Home away from Home
As I walked into the arrivals waiting area, I searched through the crowd, looking for a familiar face. Once found, we stepped into an old van that still smelled of gasoline and old working gears. In the van was an older man, a self proclaimed ‘gifted’, who had previously volunteered in Ukraine.
He was more than happy to do most of the talking as the van raced through the roads. I simply smiled and nodded, with my shades on to hide the short naps I had in-between his monologues.
After just over an hour, we arrived in Kozin, where the main summer camp was located. We spent the first day doing mostly nothing but lounge and wait for the other volunteers to arrive. By the end of the second day we had received all the training that we possibly needed.
Dnipro Region – Pershotravensk
I was up by 5AM, up and ready to head to the Dnipro region where the town that will unknowingly change my outlook on so many things was. We arrived in Dnipro after seven hours, myself and a Georgian girl, who also was in Ukraine for the first time. Within 5 minutes, the teachers and her students came to us like huddles of joy, hugging and kissing us with big grins on their faces. We had arrived and the teachers and their students were there and ready. That was the first moment I felt the love of Pershotravinst. We spent the day exploring Dnipro, before jumping on a coach to Pershotravensk.
As the days went on, my thoughts grew more fond on Pershotravensk. Each day brought a new view and things to do. Each day of the week began with a few activities in the school followed by a list of places and homes that invited us, the volunteers. Just before I headed to the region I was warned that Ukrainians loved to feed, oh boy did I underestimate how true that was. After a few days I was sure that everyone in the town wanted to me leave fat.
A life of their own
One day, the teacher invited us to her palace. A flat in corner of the town, the typical Ukrainian household – nicely decorated inside that welcomed everyone that stepped through the door. It smelled like lemons and honey. I sat down on a covered sofa, mellowing to her smiles as we prepared for the days ahead. Not long after we were done, conversations jumped to politics, family, jobs and cultural differences…there were many, but there were so many similarities. Her stepfather dropped off freshly grown grapes, which she would sell locally, another common Ukrainian thing… at least in the smaller towns. Everyone was self-sufficient, and supported local businesses and farmers. The sense of community was stronger in the smaller towns, in comparison to the larger cities like Dnipro and Kiev.
Her stepfather grinned and laughed as he told his stories, in a language that I didn’t understand (the teacher translated). It felt surreal, as if we plunged into a fantasy. The night was filled with wonder. He told his stories of when he was young, from when he went to university in city that bordered another country. His group friends came all all different places, one that was Russian, another Angolan, another Chinese, another Spanish and a few others from Ukraine and other countries I can’t remember. Everything he said was about how fond his memories were of them.
He spoke of her their adventures and the they way fought. He thought of it as beautiful. They were all from so many different places, but they friends. The friendships between nations were beautiful. It was such a long time ago, but he remembered…he remembered it all. The light behind eyes burned brighter with every word.
Days like that were so common that it almost felt surreal when I had to return home. Another time, after our morning teaching, we were invited to the countryside where many had gathered hours before us. When we arrived there was so much food that I felt like royalty. It was the midst of summer. The heat was at its peak, yet they took the time prepare the food in our honour…. Ukrainian hospitality goes deep. We spent the hours laughing, eating, playing games and singing. It was a funny thing to look at from the outside. About only 4 people from about twenty people spoke the same tongue as me, yet it was as if that was irrelevant.
The dangers of a bicycle
As the days and week went in a flash, my schedule was also ingrained. Woke up around 8AM, had breakfast that Tania, my lovely host mum had prepared, and was out of the house before 9AM with Nickolai, the bright fourteen year old that tried to improve his English every day with me.
As my time drew close to its end, Nickolai, the teacher, her son and myself got on bikes and headed into the country side to explore. Our trip however was not what we expected.
We ended getting lost and running out of water, all while trusting a fourteen year old to by our guide, which was probably our first mistake. For some strange reason we even after the first hour we kept following him. The conversations followed something like:
By the end of the our journey – torture – we all sleep for about 4 hours straight before we were able to walk again. It’s funny now, but at the time, laughing was the last thing on my mind.
A Journey to the mountains
Another time we visited mountains, made from the local miners, and drove for miles with no other car in sight.
To be honest, when I decided to volunteer in Ukraine, I didn’t think I’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Before I left, the teachers, family and students kept asking of I’ll return next year. How much I wanted to say yes, but couldn’t. I couldn’t as I don’t know what the next year holds. However, I’ll definitely consider it if I have the time.
It was so strange, looking at how people lived and immersed myself into their lives. So many of them were content with their lives, happy even. There were people highly educated to a Master’s level and knowledgeable of their field. It was such a shock to know that two hours to the east war was brewing, death was spreading and lives were lost. One of the teacher’s family was unfortunately called to war, and never returned. It was their reality.
Saying goodbye was emotional, but I couldn’t allow myself to get too emotional. I will always remember my time. I will always remember my Ukrainian family. All things comes to an end, it is a beautiful and tragic thing.