Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Hiking, & Hippies, & Homestretches, Oh My! August 30, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:02 pm

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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A Ridiculously Long Log of Our Eurotrip August 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 6:39 pm

Proceed with caution, this sucker is lengthy.  Really, probably more detailed than anyone other than Ash or I would hope, but we packed so much into just 2 weeks & in the wise words of Aerosmith (gag me) I don’t want to miss a thing.  The Reader’s Digest version would be London was lovely, Paris was pretty but perilous (& its inhabitants pretentious), Auschwitz was affecting, & Krakow was crazy-cool (Thank you for bearing with my alliteration attempts).  The Ukrainian leg of our trip was a surprising highlight for me as well since I got to see some of my favorite people interact & be reminded yet again of how incredibly blessed I am abroad & otherwise.  The company of one Ashley Chamberlain & her hysterical jokes made it all that much more fun & led me to believe that I really like it here when I have someone to talk to/eat chocolate with.  Who knew?  OK, so if you happen to have a schedule to keep feel free to peace out now or scroll to the bottom for a picture slideshow. Otherwise, here goes…

Sunday, July 17

  • Busride to Vinnitsia, train to Kiev, electrychka to Morozivka. 10 hours door to door, but worth it indeed.
  • Fruitlessly studied French in the morning & got waves of realization that I was going to London & Paris w/ Ashley. Almost cried I was so excited.
  • Played with the hamster & watched TV with my host family. Can’t believe how limited our time left together is. Almost cried again.

Monday, July 18

  • Bummed around in Morozivka.
  • Woke up at 9 & had breakfast with the girls.
  • Rode on the back on Yanna’s new moped to go pick berries from the forest. Thought I might die, but a very picturesque village moment nonetheless.
  • I wanted to treat the girls to manicures while their Mom was at work & explained as such. They reluctantly agreed, but then an hour later said there was no time so instead Yanna gave us manicures. Ready to board the plane to the fashion capital of the world with a French manicure completely covered in loose glitter dipped in topcoat.
  • Picked more fruit from the yard to make into juice. Walked to a pond/lake where we swam, sunbathed & enjoyed kvas & sunflower seeds all day.
  • Snijanna said that the manure smell was Morozivka’s Chanel Number 5. Took a summer shower outside.
  • Had dinner with the whole family & then picked cucumbers & peppers my host mom & went on a walk around town.
  • Talked with the girls and my Host Mom about the problems Baba Raya is having with her 3rd husband (first 2 died tragically. I think one fell in front of a train) & discussed how it’s better to wait & pick the right person since forever is such a long time. Talked about adoption & mixed-race babies. Yanna likes mixed races & my host mom not so much but we all agreed that it mostly matters who you fall in love with & not to choose specifically either way. I love them.
  • I think I would like to live in the village during summer if not for that pesky food pushing.

Tuesday, July 19

  • Woke up at 3:30 due 1/3 parts mosquito bite to the face & 2/3 too excited to sleep.
  • My host Mom’s koom (similar to a godmom/bestie) came to pick me up in their car & take me to the airport.
  • I made it all the way through every gate & security point in 15 minutes & used WiFi while drinking a gigantic Costa Coffee.  One guard even talked to me nicely about Peace Corps.
  • Seamless flight in which I almost cried again.  Avoided the in-flight dining meal of potatoes, peas & spam hot dogs.
  • Tried three different ATMs to get Euro as all I had were Hyrivnia.  Discovered that no one buys Hyrivnia.
  • Tried three times in the London train station to do the automatic ticket ordering before realizing that just because they speak English doesn’t mean it’s not a foreign country.
  • Made it to the right station & excitedly walked down the street smiling like a goon.  I don’t think anyone has ever been so excited to see a Subway &/or red phone booths.
  • Arrived at our hostel after an hour of walking to & past the hostel’s other location.
  • Met Ashley & Jen at last, put my stuff down at our former courthouse hostel, & headed back out for London Tower.
  • Laughed at a Yeoman Beefeater’s cheesy jokes & toured thousands of years of English royal history including the spots where Anne Bolelyn & Co lived, died, & were buried.  Amazed by the architecture & sad to rush through the castle.  Did manage to see & pick out our crown jewels of choice.
  • Walked around the city to what we thought was (the very tacky) London Bridge.  Realized later it was the Tower Bridge & the London Bridge is further down but much more boring.
  • Had my first of many Starbucks.  Sugar-free syrup is my best friend.
  • Devoured Chinese food & mix & match trail mix while strolling through Trafalgar Square & Picadilly Circus.
  • Saw Buckingham Palace, the Parliament building (complete with Big Ben), and Windsor Palace all lit up for night.  Stunning movie scenes left & right.
  • Went to bed fat & very happy.

Wednesday, July 20

  • Woke up & booked it bright & early to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Very reminiscent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome & every bit as beautiful.  Remembered how much I like audio tours.
  • Made our way back to Trafalgar’s Square in an attempt to buy Phantom of the Opera tickets.  No luck, but we did manage to get seats for Jersey Boys.
  • Continued with churchiness on a tour of Westminster Abbey.  Absolutely loved all of it but was most impressed with the Henry VII Chapel, burial sites of Jane Austen & Captain Cook, & knowledge that we were walking in the exact location of the royal wedding between Wills & Cate.
  • Used our metro passes to get to & from the hostel in time for our theatre date.  This is as good a time as any to comment on how much I like & appreciate London’s clean & organized public transport.  Little did we know that is not the norm & Brits get mad props in my book for their consideration.
  • Saw & swayed along to Jersey Boys.  Absolutely loved it & will certainly be downloading the soundtrack.
  • Savored a plate of spinach for dinner (& have never been happier about it) before crashing back at the hostel.

Thursday, July 21

  • Jen’s flight left early in the morning so Ashley patiently waited & helped as we made yet another fruitless attempt to score Phantom tickets.  No dice, but drowning my sorrows in a long-awaited cup of Greek yogurt helped a lot.
  • Pressed on & made our way to the adorable Kensington neighborhood for a very scenic morning stroll.  The discussion of logistics regarding our new fun life in Austin (hopefully involving a four bedroom house with our friends & a puppy) certainly didn’t hurt.
  • Checked out the Natural History Museum.  Learned a lot about mammals, but mostly were amazed by the building’s intricate & incredible stonework.  I’m not ruling it out as another future residence.
  • Wandered into Harrod’s for what turned out to be a transformational experience in my book.  I thought Marshall Field’s would forever hold my heart, but I think Harrod’s might have shown it up.  Every section was amazing & I felt like I was in a museum as we walked through gigantic rooms artfully filled with everything I wanted to buy.  Mostly chinaware (which is weird), but still.  Decided it may be worth it to marry rich.
  • Had an evening snack in Heaven The Candy Bar where we split white chocolate mochas, a chocolate peanut butter brownie, and a chocolate & hazelnut pastry.  We loitered for well over an hour picking crumbs off of our plates & expressing indignation that should probably be reserved for murderous dictators about the other (insane) customers who didn’t clean their plates.  Although really, that’s an understatement as their plates were maybe halfway finished & I’m pretty sure the cleaning staff was forced to throw away chocolate concoctions that I would happily eat every day for the rest of my life.  I might be holding onto a little resentment, but it was only because the chocolate was just. that. good.
  • Continued our perusing (our total time in store probably neared the 4 hour point) until we were ready to venture outside for my first proper British meal of fish & chips with a toffee apple cider.  Pleasantly surprised by how much I like English food.
  • Went back & packed up for the next day’s departure.

Friday, July 22

  • Enjoyed a daily to-go coffee while waiting in line to buy Chunnel tickets.
  • Wandered around Camden market with its funky stores & miles of lace, neon, & quirky souvenirs.  Wished I wasn’t so lanky so I could wear some of this season’s dresses without flashing my bum (see how British I am?) to unsuspecting passerbys.
  • Found a delightful DIY Indian restaurant/kiosk with the best chutney I can ever remember.  Turns out spicy food + Diet Coke + seats made from old motorcycles + a river view + good company = quite a lovely lunch.
  • Discovered later that we were right in Amy Winehouse’s neighborhood on what turned out to be her last day 😦
  • Grabbed our stuff from the hostel & headed out for a surprisingly short train ride to Paris.
  • Discovered 5 minutes in how complicated our relationship with the City of Light would turn out to be.  We really loved the experience, but Paris is apparently a hater as almost everything that could have gone wrong did starting with the train station “attendant” who saw us having trouble buying Metro tickets, offered to help by giving us the 10 ticket pass that we were trying to buy in exchange for our 20 Euro, & then sent us on our way.  Moments later while standing in a dingy underground station that looked & smelled a lot like what I’ve grown accustomed to in Kiev we discovered that the badge & uniform were a fun costume as he’d really just given us used tickets & taken our money.  Bienvenue a Paris.
  • A little shaken, but optimistic for a better turn of events we got to our hostel only to find that the room we were sharing with 6 people didn’t have anywhere to lock away the months’ worth of valuables that we were toting.  Attempted to switch hostels, but was told it was impossible by our rather snobby front desk worker & were advised to try again in the morning when the manager would be in.
  • Drowned our sorrows at a nearby café where we discovered France’s two redeeming qualities- cheese & chocolate.

Saturday, July 23

  • After spending the previous evening convincing ourselves that we could stick it out despite the lack of security, we found ticks in our beds.  Hashed it out with the new but even less helpful employee who ended up accusing us of bringing the bugs in, refusing to let us cancel the reservation, charging us for two nights even though we only stayed one, & then threatening to report us to the police.  Would have retorted with “Deport me, I dare you” had I remembered any of my French.
  • Cut our losses & booked it to the closest Best Western.
  • Were convinced we made the right choice the moment our heads hit the clean, individual pillows.
  • Headed out with renewed optimism…directly into a huge storm.
  • Trudged through freezing cold rain for about an hour before finding respite at the Louvre.  Wandered around for 4 hours partially lost in the art & partially just lost.  That place is enormous.  Made it to the Mona Lisa before deciding it was clear enough to try our hand outside.
  • Discovered the healing power of a cheese plate yet again, this time with cherry jam thrown in the mix. Were openly mocked for no apparent reason by a few French customers protecting their stellar reputation.
  • Walked all around the city from the Eiffel Tower, to the markets of Rue Cler, to the Champs Elysee & all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.  Very beautiful, but very cold. McDonald’s mini macaroons & hot coffee helped.
  • Called it a night early in order to Skype with the fams.

Sunday, July 24

  • Woke up early for a much need escape out of town to Versailles.
  • Attempted to aide the early wakeup call with coffee from the machine in the subway.  Was given a cup of hot water instead.  Spilled said hot water on my face while trying to warm it.  Did I mention Paris hates us?
  • Were whisked away into the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles.  Definitely a touch over-extravagant, but an incredible piece of history nonetheless.
  • Went for a long & scenic stroll in the gardens imagining what it would be like to actually have a backyard that stretched for miles.
  • Grew an even greater affinity for Marie Antoinette after touring her “quaint” pink & yellow marble summer house.  It really was a teenage girls’/19th century Barbie dream house  & she was a teenage girl, so I’m in the cut-her-some-slack category.  Played a rousing few rounds of the “which would you wear” game as the mansion had an awesome exhibit that compared authentic dresses from the 1800s with modern designers’ (Vivienne Westwood, et al) interpretations of them.
  • More macaroons accompanying the tour around her once fully functioning peasant village.  OK, maybe that was a bit much.
  • Despite having already spent the majority of the day sauntering around the palace & gardens we weren’t quite ready to burst the bubble of a sass-free day away by heading back to Paris, so we stayed in town for a much needed intake of vegetables via a blue cheese salad…delicieux.
  • Eventually & somewhat apprehensively headed back & made a beeline for the Arc de Triomphe.  Felt a little Clark Griswald-ish trying to figure out how to cross the circle traffic intersection (underground, who knew?) but finally made it & climbed to the top for a gorgeous Parisian panoramic.
  • Decided to man up & stay up late to watch the Eiffel Tower all lit up & sparkly.  We’d caught a glimpse of it the previous night while on the metro en route to the hotel & were under the impression that once it was dark (10pm) the tower glittered for the rest of the night.
  • Walked to the Trocadero (pavilion with the best view in town) & spent 2 hours listening to the Native American band (?) that was playing, taking really artistic photographs, & eating chocolate crepes while waiting for the main event.
  • At 11:00 the dazzling lights started up as did a frenzy of photo-taking during the course of which I was punched by a 5 year old standing nearby.  Apparently they start ’em young here when it comes to attitude towards tourists.  I considered flat-tiring him but though better of it (a.k.a. couldn’t find him in the crowd).
  • Were shocked to find that the glitz stopped after exactly 5 minutes.  Thanked our lucky stars that we made it when we did & headed back for some much needed rest.

Monday, July 25

  • Got an early start in an attempt to beat the lines at the Eiffel Tower.
  • Bought a quiche to quell the upset stomach that I thought was hunger-related & then immediately proceeded to drop it on the street.  Luckily Ashley was a good sharer of her chocolate baguette.
  • Bypassed the queuing folks on the ground floor by climbing the 800 some stairs up to the first level & second levels.  Realized I was not just hunger sick & started a mad search for the restroom where again I was reminded that I don’t know French anymore as all I could muster to tell the attendant should I need to cut the line was “I want to throw up” or “I can throw up”.  The plain old verb for “will” eluded me.  Followed through on my threat.  Take a moment & try to think of a toilet with more international germs to hover your face all-too-near.  Yuck.
  • Determined not to let Paris win again & pretty convinced I had no more chocolate products left in my stomach, I decided to ride the elevator up to the top anyways.  Wrong-o on the latter part which is sad in itself but also because I can now no longer say “Never have I ever puked on top of the Eiffel Tower” which just always comes up when we play that game.  Luckily the view was pretty great & the experience hilarious if not disgusting in hindsight.
  • Slowly trudged back down the tower & started to search for Reese Witherspoon after reading that she was in town for her honeymoon.  No luck on the stalking front, but it did lead us through some pretty swanky areas & along the Champs Elysee which we found much more enjoyable in the sunny weather.
  • Headed all the way down to the Isle de Cite, the oldest part of town located on a little island, & did a 2 hour touristy marathon of the jam-packed sites.  I started with the underground prison that was the last stop of many unfortunate players in the French Revolution including little Marie.  Next door was Saint Chappelle which was  a beautiful chapel created to house Jesus’ crown of thorns & made me wish my mom was with me (as always, of course) since the inside walls were completely stained glass.  Quite stunning.   Finally on to Notre Dame with its gargoyles and grandeur but a lot less singing & dancing then Disney led me to believe.  We liked that part of town a lot better & probably could have done with more time there, but we had bags to pack & a train to catch for the next morning’s early flight to Poland.
  • Thought Paris really was going to be the death of us when we saw two burly men walking briskly past in completely unmarked full camo uniforms toting rifles (or some scary looking gun that I don’t know the name of) at the train station.
  • Made it to Beauvais (the town near the airport) @ 10 & decided that we might only have a problem with the city folk after making friends with the drive-through attendant at a fast food place who let us walk through the car lane & then politely chatted us up.
  • Changed our minds when we realized that our slight dining detour meant that it was now too late to get a taxi & we’d have to walk to our hotel in the dark.  Got lost because the maps are oriented backwards in Beauvais (arrogant American, party of one).  Miraculously found a bus (running NOT according to the schedule) that took us to our hotel where we promptly passed out.

Tuesday, July 26

  • Alarm went off at an ungodly hour & we scrambled to get our stuff packed & out the door.  Thought again that we were going to have to stay in France forever as we ran towards the bus that pulled up to the stop while we were a good 100 meters away & caged in the hotel’s ridiculously inconvenient fencing system.  Luckily our awkward attempt at a sprint w/ luggage paid off & we made it with time to spare.
  • Yet another run-in with rude French airline attendants made us happier than ever to say “au revoir” to France.
  • Packed ourselves sardine-style into a bus that literally drove a total of 40 feet to the airplane stairs.  Oh France.
  • Landed safely in Poland & were immediately won over by their fun airport snacks & friendly citizens who guided us to the bus station, helped us buy our tickets to the town that Auschwitz was in, found our train, & told us nicely when to get off despite our language barrier.  We love Poland.
  • Found our way to Auschwitz thanks again to patient Poles listening to me mumbling through Russian.  (The languages are pretty similar, but Polish uses the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic).  For a pretty big tourist draw there were surprisingly no signs or other obvious indicators of where we were, which in retrospect I think is kind of nice.
  • Spent a chilling few hours paying our respects at the concentration camp where over 1.5 million people passed through during Hitler’s reign just for being different.  It was obviously not a “smile & make a peace sign for the camera” kind of excursion, but I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone.  Certain parts were understandably brutal, but they organized it in a way where only the facts were given without any embellishment or melodramatic music.  It turns out the facts are more than enough.  Ashley noticed & I agree that despite the purpose of the camp’s creation the overall layout & homey brick buildings made it almost haunting yet inviting & neighborhood-esque.  I’m not doing a great job of putting it into words & honestly don’t know that it can be accurately described, but it was a moving & memorable trip that I would sincerely recommend seeing.
  • Sped along in a taxi towards our second close-call of the day for the last evening train to Krakow.
  • The train station just so happened to let us out into a full-out, fluorescently lit, shiny tile floored, glorious mall with 30 minutes before closing time.  Did I mention we really like Poland?  I savored some long-awaited Subway (everything tasted just like it was supposed to!) & crammed in some window shopping before 11 when we headed out into the beautiful streets of Krakow towards our hostel, which turned out to be not bug infested & actually very cool.  Sadly we had another early morning flight because otherwise we both would have loved to see more of Krakow’s many beautiful sights that we passed by in the evening.  Maybe next time.

Wednesday, July 27

  • After spending all our zloty (Polish currency) on more chocolate we were off to Ukraine which sounded surprisingly comforting to me if for no other reason than I’d be able to communicate easily again.  Never thought that day would come almost 2 years ago while sitting in language class with Crapton.
  • Met up with Katelin, Adrian & Jess near the train station for some catching up & ice cream before elbowing our way onto the electrychka to Morozivka.
  • Almost immediately Ash suffered her first drunken-old-man encounter as one stumbled up to her while we were sitting outside & tried to awkwardly kiss her shoulder.  Even more horrifying, she thought he was trying to spit on her & still she played it off way more casually than I’d have been able to.  Molodets.
  • Then she got some firsthand experience with force-feeding, but handled it like a champ, especially when I couldn’t exactly ask if their “vegetarian” borscht was made with animal-based broth so I just had to claim that she didn’t like soup.  Outrage.  They were a little shy, but sweet & it was nice to see them again as well as pass out on the pullout couch that I now call home.

Thursday, July 28

  • With my host mom at work, Ashley & I toured the town for a bit & then took a roundabout way to Kiev under Yanna’s deft guidance (electrychka, to marshrutka, to another marshrutka, to the metro) since the normal train was out of service due to preparation for next summer’s EuroCup event.  Yikes.
  • Yanna accompanied us to St. Sophia’s church & then headed off to school leaving Ashley & I to spend the rest of the day wandering around the city’s many churches & outdoor markets.  Eventually we found stands that sold our favorite licorice as well as pick & choose candy, & ended up having a perfect dinner in the park before heading to the train station.
  • Boarded our overnighter train & headed out at 11pm for Yampil.

Friday, July 29

  • Arrived bright & early at 4:30 where we were jam packed onto a marshrutka to Yampil.  After 5 minutes of waiting for the bus to go while more & more questionably unshowered people pushed their way on I remembered that Ashley can get claustrophobic & panicked about how the next 2 hours would go/if there was any possible way to get out at that point.  Luckily, she was a champ yet again & fought through the 2 hours of sweat & discomfort with a smile.
  • Crashed in my apartment & woke up around noon.
  • Made our way to the bazaar where we just so happened to run in to practically everyone that’s nice to me in town in a row.  Really couldn’t have orchestrated that better had I tried.
  • Ran some errands & then listened to some Bobby Bones (Austin’s radio station morning show that I will soon get the privilege of hearing daily en route to the job that I still need to find) while repacking for the next & final leg of the journey.
  • Were treated to a garden party at Olha’s house with the whole family & were sent on the rest of our walk around town with a bag full of tomatoes & corn for our train travels the next day.  Love them.
  • Pampered ourselves & our poor/disgusting feet after weeks of travel with a foot soak from Yampil’s fancy new Walgreen’s-ish store.  Upgrade!

Saturday, July 30

  • Slept in for a welcome change before loading up our stuff & heading out on the next adventure, destination Baseball Camp.
  • Had an uneventful three hour busride to Vinnitsia made better by our favorite treat, instant coffee packets & bottled water for an almost-Frappuccino.
  • Met up with my friends Kacey & Sarah & bummed around until our 4:00 train where we whipped out the garlic & pepper feasted on our raw tomatoes like true Ukrainians.
  • Got into Khmelnitski around 7 & had a grand reunion with almost all of my training cluster plus some old friends from camp last year.  Hugs & laughter all around.
  • Proceeded to the first & only disco experience for Ms. Chamberlain.  I think we made it count though with spaz dancing galore & she fit right in even requesting a Kanye song or two before the night’s end.

Sunday, July 31

  • Woke up late & headed out to the baseball field for some Championship game action.  It was the same camp that I had done last year so it was nice to see some familiar faces.  Sadly it was also very cold so much of our day was spent seeking out hot coffee to hold.
  • Hung out with my big, mixed group of friends loving seeing how so many paths had crossed & how lucky I was to be a part of it all.
  • Had a little bonfire with the baseball players & counselors before heading to the train station with Julia for our final stop, Odessa.
  • I’m counting 11pm-6am as Sunday since I wasn’t able to sleep on the train’s upright seating.  Oh well, at least I knew my fellow passengers this time.

Monday, August 1

  • Rolled into the hostel rather early & took full advantage of the couch & shower to clean our cold selves up.
  • Made a beeline to the beach as soon as the sun allowed it where we spent the vast majority of the day sprawled out on the sand sleeping & people-watching to our hearts’ content.
  • Got all dolled up & headed out to a kind-of Thai restaurant followed by a night of strolling around Odessa’s scenic downtown area in search of Baskin Robbin’s.  ‘Strolling’ turned into ‘fleeing” a few times when I saw the idiotic street vendors wielding pythons in the park.  Not cool.
  • Eventually met up with more friends sharing an apartment for the weekend for some card games before realizing that the beach & subpar sleeping arrangements the night before left us too tired to disco it up again.
  • Decided it was well worth missing out the moment my head hit the pillow.

Tuesday, August 2

  • More beach fun.  I think a big secret to our travel success is that we tend to favor the exact same temperature (hot) & arrange everything around seeking warmth &/or basking in it.
  • Were eventually joined by other friends but mostly spent the entire day straight lounging on the beach.
  • Ash very graciously treated Julia & I to a delicious Indian food dinner (at a restaurant weirdly enough called London) before we spent her last night in town walking around the downtown area again taking it all in.

Wednesday, August 3

  • Early morning exit 😦  The hostel worked gave us a scare by not actually calling the cab when he said he would, but we made it to the airport on time nonetheless & even managed to talk the airline attendant into grudgingly letting Ashley take her bag as a carry-on.  Goodbyes suck, but thankfully I think this marked the last of the sad trips to the airport as my next flight will be for HOME on November 17 🙂

I can’t believe a) how lucky I am to have experienced all of this b) how great a friend I have in Smash & c) that you are still reading this!  Seriously, I am sick of my voice right now.  You should go eat a cookie (or possibly a macaroon) to reward yourself on making it all the way through.  Thank you very much for your patience & interest.  Here’s a photo slideshow in case your eyes want a break from reading:

Photos by Alei Cook, Aug 9, 2011

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Eurotrip, posted with vodpod

…and Then I Turned Eight July 16, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:56 pm

Sorry for the sudden leave of absence.  I’ve been kicking it like a kid in camp, & for all their merits third graders are notoriously bad at blog updating.  It’s not for lack of hot weather happenings to update you on though.  My regression into childhood has included days of turning cartwheels into a pool, playing Capture the Flag, doing art projects on school playgrounds, and developing a daily ice cream habit.  Sweet summertime indeed.

I learned pretty early on that free time alone at my site is to be avoided at all costs, so by 8:00 the morning after our graduation ceremony in Yampil I was on a bus to my first destination for Operation Summer Fun- Katelin’s site Shargorod.  I had a three days gap before needing to report to my first camp & she just so happened to have a cool World Map project going on that not only helped her school, but also let me fill the void left from the DIY projects that Mom & I used to spend summer taking on.  This one included plotting out a 20 x 30 feet grid, chalking outlines for all of the continents & then painting it all in.  There were a few bumps in the road, (like when despite our careful cross-multiplying we realized that the Ukrainian printer paper we’d based the entire huge grid on was NOT 8 ½” x 11” or for my pun-loving friends, the literal bumps a.k.a. eroding dirt patches scattered throughout the old blacktop that sucked up all of our precious paint) but overall it was a fun & fulfilling project that I’m hoping to talk my school into recreating in early August.  On that note, if anyone at home is interested in contributing to the cause we’d just need $100 to cover paint costs which doesn’t really warrant a grant but would definitely be appreciated nonetheless.  No pressure whatsoever, but please shoot me an email or comment if you’d like to help 🙂

Before the oil-based paint even had time to flake away from my skin (which it turns out takes days regardless of how scrupulously I scrub) I was meeting up with my student Sasha on the overnight to Odessa for the next big adventure, three weeks at Camp Bereg.

Luckily for us ‘Bereg’ means ‘beach’ which is precisely what we were able to take full advantage of for most of the month of June.  For that superficial reason amongst others I can safely say that my time spent there secured a spot on my Top Ten list of favorite experiences in Peace Corps thus far.  The venue was beautiful & included one of the fanciest pools I’ve seen this side of the Atlantic, & the pace was perfect, but what really pushed it over the edge were the people involved.  I’m always pretty up for working with kids, but this group of campers in particular were some of the most genuine, positive & friendly that I’ve had the privilege of meeting here.  They were from all around the country & varied in age from 6 to 16, but they hit it off immediately, took care of each other like family & were straight up bawling when it was time to leave.

The 10-15 American counselors also added to the fun.  With a kind of ridiculous 1:1 ½ ratio we were so over adequately staffed that we were able to work in shifts, so our working day was either 8am-3pm or 3pm-9pm.  Plus “working” involved teaching one hour of English in the morning & then entertaining the kids with countless hours of volleyball, crafting, playing Uno & French braiding hair before lunch, laying by the pool or going to the beach until dinner, & then having concerts or outside dance parties after dinner.  None too shabby. 

One of the most memorable evening camp activities included marching our littles over to a neighboring Moldovan camp for a kid disco in which I spent a good 45 minutes signing autographs.  It started with one little girl & believe it or not I’m not used to that kind of request & thought it would be fun to write an inspirational message like “Reach for the stars” instead of just my name.  Cute at first, significantly less so when there was a line of 40 Moldovan kids waiting for messages while snapping paparazzi pictures with their swanky phones.  I ran out of relevant things to say after like the first two kids & before long found myself writing “Just dance”, “Don’t stop believing”, & any other cheesy song titles or advertising campaigns that popped into my head.  Thank goodness no one knows English here.

The counselors all stayed at a different complex that was a convenient 10 minute walk away, so our evenings were full of off-duty fun occasionally involving sleeping on the roof, inappropriate yoga videos, makeshift ice cream cakes & strawberry daiquiris, & hours of sing-a-longs to classic 90’s hits (& yes, my Gansta’s Paradise prowess was put to the test again).  It was a very laid-back crowd that made for a relaxing & occasionally ridiculous camp experience.  I guess the tan I worked my way up to didn’t hurt either.

I ended up staying a few extra days to help with the new group of campers before stopping in at my site just long enough to switch out my clothes in time for my next, & final post, Wizard Camp.  This one was run by the same organization that I worked with last year & was much more focused on language with 4 lessons a day & 55 kids total in attendance.  The kids’ age & ability level varied, but they were all fun to work with & I was lucky enough to be the group leader for the littlest kids that happened to be all young ladies who appropriately chose the team name Supergirls.  They were adorable, motivated & small enough that they still thought the counselors were cool, so I was treated to two full weeks of hand holding & tea parties.  They also had a very qualified Ukrainian staff that we co-taught with who handled the bulk of the lesson planning looking to us mostly for reinforcement, pronunciation, & fun outside activities.  Each day had a theme & a corresponding activity like “Space” with an intergalactic fashion show, & the kids & counselors went all out & made every activity fun.  Our schedule was packed from 7:20am to 11:00pm but the other Americans, (some of whom were there with me last year) managed to unwind afterwards via rounds of homemade Apples to Apples & other games that led to all sorts of good conversation.  We also had a rematch of last year’s basketball throwdown accompanied again by patriotic regalia & cheering kids, but sadly resulting in the same outcome as far as the final score (a loss, albeit a close one) & damage done to my face courtesy of what I now know for sure is not a soft ball.  At least this year it was less a result of my clumsiness or lack of night vision & more because an upset opponent kicked the ball in frustration.

The fact that it just so happened to ricochet directly towards my nose can only be an example of God’s sense of humor, which I did find pretty hilarious once I’d confirmed that I didn’t sustain a Jan Brady-esque injury right before my big Eurotrip.

The camp finished up yesterday & marked the first time that I had to explain to the kiddos that I couldn’t come back next year per request because I’d be living in America by then.  They didn’t quite comprehend & were holding out for maybe the next year or the year after that which made me realize just how final of a break this November will usher in.  I’m obviously thrilled to the point of distracting daydreaming about my upcoming return home, but seeing the kids’ faces made my stomach drop a little & has me dreading the goodbye that awaits my community of kids in Yampil & host family in particular.  It seems like a bit of a cruel trick that the prospect of leaving illustrates how strong these connections have become just as it’s time to move on from them.  Two years often seemed like an unbearable amount of time to be away, but at least it was a tangible time frame.  Who knows when I’ll make my way back to visiting what I now call home?  Yikes.  If someone wants to go ahead & get on inventing that teleportation device (fo free) I’d be much obliged.

Or perhaps if science isn’t your cup of tea you’d prefer to email me a list of jobs that I can choose from with socially responsible companies who are trying to dazzle me with how wonderful they are.  You know, in all of your spare time 🙂 In other words the job search has been started in earnest & is making me value the few free weeks that I’ll have in August now that I remember how much time & careful consideration is involved in finding & applying for something that realistically could critically color the next chapter of my life.  Shoot, that reminds me that I don’t know Ukrainian word for ‘daunting’.

I suppose that’s enough of the whining about something that in all honesty is take-my-breath away exciting as of late.  I know that the remaining four (Four!) months will present a challenge or two, but my resounding feeling is only one of gratitude for all the experiences that I’ve had & all of the rest waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic.  It’s a good place to be even before considering the adventure that I’m hours away from embarking on with Miss Ashley Chamberlain.  We’ve plotted & planned an itinerary that includes London, Paris, Krakow & Ukraine, & I couldn’t feel more blessed.  I can’t yet wrap my mind around it & probably won’t until I buckle my seatbelt on the airplane per usual, but I have a feeling that the joy & appreciation will only expand as reality sinks in.  Knowing us it will probably manifest itself in seal-clapping & jumping around like my eight year old campers.  London airport, consider yourself warned.  I guess that’s an unintentionally good connection with the rest of my summer’s theme thus far…which kind of makes me wonder if I ought to try a minute or two of introspection about acting my age.  It will probably have to wait until after my standing daily appointment though…and by that I mean eating an ice cream cone.  Growing up is over-rated.

Here’s a slideshow of the aforementioned camp craziness.  Fingers crossed for another if we manage to stumble upon a Kodak moment or two in Europe.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Summer Camps, posted with vodpod

Schoooool’s Out for the Summer! May 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 1:13 pm

I witnessed my last Last Bell ceremony early this morning & am now officially on Summer Vacay.  Hence two posts in one week.  So it begins.  Summer days, while often schedule-less, are still worlds better than their cold weather counterparts as I’m able to type this sitting on a bench in the schoolyard outside in the hariachi (hot) sun instead of cramped up in my apartment.  Also there’s ice cream.  It sounds simple, but being outside really makes everything seem better to me.  My daily walk around town this afternoon is a good example of that.  It was really nothing special, but the thanks to a blend of seemingly inconsequential details (air-dried hair, my favorite puffy sundress that makes me feel like a 50’s housewife/little girl playing dress up, Guster’s new (to me) album whose banjo & bells quirkily complemented the cows & pastures I was sauntering past & the sun warming my still-tanish arms) made for a perfect moment that could have been a scene from a Zooey Deschanel movie.  Or at the very least an American Eagle commercial.  Brutally boring blog fodder, but it does have me eagerly anticipating the next few months as well as life in sunny Te-jas.

The past few days not only brought me one week closer to that fateful time, but also were a pleasant mix of happy & sappy.  Most of the end of the year testing was taken care of when I was in Turkey (all part of my brilliant non-plan) which meant that my kids were beyond checked out & most didn’t even bring their books to school.  I’m guessing that would have rubbed me the wrong way last year but older & wiser Miss Alei is apparently calmer/a slacker & decided to wing it & do fun lessons outside all week that included playing 20 Questions, Uno, & Heads Up Seven Up.  One of my classes wanted to spend the period asking me questions & I agreed as long as they were game to answer the queries about themselves as well.  It seemed borderline like a recipe for disaster & a heck of a lot of freedom given the group of 8th grade boys I was dealing with, but luckily they behaved & their most pressing questions were random but appropriate like “What is your favorite brand of juice?” & “What is your favorite name for a girl?”.

Today’s ceremony was also pretty cute & comprised of handing out awards, recognizing the graduating 11th formers, & welcoming in the new itty bitty 1st formers (in the tiniest, gaudiest, ballgowns ever).  It only lasted about an hour & was pretty identical to last year’s except this year the 11th graders got to release live doves (maybe pigeons?) from their hands & I felt like I belonged for a change surrounded by my 6th formers, taking pictures & receiving armfuls of flowers.  Ukraine has me figured out in that department between the cherry blossoms (which sadly are long gone at this point) & peonies, my all time fave which also happen to grow naturally here & fill every garden as well as the vase (a.k.a. recycled water bottle bc I’m a classy lady) on my kitchen table thanks to my cute little kiddles.

The sappiness came early in the week when my school made up for my birthday absence with a vengeance.  The moment I walked in the door I was whisked into the teacher’s lounge with everyone else where the principal made a very moving (I think.  It was in Ukrainian.) speech wishing me well & thanking me for the work I’ve done before giving me flowers & a 1920’s-esque watch that I actually really like.  My school administration hasn’t always been the most expressive when it comes to gratitude so hearing “thank you” was a very moving experience to have first thing in the morning.  The rest of the day was equally sentimental as students from each of my classes sought me out, sometimes in the middle of other lessons, to sing Happy Birthday in their cute little accents & give me flowers, candy, & cards claiming that I was their ‘favourite’ teacher (courtesy of the British English curriculum).  I know this doesn’t say much given my track record, but I was at the tipping point of tears all day, verklempt with gratitude, & so happy it literally hurt to breathe.  Now that I think about it, the breathing thing may have been 15% allergy-induced asthma, but mostly sheer joy.

After school I stopped by the post office & received cards & fabulous presents from you all (which I opened as always while walking home laughing my head off like a nutter) & was again struck by how incredibly blessed I am.  My 24th birthday was nothing short of a global outpouring of love & an incredible reminder of how connected I can feel from half a world away.  My real birthday was already wonderful thanks to your facebook wishes from afar & kindness from strangers in Turkey.  Our new hotel friends made me a surprise birthday cake, gave me flowers, & took us to the outdoor disco where we spazzed out until 4 in the morning.  They even played 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ (the chorus of which is all ‘Hey shorty, it’s your birthday) & then coincidentally enough ended the evening by blasting Ganster’s Paradise because apparently there’s an ongoing cosmic bet to see how many times I can reference that song on here.  I’m all too happy to play along & amazed/horrified our new friends by busting out the song in its entirety along with Coolio.  Never have I looked more white.

Between that delightful day & my belated celebration I’ve learned that a) I may always try to be out of town on May 15th so I get two celebrations & b) this experience has opened my world up exponentially.  I was so worried that making such a crazy commitment would mean sacrificing my wonderful friends, family & life at home, but thanks to your amazing support I’ve been able to hold on to & be bolstered by relationships from home while simultaneously forming lasting bonds with people from all over the world.  It’s amazing to think that these new connections that have such a profound affect on me now (my host fam, Olha, my kiddos, my favorite shopkeeper) could have so easily never been a part of my life.  It’s a crazy thought to dwell on & probably a concept that will crystallize all the more as my time here wraps up, but overall I just feel incredibly fortunate if not unworthy to have received such elaborate international displays of affection.  So thank you.

OK, I promise that’s the end of my corny diatribe, at least for today.  Tomorrow would apparently be Graduation Day regardless of which side of the Atlantic I was on.  While on my current inter-connected kick I have to say I like knowing that at the exact moment Lucas Conner is marching across the stage of Cary Grove I will be watching my students do the same in Yampil’s auditorium (10 am ceremony at home & 6 pm here…how cool is that?).  Unfortunately my role here is going to require more effort & possibly a shot of vodka (liquid courage) beforehand since I’m supposed to translate the entire ceremony in English on stage even though no one except my students speaks English.  Yikes.  (Just kidding about the vodka btw.  Shockingly Ukraine has yet to convince me that it tastes like anything other than rubbing alcohol).  At any rate, I’m so proud of all of the recent grads across the board; the US & Ukraine, high school, college & graduate programs…you all are amazing & I’m celebrating with you in spirit.  Then Sunday morning I’ll head to Katelin’s site to spend a few days painting a world map on her school playground before hopping a train to my first camp of the year on Tuesday night.  Not only is it on the beach an hour south of Odessa, but because I agreed  to do the whole 3 week session I also get to bring a student with me for free, which is kind of a big deal around here since camps tend to be seen as life-changing but expensive. So now Sasha, a shy but sweet 10th grader & I will get to have a fun camp experience as well as yet another reminder that God is good 🙂


Turkish Delight May 24, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:03 pm

At exactly this time last week I was shoveling in my last plate full of spicy Turkish vegetables at a breakneck speed in order to make it on time to what would turn out to be my first of two accidental group dates for the evening.  In other words, vacation was fun.

The secret to the trip may have been that we had absolutely no grand expectations going in.  To this day we can’t really pinpoint how it even came about other than the shared desire to go somewhere warm that Ashley, Katelin & I vented about all winter.  Somewhere down the line we emailed a travel agent looking pretty much for anywhere that included a beach, & thanks to his amazing planning & our blind faith we ended up with a dream vacay that was equal parts cushy resort & captivating culture.  The only thing we had to go off of were truly terrible website reviews, hope that our post-PC standards left our bars satisfactorily low, knowledge that the alternative involved policing the ceaseless cheating that happens during test week at school, & confidence that the good company would make it all worthwhile.  Apparently that was more than enough.

The adventure started with an overnight train to Kiev for our 4am flight Saturday morning.  My friends & I have discussed changes in ourselves that our service has brought about & one of them that we’ve all noticed is that we no longer let ourselves believe that something is actually going to happen until the very last minute.  The airport was no exception & while we were pretty stoked, it wasn’t until we actually touched down in Anatalya that we finally believed it was real.  The airplane also made us realize that we’ve effectively morphed into country bumpkins as we freaked out over the coffee creamer packets offered at breakfast, savored our airplane food in its cute little compartmentalized trays, & hoarded away our wet wipes for later use.  Simple pleasures.

Despite running on empty sleep-wise I couldn’t convince myself to shut my eyes on the two-hour ride to our hotel (in a coach bus…holla!) because the scenery was so unexpectedly beautiful.  In very uncharacteristic, non-Alei fashion, I did almost no research about our destination & didn’t even know that I was going to Asia until a few days prior, so I was blown away by the panoramic of sparkling turquoise water on the right & ragged mountains dotted with mosques, villages, & kebab stands throughout on the left.  The amazement continued when we pulled into our busy town & saw the view from our room complete with an ancient castle & fortified walls nestled in the mountains past the Mediterranean bay.  I was really mostly focusing on the all-inclusive beach resort aspect beforehand, so the exotic sights were quite an exciting & appreciated hidden benefit.  It was culture shock in the best of ways as we were greeted with warm smiles & shown around the luxurious hotel while a hauntingly stunning prayer call rang out in the background.

Then we were ushered into the dining room where we did a very convincing impression of people who had never seen food before as we threw our arms up in total disbelief of all of the fresh options abounding.  It was literally table after table of spicy vegetarian concoctions incorporating everything from smoked eggplant, to hummus, to brussel sprouts (brussel sprouts!) with plenty of tzasiki sauce to liven it up in case it wasn’t flavorful enough already.  Factor in the coffee machine that doled out as many cups as my little heart desired (an average of 4 per meal it turns out) to go with the honey & sesame soaked desserts that I tended to favor, & I was in complete & total ethnic cuisine heaven.  Who knew how much better food is when it’s not white & starchy?  We were the only Americans that many of the hotel staff had met before (the rest of the clientele was mostly Russian with a few Polish & Dutch people thrown in for fun) & I’m afraid that I single-handedly perpetuated the obese stereotype as I regularly had to puppy guard my plate so a well intending bus boy wouldn’t clear the table before I soaked up every possible drop of sauce.  Sorry America, but it was worth it.

When we weren’t savoring both the delectable free fare & the chance to sit on an outside patio, we were lounging at the hotel beach.  There were a few clouds & showers on our first day, but other than that the weather was solidly sunny & h-o-t which left me more than content to spend my days baking in the sun.  I did get up occasionally, but only to wade in the frigid water or rotate my chair for more direct exposure & even then it was done somewhat grudgingly.  I brought my ebook but hardly needed to use it since the conversation was so ridiculously entertaining.  I really couldn’t have asked for better or more hilarious travel companions & the sound of our laughter (or more accurately cackling in my case) resounded down the otherwise peaceful beach.

Surprisingly our kind-of-constant giggling made us pretty popular with the rest of the hotel guests & staff.  Personally I would have found us obnoxious, but we were also a rarity being under age 40 & were able to make all sorts of friends while playing cards & chatting on the patio at night that made the trip that much more enjoyable.  We also decided to leave the hotel long enough to embark on a fishing excursion.  I’ve never been one for impaling worms, but Katelin is a seasoned fisherwoman & I’m pretty game for any opportunity to sit on a boat, so we set up a tour & made our way to the harbor with our guide Villi.  After getting an amazing up-close view of the castle walls we headed out for the open seas & spent a lovely 6 hours floating & fishing.  It turns out they use congealed pieces of chicken instead of live bait, so I pretended it was candied ginger, baited all four of the hooks on my line & found myself really enjoying the whole process.  Villi didn’t speak much English & had a habit of making unaware yet offensive comments, but he did take all of the fish off of my hooks so I didn’t have to touch them so I called it even.  Overall we caught at least 50 little guys including three rather adorable puffer fish that we threw back.  He even cooked up a few of them for us to eat (with our fingers) for some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever had.  I would have never thought of planning that part of the trip, but it was definitely a blast & very memorable experience.

There were what seemed like hundreds of hysterical moments that unfolded, but we’ve found that when we retell them it’s mostly only us laughing until our stomachs hurt, so I’ll spare you most of the details.  Suffice it to say the trip was an excellent reminder of why it’s more fun to not live alone.  I guess the anecdote alluded to at the beginning of this is as good as any to illustrate the ridiculous shenanigans we got ourselves into though.  While laying & laughing on the beach a random dude (in a speedo of course) came up & asked if he could show us a card trick.  It failed colossally, but then he started telling us about Turkish history which was pretty darn interesting so we eventually talked down his dinner invitation to just an early drink thinking it was the less committal option of the two.  It was at this point that we also remembered that Ashley had told our hotel friends that we would go check out the town with them at 11 & thus realized that we were the shady tourists with back-to-back engagements.  Granted there were three of us so we assumed that it was understood that these were not dates.  Now what was it that happens when you assume?

Bachelor number one met us (at a completely safe & public place, Dad) & escorted us to a swanky restaurant on the harbor overlooking the castle.  We started the night off on a typically weird note when the watermelon drink that one of us ordered turned out to be an entire watermelon spiked with various liquors, 8 twisty straws & lit sparklers.  It became painfully obvious a few minutes in that he thought we were on a date & I absolutely did not & proceeded to harness a truly impressive command of all things awkward in order to forcefully steer the conversation into platonic mode.  I knew it was bad when I heard myself ask about festivals as a neutral conversation topic.  Eventually we were boring enough that he shared with us the ever-popular saying “Every time there’s silence at a table an angel dies” & then told us about his interest in Battlestar Galactica before we could claim an early wakeup call & promptly bolt.  We made it back in time for our next rendezvous which was equally bizarre as it was basically a double date that I crashed.  Except neither of the girls were interested either so I pretty much took up the role of romance-ruiner & ran blatant interference on all of their attempts.  Despite our completely innocent actions throughout, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the motto of the evening was “It ain’t easy being sleazy”.

Basically we had a solid 5 days of fun, evidence of which you can see via facebook album here, & I would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for a vacation off the beaten path.  This is already super-long, & my internet sitch is a little sketchy at the moment, but later this week I’ll post again detailing my two birthday celebrations (so Mariah Carey of me) because they’re definitely worth remembering as well.  I love & miss you all!


The Next Episode May 12, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:46 pm

…includes a beach, a birthday, & some big decisions.  I’m within my last few days of being 23 & pretty excited for the shift I feel coming up.   I’m bummed that I’ll no longer be able to sing along with Coolio during the “I’m 23 now but will I live to see 24” part with as much gusto as I have this year (& yes, I realize that I reference him a disproportionate amount on here for some odd reason), but overall I’m looking forward to the big 2-4 & all of the exciting changes that it will bring about.  I’m hoping that starting the year out on an all-inclusive beach resort in Turkey will set a precedence for how I expect the rest of the 364 days to go.  OK, mostly just kidding, but I am really pumped for the vacation starting tomorrow night & imagine I’ll hardly have to use my standard “It’s my birfday!” excuse because what on earth will I have to object to?  I don’t want to jinx it, but I think I might even be able to wear flip flops sans socks without being scolded unless my friends/travel companions Ashley & Katelin have really assimilated .  Exciting indeed.

The end of the vacay also happens to coincide with the 6 month mark on my remaining time here.  6 months is pretty much within the typical study-abroad duration range & I just so happen to know quite a few people who’ve studied abroad without wimping out or breaking down regularly.  I think I’ve got this after all.  6 months was also my magic number for when the job hunt would begin in earnest, but I jumped the gun & started a little early this week with two big steps.

First & foremost I think I can safely burn my full length, puffy parka when I leave here because thanks to encouragement from my wonderful friends & support from my family I’ve decided to move to Austin 🙂  I would give the monstrosity of a coat to one of my friends here like I plan on doing with the rest of my clothes, but I’m pretty confident that they hate it just as much as me & would probably dance around the bonfire of the shapeless, style-less, sleeping-bag-of-a-coat with glee.  Even more than unwarranted angst towards a jacket that really has kept me toasty warm here, I feel like I’m overflowing with hope, optimism, & the desire to spend all of my time on marshrutkas envisioning the life that I get to create in beautiful Texas.  Now more than ever I’m extremely grateful for the chance to deliberately & thoughtfully choose my next step as it will likely be the one that starts the rest of my “adult life”.  Yuck.  Perhaps that knee-jerk &  not exaggerated response implies that the “adult” thing is a long-shot, but at the very least I think a more responsible, stable, & social existence is in the works & certainly worth getting pumped about.  The convenience of American transport is also greatly aiding my anticipation because if I’ve learned anything these past 20 months it’s that I need to hug my family on a more than annual basis.  Luckily after some extensive Expedia searching I don’t think that will be an issue, especially if I manage to land a big girl job.  I’ve been looking up plenty of those this week too & got the weirdest results from that search term.  Who knew?  Really though, despite the still shaky economy I was able to find quite a few promising opportunities.  Ideally I’m hoping for a corporate communications position at a non-profit or at least a socially responsible company, but given the slightly unorthodox interviewing process that I’ll require (Skyping while sitting on a yoga ball with my apartment’s giant pastoral mural & glittery wallpaper in the background?) I think I may try for any marketing &/or PR positions that sound reasonable.

Eager to get the process started I opened up some old files from college & proceeded with the aforementioned second step- updating my resume.  Surprisingly that turned out to be the harder task of the two.  Tailoring everything from college was easy enough, but when it came time to add on there was a sudden & daunting twist.  I got as far as typing & formatting my work place, title & dates (Peace Corps, TEFL Volunteer, September 2009-November 2011) & then spent a good ten minutes staring at the blinking cursor.  I have absolutely no idea how to sum up the past two years in four bullet points.  Everything sounds trite (taught English 20 hours per week, wrote & raised funds for two grants, ect.) & no amount of sprucing the vocabulary up will fully convey the real benefits that I feel like I’ll take from this.  I’m pretty sure I could sell it in an interview, but on paper it’s falling a bit flat & I’m sounding a tad like a substitute teacher/camp counselor combo.  Probably not on any HR wishlist.  I suppose that’s why I started early though & will hopefully find a way to spin it as at least a creative alternative &/or conversation piece.  Here’s hoping.

In other, happier news my trip to Odessa last weekend was delightful.  I’m not sure why but I’d pictured the city (a famous seaport in the south) as trashy & wasn’t dying to visit until some friends who are leaving in a few weeks asked me to go.  As has happened a time or two (or 3, or 114) before however, I was way off & surprised to find it was as pretty as Lviv but with a beautiful coast.  I never realized how much I love being by water until I got here, but I think the years of boating have made me appreciate & need its calming presence & Odessa certainly delivered in that regard.  The weather didn’t cooperate completely, but a warm blanket & an ipod full of Guster made for a perfect Sunday afternoon watching the waves as well as the teenage Ukrainian photoshoots that were happening all around.  I’m not sure where they learn their moves but these people definitely know how to work it for the camera.  I on the other hand stuck to photographing pigeons.

The streets were lined with cute outdoor cafes but I didn’t stop in a single one because they also had a stand that sold the best falafel I think I’ve ever had.  I realize that my assessment could have a lot to do with the whole countless days of cabbage thing, but really it was so good that I think I ordered three over the course of the weekend & I know for sure that I ate it for breakfast twice.  Just in time for my bathing suit debut too.  Whoops, but well worth it.  At only 4 hours by train & 7 hours door-to-door the trip was actually a lot shorter than I expected as well so hopefully I’ll be able to head back this summer.

Apparently a scene in a famous movie

Speaking of the train, on the way there I got to experience something that made me think I might be getting the hang of experiencing each day fully.  I got on at 9am to find that my assigned seat was occupied by a snoring older woman who refused to move even after the conductor asked her.  Eventually she relented & I made my bed & tried to sleep since I’d had  4am wakeup call to start the fun.  At one point I woke up to her tucking the blanket in over my chin & then sitting at my feet & screaming loudly to her friends for the next hour.  Eventually I had to get up & use the ever-unsanitary bathroom & when I returned her & her five equally tipsy & aged friends were sitting barefoot on my bed & pillow.  Napping was obviously out of the picture so instead I spent the next three hours talking with them, listening to them berate me on not being married, looking through pictures of distant relatives of theirs that I could possibly marry, looking through pictures of their recently deceased husbands, consoling them through their tears, laughing with them until tears were provoked yet again, trying to convince them that I can in fact survive without eating meat, having a tupperware full of raw & fatty meat shoved forcefully in my face, being scolded for trying to put on makeup, having my hand grabbed & physically directed to program my number into their cellphones, taking pictures with them as their ‘American daughter’, & finally hugging & cheek kissing when we got to the station before going on our own ways.  All before 1pm.  It wasn’t until I retold the tale to my friend that I realized how horrible it all could sound, when in reality it was a kind of a fun trip.  It could have easily been stressful on many a level, but I think after having a slightly better grip on cultural expressions plus increasing tolerance for non-existent space bubbles I was able to value their company & concern even if they expressed it in a particularly rambunctious fashion.  But it’s a fairly fond memory nonetheless & at this point I’ll take all of those I can get.  And on that note, I’m off to Turkey to make a few more.  Hopefully some that involve a suntan 🙂


5K = Fun May 4, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:52 pm

Team 'Viva V Vinnitsia' in all our glory

We came, we saw, we…well, OK we didn’t conquer but we also didn’t get last place so I’m counting it as a win.  I’m happy to report that I’ve officially completed a running event & not only am I still breathing, but it was also a ton of fun.  Who knew?  The weekend in Beregovo was wonderful & chock full of good times with great people.  Even the train ride there was just plain delightful since western Ukraine really is as beautiful as everyone says, I woke up to Coolio blaring over the radio, & I spent my only awake time feeling like I was at a slumber party complete with lots of girl talk & hair braiding.

We had a pretty big group of Americans in attendance & took over the town’s beautiful courtyard when we got in  & started all of the pre-race registering.  The run started early the next morning, so Friday was pretty low key with  big dinner of pasta & watching a brave babusia dance all by herself for hours.  The next morning we donned our ‘team uniforms’  (I was lucky enough to score the leggings) & headed out to the starting line.  I was part of a relay team & had the coveted second leg of the course, so we piled into a car & were driven 5 kilometers in to the starting point.  A few short minutes later I saw someone in tie-dye run up & before I knew it, it was time to go.  Luckily Katelin decided to run with me making it my first time running not in a circle on a track & with someone to talk to.  Apparently that makes all the difference as between the conversation & cows to look at the 30 some minutes flew right by.  Once everyone else had finished we celebrated with some fairly legit pizza & then headed back to shower up before the rest of the night’s festivities.

Starting out so early made it seem like three days worth of fun was packed into Saturday & one of the highlights for me would definitely have to be our game of Circle of Death (Mom, a card game where each card represents a task that everyone has to do i.e.9- bust a rhyme, 10- make a rule, ect,).  About five minutes into the game two rule cards were already chosen which left us forced to talk in Bristish accents & use our knuckles instead of fingers for the duration of the game.  It may not sound like much, but the results were so hilarious that by the end of it my stomach was hurting from laughing more than it ever does from P90X.  We followed that up with a trip to a bar & provided a truly embarrassing display of girls trying to play pool, & then finally rounded up the troops & spent the rest of the night flailing around at the disco.  Also quite hysterical even if we probably gave a very unfortunate impression of how ‘normal’ Americans dance.

Sunday morning rolled around & since it was our last day in town I had to check out the thermal spas that I had heard so much about.  Based on what the students & teachers at school had described when I told them of my plans I pictured an underground cave sort of deal with warm water bubbling up like a hot springs.  I guess I was mostly envisioning something straight out of Yellowstone Park.  Reality was a tad different & included what looked like the Cary pool equally crowded but with slightly different clientele & swamp green water.  I was more than a little hesitant, but time was of the essence so I dropped down the stairs & found myself treading in very deep but surprisingly warm salt water.  I had to really launch myself down to reach the bottom, which says something, but there were big metal poles running lengthwise to perch on & a ledge on the perimeter that made for some perfect lounging before I had to trek it back to the center soaking wet & start my long journey home.  Thankfully it too was accompanied by friends & I made it back to Yampil with relative ease.

Despite what seemed like a week of adventure, I still had half of Monday & all of Tuesday to kill, & the gray skies provided the perfect excuse to fill the time with tackling my lingering domestic duties before the school week started.  It stormed most of Monday so I hung out inside cleaning up the apartment & catching up on my very eventful days away (raids & royal weddings, oh my!) & then left the outside chores to yesterday.

As previously mentioned/ranted about, laundry-doing (laundering?) is a fairly finicky process here that required an early wake up call & lots of soaking, scrubbing, wringing & repeating before bringing out my clothes to hang on the line & witnessing the very muddy state of our streets that the rain had brought about.  This wouldn’t have been an issue, except that the next item on the agenda involved a trip to the well on dirt roads that I’ve been known to get stuck quicksand style in under the best of conditions due to the stream that runs alongside & sometimes through the path.  After you factor in the fact that laundry day meant all of my jeans were already occupied & blowing in the wind, the end result had me trudging through town with my 6 liter water bottles looking like the dictionary definition of a hot mess.  Except “hot” seems like a cruel choice of wording in that phrase as I was anything but decked out in a baggy over-sized shirt chosen to cover the long underwear masquerading as leggings, plus heinous, black, plastic winter boots caked to the top with mud, & hair that Dianna Ross would call “too big” thanks to the 2 hours I’d spent crouched over my clothes in the bathtub.  I looked good, real good.

Imagine my surprise then, when I saw my favorite Roma (sometimes known as gypsy) babusia friend Anastasia there & she immediately asked if the reason that she hadn’t seen me in a few days was because I had gotten married.  Keep in mind that during our last conversation, which was maybe a whole 8 days prior, we had re-affirmed the fact that I still shockingly did not have &/or want a boyfriend.  Our talk went on for a few minutes & was good natured but  comprised mostly of  literal finger wagging & other very expressive displays of worry over the life I might have if I decide to continue waiting to wed.  I like her a lot & really appreciate her concern, so I just smiled on through & assured her that eventually I do want to settle down, but her comments made me realize yet again just how glad I am to be from somewhere where hope for my future is based on more than my ability to bear offspring.  I pretty regularly find myself biting my tongue & suppressing the urge to go all Beyonce “Independent Women” on them.  The crazy thing is that I want kids, four in fact, & do find family worth prioritizing, but have proof via countless Friday nights spent grounded at home for back-talking that I do not respond very well to being told what to do.  This prevalent thought process particularly held by the older generations & voiced by acquaintances & strangers alike often has me on the defense, but hopefully I can try to use my spinster status for good & give my younger students a glimmer of the idea that it is in fact OK to wait.  That being said, I do also completely intend to buy a plane ticket for whoever is tall & crazy enough to marry me, solely for the purpose of parading him around Ukraine to put my well-intending friends’ fears to rest.  Sheesh.

I guess that’s all of the recapping & cultural commentary for now.  I have a whopping three days of teaching this week followed by another long weekend that I’m thinking I’ll spend in Odessa with some friends.  Then yet another short week followed by four days at an all inclusive resort in Turkey & my birthday 🙂  The thought of turning 24 makes me throw up in my mouth a little, but I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate, unless of course it involved all of you.  Miss you & hope you’re having a marvelous May!