, a tragedy with lasting impacts, I never took the time to learn about it. It was a tragedy that undoubtedly, affected my distant and possibly still living, unknown relatives — short, skinny Ukrainians with the same grey eyes or heart-shaped face.
I think about this for the rest of the ride.
When we arrive at the first checkpoint, our guide tells us to put on our protective clothing. Upon booking the tour, I had been instructed to wear pants, closed-toed shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt, as the others on the trip. The group of men that were sitting behind me, who I have learned were Latvians, wore hazmat suits. At first, I assumed the suits were for protective purposes.
As I watched them take selfies, laughing in the back of the bus and preparing to go outside, I realize the oversized, white suits are costumes. I slip on a long-sleeved, white cotton shirt, the only one I could find in Kyiv this time of year.
Outside, police officers check our passports and tickets. Across the street, a small Chernobyl themed gift shop is selling souvenirs such as Chernobyl ice cream and t-shirts with bio-hazard symbols. I make my way to the bathroom, a tiny, weathered white building on the other side of the road.
In the bathroom, I discover that there is no toilet paper in the stalls. Empty boxes, dirt, and leaves are scattered across the floor.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” says our tour guide, coming up behind me.
I nod in agreement.
“I’m Evgeniya,” she says, and with a knowing look, hands me a packet of wet wipes.
Not too much later, we’re back on the bus and cleared to enter the exclusion zone. As we drive through the main road in Pripyat, I take note of the landscape. The side of the road is covered in tall grass and weeds. Butterflies land on brightly colored wildflowers. Everything is a brilliant shade of green.
The first stop on our tour is the Duga radar station. At 150 meters (492 feet) high, the massive structure can be seen for miles, the guide tells us. As we approach, she warns us not to walk beyond a certain point. The structure is unpredictable, she explains. At any given time, a large, rusted metal piece could fall from the sky.
It looks like an apocalyptic Eiffel Tower. I have never seen anything so ugly but fascinating. I spend a lot of my time looking up, snapping pictures of it.
I’m taking a photo when suddenly, a thud. Something has landed on one of my sunglass lenses. I jump and gasp, but to my relief, it’s a bumblebee.
In appearance, it looks like any other bumblebee. It’s a chubby, fuzzy little insect with black and yellow stripes. But the way it slowly moves, with sudden and drastic dips, is unnerving. It looks like it’s drugged. I wave it away a few times, but it keeps returning.
It’s hot, and another tour group has arrived, so get back on the bus. The stops are brief, and essentially, what you would expect. There’s a roadside stop where we can see the reactors and the cooling pond where they’ve caught giant catfish. We take short walks through the woods. We visit the town, stopping at an abandoned supermarket. There are still checkout counters and rusted shopping carts.
Then, we visit the amusement park. In my experience, the bright yellow and black rusted Ferris Wheel is one of the most photographed sites in Chernobyl.
The Latvians pose together for a group photo, which Evgeniya takes.
“Do you want a photo?” she asks me.
“No,” I reply.
We watch the Latvians take more selfies.
“It’s quite strange, isn’t it?” she says, lowering her voice.
We tour an outdoor soccer stadium before heading to Pripyat Hospital.
We’re allowed to enter the hospital for a minute, with strict instruction not to touch anything.
I’m one of the few who enter. Inside, a quiet like I’ve never experienced. Everything feels still. I brace myself for an eerie sensation, the type you get from an old, likely haunted house or the site of a grisly murder, but there’s nothing. Anything that was ever here, even a shadow, is long gone.
As the tour goes on, the details get increasingly grim. We hear about the pets that were left behind after the evacuation and were shot. We hear the stories of the firefighters who arrived at Chernobyl after the blast. The people who watched the fire at the power plant, standing on the nearby bridge. The ones who were coated in radioactive ash that resembled gently falling slow.
As we break for lunch, which we’re having at the cafeteria in Pripyat, I’m pensive. Evgeniya seems to notice.
“Don’t worry, the food isn’t from Chernobyl,” she says, with a little smile. “They ship it in.”
“Ah,” I say, smiling. “So there isn’t a salad with fresh veggies from the garden in the back?”
“Chernobyl chicken,” she giggles.
“Catfish nuggets,” I respond.
As we approach the checkpoint to enter the cafeteria, our laughter fades. We must go through scanners that will pick up on any contamination. It was one of three times I would go through a scanner during my visit.
The cafeteria looks like it’s right out of the 1950s. There are a decent amount of people there, including both tourists and people who work on-site. I sit alone at a table, shakily putting down my tray of potato soup, a thick slice of bread, murky looking juice, and plain egg noodles.
My mind goes back to the people who had to evacuate.
Where did they end up?
What were the rest of their lives like?
Like anyone else who can Google, I know that many people who had to evacuate were placed with families in other cities. Eventually, some would be sent to Slavutych, a new city that was built 30 miles from the plant after the disaster. Shockingly, some of the older Pripyat residents would defy the law and return to their homes in Pripyat.
They felt their lives were rooted there. Their homes and possessions were there. In their new towns, they were seen as outcasts. They had nowhere else to go. Earlier, Evgeniya had told me that there are still 100 residents living in Chernobyl, despite the risks.
“How old are they? The residents?” I asked her as we walked through the woods.
“80s and 90s,” she shrugged. “No children or anything.”
“When they die,” she said, “No one else can live here. It’s done.”
I take a sip of the unidentified brown juice.
A few tables away are a few people who still work at Chernobyl, having the same lunch. I try not to stare.
After lunch, we go to our last stop. It’s an old kindergarten building, where again, we’re permitted to go inside, as long as we do not touch anything or sit down.
I carefully step around some holes and areas of the rotting floor, studying the scattered pages from workbooks and study guides. I take a few photographs of the abandoned beds.
A baby doll with one eye stares at me.
I take one last look at it, then walk back outside into the sun.
When I arrive back in Kyiv, I take an Uber to the train station. As I had planned a week or so earlier, I catch the midnight train to L’viv. I’m in a sleeper car, and for the first time in days, I rest. The rattling of the train lulls me to sleep. But I dream of the amusement park.
It is a warm summer night in May, and the park has just opened. It’s packed, with families eager for activity in the secluded, rural town. There is a young teenage couple on their first date. To escape the crowds, they take a ride on the taxi-cab yellow Ferris Wheel.
She is wearing a cotton dress, a pretty fabric covered in wildflowers. The attendant seats them and shuts the small door, ensuring the latch is in place. The two make little jokes as the cart ascends. At the top, the ride stops, and they are stuck in place. It’s what all Ferris Wheels seem to do when you’re at the highest point. He is visibly shaking and nervous, so she takes his hand.
They look below and see the new hotel and restaurant, as well as Ukraine’s first supermarket, which had recently opened in Pripyat. There is the faint sound of locals chattering and children screaming in delight as they crash bumper cars into each other.
It was an ordinary summer night.
But of course, it never happened. The amusement park never opened. On April 26, 1986, during a routine safety drill in the middle of the night, the №4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. Two people died from the direct blast. A total of 29 firemen who arrived at the plant to distinguish the flames also perished, either on the roof of the facility or in the next few weeks, after being exposed to fatal amounts of radiation.
Over time, around 4,000 people are impacted by the radiation at Chernobyl. Nearly 49,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat. For the next thirty years, the disaster is infamous. Families were ripped apart. Friends were forgotten. Baby dolls and beloved family pets left behind. The residents impacted by the disaster would remain stuck in the shadow of the horrible twist of fate, like my fictitious dream couple at the top of the Ferris Wheel.
For many, the lingering question of what if would follow them for the rest of their lives.
Until that day at Chernobyl, I never thought I’d be one of them.
I wake up on the train, drenched in sweat. We’ve arrived in L’viv, and it is around 6 AM local time. After freshening up at my Airbnb, I walk down Teatralna Street, thinking about my visit to Pripyat and sipping a coffee. Suddenly, I feel a familiar drift tickling the back of my neck. I raise my head.
Across the street stands an elderly man with a heart-shaped face. Our identical grey eyes meet. For a moment, I wonder.
Chernobyl has been a popular topic recently because of the HBO series Chernobyl, a mini-series based on the true events of the disaster. Since my visit, I have watched the show and recommend checking it out if you want to learn about Chernobyl. I also recommend reading a lot of the content published by National Geographic about the long-term impacts of the disaster.