25 July 2008

Map of the Area

LUND--These are two pictures of a map of the general area I was in in Transcarpathia. They were on the wall of a classroom in a school we were touring. The closer up of the two has also been added by Jesse, along with two photos, as another image on my website's homepage. Go there and click refresh until you see it!

24 July 2008

The Faces of Transcarpathia: First Slide Show Movie

LUND--I have been working on the photos. This is the first usage of the photos and sound. All of these photos are (pretty poor) commercial scans of photos taken with a Leica M6ttl and a 50mm Summicron lens. The sound I recorded with my Røde NTG2 shotgun mike on the Panasonic DVC60 at an elder's house outside of Nagydobrovdyn, Ukraine, Transcarpathia of old women singing a traditional folk hymn. The photos were taken at numerous locations

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18 July 2008

We Arrive At an Orphanage Late at Night

NAGYDOBRONY--It was late when we arrived at the orphanage run by Kotko where we would live for the next two weeks. The orphanage, which houses some 80 or so girls, is on a self-sustaining compound on the edge of the village of Nagydobrony. There is an extensive system of fields and greenhouses, a bee farm, fruit orchards, cattle and swine and fowl and an artificial lake where fish are raised. Of course none of this was visible in the early morning, only the well lit dining room with guest rooms overhead that Kotko rents out to various tour and relief groups passing through or working in the area.

I suppose I would describe Kotko as a local businessman, entrepreneur and humanitarian with a strong interest in raising the standard of living in Transcarpathia. He is tall, somewhere in his sixties I would guess, never without dark glasses and sporting a white brush cut that blends the personal styles of Leonid Brezhnev and Billy Idol. If viewed without his usual smile he might look, if not sinister, then powerful and not-to-be-crossed in the Russian manner. I would guess that, in fact, he ought not be crossed, but in my observation and from the reports of others who have worked with him for years he is honest and takes the assistance given him and multiplies it manyfold using the widely varied resources he has marshaled together. To quote Dr. Mettens, "Give Kotko $200 and he'll easily turn it into $1,000 or more of practical assistance."

Kotko (left) speaks with the Ukrainian Colonel in charge of the local border gaurds.

Among other methods, he obviously uses the rich farmland itself to multiply the funds. I have heard Transcarpathia (which is now Ukraine but has been four countries within living memory) described as a place that simply, quite literally, has no money. A place where much of the food to be eaten by a family is directly produced by that family. Again, in the words of Dr. Mettens, "imagine having to think about what you are going to eat six months from now." Among other things, it puts into sharp focus the lie that the Ukrainian famine of the early 30s was anything but terror. For the experienced and industrious farmers, living in a land rich in everything from grain to livestock to fruits and vegetables it would take years of terrible harvests to approach the deadly famines of the 30's.

Kotko stands beside a monument in a churchyard to those murdered and disappeared under Stalin. These monuments are common. There is one in nearly every village, usually in the churchyard. They put into perspective the scale of Stalin's destruction, when you count 50, 60, 80 names from a village that might have 500 inhabitants. As well, it is worth considering that Transcarpathia was not as severely hit as the rest of Ukraine.

So there, in a pool of light in the middle of the night darkened farmlands we ate a late supper, unpacked, drank a few good and cold Ukrainian beers and began getting to know one another. Already, and I would not be proved wrong, it seemed like a particularly good group. Dentists and Doctors and Nurses and Ministers and a few with no easy classifications such as Ernie and young musician Chris Lawrence on his first time overseas that often do even more than the specific professionals to provide perspective and balance to such a group.

Chris Lawrence (left) talks to Rev. Steven Szilagyi in the Russian mini-van

I was about to go to bed when I was told to grab my cameras. The baking has begun. I have never been one to turn down baking--or at least its product--so I followed to the back where a modern bakery had been started, providing bread both for the orphanage as well as to sell in the area. There I watched and filmed as the dough was kneaded and formed into loaves and I wished it was a little later, for the warm smells were making my hungry again.

16 July 2008

Over the Border

TRANSCARPATHIA/UKRAINE--We left Budapest and traveled East across the great plain of Hungary towards the Ukrainian border. We sped down the good highways, stopping for dinner in the late afternoon at a shelter for the sick and for the family's of the ill who need a place to stay while their loved ones are being treated. We met a young boy with a bad cancer and he took my photo while I took his and he seemed very happy and very brave and very full of hope that we, that someone, might do something.

It soon was dark as we continued towards the border. Long lines of cars and trucks were stopped, waiting to be searched. I felt an instinctive fear there. Too many years, I suppose, of spy novels and movies with tense scenes at places that looked like this. There were the tall, grim-faced blonde soldiers in strange camouflage, a certain blocky, monumental feeling to the dark buildings with bright-lit spots of cyrillic writing, but we went through quickly because of the connections SARA has worked on for years.

And then it was dark. We crossed the border into deep shadow. Most of what we could see was only that lit by the car's headlamps, a twisted sign here, a darkened lot or field. It was the kind of dark one usually only finds deep in the woods but here we were passing through silent towns. The roads became pitted and crumbled as soon as we entered Ukraine and the drivers began the familiar zig zag navigation of driving in a country without the funds for infrastructure repair. Above us were stars.

Onward to Ukraine

BUDAPEST— There was a bright yellow half-moon over Budapest when I landed a minute after midnight. I have had a lot of experience closing up my house and getting a ride to the airport and going away, hoping that perhaps I would meet the love of my life or at least a brief approximation of her. I had a lot of experience leaving a failed or failing or otherwise impossible relationship. I had no experience leaving a woman I loved, who I had never left before since finally I found her again and I was scared. I was nervous about a lot of things. I was working on a major project again for the first time since El Salvador, almost exactly a year before. I would be working with the same relief group but almost all new people, in a country I had never been to, in a language I spoke none of. But it was the leaving of Lena that frightened me despite all her reassurances. But the day finally came and I was ready and she was gentle and loving and when she finally drove me to the Malmo airport in the bright Swedish evening I didn’t feel so bad, just restless to go a little bit so I could begin to get it over with and come back. It was a feeling I didn’t like much as it interfered a little with my own self-image of an independent man who has previously put his work and travels and adventures over any woman.

She saw me to the metal detectors and when I was through I waved and waved as I watched her finally walk away, turning back to see me there until finally she turned one more time and waved in return and then was gone through the outer doors and I was alone.

The plane touched down on the moon-bright runway, two minutes into morning. I was meeting a Hungarian man named Csaba who worked with the SARA group. That is all I knew about him other than the picture he had e-mailed me. He had a sign with my name on it and we got in his car and we drove into early-morning Budapest. We stopped and ate some Hungarian pancakes, more of a crepe, filled with ewe-cheese curds and green olives. Csaba (Cha-Bah), a slim, neatly mannered man in his 40s is a plastic surgeon who SARA sent to Cincinnatti for special training in burn and trauma reconstruction. After eating he took me to his friend’s Tomas and Bebe’s (Elizabeth) apartment, where he had arranged for me to stay. All but Bebe were asleep and she again offered me food and drink and I think I hurt her feelings a little when all I wanted was a water but she let it go at that and showed me to my room. I slept hard and long and around noon Csaba came back and he and Bebe and I walked up to the long hill beginning near their apartment to the memorial of freedom, a monumental statue of a woman. It is irreverently called the “big can-opener” because of the scythe-like wreath she holds over her head but is very much a matter of pride to the Hungarians. Bebe left us soon after and we continued our walk through the city, seeing things through his eyes, small details and Hungarian perspectives Lena and I had missed on our visit to that city a month before.

That evening I showed “News From El Salvador: The Children of the Mangroves” to my host family, including their children and it was a good moment to see and show the lives of the Salvadorans so far away and to attempt to answer questions about them and their country.

In the morning Csaba picked me up again and we drove to the airport. Soon the SARA team was coming out of passport control with the usual suitcases filled with donated supplies and medicines. I greeted one old friend, Ernie Hollenbecker from Wappakaneta, Ohio whom I had spent time with twice before in El Salvador. Ernie is always a joy to have on a trip, his joyful irreverence always adding the right degree of humor to what, on these missions, can at times be an overdose of caring and sharing and tragic poverty. The rest were new to me. I had been in e-mail contact with a few, Drs. Mettens and Mikesell and had briefly, I think, met a few at SARA meetings in Columbus, Ohio, but knew none but Ernie. So we loaded up the two vans and headed East and North, across the great plains of Hungary towards the Ukrainian border.

11 July 2008

Return From Transcarpathia

LUND—The last day came as it always does. That night there was an incredible storm over Transcarpathia. The power was knocked out almost immediately. Arpad and I stood on the porch while the rain blew in on us and the lightening came down so fast as the storm’s center approached that it was like some weird and disorienting strobe light. I drank some of the Isabella wine a local vintner had given us and we spoke of life and family. I told him of how I missed my parents and my friends, how strange it was to have moved across the ocean, far away from those people who made me. He talked, and had talked about the closeness of the Hungarian family. How he, as a minister, was, whatever happened, committed to staying in the area where he could trace his family roots back to the 15th century. We said goodnight and I finished the last bit of packing by flashlight and went to bed while the storm crashed on outside.

I woke early. Power was back on but I couldn’t get the Internet to load but Lena knew when my plane was supposed to arrive. A little before 0700 we got in the van and drove to the Hungarian border. We were there an hour or so while the guards went through everything in the cars and trucks in front of us. Smuggling cigarettes and liquor from Ukraine is a big business. A carton of smokes costs around three dollars, a liter of vodka or other spirits often less. The guard had me open my bags and made a cursory search and then we were on the road again. In the city of Nyiregyhaza I bought a ticket to Budapest and found, much to my delight, that it stopped at Ferihegy airport. I had thought I would have to take the train into the city center, far from the airport, and take an expensive cab back. The three or so hour train ride was pleasant enough, my car not even half-full, plenty of leg room and big windows that showed the rich farmland of the Great Hungarian Plain flashing by, mile after mile of flat fields, just harvested wheat fields, golden brown like a summer-tanned girl, vast fields of sunflowers just come into bloom, high green corn and enormous orchards. The stops were brief, just long enough for people to get on and off and by around 1300 I was at Ferihegy 1. The terminal could be reached by a covered walkway over the highway. I envied other travelers and their slim backpacks. I was humping over 100 lbs. of gear but it didn’t matter much, it wasn’t far and I was in no hurry. My plane didn’t leave until 1930. So I got inside, found a nice cart to wheel my bags around on, bought a bottle of blessedly uncarbonated water and an expensive National Geographic special edition on modern China and settled in on an outside bench to wait until check-in. I tried to call Lena but somehow my phone was dead though I thought I had charged it the night before.

I was ¾ of the way through the excellent magazine when a slim, dark-haired girl who had been sitting nearbye came back out with an annoyed expression on her face and a tall glass of beer in her hand. The beer looked good but I didn’t feel much like spending he money and so went back to China for a while. In a bit a tall British man walked out and began chatting her up. Since the Americans had left Transcarpathia a few weeks before I had heard almost no English except Arpad’s and had mostly been in a linguistic isolation chamber so it was pleasant to hear a language I understood. I was a little surprised when the dark-haired girl answered the man in excellent English with a slight but familiar accent. I had simply taken her for Hungarian but I overheard her say her plane to Stockholm had been delayed. I decided to go check mine and then the day really began to grind on. My plane was pushed back until 2130 and a bit later it would get delayed another hour. I came back and decided I didn’t want to spend the next hours in China or Russia (I had recently begun War and Peace) so I joined their conversation. “Where did you get that beer,” I asked, “My plane to Malmo just got put back.” They told me and I went and got one and came back out. “Cheers,” said everyone, “Might as well drown or sorrows.”

The girl actually had been there longer than I had and her flight left after a bit so the Englishman and I continued talking, trading off buying rounds and watching each other’s gear. He was waiting for his friends to arrive in several hours and then they would be taking a hired car to a big music festival in Serbia. The time passed, as it does with a good, casual conversation. I let him copy the small Hungarian lexicon I had acquired and taught him the few basic words I had learned. We spoke of travel and music and then got into politics and global warming and American hegemony for a moment but on mutual agreement decided that was a bit heavy and it would be better to speak of breasts and beer and bands and that was a lot more fun. His friends arrived and began to get organized. I took their picture and gave a couple cards out, wished them luck and gave a little advice to one couple in the group who was meeting the rest later after spending a couple days in Budapest. It was nice to be a good representative of my country, traveled, politically aware, linguistically competent, and they asked me to go on with them. “Hell, mate, make a documentary about us going to the festival!?” And for a brief moment I thought about it, “Nah, I have a woman I need to get back to. If I was still single I’d be putting my bags in with yours.”

But the truth is I did want to get back. And a lot of that was true. I was not single anymore and I missed my girl and I missed our home and that is where I wanted to be, not tramping through the mud at a big rock show in Serbia even if Manu Chao and Juliet and the Licks and a lot of other good bands were playing. So I said good bye to them and went through check in and waited in the airless waiting room pressed in by a bunch of Italians waiting to go to Milan and a bunch of Germans for Frankfurt and a load of Swedes for Malmo and by the time we finally boarded my temper and nerves were beginning to finally wear thin and just a little bit now I didn’t want to go back to Sweden, I wanted to go to where they spoke English, spoke it all the time. I didn’t want to be in a linguistic bubble any more, not even a little bit.

But I found my seat and settled in then was asked to move so a family could sit together. So I did that and we took off and I don’t know if I slept or not but soon we were landing, at a bit of an angle, bumping off the runway and back down and I gritted my teeth a little at the incompetent flying. We deplaned and I got my bag and walked out and Lena wasn’t there. I looked around, circled the crowd and she still wasn’t there. It was after 0100. I walked out and there was a bus, probably specially carried over, going to Malmo and Lund. I bought a ticket and settled in again for the long ride that stopped five places in Malmo before finally at the central station in Lund. It was raining. I shouldered my bags and humped them through the dark and silent early morning city. I was tired, very tired and each step made me increasingly furious. I stopped for a while and tried to cool down debating whether to lett it go or to say some pretty terrible things I imagined to Lena, that I didn’t care how damn late it was, that I would have waited. I finally got to the door and punched the code. A flight above I heard the door open and she was in the door, her eyes flooded with tears. The sight of that cooled my anger a little but I also thought, damnit, I don’t look that bad, just wet and dirty and tired and about crushed by the bags.
I got up and she took first one camera bag then the other. I shrugged out of my pack and she gently helped me out of my weighed-down jacket with its full, heavy pockets and then wrapped her arms around me.

“My father is dead.”

And suddenly I was crying too.