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Sunday April 20th 2014

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From IN Writer to Published Author

By Jennie McKeon

As a reader of the IN you might recognize Ashley Hardaway’s name. But there’s more to this foodie scribe than meets the eye.

After living in Ukraine during her time with the Peace Corps, Hardaway was given the chance to write a book about her journey. Now the Peace Corps volunteer, freelance writer and program director of Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy can add published author to her lengthy list of titles.

“It’s terrifying,” Hardaway said. “I wake up every morning and check Amazon to see if someone has written a bad review.”

The opportunity to write the book, “Ukraine: Other Places Travel Guide,” came when Hardaway was waiting tables as well as writing freelance. A friend in Washington, D.C. had founded Other Places Publishing and was interested in a Ukraine travel guide. Hardaway jumped at the chance, and in October 2010 she signed the contract with Other Places and went back to Ukraine to visit the places she hadn’t been to during her Peace Corps stay. When she came back the terror really set in.

“I had to take a Prozac, 250,000 words,” Hardaway said with her eyes widened. “I sat down every day and forced myself to write 3,000 words.”

The book is more than just a series of bulleted must-sees pointing at obvious tourist attractions. What Other Places and Hardaway wanted to accomplish was writing about the country for a specific traveler.

“I tried to make it geared toward independent back-packers,” Hardaway said. “I wanted it to be quirky, not what western tourists would expect.”

Hardaway points out in her book, and in conversation, that Ukraine isn’t the sad, cold country that typically comes to mind. It has beauty, culture and even heat.

“I’ve never been hotter in my life,” Hardaway said, which is a strong statement for a Cantonment native. “I first thought of Dr. Zhivago when I got assigned there, but it’s not just fur hats and snow.”

Hardaway remembers riding the bus, where the heat was especially sweltering.

“The people in Ukraine have an immense fear of the draft,” Hardaway said. “Even during the summers, the windows stay up.”

Craving an adventure, Hardaway joined the Peace Corps a month after graduating from the University of Central Florida. She lived in a small village in the Ukraine for 27 months where she taught English.

And while she was trying to teach a language, Hardaway had to learn one. Her first three months in the country were spent with a host family that did not speak any English.

“It forces you to learn the language,” Hardaway said.

Hardaway’s passport includes stamps from Argentina, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Great Britain, Poland, Turkey, Czech Republic and Italy.  Even though she is an avid traveler, Hardaway did have lonely moments in Ukraine.

“Half-way through I thought ‘Why did I do this?’” Hardaway said. “It was very lonely.”

And for a food writer, there wasn’t much to write home about in the small villages.

“It’s great food, but there are only about ten dishes,” Hardaway said.

After two years of eating ten dishes Hardaway longed for American cuisine such as Chinese Buffets,  as well as “my family, small talk and smiling.”

Shopping was also out of the question during her first Ukraine trip.

“We had to live on the level of the community,” Hardaway said. “My rent was $40 a month and I had $200 a month for spending money. I would mostly shop at second-hand bazaars where they had the most random t-shirts.”

All of this gave Hardaway a greater understanding of the country.

“The country is very divided between the have and have-nots,” Hardaway said. “There are cities without running water, cities that are seriously, seriously poor, but they accept it and they don’t dwell.”

Once Hardaway returned to the states, again, she had a cross-cultural shock.

“I was overwhelmed by the media,” she said. “I felt so disconnected. Britney Spears had shaved her head and I had no concept of current movies. Obama was elected when I was overseas.”

Her sisters gave her a crash course in pop culture and even saved past issues of “US Weekly.”

Hardaway risks pop star breakdowns and occasional loneliness because she tends to get stir crazy. There must be something in her DNA since Hardaway’s sisters all share a passion for travel, much to their parent’s dismay.

“They hated it,” Hardaway said of her parent’s reactions to her Ukraine sabbatical. “All three daughters are travel freaks, but if I don’t leave the country once every six months I get antsy.”

To look through this travel freak’s pictures of her Ukrainian adventures go to flickr.com/photos/ahardaway. You can pick up her book “Ukraine: Other Places Travel Guide” at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.