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. 


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