After spending the majority of the last few months free-camping (as we cycled from the UK to Slovakia and rafted down the Danube), in Ukraine we decided to take a few nights of comfort by renting a small wooden cottage in the mountains. For two days, myself and The Monkey enjoyed having soft beds and a living room in which we could relax. In the day time we walked in the mountains around Vorokhta and at night, we complained that the heating wasn’t working.
After spending several hours attempting to fix the heating, I concluded that it wasn’t working, and text my Ukrainian friend in the hope that he would contact the cottage owners and get the heating fixed. The husband of the married owners appeared quickly and turned the heating on for us, telling us something in Ukrainian about not touching it ourselves. When we went out to walk in the mountains today, for the sake of the environment and the safety of the cottage, we turned the heating off anyway.
For several pleasant hours, we walked across train tracks and up hills until we found a ski jump. We stood at the top of the ski jump and admired the bravery of ski jumpers who descend at high speed before throwing themselves through the air for hundreds of metres. With us, we had a small dog who had decided that we were his best friends for the day. We walked with the dog along a river in the forest and looked at all the mushrooms, guessing hypothetically which ones were edible and which were poisonous: we had no desire to test them out.
Back in the cottage, we appreciated the time in which we could be lazy. Flicking the heating back on, we sat down on the sofa with some Ukrainian bread and watched a movie. Exactly one hour and thirty minutes into the movie, approaching the dramatic grand finale, I smelt smoke.
“Is that smoke?” the Monkey asked.
“S***!” I leapt up (of course pausing the movie on the way) and ran through the cottage. In the living room where we had been sitting there was a thin cloud of smoke in the air, but I saw no flames. Bedroom one, much more smoke, no flames. Bedroom two, smoke, no flames. It was the same in the bathroom, but with considerably less smoke than any of the other rooms.
Running out the door, I ran down the stairs to access the bottom floor of the cottage (the only inter-floor access was outside the building) and put my hand on the handle. A momentary flash back from 999 Lifesavers (a show I watched as a kid) reminded me that I should check how hot the metal handle of a room is before opening it, but as quickly as the thought arose, I found myself opening the door. It was hot inside and smoke came out in large, billowing clouds. I ducked to the floor and pulled my t-shirt over my face.
“Monkey!” I yelled (her real name is Leah and she runs the Vegetarian Traveller), “Get everything out, NOW!” Seconds later, things were being hurled over the balcony and onto the floor. I tried the lights in the bottom floor, but the power was out. I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. Running back upstairs, I grabbed a torch and then returned to where I thought the fire was. Immediately upon entering the room, I smelt dirty, choking smoke and backed out of the room. Either it was an electrical fire or plastic was burning.
Running up and down the street in bare feet, I shouted for help. “Hello! Hello! There’s a fire, help!” No-one in this little village that we’ve met (except for an Uzbek guy) speaks a word of English. I ran to the door of the nearest house and began thumping on the door. Then, and this still surprises me, I ran a full lap around the house. It was a big house and my circling of it achieved no real purpose, except possibly giving me something to do in my panic.
Running back to the house, I was met by the two owners who were considerably more panicked than I was, which is saying a lot. The wife wielded a hose pipe and the husband was clutching his chest. ‘Please don’t have a heart attack,’ I thought. With quicker thinking than I, he went straight to the fuse box outside the house, levered it open and threw off the power. The wife went charging in with the hose pipe, spraying water everywhere. “No, dangerous,” I tried to tell her, worrying at what might happen when one throws water all over a burning electrical fire. Of course my words were not understood and at this point, smoke was seeping out the sides of the building and her main concern was saving her cottage.
For several more minutes, panic ensued. The Monkey removed all of our belongings from the top floor of the bungalow, the cat, Ginny, that we had adopted and was sleeping in the house with us mysteriously disappeared, and the wife continued to spray water everywhere into the darkness. Then everything became calmer. The smoke began to die down, we were safe, our belongings were safe, and it seemed that the fire was out.
We have since been moved into the house of the owners and we now worry about whether they believe the fire to be our fault. We’ve been shouted at by so many old Ukrainians already, that we find it hard to tell when they’re being angry or friendly. She did offer us a smile and a shrug of the shoulders which is more than most, so now we’re hoping that everything is OK. Everything is always OK. Until it’s not.
There’s not much to say about this misadventure, except buggar this, it’s time to move on.
Despite my best efforts to award myself a couple of nights of comfort and relaxing, my plans have been thwarted. Maybe it’s a sign to get back out into the wilderness or to spend time with strangers. Tomorrow we aim for Moldova. No trains, no cottages, just hitchhiking and the hope of a nice forest to pitch our tent (or maybe a friendly Couch Surfer). The world is keeping me on my toes just now, but that’s OK… I wouldn’t want a boring life, right?!