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fiascos and favour

I have found my way to Ukraine and have been here for about a week and a half, after a string of faiscos that were answered in turn by minor miracles. I get the sense that Someone Bad did not want me to be in this country, and Someone Good did.

The ten days or so before my departure were extremely difficult. First was the awareness of how much I'd miss my friends while I was gone. Then the Winograds, my dear pastoral people, left for the summer. Then a couple of my younger friends got themselves into some trouble which caused me a great deal of disturbance. Conversations with them until dawn (which, granted, is around 3:30am in Minsk at this time of year) didn't help the cold which I'd gotten a week or so before; the cold got better and then much worse. On top of that, it seemed like every little thing I tried to do -- from sending email to applying for my visa (more on that in a minute) -- seemed to require jumping over even more hurdles than usual.

As a result of all this, I was humbled, and more and more able to ask help from my friends. Just before leaving Minsk I calculated that, though I technically live alone, I'd spent only four nights alone in my flat in three weeks. People just wound up staying with me, or I just wound up with them; it didn't exactly help me keep up with my sleep, but it did comfort me when I was feeling particularly weak. Which was often.

On my last night in Minsk, I stayed with friends again, and I still didn't know if I was leaving the next day or not. See, due to all the extra hurdles and to my own disorganisation, I applied for a Ukranian visa only a week before I was supposed to leave. No problem, it only takes three days. But Thursday and Friday were Ukranian holidays, they are closed on weekends, and they did not open on Monday until 2pm. No problem, I was leaving for Odessa on a night train.

But on Thursday I found out that my train was to leave Monday morning. The ticket was already bought... and worse, I was supposed to help one babushka guide nine kids on the train to a camp in Odessa. Nobody could take my place on such short notice. Upon finding this out, I burst into tears in full view of both friends and people I hardly know. Obviously, God was humbling me.

My only chance to fix the visa problem was if someone who could and was willing to help would be at the embassy... though the whole embassy was closed in the morning, this time due to a Belarusian holiday. My friend Roman drove me to the embassy and served as interpreter and general hero. With great persistence and patience he told five separate people -- most of whom were not supposed to be there -- the story of why I needed my visa a few hours early. In the end, though, there was nothing more we could do but pray that the woman who had prepared my visa would show herself and hand it to me personally. I sat in the sun and prayed, and eventually got to the point where I was able to say, "Okay God, though maybe I've failed in my responsibility to these kids, you love me and I'll have peace with whatever you want to do." At that moment I saw the woman who had prepared my visa coming toward me to open the glass door. Five minutes later, Roman and I left the visa office with my passport, my beautiful and correct visa, and whoops of joy.

Then we raced to the train station. On the lovely Belarusian train, some of the windows opened, so we were usually able to breathe and not always totally soaked in sweat. We crossed the Belarusian checkpoint in Gomel, and my Belarusian visa was cancelled (I'm to get a new one in Kiev). Then we got to the Ukranian checkpoint, where the soldiers asked me where my Ukranian insurance was... - We can't let me into the country without it, they said.
- They should have told you about it in Gomel, they said.
- They should have told me about it on the four separate occasions on which I visited the Ukranian embassy, I said.
- You need to get off the train, go back to Gomel, buy the insurance, and then go to Odessa by bus, they said.
- I am taking care of nine kids and I'm not allowed back into Belarus, I said.
- You speak Russian very well, they said.
- Thank you, I said, why can't I buy the insurance here?
- You can't do that, they said.

And then one of them got off the train with my passport, and then came back on and said, okay, just go.

I still have no idea what made the soldiers change their minds, but I do remember that after getting my miracle visa it didn't even occur to me to worry, though I was between countries and apparently illegal in both. I just prayed the whole time and knew that I wasn't going to have to get off that train.

After an ever-so-charming night, in which a ten-year-old boy from another part of the car sat on my bed talking with our babushka until about 1am (since we had the largest concentration of kids, all the rest of the kids on the car gravitated toward us), we arrived in Odessa. I spent a night on the floor at the kids' camp before getting to Odessa proper.

About a week into my stay here, I was walking with another American who mentioned something about registration. In Belarus, all foreigners have to immediately register with the police and pay a fee, but I didn't know that was also required in Ukraine. By now I was a week late which meant that I was illegally here, and that I would have to pay an additional fee. When we got to our destination, I asked my main Ukranian contact about the registration issue. Her response: Oh, I meant to tell you about this, yesterday the president signed a decree that said that foreigners no longer have to register, effective retroactively from the first of July!

And so occured the third visible miracle related to my legal presence in the state of Ukraine.

There was one more major fiasco that turned into a beautiful sign of God's favour. I've already written about my somewhat tempermental laptop. When I arrived in Odessa, I couldn't get it to turn on at all. All my old tricks didn't work. This was a big problem, since my main purpose in Ukraine was to write and my main tool for writing is this computer. I tried some other tricks and prayed a lot but got nowhere. Then someone told me about a wunderkind in the Odessa congregation who can supposedly fix anything. So I took it to him, and he returned my computer to me better than it had been before.

And I've been using it. I've been writing constantly, and am beginning to agree with those of you who have told me I'm probably writing a book. Maybe I'm writing a few; I feel like I might have written half a book just in Odessa.

But more than anything else, I am learning how to hold on to God. Often I feel like I'm clinging to his coattails and just flying along for the ride. But over and over he just brings things together, catches me when I'm helpless in the midst of my many fiascos, and reminds me that his favour is with me. Between the train and the camp and my host family with four kids, I've been around kids a lot, and I'm learning from them how to be simple, how to not mind being clueless and helpless sometimes, and how to rely on my heavenly father and just be obedient to him.

Someone here asked me where my favourite place in the world is, and I started to say something about a certain cliff in Ireland but realised I had to change my answer in order to tell the truth: my favourite place in the world at that moment was exactly where I was, on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, sitting on a Belarusian towel surrounded by a few new friends whom I was interviewing for a possible article. It was the best place in the world to be because I knew it was exactly where God wanted me.

And it was quite a beautiful spot, to boot. I want to send you some of my Ukranian impressions, but the story of my beginnings here is enough for one email. Tomorrow I'm heading to nearby Nikolaev, and then I'll spend my birthday (Sunday) in transition -- back to Odessa and then on a night train to Kiev. I have places to stay in Nikolaev and Kiev through people I met in Odessa, and I'll see what other doors open up while I'm in Kiev.

- 12 July 2001

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