Letter From Ukraine

Below is a letter from the journal of MYP Alumni Christina O’K, who is currently serving in the Peace Corps at the Lviv Youth Employment Center in the Ukraine.

By Christina O’K.

March 2nd, 2004

Greetings from Lviv. I can’t believe I’m saying this in March but Happy New Year!

Sorry it has been so long since my last update. I promise to be more consistent but our lives since our return to Ukraine were a total whirlwind and I kept waiting for it to die down to write and then it dawned on me that it might not die down.

It seems to be the turning point for one year in Peace Corps. My work is starting to take a more steady and productive course, the Ukrainian language is settling on my tongue a bit more firmly (although I’m still lost most of the time when people speak to me too quickly) and Tom and I are traveling! That is probably the most exciting part.

First, work. My director’s idea for a youth leadership program was submitted in the form of a grant application to the Peace Corps’ Small Project Assistance Committee and the committee is currently reviewing this application. My source on the committee, Tom (that’s me, sleeping my way to the top J ), has told me it looks good but I might not get all the funds we asked for. So, I won’t get the tanning bed for myself but all else looks good. The program is set to start, um, yesterday. Whoa, better get on that. Training in the spring, camp in the summer and the club to start in the fall. Wish me luck.

I was at the Ukrainian Catholic University in February where I taught a 4-lesson crash course on Public Relations. The high-point was giving them some crisis communications discussion and then presenting them with crisis scenarios (your factory is on fire releasing chemicals into the air, etc.). I pretended I was a journalist and interviewed each of them in front of a camera and then we played it back and commented on what they did right or wrong. Most did excellently and I was impressed by their ability to do all of this in their second language! I would do the course again if they asked me to.

Language is moving along. Tom and I attended a language refresher conference in January and both moved up a notch on the language ladder. We spent a week in class with an excellent teacher and a lot of our friends from Obuxiv (training town). We had a lot of fun and actually learned a lot. I’ll stop there before the nerd alarm goes off any louder. But I swear, we did go out too.

And travel. The part you’ve really been waiting for. Since January, Tom and I have been to two new towns, Kosiv (for the St. Valentine’s Day ski weekend that had no skiing) and Rivne (the poor little town that could, but hasn’t) for a party. Since January I have been to Kyiv four times: first for a tourism group meeting, second for language refresher, third for my training as editor of the Peace Corps Ukraine newsletter NuShcho!? and the third time on the way to EGYPT!!! That’s right, the land of the pharaohs, pyramids and men with octopus hands! I’ve been promising fantastic stories about this trip so here it comes…

We took this trip for the obvious reason that we always wanted to go to Egypt. Then there was the other reason: it was DIRT cheap. That’s right. For $282 each Tom and I got roundtrip airfare, 7 nights hotel at a 4-star resort along with breakfast and dinner every day. How? Take a deep breath: when you aren’t American, prices for the exact same thing are cheaper. Okay, breathe out now. Sucks, doesn’t? Anyway, we flew 3 hours from Kyiv into a resort town in the south of Egypt called Hurghada. Let me just explain that this is also why the trip was cheap. Hurghada is a beach town on the Red Sea so everything from there is an excursion which costs money. But, again, if you can pretend you are Ukrainian…

Unfortunately, for us Hurghada was a bit windy and cold on the first two days of our arrival (but still warmer than Ukraine!). We relaxed a bit but spent a lot of time plotting how we could see all of Egypt in the one week we were there. It was hard work but we did it.

Monday we took an excursion to Luxor/Valley of the Kings. We left the hotel at 6am and had to drive to a big open field filled with at least 70 buses. We later learned that in Egypt, due to political unrest in certain parts, all touristic excursions must be accompanied by a police escort. This escort isn’t free so to lower costs, companies travel in pre-scheduled caravans. We took one such caravan to Luxor, our bus trailing all the other buses. But our bus driver didn’t like that so he spent the entire 4-hour drive dangerously passing the other buses until we were fifth. That’s right. For those of you who cared, our bus arrived fifth that day in Luxor. Gosh, the pride.

That day we saw Karnak Temple with its wall of sphinxes and the needles of Hachepsut. Tom and I walked around the scarab statue (think giant beetle on a pedestal) 9 times (5 for luck, 7 to marry, 9 for good luck in having children – or was it to have 9 lucky children? Uh oh.).

We later visited a perfume “museum” (i.e. store) and then had lunch on the water, crossed the Nile in a boat called the Fox. I remember because the one parked next to it was called “New Titanic” and I kept hoping we wouldn’t get into that one. We then saw the Habu Temple and finally ended up in the Valley of the Kings: a valley littered with tombs of all the pharaohs. We saw three tombs, Memkimpnut (I butchered that – I don’t remember how to spell it) and two different Ramses. The tombs were long tunnels that went deep into the earth. The hieroglyphics were all different, using different symbols that were significant to the various leaders. There was white chalk in the air from tourists kicking up the finely ground powder that is on the ground there. Keep in mind that many of the hieroglyphics we saw were not carved into the wall but protruded from the wall. So it was not that they drew these images or that they carved them into the walls but they mastered an art where they carved around so that the image emerged. Unbelievable.

We paid extra to see Tutankhamen’s tomb. Not worth it, I was told. Too small. I know. But that to me is the essence of Egypt. As a kid, he was what I thought a mummy was. So I had to see it. And it was tiny, three small rooms. He was a nobody too, a king who died young and didn’t do much. BUT, his tomb was never robbed. So those three rooms were packed with treasures. Gold and more gold and jewelry and images. Amazing stuff. What else? If he was no one and he had all that, just imagine what was already stolen from all those other kings. That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!

We got back to the hotel that night at 11pm, had a laaate dinner and then went to bed, got up at 4am and hit the road to Cairo. Our next tour guide was a young guy, Walid, recommended by another PCV and he was a nice guy but wasn’t prepared for 7 revved up Americans who had 3 days to see EVERYTHING. We missed our convoy and drove around Hurghada for 2 hours trying to find the cops to pay off to be our personal convoy but ended up having to take a regular bus to Cairo.

We arrived in Cairo, settled into a 1.75 star hotel happy as clams to have made it to Cairo. We turn right around again and ask to be taken to the Egyptian Museum. We pile into our private little shuttle van and are on the highway when our car rear-ends the one in front. No one was hurt but we were all stunned. Lucky for us, unlucky for them, only two cars were able to drive by us when a huge tourist coach tried without success to pull through. We couldn’t pull over because our driver was now outside the car close to a fistfight with the other driver. Our friends Holly and Kelly were on the floor of the van fearing being shot. The big coach driver talked to our guide and broke up the fight. We pulled over more, got out and loaded into his half-empty bus. He took us and our guide to the Egyptian Museum. There we spent 3 hours seeing the Mummy Room, all of Tutankhamen’s treasures and other key artifacts taken from all over Egypt from every dynasty. Such amazing things. It was all so much. I could barely keep track of what we were seeing.

Then we decided to call it a day and went to a restaurant where we could see the sound and light show at the Giza pyramids while we ate our delicious dinners. It was a nice way to end a long day. we went to the hotel and watched the Cairo traffic drive by from one of the balconies while sipping drinks. I can’t describe the constant honking. People honk to signal lane change, signal stopping, speeding, warn pedestrians and they honk just to honk. It’s louder than New York during rush hour ten times over. Our bed was next to the window that faced this street. I still slept like a baby.

Day two in Cairo we spent in Giza and Saqqara. Giza is where the three big famous pyramids are along with the Sphinx. Again, we walked arond, got to go inside one pyramid, and took lots of photos. Tom and I rode a camel together. It was amazing to see the city of Cairo building itself around these pyramids now. They are right in the city. And so spectacular. When you get close and see the size of those stones. It was an amazing site. The Sphinx also blew me away. It is so tremendous and to think that it used to be covered by a building. I learned that from Tom. Tom’s favorite question the whole time was “Did this have a roof on it?” I think the tour guide just made his answers up most of the time.

Saqqara was a lot more quiet and tranquil than Giza with less people harassing you to buy things. We had more time to explore and I liked the simplicity of Zoser’s pyramid there. The famous step pyramid, oldest standing buildling in the world. We also saw a few other tombs and could see other pyramids in the distance in every direction. Such an interesting place to be.

We also went to a carpet “school” and papyrus “factory” that day as well but with not as many complaints. we all bought stuff and were happy with our purchases.

That night we went on a riverboat cruise along the nile seeing bellydancing and other perfomances. I called it a night after but a few others walked around by the hotel and got to see a little more of the real culture.

Our last day in cairo we went to the biggest and oldest bazaar called Kanikalilly or something like that and haggled and bargarined until we dropped. I bought a veil b/c we were going to a mosque next and I walked around with it. tom said he liked it but I don’t think I’m ready for that fashion statement in my daily life yet. We visited the Citadel and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (not the boxer) and the National Police Museum (um, what?). Then we had a quick lunch, picked up our bags and hit the road to Hurghada. We arrived at midnight, again had a laaate dinner and went to bed.

Friday we lounged on the beach. The weather had warmed up significantly and we were happy to be able to relax. Some people got massages and fake tatoos. Tom and I had a leisurely lunch and then we got ready for dinner and went to another bellydancing show. I unfortunately got sick that last night, probably fro the leisurely lunch so I was up all night and ready to leave the next day. The pyramids were beautiful and the sites in Egypt spectacular. I’d love to go back with more time and really get to know the giant city of Cairo with 18 million residents. But the hassling, the ogling, the touching, the bargaining are exhausting.

Going through security to get to our departure gate, the alarm sounded on me. The male security guard ran the wand at my waste and pointed at my lower abdomen and said “What is this?” I pulled my shirt up 2 inches and showed him my bellybutton. Nothing was there. He ran the wand over my chest and as I went to step away, he put his hand on my right breast. My immediate reaction was to punch him square in the chest (not hard) which I did. If he had accidentally grabbed me, I’m sure he would’ve been angry that I punched him and arrested me. the fact that he didn’t flinch indicated to me that he is just another Egyptian man trying to antagonize Tom. Except that Tom was 2 people behind me. Okay, so Egyptian men just like to touch women. End of story.

For those who want/need a writing update, my writing is coming along at a good pace. Being editor of NuShcho!? will be a good experience for me. I also have a few stories due out online soon that I will update you on as soon as they are ready. I also have an article about my experiences in Lviv coming out in the March/April issue of The Pennsylvania Gazette. I am really proud of the piece and it will feature photos of Ukraine in it so if you can get your hands on it, you should check it out. If it gets posted on their website, I will send that info out too.

Take care.