Ukraine in a Nutshell 2016

Well this last three weeks has been jam packed and a complete whirlwind. So full in fact I haven’t written a thing about my time in Ukraine. It continues to be a challenge not to post pictures without my computer but that will be my summer project along with studying for boards. (update…it has still taken until the end of September to update the blog…pictures hopefully coming soon)
My first week in Lviv was spent returning to Dzherelo rehabilitation center. Over the last half year we’ve been trying to recruit a little team of volunteers that were sponsored by the Children of Chernobyl Fund to help with education and a needs assessment of the clinic. Dzherelo is an amazing pediatric rehabilitation center in Lviv which has pioneered a western model of rehabilitation in Ukraine. They continue to persist and expand despite many road blocks and lack of streamlined/comprehensive physio education in Ukraine. While much of that is changing as we speak, they continue to try and assess how they can serve a greater population and how to maintain a staff of exceptionally qualified professionals. Though I was only able to spend 6 days at the clinic this trip, it seemed worthwhile to support our team on the ground. I was able to give two presentations to the staff and offer day to day recommendations as well as assist with future planning for certain aspects of the clinic. Selfishly, a highlight for me was working with the kids and staff in early intervention which I’ve really come to love after my time in Cincinnati. Our team on the ground is doing the real long term work and I hope this partnership can continue to grow and evolve into sustainable recommendations for the clinic.

Part two of my trip to Ykraiina was to join Tomer in his maiden voyage to the homeland.
He ended up getting delayed overnight which luckily all worked out in the end and he attended my last day in clinic to see the place and come to my last presentation.
It was sad to part ways with everyone at the clinic and my time was far too short but afterwards it was on to a once in a lifetime adventure. For those of you that know the two of us, you know that Tomer and I don’t exactly end up being on the same side of the world too often. On this rare occasion and months of renegotiating plans, we got to spend a solid week and half adventuring through Ykraiina. I got to show Tomer my favorite city of Lviv for two days which was jam packed. It was so awesome reliving all of it in a more touristy way again and being with someone who understands all the inside jokes. Our first day we did the church circuit, which is a lot for one city center. There was a beautiful market in full swing for Easter celebrations along the main walkway in front of the opera. We had to indulge in all of the souvenir shops as we are total suckers for anything with a tryzub (Ukrainian trident) on it. We also went up the town hall building to get a view of the city and be alarmed by the very loud bells. We hit up a variety of the thematic restaurants and bars as well including: a coffee mine where I almost lost my eyebrows to a blow torch heating my beverage, Hasova lampa which includes a large collection of gas lamps, an underground restaurant complete with running water flowing under Lviv, a fun gingerbread shop, local bakeries, and topping the night off at kraiivka a restaurant in an underground bunker for the Ukrainian Insurgent army complete with passwords and shots of medick (honey vodka) to get in for some solid ukrainian food and tunes. Somehow without fail, the accordion player stopped in front of my table and started on Chervona Ruta over the course of several visits to kraiivka this trip.
Our second day we went to Lychekivsi cemetery. We had a fun cab driver that was Tomers first experience of me being asked if we were from Poland based on my old language. Even if I was speaking polish, it still doesn’t sound like my first language so we are always flattered when they don’t assume we are from across the pond haha. This convo always quickly turns into, no I know old words and then questions about how and why we are in Ukraine and how we know Ukrainian, where our grandparents are from and occasional ends in encouragement to share Ukrainian language because it is slowly fading away and most certainly always ends in many blessings and well wishes for our travels and invites to return.
In theory it might be strange to visit a cemetery but it’s also fascinating to see so much history in one place. Many famous Ukrainians are laid to rest here and it was also beautiful. The memorials for past soldiers was moving last time I visited but things have changed in the last three years. When we approached it was a bit eerie seeing freshly tilled land and then seeing new burials covered in flags and flowers from the most recent revolution. The presence of support for the newest heroes in Ukraine is apparent throughout western Ukraine. It’s one thing for the news stories to die down and it’s another to see mourning families visiting the lose of a child or brother as Easter approached here in Ukraine. It is a reminder that these issues continue amidst everyday life all over the world and it still brings chills.
We headed back to the center after to continue our exploration and settled on dim legends which we hadn’t gotten to the day before. It’s one of the original thematic restaurant/bars in Lviv and includes several stories of themed rooms with a touch of mystery. For example, cobbles from around Lviv and one of lions including feet poking through the ceiling. It was a stunning day and we scored a seat on the roof so we relaxed for a bit with a view of the city. We had fun taking pics and watching people try to get photos in a very bouncy car attached somewhat suspiciously to the edge of the roof and climbed up a chimney for some photo ops.
We had a few things to organize including picking up our rental car that afternoon so we kept it chill with a walk in Styivski park and eating at a nearby Georgian restaurant where Tomer trialed a tongue dish which turned out to be very good. We managed to take our rental car for our upcoming road trip on a test run to the grocery store to stock up on snacks. The best part was all the Easter preparations so we tried to pick up a few items for a potential basket and mini Easter egg hunt for the upcoming holiday weekend on the road.

The next morning we bid farewell for now to my favorite city and the real adventure began….road trip.
First I should say that we knew the roads weren’t great. But somehow not great turned into the most horrendous ever quite quickly. This continued to escalate ending with the worst road on our very last day for 4 hours.
Anyways, we didn’t know that it could get that bad just yet and we had sort of thought we hit the worst of it on an infamously terrible road to Drohobych. En route we detoured to find our first abandoned castle in Stare Salo which was both neat and a tad eerie. Afterwards, we hit up Drohobych and found our babas old house. It was a pretty big city in comparison and so we decided to walk around to absorb it all. We made it to the church for that area and found the plot of our great grandmother/grandfather. I had been here 4 years prior but the cemetery is quite a sight and without solid direction I found the last name but not the right plot. It was neat that we could find it together and enjoy a bit of the city with a stop in the park to have lunch. The funniest part was randomly walking into a culture center and when we asked to look around promptly were given a tour and interrupted a children’s dance class to introduce the “guests from america” and to show us all of their trophies 🙂

After thoroughly walking around and taking some photos/videos for Baba we stopped in the touristy destination of tryskavets. It was fun to walk around and see some more markets and see what ukrainian tourists get up to. The main attraction is the mineral (aka sulfuric) water. The building opened up for the evening round of drinks so I encouraged Tomer to take a sip before we left. He may have gagged a little and I was not going to repeat the experience from 4 years ago so we called it a day after that. We hoped back in the car to make our very slow and bumpy drive to Ivano Frankivsk, another larger city where we decided to set up shop for the night.
We were quite wiped out but luckily I looked up some directions for the next day and we realized in the nick of time that there are 4 different cities with the same name and we had arranged to get to the wrong one the following day! We were meant to move on from Ivano Frankivsk after a little tour but instead we made it our camp for another night and left first thing to Yabluniv in Ternopilski Oblast to visit our Dido’s town. We also saw rain on the agenda for the entire week but ended up with another beautiful day for enduring a long drive. Thank all of the ukie powers we had a decent road this day and our 5 hour drive did not become 10. Actually we had a bit of spare time on the way and stopped for plenty of gorgeous views through the countryside as well as an impromptu photo shoot in our newly acquired embroidered tshirts in a field of yellow flowers against a bright blue sky. It was pretty epic to say the least. We got to Dido’s town ahead of schedule so had lunch and a walk in the neighboring fairy tale forest. We got into the town in time to FaceTime with Dido. Though it was a poor connection it was cool to say hi to him from his village via modern technology. Since we couldn’t chat too long we took a wander and were quite surprised at how much bigger it was beyond the original street turn off. It was stunning with a little pond and spring time in full bloom. We also saw 3 churches and a big school that the locals are all very proud of. On our wanders we saw a group of lunch ladies staring at us as we were obviously not locals. Tomer helped me muster up the courage to ask them about our family and we set off a task force. First, we learned that there are three variations of the last name that could have changed everything but based on various questions we all agreed it was one particular version. One lady took the lead and was quite sad because she was convinced her mother would have known my Dido but she had passed away a year ago. She took us to one of the older ladies left in the community (who was out tilling her garden) and helped us ask for any further information. After a lot of back and forth we discovered the older ladies son might know my family in Chicago, and that there might be another lady that would know that they would ask on Sunday at church. That way, god willing we are all reunited, they would have more details. Another lunch lady and some girls came back to say that their quest for answers did not reveal further info either but we were honestly just entertained by the whole ordeal. We were also told that one of the sons works in the town hall and had records of everyone in the town but he was away and everything was closed for the Easter weekend so we could check when we came back next time. We were just more entertained by the fact that info like our Dido came to this area with his cows was helpful information in figuring out where he must of have lived.
After parting ways with our search committee, the rain finally caught up with us so we embarked on the drive home. It poured pretty hard but luckily we already knew the road and didn’t have to slow down temendously. We found a place (on Good Friday) for dinner called Vereniky for some good ukie food before crashing.
Saturday we got up and though a little misty, we made our way around ivano frankivsk to see the city center.  We also stocked up on treats from the local market for the road and our Easter basket. As we were about to jump in the car for the next leg, I got a message from Johanna the OT on the Canadian team at Dzherelo who thought she’d meet up with us in the mountains. Turned out she was going through Ivano Frankivsk that afternoon and had to transfer there to catch us later. We decided to catch up on some travel ‘admin’ and wait for her arrival. It worked out because we got to see the service for the blessing of the Easter baskets at the big church nearby. Since we weren’t fully prepped we decided our food was blessed by proximity being parked a block away 😉 We found Johanna who ended up cabbing it to meet us after several plan changes. After a bite and a hipster coffee stop, we made our way for the Carpathian Mountains. I really wanted to stop in Yeremche. I loved the little town by the river and they had a really fun market. We got there too late for anything to be open but we adventured along the river including several bouts of tresspassing and one really solid creek crossing before we decided to get out of the rain and to our cottage. We did detour and found the little waterfall and view I remember from last time 🙂 Once again we pulled in right as dark set in catching a lovely sunset through the rain clouds on our way in. After me busting out some serious Ukrainian and best attempts at listening to mixed ukrainian/Russian, we were checked in, unpacked, and had several questions answered about our somewhat ambiguous plans over a holiday weekend.

The mountain we were waiting to hike was Hoverla. Which was meant to be quite rainy the following morning so we put it off another day. After a bit of dissmay and realization that there wasn’t enough time or solid roads for everything, we scratched Pip Ivan from a list – a mountain further south. Instead, on Sunday morning, Johanna headed out early to get our basket blessed at the church up the street. We had meant to join but plans shifted once again and we ended up getting prepped for some hiking and meeting to pick her up. Seeing the crowd pouring out of the church with their baskets and array of traditional outfits was so neat. The crowd eventually died down and we hit the road to find some trails near Bukovel, the local ski resort where things were still open for the holiday. Ski season ended mid April so we just missed things on that end but the sun was shining and we were ready to hit a trail. After a few google searches and a couple info stops, Tomer and I decided on a route to attempt and Johanna, having been sick recently, headed to the spa for a few hours.
We had no idea how our day would go but we hit the jackpot. Our route started just along the ski lift and we were skeptical but soon we found ourselves on a very steep ascent through a magical pine forest. I found my beloved walking stick early on and it was a good find for the solid work ahead. After the first peak we decided to continue onto the neighboring mountain. After a brief clearing and some directions from some campers we made our way further up where the terrain abruptly changes to lime green moss covered rocks. We realized we were in the Gorgonsky Hory which was one of the top 5 hiking areas we had looked into and had no idea we were this close. It was so cool to stumble upon such a different terrain with very few other hikers along the way. One family was pretty surprised we were from the states and on this trail. The catch was that from the bottom, the rocks looked like a lovely grassy clearing and we thought we would whiz along the ridge to the next peak before our descent. Instead it took forever to carefully walk across all of the boulders and I was grateful to have my trusty “patachok”. We took ample photos being quite excited about what we had found and taking in a gorgeous day. We realized part way through that our descent wouldn’t be so gentle and tried to continue on after another rest for snacks and views. Luckily the rocks cut out a little sooner than the ascent and we made it safely without having to go uphill again the rest of the way. We caught up with the friends we met earlier and used their map to ensure we were headed in the right direction along with my trusty compass and made our way back to the bukovel city center to meet Johanna for a bite. We decided to go up the main ski lift to eat at the panorama restaurant which was closing right as we arrived. Most things were closed so we decided we would just eat at home since we had plenty of food. Along the way we kept our eyes peeled for any restaurants and found one at the last minute that said they were open. It turned out we were totally crashing a family Easter dinner but it was awesome. They had all our favorite ukrainian dishes and we watched the younger girls dancing passionately to a live singer. Once again we made it home for dark and crashed pretty well that night.

Tomer and I didn’t exactly anticipate the hike we encountered and were a bit sore the next morning, however, we decided to do the best we could to tackle Hoverla. Given it is the highest peak and a holiday weekend, it was a lot more crowded. Johanna joined us for this day as well and we decided we would all try our darnedest to get up the very steep climb as the more graded route was closed for the day. What we didn’t anticipate was the significant change of climate between the different sections and were just crossing our fingers that it didn’t rain full force. For the last stretch, I was trying to commit to “slow and steady wins the race” but it looked like the weather might make a turn and I was not ok missing the top. We made a push for it narrowly avoiding sliding all the way back down on the ice and snow and got our pictures at a very very windy and snowy peak. It was not the place to hang out so we decided to descend to a warmer area before enjoying some snacks. The fun part was that we had been watching people sliding down on mats as we were making our way to the top. At first it was a bit funny and looked a little too dangerous for us. As we looked over the edge though, we realized it was basically the only way. We tried to muster up supplies to slide on but once you are flying down an icy mountain it is really no use and we had frozen, wet bottoms in no time. It was pretty funny and numbed our achy muscles and at least cut down our return time. It did mean we didn’t want to linger too long without drying off though so we didn’t stop to snack too long. All in all, we actually made it in great time and decided that we still had time to rent a sauna or something back at the ski resort from the day before. After much calling around, it turned out we just ended up at the spa Johanna had been at. For $15 we had 3 hours of pools, swim up bars, hot tubs, and 5 saunas. It was definitely the way to end a couple of intense days on our muscles!

Our road trip ended with a much longer route. The next day we set off towards Mukachevo where we toured another castle and dropped Johanna off to catch the train back to Lviv. Tomer and I had enough time to stop in Uzharod that evening as well for a smaller but less renovated castle and very quaint town where we grabbed another Georgian dinner. It was a very long day of driving but we were quick to move out as we could tell we were getting further and further out of areas where they get occasional tourists, especially ones not from Ukraine. Our stop for the night was in Vyshka. It was a bit creepy because everything was closed for Easter, and so a neighbor of the owners let us in to a cabin type hotel that looked like it could have been featured in a horror film. It was simultaneously gorgeous but the roads were rough and the neighbor was a bit abrasive so we tried to keep to ourselves as much as possible. In the morning the owner was back and made us breakfast. In the sunlight the area is gorgeous and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom for spring. We were counting our blessings that our car had made it safely through another night as well.  We headed out early because our quest for the day didn’t come with clear instructions. Our goal was to try and hike in the Primeval Forest. After some odd cautionary tales and people being very confused why we would walk an extended period on foot, we found the entry point. We were really really hoping there would be some leverage but sadly we had to have filled out a permit two days in advance in order to be granted permission. Cutting our losses after going over other options we took to a route on the outskirts of the forest to see what we could see. It was stunning and we could only imagine what the inside looked like. We also thought we may have found a back entrance but it also looked like it could have been an area with traps or some other warning. Realizing we were not from here and that we shouldn’t be too stupid we finally turned around. Our drive to the border of Lvivski Oblast was also stunning and we jumped out for pictures as we had the chance. Though we encountered some other park entrances we realized we really should head back to Lviv as we didn’t know what was in store for us ahead.

Good thing we did head out because as soon as we crossed the checkpoint, the roads were atrocious. What looked like an hour drive turned into 4 at a very slow and bumpy crawl. The only motivator was that, by total coincidence, Tomer had a friend in Lviv that he wanted to meet up with. When Tomer finally told me who it was, we realized I knew him and worked for him as well! We hurried back and luckily things were open late enough for us to have a super fun reunion with, of course, a final stop at Kraiivka.

Our last day we had to gather ourselves a bit as I had a big trip home and Tomer had some logistics to organize for another two months of travel ahead. We made it (after several attempts) to the Ukrainian Catholic University where our Baba’s brother dedicated a room that was going to be unveiled over the summer. We did some last minute errands but overall kept things light to wrap up.

It was fun that Tomer and I were able to travel on the same flight out while I connected on and he stopped in Kyiv for a couple of days. I made it back for graduation in one piece and he had many more adventures to follow. I still can’t believe the whole thing happened. We had an incredible time learning more about our family and our heritage while living in a strange bubble that felt like it was simultaneously completely normal and on a different planet. To me, that defines Ukraine 🙂

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