"What condition is the road in?" asked one of the passengers. "Normal," laughed the driver, "the same as normal." "Are they repairing it?" "They say they're going to."
"You can't call that thing a road anymore," my student had warned me about the state of the route between Odessa and Mykolaiv, two cities with a combined population of over one and a half million. When the road was good it was bad, but when it was bad it was absolutely awful. Cracked, buckled and warped by the sun, the tarmac had been washed away completely on both sides and what was left in the middle looked like it had just been shelled. It was if someone had taken a nine-iron to a putting green, a bucket and spade to a patch of wet sand. It reminded you of India or Cambodia or any of a dozen other places that are nowhere near Europe. There were potholes as deep as manhole covers and cracks as big as furrows. The central line had almost disappeared, and in the worst sections most people simply gave up the pretence of following any rules. Buses crept past articulated lorries, battered Ladas jolted up and down past both, cars turned off the road onto flattened patches of dirt that ran alongside farmers' fields.
The driver held a cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone in the other as he picked his way slowly around the holes. We moved side to side, up and down, until my lower back ached from all the sudden movements. Sometimes we drove on the right of the road, sometimes in the middle and occasionally we just drove on any piece of tarmac we could. It took two and a half hours to get back to Odessa. "It wasn't quite as bad as everyone made out," said the person sitting next to me, "but I really, really need a bath."