Where I fit in the box of crayons....

Do you ever get that feeling like there's more out there? That's the feeling that brought me to beyond borders. The global community is growing, and I have not yet become a part of it. I want to be a contributing citizen to the global community through participation and action. Over the years, I have developed an appreciation for diversity and difference, and look for other ways that people are doing things. There’s a whole world out there beyond our North American perspective that has the potential to change the way I see things, and to change my life. Gahndi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I think we should not only find the change within ourselves, but also take part in the change we want to see in the world. I hope that Beyond Borders will offer a medium in which I can be the change I want to see in the world, and also take part in that change.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I have located my box...

There are so many ways I would like to start this blog post, but in the interest of not being passive aggressive, or cryptic, all I am going to say is that after 3 months the box saga seems to have taken a positive turn, but then again it ain’t over till it’s over.

Let me fill you in. (for those who are unaware of this struggle)

It all began when I had one of my strokes of genius (please note sarcasm). After the first day that the Internat (beginning of June) I realized that the girls are in LOVE with taking photographs. They took 300 photographs in the first hour I was with them! The next day I went shopping for cameras. Electronics are a real challenge here – Ukrainians have the choice between really terrible Russian electronic technology with above (North American) average prices, or, old and obsolete Asian technology that is usually two to three times what we would pay in Canada. At the time it seemed to make MUCH more sense to buy the cameras in Canada and ship them here….

I sent Felix shopping for cameras (he’s such an angel!). Lucky for us a few of the electronics stores were having camera sales gearing up for summer. We bought 6 cameras (thank you all for your more than generous support before I left. This purchase wouldn’t have been possible with out your help!).

After we bought the cameras I got excited and went out in search of a professional photographer here in Ternopil that would be willing to lend a few mornings to teaching the girls how to use the cameras. It was a challenge – there aren’t many professional photographers, the ones that exist are not so willing to give up their time, or didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. I did finally arrange someone who was excited to be a part of the whole thing. But first we had to get the cameras…

The next step was finding a way to get them from there to here. I did some price shopping and found out that it was going to be a fortune to get them here (in the neighbourhood of $400), so I started canvassing. You might remember a post from July “Down with FedEx” in which I outlined the length of time it took FedEx to respond to me, how they responded to me, and what their response was - a resounding NO for the record. This episode took us into the middle of July, and still the cameras were sitting in the condo in Toronto.

There was a possibility that someone would be visiting Ukraine from the University, so I followed up with that… Due to other commitments and scheduling difficulties, it wasn’t going to be possible this time. So this option was a no go.

Felix and I explored some other shipping options. When shipping to a less travelled destination (like Ukraine) you have two options: 1) semi quick – within 2 weeks – crazy expensive and 2) painstakingly slow – 6-8 weeks – still expensive. The other issue we were having is that Canada Post has a shipping partnership with FedEx and after being supremely disappointed, and blowing my top at them it was a principal issue to not have their hands on my box. Canada post offers a ground service to Ukraine which is not nearly as expensive as the priority shipping, but it takes 8 weeks to arrive and there’s no protection for the package. This seemed like the way to go, even considering the length of time it was going to take.

I think in Canada we take out postal system for granted. We trust that when we put something in a post box that it will get to its destination in a reasonable amount of time, and that whatever we decide to post is protected (you have no idea how protected our postal system is…). One of Felix’s co workers over heard him arranging to have the packaged shipped to Ukraine via ground service and decided to lend some of her experience (thank goodness). She was actually a mail carrier in Romania, and also has a side business that sells art and photography over the internet. She alerted Felix to the problems and corruption that exist with the postal service here. Most importantly she stressed that in these parts (Eastern Europe) being a customs officer is the best job anyone can hope for because of the “perks” – namely greased palms and the liberty to pick and choose what you’d like to confiscate. Felix was apprehensive about shipping. Then we got a taste of the postal system here when we realized something funny was happening with my post cards (see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Post Box). We were getting closer and closer to the end of July – time was running short and I was running out of options.

It’s not often that I give up, but I was pretty tired of dealing with “the box” (as it has come to be unaffectionately know as) and nearly resolved that I was just not going to be able to make it happen. Just as I was ready to give up, Orest (the guy that was supposed to be my translator) gave me a glimmer of hope – his Aunt was travelling from Kamloops, BC to Ternopil at the beginning of August, and if we could get the box to them before she left she would be happy to bring it with her!!!! I really couldn’t have asked for anything better –I was beside myself with happiness…

Felix ran to the post office and arranged to have the box posted to Kamloops on the double. It was scheduled to arrive in 3 business days – but there was at least a week and a half of wiggle room before Orest’s aunt departed. Fail proof! I departed for Poland and Prague excited that by the time I returned the cameras would have arrived safely with the aunt.

I got back to Ternopil August 7th. The family told me the Orest had called a few times – my heart leapt – he was calling to arrange for me to pick up the cameras!!! I called Orest. I was happy to hear that his aunt had arrived safely and was happy to be spending time with family. Then Orest dropped the bomb – she didn’t have the cameras with her. The (F*@#%ING) box never arrived at her house!! Where the hell was the box?!?! Felix marched over to the post office and demanded they locate our box (now even less affectionately referred to!). Canada Post conducted an investigation to locate the box. They discovered that the box arrived at the correct address and was signed for more than 10 days before the aunt left. Orest’s family swore that they did not receive any box.

Instead of the leap forward to cross the finish line, we were now even further behind because the box was lost somewhere between Toronto and Kamloops. As much as I wanted to give up at this point I couldn’t because I needed to locate my box! Orest and I talked and he was going to have the family check again – there was a slight problem though they had moved from Kamloops to Vancouver city.

On Saturday August 28 Orest got a hold of me with great news – (my fingers were crossed that the aunt had actually packed the cameras and not realized it… I think I’d have to believe in God for something like that to happen hahahah) the box… HAD BEEN LOCATED!!!

Here’s what happened – Felix needed to pack the cameras, memory cards, batteries and a few other things that I wanted him to send me into something. He looked around for a box. He had just bought new dog cookies from Costco and it turned out that the Dog cookie box was the perfect size. He packaged everything, wrapped the box in white paper, addressed it to Kamloops and off it went. Felix didn’t think for a second that the box would be an obstacle, so he didn’t tell me that he shipped the cameras in a dog cookie box. The box arrived in Kamloops. The family unwrapped the white paper and was really confused - they don’t have a dog. Being former Soviet Russia immigrants (with a healthy distrust for the postal system) decided not to open the suspicious box of dog cookies. The box went into the garage. The aunt departed for Ternopil, and the uncle and kids moved homes from Kamloops to Vancouver. When Orest called asking about the box it took a couple days for the family to remember the strange box of dog cookies that came in the mail. And then an epiphany! Perhaps it WASN’T dog cookies in the box!!! So Orest’s uncle drove all the way BACK to Kamloops (400km one way) to retrieve the (effing gawd damned) box of NOT dog cookies and sure enough when he opened it, THERE were my CAMERAS!!!!!!!!!

There are two things I can’t believe happened here – 1) I can’t believe that Felix didn’t communicate his choice of shipping container. That little piece of information would have been very helpful to know both before and after the box arrived in Kamloops and may have ensured the box’s safe arrival to Ternopil with the aunt. 2) I can not believe not opening a package that comes in the mail. Perhaps it is my overwhelming curiosity, but if a box came in the mail even if it said BOMB all over it, I would probably open it! (Most of you know full well this is the case) Opening the box would have ensured that the box got here because it would have become very apparent that it wasn’t dog cookies, but my CAMERAS!

So as I said, it ain’t over till it’s over… it is wonderful that the box has been located and is now in the care of the family in Vancouver. BUT the box now has to travel BACK to Toronto, arrive safely to Felix, and then come with him when he flys over to meet me. The box has to survive 10 days in Greece (8 different cities) with us before it can finally be confirmed as having ARRIVED in Ternopil, Ukraine. And I’m sure you understand that after all this (I have run out of expletives I’m willing to post here, but think of some terrible ones…) BOX has been through, I’m not about to start counting my chickens before they are hatched…

Now you know the story of the (insert terrible descriptor) box.

I’ll let you know what happens in the next chapter of this saga….


Sunday, August 29, 2010

This is why I read The Star....

A few weeks ago I posted a link to a story and a reflection about a New York Ad Exec that handed over her credit card to a homeless man (see Even she talkes to strangers).

Today in The Star there is a story/experiment done on the streets of Toronto by a toronto star reporter. The article, How Panhandlers use free Credit Cards, confirms what I said in the last post about homelessness, and it a nive double underline to the idea of treating EVERYONE with humanity and dignity.


PS MELISSA I promise I also read your articles on a regular basis! ;)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Not good at failure

My mama has been in the hospital for the past couple weeks. She is doing well, recovering from surgery, and I think that this is best for her health in the long run. he absence from the house hasn't really been noticed by anyone... well except Tanya. Tanya has taken on all of mama's duties around the house, plus she is at the hospital everyday with mama, and her job has started back up after summer vacation. Poor Tanya has alot on her plate - she has lost 15 pounds in 3 months just from stress!

I have been trying to help where I can, although she is pretty resistant to letting me! One of the things she hates doing is cooking... One of the things I love to do is to cook - perfect! I decided the other day that I was going to make the family Varenekey (pirogies) all by myself (for the first time ever) so that tanya didn't have to cook.

I was pretty excited today. I got home and made the dough, mixed the filling, and started filling pockets. They were pretty beautiful! they were the right size and shape, and the dough was co-operating... I was pretty excited for dinner!

I made them earlyier in the afternoon, so we left them to stand for a bit until everyone was ready for dinner... OOPS! I used an egg dough rather than the flour dough (I like the dough a little bit tougher), and so the finished varenekey didn't dry the same way. the side that was resting on the surface stayed moist and stuck! When we pulled them up the dough broke. I tried to make dough band-aids for all of my precious little pouches, but to no avail: when we boiled them all the filling leaked out. We ended up having soggy, boiled varenekey dough for dinner. EPIC FAIL!!!

I was pretty ticked at myself. I didn't want to eat. I was embarrassed, and feeling a little bit dented, and wounded. and then I remember I hadn't done my run... and I was really REALLY craving a cigarette!!! I'm terrible at failure!

I was feeling pretty down, mopy, and sorry for me self. Then I realized that Tanya was feeling bad for me and I was adding to her stress, so I started to joke about my terrible varenekey experience and we were in stitches before long! We both laughed until we were in pain.

I will try my hand at making dinner, maybe even varenekey, again. Tomorrow I will double my usual kilometers, and I'm NOT going to have a cigarette. Alls well that end well!

I promise to get better at making varenekey before I come home....


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ac-cent-tuate the POSITIVE

If you think back…. Waaaaaaaay back you might remember that I had zero interest in coming to Ukraine. I was dead set against it when it was first suggested to me as an option. I remember saying to felix at some point “I cant believe how hard I’ve worked for something I don’t even want!” I warmed up a little bit to the idea of coming when I learned I”d be travelling with a dear friend – and then I learned that I would in fact be travelling alone! The beginning of March was interesting as I dealt with the idea of going to Ukraine and going alone.

The other day I applied for a job that would keep me in Ukraine for another 7 months. I actually applied for the job specifically so that I could stay here for another 7 months. I feel like it’s necessary to explain how I went from not wanting to come here at all to not ever wanting to leave. I could go into a whole bunch of explanation, but at the very crux of the issue is a single decision.

In march, I struggled with the placement country, and the placement position, I struggled with travelling alone, and I struggled with a few other “omens” that pointed away from Ukraine, but I also struggled with the idea that I signed up for the program to help. I believe that helping others is a selfless act (I don’t think that we need to argue that point…). Generally I am committed to helping in whatever capacity I can, and that extends to things I might not enjoy doing. Helping, to me, is really about doing that which is needed, rather than that which s enjoyed. I noticed that I was struggling with things that were really self interested - I was actually disappointed that I was allowing my own selfishness to cloud an opportunity to help (again, the exact reason why I signed up for the program). This realization precipitated my decision: I decided in March to make the absolute best of every moment of this experience – the Accentuate the Positive, if you will.

I took on the responsibility of looking at everything about my trip and my experience through rose coloured spectacles. I can not tell you the effect this has had on every moment of every day. I was able to see things in a whole new light: Leaving Felix was an opportunity to prove how much we care for each other; stopovers, delays and other ridiculousness on the way here was an excuse for unplanned adventure; losing my luggage on the flight meant I didn’t have to worry about 2 suitcases etc. one of my favourite moments from Ternopil involves the Ternopil rain: it rained for the first 35 days I was here – like every day there was rain without exception. Living in a grey gloomy city can get tiresome, but for some reason I was enjoying the freshness of it. There was one day I had to meet my professor in the center square. It looked like a nice day, so I dressed for sun – oops! I got to the center just in time to seek shelter at the theatre before the skys opened up. It rained. Like it really really rained. The water was coming down in sheets, I remember standing there getting a little bit frustrated – MORE rain?! I was going to be soaked, I couldn’t walk in my sandals in the rain, I just washed my hair… and then the positive thinking kicked in – I saw a man carry his girlfriend across the square because there was a 2 foot deep puddle and then I started to laugh. Everyone standing under the roof of the theatre stared at me as if I was crazy, but I just kept on laughing – I was laughing because it was just water, and it meant the grass would be more green, and eventually there would be flowers, and my clothes, and hair would dry.

Accentuating the positives in every situation has meant that I haven’t had any bad days here in Ukraine. The few rough moments quickly turned into an opportunity to look for the silver lining which was a wonderful distraction from the crappiness of the moment.

I have really enjoyed the challenge of staying positive for 4 months! I think that because of this I have witnessed and experienced precious fleeting moments that are too often missed when we are occupied with negatives. My commitment to staying positive and making the best of my time here has served me well – it has helped me to make this place home, to fall in love with a new family, and to devote myself to a job I didn’t think I was capable of doing. Enjoying every moment to the max is the reason why I don’t want to leave Ukraine.

My biggest positive thinking challenge is going to be finding the positives in leaving what I have found here behind. I am sure this is not going to be easy – but I have had 4 months of practice, so I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with something! I’ll let you know when I find the silver lining.

Stay positive!

Friday, August 20, 2010

OOOOOOOOOOh, THATS where it is....

I am learning where every muscle in my body is. Don't be fooled - I have not taken an unusual interest in kinesiology, or anatomy - nope! I am able to isolate and locate a large majority of my muscles because they HURT! I found a counter balance weight gym at the university - how appropriate: a workout AND a physiology lesson!

The other day I was watching P!nk on the Ellen Degenerous show and P!nk gave Ellen "Obliques in a bottle" so she could paint on the muscle definition (hahaha); at the time I didn't know where my obliques were... NOW I do! I'm reminded JUST where they every time I laugh or breathe in to deeply (they are the muscles that run along the side of your abdomen)

So here's a list of what hurts (top to bottom)
Latissimus Dorsi
External Oblique
Lower abs
Gluteus medius
Abductor longus

I just need to tie my laces and then I"m on my way back to the gym - I will never deny that I'm a masochist!

Also a quick update on this stuff...

Personal accomplishments:

-Applied for UN overseas jobs (long shot, but at least I'm getting exposure to HR)
-signed up for pastry classes (I cant wait to get the ovens back on)

45 days of non smoking

6 weeks of running (7 weeks since I started, but I took a holiday in the middle!)

new averages (from July 25):
Average run – 5.5km
Average direct Calorie burn 415

Distance since July 25: 55km
Total 110km
Direct calorie burn since July 25: 4155
Total 7675

August goal - 55/125km

I'm off to find more muscles....

Anyone wanna book a massage with me when I'm home?!


Sunday, August 15, 2010

We are incredibly capable.

It has taken two weeks for the experience to ruminate. This is a long one, sorry.

Visiting the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau (photos)is a powerful, and altering experience – but not in the way that you might think (of course this is going to be different for everyone). The experience wasn’t gruesome, depressing, pessimistic or morose – infact for me the end result was quite uplifting and positive (I’ll get to that). I want to unpack a little bit here, but it really is an experience that is best relived through dialogue, so please, when I’m home, if you’re interested to hear more, please ask.

Being at Auschwitz really put my life in perspective. You really have to take a look at your life and what you take for granted. As Canadians (especially those of us lucky enough to be born and bred Canadians) I don’t think we even have experiences that remind us that it (our lifestyle, our freedom) can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Walking around in the same place where so many had everything taken away was grounding. As a small example: my iphone was stolen from me at the first hostel we were at. I was pretty upset about losing it. I don’t think I was as attached to it as Krista was to her blackberry before leaving, but there was a connection. Being at Auschwitz really made me think about what it meant to me, and what it meant in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t thought about my iphone since I returned from Auschwitz. In the few instances since Auschwitz that have challenged me I definitely caught myself saying “remember… it really could be worse” which always seemed to change things around for the better. I have become even more of an optimist than I was before. This is just one of the positive things that came from my visit.

I think the first thing that I felt, and also the most jarring of all my emotions from the day was disbelief! It is an uncomfortable place to find yourself in denying that this could have ever happened while you’re standing under the gates “arbeit macht frei”. I learned cycling term the other day from a dear friend gearing up to do a 150km ride (he achieved his incredible goal – SOO amazing! Congrats!!) – “bonking” is when there is a serious disjuncture between your body and your mind (generally due to exhaustion) that renders you nearly paralyzed. I experienced bonking at Auschwitz – my brain refused to acknowledge where my body was, and I definitely shut down for the first half hour. We all hear about the holocaust and the terrible mark it left on the Jewish people, the German people and humanity as a whole. We have gathered and studied the numbers, the statistics the facts and the figures about the Nazis, the Jews, the Germans, the camps, but reading that stuff on a page, and having it come to life in front of you are two very different things. I understood the source of the disjunct and denial while at Birkenau standing on top of the watch tower –the sheer size and the unbelievably meticulous organization of the camps really bends your mind. It is so hard to conceive of such a terrible crime being so well planned and executed. Your mind begins to adjust as you walk around and experience more of both the camps, but the experience of size and scrupulous organization never becomes less chilling.

In the camps the prisoners were forced to surrender all of their personal effects to the Nazi’s. These belongings (glasses, clothes, valuables) were redistributed to needy German communities (Hitler was playing reversed robin hood). The confiscated items were stored in a building on site at the camps; this building was referred to by the prisoners as “Canada” because it was the place where everything was provided and all dreams came true (this was a touching nod). One of the buildings at Auschwits I (Birkkenau is referred to as AuschwitzII) was dedicated to housing all of the confiscated items that were recovered from the camps when they were liberated. This building put a definite end to my disbelief and one image was probably the most powerful out of the whole day spend there. In each room there were piles of personal effects; there were piles of glasses, and piles of dishes and cooking implements, piles of toys, piles of clothes, even piles of prosthetic limbs and medical aids (crutches, canes etc). In one of the rooms there was a pile (perhaps better described as a mountain) of suitcases (click for photo). Wow the suitcases were wrenching. The prisoners were told that they were being relocated from the ghettos to other, better locations, and that their belongings would follow them later. Each person was allowed one case of specific dimensions. Each person took the time out to write their name address and any other important information on their suitcases to ensure that their precious belongings made it to them where ever they might be going. This image hit because it really illuminated the humanity of the prisoners and victims that were taken. As they wrote their names addresses and identifying information on their suitcases, they displayed hope and optimism in the face of horror. Even more so than the hall of photos located in another building this was a powerful experience of humanization: there was something about seeing peoples’ names written on their last vestiges of personal possession that gave each prisoner a vivid identity. In fact, this was such a moving experience I am really having trouble finding the right words to talk about it… so I’ll stop, you get the idea.

I mentioned in a former blog that spending the evening at the Hostel was a really interesting part of the Auschwitz experience. On the day we went, most of the people who were staying at the hostel also took the trip out to the camps. The evening was interesting. There was a heaviness in the air, you could almost hear the wheels turning, and gears grinding as everyone struggled to process their experience. There was some wonderful conversation as each of us examined the day and shared our thoughts and experiences with others. This was an important ending to the day. It was important because we all had a shared experience, and even thought we didn’t really know each other we needed to know that someone understood how we felt about it all. You can relay an experience, but it’s not the same as that unspoken understanding that happens on a fundamental level ( I discussed this in depth in my post about travel buddies). The conversations flowed – we discussed the disbelief, the horror, the fascination. We discussed humanity through lenses of pessimism and optimism. We discussed the past, the present and the future. The conversations were deep and rich and everyone was able to contribute some mental and emotional gem which they pulled from their depths, and shared so unabashedly. It was so stimulating to be a part of that, and also offered a change to process, and also a chance for closure on the day. We all know that I am an extrovert, and I am definitely much better at processing my experiences and thoughts through dialogue so I was more than grateful to have this opportunity.

Being there at Auschwitz, one definitely questions humanity. Human beings are the only species (in my limited knowledge of wildlife) that attack their own kind lie we do. During one of our dialogues at the Hostel I described it in terms of dogs: never before have the brown dogs gotten together and decided that the dogs with spots were a problem and had to be removed; nor have the Chihuahuas taken issue with the existence of Dobermans and made a move to eradicate them. It is a uniquely human characteristic to acknowledge such minor details

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with Hitler. This fascination made me ambivalent towards learning about/talking about the holocaust because I was feared that my fascination was something deep and dark that I held locked away in my psyche. I had always mistakenly conflated my fascination with some perverse admiration and that was super scary. Visiting Auschwitz helped me to finally unpack my fascinations and my fears. My fascination with Hitler has always revolved around his genius (please understand that genius is not attached to a measure of good or bad, just pure mental functioning); I find it incredible that one man managed to motivate an entire nation to wreak havoc on humanity. I am also (being a complete hedonist) surprised at how unbelievably motivated human beings are by fear. It seems to me that fear is a much more powerful motivator than pleasure, hope, solidarity, or any other “positive” motivator. Hitler’s genius was the ability to captivate the hearts and minds of a nation, and also to get into the psyche of the average person and use what bests motivates them to carry out his intentions. Hitler, one man, left a mark on the world. A mark that will remain on humanity for eternity – the effects of his power can be felt politically, economically, socially, religiously and cognitively by nearly every person on this planet (think of the wide spread effects of World War II). I am much more comfortable with my Hitler fascination now because I understand what motivates it: if it is possible for one person to motivate an entire nation of people to commit such terrible and horrific acts against their fellow human being, than it must be possible that one person, or a small group can motivate the same size group (or larger) to accomplish feats that are equal in magnitude, but entirely opposite in outcome i.e positive (Issa: Equal and Opposite Opposites!!!!!!!). This was my very positive and uplifting take home message from Auschwitz, almost a parting gift: I really gained an understanding of the enormous capability of humanity, and each human being to affect change both in their environment, and for other human beings, it is now the task of each of us to find a way to use the power of such magnificent capability to affect positive change in the world.

Start a movement!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Even she talkes to strangers...

This is a heart warming story out of New York City

A bum you can Trust, Honest (click to read stoy)

People are going crazy with this story, and the general consensus seems to be "wow, homeless people can be trusted!"

I found it touching not because of his actions, but because of hers! he acted like he always would, but she went outside of convention and treated a homless man like a really human being. In so doing, she has set an important example for people - that it pays to be trusting, and lend a hand without judgement. This lesson can be applied in so many aspects of life. We are capable of giving so much more to those in need and I think we need to do so while carrying around a lot less prejudice.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

From beyond borders, to across borders.

Three months ago I arrived in Ukraine to embark on a beyond borders experience. Last week I experienced moving across borders, which is a totally different experience.

In just about every graduating class there is bound to be a group of people who make the quintessential European backpacking trip – this is true for my classmates that graduated this spring. Luckily one of them was coming far enough east and we were able to meet up. I had the privilege of spending my birthday week doing some travelling with my friend Mac.

Mac and I made plans to meet up in Krakow, Poland on July 29. Trains seem to be the most popular means of transportation so I bought a train ticket – and so started my train tribulations!

Travelling can be a challenge at home (in Canada) but there are added layers of difficulty and navigation when you consider travelling in a different country, travelling in a different language, and travelling across borders. The ticket that I bought for the train to Krakow – I missed that train! Not because it was at 4:30 in the morning and I wasn’t there to catch it, oh no! I was sitting on the platform, and had been for 45 minutes when the train pulled up, waited for 10 minutes and then left without me on it. I didn’t understand the announcement over the PA, and the Ukrainian person I asked assured me that it wasn’t my train. After waiting for another hour and a half, I went home to bed. I restarted my journey to Krakow the next day when I got on a different train, this time first to Lviv. It seemed like every time I got on a train some sort of SNAFU occurred. Whether it was missing the train, being almost abducted by border officials, or ending up way too far off the ground for my comfort in a train cabin with way too many people on the way to Prague, or losing my power cord at the Prague train station, or thinking the train was at 9am, and learning it was 9pm, or having to wait 8 hours while they changed the wheels of the train over…. You name it, I lived through it.

I am NOT going to into all of the strange and down right ridiculous things that happened on my excursion (in the interest of people who don’t give a $h!+, and because I cant seem to keep any of my blogs under 1000 words!) You’ll have to ask about those in person. lets put it this way... there was so much that went awry on the trip - including me getting really super excited about bagels with cucumbers and cream cheese but finding, much to my dismay, that cucumbers translated incorrectly as pickles - Mac and I dubbed the weekend the 26 Pickles weekend!! (26 being my age, and pickles being representative of all the oopses of the weekend) But I’ll give you some hightlights, and some reflections....

Here’s the basic itinerary:
July 28 – Missed train
July 29 - Night train to Krakow
July 30 – Krakow – Wawel Castle/City/Hooka (photos)
July 31 – Krakow - Auschwitz/Birkenau (photos)
Aug 1 – Krakow – Salt Mine (night train to Prague)
Aug 2 (birthday) - 15km walking around Prague (photos)
Walking tour
Charles Bridge
Lennon Wall
Aug 3 – Prague city centre (night train departure)
Aug 4 – train
Aug 5 - train

I want to make a comment about Hostels. What an interesting microcosm of the world! In one I had my iphone stolen while I slept, in the next I felt like I was part of the family and didn’t want to leave, and then in the next I felt like a faceless person with a dollar sign around my neck. What an interesting way to live for a week.

And now on to talking about backpacking. I think you would have trouble finding a jackass backpacker; I think this because there is something unbelieveably humbling about living out of a bag, and carrying your life on your back and struggling through daily activities complete with obstacles like language, directions, sickness, sadness, theft, loss etc. There is something so unique about the people that I met who were backpacking – some across one continent, some across a few different countries, and some across 3 continents. I can’t even explain to you what was different about them, a kind of je ne sais quoi that was deep and interesting , and you could tell that they had seen things and done things that had totally changed who they were and how they saw the world. I was envious of their travels and their experiences (in fact most of them were envious of my opportunity to stay in one place for a while and really get in touch with one culture) and cant wait to do some backpacking at some point in my life – really only because I want to loose all possible chance that I am a jackass (hahahah)

One of the observations that I made while I was in Krakow and Prague is that the average person travelling Europe has skewed views of what is “Eastern Europe”. Many people do not travel much further east than Poland and Czech Rep. because of a train/railway issue that precludes Ukraine and Russia from all of the Eurorail passes and plans (essentially the tracks in Ukraine/Russia are wider than those of the EU and so trains must be kept at the border and retro fitted which is expensive both in terms of time and resources). Most travelers skip over the idea of a trip to East-Eastern Europe. It is true that both Poland and Czech Republic were formerly part of the Eastern Block, but both countries have moved leaps and bounds away from their histories as oppressed communist territory. As a result of incredible tourism, walking around Prague is like being in New York City: There are people and digital everywhere, and everyone is trying to sell you something, the museums and main attractions can afford to be kept in tip top shape – it’s astounding. Some of the scars of the USSR are still visible in the less populous parts of Poland and Czech Rep., but the differences between these two countries and how far behind Ukraine still is is palpable. Part of me took offence to this idea that these two locations were a sufficient observation of “Eastern Europe” mostly because I got the idea that the travelers that thought like this had satisfied their mind that everything left over from communism and the USSR has healed nicely – which is NOT so in Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the only countries of the former Eastern Block that has not yet fully been released from Russia’s control, and so has been unable to really move forward. It is a shame that more people are unable to experience life here in Ukraine because I think it would change their outlook drastically.

One of my fellow Beyond Borders mates has title her blog “Out of my bubble” this hit me like a ton of bricks while travelling, seeing other countries and meeting other people – most of our bubbles are so incredibly small! Never in my life before had I met a Dane (from Denmark), and I was one of few that had ever met anyone from Malta. I have no idea what education systems look like anywhere other than Canada and America. There are cultural intricacies that I would flub if I went to Saskatoon, let alone India! There are so many people, and so many places and so much to see and so much more to do. I have always had this idea that there’s so much
more out there (which is what brought me to Beyond Borders) but how much more is out there is way too much for my brain to even begin to think about. I am definitely liking my roomier bubble but it’s not like moving from a house to a mansion, it’s a different philosophy – I want my bubble to get so big it pops!!!!!


Just kidding,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

and then this happened.....

Tomorrow marks 3 months since I left Toronto, and 45 days until I land back at home.

I have been toying with the idea and joking about the idea of staying for quite some time, but today it really hit me that I really really really really really do NOT want to come home - wait, it's not about coming home, it's about leaving here.

There are a couple things at play here:

1)I really like it here. I love my family, I love the way of life the simplicity of it all. I enjoy my routine and I look forward to things that are upcoming with the family and the girls at the Internat. I cant imagine missing Rosa's birthday in November, or Christmas with the family.
3) I love life here. Never have I felt so at home, so comfortable, so right. I have felt this sense of belonging since the moment I got off the plane.
4) I don't really miss home. Of course I miss the people that I associate with home (Felix, friends, you etc) but there's nothing about being in Canada that I am truly home sick for.
5) Totally enjoying the stress free life! I know that this idea that I can live without stress won't last for too long (the cookie orders have already started to come through) but now that I have had a taste of calm living I don't know if I can get my engines revving again.
6) I am terrible at leaving stuff behind. I get very attached to things, and here I am attached to a home, a family, a job, a new language, a new culture... I will be leaving behind 4+ months worth of incredible moments that have had such an impact on me.

The most important factor
7) I don't feel like I am "finished" here. I came here to affect change and I don't think that I have achieved that yet. Sure I have had a wonderful summer with the girls, but I feel like much of what I"ve done here is superficial. I have not affected the structure of the institution, I have not changed life for them, I don't even think I have taught them anything lasting or moreover worthwhile. If I left tomorrow (the thought of that makes me queasy) I would feel like the whole experience was in vain and that I didn't fulfil any of the things that I came here to do.

7a) this has a second piece to it. There is a woman at the Internat that has been working there with the children since the day the last brick was laid on the building - nearly 40 years. She is a teacher, a mentor and almost a mother to the girls. She has always fought for their interests regardless of the politics of the institution. Buuuut after 40 years of working, she is just about ready to retire. Most of you should know where my mind went next - hey! I could totally do her job.

What happens now? I don't know. I'm kinda torn up about this and I don't know what to do next. when I talk to my family here about it they say "stay, we have the space and we'll find you a job" that doesn't help. I need an unbiased opinion.

This is me....

please help!


Monday, August 9, 2010

The girl with the kitten – no black and white matter!

This is a post about ethics.

At the train station in Lviv (more about trains in the next post…) on my way to Krakow Poland, I did a bit of people watching – I LOVE people watching.

There were the usual suspects: the old grannies trying to sell stuff, the young kids waiting for their boyfriend/girl friend to arrive, the travelers, the commuters, the backpackers…

There was a gaggle of children that particularly caught my attention. I watched the older sister discipline her 2 younger brothers, and keep them in line while grandma caught a couple winks. At one point, the girl went sprinting across the station and disappeared. A few minutes later she returned with a kitten! Super cute, super young little black and white kitten.

The first thing she did was kiss it and promptly swaddle it up nice and tight in her jean jacket. She sat with her near mummified kitten rocking it and kissing its head. Her grandmother opened an eye and spotted the new “bundle” there were some words exchanged that I didn’t hear – and probably wouldn’t have understood – but I guessed that the little girls asked about keeping the cat. The grandmother gave a lazy nod and an eye roll and went back to sleep. The little girl went back to loving her kitten.

My first instinct was to be concerned for the kitten. The kitten was young; really young; too young to be taken from its mother. I was trying to find the words to expleain to the little girl that the kitten needed to be with its mother or it would survive. And then I paused.

For those that don’t know there is a serious problem with stray animals in Ukraine. The stray dog problem seems to be worse than the feral cat problem, but stray dogs tend to be easier to spot –the cats stay out of the spotlight. Nothing is done to sterilize, feed or catch the stray animals that roam the streets in every Ukrainian city.

This little kitten was being taken away from its mother way too young, but it actually had a shot at a much more satisfying and safe life with the little girl. I was torn. I pulled out the camera, and walked over to talk with the little girl. The kitten had woken up and her and her brother were playing with it and cooing at it the same way middle aged women do with newborns. I asked if they were going to take it home, they said yes; I asked if the cat had teeth yet, they said yes; I asked if they had cats before they said they live on a farm and have lots. I had satisfied my curiosity, and also satisfied myself that the kitten would be much better off without its mother and with the little girl than with its mother and without the little girl.

I took quite a bit of time to reflect on this experience. The experience discombobulated my moral/ethical compass a little bit. I really had to work to decide what was in the best interest of the little kitten. Of course there was the concern for the kitten being taken from its mother before it was ready, and also the identification of a teachable moment with the young girl: an opportunity to teach her a quick lesson about life and how life happens and that it must be respected; on the flip side there was the concern for the kitten ending up as just another stray kitten and also the idea that this girl may have found her first pet and have the opportunity to learn more about life by taking care of the kitten than by letting it loose. What a brain workout – AND I did it in Ukrainian! I finally came to the decision that the kitten and the girl would be better off left alone: the kitten was better off being taken care of by a human, and the human was better off learning how to foster life.

This was a wonderful experience for me, and really reinforced the idea that right and wrong are not as black and white as we sometimes want them to be. The kitten and the little girl fell into that grey space we often forget about.

I have given my brain a similar workout in the first couple weeks at the orphanage. We Canadian students swoop in on these girls (at the Internat) take them on (essentially) as pets for a few months and then hightail it out. Sure they leave an impression on our lives, and the experience looks mighty fine on a resume/CV but for them we leave big holes in their lives. A few of the girls cried when talking about how much they miss former Canadian students. I really wondered, at first, how much good we are actually doing by sending a new student every summer, or whether the placement was more self-serving than anything else.

Again with this issue so many different variables had to be considered. It was another case of ethical/moral calisthenics. At the very least it is it was a question of enrichment vs. emotional trauma for the girls. Eventually I reached the decision that that enrichment that that Canadian students offer to the girls in the short period they are in their lives is well worth the heartache that results from leaving.

The grey area in the middle can feel a bit strange. It’s a challenge to be really sure that you are doing the right thing when you are deciding between different shades of grey, and I DO like to do the right thing. The mental calisthenics throw off the moral compass, but it seems that the recalibration is the hardest part. I know that I am comfortable being uncomfortable, and I am getting more used to being caught in the middle.


(PS for those that are wondering – I did my research – grey and gray are both acceptable spellings of the colour. “Grey” tends to be a more Canadian…. )