Thursday, July 12, 2007

Camp, etc.

Hi! I hope everything back home is going well. I’m halfway through my first summer here, which is hard to believe, and things continue to be busy. The heat wave has mostly leveled off, although I still enjoy having screens to let in the breeze.

After my family went back home, I came back to Bratslav and got ready to host an early 4th of July party – since most of the Volunteers in my area were going to be busy or away on the actual day. My adventures with the PC cookbook continued – and I learned how to make fried chicken! That was exciting, and on the day of the party, Clara came to help me make the potato salad and cole slaw, and a cake. Unfortunately we couldn’t find strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag on the top . . . maybe next year. When Brittany arrived, we went to the river for a boating excursion my coordinator had helped me arrange. I knew that there were rental rowboats there, but wasn’t prepared for the amount of discussion needed before the men in charge let us get in one (they didn’t seem to think we could row the boat). One of the younger men who gathered around us as we looked at the boat turned out to be an English-speaking university student I had met before, so they finally let us get in as long as he rowed. The river is really pretty, and it was nice, but it was threatening to rain. When I decided that we had better head back, Andrey (the student) couldn’t seem to get the boat moving, maybe because he was tired after rowing all four of us. So I insisted that Brittany and I take over, and it was funny to see the men, who were out in another boat, stare at us as we sped the boat back to the dock.

After we got back, the guys arrived (Grant, Chris and their friend Ryan), and we ate our fried chicken and salads, which everyone seemed to like. It was interesting to show off my town to those in the oblast who hadn’t seen it before – it’s one of the smaller sites, to be sure. The next day, we got on a bus and went to our English club for adults in the city, where we discussed, at their request, different cultures in America. Clara prepared clips from “Joy Luck Club” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” which was interesting . . .

That Sunday, I headed to Kyiv for another meeting of the SPA (Small Projects Assistance) Committee. It was unfortunately the last time I got to go to the building the PC used to have its office in – the rent got too high, so we’re in the process of moving. I’ll miss the building, it was really nice!! There were more interesting grants for this round, including an internet café operated from a secondary school, and a greenhouse for an orphanage. I had way too much McDonald’s (it’s quick! and has food I recognize), so hopefully our next office will be close to a better option, the time I’m in the capital.

I got back to Bratslav in time for the 11th graders’ graduation party that Thursday. It looked more like a prom would look in America than a graduation – the guys wore suits, and the girls wore huge ball gowns, or evening dresses. I was confused by the number of kids I didn’t recognize – it turned out that those students who left for the technical school after 9th grade had come back for the ceremony and party with the rest of their class. The class mother, my host mom, gave out awards for “most energetic” and “most punctual,” etc., and a 10th grader, the only one wearing a cap and gown (evidently a costume), read the horoscopes for each graduating student. Afterwards, we all left to go a café for dinner and the graduation party. We paraded down the street with the graduating class, which stopped in front of every monument, etc., to pose for pictures, and were followed by several musicians. People were standing at their gates to watch us go by, it was crazy. There was a typical huge Ukrainian banquet, and during dinner, a woman with a microphone walked around quizzing teachers on the graduating class. The first grade teachers had to answer questions about what the kids were like when they started school, and the class mothers (my host mom and my tutor) had to guess which baby picture belonged to which student. Every teacher had to say something to the class, so my coordinator had me say something briefly in English – my biggest applause line was “Hello . .” I left early, but the parties typically last all night, and then everyone goes out to the bridge at the edge of town to see the sunrise, and, apparently, stop passing drivers to invite them to drink champagne . . .

That Saturday I hit the road again, to go to Khmelnytsky (a city two hours west of me) for baseball camp! I knew that the camp was going to happen, but only signed up for it recently, because I had thought that they wouldn’t want a Volunteer who didn’t know anything about baseball . . . apparently, it doesn’t matter! Sharese, a Volunteer in my oblast, worked at the camp last year, and promised me that I’d be fine. Many of the kids had been attending the camp (which was organized by Ukrainians) for years, and each of the five teams had several players who were well-versed in the rules. The ages of the campers ranged from early teens to late twenties: a big difference from the camps I’m used to in America. It was definitely the first time I’d been to a camp where the campers could smoke, drink and drive – and did (not necessarily at the same time) in front of us! The older guys on each team with the most experience acted as coaches, and our role as Volunteers was, I found, mainly to cheer. Another Volunteer named Alison and I had one of the smaller teams, about ten kids, and the first day we decided our name would be the Gray Sharks, to go with our team t-shirt color. By the next day, one of our campers, Yulia, had come up with a chant for us: “We are Sharks and we are sharp – we will win the first place cup! We will teach you how to play; if you’re scared, just go away!!”

It was actually a softball camp, and I have technically played softball – so at least I mostly knew what was going on. My two pieces of advice for any players who cared enough to listen to the cheerleader were: to bring their hands behind their heads when they were throwing, and for girls and little people in general to choke up on the bat. That’s where my expertise ended. I loved our team; the players ranged from age 13 to 23, and they were all enthusiastic and friendly. It was an English-speaking camp, and while some players were better at English than others, we all got along very well through a mix of English, Ukrainian and Russian. It was really funny to hear, throughout the week, cries of “Dva outs!” and “Davai, play ball!” From the start of our practice games, I was a very enthusiastic cheerleader, and was in full manic-soccer-mom mode all week. My favorite thing to scream was “Damoy!!!” - “go home!”, when we were scoring a home run. I generally “umped” by third base, so this was an important cheer . . .

The Sharks did well at first, and we won the first two practice games. Alison and I spent our time trying to remember appropriate cheers from home, and even looked some up online at the Volunteer’s apartment where we were staying. We didn’t find too many good ones, but the one we loved and insisted on cheering over and over throughout the week was “Holy cow, it’s a foul! Mooooove it over!” Unfortunately, the weather took an extreme turn for the worse and, coincidentally or not, our winning streak came to an end. However, I kept cheering like a maniac . . .

(me with my 4th of July beer and hot dog . . . Ukrainian hot dog)

It first got stormy, windy and cold around the 4th, which we Volunteers celebrated at a restaurant where each party gets its own little free-standing room with a big table. We had shashlik (Ukrainian shish-kebob), and sang several national anthems (for several countries), as well as the theme-songs of many sitcoms. The next morning it was too rainy to play (perhaps that was a good thing for those of us who had a little too much vodka at the party), so we and the players stayed in and watched “Major League,” which I had never seen before. It was too nasty outside to play, but it was apparently nice enough for the “City Quest” scavenger hunt planned that night for the older campers. We divided into three teams, and were given clues for seven tasks to be performed around the city. My team was mostly made up of Sharks, and all the campers were from Khmelnytsky, so they knew their way around. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, running through the rain and wind, my team got very confused. The hints were in Russian, so, although we Volunteers knew generally where we were supposed to be going, we couldn’t do much to influence our team (and weren’t supposed to, anyway). But we knew something was wrong when our team led us to a deserted stretch of railroad tracks, and a tower which, as another Volunteer put it, looked like it was “borrowed from a concentration camp.” The poor kids really thought that whomever we were supposed to find for the next hint was up in that tower . . . I swear they were about to climb up there. I begged them to ask for a “hint” (we had “hints” that might cost them points later in the tallying-up, but at this point, standing by the train cars loaded with bricks, at 9pm, it seemed time). Even though we eventually got back on track, it was too late, and we arrived at our final destination about twenty minutes after the others, but not before one of the girls on our team took out some face-paint and painted Ukrainian flags on people’s cheeks.

As I said, our winning-streak ended about that time, but the Sharks still did very well. Every game was close, and even though we lost again and again, the kids never got frustrated or upset (after it was clear we were not going to make the top two, Yulia gamely changed our chant to “We will win the third place cup!”) What was nice was that even though we had very experienced players, and some who had never played before, our playing was very even: everyone screwed up sometimes, but everyone had good plays too. I entertained myself jumping up and down and pantomiming pom-pom routines over by third base, yelling out each player’s name as they came up to bat (not hard to remember: we had three Sashas, a Masha, a Pasha, and two Tanyas!). Almost every day we had to run for cover when it started to rain, until finally on the last day the sun came out again for good. We ended up coming in 5th, but all the kids had fun, and we came up with some good cheers (the best was when we were playing the Yellow Bananas: “They won’t know what split ‘em!!”).

The last day we had a camper vs. Volunteer game, during which I had to try to hit a ball for the first time since, I think, 8th grade. I did – and then ran as fast as I could to first base and pulled every muscle in my body doing so (apparently it looked pretty unnatural too). I made it to home, which was exciting (and my Sharks cheered me on), but we were no match for the campers. We played for nine innings, instead of our usual five, and during the last, the Ukrainians essentially let us score until we made it from 8 up to 18 for a tie (as they say here, the winner was “friendship”).

So, camp was really fun, but I’m happy to be back home recuperating. In addition to the various sore muscles, and the inevitable sun-burn, I got more mosquito bites than I have ever gotten at one time: never outside, but on the first night I got there, as I slept, mosquitoes came in through the open window and bit me forty-two times. Yeah. Needless to say, I asked that the window be kept shut from then on, and experimented with various Ukrainian allergy medicines all week . . .
I got some great mail: thanks Laura and Paige! Also, thank you to Archer and Betty for the wonderful children’s books – though I understand if you all don’t want to send any more, because the USPS Media-bag (M-Bag) service has changed for the worse, making it much more expensive to send books. So that is unfortunate, but there are other ways for us to get books here, which I will work on.

Happy late 4th of July, and hope you’re all having good summers! Take care, and let me know how you’re doing . . .

Love, Virginia

P.S. Some funny t-shirts:

On sale in Khmelnytsky: "Don't you wish your girlfriend is hot like me?"
On the bus in Nimerov: "Me . . . Spoilt???"


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