March 19, 2009

Greetings!       It is finally looking like spring.   It seems to have taken forever, but finally it is above freezing and the sun is trying to shine.  The weather here is completely different in that it does not have the extremes.   There is very little wind compared to Nebraska, and we had nothing all winter that could remotely be called a blizzard even though we got quite a bit of snow.   Until a couple of weeks ago the temperature had not been above about 38 degrees since November, but it never did get much below about 15 degrees either.   The Ukrainians have asked us what we thought of the tough Ukrainian winter, and we told them it was not nearly as bad as in Nebraska.   However, they did not really want to hear that so we learned it was better to keep our mouths shut...

We have been busy at our language school.   Although we are volunteers, we end up with almost as much to do as the “employed” teachers.   We have 5 classes a week of the upper level students (their equivalent of high school juniors and seniors), spread out over three evenings every week.    This is a private school and is a little pricey, so our students end up being the sons and daughters of the more well to do Ukrainians, and the goal of the parents is that their children will pass a very demanding English exam so that they can attend university in Holland where all the classes are in English.    Being a private school, the owner of the school only earns money when there are classes, so since we started in September there have only been exactly five days (at New Year’s) of no classes.    The director of the school initially wanted us because we are “native speakers” and our first instructions were to get the students comfortable with talking as much as we could plus work on their comprehension of university level materials on a variety of subjects, and then on the side teach them about American culture, etc.   We got a little bored with just that however, and decided that they also needed to learn how to think, so we started putting a little basic business and economics and accounting into our classes.   And it was interesting, the students didn’t seem to mind, and figured out on their own that what we were teaching may actually end up being useful someday.     And their command of the English language is pretty remarkable – but maybe not if you consider that most of them have been studying English in school since the first grade.   They certainly know more grammar rules than we do – and anytime they get into discussions about past perfects or modals or conditional verbs we have no idea what they are talking about.      One difference we have noticed however, is that while American students have sports teams, band, orchestra, flag teams, debate teams, drama productions, etc etc that all teach how to work in a group, the Ukrainian students only study.   There are the professional football (soccer) leagues, but nothing like we are used to at the student level.    Female students maybe sometimes take dance lessons, and there are occasionally orchestras for students, but that seems to be about the extent of it.   So it is possible that they have more “knowledge” than American students, but they miss out on the concept of working together for a common goal.    So we have also been trying to get them to work on very small projects in small teams – it is interesting to watch, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.   But we will keep trying. 

But lately it is not all work.   Peace Corps gives us 48 days “vacation” over the 27 months, so we decided to take 5 of them and go to Istanbul.    (This includes weekends – so our 5 days was actually a Thursday through a Monday.)      An incredible place, and since it is still the “off season”, not that expensive.    We stayed in the “Sultanahmet District” of Istanbul, within easy walking/tram distance from many old sites, including a huge underground cistern (about the size of a square city block) built about 300 BC, an unbelievably large mosque (Aya Sophia) built about 536 AD  (this one currently being used as a museum), and another really large old mosque (Blue Mosque)  built in the 1500’s and currently being used as a mosque.   (To put this into perspective, the very large “New Mosque” in Istanbul was built in the 1600’s.)    Then we went to two different palaces built by sultans, and think that maybe Don should apply for the sultan job.   They were both beyond beautiful, and impossible to describe.  The guards in front of one of the palaces were carrying machine guns, but considering the national treasures in the palaces, we can’t say that we blame them.    We also went to a Turkish bath and treated ourselves to a massage.   There are many of them in Istanbul, and we went to one that had been built about 1580 for the wife of a sultan.    We could get used to this sort of life.  Except Turkey is advanced enough that they do not need Peace Corps, so it is back to Ukraine for us…    We did hire a guide for one of the palaces and the oldest mosque, and he was most interesting.      He was ethnic Turkish, and had just finished a tour of duty in the Turkish army.   He said his wife was an Arab.    He told us much of the history, but in the course of the afternoon we also wandered into other topics.   We asked him about Obama’s upcoming visit to Turkey, and what the people thought, and he said that the Turkish people in general have a favorable opinion of him.    (We saw the same generally favorable opinion expressed in the local English language newspapers.)    He did have two concerns, however.   One was that he thought America (and by default Obama) goes too far in supporting everything Israel does, especially in the most recent little set-to with Hamas.   He was not necessarily defending Hamas, but did think Israel was out of line.   The other was he hoped that Obama would not ask Turkey for support in a war against Iran.   And again, not because he thought that Iran was so great, on the contrary, he was fearful of Iran and thinks they are potentially a very dangerous country.   But he did not think that a war with them would solve anything and would very likely make things much worse.   So it was interesting.

The rest of our work continues pretty much as “normal”.   The work with the Somalians has quieted down for now, but as it seems to go in spurts we will just wait until we can be useful again.    Karen’s organization is now spending a little time working with the American Embassy on an anti-corruption project, this one directed to trying to increase the role of student government in Ukrainian universities.  The level of corruption is past being a joke around here, they really do need to do something about it.   But for the most part everyone has given up on those at the administration level, so the goal of the Embassy is to explain to the students how all this should work, then they figure that maybe after another generation but more likely at least two they may actually begin to make some progress.      To say it is slow going here is an understatement.    But we will keep working and who knows.   This may be why we spend so much of our time and effort teaching the students however – they seem to “get it”, even if most of them think that trying to do anything about it is still a lost cause.

Karen’s organization also had a small rock music festival last winter to raise money for a local pediatric hospital.   The money they raised they used to order drugs and supplies for the hospital, and recently we delivered the purchases.   But the paperwork required to deliver them was quite involved.   Hospitals in Ukraine are a little different in that patients are required to supply their own drugs and supplies, including even items like syringes, so donating things like this can be a big deal for those patients who have no money.    So when we took everything to the hospital no one questioned the quality of what my organization had brought, or even what they had brought, but there were many forms to fill out to certify where the supplies had come from and what they were to be used for.   Another NGO in Vinnytsia had a similar experience, where they raised money and then donated supplies to the same hospital, but the medical staff there managed to “steal” it all (supposedly because they did not fill in the paperwork correctly), and then the medical staff resold it all to the patients and kept the profit.

Don had a good news/bad news moment, in that a $5,000 grant he applied for got approved.  The bad news in that story is that now he has to do all the work set forth in the grant proposal including writing a web site, herding cats to get it translated into Russian and Ukrainian, preparing a power point, giving three public seminars, and then editing the video from them into a single video movie for showing to students etc long after we are gone.  All this is relating to foreigners in Vinnitsia and how to help them along so they stay and spend money here, or at least visit and spend money.  But since we are supposed to try and be useful this is a good thing.

We didn’t realize it when we joined Peace Corps, but it turns out we are actually part of an experiment by Peace Corps to see what happens when they send “older” volunteers.    We think we are doing okay – would prefer to have hot water whenever we want it and a warm apartment, but all in all it is better than the mud hut and outdoor plumbing we could have gotten somewhere else.   So we were discouraged this week to hear of a third member of our “older” group from training (there were 12 of us) who is going home.   We had one volunteer leave at the end of training – there were a couple of major issues that she and Peace Corps disagreed on – and now another two have left because of “inconveniences” in their lives.   Both of them had good sites and worthwhile projects to work on, and we are sad to see them go.    And also hoping that Peace Corps will not take their departures too personally, while it is true we don’t have the energy of the 20-somethings, there is still plenty that we do.     So anyway, we are still here – so take care and write if you have the chance, we do enjoy hearing from you all.    

Thanks.   Don and Karen



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