It had worked out that our timing would bring us around the Ukraine border for my 30th birthday. While biking through Romania we had realized that we could touch 3 countries in one day and that day just happened to be August 27th 2016. I had never been concerned with leaving my 20’s and venturing into my 30’s but the time had come and somehow the closer it got, the more concerned I became. No longer could I latch on to the words of others saying, “do it while you’re young”. This was different. Thirty is an age where you can no longer use your young age as an excuse to be free and ride around the world on a bicycle. A thirty year old has a career, and a wife and they’re trying for kids to start their family in their new house while paying the mortgage and complaining about their jobs. As the date approached I thought about this but only briefly as the thought of how happy I am with my life’s decisions crept back into thought. I was turning thirty, but it didn’t matter.
On August 26th, Josh and I had been riding through rural Romania on our way to the Moldova border since that was the only way we could enter Ukraine. Nearing the end of our night when we would otherwise look for food and maybe a couple of beers we happened across a small bar in this small town. There were a few guys standing around outside drinking beers and looking our way as we had stopped. They invited us over in their attempt to speak English and we sat there smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer while we showed pictures of our journey and struggled to cross the language barrier. One of the men we had been sitting with invited us back to his home for some homemade vodka and continued conversation since he had invited his female friend to his home because she spoke English. When we arrived to his house in the middle of his small town of around 150 people, it was well past dark and we had already gotten a buzz on from the beers. Our new friend’s house had a very modest feel to it and had a few chickens and pigs roaming the small plot of land. Before anything else he had whipped out the homemade vodka that was sitting in a vat behind the house. It was smooth and actually quite nice as the three of us enjoyed a few sips before his friend came over. Once she arrived, the four of us continued drinking our homemade spirits and the laughter grew. At some point in the night, he drunkenly brought out his accordion and started, very impressively, playing Romanian music on it.
“its my birthday tomorrow” i told him
When I mentioned this our middle aged vodka making happy friend began playing an impromptu song that he somehow combined happy birthday, happy new year, and god bless america into one hilariously drunken happy song. As I sat with my new friends drinking homemade booze in his backyard on furniture he had made himself, listening to him play his accordion under dimly lit lights I thought this is becoming one of my favorite birthdays I’d ever had.
The following morning we woke up early a bit hungover but ready to start our venture across two country’s borders and totaling three countries in a day. We arrived to the border of Romania and Moldova in no time and despite the large line of cars waiting to go through, we decided to “rockstar” our way towards the front of the line and see what happened. With no trouble at all our passports were stamped and we were in a new country. After about 10 miles of Moldova (3 beers during a break) we arrived to the border of Moldova and Ukraine. At this point I had been carrying license plates that I had found on the side of the road and had accumulated around 12 of them from various countries. The plates were obnoxious and would make a lot of noise whenever I went over a bump, but I thought it might be nice to have down the line.
“Why do you have these?” the border patrol officer said as he noticed my licenses plates.
As one man with medical gloves was going through every bag I owned taking apart everything searching for drugs or anything they could find another stood by with a powerful rifle in his hands.
“They’re memories of where I’ve been” I said, trying to actually justify why I had been collecting these license plates for so long
The man probably wondering if I had taken them off cars or if I was some serial car thief roaming the earth on a bicycle, handed the stack of plates to another officer to be run in their database. My immediate thought was, “man I hope I didn’t accidentally find a license plate that had been previously attached to a stolen car.” While the plates were being run, the gloved officer continued to search through my things. At some point feeling intimidated with the gunman and the aggressive searching of my things, he came across my ukulele.
“what is this?” he said with a thick Russian accent
“its a ukulele” i said while awkwardly stroking an air guitar.
“okay you play for me now.” he said without taking his eyes off of his current search.
I had only just gotten the ukulele and was not as proficient as I would have liked to be in front of my new crowd, and not to mention I had a bit of stage freight in front of my tough guy officers and that gun about 10 feet away from me. Once the music started (as terrible and shaky as it might have been) a crowd of about 5 others had gathered until the man who told me to play must have been put off by the lack of skill and wasn’t entertained anymore.
“okay you stop now.”
Josh’s things were being simultaneously searched at this point and we had forgotten about a small mason jar of oregano that had been gifted to us from some new friends in Greece weeks before. As the officer reached in nearing the bottom of one of his rear panniers, he pulled out this small jar filled with what must have looked like some shaky marijuana. The small crowd who had come to watch the show was now laughing and thinking, what balls these American dudes must have to try to bring weed across the border.
“WHAT IS THIS?” said the Ukranian officer in this best James Bond villain accent.
“oh god, its oregano” we laughed “smell it!” josh said
“why do you have oregano”
“to put on pizza and stuff” josh said
“you have pizza oven on bicycle?!”
The man smelled the bottle of oregano, sifted through it with his gloved fingers for whatever he could find and found nothing but fresh oregano.
“just keep it..” we said
After an intense search through this small bottle it was handed back to Josh, who threw it immediately in the trash, not wanting to accidentally run into this situation again.
Eventually we were set free, after what seemed like hours of sweaty palms and anxiety attacks. The license plates were handed back to me after individually checking each one for any red flags. We knew we had nothing to hide but this process was the most intense we had to date and couldn’t wait to get through it. As if nothing had happened, as if we hadn’t just gone through a long stressful process, they were satisfied.
“okay you go now” he said. All of our things spread across the floor.
“so we’re good? we can enter?” i said
And just like that, no birthday cake or happy birthday song, we packed our things back onto our bikes and we were into Ukraine. Our bikes and bodies in tact. Entering with everything we had on the other side minus one small bottle of oregano.
Turning thirty rivaled any birthday I’ve had in my life. I went into it having a slight fear of getting older and came out of the day with a sense of happiness and excitement. In 30 years of life i have been growing towards bettering myself and focusing on what makes me happy. I have tried to surround myself with situations in recent years that will continue to help me grow and sometimes those situations are the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. The thought crosses my mind occasionally that I’m always getting older and I’ll never be in my twenties again, but the more I focus on this moment right now and the pursuit of my own self growth, the less age matters.
That night Josh and I snuck under a fence, with a sign which must have read Do Not Enter, on the riverbank near the border and set up our tents in a tiny amount of space in the trees.
I lay in my tent, happy, content, thirty.