summer camp, shirtless men, and sunflowers

so much has happened than i can’t even begin to figure out how to fit it al into one little tiny cliff notes version of a blog post. i feel a bit like wall-e roaming around trying to compact mountains into smaller, organized sharable doses. i’m big on detail, not so much on summarizing, so we’ll see how long this goes…

the time has finally come when i’m no longer considered a trainee, but a sworn-in, bona fide peace corps volunteer. now the real stuff begins. three months of training were completely full, exhausting days of ukrainian language, teaching, training and cultural lessons. but  in the time that we did have free, i spent it building relationships with people i had only met but whom quickly became family to me. i can’t even express how grateful i was to have the training experience i did. but….i’m also very very glad it’s over.

saying goodbye to my host family

swearing-in ceremony

directly after the swearing-in ceremony in kyiv, meeting my counterpart (the right-hand woman at the school i’ll work at), saying good-byes to host families and volunteers i’m not sure i’ll see again, i heaved my heavy luggage onto a train destined for my site, a small village of 4,000 located in the south east of ukraine. it was an 11 hour overnight train ride on an oooold train from the soviet era that smelled of my grandmother’s basement, followed by a 2 hour car ride.

after a sleepless night on the train i was struggling to keep my eyes open in the car. i sleepily awoke to my counterpart announcing ‘we’re here!’. the car pulled off the main road surrounded by nothing but golden fields to a one road town, with small houses on either side. we drove past the post office, which looks like it’s been out of business since 1930 and in need of some tlc, an abandoned soviet era city hall with a silver statue of proud lenin at the entrance, strands of power lines plotted so geometrically,  three little general stores (the only stores), and finally my school and dorm.

first train ride in ukraine!

once i found out i would be teaching and living at a boarding school of 250 students, i couldn’t stop picturing images from ‘madeline’ or ‘jane eyre’. but as we pulled up to the school, i realized my ideas of were a liiiiittle askew. compared to everything else in this village, and even in all of ukraine, my school and dormitory feels a little out of place. everything around feels and looks…well…like ukraine with aged but brightly painted buildings and full trees providing shade around them. but my dormitory is a newer building plopped in the middle of a de-treed field sporting cream vinyl siding i haven’t seen since the mid-west. great for me since i have the luxury of living in a new building with a decent amount of hot water and a shower with water pressure (which is logically located in my kitchen so i can was my dishes AND shower at the same time).

my village

as far as my living arrangement goes, i live in one of the two dormitories. my bedroom is a fairly nice size with a huge window that looks out to the one street (and also the perfect height for students to come peek into). my kitchen/shower is just a quick jot down the hall along with my toilet and the nurses office. during the school year i’m able to eat all my meals at the school cafeteria with the students for free (win!). and while i was really really reeeeeally looking forward to having a kitchen of my own and getting to decide what, when and how much i eat, this option may actually turn out to be better.

my kitchen/shower is equipped with a two burner hot plate, one bent skillet, pot, calcified water kettle, a very very dull knife, and an ice cube tray (ICE CUBES!!!). not only does my kitchen lack many things needed to continue my baking/food photography hobby (very sad day), the three small stores in my village have a very limited range of produce (ie just tomatoes). it’s still hard for me to grasp that there’s no way i’ll be getting fresh fruit or veggies as easily as i used to since the nearest market is 45 minutes by bus, cause i’d do aaaaanything for an apple. it does seem strange, but there’s really no need for the stores here to sell things like jam, eggs, fruit or veggies, even potatoes, cause everyone here grows them on their own. so i either need to ask if i can have a garden or i’ll be hinting to my students for handouts from their gardens hehe.

sunflower land

so right now i’m sitting here outside the window of my new room that will be home for the next two years. which is still strange to think about. i watch the big ukrainian sized clouds in the pure blue sky slowly drift by like glaciers. there is a steady summer breeze and the air is filled with the sound of blowing leaves, mooing cows, ducks and dogs. jeff, my boyfriend who’s visiting me on his summer vacation from teaching in english at a university in china, just came outside to hang up his recently hand-washed ‘ukrainian style’ laundry. he has spent the past 4 weeks with me in ukraine, two of which he was sort of forced (by me) to volunteer at a peace corps summer camp called ‘camp big bang’. but we’ll talk more about him later.

before jeff came to ukraine i heard news that this three week long peace corps volunteer run summer camp desperately needed volunteers to help work it. so with my love for summer camps and nothing to do for the rest of the summer, i jumped on the chance. first thing was to get there…

my 2 day intrepid journey to camp big bang made me realize a few things:

a.) i really do know ukrainian!

well enough so to get around, figure out buses and tickets, and talk with people on the bus. it was a true test of my knowledge since i was traveling alone and with only a very vague idea of how to get there. my colleagues’ advice on how to get to the camp was literally ‘take this bus, then get on this one to go there, then another bus, and another bus and you’re there!’. which would have been great except bus schedules aren’t on the internet and rarely actually follow a schedule at all. so i went with it. like anthony bourdaine i woke up early, left my site and set off with the mindset that i’ll get there… eventually.

b.) the kindness of a stranger is sometimes the best surprise

both of my hot 5 hour bus rides were a little more bearable since very cheery talkative men decided to sit next to me. on the first bus ride, a man that spoke fairly good english sat next to me and was first convinced i was polish from the way i spoke ukrainian. we talked the entire ride, ran with me after the bus left without us at a pit stop, and helped me get on the next bus i needed when it was sold out of tickets.

my other bus friend, who took up more seat room than allotted for, spoke only ukrainian but we still talked the entire ride. i was exhausted, hot, smelled like a bus and just wanted to sleep, but this man was so eager to talk with me, so i listened. at our first pit stop, he bought me ice cream AND paid for me to use the bathroom (you have to pay to pee here). he was so nice. and just before he got off the bus, he handed me a pack of kleenex, small journal, a magnet and insisted that i come stay with him and his wife if i’m ever in his city.

c.) don’t wear jeans on a marshutka (bus) in ukraine…in june

if ukrainians hate anything in the world it’s drafts or any open window on a moving vehicle. if i hate anything more in the world it’s wearing the jeans that wouldn’t fit in my bag on a standing room only bus the temperature of an oven for 4 hours. not. pleasant.

once i finally got to camp big bang i was never so happy to NOT be on a bus. i walked all wobbly legged, jeans permanently stuck to my thighs, and my hair a hot mess, to the center of camp. it looked like any american camp you could imagine. a secret little girl scout camp memory tucked away from the summer sun in the cool dark ukrainian woods. i almost decided not to go to the camp since the ‘getting there’ part was expensive, a lot of time, and not gonna lie pretty intimidating. but taking the risk and going there was one of the best choices i’ve made…well…besides not getting that tattoo on spring break.

me and some of my favorite kids at camp big bang

my time at camp big bang was, to sum it up best, a magical shit show (in a good way). the counselors and other peace corps volunteers were absolutely great and made the job so much fun, sometimes too much fun. i was the teacher designated to ‘arts & culture’ so i made up lessons about whatever i wanted trying to use the very limited materials we had. after one week at camp, and a pretty much constant down pour, jeff flew in from china and joined me as my co-teacher. when i left for two days to pick jeff up from the airport, i was welcomed back at the camp with such warm hugs and excitement from kids i felt like a celebrity. jeff became an instant hit at the camp too. the campers loved running up to jeff and asking him to write them things in chinese. the kids put him to work.

other peace corps volunteers joked that jeff was a better volunteer than any of us real volunteers. and that might have been true.

as time at the camp passed, we all became close peace corps friends, and friends with the kids (our campers and campers from an orphanage who were secretly our favorite kids). apparently in the past, the two groups of campers didn’t always get along, but this year it was so heart-meltingly perfect and everyone got along. i could go on forever about camp big bang, everyday gave me an incredible memory. but this blog post is getting insanely long and eating more of your time than you probably want. so i’ll leave it at this: camp big bang was 100% amazing, kids from no matter what country and what language they speak are wonderful, i truly miss the new friends i made while i was there, and i’m definitely going back next year.

harry potter in kyiv!

after a magical time camp big bang, megan, jeff and i headed off to kyiv hoping to sleep in more comfortable beds than cots, not ice cold showers, and the wonderful sites of the city. megan met up with her two american friends from hungary and ran around the city with them while jeff and i wandered the city occasionally referencing my lonely planet book for advice.

first order of business in kyiv: buy tickets to harry potter!!!!! i hadn’t been to a movie theater since america and really didn’t know when i’d be going to one again so we got tickets, apparently at the most expensive theater around, but HP is worth it. just after i bought the tickets i asked the ticket lady if it was in english, to which she answered ‘no’ so i followed up by asking about subtitles to which she also answered ‘no’. jeff and i were bummed for about 10 seconds and then remembered it’s harry potter! it’ll be great. and it was. except i really didn’t understand all that much besides a conversation about a train station (i learned that vocabulary!). ironically jeff actually understood more than me, not because he secretly knows ukrainian but since he knows the books like the back of his hand. despite being totally confused, it was worth it. i’ve seen every HP movie on opening night and i wasn’t about to break that tradition just because i’m in ukraine…in the peace corps.

we hung around kyiv for 4 days, saw harry potter, some sites, and found a cosco like grocery store near our hostel that we went to sometimes twice a day just to look at all the choices (i miss grocery stores). just like the way i got here, we headed on a train to my village so jeff could see what it’s really like to live here, and also to not have to pay for any more hostels on my meager budget. after the train ride and sleeping overnight in a bus station we only had two more buses to go. on the last bus ride, i learned that you shouldn’t assume where the bus will drop you off, it’s better to ask. so we got dropped off an hour and 15 minute walk from my apartment. oops.

it was kind of a pain in the butt and i’m sure we looked like big weirdos with camping backpacks walking in the middle of nowhere land. but we walked past field after field, some houses in between and sunflowers facing up to the sky so the walk wasn’t all that bad. it helped me map out what was down the one road of my town at least! this is when jeff realized just how remote i was talking about when i said i’m seriously remote. but jeff has been enjoying the seriously remote laid back life where time doesn’t really matter and he’s actually able to see the stars at night rather than the smog above china.

more sunflowers : )

jeff just brought in his laundry that dried quickly with the heat of the summer sun. he turned to me folding his shirts, and said ‘what a quiet day’. and it is. at moments my village reminds me of little house on the prairie, which just goes to show how influenced i was by the tv shows and books growing up. there just such a hush here. i see the same people every day, have a three minute walk to one of three stores here, wash all my clothes by hand. such a different life from growing up in the suburbs. but it’s wonderful. and as time goes on over the next 21 months. i’ll get to know village life and it’s people much more intimately. and i look forward to having more free time to write about it too…maybe i’ll even have time to read a book! well…from what it sounds like, come winter time, i’ll have pleeeeeanty of time to read.

so….you’re nearing the end of the world’s longest blog post! yay! that’s basically everything, a very clean and tidy summary of the past 2 months. but just before i go, i asked jeff to be a quest blogger for this entry. he somewhat reluctantly agreed to write 250 words on his experience in ukraine. i thought it’d be interesting to look at ukraine through someone else’s eyes too…i think you’ll enjoy his little excerpt…even if he does capitalize things when he types.

Ukraine in 250 words (or less) (but probably more)

by guest blogger jeff

According to my geography teacher, crazy Mr. Thomas, about two or so years ago, Ukraine is a 2nd world developing nation. And that was about all we learned and moved on. The country seems to be glanced over by most and if anyone knows anything it is in relation the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1989.  However, Ukraine is far from a nuclear wasteland filled with three eyed mutated rabbits, and desperate humans eating only potatoes (which is untrue, they also eat grains, but seriously thats about it). Kristen asked me a to write a brief note on my feelings and perceptions of this gorgeous sunflower country, and I will do my best to keep it as brief as possible because her post is already at an epic length.

Firstly, the people.  From my experience I can divide them into two groups, those who live in the major cities and those who don’t.  As far as the people in the city are concerned, well they are like any people in any big city around the world.  And as in most countries you find the people from the countryside to be much more welcoming and overall they have a jolly nature to them, and jolly is an understatement.  The way their cheeks redden after 7 or 8 glasses of plum wine, and the nearly endless jiggling of shirtless bellies from all the laughter. Ukrainians are hilarious and the laughter never seems to end.

Moving on though (I promise I am trying to make this short, but it’s really difficult to sum up a month in 250 words, as requested).  So I guess my secondly for this entry will also be my lastly.  The Food.  The food in Ukraine is . . . nice.  It’s got a healthy basis of GRAIN with a side of more grain, some potatoes, and salt.  Granted I have had some phenomenal dishes, cooked by the one and only Kristen (brownie points ; ) )  But, being totally honest no food in this country speaks as much about it’s people as their desserts.  Coming from a China, a land where tomatoes are considered wonderfully delectable sweet treats. I was in total shock and bliss as the pastries, sweet breads, chocolates, and other creations were stuffed into my face (admittedly by my own two hands, really I just couldn’t help myself, they are just that good).

But I am going to cut myself off right there, I am way over my quota of 250 words, and i really don’t want to take up anymore of your time.  So to sum it up I guess I would say Ukraine has been an eye opening experience in a country with stunning natural beauty, extremely kindhearted people, and a rich vivid culture that I would love to indulge in again.

village life

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