Blackmailing, poisoning and getting real friends: from a diary of an American who came to Ukraine.
Christopher Estano is a land developer from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 5 years ago, he left his business to his partner to tend to, and started to travel. During this time, he has been in 40 countries, and visited Ukraine 4 times. Here, Christopher was 3 times blackmailed, and even poisoned on the train Kyiv – Chernivtsi. Still he plans to bring his sons here or might even move to Ukraine.
What was the brightest impression of all Christopher’s trips? Why does he keep coming to Ukraine? Why the USA is not the greatest country, and what could Americans learn from Ukrainians? Christopher told Shpalta.
How did you decide at one point to visit 40 countries in 5 years?
My father died. He was 65 years old, and had been retired for a while. My father had done some traveling. I had always wanted to see the world, and I kept saying to myself: “Keep working, when I get older, I will do it”.
When your grandparents die, it hurts, it’s sad. Butwhen your father dies, you see your own mortality, you know, that you’re next. It really inspired me to consider my future, and I said, “I really want to do this”. I had money, so I decided, that I was going to see the world.
What was the strongest impression from these trips?
The people. The people are what make the worth of traveling.
I’ll tell you something interesting. I go back home in the summers, for Thanksgiving Day, and maybe for Christmas. I go out with my friends, and probably one out of every two / three times, I go out to nightclubs or bars, I see somebody in a fight. Pushing, shouting, yelling, or arguing. In the 5 years I’ve spent traveling around the world, I’ve never seen a fight. This says a lot about my own country. Everybody wants to be cool. There is no tolerance for anything. The men think with their testosterone.
Overall, my strongest impression is that the people in other parts of the world are much more tolerant than in the USA. In my country, if somebody is driving too close to the back of your car, you go out, and you scream at him. In Indonesia, Morocco, everybody is driving close to each other, but they don’t care. In America everybody jumps out of their car, are yelling, shooting each other.
Also with the exception of Poland, people don’tseem afraid of the police. I’ve sat out in parks at 3 am with people I’ve met there. We were laughing, drinking, and having fun.
In my country, you would be arrested for that. You are not allowed to drink in public. You are not allowed to make noise after certain time. In the USA, the police are very intimidating. Since the year 2000 they have killed 5700 people in USA.
Fatal police shootings/law enforcement homicides per million people in the United States is 2.9, in Canada 0.7, in Australia 0.2, in Germany 0.1, in the United Kingdom 0.04, and in Japan 0.0. Source.
Some people support it. They say: “You are not in danger if you don’t do anything illegal”. But that’s bullshit. Especially if you are black. Police officers are constantly shooting black people. So many people in my country just don’t understand this and it’s just getting worse. It’s dividing a lot of people. The fact is, if you look at the percentage of the black people that were killed, it’s much higher than the percentage of white people killed per capita.
There are way more black people in prison than white. Most of the reasons why they are in prison are involving drugs. It’s violence, theft, and other reasons too, but we have 300% more people in the prisons than any other country. Prisons are also run by private corporations for-profit. Therefore, the private corporations need to keep the prisons full. I honestly believe that there is corruption. The police and the system look for reasons to put people in prisons. For example, people have been there for 10-20 years because of Marihuana. However, is, in many states it’s now legal.
Do you think it has something to do with the fact that in many states, it’s legal to carry a gun?
I think it’s a good argument why the police are afraid of the people. In most states in my countries I am allowed to a keep gun concealed. In my coat, my pants, or in a handbag. This makes police officers nervous. If somebody is standing in front of the police and just takes his hand to scratch his leg, they could think he wants to pull out a gun, and can, and have just shot the person.
I don’t believe that guns should be made illegal in the United States. But I believe that there should be gun control laws.
Do you feel safe in your country?
People ask me: “If you go to Morocco, Indonesia and China do you ever feel scared? Aren’t you worrying that something is going to happen?” I tell people quite honestly, the place where I feel the most frightened is my own country. People fight, people take out their guns, people shoot when they are angry. In the USA it happens all the time. I don’t see it in other countries. So no, I don’t feel safe in my country. Walking at 3 am in streets of New York, I would feel 10 times more scared than walking at same time in Kyiv. I’ve been robbed twice in the US with the gun pointed at my head. Both times, it was in Los Angeles.
Somebody asked me last week: “They say that America is the greatest country. People there are so happy. Why are they doing so many drugs? Are they escaping something?”
Why are we killing each other, committing suicide if we live in the greatest country like we keep saying?
What would be your answer?
Because it’s not.
I have dated for a few years a girl from Czech Republic. She was three months in the USA, three months home. One day somebody asked her: “How does it feel being in America where you can actually be free?” She got so bothered. She just looked at him and finally said: “You are an idiot. I can scream in the middle of the night in my car as a passenger and nobody is going to care about it. If I do it in this country I’ll be in jail in 3 minutes”.
When we were kids during Cold War, we were always told that the USSR tells all these lies to their people to make them believe how great they are. That it is propaganda. Now when I’m thinking with my own brain, as an adult, I realize, we are a country that does same. We tell the world and each other how great we are, we tell everybody how free we are, how lucky they are to be in the US. We rank around 25th in the world in education, people can’t afford to go to the college, we have the most expensive medical system on the planet. I had to have an MRI when I was in Ukraine. It was 42 dollars. In my country, the same MRI costs 4-5,000 US dollars.
Same thing is about new Hepatitis C cure. I have read, for example, that in India the entire course of treatment for 3 months is 120 dollars. In the USinsurance won’t cover it. The same drug here is 1200 dollars for one pill. You have to do it 3 months, so it’s120,000 dollars or something like this. It’s nuts.
We are not the greatest country. We are a country that elected Donald Trump as the president. He divides us so much. We went for being like 23-24 in Global freedom index and overnight we jumped to 42 when he became the president. I don’t like the politics in my country right now. When Hillary Clinton was running for president, I said she is very bad for our country. I think Donald Trump is bad for the world. And if you ask Americans that voted for him, why? Many of them will say: “Better than that bitch Hillary Clinton”. That is their answer. I have heard that so many times. They never give a reason why he is great.
Let’s talk now about your trips to Ukraine. Why did you decided to visit our country?
I didn’t actually plan to go to Ukraine. Then I met one guy in Budapest. He said me: “You should see Lviv, it’s beautiful”. My visa was expiring; therefore, I had to spend some time outside Schengen zone. So I decided to go there.
My first time coming to Ukraine was horrible. From Budapest, I went to Lviv with a BlaBlaCar. When we got to the border, the driver went on the wrong lane in the road, so the border police took our passports and were trying to make us pay 200 dollars as a fine. We were arguing for 20 minutes, and they let us go. After that I said, it’s going to be a good experience.
At one o’clock in the morning, we crossed the border and drove to Lviv. The next day we went to the nightclub and I was dancing with my hands up. There was a light, and I hit it and broke it. Nothing fancy. Butthe club administration told me, I have to pay 750 US dollars to fix it. They had security there and called police. So 10 people and the officers were surrounding me telling that I have to pay 750 dollars. I finally agreed to pay 50 dollars, and they let me go.
When I got to Lviv, same guy told me: “I’m going to Chernivtsi, people there are nice, you should come”. So I drove with him in the middle of the night on the dark road. Halfway there, the tire got a hole and broke. It’s the middle of the night, trucks are passing through, it felt crazy.
Finally one of the cars stopped. There was a guythat worked in the next village as a police officer. He said he would help. He knew some place with tires, and we could get it in the morning. When he said: “I want to drag the car up to police parking”, we were like: “No, no, we don’t need you to do this”.
So next morning we went to the tire place, which was just next to us. We’re buying a tire, putting it on, and then the police officer from last night showed up, took the key to our car from the owner and said he wouldn’t give us the key back until we buy all new tires. The car was only one year old, we didn’t need 4 tires. In the end, we managed to avoid it.
It was the third time that somebody was trying to get money from us. In the first 5 days, I spent in Ukraine 3 times people were blackmailing me. I spent 5 month in Ukraine in total, and it never happened again. Maybe I became more confident, so people didn’t try.
I was really nervous in the first week what Ukraine was going to be like. Somebody stole my phone in Poltava. I was using Google Maps trying to get home and somebody grabbed my phone and ran. I chased him, but he was young and very fast. There was nothing I could do. So I went back to the hotel and asked the lady, (which was very complicated, because she didn’t speak English) to help. I was trying to go on the computer to find my IPhone, but it all took too long, and the phone was already turned off. I never got it back. I ordered another one and they delivered it to Poltava.
Why did you come back to Ukraine after all this?
In Chernivtsi, I met a woman named Natalie. I was trying to buy something for my phone. The shop assistant didn’t speak any English, so Natalie said: “Maybe I can help?” She translated, but they didn’t have it. So she put me in the car with her husband, and we went maybe 3 miles (5,82 kilometers) to another place, and they had it. I was so surprised she helped me, because I was a total stranger.
Natalie was teaching in the language school. She asked if I could talk to the students as a native speaker. I said: “Yes, I can do it”. I took them for dinner, and we became friends. Then I met other friends of theirs, and they became my friends, too.
That’s why I was coming back here.
Once I was drugged on the train from Kyiv. It was messed up; I could barely move my face. I called Natalie; she called Nikolai, our friend-doctor.
He drove to train station I arrived at to help me and took me to the hospital. The doctors could get into trouble for what they did. They were giving me drugs, which stimulate your brain and give you more electricity and activity in your brain. 6 or 7 doctors were pulping me. It took a couple of months to make everything be okay. When it was finished, nobody would take any of my money. They just wanted to help. They showed me how amazing people are here.
But how did it happened you were drugged?
I was at the train station in Kyiv. I had to wait 2,5hours for the train.
Sometimes I get frustrated, because I don’t speak Ukrainian. I saw a few people that speak English here. I went and tried to buy a train ticket. If you go to the train station in Chernivtsi or Kyiv, there are 10 different tickets pay desks. I don’t have an idea why. So I take 2 or 3 lines before I get to the right window. I just go and ask people: “Do you speak English?” Just buying a train ticket is nightmare for me.
So I was waiting for my train. The guy had dark skin. He asked in English: “Do you know where is a toilet here?” I showed him the direction. A couple of minutes after he came back and asked: “Where are you from? You look American”. I said: “Yes, I’m from the US”. He asked: “Where are you going to?” I said:“Chernivtsi”. “Me, too”. He invited me to the café, and we were sitting there maybe for an hour. He offered to help me with buying ticket, and bought for us tickets in the first class cabin.
On the train, he went to get some juice. The guycame back with two paper cups and said: “A toast for the safe journey”. I drank half of it, and it tasted terrible. I didn’t want to drink more, so he said: “In my county it’srude if you don’t finish you drink”. I took one more sip and said: “Stop, I’m not going to finish it”.
10 minutes later I wanted to lift my arm and it felt really heavy. I wanted to lift another one, and was the same thing. I said to him: “You drugged me”. But he was just staring at me. My face started sagging. The drug that he gave me makes your blood pressure low. Blood stopped going to my brain. They were like the symptoms of stroke.
After two hours, I was able to move a little bit. I was trying to lean forward but the train put its brakes on to stop and I fell on the floor. So I was lying on the flour and he was still looking at me. I started to hit my head on metal door to get some attention. When the train stopped again, he ran out.
I was on the floor maybe for another half of hour. When I was able to stand up I went out of the compartment. It looked like I was so drunk I couldn’tmove. Lady in the hallway was asking me to go back to my room. She was thinking I’m drunk.
She woke up some guy that spoke English, and I told him what happened. After another couple of hours I was able to talk more and called Natalie.
Why did he poison you?
I’ll never know. He just looked for me the whole time. And that lasted a few hours. I was awake. I knew what’s happening. But he was just looking at me, like he was excited to see me suffering. He didn’t touch me, didn’t take any of my stuff.
It was terrifying. But I was amazed how nice everyone was here. And it never changed. Everybody I meet in this city is nice to me.
Which places did you visit in Ukraine?
I’ve been to Ukraine four time. I’ve been to Kyiv a few times, to Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Poltava, Kharkiv, Chernivtsi. I have not been to Odesa. Part of the reason I don’t go to Odesa is because so many men go there to find wife, and I don’t want that attached to me.
Really? From the USA?
The USA, England, all over the world go to Odesa, because it is a capital of the world for finding Ukrainian wife. We call it mail order brides.
If I google “Odesa woman”, I promise you there’sgoing to be sites to find a bride.
When I go to Indonesia, because I am older white guy, they see that I’m not from there. I go down to the street and I can’t make 10 steps without somebody saying “Young man, girl, prostitute, sex, Viagra, massage”. I went one day for a walk for two hours and I counted how many times somebody offered me a woman, drugs or Viagra. 124 times in two hours. So then, I started to walk around with my earphones.
In Odesa, it’s not same, but still bride tourism is a big thing about this city, so I don’t go there. People could think that I am there because of the reasons why the other men go there. I just feel I would be harassed a lot and not respected.
What did you know about Ukraine before coming here?
I was mad at my government because of the war in Crimea.
When Ukraine denuclearized we made a promise to your country that if you are ever invaded we are going to protect you. But then the USA were like: “It’s just Crimea, it’s not really invading, we are not going to attack Russia. But we will give you money, so you can fight the war”. The huge amount of money to fight this war comes from us.
I hate war. But I also hate when you lie to another country.
I think we should have showed up with everything that we had. We should have brought aircraft carriers, battleships, and people with machines guns and ask Putin: “Do you really want to do that?”
Do many people in your country have same position that you have?
I would say even one of 500 thousand people even know anything about it. The people in my country live in the bubble. They are on phones all the time; they play video games at home.
Most of the world doesn’t like Americans. They want to go the USA, but they don’t like people from there. Because we are arrogant assholes. If I met you, and all that you told me was just how beautiful you are, how awesome you are, how smart you are, and that all I’ve ever heard for a year from you, I would hate you. That’s what we’ve done for 50 years in our country. “We are the greatest!” This is what I am told by people I meet when I travel.
Can you say 5 things that Americans can learn from Ukraine?
Tolerance would be a big one.
As well as health. Obesity is our big problem. It would take me 6 months in Ukraine to see so many fat people as I see in the US in one day. They don’t walk anywhere. When one place is 10 minutes away, they are driving.
The third is that in America people don’t treat foreigners very well. In my country it doesn’t matter where you are from, but if you have a dark skin, you are Muslim. Everybody is staring at you thinking that you are terrorist.
The forth is conversation. Here in Europe when I talk with the people from France, Belgium, Germany, Ukraine about politics, religion, we are having a really good conversation, we just say our opinion and don’t argue.
In the USA, those talks usually are more like fighting. Once I tried to talk to the guy about why do we have so many school shooting in the USA. He said:“Because our borders are weak and we are letting immigrants come in”. Then I asked when was the last time an immigrant started shooting in the school, and he had nothing to say. He knows nothing and is not afraid to say something stupid, because he assumed you are stupid, too.
In America when you are sitting around bunch of guys, it’s the most annoying conversation. Every time you talk, somebody going to jump into you conversation and say something stupid or sarcastic. I’ve never experienced that anywhere else except the US. In the relationships between men in Ukraine, Romania, Poland people are not afraid to just love each other, to know that it is somebody I care about, appreciate him. They are good friends to each other.
The fifth is “Winter On Fire”. When after hundredof kills the government said, the president only agreed to have a reelections, one guy grabbed the microphone and said: “If there is no requirement for demission, we will go to the assault”.
In my country if that happened there would be guns everywhere, the people would be killed left and right. They would be shooting back at the police. Maybe couple of days. But what would really be happening, they would break all the windows in the stores and stealTVs, food, everything they could.
Every time we are having a big protest, people break into the stores and steal everything. They don’tgive a shit about what the problem is, what the causes are.
It was incredible that all these people, despite the pain, danger, and death, continued to stand on Maidenbecause they really believed in changes.
Moreover, there were many young people. In my country, just a few of them care about something. That would never happen in the USA.
Americans could learn how actually to care, to understand what the problem is and to fix it. Because in the USA we just don’t. “We are the greatest”, we don’tneed it. That was meant to be sarcastic.
Are you going to come to Ukraine the fifth time?
I just really like this country, so I keep coming back. I’ve met a lot of really good people here. Maybe in 2019 I might move to Ukraine, to stay 3 months each year here. Also this year I plan on bringing my sons to show them this country.
Interviewed by Oksana Chorna
Photo by Yaroslava Derevyanko