May 24,2008

Greetings from Ukraine !   All is well here, and we hope you are fine also.    It has gotten quite hot here, and in this part of the world we don’t think air conditioning has been invented yet (except for the very rich, and that certainly does not include us).   It may be a long summer.

Some things we have learned:  

Just buying a ticket for a marshrytka (little bus) to another town does not mean you have a seat.   We went south to a small town, about 75 minutes away, and those who were late boarding the bus got to stand the whole way there.   We had heard this from others, but this was the first chance we had to see it in person.   We are not quite sure what the transportation safety board would think of this practice.    We have also seen the trolleybuses in town come unhooked from the cables above them.   It has to do when they go around corners or other buses or just hit potholes and get knocked sideways.   The driver has double duty.   He drives the trolleybus, but when they come unhooked from the cables he also has to get out of the bus and go around behind and if necessary climb up the ladder on the back of the bus so he can use the large hook provided for this purpose to hook the connecting wires back on the cables.    If he can’t do that then all the people get off (keep in mind that all this is probably taking place in the middle of a very busy intersection) and then it is up to them to find a new bus or otherwise get where they are going, and the trolleybus then sits in the middle of the intersection or wherever until they get it hooked back up again.   These tend to be the trolleybuses that the Soviets left behind in 1991/1992, and from their appearance and the sound of their motors they have not had a tune-up or paint job since the Soviets left.   So we are actually not surprised when they become unhooked from the cables.   However, for 60 kopecks (about $.12 American) they are a cheap ride, and they do have windows that will open  (actually, a better description would be windows that no longer close), so the aroma of the many squashed and in a few cases unwashed bodies is not so bad.   Don was able to rescue a small boy on the bus this week, the boy was about 3 feet tall, and was trying to get off the bus, but the bus was very very crowded and most of us were standing squashed together in the aisles or where ever we could find, and the little boy was trying to get off but no one could see him or was even aware he was there, and Don said in very loud Russian:   “little boy to set out to go”  (in Russian it  makes more sense than it does in English), and everybody wiggled enough for him to get by.   We were quite proud!

We have seen our first Ukrainian lawn mowers.   Actually we have seen none of what we would call even a push-mower, what we have seen are very large scythes.   In many cases they are being wielded by a babyshka.

We had noticed that there were very few if any highway signs showing the number of the highway.  We have recently learned that the possession of a map was illegal during Soviet times, and that the only people who had maps were the Soviet military.   So the idea that normal people would be able to easily navigate around the country is a relatively new concept.

We went to a small town (6,000 people) south of here one day this week to visit with another Peace Corps trainee cluster.   While there we ate lunch at one of the local schools, and were able to purchase soup (very good), brown bread and tea for 70 kopecks (about $0.14 American).  We asked why so cheap, and were told that because of its proximity to Chernobyl (we are about 90 miles away from Chernobyl) the school is able to participate in some Chernobyl funding that gives extra money to those districts who might be serving some of the people from the Chernobyl area..     We asked how many from Chernobyl had been re-settled there, and were told that they didn’t think there were any.  Apparently boondoggle is spelled the same in Kiev as it is Washington.

One of our community development group went home this week -  Brian, about 30 years old - had an accounting degree from Villanova, worked in finance for about 4 years then did volunteer type work for about 4 years and then came here, and you would think that Peace Corps would have been a good fit for him, except that he has a honey at home and was lonesome and thought it would be better to be with her than with the Peace Corps.   We hope that he still thinks so 10 years from now!

This time of year the gardens are starting to be in full bloom.  They are gorgeous.   Two observations:   radishes here have the status of full-fledged vegetables.    Our family serves them in bowls by themselves, or in salads.   The salads will be 90% radishes, and about 10% other greens they have picked.    The other observation has to do with the dachas (think small one room house plus very large garden plot) that many of them have in the country.    It is common in the hot weather (now) to work in the garden in your underwear.   Men and women.   Makes for some interesting sights as one travels down the highways.

We have learned that not all apartment buildings have been built the same.   Turns out that the ones built under Stalin (there aren’t too many of them left due to the war) have large rooms and 12-16 foot ceilings and wide hallways and even some wasted space.   The ones built under Krushchev (there are many of these still around) have small rooms and narrow hallways and 8 foot ceilings and very tiny bathrooms.   Actually, the bathrooms here are usually two rooms, even in brand new apartment buildings.   A toilet by itself in one room, and a sink and bathtub/shower in another room.

We continue to learn about their tax structure and the reasons the infrastructure is so poor.   There are many many taxes to be paid, especially by business people.   The local governments are charged with collecting ALL the taxes.   The local government doesn’t directly keep any of these taxes.  They are all sent to Kiev, and then about 7.6% of what the local governments collected gets sent back to them as their share of that year’s national government budget.  This makes it very hard for local governments to have what they need to fix potholes or improve public transportation. Local governments are allowed to lobby the national government for funds for special projects, but the national government is also chronically short of funds so the interests and needs of the local governments often lose out in the give and take of Ukrainian politics.  Another problem is that the political parties often decide to waive or forgive a tax in order to curry favor without any regard to how this affects everyone else.  Many Ukrainians we have talked to think there is probably little that can or will be done to improve their country until the government stabilizes and/or re-organizes, and they are probably right.  Right now there are three or four bigger parties that seem to spend all their energy jostling with each other for power and none of them seem able to put together a coalition actually interested in solving the basic problems of the economy and government/infrastructure funding.  It gets further complicated by the fact that many of the politicians who are interested in increasing their ties with Moscow have personal business interests in western Ukraine, and many of the politicians who want as little as possible to do with Moscow have business interests there.  

We finished our first official Peace Corps project this week.   It took us a lot of work to do something that back home would have taken a 10th of the time, but we got it done, and then afterwards went to the Bar Cuba to celebrate.   Bar Cuba has a photograph of Che and a bust of Lenin, among other decorations.   Anyway, the project involved our team working with the local office of a youth employment office (they find after school and summer employment for youth).   Our team consisted of Don, Karen, an attorney from Albuquerque, an attorney from San Diego, and a business ethics consultant from Maine.   (What the business ethics consultant thinks of the attorneys we have no idea, and we do not intend to ask.)    The employment office has 22 district offices in the area, and they had a contest involving youth (ages 16-18) writing essays about how they would change the world.    The whole idea started when the local director saw the American movie Pay It Forward (dubbed in Russian, of course).    So the 22 district winners came to Chernihiv, and we helped organize and present the seminar.     Part of our presentation included information on Peace Corps and a power point on what volunteers (especially youth) in America do.   There was also local media there, and we got interviewed (in English) for the television station!    We think we did okay -  our ex-KGB Peace Corps instructors were a little leery of our working with this particular organization, as some of the Peace Corps trainees had tried to work with them last year and it had gone very badly, but we managed to pull it off and they were quite amazed.   So that was fun too.

Next week we find out where our final assignment will be.   Peace Corps makes quite a deal out of the announcement – we are to board a bus Tuesday morning to go to a former Soviet resort about an hour from here where they will present us with an envelope stating where we will go for two years.   Wish us luck !

Not much else new -  we are glad our project is over so that now we can use the last three weeks of training to work on our Russian.   We have been trying to work on verbs, and they certainly need a lot more time than we have had to spend on them.   And please keep writing to us  -  we like hearing from you!   

 Don and Karen


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