Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hiking, traveling, picnic

Time has gotten away from me once again, so here is a catch up blog post of my latest adventures.
The weather has finally turned warm—hot actually-- just in time for spring hikes and picnics. A couple of Saturdays ago I went hiking with Polina and a male friend of hers (Dima), whom I ended up liking a lot. The first true “gearhead” I have met here—told me about websites in America he orders stuff from. We started out hiking through open fields, getting hotter and hotter, but then the old road merged into the forests and there we were the rest of the day, eventually coming out onto one of the many points in Crimea called “Kush kaya” which means bird rock in Crimea Tatar.  The forests were thickly carpeted with spring wildflowers, especially the bright yellow buttercups we also find in America, and the spring vegetation coming up was green and lush—truly a spring paradise. 

Dima posing in the wildflowers

On Kush Kaya--Bird Rock--Chatyr Dag in the distance

Polina and I at end of hike

Once again, we were following Polina on her GPS and once again, she got on the phone to her mother when the way on the GPS didn’t seem quite right. With her mother’s directions we cut up a slope to the correct trail. Now I see why her mother doesn’t even bother with a compass when she hikes.

On Sunday, there was the Window on America annual picnic. About 40 of us met at the train station to take the very hot and very crowded and very old electric train to Bakchiseray, about an hour and half away. However, one of the great things about the electric trains is that you are constantly entertained by street musicians who pass from car to car, making their living from the meager handouts they receive. 

We gather for a group photo at WOA picnic

Hikers at WOA picnic; guy in cap a local PCV

Once in Bakchiseray, we all crowded onto a couple of buses to the “old city” and hiked to a beautiful grassy meadow surrounded by the high canyon rock faces of that region. I spent a lot of the day hanging out in the shade, but many of the young people played soccer and volleyball. Those of us in the shade prepared food, played cards, listened to and sang along with the several musicians among the young folk. Eventually a few people wanted to take a hike and they turned to me to lead the way! They all know what a hiker I am, and I was pretty familiar with the area. But we didn’t get far—too hot, not enough time--but a nice stroll anyhow.

The following week, the May holidays began—Orthodox Easter, May Day, and Victory Day—which means there are many days off and lots of activities. On May 1st,  my PCV friend Joohee came to our house for shashleek (kebabs) and then early the next morning, we took a 4 ½ hour bus to the city of Kerch, the only major landmark in Crimea I hadn’t yet visited. It is the furthest eastern city in Crimea—a short ferry ride away from Russia (not that we PCVs can go there—visa is complicated). There are several volunteers there, including one older Volunteer we stayed with.

We had a nice time, strolling around the city center, climbing up the “mountain” in the middle of the city on the “400 steps,” visiting the underground catacombs where over 10,000 partisan resisters and Kerch residents held out against the Nazis for six months, though almost all eventually perished. Now it is a museum with a dramatic Soviet style entrance that leads to a long series of unlighted steps into the catacombs. Our guide had a flashlight, as did a few of the people in our group, but it was a very dark and somewhat spooky excursion, as they have provided very little lighting. Not unusual here, but in our safety conscious America, it would have never been tolerated. Sometimes I think the US goes overboard in that direction, but in this case, at least a little of that consciousness would have been helpful. Joohee and I held hands every time we moved in fear of getting left behind! Though when they briefly turned off the flashlights for a moment of silence at one of the memorials, the profound darkness was something I perhaps have never experienced in my lifetime. 

Joohee on my right, on my left Christine who lives in Kerch

View from top of hill in center of Kerch

Entrance to catacombs museum

We just stayed one night in Kerch, but it was a nice break. Joohee is leaving to go back to the US soon, and I wanted to get back to go hiking on Saturday with Alie from the Window on America center and her husband, Genghis. A couple of their young friends joined us too, and it was a good day. Not a lot of real hiking, mostly just following roads, but I enjoyed being with them all—talking about Crimean Tatar history of the area, local flora and fauna, the house we came across with a VERY high security wall armed with cameras which they said must be owned by someone in the government, and any other topic that one of the young guys who was happy about the chance to practice his English (often the case) brought up. The day was extremely hot, but we ended at a reservoir, and though we couldn’t really go swimming, we at least had the opportunity to wade and cool down.

View of the reservoir

Alie and her husband Genghis

The following day (Sunday) I spent a leisurely day at home, and then on Monday (the official day off for the Easter holiday on Sunday), the family and I went in the van to the annual Crimean Tatar festival of Hirdirlez. We only stayed a couple of hours—enough time to walk around and see the displays, listen to some music, watch Crimean Tatar wrestling and horse racing—and then took off on a cross-the-mountain drive to the sea. Which would have been very beautiful, except that when we got to the top of the mountain, we encountered a huge rainstorm that followed us all the way down the mountain and along the sea coast. Eventually the skies cleared, and I, once again, got to see that beautiful stretch of the coast. It is considered the most dramatic scenery on the coast, and I long to explore it more. Hard to figure out how to do without a car, though I bet Polina and Nada know….

Today is Tuesday and I am back at the library, but just for this one day. There is yet another holiday this week --Victory Day (from WWII or the Great Patriotic War, as they call it here)--on Thursday and the library will be closed that day and Friday. Next week I take off for my Close-of-Service (COS) medical appointments in Kyiv and then off to Romania for a week.  I plan to be in Crimea most of June, leaving on the 26th for my 3-week trip to Georgia. So much time for more Crimea exploring and hanging out with all the people I love here.
With love from Crimea.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Joys of my last few months in Crimea

I see that it has been over a month since I last wrote a blog post. This “winding down” time is turning out to be very busy. Surprisingly-though it seems life often goes this way—this has become a time of new people, new experiences.  Much of it has come from my decision to start an English club at the Window on America center which I wrote about in an earlier blog. The club has been a great success—I was happy to see how eager the young (and a few older) people were to read and discuss American literature and true life stories (from the National Story Project). The stories are easier for them as they don’t use “literary” language, but they continue to slog their way through James Thurber, John Updike, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker. 

And because I had been having so much fun doing the club, I decided to show some of the recent 3-part PBS special on the history of the women’s movement. And that led to showing other documentaries—the Wounded Knee occupation in the 1970’s and the Freedom Riders in the early 1960’s—and having discussions around these social movements in America, something close to my heart. It has been such an interesting experience—and enlightening in terms of learning about attitudes and ideas from this part of the world—to be able to discuss so many different topics with these Ukrainians. And for sure, it gives them a different view of America than what they get from most American movies and television.

So I spend as much time as possible at the Window on America center, getting to know the young people there and the director, Alie, whom I greatly enjoy. We are kindred spirits in many ways, and both of us are dreading the time when I no longer will be coming to the WOA.

Some of my English club participants. That is Alie, director of WOA, to my right.

The English club I had started with my friend Elmaz at the children’s library where she works ended up being very poorly attended, so finally I canceled it. The director of the library wanted me to continue but when no kids show up they drag kids out of their internet center who really don’t want to be there. So I decided I wanted to do something else on my Wednesday afternoons (like cook dinner for the family)! I did manage to get them a box of English children’s books from the Books for Peace organization in the US, so they were very happy about that.

My work at my library is very slow, as I no longer have any projects to work on. But I am doing a lot of translation work for them—providing English translations of various project proposals Nadjie has written so they will have them on file for future use—plus writing for the library blog and my own blog. I recently wrote a blog post on “Ismail Gasprinskiy—a feminist” ( which was interesting to research and write. I am also working on putting together some kind of presentation about my four years here for the “party” I will have on my last day sometime in the latter part of June.

I have also continued my hiking adventures with Polina and Nada (the mother/daughter team), lately more with Polina, though not for any particular reason. I think Nada has her own hiking pals she goes with. On one hike, Lilya from the library also came—I am trying to get them connected so Lilya will have someone to go hiking with when I leave. That hike involved a lot of crashing through the forests as we mostly followed Polina’s GPS versus any established trails. I had thought that perhaps Lilya would be a bit discouraged—she really doesn’t have that kind of experience nor the footwear (that girl needs some hiking shoes!)—but she ended up talking about what a great time she had and when can we go next? 

Polina is also a photographer, thus the beautiful photos in this blog.
The last hike I did was just with Polina (Lilya has been sick lately). Though the weather was quite cold at the beginning, it turned into a beautiful day with stunning views of Chatyr Dag and the surrounding mountains. We were on the lower mountains across the valley from Chatyr Dag and hiked to three different caves that Polina knew about. You would really have to know the location—the entrances were always hidden behind a clump of trees—but the caves were large and deep with magnificent rock formations. We went into all of them--the last one the deepest where I followed Polina and her head lamp, crawling, slipping and sliding down to the lowest cavern. Surrounding me in the darkness was the deep silence of the cave, the slow dripping of water, the bizarre stalactite and stalagmite formations outlined in the brightness of Polina’s headlamp.

Unlike the others, Polina had not been to our final cave of the day (number four).  We could see the opening across the canyon, so set off using her GPS in search of it. But once we got there, we could no longer see the entrance and couldn’t find it. After searching around for a while, Polina got on her cellphone with whom, I thought, was one of her hiking pals, but as it turned out, it was her mother and she knew exactly how to direct us to the entrance of the cave. I told Alie about it and she said, “Yeah, Polina’s mother is the GPS of Crimea.”

I continue on with making future plans—Kyiv for a few days in May and then Romania for a week with my friend Carla—and also cousin Sara is coming for visit at the end of May. And contemplating the future. I think I will have the opportunity to return to Ukraine sometime next year and work for 12 months under the Peace Corps Response program (for ex PCV’s), working with “high level functioning” NGO’s, consulting on organizational development. I think it would be an interesting challenge, but first and foremost, they have to have an English speaker on staff! Most likely I will end up in Kyiv, but possibly Simferopol. 

In the meantime, I think at the end of June when I have to leave the country (my visa expires), I am going to go to Georgia and perhaps northeast Turkey with my PCV pal Cheryl, mostly with idea of hiking in the Caucuses. Then return to America and hopefully have time to have nice long visits with my friends and family.
So that’s my life right now. All of which could change at any time, of course. But re-reading my blog post of January 8th when I talked about the difficulties of this fourth year, I feel so glad that I was able to make my way out of that slump and to embrace my life here in these last few months.  Things that I talked about in that post haven’t really changed substantially—my difficulties with my home life and the library and with the language still exist to some degree—but with the end of my time here, at least in this program, I have been able to more successfully let go of that over which I have no control and find new ways of being in this land I love so much. And for that, I am grateful.

With love from Crimea.
That is the cave entrance in the distance.

The meadows were filled with spring wildflowers

Some of the formations in the caves.

Chatyr Dag from the entrance of the last cave.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Hiking Day

Sunday was one of my best days ever in Crimea, but already it is fading fast in my mind on this Tuesday, two days later. Discord at home, discord at work…how easily it can erase joy and happiness if one lets it. But in the spirit of trying not to let that happen, I will write this post about that wonderful day and live in that time for a while.

Two blog posts ago I wrote about reconnecting with Polina and her mother Nada, the great hikers I had met almost three years ago. I know now that if I want to go hiking with them, I need to just ask. For a long time after I first met them, I waited for an invite, despite Polina telling me to call her if I wanted to go. Eventually, having never heard from her, I gave up on the idea, which is too bad, because I realize now I could have been hiking with them all this time.

But now I am determined to make up for that lost opportunity, so despite the bad weather forecast, I gave Polina a call last weekend. Saturday weather was really bad—cold rain and wind—but the Sunday forecast at least didn’t include rain, so we—or rather they—decided to go. 

There would be four of us--Polina and a male friend, Nada and me. The plan was to take a very early bus (6:30 am) to a nearby city where we could catch the only bus of the day to the tiny village of Bolshoi Ooshele (Large Gorge). From there, we would hike to a nearby waterfall, and then Polina and her friend would go on and Nada and I would return, as Polina kept saying they were going "really far," with the implication it would be too much for me.

We arrived at the village about 8:30am and started out on a very muddy road, following a river through the forest and trying to skirt around the mud, and ended up an hour or so later at a beautiful waterfall cascading over a canyon wall into a deep pool—very inviting for a swim on a hot day, I would imagine. However, on this day the temperature was barely above freezing and a wind from the north made it feel even colder.
Polina asked if I wanted to go on or go back. I turned to Nada and asked her in my stumbling Russian (she speaks no English) what she wanted to do, in hopes she would say, “go on,” and of course, that is exactly what she wanted to do. So all four of us took off, hiking together up over a steep bluff and then the "young people" went one direction (with a plan to explore a cave) and Nada and I, another direction.

I wasn’t sure if we had a plan to meet up later, but, as it turned out, I ended up spending the rest of the day hiking with just Nada. We walked through leaf strewn forests where the spring wildflowers were starting to come up, beside rushing streams cascading over spectacular waterfalls, along the edge of high bluffs with views all the way to the sea. It was my Crimean dream come true—to spend a whole day tramping through the beautiful wilds of Crimea with this amazing woman. I know in the U.S. there are women like her, but in Ukraine, 66-year-old women such as Nada are very rare (or at least I have not met anyone else like her, and people seem surprised that at my age, I am able to do the things I do). She seemed to never tire, and I scrambled sometimes to keep up with her. I kept telling myself, “If she can do it, so can I!” though in one particularly scary spot, she got behind and pushed me up a rock ledge!

 Also, her knowledge of the land is astounding. We followed no maps--indeed, the places where we went weren't marked on Crimea hiking maps, which means even the map authors didn't know about them. Though Polina now uses a newly acquired GPS, Nada doesn’t have so much as a compass. She just headed off into the forests, sometimes following paths, other times bushwhacking through sparsely vegetated  areas.  Indeed, she seemed to prefer to be “off the beaten path,” versus following established trails or roads. She would look up at the ridges and peaks and always know where she was, even recognizing when a creek had altered its path.  After consulting with me about what I wanted to see (one waterfall versus three?--a consultation I barely understood as she speaks absolutely no English and I had difficulty understand her Russian, and she mine) we followed a route in her head that got us to four different and spectacular waterfalls. I had always thought of Crimea as a dry land—and indeed the scarcity of water here is a perennial problem—but that day there seemed to be water everywhere—rushing creeks that became rivers, springs flowing out from under rocks and tree roots,  waterfalls spraying over the lips of deep canyons.

Nada would point out various things as we went along, and I so wish I could have understood all she told me, though in reality I comprehended very little. But I did understand enough to know that she always made sure we "left no trace" when we stopped to eat, thanked the place where we sat and rested, and was very aware of any damage or changes humans had made in the environment.

We hiked for eight hours,  stopping only for a brief lunch (and of course we ended up eating the lunch she brought despite my efforts to bring appropriate food--but bread and cheese and boiled eggs really don’t compare to tasty meat cutlets and beet salad) and later for a snack (my only contribution—apples). Finally, we ended up at a remote village where while waiting for the bus, we got a ride to Sevastopol from someone going in that direction (a common occurrence here with the understanding the passengers would pay something, though in this case, the clearly wealthy driver refused our offer of money) and then took the electric train (free for Nada as a “pensioner”) back to Simferopol. And then for me a bus ride to Ak Mechet and a 15-minute walk home. 

I left that morning at 5:45am and got back at 8:30pm, a long day, but a day I will never forget. More than once as I was following behind Nada, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is the reason I am still here in Crimea. What a wonderful gift.”
With love from Crimea.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rainy weekend activities

I wasn’t feeling too inspired to write a blog post, but then I started scrolling back though old posts, looking for information for a going-away-project for the library—I plan to make them a photo record of my work here—and realized how wonderful it is to have all these posts I wrote starting almost four years ago. 

So, a little bit of catching up. The weather hasn’t been too conducive to hiking these past couple of weekends, so I have been content to limit my hikes to my now well-traveled route of walking the dirt roads of Ak Mechet to the nearby rocky bluffs and following the cliff edge to the highest point, then down through the forest back to Ak Mechet and my home, a hike of one and half to two hours, depending on how energetic I am feeling and how distracted I get by bird watching and the view. And what a view it is when the sky is clear and the clouds are not obscuring the distant mountains. I will never tire of it—the long tent-like silhouette of Chatyr Dag—the second highest mountain in Crimea—rising above the plain, the distant Demerdji with its bizarre rock formations, the snow covered plateau of Babugan extending to the sea.  Below the mountains, the rolling fields of wheat change colors with the growing season and the villages nestled between them look like toy towns. Always I look out on that landscape and feel so thankful that I ended up here in Crimea and that this is my backyard.

I did have some fun times these past couple of weeks, though, despite the cold and drizzly weather.  One of the weekends was spent traveling to Lenura’s parents’ village of Berezovka to celebrate her father Ablumet’s 65th birthday.  Though I like visiting her parents a great deal, I was dreading it a bit because it always means a time of me sitting around not comprehending much of what the family is chatting about, which is even more true when there is some kind of celebration and Lenura’s aunt and uncle show up. Usually Serdar is around to help translate, but he wanted to stay home and have a party for his friends and Safie also ended up not going because she had a school obligation. So it was just the adults.

But surprise, surprise, I ended up having a really nice time and for the most part, was able to participate in the conversation. I don’t know what was different—maybe I was just paying more attention? Not depending on Serdar to translate? Whatever it was, I did feel much better about my language skills as a result. A momentary victory, I know, but at least it must mean I have made some progress…

And on the other weekend, I took off to Sovetsky, the home of my PCV friends Cheryl,  Joohee, Brad and Bryna. Cheryl is in Italy for three weeks, but the other three decided to have a going away gathering for a nearby PCV who is leaving her site at the end of March. It was a small group—only six of us—and mostly an excuse for all of them to cook up a storm. Both Joohee and Brad are great cooks—Brad even made a loaf of his homemade bread (with carrots and garlic) for me to take home. Men around here—especially Crimean Tatar men—rarely cook, so we keep telling him what a great role model he is being. His wife, Bryna, however, gets the short end of it as everyone wonders why she isn’t being a good wife and “taking care of her man.” But they do provide a lovely example of a marriage that is a partnership.

I stayed overnight, and we had a nice time, eating, talking, drinking some homemade wine, watching a really bad Tom Hanks movie in which he is a reluctant PCV, and just generally enjoying each other’s company. Except for hiking with Cheryl, I am rarely around other PCV’s these days—and thus rarely around native English speakers—and it was a treat to be able to communicate so freely.
Weather forecast is looking a little better for this weekend, so hope to get some hiking in.
Much love to all from Crimea.