Monday, November 29, 2010

Shot of Death

On second thought, maybe two beers and a shot of vodka orange juice wasn't the best pre-train beverages to be consuming before heading back from Kiev to Odessa.  Not only did I narrowly miss my train home, but the liquor wasn't even enough to break the 6AM bedtime I was accustomed to!  Either way, I had a great time at the doctor's bar, known as Palata #6.  One of my best friends, Tristan, asked what everyone's favorite European city was, and I wrote Kiev, mostly just because of this bar.  Just take a look:

Getting into my straight jacket

Having second thoughts

"Do I really have to be in this dude's lap??"

What a ridiculously amazing bar.  If I ever opened a bar in the states, it would be hospital themed as well.  I can see it now, "Papa, I know you always hoped I would take over the family business by becoming a doctor... but how would you feel about turning your clinic into a bar!!  That would be much cooler."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Show me sexy!

I get the question all the time here, "Erika, why are you smiling?"  I tell them because I am happy; I am an American; It's just what I do.  I know it's easy as an American to always wonder why Eastern European women look so angry all the time.  I stipulated maybe the sour faces can be attributed to the frequent wearing of heeled shoes; I tried to wear a pair to work last week and am still nursing my raw feet.  I suppose during Soviet times, people just did not smile in pictures.  It was a stern time - happiness is found in the collective; individuals have no right to smile in pictures.  All in all, Eastern Europeans just hate fake smiles.  There is one thing they do very well - sexy.

I went to the doctor bar in Kiev with an Australian girl, and the totally amazing girl who works at the hostel, Natasha.  As we waited for our drinks and food to come, we took some silly pictures on my camera, when we started to discuss why it was that Westerners just cannot do "sexy" poses.  I am embarrassed to put these pictures online, but they were just too great to pass up.    

Silly pictures begin

Natasha tells us, put one finger in your mouth and be serious.  This is a much harder task than it sounds.  It's just silly.  Really. Try it.  So we give it a go.

Not bad for a first try, but we are told to try harder

Very much not amused by our inability to look sexy
This was one of the most hysterical photo shoots I have ever done.  We were dying of laughter.  The best line of the night came from Natasha.  Upon closer examination of the pictures, she simply said, "OK, you can die now."

Thanks, Natasha.  We are happy to have your blessings for a peaceful rest.  

So we try again, and again.  Unfortunately, we just started trying way too hard.  As you can see in the below picture.  

Are we trying to hard?
It really does look like we are dying.  Our distorted faces offended Natasha, so we decided to just give it up and leave it to the professionals. 

Juxtaposition between East and West
The images below might be disturbing.  Proceed with caution.

So there you have it - Westerners just don't have a natural affinity to do sexy poses.  It's not in our blood.  I guess I better stick to what I am good at and smile.

We can still be friends.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And I thought I just had fleas

I am an American girl, who tried just a little too hard to be Ukrainian.  Today, the pain and itchy spots that have been overtaking my body for the past two weeks proved to be too much for me to handle. I told my volunteer coordinator, in a joking way, that I think the cats are giving me fleas or something.  Two weeks ago when my bumps started appearing, I thought I had my usual bad romance with the mosquitoes. They tend to love me, and latch onto me more than anyone I know, but after discovering the fleas on the cats that live in my volunteer foundation’s office, and their tendencies to climb into my lap, I shifted my paranoia to that other group of blood-sucking parasites.  Today, I found out it is much worse.
Why are you so cute and warm, flea-bitten kitty?
Just trying to do my job here.  Must you hover?

The women at my foundation are incredibly warm and caring people, as most all Ukrainian I have met are; do not let the stern first impressions fool you. Upon examining my spots, they all immediately insisted I go to the hospital.  People, I would never in my wildest dreams conceive of taking myself to a hospital in the United States.  I would have to be on the verge of death, and even then, I would use my second to last breathe to make sure the ambulance ride was covered by my insurance company.  I hesitated, and ensured them I was fine; I just got one too many mosquito bites!  Usually, I am extreme hypochondriac, but a Ukrainian hospital was not on my must-see list of tourist attractions.  On the verge of tears, I finally relented and allowed my volunteer coordinator to escort me to the hospital situated about 45 minutes away from our center.

I was embarrassed at first that I allowed my office mates to know my shame: either I was overreacting to my mosquito bites or I had fleas.  Neither scenario cast a favorable light on me.  As you will soon see, neither parasite was responsible for my swollen red blotches.
Red spots everywhere!
The “hospital” was actually a doctor’s office that was located in a large courtyard.  I sat nervously waiting to be called into the doctor’s room, fearing more that I would have to go back to my hostel and to notify them, “So, remember when I told you I had mosquito bites? Haha… just kidding! I have fleas.”  My worries were soon set aside when I met the professional and extremely friendly doctor.  He spoke very quickly in Russian, but I actually understood most everything he was telling me.  He explained that I have allergies, but to what I wanted to know.  I told him that in the USA, I most definitely do have allergies, to about everything except cats and food.  

He basically informed me that my diet is to blame and it is slowly killing me; he prescribed some medication, and told me to stop eating cheese, chocolates, mushrooms, jam, fish, seafood, pickled foods, fruits, juice, coffee, milk, alcoholic beverages and anything red.  Really though!  What else is there to eat (or drink!) in Ukraine??  Borsht, tomatoes, mushrooms, fish, cheese, jam, nutella, milk and beer…that sounds like my day to day staple diet.  Hence, the red spots all over my body.  I am now only allowed to eat boiled meat, potatoes, raw cabbage, porridge and drink tea.  He said it is good that I came in, and that I own an Epi-pen.  Had my allergies gone untreated, my red sores might have traveled up my neck and possibly caused my throat to close up. 

Although extremely grateful to now know that I can control this allergic reaction, and I do not have fleas, lime’s disease, plague, shingles or any other communicable disease, today’s revelation does not sedate my eye twitch or my homesickness; I am now on a starvation diet until I come home.  Fail.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You are the coolest African I have met this entire trip!

My first night in Kiev, I was invited by the rest of the hostel guests at TIU Kreshatik to share a home cooked dinner.  We had amazing borsht, salad, rice and pasta.  As soon as the bottle of vodka came out, the true friendships began.  Around the table sat an American girl, a Greek man, two Turkish guys, a Japanese dude, a Ugandan man, and two Ukrainian chicks.  I am still amazed that at any given point, everyone sitting at a table will be able to speak English; it really makes my life much simpler.  We had such a great time over dinner that we decided we should all go out to the bars together.  After picking up a new addition to our group, a British guy, we were on our way. 
International Relations featuring Borsht and Vodka

Kiev is notorious for its deep metro lines.  Claudia and I joked that you could get so much done on your way to work, just on the metro escalator.  We must have looked like such ridiculous tourists, because we took hundreds of pictures that night, many of them on the escalator.
Metro Photo Shoot!

Work it, Boys!

I had such an amazing time, hanging out with "Sushi," "Dark Chocolate," and everyone else (for the record, those were the names they gave themselves, and I don't have to tell you who is who!). 

Erika to the Ugandan: "You are the coolest African I have met this entire trip!"
Ugandan: "Wow, thank you.  What a compliment.  You are so kind."
Erika: "Actually, you are the only African I have met this entire trip."
Pause.... roar of laughter on both sides

Dancing to the live music
We danced on tables at the bar.  Well, actually "Sushi" did and this might be one of the only times I passed up table dancing.  We ordered towers of beer that I haven't seen since China and all around just had a grand old time.    

Beer Tower 1 of 3

Sushi on the Table

Our group got broken up into multiple factions when deciding what to do next.  Artyom and I wanted to meet our other friends at a different pub, but it seemed like others wanted to go to a Disco, excuse me, "night club." So we went our separate ways.  We sat at the pub for about an hour, before my bad habit of falling asleep at the bars kicked in.  I was exhausted, having spent the last night barely sleeping on the train from Odessa.  Jason and Artyom convinced me that all I needed was some vodka and Red Bull.  *Sigh*  I really did not want any Red Bull, since I had to be up by 8:30AM the next day to watch the Soccer tournament my kids were playing in and it was already pushing 2:30AM.  Somehow, I was convinced to go to Vodka Bar, which was on the way home.  Here is when things started to get ugly.

Right about when things started to get ugly
Besides a few beers, I hadn't really been drinking, and did not plan on starting at 3AM, but I did take one Red Bull to keep me awake.  I had to suffer through the bad techno remixes, and one must really have a good attitude to survive them, so I figured one Red Bull wouldn't hurt. At this point, I had with me Jason, Artyom and the British dude who had tagged along.  All was going fine, until the Brit got too drunk, annoying and apologetic.   You know the kind: gets too drunk, and insists on apologizing about everything.  He also tried to smoke a wet cigarette that he dropped on the floor which we all chastised him for.  He was getting a little strange, and it was already past 5AM when I put my foot down and insisted that I was walking home, with or without everyone.  

I just love this picture.

Artyom was nice enough to make sure the Brit didn't lose his jacket or money, or me, cause I was ready to just walk home and ditch the guy.  We went and bought water in the 24 hr kiosk, but after one 5 minutes of holding Artyom's water, the Brit ran off and apparently started playing soccer with the bottled water somewhere on the street.  This story isn't even worth my breathe, but basically, he was drunk, annoying and almost found himself on the street that night because Artyom almost kicked him out of his hostel.  Artyom and the Brit had a long conversation which went something like this:

Brit: "You just don't understand.  My life is so hard.  I am 32, and I live with my mother.  She doesn't even know I am in Ukraine right now."
Artyom: "Um... actually, my mother is dead.  And well, so is my brother."
Brit gushes through flood of tears: "My life is so hard."

When staying in a hostel, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  This British guy apologized, cried, and promised to behave.  He put himself on voluntary prohibition and is now restricting himself from going out at night.  Well done.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

First you work, then you see museum

A few days ago, I was told that the soccer team at "The Way Home" was traveling to Kiev to play in a tournament, and I jumped at the opportunity to invite myself.  I made a quick phone call to my friend, Artyom, in Kiev to make sure I would have friends in town, and a hostel bed to sleep in and next thing I know, I am on an overnight train to Kiev.  

I arrive in Kiev bright and early on Saturday, ready to tackle the city yet again.  My plan was to hang out with the kids during the day, and enjoy the city at night; beyond that, I really had no idea what the schedule really was.  In fairness to my organization, they did give me a break down before I can, but it was in Ukrainian and I figured it wasn't like I was going to tell them, "Actually, I don't want to do that," so I figured I would just roll with the punches.  

After checking into my hostel, I met up with our team at their hotel in the suburbs, and then followed them to an unknown destination.  I was fine not asking too many questions, but there was one thing that really did confuse me.  I was told we were going on excursions/museum trips, yet some of the kids were carrying rakes.  I just had to ask why.  What I got was, "We are going to the lake to pick up trash, then going to a museum."  Fair enough.

We show up at a lake, and it turns out that one of our excursions is a tour of a local park while collecting trash.  I have to give it up for these street kids, UNICEF really makes them earn ever donation they get.  We were handed white cloth gloves, and a trash bag.  "No trash pick up tool or rubber gloves?" I thought.  Nope, our task was to successfully cleanup a lake using thin little gloves and not cut ourselves with a broken bottle of booze.  It was actually a lot of fun - our group is really energetic so we had a great time laughing, and pretending we were at a shop as we fish menu items from the water.
Collecting trash by a local lake
The girls-  Alina & Lena

Alpha Love!

Good work, team! 

After posing next to all the trash we collected, we had earned our tour of Kiev's Football Stadium.  We all drove downtown together, and had a great time walking around the stadium.    I posed as assistant photographer, and took pictures of everyone who wanted a shot.  I suppose now everyone will want to be my friend on "" which is the Russian equivalent of Facebook, so they can see their pictures.  

Our Team!

I will try to gather my thoughts enough to write about my night last night, but seeing as how I only got 2 hours of sleep, you can imagine how long my night was.  Tomorrow, I will attempt these feat - now, I must prepare myself for yet another night.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Rolling Black Outs

The city of Odessa is notorious for its black outs.  You can tell how expensive the clothes in a store is based on whether or not they have a generator outside keeping the lights on during a black out.  On my first day at the office, the lights went out, and since then, it has just been the norm.  You deal with it.

Last night, we were at a bar after my friend's birthday celebration when the lights unexpectedly went out.  There was a roar of cheering and laughter, followed by a drunken rendition of The Beatles' "We all live in a Yellow Submarine."  Of course, that was the only line any of the patrons knew, but that didn't stop anyone from having a fine time with it.

Before the lights went out, we met a very drunk Ukrainian girl at the bar that insisted in being all up in our faces, drinking shots someone else ordered, laughing louder and more obnoxiously than I do, and just all around being annoying.  She would ask strange questions, and look at us with these wide deer in the headlights eyes that suggested maybe she was more than just drunk.  She asked me how I heard about the bar, and I pointed at our group of friends, trying to get her to go talk to them instead.  My evil plan worked, but unfortunately, our groups just ended up merging, adding a new element of comedy to the scene.  

One of our English friends, who is not afraid to tell it like it is, got upset that she kept hitting him every time he said something funny.  All of a sudden the lights went out and he said, "Hit me again, and I swear to God I will pound you harder than you can imagine and no one would even know what happened 'cause the lights are out."  She just laughed like a jackal.  By this point, I was just beyond annoyed and she could probably tell I was giving her dirty looks, which I do not do often.  She told our friends, "I don't even want to know her."  Which I thought was hysterical, given the obviously mutual feelings I had for her.  

We seemed to have the situation under control, until she got a set of utensils with her meal.  One of my friends was smart enough to take the knife away from her.  I know it sounds dramatic, but two minutes later she actually stabbed our English friend with the fork she still wielded.  He retorted to her stabbing by explaining, "If you stab me again, I will take this fork and jab it into your eyes."  Again with the jackal-like laughter.  I told her in Russian, "Не шутка!" meaning, "No joke," as I reached for her fork to take it away from her.

After we disarmed her, she ravenously tore at her burger - we then decided it was high time we made our escape.  The lights were still out, and the bar was smelling suspiciously like paint, or gas - worrying us that this might be yet another insurance company fraud attempt.  Bars suspiciously "accidentally" burn down often in Ukraine, meaning the owners can collect large sums of money from their insurance carriers...and you thought the insurance fraud was bad in the states.  

Through Your Eyes

Our newest project at the center is one that will encourage self-expression, creativity and improve the writing skills of our children at "The Way Home."  Yesterday, we had a meeting with our foundation president about the state of our websites, and how we needed to improve its user friendliness.  There are so many aspects to our foundation, and each one has its own website that is not necessarily up kept regularly, which can be problematic for new comers who are interested in learning more or getting involved.  For example, we have a blog that is updated maybe twice a month; a true shame considering how much interesting work and fun activities occur here on a daily basis.  I suggested the following project: why not have the kids be in charge of running our blog?  After all, they are the reason why why are here, why not allow them to share their stories and experiences first hand to the world?  To me, blogging is the best way to share your experiences with friends and family who you otherwise cannot call every day.  It makes me feel special to know people back home care enough to read my stories.  I hope to give these street kids a similar self-esteem boost.  I want them to know that people around the world care about what they have to say and about their daily lives.  

The idea was received well, and it was decided that I would be in charge of giving a presentation in Russian (!) to the kids the following day.  I spent the rest of the day constructing a power point.
Some of the kids during the presentation

When it came time to give my presentation, I started by asking the crowd of children who likes computers.  All hands went up.  I went on to tell them that I love computers too, and feeling confident that they would like my idea, I just dove right in.

I titled my power point: 

My first slide asked the question, "What is a blog?"  One of the kids responded with, "Bog??" which is Russian for "God."  It was quite funny, but as soon as we cleared that misunderstanding up, the rest was smooth sailing.

I explained what it meant to have a blog, why it would be interesting for them to write down their stories, and how much fun it would be to act like a journalist everyday.  They all seemed excited about the idea, but getting them to sit down with a computer and just write will be the next step.  Today, I will chase down some of them and try to get the ball rolling.  I am excited to learn about where this project will lead the foundation!

Art in the Classroom - painted by the children

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My Kids

This last week, I got to sit in and participate in dance lessons at our orphanage.  It was a lot of fun, because the kids are taught all forms of dance.  One dance involved some home made frilly ballerina skirts.  The girls were having a little too much fun - as you can see in this video.  It was super cute.

I really wish I had Nat to teach them some amazing Swing aerials.  Baby, we would rock their world if they could only see what we can do!  We could leave them saying, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that Swing!"

The next day, I spent at the Family Crisis Center.  It sounds more intense than it really is.  It's more like a fun place where kids can go to use a computer, get extra tutoring, draw, and even get some food and clothes if needed.  They hold fun parties and events during holidays, and really give kids a fun safe place where they can go hang out.

I spent my day at the center with a cute eight-year old girl named Lera and a couple of fifteen-year old girls who were very excited to hear everything I had to say about life in California.  They love Justin Bieber, High School Musical, and ever thing else American culture has to offer.  I had fun talking to them, but soon they had to partake in their Mathematics lesson.  I spent the rest of the day drawing with Lera, until I started to feel the affects of only four hours of sleep.  We spent all night at a bar for a friend's birthday party the night before, but that is another story in and of itself.  I was fading and knew I had to do something fast, so I busted out my Canon camera.

Lera and me holding each other's art
 Introducing her to my camera was a brilliant idea, because what proceeded was an extra long photo shoot and bonding between us two girls.  We went on a walk together, and she just laughed and laughed as she took pictures of unsuspecting strangers.

What follows are a series of pictures, mostly of life through the eyes of Lera.  It truly was a wonderfully rewarding day.  
Outside of the Center

The Fifteen-year olds and Lera

Houses and Garages

I would have had too much shame to take pictures like this.  Oh, to be young.
I had to explain to her that it wasn't OK to take pictures who do not want to be photographed

Again with the shamelessness

Wall Art

Park Foliage



Lera - self shot
Fashionable Lady Friends

Now, this is what I call a night club!

Jason:  "Does it have audio?"
Erica: "Oh yea!"

I never thought I would see the day when a night club played a techno remix of the Mos Eisley Cantina music.  My life is complete.  I would like to say that maybe it was just the choice of nerdy music that kept the girls off the platforms, but it was like this all night.  I have never seen so many boys dancing by themselves on platforms... okay okay, but the Castro does not count! 


Last week, I tagged along for another social patrol, only this time, our marshrytka (mini van) was a little more crowded.  This time, a long with the social workers and driver, we had a Swedish journalist, her photographer and a translator.  They came to Ukraine because it has the fastest growing rate of HIV, and the paper wanted to release a story about it.  We answered the reporter's questions about how grave the problem is as we drove out of the center of the city in search of some kids.  Just the day before, our foundation found six children who agreed to come back to our center, so we were worried maybe today, we would not be as successful in finding some street kids to talk to.  

We made our usual rounds, and found ourselves in front of a MacDonald's. There we interviewed a couple of kids, both who are HIV+.  Of course it was sad to hear their story, and one of them basically told us flat out he would not survive this winter - he is only seventeen.  They had been injecting drugs (mostly over the counter cold medications mixed with water) for about six years.  They moved slowly, and appeared to have extremely stiff joints because they could hardly change positions - I wonder if this is a result of the AIDS, or some other disease.  Although it was eradicated in the USA, polio is still found in many countries; I kept thinking I was glad that I had my polio immunization years ago.  He told us that he had checked into a center, but they did not want him there because of his illness so he felt obligated to go back to the streets.  I asked him if there was a center for kids like him with HIV, if he would go, and he looked at me in shock, and gave me a huge toothless smile and a thumbs up.  After the interview, the reporter bought the kid a much needed new pair of warms shoes.  The kid told us in English, "Thank you very much, you saved my life," then we moved on.

Photographer, Translator, and Journalist in the back of an ambulance - hunting for prostitutes
Our next task was to find a set of prostitutes to interview, as they would be part of another large group of people who are prone to contracting HIV.  We drove outside of town, slightly further than the bus stop then pulled over.  I wasn't even sure where we were, but we stopped at what looked like a large taco stand with some indoor seating.  We interviewed one girl, who did not appear to be a prostitute at all - at least, not one that I would expect anyone to pay to be with.  She appeared drunk, and maybe only conducted the interview for the free bottle of vodka that was promised.  I took a picture outside of the restaurant, and was verbally accosted by some other woman.  

Woman yelling at me in Russian: "Why are you taking pictures of me?? I am not a prostitute."
Erica: "I am sorry, I didn't think you were. I was just taking pictures of this building."

Picture of the building - not the lady
After about five intense minutes of this, she started laughing and said that now I owe her a picture.  So we got the very nervous translator to take a picture of me and the lady next to each other.  At least the picture was on a really bad camera phone and didn't come out.  She was too drunk to notice.

At the end of it all, I came out more determined to help our organization with its goal of opening that HIV clinic/shelter for street kids.  If there had been one just a few short years ago, that kid we interviewed might actually have had a shot at surviving into adulthood.  Crazy thought, right?

On a funny note, we woke up the next day only to find out that they were doing tree clippings outside.  There were no notes telling people to move their cars, and the trimming crew hardly looked dressed for work.  I think I even saw someone sporting flip flops.

Very large branches narrowly missing the cars below

This was the most terrifying cherry picker I have ever seen

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


What in the world have I been up to, you might be thinking.  

Well, I am now working with the International Marketer/Fundraiser at "The Way Home" and am motivated to make a difference by raising awareness for our cause through social media networks such as Facebook.  My goal is to put the foundation on track to opening a shelter and clinic for HIV+ street children.  Today, I drafted a proposal that requests the United Nation's Democracy Fund for funding.  

Although the task at hand is extremely challenging, I am enjoying my work here because I get to constantly talk to people in Russian, it involves research about Eastern Europe and, most importantly, I am proud to say I am actually using my major in "Political Economies of Industrialized Societies"!  I never thought my International and Area Studies major would come in handy, but I guess all those Soviet studies are finally paying off.

I had my first English lesson today, which basically means I found a couple of stray kids here and there and got them to sit down with me for an hour.  We went over the basic introductions, so they know how to break the ice if they meet someone who speaks English.  Then we played 20 Questions - I have this little electronic game I bought at Walmart that works by generating questions and within 20, it guesses what you are thinking!  Needless to say, the little kids were kind of freaked out and really excited!  After that, we learned some Michael Jackson lyrics and listened to "Thriller" on my iPhone.  Kids here love "The King of Pop," so I figured if I was them, I would love to be able to sing along to my favorite songs. 

Volunteer by day, Bar crasher by night:  Random Pictures of my Ukrainian Nightlife

My two favorite bars in Odessa are Shkaf (Шкаф) and Kapitan Morgan's.  We basically always start the night at Shkaf and I think I already told you about it - remember, they had the Japanese Night and served us Hiroshima shots?  Shkaf always has random stuff everywhere, just like this Lenin statue and random arms coming from the ceiling.  It plays good music, is chill and has cheap beer - a great combination for a volunteer like me.
Reminds me of the Sistine Chapel
Your Political Economic Theories are ridiculous!  Sit in the corner and think about what you've done.

My Hostel Peeps and me at Shkaf

After Shkaf, we always walk to Kapitan Morgan.  KP makes pomegranate drinks from fresh pomegranates and always has an eclectic mix of patrons.  I am sure you remember this is where I had my Russian conversation "competition" last week.    
Dancin' with Donal Duck
This week, I found a guy who was dancing it up all night long, and you can tell by the sweaty shirt.  He worn sunglasses and Donald Duck T-Shirt.  I thought his attire was just hysterical so I asked him if I could take a picture with him, but he was concerned that taking a picture with me would constitute as cheating on his wife, so he kind of turned away.  Don't let the gaudy exterior fool you; he was actually quite shy. 

So there you go, I stress myself out during the day, trying to raise money and rebuild one of the most devastated post-Soviet states in the world, and make it up to myself by dancing it off at night.  Such is my life in Ukraine.