I 'volunteered' for the "You Care We Care" voluntourism excursion provided by Crystal Cruises really by accident.
Living in South Africa, one is constantly reminded of those less fortunate. A 12-day six star luxury cruise to the Black Sea offered me the opportunity to put my conscience on hold for a while, a welcome relief from the often searing realities which bombard us every day – whether in the media, the street corners or the heart breaking stories more closer to home. So I wasn't going to go.
The cruise itself kind of lap-landed. I was sent with two journalists as part of a press tour by my client Cruises International, which represents Crystal Cruises in South Africa. My brief was to experience luxury cruising, so I would be in a position to promote it as their PR consultant.
The ship berthed in Odessa at eight sharp in the brilliant morning sunshine. The famous Potempkin Steps beckoned. What the heck, I figured, let’s do this and see what the Ukraine could offer in terms of social anomalies and upheaval. Bet nothing could rival our own.
For those who have never been to the Ukraine, Odessa is a city of contrasts. Magnificent and majestic late 18th-century pastel coloured buildings both crumbling and partially or perfectly restored, hint at the glory years of Tsarist Russia.
The undulating pavements, chaotic traffic and cacophony of shops – some perfectly replicating the best of high street shopping in any European city, most small and sometimes pathetic offering thin choice – however speak with more disquiet.
This is a city that was brought to its knees in the last century – first by German occupation during WWII and later Soviet domination, whose priorities were other than maintenance on matters material. As a city in Ukraine, Odessa faces new domination by oligarchs whose huge black limousines with blackened windows trawl the streets pervasively. Poverty and wealth discrepancy stare down the faces of most in Odessa – alas, home from home.
In haltering English accompanied by a wide-eyed smile, our young Ukrainian guide Elena described as best she could the highlights of the city. We arrived at The Way Home shelter, tucked in an inner city courtyard, after 20 minutes in the bus traversing the city’s logic-defying system of one-way streets. The shelter’s decaying buildings were offset by strings of cheery and colourful bunting.
Could this be a happy place? The Way Home shelter is a homeless shelter for street children and vulnerable youngsters in Odessa – the first of kind in Ukraine. As the name suggests, the organization helps adults, children and drug users (drug abuse is pervasive throughout the Ukraine) find a better way of life by providing medical care, psychological rehabilitation and legal services, and even shelter to children, who decide to leave a difficult and precarious life on the streets.
It was heartwarming to meet Sergei and Oleg and Maggie. The carers were mostly youngsters who themselves had been rehabilitated. Empathy for the younger children was palpable. We were there to provide our services in whatever capacity, but we were treated to a concert, dancing, and ball throwing and an overwhelming appreciation of the power of the human spirit to survive, and the desire to reach out to those in need.
Much like South Africa, indeed perhaps more so, Ukraine’s public healthcare and schooling system is under strain, and the shelter finds itself competing with social welfare institutions for funding.
Funds for the shelter are raised through international donor organisations, as well as the sale of art and craft works created by the children.
Something happened to me that day. The visit to the shelter gave me a window into heart of Odessa – a city trying to come to terms with its past and its present, and prepare for its future. By way of contrast, I attended a glamorous performance of Giselle in the magnificent Odessa Opera Theatre, complete with plush velvet seats and gilt trimmings. My appreciation of the evening was deepened by the knowledge that it was the citizens of Odessa themselves who had raised the funding to restore the theatre.
So would I do it again? You bet. Three hours out of 12 days of luxurious heaven is a small price to pay for the insight I gained into the life and human condition of Odessa and indeed the Ukraine itself, as well as a refreshed appreciation of my own blessed life. Our own problems have also been resized with renewed knowledge that social difficulties are common throughout the world, and more particularly among countries, like Ukraine, whose societies are in the throes of social and political transition.
Page 2: More about Crystal Cruises and 'You care, We care'.