A missionary team was working close to Bratislava, and they invited us to join the work they had going there.
As I explained earlier, we had started to cultivate hearing from the Lord about each decision we were making. I remember meeting together in our little caravan to pray about joining their team. At the same time, the folks inside the house were also praying about some decisions they had to make.
Next morning in response to their kind invitation to work together, I had to say, "hold on just one minute..." - and went on to explain that as we were praying the night before, we had this strange feeling we were supposed to keep going Eastward. "That's funny," the wife of the other couple said, "because last night, when we were praying about the possibility of sending a team to Ukraine, it came to me that you guys were the team who should go!"
Woah! - Ukraine! That's not exactly what we had planned... But I couldn't deny that the two messages seemed to fit! On top of that they offered to send an interpreter with us - a Polish volunteer who spoke Russian. Her name was Rebecca, and she had been a tour guide for Russian tourists in Warsaw during the Russian occupation of eastern Europe.
To make a long story short, it was decided that Rebecca and her little girl Anja should join our team, and she would then be our interpreter. Rebecca turned out the be a power-house, a real go-getter and pioneer, and a lot of credit goes to her for helping us get started in Ukraine.
Rebecca and Anja had tons of luggage, books and school materials and volumes of things for little Anja, so more stuff was added to our already heavy load - and with everything locked and loaded off we went!
We entered Ukraine from Slovakia via Uzhhorod. It's interesting how the atmosphere can change when you cross a border. I have experienced many times how every country has its own distinct feel, culture, sounds and smells - even the weather can sometimes be completely different just on the other side of the border. You have probably felt it yourself when stepping off an airplane, or from a train or bus, how the spirit of a new place almost hits you in the face.
The first thing I noticed when entering Ukraine were the bombastic statues and ornamental reminders of the Communist revolution - giant statues of Lenin and Stalin and brave pioneers with outstretched arms reaching for the future of a Communist Utopia, not unlike some of the monuments erected in the West trying to immortalize their materialistic ideology albeit in a different style.
The first thing we had to do was exchange our Slovak money to Ukrainian currency so we could fill our tank with diesel.
This was shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union and Ukraine had not yet issued their "Grivna" currency, so they were using an interim means of exchange called "Coupons." I don't think they had any coins yet, and I remember to my surprise the public telephones were free of charge for local calls, since there were no longer any Rubles to put in the slot.
When we had changed our leftover Slovak currency we felt like millionaires. It was a bit confusing to keep up with the number of zeroes on the Coupons. However we were again reduced to non-millionaires after a tank full, even though the price of diesel was a fraction of the cost in western Europe. Welcome to a chaotic transition!
We had some addresses of people who were interested in our gospel material and had written in. So with an address list in hand we set out to do follow up. First stop would be L'viv on the other side of the Carpathian mountains, so we headed east.
The Carpathian mountain roads at that time were something else. It's not that the mountains are particularly tall, but the roads were horrendous. Thankfully this was in the autumn. I was later told that after winter the pot-holes could be as big as your car. I'm sure that is a bit exaggerated, but you get the picture.
So after lugging our heavy rig about half way through the mountains we came to a place where they were working on the road. The traffic was therefore directed up a steep hill next to the road, and I had my doubts if our overloaded rig could make it. They waved us on and I made it two thirds of the way in first gear by filing on the clutch in order not to kill the engine - the result was a burned out clutch and we were stuck part way up the hill.
We made it to the top with the help of tractor that came by. He dropped us at a police checkpoint above the hill and there we sat unable to move - what to do?
Bold Rebecca explained the situation for the police officers, and after waiting a while they hailed a vehicle that was able to pull our van and caravan all the ways to a workshop, where we arrived shortly before closing time.
The mechanics were amused to see our rig. Caravans were a rare sight in Ukraine in those days. Again Rebecca explained the situation. Before we knew it they had the van up on the ramp, pulled out the gear box to get to the clutch. I suspect they had never seen a Nissan Urvan before. When they got the clutch plate out they compared it to a clutch from a Moskvich... too small! Then they looked at a clutch from a truck... too big! Next they found a clutch plate for a Volga, perfect fit - hurray!
All they needed were the rivets, which they assured us they could find at the car-market the next day. We were welcome to camp right there in the yard outside the workshop for the night while waiting. So that's exactly what we did.
As promised, next day they came bright and early with the needed rivets and after a couple of hours they had the clutch and gearbox back in place. When we asked how much we should pay for the job, the foreman said, "it's free for people who come here to help, so drive and be happy!"
I imagine Rebecca had put in a good word for us when talking to the mechanics, and certainly these dear folks were genuinely caring individuals! I took it as a sign that the Lord was in our corner, and that He was looking out for us in spite of our unpreparedness.
The new clutch worked great and we made it out of the mountains, but we were still heavily loaded with seven people, all our belongings including supplies, a small printing press, paper, foodstuff, books, pots and pans, four spare tires on the roof etc. etc.
After a while of driving I thought I better stop and check on the rig. Lo and behold several of the wheel bolts were completely sheared off due to the strain - oh man - stuck again! We shifted some of the weight around and gingerly made it to the next city where we found another workshop.
Once more Rebecca jumped into the fray and explained our work and mission to the boss. I wasn't sure what was happening, but soon I could see they had the lathe going manufacturing new bolts and nuts from Ukrainian steel.
One thing about Ukraine, they know how to work metal. You find iron everywhere, even some garages are made of iron plates, often rusty. It seemed paint was more rare than metal :-)
Sure enough a couple of hours later we were all fixed up. How much? We asked. Again, "drive and be happy!" - Oh wow, these Ukrainian folks sure are nice people - or was this yet more evidence the Lord was in our corner - or maybe both?
By this time however I had realised that we should not have pushed our luck so much and that we needed to somehow lighten the load. Thankfully we had the address of a sweet couple who lived in a house with a small summer house on the property, a "datcha" as it's called. And yes, we were welcome to store our excess luggage until we could find a permanent place.
You should have seen their faces when we unloaded our books, boxes of paper, tools, rope, winter tires, printing press and all kinds of supplies. It was hard for them to believe so much stuff could be in one little van and caravan - ha!
You might say all that happened along the way were simple coincidences, but for me it was a distinct feeling that in spite of all the difficulties, in spite of being in a strange place among people whose language I did not understand and could not speak and in spite of being dependent on the help and hospitality of strangers, somehow Jesus was there protecting, supplying, guiding and quite literally putting the ground under our feet, simply because we were willing to try.
OK enough for now! Next chapter is about how we were led further east, way off our European road-map. - More wild adventures!