August 22, 2008

 

Greetings -  finally a weekend with not much going on, so we will try to catch up.   Thanks to all of you who were concerned we hadn’t written lately, it’s nice to know we are still sort of remembered.    All is well here, and we are settling into our new life.   As we have said, with our business type “jobs” and our city of 350,000 we definitely do not fit the Peace Corps stereotype;   Don says the only difference between our life and that of an ex-pat is that we do have something to do during the day.   We continue to follow the events in Georgia.   Karen’s organization had an “event” at the large Vinnytsia town square last weekend to show support for the people of Georgia, and Don ended up with his picture in the local paper.   We are not supposed to get involved in “politics”, so we hope that our bosses missed the news coverage, otherwise we may be home soon!

The good news here is that the hot water is back!    Kuddos and many thanks to Don for rattling the old Soviet pipes enough that whatever old Soviet gunk that had broken off inside the pipe and was clogging up the hot water pipe was shaken loose, so we are back in business.  Please note that this is not your normal hot water though, and we are learning about kolonkas.   First you turn on the faucet, then you light the pilot light in the kolonka, then you turn on the heating chamber, then you wait while the water heats up, then you take a shower or do dishes or whatever, then you turn off the gas in the kolonka, then you wait until the water runs cold again, and then you turn off the water.  We are getting the routine down.    Our household adventures do continue though;   the light in the kitchen blew, so after two weeks an electrician came (yesterday) and decided that the fixture was broken and he would order a part.  In the meantime he hung a cord and put a bulb in it so that we would have light in the kitchen, but tonight we noticed many sparks around the cord near the ceiling so we think we will leave that light off until the part comes in …    But then after the electrician left yesterday we noticed that the refrigerator was not working (even though the light in the refrigerator was still on).    So this morning we contacted the refrigerator repair people, and they said they would come tomorrow between the hours of 10 in the morning and 8 at night.   But then when we got home from tonight from work the refrigerator was running again.   (No repairman – it just decided on its own.)    So we contacted the repair people again and called off tomorrow’s visit.   Unless of course the refrigerator decides not to work again.  

A couple of you have also asked about air conditioning.   We have had many days this summer in the upper 90’s.   Anyway, air conditioning does exist, in the local McDonald’s restaurant and in the nicer shops and restaurants, and probably in nicer apartments.   But not in our humble apartment, and certainly not in our offices.   We are okay with that, and are managing to survive.  What is interesting though is that they open windows to let in any cooler air that might be passing through, but they do not have screens anywhere.   We have tried to buy some in the bazaars or hardware type shops for our apartment but they just don’t seem to exist.   So in order to keep the bug population inside our apartment to a manageable level we don’t open the windows until we turn out all the lights and go to bed.   The locals think we are being a little too particular, but we have seen some of the bugs here and are not really excited about having them move in, so we will continue to do it our way. 

Don’t know if we have mentioned the habits of store employees, but we find it interesting.   In most stores, including grocery stores, there are at least two “security type” employees hired to watch everyone and make sure that they don’t steal anything for every employee who is there to actually help you.   Especially in the vodka aisle in grocery stores, there is always someone just standing there.   They are not there to help, just to watch and stand very close to you while you look and decide what you might want.   And if you happen to touch anything to look at it but decide you don’t want it they take it from you and put it back exactly where it came from.   This mentality carries over to just about everywhere…   I (Karen) was in the local library the other day (believe it or not we both have library cards!) to check out a book.   I wasn’t sure what I wanted, I just wanted to look.   The librarian showed me the shelves with the books I might be interested in, and then asked me what book I wanted.   I said I didn’t know, I just wanted to look.   She then said I could look, but I COULD NOT TOUCH ANY OF THE BOOKS.   So I looked at books – without touching any of them – for about 10 minutes while she watched and finally must have decided that I probably wasn’t going to be too subversive, because she then wandered off.   Please don’t tell her, but I then took three books off the shelf and looked at them, and put two back.   The third one I checked out and took home.   They are okay with us checking out a book, as long as we know what book it is we want before we get there.   Card catalogs as we know them do not exist, but that is another story.    But anyway, when we check out a book here they keep our library card until we bring the book back.    I suppose this is to guarantee that their book is returned – as they know that we certainly would not want to go through life without our library card!

Our Regional Manager from Peace Corps is coming to visit us and our host organizations next week to make sure we are doing what we are supposed to do and that our apartment has the 2 plates, 2 bowls, 2 glasses, 2 spoons, 2 forks, 2 towels, 2 chairs, 2 sheets, etc. etc. that it is supposed to have, and that we are okay security wise and do not need bars on the windows.  (We do think however that we will put away our 2 wineglasses before Natasha comes…)     Anyway, Peace Corps is like any other large corporation in that there is lots of paperwork to be filled out.   So far we have managed to keep up.   The next report is due the end of September, and is supposed to detail our proposal for our first “project”.   It seems to be normal in Peace Corps to take 3 months to identify a possible project, and then another 6 months to get working on it.   We are not quite sure what to do with all this, as we have both already FINISHED at least one project, and we both have others in the pipeline. 

My (Karen again) first “project” proved to be quite interesting.   Fraud and corruption are everywhere in government in Ukraine, and they accept as normal operating procedure that to get anything done bribes need to be paid to anyone and everyone.  This is true for everything from building permits to land purchases to business operating licenses to anything else you can think of.   All this has spilled over into the higher education system too, and significant bribes need to be paid to get your child a good education.   It is so bad that it has become a point of pride to a family if they can afford the bribe.    So there was a project in Ukraine to do “monitoring” of university applicants, funded in part by USAID, and my organization was “hired” to do the monitoring and survey work for the Vinnytsia area.   We were provided a questionnaire with 16 questions on it, supposedly designed to expose the fraud and corruption in the university application process  (we did not design the questionnaire, this was done at a higher level, with the help and support of USAID).    We had the questionnaire completed by 500 students (250 each at two local universities), and it was then my job to tabulate all the responses and come up with a manageable summary for our 500 questionnaires.   All well and good, and it sounds great so far.   Until you read the survey questions, and discover that what they are asking about is:   1) how long did you have to stand in line to apply;     2) how long did it take you to get your application documents together;    3) are you from the Vinnytsia oblast (state) or another oblast;   4) did you remember to bring your documents that would show any special status  (i.e., orphan, or child of someone impacted by Chernobyl, or disabled person, etc.);   5) if you didn’t remember all your documents, which document did you forget;   6) male or female    etc etc.  Anyway, you get the idea.   Absolutely NO questions that had anything to do with bribes, corruption, or even beginning to address the subjective admission system they have here for state universities and technical schools.    But then of course, the higher administrations of the universities and technical schools were part of this survey process, and they have absolutely no interest in reforming any part of the system.   But in the meantime we have had three press conferences and numerous news articles, and we have a few people talking about why the survey was so bad and why it did not address any of the issues that it should have.  Some people (including us) are already talking about a follow up “project”, to start to address some of the real issues, but we of course now have top university officials on record as saying the system is just fine and the survey shows that there is no fraud or corruption and why are people still talking about this and we certainly don’t need any more surveys since the first one did not show that anything was wrong…   You have to remember the old Soviet and tsarist mentality however to really understand what is going on;   the only thing they have ever known is “top down” government and organization in their lives -  and the idea that they could or should make a decision regarding anything is still a completely new concept.    So we will let you know if anything more comes of this anytime soon.

As for me (this is Don now), I have researched whether there are any English language web sites that explain relevant aspects of Ukrainian law and procedure for foreign businessmen and/or foreign investors (there aren’t) and reported on this to a joint governmental and NGO group that wants to create a foreigner’s legal clinic and matching web site to assist foreigners living or doing business in Vinnytsia.  This also includes the over 2000 university students we have here, mostly at the medical university.  I also spoke briefly at a town meeting in Khmelnitsky (a smaller town 2 hours from here) about the web site and tourism in general.  The legal clinic and web site are my major projects right now and will probably take nine months to get it all done.  We’re looking at 16 to 18 topics and getting materials ready and translated into 6 or 7 languages.   (I’m designing the web site but the actual programming will be done by a trained web designer.)   The third highest official in the Oblast government (equivalent to the Nebraska Secretary of State) is the chairman of the group and is very interested in this project getting done and done right.   This should be a good project, and well worth the time and effort.

I and Karen are also both involved in planning and teaching a basic business (accounting, economics, management, etc) and business projects class this fall for Vinnytsia Language School.  The students will be seniors who hope to attend university in western Europe.   Our teaching to be done in English, as that is the language they will need for the western Europe university.   We’ll report more on this project once we figure out what it is we’re actually going to get put together.  We are also both researching possible grant for our respective organizations.  Hope we don’t end up competing for the same money but you never know.

Anyway, enough for now.   Please write when you have time – we love hearing from you!      Don and Karen


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