September 5,2009


Greetings -  we hope you are all well.   Unfortunately, summer is over here.   If we were home we would be happy to now have football season.   But although we can get Husker radio, with the time difference most of the games begin about 3:00 in the morning, and it somehow is not quite the same…

Our school kept us busy through July, and even though they wanted us in August also (after telling us when we started that they would not need us the second half of June, or all of July and August) we told them no for August so we could get a nap plus go see a couple parts of Ukraine that we had not been to yet.   We are getting pretty good at taking the trains.   It is how everyone travels, and would be one thing we would bring home with us if we could.  The cheapest (and our usual choice) are the overnight trains, with open cars full of upper and lower bunks.  (And if you pay extra they even give you sheets!)     Each train car has a toilet at each end that may or may not be clean, but they sometimes have toilet paper, and it is a convenient and cheap way to travel as long as you don’t care about privacy or sharing your space with people who drink beer and eat sausages and snore.   We went first to the Carpathian Mountains for five days, a beautiful part of the country close to Romania.   With respect to our children in Colorado we use the term “mountain” advisedly;   the highest mountain there is about 5,000 feet.   But we had a good time.   It is a beautiful part of the country and we can see why it is a popular tourist spot.   We have learned that Ukrainians do not typically travel around like Americans, due most likely to what they had in Soviet times, when the government told you where you would work, and then when and where you would take your vacation, and then they would take you there and bring you home.      So now, although they don’t have the Soviets to organize everything for them, they still usually only go places in an “excursion”, and our Russian friends think we are something of a curiosity in that we look at the train schedule and decide on our own when and where we want to go.  It gets a little more interesting than that in the mountains, as the villages are too small to have train service, so they have lots of buses, but no bus schedule that we could find, and also the villages are so small they do not have autobus stations, so if you have no car (that would be us), you stand on the side of the road and wave down the first bus that comes along going the direction you want and you get on and hope there is a seat (otherwise you stand) and pay the driver about 12 cents a mile for however far you want to go.   We stayed in a very lovely resort between two villages out in the middle of nowhere and about a mile up a mountain.  When we first arrived the bus driver left us off at the bottom of the road and we walked – plus suitcases – up the mountain on the dirt (mud) road in the rain.   Not a pretty sight.   But all was well when we got to the top, and it was a lovely place to stay that even had western plumbing and an outdoor restaurant with live Ukrainian music.

It is interesting to see differences in parts of Ukraine.   Before independence (when they were part of the USSR), every town had a large statue of Lenin.   After independence (and even before in some cases) some of them decided that Lenin had to go, so now in western Ukraine where there used to be a large statue of Lenin there is now a large statue of a Ukrainian poet named Shevshenko  (he wrote very bad drippy poetry in the 1800’s).   Except in the east and south (the parts of Ukraine that still like Russia), and there they still have their Lenin statues.  But there is also the one little village that thought that Lenin needed to go, but they had no money to replace him, so they put a moustache on their Lenin statue and changed the sign to say that it is now Shevshenko.

Then in late August we took a long weekend to go to Nikolaev in southern Ukraine, and also Kherson.   Nikolaev is on a large river, with wonderful access to the Black Sea.  When Catherine the Great was czar she decided they needed a shipbuilding port, and that Nikolaev would be a great place to put it.   So in the late 1700’s she had her friend/manager/field marshall Potemkin create the city from scratch, and she got her shipbuilding industry.   During Soviet times they still kept it as a shipbuilding port, except that since they were Soviets they made it a closed city and no one could go in or out without special permission.   So even though it is now part of Ukraine it is still very “Russian”, and was interesting to see.   One of the stories about Nikolaev during the time of Catherine is that she established the city, and sent shipbuilders there, but after some time they all complained that there were no women.   So Catherine gathered up all the prostitutes in St. Petersburg and sent them to Nikolaev to live, and now many of the natives claim that as their heritage!

We also went to Kherson, in southern Ukraine on the Dnieper River, which is on a par with the Mississippi River, and with access to the Black Sea about 30 miles away.    We negotiated with a private boat owner (he started by quoting the “American” price but we told him we were poor volunteers and could only afford the Ukrainian price and he very nicely relented…)  to take us out into the delta one morning, it was beautiful.   Lots of little summer homes built in the early part of the century, and handed down through the families after that.   And wildlife, except we wonder about it since the water that comes through there has worked its way down through Ukraine from Chernobyl.    In the area are also a wildlife “sanctuary” and 100 sq km of preserved natural “steppe”, the native grass plains of Russia and Ukraine.   We took a little bus for three and a half hours one morning out into the middle of nowhere to see the “steppe”, but when we got there it was closed.   (We aren’t quite sure how you close 100 sq km of natural grassland, but they did, but most likely because of the near drought conditions this year in that area.)    So we went to the wildlife “sanctuary” instead.   They had a lot of birds/ ducks/ pheasants/ swans/peacocks, and also many varieties of cows/emus/ostriches/horses, etc.  Including an Amerikanskee bison!     So it appears we have traveled many thousands of miles just to see buffalo.    We also stayed in our first “Intourist” hotel.     For those of you who are old (like us) you may remember that going through the Intourist Travel Agency was the only way you could get into Russia in Soviet times.   There were stories that all the Intourist tour guides were KGB, because if the KGB kept control of Intourist they would have control over every “tourist” (aka foreign/American spy) coming into the country.   We have a Russian friend Sergei, he is former Soviet military, then he worked for Intourist, and he is now working for the American Embassy.    We have not asked him yet about any KGB background, but we do admire those Soviets who have been able to so successfully re-invent themselves!

But now it is back to work.   Over the summer Karen was able to get a grant approved from USAID for her organization, so now we need to go to work and spend it.   And Don is finishing up a rather big project, but his organization already is making plans for the next great thing he is going to do for them….  And our school is back in session also.   We told them only 4 classes this year, and we are hoping we can hold them to it.   But Viktor (the owner) is nothing if not an opportunist, and he likes having Amerikanskees at his beck and call.   So we will see.   In the meantime, keep in touch -  and Go Huskers!

 Don and Karen

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