November 21, 2009

The Adventure Continues...

Thanks to everyone who followed our blog during our amazing two+ years in Macedonia. It was a real pleasure to share our experience with everyone. After the holiday season, we'll be taking a three-month, five-country trip to Asia. Follow these adventures at our new blog:

Thanks again!

November 14, 2009

Then We Came to the End

When I met Jillian, I was living in San Diego and serving in the military. The Navy, to be exact. I was paying them back for the vast sums the government spent on my college education; mostly I just rose at 4am, drove to the ship I was stationed on, and spent the next several hours figuring out how I could be home by noon and on the beach by one. I proved to be quite adept at this and as a result I lead a rather charmed life so long as the ship was moored to dry land. But then there were those times when we'd go out to sea and slipping off the ship just wasn't an option. Between standing in the pilot house watching the endless expanses of ocean and ensuring we didn't crash into oil tankers that were ten miles away, my friends and I passed the time on Play Station or by listening to the enlisted guys complain about the lack of Mountain Dew on board and generally just counting down the days. If we were out for a substantial amount of time--say, 6 weeks or more--we really enjoyed that last week, when we could start saying, "This is our last Monday at sea," "This is our last Wednesday out here," and then, when the time drew really close, "This is my last breakfast," and so on.

So now I'm experiencing a bit of deja vu. A few days ago I found myself thinking, "Wow, this is my last Tuesday in Macedonia," as if Tuesday and I have a relationship here that goes way back. "I could always count on Tuesday for shorter, less chaotic lines at the market and my Macedonian always sounded more coherent, less caveman on Tuesdays."

Well, the reality is that we just passed through a "last" phase. For everything. Some of those lasts were mundane (last trip to the bank) and others difficult (seeing friends one more time). Actually, it's that second part that was the trickiest. By our calculations, we had about a half dozen homes that we just had to visit before leaving Kriva Palanka. Not a passing goodbye, not a knock on the door, oh-see-you-later, not a phone call. These were families (mostly of students) that always made us feel at home, fed us like the end of world was imminent, and were constantly curious about America and how we were faring here.

The tricky part was seeing all of them as close to the end as possible. Someone on Peace Corps staff had warned us about this: "If you make your final visit too soon, it just won't count." The first family we visited--on Monday--proved this point. We said goodbye, gave them a photo of us, thanked them for the huge meal and as we were walking out the door, the mom said, "Okay, we'll see you again before you leave. Bye!" And saying no to a Macedonian mother is like being cross-examined by a good defense lawyer. She'll always paint you into a corner until you have run out of excuses and then you break down, bawling on the witness stand, begging for forgiveness and, yes, some cake to take home, please.

Speaking of taking things home...our four suitcases, already stretched to the limit with everything we brought here two years ago plus everything we've picked up along the way, is being further assaulted by the numerous jars of ajvar we've received as gifts from the families we've visited. At last count we had something like twelve jars looking for a home in our luggage.

So we'll get them home, but what we're really taking home is the generosity of the people in Kriva Palanka. From the beginning we were welcomed here and no matter how frustrating a day or week we might have been having, we could always count on a warm reception in a Macedonian house. Lots of great food, lots of (stilted) conversation, and, now, lots of memories. I'm happy to say that we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with Bube, who is studying at Wellesley. After all the Macedonian generosity she and her family showed us, it will feel nice to return the favor, American style.

So tomorrow we fly out of here with mixed feelings, two hundred pounds of luggage, an undoubtedly terrified little cat, and the knowledge that we most definitely made the right decision over two years ago to board that plane in Washington with the other 42 volunteers.

Ajde prijatno, Makedonija!
Goodbye, Macedonia!

November 04, 2009

Check Out My Ride

As you can see from the countdown ticker on the right sidebar, our days are numbered here. The last holiday we got to celebrate in Macedonia was Halloween and we did it up in style with some friends at the Irish pub in the nearby city of Kumanovo. Jillian and I put our heads together and came up with the idea to dress me as Ernest Hemingway's Facebook page. As usual, Jillian wouldn't rest until all the details were exactly correct. So there I am in the picture; on my back was draped Ernest's wall, which included the status update, "Ernest Hemingway just shot an endangered animal," followed by a thumb pointed up and "Teddy Roosevelt likes this."

We traveled to Kumanovo from our town of Kriva Palanka with one of the local bus lines as we have so many other times. It was pretty typical. The back door wouldn't completely close, allowing a deathly cold draft to blow through the compartment while the heaters along the floor gave us the impression that our feet were badly sunburned. The driver took the corners way too fast. I held my breath with every oncoming headlight and ran through various, appropriate ideas for bus company slogans. "You'll appreciate life a lot more after riding with us" or "Less hungover drivers than any other fleet in Macedonia!" And so on.

Considering how much time we've spent on these buses, I feel as though I really haven't given them their due attention. During our time in Macedonia, we've both really grown to love not having a car and enjoyed getting around by bus. The buses in this country are frequent and on time. For whatever reason, the buses making the run out to Kriva Palanka are the oldest, most decrepit vehicles loitering around the Skopje bus station. I think I mentioned in a post some two years ago that the first time Jillian and I visited our town it was raining and the bus roof was leaking all over us. Merely a harbinger, folks.

For those of you who want to play along at home, go find an old dirty, smelly fold-out couch and take a two hour nap on it. You'll get the idea. Many of the seats on the bus are stuck in either in the fully upright or fully reclined position and as you lurch over every bump on long worn-out shocks, you can feel every spring in the seat. But perhaps the most charming aspect of these buses are the headrest covers and curtains. Intentionally designed to be removable for cleaning purposes, they clearly have never left the confines of the bus and thanks to years of smoke, sweat, and sunlight, they've taken on a generic snot color. The curtains, in particular are so bad they're funny, as if someone hung a dirty dishrag over the window.

Round, round, get around, I get around

At the front of the bus the driver has inevitably pulled the sun shield down as far is it will go and plastered his own decorations all over it. The exact placement of these decorations may vary, but the content rarely does. On any given bus at least two, if not all four, of the following are displayed: a religious icon, probably representing his mom's birthday; a "Women of Skopsko" (the beer) calendar from 2006; a photo of former communist leader Marshall Tito; and a no-smoking sign, under which plumes of smoke rise from the driver's cigarette.

Despite being only 60 miles from Skopje, it takes us over two hours to get there. Well, that's bound to happen when you spend the majority of your journey in first gear. The new buses that run from Skopje to Bulgaria or Istanbul cruise by us like we're standing still as we plod up the hills. The drivers are known to just throw it in neutral on the down slopes, actually killing the engine until absolutely necessary.

Will I miss these buses? Umm, no. But I'm glad to have had the experience. Unlike car-oriented America, Macedonia is very much a public transportation country and it was a fun two years, getting around by letting someone else do the driving. That we got to travel on the Kriva Palanka buses...well, that was just the icing on the cake. Or should I say, the sweat layer on the seat cover.