As I sit in my cozy Baltimore apartment, sipping a cup of coffee a few days before the start of classes for my final year at Johns Hopkins, I feel that it’s the perfect time to reflect on my Hopkins experience. For simplicity’s sake, perhaps it’s best to reflect solely on Summer 2012, my last college summer, and incidentally the best three months of my life. I traveled to four countries and one occupied territory, all thanks to two unique opportunities at Johns Hopkins- the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the JHU Study Abroad Office. Ironically, among the best things about Hopkins are the incredible opportunities to learn and develop abroad.
The story of Summer 2012 actually began two years earlier, during the summer after my freshman year when I was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. The Fellowship is one of the few undergraduate research fellowships at JHU, and provides fellows with a generous stipend and the chance to conduct independent research on a topic of our choosing. I had always harbored an interest in Russia and the former Soviet Union, most likely triggered by my early obsession with the film Dr. Zhivago, which my father introduced me to at a young age. I’ve seen the film countless times since then and it is still one of my favorites. First semester sophomore year, I enrolled in the class Russian Foreign Policy, taught by Dr. Robert Freedman. The class served to reignite my interest in the region and broadened my knowledge of Russian history, the Soviet Union, and the newly independent states that emerged from the ashes of the USSR. For my final paper, I chose to write about the evolution of Russia-Ukraine relations since the dissolution of the USSR.
With the support of the Fellowship, I decided to research the development of foreign policy objectives and civil society in Ukraine. Initially, my advisor and others in the program were skeptical about the abrupt change in the direction of my research and my travel plans to Ukraine. I don’t know the Russian or Ukrainian languages, and no previous Fellow had traveled to Ukraine. I took these suggestions seriously- I needed to understand what I was getting into. And I needed to prove my dedication to the project. I scoured databases for academic journals on Ukrainian civil society development, read entire books on Ukrainian history, and kept up-to-date on political currents within the country.
I spent much of the summer of 2011 and into 2012 continuing this research, attending conferences in Washington, DC and Harvard University, contacting various American experts on Ukraine and the broader Eurasian region, conducting interviews with two former U.S. Ambassadors to Ukraine and various other thought leaders. By March 2012 I began to reach out to experts in academia and think tanks in Ukraine. The momentum of my project quickly gathered speed, and I found myself with enough contacts in Ukraine to travel to the country and continue my work there. This April, I finally booked my May 20th flight to Ukraine- a dream had become a reality.
During spring semester of junior year, I also realized that I needed to revamp my Arabic skills. As an International Studies major, I’m required to complete the advanced level of a language course- in other words, three years of language study. I participated in the Aitchison Fellowship in Washington, DC during fall semester of junior year and was thus unable to continue my Arabic studies for the entire junior year. A year away from a foreign language is far too long; I knew that I would have to regain the Arabic that I had forgotten. After sitting in on a few Arabic classes spring semester, and feeling completely overwhelmed as it dawned on me that I had retained so little, I dropped by the Study Abroad Office to discuss my options over the summer. I learned that I could study Arabic in either Jordan or Morocco. I decided to study in Jordan; the colloquial Jordanian dialect is similar to the Modern Standard Arabic we learn in school, and the Moroccan dialect is notoriously difficult, even for Arabs. Happily, my plans for Jordan dovetailed exactly with those for Ukraine; I booked a flight from Kiev to Amman on June 7th.
My Summer 2012 plans were complete; I would spend three weeks in Kiev and Odessa, before heading to Amman for seven weeks. I did not book a return flight from Amman, hoping for the opportunity to travel around the region with future classmates after Arabic classes finished on July 27th.
I peered out the gritty windows of the AeroSvit flight to observe the landscape below during the descent. I could see the vast, green, and unbroken landscape to the west of Kiev. Soon, grey Soviet-era high-rises interrupted the pastoral scene below me as we passed over the city. I stumbled off the plane, completed customs, and stepped outside to be greeted by the cool Ukrainian air. On the drive into the city, the giant Mother of the Fatherland monument, armed with an enormous hammer and sickle shield and an upraised sword, greeted me as I crossed across the Dnieper. The monument is located in the south of the city, and is so massive that it is visible from miles away. It is an ugly, yet poignant, reminder of Ukraine’s Soviet past.
My hotel, the Salute Hotel, actually within walking distance of the Mother of the Fatherland, was another Soviet relic. Built in a residential neighborhood along the banks of the Dnieper, it resembled an immense potato-masher grenade, wider at the top than the bottom. It towered over the surrounding apartments, and was probably once admired as an accomplishment of Soviet architecture. My room was small, yet comfortable, and the porch offered an amazing view of Left Bank Kiev and the tall apartment blocks that stretched across the entire horizon, illuminating the skyline with a dazzling orange at night. Past the city, I could see the immaculately flat Ukrainian steppes, continuing, it seemed, into infinity.
That first day in the city I explored the winding streets of Kiev, making my way from my hotel on the banks of the Dnieper all the way to Maidan Square at the city center. Thick white pollen from blossoming dogwood trees filled the air as I walked, and swirled like snow as I passed the parliament building and the Presidential Administration offices. I immediately found Kiev confusing and paradoxical. I really didn’t know what I would find in Kiev; I half-expected a landscape dominated by gloomy apartment complexes and Soviet architecture. Instead, I was surprised to find a modern European city, equipped with a lively downtown and streets that could rival many in Western Europe. Kiev adeptly mixes the old, the Soviet, and the modern; one can find gold-domed churches, lively bars and nightclubs, Soviet-era monuments, old imperial mansions, and cobblestone streets- all within the space of a few blocks. That first day I passed St. Sophia Cathedral, ate Ukrainian borscht soup in Maidan Square, and hiked to the shores of the Dnieper River.
As I drifted off into sleep that first night in Ukraine a cascade of emotions overwhelmed me. I felt excitement and pride, sure. For the first time in my life, I had designed my own itinerary and budgeted for my own trip. After nearly a year and a half of exertion, and many moments in which it felt that Ukraine was more of a distant dream than a reality, I had finally made it. This was all on me. Of course, I was also nervous. I had my first interview in the morning, and I had a lot of work to complete in three weeks.
As it turned out, the interviewing process proceeded better than I could have ever expected. My first interview the next day was a success, and I quickly worked into a groove. Each successive interview seemed to go smoother than the one before. I interviewed leading figures in Ukrainian think tanks and academia, among others. The perspective on the ground in Ukraine was markedly different than the information I received in the United States. Each interviewee seemed to have unique perspectives on the Ukraine’s drive towards Europeanization and political developments within the country. I gained fresh new insight on Russia-Ukraine relations, the development of civil society since the Orange Revolution, contemporary linguistic politics, and the Yanukovych Administration’s policies towards the European Union. In Ukraine I got the opportunity to speak with diverse individuals- an EU Representative to Ukraine, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, various university professors, think tank leaders, and an official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, among others. I attended a handful of seminars and talks about Ukrainian politics and foreign policy. The information I was receiving in Ukraine from primary sources was robust, contradictory and heart-felt – exactly what I was looking for.
During the week, I often found myself rushing between interviews; on several occasions I had scheduled as many as three appointments in a single day. This became a serious logistical problem, however. The Kiev city streets often lacked street signs or numbers; even the streets that had signs were in Ukrainian – contradicting the spelling on my maps and confounding my ability to correctly identify even the most prominent streets and the existing street numbers were rarely sequential. I often needed to arrive to my destination an hour early, just to guarantee that I could find the correct location. While maddening at first, I grew to find the city quirky and even loveable in its own way.
I also learned to love the Kiev Metro; a throwback to the heyday of the Soviet Union. The expansive and convenient metro system easily connected most parts of the city and I used it almost exclusively as my method of transportation. Each station was unique; most platforms were adorned with frescoes or murals depicting elements of Ukrainian history or folklore. One platform even contained an enormous bust of Vladimir Lenin, and the walls decorated with his exhortations. Unlike New York subways, which are grimy, noisy and sometimes menacing, Kyiv subways are clean, efficient, and elegant. Classical music plays over the loudspeakers. The old trains were Soviet relics; it wasn’t difficult for my imagination to wander and picture myself in Kiev during the 1960s. Even so, they ran efficiently, usually about five minutes apart. Most people use the metro and so many of the stations and trains were crowded. I often had to push my way into a car, and then would almost get swept out with the rush at the next stop. Oddly but happily, the announcements for the next station stops were in English as well as Ukrainian. The Kiev Metro was also designed to serve as a bomb shelter, and the system is one of the deepest in the world. In fact, the metro station next to my hotel, Arsenal’na, is the world’s deepest, at 105.5 meters, deep enough, presumably, to withstand nuclear attack.
After interviews, and on the weekends, I would take the time to explore Kiev and take in its sites. I visited the beautiful St. Sophia Cathedral, one of the most intriguing churches I have ever seen. Wandering inside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral, I found myself in awe of the beautifully adorned walls and vivid paintings. The golden domes of the cathedral towered over much of the surrounding neighborhood, adding Old World charm to the bustling streets below. I explored the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a complex of monasteries and churches not far from my hotel. I descended into the monastery’s caves, guided only by candle light as I ducked into tight catacombs and passed pilgrims chanting prayers. I walked along the expansive Dnieper River, and enjoyed jogs through the pleasant Marinsky Park. I enjoyed a performance of Sleeping Beauty by the Kiev Ballet and bought souvenirs on the historic street, Andriyivskyy (Andrew’s Descent). I explored any church that I could find; even churches that appeared dingy on the outside were often impressive and charming upon entrance. Before an interview, I would often sit on the street, outside a café, sipping a cappuccino as I glanced over my notes and questions.
During my time in the country, I spoiled my palate with fine Ukrainian food- borscht, halouptsi (cabbage rolls), vareniky, and salo (pig fat with garlic and bread). I found Ukrainian food both filling and healthy- the national cuisine consisted of many vegetables and soups, coupled with light meat. And of course, I would be amiss if I failed to relate people met and friendships made. During my first weekend, I went to a bar in the downtown area of the city. On the streets, Ukrainians seem unsmiling and distant. But after some shots and salo, I found myself involved in lively conversations with all the locals. They told me about life during the Orange Revolution, attractions in the city, and Ukrainian history. I met college students, several of whom had traveled previously to the United States as part of the work and travel program. Our conversations ranged from their time spent in America to college life in Ukraine. We stayed up the entire night in an apartment talking politics, and we met several more times during my time in the country.
During my second weekend in Ukraine, I traveled to Odessa to conduct an interview with a professor there. While I only spent two days in the city, I found it a welcome change of tempo. The Ukrainian capital is a bustling, working city. Its fast pace and unsmiling faces required some getting used to. During my interviews in Kiev, I was initially taken aback by the facial cues of those I was interviewing. In the beginning, I was afraid that I had inadvertently irritated my interviewees. Unlike in the U.S., smiling just isn’t a default facial expression for many Kievites.
However, Odessa’s looser and more relaxed atmosphere was immediately apparent. Russian tourists strolled the pleasant cobblestone streets in the downtown district. Children played on the famous Potemkin Stairs, and street artists played lively music or staged performances. At one spot, people in formal attire danced to ‘40s swing music playing from old record player, under majestic Corinthian columns. Further down the street, another group was launching paper balloons powered by burners. The balloons would twirl during their ascent as they drifted over Odessa’s harbor. Children laughed and screamed when some of the balloons failed to launch, nearly colliding with people further down the street. My hotel was in the heart of downtown, minutes away from the Odessa Opera House and most of the city’s venues. Odessa’s beaches on the Black Sea were only minutes away in the other direction. I found the beaches somewhat disappointing; however I quickly fell in love with the rest downtown area of the city. The restaurants were great, and especially enjoyed evening strolls alongside the Potemkin Stairs. However, my favorite attraction in Odessa was undoubtedly the Odessa Opera House. A grand building on the outside, the theater was even more splendid on the inside with beautiful decorations and dazzling colors. It was built in the neo-baroque style, with ornate golden leaf decorations. A national treasure, the Opera House was thankfully spared during the long Romanian siege of the city during the Second World War. For only $15, I purchased a front row seat for both a string concert and an opera and treated myself to caviar and champagne. The opera was in Russian, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time nonetheless. It remains one of my fondest memories in Ukraine. Sadly, I had to leave Odessa after two days.
My last weekend in Ukraine, I visited the Zone of Alienation as a tour, the location of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in 1986. Passport and Geiger counter in hand, I passed through the police checkpoint at the border of the Zone. Pripyat, the once-thriving Soviet showcase town just miles from Reactor Number 4, remained an eerie ghost town. Schools, hospitals, apartment complexes, government offices, and movie theaters decayed and ransacked. Baby carriages, dolls, toy buckets, broken glass, and scraps of metal strewn over lawns and streets, left by evacuated families and the looters who arrived later. Red stars, the hammer and sickle, and portraits of Lenin remained a testament to 1986 Soviet Ukraine. Houses overrun with weeds. Lessons still on the blackboards of schoolrooms. I stood under the infamous Ferris wheel in central Pripyat, and wandered down empty streets conquered by nature long ago. I sat down in the city center, hearing only the whispers of the wind and nearby woodpeckers. We stood silently for many minutes in respect for those who had died to shut down the burning reactor, and for the many who have suffered since that terrible day.
All too soon it was time to continue my summer journey and travel to Amman for my seven week study abroad program. This time, accommodations aboard my Royal Jordanian flight were superior to Ukrain’s Aerosvit Airlines. As my plane passed across the Black Sea I turned around to see Ukraine one last time, blasting the Ukrainian national anthem on my iPod. Three hours later, I passed through customs at the Queen Alia International Airport. I pushed my way through the thronging crowd of family members greeting Jordanians arriving from abroad. Children set off fireworks and waved flags as I attempted to reorient myself. Unable to find the bus sent to greet me, I finally found a taxi into the city.
My first few days in Jordan, I participated in Orientation with my Arabic language program, CIEE. I soon got to know the other students in the program- and we spent the first few days in Amman exploring the sites and readjusting to our surroundings. A relatively new metropolis, Amman lacks the history and charm of many other capital cities in the region such as Cairo or Damascus. However, Amman is a lively and bustling place- a true working Middle Eastern city. Situated on several hills, Amman sprawls as far as the eye can see, the greyish brown apartment complexes and houses reflecting the scorching desert sun. For much of the summer, the temperature stayed in the high 90s, and at times reached 110 degrees. The fourth day in Jordan, I moved out of the hotel and into my apartment with my new roommates. The apartment was located on a quiet street in a neighborhood called Al-Shmesani, in the western quarter of the city. Every day I walked to the small neighborhood shop, the Al-Shmesani Family Store, where I bought dinner or small snacks. I frequented the fruit stand next door, owned by an Egyptian man named Nasser. Nasser understood little English; however, I was able to piece together enough Arabic to learn about his background, family, and experiences in Jordan since moving to Amman several years ago.
A few days after my arrival, I was introduced to my Jordanian language partner, Muath. Over the coming weeks, I became a recognizable face in his neighborhood, Al-Wihdat (“The Units”), a Palestinian refugee camp built by the United Nations. I played soccer outside the neighborhood high school, sipped Turkish coffee and socialized in the bustling Al-Wihdat souk, and was treated to Iftar dinners at Muath’s house. I particularly enjoyed the warm Qatayefs (a Ramadan sweet), prepared by Muath’s mother. I listened to stories about Al-Wihdat and daily life in Jordan. The first time I went to Muath’s house I brought pictures of my own family with me. As I passed out the pictures to his family, they asked the location of each photo, inquiring about my background.
Over the first couple of weeks in Amman, I quickly developed a daily routine. After class in the morning, I attended a local gym before heading back to the apartment to complete my homework. I often enjoyed sitting in the apartment balcony, chewing gum or sipping coffee as I wrote short stories in Arabic or followed listening exercises. Every evening, I would put down my pencil and soak in the beauty of the melodious call to prayer, the chant echoing through the city. The work was often time consuming; however, my Arabic skills improved dramatically over the course of just seven weeks. I knew that I had to take my Arabic studies seriously; it was a privilege for me to participate in study abroad and I was determined to prepare myself for my Arabic studies in the coming semester.
CIEE conducted several trips during the course of our seven week studies. During our second weekend in the country, we slept at a Bedouin campsite before hiking to Petra the following day. The food at the Bedouin campsite was amazing, and we all shared in eating Mansaf, the national Jordanian dish. Mansaf is made with lamb, yogurt, and rice and must be eaten by hand. We all crowded around the plates of Mansaf placed on the floor of a Bedouin tent, our hands and faces dripping with food as we hungrily scooped up the delicious meal. Later, we hiked to the top of a nearby Crusader-era castle, before scurrying back to the campsite in the midst of a small sandstorm. We woke up early the next morning, loading onto the bus for a short drive. For the next three hours we walked through the desert and climbed natural rock formations, making our way slowly towards our destination- Petra. I trod carefully and avoided looking down as I gingerly scaled a ledge inches in depth, and tens of meters in height. I can vividly recall my first sighting of the “Monastery,” one of the main attractions in the ancient city. The large structure rose menacingly out of the hot desert sand as I moved towards it, worn and dusty. We entered Petra from the less-traveled eastern side, and confused tourists looked inquisitively at us as we ran towards the “Monastery,” celebrating our arrival. We spent the next few hours exploring all the sites at Petra and looking in awe at all the structures carved out of sheer rock- most notably the famous “Treasury,” the site of the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The “Treasury” was even more awe-inspiring than I had anticipated and the structure appeared perfectly carved into hard rock, a masterwork of classical architecture jutting out of the canyon landscape.
Two weeks later, during Fourth of July weekend, about twenty of the students in the program organized an impromptu trip to Wadi Rum and the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. After Thursday class, we boarded a bus to a Bedouin campsite in Wadi Rum, where we enjoyed traditional Bedouin food, music, and a campfire. A handful of us broke off from the group and explored the desert late at night. We barrel-rolled down a steep sand dune under a bright moon, and discovered a sand shelter eerily protruding from the soft sand below. We all woke up early the next morning and enjoyed a camel ride through the desert for the sunrise. I woke up late and was last to pick my camel. I was the largest guy in the group, and I was given the smallest camel, who I named Crook. Crook groaned under my weight, nearly throwing me off his back when I first mounted. He growled and complained bitterly the entire trek in the desert. Then, we took an hour jeep tour through the towering canyons of Wadi Rum- famously featured in the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. We quickly packed at the campsite and took an hour bus ride to the city of Aqaba, where we loaded onto a boat for lunch and snorkeling. We spent more than an hour snorkeling, admiring the amazingly clear, turquoise water and wide variety of fish. We observed two enormous octopi as well.
Over the following weeks I continued enhancing my Arabic, both Modern Standard Arabic and the colloquial Jordanian dialect. I would often practice colloquial Arabic in the taxi on the way to the University of Jordan in the morning, or coming back from the gym. I would always try to strike up conversations with shopkeepers and other native speakers, who were usually eager to help correct my grammar. And of course, Muath would often help me in my studies, quizzing me on vocabulary and phrasing. As the program started coming to an end, my amazing experiences only accelerated. I’m so appreciative that I got to experience the beginning of Ramadan in the Middle East. I spent the first Iftar of Ramadan in Al-Wihdat. Children roughhoused and launched fireworks as I sat enjoying Qatayefs on the street. Everyone greeted each other with a smile and a Ramadan Kareem, content and appreciative after the first day of fasting. It was truly a special experience. I finished classes and finals a week later, sad to leave my newfound friends and Muath. He told me that he now wanted to study in the United States. “Next time we meet it will be in America, Insha’allah.”
On July 27th I finished my last final exam. Hours later, I boarded a plane to Beirut, Lebanon, where I met with three other students from CIEE. Four days later, I made the long journey from Beirut to Jerusalem. I had to pass through Jordan, as Israel and Lebanon do not have diplomatic relations.
Beirut was a lively, but confusing place. The methodical throbbing of bass dominated the nighttime sounds in Hamra, the West Beirut neighborhood and nightclub district where I stayed. Beirut was an eclectic mix of Christian, Shiite, and Sunni; it was not unusual to observe a Maronite church alongside a Shi’a mosque. Only a few short years ago, many of them would be at each other’s throats. Now they seemed to coexist quite peacefully, although stark reminders of the past lay in plain sight. I journeyed past the bombed-out shell of the Holiday Inn and other scars from the devastating fifteen-year Lebanese Civil War. Bullet-holes still perforated the walls of many a Beirut building. I befriended two Syrian college students, one of whom left Damascus just weeks ago to escape the fighting in the capital city. They described the wonders of Damascus—the old streets, the souks, and the lively nightlife—and implored that I visit them in Syria when the political situation improves. I explored the reconstructed downtown of Beirut, once the site of the Green Line— site of much of the Civil War’s fighting and the boundary between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut. The downtown was beautifully revamped, but mostly lacking tourists, the downtown district lacked much the charm and bustle present in other neighborhoods Ashrafieh, Hamra, or Gemmayzeh. At night, I enjoyed the crowded bars and nightclubs with the Syrians and my classmates from Jordan.
After three days in Beirut, I left Lebanon for Jerusalem, meeting with another friend in Amman on the way. I was immediately fascinated by the sights and sounds of Jerusalem’s Old City. My hostel was in the heart of the Old City, in the Christian Quarter and situated right next to the Citadel. I got lost in the maze of streets throughout the city, uncovering the intricate layers of history lying behind the city walls and within prominent religious sites. I trekked up the Mount of Olives, joined Russian pilgrims in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reached Temple Mount, and touched the Western Wall. At sunset, I would enjoy the dazzling view from my hostel’s roof, the light reflecting from the golden top of the Dome of the Rock. I ate in Mea Shearim, an Ultraorthodox neighborhood in West Jerusalem, where I dined with a Hasidic Israeli Defense Force volunteer from the UK. He told me about his service in the IDF, and his pride in serving Israel, a country he is not a citizen of. I bathed in the Dead Sea, lathering myself with the Sea’s black mud. I went to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, observing the murals of Palestinian frustration and despair on the Separation Wall. After five days in Israel, I boarded a bus to the Tel Aviv Airport, boarding a plane back to the United States. I spent more than eleven weeks abroad, in an experience that has proven among the most transformative of my life. All of these moments were made possible by Johns Hopkins University. Now, I’m recharged and revved for a final year of college here in Baltimore. I’m excited for the coming school year and all the great opportunities that the next nine months will bring. I can look back with fondness and pride at what I’ve accomplished and experienced. Now, it’s time to make the most of my senior year.