too much of a good thing in one place is never a good idea. too many eggs in one basket, money in one wallet, alliteration in one blog post (never!), and in this case, too much food in one bag. it all started with a bus, a bag, and banana bread. well a bag full of two homemade loaves of spiced walnut banana bread (and some muffins too), TJ’s trail-mix sent from america, dried fruit saved from istanbul, a tea cup, tea bags and instant coffee, and my eddie bauer all-in-one utensil to be exact. all of this i had in one bag. all of this i left on a bus.
i was destined to slavk’s, in the west of ukraine for a weekend pcv ski trip (this time i had a ticket). and while you might think i’m a dummy for traveling out in the cold after what happened the last time, this time i came prepared and randy from christmas story bundled myself up. i stayed warm for the most part, thought, despite my 3 socks my toes went numb again. but i guess in -14*C weather, it doesn’t matter how many socks you wear.
i prepared for my journey across country knowing full well just how cold your body can get and also just how hungry one gets on those restaurant-car-less overnight trains. in ukraine it’s not uncommon for train travelers to bring entire picnics with them: un-refridgerated tubs of meat and whole chickens, bread, mayo, ketchup, hardboiled eggs, tea cups for free hot water, and can’t forget the salo and vodka. so i guess my insentient need to carry enough food to feed a traveling mormon family could be called ‘cultural integration’.
the night before my trip i decided to surprised the volunteers and pc people i’d be meeting along the way with some ‘tastes-like-america!’ banana bread. and while i should have been packing i stayed up late into the night, hand to my fidgety temperature dial, making sure my treats didn’t burn. i cut a few pieces for the school nurses next door (since the whole floor smelling of heaven would be a clue that i’d been baking), one for myself (you know, to make sure it’s any good), one for my semi co-teacher, boxed up some muffins for my regional manager, a bag for fellow pcv in zp pete, and the rest for the journey. then, as if that wouldn’t be enough to last, a whole butt load of other food. just in case i never encountered a store for the next 30 days.
when the time came to catch the marshutka after my lessons, i was already drooling just thinking about biting into the banana bread. i rode in the frozen bus to zaporizhzhia where as i got off for the train station, i rather anti-climatically simply just left my bag of goodies i lodged under my seat behind. so that’s how i started my journey. a monkey hat girl mourning her banana bread. i wandered the train station as i waited for pete to meet up with me, distraught from what just happened. a few drunk men approached me and began to say something about my monkey hat but my glare of ’HEY! i just lost my banana bread OKAY?!?’ kept them pretty much at bay.
by the time pete met up with me in zp, for the hour i had before my train to kyiv, the banana bread incident was the second thing that came out of my mouth. i clearly wasn’t over it. pete, also disappointed that he didn’t actually get the treats i baked him, said ‘it’s the thought that counts’ and ‘leeeet’s get you a beer’. i didn’t disagree. we caught up for a bit, i tried real hard not to talk too much about my banana bread, pete saw me off to the train, i apologized for losing his banana bread, i promised not to forget it next time i saw him.
as the train gently rocked into the night i lay there in the dark, listening to the subtle snoring of my fellow passengers like the soft crackle of an untuned radio, thinking of my banana bread and if the driver ate it or not. and if he liked it. or if he thought it needed more walnuts. or if he shared it with his friends. or if he just threw it out. or if he’ll find my eddie bauer all-in-one utensil as useful as i did.
all of these things i wondered at 2:32 am. i was losing sleep over banana bread. or maybe i was just losing it. i lost my coat in israel and i slept just fine. i lost my banana bread and i couldn’t sleep a wink. ‘a coat is replaceable,’ i reasoned, ‘but homemade banana bread that was to bring joy and happy tummies to all — is not’.
things could be worse i realize (doubtful) i could have left my wallet, my camera, or worse my monkey hat. but this was the banana bread i baked thinking of the happiness and taste of home it would bring my friends hanging out in the top bunks of the train carving into the loaf with norman rockwell thanksgiving day enthusiasm. not to mention the bread that was supposed to be my dinner and my breakfast.
i’d probably not be so upset if my tummy wasn’t rumbling, i hadn’t spent the time shelling my precious stock of walnuts or crushing the cloves by hand, or growing and harvesting wheat for the flour, or picking the bananas from the tree i grew myself. okay, i maybe exaggerating on a few points, but it was SO homemade with love. and probably why it tasted so darn good. but now no one reaped my efforts or my thoughtfulness because i thoughtlessly left it behind. no bread for pete in zaporizhzhia, no bread for oleg my peace corps regional manager (no brownie points either), no bread for my travel buddies on the train, no bread for me. no bread for nobody…well maybe the driver and his friends. lucky, lucky man.
so thus started my string of disappointing people with empty hands and apologies that weren’t nearly as sweet as the thing itself. but thankfully i have some understanding friends that decided they’d still like me regardless…or at least it’s what they claimed. after i waited around for my fellow travel pals at the peace corps office in kyiv that following morning, michael was the first to arrive. word got around about the b.bread incident, so he was hesitant to tell me he left his wallet on the bus. no joke. this coming from a guy that has lost his debit card in ukraine 4 times.
but thankfully after a few hours of tracking it down, michael’s much higher risk wallet incident fared better than my banana bread incident, and becca, michael, and i were on our way to slavs’k. hopefully leaving nothing behind this time. the 12 hour train lead us into the foothills of the carpathian mountains and dropped us off to slavs’k at an unpleasantly early hour. and even though it was still dark out, our eyes half shut from not enough sleep, slavs’k was a whole different ukraine from where we came from. at the german-ish village center stood safari like taxi jeeps waiting to take us away and we were off to our hotel. we barreld down the icy roads, bouncing uncontrollably like passengers of the disney indiana jones ride, drove on the frozen river for one part, and thankfully made it alive. even though at some point i fully expected harrison ford’s voice to tell us we’re doomed as a giant styrofoam-made boulder came bounding towards us.
sunrise came and revealed a sleepy little ski village of small wooden snow covered cabins with steady smoking chimneys and tall evergreens stitching the mountainsides. house drawn sleighs shared the road with the beastly hummer jeeps and everyone spoke ukrainian. it was wonderful. not only was it beyond picturesque and beautiful, making all of us feel like we seriously got the short end of the site placement stick, but i actually got to speak the language i learned in training!
i’ve been told many times by ukrainians that ‘ukrainian can understand russian, but russians can’t understand ukrainian’. i never reeeeeally believed that since, well, they’re pretty similar. but i was made a believer when both becca and michael, having both learned russian, had a seriously hard time understanding clean ukrainian. YES! one weekend worth of ukrainian speaking after 8 months of living in russia. finally my language is good for something.
but on the slopes it didn’t matter what language you spoke…well, that is after you rent your skis and get your passes. i often find myself thinking ukraine does things backwards or a little bit silly, but let me tell you, ukrainian ski culture — they’ve got right. at the foot of the slopes you can bargin your ski rental at any of the various tiny ski rental cabins, 80s music is pumped on the ski lift, and there are oases of hot mulled wine, cognac, beer, and bbq waiting for you after the first slope. some of us may or may not have made that ‘wine tour’ loops several times.
so while it was cold – the coldest weather i’ve ever skied in – the sunshine, the friends, the friendliness of western ukrainians, and the hot mulled wine kept us all warm and our skiing even better. we were all sad to leave the wonders of western ukraine behind, where people definitely (and with reason) seem much happier than the east, but it was time to go home to our flat farmlands and not-so-pretty manmade landscapes of mining shafts and smoke stacks.
as the 40 or so pcvs that gathered for the weekend trickled home and i headed to lviv for my train with becca and a few others. lviv, noted for it’s beautiful architecture and the most european-like city in ukraine, was a place i’d wanted to visit. so the short 3 hours i had to spend there before my train was quite a tease. we all walked around for a bit, splurged on a business lunch at the nicest restaurant i’ve ever seen in ukraine, stocked up with food to last me the entire 24 hour train ride (made sure not to leave it behind) and went back for the train.
of course, knowing my luck with travel, the longest train ride i’ve been on would also become the worst train ride i’ve been on. 24 hour hours of no fun. i was sure i’d go crazy of bordem, but thankfully becca and matt were in the next wagon from me, and that’s not what made it miserable. it’s like they say, ‘you can’t pick your family’, well you also can’t pick your fellow passengers, unfortunately. because i certainly wouldn’t have picked a wagon that was a marriage of ‘jersey shore’ and ‘toddlers & tiaras’. one with so much testosterone, booze, aerosol hairspray and fake colored rhinestones to go around.
but still that’s not what made it miserable. if ukraine has taught me anything, it’s how to deal with drunks. and while there’s ‘no drinking’ allowed on the train, it doesn’t stop anyone. usually the drinking is bearable but for some reason everyone on my wagon decided to get CRUNK. the family across from my isle bed had already finished a round of beer and began on vodka 30 minutes into the ride and i wasn’t getting any writing done. so i made my way to becca’s wagon, which was a little more civilized, and hung out there for a while.
at one point i went back to get some food and make sure my party wagon hadn’t been detached. i opened the door to find the 2 yearish old baby of the party family sitting on a potty seat in the middle of the isle as the family drank away. classy. so i hid with becca and matt, we played a favorite ukrainian card game ‘durak’ (which means ‘idiot’) with the neighboring ukrainian lady. i suck at this game. i’ve been taught it multiple times but without fail, i’m always the ‘durak’. as we played, and i continuously lost, i started feeling not so good. and fast. and no, it wasn’t from being a sore loser.
with an immune system just as bad as my luck, i didn’t escape the flu bug that i heard a handful of other volunteers were also traveling home with. awesome. feeling feverish and nauseous i decided this ‘durak’ needed to go lay down and just try to tune out the party of laughter and techno. my fellow passengers drank on as i put in my ear plugs, covered my face with my scarf, and increasingly felt like dying.
the jostling of the train and the bingeing around me didn’t lead to any sleep. in a comatose state i only opened my eyes a few times. once to the baby staring at me inches from my face, once to a punching fight between male passengers and getting kicked myself, once to men carrying a passed out drunk lady to her bed like jesus from the cross, once to the baby no sitting on the potty toilet drinking a beer. yea…a beer.
and no it wasn’t just my delirious feverish state. becca saw it too. i called her in an panicked s.o.s. after i became part of that fight. i didn’t feel well enough to move anywhere but becca came to check on me and agreed that this was by far the most ghetto train situation she’s seen. i mean a baby drinking a beer has got to take the cake. i decided i’d wait it out and if it got worse that i’d move. but thankfully i didn’t end up sharing a bed with becca since i spent most of the night running to the bathroom to puke. and when the bathroom was locked (as they do when you reach a stop) puking in the trash bin full of beer cans. the train lady accusingly asked me,‘what are YOU drunk??!’ as i stumbled woozily and pale faced passed the other drunks back to my bed.
as the partiers partied into the night and began their breakfast with beer, i was still barfing up my magenta colored business lunch borscht in the train bathroom that, in itself, would make you want to vomit. happy valentine’s day to me. 24 very unpleasant hours later, we arrived to zp and i was beyond happy to be off that train. though i still had one bus ride to my village to go. i was feeling a little better by the time i got on my bus, or at least stopped upchucking for a while, and was glad to be a little closer to home. but having just snowed that morning, the icy unplowed roads were even worse, and passing three separate multiple car crashes wasn’t making me feel any less nauseous.
somehow my luck turned around and i made it back to my site in one piece, crawled into bed with a bottle of cold water, and passed out. the next morning i was supposed to spend baking sugar cookies for my english club valentines day party, but i didn’t have the energy and didn’t want to risk barfing all over them. so i disappointingly ended up just buying candies and chocolates from the store. sorry, martha.
even though they were store bought, the girls of my english club enjoyed the treats, games i planned, and a showing of ‘be my valentine charlie brown’. my valentine card making activity turned into a sneaky way of getting a whole bunch addressed to me. hehe. i swear i didn’t plan that. but it was certainly nice after the way i spent my real valentine’s day and the only mail i received was my W-2 from peace corps. so thoughtful!
i was glad to be back. and while i didn’t spend valentine’s day remotely the way i would have liked to…i.e. doing ANYTHING other than barfing on a train, the girls of my english club made up for it the following day. there might only be four or five that attend my club, one who isn’t even my student, but they all actually eagerly want to learn english and that’s the sweetest valentine’s gift this girl could ask for. well, that and her bag of banana bread back.