Over the mountain and through a snowstorm, to the COLLABORATIVE we go!

In Peace Corps Ukraine, we have these lovely little meetings every quarter called “Collaboratives” where we meet up with other volunteers in our area and, well, collaborate on our work and projects. Collaboratives are usually 9 parts hanging out with friends and one part meeting/collaborating, but it honestly varies, depending on the meeting and the attendees. Every oblast (or region) has its own collaborative, but my region is quite lazy and hasn’t had a collaborative in over a year. And most of my close friends live in the neighboring region, so I attend their collaboratives as a welcomed crasher.

Last weekend was one of these Collaboratives for the Ivano-Frankivska oblast (the neighboring region), and the meeting was set for a farmstead in the Carpathian Mountains where we rented a house big enough for the 20 people attending the meeting. I traveled to my friend Janira’s village Friday after school, where we caught up and came up with a plan for getting to the mountains the next morning. Before I tell you what happened next, you must know that I tried to prepare wisely—I checked the weather forecast before I left, which promised weather in the high 30s, low 40s, with a high chance of rain. So I packed accordingly (or so I thought): a leather jacket, a sweatshirt with a hood, and an umbrella just in case we had to wait outside in the rain.

Early Saturday morning we set out, and I knew in the first five minutes that I had definitely under-packed. The temperature was in the low 20s, and a bitter wind was blowing, chilling me to the bone. We waited outside for a bus, and when it finally came I thought the worst was over—but I was wrong. We had to change buses at a crossroads in the tiny village of Zabolotiv, but the bus we needed to catch to Kosiv didn’t come. We had been waiting 15 minutes when it started to snow; by 30 minutes we were shivering and our teeth were chattering as we tried to entertain ourselves and not think about how cold we were. At 45 minutes I was losing hope that a bus would ever come, and a taxi driver who had offered us a ride (for a huge sum) took pity on us and told us to come sit in his taxi and warm up while we waited for the bus. I hadn’t packed a hat or gloves, so my fingers were numb and my hair was soaked from the snow that had melted. I was so grateful for the warmth of the taxi that I almost agreed to his offer to drive us to the village we wanted. But luckily, after more than an hour of waiting, a bus finally pulled up going to Kosiv and, thanking the taxi profusely, we jumped out of his car and ran for the bus.

We made it to Kosiv, where 10 other volunteers met us at the bus station. We all bought tickets on the next bus to the mountains, and we quickly ate lunch in a cafe and warmed up a bit. Back at the station, we looked for our bus but didn’t see the right one. A bus driver looked at our tickets and pointed to a bus that was already packed full, with at least 20 people waiting outside to get onboard. I honestly thought we were screwed, and that there was no way we’d all fit inside. I was really angry that they’d kept selling tickets on an already-full bus, but if we didn’t get on this one we’d have to pay for new tickets on the next bus. So all 12 of us got in line, and pushed our way onto the bus. I don’t really have words to describe how full it was; we were definitely packed in like sardines. Here, see the pictures for yourself and you’ll understand better what I mean when I say the bus was stuffed. I bet at least 60 people were on a bus with maybe 18 seats. Not pleasant.

We drove through the mountains in this manner, and the only upside was that we were cramped in so tight that there was no chance of falling down when we hit a bump or went down a hill too quickly. You just slammed into your neighbors, who were wedged in so tight they had no where to move to. In this way, we remained upright for most of the journey.

We finally arrived at the village where a van was waiting to convey us to the house we rented. There was a solid layer of snow on the ground, and all of us dreaded another bus trip. This time we were less crammed in, but trying to drive through the mountains down narrow village roads in the midst of a snow storm made the trip difficult. There were a few times I thought we would die, either by slipping off the road and down the mountain, or by hitting an oncoming car (the road was only wide enough for one car to drive down). It was terrifying.

We finally made it to the house, where the owners received us and welcomed us into the warmth inside. We’d traveled most of the day to get there, and were exhausted and frozen. Dinner was included in the house’s rental, and the landlady told us to rest while dinner was prepared. We decided to have our official collaborative meeting before dinner, because afterwards people would want to hang out and have fun—not talk business!

The only room big enough to fit all of us for the meeting was the dining room, which unfortunately was not heated, (did I mention how badly I packed for this?) and in typical Ukrainian architecture, was located in a separate kitchen building. In Ukraine, especially in towns and villages, the kitchen is located in its own building separate from the house. So the beautiful, 2 story, 8 bedroom home had no kitchen inside! We had to get all bundled up and venture outside to the small kitchen building, where two huge picnic tables and benches could accommodate all of us at once. But like I said, there was no heat so we froze out there too. Basically, I froze the whole weekend.

Once the official collaborative meeting started, we tried to take care of business quickly. We shared announcements, discussed job difficulties and cultural miscommunications, and solicited help for upcoming events at our sites. We were all cold and hungry, so when the meeting adjourned and the food was served, there was much rejoicing. The food was hot and heavenly, and we devoured it. Our hosts also laid out pitchers with what I originally thought was water, but turned out to be “samahon,” home-made, Ukrainian moonshine. Stiff stuff, not for the weak of heart. I drank it for the toasts, but it was like drinking rubbing alcohol. Drinking samahon is definitely not my favorite Ukrainian tradition!

The rest of the evening was quite enjoyable, playing Bananagrams and Phase 10, listening to the boys make music with a banjo and a washboard, and just enjoying my friends’ company. Some of the boys bought more “samahon” from a man in the village and proceeded to drink it, which they regretted in the morning. We stayed up late into the night hanging out, but I fell asleep in the midst of it and was woken up to Janira telling me we had to walk back to the big house to sleep for the night. She and I were sharing a real bed, and the next morning when we woke up neither of us wanted to leave! After brunch, we got back on the bus and repeated the same adventure to get home, taking 3 buses just to make it back to Janira’s village. By that point it was so late I just slept over at her place and then woke up early to get back to my town Monday.

So all in all, the Collaborative was a success. Unfortunately, this time it was 7 parts travel time, 2 parts hanging out with friends, and 1 part meeting. I hope next time its less travel, more fun : )

Thanks for reading, as always : )

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