Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ukraine Assignment

Last night I was reading 1,000 Places To See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. To be precise I was also marking the places that I'd already seen in over 30 years of travel both in the U.S. and abroad. Just looking through this book brought back memories of wonderful people, places, and adventures that have greatly enriched my life over all these years. And, set me dreaming about the next trip. . . I'm thinking a train across Europe with a detour on the Orient Express.

Since it's cold and snowy tonight, I thought it would be a good time to tell you about a great travel adventure I had in December 2001 to Ukraine. At that time I was still working for a large farm organization as an adult trainer for leadership development, strategic planning and other potentially boring areas of organizational development. Flipcharts, magic markers, and small group discussions were my friends.

In the fall of '01 I was contacted by the Citizen's Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA)in Washington D.C. to see if I would be willing to travel to western Ukraine to work with several fledgling women's councils in the Zakarpattia Region, which includes the CarpathianMountains. These women farmers were struggling to support their families on privately owned and operated lands. After all, most of them--and their parents--had been workers on state owned collective farms since the World War II occupation of Ukraine by the USSR. In 1991 Ukraine finally gained its freedom from the USSR and farmers in 2001 were still scrambling to learn about private land ownership. They needed help in setting up farm cooperatives to produce and sell their crops and livestock and how to work with a bloated, disorganized government to support farmers. CNFA is the agency of the U.S. government that provides this partnership aid for under-developed countries through on-site training and technical assistance. That was my assignment.

So, I was supposed to spend much of October '01 in Ukraine and then came the attacks of 9/11. I studied the map of the region, tracked embassy alerts, and stayed in contact with the Ukraine office in Kiev. Finally, in December I decided it was stable enough in the region to complete the assignment. I put on my trainer's hat and started collecting all the supplies needed to hold workshops--and even more challenging figure out how to get them on the plane with me. I knew that much of my work would be in remote villages and was pretty sure there wouldn't be PowerPoint capabilities! I cut personal luggage to bare bones and loaded up flipcharts, markers, notebooks, name badges and other goodies that I knew would be symbolically important to my Ukrainian students.

Early in December I was finally ready to go. I put my dogs in the kennel and promised that I would be back in time to rescue them by Christmas. I then boarded the first of several flights to get into Kiev, Ukraine. All the time I was thinking, "Please let my workshop supplies arrive with me and don't hassle me getting them through security."
After almost two days of flying, I finally arrived in Kiev around 4:00p.m. It was already getting dark, snowing and bitter cold. All was well however. My luggage got there with me. I didn't have to surrender any of my workshop supplies(they were in this huge whipcord bag)to security. And thankfully, when I got out in the reception area I was met by Inna, the young woman who would be my interpreter and all around fixer for the next three weeks. We hit it off right away and were chatting non-stop on the drive from the airport to the CNFA office in Kiev. We met the U.S. and Ukrainian staff for CNFA, completed all the obligatory paperwork,worked on the schedule for my visit,and clarified my assignment.

Inna and the CNFA driver then took me to the apartment where I would stay for the two days in Kiev before we traveled on to western Ukraine to meet the women's councils. I had learned from Inna that they would soon be celebrating the Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas in early January. You could tell from the hustle and bustle on the streets that holidays were approaching. Kiev is a beautiful, sparkling city, especially at night. Much better than in daylight. The apartment was very spare, but comfortable with heat and hot water. How I grew to appreciate it over the next three weeks!This was the view out of my apartment window. Notice the snow fences on the roof.
Over the next two days Inna and I explored the city. This elegant building is the MacDonald's! We met Inna's son Demma and his schoolmates there. I grew to admire Inna because she was an ambitious young woman--going to school,divorced, but trying to work with her former husband to care for their son. At the same time she was planning to marry again and was dealing with all the red tape of re-modeling an apartment for the new family.

Here's another example of Kiev's beautiful architecture. This was the entrance to a technology college. I loved the way people dressed. Truly felt that I was in eastern Europe.
Since it was so near Christmas, we were able to go through a street arts and crafts fair setup alongside St. Andrews Church. This church was stunning--a huge wedding cake of a building capped with the traditional Orthodox onion domes. I
bought my sister a set of authentic stacking dolls, called "matroshkas" for their maternal symbolism.

After two days in Kiev, Inna and I were dropped off at the train station in the late afternoon. There we boarded an overnight train for the long ride across the Carpathian Mountains to the western city of Uzhgorod which was our base for the rest of the assignment. Inna had reserved us a sleeper car for the long trip, not quite as cheery as this one but comfortable enough. We bought yogurt, cheese and bread--and Milka chocolate--for supper and hot tea from the train attendant. I remember that Inna and I stayed awake lying in our berths talking into the night about things "girls" enjoy--love, future plans, past mistakes. It was a real slumber party. As the train rumbled through the night I could hear people moving about in the corridor and could look out the window at the snowy, moonlit mountains.

I felt homesick, but excited, and looked forward to meeting and working with the women of the Zakarpattia.

To be continued. . .
(Want a closer look? Click on images to enlarge.)

9 comments:

Aoj & The Lurchers said...

Looking forward to reading the rest of this! I hate travelling so I love to travel virtually through other people's stories!

laurie said...

WOW. what an adventure! i have never been to kiev. but i have been to russia, and i have some of those stacking dolls.

what great and interesting pictures. your work there sounds quite interesting. i had no idea you were an expert in setting up farm cooperatives. was your mission successful?

Gay, Married, with Cat said...

Kiev would have been a wonderful city to visit. I'm afraid I would have looked the fool by gawking at all the ornate architecture!

And any place that sells chocolate on the train must be OK. :-)

Lane said...

What a fascinating trip. The buildings are just amazing aren't they. I love the connection you made with Inna. Do you keep in touch?

Looking forward to the next installment:-)

Faye said...

AOJ--agree about virtual travel--love travel journals and the hearty guys and gals of Globe Trekker, even Rick Steves. I also love the real thing, but it has to be a group thing--garden tour, painting, or like Ukraine a "meet and work with people."

Laurie--when i first found your blog I was distracted by the dog-u-dramas. Want to go back and read your Russian stories--just read the one about meeting the dog.

Work stars in follow-up post. I'll give it mixed reviews, but I tried. Stay tuned.

GMWC--Ukraine was beautiful--grand architecture and their symbols of freedom were prominent in every city--they suffered so much. The chocolate and yogurt saved Inna and me throughout the trip.

Lane--unfortunately I didn't maintain contact with Inna. Always a shortcoming there. She did re-marry and settle into smart new apartment with son Demma. I saw her photo in an educational journal so glad she continued education. Always wondered what side she was on with the recent government uprising. We didn't talk much politics.

Laura McIntyre said...

It looks so wonderful, what an amazing experience it must have been

Jonathan said...

Faye, congratulations on entering the blogosphere! If I weren't so busy reading other people's, I might just set one up for myself!

Jonathan

Faye said...

Hi Jonathan! Thanks for stopping by. Come back again in a few days and I'll tell you about attending Don Quixote at the National Opera in Kiev.

Bob Walker said...

I remember Inna! "Predictable, Bob." But, if I might be allowed a moment of serious reflection, the events in Ukraine have been on my mind. Personal aside, Sasha's boyfriend is Ukrainian, but I think tries to stay apolitical around others. But what must he and his parents discuss in the sanctity of their Baltimore home? I was especially touched by the members of the Ukraine gold medal-winning women's biathlon team who would have been celebrating what for them must have been an achievement of a lifetime, but who put their own accomplishments on hold at the press conference and insisted on a period of silence for their home country.