It has been said that the purpose of travel is to return with new eyes.
What I saw recently in returning to Ukraine, the country of my birth, for the first time in 24 years altered my perceptions of a country I’d somewhat romanticized my entire life. Meeting a reality that completely differed from the one I’d fashioned in my head for over two decades made me realize just how much I’ve been molded by—and am grateful for—my upbringing here in the US.
The Ukraine I heard about from my family of immigrants from the former Soviet Union was a country of close friends and personal ties, an intense history and national identity, and a unique culture with an unforgettable cuisine. But people from every country make these kinds of claims, so when an opportunity to travel to Ukraine for work arose I jumped at the chance.
I work for a global humanitarian assistance organization so I knew going in I would be seeing the underbelly of Ukrainian society - witnessing poverty, hunger, and other by-products of tremendous social inequity. I would be going into people's homes to interview them about their lives and their struggles. I would be leaving knowing there was little more I'd be able to do than write a story about the extreme needs of vulnerable people on the other side of the world.
I met elderly and young men and women alike struggling to support their families on incomes of two or three dollars a day. I spoke to children who had lost hope, and I began to realize that their lives are not likely to get any better as they grow, no matter how much they listen to their parents or how hard they work at school.
Everywhere I looked on the streets of Kiev I saw apathy. Ruled by a government that promotes individualism and has a propensity for corruption we can’t even begin to imagine, people actually cannot afford to care about others or to really take care of themselves. People never feel secure in their lives there yet have no agency or ideas as to how they could re-shape their future themselves; nor do they feel free. From what I could tell, people have such a hard time sleeping at night they hardly even dream.
Though I had tried to prepare for the trip intellectually, I completely underestimated the emotional impact of the journey: if it weren't for a few of life's simple twists and turns, I could have been any one of them.
I started to think about my own life and how incredibly lucky I've been simply to grow up somewhere different. I was able to go to school where I wanted, move to a city that inspired me, try different jobs on for size, and discover a yoga practice that brings me real happiness. I can ponder whether I want to be a writer or a yoga teacher, eat organic or not, plan a staycation or an adventure out of the city for my next break from work. I have the freedom to make choices, and the headspace to dream.
Knowing how things could have been makes me extraordinarily grateful for what my life actually is; it makes it easy to appreciate the simplest things. Most importantly, it makes it possible for me to be more present than ever in my life, knowing there is nowhere else I would rather be.
-Zhanna Veyts, certified Mind Body Dancer Yoga teacher