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In the almost six years since I finished my Peace Corps service in Ukraine, I've thought a lot about what it all meant. Peace Corps as an organization often poses the questions: "What does your Peace Corps service mean to you?" or "How has you Peace Corps service impacted you life?" However, the question I've most been asked since I returned five years ago is: "Um, so, how was it?" A pretty impossible question to answer, actually. How to explain that you experience your highest highs and your lowest lows during your service? How to explain how unbelievably lonely you can be while feeling love and gratitude from an entire village for your presence? How to explain that there's nothing fun about using an outhouse in the middle of winter, but something gratifying about not being phased by even the nastiest first-world bathroom? In reality joining the Peace Corps is the best decision I've ever made and has changed me fundamentally as a person, but again, how to explain the gratitude I feel for having had the opportunity to have such an amazing experience?
This is my best attempt at conveying all of that, what it means to me to be a volunteer, how the Peace Corps has impacted my life, and most importantly, how it was. I actually wrote this while I was a volunteer, in the last few months of my service, it started just as a personal reflection and morphed into a grad school essay.
"Running. Ugh,” I think, as I pull myself out of bed on an August weekday morning. All I want to do is stay under the covers, but my water turns off in two hours and I have to finish my run and take a shower before it does. My rural town in Western Ukraine is on a water schedule. We only have water from 6:00 to 11:00 in the morning and from 6:00 to 11:00 in the evening. I groan and look longingly at the coffee machine as I pull on my t-shirt. “Gotta do it. No gym here.” I try to motivate myself. I pad into the hallway to put on my sneakers, caked with mud from my last run on the unpaved roads. As I lock my door, one of my neighbors stares me up and down and shakes her head. “Crazy Amerikanka.”
As I head down the street I pass chickens, mean geese that start to chase me because I’ve gotten too close, horses grazing, and goats napping in gullies. There are the old babucyi (grandmothers) who look like they’ve stepped out of another time, wearing galoshes and wool tights no matter the weather, their kerchiefs wrapped around their heads, with wrinkled faces staring out and wondering why that Amerikanka isn’t wearing a hat. I grumble some more as a man yells “Sportsman?” at me and laughs hysterically at his joke. I pass School No. 5, my school, where I’m not just the weird Amerikanka who has strange habits, but where I’m their Amerikanka, oddities and all. I smile. I miss teaching. I miss my students. I miss hearing my fifth formers ask me, every day, in turn, “Miss Overbagh, bingo today?” and having my sixth formers cheer when I give them a word search. I miss the funny way my Ukrainian counterpart says “Oh, that is very interesting,” when she’s not completely convinced about a new teaching technique I’ve used, but that she will without fail introduce in her classes the next week. I wonder if the German teacher has had her baby, or if Susanna, a recent graduate has been accepted into the translation department at the university like she dreams. I laugh to myself, garnering some more strange looks, as I think about all the times I’ve been pulled out of class, or called into school from my apartment to explain to a group of visitors how we received our new computer and internet lab, what the Peace Corps is, and the most pressing concern, how exactly an un-married twenty-four year old girl can live by herself.
I start running towards the town proper, my least favorite part of the route. The more people around, the more I’ll get scrutinized. Things look more similar to America here: there are cars and buses, stores, and public buildings, shoppers, and children. But at second glance, everything is old, withered, in disrepair. There are soviet style apartment blocks, tiny stores in the town square, horses pulling carts to and from the bazaar, people in BMWs as well as ancient Ladas, and women who dress like prostitutes to go work at the bank, the post office, the town administration.
My mind starts to wander as I run out of the town center again. Just me, the badly paved road, and some stray dogs. I think about the Harry Potter book I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time, where the kids are preparing for exams, and I’m jealous. I miss academia. I want to be right there with the characters in the book, studying, writing papers, feeling that rush when you know you’ve aced an exam. As a graduate student I probably won’t be taking classes on potions and the history of magic, but I’m prepared to go back to school to study the more mundane subject of education.
I run on and turn right, following the paved part of the road towards the town’s revered fortress. When the Ukrainian president came to its one-thousandth birthday celebration, the road was paved in his honor, but only to the fortress. An old thatched roof was also replaced on a house nearby, and a new fence erected. I shake my head at the absurdity of it: a president not permitted to see how poor his people really are. Suddenly, the fortress is in view. Even now, almost two years since I first saw it, it still takes my breath away. The massive fortress walls surrounding the castle overlook the Dnister River, just as when they stood fast before the Turks and the Russians centuries ago. I reflect a bit and then turn around, remembering how lucky I am to live here. I think about the huge tourism project my students and I did, which culminated in them leading English Language tours around the fortress. My students were so enthusiastic, so proud of themselves. They were so surprised to see Americans excited about their little town, having assumed that nothing in Ukraine could top anything in America. They were overjoyed at the ease with which they were able to understand these visitors. They made me proud to be their teacher.
I’m heading back into the town, passing more people, trying to ignore them scoffing at my red face and my sweaty pony-tail. I smile at some kids I don’t know, who say “Hi” to me. I walk around the back of my building, ducking my neighbors’ drying laundry and head up the dark stairwell, thinking about how different my life will be in just a few months time when I’m back in the U.S. It’ll be strange, exciting, and scary all at the same time. But I’m ready. It’s time to head on to new and different things, to start my life as a graduate student and to bring my experiences as a teacher in a developing country back to teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in urban schools in the U.S. that likely need as much help as my school in Ukraine.
As I unlock my door, my outlook is completely different from when I left. I’m awake. I’m ready for the next adventure. I open the door and my apartment sounds eerily quiet. What’s missing? The familiar gurgle of my somewhat dysfunctional toilet. The water is off. Early. Ugh. Now I’ll have to boil water for a bucket-bath. Typical Ukraine.