Artem is the 7th host we are staying with through Couchsurfing network. Just an ordinary guy who’s living in the center of Odessa and probably working some 9-to-5 job. Of course, as all of the CSers he probably likes to travel. And we’re sure that he is completely aware of our arrival time. At least, those were our presumptions about him. If you don’t know enough information about someone, you create a character in your head before the first meeting, just to get a better image that this person is real, that’s how the human brain works, well, mine at least. And that’s fine as long as you don’t start developing other thoughts and conclusions based on those presumptions. Because in reality the world can turn out a lot more interesting than one can imagine and the people in it can be even more unique than we think when saying the conventional “every one of us is special” phrase.
We arrived at 13 Pushkinskaya Street in the late afternoon and started to look around, searching for the Artem’s apartment. We couldn’t get in touch with him on the phone and he hadn’t answered the previously sent SMS message. Actually, the only time we were in touch was several days ago when he responded to our request with a three word sentence: “No problem come.” But we had arrived at the very right moment – a group of people unexpectedly burst out from a small pink door which looked more like an entrance to Narnia than someone’s home. “Surfers?” “Surfers!” Artem and his friends were going to an opening of an art exhibition and we got invited to come with them at that very instant. So we quickly stashed the bags in some already crammed room and off we went. Artem presented himself as a freelancer and noted that he will also do some work. Photographer, writer or programmer – those are the first professions that I usually imagine when someone states himself freelancer. Artem is none of the above, he glues posters and adverts to the walls of buildings. While we walked to nearby Artpub23, he managed to paste a theater studios’ promo to almost every vertical space available on our way. We still needed to wait so that the final preparations for the event could be finished, so we sat outside and drank some ‘enhanced juice’ out of a magically summoned juice carton. I picked up a walnut from the ground and tried to get it open and Pozharnik (nickname, meaning ‘the Fireman’ – no one really calls Artem by his name) praised me for being a real freegan. Wait, what? “Well, I was a freegan when I traveled through Asia,” he explains. This term was a new addition to our vocabulary – simple enough, freegans are people who eat food that comes for free, should it be fruit that grows out in the open or discarded food. Freeganism may have also been one of the reasons we came to this event – there were free snacks after the opening.
The exhibition was also interesting itself, it featured artworks of metal designer Kirill Maksimenko, various animal-themed sculptures made out of scrap metal. He is also an author of the first monument dedicated to Steve Jobs that has been erected in CIS states.
Later back at Pozharnik’s place we came to a revelation that the room we hardly found space where to put our bags in, is the only room in this flat. Besides it already accommodates Chris and Justin from California, Pozharnik himself and an indefinite number of his friends. Truth be told, looked like our host is also ‘surfing’ here. The real proprietor of the flat may or may not be Serzh. We came to this guess seeing that he brought a new light bulb to replace the punched-out one. It is usual that bulbs burn out but this one had been punched out. The previous evening Artem got a bit angry when someone hadn’t turned off the light and just knocked it out with his hand.
No shower or bath – a little letdown but we were already used to that while on the road. More annoying was the constant clogging up of toilet and the only water source – the kitchen sink. One time, not only the bowl itself was blocked but even the entrance to the toilet. Some guy had just randomly passed out, completely blocking the access to the potty.
The apartment has its own nickname – “Pushkin’s kitchen” or “The Poet’s flat” probably because the only thing it can be proud of – it is located in the very same building where Alexander Pushkin lived for a while in 1823. I doubt it was the same flat, though…
When the night came down over Odessa the count of mammals staying in the room stabilized to 9 humans and 2 cats. The topping of the cake for the sleepers was “Guns and Roses” by Lana Del Rey that played from sleeping Serzh’s phone (located in his pocket somewhere) on repeat for about two whole hours. He loved guns and roses, guns and roses… Although Lana is a singer who a lot of people enjoy listening to but this song, He loved guns and roses, roses, roses…, is just too dull and repetitive, especially to be played on repeat in nighttime. I think you got game, boy, game, boy, you got game, boy, game, boy… Album’s name that features this song is apt to this situation – “Ultraviolence”. He loved guns and roses, roses, roses… Reminds me of the good old “Killing with a spoon” video. All ended well and the phone was found and turned off eventually.
As I usually have a hard time falling asleep while there is some commotion going on, I didn’t rush to lie down but participated in nightlife of the kitchen. While everyone else pretended to be sleeping, it was already half past three in the morning and Pozharnik, together with the ‘fighter chick’, was making fried potatoes with cabbage and learning some self-defense. While cooking she was trying to teach Pozharnik how to block a punch but the latter, of course, was always holding his hands wrong and complained that she just wants to beat him up. The 4th person still up at the time was Justin, although he was on the thin line of passing out the whole time.
After the meal, Justin and the fighter chick also went to sleep and the only men still standing were the Fireman and I. This is when I got to know more of his story. What is his story, then?
Artem used to serve in Ukrainian military, after that he started to work for the fire brigade, hence the nickname. But he got fed up with the life of an ordinary citizen after some time. He had an urge to go somewhere, to escape his life. So he set his goal – Indonesia – and got on the road. His wealth, when he left Ukraine, wasn’t huge – he had around 250 Russian rubles. In other words – he was totally broke. Nowadays, that is only about 5$ but even in 2011 when he started his journey it wasn’t a much larger pile of money – about 8$.
So he got to Moscow, met some friends, got a temp job and. by the time he was ready to continue, he was about 38 times richer – now he had around 300 bucks. But this money was meant for visas. Lifestyle he led while on the road – freeganism. Eventually he managed to survive the winter in Siberia and arrived in Indonesia. There, he settled in West Papua province, got acquainted with the locals and decided to stay and live there for the rest of his life. Indigenous people called him his brother and said that he is a real Papuan. So, Artem Shapirenko became Tommi Bon Sapio. Alas, Pozharnik is not the type of person who will not stop making his life even more interesting. He got to know the Free Papua Movement (Indonesian: Organisasi Papua Merdeka, abbreviated OPM) and started rooting for them.
There were just two ‘tiny’ aspects in the way for all this to end merrily. The first being – OPM movement is outlawed in Indonesia and considered separatists by the government – they want to end the current governance of the Papua and West Papua provinces and to secede from Indonesia. And the second – the Ukrainian citizen supporting this movement had already overstayed his visa for quite some time. On 1st December 2012, Tommi was attending a rally of the Free Papua Movement and, not surprisingly, he was detained and taken into custody. There’s even the news footage on Youtube. So the next days he spends in imprisonment and starts to think up dubious escape plans. Not that the plans were going to work out, but the fact that he was diagnosed tropic malaria really put an end to all the scheming. Not getting into details about his time in confinement, he spent 3 weeks in prison, healed his malaria and after negotiations with the Ukrainian consul the decision was to deport him back to Odessa banning the Fireman from Indonesia forever.
He had a flight schedule Manokwari->Jakarta->Shanghai->Moscow->Odessa, simple enough but, alas, Pozharnik is not the type of person who will not stop making his life even more interesting. In the middle of his trip, Shanghai, he managed to miss his plane and walk out, passing the controls, just to realize hours later that he is sitting in some forest in a cold winter as an illegal immigrant. So, for nobody to see that he had no visa, he decided to burn his passport.
Maybe it was the fact that it was already 5am in the morning but there were no more unbelievable turns in the story – he stayed a few days in Shanghai, even checked some real estate property listings there, but after that went to the police to give himself in. They sent him to the Ukrainian consulate and he eventually ended his circle and returned to homeland.
I decided to try to go to sleep and hoped silently that he will follow my lead. But he was in a different mood and started watching Apocalypse Now. This wouldn’t be anything particularly bad but the thing is that it happened in the same and only room where everybody was sleeping. Besides, he was commenting on it out loud and my sleeping spot was in the danger zone – just under the movement range of his beer mug and burning cigarettes. So till about 7am I was half asleep but constantly aware and on guard from any pitfalls. None happened and I was able to sleep for a few hours at last.
Be it for the worse or the best, we spent only one night in the Poet’s Flat but it was definitely one of the most interesting experiences so far and this whole bohemia is an important part of Odessa social life. Pozharnik has given an inspiration for our further travels and he’s an excellent example who shows that you don’t need a thick wallet to travel somewhere. And that it’s wise to not to get caught up participating in revolutions.
What’s next for him? Of course he will not be able to stay in Odessa for long – he dreams of going to Siberia and founding his own settlement there and to live there outside ‘the system’.