Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This Week's Visa Issues

Everyday there's a new development. Last Tuesday I had another prospect for someone to register me: Baba Valya, whom I sometimes sit and drink tea with outside. In my desperation I asked my landlord if he'd be willing to let me stay longer if I raised my rent. He was obstinate in his decision. He would have his apartment back. But he would help me ask some neighbors. This is how we came to ask Baba Valya. She'd already known of my situation. After talking for several minutes and a long phone conversation with my Counterpart, we came to an agreement that I could live with her until I found a place to live. But she refused to register me.

The next day I got a call from a friend of mine, Sergei. He wanted me to celebrate his vacation with him and his wife Zhenia by going to the local discotech. I had never been there before but I figured that this might be the last and only chance that I'd ever make it there. So I went and we had a few drinks and danced. I told Sergei about my situation and he was quickly on board to help. His mother lives in Moldova: a potential problem because everyone on the registration papers would need to be present at the passport office. However she was making a trip to Ukraine anyway and it would only take about a day for her to get here. She, the landlady, agreed to register me only if Sergei could get his sister to agree, for the mother has it in mind to hand over the property to her when time comes for it. I'm not sure if she agreed or not, but as it turned out there were other problems. Sergei's mom would only be here for a day and it would be on the weekend. The passport office is only open on Tuesday and Thursday. Furthermore, the property is located in a village outside of town but still technically in the same region. I didn't know if that would fly with Peace Corps. On Thursday, Sergei, Zhenia, and I went to my school to talk to my counterpart, who would inform them about everything that needed to be done. It would prove useless because Sergei would end up canceling on me. He had plans to go to Moldova with his wife for his vacation in a couple days. It was only out of the kindness of his heart that he was willing to go out of his way to make an attempt to help me. I can't blame him.

Back to square one. I figured that it would be wise to start looking ahead at my other options. While I was waiting for Peace Corp's permission to change sites to Kharkiv, I went ahead and got my contacts in the city looking for a place for me to live. I had already had three potential options for people to register me if only Peace Corps would agree to let me change sites. I received a call from my Regional Manager telling me that I could only register in the same town as my workplace (site), which is what is written on the documents that Peace Corps gave me. And because my site is in Shevchenkove and I would try to register in Kharkiv, it would technically not be abiding by the rules. Peace Corps would not give me new documents for a site change. So it came down to getting someone to register me in my town or leaving Ukraine. I said that I would try going to the passport office, despite the discrepancy in my paperwork just to see what would happen. But of course, I would have to wait until Tuesday. On Monday, I would meet with Karina to talk to her University about getting free housing in exchange for a de facto Peace Corps Volunteer.

The weekend passed with sleepless nights, the first bad slumber I've had since I saw Paranormal Activity. On Monday I went to Kharkiv to meet with my friend Karina. The meeting with her University staff went pretty well. Things looked up but I just couldn't get my hopes up. You always expect something to go wrong. I then went to my friend Christina Volodomirivna's office. She is the one who agreed to register me and also happens to be in a pretty high up position in the Kharkiv educational administration. Meanwhile I got a call from my Regional Manager telling me that I had no option but to COS (Close of Service [we sometimes use “COS” as a verb]). I then pleaded to let us at least try going to the passport office because one never knows until one tries. 

I went home that night and called my Counterpart. She was aware of the situation and had better integrity than me. She refused to go through with the process due to the discrepancy in my paperwork. She had a lot more to lose than me because she and the school would be responsible. The consequences that they'd face, if there were any administrative action, would be much more severe than mine. And with that phone call it became clear. I would have to COS. Now I have less than three weeks to get everything done: paperwork, grant, medical & dental appointments, and goodbyes.

But even with all this, there just may be a silver lining. Once I COS, Peace Corps has no business with what I do with my life. Therefore, I can leave the country and reenter as a private citizen, “visiting” and leaving within the 90 day period, which is actually better than extending to December. This is what I originally wanted: to extend just long enough to do ABC Camp in the summer plus maybe one more (Harry Potter Camp) and have enough time to say my goodbyes and plan my next steps. But for now, my next step is to pack up and leave my apartment, because I have until the 15th to be out of here. And meanwhile, I wait to hear back from the immigration office to see if my plan to reenter is feasible.  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Humbly Digging Trenches

Last Tuesday I went to school donning my work clothes to work on my school's HIV/AIDS memorial garden, part of my project funded by PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief). We planted red roses in the shape of the HIV ribbon, painted benches with statistics and ribbons, and will erect a memorial stone in honor of those that died of HIV. Though the plan was to have the garden ready by the Last Bell Ceremony for the previous week where we would have an unveiling ceremony, there we were still working. Actually, there were two last bell ceremonies, split up thus because of the UEFA cup that is to take place this June in Ukraine, making for a pretty awkward ceremony. The schools in Ukraine have been moving their last bells and graduation ceremonies up so that it would not coincide with the UEFA tournament. My garden would miss both deadlines. We were supposed to work on it on Monday. Actually, we were supposed to work on it all of the previous week, but one of the school groundskeeper's mother had passed away and the other was sick.

So there I was, diligently stabbing the soil with a shovel, digging a small trench along the 138 meter perimeter of the garden for the borders while blisters slowly formed on my palms, thinking about all the uncertainty and mishaps that I'm drowning in. I and my school staff have been burdened by my visa situation. I had to leave the country a few weeks ago in order to re-enter and get a new visa. Within about a month of my re-entry, I need to get myself registered. Ukraine passed this law recently requiring foreigners to register in their place of residence. As we can't own any property here, it takes a landlord or host family to do this. Nobody is willing to register me because to register someone as a retiree requires one to give up one's government subsidy. Almost everyone in my town is a retiree. Even the ones that aren't retirees have this misconception that if one registers someone to their residence, that person can somehow claim ownership of the property. In short, it is going to be an ordeal.

A camp that I was supposed to work at in June got postponed to an indefinite date due to a food poisoning outbreak. It is the same school that I trained at two years ago in Obuhiv. It was supposed to take place from June 1-10. Up until today, when I called the director to see if there was any news, I had no clue when to expect to go.

My neighbor, Viktor, just passed away a few days ago. My only interactions with him consisted of hellos, good days, and the numerous times he came to my door begging to let him borrow cash for “bread”, which we both knew was for beer. Sometimes he'd do the low bow, putting his head to the ground, reminiscent of the buffoon, Fyodor Pavlovitch from The Brothers Karamazov. The other day I was walking back from school to find the funeral procession taking place outside of my apartment building. I stood there and witnessed the sad scene taking place.

My landlord had told me some weeks ago that he wants to move back into his apartment, effectively kicking me out. Amid the frenzy of looking for both an apartment and someone to register me, last week I asked my neighbors if I could move in with them and they agreed. Natasha and her mother Yeva would take me in happily. A few days later I found that though they could still allow me to live with them for the remainder of my extension they wouldn't be able to add me to their apartment registration because their documents were outdated. Natasha had a sister that passed away about 10 years prior and they never updated their registration document. Well at least I had a place to stay. That is, until just a few days later, they notified me that Natasha's dad from Russia is moving back in with them. Once again, I'm homeless. Now I'm taking it day by day, waiting for a call telling me that someone's found an apartment for me and that someone is willing to register me. And with each passing day I get a little more nervous that I'm going to be deported. My visa expires on the 30th of this month. I'm torn. My plan is to stay and I'll do everything I can to do so. But going home is going home.

Digging those trenches felt so symbolic of my current experiences. Two years into my service, ready to extend, I find myself jumping through hoops to get registered. People coming and going. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Like graves, I dug those trenches. Toil. Uncertainty. I dug knowing that I'd never really see the roses flower until I came back, if I ever come back. I just realized that we planted the other red flowers in order to have something to show until the red roses actually bloomed. I won't be able to see the final results of my project.

The toil felt like one of the few certain things to me at that moment. I literally didn't know (still don't) whether I'd have a place to live in the coming weeks or if I'd get a call to come to Obuhiv suddenly. All I knew was the task in front of me, the raw flesh oozing pus from my palms, my shoulders and arms burning from the monotonous work of digging. It was humbling. Not in the way that people misuse when they get a Grammy or an Academy Award and say, “Wow. Thank you. This is truly humbling”. No. I felt utterly humbled, humiliated, downtrodden. And I really mean it. When all your plans fall through and you have to take everything day to day, that is humbling. When you find yourself digging trenches literally and figuratively, that is humbling. When people around you are dying and you realize that one day someone will be digging a hole for you as I was doing at that moment, that is humbling. I was reminded of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes.

And I can't help but think that maybe that is me thinking most clearly. In light of Truth, I was put in my place.

Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money,' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.'” - James 4:13-15

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ukrainian Schedules: an oxymoron

Schedules in Ukraine are something like a chimera. This past week I’ve been working on my leadership training project at school, which deals with teaching my students to be peer trainers. So all week my 10th form students have been preparing and giving lessons on HIV/AIDS and leadership to the 5th to 8th formers. And all along, you can find me scrambling around, escalating up and down flights of stairs, hunting down teachers and keys, relaying messages, etc. I’m not that disorganized, honest. It is simply that this is how things are done in Ukraine. Schedule changes and sudden cancellations are almost a guarantee. Curveballs fly at you from all angles and you just learn to live with it. I’m almost afraid that one of the reverse culture shocks that I’ll face when I return home is that I won’t know how to manage my time like an American anymore. The teachers always assure me, “это как мы живём” (this is how we live). Take a look for yourself:

a snippet of my planner

note the many changes in the schedule that takes place over a single day

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Running, working, and reading through mild depression

The past month or so can aptly be characterized by laziness and procrastination. I find it harder and harder to wake up in the mornings despite the weather being nicer. Motivation evades my grasp as I sometimes lay in my couch bed wondering why my back feels like it's twice my age. There have been days when I felt accomplished because I finally got around to doing that load of laundry or the pile of dishes. Maybe the culture shock they warned us about is finally catching up to me. I never really had that low point up until now aside from the slight seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that afflicts anybody that has to undergo a Ukrainian winter. Or maybe I'm just feeling the withdrawal effects from being in Prague.


Earlier this month, I was in Prague for the Prague International Marathon with three other PCVs to run the marathon relay. We spent 4 days there. In a word, the city is beautiful. If there is any city I'd like to get lost in, it is Prague. And I did just that. On one of the days, I went to exchange some currency and meanwhile, the group that I was with decided to step into an adjacent store. Upon walking out and noticing that they were out of sight, I walked uphill to catch up. The street was flooded with tourists and after walking back and forth a few times, I decided to spend the day getting lost by myself. The streets of Prague are like a labyrinth. They are not gridded like most modern cities. I wonder if there is a negative correlation between a city's navigability and its beauty. It certainly adds character to the place. Everything there is rife with beauty. The architecture is stunningly gorgeous and the streets are of cobblestone. Nearly every building boasts beautifully carved statues and every turn leads to a charming little side street. Despite the packs of tourists, the city is a marvel. And what city that exudes so much beauty should not garner so much attention? It is rightly so, even though every person there is thinking, “how much more charming would this place be without the masses?”

it's like a fairy tale

old town square

view of (i think) the castle from a bridge

the relay team: Cassie, Emily, Kim, and I

Prague has some of the most interesting doors

Charles bridge

face of St. Vitus cathedral

inside St. Vitus cathedral

church where I saw a live performance of Mozart's Requiem

race day

the castle by twilight

If you'd like to view my full album, click here. Or go to my facebook.

Race day was very exciting. It was amazing to see the amount of work put into organizing such an event. And being an international race, we witnessed some of the world’s best marathon runners in competition. I can proudly claim to have run in the same race as them. As I was the last leg of our team and each runner runs approximately an hour, I had to wait 3 hours from the start of the race until I was to run. As I was running, I was ecstatic to find that my pace was faster than almost everyone around me. I must’ve passed a hundred people throughout the duration of my run save a handful. Then I realized that these were full marathon runners and I was running on fresh legs and only running 12 kilometers. But it still served as a point of motivation to run by people. I ended up running my 12 kilometer leg in 1:05:22 and our team time was 4 hours and 9 minutes.


Just the week before, I ran in a 10 kilometer race at a wine country run in the western part of Ukraine in a town called Beregovo. The town is located just 6km from Hungary and the influence of the culture was very evident. I felt as if I was not in Ukraine. The people there spoke Hungarian and were very nice. It felt happier there and the people smiled and laughed in the streets. The wine there was also really good. There are many good things about Ukraine. Wine is not one of them. With that said, I was thoroughly enjoying the good, locally produced wine of Beregovo.

engaging in conversation with the locals

a charming cobblestoned street in Beregovo

I think it's abandoned, but I love this house


As for work, my schedule is nonexistent. That’s not to say that I haven’t been working, just not consistently. My “schedule” is different month to month, week to week, and even day to day. My work, I’ve found, is much like a big juggling act. When you drop a ball, you pick up another one and keep juggling. Sometimes you have 10 balls, at other times you may be awkwardly juggling 1. Such is life here. Anyway, of late, I’ve been working on a Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant for a project at my school. It consists of a leadership training through HIV/AIDS education. I’ve trained my 10th form students to be peer educators and they will train their peers on HIV/AIDS and how it relates to leadership. Then as a final project, the students will disseminate information to the masses via flash mob.

at work: Natalia Nikolaevna - English teacher and my Russian tutor (left), Olena Viktorivna - my counterpart (right)

my 10th form students

Another project that I recently completed was a Living Library. What is a Living Library, you ask? Simply, it is an event in which students “read” “books”, or people of different backgrounds in a friendly environment. In short, it is culture sharing and it works a bit like speed dating. Every few minutes the books rotate to a new group of about 5-10 students and for their allotted time, they asked questions and basically have a conversation. I held one such event at my school and another at my site-mate’s school. All in all, I’d say it was a success. We’ll be holding several more of those in the future in mine and other PCV’s sites.

adorable 4th formers

meeting the books

Alison sharing photos

Tiago captures the attention of the students and translators

Students and teachers carefully listen to what Rich has to say

Chris pointing to Portland on the map

Kyle draws a crowd

The books: Top (left to right) - Olena (my counterpart), me, Kyle, Jing, Alison, Tiago; Bottom - Chris, Rich, Sasha  

This summer, I will be working at ABCamp, one of the premier camps in Ukraine. Camps are all the rage in Peace Corps Ukraine. When summer rolls around, PCVs flock to whatever camp they can be a part of. I was lucky to be accepted into ABCamp, as it had a large pool of applicants. We’ll be teaching the kids about leadership, doing activities, playing games, and coming up with creative ways to have fun. You can find out more about it here.


I’ve been reading a lot of Dostoevsky since I’ve been here. I’m in the middle of reading Crime and Punishment and I just finished Notes From the Underground not long ago. They are all heavy readings and not the lightest of subjects. I tend to absorb books into my life. By that I mean: I start to think a bit like the characters; internalize the themes and motifs; but mostly, I absorb the author’s writing style. I see it in my journals. Whatever book I happen to be reading at the time is reflected in my sentence structure, my prose, and even the mood. Maybe this is a contributor to my downbeat mood of late.

Anyway, I recently picked up a piece of journalism done by John Steinbeck called A Russian Journal. It was done in collaboration with photographer Robert Capa. I’m still in the middle of the book but I’ve read the part of the book where the duo travels to Ukraine, which is what concerns me here. I’d like to expound a bit on that:

A Russian Journal is a journalistic piece about the Russian people barring politics and editorials. It attempts to capture a portrait of the people on the other side of the iron curtain and Steinbeck does a good job of it. He leaves out commentary and prejudice. Where he does give his impressions, he leaves them open-ended for the reader to make one’s own opinion. This is particularly important because the trip to Russia was right after the Cold War had begun. Throughout the journey, Steinbeck engages in conversations about American perception of Russia particularly through the lens of journalism.

I greatly admire his keen sensibility in recording his experiences. He laces it with his dry humor and one gets a sense of the camaraderie that he and Capa develop over their journey in the way that he takes friendly shots at him.

Like the advent of my reading of Brothers Karamazov and all others of Dostoevsky’s writings, I particularly enjoy reading this while I am here in Ukraine. As I’ve mentioned, the duo spends a few days in Ukraine and may possibly have been to the town I currently reside in (they went to a couple towns called Shevchenko and humorously number them: Shevchenko I, Shevchenko II). 

Many of the things he mentions, we Ukraine PCVs have experienced first-hand. I found myself laughing out loud while reading some of the observations he made of Russian/Ukrainian culture and even the exchanges they have with the locals. I see that some of the impressions that Americans have of Ukrainians comes from Steinbeck. That Ukrainian women are among the most beautiful is one example. But more interestingly, a lot of the things he writes about Ukrainians are still true to this day. They will go out of their way to over-feed you. Ukrainians still have a fear of drafts and night air. This is to the point of discomfort in marshrutkas. Ukrainians still overdress for any excuse they can find to do so. Interestingly, he notes that Ukrainians laugh and smile, whereas in Moscow people don’t. I thought that Ukrainians don’t smile. Maybe Moscow is an even more drab place than Ukraine is. Certainly, people in the US are much more jovial in public than here in the former Soviet Union.

I am a deep admirer of Steinbeck at this point. I’d forgotten that my favorite book of required readings in school was Of Mice and Men until I’d read The Count of Monte Cristo. And now I may have to get back into Steinbeck’s works. I may come back to this one again and again. This may be particularly true when I am back in the states and am feeling nostalgic over Ukraine.

As I've said, I tend to absorb what I read and having read a bit of Steinbeck, I felt roused out of my laziness and inspired to write again. You can thank Steinbeck for this blog entry.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meditations in the Cold

I’m walking home from school on a glacier that is my route home. I look to the side of the road and see what looks like a fault. Running through it is a stream of water that serves as a natural drainage system and I wonder how the water hasn’t frozen. I see patches of blacktop covered in black ice and I realize that I haven’t set foot on solid ground in my town in months because the sheet of ice is still inches thick. On such terrain I go.

It is -14 degrees Celcius. In the distance I see trees stirring in the howling wind and I anticipate the wall of wind that approaches. In such cold your nose hairs freeze instantly and when you breathe you can feel them prodding the inside of your nostrils. The inevitable drip of snot starts to flow but your face is too numb to notice until you get inside. A sniffle will only remind you that your face is frozen and it feels like dough as it slowly returns to its normal position. Have you ever felt so cold that you thought you were going to puke? I can say that I have. I didn’t know if it was the Indian food I had that morning or the tight thermal underwear that was applying pressure to my gut or the most likely suspect: the extreme, biting cold. It was probably a combination of all three. Nonetheless I can say with complete confidence that I’ve never been in such cold weather before. It is weather like this that makes one want only to run home and bundle up in blankets with a pot of mulled wine. Twice I’ve resorted to such devices.

And amidst the cold and the long dark and the hostile canine neighbors that make it extra hard to find the resolve to step out of my apartment, I have to remind myself that service is hard. It is indeed a sacrifice. If it were comfort that I was looking for, I would not stay here. But it is in times like these that I remember the issue that is at the heart of service, of altruism. It is in times like these that I have to remember that to “love one another” (John 13:34-35) is indeed a choice. And the perfect example comes from the one who said it. In the very same chapter of John, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet several verses before he utters those words that are so simple, yet so hard to put into practice.

Many of us volunteers came expecting something. Many of us came to run away from something/s (as some of us discovered). We have to ask ourselves this one question: “if I were not able to see the fruits of my labor or receive some sort of personal satisfaction from service, would I still have gone through with it?” (This gets to the heart of the paradox of altruism). In other words, is there such a thing as a truly selfless act?

Thursday, January 20, 2011


It’s been a long time since my last update and a lot has happened since then. But still sometimes I doubt my utility here and wonder if I’m sitting around too much. It’s certainly true because I have spent whole days doing nothing but sitting around and watching Batman: The Animated Series on my laptop. But then again, sometimes there isn’t much to do in the midst of a Ukrainian winter where it’s already dark by 3:30 PM and a good portion of the town population decides to take a “sick” vacation for weeks at a time.

And when the sun sets, things get crazy. I’m speaking particularly about the stray dogs. There is one that lives right outside of my building and I pass by it everyday to work and sometimes it even saunters over to me, beckoning to be petted. But once the sun sets, the animals here can’t be trusted. The same dog will bark at me menacingly. Dog bites are a pretty common occurrence and not too long ago I was attacked by a little one. I kept walking and went passed its territory, or so I thought. It then ran up and bit me. Luckily, it only caught my jeans and didn’t touch me. Though I don’t like to think it, I know it’s left a small scar on my psyche and whenever I have a dilemma about stepping out to get groceries or to buy a train ticket when the sun has already set, I tend towards agoraphobia.


Of course my visit home was a great time. All the weight I lost in Ukraine, I gained back during my two week visit, and then some. It was a bit hectic trying to squeeze in everyone I wanted to see into my schedule but it was worth it and I had a blessed time. But by the end of the two weeks, I was ready to come back.

On my flight over I had a 20 hour layover in London and I spent the night out on the town to make the most of it. I didn’t sleep that night. I saw Big Ben, Parliament, The London Eye, stopped by Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (one of the many claimants to being the oldest pub in London), had some fish and chips, a whole bunch of good ales and lagers (I’m in love with Samuel Smith’s Brewery), walked around an outdoor bazaar-like thing, went to Convent Garden and saw a street performer, went to Soho, saw a live jazz performance, met some Polish girls and befriended them, went to a coffee shop and got hit on by a gay guy, got steak and eggs for breakfast while it was still dark, wandered around Picadilly Circus until the Tube opened and finally headed back to Heathrow to nap until my 11AM flight: the best layover of my life.


New Years and Christmas were both great times, though I spent both holidays in Ukraine. Christmas was in Kotovsk in Odessa oblast with my cluster mates. We cooked, ate, drank, conversed, played cards, and watched movies together. New Years was in Lugansk with some of the older volunteers. We did the usual cooking, eating, drinking, etc. And the food was amazing. I can say without any reservation that that was the best meal I’ve had thus far in Ukraine.


As for work, everything has been dwindling but I’m learning that my work here as a youth development volunteer consists of finding more balls to juggle to replace the ones I drop. My 8th and 9th form English club has dwindled to 2, but they consistently show up. They asked me to teach them American history so I am now an American history teacher. I brush up on my history every week and prepare power point presentations to show on my laptop. They love it. My older students’ English club is extinct but to replace that, I have my 4th form students, who love attending. I’m still trucking along with my Russian tutoring and that’s probably the one thing that is consistent in my schedule. I haven’t taught a healthy lifestyles lesson (or other YD related topic) in months, but I did pick up a student for tutoring in English. I received my 20 lbs of books from Darien Bookaid, which my students and I are very excited about. And I finally took the first steps in doing a community project. I’ll update more on that later.

Making the News

In other news, I made the local newspaper. Although I think what prompted it was my town getting another volunteer. Oh yes, I have a sitemate, by the way. Coincidentally, or intentionally, she is Asian. Anyway, this is now the fourth time I’ve made local news in Ukraine. The other three times were during training.

This is Jing, my new site mate.

This is me with a couple students from the school. This was totally staged and awkward.

This is me with my school director.

Here are the videos from training and swearing-in:


One of my students is into rapping. He calls himself DFM. I find it interesting how hip hop has spread across the globe and how it is perceived by people. Of course because mainstream rap has a certain image, people associate it with what hip hop is. Unfortunately, a lot of people become acquainted only with a façade that is the result of commercialism. This is true even in America. I’ve taken it upon myself to educate people about hip hop and what it actually is. I’ve had many heated conversations about this back in the states with close friends and though I don’t know everything about hip hop, I think I know a lot more than the average person about it. And as a representative of my country, from where hip hop was born, I count it my duty to defend her image from people who wouldn’t know any better.

The rappers here, from what I gather, tend to go for the gritty, hardcore sound. When they do it, it sounds good. But get into a regular conversation with them and you’ll find that their rapping voice is fabricated. It’s all entertainment, right? Maybe, but I like to think of hip hop as real expression. Not a paradigm to be followed or attained.

So anyway, to the point. My rapping student, Nikita, asked me to record a rap with him. I obliged him and we went to Kharkiv to record. His soundman was very good and knew what he was doing technically. The equipment was decent and actually I can’t say much more than that because I’ve never been in a studio. But I wasn’t feeling their vibe because they were going for the gangster rap style and his soundman was too overbearing during the process. It’s not like he’s a producer. He’s just the soundman. But he kept correcting our work and my student puts up with it. It is probably because this is the Soviet mentality. Hip hop, in my opinion, is about taking what you’ve got and making something of it, not aiming for a particular pattern or mold. This is the epitome of black music: improvisation. Anyway, they had me record these “backs”, or echoes, to emphasize the rhymes and give it that hard gangster sound. They would say, “90% of rappers use backs, even in America”. Not true. Maybe if you’re Dr. Dre. But he’s only one producer. Anyway, I went with what they wanted, because it was their track. I’m just the guest rapper. At this point I would have posted the track here for you to listen to but Blogger doesn't have this feature. If you want to hear it, ask me and I'll send it to you or something.

The studio

My student, Nikita and the soundman.

I'm already working on a second track. I haven't thought of a rap name. Any suggestions?

Miscellaneous Updates

Apparently, I have hypertension (high blood pressure). So for the past month I’ve been monitoring my blood pressure daily and recording it. My doctor says I need to come in and get this looked at. Hopefully it’s nothing. Personally, I don’t trust this BP monitor.

Speaking of health, I signed up for the Prague Marathon this coming May. I’ll be spending 5 days in Prague with a group of other PCVs running the marathon relay. Yea, there’s no way I’ll run a full marathon without serious training. I’ll save that for another day.

I got stopped by the cops yet again. That is now 6 times in 8 months.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Busy Month of October

I must begin this post with an apology to my faithful readers, that is, if I still have any, for the lack of posts the past few weeks. I’ve been very busy and lazy. Yes, busy and lazy. My schedule in October has been packed and with the amount of time I spend being busy, there is a positive correlation between it and the amount of time I spend doing nothing but napping and watching That 70’s Show episodes. I guess the increased daily activity causes me to need more downtime to relax. So between work and downtime, I have little time in between. Every weekend I was traveling and in fact, the past 7 weekends I’ve been away from my site (and 8 of the last 9) until this past weekend.

With that said, I’ll relate to you a concise version of my very busy month of October. I’ll even include headings so you can read them topically (because there is a lot here). I’m using the events of the weekends as a springboard to write, so I’m going to include a lot of tangents, thoughts, and seemingly unrelated topics. But it will be for the most part chronological.

Ecology Camp

The first weekend of October, I had the privilege of joining a UN volunteer worker, Sasha, with a local project of hers. It was a camp that was dedicated to teaching ecology to college and high school students. It took place in a town outside of Kharkiv called Liubotyn, which happened to be her home town.

The setting was absolutely beautiful. I’d been pining to witness some autumn foliage in Ukraine and had yet to see it until this particular weekend. We couldn’t have picked a better location to hold an ecology camp. Ty, a fellow PCV, and I arrived at our destination and caught the tail end of a cleaning session. Equipped with gloves and burlap sacks, we combed through the lush hills amid large trees, losing ourselves in the effort.

Our next activity was to paint wooden signs with messages about taking care of the environment. The next day, we’d hang them up on tree branches.

At night, we set up camp and cooked dinner over the fire. We snacked on sardines and bread, had some interesting conversations and even sung songs together.

The next day, we played a game called “quest”. Ukrainians love this game. I get the impression that any chance they have to combine pedagogy with fun, the default is a game of quest. It consists of finding clues, which lead to more clues. After a series of clues, which usually require a good distance of walking and/or running, the team to finish the quest first wins. It is essentially a scavenger hunt. In this case, the idea was to teach how to use a GPS, for we had to use them to find our checkpoints.

Collaborative, Kharkiv, and Couchsurfing

The second Saturday in October, I went to the city of Kharkiv for a meeting with other PCVs in the area. We got together to discuss several topics, exchange ideas, and offer help where needed. It was here that I got the idea for a viable small project. I’d put in an application for a Darian Bookaid and promptly received feedback that I’d be receiving a free shipment of books for my school in the next 3-6 months. My plan is to create a sustainable program in which the older students read books in English to the younger students so that they are exposed early on to the language. I know that in my personal experience, simply having a Spanish teacher teach us some very basic vocabulary in Kindergarten gave me a huge advantage in my Spanish studies, especially with pronunciation.

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine and fortunately, I’m only an hour and a half bus ride away from it. As a result, I make frequent trips into the city and have familiarized myself with it. I’ve grown to love the city. Recently I’ve discovered there an ice skating rink, bowling alley, 2 huge bazaars, a shopping mall, several great food places, bars, shwarma stands, hookah bars, restaurants, cafes, and a place called chateau ledo, which has paintball, arcades, ice-skating, roller skating, a 4D theatre, and a bunch of other neat things. I’m making it a goal of mine to explore the surrounding area of every metro stop and to know the ins and outs of the city by the end of my service. If anyone is ever in the area and needs help/suggestions, you know who to contact.

As I’m cruising through November, I’m more and more looking forward to my vacation home, which at this point is in less than 2 weeks. When I booked my airline tickets, I found that I have a 20 hour layover in London so I figured that this would be the perfect time to try out couchsurfing. I’d heard so many good things about it and the idea of it intrigues me. So I signed up for couchsurfing and put in several requests for a couch. I have yet to get accepted but hopefully it will serve as a good blog entry in the future and a success story. Who knows? Maybe it’ll trigger a newfound passion for travel within me. I have considered opening my apartment up for hosting anyone that comes this way. I’d be a great guide for the city of Kharkiv. I just might make it a new hobby.

Football in Kiev

On the third weekend in October, I made a trip to Kiev to play American football with fellow Americans. It was co-ed flag football but it was still fun. We played on a turf field, which was not significantly bigger than a basketball court. But it may have been for the better because I think a lot of us were simply out of shape. It was 4 on 4, with 2 girls and 2 guys on each team. My team came in last place, but we still had fun just being there and having the opportunity to play.

Living Libraries

On the fourth weekend in October, I made a trip to the city of Zaparozhia, the 6th largest city in Ukraine. I was there to join other PCVs in a very interesting project called Living Libraries. It is an event that fosters multi-cultural exchange. People of different backgrounds are brought together (in this case, PCVs) and act as “books”. There are groups of “readers” sitting at different tables and every fifteen minutes the books rotate. For fifteen minutes at a time, Ukrainians ask questions about the books’ lives, opinions, and essentially get to interact with people whom they normally would not. It’s a great way to break down barriers and prejudice. All the PCVs that attended received training on how to organize a Living Libraries event and I’m hoping to organize such an event in my region at some point in the near future. I think it’ll be great for some of my students to be exposed to different cultures. So to my readers, PCVs and America-dwellers alike, if you are interested in participating in such an event, contact me. I open this to American residents too because I am hoping I get some visitors in the next 2 years (hopefully this is not too much of a far-fetched idea).


The weekend of Halloween, I hosted my cluster’s second reunion. There were 4 from my cluster and 4 other friends that came as guests to my humble town of Shevchenkove. The eight of us crammed into my small apartment. It was one of the most fun weekends I’ve had thus far. Anytime you have a spontaneous Youtube session, you’re bound to have a good time. I showed my American friends to some of my students with the goal of cultural exchange in mind. We threw the football around.
The next day we went to Kharkiv for the Halloween party. What can I say about Halloween? It was a good time. A whole bunch of American travelers getting together for a celebration usually spells disaster, but as far as I know, everything went smoothly. I was a ninja. I got the costume in the mail with a care package the previous day. I almost had to come up with a costume on the fly.

Brothers Karamazov

I recently finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It was probably the hardest book I’ve ever read and one of the best pieces of literature I believe I’ve ever come across. This is one that I’ll come back to over and over again. Dostoevsky spends tremendous energy writing on character development and plot devices are in fact secondary to it. Yet, none of the plot is lost in it. In a way, it’s as if Doestoevsky is hinting that character psychology is what drives a plot. To take it a step further, it’s as if he’s built in the age-old paradox of free-will vs. predestination right into the story’s plot mechanism. If the author is analogous to God and the characters to created beings, who is indeed acting?

I’ll stop before I give anything away. Anyway, the reason I even bring this up in my Peace Corps blog is because I must acknowledge the privilege I’ve had of reading this for the first time in Ukraine, in which parts of the book takes place in. It mentions places such as Kiev and Kharkiv and I could be wrong, but I think that Ukraine was part of Russia at the time this story takes place. Regardless, much of the cultural aspects of the novel would have been completely over my head if I’d read it in America: things such as compote, квас (kvass), the usage of “ты” (you – singular informal) vs, “вы” (you – plural or singular formal), the card game “дугок” (fool), religious icons in corners of rooms and a host of other things. Everyone should read this, particularly Ukraine PCVs.