Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The circus on Christmas!

‘Tis the season to be jolly and here it’s no exception. Though Christmas as we know it isn’t celebrated—the Orthodox Christian Christmas is on January 7th and is a much more subdued affair—the celebrations around New Year’s (or novi gode in Russian) more than make up for the lack of Christmas. It’s Christmas and New Year’s traditions all rolled into one big holiday—Christmas tree (yolka), big family dinner, presents (though much less than the US), a version of Santa Claus called Grandfather Frost (who apparently travels from Finland but minus reindeer—unclear how he actually gets here), fireworks at midnight, and the circus! Yes, that’s right, a special edition of the local circus, and special it was.

On Sunday, PCV friend Cheryl and I went with Serdar and Safie to the circus, thanks to free tickets from Lenura’s workplace. And since Sunday happened to be Christmas, it felt like we got a little Christmas celebration in after all. Actually, there was a gathering of about twenty of the Crimean Peace Corps Volunteers in the apartment of one of the Volunteers in town, so Cheryl and I went there briefly before the circus. It was fun to get to meet some of the newbies (only been at site for a week) and see again some of the Volunteers that have come in the last year. But I wasn’t really into being at a big PCV gathering in a tiny apartment (as usual), so was glad to take off for the circus.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I have always been curious about the circus when I walked by its building located in the center of the city. Circuses here in Ukraine and Russia and maybe all of Europe—that I don’t know—are different from the traveling affairs we know. Any city of any size has a permanent building that houses the circus and a company that puts it on, much like a repertoire theater. Traveling circuses also frequently appear—recently the circus from Moscow was here—but the rest of the time there is a continuous circus with different themes. So what we attended was the circus celebrating New Year’s.

Even though the building looks quite large on the outside, it is a fairly small space and every seat provides a good view. And there wasn’t an empty seat—the place was packed with kids and adults. It was what I think of when I think of old time circuses—a single ring with clowns, music, a juggler, a unicyclist, acrobatic and high wire acts, a mime, Grandfather Frost and his attendants, and… animals. And amazing animals they were. Not the usual circus animals of elephants and tigers—which I was glad of because I know of the charges of how circuses treat their animals. But instead we had “damashne jhivotne”—as Safie called them—home animals. Which consisted of: dogs of all sizes and breeds (though those performing poodles dominated the pack), pigs, one monkey, a raccoon, an animal that looked like a raccoon but wasn’t, a skunk, a goat, two different foxes, a porcupine-looking animal, and birds. Lots of different birds—homing pigeons, a rooster who was trained to play dead, chickens, owls, parrots, three storks, a cormorant, and an enormous vulture of some sort. And they were all trained to at least do something, even if it was just to walk around the ring. Well, I’m not sure about the vulture—I think his deal was just to awe us all by flapping his enormous wings. He didn’t seem overly happy about it. But entertaining it was, though I kept thinking that one of the dogs, who shared his act with three pigs, was saying to himself, “you’ve got to be kidding me—what are those pigs doing??”-- as they went sliding backwards down a slide.

I’m not sure Serdar—being the cool young man of 18 now—was totally into it, but Cheryl and Safie and I had a great time. As a result of Safie taking over my camera, I have a LOT of videos of the various acts. As we were all waiting for the bus to go home, Serdar asked me if I would go again and I said, “well maybe not tomorrow, but yes, someday I would like to go back,” and once again have a circus experience that I feel I have only read about in novels.

Hanging out with the new PCV's before going to the circus.
We meet up with Serdar and Safie in front of the circus building.
The front of the circus building in Simferopol.
Inside the circus.

Yes, that really is a pig rolling that drum.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Our fundraising is a success!

Thursday afternoon at the library, about an hour or so left before I leave to walk over to Franco Library and the first meeting of my adult English Club. I have a few trepidations about it—will anyone come, do I really want to be doing this (my idea, not theirs), will they be supportive enough—not try to shoo us all out before the library closes at 7pm. I have wanted to do another English Club for adults, but it is so hard to find a place that is open late enough. My biggest hope was to do a club in Ak Mechet using the mosque there, but it turns out the mosque isn’t heated and they only have the one large area where the prayers are conducted. And no chairs, of course. I could have gone back to meeting at the Krymchak Museum, but it is after hours there and is a hard place to find. Franco Library is centrally located and very well known in the city. So, we’ll see how it goes. More on the next blog post.

The great news this week is that my Partnership Project with the Peace Corps got fully funded! And this is even after raising the goal by another $1000. In just a month we raised a total of $4000 from approximately 38 individuals—mostly my friends and family—and one organization, a Crimean Tatar women’s organization in New York. I really didn’t think we would raise that much money that fast—I am so grateful that so many of my friends chose to support my project. So to any of you donors who are reading this blog, thanks so very much. Hopefully I have already sent you a thank you, but because the Peace Corps is slow in getting me all the names, there might be some of you I have missed. It means a lot to me that you have such faith in my work here.

The library staff was ecstatic when I told them the money would be coming In January and began to make plans for what microfilms they wanted to convert into digital format, and possibly even being able to acquire copies of Ismail Gasprinskiy newspaper Terdjiman that they don’t have, one of the long time goals of the library.

Though I would like to do more here, I have come to see my role primarily as a fund raiser. And though many of us community developers chafe on that expectation when we first arrive at our sites, ultimately it makes sense that that is mostly what we would be doing, unless we happen to arrive with a fluency in Russian or Ukrainian. The most successful of us community developers—at least in my eyes—have passed that skill on to the partners in their organization, but I don’t see that happening here just yet. No one has the English necessary to be able to write grants and proposals, the great majority of which are required to be in English.

That’s it for now. The various holidays are coming up, so I am sure that will provide some tales. For one thing, I know I am going to the circus(!) on Christmas Day, which is a nonevent here. Christmas exists in the Orthodox Christian church but it is January 7th and not as heavily celebrated as it is in America. The real holiday is New Year’s, and there have already been much discussions at our house around what foods to make, whether or not to get a new tree (I found out the one they have been using all these years they brought from Uzbekistan twenty years ago), will we go to the grandparents—Lilye and Ablumet’s house—which I so hope we do, as I miss them!

Much love from Crimea.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Birthdays and a visit to Aivasovsky Museum

I’m sitting here at my desk at the library, watching the technician from Kyiv install the scanner that we purchased with the $15,000 grant we received last May from a US foundation. Not that I have any choice given the language barrier, but it is so hard to just sit here and let it all happen without butting in with my opinions. Of which, of course, I have many. I do have faith in the young library workers who are most involved in the setting up of the scanner— I know they are both very knowledgeable about computer technology. But I also know that the scanner is just the first step in a long term project to digitize the library’s rare book and newspaper collections. It will be interesting to see how this all develops. Like everything else here, I know it will take some time for them to initiate a system and I will, once again, have the opportunity to practice patience. And trust—that they will indeed get it together to do what they need to do to take advantage of this wonderful gift to the library.

Following up on my last blog, the “prazdniks” continued after Thanksgiving with my neighbor Siyare’s 24th birthday on a Friday night a week later. Siyare is the daughter in the family of my ex-landlords, and I always enjoy going over there. Though now they always say that I don’t come enough, that I have “forgotten them.” But of course I haven’t, and I try to get over there once a week or every other week. Outside my family, they are my best friends in Ak Mechet. And their gatherings are always a lot of fun—lots of food and usually lots of people—relatives and friends. On this occasion, there were the six family members, a brother-in-law, and three friends of Siyare’s, all of whom I knew. There was much toasting as usual—the men with vodka, us women with wine—and I even got them to sing Happy Birthday as we do in America—the first time I have done that in Ukraine. Candles and singing is not something that happens here.

Safie's 14th Birthday Dinner
Safie’s birthday was a little bit more subdued, but Neshet’s sister who lives nearby came, and Serdar for once was home. There was much toasting with wine among us four adults, and Lenura had made another of her fabulous dinners—this time we had rabbit, which was a first for all of us, including Lenura. Neshet likes exploring different foods and sometimes watches a cooking show. On the last show they were preparing rabbit, so he went out and bought a rabbit and gave it to Lenura to come up with a dinner. I’m not sure how she feels about this “cooking on demand,” but she looked up a recipe on the internet for “Christmas Rabbit”—clearly an English dish—and prepared a tasty concoction of rabbit and mushrooms baked in a cream sauce. Well, it wasn’t really a cream sauce, because cream as we know it is pretty impossible to buy here, but it was a tasty white sauce, nevertheless. And for dessert, we had ice cream and fresh fruit, a choice of two different cakes, and a sort of sweetened squash with nuts. You don’t go hungry in my home, that’s for sure.
This week I’ve been sick—a bad cold—and have stayed home from work until today. I feel like I get a lot more colds here than I did in the States; I suppose it is the problem of my immune system not being used to Crimean germs. Quite a few people in my office have been sick lately with colds, but luckily, I don’t seem to have transferred it to anyone in my family.

One of Aivasvosky's paintings.
Before I got sick, I did make an excursion down to the coastal town of Feodocia to go to the Aivazovsky Museum. Ivan Aivazovsky was an Armenian artist who was born in Feodocia in the early 19th century and lived there all his life. He became world famous for his paintings of the sea and even today is considered the greatest painter of seascapes. His works are large—some of them covering an entire wall—and the sea he depicts is usually a violent one, sometimes complete with ship wrecks. As my experience of the Black Sea is one of fairly tranquil waters, it makes me wonder what inspired his paintings. But there is no denying his incredible mastery of water. One of his most famous paintings—completed just a couple of years before he died at the age of 83—is filled with a raging sea, and as you stand and stare at that painting which fills the wall where it hangs, you can’t help but be drawn into the luminance of those turbulent waves. My PCV friend Cheryl, who accompanied me on the museum visit, had been there before, but wanted to return just so she could once again see the painting. As she said, it felt like one could spend hours just looking at that water.

But, of course, that wasn’t really possible, as we both had buses to catch back to our towns, so we left the library and spent an hour or so wondering the waterfront of Feodocia, usually a bustling place in the summer overrun with tourists, but on this cold November afternoon, filled with only a few people walking the promenade in front of the old ornate mansions converted into “sanatoriums,” as resorts are called here. I don’t really like the overcrowded coastal towns in the summer which is why I had waited until November to make the trek here. I had long wanted to see the Aivazovsky paintings, and I boarded my bus for the two-hour trip back to Simferopol, highly satisfied, with their images floating in my head.

Much love from Crimea

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

November holidays

It feels so slow at the library these days. Without Nadjie to bounce ideas off of, I feel a little groundless and unfocused. Also, she always made an effort to keep me informed of what was going on in the inner workings of the library, and now that is pretty much left up to conjecture on my part and what I can determine from Elmas, the quasi English speaking young woman in my office. However, next week our long awaited rare book scanner that we purchased with a grant I wrote last spring will finally show up. Though I am itching to be part of the decision making around where it will be located, how it will be used, who will be trained on it, I have been pretty much hands off—out of necessity because of language, but also because I think the library needs to make these determinations. I am curious to see how it will all come out.

This is a time of holidays in my life—or “prazdniks” as we call them here—starting with my birthday on November 14th, followed by Serdar’s on the 22nd, Siyare (the neighbor daughter) on December 2nd and then Safie’s on December 6th. Throw in Thanksgiving and New Year’s (Christmas as we know it doesn’t exist here), and it is one long celebration from the beginning of November to the end of December. Or so it seems. I get a little stressed about what to do for presents, especially since I have given up on getting packages from America—any present from America would be a sure success--but mostly it is a fun time of lots of good food with the family. So, a few words and pictures from all these prazdniks:

Because the weather was not so great this year, I didn’t make it out on any hike for my birthday. Instead, I went to work, wondering if they would remember my birthday without Nadjie there, and sure enough, they did, and presented me with flowers. I had bought a small cake in case they had and shared it with my office mates and whoever else happened by. Maybe next year I will get it together to bring (or make!) a cake for the whole library staff, which many people do. I just find it hard to be the subject of so much attention. But home is a different story. I loved the warmth they surrounded me with—literally with the gift of a New Zealand wool wrap knitted in Ukraine to help with my cold room, the delicious dinner complete with one of Lenura’s legendary cakes, and just that feeling of being so loved. That alone is the best gift I could possible hope for on any birthday.
Lenura making my birthday cake.A toast over plov for my birthday.
My family on my 64th birthday.
And then the following week was Serdar’s 18th birthday—a very big birthday here when a child officially becomes an adult—can legally drink, vote, drive a car, apply for an international passport, be drafted—many of the same landmarks as in America on an 18th birthday, but for some reason, here it has taken on a greater significance. Lenura had cooked a wonderful dinner for Serdar with his favorite foods, but with at least her blessing (I am sure Neshet would have preferred he stayed home, but he didn’t say no), as soon as I got home, he took off to the center to celebrate his birthday with his pals. It seemed a little odd to be having a birthday dinner without the intended celebrant, but Neshet and Lenura didn’t seem too outwardly disturbed by it, and in fact, the three of us (Safie took off to the computer as soon as dinner was done) had a nice time sitting around the dinner table, drinking a bottle of wine and talking for several hours. So at least we celebrated, even if Serdar was nowhere around.

Two days later was Thanksgiving. The last two years I just worked on the holiday (since it obviously is not a holiday here), and then got together with other Peace Corps Volunteers on the weekend for a traditional Thanksgiving. This year I decided to switch my days off so I would have Thursday off and cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my family. I invited the other two Peace Corps Volunteers in Simferopol, but only Adrianne was in town. She worked that day and ended up coming after she got home from her school and helped me finish up the cooking. I had never in my life cooked a Thanksgiving dinner, but the family was very excited about the idea, and Neshet searched around where to buy a whole turkey, so I thought I would give it a try. I kept telling Neshet a small turkey, but he came home with a 15 pounder—the smallest he could find. But I read up on the instructions and got it in the oven on time, and it didn’t come out too bad, though next year I can think of some improvements. We also had stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries, candied carrots (no sweet potatoes here) and creamed spinach and pumpkin pie contributed by Adrianne. So, my first ever Thanksgiving dinner—in Ukraine! Adrianne was a big help—I guess next year I will have to pull it off without as her, as her Peace Corps service is ending in a few weeks and she is heading back to the States. Sigh…

Coming up: Siyare and Safie’s birthdays. More on that next time.
With love from Crimea.

The turkey comes out of the oven.
Looks like a Thanksgiving plate in America!
The family minus Serdar and with Adrianne on our first Thanksgiving together.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Please support my work at the Crimean Tatar Library

Dear friends,

As you know, for the past two years I have been working as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the Crimean Tatar Library in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine. Many of you have followed my activities on this blog and the blog I write for my library (crimeantatarlibrary.blogspot.com). Now I am asking you to become a partner in this work by making a donation to support the work of the library.

The Gasprinsky Crimean Tatar Library was founded twenty years ago when the Crimean Tatar people began to return to their homeland of Crimea from which they were forcibly deported fifty years earlier. Living in exile in distant Soviet republics, the Crimean Tatars were forbidden to teach their language or practice the traditions of their culture. As a result, by the time people were allowed to come back to Crimea and reestablish their community, much of the culture was lost and the language had become endangered. The Gasprinsky Library was founded to preserve, protect, and revitalize the Crimean Tatar culture and language; to be, as my counterpart so eloquently puts it, “the keeper of the memory of the Crimean Tatar people.”

Over the last twenty years, the library has become the central repository of documents by and about the Crimean Tatar people. It now has a collection of over 40,000 documents, including more than 8000 in the Crimean Tatar language. The library has an archival department to which well-known Crimean Tatar political leaders, intellectuals, artists, writers and poets have donated their personal papers. However, as an institution of the Ukrainian government, the library suffers from a severe lack of funds to do anything beyond pay salaries and maintain the building. Many of the documents of the library are in urgent need of preservation, particularly in a digital form that would give them a much wider audience. With this project, we hope to raise $3000 which would allow the library to purchase a small flatbed paper scanner for the numerous archival paper documents—letters, writings, notes, etc—and also to purchase digital scans of some of the library’s microfilms. The Library is particularly interested in purchasing scans of the microfilms of the newspaper Terdzhman, published from 1883 to 1918 by the Muslim educator and reformer Ismail Gasprinsky, whom the library is named after. Perhaps no other document is so vital to understanding the culture and history of the Crimean Tatar people than Ismail Gasprinsky’s newspaper, but currently access to it is limited to a very few people.

The Crimean Tatars are a unique Muslim people with a tragic history. The Gasprinsky Library, the de facto cultural center of the Crimean Tatar people, has struggled hard to preserve the language and culture of their people. By making a donation to this project, you can aid in that struggle and also support the work I have been doing these past two years. Through the Partnership Program of the Peace Corps, you are able to make a tax-exempt donation by clicking on the link to the right under Links, which will take you directly to my project.

Thank you so much for all the many ways so many of you have supported my work and life these past two years. And I hope you are able to continue your support by making a small donation to this project. Thank you again.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Library work and Kurban Bayram

Trying to stay warm in my room, studying some Russian.
Nadjie's daughter Lenura grinding mutton for samsa--stuffed cabbage or grape leaves.
Nadjie with three of her four grandchildren.
Nadjie with her son and his family.
I have been mostly writing about my weekend hiking adventures, so I want to get caught up on the other things that have been happening in my life around work and travel.

During the first part of October, Nadjie and I went to five other libraries around Crimea, talking about developing volunteerism in their libraries. This was the second phase of the SPA seminar we did in May in which we invited librarians from all over Crimea for a two-day seminar in Simferopol on volunteerism. The second phase was supposed to be helping libraries organize “Volunteer Days,” but because of Nadjie spending the summer recuperating from her broken hip we were unable to do that. I was grateful that we were at least able to do these “mini seminars,” and it was good to watch Nadjie talk so enthusiastically about the idea of volunteerism. It made me even more aware how much better the two-day seminar would have been with her presence. There are pictures from the seminars on the blog I write for the library—crimeantatarlibrary.blogspot.com.

Most of the libraries we traveled to had no heat and it was a cold week, so we spent much of our time huddled in coats and trying to stay warm. But the attendees at the seminars seemed very interested in the idea and were especially interested in the power point I had put together about volunteerism in American libraries. Though I was glad to be there for the seminars, it was a somewhat frustrating experience for me. Because my Russian isn’t good enough for me to do a presentation or participate fully, I spent my time just sitting and answering the occasional question. On a one-on-one basis I can communicate my ideas, but with a large group it just isn’t possible. And once again, I had that feeling of being locked behind a wall of inadequate language. There were so many things I could have said about libraries and volunteerism in America, if I could have said it…

But still, all was not lost. I got to visit some more Crimea libraries, including a very small library in a Crimean Tatar community, and a small, but quite lovely library in a town of about 2000. That particularly library seemed very engaged in their community in a way that many libraries here don’t appear to be. There were various photos on the wall of different library gatherings, and a calendar of upcoming events. I was especially taken by three prints on the wall of what looked like water color paintings. There was a sign saying that they were copies of paintings that a patron of the library had made after reading a book from the library. They were beautifully done and I had assumed they were from a professional artist, but when I questioned the library director, she said, “No, she is just a woman that lives in our community.” Amazing…

The week following our seminars I went to Kyiv for two days to submit the closing documents for this grant, get the required flu shot from the Peace Corps doctors, have my sore foot x-rayed (turned out to be bursitis as my physical therapist buddy advised me), get my teeth cleaned, drop off some documents for the soon-to-arrive scanner, meet with a company that does microfilm scanning, and hang out with my museum consultant pal Linda. Phew! All in two days. But it was a nice visit—went to the Ukrainian Art Museum where, thanks to Linda, we had an English speaking guide, made it to the inside of 1000-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral (previous trips I had only been to the grounds), and had a nice dinner at a Georgian restaurant. And as an unexpected bonus, on the way there I shared my kupe on the overnight train with not one, but three (!) English speaking Ukrainians, including a sea captain who entertained us with stories of when he was stranded for a year in Gambia when the Soviet Union broke up and ended up working for the Gambia mafia smuggling oil!

But during my adventure filled trip to Kyiv, back in Simferopol Nadjie fell in her home and broke her arm. How so very awful. She had been doing pretty well with her hip, though still using crutches to walk to work because of her fear of falling on the uneven pavement, and then this happens. Which, of course, means that she can’t come to work until it heals because of needing two arms for the crutches. But on the bright side of things (if there is one), the break is not too bad, is mending well, and she continues to be able to live at her home, and also even do some work (though slowly), writing grants one-handed.

And last Sunday, which was the big Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayram, we went together to her son’s village and celebrated with her family. Kurban Bayram occurs approximately 70 days after the end of Ramadan and is marked by the slaughter of a sheep or goat (depending on the Muslim country), half of which is given away to neighbors and people in need. Many families where I live no longer do the slaughter, but some still do, including Neshet’s sister’s family who live nearby and Nadjie’s son. So I ended up eating a lot of sheep that day—first at Nadjie’s son’s village and then later at home. And then the next day I was given meat at the library and brought that home and, to mix cultures up a bit, cooked it into a traditional Irish stew I found a recipe for on the internet. I guess my vegetarian days are a distant past living here…

A friend of Nadjie’s came to her son’s house on Kurban Bayram and read Muslim prayers in Crimean Tatar and also from the Koran, which is in the Arabic language. I sat with the rest of them, not understanding anything of course, but being soothed by the quiet chanting of the words. I just go along living my life here, and sometimes it all of a sudden hits me, how very very different my life has become from what it was in America. Sitting in that little house in a village in Crimea, listening to the prayers celebrating a Muslim holiday I had never even heard about two years ago, was one of those times.

Love to all from Crimea.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A hike to the pristine wilderness of Crimea

Anastasia collecting water at a spring with her 14-year-old brother Oleg.
The fog begins to lift.
The distant peaks of Babugan.
Fog rolls back in.

With my hiking companions--Oleg, Anastasia, and Alex. My PCV pal Cheryl was also on the hike.
Cheryl makes her way down the "trail."
Vineyards provided our snacks at the end of the hike.
Demerdji Mountain in the distance.

It’s a chilly Saturday afternoon in November. Winter seems to have come early this year, as we’ve been having cold temperatures consistently now for a couple of weeks. Finally the heat was turned on at the library so I no longer have to wear multiple layers. My lovely room at home is still cold, though, and will be all winter as it is over an open porch with no insulation. But I can always go downstairs to warm up, and I just bundle up to work on my computer…or sleep.
Before the experience recedes too far in my memory, I wanted to write a few words about a hiking trip I did two weekends ago. I had contacted the woman I met when I went to the library in Alushta, a town on the coast. She grew up there and is very familiar with the surrounding mountains, plus her fiancĂ© is an ex wilderness guide. Anastasia and I had been hiking once before, but Alex ((the fiancĂ©) didn’t make it on that hike, so I only heard about him, especially as it was his directions we were following on the hike. We always had to go where “Alex said,” even though sometimes it didn’t seem to make much sense, and one time I refused because it was more of a rock scramble than I wanted to do.
So I was a little bit hesitant about the upcoming hike we planned together, because I knew Alex would be accompanying us. I kept saying, “no intense climbing, rock scrambling, etc.” And sure enough, they were true to my request, as the hike was on relatively easy trails…going up. But on the way down, Alex decided to veer off into a trail less area, and we, of course, had no choice but to follow him. So down we went, bush whacking our way along a steep creek bed filled with fallen wet leaves which obscured the footing underneath, climbing over fallen trees blocking our way. I was so grateful that I had brought my hiking poles back from the US and had them with me. I’m sure they prevented many a fall as we slogged our way down. What is it about these Ukrainian men? Alex was a nice guy, but it reminded me so much of how we (me and the family) travel with Neshet, when we just basically go where he wants to go without much consultation with the rest of us. The first part of the hike took longer than expected, and at some point we had a choice of a shorter route, which seemed to me would have been the wiser decision, but there was no discussion, we just went where Alex went, and it turned into a very long hike—eight hours or so. It was pretty dark by the time we got back to Alushta.
But, in the end, despite all my grumbling of once again finding myself in the very unfeminist position of following some guy on a mission of his own choosing, I was so glad I had the opportunity to do that hike. Grateful because it took me to a place that I would guess few foreigners ever get to experience. We went to a large mountain plateau called Babugan, at the end of which is the highest peak in Crimea. Once a hunting reserve for Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, it has been declared a nature reserve and closed to the public for many years. Which doesn’t mean the occasional hiker doesn’t go there, especially the locals like Alex and my friend Anastasia, but it does mean that it is the most pristine wilderness in all of Crimea. And that was so evident—few trails, no garbage or other remains of humans, no big crosses marking the peaks (as is common here). Unfortunately, fog engulfed us as we got to the top of the plateau and hiked along the edge to a peak at the far end called Kush-Kaya. The views on a clear day must be spectacular. But as if a gift from the heavens, for a few minutes the fog lifted as we sat there having some lunch, and we could see all around us the rolling landscape of the plateau and the distant peaks. What a beautiful, desolate place it was. Once again I found myself filled with a deep joy and gratitude that at least for now, this land of Crimea is what I call home.
Despite our tiredness, the day ended well, as we spent the last hour or so walking through the large commercial vineyards surrounding Alushta, snacking on the leftover, very delicious grapes. As we all parted at the bus station—Alex and Anastasia to their home in Alushta, Cheryl and I to the bus back to Simferopol—we made plans for a spring hike to the other end of the Babugan plateau where Roman Kosh, the highest peak in Crimea, is located. And hopefully it will be a sunny day with the views we knew were there behind the fog.
Much love from Crimea.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hiking with Safie and her school pals

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I am home alone, sitting at the table, about to launch into making chicken chili for tonight’s dinner. I have so come to love having these Wednesdays to myself. I keep considering volunteer things I could/should be doing, but the truth is I have found it such a treat to have the house to myself. And I know how very much Lenura appreciates my cooking the Wednesday night dinner. She says it’s like a holiday every week for her. And I am sure it is, as probably this is the only time that someone else has taken over the cooking duties. Safie does once in awhile, but only under supervision and with limited output. So I think at least for now until something very compelling comes up, I am going to continue these Wednesdays of not going into the library and see where having this kind of time in my life takes me.

Last weekend was a hike with the kids. Safie, who is in the eighth grade (or “form” as it is called here), invited me to go on a hike to one of the mountains with her and four other classmates and a teacher/guide. I, of course, jumped at the chance, and early Saturday morning Safie and I trekked down to her school where we were to meet the rest of the group. Well, the group expanded quite a bit. Unbeknownst to Safie, eight fifth graders were also going. And still only one teacher—Igor. Igor something, actually, as people here go by their patronymic names, but I didn’t catch what his was and he just told me to call him Igor. The weather did not look too promising, but off we went anyways as Igor herded all the kids first onto a city bus, and then on to the trolley bus that took us to our stop down along the coast. Our intended destination was Mt. Paragilmen. Here is a wonderful description of it from the internet (overlook the clumsy translation—it’s pretty good for here, actually):

It is a landscape botanical reserve. This mountain - the highest the Main Range (855 m) outcast - is well seen from the trolleybus road against the back-cloth of Babugan-mountain pasture, in village Maly Mayak region. Like a stray traveller, who cannot find the way to the native home, this stone giant flew up lonely between the coast and range precipices. On the side, facing the sea, it looks like a huge trapezium(table). On the patch of the higher plateau, a grove of old, with a half-meter thick trunks, trees of pear is well preserved. On a sultry summer day its lowered silvery leaves look like a blooming crown. The most interesting sight of Paragilmen is two huge yew-trees, nestling in a deep crevice on the top. The thickness of one of the trunks is about 70 sm, and powerful branches threw themselves flat on either side for 7-8 m. This giant yew-tree is just as old as his thousand-year old fellow-tree on Ay-Petry. In 1979 on the mountain Paragilmen and surround it beech forest, the reserve of medicinal plants, 10 kinds of which are entered in Red Books, was formed.

But, alas, like my last venture up into the mountains, fog slowly began to obscure the top as we made our way up the roads and trails (and through an old metal works factory of some sort) towards the summit. Igor wisely decided not to go all the way up, so we spend the day hiking the forests below with great views of the mountain and also out to the sea. And the forests themselves were beautiful, as the trees are starting to turn their muted fall colors. Igor stopped frequently to point out various plants to the kids and talk about the geology and history of the area. He has been a wilderness guide for a number of years and was very knowledgeable about the area and seemed to know his way around. But I noticed that even he, who had been there several times before, asked the few people we encountered for various directions. There are just so many old roads and paths, that it seems even experienced hikers have to ponder a bit what path to take. I talked with him about it, and he said something about the importance of a compass, and I think he is right. It was following a compass that got us heading in the right direction up Demerdji, even though it didn’t “feel” right. It was a good lesson watching him—made me realize that perhaps it is kind of hopeless to think one can have a distinct path, but instead it is important to establish where you want to go (and having a visible summit certainly is helpful) and then just keep heading in that direction.

He was also good of keeping track of all those kids, constantly counting them. He did head off down a steep path at some point that made me wonder about his guiding abilities after all, but the kids just followed him like the pied piper and popped out onto a road below with everyone (including me—thank the goddess I now have my hiking sticks from home) intact. We stopped quite a while in a camp area and made a fire and everyone got out the food they had brought and the kids spent a lot of time exploring the area. The weather turned kind of nasty after that as the fog became rain and it continued to rain the rest of the day. Of course, no one had any kind of rain gear. Some kids at least had jackets with hoods, but many did not. I insisted Safie bring an umbrella and that was the saving grace for her group. I wished I had also brought an umbrella so they would have had an additional one (I, in my usual American fashion, had my full rain gear on). So they all were increasingly wet and probably cold, but I never heard anyone complaining and mostly they just seemed to be having one hell of a time. It was almost dark by the time we got the trolley bus back home, but the younger kids especially were still caring on, to the point that Igor had to tell them to shut up once in awhile.

It was a good day. Fun to be around all the kids, interacting with them a bit and giving them an opportunity to practice their (very) limited English. And fun to get to know Igor a little. He works for an organization that teaches kids about the environment and wilderness and “tourism.” We sat together on the last bus home, and I tried to ask him if there was any kind of organizations for adults, and he did tell me about some kind of adult travel club. Not sure what it all meant, but maybe I will be able to hook up with a hiking group around here. I know they must exist, but in the past, my lack of Russian as prevented me from exploring the idea much. But now maybe it is a little more possible. We’ll see…

This coming Sunday I’m going hiking (weather permitting) with my Ukrainian friends that live down on the coast that I haven’t seen since last year. We are going to go up to the highest mountain. That will be an adventure I have a feeling… I have already seen some snow up there. It will be a tale to tell, I am sure. And I also have some work related tales too, but that will have to wait until the next post.
With love from Crimea.
Safie (in the red coat) with her pals

Sunday, October 16, 2011

PCV meeting and ancient Crimea

Crimean PCV's hanging out in the park. However, that long blonde hair one is an Ukrainian girlfriend of one of the PCV's. Photo Joohee Lee.And here we all are.
The Scythian Neapolis in Simferopol.
Photo Joohee Lee.
Our guide showing us the ritual water pool. Photo Joohee Lee.
It is a cold and blustery Sunday afternoon. I am sitting at my desk with my laptop in front of me, looking out at the roofs of Ak Mechet and the gray skies above. Not feeling like doing much besides sitting at my desk and writing and studying. Was going to make a plan to have dinner with Adrianne, but the thought of getting on the bus and heading into the city center is not very appealing. I find that I like being “home with the family.” The other day cousin Sara asked me to tell her the good things about living with the Seytaptiev’s. I had to think a minute, but then I realized how much more I like coming home to a house full of people than coming home to an empty home. Sure, there is much I find troublesome here and have to get used to—how Lenura yells at the kids, for instance—but I am finding more and more that the warmth and love I feel here overrides those things I find hard. I also am coming to understand each of them more as individuals, and one of the things I have learned about Lenura is that her yelling doesn’t mean much, that it is just how she communicates with her children, as do many people here. I also know how much she loves them, and they her.
So, what I’ve been doing these past couple of weeks… Last weekend was a meeting of Crimean Peace Corps Volunteers here in Simferopol. About twenty of the thirty Volunteers in Crimea came, including many of the new Volunteers. The usual idea of this meeting is to talk about our various projects and how we can collaborate. Some of that does happen, but what it is really all about is just spending some together and getting to know one another a bit. For me, it was a chance to get to know Joohee, who is the new Volunteer in Sovetsky, the town where my PCV friend Cheryl is located. I had met her earlier because she was in my “adopt-a-cluster” group when I helped with the PCV training last year. I did not get to talk with her much then, so I was looking forward to spending some time together.
We had planned a picnic after the meeting at an archeological site in Simferopol that I had wanted to see ever since I’ve lived here but have only recently visited. It was a warm and sunny fall day, so great for a picnic. No one much wanted to trek as far as the archeological site, so we all plopped down in the park near Adrianne’s school where the meeting was held and got out the lunch makings. Anyone passing by would instantly know that we are a group of Americans, because Ukrainians just don’t sit on the ground anywhere, especially in city parks. We all kind of make fun of that practice, but thinking about it, of course it comes from a sensible place—the fact that until very recently, clothes washing was done by hand and people did not have many clothes. Thus, taking care of the clothes one has is very important, and that sort of precludes sitting on the ground.
I still wanted to go to the archaeological site because I hadn’t paid the fee to go inside when I was last there and wanted to learn more about it. So a few of us—Joohee, Cheryl, and a young PCV—took off to explore it. A short bus ride, a walk though “old city,” and a walk along the river brought us to a steep bluff that rises high above the city. We opted for the shorter, straight up route, which wasn’t all that difficult. Up on top on the bluff is wide open grassland with 360 degrees views of the city. People walk their dogs there, graze their goats, have romantic interludes (or so it seemed) on overhanging cliff ledges, and on the highest point, is located the archaeological site. Called the Scythian Neapolis, it is the location of the palaces of the king of the Scythian peoples who lived in Crimea 2300 years ago. There is little left—only a few stone foundations—but as our young archaeological student guide explained, there is much they have learned about these ancient peoples by sifting through the site and reconstructing their lives through the fragments of civilization they have found. I was fascinated by his descriptions of these people as he pointed out a water pool that seemed to be only used once, possibly in some ritual at the crowning of a new king as they can date it to that time, and other pools used to collect rain water, a tomb that they believe to be that of the last king, shards of pottery and coins that showed that Scythians had contact with people as far away as the Celts. For me, it added another layer to my understanding of this piece of land called Crimea. Mostly when I think of Crimea, I think of it as the land of the Crimea Tatars, but I know its inhabitants go back centuries before the Tatars, as part of the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, overran the peninsula and established it as their homeland. Many ancient peoples have lived here and the remains of those peoples echo over the land. One more reason that I find Crimea an endlessly fascinating place.
With love from Crimea.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Coping with life's little difficulties Ukrainian style

Monday morning at the library, trying hard not to be frustrated with the fact that we don’t have internet and no one seems to be able to fix it. Well, maybe it is being worked on, but no information is forthcoming. One thing I have noticed over and over is that situations that make us Americans kind of crazy—like the internet not working—seem to just be accepted here with the attitude of “oh well, it’s a drag, but what can you do…” (my words). I feel myself getting worked up about the situation, but no one else around me seems to be. Similar to when the bank demanded some kind of documentation before they would give the library the money we had received for the scanner. I was outraged, but no one else seemed to be which I found very interesting. I wondered if some of my perplexity is my lack of understanding of what is going on, but other Volunteers I have talked with also recognize this phenomenon. There is just an acceptance of adverse conditions here that I think Americans would find unfathomable. And though it initially feels like some kind of passivity and indifference, I think ultimately it’s not. Because they act on the problem—we did indeed get the documentation we needed to prove to the bank that the money belonged to the library and the internet problem is being worked on—but there is a kind of underlying acceptance that this is just the way things are and there is nothing you can do about it. Perhaps it comes from Soviet times when it became a survival technique to not question what was happening but just to quietly accept it. And though I think people no longer quietly accept it, they certainly don’t get worked up the way we do in America. And ultimately I find that kind of peaceful. Here I am, a couple of hours later with my work plans abandoned for the day because of the lack of internet, and I too, am feeling “well, okay, that’s the way things are today. I’ll just find something else to do. I don’t really have to do what I planned to do right this very moment. It can wait.” And it feels…well, kind of peaceful.

Next day, internet working—not only working but improved(!) as now there seems to be wireless in the library and because I use the library’s laptop for my computer, I can be on the internet via the wireless. Nearing the end of my day here so thought I would get back to this post and finish it to put on my blog tomorrow with some pictures. Hopefully. Actually I had thought I would have pictures from a little back packing trip I went on last week, but I was so wrong. Ended up with exactly one picture as the weather turned so bad, that we spent most of the time holed up in our campsite, feeding a fire with wet wood, and trying to stay warm in the cold wind and fog on the top of Demerdji mountain.

It has been beautiful fall weather here—just last Wednesday I went on a three-hour hike wearing t-shirt and shorts. So I convinced PCV pal Cheryl to do a little backpacking trip up in the mountains—just one night as that was all she had time for. We decided to go up to Demerdji because we had been there before, and it is very beautiful with many places to explore. We got off the bus at the pass (after yelling at the bus driver, who had apparently forgotten us, to stop) and started heading up through the forests on what seemed to be a marked route on the map. But like many places in the mountains of Crimea, there were several other trails through the forest, and it was a constant decision making as to which way to go. I had been to Demerdji twice before, and both times made it up to the plateau without too many wrong turns. But this time, we decided to try and follow the route signs on the trees that corresponded to our map. However, at some point we turned left instead of right, even though we were still following the route signs. Well, we got majorly lost and turned around, and it took us a couple of hours to eventually get back on track. It appears that though the map shows only ONE Route no. 128, apparently there are in actuality several branches of it.

But we did get up above the tree line and out onto the plateau with the beautiful views of the sea below us and the strange rock formations of Demerdji above us. We had planned to hike around the opposite end up the plateau from where we had been before, but as we started out on the trail, we saw the dense fog rolling in and knew it would not be safe up on the plateau in the fog, as many of the trails have vertical drop-offs. I had read in one of my guide books that every year several people die in the mountains of Crimea because though they are not all that high, they are characterized by plateaus with sheer cliffs and sudden fogs. There was also a cold wind blowing, so though it was only early afternoon, we decided to huddle down in a campsite in the forest with the hope that the next day would provide us some clear hiking weather. But that was not to be, as all day and night the wind blew and we were surrounded by a dense wet fog, and we woke up the next morning to the same conditions. We were both so cold when we set up camp, but surprising to us, given the weather conditions, we were able to get a fire going and keep it going all day and spent our time huddled around it for warmth. And, though, of course I would have liked it to be nice sunny warm weather (as was forecasted!), I still was just so happy to be out in the mountains, to be camping once again.

After sleeping pretty late, we made some breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, packed up our wet gear, and headed back down the mountain. And it wasn’t too far down the trail before the weather started to clear, and it wasn’t such a bad day, after all. I have often seen that phenomenon on walks near home to where I can see Chatyr Dag. There it is, encased in the clouds, and I am in the sunshine down below. We met several hikers on the way up—including a group of middle aged women who asked me my age and kept saying “moladets” (way to go!) to me—and warned them of the weather up above, something our Russian seemed capable of.

So got back home midafternoon with time to dry out the tent and gear and eat some lunch with the family. And determination to try getting up to Demerdji again—though maybe not this fall.
Much love to all from Crimea.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An idle Wednesday and a rock concert

It’s Wednesday and I am at home today, sitting at my desk, contemplating what to do. For the past two years, I have worked at the Children’s Library on Wednesdays, conducting English Clubs. With my extension, my commitment to the Children’s Library ended. I offered to continue with the afternoon English Club, but they are hoping to get their own volunteer or partner with an organization—a linguistics institute in Simferopol—who will be receiving a volunteer in December. I am glad I am no longer at the Children’s Library, as there was no one there to work with and they were generally not very supportive of even the English Clubs. I liked getting to know many of the kids, particularly the little bit older ones who could speak English better, but I always felt inadequate in my knowledge of how to teach English, especially to the younger ones who had little language skills.
So I am somewhat at loose ends, feeling a need and desire to do something productive on this day, but not sure what that would be. I am hoping to start an English Club in Ak Mechet on Wednesday evenings if we can get permission to use the mosque, as it is the only community building in Ak Mechet. Last week I also visited my friend Ira who is the director of a home for unwed mothers in a nearby village. It is a new concept in Ukraine—giving homeless young women with babies and children—many uneducated and with no families—a place to live for 18 months where they can learn skills to take care of their children and become self sufficient. There are only 15 such facilities in Ukraine and only one in Crimea. Ira, who is a fluent English speaker and has long worked in social services including being head of a nonprofit organization dealing with addiction, was excited to take over the position of Director of the new facility. However, as she told me, she has mostly ended up dealing with the never ending administration hassles, including being in a village in which they are not wanted and in a building owned by the town council who is demanding its return. She said about 80% of her job is resolving problems and only 20% actually working with the young women, which she loves and most wanted to do.
I had hoped to volunteer at the center, but as always, my lack of language fluency and no translator limits what I can do. There is a possibility we might do some kind of HIV prevention training in the future, as I have a number of materials in Russian from the Peace Corps training I went to last year. Ira is leaving on vacation soon and said we could talk about it when she returns. Ira is an interesting person—she is by far the most western leaning older person I have met here. When she was in her twenties, she lived in the US for two years on a student program and has since been invited back to social work conferences. She is married to a French citizen and spends her vacations there, and eventually plans to live in France six months of the year. Their common language is English, so her level of fluency is high. Her daughter is also married to a French citizen, and they live in Shanghai because of his work. They have a young daughter who speaks Russian, French, English, and Chinese! Ah, to have grown up in a multi-language world.
And speaking of language, perhaps I will now get back to my Russian studying for a bit and then take a walk later in the afternoon. I had hoped to convince Lenura to go on some kind of excursion with me as this is her last week of vacation, but because Neshet ended up staying home from work today—he’s supervising some kind of work on the road—she felt like she had to stay home. It’s hard to get past the feeling that I am once again “wasting” a beautiful fall day by being inside.
A few hours later after returning from a three plus hour walk. Boy, am I sore…not a good sign, as Cheryl and I are planning an overnight backpack trip in the mountains this weekend. But it sure was great being out on this beautiful day.
And for my final words on this blog post, I must tell about an amazing concert I went to Saturday night with Serdar. He had told me about a well known woman Russian rock singer who was coming to Simferopol with her band and had me listen to her on ytube. And it turns out she is a lesbian, which even Lenura told me and said that “she lives with another woman”—also a rock star. Well, that of course made me want to go, a desire even further increased by learning we have the same birth date, which I took as a sign that I should go to this concert. So I offered to buy tickets for Serdar and off we went Saturday night to the big performance theater in the city center. We got there early and stood around outside waiting to go in and what I took to be lesbian couples kept showing up. Yes, there is, somewhere, a lesbian community here in Simferopol. It was so great to see and it made me sooo homesick for that part of my life in America.
The concert was amazing—she is a powerful singer with that kind of deep Russian passion I find hard to describe but know that there is something different about it. I, of course, couldn’t understand the words, but Serdar told me she uses a lot of Russian poetry in her music. And at one point she recited a long Russian poem with such emotion and power that it totally brought the house down. Women were constantly bringing flowers to her on stage. This is a typical practice here at performances, but she generated a larger than usual outpouring. She clearly has a very devoted following. One woman even gave her a hand knitted top, and she promptly turned her back to the audience, took off the shirt she was wearing, and put on the gift and wore it the rest of the concert. Now that is something I don’t think you would see at many rock concerts. She was just incredible—I can’t think of any woman singer like her in America. I have a couple of videos Serdar took with my camera, and you can also check her out on ytube. Her name is Svetlana Surganova. Gave me a whole other view of Russia…and Simferopol.
That’s it for now. Much love from beautiful Crimea.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

My new digs and a family outing

Just realized it’s been over a month that I have been back in Crimea. I’m sitting at my new desk which arrived last week, along with bookshelves and a night table. I spent last Saturday putting all my stuff away and now feel really settled into my new room. It is on the second floor and is a large room with a high ceiling, very light and airy. There is a large double window, and I love looking out over the rooftops of Ak Mechet, including my former home across the street.

I feel lucky to be living here—it certainly is an upgrade from my former place—but living with people is taking some getting used to. Not just people, but a family in which I have some kind of role, though exactly what that role is, I’m not so sure. Mostly I think I am seen as the live-in grandma who needs some taking care of. So I get all my meals cooked for me, my clothes washed, my room cleaned, my health attended to by various medications (though sometimes that can be very dubious as I looked up one drug Lenura was trying to foster on me for intestinal problems and it was an antibiotic no longer prescribed in the West because of a rare side effect that is fatal!). It’s a treat to be so taken care of, and I realize it gives me a lot more time in my life for other things. I do some cooking, some clothes washing, dish washing, etc. but it is minimal compared to when I lived alone. But of course there are tradeoffs too. I so miss my independence—eating when I want to, being quiet and alone when I want to (though shutting and locking the door to my room provides that to some degree), and just not having anyone paying attention to my daily life. I laugh at myself, because one of the reasons I no longer wanted to live alone was exactly that—I wanted there to be someone/s in my life that cared about my comings and goings. So it is an experiment in progress. I’m not sure how I will feel by the end of this year and I have to make a decision of whether to stay in Crimea or not. I know in the long term that if I do decide to stay for a period of time, that I would want my own place again.

I am feeling somewhat restless right now. I have more time on my hands—I no longer work at the Children’s Library one day a week, so I am only working three days a week. And I seem to have fewer friends to make plans with as PCV friends leave the country and others are busier in their lives. The weather has been beautiful this fall, and I so want to be out hiking, but am hesitant to go alone except around where I live. It’s not that I think it isn’t safe; it’s more than I just like the companionship of hiking with someone. Serdar, of course, has been a favorite hiking companion, but now that university classes have started again, he really doesn’t have the time to take a whole day off on the weekend. Occasionally, though, the family decides to go somewhere—well, actually, Neshet decides, as is always the case. A few weeks back we went to find Snake Cave where I had hiked to with Cheryl in the spring. We had some difficulty finding it, as walking and driving are two different routes, but eventually we did come out on the bluffs and the location of the cave. We couldn’t actually see the entrance to the cave, so decided that you must have to enter it from below the bluffs. I read a description of it recently—it is over 300 meters long and has a narrow, winding passageway, thus the name snake cave, I suppose. Anyhow, I hope that is so, because I would like to find the opening of the cave and explore it a bit and would rather not have the company of a lot of snakes!

While up on the bluffs, Neshet spotted a large lake in the distance—turned out to be the Partisan Reservoir. There are a lot of reservoirs in Crimea to provide drinking water. Usually, the access to a reservoir is restricted and there is no swimming. But Neshet decided he wanted to go to the reservoir anyhow and check it out, so we all piled in the van and took off on some very back roads—I had hiked one of those roads and thought it might be pretty impassable for a car, but by going very slowly and occasionally stopping to inspect the road, we managed to get through. We eventually got to the small village where the reservoir is located and, indeed, as expected, the road to the reservoir was gated off and a guard was posted. So no going that way. But Neshet, undaunted as always, drove around looking for another entrance and eventually pulled off on a side road, parked the van, and we all got out and started hiking down what looked like a cow path. How he knew where to go is beyond me, but I think Neshet has some kind of sixth sense about Crimean land—he always seems to find what he is looking for. And sure enough, we came out onto one of the arms of the reservoir and hiked along it for awhile. It is a beautiful lake nestled in the hills, and though access is restricted, apparently people do picnic there, and we did see one fisherman. We had brought picnic things with us but left them in the car because we had forgotten the sashlik equipment (sashliking is the Ukrainian version of barbequing which consists of cooking marinated meat on either skewers or a flat wire holder). We didn’t stay long, but it was nice to be there for even a bit and just be out in the lovely day. Maybe tomorrow (a Sunday) I can somehow get the family to again go on an excursion somewhere. Or maybe I will go alone and find the entrance to Snake Cave….
Love from Crimea.