Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making manti with Lenura for Thanksgiving

It’s a Sunday afternoon. I returned home a couple of hours ago from a weekend in the village of Stary Krim, about a 2-hour bus ride from Simferopol. PCVs Jason and Aubree live there and they decided to invite all the Crimean PCV’s for a potluck Thanksgiving Feast. They managed to buy a turkey from a local person (turkeys are not a common food here), cut it into smaller chunks, and cooked it in a toaster oven, along with stuffing, glazed carrots (no sweet potatoes in Ukraine), and gravy. The rest of us contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin bread, salad, cranberries, and lots of other goodies. And Aubree also managed to make a pumpkin pie and apple pie for the occasion! None of which sounds all that difficult, until you consider the fact that the town they live in has no consistent water supply, so they depend on filling up plastic bottles for water; the kitchen in Jason’s apartment (the better of the kitchens in their apartments) has no stove and only a small sink with no running water, and the only counter space was a small table mostly taken up with the toaster oven (which had to be carried from Aubree’s apartment a half hour walk away along with a couple of chairs).
Of course, despite the “hardships,” we managed to have a great meal and a great time—imbibing some beer and wine, eating our way through all the delicious foods, playing cards and then a charades game. Before dinner, Cheryl and Vicki, my older PCV pals, and I took an afternoon walk up into the hills to see the ancient Armenian monastery located there. Built in the 1300’s, the monastery has been somewhat restored and is an imposing structure, high on a hill top overlooking the valley below. A young Armenian man who could speak some English showed us around and told us that there is now a priest living there and that it is an active monastery. Curious about the relationship of the Armenians with the Crimean Tatars, I asked him if Tatars were here when the Armenians build the monastery, and he said, “Oh no, they are a much newer people.” I, of course, knew that not to be true, and indeed, when we visited the ruins of the old mosque in the center of town the next day, there was a plaque saying the mosque was built in 1311, which would have been before the Armenian monastery. I was not overly surprised by his answer, because I think it reflects some of the ethnic tensions here in Crimea, but it also wanted me to explore exactly what is the joint history of the Armenians and the Crimean Tatars.
Some of the PCV’s had to head home that night, including Cheryl and Vicki, but a number of us stayed, though not totally willingly, as my site mate Adrianne had planned to get back to Simferopol that night and went to the bus station 15 minutes before her bus was due to depart, only to be told that the bus had already come and gone, despite the fact that she had a ticket for the bus! Oh, the undecipherable workings of the Ukrainian transport system…
We had a good time that evening talking and playing games and it wasn’t too awfully late (midnight), as some of us made our way through the very dark streets to Aubree’s apartment, where we stretched out on the floor in our sleeping bags. Luckily, I also had a sleeping pad I had brought with me. I really am too old to sleep on hard floors.
For my contribution to the dinner, I asked Lenura to help me make pumpkin filled manti, a Crimean Tatar dish. Of course, it was really the other way around—she made them and I helped—mostly folding the manti into their intricate little shapes. Manti are a steamed dumpling or ravioli, traditionally filled with meat but sometimes with pumpkin and onions as we did this time, or other fillings. The real art to making manti is the crust. Composed of only flour and water and a small amount of salt, it is rolled out to a thin crust. I was amazed how quickly Lenura was able to take a ball of dough and turn it into a perfectly round, very large and thin crust, ready to be cut into squares for the filling. Folding the manti into the proper shape with the filling inside is a precise maneuver, but easy to master—even I was able to learn it! Then the manti are placed onto stacking trays in a stove top steamer (brought from Uzbekistan—it was Neshet’s mother’s) and 30 minutes later you have beautiful delicious steamed manti, usually served with a dollop of butter or sour cream.
I doubt I will ever be able to master making manti on my own, but I sure love helping Lenura make them, and of course, eating them! As did all my fellow PCV’s at our Thanksgiving feast.
Much love from Crimea on this post-Thanksgiving Sunday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serdar's 17th birthday

The weather here in Crimea is beginning to act more like typical November, or at least that was the case when I was in Kyiv last weekend—very dreary, cold, rainy. I went to Kyiv to close out my grant that I had received for the library, a necessary procedure before we can apply for a new grant. I had a pretty bad cold so didn’t feel like traveling, but there really was no choice. I spent all day Friday at the Peace Corps office, working on the grant, talking with people, getting a flu shot. That evening I stayed at the apartment of an acquaintance who was out of town, so I had the place to myself and spent the evening resting. The next day I went to the dentist in the morning and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the center, in and out of stores, looking for possible birthday and New Year presents.
Serdar’s birthday was coming up on Monday, and I knew exactly what I wanted to get him. When we were in Kyiv together in June, he spotted a book at a vendor on Independence Square who was selling Ukrainian nationalist books and paraphernalia. The book was the memoirs of Nestor Makhno, a famous anarchist in Ukraine in the early part of the century. He and his friends had become very impassioned about the anarchist movement, and he wanted to buy the book for his best friend. However, it was more money than he had, so he dropped the idea. But when I went to the museum of the poet Voloshin last month, I saw a picture of Makhno (they apparently were pals which further intrigues me about Voloshin) and remembered Serdar’s interest and was determined to buy the book for him if I got to Kyiv before his birthday. So when I arrived at Independence Square I immediately went looking for that vendor and there he was, and there was the book. We haggled over the price a bit, but he didn’t budge, which I wasn’t too surprised about. It is a pretty scarce book, as I found out when I checked the bookstores in Simferopol (who had never heard of Makhno) and at the weekend book fair where the vendors just laughed at me for thinking they might have that book. The vendor in Independence Square was a nice old guy, and I really didn’t mind paying the money (about the equivalent of $20), and it was fun chatting with him, though I didn’t understand much of what he was saying. I found out later from Serdar that he only speaks (or probably more truthfully only will speak) Ukrainian, so no wonder I was having such a hard time understanding him.
Near the end of the afternoon I met the acquaintance in whose apartment I had stayed the previous evening and had a cup of coffee at the nicest coffee shop I have been in in Ukraine. I took the overnight train back to Simferopol and slept fairly well, given that there was only one other person (a woman, thank goodness) in my compartment. I was still pretty exhausted by the time I got home, probably because of my cold and the fact that it wasn’t a very successful trip outside of the birthday shopping. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to close my grant after all due to some difficulties with the budget, so I have to make yet another trip to Kyiv to do that at some point. Hopefully, if I am able to go to the language refresher in January, I can tack it on to that trip.
I rested up for a bit and eventually went for a walk and stopped by the store in my neighborhood for some staples. Ran into Safiye on the way home and had a nice chat, but walking up to my door, I tripped over something and went flying. Bent my little finger all the way back—I quickly straightened it—and also cut my lip and bruised my knees. Most of it was minor except for the finger. I immediately went over to get some ice and TLC from Lenura, which she was more than happy to give me. I could move my finger so I knew it wasn’t broken, but it sure did swell up and is very black and blue now. Quite impressive looking, I must say. I really need to be more careful!
So yesterday was Serdar’s 17th birthday, and I went over to their house when I got home from work to share the evening with all of them. Serdar still hadn’t returned from his day at the university. He eventually showed up, beaming with happiness at having a great day there with his friends—“having a blast” he said, once he asked me what “blast” meant. He gave us all hugs and kisses and a really big hug for his sister for the present she bought him. We sat down to a wonderful meal and Neshet gave a long toast which I couldn’t totally follow, but to which Serdar frequently said “saghol,” which is thank you in Crimean Tatar. Later I also gave a toast to him and talked about his wonderful spirit and that I hoped it never changed. He told me that of all the toasts on his birthday that was the best. Which made me love him even more, of course. He was surprised when he opened his present to realize I had remembered and found that book, and told me that is the first book that he personally has ever owned. I said maybe he would need to put off reading it until he has a break from university, but he said, “oh no, I’m going to start tonight!” I had also made a card from the picture my friend Cheryl took of Serdar and I with Chatyr Dag in the background, and everyone really loved the photo.
It was a wonderful evening; the second birthday of Serdar’s that I have spent with him and his family. I often ponder where this life is leading me, as I feel a deepening love for the Seiptaptiev’s and the sense that they are becoming my family. And it is not only them, but also Maiye and Siyare next door and Nadjie and other women at the library that I feel a stronger and stronger connection to. Recently, the Peace Corps office sent out an announcement about my group’s “Close of Service” conference which will happen in February, four months before practically everyone leaves. A couple of us are “extending” for another year, but the people I have gotten to know from my group--Fran, Jud, Debbie--will all be leaving. But for me, I can’t imagine leaving next June when my service is officially over. And right now, the truth of it is, I can’t imagine ever leaving. The thought of walking away from these people I have grown to love seems unbearable. So who knows what my future will bring? Maybe someday I will feel a readiness to leave, or maybe I will continue to build a life here and America will become a place I visit. I try not to dwell on those thoughts too much, because everything is, of course, ever changing. I just continue to feel so deeply grateful and blessed that my life at this moment has led me here.
My love to all of you from my home in Crimea.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I celebrate my 63rd birthday on Kara Dag

It’s a Tuesday morning, and unusual for me, I am home today. It is a major Muslim holiday—Kurban bayram—and my library is closed today and tomorrow. We also were able to leave a bit earlier last night—5 instead of 6—so people could get home and prepare the traditional Crimean Tatar dishes of cheburek (fried meat pies) and plov (rice pilaf with meat, usually mutton). I had planned to spend the evening at home, but I wasn’t very surprised when Mariye from next door showed up with a plate of plov for me. She makes the best plov around. Tonight I will go over to the Seitaptievs for some more tasty Crimean Tatar cooking. What a treat…
So Sunday was my 63rd birthday, and what a wonderful day I had. The weather in Crimea this November has been exceptionally beautiful, so I wanted to get out somewhere to celebrate my birthday. Last year I also wanted to go exploring, but the weather was not so cooperative, and we ended up getting caught in a cold rain as we hiked the cave city of Eski Kermen. But this year I knew it would be beautiful, so I started talking with friends about going to Kara Dag on the coast, a place I have always wanted to explore. Actually, it was Serdar and I who started talking about it, but in the end, he couldn’t go because of his studies. A disappointment, but I understood and am glad that he prioritizes his studying over anything else. Right now that is what he needs to be doing.
Our original plan was to go on Saturday so I would have Sunday to be at home and easily be with my neighbors on my actual birthday. But you can only go to Kara Dag with a guide, and they cancelled on us for Saturday, so Sunday was the day. I spent a lot of time being nervous about whether or not I would be able to get back in time to have my birthday dinner with the Seiptatievs, but when Sunday dawned, I just decided it was going to all work out. And it did. I did have to rush home from the bus station, but I got there only ten minutes after I said I would be there, so all was well.
Kara Dag (which means Black Mountain in Crimean Tatar) is located on the coast near a town called Koktebel which I had visited earlier. It is the remains of a volcano that spewed rocks and debris over a 25 square km area. As a result, the region is covered with strange rock formations and jagged peaks that drop down to the sea. It is also home to many endangered species—called “Red Book” species in Ukraine—of flora and fauna. There is a small museum at the entrance to the area which explains the ecology, but by the time we got there—a total of 5 hours on buses and marshukas, or waiting for buses and marshukas-- we were anxious to start hiking. Kara Dag has been a protected wilderness for a number of years now, a rarity in Crimea, and you are only allowed in with a guide. Because of that it is the most pristine place I’ve been to here—not a piece of garbage and only a few trails crisscrossing the area. We had a group of 11 plus two guides. And a diverse group it was—three older and three younger PCV’s, two Ukrainians (one my friend Dima who was on my birthday hike last year), and three international students from Spain, Germany, and Lithuanian. Everyone (except us older volunteers) spoke pretty good Russian, and the guides only spoke Russian. I tried to pay attention and catch what I could and frequently asked one of the Ukrainians to fill me in. But mostly I just wanted to be there, to be immersed in what is the most beautiful place I have been to in Crimea. We hiked for four hours through pine and juniper forests, across open grasslands of pale yellow, and on up to the top of the peaks with rock formations scattered everywhere, and vast vistas out to the sea. I really don’t have the words to describe it, and hopefully my pictures will convey some of the beauty of this incredible place.
We made it back to the bus station in Koktebel in plenty of time for the five o’clock bus to Simferopol. It is about a two-hour trip and there was actually a screen in the front with a movie—just like in an airplane! First time I have encountered that. Once we got to Simferopol, I quickly got off the bus and went to catch a marshuka to Ak Mechet, and then power walked to the neighbors as Serdar had called to let me know they were waiting for me, and I didn’t want them to wait long. And what a lovely dinner I had with them. Lenura had prepared manti, one of my favorite Crimean Tatar dishes, along with a tasty salad of cabbage, onions, carrots, and French fries! But, really, it was delicious. And they gave me a present of a ceramic Turkish coffee maker from Brazil (I have no idea where Neshet found that!) and a beautiful card in which they had written how thankful they are for destiny bringing us together. I felt so loved and so much a part of their family. Like trying to describe Kara Dag, I also have no words to describe how truly blessed I am by their presence in my life.
Much love to all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hospitals, hiking, an invite to Istanbul

My new hiking buddies, Anastasia on my left, and Ira on my right.
On the summit of Chatyr Dag.
A view from Chatyr Dag.
Nadjie and I at the library's 20th anniversary celebration.
Serdar and I on the bluffs near my home. That is Chatyr Dag in the background.
Monday morning at the library, trying to ignore the voices around me and my lingering irritation at not being informed there would be a meeting at the library this morning and thus no English class. Not untypical due to the lack of advanced planning here and something I have gotten somewhat used to, but irritating nonetheless, especially on a Monday morning!
But to get on to my work for the day. Last week was the 20th Anniversary conference at the library which I plan on writing a post about in my library blog, but first I thought I would write in my own blog some of what I have been doing lately.
Last week much of my time—and thoughts—were taken up with the fact that Lenura was in the hospital. Apparently, she had some kind of planned operation—not sure what, maybe a hysterectomy or something along those lines (“woman’s problem” Serdar called it). I visited her twice in the hospital and called her often, checking up on how she was doing. She recovered remarkably well—two days after the operation she was walking around, and a week later when she came home, she spent her whole first day at home cleaning! She won’t be going back to work for a few weeks, but she sure won’t be resting, it seems. I tried to encourage her in that direction, but she just laughed. Saturday night I went over to their house to make chili and cornbread for them, thinking it would keep her from cooking on her first full day at home, but of course, she also made manti for dinner. Maybe it didn’t seem right to her that she wouldn’t be preparing any of the meal. Her parents were there, and also a friend of Neshet’s. They all seemed to love the chili (I had gotten chili powder from an American friend) and especially the cornbread—Lenura and her mom, Liliye, made sure they got the recipe.
But what I really want to relate in this story is the experience of the hospital. Sometimes when I see the fancy stores in the city center and some of the nice cars driving around, I forget that I am in a developing country. But walking into a hospital certainly brought that reality back. According to Neshet, the hospitals here are all owned by the government, and viewed from American eyes, they are pretty scary places. This is the hospital where Lenura works as a surgical nurse, so at least she had the comfort of knowing the staff, but I don’t think you would find a hospital like this anywhere in America these days. She was in a “recovery room,” where she stayed for two days. There were six beds, one sink, and a few bedside tables and that was it. No bathroom, no chairs for visitors (no room for chairs), no curtains for privacy, no television, no way to ring the nurse, old hospital beds that did not work, sheets brought from home, no water pitchers, etc, medicines and bandages in a cardboard box by the bedside. Everything had a run down dinginess to it, the hallways were dark and poorly lit, there seemed to be little staff around (this was on a weekend—maybe it is different during the week). I know the Peace Corps quickly evacuates any volunteer who needs hospitalization, and now I see why. The Ukraine hospitals are very, very far from what we call “western standards.”
Another “interesting” thing that happened to me last week was my debit card number from my bank account at home got stolen after I used it to buy a pair of shoes (something I am unable to do on my Peace Corps salary, at least ones that are wearable without making my feet ache for days). Somehow it ended up being used to withdraw money from a number of locations of a Lebanon bank which banks in the Middle East, Cuba, and Belarus. I was able to get the money back with help from my friend Pam at home and a great person at my credit union, though it cost me a lot in the phone call I had to make to Visa to cancel the card ($25 for 7 minutes!). But except for the fact that I now no longer have a credit card here, things are fine. I will just have to live off my Peace Corps salary, which I do anyhow, except when I want to travel out of the country…or buy a pair of shoes!
But some great things happened recently too. One was the 20th anniversary of the library which resulted in a gala event at the library last Thursday afternoon. Guests from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republics of Baskortostan and Tatarstan in Russia were present. I have written more about it on my library blog. After the event which consisted of many speeches and some wonderful music (does everyone here have these incredible voices that they can just burst into beautiful singing at the drop of a hat?—that is what happened at this event, and also the anniversary event at the children’s library…), everyone went to a performance at the Crimean Tatar theater. I ended up sitting next to a professor from Turkey. She was at the conference to give a talk about her father, who was a famous Turkologist and a contemporary of Gasprinsky. Turns out she lived in America for a number of years, including the city where I grew up, St. Louis. She is a fluent English speaker, and we had a nice time talking, and she ended up inviting me to visit her in Istanbul, which I just might do. I’m sure I would see a whole other part of Istanbul, visiting her.
And another thing that happened recently that made me happy, was I finally got to go hiking on Chatyr Dag mountain, something I have always wanted to do, as it is the mountain I see in the distance on my frequent walks from my home. Serdar and I have often talked about going there together, and I had hoped he would join me and my new hiking friends (from the library in Alushta, a town on the coast near Chatyr Dag), but despite his wanting to, it was not to be. He pretty much has to spend all his time studying these days and didn’t feel he could take a day off. I understand and encourage him to stick with his studies, of course, but it was disappointing, nevertheless. I do miss him.
But it was great up on the mountain. A vast open plateau—the fifth highest mountain in Crimea—with beautiful views all around: the mountains up and down the coast, the Black Sea stretching out to the horizon in the south, Demerdji Mountain where I have hiked looming up on the other side of the pass, and way in the distance, Simferopol and Ak Mechet. So now when I go for my walk at home and see Chatyr Dag rising in the distance above the fields and villages, I can think about standing up on the plateau and being surrounded by the beauty of Crimea. What a precious sight it was.
Love to all from this beautiful place I call home.