Thursday, 21 September 2006

Kisses from Kiev

First Kiss

Upon my right hand and scattered across parts of my body are a number of mosquito bites.

The bites don't itch anymore and they are gradually disappearing, as my body recovers from being a six foot buffet for these annoying little creatures, but when these bites are gone for good, I will feel a little sad, as these bites are all I have left to remind me of a time and a place I am leaving behind forever.

Today it's one month since I left the United Kingdom. Without a doubt, this has been a bizarre month, even by my standards.

The last thirty days have seen me fly from the UK to Riga and then on to Simferopol in the Crimea, where I spent five days lying on the beach and eating in restaurants with Emily, before getting stuck on a cliff and being rescued by a man named Dima.

A few days after my adventure with ants and lightening came to an end, I left the Crimea and travelled by bus to a small provincial city in the Ukraine called Berdyansk.

There I took part in a two week project aimed at educating young people about gender issues. I was one of a number of volunteers, from the UK, USA, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy.

We stayed in a camp together next to the Sea of Azov and visited a number of local universities and schools and prepared workshops and led discussions about gender issues in the Ukraine.

I found myself doing things that I thought I would never do, like facilitating presentations, and speaking to classes full of Ukrainian students. It was a very nice, very good experience and one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is hard for me to believe that only five days have passed since I left Berdyansk. I find myself missing the other volunteers much more than I thought I would, even the people I didn't speak to often.

This surprises me a great deal. My experiences with Westerners are generally not positive, and it is difficult for me to be in the West because of British and American foreign policy.

Last year I had a terrible time when I took part in a project with paraplegics in Slovenia and met four female volunteers, four nasty, sex obsessed harpies, who spent most of their time gossipping about me and doing all they could to make my life unpleasant.

Because of that I was unsure about taking part in another project and really didn't know if I would go to Berdyansk, right up until the day before the project began, but today I am very glad that I did.

With the exception of the project in Slovenia - which was a great work camp but was spoiled by those nasty imps - the people I meet on these projects are very different to the couch loving, TV obsessed, general population who work in offices or stack shelves in supermarkets or clean toilets for a living.

Volunteers who take part in international work camps are - most of the time - interesting people, with ambitions which stretch beyond planning their next holiday lying on a beach in Spain.

The project in Berdyansk was no exception.

I met some of the finest people I have met on a work camp. Laura, Miriam, Fiona, Sybil, Celine, Wyatt, Davide, Karen... shy people, ready to take a risk and try something new, each venturing into the unknown with just a backpack and no idea of what to expect.

The time I spent with these people, and the camp leaders, Olga and Anna, and many of the students we met can be summed up in a single word: Lovely.

How nice it was to avoid the back stabbing and nastiness. How strange that the person I communicated with the most was an English girl. My problems with the fairer sex in my home country are well documented in my emails, but Laura, a young English lass, was simply a lovely, sweet and kind person. A rare find.

I miss her and all of the volunteers, especially first thing in the morning, when I wake up and realise that now I am alone.

My time in Berdyansk has given me another gift box of memories to add to my collection for me to take out and cherish in years to come.

From drinking vodka while sitting in a small wooden boat on a beach to numerous restaurant visits, from one of the strangest nightclubs I have ever seen to encountering Peter, a crazy student, destined to be a dictator in later life. ("No, no, no!").

If I had to think of a single highlight of my time in Berdyansk, it would have to be the afternoon that myself and a handful of volunteers and students took a ride on an inflatable banana boat.

This basically involved being pulled across the Sea of Azov (the shallowest sea in the world, fact fans) by a speed boat. We skimmed the sea at break neck speed, before being thrown off.

In total we were thrown off three times.

It was exhilarating and scary as hell, but it was also very wonderful and very funny, and I loved every minute of it. How sad I feel now writing these words, now that those moments are memories, and those people have become a part of my past.

Last Kiss

On Saturday I boarded a train to Kiev, leaving Berdyansk behind.

I shared a compartment with Davide, an Italian boy who was leaving the same day. How glad I was for the company, as it saved me the loneliness of a 17 hour train ride to the capital. We ate potato together and passed our time speaking, smiling and sleeping.

On Sunday we arrived at our destination and I was met at the train station by Emily who was joining me in Kiev for two days. At the station I said goodbye to Davide and came close to shedding a tear, spared only by the dim hope that one day we will meet again.

Shortly after Davide left, Emily and I were met by a Ukrainian woman. She was the landlady of a flat I was renting for our time in the capital. She showed us to the flat and left me to take my first hot shower in over two weeks and to go to the toilet alone in peace. My return to civilisation was complete when I plonked myself in front of the TV and watched a few minutes of BBC World.

Emily and I spent the next two days exploring Kiev together. The city was very different than I had imagined. Very westernised, almost like a European city, and nothing like Minsk, it's Soviet neighbour.

Despite still being quite a closed country, the Ukraine boasts a bustling and thriving capital, both expensive and ultra cheap, with super wide streets, plenty of Soviet architecture, and plenty of shopping malls, McDonald's restaurants and Starbucks cafes.

Despite the Westernisation, I liked Kiev a great deal and enjoyed the two days I spent there.

The Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe (if you ignore Russia) and Kiev is a worthy capital. While we were in Kiev, Emily and I visited the Caves Monastery. Kiev's most famous attraction, the Caves Monastery is a labyrinth of caves and tunnels.

It was interesting enough, but when Emily had to wear a head dress to get inside, and when we saw the body of a child wrapped in cloth and on display in a glass coffin, along with a dozen other poor souls, it reminded me of just how much I dislike religion.

Religion played a part in the invasion of Iraq (though of course oil was the main motivating factor). It also played a part in the bombing of Lebanon, where Israel concentrated a great deal of its bombing in mostly Christian areas.

Millions have died because of something that, if you look at it with an open mind, seems preposterous.

Two hundred years ago we were burning witches at the stake. Religion was created by man thousands of years ago and yet people still cling to these beliefs. I am going off the subject here, so I will save that story for another time and another blog entry.

Despite the Caves Monastery leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth, I enjoyed Kiev, and will return.

Emily left the Ukraine on Tuesday and returned to Belarus. Before she left, we met up with Laura and Karen for a few hours and ate borsch together (a lovely beetroot soup, the national Ukrainian dish).

Now we have left the Ukraine behind. I am currently making my way to Lithuania, which I will use as a stepping stone to get to Belarus.

More adventures await me in Minsk and beyond. But nothing I experience in that mixed-up and Soviet playground will compare to my time in the Ukraine.

There will be no banana boat rides or drinking vodka while sitting in a small wooden boat. No crazy nightclub visits. No reflection groups or discussions.

My month in the Ukraine, both terrible and wonderful, is over now.

I did not take a camera with me and so did not take a single photograph. I have nothing to show that I was ever there, nothing to remind me of the people I met, nothing but memories and these rapidly fading mosquito bites.

And when these reddish souvenirs, these tiny kisses, are gone forever, my time in Berdyansk will truly be consigned to history.

The people I spent time with, and laughed with, and drank with, will, for me, remain only in my memories. I will never see those people again. We have all left for different places and different people, now that our time together is at an end, and life is moving on.

Take care all.

I will miss you.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.