Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Chernivsti, Ukraine: The Color Farm

This trip has landed me, for some time, for better or worse, in rural Ukraine.

I like it here, but at least a few people have asked: Why Ukraine? So, before I regale you with tales of the little life we live here, I will answer that question:

Why not?

I more or less looked at a map, picked somewhere I had never been to before that not a lot of other people had been to before either, and happened upon a family whose desciption of themselves I liked who also like my description of myself. People are kind everywhere. I picked Ukraine because I knew nothing about it, and I wanted to learn more.

Turns out, it's also well-positioned to be a staging point for my upcoming travels through the Middle East. While I'm trading labor for room and board, those are also cheap here, if I decide to take day or weekend trips (recall the day of biking before I arrived here: $17 for food, including a pizza, and a nice hostel with a shower, bed, and internet).

So, that's why.

I found this family using an organization called World Wide Organization for Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF runs a website with a small fee ($15 when I paid) to make sure you're serious. Pay the fee, and for a year you can contact any farm on the site and arrange to stay with them. The conditions are room and board in exchange for labor.

I've landed myself on a farm affectionately known as the "Color Farm" with Maxym and Marina and their 3-year-old son Misha (short for Mishael). It's delightful here – secluded, fairly self-sustaining, and the landscape is as charming and beautiful as the family. They live in a two-room house: their room, which is also where we cook and eat, and the guest room. It's not a commune or anything; we have neighbors a field over, but for the most part they keep to themselves.

Marina speaks Russian (as she is from Russia), Maxym speaks Ukranian (as he is from Ukraine), Misha speaks both (at three years of age!), and they all know varying amounts of English. Which is good, because I know neither Russian nor Ukranian, and my efforts to learn so far have been utter failures.

Just to reiterate, Marina does not speak Ukranian and Maxym does not speak Russian – they both speak in their native tongues to each other, they both understand each other, and they both reply in their native tongues. Misha does speak both languages, but he sometimes gets confused when they use similar words: the word for "man" in Ukranian conflates the word for "human" in Russian, so he often says to his mom in Russian that he's a boy now, but when he grows up, he'll be human.

You'd think on a farm the "labor" I exchange would be something like bailing hay or driving cattle, but the "farm" is very small and young so I've actually been doing mostly carpentry. When I arrived, there were two beds: one for the three of them and one for me. I built them another bed, much larger than the one they had, and now there are three beds – just in time for another guest, Olive.

Olive is from England, but she left in 2013 and she's been vagabonding ever since. She's spent most of her time between Australia, India, South America, and Portugal, and only in the past year or so started traveling Europe. I often meet other cyclists, but rarely do I meet someone who has been so open-endedly vagabonding, so it's been fascinating to get to know her and hear her stories. "It's not travel, it's just my life," she says. After five months on the road, I have only just begun to feel that way.

In addition to building the bed, I've also picked, sorted, cut, and dried basil (for eating, as well as the soaps, creams, and lotions that Marina makes and sells); tied tomatoes up so they grow better; collected, sorted, and cut apples; cooked; done the dishes; made tea; and hunted for mushrooms in the forest. It's a delightful variety of labor.

Life here is simple. We get up when we get up, do work until breakfast is ready (usually pretty late as farm as I'm concerned, anywhere from 9-12), take a break while Misha takes a nap, then work again until dinner (anywhere from 4-7 – it's ready when it's ready). All the soap is handmade by Marina; except for the grains (usually buckwheat or millet, sometimes rice or oatmeal), the food comes from the garden (fresh pumpkin!); and, there is no sugar or fat in any of the food (it's vegan – no butter! Or cheese...). Marina doesn't cook with oil, since heating oil is a great way to make carcinogens. If you want oil in your food, you add it after – a bottle of olive oil is permanently on the dining room table. All water comes from the well, and the shower is outdoors and heated by the sun. Internet has to be dialed-up, but it comes in through an antenna, so it's... wireless dial-up? And there's no wifi, so there's one computer that can access internet very slowly between Marina, Maxym, Olive, and me.

The first thing I'm going to do when I leave is eat a block of cheese... and probably take a hot shower.

But, I like it here. Marina, Maxym, and Misha are endearing – in their compassion, generosity, and desire to learn English. Every now and then I'll use a phrase they don't recognize and they'll ask me to explain it. Once I taught them "kind of" and then asked if there was going to be dessert.

"Kind of," said Marina.

"Dessert" was cocoa powder mixed with honey and oatmeal. It was good, just not as sweet as something like brownies or cookies. It was... kind of dessert.

(I'm not a nutritionist but I don't think we need "added sugar" in our diets, so the only thing that's been suffering is my desire to eat sweets...)

Misha doesn't speak English so much as he picks a phrase or two a day and repeats them. It's adorable having your conversation periodically interrupted by a 3-year-old repeating what you say. When picking tomatoes Maxym asked me for the scissors and then said thanks, and I replied, "You're welcome." Misha asked Maxym what that meant. Later, I was washing some plums and Misha was standing beside me. He said something in Russian to Marina, who relayed to me in English that he wanted a plum. I gave him one.

He stood there for a few seconds with the plum, thinking intensely. Finally,

"Thank you," he said, then looked at me, waiting.

"You're welcome," I said.

He nodded satisfactorily and went back to Marina.

This may seem an odd observation, but they are strikingly human. I've biked more than a quarter of the way around the world and still the people are not that different. Yes, they speak different languages, they look a little different, but they still have families and homes, and we still talk about what makes us happy. We joke and tease and laugh, and every now and then just look at each other and smile. Maxym and Marina take turns reading to Misha at night; Misha is sometimes desperate for attention but more often than not able to entertain himself in the yard, in the kitchen, or on the trampoline. We share cultural obserations, whether it be about politics or movies (I recently discovered that Marina has a copy of The Princess Bride, which I haven't seen in ages...) or music. Most endearing, I sometimes get to listen to Marina sing Russian lullabies to Misha. I feel like I belong here not because we connect on every level or because we're bffs or because we stay up late sharing travel stories and hopes and dreams, but because the things they care about are the same things other people care about – the same things I care about. They are good, imperfect people, and that is exactly what the world needs more of.

Life here is, in many senses, dirty. We eat apples with bad spots. We leave our apple cores and uneaten parts of fruit on the table until putting them all into the compost, and wiping the table. We dump heaps of basil on the bed, bugs and all, to be sorted and cut. We leave the front door open all day so there's always fresh air in the house. Since we don't cook with oil, we rarely do the dishes with soap. It's very un-American. But it's also very simple and very easy to get used to once you let go of your preconceptions. Eating an apple with a bad spot hasn't given me the bubonic plague. Nor has just doing the dishes with water.

When Marina mixes lye for her soap, however, we evacuate. If you've seen Fight Club, lye is the stuff Tyler gets on his hand that burns all the way through to the bone. Apparently it will actually do that to you – that wasn't an exaggeration for the movie. Marina puts on her "space man uniform," as she calls in, including a very WWII-looking facemask with air filters, and dons gloves and boots and locks the door so Misha doesn't accidently get in.

I've hunted for mushrooms in the forest and had Marina tell me which are good to eat, and brought them home and cooked them with onions and beer and a bit of flour to make them creamy, and discovered that fresh mushrooms are infinitely better than all the grocery store mushrooms I've been eating all my life.

I finished their bed and then had them decide it should also function as a sitting area when the mattress is rolled up during the day, so then I finished it again... and then again... and then again. And still we have visions of tree branches "growing" out of it, turning the kitchen into a forest with their bed as a pagoda.

I've gotten excited about building a rocket stove, but it was to be built after redoing the path to the door... and then after tying the tomatoes... and then after finishing the bed. And now after our trip to Oddessa.

Yep, they are going to Oddessa for a ten-day vacation and I've been invited along. To the sea! On a train! It's all very romantic.

Then we'll come back and I'll build the rocket stove, and then I'll be off to Greece. And then Istanbul. And then, probably, Africa.

Ukraine is pretty great.


  1. Love this description of life with Maxym, Marina and Misha. What do they eat for protein?

    Love you, Mom

  2. Grains and legumes, mostly, which combine to make a complete protein. Nuts, sometimes.

  3. This sounds like an incredibly peaceful experience. Glad you're enjoying Ukraine!

  4. Hi Kyle! i was distracted by the news of the mass shooting coming into work today and thought of you upon seeing the stuffed animal you sewed on my bookshelf. I figured a read through your blog would be a nice pick-me-up, and it was! thank you! While we may never understand the motives behind this mornings attack and others like it, i feel slightly better thinking of all the travelers out there learning humbly about people on their adventures. perhaps a continually increasing global understanding of humans will lead us to more peaceful times ahead.

    Enjoy Greece!

    1. Wow, I'm flattered my blog could be a pick-me-up. If my travel writing could promote a better understanding of humanity and somehow create a more compassionate world I'd consider it an awesome accomplishment.

      Thanks for your kind words. Hope things in Madison are going swimmingly for you.