Geek Squad keeps reminding me periodically that I left her and my other readers on a train in western Ukraine over a month ago. Point taken. Since this was a rather long--and snowy--travelogue, I'll try to finish up the tale tonight. It's really warm in KY today with hints of spring in the air. Reader interest in winter travel is waning, I'm sure. So, Geek Squad let's get you off the train.
Brief recap--in 2001 I was still working for a nationwide farm organization, the American Farm Bureau, as a volunteer leadership development trainer. I trained farm leaders across Kentucky to be effective board and committee members, to do strategic planning, manage meetings and other volunteer responsibilities. Because of this work experience, I was asked by a foreign aid arm of the U.S. government, the Citizen's Network for Foreign Affairs, to travel to Ukraine to work with newly formed councils of farm women. Just ten years previous these women were workers on collective farms. Now they were struggling with private ownership and operations of their farms and needed help in organizing associations and farmers' cooperatives to better support their families by farming the rich agricultural lands of the Ukraine.
So, in December 2001 I spent three weeks working with farmers, mostly women, in the Zakarpattia Region of western Ukraine, in the Carpathian Mountains on the Slovokia border. Several days after arrival in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, I took an overnight train to western Ukraine. My work partner and interpreter was Inna. Inna and I became great friends and shared many adventures and mis-adventures throughout the trip. More about that later.
The Zakarpattia Women -- before I did any training for the councils, Olena the leader, arranged tours of some of the farms operated by Ukraine women. I was impressed by their strength and determination to improve their circumstances through education. The first farm we visited was in Liporo village. The women in this photo were members of the farm women's council. Inna, my interpreter, is on the far left in the cute hat and big coat. More about that coat later.
Eva was the owner of this farm situated on the edge of Liporo village. I have to say I was in shock when I saw the first village farm. It was like traveling back in time 100 years. These small farms were in such stark contrast to the rolling fields planted with winter wheat that we saw along the main roads. Fields that were being tended with modern farm machinery.
When Eva learned that I was familiar with tobacco farming she was eager for me to see her stripping room where the women were taking the leaves off the cured plants and bundling them for market. Eva was proud of her crop, but I didn't tell her how anemic the tobacco was in comparison with Kentucky burley.
Inna and I spent several days touring farms, sharing meals in farm houses and meeting with agriculture officials. It didn't take long to realize that the women were carrying the burden of running the farms, caring for their families and trying to make a place for themselves in the leadership of local and regional governments. Most of the women were married, but I met only a few of their husbands. The men drifted in and out of the homes we visited, never taking part in the conversations. Some had jobs, but not all.
Inna finally shared with me the serious problem of alcoholism, coupled with unemployment, that afflicts many Ukraine families. I wasn't surprised because vodka was the beverage of choice. I was even offered a drink for breakfast--whee-ee-ee! Any formal meals with government officials or council leaders included vodka. I tried to be polite and drink a bit, but soon I was being urged not the waste "angel tears", their name for any liquor left in the glass. Inna helped me out by telling them that it wasn't a custom to drink liquor during the business day in my part of the U.S. They did know about Kentucky bourbon!
Training Sessions --in addition to farm tours and meeting with the farm councils I also conducted training sessions for the council members. We met in schools and government offices such as you see in this photo. Being a trainer accustomed to excellent workshop equipment I knew that we would be challenged out in the remote villages. Therefore, I brought flipcharts, markers, name badges, notepads and other workshop goodies with me from the U.S. I kept personal luggage to a minimum to do this and was lucky to get it through security. As a trainer I'm a great believer in the group wisdom, so that's how the training sessions were organized. Participants were divided into small groups and given issues that they needed to resolve. Example: what do you expect from your farm council? what programs and services do you need? how do you influence government? What you see on the flipchart pages in this photo was the result of their small group work. Everyone talked and offered opinions. I shared ways for them to reach their goals based on my work with Farm Bureau. It was a novel approach for them to be active participants instead of passive listeners. I was happy with these training sessions even though we could only scratch the surface.
Ukraine After Work -- for part of the trip Inna and I stayed in a hotel near the beautiful town of Beregovo. This experience cemented our relationship for sure. On the first night the furnace failed and management was not too concerned. The wind was actually whistling through cracks in my room walls. I actually sacrificed some of my precious flipchart posters by ductaping them to the walls. Inna wore her coat and a pair of my L.L. Bean wooley socks to bed. The bath was down the hall and unheated as well so Inna and I started the running joke about waiting for spring to come so it would be warm enough to bathe in the river. Let's just say our hygiene standards got real flexible.
From Hotel Freezer our luck turned. We were hosted by a warm and gracious family in the remote village of Dunkovitskaya. Maria, leader of the Irshava farm council, lived with her mother and father and three children and an absentee husband. We spent evenings huddled around the grandparents' stove sharing stories about their life and mine. Svetlania, the outgoing middle-schooler, begged me to come to the village school and meet her teachers and students. We did. I was so touched when talking with some older boys in one classroom. When they learned that I was from the U.S. one asked "How are you doing since the attacks of 9/11?" I was blown away by this concern since the Ukraine people have such a history of suffering themselves.
When we were not touring farms or training, our time was filled with driving around the region. The roads were snow and ice covered, heaters didn't work, tires went flat and wipers quit working. All that was taken in stride. When necessary, Olena and I made stops at travelers' shrines along the roadside to keep us going. At the time of our visit everyone was caught up in the excitement of preparing for the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. We shopped at markets for Christmas gifts for the children. I attended the village church with Grandmother and appreciated the beautiful music and rituals. We drove into the town of Mukaceve and went through the castle. I held hands with Count Mukaceve during this photo op. Maria kept her dignity.
At the end of two weeks I said a tearful good-bye to my host family and the Zakarpattia women. Inna and I boarded the train again for the long overnight trip back to Kiev. It was a festive trip. Travelers were bringing even Christmas trees to Kiev on the train. On arrival in Kiev, Inna and I quickly went our own way for a few hours. Both intent on a hot bath and manicure even. We met up again and finished my trip report and had a final meeting with the CNFA staff. My last evening in Kiev I attended a ballet of Don Quixote at the Kiev opera house.
The next morning, December 22, I boarded a plane for Amsterdam and then on to the U.S. I arrived home on the 24th to be greeted by my sweet dogs. My dear friends picked them up at the kennel so they would be home to greet me. What better Christmas gift than to be safely home with memories of time spent with the brave Zakarpattia women.
- Recent retiree--35 year's experience teaching reading, English, adult basic education and volunteer leadership skills. Started this blog to exchange ideas and commentary with friends and others having an interest in joining the discussions. Greatest life accomplishments include: 1.organized my 3rd grade class to check out library books for me to get around librarian's weekly limit--Amazon.com, the Mullins Elementary 3rd Grade Class of 1956 is still waiting for "thank you" notes; 2. volunteered in the Peace Corps, island of St. Kitts, West Indies; 3.taught adults to read, earn their GEDs., and speak English as a second language; 4. bought a border collie puppy for $6, got evicted rather than give him up, and began a life-long love affair with all things "Dog"; 5. joined a physical fitness boot camp in my mid-50s--don't mess with someone who's been doing regulation pushups in wet grass at 5:30 a.m.; 6. walked across Northern England with best friend Sally--over 80 miles from the Irish to North Seas; and 7. travelled to many foreign countries for pleasure and work.