Three hours before I was supposed to fly out of Sweden to begin my journey into Ukraine, I received this message from one girl whose couch I had requested to surf in L’viv:

I hope u delayed your trip to ukraine for few weeks…It’s an epidemy of swine flu…Not kidding that flu kills people.. So if u decide to take a risk please take protective mask and medicine to make yourself safe..

What did I get myself into this time, I began thinking as I packed the last of my belongings into my suitcase and headed out the door. I couldn’t cancel the trip at this point. My flight back to the U.S. was already booked for mid-December and if I stayed in Sweden until then, I might be faced with some serious problems since I would be overstaying my allowed time in the Schengen Area by a month.

Fourteen hours later I arrived in the city of L’viv, located in western Ukraine, the region of the country that thus far has had the highest number of deaths believed to be caused by Swine Flu. It was 6:30 a.m. and I had not slept at all on the nine hour bus ride from Warsaw. I had no money and no idea where I was. Nothing was open in the bus station as it was extremely early in the morning and shady taxi drivers were approaching me from all angles hoping that in desperation I might choose one of them to take me somewhere, anywhere, but there. Again I thought…what the HELL did I get myself into?

Like an angel, Olga, the only Couchsurfer who was willing to host me at the time, appeared around 7 a.m. to pick me up like she said she would. We boarded a marshrutka and headed straight to her apartment on the outskirts of town. The bus was nearly empty which seemed unusual for rush hour and everyone except for me and her were wearing surgical masks. Oh yeah, how could I forget: SWINE FLU!

I think Olga could sense my unease. “Don’t worry, it is just the politicians,” she said.

Lviv, Ukraine

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Workers from the Party of the Regions handing out free masks

You see, Ukraine’s big election is happening this January. What better timing than now to blow this “epidemic” of Swine Flu out of proportion. One of the first steps the government took was to ban all public gatherings. That means no political rallies which will certainly have an effect on the future election.

Good news was that because of the epidemic, Olga’s university would be closed for the next three weeks so she would have all the free time in the world to show me around. On the other hand, most of the city’s cafes, clubs and theatres would also be shut down. News sources claimed 1/3 of the people in L’viv were wearing protective masks, but it seemed more like 3/4. The streets were eerily quiet and empty since the Ukrainian government also recommended people stay away from public places. If I had been present during the times of bubonic plague, I imagine this is what it would have been like. We couldn’t even find a decent place for lunch as every restaurant she frequented was closed.

Maybe I came to Ukraine at the worst time. The panic that has spread here is definitely going to have an impact on my travels since things simply won’t be functioning at a normal level.  People are scared and a dark cloud has been cast over the entire country. At the same time, I’m witnessing first-hand how politics in this country work and am in the middle of what has become one of the key electoral issues for the upcoming election. An experience like this is priceless.

On second thought…maybe I came to Ukraine at the best time!