The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Tuesday, December 21

Snap-Shots From Konotop

To take a good snap-shot requires the right equipment at the right time in the right place. I offer you two snap-shots from Konotop that prove the wisdom of being present in the moment.

Fridays mean Art Day at Hearts of Love Center. Just about every Friday I do some sort of Art Project with the children. It’s become popular to draw or paint with the American.

On some Fridays, I’ve seen as many as 18 kids in space for maybe 10. I do get a little tense and overwhelmed, but with the help of Annya, I keep my cool. She says with a smile, “Normalna. It’s normal.”

Last week, I made a huge Christmas tree by taping together blocks of paper and using my watercolors to paint the branches. Then the children drew ornaments to decorate. All levels and ages contributed. Some of the ornaments are decorated ala scribbles while others are carefully drawn. One medicated boy surprises me. Instead of the usual scribbles, he draws a design for the first time. I say in my best Russian, “Good job…Good Job.”

I always insist that the children put their names on the art. I think by claiming it as their own, a little piece of self-esteem is added to their lives. Often they will take the art to other adults at the Center and bask in the approval.

I am putting away supplies and getting ready to go home, when a little girl bursts into the room. “Chi, Chi, Chi,” she insists. I make my way down the hall to another room where she and a friend are setting the table with china cups and plates – no Styrofoam here.

Then I learn it’s the little girl’s Birthday. She is a 8 years old. Her mother has brought in a small cake for a small celebration. It’s a special treat.

As we settle into our places at the table, we are invited to share a Birthday wish. This is a wonderful Ukrainian ritual. People talk intimately about a person’s character and offer wishes for a good life. Each wish can go on for several minutes. I love the way Ukrainians are not embarrassed to express kindness.

I look at the little girl. She is wearing a red dress. Red is considered most beautiful for Ukrainian women. And this little girl is beautiful in her own special way.
What I notice most is her demeanor. She glows with Bambi eyes wide open. The gentle words of praise accumulate like dozens of presents – but only more valuable. I am touched when her older brother speaks in admiring terms of love. We all should be so blessed.

I place my hand on my heart and take a mental snap-shot.

<<<<< >>>>>

Whether it's Santa or St. Nicholas, there's magic in the idea that a stranger will come to give gifts. Sometimes it’s expected and other times it happens as a surprise.

At Hearts of Love, the hallways are strung with tinselly garlands. We are having a lot of fun getting ready for our St. Nicholas party. Just when I think all has been done, Yelena finds another box of tinsel. More is better. I tease her that she's decorating this center like a mother with a gang of kids.

My watercolor tree is decorated. The children have covered it with their own creations. I am proud of them. Festive bags have been bought and filled with candies. We are expecting about 35 children.

The party unfolds as expected. A play is performed by an acting troupe from our House of Culture (a Soviet institution that continues).

The story pits a fox and wolf against two little hares with a big old bear as referee. There are chase scenes, deceptions, fisticuffs and more. But in the end all are friends. Ukrainians like animal stories and judging the reaction from the children, they love this one.

Finally St. Nicholas comes. Instead of red and jolly, he is dressed in a light blue cloak and a monk's hat. He gives a little blessing and then distributes bags of goodies.
A large gingerbread man has been added – compliments of our new Mayor. The children are delighted. A few games are played and then the party ends. Thank you, St. Nicholas.

I am putting on my coat when I learn that the Vice Mayor of Konotop has dropped by and wants to meet me. With the election of last fall, governmental leaders have changed and the new Mayor is reaching out.

After introductions, the Vice Mayor gets right down to business. "How does this organization compare to ones in America," he asks? “Wow,” I think. “How am I going to respond to such a question?”

I have learned during my time here that Ukrainians will sometimes ask the comparison question as a way to determine if we are with them and find them acceptable. I quickly re-frame the question into a litany of what Hearts of Love is doing well - like transforming a crumbling building into a center of life and activity, a place where children who might be ignored are considered special.

I talk about the challenge of funding and the need for local support. I offer the idea of a "United Way" approach. He leans forward. He’s interested and asks, “Will you come and meet with the Mayor?”

I’m totally surprised. What an unexpected opportunity!

Then he turns to Yelena and says, “I think we should make a professional video so that the people of Konotop can learn about your work here. “ It’s another unexpected surprise. The meeting ends with exchanges of emails and wishes for a Happy New Year.

Later as I am getting ready to leave, Yelena turns to me, “You told us to widen our circle of friends…You know, we listened….See what’s happening.”

I put on my jacket, smile and take another mental snap-shot.

Saturday, December 18


Once we were allies. Then we became Cold War enemies. And now we can be friends again.

The story starts with an invitation to speak at School # 5. I have been getting quite a few speaking invites and never know exactly what to expect.

We walk into the assembly hall. It’s packed with students and most look to be from the upper grades. They’re dressed well - no jeans and sweat shirts here. Boys wear dress pants, suit jackets and ties. Girls are in skirts or dresses and many with bows in their hair. For a moment I think it’s 1958 and I am back at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School in Philadelphia.

Today is Ukrainian Army Day. Officially it’s a day to remember the 1991 establishment of the Ukrainian military, but unofficially it’s more about veterans and especially veterans of the Great War (WW II). The director of the School wants to combine honoring veterans’ service with the idea of volunteering and community service. I now know why Yelena, Vika and I are here.

We are escorted to the front of the hall and take our seats behind three older men. They are a living legacy from the Great War. Their chests are festooned with ribbons and medals. I see the profile of Lenin and madallions with the hammer and sickle on many.

To an American, it looks strange to see so many military medals on an ordinary civillian suit jacket. But then as an American, I have never known such a pervasive and devastating war on my home soil. What memories they must hold on their chests.

The program unfolds in typical Ukrainian style. Two students read from a scripted program to welcome and introduce each segment. They do a great job. After introductions, a young woman sings a hauntingly beautiful patriotic song.

Then we are shown a slide presentation. It’s visually haunting as well. I see a slide of army boys crouched at a window looking out at war-torn buildings. Then I glance at the windows in this hall and shiver. The window style is the same. The photo could have been taken from a place just like here. And maybe, it was.

The Veterans take turns addressing the students. I kept thinking that they were not much older than the oldest student here when they went to war. I notice a young boy across the aisle from me. He is on the edge of his seat absorbing every word. Judging from the intense silence in the room, everyone is doing the same. The speaker begins to weep.

I wish I knew what he was saying, but I later find out he was speaking in Ukrainian and I only know a little Russian. So I sit absorbing emotion and offering empathy.

Yelena speaks next and her warm charm provides an excellent transition. Her pictures of a broken down building being transformed into a lively Center for disabled children tells a powerful story of volunteer drive and the positive difference a few people can make. She speaks from the heart just as the Veterans had done, but she speaks about living and loving and hope.

My turn comes next. I start with JFK’s famous phrase – “Ask not what your Country can do for you, but what you can do for your Country.” I talk about the Peace Corps. I tell the students that right now more than 8,500 Americans are serving in 77 countries around the world. They share skills, like I do here in Konotop. They make new friends and kindle cross-cultural understanding.

I end my short talk by applying JFK’s words to Ukraine. “Ask not what Ukraine can do for you, but what you can do for Ukraine… for Konotop…for your city. “ The applause is loud and sustained.

As I take my seat Yelena smile. Each of the Veterans turns around to shake my hand. As the third one does so, he pulls me closer and before I know what is happening, he firmly plants a kiss on my hand. This military man with a chest full of medals and memories has tears in his eyes.


Monday, November 29

What About God's Justice???

In this religious season when we think about being thankful and try to imagine God's Spirit among us, I thought you might appreciate hearing about some of the good that is being done in the world. It’s a story about Paul and Darlene Heller.

I have known Paul and Darlene Heller since my days at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Yikes, that’s more than 40 years ago. Paul and I met and became close friends. I never realized back then that we would still be good friends in 2010.

Darlene found Paul (or was it the other way around) when he was in NYC serving an internship at the East Harlem Protestant Parish - a groundbreaking ministry among the poor. Darlene was studying to be a nurse. They fell in love and Darlene came back to Pittsburgh with Paul. Marriage soon followed.

Over the years our friendship deepened. For more than 20 years, ever since my divorce and its brokenness, I have spent every Thanksgiving and Christmas with the Hellers. The kids, Adam, Caleb and Rebekah adopted me along with their spouses Sara and Andrya. We are family and I am delighted.

One time I was visiting and had a nightmare. I woke up shouting, "WHAT ABOUT GOD'S JUSTICE???" It was loud enough to wake the Hellers. Over coffee the next morning, we laughed about my active imagination and theological musings – even in sleep. It became one of those family stories that gets repeated over turkey.

Fast forward to present time. Paul and Darlene leave Plattsburgh, New York with all its snow and skiing for the tropics of Malawi. Yes, for two and a half years, Paul and Darlene Heller, have been in Malawi Africa.

Darlene has been directing the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery. They take in babies who have been abandoned for a variety of reasons. Often their mothers have died in childbirth or there has been some other difficulty in the village. When the babies come, they are mostly in a wasted state.

Paul has been working on the administrative side strengthening administrative practices and securing a more stable financial base. It’s crucial work.

He also has been preaching at the local church where 1000 people regularly attend. That’s right, one-thousand people – imagine! He tells me that worship services often go on for 3 hours and even more. I tell him he needs shorter sermons (chuckle).

The work at the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery is literarily life-saving. It will probably never reach the headlines of the NY Times or the air waves of NPR – although you might easily argue that it should.

Another baby is brought to the Mzuzu Crisis Nursery

Day-in and day-out, babies are being nursed back to health. They come as frightened skeletons and become chubby cherubs. Of course, sometimes a baby arrives too late. All that can be done is hold the little one until she dies. It’s hard work. And I think it takes a lot of soulfulness to do it. My good friends have soul and faith and love.
The same baby after two months of food and care

Take a moment to review their blog. The context is heart-wrenching, but the work is heart-enlightening.

I keep thinking that among the lives being rescued at the Mzuzu Nursery, there are those who will make a difference in Africa’s poorest country. Thank you, Paul and Darlene, for being an answer to my dream – “What about God’s Justice?”

Wednesday, November 24

Today I Graduated

Today I graduated. And I must say, it's been a lot of fun.

Ever since arriving in Ukraine, I have taught beginner’s English. Most Peace Corps Volunteers have at least one class. Many have several. During our Peace Corps training they told us that while being new in a community, English could be used as a kind of social currency. It gives us something useful that Ukrainians want and it occupies us as we try to figure out what’s going on.

So whether it’s been with children or adults, mothers at the Center or governmental leaders, I have taught English. It’s been fun to introduce participatory classes and get my students talking in English. We progress from simple verb tenses to pronoun charts to prepositional phrases and more. We make-up simple sentences and dialogues about family, friends and weather. Progress is slow and it’s been at an elementary level.

That's why I am pleased to receive an invitation to teach at the Technical School.

"Can you come and be with our advanced English students? They do not have many chances to talk with native speakers. Your presence will be a great pleasure for them,” says Tatyanna, one of the English teachers.

I agree to teach and we begin to discuss particulars - What kind of class; how many students; and so forth? Tatyanna tells me that there will be about 25 students, maybe a few more. "Like I said, it will be a pleasure for them,” she says. And I think it will be very interesting for Tatyanna and the other teachers as well.

We decide to read portions of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry. He is a renowned Ukrainian poet (and painter) who captures the long suffering of his people and the ever present hope for rebirth. His influence on Ukrainian culture is immense.

During Soviet times, his strong patriotism was downplayed in favor of his anti-czarist sentiments. However Shevchenko was always a Ukrainian patriot. He was a serf and stood up for the plight of the poor. Today he is an iconic figure even appearing on Ukrainian 100 grievnah bill. (adapted from Wikipedia)

Also we decide to read portions of Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. His dream of America living up to the ideals of our Founding Fathers echoes Shevchenko's dream for a just and free Ukraine. I hope this class will add to our cross-cultural understanding. We all struggle for a better life.

I arrive early for the class. I can tell that the teachers are nervous - a little for me, but more for their students who they hope will do well and that I will have patience with them. Tatyanna confides, "They have never had such a class."

Students arrive. It is a full house. Extra chairs are brought in from across the hall. Unlike most of the classes I have taught, young men outnumber the women here.

I ask, "Do you speak English?" And I am pleased to hear a loud response, "Yes, we speak English." The class proceeds with readings from Shevchenko’s poignant poem. Some have read it before in Ukrainian, but now we read an English translation.

…Break then your chains, in love unite,
Nor seek in foreign lands the sight
Of things not even found above,
Still less in lands that strangers love...
Then in your own house you will see
True justice, strength, and liberty…

…Then all the shame of days of old,
Forgotten, shall no more be told;
Then shall our day of hope arrive,
Ukrainian glory shall revive,
No twilight but the dawn shall render
And break forth into novel splendour....
Brother, embrace! Your hopes possess,
I beg you in all eagerness!

Taras Shevchenko, Viunishcha, December 14, 1845

We continue with King's speech and note the similarities of these two patriots from countries half a world apart. We discuss a little about justice and freedom and how liberty is justice with freedom. We are having a substantive class and discussion in English. It’s great.

As we wind down the class, I have a surprise. I show the words of a 1960s song. It's a song I sang often with other volunteers when I first tried the Peace Corps in 1967. Now more than 40 years later, I am teaching If I had a Hammer to Ukrainians. Who would have thought it possible?

We review the lyrics and end the class by singing it together:'s the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, it's a song about love between my brothers and sisters all over this land....

What a wonderful experience. I feel like I have graduated.

Sunday, November 21

Ordinary Life: Potpurri

Life in Ukraine remains interesting. I find my days filling up with memories. What a privilege to be here and take it all in. Recently, I noticed that some of these memories and images and feelings are beginning to blend together. I guess it’s natural. That’s why I keep writing so that I can recall details years from now. I hope you will enjoy and I hope it will help me to remember.

>>>One morning on my way to a Marshuka, I spy a old babushka emerging from the tree-line that surrounds an open field not far from my building. I give her a causual glance and begin to turn attention elsewhere when I notice four goats following her. They grab my attention.

The goats are grazing on a mixture of leftovers from the field and weeds. The babushka is bent over gathering some of the same weeds, maybe herbs.

Even when she stands up, she is still bent over. It's a common sight among older woman who, no doubt, have had years of back-breaking work - literally. She's dressed in a peasant skirt, heavy stocking to her knees, layers of sweaters and an overly large coat. Nothing matches. A colorful scarf wraps her head. Slowly and deliberately she moves plucking weeds and using her walking stick for balance. The goats follow. I stare. It’s another National Geographic moment.

>>>Synergy is a neat word. Don’t you like the way the syllables roll around the mouth before emerging? And even neater is the way it keeps showing up.

I am sitting in the audience while Hearts of Loves second charity auction unfolds. Last year I played a central initiating role, but not now. Plans for the auction were well under way before I knew it. The idea of local fund raising has taken root.

This year a group of university students volunteered to help. They reached out to businesses for donations and orchestrated the entire evening complete with music, entertainment, auctioneers and lovely "Vanana White" type young women who parade among the audience with each item for bid. It’s a charming sight.

I think they are feeling bad that I do not have a larger role this year. They are wrong. When I am asked to share a greeting, I say how proud I am of these young leaders. Everyone applauds.

Last Spring these young people were among those who shared in my Leadership Seminars. Now they are joining Hearts of Love to raise more money for this year's heat. Synergy is happening in Konotop.

>>>Anton, my young Ukrainian friend, tells me a family story. When his father was his age, nineteen, a Soviet military recruiter came to their small village. At the time, the Soviets were involved in a in a blood draining war. The place was Afghanistan.

The young men of the village were rounded up. There were 35 of them including Anton’s father. On that day, everyone was scheduled to go to Afghanistan. After paper-work, they would be packed in trucks for the long journey away to war. I can hardly imagine the impact this must have had on a small village.

Anton’s Grandfather knew that if he could delay his son’s departure by a few days, he would likely be assigned to Kazakhstan and not Afghanistan. So he acted to save his son.

On the day of the round-up, he brings a hog and a lot of vodka to the recruiter. He says something like, "my son is needed at home. Can he go next week?" It works. The paper-work is misfiled. Anton’s father is passed over for a few days.

As Anton tells me this story, I get a chill. I realize that without his Grandfather’s action he would probably not be here. Of the 34 recruits sent to Afghanistan that day, only 5 returned.

Probably most people are not faced with dramatic situations like this one. Yet I get to thinking that kind and generous actions, even small ones, can make a difference from this generation to another and another.

Thursday, October 21

Libraries and Books

I never visited our local library. Other volunteers at other sites have done some amazing things with their libraries. My friend, Fran, set up a sizable collection of English reading books where none had existed before. So along with several other Peace Corps Volunteers, I decided to discover the situation in Konotop.

Our guide and interpreter for the day is Gregory. At 70 he speaks impeccable English and is a leader in the remnant Jewish community of Konotop. For many years, he edited a newspaper. He has a love of words and curiosity about life. He has become a good friend of us Peace Corps volunteers.

We discover the library on the ground floor of a block apartment building. It’s easy to walk by without noticing. It’s nothing like the ornate buildings that Andrew Carnegie was prone to build and endow. How fortunate we Americans are.

Inside on the left is a computer room and on the right are the book collections and reading room. A few young guys seem to be checking out the Russian version of Face Book and an older woman is quietly reading. Obviously, we are a disruptive entourage, but still we are warmly welcomed. For a few grievnah (less than a dollar), we become library members.

We ask about English books. The librarian takes us to a bookcase. Half ways down on a shelf are about a dozen – maybe eighteen books. I did not expect many, but I am surprised at so few. “Are there others somewhere else," we ask?

“No, they’re all here. “ In a town of nearly 100,000 people, less than two feet of shelf space holds Konotop’s entire collection of English literature.

Immediately, I think of Fran and how she transformed a similar situation. She created a Peace Corps Partnership Grant and with the help of family and friends, about 300 books were purchased forming a permanent collection.

A few weeks later, Gregory and I make an appointment with the librarian. I had promised to return and show pictures of Maine and America on my computer. I often do this as a way to build friendships. Most of the library staff crowd around a table as I show off the beauty of lighthouses, my garden, Lincoln Monument and more.

Later over tea, I propose a Partnership Grant to create a permanent English reading collection. I’m stunned when she says, “No.” Thinking that she does not understand, I explain again that it will be a grant in addition to the library’s current budget. The answer is still no. She adds, “It’s not in our work plan.”

Gregory is a good friend. He sees my disappointment. On the way home, we pass the building where he lived as a little boy. He insists on showing it to me. It’s an office now and inside a small room, about 10 x 12, is where his parents and siblings lived sharing a kitchen with other families down the hall. He tells me about being hungry as a boy – “so very hungry.”

He tells me about how the Soviets tried to control thinking. And then referring to the library and English books, he says, “Something good will happen. I know it.”

Disappointment leads me to think about alternatives. I make an appointment at the Polytechnical School. I propose the same Partnership Grant and this time teachers and librarians respond with enthusiasm. Gregory was right.
Reading room of the Polytechnical School

They show me a handful of old Soviet era English paperbacks. That’s it for English literature. They have English textbooks for classes, but nothing to open the world of English literature so that students can grow and learn on their own. Old Soviet era English books

The Director of the School joins our meeting. She says that ever since she visited Ames Iowa on an exchange program, it has been her dream to have an advanced English Literature Course. “Now I think my American dream will be possible,” she says with a broad smile.

I’m excited. This project will open the world of English literature from beginners to advance readers. We will include anthologies, poetry, young adult literature and of course, many of the Classics. We will purchase 10 English/Russian dictionaries to help students with new vocabulary. Students give thumbs up to the Project

In addition we will publicize this new collection to the entire community. As a result, Konotop will have a new source of knowledge, inspiration and cross cultural understanding, a way to learn about life and the world, and an encouragement to imagine and achieve dreams.

As this project takes shape, I am deeply saddened by the sudden death of a wonderful man. My friend, guide and translator, Gregory, died on October 10th. He was hospitalized in early October, had an operation and showed a few sign of recovery. But then he died. What sadness.

How he loved words. How well he spoke English. What a wonderful friend he was. His stories and reassurance echo in my heart. “Something good will happen. ...I know it.”
. Shelves waiting for English reading books

If you would like to help with the English Reading Project, please send me an email at I’ll send you more information as soon as the Partnership Grant Proposal has been approved and posted on line by the Peace Corps. Thank you so much.

Thursday, October 14

Ordinary Life: Being a Peace Corps Volunteer

It’s the 120th Anniversary of the Polytechnical School. About 300 Konotop leaders from business and industry, the government and military as well as students and educators have come to celebrate this occasion.

In the front row sits the Mayor with Tatyanna, the Director, and other officials. I sit several rows back with my friend, Irina, who heads the Department of Families and Children Services. The long auditorium is filled with smiles. Oversized windows that line one entire wall emit a defused autumnal glow. It’s a warm festive occasion.

A month ago, I was invited to attend. And then last week, I was asked to say a few words. So here I am on stage. I start by speaking a little in Russian to the delight of the crowd. I think my Peace Corps’ language instructor would be proud.

Of course, a translator is next to me to carry-on with the speech. It’s Annya, my friend, who has helped me in so many ways before. She tells me she is a little nervous, but very honored to be a part of this program.
Built in 1974, the main building on the Polytechnical School's campus.

The year is 1890. Railroads are the new technology of the day. Steel rails are connecting cities and villages. Change is happening. Now you can go to Kiev in less than a day…Amazing.

But who will develop this technology? Who will manage and engineer the system? The answer is the Polytechnical School. From Czarist times through Bolshevik revolution, World Wars and Soviet rule to a new Constitution, Orange Revolution, elections and democracy, the Polytechnical School has adapted and survived.

The year is 1941. The Nazi war machine is on the march east. Instructors and students flee Konotop for the interior of Russia, but they keep on teaching. The School buildings are bombed and burned. Konotop becomes a charred skeleton of itself.

Yet when the students and instructors return in 1943, buildings are reconstructed from the rubble. Students build tables and chairs and book cases from salvaged wood and learn a valuable craft in the process.

The School becomes the pride of Konotop – a symbol of hope and normalcy in the post-war era.

Today the Polytechnical School has joined with the Konotop branch of the Sumy University forming a broader academic and technical Institute. Railroading is still offered but so are electronics, computer technology, social work, management and building trades.

As I finish my remarks, I realized that I am the only American here. It happens a lot being the only American at a gathering, but not in front of 300 people. I think what a privilege and honor.

I realize I’m here not because of me, but rather by what the Peace Corps does best. In 77 countries worldwide since 1961, the Peace Corps connects and integrates volunteers, like me, into their communities. I get to be my Country’s ambassador to Konotop.

The program goes on for 3 ½ hours. It’s long even by Ukrainian standards. Students perform dance and song routines telling the history of the School through the arts. And then more speeches and awards are given.

Some people leave early. But I stay even though I only understand every fifth word or so. I want to soak in this experience because something like this may never happen again for this American.

Tuesday, September 28

Ordinary Life: Endings and More

I should have expected it to happen. Like most people, I thought that normal everyday life would just keep on keeping on, but of course it doesn’t.

Ordinary life is always changing. Usually it’s incremental and we hardly notice. But sometimes out of the shadows of consciousness, death intrudes.

We are sitting in Yelena’s small office finalizing plans for the fall. There’s excitement at Hearts of Love. The Computerized Learning Center is up and running. Thanks to a grant from USAID, four brand new computers, a printer, white board and projector are ready to introduce our children to the world of technology and learning.

Suddenly, Valaya, our bookkeeper and dedicated volunteer, enters. She is noticeably upset. She tells us that Babushka has died. She fell down from an apparent heart attack and no efforts could bring her back.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. Just last week, I ran into Babushka and her granddaughter. Both are regulars at Hearts of Love. The granddaughter is in my Friday art class. She is troubled emotionally being caught in a dysfunctional family where her mother is unable or unwilling to care for her. Babushka has stepped in and given the little girl some stability and love.
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Babushka and I sharing tea with the children

Babushka always greeted me with a smile and warmth. I thought of her as a kind and generous woman. She was constant in her presence and help. Every Friday when her granddaughter was in my art class, she joined the other women in creating beautiful beaded flowers, like the ones we sold at last year’s auction. We all took it for granted that she would keep on keeping on, but not now.

Valaya, who is a strong Ukrainian woman, tries to maintain her composure, but cannot. Her sobs underscore the change that has happened. We all confirm it with our own sadness.

Later in the afternoon, I walk through a cemetery near my new apartment. I feel like I want to be alone with my own thoughts about life and death. In the year that I have been away from America, three dear friends have died. Babushka’s death brings back memories of them. At the cemetery I feel close to the dead - both known and unknown. It seems comforting.

I wind my way into the expansive grounds. There are no paths. I must squeeze my way between crowded burial plots. Each is situated east to west as the sun rises and falls. Soon I am surrounded by gravestones and can no longer see the streets or buildings beyond.
Strangely, many of the gravestones are etched with life like portraits. The dead may be buried but a two dimensional image remains. Some stoically stare ahead and others warmly smile as I pass by. I think, “remembering the dead has a kind of realism in Ukraine.”

I notice small picnic tables and benches at many grave sites. “What are they doing here,” I wonder. It seems strange, until I learn about an ancient custom that is still practiced.

On the Sunday after Easter, families bring Ukrainian picnics to graveside. Some of the same foods that the deceased savored while living are set upon the table.

Although it is a blustery grey September day, I imagine a white table cloth embroidered in red flapping in the wind…a table laden with dark bread, cheese, kielbasa, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, salads and special dishes like the eggplant Oksana made for me a few weeks ago. All is prepared to remember the departed ones and share a family meal in their honor.

It’s called Provody combining a belief in Christ’s victory over death, the ancient wonder of spring time rebirth and continual family love for the departed. When you understand a little about another culture, picnic tables in a cemetery are not so strange.

Babushka was only 57 when she died last week. I have learned that Ukraine has an alarmingly high death rate. It’s pegged at 16.3 per thousand people. Prevalent smoking and excessive use of alcohol add to the problem. Combined with a declining birth rate, the UN warns that Ukraine could lose as many as 10 million people by 2050. That’s more than 20% of the current population of 46 million.

Of course, every generation dies and the next one creates its own everyday life. I remember my grandmother Dolphin sitting on her front sun porch. My childhood memories see her surrounded by house plants, starched laced curtains and green window shades drawn down exactly half way.

My grandmother would tell stories about this neighbor and that neighbor who had died. As a youngster, it was a little creepy, but now I understand or at least I think I do. It was her way of dealing with ordinary life that was changing - slipping away one neighbor at a time.

Babushka died suddenly. All of us at Hearts of Love are sad and we know that we will need to make even more room in our hearts for her granddaughter. She may be troubled, but she is not alone. There is always room in ordinary life for more love...always.

Saturday, September 11

Ordinary Life: Russian Visitor and a Birthday

He is Russian and I am American. As a young man, he worked on a production line building Soviet rocket engines. He was a member of the Soviet military and I am the first American he ever met.

We speak different languages and have lived different lives, but from the moment I met him, I sensed that we would become friends, but I had no idea how we would be thrown together

Mikhael is 70 years old and the father of Oksanna, my good friend. He's visiting from the southern part of Russia. In Konotop, it is common for some relatives to live in Russia and others in Ukraine. The border is a geopolitical construct, but for families it makes little difference. These days they can move freely.

Today is Oksanna's son's birthday party. We will go to the river for a celebration. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and myself are honored to be included in the "family."

Maxsim is 16 and in the last year of school. In Ukraine, there are 11 years of school though many young people then attend an institute. It's like an American junior college.

Ukrainians value education although their methodologies are often more geared to memorization and repetition. The educational reforms that happened in America post World War II are just beginning to seep into Ukrainian schools. Peace Corps is helping by assigning our largest group of volunteers to Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

I am introduced to Mikhael. We shake hands as is customary among men here, but not with women. While Americans might wave a quick hello to a friend, I have seen Ukrainians take a detour to the other person, make physical contact by briskly shaking hands and then move on, sometimes, without speaking a word. It's a ubiquitous greeting even three year old boys do it.

After introductions, we pack stuff into the Soviet era utility van that Tolleg (Oxanna's husband) uses for work. There is the front seat and one passenger bench behind. The rest is open space.

A big pot of shashlick is set down. It is a special treat reserved for special occasions like this one. Chunks of pork are marinating in a creamy mixture of onions, garlic and spices.

A pit will be dug and a wood fire made. Hardwoods, like cherry, are often used since they make for the best shashlick. The meat will be skewered and cooked over the glowing coals. The men are the ones in charge here - just like an American barbecue.

Oksanna has made an eggplant relish. This blend of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, peppers and of course lots of garlic is a favorite of mine. She smiles noticing that I have spied it. She promises to show me how to make it . I will pass the recipe along.

What's a birthday without a cake? Actually, a cake is not so traditional in Ukraine, but I decide to Americanize this birthday by using my spring-form cake pan again. I make a yellow cake dotted with several handfuls of blueberries. It gets a chorus of "ahhhs" as I carefully lay it on top of the mound of stuff filling the van.

There are more traditional foods too. A pile of river fish have been breaded in a light batter and fried. Another pot holds boiled potatoes simply sprinkled with parsley and butter. Of course no Ukrainian meal would be complete without lots of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions along with bread and cheese.

Oh, don't forget the vodka. Now I think we are ready to go.

Mikhael and I are directed to the passenger bench where we both easily fill all available space. Neither of us are small men.

The drive is an adventure. The van's shock absorbers are long gone. The road is a washboard of pot holes and asphalt patches. There is no avoiding bumps and what feels like leaps into the air. Mikhael and I collide squashing our bodies together. We start holding on to one another for if that will help.

The road goes from asphalt to gravel to dirt. The last several kilometers are simply a cow path curving across an open field from a small village towards the river. I savor a Ukrainian sun drenched day as the the bumps and leaps become ever more intense. I look off to the horizon imaging that I am at an amusement park and riding the Dare-Devil-Twister.

Suddenly with no warning, the seat we are sitting on gives way. Both Michael and I flip backwards with a thud. The big American and the big Russian lay side by side on their backs with legs flailing in the air.

After a moment of silence, we look at one another and begin to laugh. Others want to help us get up, but we just lay there laughing and laughing. I cannot remember laughing so hard.

Eventually we unscramble our bodies. No one is hurt. My cake is the only victim. The spring-form pan has a big dent and the cake is partially smashed. We laugh again. It will still taste good.

Later in the day, we walked by the river and talk. The conversation recalls our shared Cold War history. I wonder what he thinks about the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Americans were afraid of nuclear war," I say "As a school student I use to practice hiding under my desk or cowering in the hallways as if it would protect me from a blast."
That's when I learn that Mikhael worked on rocket engines - maybe the same ones we feared.

He tells me he has no recollection of this Cuban Missile Crisis. He says, "Most Russians did not worry about nuclear attacks." I'm astonished since during the Cold War, Americans were so preoccupied with the fear of nuclear weapons. I wish my Russian was better to deepen our conversation. He says, "but life is better now - Da?" I agree.

Ukrainian picnics and dinners go on for hours, but eventually they end. As the sun sets, we drive home. The seat has been turned and leans against the inside of the van. Mickael and I are again smashed together again holding on to one another for security and now in friendship.

I brim over with a warm satisfaction. What a happy birthday it has been for all of us. I think how unusual for me to be thrown together with a Russian and Soviet military man. But then again, in Konotop and Ukraine, the unexpected happens all the time.

Wednesday, September 1

Ordinary Life: Transportation

This is a story of a boyhood dream come true. If I was a young boy, I would shriek with excitement. But since I am a grown man, I hide my feelings behind a broad smile.

My story starts with an ordinary ride. In a country where private automobiles are still not common, folks either use foot-power or a form of public transport. It forces people from all walks of life (except the very rich) to rub shoulders with one another. I think it is a daily reminder that we all are part of the human family.

In town, Marshrutkas are common. These are mini-buses that are often used by retirement homes in the USA, except here they have been retrofitted with extra rows of seats. They make airplane seating seem luxurious.

Konotop has 17 routes. For 1 1/2 grievnah or about 18 cents you can travel from one end of town to the other and all points in between. But there are no transfers. You will need to pay another 18 cents.

Konotop has a Tram Way too. It's popular among seniors, because they get to ride free. Built during Stalin's time, Konotop is the smallest city in Ukraine with such a system.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that during Soviet times Konotop was a center for military deployment. I recently learned that of the three major Soviet Tank Divisions, Konotop was home for the most western one.

Today, I take the Tram Way (it's free for me!) to the Vakzal and meet up with Babushka. She has invited me on an excursion into the forest. We will take an Elecktrichka instead of a Poyezd.

The Elecktrichka is an electric powered train and differs from the diesel Poyezd since it usually travels shorter distances between towns and villages. There are no sleeping compartments and people sit on benches facing one another three by three. For less than a dollar, we will travel an hour into the countryside.

As seats fill up, vendors walk the aisles hawking their merchandise. One man sells an assortment of magazines and newspapers. Another offers socks, shoe laces, gloves and other small household items. A much older woman, who seems to be permanently bent over, drags big bags filled with sodas, bottled water, candies and cookies.

We are a diverse group on the Electrishka. People, who are dressed as if they have some money, sit across from those who have little. Families with children are next to pensioners, army men, university students and on this trip, a spiked-heeled and mini-skirted young woman with painted nails about an inch long. She stands out, of course.

I settle into the bench alongside Babushka and across from several of her friends. Using my small print Russian/English dictionary, we have fun "talking" with one another. I find that smiles and laughter make for good communications in any language.
Unexpectedly, Babushka stands up. She beckons me to follow her. "Where are we going," I wonder. We sway our way through the moving car towards the front of the Elecktrishka. I see her conferring with one of the conductors and before I know what is happening, I am sitting next to the engineer looking out the train's front window.

In front of me, an array of gauges, throttles and pedals control the speed and blow the whistles. He explains some of the workings of the train and points out the safety lights that switch from green to yellow to double yellow and red. I notice the train tops at 55 kilometers per hour.

It's every child's dream.

In my childhood, I remember the family getting a 45 RPM record player. It was the kind which took a stack of records and automatically dropped the next one into play.

Among the records was a double record story about a boy and a train. I think it was called "Sparky and the Talking Train." I listened to it over and over again. Although I cannot recall the story line, I do remember the feeling. It was magical.

I beam a Grand Canyon wide smile. Today has become magical. I'm Sparky. Although I do not get to run the train, I am right next to the engineer. When he blows the whistle, I imagine some talking. Now would that be Russian or English?

Monday, August 30

Ordinary Life: Into the Forest

My day begins with a phone call from Annya. I have known her for over a year and every time she calls me something interesting is bound to happen. "My Babushka wants to know if you want to go to the forest."

Among Ukrainians, going to the forest is one of the preferred leisure activities. Ukrainians love their land and especially the forests. I've heard many a discourse bestowing the benefits of pine scented air and the healing qualities of nature's beauty. They say going to the forest can heal mind, body and soul. Who am I to disagree?

Annya continues, "My Babushka has a special place to pick ground apples. Will you join her and a couple of friends?"

I have learned to never say no to an invitation and immediately agree. I will learn about forging for ground apples.... whatever that may be.

It's a beautiful day. The oppressive heat of a few weeks ago is gone. Blue skies mixed with delicious marshmallow clouds hover over golden fields. The sunflower crop has been harvested and the corn awaits its turn. Distant clusters of people work fields by hand. I think they are harvesting potatoes for their family's winter meals.

Much of the land is unploughed. I am told that ownership disputes have not been settled since the demise of Communism. In addition, markets and infrastructure for crops are undeveloped. Ukraine is rich in natural resources, but has yet to benefit fully.

I look out over the Ukrainian landscape. I try to imprint the images into my mind. I am aware that my time in Ukraine is running down. Already I have been here more time than remains. I want to capture the sights for my old age memories.

Summer is turning towards Fall. Fields in greens, yellows and browns flow across the horizon. Mounds of hay dot the landscape. Stork nests adorn the tops of electric poles like large baskets A horse drawn cart trots down a two rut path. Flocks of geese waddle across a pond. Babushkas sit on benches outside of village homes watching our train swoosh by.

About an hour later, we arrive at a village station. It's like hundreds of others that mark destinations across Ukraine. I am surprised to see a professionally dressed woman waiting for us. She is the Director of the Station. I learn that my Babushka worked for many year as a ticket-taker on the trains. She knows everyone!

"Please come inside," says the Director in Russian. "We have prepared a little welcome for you." Within moments, we gather around an office table. Pizza, chicken cutlets and of course, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers appear along with a tort (cake) and a small bottle of vodka.

We toast to health and then to friendship and then to women and then the vodka runs out. I savor the moments. An ordinary train trip has been transformed into an occasion. What a welcome!

Now into the forest, we go. Sun shadows speckles are path. A backdrop of white pines scent the air. Here and there, a cluster of birch trees stand out. I am feeling the healing qualities.

We walk and then walk some more. After about 3 kilometers, we spy our first ground apples. They are about the size of golf balls or even smaller. They grow under the white pines on ground hugging shrubs. "Pick the yellow ones and leave the green for later," my Babushka instructs.

We get busy filling bags and then pouring the contents of our bags into a big sack. Babushka and here sister have a family dispute about the best way to hitch the sack to the bike. I have been taking photos and now capture the squabble. We all begin to laugh. Sisters will be sisters.

The ground apples are terribly soar like lemons. Each one will be cored and either boiled for compote juice or ground into marmalade. It's a lot of work.
As we scurry back to catch our 6:00 pm train to Konotop, I realize that this trip is more than foraging. It's a chance to enjoy friendships, delight in impromptu parties, see the countryside and taste the beauty of nature. For this American, it is also a way to remember a Ukrainian way of life.

Thursday, August 5

Pebbles - Seen and Unseen

Like most Americans, I like to feel engaged and productive. Give me a project to work on. I am happy. Let me develop a strategy for that goal. I feel energized. Give me a problem to solve and I feel like I am making a difference. Sure at times, I can get to feeling overloaded, but still I would rather be busy than not.

Interestingly, this Peace Corps experience is changing my perspectives. Here I am learning about life when it seems empty, when there is no new project. People go on vacations or tend to family or plant gardens or get sick or a dozen other things.

At times nothing much happens. Life is still. Whatever shall I do?

A box of stuff stares at me from the corner of my apartment begging for attention. I have been ignoring it for several weeks. It's the left overs from my move into my new apartment. I must have some kind of phobia about unpacking that final box. It just sits there.

But today I finally say “enough procrastination” and dig in. After all, it will fill the emptiness of a hot muggy day. Here in Konotop the temperatures are soaring over 40C or 105F.

On top of the box is a newspaper from Bangkok. I must have tossed it there upon my return. I can't resist picking it up and noticing a small article that I circled on the back page - “Life Amid The Pebbles.” Interesting, I think and begin to read.

The author observes how a few weeds have managed to sprout on the rocky pathway of his garden. I think, "Who sees such things? Who has time to notice unless you are no longer so busy?" Interesting....

He continues by wondering how those weeds make it through a thick layer of stones devoid of soil or sand or water. “How can life thrive and grow in this parched and unfriendly environment?”

Indeed! My mind wanders to the immense challenges facing leaders in Ukraine.

Within in living memory, Ukraine has absorbed so much death and destruction into its collective psyche. Stalin's agricultural collectivization created an artificial famine killing more than 3 million previously independent peasants. Some say it was more like 7 million. Then came the Nazi occupation killing another 5 million in the war and devastating the countries infrastructure.

According to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, losses were enormous. No less than 2 million buildings and 1600 industrial enterprises gone. 714 towns and cities destroyed. Another 2800 villages devastated. Even here in Konotop, I learned that 1000 Jewish citizens met death as the Nazi Holocaust swept into our little city.

No Ukrainian is untouched. Horrid memories live in the collective psyche. This is not hyperbole. Sadly, it's truth. I guess that's why I am so struck by the courage of Ukrainian people to embrace life again.

The story of my Center for disabled children comes to mind. A mother with a disabled child overcomes her own depression and collective fatalism to create a Hearts of Love Center. This week 45 children with all sorts of disabilities are enjoying Day Camp.

I see the young girl who could not stand at our Spring Beauty Pageant because of a bone deformity. She has had an operation and her leg is in a cast now. It's part of a long term treatment. She gleefully swings around on crutches. I think she is beautiful.
A young boy has another bone disease and cannot walk at all. You would not know it by looking at him. He exudes energy and is so cute. But then you see that he is carried everywhere by counselors or when they are not available, he pulls himself across the ground with such strong little arms. He wants to be part of the action and I think he will always find a way.

The author of my article reflects more about pebbles.

"These days we are short of people who are willing to be the first stones who pave the way so that other stones can be laid down. The stones on the upper and topmost levels are the ones seen and acknowledged by people and society, but the first stones have to remain at the bottom.

“We hardly find people of this nature – those willing to be first stones that pave the way for others. That’s why virtuous creations rarely come about."

What kind of stones have I met in Ukraine? What kind am I? I sigh reflectively as I cut out the article for my "Good Stuff" file and finish unpacking the rest of the box. The stillness is no longer so empty. Thoughts of pebbles fill my mind.

A week passes and I am sitting on a bench at the Hearts of Love Center awaiting the start of Camp. The stillness of last week is replaced by the energy of children. Everyone is excited.

A young woman spots me, waves and moves in my direction. She is one of the translators who will help the volunteers from the UK who have come to help with Camp.

"I am so glad to see you very glad, " she beams. Again? Honestly, I am having a hard time remembering where and when we met before. Noticing my uncertainty, she adds, " I was the translator for your group project. Remember?"

During training all new Peace Corps Volunteers have to pull together a community project. My group did some Internet Research and held a round table discussion with a few city officials, some university students and Peace Corps trainers. I never considered it much of a project until now.

"Your project changed my life."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. "After that meeting, one of the Peace Corps staff asked me to apply for a position. Of course, I knew about the Peace Corps, but I never would have thought about applying for a position."

I smile in astonishment and she continues, " I owe it all to your training group. If I had not been invited to be your translator, none of this would have happened. I just love my job with the Peace Corps. It's like a new beginning for me."

I marvel at this unexpected story and imagine how her leadership is already effecting others. What more will she accomplish in the 35 or more years of her professional life?

Pebbles. Sometimes you get to be a pebble...even when you don't know it's happening nor understand how important it can be in another's life. And sometimes your pebble can be part of the foundation for a virtuous creation.

Monday, July 19

More than Language

Recently, I attended Peace Corps Summer Language Camp. It’s a chance to work intensively on language development. It can be either an albatross of frustration or golden opportunity depending on how you look upon it.

I try to be positive. Every day we’re immersed in the Russian language either attending classes or playing camp games. I marvel at the language expertise of some younger volunteers. They speak with a fluency that I can hardly imagine for myself. Often I do not know what is being said, but I keep trying. And sometimes, I surprise myself. I actually catch on to more than I ever thought possible.

I say to my classmates, “In Konotop, I am known as nominative case Jud. Everything I say is in the nominative case.” They laugh and smile when I say, “I have decided to make a change and take on noun endings.”

In Russian there are 6 noun cases with different endings for masculine, feminine and neuter. It gets more expansive. Each one can have as many as 4 variants. Do the math. That’s 6 x 3 x 4 = 72 endings. Repeat for plural forms. So deciding to take on noun endings is no trifle and speaking them can be daunting.
Wonderfully, I get lots of support from other volunteers. These gatherings bring us together. One of the best parts of my PC experience has been the chance to know energetic and dedicated younger people. We get to share many conversations.

I’m walking history. I tell them about the Viet Nam War and the Marches on Washington in 1968 and 1969. We all puzzle at why so many died and for what. Now Viet Nam has become a tourist destination. The government is still communist and the dominoes are still standing.
They talk about their generation’s war in Afghanistan, terrorism, human rights, alleviating poverty, the environment and more. I realize that they will be involved in many forms of public service. In a small ways, I try to encourage. But mostly, I delight in knowing that peace and justice ideals live on.

As the week progresses, I decide to take a language proficiency test known as an LPI.
For about 20 minutes I sit with a language instructor who asks me questions. I am able to respond and only miss one question. I am communicating in a language whose alphabet seemed impossible just a year ago.

I score intermediate low. It’s the same as I received after training a year ago. I think, “At least I did not fall backwards.” Even more, I now I feel like it’s a more solid score than before. I am actually encouraged.
Camp comes to an end. I say goodbye to friends and set off for the Train Station and a real-life language experience. As you know from reading my Blog, the Train Station can be a language and cultural challenge if not nightmare.

Heading the challenge list are the ticket agents. They are notorious for their attitude. Even Ukrainians complain about them.

“Please repeat,” I ask and I get a louder and faster response. It is not helpful. As I try my best to understand, from behind others crowd in. A lady is lurking over my shoulder adding here comments to my situation. It’s not unusual to have someone literally in your face – inches away.

Ukrainians and Americans have different needs for private space. Maybe the years of families doubling or tripling or quadrupling in small living spaces has altered their need for privacy and distance. Or maybe because Americans live in an expansive country, we expect more space. All I know, it’s unsettling. I leave the ticket counter to regroup for another try.

This time I am in a more buoyant and prepared mood. Although a lady behind me crowds in again, I am able to get, not only one ticket, but two for my connection. It’s a language and cultural victory.

Outside, there are five different platforms for departing trains. There is no posting of train arrivals and departures. Only loud speakers are gargling in Russian. It’s impossible. I decide to try a new strategy.

“Can you tell me what platform for the train to Neegan,” I say to an older looking couple. They do not know, but promise to tell me when the announcement is made.

I say, “Thank you so much. I only speak a little Russian.” They smile and say that I am doing very well. I continue, “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Konotop. I work with disabled children.” They ask me how long and I tell them for two years. A new friendship begins.

As departure time arrives, there is some confusion about which side of the train to board. The crowd surges to the left side. My new friends assure me that it will be on the right side and there is no need to move. They have taken me under their protective care.

But then, they decide that maybe they are wrong and they begin to usher me forward. Of course we are speaking some Russian in the midst of this confusion and I am only catching a part of it. Just then a young woman steps forward and offers her assistance in ENGLISH!!

Inside, we all sit together and begin a little conversation. I speak Russian and when my vocabulary fails, the young woman serves as translator. Others are drawn into our conversation. Stoic public faces that are typical of Ukrainian people get a hint of good humor. People are smiling at this American guest on the 3rd class Electrishka (electric train and least expensive way to travel) who’s going to Konotop.

As we wait, vendors are moving up and down the aisles. On an Electrishka, you can buy lots of things from socks to fly paper to food. My new friends say, “Here the bazaar comes to you.” We all laugh together and continue our conversation.

A young man, who is selling buns stuffed with cheesy potatoes, steps forward. He insists that I take one, but I decline. He insists more. I try to pay, but no. He will not take payment.
“It’s my gift to you,” he smiles.

The woman next to me says, “He is my brother.” When I say “your brother” using Russian, she corrects me. “No, brother in Jesus.” I say that I understand and with a smile she says, “Amen.”

A scene from Feeding the 5000 flashes across my mental screen. I try to share the bun, but a Babushka across the aisle tells me to save it for later. “You will be hungry.” Others agree and refuse my offer with much kindness. The train feels like a car load of friends.

It is interesting how reaching out is often met with kindness. I guess small kindnesses are contagious in any language. It's wonderful.

But then I get to thinking, why do we too often retreat and hold back when reaching out and helping one another can be so much more fun?

You can learn a lot more than language at Summer Camp.

Saturday, June 26

Bangkok Part I

"We are recommending medical evacuation," explains my Peace Corps doctor? During my mid-service medical exam, several suspicious marks were found on my skin. The Peace Corps doctors suspected basal cell cancer - not the dangerous type, thankfully. They decided that the best course of treatment would be a visit to their medical back-up center in Bangkok.>

Bangkok was never on my "must see" list, but here I am being medically evacuated or as some light heartedly suggest going on a medical vacation or a "Medic-Vac."

I arrive at 4:00 am in the morning after a 9 1/2 hour flight from Kiev. I am anxious about new language and money conversion and getting a taxi especially at this hour in the morning. But as I step off the plane, I see that I can relax. I am in a very modern world class airport that is only a few years old. It is quickly becoming a hub for all of southeast Asia.

I am relieved that signs are in local Thai (a form of Sanskrit, I believe) and English. It is easy to navigate through customs and to the baggage claim. My final anxiety is also relieved. My back-pack comes circling around.

Outside I get a taxi. My driver speaks staccato. He only knows isolated words in English. Now I know how my beginner's Russian sounds to my Ukrainian friends. A word here and a word there, but not much of the connecting lingo.

I think he is talking about the recent unrest in Bangkok. He keeps making gun-shooting sounds like kids do when they are playing "shoot 'em." It's unnerving at 5:00 am especially when each "shoot 'em" sound is followed with laughter. I have to take several deep breathes to still my mind from racing ahead.

I need sleep.

After 20 minutes of a fast and thrilling ride, I reach the hotel. I am greeted by two doormen and a desk clerk who are all smiles. I mean these folks really know how to smile broadly. They greet you with palms together and a short bow too. I feel so welcomed.

My room is clean and simple like many 2 star hotels I have stayed in. I have all the basics and a comfortable bed.

I am bone tired.

The next day I see my doctor. The Bumrungard Medical Center is directly across the street from the hotel. The Peace Corps has made excellent arrangements even providing a specialized nurse to accompany me. She is great.

I enter a spacious lobby that resembles a 5 star hotel lobby. I see a Starbucks, a few shops and even a WIFI cyber corner amidst clusters of stylish sofas and comfy chairs. There is no institutional look here.

A young smiling Thai woman greets me in English. She directs me to the second floor registration. All is done efficiently, like America, and with even more friendly patient care.

My doctor is remarkable. He spends about 30 minutes examining and explaining treatment options. Several times he asks if I have questions and he does it in such a way as to invite questions. Can you believe it?

After a brief time in the waiting area where containers of juice and water are offered, I return for treatment. The doctor spends another 20 minutes taking a few biopsies and doing some skin freezing to prevent further problems.

I am delighted with the care. Procedures are in keeping with what I know of American practices and I never got the feeling that he was in a hurry to see another patient. In fact, he gives me a restaurant recommendations and even draws a detailed map on how to get there.

The next day is for sightseeing. I want to go to the Grand Palace and Wat Phara Kaew, a temple complex where the revered Emerald Buddha resides. Getting there is a challenge.

I study maps and metro stations. The streets in Bangkok seem like a jumble of pick-up sticks. As best as I can tell, each neighborhood has a main avenue with smaller streets that run off of it and then smaller allies that run off the streets. The streets in each area are numbered. The odd numbers run off of one side of the main avenue and the even on the other. It is quite tricky for a westerner to figure out. Missing is the predictable grid pattern.

I venture off to the Sky Way, an elevated Metro that has been in operation for a few years. Bangkok is notorious for constant grid lock. The Sky Way speeds you to your destination in a clean modern system. Stops are announced in Thai and English. I am impressed.

Unfortunately, the public transit only takes me 3/4 of the way. Now I must catch a taxi. My driver speaks no English and has difficulty understanding my map which of course is in English script.

It's a struggle or as I prefer to think during my better moments, a new adventure. Somehow after 20 minutes of traffic jams and making a wrong turn, we get to the Grand Palace and Buddha Temple. I have no complaint. The driver smiles and gives me a discount for the wrong turn.

The vacation part of my "Medi-Vac" begins.

Bangkok Part II

I have to remind myself that I am not on a Hollywood set viewing a remake of the King and I. It is astounding to be here and to see the remarkable architecture close up. It is so unlike anything I have ever seen in the West.

The Grand Palace complex was established in 1782 by a King Rama I. When he assumed the throne, he declared the old palace not suitable. So a new one was designed and constructed. Kings get to do it their way.

The complex consists of his royal residence, a series of government buildings and the highly renowned temple of the Emerald Buddha.

The colors are bright and intense. The design is graceful yet strong. And the craftsmanship is evident in delicate mosaics, intricate carvings and epic paintings. I stand there mesmerized Tourists, like me, are busy snapping pictures. In every direction there is something dazzling to see.

As I walk I hear chanting in the distance.
This area is also a functioning Buddhist Temple. People go to the Emerald Buddha to honor the teachings of Buddha. As was explained to me, Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a teaching about living in harmony and peace.. Still this place is one of the most venerated sites in all of Thailand.

The Emerald Buddha is actually green jade. When discovered in 1434, it was covered in plaster. Nobody took it to be more than an ordinary Buddha image. But some plaster on it nose flaked away and revealed a lovely stone beneath. Mistakenly, it was thought to be emerald. Hence, the legend of the Emerald Buddha began.

The Emerald Buddha is quite small. In the temple, it's overpowered by a massive and ornate altar upon which it sits. Other Buddha images flank the altar. Epic paintings adorn the walls depicting the life of Buddha including his Great Renunciation and Temptations to Enlightenment. All is ablaze with gold.

I stop and take off my shoes and enter this sacred space. The ritual is simple. Kneel. Bow three times with face to the ground and then with palms together say your prayers.

Often I am told, people pray for loved ones who have died. I pray for family and friends who have died, some recently, and imagine them in a safe and satisfying state.

Outside people pause at a cauldron of holy water and lotus blossoms. They use the blossoms to sprinkle themselves and one another.

It's a respectful ritual but done with smiles and a little playfulness. In an oppressively hot climate where it is normally 90 F or more, water is a welcomed relief. And in a world as troubled as ours, holy water should be shared gleefully.

For several hours I wander the Grand Palace complex. Here are a few more images for you to enjoy....

With the sun still blazing, I find an outdoor porch and enjoy an entire bottle of cold water.
Thailand has known warfare and lots of strife, but there seems to be an inner tranquility. Then I meet a young man from Indochina. He tells me something remarkable. Thailand means "Land of Peace." I never knew that before and now I will never forget. What a wonderful place...I think I'll have another bottle of water.