Thursday, December 27, 2012

Living with uncertainty



It’s Monday morning, December 24th, and here I am in my office in the library. I had thought I would be on my way back from my visit with my friend Casey in Istanbul, but, alas, it was not to be. I did get to Kyiv the first part of last week and had kind of a nice time there. It was very cold with a freezing wind, but I had dressed for it, so for the most part, I was okay. The deep snow on the ground was beautiful to see, walking through the botanical gardens on the way to the Peace Corps office. As always in the winters here, the major problem is not the cold, but the snow and subsequent ice that accumulate on the sidewalks, making it so difficult to get around. Luckily, in Kyiv, there is an extensive subway system, so if one can brave the crowds, it is definitely the way to navigate the city, especially in the winter. I am used to the “metro,” as it is called here, and do not find the crowds a problem. And now, thanks to the Euro Cup being held here last summer, all the subway signs are also in English.

Spent my time working on closing grants at the Peace Corps office, going to the dentist for a teeth cleaning, eating falafels at my favorite Middle Eastern café,  visiting the Germany Embassy to inquire for Serdar about studying in Germany (his latest idea), and having a brief meeting at the Netherlands Embassy to pick up books donated to our library. The Netherlands Embassy was quite impressive—a very modern four-floor building with an open atrium and a great espresso machine (so appreciated that cappuccino after waiting out in the cold for the embassy to open).  

On the long overnight train back to Simferopol, I thought of all the great things Casey and I would do in Istanbul, but mostly just the opportunity to spend time with a fellow traveler talking about this life of volunteering overseas, hashing out ideas for “What next?” Got back to town early Wednesday morning, spent the day getting ready for the Istanbul trip, ignoring the sleeting rain hammering on the window. But early next morning when I got up to meet the taxi to the airport, I wondered if I would be going. Out at the airport, the cancellations and delays were happening already. I sat there for three hours in the unheated terminal and watched my flight get delayed and delayed and then cancelled. The flight got re-scheduled to the next day, but the same thing happened again, as the weather only got worse.

So no visit to Istanbul. And another lesson in living with uncertainty, that though we make plans, and wish and hope it will be so, there are no guarantees. I was feeling almost desperate to be out of my environment here, to be with a kindred soul that I could really talk with about all my confused feelings as of late. But, as always, I was able to adjust. Spent Saturday walking around the Simferopol center--going to the art museum which I have been meaning to do for the last year (having never been there), walking along the river, strolling a bit through the park where the Chernobyl monument is located. And then Sunday up into the forests near my home, which were transformed into a winter wonderland by the snow crystals clinging to the branches. And it helped me to remember once again how lucky I am to be living this life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Some winter travel plans



I look back at those last few blogs posts and all those pictures of me and my hiking companions in t-shirts and rolled up pants legs and sigh in longing for that weather filled with warmth and light. As I write this, I am sitting at the library looking out at a gray and gloomy day with a cold rain and darkening sky—and it is only 4 in the afternoon. Once again I check the internet to confirm what I know to be true—that despite the feeling that I am living in a southern climate on the Black Sea, I am in the exact same latitude as my northern city of Minneapolis.  I will have to find other ways to get through these next few months besides those weekend hikes of the autumn.

But I do have a few trips planned, so that helps. This coming Sunday evening I am off to Kyiv on the overnight train for a couple of days. The real reason I am going is to get my teeth cleaned (!) in my on-going effort to retain the few teeth I now have left. I could probably find a dentist here in Simferopol, but the dentist in Kyiv is paid for by the Peace Corps, plus I know they are closer to the western standards I am used to. So I am combining the trip with a few items at the Peace Corps headquarters—closing out the two Peace Corps grants I have open and a few medical things like our annually required flu shot. Probably the only truly interesting thing I will be doing is going to the Netherlands Embassy to pick up a copy of a book they are donating to the library (more information on that on my library blog in upcoming weeks). According to TV reports, Kyiv is inundated with snow (the most in 100 years!), so walking—my favorite way to get around the Kyiv center—should be interesting…

I’ll be back in Simferopol for a day and then off for four days to Istanbul to meet up with my friend Casey who is working with Doctors Without Borders in Syria. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that now Istanbul has become my sort of local international meeting place (it was only four months ago that I met cousin Sara there for a long weekend)--Istanbul…a city that seemed so exotic to me (if I thought about it all) a few years ago. It is still exotic, of course, but now it almost feels like going to Chicago from Minneapolis.
And later in January my PCV friend Cheryl and I are going to take off for 10 days to Poland, Slovakia, and Budapest. The idea came from me wanting to cross country ski somewhere this winter and having met a Scottish guy at the hostel in Krakow last year who had just gotten back from cc skiing in the Slovakian mountains. I thought, “Well, give it a try and see what it is like.” He did say the hostel was mostly young folks, and so since this trip was originally planned with Serdar, I asked Cheryl to come along too, so I would have a companion to have fun with (Serdar I knew would hook up with folks from the hostel as he did last year). Though now it looks like Serdar won’t be able to go because of school and financial restraints.
We will mostly be traveling by train and bus—a 24-hour train ride to Lviv in northwest Ukraine, an afternoon and evening of hanging out there (maybe to a performance at the famous opera house), then a 6-hour overnight train to Krakow. Cheryl was there last summer and loved it as much as I did, so we will spend a day and night further exploring Krakow. Then a 3-hour bus ride to a village across the Slovakian border in the mountains called the High Tatras. We will stay there several days in a hostel with the plan to cc ski (me) and snow shoe (Cheryl) and probably much of it together, though Cheryl tells me she doesn’t really like cc skiing. There is also a big downhill place nearby, but I don’t know if either of us will try that.

Then we will take a bus or train across Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary and spend two days there. A cheap flight on Hungarian airlines will return us to Kyiv, and then an overnight train back to Simferopol, and for Cheryl, two more hours on a local bus to her village. Whew! It’s called traveling on the cheap in East Europe. Luckily, both Cheryl and I are into that traveling style. An adventure it will be!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A couple of excursions in November

By November, the weather had tuned a bit cold for extended hikes. That combined with short days (Crimea has one hour less daylight than Minnesota) meant that our “hikes” in November became excursions to several sites both Cheryl and I have been anxious to see. We were accompanied on these trips by our friend Dima, who was back in Simferopol after working on a fishing trawler all last year off the coast of Africa. Being a fluent English speaker, he was very helpful in translating signs and other information.
All of these photos were taken by Cheryl. I have gotten very lazy about bringing my camera!
Our first trip was to the St. Clement cave monastery and ruins of the Kalamita Fortress, located in the town of Inkerman, outside of Sevastopol. Here are Cheryl and I in our cover up garb for a visit to the monastery. We had brought head scarves and the monastery provided the "skirts."

With Dima on the road up to the monastery. Founded in the Roman empire and then abandoned for centuries, it was resurrected during the Crimean Athos era of the Russian empire (18th-19th centuries). It was closed down during Soviet times, but now is one of the most active monasteries in Crimea.

The main entrance to the monastery. It extends into a network of caves in the cliffs behind it. One of the monks sits in front.

The ruins of the Kalamita Fortress built in the 15th century on the ruins of a fortress dating to the 6th century BC.

The Fortress stands on a hilltop overlooking the Black River where it flows inland from the Black Sea.

One of the round towers of the fortress wall.
On our second excursion, Joohee, another Volunteer friend from Cheryl's village, decided to join us. It was a cold and windy day, but we decided to go to the coastal town of Balaklava to see the secret Soviet submarine factory, now a museum.

Here is the entrance to the factory, located in a water cave deep in the hills, allowing submarines to submerge out at sea and surface in the factory, undetected by US spy sattelites of the Cold War. Now it is a museum.
The undergound facility was large enough to accomodate 3000 people and was stocked with enough provisions for a month in case of a nuclear attack (also from the Cold War era). Occasional display rooms of submarine replicas and parts broke up the long tunnels, but mostly it was a fairly creepy place.
Here is the beautiful Balaklava harbor. The submarine factory is located in the hills across the way.

The remains of yet another Black Sea coast fortress, located on the cliffs high above the sea.

The trail up to the top of the cliff was a little dicey, but the views of the coast are some of the most spectacular I have seen in Crimea. The Balaklava harbor is to the right in this picture. It is hidden at sea by a narrow entrance.

The beautiful Crimean sea coast.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Autumn hikes--October

October began with a beautiful hike to the cave city of Tepe Kermen. Here is Lilya looking out into the valley below.

Tepe Kermen, as do most of the cave cities, dates to approximately the 6th century. Tepe Kermen has more than 400 caves carved out of the limestone cliffs.

Many of the caves are multi-storied, some even with stairs leading to upper levels.

Cheryl and I pose on the stairs.

Along the way we met a young woman from Finland who had come down to Crimea for a few days. She was out exploring on her own, so joined up with us on the trail back to Bakchiseray.

Our next adventure in October was to the ruins of the Surenskaya Fortress. Here are Lilya and I in a window of the ruins. Unfortunately, many of the old ruins are scarred by grafiti.

Surenskaya Fortress

A distant view of the location of the Fortress and a familiar sight in the land around Bakchiseray where the cave cities and other ancient ruins are located. Only an hour or so bus ride from my city.

One of the cliff faces in which the natural erosion appears as intricate designs and hieroglyphics.

We were fortunate to run into Alie and her husband Genghis at the bus station who were off on a hiking adventure of their own. They decided to join us when I told Alie that we were going to Surenskaya because she had told me it was her favorite place. They were great guides--the best part was making Turkish coffee for us over a fire. Here they are filling their water bottles at a spring.

Our last hike in October (or at least the last one we took pictures of!) was to Bolshoi Canyon (Grand Canyon) of Crimea. I had been there before with the family, and this time Grace, who was here for the weekend, joined us. It was a beautiful fall day.

Lenura equipped with one of my hiking poles and hiking shoes from my pal Cindy. Last time we went she had slippery soled old leather shoes.

Serdar and Safie.

Here we all are, laughing as I scrambled to make into the picture.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Autumn hikes in Crimea--September

Our first hike in September--Shuldan Monastery. An ancient monastery from the 7-8th centuries, it is still active with one monk living there.

The entrance to the monastery tucked into one of twenty caves high in the cliffs.

My hiking companions--Olga, Cheryl, Anton, and Yulia--on the cliff top above the monastery cave.

On the annual "Librarian Day," a few of us from the library took off to hike the Bakla cave city, a short bus ride from Simferopol. This is Mavie, a neighbor and fellow library worker.

A distant view of Bakla.

One of the many details etched into the caves.

Later in September, Lilya from the library, PCV pal Cheryl and I hiked Aya Dag, a forested mountain on the coast. Aya Dag means "bear mountain" in Crimean Tatar, and the mountain resembles a bear bowing low to drink from the sea. Many legends--ancient and UFOs--surround the mountain. This a view from the mountain top, looking out to sea at my favorite swimming rocks.

A view of a nearby seaside town as we climb up the mountain.

Cheryl and I picking our way along the scree slope.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I return to Crimea and to my blog



It has been almost six months since I last wrote a blog post. I’ve been to America and back—for six weeks in July and August-- where I sold my house and all my belongings save for one box of outdoor gear, one kayak paddle, my  cross county skis. Now I have more stuff here in Crimea, though that isn’t much—clothes and a few books. So far, that feels very good—when I think of something of mine that I had grown to love, or so I thought—certain clothes or books or souvenirs from my travels—I feel no sense of loss but only a kind of fond memory of something I once appreciated. Perhaps when, or if, I try to reestablish a home for myself in America, I will miss all those things, but I think not. When I envision a future home, it is a small place—a single room with a kitchen and a bathroom—with few possessions.  I have learned to live with very little here—I am hoping the comfortableness with that way of life will carry forward into whatever my future brings.

I feel now that my time here is starting to wind down. I know I have talked of possibly staying on in Crimea after the end of my Peace Corps stint, but now I am feeling that is less of a probability. I think that more than anything, for as long as I am mentally and physically able, I want to continue to do productive work in my life, but I feel the opportunities for that here in Crimea are dwindling. The major part of my work at the library is drawing to a close. Most of the grant work I have done at the library has been through the Peace Corps, and now I am no longer eligible for any of those grants. I will continue to search for other grant possibilities for the library but I know those are limited.

But I feel the major reason for my sense that my work here has little future is the language barrier. Though I feel competent in getting around and having conversations on a surface level, the language fluency necessary to have deeper conversations—to discuss project ideas, to process successes and failures, to just be creative—continues to allude me.  I do feel there is much I could continue to do here if I could work with English-speaking people, but at least in the Crimean Tatar world, they are few and far between. It feels like I have come up against a wall—this is as far as I can go—or maybe as far as I am willing to go—without the language to thoroughly understand and partake of the conversations around me. Recently I learned a Russian verb that in the negative means to “not take part,” and in the example, referred to someone who could not take part in a conversation because he didn’t know English well enough. And I thought to myself, “Yes, that is me exactly.” 

In my home life, too, I have come up against this wall. Lately, Lenura has asked me several times “Am I sad? Is something wrong?” obviously picking up on the current turbulence of my feelings about my life here, despite my belief that on the surface, at least, I am carrying on as usual—I guess “body language” doesn’t have that lost-in-translation problem. But despite my desire to talk with Lenura—to try and find the words for what I am feeling—I shy away from doing that, the memory so fresh of the last time I tried to talk about my feelings and her ending being up hurt because of something I inadvertently said, and I not even realizing how hurt she was until she told Serdar about it and then he told me. 

So I am beginning to think more about what my future will bring and trying to trust that the path of my life will open up before me and that I will recognize the steps I need to take. And to not feel discouraged or depressed by my changing circumstances here and continue to be present to the abundant joy in my life. 
And towards that goal, I have made an effort to get out hiking practically every weekend since I have been back from America. It is getting harder to do that now as the weather turns colder and the daylight hours have shriveled, but what a glorious autumn it was. In the next few blog posts, I will try to post some photos and highlights of those tramps around Crimea.
Once again, with love from Crimea.