I made it here, after 2 long days of flying. I’m part of Peace Corps Group 39 (we’re the 39th group of volunteers to come to Ukraine), and I heard there are 84 of us total. The bad news? Only 50 of us got to fly out as planned on Saturday, while the other 30 or so had to wait. I guess not all of the Ukrainian visas came through, so the rest of the group is waiting in D.C. for the paperwork so they can fly out too. I’m glad my visa came through; I think it would be stressful to be waiting in D.C!
We arrived in Kiev Sunday afternoon, and Peace Corps staff met us at the airport. Then we drove 2 hours out of the city to this wooded retreat called Desna. It was a Soviet-era resort that looked like no one had touched it since then, and it was pretty creepy. We had 2 days of intensive orientation, with sessions about health, safety, TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language), cross-cultural sessions about what to expect from our host families, and individual doctor appointments for each of us with Peace Corps Medical Officers. I spent almost 2 months going to doctors in the U.S. to get medical clearance to join the Peace Corps. I had every test under the sun done to prove that I have no diseases, received lots of vaccinations, and even had my wisdom teeth removed so I was fit for service. So you would think I was healthy, right? Well, the Peace Corps doctors had to start medical files for each of us here, and if there was any question as to whether you’d received a vaccination, you were given it again. So I got two shots out of my appointment, but I was lucky. One of my new friends had to get seven because he didn’t have a copy of his shot records with him! I’m so thankful my Mom had mine copied and put them in my stash of important papers. THANKS MOM!
I had really bad jet lag at orientation, and hardly slept either of the first two nights. I think my mind was still reeling from all the information I’d been told, and I was still in that phase of asking “what did I get myself into?” We had lots of paperwork to do at Desna too, and some of it included signing documents entirely in Ukrainian that I had no clue what meant. I think one of them was for a Ukrainian bank account, into which the Peace Corps deposits our monthly stipends. The rest… I have no idea.
Our group was also split up into “clusters” for training. The first three months in Ukraine are known as “Pre-Service Training,” where we all learn a language and receive technical training in how to be effective English teachers in Ukraine. Half of the clusters were assigned to learn Russian, and the other half Ukrainian. I was under the impression that we would be learning both, but for now I guess we just learn one. I’ve heard some volunteers who study Ukrainian actually end up at a location where they have to teach in Russian, so I guess sometimes the language you learn isn’t the language you need anyways. Most Ukrainians are bilingual so Russian and Ukrainian are both heard very often. However, in Western Ukraine Ukrainian is predominant, while in Eastern Ukraine, Russian is mainly spoken (as Eastern Ukraine borders Russia). All of PST (Pre-Service Training) is conducted in Chernihiv Oblast (the region of Chernihiv), which is in central Ukraine. So we hear both languages, all the time.
But my cluster was assigned Ukrainian, and our language trainer Natalia informed us that we would be training in the town of Kolychivka. (Let me just say here that “town” is a huge overstatement—I’ll explain in a minute.) So Tuesday morning our orientation retreat concluded, and we loaded up the buses and left Desna. Each cluster consists of 5 people, and each cluster trains at a different location. Some clusters train in towns or cities, and others train in tiny villages. When the bus stopped to drop us off at Kolychivka, I didn’t even see “tiny village.” All I saw was a bus stop and a sign that said Kolychivka. We were a little early, so we waited for our host families to come and pick us up. So far our cluster consisted of Natalia (our trainer), me, and Andrew. The other three members of our cluster had been delayed with the visa problem, so we were a pretty tiny group to begin with. But our host families came and took us home, and things got better.
My host family consists of Anya and Victor, an empty-nester couple in their fifties. They have two grown sons, one of whom is expecting a baby with his wife. The other son lives nearby in Chernihiv (the closest city) and comes home often. They took me home and showed me my room, and told me to unpack (I figured most of this out through charades). Then we had a huge dinner, and they made me eat all this delicious food until I was stuffed. I enjoyed it immensely though; the food at Desna was disgusting, so it felt like I hadn’t eaten in days. At orientation we were warned that alcohol is a big deal in Ukraine. My host family had wine instead of vodka, which I was grateful for. They drink it from little shot glasses, so I felt like we were doing wine shots all night. It was fun though : ) After dinner I went to bed (at like 7pm) and slept until 9 the next morning. I woke up feeling so much better about life, so I attribute my initial feelings of homesickness and depression to exhaustion.
Our first morning in Kolychivka, Andrew and I had four hours of Ukrainian language lessons, followed by an activity called “community mapping,” which was really just a glorified term for scavenger hunt to find everything! It started out fun, but in the end was completely depressing. We made a list of 20 things that we could look for, like “store,” “restaurant,” “post office,” “school,” “internet café,” “public phone,” etc. Then Natalia helped us translate the words into Ukrainian, and we set out. Out of twenty things, we have three in our village: a post office, a school, and a convenience store. No restaurants or cafes for lunch, which is kind of a problem because we’re expected to eat lunch on our own. My host mom feeds me anyways, which I’m thankful for. The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of any Internet access. For now I’ll just have to write blog posts and emails and save them to my computer, to be saved for a time when I have some Internet access!
So now you are up-to-date on my first days in Ukraine, and what Pre-Service Training looks like. Each day I have 4 hours of Ukrainian language study, and then technical sessions with a teacher trainer who is supposed to turn us into Ukrainian teachers in the next three months. For now, I’m a “Peace Corps Trainee,” and if (maybe I should be more positive here and say “when”) I survive training, I’ll be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer December 7th. After that we’ll be shipping out to our permanent sites, where we’ll live and teach for 2 years. That’s all for now! In the next few days the rest of the people in my cluster should arrive, and it’ll be nice to have a bigger group. Natalia is taking us to the city of Chernihiv this weekend so we can buy Ukrainian cell phones, and I’m looking forward to calling home and telling them I’m alive : ) And hopefully I’ll have a few minutes of Internet to update my blog! If not… you’ll get to read this later rather than sooner I guess.
Thanks for reading, I hope all is well where you are : )