Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Hiking Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rainy weekend activities

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

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

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

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

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

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