Thursday, December 31, 2009

A lilliputian puppet

Sometimes, ya just gotta laugh...

On my way over a few final mountains before the deep descent into Balaklava, I encountered an uncommon fence barring my way. Anyone familiar with walking in Colorado leaps over 3-strand barbed wire fences all the time; similarly, stile-stepping over stone walls is common in the UK. But my long walks through Ukraine so far have required infrequent barriers like these. This particular fence was something on solid ground I could have easily vaulted over; however, today, there was plenty of mud and evidence of many farm animals recently passing by. Because of the stinky mud, I chose not to remove my backpack and drop it over the fence before climbing over it myself. That was the foreshadowing of a minor disaster. Just as I crossed my first leg over, my hiking poles slipped and crash, bang, I lost my balance, perching myself somehow with the slats of the fence lodged between my back and my backpack, my toes just shy of the mud no matter how much I kicked and wiggled. Hung up like a puppet. I had to laugh out loud at my own predicament.

Before I had a chance to unclasp my hipbelt and drop into the poopy mud, and still laughing at myself, I heard the guffaws of two people behind me. Unable to turn around because of my pack, I wiggled all the more to see my heckling audience, making even more of a fool of myself. Two Tatar adolencents moving a few goats came up splitting their sides laughing. I laughed even harder. Each stepped over the fence with long-legged ease and came to my aid. Taking me by the elbows, the boys lifted me from my perch and delivered me to the drier grass. One of the guys retrieved my poles and washed the mud off in a brook. With the other, I was able to converse - my bad Russian being remarkably better than his bad English. They were from some 'stan' I didn't recognize but have lived here for a few years, I gathered. Nice kids.

It just goes to show that visual comedy, even unintended, transcends age, gender, nationality, culture and language. We all laughed hard at the silliness of my getting hung up on a small fence, there on a hillside above Balaklava, just above the valley where a light brigade charged in some battle long ago.

Monday, December 28, 2009

That was a gun in his pocket...

That was a gun in his pocket - he wasn't just glad to see me =) Actually, all of the police and security types I've run into along the way were just doing their job, asking questions of an obvious stranger. No harm done.

I'm making my way along the coast, staying as close to the sea as I can because the main road is often out of view of the sea and a bit too busy with traffic for my enjoyment. The scenery is pretty spectacular - definitely the nicest I've seen in Ukraine so far. And this will be hard to beat. Though the villages lack any kind of charm, the natural landscape shines through all the more so for it. The rugged hills are full of cypress and juniper, particularly fragrant; the sea crashes onto the steep coast. Fishing villages are absent entirely - no natural harbors, and apparently, no fish. It's a bit odd to see a sea with nary a fishing boat in sight, no screeching gulls, no sea shells on the beaches. I can see why it's called the 'black' sea - the gravelly sand is pitch black.

There's a fringe of strewn boulders and cobbles at the bases of the mountains - some 300+ meters (1,000-ish feet). I was able to walk from Morskoe to Alushta entirely on the edge of the gentle waves, occasionally having to dash and roll between crashes when the beach part disappeared for some little distance. Alushta is a nice town, St. Andrew visited it, too, and there's a 6th-century watchtower, one of the few antiquities available to see. I was really hopeful about continuing my seaside route despite advice from my lovely Russian hosts, Natasha and Sasha, to stay on the highway. After some kilometers on the busy road in a light rain, I plunged down down down to another modern village being built up for the tourist trade. I asked many people if it was possible to walk all the way to Yalta along the sea. For the most part, the answers always involved bus numbers, but some sort of nodded without much interest.

I wended up from the sea and down from the vineyards many times. At one point, I came to a tall, impassable wall around a vineyard... hmmmm... concertina wire, motion sensor cables, closed-circuit TV cameras... hmmmm... I couldn't have imagined such well-protected grapes. What could I do but look right into one of the cameras, smile and wave. I walked alongside the wall from the bluff over the sea about a kilometer inland where I was met by the well-armed security detail. Their uniforms were emblazoned with the Ukrainian symbol - feds, in a sense, guarding the grapes, it seems. Hello, boys. They spoke Ukrainian and Russian, and in the pouring rain, I explained in my best bastardization of both languages that I'm an American pilgrim on the trail of St Andrew passing through on my way to Yalta. 'Wanna see my credenziale? I've got lovely stamps.' The chief among them conveyed my information into his shoulder (really, it wasn't his cuff) and they escorted me further uphill and waved me through another field and out of their domain. Before I left them, I asked if I could continue around their particular 'vineyard' back down to the sea and thence to Yalta on the beach. They were adamant that it could be done, so with a smile and a wave, I left the boys with their guns.

The real answer, I found out with quite a lot of energy expended, is 'nyet'. I walked treacherous cove after cove dashing between waves and clambering over coastal rocks (limestone and some sort of quartz-injected igneous formation)thinking all the time that St Andrew chose wisely when he opted for a mountain route to Hersoness. Around one cove then another and five or six more, I passed, until I met the east side of Bear Mountain unable to continue without getting in up to my neck. The sheerness of the 200-meter mass of black rock meant that scaling it without technical equipment was not an option. So in the even more pouring rain, I climbed nearly straight up a waterfall course, hand over hand - through lusciously fragrant undergrowth - until I got to the top and stumbled on a hiking trail - these things always work out.

On the impromptu ascent, I had the pleasure of grabbing frequently onto the branches of a strange tree that brought to mind Chiluli glass sculptures - barkless trunks of brilliant oranges, yellows, golden, and fiery red colors, at least in the heavy rain. Or maybe I got Chiluli all wrong and his sculptures reflect this species of tree. Anyway, it kept my mind occupied rather than on the evident risk of a single missed footing and the churning sea below. Not much in the way of fauna, but the flora of these Crimean mountains are delightfully unique.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Update

I've reached the Black Sea. My planning estimates were rather low - I underestimated the distance to Sudak by nearly 300 km, but I'm less than a week behind schedule and should have no trouble making it to Patras by Easter, which was my target. No worries. Finding accommodation is still the greatest challenge, but I've worked out the keys - the priests and the shop-ladies and haven't been caught out. The food hasn't been to my liking much, well, I haven't asked for any recipes, let's say. The wine is pretty atrocious - they gave the recipe to Vicks and Vicks improved on it for their cough medicine. Sweet, thick, and made from cherries. Yeah, and they call it wine. No where to go but up. I'm about 25% of the way to Patras. They claim a relic of St Andrew in the last town I stayed in. Nearly all people I meet are surprised and impressed that a pilgrim would undertake such a journey. I haven't had any untoward experiences, nothing frightening at all. I've managed in the terrible weather to make about a dozen watercolors so far, but haven't found the means to scan them or have someone photograph them and transfer the files to the net. I'm working on it. I would like to have made more watercolors, but mostly it's been a weather thing; also, the days are pretty short, so I walk from dawn to dusk and don't find many places to sit down and paint. Now the days will be getting longer, and as I walk westward, the sun will set a bit later, too. Pilgrim life is grand.

Three times an angel

During this advent season before western Christmas, I've had three strange and coincidental experiences.

Three weeks ago, a priest of a tiny village found a widowed grandmother to offer me a bed for the night. It was the smallest hovel I've seen. One room, sparsely decorated, with an enclosed stove, an alcove on one side for cooking and another behind for sleeping. The alcoves were separated from the main room with thin curtains. Once the priest left, I tried as much small talk as my Ukrainian vocabulary can manage. She was married in 1943, widowed in 1946, had two sons who have both since died, one grandson who lives in Canada. Sad story, but a jovial lady. Next to the stove, a small cot looked comfortable enough for me, but the woman, Marie, she told me her name, insisted I take her bed on the other side. I tried to decline, but she repeated over and over 'Angel'. I told her my name, the name of the mother of her namesake. That convinced her - I'm an angel come to take her to her husband and sons. Yikes! I'm a pilgrim not an angel. The sounds of her heavy breathing and frequent uses of the chamberbucket during the night at least gave me some assurance that she wouldn't be joining her family before dawn when I'd leave.

The following week, I arrived in a village large enough that I sought to ask someone where I could find the church. The young woman I randomly saw on the street, listened to my story about being a pilgrim and needing to find a place to sleep for the night. She changed her path and took me to the church herself, calling the secretary of the church on her mobile phone as we walked to make arrangements for something to eat as well. She gave me an apple out of her purse and then reached in again for a little money. 'Please light a candle when you arrive at St Andrew's Cathedral in Patras,' she urged. Her sister had recently died in a car accident. I asked her sister's name - Anna. When I told her that was my name, she fell to her knees crying, sobbing into my gloved hands right there in the street. 'You're an angel,' she told me, come to let her know her sister is safely in heaven. Whoa, I'm just a pilgrim.

Last week, during the worst of the blizzard, I finally arrived in a town, unseen in the driven snow, but the smell of coal fires led me in. The tall, elderly woman who was to host me as prearranged by the priest of the last town, was frantic, unsurprisingly, because of the lateness. She stripped me down in front of the stove in the flickering candlelight, expecting me to be drenched through. She has no clue of modern fabrics like Gortex and softshell and was convinced I should be frozen because my clothes are thin, not at all like the thick wools and copious layers of waxed cotton she's familiar with. She reached under my silk camisole and was incredulous that my skin was warm even though I'd been outside all day in the storm. 'You're an angel,' she suddenly smiled. She stood me in a shallow bucket filling it slowly as the water heated on the stove and scrubbed me down (I don't think she knows what freckles are, either, or that they don't come off.) Smiling, repeating, 'an angel, an angel'. Her daughter spoke some French. I asked her what she meant. 'She thinks you're an angel sent from heaven to tell her that she's still needed here at home.' Her husband was dead, as were two of her three children, and the world has changed a lot for her in the recent years. Somehow she connected my improbable arrival, warm and in a snowstorm, with an extended purpose in life.

It's not like these three ladies were telling me 'you're an angel' as if to say 'you're sweet' or 'you're a doll'. They each had an idea in their head and out of the blue, I showed up with some sort of connection to them. Eerie. I'm a pilgrim, not an angel, but if there's something to be gained from the thought of mystical actions usurping my personage for some sort of devine messaging, well, okay. Why not?

Merry (western) Christmas, everyone, and to all a good night.

And a special Christmas greeting to two other winter pilgrims out there - to senior Merideth on her remarkable 6th trek on the Camino de Santiago and rookie Paolo, walking from his home near Rome to his girlfriend at Cambridge along the Via Francigena Ultreia, pilgrims.

The sounds of a pilgrimage

The events of some days put the Raiders of the Lost Arc theme firmly in my head as I gain those last few kilometers. I had quite a succession of these since approaching Crimea. First, there was the edge of the blizzard I outran; then, the two days of fierce ice storms encrusting me thickly with crystal clear mobility-constricting ice. I persisted southward unashamed to accept 25 km of progress from Vladimir, the giant snow plow operator. I controlled the sander lever as we spoke in the German he learned during his long-ago military deployment to Dresden.

Two more windy days of heavy rain leaving me looking like something the cat dragged out from uner the river bank as I arrived in villages of locked, priestless churches. One night, I slept soundly in a school corridor protected by two elderly nightwatchmen, snoring loudly at the other end of the hall, and one night in a former school dormitory that's been condemned but occupied by a few kind squatters who've tapped into a power feed and waterline, though with the amount of macrobiotics floating in the water, I suspect maybe they've rigged a cistern on the roof. Still, I managed my treasured bucket of hot water from an electric tea kettle.

Now let the soundtrack crescendo... a gallbladder attack! Most inopportune. Not as intense as when it happened on the Camino to Santiago last winter, but equally unpleasant, especially with the headwind. At least the rain had stopped. Leaving a thin trail of bile, I prudently diverted my rural trek toward a town of a few hundred inhabitants and a church. Locked and priestless...rats... but those shop-ladies came through for me. They took care, called the emergency services, such as they are, then when the ambulence failed to show up, the ladies found some guy with a car and I was driven back to the town where I started the day to a small hospital outpost. Quite an experience. A few injections, an IV drip, & a nice night's sleep - finish the music now - all is put to rights.

I've picked up my pilgrim trail again - the sun's come out, temperature's rising, the wind's died down. The landscape into the famed southern mountains of Crimea is spectacular: gorgeous hardwood forests, harmonious Christian and Muslim villages, peaceful atmosphere, and, most soothing on the refreshed eye, valleys full of vineyards =) Ahhhh... opening bars of Grieg's Pyre Gynt come to mind. This is nice pilgriming again.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Island Hopping across the Frosty Azov Sea

The weather has been particularly wintry lately - a veritable blizzard one day, followed by a few days of ice storms. I had a tricky time pacing across some islands in the Azov Sea that link Crimea to the mainland by a series of interconnected causeways. Electricity was lost in the region during the heavy snow, but because most villagers use wood-burning stoves for heat and cooking, the effect was pretty minimal. The ice storm brought down a lot of power lines. It's a different kind of nice. I wouldn't mind a few nice days, and I should get them by the time I cross to the southern coast of Crimea. I'm heading for Sudak, where Marco Polo and his father and uncle lived for two years before taking off for China overland. I'm pushing a bit hard to be there by western Christmas Eve. Gotta run now there, time's running out on the internet...

What does a pilgrim need?

During my previous two long winter walks, I thought I knew exactly what a pilgrim needs - a hot shower, a chance to wash a few clothes, maybe a hot meal, and a dry place to sleep.

My paradigm's been shifted this go-round. In the conditions here, it's the hot shower that's been redefined from a 'need' to a 'want'. Most of these village houses and some of the block apartments in the provincial cities, lack the plumbing to accommodate the hot shower.

After a day's 30 km, I still desire to wash, of course, but the manor in which it's accomplished has broadened. Most often, two buckets of well water (generally the color of weak tea) are drawn. One is heated on the wood-fired stove. A third bucket is scrounged for waste water and a wash basin or forth bucket for the actual washing to take place. Surrounded by buckets in front of the warm fire becomes an ideal situation. It works and I'm happy for it.

Occasionally in these village houses, there's a bathroom - specifically a room with a bathtub. Rarely is there also a sink, so everything dealing with water is performed in the tub. Well water is pumped directly into the tub and then buckets heated on the stove are added to balance the temperature. Good enough. I wouldn't have thought to configure a room like that.

On one fortunate occasion, I had the luck to have an English teacher as a happy hostess. Nearly forty years teaching English and I was the first native English speaker she'd ever met. She understood my desire for a shower yet had nothing to offer. Instead, she ran over to the neighbor's. A half hour later, she reappeared, gleefully announcing in the style of Hyacinth Bucket, 'Your bath has been drawn and shall be rrrready in two rrrrrrapid hours.' A wood-burning steam sauna in the backyard - fired up weekly for family bath night. The day was advanced so that I might have the first timeslot. A heavenly, if slightly unsanitary, way to wash.

A pilgrim needs somewhere to wash the day's underclothes and a dry place to sleep, and wants something hot to eat, and some type of washing facility. Nice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What of a man?

Several of you in the blogosphere have wondered what a man might experience as a pilgrim in Ukraine. I've given this some thought. A young man, say mid teens to mid twenties would likely be lauded as a great hero, wanting to see the world, meet its people, trusting, hard-working, gentle, and dedicated. Everyone feeds me as though I were a growing teenaged boy, I can't imagine the amount of food they'd offer a young man.

A slightly older man might be viewed at first with a little amount of distrust - where's the wife and family, the career, the contribution to society? Ready and plausible answers to this would lift suspicion and everything would be fine. A mature man, say late forties and upward, again getting past the initial suspicions of abandoning a normal life for that of a pilgrim, would also be made to feel welcome quickly.

Starting with the village priest, convincing the crowd of the peaceful intent of a pilgrimage is the key to removing any threat. I'm a woman, and a small one at that, and pose a threat to no one; a man might have to demonstrate this. I think of all the priests' homes I've been hosted in, I'd have equally been hosted if I were a man.

In the villages lacking a priest, naturally I'd go find the village women. A man would likely seek out the men of the village for guidance on finding lodging. In a village large enough for a shop, there's very likely to be an old Lada up on blocks with a group of men poking around to try to get it to run. A pilgrim man could approach these guys easily, I imagine. Even lacking the group of men, the women of the village I think would be responsive to a stranger's needs regardless of gender. The priest or villagers might billet a passing male pilgrim with a family or widower on his own rather than a widow, but I don't think it would be difficult. From my experience, hospitality is genuine and no gender-defined.

Pilgrims ho! Man or woman.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Across the Snowy Steppes...

Winter arrived quite suddenly. My gracious hostess a few nights back - a retired English teacher who'd never met an American before - dramatically entered the room before dawn as I was getting ready for the day's journey and announced: 'The world is covered in white'. Indeed and a cold wind with it. Winter. With the sandy tracks covered with snow, it didn't really matter if I stayed on them or just walked across the vast plowed fields in the direction of the distant village that would be my day's destination. Studying my handy Russian military map, I plotted my desired direction, struck a bearing on the compass, adjusted for declination, scanned the distant horizon for a suitable landmark, silouetted by the slight pinkening of the sunrise behind otherwise dark clouds, and started walking across the nearly frozen steppe. This is the hardy kind of pilgriming I like =)

On this third day of flurrying snow and ever-more frozen land, crossing mostly open country, I've crossed the Dnepro into Zaparozia. I'll leave the river course and head directly south to Crimea. Villagers think I'm daft, of course... walking is hardly considered a sport around here and no one seems even to venture to the next village by foot, much less across the country. No one can offer advice on how to travel through the back-country because they only know the routes the buses take. They've never given consideration to distance - 10 km, 20 km, it's all the same on a bus. Still, there's generally a cup of tea, bowl of soup, bread and kielbasa, or some other fortifying snack offered hospitably to help me along the way. I can sit on an upturned crate in a tiny village shop for a short rest and chat with the ladies, laughing and smiling. A few of the villages where I've ended my day's walk lacked the priest I was hoping for, but the village ladies are quick to offer a comfortable bed without hesitation. Nothing creepy at all about it.

I've observed a stark difference between the haves and the have-nots of the land. The have-nots have no running water in their old cottages, even in provincial cities, heat only by wood-burning stoves, concrete floors covered with newspaper; the haves have big modern houses behind great fences and gates and drive cars as modern as anything seen in America or any western European country. Neither group seems to resent the other. It'll take time to bring things into closer equilibrium. One thing is clear when walking in and out of cities: whoever addresses the sanitation issues of the country improves the quality of life of every citizen. The haves and have-nots together live surrounded by open trash dumps. Twenty years of remediating hazardous, toxic, and radioactive waste gives me insight the environmental damage has on the water supply and ecosystems. It's sad to see yet easily remedied. I hope for the sake of the Ukrainian people, this is addressed soon.

My presence seems to be noted as I pass from one province (oblast) to the next. I've come to find out that various priests whom I've met write something about me in the local papers; at least once I've been mentioned on television: American Pilgrim Among Us. I haven't seen an article yet - by the time I'm mentioned in the paper, I've already passed through that area. I realize that I'm the first American many people have every met or would hope to meet and that for many, I'm the first foreigner.

Many have asked how I'm able to blog... in a town of size, maybe more than 10,000 inhabitants, there's typically a large central post office with telecommunications available. They've got long-distance phone lines and telegrams in addition to a few computers for internet connection. Because the internet uses the Latin alphabet (i.e., 'www'), the computers are set to toggle between Ukrainian, Russian, and American English. Each key on the keyboard has dual stickers for the Cyrillic and QWERTY layout. I'm happy to find it's so easy. I'm not disappointed that I didn't bring my own little computer... wifi is not widespread and mobile coverage is dependent on the competing companies. These post offices work well enough for me.

Happy pilgriming...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wayward Advice to a Good Time

Isn't it always the way? There's bound to be a Jonathan Edwards in every Puritanical crowd...

Meeting people is a terrific part of a pilgrimage - everyday, new people to talk with, even with my scant command of Ukrainian. The priests were doing a bang-up job passing me from one to the next down the right bank of the river. As soon as I'd pass into the sandy village, some sentry alerted the priest who would invariably be waiting, smiling, with a small gift and a translator of some sort. A veritable feast, humble, but warm and from the heart. Bliss.

But it all began to frizzle apart when I entered Svetlovodsk. Stern Father Vasylie (every third priest in this country seems to have that name)was alerted as I came into this larger town - potholed asphalt roads, few signs, little in the way of obedience to traffic laws. He took me to a large outbuilding of a small church. The choir was practicing some new passage; I was given some borscht and black bread, soon after led to a garret bunkroom. A basin was brought for me to wash, and steaming buckets of water from the wood-burning stove as soon as they heated. While I washed, the stern priest set up a old Panasonic VCR camera in a small room below, lit by a single suspended light bulb.

An English teacher, Olga, was brought in from the next town. She first berated me that my black wool hat was inadequate head covering for a woman in an Orthodox church (contrary to other advice I'd been given). She fixed my headscarf so tightly around my head I'm sure my face was beet red. She explained that the priest would interview me on camera about politics and religion. Yikes. It didn't take long to realize that they weren't speaking Ukrainian. I'm not even sure it was Russian, but the ancient Russian language used in the church service, I think. Father Vasylie of Svetlovodsk grunted a lot as he spoke, glaring at me down his long angular nose. He clearly did not approve of me. The camera was pointed only on me; I sat under the light bulb. It was all so very dramatic and I had no idea why.

Olga told me that I was to look at the camera and repeat each question so that it was clear I understood it. Nothin' doin', do I look like a rookie? "America is the source of all evil"; "the devil has control of America and all of its inhabitants"; blah blah blah... I repeated none of these outlandish statements for the camera. I silently let him listen to himself with no clue what bee was in his bonnet except a hard life under communism that he hasn't let go of. I judged him to be on the far side of 70... how sad his life brought him to this. "It is written" he droned on grunting each sylable, "America will destroy itself in 2012." "The current president will be the last." "America is to be destroyed because of the evil it has caused in the world." Get over it, dude. He hasn't even seen the new Hollywood film.

He similarly bashed Catholicism as being evil and misguided. He urged me to convert to Russian Orthodox, the only true and pure religion, and because I've not done my duty to God by having children, pushed me to take vows and enter a women's monastery... yeah, sure, if it's God's will I assured him, thinking it's far more likely that America will self-destruct in 2012. (What happens to Canada?) When the interview was over, beady little Olga explained that the priest is obligated to try to convert anyone who isn't Russian Orthodox. Obviously, 'celebrate diversity' aren't words in his vocabulary. When St Andrew and the other fellas set out with the gift of tongues to spread the word to the various lands, I can't imagine they intended that everyone must conform to the same way of covering their heads, crossing themselves, lighting candles, kneeling, sitting, etc... Someone's missing the point, perhaps.

Needless to say, he wouldn't tell me the name of the next priest to seek out. He drove me across the Dniepro the next morning, stopped the car and pointed, gesturing 20 km, there'd be a church. Icky guy and poor sausage all at the same time. I was glad to be done with him, but very concerned that in a practical sense, I was now on the wrong bank of the river. The left bank is marshy and low, with broad unfordable tributaries. No good to a walker. The right bank has nice bluffs, villages, easier going... Why was I one left bank all of the sudden?

By mid-afternoon, I found the church after the standard inquisitive search. The candlelady wasn't interested in helping me. There'd be a service beginning in 3 hours and the priest would come then, she told me, not before. I sat down, a bit forelorned. The church was cold. I stared at the candlelady long enough for her to start asking around. Eventually a woman came over to sit with me. I gave her my letter of introduction, which prompted her to call an English-speaking friend to come and straighten things out. That's when the fun began.

"I was called to speak English with a woman who needed help." Irena later told me, "Expecting a proper Englishwoman, imagine my surprise when I arrived to discover an American alpinist! Jolly good." Half-way through the sung service, Irena and Natalia, the kind woman who took the initiative to help me, concluded that the priest would be tied up for another few hours, so it would be better to go home with Natalie to sleep in her spare room, and return to the right bank in the morning. We sat chatting away most of the evening. I raised a glass with Ivan, Natalia's husband, so he could have full bragging rights to drinking a beer with an American in his own livingroom. Cheers to that!

Since ths episode a week ago, I haven't been able to get back into full swing with the village priests... the priests I found when I got back to the right bank were visiting from other parts of the country. One spoke German; we could communicate directly without an Olga in the mix. They made some phone calls and told me the names of villages where they were told priests lived, but no such luck. The village ladies get things taken care of - one village produced a Seventh Day Adventist to take me in, another, a Baptist... they hear 'polomnitza' and find someone related to a church, any church. Ah well. Whatever works. Everyday, I meet people, we talk, we always laugh, and more miles are behind me. I'm at the big bend in the river now, heading south.