Ukraine: what looks to be an ambulance van left over from World War II.
  • Ukraine: what looks to be an ambulance van left over from World War II.
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In the thick of night, you can almost always hear the tree branches rattling in a rhythmic chorus of nighttime symphonies. A tap starts at your window; a breath of air shakes a group of leaves. A whoosh is followed by a rattle, a shake followed by another whoosh. The sounds build off of one another in a chain-reacting Mother Earth soundtrack. A full moon is a candle in the black space above, illuminating the eternal sky. Gray clouds hang, heavy with tiredness. Shadows run in a hide-and-seek choreographed dance.

Not just day, but night, too, can be a time of earthly energetic activity in the Ukrainian border town of Molodohvardiysk (which translates to “young guards” in Russian. The town takes its name from young resistance fighters involved in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis as they stormed through Eastern Ukraine. The “young guards” were eventually captured and thrown into an underground mine alive. The town’s name is a relic of their courageous resistance to fascism.) People are in their homes tending to children and making supper. A father is having a beer with his feet up after a 12-hour day in an underground coal mine. A mother is preparing a nourishing meal. Children engage in a night-cap playtime session filled with giggles and innocence. All the while snow falls softly, blanketing the steppe landscape.

Sounds and sights become more visceral as night creeps on in my current hometown. Unlike in the daytime, there are no cars whizzing over water-filled potholes. No old ladies wobbly walking from the town’s outdoor market, rolling their rusty push-carts filled with bazaar bargains. No underage teenagers huddled in packs at the entrances of spray-painted apartment complexes with cigarettes in one hand and beer in the other. No exhaust showers from the mining buses that frequent the main drag with a roar. No banter of voices echoing from the street market in a shuffle-and-jive auction of scarce winter vegetables. There's only the sound of the day’s brother, night, bringing a softening snowy geo-delight.

Here I was, senses alert on a cold, lonely Ukrainian winter night, entertained by the sights and rhythms otherwise hidden by day’s time to shine. I peered out my window, reflecting on the day, and suddenly I was warmed by the humor that had occurred earlier that afternoon.

“Dear Kip Madden, we received your water project proposal. All looks good other than one of the pictures you sent in. Could you please take another picture of your school from the outside and sent it in ASAP? The first picture wasn't clear enough.”

This was the response I received from Appropriate Projects, a water charity organization that funds water-related projects for Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide up to $500.00 – anywhere from Senegal to Ukraine. My school wanted a new hand-washing system in the cafeteria and I wanted to help.

I handled the deal, and the charity ended up approving my written proposal in a month’s time span. The only element of the project they were waiting on was a clear photo of my school building. A representative told me I needed to email this photo ASAP. So I got on it.

The day after I received the email I jetted to school, meandering my way through the mud mixed with slushy snow, past crumbling slanted apartment buildings and slow-walking babushkas. With camera in hand on the first sunny day in days, I approached my school, snapped a few quick photos, and beelined back to my apartment, eager to get the best photo sent to Appropriate Projects sooner than later.

Now let’s jump back to two weeks prior on a snowy Wednesday night.

My Russian tutor Vitali called me out of the blue for an invite to his band practice. Being a worshiper of all things musically holy, I accepted the invite without hesitation. After arriving at 6:30 that night, I met Vitali outside of the Art Culture House in Krestnodon (a nearby town of about 35,000 people 10-15 kilometers away) right on the Russian border.

He was his usual self: eyes squinted pondering something profound, cigarette hanging from his bottom lip, decked out in black, knee-high boots. We shook hands and he waved me into the town’s Art Culture House, a four-story building where anything from youth dancing to music practice takes place seven nights a week. Shooting the breeze, we made small talk as we walked up the stairs to his bands’ practice room on the second floor at the end of a long corridor.

Vitali nudged open a pale green door. The old wooden door creaked open, and thick cigarette smoke poured into our faces.

Immediately, it struck me that I’d been transported to a 1950s time capsule. There were four Russian dudes, decked in old fashioned Flat Caps, some sporting gold teeth, others with old sailor tattoos and a few with white t-shirt sleeves rolled midway up their shoulders, greaser style. I gazed slack-jawed at the old AK-47s mounted to the wall and dozens of tattered Chuck Berry and Elvis posters – but most noticeably at the bazillion Playboy posters. There were so many Playboy posters and calendars that they appeared to function as wallpaper. I imagined that when these Russian rockers made this room their rehearsal space, they tore off the wallpaper and put up air-brushed photos of Playboy models to dignify their manhood. To this day, I’ve never seen such a worshiped collection of nude ladies plastered to walls.

Band practice.

Anyhow, I shook hands with everyone and I sat down on one of the old tattered couches that smelt of smoke and burnt hair. A cigarette was lit and the band started jamming. There was a drummer, a double-bass player, a solo guitarist, and a rhythm guitarist who was also the lead singer. The music was a Rockabilly twist of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

My curiosity instantly sparked and I took out my camera just as Fat Dennis (the band’s 400-pound hairdresser) was giving the band’s last member, the saxophone player, a 1950s haircut while the rest of the band jammed away.

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