Sunday, August 30, 2015

Peculiarities of Insecurity

Hi All,

I have more to say about Lviv, but it will keep for the moment. So far I've mostly concentrated on my day to day activities and hopefully stayed pretty positive. Sometimes, however, a little introspection is a good thing...

I'm Here!...

Unlike the boys, who went back to a village where their returns were heralded with community-wide acknowledgement (and then promptly set to work with camps or clubs), my arrival was more of a whisper than a bang. I assuaged my feelings of guilt with the unemotional outlook of practicality. I am NOT a visible feature in my community, mostly because it has over 80,000 people. It takes longer to make the kinds of friends who invite you into your home in a city. Of the few friends I DO have, they have either a family busy with small children or in one case, is a newly wed with a baby along the way.

In addition, summer vacation is a busy time, and many of the students live all over the city, or even outside of it. They are from a demographic that most do not seem to just be randomly roaming the streets of the city. The teachers at my school in the English department are mostly people I have not met yet, and the Director was on vacation. Putting up a sign outside my school would probably not attract anyone's attention, and I do not have the space nor ideal location to start holding a club at my house.

These and several other practical reasons all add up to a rather clear pictures - it would be very difficult to start a club (or few) before school, where timing was due to change with schedules. However, self-doubt can easily creep in. Do I accept these reasons too easily? Am I intimidated by the thought of starting clubs? Am I lazy volunteer? The uncertainty and gnawing feeling of guilt can sometimes surge up, especially when looking at other volunteers.

But I know I have to stop that.

I am here as a volunteer to work WITH. Yes, I probably could've made some very strong requests that clubs get started immediately - but this would be of dubious worth given the situation of students being unable/unwilling to come and could possibly make things awkward for me professionally with the Director. I have to lean on him for support for my posvidka and for other help already, and building some credit once teaching starts will give us a firmer relationship of professional respect and put me in a stronger position for future projects. It's also more culturally-sensitive.

My insecurity should not be used as a battering ram.

In addition. Hello. I'm back in Ukraine. I have every confidence in myself that I am a hard worker and plus, this is round two. I feel more confident in my work this time around, and know things will fall into place. My clubs may take a few weeks to plan out, but I'll take these next few weeks to get to know my students - whose lives are often over-scheduled with tutors and activities - to see what will work best. Because that's the other thing I discovered yesterday...

I'll be Teaching 18 Classes...Eventually...

The thought of hitting the ground running this next week filled me with a bit of a kick of excitement. Sure, it'll be a bit crazy to start, but I figured I'd jump right in and get started. So it was a slight blow to speak with my current counterpart (newly returned from Greece last night), and discovering that the vice director would wait two weeks before giving me my schedule.

In all fairness, 3 out of the 5 English teachers I haven't even met yet, though I will tomorrow morning. I am sure they are perhaps a little apprehensive of sharing their teaching time with an unknown entity, and I am sure I will have some of the challenges I faced last time (fear or speaking in front of a native speaker, fear I'll undermine them - intentionally or not - in front of their classes, not knowing what to do with me, etc). It's actually a good opportunity to be able to shadow some classes to get a feel for ability level before I have to start crafting lesson plans.

Also, the first time I was here, they had me shadow the first weeks as well, so they could be following that protocol. My real counterpart will be returning in about 2 weeks, so they might have thought waiting for that would be wise as well as I'll likely have quite a few classes with her.

Honestly, they could have tried to just make me teach all my real counterpart's classes for her since she'll be gone. In a smaller school, my presence might have been enticing enough to ignore the fact that my organization would frown upon that.

And maybe that's what my insecurity boils down to. The feeling of not being needed.

Which. Is. Ridiculous.

That is pure ego.

The teachers have been teaching English for years, and will continue to do so without me. Many of my students will not need, let alone strongly desire, to use or learn English well. Relationships are never healthy when based on need, as they foster dependency. My organization focuses on building sustainable practices.

So I will change my mindset.

Patience, hard work and time will change my fear of not being needed, into the reassurance of being wanted. It's the motivation to give my best, to show up and perform to the best of my ability, while forming relationships with my students and the other teachers.

In the end, I hope that I can have a positive effect on the people who surround me, and that I have the humility to learn and accept what they offer in return.

So when the niggling thoughts of ineptitude and self-doubt creep in, I will consider them objectively to examine their merit. Some may push me to expand my comfort zone and boundaries, and others I will simply have to let go of.

There. Now a happy picture to end this slightly introspective post on exploring and conquering insecurities. Some of you may recall my frustration with the fact that the most reasonably-priced milk (other than that from someone's cow put in recycled plastic bottles) comes in a bag. I decided that I would no longer have the fight with propping the opened bag up and hoping that the paperclip would hold. This is a silly fight and I have resources that my energy can be better spent on. So I decided to teach that milk a lesson:
A Pitcher is worth a Thousand Words
It's the small things : )

Hope all is well,



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

All You Need is Lviv

Hi All,


Lviv is secretly (not so secretly) a very European city. People exclaimed over the quaint charm of having to stamp their trolley bus tickets. I was so used to just paying and moving on, that I was a bit perplexed to even GET a ticket from the driver, let alone stamp it. Carried a whiff of nostalgia from my Regensburg days (although there I just had to bring my student ID to avoid the fine of being caught). Of course, we did get checked at the train station upon our return, and poor Will had tucked his ticket somewhere obscure, but the lady got tired of our reassurances and general confusion and finally waved us off. The 40 UAH fine would've been one of the cheapest parts of our trip...

Where there's a Will, there's a Way

So the plan to go to Lviv was put in motion by a visiting volunteer who went to Macedonia after we were evacuated. After hemming and hawing about having the time/energy/money to go, Will, Hugo and myself decided to travel up and meet with 3 other volunteers that are currently in a city a few hours east of Lviv. We had a horrendous time finding lodging. Ukrainians, I'm afraid to say, have a very tenuous grasp on the details of Airbnb and VRBO machinations. Will and I got rejected by no fewer than 5 potential hosts, despite meeting criteria and their apparently empty calendars. Also complicating the situation was the happy realization that Monday was the Day of Independence (thus allowing us to have a free vacation day to travel), but also making Lviv rather popular for the population at large.

However, after several frantic hours of searching for submitting travel paperwork, Will discovered a Hostel not featured on the main sites, that luckily had rooms open all weekend. So we pounced and I booked us. It later came out, via email from the parent company in Kyiv, that that hostel DOESN'T EXIST ANYMORE. They expressed surprised that we'd been able to book at all. While Hugo and I were leaving Friday evening, Will was taking an overnight train and arriving early Saturday morning. Having told Hugo the danger had passed and that it was unnecessary to pack his duster or my sleeping pad, we found ourselves in a rather precarious situation of being unhoused for the night.

Will sprang into action and managed to book us two free beds in another hostel (he just asked them to hold them really) and so we felt fairly confident we'd be set. Once we actually arrived in Lviv, and after a 45 minute trek through to the center and the hostel, I think we both felt fairly comfortable with the thought of being out all night. People were out at all hours, with cafes and restaurants open late with music and street life performances. But we made it, and after some initial door confusion we were shown to the room. It was a 10 bed mixed dorm, and only had 3 other people. After settling ourselves in, Hugo and I went in search of dinner.

Let's Talk About the Food...

Hugo and I were not disappointed by the Uzbek restaurant we found. In fact, I think it's safe to say that we were not disappointed by the Nationalist Restaurant, the Fairy Tale Restaurant, the Jewish Restaurant (although that involved bartering for our food, and a struggle to show we weren't ridiculously rich Americans, no matter what the ignorant man at the next table over decided to share with our waitress), Georgian, Masonic, Burger, Coffee shops and Bakeries that we ate at.

Because, dear lord, the FOOD.
I had a dish with chickpeas - and later found some at a grocery store! - and we had wine from Crimea. I love the homemade wine here, but it is a mixed bag and inevitably not quite what you bargained for. The prices of course were higher than what I'd normal consider to be in my budget, but I treated this as vacation and drew from my American savings. It still was a bargain to anything you'd find in America.

The next morning we met up with Will and we went to a cafe. Will had finally had an Airbnb success, and our next few nights were locked down. While the guys had coffee, I went for the hot chocolate, and was not disappointed. It's literally hot melty chocolate...similar to a warm chocolate pudding but thinner and richer. Though Lviv is known for its Coffee, it is also known for its chocolate and in this case the chocolate trumped coffee. It did make the guys a little less growly though.

We met up with the Airbnb contact and then started our meander through the city. Will used his phone and the guidebook to navigate mostly, so I left it up to him. He pretty much wanted to see EVERYTHING, so there wasn't much choosing to be done. We did go to a monastery under Studite Rule (Benedictine Nuns), and talked to a lovely nun who spent some time in Siberia. I didn't catch most of it, but it sounded unpleasant. They have a Canadian nun in residence, but she was busy. We got to go into the giftshop and look at their pysanky (decorated eggs) collection from other sister groups around the world, and I even bought one they made there with traditional designs.

We met up with the first other volunteer group in the early afternoon. One of the volunteers was a true response volunteer, and seemed to be still working out the details of what that all entails. To be fair, they did just arrive 2 weeks prior, with no real language training given. The other volunteer was a returned volunteer as well from the group previous to mine. She was working with an NGO that dealt with human trafficking and related social issues. She's quite fantastic.

We went to eat at the fairy tale house - after being regaled by a gentleman outside the establishment with some sort of legends involving the "flying car" we later saw on the roof the 5 story building. We really only went to get the discount coupon for another restaurant (which turned out to be the Lviv discount card that we could've gotten at the hostel), but it turned out to be very interesting. The house beer wasn't much, but the fact that it was staffed by little people and crammed full of interesting artifacts (such as a counter for the exact number of cobblestones currently in the city), made it very enjoyable.

And then Let's Eat Some More

This became the rather unapologetic theme of our trip. In all fairness, any time NOT spent eating was spent tromping around to look at either one church or some other historical building. The last two to join our group was the visiting volunteer and another response volunteer. He was returning as a response volunteer again, having done his initial service in Kazakhstan. He'd done some teaching previously in country, so his language was more than adequate. As they needed to eat, we ended up in a Jewish restaurant across from the Fairy Tale one. I had a dessert that was literally put in a flower pot, and was slightly more sophisticated than pudding and gummy worms. Featuring shaved chocolate, ice cream, orange gelatin and vanilla cake, I wasn't complaining.

The bill process was strange, as you must barter for your food. I thought this may be borderline racist, and didn't especially enjoy the process. I think we ended up way over-paying, although the server seemed to enjoy our rendition of "This Little Light of Mine".

Storming the Castle

We decided that the next step should be exploring the castle. After several mis-turns, we found ourselves on the right path. So we went up. And up. There was a strange combination of footpaths and metal stairs set into the hill that guided our approach. We passed the ruins of the outer-wall of the castle, and continued the ascent. I started to have a nagging doubt as we started the final seemed that the top was rather narrow. My hunch was confirmed as we reached the top, with nothing but a larger paved circle with a large flag post in the middle. No castle in site...yes, that was NOT the outer-wall, it was the pitiful remains of the castle itself. But the view was nice.

Themes and Schemes

The effort also allowed us the excuse to seek out sustenance. We decided to go the "Masonic" (Ie, the most expensive in the city) restaurant. I won't spoil the secret of gaining entrance, because that's definitely part of the fun. I will say that we saw one other group of tourists leaving because they were not savvy enough to have gotten the discount card. Because without it, you don't end up with a 90% discount, and your meal really is the most expensive you'd probably find in most of the country.

After dessert (before dinner, as one really never does know when one may die), we went downstairs to the Nationalist restaurant. I'm not sure how themed establishments became so popular here, but they're definitely successful. After ascertaining we knew the password and that we harbored no Russians, we were let into the bunker. The set-up was sprawling and rustic, with live traditional music. There were lots of WWII artifacts, and costumes. There was also a pellet gun shooting alley, where one could take out some anger on Putin or Yanukovych's face. It is also the hot venue to buy a half-meter long sausage, should that be your desire.

It was quite late after we finished, and we were ready to go back and crash. We made plans to go to the Lviv Coffee shop (THE Coffeeshop, the birthplace of coffee in Ukraine) in the morning.


Well, clearly I had no fun at all, as I've only really partially captured the fun and excitement of the first part of the trip. Words are failing me so I think I'll leave the second half for a near-future post.

Hope all is well,

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Weekend Shenanigans and Posvidka Frustrations

Hi all,

It appears I'm currently collecting pictures of Will holding a watermelon. I missed an opportunity during the training seminar, but I'll try to be more on top of it! Surely watermelon-holding is a skill that should be cultivated, and one day perhaps he'll graduate to something even more exciting. 

Anyhow, after the training (and some truly delicious but slightly spendy ice cream) we met up with Tina and she showed us how to get to her village. It was only about an hour away (opposite of my direction home, of course), and we enjoyed watching the boys manage to fall asleep in some truly uncomfortable-looking positions. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk, and the heat was already considerably less than in Uzghorod. Tina's village is nestled in the foothills, and has a nice river that runs through it.

We arrived to a warm welcome by Tina's parents and brother, and met her brother's girlfriend who was also visiting. Tina's home is pretty typical for a smaller village. It is compact, full of touches that make a house a home. It also had VERY comfortable beds. Along with chickens, a rooster, two dogs (including the FRIENDLIEST dog ever...I was tempted to kidnap her!), two cows and pigs. In a more traditional set-up, the house was actually several buildings. The main house had 4 rooms and a washroom with a washing machine. The toilet was outdoors, and it was one of the nicest I've seen - it even had a light inside for at night! Across from the main building was the kitchen/storage room, which was also attached to the barn. Adjacent to the two buildings was another little building (perhaps a "summer kitchen" but not yet fully converted), the garden and outhouse. 

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of noodles and sauce, we decided to head down to the grocery store. Tina's parents were graciously preparing "Shashlyk" (like shishkabobs on steroids: meat marinaded all day, then placed on a giant skewer, spaced out with onions and salo) and fire-roasted potatoes. Hence the watermelon. Here's a picture of our band of merry travelers as we set off:

And a small peep into the store as purchases were being made:

Tina's family just got internet a few weeks ago at the house, and it was heartwarming to see her family get a Skype call from their volunteer. He's been gone for 5 years, but her parents absolutely lit up at the sight of him. He was never officially part of their house, but they well and truly adopted him. He was full of good advice, and it was good to "get to know" him.
A while later, it was decided that it was definitely warm enough to go for a swim in the river. So we put on our swimsuits and headed out. 

There's a secret - or at least one must be a local to know it- spot where the water suddenly shifts from 6 inches to at least 8 feet deep. We found the bend, and the river was pretty devoid of people, at least at first. Tina and I went in to cool off, and then I placed myself in the shade. I suppose I should be attempting to "fix" my sunburn, but why chance another one??

After a few blissful hours we headed back, and were allowed to help with assembling the skewers.
It's always a little awkward to help in the kitchen, or anytime someone wants us to cut anything. They think they're keeping it easy by asking us to peel potatoes - because who can mess up THAT? - but really, we're just a constant disappointment. Or a really good laugh.

Because, of course they don't use potato peelers - they use a knife. And I'm sure your mother always said "NEVER cut towards yourself!! Always away!" Ukrainian mothers find this perplexing advice. Knives only work well to peel towards yourselves, and who even needs a cutting board when your cupped hand will work just fine?! Honestly...

I did pretty well with the tomatoes though.

Dinner was absolutely scrumptious, and we had white homemade wine for dinner. It's the first actual white (more of a gold) wine that I'd see, and was on par with a decent Muscato. It went very well with the greasy-crisp meat and potatoes. Because, one must also melt salo down to pour OVER the meat and potatoes in the bowl.

You can NEVER have enough salo!

We finished the evening by playing Catchphrase (so impressive to play with people where English is their 2nd, 3rd or 4th language!) and had a lot of fun. I also slept so well, despite a few interruptions from the dogs and chickens. After another wonderful breakfast and some downtime, we said our goodbyes and headed out. Our bus eventually came, and I was home in the early afternoon. A wonderful way to spend the weekend!

Posvidka Blues
So, I've been having quite the ordeal with trying to register to live legally. However, after much back in forth, several runarounds and an extra trip, I finally received my Posvidka - my residence document. HOWEVER, this has turned out to be merely the tip of the iceberg. Because I need to get my passport stamped. But apparently that can't happen UNTIL I get my Posvidka stamp in my town of residence and then have to turn in a copy of that AND my passport for several days to them.

Which means I have no form of identification? Pretty not-cool...

Of course, I've already passed the 10-day deadline of getting the stamp (because they insisted they wouldn't start the process until they got a certain superfluous document, but then after I turned it in and waited, it turned out that they'd already created the Posvidka after all 5 days previous...what?!) after the Posvidka was processed - NOT picked up. Although apparently they COULD have provided me with a letter certifying this date was different. However, now I have to pay a 500 UAH fine. Well, I don't, but I'm still irked.

Now, this presumes that I can even GET my Posvidka stamped because apparently they don't know who owns the building, since I am apparently kind of subletting? And they need the owner to be there and to provide certain documents.

Are you confused yet?

My Director said he'll take care of it tomorrow...I hope so because I'm off to Lviv for the weekend!

I'll be spending Monday there too because we have it as a vacation day due to it being Ukraine's day of Independence from the USSR.

So there's that.

Hope all is well,

Monday, August 17, 2015

Back to Arrival

Hi All,

Well, I've lost a layer of skin here and there, and my legs attract a certain amount of attention in public, but I made it through last training week. I'm going to bop back to my arrival - jet lagged and blurred though it might be.

Back in the Office
I got up around 8:30am and texted the boys to see if they were at and where breakfast was. Neither responded, but I found the breakfast room and was treated to my first Ukrainian breakfast back. Buckwheat groats, cabbage salad and meat in a sauce. I traded travel stories with Will and Steve and was grateful that our first meeting wasn't until 10am. Will decided to leave early, and took me for a meandering walk through the arboretum on a round-about course to the office.

Once there we got to meet the interim director (ours was on vacation) and got updates on the country and political situation. We also had a language session - slightly brutal - and a couple of other update sessions. For lunch we went to a traditional food restaurant, and I was pleased to see the vareneky still was as delicious as I remembered.

Overview of the Next Few Days

I honestly can't quite remember the proper order of the next few days...we were in and out of the office for all sorts of training sessions and meetings. We met the country director (who was apparently satisfied with my motivation for returning - I hadn't really considered that that was being weighed after I'd already flown in, but I guess it's good I passed muster?). We also got sworn in with a terrifically nice little ceremony where we were presented with the traditional bread and salt, special because my regional manager dressed up in costume with another manager to do the presentation.

We also walked all over Kyiv. We visited the Maidan square - home to thousands of protesters during the Maidan Revolution. We toured the areas and shrines to the "Heavenly 100" - those shot in a single night of violence, a mixture of students, professors and activists who had no idea their peaceful protesting would cost them their lives. The stones of the square, once clean and level, still show the gaps of where stones were pried up - for barricades or defense, or perhaps cooking fires to feed the crowds. The great fountain in the square is empty, and the buildings surrounding it still show some damage. It is fully reclaimed by the inhabitants, but there is a somber air as they walk through the memorial.

Will led us on many meandering walks through lesser-known parts of the city. We saw monuments, the university, lots of the new police and found several great restaurants. One night we ate at a Georgian restaurant and had an interesting exchange. Our server was switching between Ukrainian and excellent English with us. He stopped Steve in his tracks when he tried to speak Russian to him (as that was the language Steve had learned last time, since he's posted out east). He very firmly declared that he was Ukrainian and this is Ukraine, so he will only converse in Ukrainian.

This was actually quite shocking, as you would have never heard this sentiment before in Kyiv (I think). In truth, many people speak a mixture of the two languages, or a dialect that usually mixes some Russian and Hungarian (and perhaps Polish near that border?) in, but it still wasn't strange to hear people speaking mostly Russian. The sentiment rings out a certain bitterness that has developed, and unapologetic pride in Ukrainian. I don't know how many would echo this sentiment so strictly, but I am sure the numbers have greatly increased in the past year.

We also ate at a Lebanese restaurant and then a Crimean Tatar restaurant. The Crimean restaurant is newly opened (and lacking a liquor license, necessitating an interesting sideline business at a local store that now will sell beer by the glass for you to carry to the restaurant...) and staffed by those who have fled Crimea. The food was pretty good, and it was an interesting meal as the Director took us out. He seems more open about a lot of things, and not afraid to make changes to the program.

Will and I ended up leaving a day earlier than planned due to a train ticket kerfuffle (and in the rush, poor Will forgot his smallest suitcase containing his running shoes and some important materials), and it remains a miracle as to how we managed to unload all our belongings off the train the next morning. It was a cozy set up with the two of us and our plethora of luggage getting an entire 4 person compartment. Excepting the heat, which was considerable, it was rather pleasant. It was nice to watch the countryside go by and get a good night's sleep.

The next morning I managed to get most of the suitcases set up in the narrow hallway, and thankfully a nice man  - who doubtlessly was itching to get out behind me - helped throw most of the stuff down to the platform. I was met by my interim counterpart and her husband, and was quickly whisked away. Hugo was there briefly to say hello, and his wandering off concerned my counterpart who thought he'd just arrived (sans luggage or counterpart!). So that was funny.

Flashing Forward: Teacher Training

So this past Tuesday - Friday I spent in Uzhgorod with Will and Hugo. We lived in a student dorm and also met the volunteer who will be posted there for the next 6 months. She's on her third trip, as she volunteered about 20 years ago (first wave!!!) and had returned when we first arrived in Sept 2013 as a response volunteer - only to be evacuated with us. We got to have several long conversations and I already appreciate her immensely. She has a lot of experience teaching, so I am sure she will be a great mentor as well. She (Meryl) was a gracious hostess as well, letting us commandeer her kitchen and implements and we shared dinner every night.

Tuesday morning we arrived around 8:40. Hugo had been unable to get a ride into my city the night before to avoid an early bus, so decided to try the local electric train to Uzhgorod. So he ended up not coming to my city at all. I was rather laden with my teaching supplies and stuff for the week, so I ended up going to the local taxi stand and getting a ride to the bus station. I'm pretty sure I was ripped off, but between the heat and the weight, I simply didn't care. I ended up beating the guys to the center of the city. And we walked to the Institute together. We had about an hour to prep, and then I was on.

I had the two sessions left for the day, but any anxiety I'd felt quickly dissipated. Teachers make GREAT students. We had about 20 English teachers (all women, of course...) from the area that were up for their re-certification. The first activity was all about introductions: we did 3 activities that gradually got deeper and more personal, bringing out the person and their knowledge into the classroom. I then introduced Peace Corps and the Communicative Approach.
My next session was on Multiple Intelligences for learning styles in the classroom and demonstrated this with some demonstration on teaching vocab - using my camping gear, no less!
Will and Hugo did a great job over the next few days in incorporating those components into their lessons as well.

The next day Will rocked an improv and drama lesson, while Hugo did writing an essay. It was great to transform our teacher students into actresses and watch them go all-out. Writing an essay is a daunting concept for many of the teachers themselves, so it was very good practice for them. The week and topics sped by (listening exercises, music and dialogue, resource development), and we got to do a field trip to Window on America - a program sponsored by the US Embassy as a resource center for English language learners.

The week culminated in a Jeopardy-styled review lesson and evaluation component. We got lots of good feedback, and it was clear to see that we'd managed to make an impression. We took dozens of photos, and saying goodbye was rather sad. They were a wonderful group of women!

Kicking Me Out of the Country?
However, on Thursday, I made the unfortunate discovery that my residence document had been delayed. I'd been told that I could drop the agreement off when I came to pick up the document, but apparently they hadn't even started to process it! So, there's two weeks wasted. I have to have my counterpart call tomorrow for an update, as we dropped the agreement off on Thursday. Thankfully we have a friend in the city who could help us with that!
We went to her village on the weekend to relax, and I'll cover that in my next post!

Hope all is well,


Monday, August 10, 2015

Sour Cream on My Legs - A Transcarpathian Adventure

*Warning: Bodily functions discussed. Sour cream is liberally applied...things get strange*
Hello all,

Yes, I'll spare you (me?) the picture of my legs as I'm writing this blog post, but I can affirm that from ankle on up to about 6 more inches of my legs are slathered in sour cream as I type this. I'm going to post some highlights of the weekend, although it will likely turn into a saga.

Will is Wise, Hugo and I are Fools
Will called me up last week and announced that we had the chance to go on a great adventure: one of his teachers from school (Ukrainian, not English) had invited him to go on a trip to climb some mountains. With his usual verve, he managed to get Hugo and myself invited as well. "A test of human endurance!" he said, a chance to really experience Ukraine. Well, sign me up.

Hugo and I got on the bus Thursday mid-morning, and were soon bumping along to Vinoradhiv, the nearest big(ger) city to Will's town. I remembered that the bus stopped nearer center before continuing on to the bus stop - a rather painfully learned lesson that my bladder still cringes when recalled. So I was pleased that we hopped off at the right stop.

Until I realized I just left my phone on the bus.

My Ukrainian cell phone with all my organization numbers and not really something I should miss-place if at all possible. So after an almost comic moment of realization and growing panic, we set off towards the bus stop. After several minutes, Hugo - thinking more clearly than I, took my backpack and I got to have my first run in Ukraine. So happy to start in the 90+ degree weather...
Fortunately, the bus was still at the station when I ran up and grabbed my phone off the bus, jogging my way back to Hugo.

Clearly our adventures had already begun!

Meet up, Melt Down
Within an hour Will had joined us in the town. We were a little confused by his shopping list - fruit, crackers, lots of bread (ok, that's normal for Ukraine), cheese. No tent was on the list - Will cheerfully informed us that there was an extra. So we stocked up and bought the guys little metal bowls and Hugo a towel. We met up with Will's Ukrainian teacher friend by chance, which led to several things.

On the plus side, we got to meet her ahead of time and got a ride back to Will's village. We also found out that Will had missed a negative somewhere, and that we were currently NOT thought to be needing a tent. Luckily, where there's a Will there's a way, and we soon were able to rustle one up.
Crisis averted.

When we got back to Will's village we went on the grand tour. We stopped for ice cream, and decided to come back for water. This was all fine and well, until Will decided that we should walk to the river - about a mile's distance. Now, most of you know that my heat-tolerance is pathetic. I do get cranky and sweaty, but I also just biologically cannot handle heat well. I managed to hold it together fairly well - we even got a ride half-way to the beach, but as we bounced along I was fairly certain I was one good bump away from losing anything in my stomach.

At the beach I dearly would have loved to dive into the river, but my clothing selection was limited and I didn't have a spare to have wet. Realizing that I really wasn't feeling too hot, Will kindly procured water from a friend (Will is everyone's friend...echos of "Mr. Will! Mr.Will ring out from children anywhere we go in his village and many adults know him as well), and I got to sit in the shade. Concern made us curtail the river experience, and it was a huge struggle to make it back into town to the first little bar with water. As I staggered along, too far gone to face the effort of speaking - NEVER a problem as we all know - I began to have second thoughts about my endurance for a mountain trek.

However, after a bottle of water, an extremely cold shower and an hour of rest, I felt fit to regain humanity. Meanwhile Will and Hugo had gone off to play ultimate Frisbee in a lightening storm with his English club. Apparently lightening can form balls? That would be my sign to evacuate the field...

After a lovely evening with Will's landlord and his family, we went to bed after re-packing.

Our Adventure Begins
We were outside and waiting for the bus by 6:15am at the Ukrainian teacher's house. Her pack was easily twice the size of mine (she is about 5'3 and 120lbs, maybe) and a rough sort of bag fashioned from canvas and pretty much just a tube. We also met her husband. The bus finally came around 7, and we were off to Vinoradhiv to meet the rest of the group. We ended up being in a band of 17 intrepid hikers. For several of us it was the first time: a couple of 18 year olds, a 14 year old with his teacher (weird, but not for Ukraine), and some guys in the their mid-twenties. There was the middle aged Ukrainian teacher and her husband and her friend and then there were a bunch of older men. And by older, I mean some were actually quite old. Our trip leader, the unstoppable Victor, is 69 years old. Yep. And there was one hiker, a gentleman long accustomed to hiking who kept our rear guard who was definitely in his 70's.

You all, did I mention that this hike was 50 kilometers? (Go ahead and do the math, I'll wait...)
I did not.
Because Will had not told us and Hugo and I had been foolish enough to ask.

So after a few hours of driving to the bottom of our first mountain (and dropping some tomatoes off with someone's mother), we quickly ate lunch and started to ascend.
And really, that's what we did for the next hour. I have pictures from the top, but I'm going to have to post them separately - it's too late to take them from my phone and I'm tired already.

However, let me assure you, I was having some second thoughts. First of all, my allergies exploded and I wheezed along in a way that several of the older gentlemen (smokers) looked a little alarmed by. There was a doctor in the group (Endoscopy...), and he also quizzed me. I was much too busy huffing to try to speak, let alone think in Ukrainian.

I'm going to now give a broad overview of the next two days:

Ways in Which Steph Managed to Defy Ukrainian Convention
1. She attempted to take some extra weight at the bottom of the mountain - clearly this wouldn't have helped things along the way, but she was shutdown due to her sex. Clearly a woman taking extra weight is ridiculous. I shall remind my brothers.

2. Steph was confused by the concept of a group woman bathing expedition as soon as we arrived at camp site the first night. (Ie, located the small stream indicated on the map with enough water for cooking.) I failed at understanding the whole conversation.

3. Steph could not even clean her own bowl after dinner. This is actually Hugo's fault, as the bottle he told her to use to rinse her bowl actually contained the camp cooking oil.

4. Attempting to carry a log with Hugo for a bench around the fire (women and weight again). Luckily, my uterus didn't fall out - this time.

5. Upon reaching camp (down a ridiculously steep hill covered in brambly blueberry shrubs) refusing to let one of the 18 year olds take my pack. Really, the dude tried to pull it off me and followed me all the rest of way to camp arguing. I couldn't clearly articulate the triumph of the day and wanting to finish myself.

6. Being harassed about going swimming by everyone already at site about why I must immediately jump in the lake until I pointedly said that I didn't have my swim wear on and needed to change first. Thanks to Hugo for helping me throw up the tent quickly to appease that drama.

7. Not having proper warm gear (sweatshirt and long pants) to change into at the end of the day. Then, having a damp shirt on top of it all. Needless to say I was put into someone's extra clothing quickly. In all fairness, I should have brought a warm layer, but underestimated the effect of swimming in a spring-fed lake. I was still warm enough in the tent, due to my radiating sunburn.

If there were more, I stopped keeping track and stopped caring.

What We Ate

What didn't we eat? Seriously, Ukrainians brought food. So. Much. Food. Dinner both nights was Salo soup. Yep, pig fat soup. Take a few pounds, chop it up, deep fry it in oil in a large pot, and then dump in assorted vegetables and spices until you have a hearty soup.

It was delicious.

The second night they added salami and tinned meat - I wasn't sure my stomach could take it, but I'm sure it was calorific.

We also ate at most stops. Due to the gardens, there was a large amount of tomatoes and cucumbers proffered. Everything was very communal, and the shopping lists soon made sense. Crackers, pretzels, bread, cheese, sausage, fruit...everything was offered around.

Breakfast Saturday morning (breakfast and lunch, it turned out, as we spent the next 10 hours on the walk) was noodles with tinned meat. Think school beef hotdish and you're pretty close. As a non-breakfast eater, I found this slightly nauseating at 7am, but I was glad that I'd eaten heartily as the day went on.

Walking...and Walking...and Walking

Saturday we walked 20 kilometers. Most of it was along mountain ridge lines. We made it to the top of mount Tempa (elevation 1600 meters = 1 mile) and I don't think I'd ever been so happy to stop walking in my life. The previous few hours had been pleasant enough. Despite being under a warm sun, there were nice blueberry patches clustered along the way.

However, the incline was both long and terrifically steep. You'd think you'd almost made it, only to get a glimpse of yet another steep incline starting. Soon I was counting and relying on some walking sticks (swear I'll get a pair of those aluminium ones if I ever do this again and never laugh at someone again using them!) and getting through life 10 seconds at a time.

I wasn't mad at myself or anyone. I couldn't waste energy on those kinds of thoughts. I was living only in the moment, until the final burst of energy that could take me over the top of the hill. It was a strange sort of meditation.

Eventually you simply accepted the mountain. It was there, You will climb it. Your legs will hurt, but you will make it. You stop measuring yourself, and live in the present.

Occasionally, a thought would sneak up on me and I almost fell off a mountain as a sudden wheeze of accompanying laughter caught me off guard.

"I know have a framework for childbirth", I thought "It will hopefully last less than 20 hours and be gentler on my knees!"

The scariest moment I had was on an edge of a mountain that we were skirting the top of. The path dropped off steeply, and gave the illusion of tipping you towards the edge of a deadly fall. I almost froze up, but managed to push on and continue. I did feel a small measure of pride.

The End

Downhill really is just as treacherous as up - requiring a different sort of bracing balance. On the whole I prefer it to up, it was slightly less strenuous on my legs. My poor, sunburned legs. (To match my poor, sunburned arms  and ears and chin....). As we walked out I managed to actually have a conversation with a group member, having grown comfortable enough to listen and speak without apprehension. This felt to be as big of a triumph as climbing any of the mountains. For surely if I can manage to communicate basically with a group of non-English speakers (a few had rudimentary English) and survive 30 miles of hiking up and down Carpathian mountains, then I should be able to keep communicating at site.

Despite our optimistic plan to return to Will's village by mid-afternoon Sunday, we didn't make it home until 10pm. This necessitated staying the night, getting up this morning at 4:45 and taking a 5:15 bus back to my town. Needless to say I collapsed into a nap, but also had to be productive because I'm the key facilitator tomorrow for the teacher training seminar.

Ukrainians are very different from Americans. Whenever I'd been through with a big adventure (boundary waters, spring break in Cali with the geology group) we make hasty tracks for home once we're done. We don't usually stop at a local landmark (because it's there) to have a beer and delicious bansha - corn cream of wheat with cheese and butter - and to stop in a river along the way to clean off. Clearly, they feared for their water systems, and we were filthy.

Anyhow, I could go on and on and on, but I'll leave with one last magical moment:

Camping by "THE LAKE"

So on the first day I was promised we'd be swimming at a lake. However, distances turned out to be more than expected, and as we met other hikers we were assured this was not reachable the first day.
The second day, after 10 hours of hiking, I was greeted to the welcome site of Hugo standing on a ridge, directing us to go down.

Hidden in the shadow of a mountain ridge (so hidden that the Dr. I was hiking with grumbled for the first 15 minutes of our descent) was a beautiful, spring fed lake. After my deeply satisfying plunge, I enjoyed watching the edge of the sun creep past the water line and across the valley. Here we saw quite a few other groups, although we beat most of them to the prime camping stop. An early to bed (with 6am rise!) found me irritated with a group that had driven in (a whole different kind of crazy) who had brought a drum and accordion that played far later than I desired.

However, my mood in the morning was much lifted as I attended to my morning visit to the "pee hill" behind the camp. For as I crested the hill, I beheld a whole herd of free range horses! They meandered up the hill, quixotically nosing around human leavings and tents while making their way in shifts to the water to drink. This explained the vast evidence of previous trips. There was a little excitement as a confrontation almost led to a tent being trampled, but mostly the mares, geldings and little foals peacefully roamed around.

Several people, including Hugo, approached them and found them quite tame. I was content to watch and photograph.

Ok, Really. I have to be up early AGAIN tomorrow and productive, so I'm signing off. I promise there will be photos on Facebook soon - I'm sure you've already seen a few.

Hope all is well,


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

We Made a Cake

Hi all,

So it was a very productive day today. I'm going to jump to the present, but I'll also skip back to my narrative about my arrival in the next blog.

Since I've been back I've had a new counterpart (as mine is currently in the US - long story). So I'm now assigned to her sister-in-law. Keeping it in the family, Ukrainian style.
She's been wonderful and very helpful in getting me settled in.
She also has a sideline business (other than teaching and being a mom to three young children), of making and decorating cakes. She uses fondant, a medium that I haven't yet dabbled in (more of a cream cheese or ganache girl myself, but I am intrigued), and invited to let me watch and learn when she decorated today.

I spent my morning working on a lesson plan for my first session, and got about 2/3 of the way done. Sometimes having so many sources for resources can be a big challenge - wondering if you're making the best choices, but at a certain point you just have to go for it! Around noon I texted her and they were at my place 15 minutes later on their way home from the market for supplies.

She makes a marshmallow fondant, and the results speak for themselves:

"Ironing" the Fondant

Final Product!

I barely helped - just a little with the balloons, sun and flowers and color consultation (nice purple, hmmm?)

I also received a phone call from Will inviting me on a weekend camping trek with some teachers from his region. We'll go into the mountains. My counterpart was a bit jealous, as she'd like to go as well, but it's difficult to get away with 3 small children, However, she's going to be gone for the weekend so it's good timing. Assuming it gets approved, it will also push me to complete my section planning!

I also completed some forms required for emergence contact information and other such drudgery and got a Facetime session in, so all in all a very productive day!

Hope all is well,


PS - Was also ridiculous excited to get all these very necessary items today - although now I must use them....

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Long Return


I'm quite behind due to my lack of internet, but I did start a draft on my ipad, which I guess is where I'll start....
Ugh. Packing

(Drafted on the Train from Kyiv to Mukachevo)

Of course, getting to Kyiv was an adventure in of itself. Due to the excitement of the day I was awake at 5am when Will's texts came trickling in. Also due to fly out from a small airport, his plane was apparently broken - an alternate route was soon arranged, but he would no longer be joining to make our small group of three at the Amsterdam airport. The time for my own noonish departure soon came, and my mother dropped me off at the airport - continuing on to her own flight out of Grand Forks - in good time.

I always think it's easier to be the one who is leaving - being bombarded with travel details and then the rush of jet lag and excitement of travel, while not filling the holes that were left in leaving friends and family behind, at least distracts from it. While waiting to go through security (an extremely short experience), my mom spotted a nice lady from church and so we chatted to pass the time.

Finally, my mom left the airport - amidst a rather strong deluge. 

A sign, it turns out, of the way travel problems can accumulate quickly from a trickle to a monsoon. As my flight time approached, there was much murmuring of other passengers plugged into their travel apps. As my organization uses a travel company, I was pretty unaware of the situation until our captain announced that the incoming (my outgoing) plane had been diverted to another small airport to re-fuel. It quickly became apparent that there was no way I'd catch my flight from MN to Amsterdam, so I had to notify my organization. Very quickly I was re-booked, now to include a leg through Germany - Never a bad thing! 

 It soon became apparent that the rain and fog were not abating, the circling plane was finally turned back to the originating airport. Well, I have to admit that I only laughed. Honestly, I should have expected nothing less. This is easily the smallest bump in getting back to Ukraine that I've had - and something I had absolutely no control over. I got to be on a first name basis with the extremely nice attendant, and I was put on the next day's flight (my airline and travel agent gave conflicting schedules for the last leg - but I decided also not to worry about that little detail...). 

Now, at this point I was realizing I was a bit stranded, but with a brother at home I wasn't too concerned. However, the very nice church lady also was planning on coming back for that same flight so she very kindly not only drove me home, but also planned to pick me up the next morning. One for the scale on the decency side of humanity.  

 My re-appearance did not mollify the dog mourning my mother's leaving, but did startle my brother who inquired if I'd changed my mind. We ended up having a nice low-key evening and foraging for dinner with my dad. The next morning I was able to catch my flight and begin my adventure properly!

My first puddle-jump of a flight was a mere 40 minutes. My friend Will always manages to make fast friends, but I always seem to be stuck next to the quiet types. 
Not to be on this flight. The man next to me, upon politely asking my destination, grew more and more talkative. Almost despite himself, it seemed. And other than a semi-awkward passing comment about me having an identical voice to his girlfriend, it was pretty cool. He works for a company that picks up railroad ties (to later be burned for energy!) and helps to maintain hundreds of miles of tracks all over the midwest. In all his spare time, he also operates about a thousand acres of land that he farms and has cows on. Y'know, when he's not also busy with his three sons. (None old enough to date, so saved that semi-inevitable conversation!)

He had some AMAZING photos from his trips of the landscape and triple sundog shot that was the best of all. Such a very different person - isn't it amazing when you can form a connection with someone based on an adventurous spirit? 

 My reworked flight schedule ensured that I would be arriving more than 24 hours after Will and even more from Steve, the other returning volunteer (and someone I only knew in passing). My connections, which had previously been comfortable, were now quite long. So, I found a storage locker at MSP and met my dear friend at arrivals. She whisked me off and I got to see her new house and the work she was planning. We had dinner at a cheese store and I had my last taste of DQ to tide me over for a year. Hard to say goodbye, but nice to have that extra time!

Hard to capture the beautiful sunset.

International Flight #1 
Unfortunately, my flight to Amsterdam had apparently had me put down on the standby list, and I had to approach the gate to get a seat assigned. The attendant was quite apologetic - I realized later because she'd put me in the VERY last row of the plane. Luckily, my seat still reclined, I did have a window and was treated to a gorgeously dramatic sunset. I was soon joined by a group of about 8 young men traveling together. I may have overheard a conversation about shuffling aisle seats, but this oddly evaporated when they realized one of the seats in their row was occupied. Frankly, I'd rather risk drooling on a friend's shoulder than a fellow traveler of the opposite sex, but I guess a fellow Marine may not be so accommodating.

 There are worse things in the world to be seated next to a friendly soul on an 8 hour flight. 

Other than the fact that they were all growing out mustaches (a move undoubtedly regretted at this moment with the current heat index), there was very little talk surrounding their mission destination - although their flight plan was heinous and circuitous. However, fate is fickle and hilarious in her seating plans - our destinations were not so far apart! 

I managed to drift in and out of sleep for about 4 hours, finding myself in Amsterdam! I entertained the customs guard with my cleats hanging out on my backpack, as he queried what my plans were to do with them. He seemed mildly amused, which I tried not to feel irritated over. 
With a 9 hour layover staring me in the (slightly sleep-addled) face, I took my time finding the lockers to stow my carry-on luggage and catching a train into town. The train ticket required me to "activate" it before I ran it through the scanner, and to re-scan it upon exiting. I'd bought a second class ticket, and was confused by the system, but ended up in a "silent car" and managed. 
Main Train Station

The tourist office is directly across from the beautiful station - and within minutes I had a ticket for a canal tour. I was told I wouldn't have enough time to properly take in a museum, but as it was a gorgeous summer day I was determined to make the best of it.

I hopped on the canal boat and soon was listening to a recorded tour in Dutch, German and English. Dutch shares some cognates with German and English, and I amused myself by trying to put the message together before it got to English. I found out that Amsterdam has over 1200 bridges and that the canals are lined with 2500 houseboats - a fixed number with people coveting the chance to take a berth. We passed the Anne Frank house - an unassuming building, and learned that all houses still are built with a pulley hook on top, as the passageways are too narrow to fit furniture up the stairways. 

 We passed groups in rented boats, from little paddle boats to larger cruisers, and navigated the twisty canals with skill. I'd found the Germans' city planning to be anal, but looking at the outlay of the city coming in (even the cows were separated by canals in pastures by color!) and I realized they may have them trumped. The enormity of the link between the countries of The Netherlands and Ukraine and myself through the downing of the aircraft last summer (thus negating the favorable security clearance rating just attained), hit me strongly.  
7 Stories of Wonder: Media

Weird Poddy thing

After the cruise, I meandered my way down to the public library - a beautiful 7 story institution. It was fun to people watch, and I assure you that I was the only one in knee-high black boots on a mid-July day! (Which didn't earn me too many looks though...). I gawked my way up the seven stories of the building, coming to the cafeteria. Unable to ascertain exactly which meal I'd be eating, I decided that one can never go wrong with dessert. And a radler. Mmmmm.

 The patio that led out from the cafeteria gave a lovely city vista. I was further tickled by being addressed twice in Dutch. I enjoyed my meal and eventually trekked back to the main bridge to explore the city. I wound my way around for about an hour. I must say that the red light district (or at least the part I found myself in) is far more benign than I expected, although I assume it gets more interesting at dark. Finally, feet aching and in need of hydration, I traveled back to the airport. I found a grocery store and enjoyed a snack and beverage, and collected my luggage with a groan. Someday I will master the art of packing light.

The Quiet Return

My last flight found me sandwiched between two Ukrainians, and I passed out for the first hour. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and I exited in a daze, as it was around 12:30am local time. I waited patiently for my luggage to arrive, conscious of the difference between the last time. Not surrounded by 49 other volunteers, excited, exhausted and perhaps slightly on edge as to what we were walking ourselves into. No large group of language instructors met us to relieve of us of our luggage and bustle us onto the waiting bus. Instead, the familiar face of my regional manager bounded up and enveloped me into a hug. I relinquished the luggage cart and we tripped over words trying to express what it meant to be back. 

 Sitting in the car, at last came the moment of quiet acceptance. I may not know what I've gotten myself back into or how differently things will play out, but I am BACK.
On the twenty minute drive to the hotel I was filled in on many of the changes Ukraine has been experiencing. One, of large note in Kyiv, was the formation of a special traffic police force. Modeled after (and even dressed in uniforms of the same design of) American police, the new police were causing a stir. Not the least was the semi-famous woman officer (previously unheard of) who not only looked like a model, but had a law degree and a black belt. My kind of girl.

These police have already made a reputation for themselves as being different, courteous , and - most importantly - above bribery. No longer pocketing fines imposed, people must now make payments through the bank! 

 Anyhow, we arrived at the hotel where Will and Steve were already fast asleep. I was put into a tiny room that barely accommodated my considerable luggage. I was too excited to sleep, so I set up the cell phone I'd been given and flitted around until I finally fell asleep at 2am. The next morning I discovered that both men were in the adjoining suite - a fact I'd half-guessed from the American toothpaste left in the common bathroom.  

 Over the hotel breakfast the next morning, I was soon caught up in the misadventures. Namely, that Will's attempt to fix the "running" toilet had merely made matters worse. And apparently his coffee had made a jump for it, inundating their carpet with granules. Will took me for a walk the long way to the office (including a "secret" path through a fence of the nearby park, much appreciated in heels), and we all met back at the office. It was wonderful to see so many of the staff still in the office. We also met the interim country director (the current director was on vacation), and got briefed on the current political and social situation in the country.

 Here it was announced that, like it or not, we as volunteers have become a symbol. Those who knew the program well, or were just hearing of it for the first time, feel that our return held a message from America for Ukrainians. Perhaps our government knows something that they don't, perhaps the current stagnation is about to reverse. It's quite humbling to be thought of in these terms, and I'm afraid I have no good answer for why now we were able to return, and what the future may hold.