Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Journey Home

The journey from Zaporozhye, Ukraine to Minneapolis, Minnesota is not the easiest one. Nor is it the shortest. But it is beautiful and exhilerating. When I made the journey to Ukraine in May, I was full of excitement, anticipation, and questions about what the summer would bring. When I made the opposite journey home, I was full of excitement, anticipation, and questions about what this incredible summer would mean for the rest of our lives. I know that our lives have changed and that we as individuals and a couple have changed. Our perspective, our hopes, our dreams, our faith - every part of us has changed in ways we never would have or could have expected. What exactly that means for our future, we do not know at this point, but we are excited and eager to see...

We started the journey home with a fourteen hour train ride. It was the first time on a train for both of us, so on top of the excitement to be home together again was the excitement of seeing the beautiful Ukrainian countryside from a traditional Soviet train. Train robbers are extremely common - something we had be warned of all summer long, so we ended up getting a private cabin on the overnight train. The cabin was small and hot, but still comfortable. The ride, unlike the bus, was smooth and so while longer, we were grateful for the change in transportation. I think we will forever now prefer trains to busses in Ukraine! It was a wonderful ride - for hours we cherished the last glimpses of a country that's now embedded in our hearts and lives and we talked about the summer and the future. Like all travel in Ukraine, it was a challenge to have limited language skills, and we relied as always on broken Russian and non-verbal communication to get us through the necessary stops, ticketing, and boarding/departure procedures. Thankfully, John had taken the time to walk us through the basics so we weren't completely lost!
We arrived in Kyiv on Friday with a flight scheduled out on Saturday. Travel logistics were a bit frustrating between plane ticket issues and language barriers, but we managed to finalize my ticket home and were able to secure seats together on the plane. Left with one final day in Kyiv, we set out to enjoy our last day in Ukraine. Across the day, we ran several times into an issue I faced throughout the summer. Often, Americans are seen as fitting a single mold: wealthy, greedy, and yet a bit naieve when it comes to money. As such, we're often targeted for being robbed, being cheated, or being charged over twice the actual cost for something. The first taste of the day was at a coffee shop. We ordered coffee and about fell over when we received the bill - we had been charged nearly ten times what a normal cup of coffee costs in a similar coffee house. We knew we were being cheated, but with limited language and really no other option, what could be done? I told the man that he was cheating us and that we knew it. His response? A smirk and a shrug. Later at a market, we started purchasing a Ukrainian soccer shirt for Travis, one of less than a handful of personal purchases I made this summer (my goal was to live as cheaply as possible, in the same lifestyle as those I was living and serving among). When given the price, I knew that we were being charged double the actual cost, and a price that was too much for us. We declined to purchase the shirt and the kiosk owner grew angry, shouting, "You're wealthy Americans... what difference does it make to you?" It wouldn't have mattered if I had explained to him that I was a student, that we had been living on one income all summer (and me overseas!), that being there would have been impossible without the support of two fellowships... what he was was an American, and what he held in his mind as American followed one standard: someone who was wealthy and with money to burn. Stereotypes are not a one sided phenomenon.
Saturday morning we woke up, exhausted from the train ride the day before but excited and anticipating to step foot in our home yet that day. Our three hour flight from Kyiv to Amsterdam was fairly uneventful, but we arrived in Amsterdam to learn that we would be delayed for an entire day. My heart fell a little when I realized it would be one more day before I saw home, but what could be done? We spent the night in Amsterdam trying to enjoy the layover and rest, preparing for the final leg of the journey home. On Sunday, we woke for an early flight. The eight and a half hour flight was a bit nerve racking. Three hundred disgruntled passengers faced a long flight with malfunctioning screens and seat equipment. The man sitting in front of us yelled at a stewardess for ten minutes almost every hour. By the end of the flight, everyone was cramming against the doors, impatient to get off the plane. I felt like I was in a dream. Half awake and half asleep from the long flight that crossed into sleeping hours of at least one time zone we were trying to function in, I was mystified to see English print on the signs outside the plane and the familiar landmarks as we descended into the Twin Cities.
As we drove home that afternoon, I fluctuated between confusion that I was actually home, exhileration that I was HOME!, and heartbreak as it finally hit me that I had left Ukraine for who knows how long. As I opened the door to my home though for the first time in almost three months, all I felt was joy that I had finally come home and gratitude for all that the past three months had taught me.

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