Tag Archives: Ukraine

Learning From Travel

Despite being sidelined by the pandemic for more than a year, my travels are still helping me make sense of the world.

When President Biden said a few days ago that the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians during World War One was indeed a genocide, I knew he was telling the truth despite Turkey’s ongoing denials. Champa and I visited Armenia in 2017 and saw its memorials with our own eyes. Our tour guide in Vagharshapat, above, was among several Armenians who told us what happened.

Similarly, as I’ve watched Vladimir Putin move Russian troops to the Ukranian border recently, stirring up conflict again, I’ve thought back to another trip. Champa and I visited Ukraine briefly, touring Odessa with two members of our Peace Corps host family, but we were there long enough to see how it is an independent country with its own flag, currency and history.

We learned from international travel even before joining the Peace Corps. During a 2013 trip to China, we saw more than Tiananmen Square and other tourist sites; we also sensed the rising economic power and national pride that would make China ever-more formidable on the world stage. In Tibet, we witnessed its determination to control ethnic minorities, as it has been doing recently with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The military music blaring near our hotel in Lhasa was clearly meant to send a message to the local Tibetans, not us.

Traveling has provided insight into our own country as well. We learned about immigration while driving along the southern border, such as at this checkpost near El Paso, and about water shortages in the West, as at this dry lakebed in San Luis Obispo. The storefront we passed in a Montana town in 2015 was a harbinger of the anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House a year later.

People travel in many ways and for many reasons, from spa holidays to shopping, and Champa and I have had our share of trips just for fun, but we’ve most loved exploring the unknown. We know how fortunate we have been to have all of these opportunities.

As we look beyond the pandemic to future adventures, we yearn more than anything to learn again about other cultures. When we watch the news, we want to be able to say “I’ve been there” and maybe even “I know something about that place.”

The sidelines have been a welcome safe haven but there’s no substitute for getting onto the field and making contact.

Odessa Steps and Roots

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There’s a new epilogue to the story of a girl from Odessa who fled with her family to America in the early 1900s to escape the pogroms that were killing and persecuting Jews in Ukraine and others parts of the Russian empire.

IMG_1676That girl was my grandmother, Sarah.

On Saturday, Champa and I visited Odessa to pay our respects to Grandma Sarah’s memory while touring this great Black Sea port city. I was the first of her children or grandchildren to return in the many years since Grandma Sarah’s family — my family — arrived with nothing at New York’s Ellis Island. She used to describe their journey as resembling this closing scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a film she loved:

Champa and I hired an excellent driver, Marcel,  to make a long day trip there with our host sister, Alisa (wearing the blue Odessa souvenir hat), and her cousin Natalia.

IMG_1588We left Ialoveni early, crossing the Moldovan-Ukrainian border at Palanca since Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to travel through the disputed territory of Transnistria. We were lucky to arrive near Odessa’s opera house, shown behind us, just before a noon performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” was beginning.  IMG_1600We bought the cheapest seats, less than 40 cents apiece, so we could glimpse the theater for a few minutes. It was magnificent.

We then walked to another local landmark, the Odessa Steps that figure prominently in the famous scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, shown in the following clip. On one side of the steps is a plaque honoring their cinematic significance; on the other is a funicular we rode to ascend after visiting the port below, a major freight and passenger transportation hub for Ukraine.

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Throughout Odessa’s central area we saw beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues commemorating figures such as Catherine the Great (below) and Duke de Richelieu, the French-born governor who helped Odessa grow to become the third largest city in the Russian empire. We thought of our two daughters-in-law when visiting the “Mother-in-Law Bridge” and ate a late lunch of traditional Ukrainain food at Kumanets.

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We ended our trip with a visit to Odessa’s largest synagogue, where I left a donation in my grandmother’s honor. It had taken more than a century but one of her descendants had finally made it back to revive her memory in this fascinating city, which we really enjoyed visiting.