Sunday, March 9, 2014

Behind the Times...

Hi all,

Most of you know that I am now back home in Minnesota. Of course, there's a bit of a story behind that. Since we are supposed to be apolitical, I have not mentioned the political situation in Ukraine really. Of course, it is easy enough to research.

So, my plan is to cover my recent evacuation, and then perhaps try to do a few posts on cultural topics that I hadn't made time to do while still in Mukachevo. Hopefully, I'll be back in Ukraine before too long.

So just over 2 weeks ago, on Thursday, Feb. 20th, we were told we needed to consolidate on the next day. I had done some grocery shopping the day before - I'd gotten a call while in class (typically, I was by myself as the other teacher was...sick?...that day) from my Regional Manager who was a little frantic and triple-checked that I was the consolidation point. He said things in Kyiv were pretty tense, and he was traveling around the region to start teaching observations - I was slated for being observed the 26th - and it prompted me to call some of the other volunteers to urge them to really start packing.

So Friday morning I didn't go to school - as I pretty much expected we would be stuck in consolidation for a few days while things steadied and then would be able to go back to sites and work. I bulked up on food and greeted the different volunteers as they arrived. Zim and Will came first, followed by Vonnie, and then two other volunteers. Another of the long-term volunteers had been in Kyiv, and so wasn't allowed to come back - a 14 hour trip by train to my site, plus another 2-3 hours of travel. Hugo was the last to arrive - having decided to go to school and witness a cultural event planned for the day. We'd been told a staff member would arrive - and it turned out to be our Regional Manager, as he was in the area.

He was pretty upset, but filled us all in (and Hugo eventually, when he sauntered in). He remained optimistic that we wouldn't evacuate. If we did have to evacuate,

I did what I do when stressed and surrounded by people - I fed them. Over the weekend we had stir fry, crepes, spaghetti with meat sauce, curry soup and cornbread. We also got the special treat of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting and funfetti cake from one of the volunteer's care packages. We also all went out together for a meal at a traditional restaurant. We had some Ukrainian friends (who I'd met one of before - she's good friends with some of the other volunteers, and her brother) stop in. We played lots of games, talked, and spent a lot of time glued to our computers. We also went on several excursions - as Will needs frequent exercise... So I finally got to see the castle and the nunnery in Mukachevo. I refused to buy souvenirs...because that's what people do when they don't plan on coming back!

On Saturday, we heard that other volunteers were being evacuated, but we heard nothing about our group. We were not sure if everyone would be evacuated, or only those in areas closest to Kyiv or in areas experiencing more unrest. Nothing was happening in our region, so it was kind of surreal. Sunday morning I went to church to watch my counterpart sing, which was very nice - even if Baptists are really in to 2 hour long services.

We then got the news that we would be flying out of Lviv the next day. In a way, it was a relief to know what the plan finally was. It was also a shock - Russia had yet to get involved and it seemed almost silly that we were leaving. It was pretty emotional, but I think most of us remained confident that we'd be back in no time. We were not allowed to tell anyone in country that we were leaving - policy clearly states that this cannot be done. It felt terrible to be leaving without being able to tell my school, teachers and students.

We had a relatively quiet last night in, everyone absorbed in their own thoughts of what coming back to America would mean for us. Last minute thoughts on what should have been packed and what will have to be taken care of from afar kept us talking.

Monday morning came with little fanfare, and everyone was ready to leave by 8:30. We all piled into a little bus, and drove through some beautiful country side. Not the way I was hoping on seeing it. The mood was pretty high - Hugo kept announcing what village he wouldn't mind living in, our Regional Manager taught us the response to the now-popular greeting from the Maidan revolution, and we even passed through a few mini-checkpoints.

At the airport we met up with about 40-50 other volunteers. We were the last group to leave, and we were scheduled to have an overnight layover in Vienna. It was said they had attempted to charter flights for us, but that the Olympics ending at the same time had really tied up the availability. Honestly, I can't imagine the nightmare of evacuating a small group of volunteers, let alone 220+, especially in such a relatively large country! This was a very costly endeavor.

We made it to Vienna and to the hotel with minimum confusion. Somehow our oblast group was the only one that wasn't provided with any hotel itinerary information, and the other groups hadn't realized that. Luckily, it was a pretty big group to follow. Since it was early evening, we ended up going out in groups to the downtown. As the token German-speaker (which is is very rough shape - I fumbled my way through throwing Ukrainian in and trying to recall basic terms!) I was in charge of getting us fed. Luckily, Doenner was very convenient, and I soon had everyone eating away on the tasty streetmeat or felafel. Except Curly, who wanted real cuisine.

So this lead to an excursion into the heart of the city. After wandering some streets for an affordable local that could accommodate the 8 of us, I left them to investigate the cathedral and managed to track down an establishment. I returned to lead the group to the restaurant, only then noticing we'd lost a person. Ironically, it was our safety warden. I spent a good half an hour wandering around looking for her (because really, if you get separated from a group while looking at a large-ass church, you'd think you'd stay there, right?) only to get a text message hours later saying she'd gone back to the hotel and her cell had died. However, we did all manage to get beer and try stuffed pretzel and wienerschnitzel. So that was a success.

The flight to DC wasn't the worst 9 hours of my life. It was hard to see the other volunteers though, the ones who knew they weren't going back no matter what. Although I am only 5 months in, there are staggered groups: 1 year, 1.5 years, 2 years, etc. So some only had 3 months left, which means that it wasn't really going to be worth going back for the last month or two if we could not head back until after the administrative hold.

So we all arrived tired and emotionally drained in DC. We boarded a few buses that took us to an amazing conference center about a half hour out of the city in Maryland. I mean, where else can you find housing for 250 people on 4 days notice for a week? We'd evacuated in a 3 day period, staggered, and so they were running a 3 day conference for each group that was also staggered.

We got put into rooms (hurray for roller beds...), had an amazing dinner (the food there was unbelievable - talk about culture shock!) and went to bed after finding familiar faces. The next three days were a challenge.

We got briefed on security, and had other sessions on mitigating reverse culture shock, feelings and next steps. It was so hard to be at different stages. I certainly was not ready for closure! The mood at the conference really seemed to swing up and down. The optimism of the staff from Ukraine who had flown in was balanced with cautious Peace Corps DC Staff. We were the largest evacuation ever.

Who would have thought?

The staff all did an amazing job. They pulled this thing together with no warning, and kept things running smoothly. In return, we tried not to be too resentful  and appreciative of their amazing work. The evening of the first day we had a special gathering - the first group who had a arrived were leaving the next day. This would be a final parting for some people. Emotions ran high. We saw videos from Peace Corps Ukraine staff (they'd wanted to skype in, but had no power), saw the updated political situation presentation and they took pictures. We also had a remembrance ceremony for the victims (or heroes) who died in the nights of violence in January in Maidan square.

Getting through the conference became my goal, with the realization that at the end of it I would find myself separated from my new family. We spent a lot of time together. My entire training cluster was there, and between them, other friends from training and oblast-mates, we sat together, ate together and played darts, Farkle and talked a lot.

And then we all had to leave.

It was a little traumatic, and only the thought that we will be able to go back kept me from really losing it. We are on administrative hold for up to 45 days - where the staff is monitoring the situation to see if we can go back. If the country is cleared (or at least parts of it), then we will jump back over and try to resume life as normal.

This became a lot less certain in the airport when the news broke about Russia troops entering Crimea. I was so thankful to have several other volunteers flying the first leg with me, as this sent panic through us. Not to mention that our lifelines, our cellphones, our support system in Ukraine for the past 5 months did us absolutely no good in America. I was lucky that I'd brought my cell with and that my number could be reactivated. But many people didn't have theirs or had lost their plans. So our communication network was shattered.

Now, everyone has their phones and Facebook - it was a weird moment to see Hugo online and not have him in my house/apartment; the only way he'd been able to really have internet the past 5 months. "Normal life" was not normal anymore.

So, a good deal of culture shock there. I can't even fathom what volunteers who hadn't been back in over 2 years are going through!

My travel plans home were also interrupted by my pilot not showing up for my last flight from Minneapolis. I'd lightened my carryon, and really needed my checked bag for chargers, clothing and amenities that I'd need for the hotel the airline put us in. Of course, after 2 hours and a failed plan to drive home, I was able to discover my bag hadn't even come in on my flight with me. Which is just ridiculous.

So, I went to my hotel (eventually...stupid shuttle), and got to my room. I tried to order out, but the food never came. The universe was definitely against me, and this proved it.

I was able to fly home the next day...though of course my bag didn't. They had to deliver it the next day. All of your life from the past 6 months into the single bag you're allowed...

So. Now I'm here at home. It's great to see my parents and friends around, but it's a bit of a struggle each day. Luckily, I can go to the barn and have been asked to speak in some classes at school. It would be wonderful if I could know that we were going back in 2 weeks - and I could just make the most of my time being home. But I don't have that comfort.

So I'll keep waiting for a week or two, and keep the hope that we will go back. That things will deescalate and the future will look brighter for Ukraine than ever. I just want to go home to Mukachevo - back to my daily struggle with the language and lesson planning and clubs. I can't even really contemplate what will happen if I can't go back...if we are forced to close our service. That leads to a whole slew of other options and possibilities...

Hope all is well,