It's my last morning at summer camp. I haven't been to summer camp in several years, and was certainly not expecting to be at one this summer, but my life in Ukraine seems to include all kinds of living situations.

I left Minsk with a ticket for one train -- to Odessa, with campers from Minsk. My only plan was to get to Odessa and then follow step by step from place to place, whenever God chose to move me or to have me stay. And so I spent one night at camp, and the next morning Alisa (Odessa congregational coordinator extraordinaire) and I hitched a ride with the camp director into Odessa proper.

The director dropped us off somewhere inside the city limits, and we grabbed another car for a few grivnya. Dictionary time: 'Grabbing a car' is common practice both in Ukraine and in Belarus; stick your arm out, a car pulls over, tell the driver where you're going, and if they're going your way they'll quote you a price. If the price is good, you stuff yourself into their car and they hopefully take you where you want to go. This way anyone with a car has a chance to make a bit of extra cash in a day, and for the weary passenger it's significantly cheaper than a cab. I stick to public transport when I'm in Minsk, but with luggage in a strange city, grabbing cars is definitely preferable.

'Grivnya' is the Ukranian currency, which is still called 'Rubles' by many, out of force of habit. There are about 5.4 grivnya to a dollar, which is a big shift for me since I'm used to calculating in the thousands (There were about 1400 Belarusian rubles to the dollar when I left Minsk).

That first car we grabbed in Odessa was an old low red sports car, with tinted windows, speakers everywhere, and the wheel on the right side. In typical idiosyncratic fashion, the trunk was full of baby toys. As we rolled over cobblestones and tram tracks, the car's massive sound system pumped cheesy electronic keyboard backgrounds in 3/4 time under a deep-voiced man speaking about his great love for the city of Odessa. It's a style I've heard a lot here, relatively cheap to produce and focused on the lyrics; I've dubbed it 'waltzie-talkie.'

We arrived at Alisa's flat, which I initially thought was the congregational office since there were several people there in the midst of a meeting. The Odessa congregation has an office of its own, but it's moving into a soon-to-be-finished new office, and frequently uses another ministry's office and Alisa's flat as spare meeting places. It typifies their organisational style: share everything, be flexible, and be resourceful.

I spent a week and a half in Odessa, and couldn't help comparing it to Minsk. Belarus is still more closed than Ukraine to the rest of the world, so though Minsk is nearly twice the size of Odessa, I felt a bit like I was coming from the village to the big city, where internationally-made products are far more available.

Odessa is a port city, and in some ways is a country unto itself. I often thought of Hong Kong, which is now part of China but operates under different rules. Odessa was part of the Russian Empire and the USSR, of course, but always had a set of slightly bent rules of its own.

All of these rules depend on money. In Minsk, money is not so important because nobody really has it. In Odessa, most people don't have it, but everybody tries to chase it down anyway. The result is a sense of constant activity, which of course can be helpful or detrimental.

In Odessa I stayed with an American family, and I grew to quite adore them though it was a bit of a shock to me to see so many Americans (they have four kids) at once. In a short time I made several dear friends in Odessa, and wound up staying with the parents of one of those friends when I moved on to the next step in my journey -- Nikolaev.

Nikolaev is a little town just up the river from the Black Sea. It's basically an industrial town, and there is a high level of unemployment. In some ways it's a polar opposite from Odessa; instead of being a hub of constant activity, Nikolaev is very quiet. This can be relaxing, but it also reflects a sense of hopelessness which I'm told is typical of most Ukranian towns. The frequent antidote for hopelessness is apathy. The older folks tend to cultivate this apathy with alcohol, and the younger ones with drugs. Sadly, this reminded me very much of Minsk. Soviet architecture was such that even the apartment blocks and smokestacks of Nikolaev look very similar to those of Minsk.

Nikolaev's buses are even more disgusting than Minsk's, so I got around primarily by marshrutka. The marshrutkas (minibuses, seating about ten) are a level of transport between the larger buses and grabbing a car. They are a great way to get around the cities, and some private drivers offer rides between towns for the same price the bus companies charge. I took a marshrutka from Nikolaev to Odessa for about $2.25.

On that marshrutka, I saw field upon field of wheat and corn... and more sunflowers than I have ever seen in one place in my life. Fields of yellow like this explain why sunflower oil is so cheap in Belarus and Ukraine, and why babushkas sell sunflower seeds on nearly every street corner in the cities, which many folks eat constantly throughout the day.

In Odessa I got on the train with Odessans who were going to another youth camp in Kiev. I wound up in a so-called 'comfortable' car, escorting three American girls who are here on an internship program to work at the camps. They've only been here for two weeks, and seeing the ways in which they are culture-shocked caused a bit of culture shock for me. When we found that most of the windows on our (of course not air-conditioned) car didn't open, on a record-breaking hot day, I laughed, soaked my bandana for comfort, and prepared to have a hot night. The girls' reaction was not so simple, though in the end they did brave it out well.

We arrived in Kiev, piled all our luggage into a marshrutka (someone was there to make sure it went to the right place), and took public transport out to the camp outside of the city. My original plan was to leave for the city again the next day, but I was enjoying the company of my friends from Odessa and new friends from Kiev, and decided to stay an extra night. I even had some new American friends; a slew of interns like the ones I accompanied from Odessa were at the camp, and though my culture shock deepened I found that some of them weren't so bad. I served as a sort of cultural translator for the Americans, and when the camp food started to do a number on my stomach, I was thankful that some of them had packed medicine chests into their big American luggage.

Now it's later, and I'm somewhere in Kiev; I'm not sure where. I'm staying with someone I met yesterday. I am rather clueless here and basically relying on the kindness of strangers for everything -- someone is arranging for a fax from Minsk so that I can apply for my next Belarusian visa while in Kiev, someone is arranging meetings so that I can talk with some folks through interpreters about what God is doing here, someone is feeding and housing me, someone is setting up places for me to be fed and housed in the next town, someone will take me to a home group, someone will show me where to get a good map of the city.

Tomorrow I may or may not be going to another town, to stay there a couple of days before returning to Kiev. I'm doing my best not to worry about tomorrow, and just follow in each day step by step, ticket to ticket. It's teaching me still more about being simply a child of God, and letting him do the thinking; I've been surprised at some of the people I've been able to meet and things I've been able to see by going this way.

When people ask me how I'm doing, all I can think to say is that God is good. I know that phrase in Russian. It seems the most important thing for me to know: most of my job is to simply be thankful... to laugh, soak my bandana, and ride the train.

- 19 July 2001

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