Summer’s Last Hurrah, Part 2

Becca and I had one day to chill out in Sokyriany before the next stop on our itinerary. We had originally planned on spending a few days in the Carpathian Mountains, but that would’ve made another long trip on a bus or train, so we decided to stay closer to home. I had told Becca about my fun day at the river with Tori and my Ukrainian friends, and she loved the idea. So I called Slavic and he told me who to call to arrange it. My friend Michelle has wanted to go camping or rent a log cabin for ages, so when I proposed the idea she agreed and brought her friend Sabby with her to Sokyriany. We also called my nearest Peace Corps neighbor, Erin, and insisted that she come too because it wouldn’t have been the same without her!

Our sketchy cabin!

We had booked a log cabin on the Dniester for one night, and we did lots of cooking before we left so we wouldn’t run out of food. Then my friend Olha called us a taxi, and he drove us through the backwoods to get to this private camping ground in the middle of nowhere. There were tons of little log cabins, and when we saw ours, it looked like nobody had been there in years. The beds were sketch and, there was no running water to the bathroom so we’d have to use the woods when nature called. It reminded me of CSI, when they spray the room with luminol and then turn on the UV light to see blood stains. We were betting it’d be disgusting to see this cabin under that kind of light!

Me, Erin, Becca, and Michelle.

Nevertheless, we had a group of friends assembled and I think we all genuinely enjoyed hanging out at the river. We swam all afternoon, had a huge picnic for dinner, and then swung on this huge rocking swing while the sunset, talking about our favorite movies, bands, quotes, everything. It was so relaxing! The man who ran the camping site was very helpful, and provided us with cups, plates, and even an electric kettle for making coffee or tea for breakfast! The only thing that would’ve made our trip to the river more fun would have been Slavic and Petunia coming.. but alas, they’re real adults with day jobs and can’t go hang out at the river on a work day 😉

Sabby, Becca, and Erin swimming in the river; Michelle photo-bombing!

Soaking up the sunshine: Sabby, Becca, and me.

 We returned to Sokyriany for a few hours, and I belatedly realized that it was August 24th, Independence Day in Ukraine! We went to the stadium and watched the tail-end of the parade, introduced my American friends to my Ukrainian friends, and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. We didn’t have much time in Sokyriany though, because Becca, Michelle, Sabby, and I were going to visit the town of Kamyanets Podilsky that day. Kamyanets is about 2 hours from Sokyriany, and its famous for its medieval castle, which happens to be one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine. (I’m trying to see them all before I finish Peace Corps! 6 down, 1 to go!)

It says “Happy Independence Day Ukraine!”

We had booked an apartment in Kamyanets Podilsky, so when we got to the bus station we called the owner and he came to meet us. Unfortunately, his car was pretty full, so he told us to put the luggage in and one of us could ride with him while the others took a bus to the apartment. I was nominated for the task due to my superb translation skills (when reading this sentence, please inject an appropriate amount of sarcasm). So I leave with him, and he asks me if I’m Polish. I tell him no, which increased his curiosity, but I didn’t want to say I was American because then he’d probably raise the price of the apartment!

So we’re playing “guess which country the foreigner is from” while my friends are calling me, not able to find the bus stop. I ask him where the bus stop is, and he tries explaining it to me, but whatever I’m relating to my friends isn’t helping them find the bus stop. I keep asking him for more specific landmarks to give my friends, but he keeps yelling out random countries.

“What street is the bus stop on?” I ask, and he answers “two down from the station, up an alley. You’re German!” and I say, “No, I’m not German. Do you know that name of the street?” an he says “No clue. You’re Canadian!” and I’m getting frustrated, “No, I’m not Canadian. What is the bus stop close to? Is it near a cafe?” This frustrating conversation continued, and suddenly I notice we’re no longer in a very populated area. In fact, we’re driving through a pretty dodgy area, and he tells me its because all the main roads are closed for Independence Day. I’m praying “please don’t let this guy be a creeper,” starting to feel a bit freaked out. But two minutes later we arrived at the apartment, a beautiful two bedroom place near the Old City in Kamyanets. And soon enough my friends find the right bus and show up at the apartment too! I’ve never been so happy to see them 😉

That night we went for a walk, and we made it just in time to see the sunset on the castle. It was pretty spectacular.

 Sunset on the beautiful Kamyanets Podilsky Castle.

Me and Becca in front of the castle, it looks kind of fake but I promise its not photo-shopped 😉

Yet again, Becca is well-dressed for hiking around in a castle and I’m not.

The next day we went to the castle so we could explore inside. There was no tour, but Michelle happens to have a graduate degree in Medieval Studies, so she could explain everything to us, no tour guide needed because Michelle is just that awesome. Sabby tried his hand at archery (and turned out to be a great shot), and I sampled the castle’s kvas (an Eastern-European, bread-based, non-alcoholic drink similar to beer). The kvas was fine, but I’m pleased to report that Sokyriany has the best kvas in Ukraine, and this comes after many taste tests, in pretty much every place I’ve traveled to in Ukraine. I should write a Wikipedia page about Sokyriany, and include this little tidbit! 

A view from inside the castle.

A view of the castle in Kamyanets Podilsky by day.

We spent the rest of the day hanging out with Michelle and Sabby, because our train to Kyiv didn’t leave until 1am. At midnight Becca and I took a taxi to the train station, and soon enough our train pulls up. We get in, and instead of sleeping bunks, we find reclining seats (like the ones you’d see on an airplane). Every train I’ve ever been on in Ukraine has sleeping bunks, and I couldn’t believe this one didn’t! I almost cried, from sheer exhaustion and disappointment. The train wouldn’t arrive in Kyiv until 8:30am, so it was going to be a long night sitting up waiting to arrive in Kyiv.

After a long night on the train, we arrived in the city and first went to the hostel where I’d be staying to drop off our bags. My friend Janira was there already, so we had breakfast together and I drank lots of coffee in order to have energy to survive the day. It was Becca’s only day to sight-see in Kyiv, so I felt like we had to do something, whereas if it was just me, I would’ve stayed at the hostel to sleep. But it was Becca’s last day in Ukraine, and her last day with me, so I rallied and we went out to do some sight-seeing.

Hot but having fun! Becca trying my favorite Ukrainian ice-cream, with poppy seeds!

The Holodomor Monument; to remember the Great Famine in the 1930s when the USSR intentionally starved millions of Ukrainians to death.

Me in downtown Kiev, with a statue of Bogdan Khelmenitsky on the left, and Saint Michael’s Monastery behind me.

Becca found some life-size Easter Eggs! 

I took Becca to as many touristy places as our schedule allowed, and we even snuck into the Kyiv Pecherska Lavra (The Monastery of the Caves), where a church was founded in a cave in Kyiv in 1051. The Lavra has two entrances; one for tourists, where you pay 50 hyrvnia to get in, and one for locals, where you go in the back and pay nothing. I guess I’m a local now, I know all the back doors! 😉

Becca’s last goal was grocery shopping, so we found a nice supermarket where she could buy some salami and other Ukrainian goodies to take back to Cairo as souvenirs for her Egyptian friends. Then I took her to the bus and we said our goodbyes. 10 days with Becca went by so quickly, especially compared to the 6 weeks I had with Tori! But I’m glad Becca came to see my life in Ukraine, it meant a lot to me that she’d use her vacation days to come to Eastern Europe when she could be traveling to France or Italy or somewhere a bit more tourist-friendly. She must love me ; )

After Becca left, I wished I could go home too, but I had appointments at Peace Corps for my Close-of-Service (COS) medical examination. Peace Corps has to medically clear every volunteer before they finish service, so I scheduled my COS medical for when Becca was leaving because I knew I’d already be in the city. But that night I was sorely tempted to ditch Kyiv and go home! I don’t think I’ve ever been so burned out on traveling before. But I stuck it out, and the next day was spent with the doctors at Peace Corps headquarters. And the good news is that I’m medically cleared, which is the first step to finishing my Peace Corps service! I guess this means its really happening, my time in Ukraine is coming to a close. It also meant I could finally go home to Sokyriany, and this time for good, because school was starting in three days. Now that my summer is officially over, maybe I can stay in one place for a while ; )

Thanks for reading, I hope all is well where you are : )


Summer’s Last Hurrah

I traveled to Kiev to meet my good friend and one-time roommate, Becca, for one last summer hurrah. I had gone to visit her for Spring Break in Cairo, to get away from one of the coldest Ukrainian winters I’ve ever lived through, and Egypt complied with nice warm weather. Becca arrived to a cool and rainy Kiev, and coming from Cairo, she couldn’t have been happier. She was leaving Cairo to get away from Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday of fasting all day, so she was most looking forward to eating in Ukraine. At the top of her list was eating lots of sausage and other pork products, which she doesn’t get in Egypt. Ukraine has pretty tasty food, and I was sure Becca wouldn’t be disappointed, especially coming from a country where most people are fasting!

When I met her at the airport, exhausted from a long night on the bus, I found her in less-than-perfect condition too, suffering from some serious stomach issues. Unfortunately for her, we had a long train ride ahead of us to Odessa. Usually we’d go on the overnight train, but it was sold out, so we took the day train. Taking trains is a unique experience in Ukraine, and Becca got to experience it the Peace Corps way, meaning we did it cheaplythird class, also known as platzkart. Having spent a pretty penny on my adventures with Tori, I was trying to budget my trip with Becca carefully. Now that I’m at the end of my two year commitment to Peace Corps, its becoming very apparent that I need to go home and get a real job and replenish my dwindling bank account 😉

Becca’s first experience on a Ukrainian train, riding platzkart (3rd class) no less!

Becca and I got caught up on the train ride, and I told her all about the places I’d been to with Victoria over the summer. Her stomach ache made the ride less than enjoyable, but we finally made it to Odessa at 11pm that night. One of my best PCV friends, Michelle, was in Odessa entertaining some of her friends who had come to visit from America, and they had invited us to spend the night at the apartment they were renting. This is a very common practice in Ukraine when traveling; instead of staying at a hostel or paying for a hotel room, you can rent an entire furnished apartment, often for cheaper than a hotel room would be. Then you have a full kitchen at your disposal, and your own private area to hang out. 

We took a taxi to their apartment, and gratefully collapsed on the bed they offered. The next day we spent wandering around Odessa, going down to the pier and admiring all the beautiful boats in the harbor. It was Michelle and her friends’ last day in Odessa, so we indulged by having lunch at the tastiest Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to outside of the North American continent. We even had margaritas to boot! After Michelle and her friends left, Becca and I checked into the hostel where we would be spending the rest of the weekend at, and quickly made friends with Svieta, who works at the hostel. This place was actually recommended to me by Svieta’s cousin, Olha, who is a friend of mine who runs a hostel in Kiev. I love Olha, and her cousin Svieta was just as cool. Svieta knew an underground local bar that was having a night dedicated to alternative rock music (my personal favorite), and we made a plan to go together.

 Svieta, Becca, and me hanging out at the “Shafa” Bar in Odessa.

This was one of my favorite memories from Odessa, because Becca let me doll her up and even borrowed some of my clothes so she would fit in better at the bar. Coming from Cairo, most of Becca’s clothes are incredibly modest, which means she doesn’t fit in at all in Ukraine ; ) Doesn’t she look hot? 

We had a fun night at the bar with Svieta, the music was incredible and we even danced a bit. I’m not a fan of the usual techno music blaring in every Ukrainian bar or club, so hearing alternative rock was a huge treat for me.

Becca and I in front of the Opera House in Odessa

The next day we did a bit of site-seeing, because the weather was cool (70s) and not quite warm enough for lounging on the beach. We found a free walking-tour in English, and it ended up being just Becca and I so the tour was very personalized. There is a very quaint pedestrian zone in the heart of Odessa, and we enjoyed getting better acquainted with it. Here are some pictures of the tour highlights.

Becca and Bronislava

Becca posing with the statue of Bronislava Prokopovna, a rich but homely heiress who avoided marrying a gold-digger and ended up staying single the rest of her life. She’s been immortalized in the Odessa Bazaar, which is the biggest bazaar in Ukraine. I’m not sure what the moral of her story was, maybe its better to be alone than with someone who doesn’t love you for the right reasons?

Cathedral Square, Odessa, where the Orthodox Cathedral is located.

Me and Becca at the fountain in Cathedral Square.

 Our hostel was located just around the corner from the Odessa Orthodox Cathedral, which would’ve been lovely if it wasn’t a religious holiday the weekend we were visiting… it was a feast day celebrating the Holy Transfiguration, which meant the bells started ringing at like eight in the morning and didn’t stop until noon. Not pleasant if you stayed out late the night before 😛

Odessa Passage

One of the most unexpected sites on the tour was the Odessa Passage, which is located in the pedestrian center of Odessa. Its like a tiny mall, and the first three floors are full of boutiques, while the fourth floor is a hotel. Going inside the passage, you felt like you’re leaving Ukraine, kind of like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia. The skylight in the Passage reminded me of the Galleria in Cleveland, Ohio, if you’ve ever been there. And I inevitably felt a twinge of homesickness. Just when you think you’ve beat it, it pops up and says “don’t you miss me?” and the answer is yes.

The beautiful sculptures decorating the Passage, with a not-so-beautiful exchange sign underneath.

Becca and I in front of the monument to Alexander Pushkin. The photographer cut off his head, but you can see his name on the monument behind us 🙂

The famous Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, spent more than a year living in Odessa in the 1800s, establishing his reputation as a Russian Casanova, until he seduced the governor’s wife and was expelled from Odessa. Oops. Behind Pushkin’s monument there is a museum dedicated to his works, so I guess he wins in the long run because everyone knows his name and nobody remembers which governor’s wife he seduced.

To be honest, I have no clue what this monument is for. We just took a picture because we thought it should be in a collection of the world’s ugliest monuments… I think its supposed to be a baby coming out of a womb? Its an established Odessan tradition to rub the baby’s toe for good luck. I passed, but Becca wanted a picture. Becca, I hope touching this ugly baby’s toe brings you your luckiest year yet! 😛

Our last day in Odessa, Becca felt like we needed to do something touristy or educational. There was information on the board at the hostel about some famous catacombs beneath the city, and she thought it’d be fun to explore. I was ambivalent, but I figured it was her vacation and if she wanted to see the catacombs I would go with her. So we arranged the tour and woke up early to be ready for it. One of the tour guides picked us up at our hostel, took one look at my shoes and said “no” in Russian. First of all, the tour was supposed to be in English. Second of all, they were the only shoes I had, besides heels. Becca laughed and said I could borrow her sandals (which were way too big), and we joked about how when we go to the club she needs my clothes, but when we go roughing it, I need hers.

We took a public bus to the edge of Odessa where we met our other tour guide, who did speak some English… but not much. And what he did say was confusing and not very clear, so I had low expectations of the tour. Its get worse though! He leads us to a courtyard in the middle of several apartment complexes, to a garbage dump, points down, and informs us that this is how we’re going to enter the catacombs. If I could’ve backed out then, I would have.

The entrance to the catacombs, but you don’t really get a sense of how much garbage was inside the hole we were trying to climb down.

Our crazy tour guide, who would speed up and leave the group lost and wandering through the maze of tunnels. 

The tour guide tried his best to explain the significance of the catacombs in Odessa, but I think my prior experience with catacombs (the religious type, in Rome and Alexandria) had given me unrealistic expectations of a peaceful, underground mausoleum, complete with religious art and well-lit corridors. The catacombs in Odessa are the result of sandstone mining, and have no religious significance whatsoever. There were disgustingly dirty, not lit at all (we had to carry flashlights), and at points completely underwater so you have to wade through. I think there is some interesting history to the catacombs, which our tour guide attempted to impart (but failed), regarding how Soviet partisans used the tunnels to hide from the fascist invaders in World War II. Other than that, their only significance is their popular use by smugglers.

After we got home, I googled the Odessa Catacombs to get an idea of their importance, and what I read made me nearly pee my pants. 

“Today they [the Catacombs] are a great attraction for extreme tourists, who explore the tunnels despite the dangers involved. Such tours are not officially sanctioned because the catacombs have not been fully mapped and the tunnels themselves are unsafe. There have been incidents of people becoming lost in the tunnel network, and dying of dehydration or rockfalls.”

I guess I should just be thankful Becca and I survived! 

Exploring the catacombs in Odessa.

Once Becca and I made it back to the surface of the earth, thankful to be breathing fresh air and walking on solid, dry ground, we decided the rest of our day should be spent on the beach. The weather had finally warmed up to the 80s, so we took a bus across town and spent our last few hours enjoying Odessa’s best attractionthe beach on the Black Sea!

Taking a swim in the Black Sea.

That evening, we had a bus to catch. We were taking an overnight bus from Odessa to Chernivtsi, a whopping 14 hours sitting upright and wishing we were on a train laying down and sleeping! We made it to Chernivtsi early the next morning, where I had a meeting with a textbook distributor about books for my grant. Becca was a great sport and tagged along, and after my meeting we caught another bus to Sokyriany. I was excited to show Becca my hometown in Ukraine, and also happy to be on my way home again!

Check out the next blog post to hear about our camping experience on the Dniester River, our trip to Kamyanets-Podilsky to see a medieval castle, and our last day in Kiev before Becca flew back to Egypt!

Home Sweet Sokyriany

Once I finally made it home to Sokyriany, I felt like I could sleep for days and still not be caught up on rest. I had no plans for exactly one week, at which point my old roommate and good friend Becca was coming to Ukraine for a visit. So for my week off, all I wanted to do was nothing.

When I got home I found a note on my door, demanding that I come visit my friend Olha at her coffee shop the moment I returned. Usually she just calls, so I was intrigued. I dropped off my stuff, promised my bed I’d be back soon for an extended visit, and went to Olha’s coffee shop. I hadn’t seen her in almost a month, due to all the traveling, and she had missed celebrating my birthday with me. So at the Bistro she had flowers, chocolate, and a bottle of wine waiting. I didn’t think anything could be better than a nap, but spending the morning drinking coffee and catching up with Olha was truly what my heart needed. Slavic and Petro also had a birthday gift, but I’m not sure if words do it justice. It was a ceramic cheeseburger, which now sits in my kitchen and serves to make me hungry every time I look at it. I’m not sure if I’ll take it home with me, because its heavy, but it does add something to my kitchen decor ; )

I allowed myself two days of inaction, catching up on Skype dates, taking a nap at least once or twice a day, and enjoying some much needed alone time. I’ve come to really love living on my own during Peace Corps, which was new for me because I’ve always lived with either my family or college roommates. But I’ve learned to enjoy solitude, and this summer I didn’t have much of that at all. My week home in Sokyriany was a much needed recharging of the spiritual batteries.

But soon enough, life intruded, and it was back to work. I had meetings at school for my grant, because the teachers and I were planning on buying all of the technology and establishing the English Resource & Technology Center at school before classes started so we could utilize all the new goodies in our lessons. Seeing this grant implemented was the last remaining project of my Peace Corps service, and I had incredibly high hopes for it.

Many of you know about this grant, which I wrote last winter and raised money for last spring. This grant was a partnership grant between Peace Corps and my community, so part of the agreement was that we would raise 75% of the funds from American donors, while 25% would come from our community in Sokyriany. This was easy for my school to agree to hypothetically, and I think maybe my director forgot about it in the time that has elapsed since we wrote the grant. The funds from American donors were raised by May, but the teachers didn’t want to implement the grant until after the summer break. I agreed, but now in retrospect I wish we had struck while the iron was hot, in the spring when we received the news about the grant being funded. Now that August had rolled around, it was really hard to get the momentum going again.

Further complicating matters was the fact that apparently there had been a small fire at my school. The guard on duty had been a bit tipsy and passed out, and while he was asleep the TV shorted and started a fire. It didn’t do too much damage, but the whole school was permeated by the stench of fire and everything was covered in black soot. My counterpart Natalia said that this was a really bad time to be asking my school director for the equivalent of $350, and promised that she’d try talking to the director closer to school starting.

I was a bit upset by the news, because I’d already ordered all the books, as well as the computer, projector, white board, and xerox copier, and I wouldn’t have enough to pay for all of it without the school’s contribution. I shared the stressful news with Olha, who in typical fashion declared that this was crap, and immediately started calling everyone she knew to make sure the school came through on their contribution. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her in my life; she makes everything better, and is so fierce in her motherly love for me. She should have had a daughter, instead of two sons! I guess she has a naturalized American daughter now to share all her love with 😉

The end result was that the school director reaffirmed that she would follow through with the school’s contribution, but an indirect result of Olha’s phone calls was a huge outpouring of community support. The Education Minister for our region promised to contribute the money himself if the school couldn’t find it, because he was so excited about this grant at our school. The Board of Education also promised its support, and said that they would make sure the school director came up with the cash. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Olha is the importance of networking, and how much you can accomplish if you enlist the help and support of others in higher positions. Olha knows how to get things done, and I’m always amazed at how she knows who to call to get certain results. I was at a dead end with my school, but by calling community contacts Olha got the project rolling again. Thank God for Olha Petrivna.

With my grant officially on track once again, I focused my energy on planning an itinerary for Becca’s visit to Ukraine. The timing of Becca’s trip was unfortunate, because I was so burned out on traveling, but I did my best to plan a cool trip. The biggest problem was that all the trains were all sold out by this point, because the trip was only a week away. In Ukraine, traveling by train is the cheapest alternative, but once tickets go on sale (6 weeks before the date of travel), they go fast, especially in summer. Traveling by train requires fore-planning, and since I’d been so busy planning and traveling with Tori, my trip with Becca had been on the back-burner. As a result, all the trains were already sold out and I had to resort to the more expensive option of public buses. I ended up buying a ticket on the overnight bus to Kyiv to pick Becca up, and the overnight buses are the worst… You get no sleep and there is no way to get comfortable, but at this point it was my only option.

As I packed a bag and prepared to leave to go meet Becca in Kyiv, I looked around my apartment fondly and wished I had more time to spend at home. I also checked my emails and made sure I was caught up on everything important. While going through my inbox I discovered a notification from Peace Corps regarding my group’s Close-of-Service Conference. Apparently my group only has three months left in country, and our presence is required in September at conference to discuss the end of our service and all the things we need to do before we depart. As I read this email, it seemed so surreal to me that I only have three months left. Last time I checked, before this crazy summer started, the countdown said 6 months. And now its three?! I was tempted to freak out, but honestly, had no time. I had a bus to catch, and one last summer hurrah awaiting!

EUROTRIP: The End of the Line in L’viv

When we finally made it to L’viv, I was thrilled to be back in the land of the familiar. We were in Ukraine again, back on my home turf, where I could speak and be understood and cross the language barrier. At the train station I could ask for directions, on the streets I could understand the signs, and at the cafes I could read the menus and know what we were ordering! At the hostel Tori and I got a discount because Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty well known in Ukraine, and it was nice a transition, going from being just another tourist to having a useful role in society. Being a tourist gets old, despite how much I love traveling : )

Our first order of business was meeting up with my friend Natalia, as we had left a huge suitcase in her care while we were on our Euro-trip. Tori had quite the task of repacking ahead of her, trying to fit all of our souvenirs in her bag, and redistributing weight from my suitcase into her backpack so it would be under 50 pounds. We met up with Natalia for a lovely coffee date at her favorite cafe in L’viv, and then headed back to her place to retrieve the monster suitcase. I knew Natalia was a saint after teaching me and my cluster-mates Ukrainian for three months when we first arrived in Ukraine, but it was so wonderful of her to take care of us in L’viv too, two years later! She’s a gem, and a true friend 🙂

Natalia, myself, and Tori, who found a souvenir for herself here; a French-press coffee maker for her dorm room at college, complete with adorable hand-designed coffee mugs!

The next day we devoted to souvenir shopping. We had bought many souvenirs along the way, but Tori had a few more gaps on her list and we dedicated our time to scoping out the craft stalls and the outdoor souvenir bazaar. We even found a few souvenirs for ourselves ; ) We avoided touristy things, but did enjoy the old-city feel of L’viv. This city was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of Poland, and it managed to retain an old-European flair that has been untouched by war and the process of urbanization.

Tori got to participate in one of my favorite pastimes in Ukraine; bride-spottings!

One of my favorite memories from L’viv was Tori trying to get a picture of these two girls. Its their job to wander around in these beautiful period-costumes, selling suckers. My Peace Corps friends and I refer to them as “cock suckers” (the candy they are selling, not the girls!). And I’m not trying to be dirty here, that’s what it translates to! Their baskets are full of suckers in the shape of roosters, or cocks, whichever word floats your boat. I guess you could call it a “rooster sucker,” but that doesn’t sound right either. Tori had to buy a cock sucker before they would pose for a picture. We had a fun time deciding who should get this souvenir back in the US 😉 

Enjoying our last few days together, hanging out in L’viv.

Our hostel was located near the central square in L’viv, just up the street from this huge statue of Taras Shevchenko. He is probably the most famous historical figure in (Western) Ukraine, best known for his nationalist poetry written in the Ukrainian language. He was the first well-known poet to write in Ukrainian (instead of Russian), so he is seen as a patriotic figure in the West. While you see statues to Lenin in Eastern Ukraine, Shevchenko rules the West, and every self-respecting town or city has their own Shevchenko monument. (Even my tiny town of 10,00 has a bust of Shevchenko in the park!). As L’viv is the cultural capital of Ukraine, and the center of Ukrainian patriotism, its only fitting that their Shevchenko monument be appropriately sized; hence this full-body, giant statue located in the middle of the aptly named Shevchenko Square.

Taras Shevchenko monument in L’viv.

Another famous site in L’viv is the Opera House; Tori and I wanted to stop and see a performance, but they were on a break for August.

Once we had finished our site-seeing and souvenir-shopping, it was back to the hostel for a final repacking. For Tori’s last night in Ukraine, we planned a special dinner, and my friend Erin, who Tori met in Crimea (and again in Sokyriany!) came to L’viv to join us and say goodbye (and console me after Tori had gone!). I had planned on taking them to this fun Jewish restaurant that I went to my first time in L’viv, where the food is excellent and you get to barter for the price at the end of the meal. Unfortunately, I got us lost, and we ended up eating outside in the remains of an old fortress which today is an Italian restaurant. The food turned out to be amazing, and Erin and Tori weren’t at all disappointed with the Italian food instead of the Jewish place ; )

The next morning, another dear friend arrived. Tammela was in L’viv for a few hours before flying to Germany to visit her boyfriend, and she came to the hostel to have a farewell breakfast with Tori, Erin, and myself. I wanted to make Tori’s last morning memorable, so I wrote her a nice long letter she could read on the plane, and planned a yummy breakfast of scrambled eggs and crepes, complete with her favorite Ukrainian spread called “Nusa” (a mix of chocolate and vanilla icing!).

While Tori was packing and getting ready, I ran out to do some errands, and bought her a surprise–-15 of her favorite Ukrainian dark-chocolate, fruit-and-nut-filled bars. I wanted her to have something to remember Ukraine by ; ) The lady at the store looked at me like I was crazy, but Tori’s excitement was so worth it! I also stopped and bought her a flash-drive, and as soon as I got back to the hostel I set it to copying all of our summer pictures so she could take them home with her. It wasn’t finished by the time we needed to leave for the airport, so I had to carry the laptop open on my lap as we took a bus across town, while it finished copying everything! We definitely got a few strange looks on the bus, but neither of us wanted to face our mother if Tori came home with no pictures to share! 😉

At the airport, Tori’s luggage was somehow within the weight limits, and soon enough her tickets were printed and it was time to say goodbye. It was kind of anticlimactic, after six weeks together, but it was also an easy goodbye, knowing we’d see each other again soon. I’m finished with my Peace Corps service in November, so we knew the goodbye was temporary; we’ll be seeing each other soon for Thanksgiving! So after a big hug, I sent her on her way back to America. I was sad to see her go, but I know she was excited to see our parents and embark on the next chapter of her lifecollege!

After Tori left, I had two days in L’viv to spend with Erin. She’s been my neighbor in Ukraine for the last year, living in the village closest to Sokyriany. I’ve come to love her and value her companionship so much, and this time together in L’viv was no exception. She always knows the right thing to say, and after telling her all the highs and lows of my summer, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. We spent our time together relaxing, stopping in cafes to watch the Olympics when the weather got too hot, shopping when something caught our attention, and even hiking to Castle Hill at the top of L’viv when an ambitious mood took us. We also ran into other volunteers in L’viv, because Peace Corps Ukraine is a small world and you’ll always run into volunteers who you’re somehow connected to : 

Erin and I at Castle Hill, taking in a beautiful view of L’viv.

Finally the time came for our departure; we had a train to catch back to Chernivtsi, and from there a bus home to Romankivtsi (her village) and Sokyriany (my town). After all the crazy adventures, I was finally on my way home to Sokyriany! Thus officially concludes the most epic summer adventure of my life.

EUROTRIP: Budapest–”Laughing Till We Think We’ll Cry, Barefoot On A Summer Night…”

From Ljubljana to Budapest we had a 10 hour train ride. Tori and I got settled in our train compartment, but seeing as there were eight seats and only two of us, we figured we’d have to share. And sure enough, soon a young gentleman opened the door and asked if he could join us. He kind of looked like a hippie to me, but seemed harmless enough so we agreed to let him sit with us. His name was Gaspar, and he was a Slovenian guy who was setting off to travel Europe with his guitar. He had tons of stuff with him, from camping equipment to hiking boots, plus a guitar he barely knew how to play. But he was incredibly entertaining company, and he kept me and Tori laughing for hours. We pooled all of our food resources and had a picnic, and his contribution was homemade bread with a shot of chocolate sauce on top. Tori and I taught him American card games to pass the time, and by the time we arrived in Budapest we were great friends : )

Gaspar, me, and Tori. Tori loved this picture because it reflected our unique travel style; her in shorts and a backpack, me in heels and a rolling suitcase… I’m glad to know there are some things that Peace Corps hasn’t changed about me ; )

Gaspar was leaving Budapest the next day and hadn’t made any arrangement for where to stay that night, so he ended up coming with us to the “I Love Budapest” Hostel. All the beds were full, but the staff there is wonderful and agreed to let Gaspar sleep on the couch. So after dropping our stuff off, we set out in search of dinner and an adventure in Budapest. We went to a restaurant that the hostel recommended, and had our first taste of Hungarian goulash! Tori and I were big fans 🙂 Gaspar had heard about my birthday being the day before, and insisted on celebrating with us and giving me the sweetest birthday toast ever, especially for someone I’d only known 12 hours ; )

Gaspar’s secret talent is giving heart-wrenching birthday toasts to practical strangers.

After dinner we wandered the streets, looking for the Danube River. Gaspar has a personal goal of swimming in every major body of water he comes across, and Tori and I were enjoying the moonlight stroll. There was actually a full moon that night, and Gaspar insisted that walking barefoot under a full moon brings good luck… so like the gullible girls we are, we took our shoes off and strolled through Budapest looking like idiots. 

Trying not to get hit by a car as we pose for a barefoot pic! 

Tori and Gaspar showing off their dirty feet on one of the most famous bridges in Budapest.

Once we found the Danube, Gaspar could no longer be contained and quickly ran down and jumped in. Tori and I refrained from swimming, and I took the opportunity to get some beautiful night shots of Budapest. Did you know that Budapest was historically two cities (Buda and Pest) that grew up on different sides of the river? Now they’re known as one city, Budapest. So if you look at it that way, Tori and I were in Pest, Gaspar was in the middle in the Danube, and the pictures I took were of Buda, across the water. Buda is where all the castles are located, on the aptly named “Castle Hill.”

The beautiful Buda Castle, located on Castle Hill.

The Elizabeth Bridge, named after the Hapsburg Queen Sissy

Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge in Budapest.

The next day morning we said goodbye to Gaspar as he continued on his trip, but some of our best memories from Budapest are of the night we spent with him! As Tori and I considered what to do with our two remaining days in Budapest, we both agreed that we wanted to take it easy and avoid doing super-touristy things. By this point, we’d been traveling more than two weeks, and both of us were a bit tired. So we spent most of the day chilling out at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, which was just what we both needed 🙂

The Szechenyi Thermal Bath Complex should get an award for being the most beautiful swimming pool ever.

Budapest is famous for its thermal baths, which were introduced by the Turks centuries ago and remain a very popular place today with both locals and tourists alike. The Széchenyi Thermal Bath is actually the largest spa complex in Europe, and Tori and I had a blast exploring it. There are three huge outdoor pools, which contain naturally heated water from the thermal springs beneath them. Its not the most pleasant experience in the middle of summer to get into a warm pool, but I bet it would be really fun in cooler weather! There are also many pools of varying degrees of warmth (and coolness) inside, if you want to get away from the sun. There are also plenty of treatments offered at the spa, and Tori and I both indulged in a massage. If you’re ever in Budapest, I strongly recommend the baths. It was a wonderful experience!

Me at Tori at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.

After our day chilling out at the Baths, I convinced Tori that we should do at least a little site-seeing while we were in Budapest. We avoided an organized tour, seeing as we’d been on so many already, and explored on our own. The upside was that we had plenty of time at our leisure; the downside was that we didn’t learn much about the incredible places we were seeing. But I guess that’s what the Internet is forresearching all the cool places you’ve seen after you return from your trip. ; )

So here is a brief tour of Budapest through our pictures:

This is the Chain Bridge, which was my favorite because of the lions 🙂 And Buda Castle is in the background.

The Chain Bridge leading to Gresham Palace, which today is a beautiful hotel.

Hungarian Parliament, which looks more like a church to me than the seat of Parliament.

Saint Stephen’s Basilica, just down the street from our hostel!

You can climb to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica and see an incredible view of Budapest stretching out beneath you.

Tori and I also found some new friends at our hostel. A group of French guys were staying there, and we got to talking about cool things we’d seen in Budapest. It was our last night and we wanted to do something memorable, so we went out on the town with these French guys and didn’t make it back to the hostel till sunrise. It was such a fun night, seeing how the French guys were hilarious and made great company. I’m so glad Tori got an experience like this out of our Euro-trip! She’s back in America now where she has another 3 years before she can go to a bar or club like this, so we had to do it at least once while she was in Europe 😉

Tomas, me, Tori, Morgan, Olivier, and David. Who knew French boys were so cute?

Most of the night was dominated by our search for the “ruins” bars, which are all the rage in Budapest. These bars are in the old Jewish quarter, most of which was abandoned or bombed out during World War II. The neighborhood was left to decay after WWII, so it has the perfect atmosphere for an underground bar scene. The only challenge is finding these “ruins” bars, because there are no signs or advertisements. We asked at least ten people before we finally found the Szimpla Bar, but it was totally worth the search. Its a very hip scene, and it kind of feels like you’re partying as the world is ending, in the midst of ruins and decay. Maybe that says something about how empty the partying scene is… but that’s a bit too philosophical for this blog post 😉

A picture in the courtyard of Szimpla, the most famous ruin bar in Budapest.

Living it up in Budapest, the last night of our Euro-trip 🙂

I rarely ever pull all-nighters (especially now that my college days are behind me and I have no papers to stay up all night writing!), so I had a hard time staying awake the next day. Fortunately (or maybe not-so-fortunately) it was a travel day, most of which was spent sitting on a train because we were finally heading back to Ukraine!

Our plan was to take the train from Budapest to L’viv, which is an overnight affair. But we thought we’d do it the cheap way (as many Peace Corps Volunteers have done before me), and take a train to the border in Hungary, take a local train across the border into Ukraine, and then catch another train from there to L’viv. Well, this idea is much easier in theory than in practice… in practice it requires sitting at train stations in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, waiting (and hoping and praying) the train you need shows up. I think in retrospect I would’ve paid forty more dollars for the security of having a seat on a train that was leaving Budapest and arriving in L’viv with no crazy train hopping required… but you live and you learn. Regardless of how much of a pain in the butt it was, the bottom line was that we made it home to Ukraine August 4th, thoroughly exhausted but also incredibly happy to be back.

Thus officially concludes our Euro-trip! But the next blog post is about L’viv, my favorite city in Ukraine, where I got to spend two more days hanging out with Tori before she flew back to the USA… so read on for the grand finale!