Breakfast at seven? Flippin’ ‘eck! I thought this was a… oh yes, I get it: we’re abroad, but it’s not a holiday. It’s work. Alrighty then, 7.00am breakfast it is…
Today, the action’s taking place in Saki – a town in the north of Crimea. We’d originally been scheduled to depart at 8.00am to make the first distribution (in a school) on time. But yesterday, we’d received a phone call asking if we could arrive half an hour early, as the school was being a bit inflexible with their timetable – which meant that we had to do breakfast half an hour earlier. And so we did… only to receive a phone call as we were driving up to Saki, informing us that the school had now decided to go with our original time slot. These people – don’t they realise that us writers need our beauty sleep if we’re going to do our jobs properly?
The morning started off just wet back down in Simferopol. The further north we drove, however, the colder it got – and when we arrived in Saki, it was freezing. We pulled up in front of the ‘school for Christ’ church where we were warmly welcomed by Alexander, the pastor (who’s coordinating the gift distributions in this area).
Once indoors, we gathered round a huge table. Alexander wasted no time giving us the lowdown on the area and the work the church was doing there. His youth pastor sat in a corner, strumming away at his guitar. We were served tea, coffee and chunky biscuits by an older blonde lady who, we were told, had been a drug addict for 20 years before she joined the church. She popped her head in from the kitchen and said “hello” and “I love you” to us, whilst the youth pastor laid down some Nile Rodgers grooves in the background. It’s real coffee – hot, strong and made without the use of a filter or cafetiere. I let all the grainy stuff settle before I drink it, occasionally wiping it away from the edge of the mug before taking a swig. It’s good coffee, though.
Alexander used the extra time to fill us in a bit more on the history of the area, and we got given a longer history of the place as we drove round. Saki is home to 30,000 people, including many Tatar people who had returned from forced exile (In 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly exiled in 24 hours, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. 46% of them perished on their way to Central Asia). Saki is famous for its lake, which has an extremely high salt content. People from all over the former Soviet Union come here for its spas and mud treatments – as do people generally who have orthopaedic problems they need treatment for. “In the summer, it’s not uncommon to see more people in wheelchairs than walking normally,” our guide tells us. Nearly all the shops have wheelchair access, and there are over 100 health resorts in the area.
Our first distribution is in the imaginatively named Secondary School No. 4. This school is 300 years old and is the oldest school in the Crimea (which makes you wonder why it isn’t Secondary School No. 1 – but hey, I don’t make the names). I amble about the school’s reception area and am immediately accosted by a handful of girls who want to have their picture taken with me. We take pictures, the school bell rings, and we’re all carted off into a classroom where a handful of kids are given pressies.
I had a brief interview with one girl who loves skipping has found a skipping rope in her shoe box. She told me her name was Lyuda (pronounced “loo-dah”), which immediately reminded me of “Ludachristmas”. But I’m sure she won’t get the 30 Rock reference, so I don’t share the joke. I interview another girl who’s been learning English for a few years and wants to have a practise. That went well… Before we leave, we are warmly thanked by the school principal.
On our way to our next visit, we stopped for a brief wander around the market. An elderly lady in a purple coat sat behind one stall selling stuff; she stopped me and asked where I was from. Thankfully, Marina was close by to help me communicate with her.
She asked if I went to church, and told me proudly that she was a Protestant. Marina explained to her what we were doing in Saki, and she gave us a brief… well, she basically gave us a sermon.
“If you’re doing this for God, and you’re doing it with love, it will be great for this place,” she said. “Do it in God’s honour – not your own. It’s not enough just to give people things; you have to tell them about God’s son and what he did for all of us. You need to tell people that they need to have salvation through Jesus Christ. People need to see Jesus in your lives.”
Sermon over, we got into the van and headed to where the second distribution of the day was due to take place. On this leg of the journey, we had the honour of having the head of the village as our guide. He got into our van and gave us guided tour as we drove – very slowly – through the winding roads of the village. He told us about the slave markets there used to be in this part of the Crimea, and of the various people groups who lived here, including the Karaim and the Tatars.
We had to drive slowly; the Tatars who had built the old town had deliberately constructed the roads in such a way that any invading enemies couldn’t just go charging through them, especially if they were in big vehicles (a strategy which, in my opinion, is a lot more effective than speed bumps). En route to the second distribution (due to take place in the village’s cultural centre), we stopped for lunch and visited a couple of kids and their families: a little girl who has Down’s Syndrome, and another who’s being treated for leukaemia.
Only a couple of us did those visits, as we figured it would be too overwhelming for the girls if the whole team walked in on them. While the rest of us waited outside the girls’ homes, the village head talked excitedly about some new developments due to happen in the village. It’s been chosen as the site for a new Formula 1 track – complete with a little airport to accommodate all the rich people who will be flying in on private jets to watch the races that will be held there when it’s done. He told us to take some ‘before’ pictures of the place as it is now, especially of the road in the potholes.
We arrived at the cultural centre to find a flamboyant Technicolour massive waiting to greet us. School children were dressed in their respective ethnic group’s traditional costumes: Tatars, Gypsies, and several others. A large, round, sugary loaf of bread is presented to us – a Crimean custom for welcoming guests. The loaf is passed round and we all break off a piece and eat it, some choosing to dip it in the little bowl of salt that accompanies it. The loaf is the same sort of bread Sierra Leoneans commonly refer to as “sweet bread” (that is, until they move to England and get a nasty shock when they discover what “sweet bread” means over there. Ew!).
The very schoolmarmy-looking lady who welcomed us at the door MC’ed the reception that followed, at which we were treated to traditional dances from the various people groups present in the village (and Brazil, for some weird, unexplained reason – unless someone can prove to me that Samba has Ukrainian roots!). It’s a great atmosphere; I had a particularly fun time playing with one kid who took a shine to my specs (as babies often do). With so many people packed into a not-very-large venue, this distribution felt a bit shambolic – but still went well.
With two distributions and a couple of home visits done, there was still more work to do before wrapping up today’s packed schedule. On to another internat we went. Again, the sweet bread got passed round as we watched some more singing and dancing… and then off to our fourth and final distribution of the day, in another orphanage nearby. This one looked as if it had recently had some work done on it. We sat in the library/IT room and met with a group of kids there; another group of kids from another orphanage close by were bussed in to meet with us and receive gifts. Today’s “Aww” moment came when one little girl who had always dreamt of having her own Slinky spring opened up her shoebox and found one inside.
We ended an extremely full day with dinner back down at our home base in Simferopol. On the way home from dinner, we bumped into some blokes who thought I was Mike Tyson, for some unfathomable reason. Is it cos I is black, I ask myself?
Pictures taken by David Lund. Check out his official website here.