floating westward

I left Kiev behind yesterday after two jam-packed days and am now in green and lush Holland, where I've enjoyed a stroll on the beach with a caipirinha, and some lovely local sheep with whom I've made friends. More importantly, I've been visiting with my old friend Molly who I haven't seen in several years. It's been a lot of fun catching up. But first, a recap of the last few days:

The most important news is that I struggled past my fears and at the last possible moment jumped into a hot air balloon and floated over Kherson oblast for a total of 45 minutes. Don't believe me?

As you see here, I suddenly found faith just before the balloon took off. Though my legs and hands were shaking almost the entire time, I talked my way through most of the ride and only felt heart palpitations when the pilot fired up the gas and we floated higher into the atmosphere. Despite the horror of floating 75 meters above ground in a basket that is literally held up by a thread of wires and an acrylic balloon full of hot air, it really was an incredible experience. The views were stunning: Kherson oblast is full of wheat and strawberry fields. We floated over villages, where the farmers and other residents are so used to seeing this particular ballooning group fly by that they simply smiled and waved and went about their day.

After our early morning balloon ride (we started the day at 6:30 and were back on the ground and at breakfast by 9:30), we finished our last day of work with VTV Plu, prepared for their journalists and producers' upcoming trip to Louisville, and had our farewell dinner before boarding our second 12-hour overnight train of the week back to Kyiv. Though the trains are old, and the rails a bit rickety, I can say with confidence that the former Soviet railways far surpass their counterparts in Egypt, where a few years ago Courtney and I suffered through a similar overnight trip in the first-class compartment, that was basically a car with wider chairs. At least in Ukraine, you get a bench to sleep on that includes a small mattress, pillow, and sheets.

In any case, we safely got back to Kyiv and spent our last two days in the city, briefing our funders at the U.S. Embassy on the results of our trip, touring the Chornobyl museum (very good and quite frightening), and taking in two performances at the opera house. On Friday it was Carmen, which far surpassed the Kennedy Center's recent production. And on Saturday we saw a ballet: "Vienna Waltz," with music by Strauss. The opera house in Kyiv is just ornate enough to make you think you're actually in Vienna. On Saturday we also visited Lavra, a monasterial complex on a hill above the city, which includes a series of caves built into the hills, where monks once studied and are now buried. (I saw their creepy mummified hands, and that was when I was done with the narrow caves.)

Yesterday morning I arrived in Amsterdam after an essentially sleepless night in Kyiv. Took the train down to the Hague and spent a lovely and relaxing afternoon with Molly. It's been refreshing to not be working, or explaining cultural differences, or waiting for someone to translate my sentences. We took a walk on the beach here, which looks not a little like Newport, had a caipirinha, and relaxed at home. Today we'll do a little more site-seeing, before I head back to Amsterdam and spend a little more than a day in the city, where hopefully I'll be doing more nothing. My plan is to sleep, drink good coffee, read my book in a park, and maybe go to a museum or two.

Back to DC on Wednesday!