Cows, silos, barns, and cornfields. Count these as the main sights of a trip I took in 2006. One would think this place was Iowa, Wisconsin or my home state of Minnesota. Nope. I was in Ukraine looking at fields of corn and pastures of cows. Lots of fields and lots of cows.
Ukraine has long been considered the breadbasket of Europe, and so is the region from where I hail. While it was a nice coincidence, being in breadbasket turf, even in another country, was not necessarily what I wanted to experience. One of the main ideas behind travel is to visit places and appreciate cultures that are different from your own.
True these were Ukrainian cows and the cornfields were formerly part of collective farms, but what I really longed to see was Independence Square where the protests of Orange Revolution had taken place two years before. Genuine civil disobedience in a former Soviet republic — I wanted to see the staging ground. On our way out of Kiev, we had briefly driven past it.
Also, I wanted to see the Golden Gate. It is the remains of one of the oldest fortresses in Europe, built in the early 1000’s. And what about the beautiful cathedrals with onion spires in Kiev?
Cows, farms, and fields however, were the main part of the Ukraine agenda because our hosts, Tamara and David, neighbors of my parents in Wayzata, Minnesota, ran the farms for major corn and soybean production. They had graciously invited my parents to visit them in Kiev, their second home, and see their operation in the countryside near the capital city.
“Look at these cows. Next time you see them, they will be McDonald’s hamburgers,” David said while he gave us a tour of one of his farms. He had a lucrative contract with McDonald’s to distribute beef to Eastern Europe.
“Ed take a look at them,” David practically high-fived my dad.
David was a Minnesota farm boy who became a wildly successful businessman in Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed. When the Communist government dissolved along with the collective farms, the farmers of Ukraine were then in charge of the land. David came in during the mid 1990’s and convinced many of them to lease the land for big time farming. Eventually, he would have access to 20,000 acres of land in Ukraine.
One of the first people to bring soy beans to Ukraine, David basically brought mechanization to farming in Ukraine. He had made it big. David’s lovely wife, Tamara, who was Ukrainian, had been his interpreter and ultimately became his wife and business partner.
My parents had generously invited me to come with them to Kiev. I’m cringing that I’m even complaining about the fields and cows because we definitely received deluxe treatment. In fact, it was completely foreign to me in the way I traveled in Ukraine.
Tamara and David had hooked us with one of their guest apartments that looked like a big Soviet cinderblock from the outside. However, the units were plush and expansive on the inside. We even had a driver. Typically, I walk everywhere when I travel and rely on Lonely Planet or the Internet for my tourist information. David and Tamara had even hired a former teacher, Natalia, to take us around Kiev at a later point during the trip.
Back to the farms: silos were next on the “In Corn We Trust” tour. Massive silos. Indeed, the whole operation was truly impressive. And we would see it all again — every detail — on the following day. One highlight, however, of the trip was when some of the farm staff presented us with an amazing five-course lunch — lots of vegetables and everything was fresh.
As always, of course, when dining in Ukraine, vodka was readily available. My dad and I each drank a shot and the decision to have a second was easy since the thought was perhaps it might make the bovine bonanza a bit more tolerable.
Ultimately, we left the bovines behind.
“Here is one of our prime corn fields,” David motioned for to his driver to stop since we had left the main farming operations for the open roads and fields. “Let’s get out and I’ll show you.” David plowed through the stalks, grabbed and husked an ear of corn. Then he held it up in what looked like a victory salute.
After roaming through the field and looking at the corn, we headed back to the car. Surely, it was time to go back to Kiev. “Now, we’ll go see the soy beans,” David announced.
The vodka, which I had hoped would put everything into a nice, happy, albeit hazy, perspective, just made me more tired. Fortunately, Tamara could see my mom and I glazing over with more talk of the machinery and the inner workings of the silos.
She quickly suggested that we leave and David and my dad could stay. (My dad was a total trooper and I know his liver took a hit that day.) We left with another driver and after some time, made a very brief stop at one of the main markets in Kiev.
Because it was late, the market was set to close in 30 minutes. I was so tired and not in the mood to shop by then that a vendor of nestling dolls followed me and lowered his price each time I stepped further away. Apparently, I had appeared to be a tough customer. Finally, he offered such a great deal that no one could refuse the iconic nestling dolls.
Ultimately, the Ukraine trip was amazing. Eventually, we saw some fantastic sights with Natalia, the guide Tamara and David had hired. She took us to the somber war memorial museum, St. Sophia Cathedral and Independence Square. Again, the deluxe treatment continued. It definitely was not the way I normally traveled.
In the end, too, it was interesting that despite different economic and political systems, cows and corn can thrive in two very different parts of the world. Climate-wise, we’re not all that different.
And really the most compelling sight on the entire trip was in the countryside. On our way to the cornfields, we drove by a gorgeous poppy field that was guarded with soldiers holding AK 47s, trying to ward off any actions of the heroin trade. Now that is something you don’t see in the Minnesota breadbasket.