Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Diary of a Camp Counselor July 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 12:52 pm

Dear Readers,

I’m embracing my inner twelve year old and drawing on every movie portrayal of summer sleepaway camp (mostly Parent Trap & It Takes Two) as I ‘write’ this letter home.  Summer in Ukraine, aside from being beautiful, hot, & abundantly generous with fresh produce, is filled with summer camps.  For kids this means paying upwards of $200 (quite a bit) for a week.  For Peace Corps volunteers however, this means getting room, board, and transportation covered just to hang out with cute kids, sing songs & teach an English lesson or two.  Fearing the worst after bidding adieu to my wonderful visitors on the 4th of July, I strategically booked my summer with back-to-back activities & while my laundry is absolutely filthy, at this point I couldn’t be gladder.  I know I’m repeating a bit, but for clarity’s sake (& my own as I suck at journaling) I’ll do a little chronological review of summer 2010.

Independence Day lived up to its name at first as I stood all alone in Kyiv’s train station the morning of the 4th crying my eyes out post-goodbye with Mom.  I was eager for a distraction as well as wonderful company & thus had big plans to head to Ashley’s site 4 hours away for a good old fashioned BBQ.  According to my perfectly-organized schedule I’d be able to get there by 2pm.  After waiting for an hour in the wrong line just to find that the train I needed, which usually runs hourly, wouldn’t leave until 10:00 at night I caught myself beginning to think that living independently felt quite a bit more akin to alone.  Luckily no one has invented that ‘I Dream of Jeanie’ transport mechanism yet because I’m fairly certain I would have zapped myself onto the plane that I knew was still sitting on the tarmac a few kilometers away if given the chance.  The aforementioned gorgeous summers prompt Ukrainians to travel a lot which wreaks havoc on the already iffy transportation system, hence the train delay, so I cut my losses and found myself stuffed with my over-packed suitcase on a scenic & sweaty 6 hour ride to Derajhnia.  I don’t necessarily agree that getting there was half the fun, but arriving sure was a delight as it involved a bevy of all things American.  Ashley & her new sitemate Becky made delectable pasta salad & coleslaw that tasted just like the real thing as well as a valiant attempt at jello shots that did not (we blame the homemade vodka) & we spent the evening listening to Bruce Springsteen & waxing poetic about America the Beautiful.  Two years abroad teaching about US culture makes you wicked patriotic as evidenced by the fact that we all admitted that we have & probably always will cry like sappy fools when the national anthem, Proud to be an American, or any Ford commercial comes on.  I think Ashley said it best by sharing her plan to celebrate our great county’s birthday from now on drinking Budweiser while wearing an American flag bikini…which ironically we could probably find here at a bazaar.

Early the next morning we were on road again towards 5 days of Ukrainian language camp.  We had a brief layover in Emily’s town & then met up with Julia at one of the many bus/train/marshrutka stations, so by the second day’s end all of the Morozivka girls were united & ready to learn.  Unfortunately the first thing we learned was that we don’t know Ukrainian.  Classes, while extremely useful, were a rude awakening to all we stillll donnn’t knowww.  I’m not exaggerating when I say I think we were placed in the slow group & I think it was a pretty darn accurate assignment in my case.  When we weren’t getting our confidence destroyed however, we were playing fun camp games including one that was straight up barbaric & involved four different sized sticks from the forest that were sequentially used to dig trenches, launch other sticks to make them airborne,  hit said airborne stick, & then hit each other.  Miraculously no injuries were sustained.  It was definitely a blessing though to be reunited with my original group reminiscing about training, laughing too loud at dinner, learning how to play Euchre & even going on group runs nice like a Morozivka family.  Love them.  Speaking of love, we also witnessed a fun Ukrainian holiday, Ivana Kupala, dedicated to the subject that involves, amongst other things, concocting gigantic wreaths, floating them down the river, dancing around a fire & jumping over it while holding hands with your significant other.  Allegedly if you let go of your hands during the jump, you’re not meant to be.  That sounds like a heck of a lot of pressure to me so I was quite content to just circle the bonfire. 

After experiencing the joy of being campers, Ashley, Julia & I headed off towards Xhmelnitski to reverse roles and try our hand at being baseball camp counselors.  Who me?  Yes me.  Luckily, as anyone who has seen me play organized sports can attest to, counselor is an entirely different role than coach & my main responsibility was to play a little ball & sporadically talk about America which (see above) I can do for sure.  We were all assigned to separate teams with kids from age 13-30 & a coach & we basically played baseball from 9am- 6pm.  Along the vein of assigning teams, the first day was spent determining the teams in the most organized yet hysterical manner ever.  There were 6 rounds of relay-type competitions & the winner of each would have first pick of players for that round.  Sounds pretty reasonable.  Except the relays were all sorts of crazy & involved kids sprinting while trying to de-pit a mouthful of cherries, a pile of shoes that had to be returned to 110 rightful owners, a string of shirts, belts, bras, and nearly-naked Ukrainians trying to make the longest line, and (my personal favorite) grown men running completely at a slant into the crowds and falling multiple times after doing the spin-around-the-bat-ten-times game.  We weren’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into at that point but we knew it’d be funny.

Baseball isn’t really common here so even though the kids were older & quite capable they still needed to learn the basics & thus I caught myself reminding my teammates to ‘point with your glove before you throw’ & ‘lift your elbow up to get more power when you swing’…thank you very much Dad.  Ten years later all of your efforts paid off.  Newness to the game also greatly heightened their perception of my ability which meant that I played second base every inning (yes all 6 feet of me), got a prime spot in the batting order, slid into home & was told that I play like a boy which is quite a compliment in these parts.   As well as being the grand champion of the week, my team, The Cherries, was really sweet & fun to talk to.

The Cherries

Xhmelnitski is a pretty big city & a lot of the campers spoke English well which made for some fun conversations.  We also had a solid American contingency with a total of eight volunteers: Ashley, Julia, Kate, Matt, Becky (Ashley’s site mate & a fellow U of I alum), Katelin, & Rich.  The last three are new volunteers that arrived at site in June that we just met, but we all got along swimmingly & living together for the week felt somewhat like good ole college fun.

Becky, Kate, Me, Ashley, Matt, Katelin, Julia & Rich

We pitched in & cooked delicious meals each night (including almost legit mac & cheese one night & chili another), spoke endless hours of English, caused all sorts of Ukrainian confusion via cartwheels & puddle jumping in a rainstorm, amassed an impressive media library via swapping hard drives &  even hit up the disco.  Our campers also invited us for some fun on the town including watching the World Cup Final (apparently a big deal in the rest of the world), a crazy scavenger hunt that involved a running congo line through the city ending with swimming in a lake at midnight, & a final  farewell picnic at the beach on our last night of camp.  It was a short time overall but we got pretty close & all vowed to do it again next year if schedules allow.

After a night of swapping stories and email addresses on the beach, I woke up at 6am to catch a train to my next (and current) camp down south.  Crimea is the southern-most peninsula in Ukraine, borders the Black Sea & is a popular vacation spot.  It’s also where I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last week.  I’m growing in camp-counselor status & am officially now the leader of the ‘Baby Shark’ & ‘Peel Banana’ chant…don’t act like you’re not impressed.  Our daily schedule includes morning exercises where I make all the kiddos do yoga on the beach, followed by breakfast, three hours at the beach, two hours of English lessons, lunch, three hours of free-time while they have lessons with their Ukrainian teachers, two more hours at the beach, dinner, & then nighttime entertainment via talent shows & camp songs.  It’s about as nice as it sounds excluding the water which is prone to jellyfish, seaweed, & garbage galore.  Fearing an earache, I stick to playing Uno with fellow non-swimmers which is both fun & easy to play despite a language gap. The kids range from age 5-15 & speak more Russian than anything else.  They’re still adorable & a joy to be around though, as are the other counselors including another volunteer, Kelsey.  We spend our free time touring the city, Chernamorskoyeh, which is a crazy medley of all things tourist.  Once the initial shock of bikinis & speedos on babies & babusias alike wears off (it never really does) there are blow up rides, vendors selling dried fish on clothes hangers, Soviet-era carnival rides, & things that look like giant bubbles that you get inside and run on the water with.  It’s over-stimulation to the max but I’ll take it as included in the crazy offerings is cherry-flavored popcorn (not as gross as it sounds but a little weird even for me).

Camp ended early due to more transportation woes so my plan for tomorrow involves taking a bus to the main city and then…darkness.  Not as in sad, as in I have no idea.  Hopefully it will involve another 18 hour trip towards Yampil & an unexpected two-day break before my next camp.  However, I am not new here & am not even kind of holding my breath for a train ticket on the day of my intended travels in summer.  I’m trading my compulsion to plan for the very unnatural ‘que sera sera’ approach instead & am trying to just be content going with the flow & seeing where tomorrow takes me.  Hopefully somewhere spider-free.

Overall Peace Corps camps have been a lot of fun.  There’s definitely been a ‘Really Ukraine?’ moment or two as in ‘Really Ukraine? A glass window at eye level in every shower stall?’ or ‘Really Ukraine?  Snot-rocketing in the same outdoor communal trough  where I’m trying to brush my teeth?’ but I think that might just be part of the territory with roughing it in summer camp more than the fault of an entire country.  I also am continuing to assimilate as evidenced by my laptop which now operates with Microsoft XP in Russian after a nearly-catastrophic meltdown in Xhmelnitski.  Basically that means that where your computer says ‘Start’ mine now says ‘пуск’ & I can’t really navigate around anything other than the internet (hopefully) & Microsoft Word.  Just give me a month or two however & I bet my technical Russian vocabulary will have increased exponentially.  Score.  It’s hard to beat good news like that, but on the ferry back from Greece it was officially decided that…. I’m coming home for Christmas!!!  That third exclamation point is all it took to make me tear up at the thought of seeing you all so much sooner than expected.  Once a vehement protester and open judger of people who jumped the gun by listening to Christmas music pre-Day-After-Thanksgiving, I now walk around humming ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ & smiling like a goon.  I don’t know specifics at all yet but the mere thought of seeing snowy Chicago (preferably via the Millennium Park ice skating rink) with everyone I’ve missed so dearly in tow is more than enough to keep me afloat through December.  Talk about Christmas in July 🙂

PS:  I’m back in Yampil & only a day behind schedule!  Miraculously enough I scored a room on the train yesterday with 20 minutes to spare.  Granted the room was shared with 3 drunk men badgering me for hours about why I don’t have a boyfriend, but their stop was 6 hours into the ride so I had a good 11 hours of peace afterwards & made it safe & sound.  Apparently low expectations are the key to happiness.  I’ll be here for the next few days before my final two weeks of camp starting July 30 so I’ll try to do a facebook album at long last & post it right here & would love a Skype date or two bood laska 🙂

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3 Responses to “Diary of a Camp Counselor”

  1. tricia klein Says:

    ALEI,
    Sounds like a fun filled summer to me!! Looking forward to seeing you at Christmas. Enjoy your last camp.
    Mrs Klein

  2. Nicole Says:

    Ashley broke the news to me over the phone but reading it myself and seeing that you will for sure be coming home for Christmas has me all sorts of misty-eyed. I cannot wait. I’ll tryyyyy not to steal you all for myself…but…yeah…try being key word. 😀

  3. Dad Says:

    Good to see after 23 years your hidden athletic skills are finally being recognized. I believe “playing like a boy” is considered a real compliment in Ukraine.

    Tell the “drunken Ukrainian commarades” your father appreciates his daughter not having a boyfriend while serving with the Peace Corps. However I am getting pretty good with “Skype” and am willing to set up a stringent interviewing process with a persistent purser. That should be enough to scare them off. Love ya, Dad.


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