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The trip was a way to mark the graduation of some of the orphans of Internat 3 in Zaporozhye. Anton, a 16-year-old boy I have been attempting to help over the years, is among the group that will be leaving the orphanage this year; he joined us on the trip.
My friend Albert Pavlov, the director of Happy Child charity, planned this trip as a way to challenge these children and provide them with an experience to remember. The children were made responsible for carrying all food and supplies in backpacks, setting up the camp, gathering and cutting firewood, and taking care of each other for the duration of the trip.
We backpacked and camped in southern Ukraine, also known as Crimea, a resort area along the Black Sea. Our trip included hiking through mountains and along the shore, through rain, hail, and high temperatures, along muddy and rocky trails and steep cliffs, to the beautiful, pebbled beeches of Balaklava and Sevastopol. We travelled by train, by boat, and by foot throughout the region, through little villages, past caves carved in rock that still harbor monasteries from medieval times. We swam in cold mountain lakes and in the Black Sea. We played games and sang by the campfire.
The first day, after an overnight train ride, where we slept in berths, we were deposited at the base of a rocky hill honeycombed with caves. There was an ancient monastery church in among the caves, which we walked through. Albert led us up a steep hill and through a small village.
While hiking through a wooded area, we found ourselves near a group of soldiers in a shooting exercise, practicing for a hostage scenario. The sound was certainly startling, with rapid bursts of machine gun fire, and soldiers warning us to stay on the path. This was exciting for the kids, a bit like being in a movie. We were in no danger, all of the shooting was taking place in what appeared to be an abandoned quarry to the left of the trail, but as the soldiers did not want us viewing their plans, we were warned not observe.
Further up the trail the rain started. This was at first refreshing, as it had been hot, until the air turned cooler and hail started. We pitched some tents, and changed in to dry clothing, while we waited for the rain to stop. Finally, as it eased up, we pulled up the tents and continued up the trail, past some dramatic caves in the rock face. We found our campsite at the base of a large rock, and everyone pitched tents, started campfires, and spread wet clothing out to dry. In finding a good source of water, Albert happened upon a spring marked with a plaque dedicating it to a saint. It must have been good water because a farmer appeared with his cows, ushering them down to drink while we were filling our containers.
Some of the kids climbed on the steep rocks with Albert, reaching a high shelf with dramatic views. I was a little nervous, not having climbed rocks in years, but was persuaded to join them, and remarkably I didn’t fall.
Later after supper, the kids played rough physical games with some of the adults, with everyone collapsing in laughter at the end, and not too many bruises.
The next day began with more rain. This was a difficult day, as the mud was like wet clay, clinging to our shoes, and we had to stop periodically to scrape them with sticks. Everyone was sliding and slipping We went up and down steep trails, at one point crossing through a tunnel under a highway. Finally after what seemed like days of walking, we reached a rocky ridge, a steep outcrop, where there was an amazing overlook into the valley below. This was a wonderful tonic, everyone’s spirits were lifted. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, and we were treated to a view of miles of cliffs extending in every direction. As we followed the ridge, we saw the shining gold dome of a monastery ahead, and this turned out to be near where we camp.
The camp was an organized site with pavilions, fire circles, and a beautiful spring which poured into a small pond. Some of the kids jumped in, the water was very cold.
Camping was a little different from what I was used to. Not everyone had or needed sleeping bags or even tents. Some chose to sleep in the open by the fire. I learned in this climate that sleeping bags were not a requirement, it was warm enough and we shared as needed. The kids took to this without complaining.
The next day we broke camp, and hiked down the trail to a town, where we caught an extremely crowded bus to Balaklava, on the Black Sea. The kids were having fun spotting fish in the harbor while Albert went shopping for more provisions. Some found something new to them, jellyfish, which are called “medusa” in Russian. Albert returned with provisions and ice cream for all!
To get to our campsite required that we cross the bay. Albert was able to charter several small boats, which gave us an exciting ride past the ancient fortifications of the harbor, and dramatic cliffs and rock formations. The 40-minute trip was exhilarating. We pulled into a dock, with the sea heaving up and down, which made for an exciting time debarking onto the dock. The crew essentially pulled and hauled, and threw the passengers and backpacks one by one up on to the dock. The beach here is all pebbles, no sand, and a tenderfoot like myself found it hard to negotiate. The kids, of course, had no problems.
This was the best campsite of all. High above the beach, reached by a steep stair, were several flat areas with pavilions. We pitched our tents there. Views were 180 degrees in all directions, with the dramatic cliffs and incredible turquoise blue water.
Of course everyone wanted to swim immediately, but we set up camp first. The kids were absolutely fearless in the water. The sea is heavy, but after some persuasion I decided I would join them. There was a concrete dock far out, and the goal was to swim to it. It sounded simple but with the heavy waves, I tired quickly, and was grateful that Anton was there to help haul me in. When I made it back to shore I was really beat, and ready to leave the sea to the kids for awhile while I took in the scenery. Eventually we had supper, and as darkness fell we played silly games by the campfire before everyone collapsed into their tents.
The next day was very similar: more swimming, a little rain but not much, and we just enjoyed this wonderful place. I made another attempt for the dock, this time I was surprised at how easy it was. I couldn’t quite figure out what my problem was yesterday. We finally broke camp, walked back along the beach, and caught a boat going back to the harbor.
Our trip was done. We took a sleeper car on a train back to Zaporozhye, the orphanage, and “normal” life. But the relationships formed and the skills gained will leave a mark on these kids for the rest of their lives.
This was an adventure in self-reliance and determination for these children. All participants completed the trip successfully and everyone had a great time. We suffered through the difficult parts together, and enjoyed the wonderful times together. As Albert said, a trip like this is like a little life.
On behalf of the kids, I want to thank my friends and supporters for your prayers and financial support of this venture. Your help has made this possible.
I look forward to planning a trip for next year and sharing the adventure with other Americans who might like to take part! I want to take a group of interested Americans along next time. Please contact me (email@example.com) or Albert at Happy Child if you are interested in participating or helping for next year.