what i talk about when i talk about ukraine

back in my uber optimistic heydays i had somehow convinced myself that there would come a day that i will miss bucket baths.

um……no. pretty sure no matter how much time shall pass, bucket bathing will still have the same lack of luster that it ever had.

i went for five weeks and somehow survived without bucket bathing in my life (don’t worry i took showers). but i left the cruel conditions of shower heads behind, came back to my village and to my humble abode — where my bucket and saucepan were calling my name. only five weeks had passed, in which i was still in ukraine and still taking shoddy showers, but somehow over that time period, i sorta forgot how to bucket bathe.

yea…one might think there’s not really much involved in taking one, i mean it’s a bucket and a saucepan….but somehow i’d forgotten the proper ‘ladle to body-part’ ratio and i soon ran out of water.  quite the ‘welcome back to the village’…though nothing a hunk of watermelon can’t cheer up.

after weeks of traveling throughout ukraine, testing out various showers, being attacked by mosquitos, hangin with pcvs, and teachin kids at camp, it was good to be home. i don’t think i had actually been alone for five weeks. which, as a village dweller, is really really rare. but winter is right around the corner (and by right around i mean 4 months away) so it’s best to stock pile your social interactions when you can. not to mention the fun i have here in the summer is fuel to keep me going the rest of the time.

i may have said this before, but summers in ukraine are something magical – the fields filled with golden wheat and canary yellow sunflowers, big bellied sweaty shirtless men, no airconditioning, everyone eating ice cream, fairly ‘free rein’ for in-country travel, and of course summer camps.

i left my site in june with my pcv friend brian and headed up north to help at our friend’s environmental day camp. i arrived at towards the end of camp but was able to help with the world map project. it’s a popular peace corps project, and one i’m hoping to do at my school, so i was so thankful for the experience. all six of us pcvs slept like sardines in jenny’s cozy apartment, toured the beautiful city of sumy after camp, and had a headlamp dance party to ‘call me maybe’ at night. so even despite all the paint fumes i inhaled painting the world map project and the millions of brain cells i probably killed, i was so glad i made the unexpected treck up north.

an almost finished world map! it shows the main english speaking countries

later megan and i headed south to poltava for a going away party for two pcvs who completed their service where we danced till dawn and bbq’d at the river. later we relaxed in megan’s village eating raspberries from the bush, walks through the fields, and made cherry varenyky. megan’s friend invited us to dinner where i’ve had one of the nicest meals with some of the most generous and open minded people. both megan and i hadn’t been to this family’s house before, but they welcomed us to their table laid with everything homemade — yogurt, jam, cheese, and even dulce de leche. it made me wish to have goats in american and try it all on my own too — but my dreams were pretty much crushed when i realized i don’t seem to have the talent to milk their goat…sooooo maybe i’ll have to dream of something else.

megan’s village scenery

our hosts for the evening. first time we saw a dough boy pool in ukraine!

we stayed in megan’s village a few more days, in part because i got sick and lucky me that the indoor toilet was broken so it meant i got to know the outdoor ‘hole in the ground’ without any lights and filled with spiders toilet. lovely. feeling better or not, we had to make our way to camp big bang. which is no easy feat. we stopped at our friend catharine’s site who was a wonderful hostess and even shared her ‘grandma made and sent’ chex mix. after a quick visit it was off for another 2 hour bus ride and then another 5 hour one.

catharine’s city — typical soviet style apartment blocks.

babas selling stuff on the street

which wouldn’t have been bad if i hadn’t gotten sick after the 2 hour bus ride. yea…my body REALLY hates ukraine. but things tured to work in our favor. our second bus was canceled and moved back 5 hours which gave me time to  take as much immodium as i could, spend about 10 hryvens for the bus station bathroom admittance, and stomach down some sprite. when it was time for the bus i felt okay enough and hoped it wouldn’t be like last year.

last year on my way to camp big bang, i was fresh out of training and didn’t really know what i was doing or still really how to speak the language very well. so that ended up getting me almost stranded at this SAME bus station. pretty sure i never want to go back there. the only way i saved myself from spending the night at the station last year was really the help of a stranger, some coaxing to let me stand in the bus for the 5 hour ride, and a whole lot of sweating (pouring really) on a bus that the old babushkas refused to let anyone open the windows on.

but thankfully karma was a little nicer to me this year and megan and i got on the not-even-full bus and rode with our window open the whole way. it was wonderful. by the time we arrived at camp, both of us had weird ‘has it really been a year since we were last here??!’ moment. it was so good to be back — back at camp, seeing some of the same kids, and good pcv friends.

i had a hard time last year recapping the 21 days at camp big bang so this year, one that might have even topped last year, is an even harder feat. both years now, camp big bang has made my service seem so much more valuable. i taught arts & culture again this year (we had four 50 minute classes mondays through fridays) and i think i rocked it…hopefully the kids thought i did too  ; )

the kids that we got to interact with and get to know were so great. our camp had about 110 kids ages 6-18, along with a few groups of handicapped (some physical and some mental), and a group of orphans who also shared the camp grounds. so the camp was always bustling. camp big bang always reminds me of why i love working with kids, because kids are great! i usually forget that when they’re being buttheads in my class, but at camp, you get to see them be truly who they are — which when they weren’t getting in trouble, was caring and big hearted. so many times i watched our campers interact with the other camp groups, kids that in ukraine especially, have a pretty negative stereotype. i felt like such a proud mom witnessing them dance together, learn a routine together, and politely interact.

one of the most adorable orphan girls, anya, who liked to do my hair (with force i might say) always sat on the benches during nightly discotheque. one night i sat next to her trying to coax her to dance but she said she didn’t like to dance. i asked her ‘if you doesn’t like to dance what do you like?’ to which she replied with a big grin ‘SCHOOL! i love math!’. pretty sure i about fell over from the ora of cuteness she was spreading. i thought to myself how wonderful teaching would be if all my classes could be filled with little anyas.

the three weeks at camp flew by and in no time we had to say goodbye to our campers, pcv friends, and celebrate with a last night bonfire, fireworks for the 10th anniversary, and one last discotheque that went way into the night.

not long after disco ended and i said my goodbyes, realizing that i wouldn’t be coming back for another year at camp big bang, morgan and i headed on a red-eye marshutka to kyiv. we arrived in the morning dropped off at every Americans’ safe house, mcdonald’s, and crashed in the peace corps lounge. we felt like zombies for a while sleeping on the volunteer lounge couches as people came and left. camp was exhausting. but every week, day, minute was worth it.

morning songs

teaching about indian culture and henna (with markers lol)

ukraine is pretty. on the camp grounds.

arts & culture!

peace corps volunteers!

(and in case this post wasn’t long enough here’s a video i made to recap camp big bang)

i had a train to catch a few hours later so we headed for some the pcv favorite falafel place, showered (yea the best thing about the peace corps ukraine office is that they have a SHOWER for volunteers to use) gave a sleepy goodbye to morgan and got on my train. travel in the summer here is pretty unbearable in a country without a/c. so you can imagine how not comfortable traveling on an overnight train would be. everyone in my wagon was dripping sweat. the men were shirtless and toweling themselves off as their wives fanned themselves feverishly with lace decorated fans. all i could think about was finally being home and dumping all the cold water on me that i could.

so here i am. back in my village. and pretty bored out of my mind now that i think i’m done being a hermit. i haven’t had much to do, or anything to do in fact (minus the one 10:30pm bbq my neighbors had), which is nice and allows the contemplation over the meaning of life and 2 hour walks to use up time, but it’s been pretty hard to distract myself from counting down the days till i leave for america.

i’ve had by bag packed for almost a week now. but i’m not packing any clothes. just wearing the ones on by body. so marie-antoinette-becoming-the-dauphine-of-france style i’ll exit ukrainian soil wearing my ukrainian clothes (no, unfortunately not a valour rhinestoned track suit) and strip it all (in the confines of my parent’s bathroom) take a long ass shower to wash 17 months of grim off, hug my closet, and be born again on american soil (…for 13 days that is). that’s why my bag isn’t packed with clothes. well, that and it’s full of souvenirs and weird edibles to take home.

i have 4 days left until i am home. i’ve waited months and months, and then weeks and weeks, and now it’s down to only a few countable days. i can’t even begin to describe how excited to eat REAL GOOD FOOD, and to sleep in my bed, to have a choice in clothes that aren’t tattered and not exactly clean, and certainly above all that to be in the physical presence with my family, friends, and loved ones.

it’s been 16 months since i’ve been home. the longest i’ve certainly ever gone. and with all this anticipation about going home, i have to take a moment to remind myself that i’m not done here. not yet. my time here in ukraine has certainly been exhausting and testing all my limits. which has made it difficult to want to be here all the time. so the idea of going home (while only for a visit) is hard not to get confused with the idea of wanting to go home for good. because well, at this point in my service, that line is kind of blurred.

over a year into service and a little under a year left. i’m halfway through but it still seems like so much more time ahead. for months i’ve felt like i’ve been in a funk, all my luster, and motivation has washed away. summer is great, but the school year is daunting. the challenges i had at my first site, my move, school, and my difficulties feeling invested in my new site have basically just left me mentally exhausted.

at the end of my peace corps training, one of my teachers told me ‘kristen, i hope ukraine doesn’t change you. i hope the frustrations and the no’s you encounter won’t take away your optimism and your smile.’ i didn’t understand it at the time but i wrote it down in my notebook hoping that someday i would. and i think i do now. i’ve talked to my close pcv friends and have taken their words of wisdom to heart as well. they too agree that the half-way mark isn’t an easy feat.

i recently told my mom exactly how i’ve been feeling, about how i was worried i wouldn’t feel the desire to come back and finish my service. she said something that helped me understand, to see it in a different light. she asked me how i felt when i ran a half-marathon (which funnily goes along with my current murakami read ‘what i talk about when i talk about running’. i thought back to during the race halfway through (or maybe even the whole thing) when i fount myself sweaty, hot, and covered in mosquitos wondering ‘why am i doing this?!!’. but i didn’t stop. i kept going. i put my self-doubts behind and looked only a little ways ahead of me, focusing on each step, simply placing each foot infront of the other.

and while i admit i still dream of being home, hanging out with my friends, being on the same continent as my boyfriend jeff, enjoying my life for myself only — i know that the moment i cross that finish line, make it to the end, sticking through it would have been worth it and will be without a doubt the proudest moment of my life. so when i’m home for those 13 days, i know it will be more than difficult to say good-bye for a second time, but i hope i’ll come back from america renewed and refreshed with my original sheen of optimism ready to put one foot infront of the other for my last ten months in ukraine.

2 thoughts on “what i talk about when i talk about ukraine

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