I am 17, one of 25 in the Canadian Youth for Ukraine (CYU) team. The first time I fly: Halifax-Toronto-Amsterdam-Kiev. I wake up with pen marks on my shirt and ears popping as we descend into Ukraine. We are fed borscht and fresh cucumbers at a church when we arrive. The train ride to Zaporozhye lasts 10 hours and rolls over gaps in the tracks every 1.5 seconds. We are told to watch our shoes so they aren't stolen, I hardly sleep the entire night.
A blond prostitute in a tight red dress frequents our hotel. She is middle aged and has bulges in all the wrong places. Our team plays Zoom-Schwartz-Pygliana and Rook in the lobby before and after devotionals. We travel on electric powered buses. Rush hour is bad because the coaches are stuffed with people with strong B.O. One time a girl from our group faints. Supper is at 9:30 PM each night after our evangelistic crusade. Breakfast is at 9:00 AM, lunch is at 2:00 PM at an awful cafeteria where cats with body sores stroll under our tables. The soup is weak. The cottage cheese patties are zingy. I familiarize myself with the Cyrillic alphabet. Lenin statues are everywhere.
I teach conversational English to a group of teenagers every morning at a cultural center by the Dnepr River. The girls in my class use egg whites to keep their bangs up and they wear the same clothes to class every day. Oksana is a beautiful brunette. Olga has dyed blond hair. I am a magnet for attention as I could be a ticket to Canada if I married one of them.
On Canada Day, we play volleyball by the river. I see my first Geiger counter and it beeps wildly around some people; we are downstream from Chernobyl. Our translators are Irish, Elena, Natasha, and Kostya. The girls are gorgeous and a few years older than I am. They all emigrate to the USA and Canada in the following years.
During our 1/2 days off, we are allowed to wander the industrial city. There are Michael Jackson bootleg tapes in the market. US dollars are preferred to the rapidly inflating Koupons, a temporary currency being used since the break-up of the Soviet Union. I buy huge chunks of sunflower seed halva and bags of fresh plums and cherries which give me stomach aches. Wesley and I play Paper-Rock-Scissors for a used dombra, a four stringed instrument native to central Asia. I win. I also buy a $15 button box, a couple wooden flutes, two paintings, and heaps of typical Ukrainian handicrafts including the matryoshka wooden dolls.
I get very sick. I rush out of a supper at a church and puke between rows of squash plants in a garden as a goat looks on. When I think I'm better I go to the cafeteria for lunch a couple days later. I get nauseous when I see the cats and smell the cottage cheese patties so I walk the 4 blocks back to the International Hotel, but I faint on the sidewalk by myself. I come to as two Ukrainians carry me into a government building. I've soiled myself.
A large brass band plays outside the lavish conference and performance center that we used for our crusade. My turn comes to do the special music at the nightly youth meetings. I play a piece on my classical guitar. A man has an epileptic seizure in the front row in the middle of my performance. At another meeting, a man interrupts the talk by shouting that we are preaching lies, that the leader of the Mary David church is the new Christ and is going to be crucified in a few months. Some strong men haul the young man out of the hall and kick him several times. He loses a large can of coffee which spills all over the floor. Some of the posters we have up in the city get defaced and our evangelist has 666 scratched onto his forehead. Another night, I preach the sermon. My topic is the Ten Commandments.
We visit a museum on an island in the river. A heavy metal band invites me and a friend to watch them practice. A church family has many of us over for an amazing lunch. Wesley buys a violin from a violin maker. We watch the city handball team practice. They are wearing very old and torn up tennis shoes. My friend's student invites us to meet his family. They live in a high rise apartment that has no elevator. The feed us kvaç soup, a weak local beer with some tiny squares of ham in it. Cars that look like Ladas are everywhere, but they are called Zaporozh'ye Cars. We see almost no other cars.
We take a holiday to Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. All the women are in bikinis except for the girls on our team who are wearing one-piece bathing suits. One of our leaders' sons is on the team and he is very dark compared to his father; we call them Night and Day. I play lots of Rook.
300 people are baptized in the Dnepr river. They wear white lab coats over their bikinis. I'm not convinced they are all being baptized for the right reasons, but it is an awesome sight. Our team takes up a collection and we pay for a salary of an extra pastor for a year in the city to do follow-up for these baptisms.
Our last night in Zaporozh'ye, the meeting hall is packed. Backstage, a man I gave a package of guitar strings to gives me a huge tomato and an equally huge kiss on the cheek. Nearly all of my students have shown up to give me gifts ranging from traditionally painted handicrafts to Soviet era medals to a full sized Russian language atlas. Everyone returns to the train station as we depart the next morning.
I am humbled beyond words.