Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hail the Icon Painters

Hail the Icon Painters, and there seem to be plenty of them. At the direction of the local priests, I've lodged with them many times now and have enjoyed every experience. They're always a happy, peaceful group. Mostly, they work in teams of 6 or 7 painters, remarkably young, generally, and take years to paint the interior of a single church. Styles vary... at one place, I was surprised at the number of chickens running about the churchyard until I was shown how they laboriously grind minerals and mix them with eggs to apply as a vibrant paint of incredible durability. Others use ready-made paints from small plastic containers. Some styles the standard religious figures in bold cartoonish ways, others in muted ancient tones. There have been countless churches refurbished since the independence of the nation almost 20 years ago and each gets it walls and dome interior painted as a matter of course. It's beautiful to see complete, but I've immensely enjoyed seeing the work in progress. The icon painters proudly take me up the [non-OSHA-approved] scaffolding and explain the details and inspiration of their subjects. The themes may be repeated from one church to another, but the intensity of the individual artist is expressed when the artist shows it off. This wonderful way of traveling, but foot, slowly through the hospitable land, has given me these grand opportunities to be part of the prosperous regrowth of this country. Way cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Glimpse of Village Life

I'm generally following the right bank down the Dniepr River, though it's got pretty swampy edges so I stay a kilometer or two inland from the flowing water. I try to avoid busy roads, instead, sticking to the forest paths - that many people seem to fear - and small roads connecting villages of a hundred inhabitants or so.

Villages that I've seen consist of cottage houses of white-washed brick or block with colorful trim and metal roofs. Each house has a large kitchen garden. Chickens, ducks, and geese abound through out the village. The main road is paved but the others are packed earth, so near to the river, this means sand. Occasional pigs and goats wander around as well. Ornate exterior doors stand isolated from each house and lead down a flight of covered stairs to a root cellar. Water wells with pitched wooden roofs and great metal windlasses also occupy each yard. Outhouse latrines stand behind the houses.

If there's a church in the village, it's a small one. So far, each I've seen has been padlocked, so I haven't seen the interior of any of these village chapels. The onion domes are metal like the rest of the roofs of the clustered houses. Like the grammar schools, if there is one in the village, outhouses are in the corner of the yards.

If there's a shop in the village, it's identified only with a small sign over the door - 'magazine', written in Cyrillic; otherwise, it looks pretty much like any other house. There's a surprising variety for such small shops - some fruits and veggies, lots of bottled drinks, both alcoholic and non... a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi, for example, sells for about 1 USD; a 1/2-liter bottle of beer, about 0.60 USD, also bread, candy, sundries, and buckets of fish, [almost] live, pickled, or salted, salamis, cheese, chicken, but no other meat. I've seen some balance scales with removable weights for measurement and some electronic, but every shop I've stepped into has had an abacus for tallying up the bill. Although the little shops are not cafes or bar, each time I've asked for a cup of tea, the woman who runs the shop makes one for me as I sit and rest on an upturned crate or small plastic chair. I've not seen a man in any shop, either as a customer or worker. The shops are definitively for the villagers, not really for passers-by.

Grown men wear enormous fur hats or small leather ones; women colorful kerchiefs; children knitted caps. Everyone I pass smiles and either offers a 'dobry dehn' greeting or replies likewise if I offer it first. Many elderly people have added something in German, schoolkids in English, reflecting the fact that I'm immediately taken as a foreigner.

Dogs abound throughout the villages to stand guard, but though some bark with an annoying intensity, none has been aggressive toward me. Cats equal dogs in number and come begging for food and a loving pat. I've seen few other animals in the forest - the odd red tufted eared squirrels and plenty of small song birds. Stork nests stand empty - at least one in each village. The storks, I was told, return in spring to have families.

With one week's walk behind me, the greatest concern I had - finding lodging - has been assuaged. Each priest calls the next and tells me which village to walk to. What a relief! A few priests even came out to meet me at the edge of the village - no doubt having some look-outs sentried to give him the word that I'm arriving. No one has heard of a foreign pilgrim before, so I've been the welcomed oddity of each town I've stayed in. Several times, the English teacher has been called in to translate, but a few times only the German teacher was available. No matter, we talk in a very friendly way and I'm treated very cordially. Soup, bread, cheese, all homemade; a cot by the central firebox keeps me warm all night. Very nice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oops, Wrong Monastery

Oops, wrong monastery, but what a terrific find =)

The exit from Kyiv was as to be expected - an hour of noisy, stressful convergence of main roads into highways, but they eventually petered out and I got safely into a delightful pine and oak forest, sparsely peopled with mushroom-hunters and their dogs on the cloudy day.

The word of the day could easily be 'smile'. Nearly everyone I encountered smiled kindly at me. So many people were eager to strike up a conversation. I'm an oddity, clearly, owing mostly to the hiking sticks, I think. ...or just the fact that someone, especially a woman, would be backpacking through their chanterelle-filled forest. The preponderence of 'o's in their gibberish indicated to me that it was Russian I wasn't understanding rather than the 'i'y Ukrainian. Whatever, they were smiling at me and offering to help guide me to where I was going. A few even whipped out their mobiles in the midst of our little chat to bring in a ringer who knew some English. Very kind, very smiling people I saw.

The sandiness of the forest floor checked my pace more than I predicted. My legs and gluts got a good workout for nearly four hours. I stopped for refreshment in a village and asked the barkeep for specific directions to the monastery I hoped would put me up for the night. That the monastery I had heard of was a Catholic Oblates of St Mary was way more information than I could muster in Ukrainian. 'De monastir' was all I could comfortably blurt out. He marked up my map and I continued on.

A goatherd rose out of a grassy gulch to talk with me while his suspicious goats ripped at the lush grass. He led me a ways around some scrub brush and pointed to a great white church with green onion domes on a distant hillside. Yikes, I wouldn't make it by dusk. He implored me to take a bus, but I declined. Rather foolishly, I walked on, into total darkness. I asked a few more people in a series of hamlets to make sure I stayed on the right path.

An hour after the sunset, I illuminated a sign on the side of a little road with my flashlight: Monastir - 1.5 km. Ugh, more walking... 15 or 20 minutes more, and my legs shaking with fatigue. But knowing I was close, I was happy with the day's experience. Those minutes later, I went right to a lit window in an outbuilding near the entrance to the monastery and tapped on the glass. Two monks motioned me to the door and gave me a kind welcome. 'O'y, though, not 'i'y... Russian, not Ukrainian... Orthodox, not Catholic... it was all the same to me, but I wasn't sure what the rules are for giving pilgrims a night's accommodation in the absence of that convenient papal decree that western pilgrims have relied on since the Middle Ages.

Scurrying by more monks brought the surprisingly young abbot. He listened to my Ukrainian request for pilgrim lodging, and replied with gentle smiled gestures that the Catholic monastery is two km further. Rather than cry or sit in protest like I half felt like in my exhaustion, I proffered the prized letter of introduction given to me by the Ukrainian Catholic priest in Denver. The abbot smiled even more, handed me back the letter, and indicated that I was welcome. Phew! As it turns out, both the church in Denver and his church at the monastery are named Transfiguration of the Lord. What are the angelic odds of that?

He led me to the church and allowed me to sit (and fumble awkwardly with a headscarf) while listening to their chanted version of Vespers. Afterwards, the dozen or so monks marched to the refectory and I followed. One table for the monks and one for laypeople. Supper was rapidly eaten in smiling silence while one of the monks read incredibly fast. Black bread, pickle soup, kasha, some cabbage salads, and various relishes were all wolfed down by everyone. With the sudden ding of a small bell, everyone stood, genuflected aerobically in quick succession, and supper was over.

Among the lay people were two university students from Kyiv who volunteer there for the solitude and seven icon-painters currently decorating the interior of the church. One of the students speaks some English and everyone was full of questions. They courteously allowed me to shower and change out of the sandy hiking clothes before we would satisfy together all the curiosities of everyone's situation. Before much could happen, the abbot sent word that my presence was requested. The translater made an attempt at fixing my headscarf and was incredulous that I didn't have a skirt to wear - even the women icon painter wore ankle-length canvas skirts. Ah well, off to the abbot.

Soft spoken, he told me of the monastery, gave me a tour of the grounds, guided me through the finished paintings of the Chapel of St John the Baptist, up the bell tower to see the dozen hand-operated tuned bells, and further up the scaffolding to the interior of the cupola where the icon painters were finishing depictions of larger-than-life prophets to the sound of Byzantine chants coming from someone's laptop. It was all incredibly beautiful and tranquil. He floated the idea of my converting from Roman Catholic to Russian Orthodox and I promised that if I ever do, I'd return to have him baptize me personally. At a minimum, besides the obvious need to learn Russian, I'd have to get the headscarf thing down better... fluffy hair doesn't seem to be the right coif to keep it from sliding back all the time.

I was bestowed with gifts from the abbot and several of the monks - a richly embroidered cloth, small icons, a tryptic of St Andrew, a book on the monastery's founding saint, a small crucifix... The abbot had never hosted a pilgrim before. He made sure that several photos were taken of us together (promising to send them to me electronically so I might post them here).

All the lay folks gathered in the women's attic dorm room with a multitude of questions. The poor translater had a hard time of it, having much to translate all at once. One fellow's great-great-grandfather was said to have made a pilgrimage by foot to the Holy Land, but no one else had any idea that pilgrims exist as they do today.

Midnight was long past by the time we got to sleep. They slept on while I got up at dawn to head back to the forest path and make my way to the Catholic monastery I was sort of heading to earlier. I am incredibly grateful to the Russian Orthodox gang for their hospitality. Walking after dark, to the wrong place, was never so rewarding nor so much fun.

My first day of walking revealed to me the friendliness of the smiling Ukrainians.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Got Stamps?

These few days in Kyiv have gone quickly; I begin walking at dawn.

From what I've experienced, I find it a fun and pleasant city, even in the constant gray drizzle. I've seen many of it's sights, but not nearly everything the town has to offer. I notice architectural similarities to other northern European cities - Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Vienna... - and notice some grand city mansions are more polished than others suggesting a transitional period like Prague 8 or 10 years ago. The churches are what make this place unique - bundles of gold onion domes abound and make colorful landmarks for touristic navigation. I like it. There are many interesting places to see and I'm sure the city will only attract more visitors in the years to come. The abundance of art sold from table stands in the street is also unlike any place I've been before... a surprising handicraft I saw in abundance is the nesting dolls of Barak Obama. They're keeping with the times on the streets of Kyiv.

With my couchsurfing buddy, I've discovered authenitic night life... nice little bistros with live music always makes an evening more pleasant. It's amusing that these young Ukrainians sing American songs so beautifully and with such well-placed passion and emotion yet don't actually speak English. Unfortunately, the opera and ballet, the theaters and other performance halls are shut down because of the political nonsense about the flu... you can sit in packed bars and restaurants, but not the ballet... It seems ironic that the crowded subways - impressively deep underground, by the way - and buses are deemed safe for public gatherings yet the possibility of the flu spreading smong opera viewers is somehow too risky. I'll have to return to the city one day in order to see the fancy opera hall.

As to pilgrim business, I wasn't able to get too many stamps for my credenziale yet - just one from the Roman Catholic St Alexander's church and one from the Russian Orthodox Pechers'k Cave Monastery. The difficulty is in finding someone to ask! These churches seem to lack the ever-present churchladies in Catholic churches in Western Europe. They've always been so helpful to me. Maybe it will be easier in the countryside.

I'm eager to start walking. At dawn, I'll strike out for a Roman Catholic monastery of Oblates of St Mary in Obukiv. There's no way for me to contact them ahead of time, so I'm just going on faith that they'll let me stay the night. I'm ready for a little name-dropping (thanks Matt and Sylvia) and go armed with letters of introduction in Ukrainian (thanks Fr Vasyl, Nadja, Pani Olena)... and by tomorrow evening will have an idea how the pilgrim accommodation challenge might work in the east.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Feet on the Ground in Kyiv!

I arrived from Newark through Frankfurt into Kyiv with nary a hitch, nary a query about my one-way ticket with no checked luggage, and nary a mention of the H1N1 flu...just a slight delay due to fog. There's a reassuring sense that the world must be a safer place.

And I'm here. The planning phase of this winter pilgrimage is a thing of the past and I've begun execution. A pair of Jehovah's Witnesses welcomed me moments after I stepped out of the airport taxi and into the square in front of St Sophia's Cathedral. They didn't linger long after I said in Ukrainian 'ya ay polomnitza' except to say that they had never met an American pilgrim before. Alas, they were interested in the Kingdom of God and not about St Andrew's wanderings through first-century Ukraine. To each, his own.

For my days in Kyiv, I've opted to try couchsurfing for accommodation. There are many monasteries and convents I could have pursued for pilgrim lodgings, but my experience cautions me about the reasonable, yet inevitable, curfews and the disruption I might cause coming and going several times a day. Hotels here in the city are pricey and impersonal. Youth hostels I find unsuitable for my needs. The philosophy of couchsurfing has increasing appeal for pilgrim life. Through the website (, I've met Trevor, an Austrailian English teacher with a guest room in his city-center apartment. He's one of nearly 1,000 'couches' listed in Kyiv. Comparing the website and my sketched-out route, I hope to be able to couchsurf maybe once a week or so all the way to Greece.

The philosophy is straight-forward, people who have a spare bed at home offer it to travelers who are passing through. It's like having friends of friends all around the world. References and recommendations are posted on the website. It's fabulous. Trevor knows a bit about the city, has some guide books and maps, some insight about details of where I might find things I need, is a splendid conversationalist, offered me the use of his computer to enter this post, is a ready companion for the symphony for opera tonight, and we have a common language. Couchsurfing is a superior alternative to other pilgrim accommodation options. Anyone out there with a spare bed and an interest in meeting genuine people just passing through, please consider this wonderfully 'green' opportunity to engage with the world body.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Packed and Underway

I'm pretty happy with the final pack weight, 7.2 kg (15.8 pounds). I added a down blanket for this trip and combined several watercolor paper pads into a single book bound in leather to lighten the load compared to the last journey. Here’s the breakdown…

Backpack: 1.8kg (3.92lbs)
Teva sandals: 0.4 (0.8)
Down blanket: 0.6 (1.3)
Towel/bedding: 0.4 (0.9)
Daypack: 0.15 (0.3)
Emergency kit: 0.1 (0.22)
Liquid toiletries: 0.56 (1.23)
Dry toiletries: 0.04 (0.08)
Extra clothing: 1.6 (3.4)
Watercolor paper/supplies: 1.5 (3.2)
Notepads/miscellany: 0.1 (0.22)

Surprising distribution when I weighed it all out… 25% of the weight on my back is the backpack itself, and it’s a pretty uncomplicated 30-l Vaude.

After that, the next heaviest portion is all of the packed clothing. At 21% of the weight, the extra clothes takes up about half the volume. I organize the clothing into small ditty bags to keep them neater and so I can optimize the arrangement inside the pack. The list does not include the weight of the clothes I wear while hiking, which is 0.6 (1.3), nor the weight of my boots, jacket, and hiking sticks, which are all on my person, not on my back.

At 20% of the weight, my art supplies are an unnecessary indulgence most people wouldn’t carry, but I get enjoyment out of it, especially since I don’t carry a camera. Some might find the little nylon daypack is unnecessary as well, but I find it useful when I have those touristy moments roaming around in the evenings or on rest days when I won’t have my full backpack with me.

Everything else aside from the pack itself, clothing, and art supplies combine as the final 9% of the total weight. Not bad. The weight of the liquid toiletries – separated for the flights into a clear plastic bag hand luggage requirement – are pretty much at an average now and will vary along the way as they’re consumable and need to be replenished. Similarly, supplies of dry toiletries will vary a bit, but that weight is small potatoes.

Once the hiking begins, I’ll typically carry some nuts, chocolate, or dried fruit along with me in the pocket of my jacket amounting to negligible weight and perhaps a 0.3-l bottle of water, which might add a consumable 0.3 kg (12 oz). Not much there in terms of weight or volume.

I have a small leather pouch to carry on my hip for easy access to a map and my credenziale, a notepad and a pen, some pocket money. Hanging on my pack are a thermometer, a compass, a LED flashlight, and a durable timepiece. I’ve somehow become separated from the little plastic whistle that was on my shoulder strap on the last pilgrimage, so I’ll have to replace that one of these days soon.

I easily made the first leg of the journey flying from Denver to New Jersey to visit with Mom and Dad and other relatives before I leave the country for the next 5 months or more. Two more days here and I fly to Kyiv.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

St Rocco and H1N1

Since my pilgrim life began, I’ve become a great fan of St Rocco. His tale begins as a throw-away-the-wealth pilgrim of the 14th century. As it happened, during his walk toward Rome, the plague was fast running rampant. He helped plague victims, nursing them and curing them, with the sign of the cross, it’s said. Rumors got out that the plague would vanish from a town upon his arrival. That was a pretty powerful miracle in itself, on top of the plethora of curative miracles that were attributed to him. Alas, poor Rocco contracted the plague himself and was banished from the city walls. Taking refuge in a cave, he was sustained by a dog who regularly brought him bread, thus he’s usually depicted with a wound on his leg and with a dog with a loaf of bread at his feet. He lies in Venice today and is venerated for protection against contagious diseases.

The thing is, H1N1 is not spread by harboring fleas like the plague was. The current widespread occurrence of this new flu has nothing to do with a wandering pilgrim. Ukraine is gearing up for an election. Political mudslinging is as can be expected and those with something at stake are using whatever is available and emotional to push forward their own agendas, including tossing about vague ideas about ‘travel restrictions’ in and around Ukraine, just when I’m set to arrive. Bad luck for me… all sorts of people are sending me headlines and cautions that the borders are closing and quarantines are falling all around. It’s nonsense. The World Health Organization hasn’t indicated that Ukraine is any different from the rest of the world, although there have been high incidents of the H1N1 virus in the west of the country recently. I’m going to the east. Unless they close the airport – which I couldn’t imagine would be considered prudent in anyone’s view – I’m heading the Kyiv very soon to walk down the river, around Crimea, and along the shore of the Black Sea.