02 May 2013
The Kingdom of Morocco was the first nation to ever recognize the United States of America. For those of you unfamiliar with the American Revolution, 1777 was probably our worst year of that conflict, and in December of that year it looked like either we’d lose the war or it would devolve into an endless bloody stalemate sustained by proxies, mercenaries and guerillas. It was a highly risky gambit in favor of a revolution that was not likely to succeed. Yet even if the Moroccan recognition of 1777 was a short-term, self-interested strategy, the close ties between this dynamic North African nation and my country have been both genuine and enduring. Formal relations didn’t begin until after the Revolutionary War, but since then, the 19th century treaty relationship that has existed between Morocco and the US is the longest unbroken treaty in US history.
On my last morning in Marrakech, I walked the grounds of the Badi Palace, built in the 16th century. I happened into a section that appeared to be a tiled floor, intersected by the remains of walls separating the valley into chambers. This was where early embassies of foreign nations were established, in a heyday that knew neither revolution nor republic.
Few nations in the world enjoy such a reputation for welcoming foreign visitors as Morocco. I recall a recent article by the Washington Post which highlighted a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) (http://washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/21a-fascinating-map-of-countries-color-coded-by-their-openess-to-foreigners/). WEF’s Travel and Competitiveness Report 2013 remarked that Morocco was the third most welcoming country in the world for foreigners. After having spent just a few days in a chilly country that was the third least welcoming nation for foreigners on the planet, my vacation in Morocco fully vindicated the WEF’s perspective.
I chose to vacation in Morocco for several reasons.
First, it was close to Europe. Over the past year, I crossed the Atlantic six times and completed countless other lengthy jaunts, so I was looking for a more proximate destination from Ukrainia. Little did I realize how much Morocco really is a friendly neighbor to the south for France, Spain, and Portugal. In the midst of journeying through the Dades Valley, I lost count of the EU-license plated RVs caravanning their Senior EU citizen passengers through a cheap and cheerful exotic landscape that is only a few days drive from Madrid or Barcelona. It never occurred to me that Morocco had become a sunny, palm tree-lined Canada to the EU retirement community. Even flying to Casablanca from Kyiv only required five and half hours of flying and a brief connection through Paris.
Second, I wanted sun, sand and Sahara. Check, check and Check.
Third, I wanted to see what a Kasbah was. Check.
Fourth, I wanted to purchase some nice carpets. Maybe two. Doublecheck.
Fifth, I always wanted to go to Morocco. My mom says that I say that about every country I visit, but really it’s only true for a hundred or so.
The plane from Paris experienced ferocious northerly head winds that delayed the arrival about 30 minutes, so it was well after dusk when I hopped into a taxi in front of the terminal. These days, getting into a taxi alone when you’ve just arrived in a strange place always takes at least an ounce of courage. As the taxi driver pulled out of the airport, he took off the taxi sign off the roof of the car and placed it on the seat beside him. This wouldn’t make me nervous in Kyiv, because I know the cab racket there at Boryspil. But in a strange place, it made me very nervous: this revelation that my taxi driver wasn’t legitimate. The driver said nothing as he sped off down the dark road; the radio blaring at high volume in Arabic what sounded like a deafening, fast monologue all the way through the 20 kilometers to the Casablanca city center. From a certain perspective, Arabic has some things in common with Russian in the fact that the foreign eavesdropper often has a hard time determining if the speaker is angry or not. Maybe we were listening to a radio religious address? A serious political rant? Then the address finally paused for a few seconds and then I heard some single syllable word screamed triumphantly in French. I had, in fact, been listening to a football game for the last half hour. The driver smiled in the rear view mirror and started happily chatting to me in French. I told him I didn’t speak French. He switched to halting English, sufficient enough to bid me a fine welcome to Morocco and express joy that I had arrived on the very evening that RCA Casablanca hosted a match against FAR Rabat. I suppose that this was like arriving in Birmingham on the November night Alabama plays Auburn, except that the match in Casablanca was a tie (1-1) which would never be tolerated in American football. It took a while to get into town, as the traffic was bad and football revelers had taken to the streets after the game to somberly celebrate their tie. For me at least, in wanting to get to my hotel room, I was glad that no one had won because that would have tied up traffic significantly more. Also, I was impressed that the unregistered taxi driver had only charged me the market rate.
The next day I headed to Rabat to explore Morocco’s capital city and buy some carpets. Disembarking from the train, I was fairly immediately impressed with Rabat. The city was clean, bright and well-organized. I was staying at a riyad (a type of traditional guesthouse that is situated around a courtyard) in the medina (central marketplace, typically several centuries old). The taxi let me off near the entrance to the medina and I walked along the narrow, ancient passage ways to the door of my riyad. The medina was a noisy, bustling place, so I was rather surprised to experience the calming silence of the Riyad El-Maati when I entered through the low, thick door. Since all of the windows and doors face inwards towards a tranquil garden, the quiet of the air inside was punctuated only with the chattering of song birds.
I was misled by what the guidebooks tepidly described as Rabat, “administrative center” , “a few interesting sites…” - when in fact those words would better be applied to Casablanca; Morocco’s concrete-strewn commercial capital whose skyline reminded me more of Osaka.
My first stop was the Kasbah Oudaias on Rabat’s shoreline. A kasbah is a distinct old district of a city or ancient cooperative of families, like a village of a clan or a tight-knit collection of families. The particularly photogenic Kasbah Oudaias is about 900 years old, and is completely inhabited today. I was enthralled by the site’s collection of stunning doors.
The windy beach area was busy on a late Friday afternoon, as most businesses in Morocco close around noon on Friday for afternoon prayers. The King reportedly belongs to this surf club along the shore, and I saw a half dozen local kids in wetsuits drilling dry land lessons.
The next morning, I toured the impressive Hassan Tower and grounds, and walked Rabat’s friendly streets on a sunny Saturday morning. After breakfast, a colleague from work met me and we drove over to a carpet shop in nearby Sale to look at Morocco’s finest threads. Knowing that what little desire I had to tussle for carpets in notoriously difficult Marrakech, I bought two carpets at this superiorly run women-run establishment and my friend graciously agreed to babysit the 20 kg bundle for me while I toured around his country for a bit.
I hopped the train to Marrakech. I would have called it the Marrakech Express (the song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from Woodstock Two, 1970, came up on my IPhone just south of Rabat, completely by random shuffle) - but the Rabat-Marrakech train was anything but express. It was 30 minutes late leaving Rabat, and we picked up an additional 30 minutes among the dozen or more stops between Rabat and Marrakech – totaling a close to six hour journey. And the train was standing room only – evidently, this weekend was a school holiday in Morocco, so the car was certainly lively with grandmas, moms, infants, toddlers and teenagers. Despite the inconvenience in delays I endured on my train travel in Morocco – the train would also be an hour late on the return journey from Marrakech to Rabat – I was very impressed with the combination of mass transit available in Morocco. Rabat and Casablanca have sleek new street trams and nice buses. Intercity trains connect Rabat and Casablanca every 30 minutes. Regional trains service most of the country. I’ll bet Morocco has among the best mass trans network in all of Africa.
Once I had waded through the roaring insanity which was Marrakech on a Saturday night in the midst of Moroccan school holidays (only to again be marveled by an impossibly quiet riyad), I wondered if the place, has for all its time, always been this way. Marrakech is pure and utter chaos. As a casual observer, I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, but to walk, and live and breathe as a foreigner in central Marrakech is calamity incarnate. Taxis are not allowed in the center after 1pm for good reason. The shear volume of bi-pedal, bi-wheel and four legged entities: people, donkeys , mules, mopeds and bicycles make it impossible for anything with four wheels to fit into the narrow passages which, for the exception of the main square, make up the central pulmonary system of Marrakech.
Yet to call Marrakech clogged would not be entirely accurate. After all, “clogged” implies that at places all movement is slowed to a trickle. This is inaccurate precisely because motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles slow for nothing on two or four legs. They scream by the pedestrian at twenty or thirty miles per hour blaring their horn, if they feel it is not too inconvenient to notify a living creature that what separate them from their imminent departure from this world are only a few inches or a split second decision to tie one’s shoelace. Your life could be snubbed out in a Moroccan moment. Indeed, I witnessed motorcycles actually accelerating when they approached a crowd of man and beasts, as if they determined that they would be in a better condition at an increased velocity to plow through the organisms. And in the midst of these very dangerous thoroughfares, someone decides to set up a fruit stand.
It’s probably always been this way, as is true the world over, the intersection of foreigners and commerce always breeds opportunity and opportunists and Marrakech is no different. Walking the narrow and ancient passageways, it’s easy to lose one’s way. And then there are a dozen or so folks to tell you that you are going the wrong way. They deliberately point you in the wrong direction, chase after you to ask for money or you inadvertently collect what's called in the ocean - a remora. A remora offers to help you find a place whether you would like help or not. A remora will not accept no for an answer. If you try to walk away, the remora will follow you. And then the remora guides you to where you weren’t looking to go, like a shop. Or to the tanneries, which is where my remora took me.
Human beings will be born, walk the earth and die peacefully most without ever knowing how leather is really made. I learned a few years ago while watching a TV show on pre-industrial production, and was completely horrified. In short, leather has been made for millennia using goat and dog feces, and cow urine. In giant pits. Workers must stand in the filth like squashing grapes. Excess fat must be scraped from the cow and goat skins – gathering in piles, putrefying in the sun, attracting insects, malicious bacteria and wild animals. Then what you get is the softest, most spectacular leather on earth. What horrors a Prada-toting millionairess will never know.
I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to visit the tanneries, but my remora led me there to a waiting guide and there was nothing I could do but to grin and bear it. The guide gave me a sprig of mint to counter the overwhelming trigger to hurl my delicious breakfast of olives and croissants.
The shopkeepers of the hundred thousand or so stalls that make up the media and surrounding souks are highly aggressive. Like Jerusalem, whole sections of the city are dedicated only to market stalls.
The expat lifestyle arranges that, at sometime, you will be vacationing in some exotic locale and will randomly run into a colleague from work doing the exact same thing in the same place. This all occurred courtesy of Facebook and I wound up enjoying an evening with excellent people as we devoured tajines and the familiar, yet endlessly fascinating topics of which I will never tire.
Despite the terrors of trampling and clausterphobia experienced by the pedestrian tourist, there are several aspects of Marrakech which I am definitely a fan. First, the fresh squeezed orange juice in the Jeema El Fnaa is second to none on Earth. Next, the mixed grill dinner tents in this square where they used to hold public executions. Also, the best hour long massage and steam sweat can be had in a local hammam. The photography museum, difficult, as everything is in town, to locate, was well worth the quest. Evening on the main square is sensory overload: drum circles, piles of cobras entranced by snake charmers, acrobats, monkeys on chains, but it is a spectacle that every traveler should experience once. Also, there were moments that made my remora earn his commission, where we were actually walking quiet streets in serene sections of Marrakech where the locals were out shopping for dinner vegetables. The truth to traveling Marrakech is that it accentuates the truth of traveling elsewhere: the best (and many times only) way to see a place well is on foot, given the helpful advice of strangers, the recommendations of other travelers and the lucky guidance of providence.
Several esteemed travel authors have demeaned tour group travel to the point of transforming the word “tour group” into an obscenity. Obviously I find roaming packs of tour-bus-bound, single-nationality tours to be annoying, as many might. A tour bus is, after all, a terrible way to see a place for anyone under 75. However, I’ve found in certain places, like the East Coast of Australia 10 years ago or the Holy Land last year that for solo travelers joining a small excursion can be a fantastic way to meet other travelers and to see a place, albeit on the road well traveled. But you never quite know what people will wind up in your group, and this is uncertainty is always slightly unsettling. What if you wind up in a group where you are the only one under 50? What if no one speaks English? What if your tour group turns out to be a Polka band from upstate Pennsylvania?
I was relieved to find out that my group for a three day trip through the Gorges and into the desert was not only multinational, it consisted of a certain age range and was full of fun people. Also, our tour guide was quite cool and he really knew what he was doing. So it was a great trip, as the pictures speak for themselves. I’ll stick to broad, sweeping descriptions and an anecdote or two as writing this blog entry has already consumed the better part of a gorgeous spring May holiday here in Kyiv.
The van in which we traveled took us over the Atlas Mountains to a geologically fabulous valley on the other side. All along the road, Moroccans were selling impressive fossils and geodes – it seems that this is definitely a place for rock hounds. I picked up a pair of 300 million old Chrotalaucephalus trilobites, kind of like giant cockroach-size rolly pollies that swam in seas during the Devonic Period.
As a passenger, it seemed to me that drivers in Southern Morocco are exceedingly courteous and relaxed. Drivers waved to each other, and passed with caution and deference.
The route towards the Gorges passed through, above, below and around magnificent ancient cities built for the human and camel traveler. I was not expecting to see these mud-walled cities, as I thought they only existed in far flung central Saharan locales like Timbuktu in Mali. The tour guide pointed out that it was “only” 52 days by camel from Marrakech to Timbuktu.
The other thing that surprised me throughout my visit to Morocco was how green it was. Even in start of the desert, in the dry canyons, the river bank was bursting with life.
The movie industry in this part of Morocco is supposedly booming. Not only was Lawrence of Arabia filmed here but also recent movies like Babel and Star Wars.
These rock formations near Dades reminded me of Red Rocks in Morrison, CO.
Arriving in the desert, the beginnings of the Sahara resembled NASA pictures from the surface of Mars. We left the van and the 21 century behind and hopped on camels for a two hour trek to an oasis. I thought I’d sworn off camels in Egypt, yet here I was on another darn camel. As I climbed aboard my ship of the desert, the thing frothed at the mouth and grunted ugly and I suddenly remembered what Indiana Jones said to Sallah, “I said no camels! That’s six camels! Can’t you count?”
Just like my first camel trip, I was suffering from a bout of newly-obtained food-borne pathogens, and this did not help my disposition as we traveled into the sandy abyss. By the time we finally arrived at the cat-infested oasis at nightfall, the pathogens had worked themselves into the depths of my muscles. The camp leader called us into the dinner tent. The Canadian gave a shout and proclaimed something squishy was under the table. It was half a dead cat: only the front half, to be specific. The tourists snapped pictures. The camp leader laughed and remarked that it had been eaten by another cat who had recently developed a taste for his brethren. Whatever remained of my appetite and I retired for the evening. The sound of cats crawling on top of the tent, and the pathogens crawling in my gut ensured that I would not sleep that night.
One of the best parts of my journey to see the Sahara was when I washed it off over the course of several days. Returning to civilization, I bid a fond farewell to my new friends and went to my riyad where I slept for 11 hours. The next day, after taking some antibiotics with my banana breakfast with Jemaa El Fnaa orange juice, I visited the Badi Palace, got another hour long massage, and departed for Rabat, this time in the first class cabin. My thirst for adventure had been satiated. The last two days of my vacation were spent by the pool in nice hotels in Rabat and Casablanca. This was just a vacation after all. The aircraft back to Paris was slowed by extraordinary strong Southerly winds, and almost caused me to miss my connection to Kyiv.
Looking out the window of the cab ride home, my new carpets in tow, I thought on how the distance people can comfortably travel these days never ceases to amaze me, and wondered how certain people can endure, much less love their work. I practically required physical therapy after four hours on a camel. I have no idea whatsoever how the nomads could spend 52 days on camel to bring goods to market. Well, then again, at least it’s not tanning leather.
07 April 2013
We barely made it out of Boryspil airport. A monstrous snow storm had dumped 20 inches on Kyiv in a matter of 36 hours, and was still producing flurries that Sunday morning I was due to head to Moscow.
After I woke up late, I checked the airport traffic and found that over half the flights were delayed or cancelled. Therefore, I languished over my cup of tea and surfed through the news channels. I took a nice long shower, and as I was toweling off, the phone rang. It was my colleague: she was in the taxi and they were on their way to collect me.
The road to the airport was not plowed, but the tire tracked groove in the deep snow allowed our taxi bare passage. Eighteen wheelers had commandeered the shoulder of the highway: their passage east blocked by the departing weather system.
The airport was sheer madness; families and school groups huddled in crowded masses across Terminal D. We joined a long line winding into the Terminal’s only pre-security vending establishment for a cup of coffee.
Two hours late, the 737 climbed up, out of the frozen gridlock: 90 minutes later it began circling Moscow before descending into another.
It never ceases to amaze or frighten me the fact that modern pilots can land in near zero visibility. As the runway appeared right as the wheels found earth, I remembered the news story of a group of passengers just a few years ago on a Russian flight who complained that their pilot was drunk. The pilot got on the intercom to calm his customers, “People: do not be scared. These planes these days practically fly themselves.”
The plane door opened on a chaotic scene of snow removal machines servicing Domodedovo Airport. It was snowing rather intensely. The bus that ferried passengers to the terminal was fur factory. The rider who was standing next to me was terrifically hammered. He leaned on his apologetic gorgeous blonde wife for support. “You see,” he said to me, hiccupping along the way, “This is Moscow in spring.” Then, right before the doors opened to immigration, he added. “I really have to pee.” Inside the terminal, a security guard screamed at the passing passengers to corral them into proper holding pins for inspection.
Entering Moscow, it reminded me of Minsk, until we got to the river and saw the tremendous edifices that rose up like mountains all around us. In the darkness, the snow melted into the flood-lighted structures, and produced the powerful, cinematic effect on the wanderer that the city’s designers had probably craved. All that was missing was the operatic Soviet chorus, that was playing in my head anyway.
I didn’t see much of Moscow. I arrived at night, worked for three days and left in the early morning darkness. But late one cold afternoon, I did get out to take in a tiny bit of the city; making my way to Red Square, which was really very impressive.
The most impressive part of Red Square wasn’t St. Basils, which I always presumed was the main attraction and most certainly is attractive. From a distance, the visual effect of the church fools the eye into thinking it’s much bigger than it actually is. But when you approach the church, one sees it’s really quite of modest size.
However, the walls, towers and ramparts of the Kremlin fortress itself feel and are massive. The walls are among the most captivating manmade objects ever: unparalleled in design and effect than any other castle I’ve seen anywhere. The red-star topped spires seemed celebratory, and the red and yellow colors of the fortress seemed to make you feel a little warmer. But not warm enough to have me to stick around outside in the cold any longer than I had to.
31 March 2013
For those of us who have always had it, access to clean water is something that is all too easy to take for granted. We turn on the tap, cook and bathe, and hose our lawn and shrubs, without ever thinking of the complexities that bring us our clean water. There are certainly others on the planet who must constantly think about clean water because they have never had access to clean water, therefore have always made due by carrying water from the local well.
There are also communities, like in the former Soviet Union, that once had access to clean water, but are now suffering the effects of crumbling infrastructure and increasing water demands. Nowhere is this more true than in the small communities scattered across Ukraine’s peninsula, Crimea.
Crimea is an attractive region, with a wide variety of ecosystems, rainfall, sunshine, land use and people. For two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in Sevastopol, a city located on the peninsula’s south-western tip, and often traveled throughout small villages and towns in Crimea where Ukrainian NGO colleagues and other volunteers were based. I saw firsthand how many people in rural Crimea go days or even weeks without water, particularly in summer. In many villages, water is scheduled to operate for one or two hours a day for a few days a week. Even quick showers are a luxury and residents spend the brief time water is functioning to quickly fill up as many empty plastic containers as possible in order to pass the drought interval. Bottled water is expensive for the average Crimean villager, whose monthly income rarely exceeds $200. Crimea is also growing as a tourism destination, this is bringing further burdens on the overwhelmed water supply during the summer season.
The problem with poor water availability isn’t the lack of water in the region. While Crimea is a fairly dry place, averaging just over 15 inches of precipitation annually, there are ample sources of water underground and channeled from the Dnipro river tributary from the north. The challenge is transporting enough water from aquifers and aqueducts to households in order satisfy seasonal demand during the periods of increased use. This is particularly true in spring and summer when people are using water resources to irrigate backyard cash crops, which are critical to supplementing rural residents’ annual income.
The USAID Project “Partnership for Sustainable Water Supply for Agriculture Development in Crimea
(SWaSAD)” launched in July 2012 by our Ukrainian partner, Agrarian Markets Development Institute, is successfully demonstrating that with transparent planning, modest investment and strong community support, infrastructure improvements can be made that will bring reliable water service to residents in small communities in Crimea. The Project envisions demonstration projects in three districts in Crimea: Saki, Pervimaysky and Razdolnensky.
I joined my colleagues from USAID in late February in visiting the communities selected for partnership on this project. In Saki, we heard from major stakeholders of the project. A local farmer remarked that this project was “very important” in improving crop yields and local income, and that locals were “enthusiastic” at the prospect of reliable water in their communities.
In many ways, the objectives are simple: most of the project sites envision simply connecting the existing water sources, such as the water in this canal with a network of streets in the village territories, using simple irrigation pipes and pumps, so that people can irrigate their backyard cash crops with non-potable canal water without burdening the community’s drinking water system.
One of the project sites seeks a broader-based agricultural application on large, communally-owned plots of land. The site we visited in Pervimaysky would restore the function of Soviet-era infrastructure to irrigate fields farmed by 30 families. This, in turn, would support 300 beneficiaries in the nearby village, providing much-needed employment opportunities and increased economic activity for local businesses. The difference between an irrigated field and a non-irrigated field was fairly obvious and pretty stark - one field a bright green, the other a dull brown.
As tourism continues to develop in Crimea, water demands will continue to grow. It is economically critical that the region maintains a plan to supply reliable potable water to the tourism centers, while also allowing farmers to irrigate their crops in fulfilling Ukraine’s promise as the breadbasket of Europe.
What makes this project particularly unique is that USAID/Ukraine is implementing it with the support of the Development Grants Program, a granting mechanism designed specifically to increase the capacity of locally-managed and operated organizations, thereby empowering local knowledge to sustain the results of USAID-funded initiatives after grant completion. As part of this initiative, our local implementing partner is fortifying its internal controls and management processes, and developing its human resources so that it can independently execute and achieve results on similar activities.
On our visit, we also encountered the demonstrated success of a completed USAID-supported project that enabled small-scale farmers to cold-store their produce for maximum profit during non-growing seasons. It's always nice seeing positive results of USAID projects continue well past the project end date.
In the end, we are not only helping Crimea increase water security, we are also improving the ability of local NGOs to use their own skills and resources to continue to develop this critical region of Ukraine
21 January 2013
So many people despise the cold. Family and friends have, by the dozens, banished themselves forever from winter’s frosty borders; they’ve fled the four seasons forever in order to, in their self-imposed exile, entrench themselves in the ever pliable soils of our planet’s balmy latitudes.
Not me. One day after my work and migrations leave me liberty, God willing, my land will freeze over once a year. At home in the North, I’ll build a warm fire, brew a pot of tea and look from my window out on the endless peace which is winter. The cold is rejuvenating. Outside, the air is fresh and the bugs are sleeping; it is clean and calm. Inside, reading all day after a hot bath; it is also clean and calm. Winter is the only circumstance in human civilization in which sleeping all day long is a perfectly acceptable use of one’s time. Winter is also meditative: introspection and self reflection abound in the still darkness.
Ideally, as it’s inconvenient to travel, the season of winter revolves around being home and staying put. But this last point doesn’t always apply to me, because I travel both for life and for a living. Even though I was so terribly sad to leave my Christmas tree, my books and my warm bed, I was afforded the opportunity to see two epic winter cities.
Work happily brought me to Tallinn the capital city of Estonia in mid December. Night descends red-eyed on the Baltic during these weeks and dusk never really slumbers. Daytime takes its time getting out of bed: the sun rises weakly at a little after 9am. Yawning widely around two, it stands elderly from the couch to ascend slowly the stairs up to bed around three in the afternoon.
Tallinn is certainly a gorgeous, charming little place in the world. I think we ought to wreck some vacant part of one of America’s more egregiously ugly suburbs and erect perfect replicas of the buildings of Tallinn. These pictures speak for themselves.
So many times as I walk around European cities, I marveled at the way they were built to be beautiful for the pedestrian wanderer. The narrow, winding alleyways, medieval steps and friendly lanterns act as props in a winter play. A place like Tallinn exists for the lost art of the pleasure stroll, and disappoints the man on foot only at the moment he finds out that he has walked every inch. He resumes smiling when he realizes that nothing more remains but to walk it again.
These three pictures were obviously taken of the same alleyway, each from a slightly different angle, with varying exposures and intruders. Natural light changes so quickly in such a place where it is a rare commodity.
My colleagues and I had a meal at the Medieval restaurant in the center of town that is popular with tourists. We ate our wild boar with honey mead at wooden tables in the candlelit dark as university students served us in Renaissance garb. We were informed that potatoes had not been invented yet because they were brought from the new world in the 16th century.
Like I do anywhere, I sought out a swimming pool to exercise. I found a crowded water park facility in the very center of the Old Town, with a large 50m pool and three different jacuzzis, all of them cold.
I had always wanted to see Helsinki, so after work was over, I hopped over the Baltic to Finland. Helsinki always appealed to me as being part of the snowy sisterhood of the world’s polar cities located “up there” above the 60th parallel; St. Petersburg, Anchorage, Reykjavik and Edmonton; Trondheim, Umea and Murmansk. I only spent three days there, and afterwards I fervently wished I had spent at least a week on a train heading further into Finland’s more northern reaches to perhaps catch a glimpse of the northern lights.
In Helsinki in the darkness of early evening, I walked along a quiet side street by the harbor, and it began to snow. In the window of a second story restaurant, I saw some smartly-dressed diners eating and enjoying themselves after a long day of holiday shopping.
This city of the north is certainly a different place. The older buildings, from the 19th century and earlier are painted icy colors of grey, blue light yellow and silver. Many of the 20th century buildings are scary, ridiculous style that I guess could be called “quasi-authoritarian.” Helsinki boasts massive shopping malls and underground passageways to warm and entertain chilled pedestrians.
In this modern EU-member country, it annoyed me that the folks in this place didn't seem to value the consideration of shoveling the sidewalks. I slipped and fell for about the sixth time before I finally gave up walking in this blustery, bone-chilling freeze and retired back to my hotel for a glass of red wine and a visit to the sauna. I slept deep and long in my bed and dreamed of home.
Back in Kyiv, there was something I had always wanted to do while living in Ukraine, but had as of yet, not gotten around to doing it. On the holiday of Epiphany, I finally joined thousands by jumping into the frozen, or close to frozen River Dnieper.
Some say jumping into the river in winter is healthy. Some believe it absolves them of their sins.
My leap into the indescribably frigid waters brought forth the following epiphany: going out into the world to do something new and bold is great fun, but being able to appreciate the tranquility of home can trump all prospects of adventure. Maybe that's one of the healthiest consequences of winter.