Thursday, October 21, 2010

Highs and Lows

Like everything else in life, Peace Corps service has its highs and lows.

Culture shock has affected me more than I expected it would.
Homesickness has affected me more than I expected it would.
Seasonal affective disorder has affected me more than I expected it would.
Loneliness has affected me more than I expected it would.

The good news is that tomorrow is Friday and the start of fall break. I am leaving tomorrow to go visit the most beautiful Ukrainian I know, Natalia. She is the wonderful woman who hosted me during training. I’ll be back in my training community along with all four of my training mates. I’ll also be meeting some of the newest trainees in Ukraine and giving a couple presentations to them: one about workplace values in Ukraine and another about culture shock. Then, next weekend is Halloween, and I’ll be celebrating in Harkiv along with a whole bunch of other PCVs. Also, tomorrow I am going to try to teach some of my students how to carve pumpkins. Holidays so far have been the most difficult days, but it looks like that won’t be true of Halloween this year!
Happy Halloween!
P.S. I recently read a Buddhist saying: If there were no illusion, there would be no enlightenment. I guess I could say in other words, if there were no lows, there would be no highs.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A new camera makes me happy! (video)

I filmed this video a few days ago (Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010) just after I bought my new camera. Backstory: I lost my old camera/ it was stolen this past June. For two and a half months I was grieving its loss. It felt good to get a new one!

Another Beautiful Run (Aug. 25, 2010)

I just got back from another beautiful run. I’ve been running – on again off again – since high school, but running this summer has given a sense of pleasure that is new to me. Being on the earth and covering ground and seeing my environment and moving my body and breathing deeply. Wearing only my sneakers and my shorts, feeling the breeze against my body. It’s an experience that is altogether enjoyable. It used to be torturous. But, it’s not about beating the clock anymore, it’s not about reaching some number on the scale, and it’s not about making a grade in gym class. It’s about running – in and of itself – and I love it!

Mosquitoes and an Outhouse (July 27, 2010)


(Teaching Our Boys to Excel)

July 11 – 16, 2010

Kreminna, Ukraine

The mosquitoes were out in full force. The “summer shower” left something to be desired. And, going to the bathroom? Let’s just say that having a bowel movement was something to be avoided.

Why, then, was this camp a new highlight of my Peace Corps service and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life?

When I joined the Peace Corps, I had some pretty grandiose ideas about the kind of important work I’d be doing to help people in need. That kind of idealism pulled me through the pressures of training and into my final site placement. Six months later, though, after completing my first semester as an English teacher in my new community, I was facing feelings of disappointment, questioning the significance of my work, wondering why I was not able to build relationships with the people in my town, and unsure if I was even wanted at my site.

Such misgivings, however, were long gone by the time I finished a week at Camp TOBE. Let me enumerate the reasons why.

First, the camp atmosphere was a perfect environment for a burgeoning of relationships. Anyone who has been to camp knows that the campers and staffers quickly become like a family. This is always a good thing, but for me, who had been so longing for a meaningful connection with people in the country where I serve, its significance cannot be overstated.

Second, camp, though it was located a 10-hour train ride from my site, was the best thing I’ve done for integration into my community. I brought a student from my school to the camp, and the relationship he and I formed is invaluable to me, not to mention the new relationship I developed with his parents and family, who extended to me a significant level of trust when they agreed to send their son to my camp.

Third, I had the opportunity at camp to address some of the significant kinds of issues that originally drew me to the Peace Corps. My official job in Ukraine is to teach English, but I signed up for much more than just that. At camp TOBE, I was able to work with the campers in addressing such issues as gender equality, HIV/AIDS prevention, and human trafficking. The campers even engaged in a debate about gay marriage.

Fourth, camp TOBE was a big project that I worked hard on, so its successful completion naturally came with a general sense of accomplishment that felt good to me.

And, besides all that, camp was plain fun! We went swimming and canoeing. We played football (American style), volleyball, ultimate frisbee, and the Ukrainian water game “Latka.” The boys made their own piƱatas just before busting them open for candy. There were relay races, an egg drop, and a huge bonfire on the last night.

So, in my final estimation of Camp TOBE, yes, there were a lot of mosquitoes, and they found ways to bite me even though I was applying repellent three times a day. Yes, I had to shower in cold water. Yes, the outhouse was scary. And, quite frankly, it was a lot of work to direct a camp. But, it was more than worth it. I had a blast while engaging in meaningful work with an all-star group of Ukrainian young men, and it redefined my Peace Corps experience. I would do it all over again (and, indeed, I intend to!).

Small Victories: Trail Mix and Camp (July 6, 2010)

It’s all about the small victories!

One of the many (many, many) things I miss about America is Great Value brand mountain trail mix. My thoughtful parents know how much I like my trail mix, so they have sent me several bags of it since I’ve been in Ukraine. Every time I have received it, I have ripped into the bag and feasted until it was gone. The bag of trail mix, though it is admittedly a large bag, never lasts more than a couple days.

At the market right here in Lebedyn, I found a seller who has nuts and dried fruit. Today I bought 100 grams of almonds, 100 grams of cashews, 200 grams of sunflower seeds, and 200 grams of assorted dried fruits. I brought it home, mixed it all together, and made a delicious trail mix. And I feel like a champion! It’s all about the small victories.

Another, more significant victory which I accomplished today was finalizing my student’s travel logistics for Camp TOBE. I am heading up a boys’ camp this summer called TOBE (Teaching Our Boys to Excel). I tried and tried and tried to get my students to sign up and was baffled when no one wanted to go. Eventually, I got two boys to commit. I realize now that the summer camp culture of America doesn’t exist so much in Ukraine. I always looked forward to summer camp when I was younger. I loved it every year. But, in Ukraine “camp” usually means a dull day program at school. It’s not something the students get excited about. Now that I know this, I’ll approach the situation differently next year, and I’m sure I’ll have a whole gang of campers headed off to the various Peace Corps camps!

Anyway, back to my two brave pupils who did agree to go to TOBE this summer. In Ukraine, it is illegal for a minor to travel alone or with a foreigner. This wasn’t a problem for my boys because one of them just turned 18. He’s not a minor, so they were okay. At the last minute, however, he backed out. I was terribly disappointed, but he’ll be going to Kyiv during the week of camp for an appointment at a university there. It’s a big deal, more important than TOBE, so I’m happy for him. That left a HUGE problem, though. How would my other boy get to camp? It’s about a 10 hour trip by train from our town to the camp. After I tried so hard to get my students to sign up, he’s my lone faithful pupil who is committed to go. And, I depend on him to have a blast at camp and then tell all his friends about when he gets home so that more students will go next year.

I called Valeriy, a university student in Sumy, and asked him if he might be interested in staffing the camp with me. To my pleasant surprise he agreed! So the problem is solved. Camp is going to be great! I will leave this Thursday, arriving to camp early to get things set up. The camp will run from Sunday to Friday. I have staffed two other camps already this summer, and I have two more to go. But, this camp is the one that I am leading, so naturally it’s the most important to me. Send me some good energy for a successful week!

Quite a Ride (March 8, 2010)

I just made it home after a great weekend with a few other Peace Corps volunteers, and it was quite a bus ride coming back.

First, I saw Ukraine like I hadn’t seen it before. The windows weren’t frozen so I could look out. And it was clear and sunny, so I could see really far across the snow-covered rolling plains. It was beautiful.

Second, I saw a herd of six deer.

Finally, I was awkwardly close to a stranger. I knew as soon as she got on the bus that she was very drunk. She planted herself right next to me and quickly passed out, slowing slouching over onto me until her head was in my lap and her beer was spilled on the floor of the bus. I thought about pushing her the other direction, but that would have meant falling into the aisle. Then, I thought about getting up and finding myself another seat, but I had already become her pillow. And, today is International Women’s Day (not recognized much in the States, but a big deal in Ukraine). To be honest, it made me really sad to see her like that – totally wasted and alone on a bus… on Women’s Day. So, I stayed there, and I was here pillow.

Happy Women’s Day!

Thank You Mom and Dad! (Feb. 8, 2008)

I got your packages today - both of them. I have never enjoyed peanut butter as much as I did tongiht! I ate big spoons of it with an apple. The honey-roasted sunflower seeds are delicious. It feels really good to have some familiar snacks from home. I'll save the Valentine's Day candy for my students, but I did sneak a little sample already. They'll love to have candy from America. And I'm curious to learn what kind of tasty dish I can make with tuna, veg. mix, and parsley. I'll pick up some mayo for that. Now, I'm restocked on floss and anti-bac wipes. The galoshes are perfect. And the big collapsible jug will make fetching water more convenient. I was tempted to go and fetch some right now so that I could tell you how well it worked, but it's 10:30 pm, so I'll wait till morning.

Today, I wore the black thermal you sent me. I was counting the days and realized this is the 5th day in a row that I have worn this shirt. Who would have thought I would wear a shirt five days in a row? I feel like I'm seeing life from a new set of eyes. They say that traveling abroad teaches a person how small the world is, but I can see that it's actually much bigger and more glorious than I ever knew. I guess I'm poor by American standards, but my spirit tells me that I'm very rich. What a journey this is! Thanks for the packages, and for everything. I love you, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Thomas, Jr.