The past month, like my entire service, has been bursting at the seams with sights, surprises, & sap. It was at times a whirlwind marked by late nights of sleeping in different beds (or more accurately trains & tents) every evening, but with friends like mine & the clock ‘a ticking I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
After stocking up summer with working at camps & playing with visitors, my friends from training & I found ourselves looking at a looming bucket list & a few empty weeks on the calendar. What to do, what to do? Ever the problem solvers, Julia, Ashley & I decided to pack our bags yet again & head out on one last cross-country adventure. With all of our colleagues & kids out of town, spending the few remaining weeks of our summer together seemed like an obvious choice & a fitting way to end what we started simultaneously two (sometimes) short years ago. We also knew that the adventure would end, appropriately enough, with our Close of Service Conference which sounded all sorts of final & warranting of a perfect last hurrah beforehand, so off we went.
Julia kicked off the fun with a stopover in scenic Yampil where we lazed away the day playing the instant makeover game online to decide on the perfect haircut for her & then marching over to the $4 salon to get it done. The stylist proclaimed the results of her new bob “better than Pamela Anderson”, so I think it was a win 🙂 The rest of our time was spent systematically clearing out my refrigerator & doing goofy workouts that are shockingly much more fun when not sweated through solo.
The next morning we started a full day of travel that took us first to Vinnystia where we met up with Ashley, grabbed a quick ice cream, & then boarded our overnight train out west to Kolomiya. The mission for this leg of the trip was pretty straightforward: climb Mount Hoverla, Ukraine’s tallest peak. As seasoned PCVs however, we have learned & were reminded yet again that the simplest things sometimes prove impossible in these parts. Our plan, based on hours of detailed internet research, was to stay at a hostel often gushed about by other volunteers in a small town within a few kilometers of the summit since the actual mountain was tricky to get to without a nearby train station. Ideally we’d get in early, fight our way up & down the mountain, & then recover with a leisurely stroll around the quaint town known for its Easter Egg museum. Sadly these plans were shot down within mere moments by the hostel’s friendly owner who politely informed us that the trek would cost upwards of 500 grevs (1/4 of my monthly paycheck, take the entire day, & involve a torrential downpour.
Luckily Ukraine tends to provide a bang-up Plan B & ours included a tour provided by the hostel that featured a hike through the mountains led by an adorable & English-speaking guide, lunch at a little farm nestled in the hills with fresh cheese made on site, a waterfall & a trip to a local artist’s home where we learned about the region’s ancient pottery technique firsthand. For 1/10 of the price. Aside from being an incredible way to take in the scenery & get a full-on Carpathian experience, it was also a nice illustration of all the amazing experiences just waiting to be had when we forfeit our grand plans & expectations. I am notoriously bad at this, but am loving each reminder that comes my way when I finally do let go & hope to tuck this away as a lesson from my service overall.
Another weakness of mine that I’m noticing Ukraine battering on down is my stubborn desire to do what I think is best. Blame the oldest child syndrome, but my overwhelming tendency is to show that I’m an independent, self-sufficient woman & can do things by my self, thank you very much. From that perspective I would have been likely to (OK, fine, I did ) prickle under the the hostel owner’s well-intending advice & been tempted to forage on ahead with our plan just to prove that it could be done. In all honestly it probably could have, but if I hadn’t given way to the idea that possibly someone (not to mention someone who was a native whose livelihood depended on knowing about cool things & ensuring that tourists have a good time) knew better we’d have missed out on an amazing cultural experience & I would have resented what I now know was only an expression of the utmost concern & care displayed by the hostel. Point Ukraine. On that note if anyone is ever in the area & wants to see Ukrainian hospitality at its finest I wholeheartedly recommend On the Corner Hostel. From the train station pickup & drop off, to the delicious homemade meals (with real coffee!), to the cozy beds, & comforting conversation we felt like we were cherished guests in someone’s home rather than weary travelers looking to crash for the night.
How’s that for a tangent? Moving right along, the next morning we had to bid farewell to Julia who was off on an international trip of her own that would include Dracula’s castle in Romania amongst other things. Meanwhile Ashley & I got to enjoy 13 hours of (daytime) train travel playing cards & trying to imagine what post-PC life will be like that eventually brought us in to Vinnystia at 10pm. Normally this would not be ideal, but my teacher friend Olha saved the day again by graciously offering to let us stay at her sister’s apartment while they were on vacation. I have no idea how I’m going to sufficiently say good-bye, not to mention thank-you to that woman in 79 days. We met up with our friends Katelin & Kacey & hung out in the city the following day getting ready for our next two bucket list items on the agenda: an overnight train trip with friends & a trip to the beaches of Crimea.
Most trains have the option of platzcart or koupe seating. Both have compartments with four benches (two at ground level, two halfway up the wall) facing each other that extend down the length of the train. The main difference is that koupe seats are closed off with a door so you only are seeing/hearing/smelling 3 other people, are longer so your (or at least my) feet don’t hang over the edge, & more expensive. Platzcart is the usual go-to for volunteers since it’s cheaper & feels safer (just try to pull something with a car full of 60 babusias poised & ready to scold), but since there were four of us & we were looking to ride in style & speak English loudly without getting stares we opted to ball out in koupe, & certainly made the most of the experience. We assembled a full spread of train food including buterbrods (like open face sandwiches), chips, & bevies, & stayed up late blasting our music & plotting ridiculous schemes for the beach. Good fun with great people.
The next day we got into the main transportation hub around 4, divided & conquered the notoriously stressful bus station, & found ourselves on a 2 hour bus ride taking us deep into the mountains of Crimea at dusk. Going off of sketchy-at-best directions we found a taxi driver sporting a captain’s hat that understood the name of the beach I was told to say who said he would drive us for 200 grevs. The other drivers were all quoting 400, so hopping in The Captain’s car seemed like a great idea until it started off-roading deep into the mountains & traversing a rocky trail that we knew we could never trace back especially in the pitch blackness. We were pretty sure he was going to kill us. Then just as we were trying to decide who was most equipped to defend us (I have a mean jumpkick, but Kacey had a Swiss Army knife) good old Captain pulled into what it seemed could only be a movie scene with quaint little restaurants, beautiful mountains, a perfect calm sea & tents lining the beach as far as the eye could see. Our cell phones weren’t working due to the secluded location, but our friends that had arrived earlier that morning just so happened to see us wandering through & were able to lead us to the campsite that we would have never found in the dark alone. It all really came together almost too perfectly, & by the night’s end we were setting up our sweet camouflage tent on the sand & falling asleep to the crashing waves.
As if the uncharacteristic convenience wasn’t enough to set our beach apart, how’s this for fun- it was a nude beach. Luckily the nudity was optional as even after 5 days of being completely immersed I was too much of a child to not laugh every time I saw someone completely naked save for a ridiculously placed accessory (read: foam butt pad or fedora). So no, I stayed clothed although “clothed” would more accurately be “swim-suited” since the vast majority of my time was spent lying on the beach soaking up the last of the summer sun. With 12 other volunteers along for the trip we managed to fill our time swimming in the ocean, building rock creations in the sand, making friendship bracelets, having handstand contests, climbing the surrounding mountains, star gazing, attempting to bathe in the sea, belting out guitar-led sing-alongs, & initiating dance-offs accompanied by drum circles. It really was a magical experience right down to the dolphins that often swam up to shore, & probably as close to being a hippie as I’ll ever get.
Speaking of hippies, as far as descriptive adjectives go even before ‘nakie’ I would have to classify the non-American beach dwellers first & foremost as ridiculously ‘nice’. They were mostly from Ukraine & Russia, but came from all walks of life, rocked all sorts of dreads & were remarkably friendly despite our presence as an unprepared & seldom quiet group of Americans. Many of them lived at the beach all summer & lent us their expertise via advice, hot meals, & great company (naked! Yep, still funny). Overall it was a weird but wonderful experience that I’m pretty positive will fall into the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ category.
By the end of the week we were a little sad to say goodbye to what we were pretty sure was a different world, but the promise of a bathroom not to mention a hot shower propelled us onward to the next stop on our journey. Ashley, Matt, Chris, Ricardo & I were all from Group 37 (the people who arrived in country in September 2009 with me) & thus needed to get to the conference in Slavske (out west), & we wisely decided to break up our trip into two overnight train rides which gave us a day to kill in Odessa. Translation: internet, the chance to wash the sand out of places we didn’t even know we had, & falafel. Quite a winning combination. Then before we knew it we were boarding the train, playing Ukrainian card games into the night & waking up in our final destination ready to take in some information on a both terrifying & thrilling topic called ‘Life after Peace Corps’.
The conference was designed not only to help us prepare for our departure in 3 short months, but also make us realize what we’ve accomplished over the course of 2 years & appreciate the ways we’ve changed & grown. Peace Corps put us up in really nice hotels, fed us copiously, & factored in plenty of time for us to mingle & share with those who have gone through the whole experience alongside us. Our group is so big (97 people) that there really were names & faces I’d never seen, but it was indescribably great to be reunited with the people who have so colored my entire experience & will now & always be a significant part of who I am. One of my absolute favorite moments was a group hug/huddle with all of my cluster from Morozivka where we laughed our way through descriptions of how we’ve all changed, promised to instate bi-annual reunions once home & cemented the deal with beautiful crosses (friendship bracelet equivalents?) that Thomas bought for us in Israel. I’ll never understand how I got so lucky to be a part of this group, but I know for sure that my time here would be a fraction of what it is without them. Listening to each others’ ridiculous vacation stories, trying to make each other laugh while busting heinous moves on the dance floor, & saying literally anything that comes to mind knowing that we can all take it makes our motley little crew feel like family to me. If that’s the case then I won the lottery in that department on both sides of the Atlantic & while I just don’t know how that’s fair, I couldn’t feel more blessed.
See, I told you there would be sap. They also pulled on our heartstrings by giving us a presentation about how to wrap things up in town & say our goodbyes. Sitting in the conference room trying to fight back the tears as I thought of bidding a horrible, final farewell to my host fam, kids, & colleagues felt all too reminiscent of a time 2 years ago when I was losing the same battle on a couch during our first language class while yearning for home. How’s that for full circle?
In order to not end this excessively long note on that depressing tone I’ll throw in something that I found quite hilarious from the ‘Superlative’ portion of the event. The idea was that everyone would make up & email superlatives for their friends so each person would have an accurate but funny title from people who know them well. The only problem was no one in our cluster sent them in. Whoops. As such, I will go down in Group 37 history as ‘Most Likely to Walk Like a Ballerina’ &…here’s the punchline…’Most Stable’. The ballerina thing I get mostly because of my posture & the fact that I’m usually daydreaming/monologueing/organizing something while walking which I could suppose could add up to a prance of sorts, but stable? Really? Honestly as glad as I was that the moniker I feared (Tallest) didn’t make the cut, I eventually began to wonder if ‘stable’ was suggested as a mean joke since without you all in my day to day life I feel about as sturdy as holodets (meat jello). I was reassured that it wasn’t, but still have the sneaking suspicion that whoever sent that email has probably never had a 5 minute conversation with me. And they’ve definitely never seen me walk on ice.
So there we have it. Tomorrow is the last day before fall & while I hate to see the edges of the leaves in town starting to change, I couldn’t have asked for a better summer. I hope yours was just as memorable 🙂
Yet another of my new favorite toys:
Photos by Alei Cook, Aug 28, 2011 – Making the most of our last summer in Ukraine.
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