Know My Velocity

My Peace Corps Experience in Ukraine

  • My name is Casey and I'm going to Ukraine with the Peace Corps to help develop non-governmental organizations. This is my adventure, and I'd like you to know my velocity.
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Archive for June, 2011

Last days in Ivanivka, First days in Zhytomyr.

Posted by defyphysics on June 21, 2011

Friday June 10th

Well, I haven’t had the time to write the last 10 days..  I’ve basically been doing something from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed every day.  I can tell you though, it’s been awesome.  I will try and sum up some of the best of times I’ve had the last week and a half the best I can.

One day last week, after a long day of lessons and feeling a bit homesick the night before, X, Amanda and I went out to this stream that goes by the village and out into a meadow.  I had also been roasting in my room because I thought none of the windows opened (more about that later), and was basically living in a greenhouse sweating day and night.  We threw down a blanket by the river, turned up the ipod and listened to some music, studied a bit and just relaxed in the sun.  There were several horses that just walked by, a herd of cows passed us and some locals walked by.  It was very surreal.  It felt like a movie (there are many times in Peace Corps Ukraine where this has happened).  It was exactly what I needed to keep me going.  It was also finally a bit cooler out too.

Christina and I have also been playing a lot of soccer (football) every night with the kids around the village.  Dima wanted to go one day, so he went and he was a riot.  He’s pretty decent even though he says he can’t play, but he’s also a comedian and keeps the game from getting too serious.  That night I told Dima my room was really hot and asked if the windows opened.  He said no, but then thought about it and said maybe.  He looked at the inner window panes and realized they were taped and stapled on   He ripped out a pane, set it on the other side of my room, and we opened the outside pane.  My overheating problem had been cured (although its still a bit hot at night, its tolerable).  The next day we played soccer again with Dima.  That was my last night with Dima, since he left for Belarus the next day.  It was sad to see him go.  As a parting gift I gave him my ipod shuffle, since I’ve used it about twice since I got it two years ago.  He loaded all his music onto it and I saw it get used more in one night than I’ve ever used it.

Also, some day last week we finally walked all the way to “the river” which is a watering hole about 5 kilometers out of town in the middle of nowhere.  I went three more times this week with different clustermates,.  There were people camping there, and I think I could have lived there all summer myself.  It was surrounded by beautiful meadows, and the walk out there is absolutely stunning.  The world gets a lot bigger when you walk out into the middle of a vast meadow.

I’ve also been helping out in the field a little bit here and there.  I have no clue what I’m doing, and usually my host mom or the people that come over to help have to explain what I’m supposed to be doing a few times, but it is actually very relaxing work, even though its hard work.  You hear nothing but the wind, the people working next to you, and the sounds of the village.  It’s amazing how much there is in the little field behind our little house. We have a ton of potatoes, grapes, apricots, tangerines, watermelon, tomatoes, melons, beets, radishes, onions, what I think are zucchinis and spices.

Today we went to the bazaar, and the girls in the cluster bought some stuff.  We had Kvac (which is something between a non-alcoholic beer and a root beer).  I also got my haircut, which was much needed.  Speaking of which, it is something I have been dreading doing since I got here.  How can you explain a haircut to someone in another language you barely know the basics in?  Well, it turned out great even though all I could say was “shorter please” in Ukrainian.  She did a great job cutting it “shorter” though.

After that we met up with our link cluster (the cluster we do some trainings with and the only other Community Development volunteers speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian).  We went down to another beach off of a lake in Chernihiv.  We lounged around, ate some snacks and got sun burnt.  We were supposed to come back for a wrap up class in Ivanivka, so we packed up and went to the same Marshrooka we got off of, thinking it would take us to the city center.  Instead, it ended up going all over Chernihiv for over an hour.  When we finally got to somewhere familiar we just got off and walked the rest of the way to our stop that goes to Ivanivka, way later than we were supposed to be.  So now we have one last class tomorrow for a bit, and then a picnic with all our cluster’s host families over by the swimming hole.

It kind of sucks that Ivanivka now feels like home and we have to pick up and leave and start growing our roots somewhere else yet again.  However, it will be nice to have my own place, cook my own meals, and be more in control of my own daily life.  I’m also anxious to see more of Ukraine, and see the differences between the small sections I’ve integrated into.  So far though, Ukraine has not been anything that I expected.  It is a place of many paradoxes, a place stuck between old and new, and a place that has luckily been very receptive, hospitable and diverse.

Friday June 17th

What a whirlwind the last few days have been.  On Monday Peace Corps sent us a bus to pick us and all our luggage up from Ivanivka.  We bid farewell to our host families, and went to Kiev, still not knowing where we would live for the next few years.  Once we got to Kiev, we all put our bags into the dorms and greeted everyone we hadn’t seen since starting our adventure in DC and the arrival retreat in Chernihiv three months ago.  Then, it was time to unveil where we would be going (FINALLY!).  We all gathered into the main conference hall, and they talked for about 30 minutes, with not one volunteer listening to what they had to say.  We were all dreaming of the many possible places we could end up.  Would we be in a city or a village?  Would we like our counterpart?  Would they speak the language we’re learning there?  Would we be close to our friends in the Peace Corps?

Finally, they announced what regions everyone would be going.  Each region is three oblasts (Ukrainian states), of which each is probably the size of Connecticut.  I ended up in a region in the “mid west” of Ukraine.  We all still had no idea where exactly these places were, what city or village we would live in or what we would be doing there.  We split up into our regions with our regional managers after that, and we were finally handed our assignment, which told us what oblast, what city/village, and what organization/school we would be working with for the next two years.  I ended up in a medium sized city of 270,000 people called Zhytomyr (Житомир).  I also found out I would be working with an organization called Modern Format, which is a youth organization.  I read the description over and over, excited about what it said and what they wanted me to help them with.  We still did not know who our counterparts would be, and had little information on our cities and villages.  We asked questions but our regional managers had a lot of information to disseminate in little time to everyone going to our region.  We had to wait another day for more information and meeting our counterparts.  We all headed back to our dorms and hung out with everyone we’ve become so close with over the last three months.  We all knew bittersweet goodbyes were coming on the near future.

The next day we went to the main hall where they talked to us for a while, and again nobody was listening because we knew our counterparts were arriving and we would be meeting them very soon.  The time finally came, and all the counterparts were in the main conference hall, and we had to hunt them out.  This is where I met the amazing Zhanna (Жанна).  We made an almost instant connection, and I can already tell it will be great working with her for the next two years.  The next two days were filled with more meetings, trainings, seminars, hanging with old friends and me and Zhanna trying to figuring out how I could fit into their small organization.

Yesterday we had our swearing in ceremony where we become official volunteers.   It was all pomp and circumstance in a hot, but very cool looking building where the first Ukrainian Parliament met called Teachers House.  There were many speeches, and a reception at the end.  Everyone’s departure was staggered, but I was one of the first to go.  We headed off in an SUV that dropped me and another volunteer off where Marshrookas and busses go from Kiev to Zhytomyr.  Zhanna and I got on the bus to Zhytomyr for our hour and a half trip and learned more about each other and her organization.  When we got to the bus stop, most of the people from the office I’ll be working at were there.  They gave me and all my luggage a ride to my new place.

I’ll be living in the 5th floor of a two bedroom apartment.  It’s old, but has a lot of charm to it.  Once we got me and all my stuff into the apartment, Sasha went to pick up some pizzas and my Zhanna and the rest of us went over to the store and bought some food to last me a few days.  We sat around and talked for a while and ate Pizza.  Zhanna speaks very good English, and throughout the night I found that the rest of them spoke fairly decent English as well.  Better than my Ukrainian!

I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me the next two years.  I can tell I’m surrounded by great people and my Zhytomyr seems like a great place to call home.  Here’s to my new home, my new friends, and the great adventure that Peace Corps is.

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Big Post

Posted by defyphysics on June 1, 2011

Wednesday May 4th

When I first arrived here in Ivanivka, I saw the village through my suburban American eyes and saw a lot of things I did not understand. Much of the village looked ugly and old. After being here for a month, I have noticed my opinion is changing. Although some of it can be attributed to the beauty of spring, I have also begun to notice the splendor in this Ukrainian Village’s ability to beautify function. In suburban USA, the beauty we create either adds no utility or even prohibits the utility of the objects around it. As an example, in suburban America we spend time, money and energy keeping up a lawn which is rarely used and exists almost solely as a symbol of beauty. I don’t think that would fly here. Generally, in Ivanivka, every object serves a purpose, and everything is either used for something or will be used for something. When something breaks, the first solution is to fix the utility of the object, and the afterthought is to make it look good, if possible. A lot of times, this creates an organic beauty of sorts. I am constantly amazed by the resourcefulness of people when their first priority is utility, and not beauty. In America, we may just buy a new fence if there is a hole in it. Here, they patch it up with some board and chicken wire they had from a pile of scrap they keep for such occasions. In America, a lot of times our suburban neighborhoods feel artificial, almost like they are faked. The beauty, conformity and neatness feels factory manufactured. When we decorate and beautify our houses, we buy decorations, art, and furniture made by someone else, usually in a factory. That isn’t to say Ukrainians don’t buy things from factories or decorations other people have made, but it is to say that I have noticed much of the decorative facets of the house are placed around and on objects of utility. Ukrainians in Ivanivka do their best to beautify their world, but never place that precedence over that of utility. In America, image takes precedence and inhibits our ability to fully utilize the world around us.

Monday, May 16

Unfortunately, I somehow deleted some entries in my blog up until this point.  They were some really cool entries about the parade I went to and some other stuff.  If I ever find them I’ll post them, but as of now it’s been too long to recall the parade in too much detail, but I’ll have the chance to experience two more while I’m here.

Nothing extraordinary has happened lately.  I’ve had a lot of long days working on our project and socializing with the other host families.  There are days I have left my house at 7:00am and do not get back until 11.00pm.  There are a few hours in the day where there is nothing to do, but for the most part we have been meeting with local businesses, the school, the house of culture, the village council, and going into the city to make copies and print things out.  When we’re not out and about, we’ve been working on our grant proposal, making advertisements for our picnic, and drawing up invitations to local organizations.  All of these have to be translated of course!

Yesterday I noticed a little kitten in the house and wondered where it came from.  My host mom says it is to catch mice.  Normally I’m not a huge fan of cats, but seeing the look on its face while four dogs surround it, not knowing where it’s at or where to find shelter or comfort in a new home made me an instant friend. It doesn’t have a name but I call him/her Kitchka, which means “cute little cat” in Ukrainian.

Today after dinner a couple came over and I said hi.  Then my host mom said something about help, backyard and potatoes.  I guessed right when I put on some old clothes and went to the back yard.  Time to plant potatoes.  It was actually a blast.  I couldn’t believe how quickly it went, how cool the dirt felt between my toes and how much fun I had planting potatoes.  Who knew?

Something I’ve noticed while being in a new country that is both terrifying and awesome is that while immersing yourself in a new culture, you find out a lot about who you really are.  When you start stripping away the layers of your own culture and realizing what behaviors are yours and what behaviors are the product of where you are from it becomes confusing and enlightening.  I’m still reevaluating who I really am daily.  I think when I first got here, who I am crawled up inside myself and I tried to reflect everyone and everything around me in order to fit in.  I’m slowly letting the guard down on myself, making sure it is me and not my culture that is emerging.  It’s a pretty cool process to go through, but it is also really confusing at times, and not without its harsh realizations about me, my culture, and Ukrainian culture.  I have a feeling it will be a process that will take all two years, but it has definitely began, and I may regress a bit when I get to my permanent site and readjust again.  I’m anxious to see what I’ll find out about myself the next coming years.

Wednesday May 18

The last two days have been spent doing language classes, and then heading to Chernihiv to work on our picnic.  We’ve revised our grant proposal at least 6 times, and I think we finally nailed it today.  I hope.  Tomorrow we have a long technical session in Chernihiv, and after that I’m supposed to meet up with one of Dima’s friends Yaric.  His English is worse than my Ukrainian at this point, but last time we had a really good conversation somehow, and it’ll be cool to see him again and see what he’s been up to.  I’m also supposed to play some soccer tomorrow.  On my way home from walking Amanda home tonight, I decided to walk through the cemetery and take some pictures, which leads me through the school yard.  There were a bunch of kids playing soccer there, and they said hi as I walked by.  Then they called me back and motioned me to come over, so I did.  They invited me to play soccer tomorrow at 7pm, all in Ukrainian, and I understood almost all of it.  It was pretty cool!  I was even able to set a time and tell them that more Americans might come.  I hope time permits us to get it done.

I’ve had a lot of people ask what I eat, so I think I’ll start naming some of the more interesting meals I’ve had during posts.  Tonight I had leftover raw fish, fried potatoes, and some spicy stuff I just call “Kim-Chi” even though it’s made from carrots and beets I think.

Monday May 23

This weekend we had our event(s) for our community development project during training.  We trained some volunteers that our picnic had about HIV/AIDS so they could help with our poster contest.  During our picnic we held games, had some people sing and play some music.  It was really a lot of fun and I think the towns people enjoyed it.  Nothing went according to plan, but everything worked out great.  Couldn’t have asked for better weather too.

Once we packed everything up we decided to go to the local hangout and celebrate our finishing of the project.  About halfway there though, the sky opened up and we got soaked. We decided to stick it out there and hang out and play some cards.  I was a soggy mess  once I got home and changed into some comfortable clothes.  I read for about an hour and called it a night at about 8:30.  What an exhausting couple of weeks it has been!  The last three weeks of training should be pretty easy.  We can focus almost wholly on language classes and tutoring, plus we’ll have some free time to hang out with our host families, tour around the area and just relax at the picnic spot.

As for food, last night I had fried potatoes, and a meat cutlet, which my cluster refers to as meatcakes.  I also had some of that “Kim-Chi” stuff.  The day before was the same, except instead of fried potatoes it was pasta, and it also had an egg on it (which by the way, the yolk makes a great sauce for the pasta).

Tuesday May 24

Today was awesome.  Now that we’re done with the picnic, we’ve had more free time.  I even had a lot of homework today and still got a lot in.  After language class Amanda and I went to Chernihiv to do our field trip homework, which was to go to some stores and check the prices of some things.  We bought some terrible ice cream.  Going to have to stick to McDonalds ice cream.

So after the picnic and before the crazy rain happened, my neighbors came up and tried to talk to me and of course I understood nothing as usual.  However, there was a Ukrainian Peace Corps staff there that helped translate for us, and they told her everyone on the street loved me and that it was really cool of me to always say hi and ask how they were doing in Ukrainian.  It really made me feel good.  Today I stopped by and talked with Serjay, Gregori and Michael, and I told them I was going to play soccer.  They asked what my favorite team was, and then Serjay ran into his house and brought out a scarf of his favorite team (Хактар).  Then he said it was for me to keep.  I just couldn’t believe it because I could tell it meant a lot to him.  Once I got home I got out one of my cheapo souvenirs from Florida with Disney characters and an American flag on it and gave it to him before I played soccer.  I felt like I couldn’t give him anything nearly as cool as he gave me.

After that, I went and played soccer with some kids from the school, and that was a lot of fun.  We tied 10-10 and then had penalty shots for like 30 minutes b/c nobody could get it into the small goals.  After the game, I talked to some of the kids, and they asked me some questions.  They couldn’t believe I’ve only studied Ukrainian for 2 months.  I can’t either really.

Thursday May 26

Yesterday it rained and I didn’t get a chance to play soccer.  Bummer.  We also had our site placement interviews, which everyone has been making a big deal out of.  Basically, some of the people responsible for placing you into a site in Ukraine come and ask you some questions and put a name, face and the essence of you with your qualifications and experience that they have on paper.  Mine went really well, and all I can do now is wait and see where they send me.  I won’t know where I’ll be heading until I go to Kiev and “grauduate” from training and swear in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  I’m not troubling myself with where I might be, but it is fun to imagine the different places I might be going.

The rain yesterday made today a beautiful sunny day with a cool temperature.  After our tech module in Chernihiv, we went to a park where our link group was putting on an event.  Even though we were too late for the event, it was awesome to see the park, and I got to eat a hot dog with mayonnaise, lettuce, and horse radish.  It was actually really good.

I’ve been tired lately for several reasons.  My allergies bother me a bit here in the spring, so I’ve been taking allergy medicine which makes me tired.  I’ve also been jogging or playing soccer a lot which tires me out.  On top of it all, the sun doesn’t set until about 10 oclock at night (which is when I should be getting to bed, but it feels weird when it’s still dusk).  Then, the sun rises at about 5am.  I wake up sometimes at 5:30 and panic because it’s so light out and I think I’ve overslept.  I suppose I better appreciate it while I can, because once winter comes I won’t see much daylight. Maybe I just need one really good night’s sleep.

There’s so much more I wish I could do around Ivanivka and Chernihiv while I’m still around, but with training every day, and weekends packed full of events, it looks like I’ll have to pick out the few best choices and go with those.  There’s a swimming hole in Ivanivka that sounds like a blast.  Plus there’s a few more bazaars in Chernihiv that I want to check out, and there’s a circus that might be really cool.

As for food, last night I had raw fish (I think it sat in lemon juice, which I’ve heard kind of cooks fish).  It was pretty tasty, but the rest of the night my hands smelled like fish.  My poor book probably smells like fish now.  We also had fried potatos that I had helped peel, and some bread.  Dinner is being cooked now, but I can’t tell what it is.   It smells good though.

Tuesday May 31, 2011

It’s been almost a week since I’ve written anything.  It seems like I just wrote something yesterday!  This weekend was pretty cool.  On Saturday, I went to Chernihiv and had some sushi with X… it was so-so, but not bad for what you’d expect to get in Ukraine.  Then I went home and did a little work in the fields plowing a small area with a hand plow.  Then we had big dinner with a cabbage/dill salad, bbq’d chicken and sausage which is called chasneek (часник… I think).  It was delicious.

On Sunday I went into Chernihiv with Dima.  He wanted to show me the city and where he used to live.  He lived in an old soviet block style apartment.  I went into his friend’s apartment a few buildings over and it was nothing like an American apartment.  It is more communal and void of privacy.  After hanging around the neighborhood talking to some old neighbors of his, we went with a group of his friends to the beach by the river.  It was great to hang out with his friends, and see what the beach is like in Ukraine.  All I can say is it is nothing like the beach in Florida.  We bought dried “fish jerky” (whole dried fish) off the street from a guy and ate it while lounging around on a blanket in the grass while playing the card game dorak (дурак, which means fool), which I still don’t quite understand.  We hadn’t planned on going to the beach, but I dove into the river with my shorts on.  It felt great because it was so hot out.  Dima’s friends were telling me there is a huge party every night there in the summer, with loud music, and sometimes bands.  It would be a cool setting for a party, but since the last bus to Chernihiv leaves at 7:20pm, I won’t get a chance to check it out.

The last few days have been pretty average though.  I felt pretty sick yesterday, which has been like the 4th time I’ve gotten a cold since I’ve been here.  I’m feeling better today though after resting most of yesterday after my classes.  Today I got to talk to my sister and Courtney while I was in Chernihiv at Cuba Bar, which was great.  I love hearing about home and how things are because I feel very disconnected from home since I don’t have internet and the hours are so far off.  It’s less than two weeks until I leave for Kiev and find out where I’ll be living for the next two years.

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