April 24, 2008

Westside Story

For such a small country, Macedonia sure has impressive geographic diversity. This is especially apparent now, as spring has set in and with it has come lush greenery and blossoms all over. Last week we made our first foray to the western third of Macedonia, a sort of north-south axis that comprises the cities of Tetovo, Gostivar, Kichevo, and the lake cities of Struga and Ohrid.

As our bus emerged from Skopje's city limits, the landscape opened up into a dazzling portrait of green mountains and picturesque villages, each one watched over by the towering minaret of its mosque (this region of Macedonia is predominantly ethnic Albanian Muslim). As the highway traced its path through the mountains, we soaked up the scenery, our excitement for the week building.

The occasion for our trip was a Peace Corps in-service training event held in Struga at a hotel straight out of Las Vegas, circa 1965. The four days in Struga were full of sessions on topics ranging from community project ideas to Macedonian history and politics (a particularly fascinating subject currently). It also gave us a chance to be together again as a group and to have fun exploring Struga and practicing our bowling game in the hotel's basement alley. Check out my form in this action shot (and note my flip flops):

The training ended on Friday, and while most volunteers boarded buses back to their home sites, Jillian and I decided we couldn't pass up this opportunity to see Ohrid, tourist destination #1 in Macedonia. Just eight miles from Struga on the lake that shares its name, Ohrid has a rich history which includes being the probable birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet and the capital of Tsar Samuil's empire. It was during this empire that Ohrid's Kale, or fortress, was built. Its remains still overlook the city.

For reference, there's Struga and Ohrid in the lower left-hand corner:

What can I say about Ohrid? It's incredible. It was a bright, warm (70's) day when we set out for a bit of a walking tour with our friend Erin, who has been there several times and knows all the local landmarks. We stayed with another volunteer friend, Karen, who we increasingly grew to envy as we walked around the beautiful town. There's a Peace Corps volunteer here?

We came away feeling like a visit to Ohrid is like a visit to an old Greek or Italian city, but for one third of the price. Cafes line the water's edge, a majestic fortress towers atop the city's hill, an active archeological site buzzes with diggers, and a handful of centuries-old churches dot the landscape. The streets are cobblestone and the houses are overflowing with charm and character.

Overwhelmed by Ohrid's embarrassment of photogenic riches, I made like my mom and kept the camera clicking somewhere into the many hundreds. Here's a few of our favorites, but to see a lot more go to "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.

Then it was time to leave, at which point our story turns from fun and lovely to, well, tedious and unending. We had decided ahead of time to use this opportunity to make a brief stop in Chashka to see our host family. Since that little village is on the train line, taking the train from southern Macedonia to Skopje via Chashka seemed logical.

When I was retelling this story yesterday to Kristina, a teacher I work with, she simply replied: "Why would you ever take the train?" Oh yeah, tell me now. Besides, we've taken it before and really enjoyed it in all its rumbling, smoke-filled glory.

We'd heard the train ride through the south is one of the prettiest in all the country, so we were excited as the train pulled out of the Bitola station on another bright, warm day. We had a cabin all to ourselves and were downright giddy at the thought of our host mother's homemade bread and wine for dinner. A simple two-hour ride through the heart of Macedonia and we'd be in Chashka for the night before continuing on home.

On the train, in happier times

Twenty minutes later, the train began to slow. Then it stopped. There was a conference of men at the base of the lead train, followed by some muttering. We know just enough Macedonian to understand that the train was broken ("расипан") and a new one had to come save us. So we waited...

Almost five hours later, the emergency train arrived. We could barely muster the strength to celebrate. Thirsty, hot, and irritated, we just wanted the train to start moving. Funny, I seem to remember receiving an email from headquarters about traveling in Macedonia and I believe one recommendation was to always have extra food and water, especially when traveling by train.

I should also mention that Jillian was in the full throes of food poisoning (something a bunch of volunteers came down with in Struga), making her traveling experience extra pleasant. We arrived in Chashka after dark and Lela took us in like refugees, fed us, and totally understood when we wanted to go to bed shortly thereafter. We were leaving the next day (by train!) at 5:30am.

I'm happy to report that the second installment of train riding was smooth, save for the two men who insisted on smoking all the way to Skopje in our commuter-crammed train car. We got back to our town just in time to head off to school. We were happy to be back.

On Saturday we're off to Istanbul with four other volunteers for six days. Until next time, chao!

April 19, 2008

Monastery Mexican Madness

Last weekend, following the high school debates, Jillian and I played host to a group of volunteers from around Macedonia for a couple of days of hiking and tortilla rolling. Even though our much-vaunted local monastery is only a mere 1.5 miles from the center of town, we optioned for a roundabout, eight-mile hike during which we climbed far above the monastery and approached from behind.

The temperature was in the 70s and the sun was shining as we made our way out of town and into the foothills. After a couple hours of climbing the winding trail, we made a hard left turn and descended the ridge towards our destination.

We hadn't actually attempted this hike before and as the monastery came into view in the distance we found ourselves bedeviled by a common theme in Macedonian hiking: unmarked trails. Sure, we can see where we want to go, but how the heck do we get there, we asked ourselves as we stood at a wooded intersection. After some indecisive backtracking and an ill-advised attempt to forget the trail altogether and make a beeline through the woods, we finally guessed the correct route and found our way down. Our guests must have been seriously impressed. Luckily for us the monastery sells beer.

After the monastery came the mexican food: tortillas rolled, vegetables diced, and chicken grilled, we devoured our self-styled smorgasbord of taco delight.

Along the trail towards the monastery

At the monastery on a beautiful day

April 11, 2008

That's Debatable

Friday marked the debut of the high school's English-language debate team. I assembled this ad hoc group of six about a month ago and circled a few dates on the calendar for competitions against students from other high schools where volunteers have mustered a team.

In preparing them, I reached back into my own rather extensive debating experience and guided the students through the at-times Byzantine rules of debate, occasionally peppering the instruction with funny stories and specific situations they might expect to encounter themselves.

Wait, I didn't do any of that. I didn't do any of that because I've never debated in my life.

You know that saying about the blind leading the blind? Well, what if the blind are under the impression that one among them can actually see? That's got to boost their confidence.

Now, I explained to the kids that I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a debating team. But I came to all our meetings armed with information regarding strategy and rules, and lots of practice topics and exercises (courtesy of another volunteer, the Mr. Miyagi to my own Ralph Macchio karate-impaired kid). So I've spent the last few weeks fielding every conceivable question about debate, answering those I could and delaying those I couldn't until I could look them up.

After taking what could charitably be called a laizez-faire attitude towards researching their topics, the students spent the better part of this week in somewhat of a panic, pulling it all together. But, really, they did a fantastic job lining up their arguments and were eager to partake in several run-throughs, with me playing the part of the other team.

Wednesday night Jillian and I had the six of them over for dinner. The fare was Mexican and, hilariously, the students had no idea what to do with the tortillas and ingredients. After a demonstration in which I layered the goods and Jillian, well, did the hard part, rolling the taco up into commercial-worthy shape, the kids jumped in and really enjoyed themselves. Above all, it was an opportunity for us all to talk about Macedonia, America, our impressions, and their plans. This is a truly impressive group of students with excellent command of English.

So Friday came and everything went extremely well. All three schools came to the debate prepared for the three topics at hand: Is the death penalty justifiable? Should drivers be allowed to use their cell phones? Should sex education be taught in public schools?

After spending a good amount of time ensuring that my kids simply understood the procedures of a debate, I was more than delighted to see them not just handle the format, but use it to their advantage. On more than one occasion I was stunned at the quality of their off-the-cuff rebuttals. They had done their research and were able to synthesize that with what they were hearing from the other team to produce really quality responses.

Terribly nervous before the debates, the students were (rightfully) very proud of themselves for their effort afterwards. And already asking about the next competition...

One of my teams in action on their way to victory

My other team, also victorious

April 07, 2008

Scenes from Spring

A student that I'm tutoring from the high school recently told us (in a remarkably off-handed kind of way and totally out of the blue): "Oh, don't worry what people say. They see you running and they just think you're with the American military collecting information on political parties."

Well, I'm glad to hear the Department of Defense is world-renowned for its physical fitness, but how one makes the leap in logic from jogging to surveillance is beyond me. I can only assume this is the work of a few really bored individuals who vastly overestimate the reach of American, well, caring (though, truth be told, this sort of activity has been suggested by advocates of the intelligence community). Gee, and I really thought we were doing a great job as unassuming teachers in the community schools.

But to paraphrase Paul Simon--be careful, this sneaker is really camera.

Seriously, we were recently out on a fine spring afternoon, snapping photos around town. We quickly learned to be subtle, as it seems that locals find it a bit odd to see we Americans with a camera in our hands. C'mon folks! Would the Pentagon really arm us with the base model Nikon from Best Buy? And why would they want a picture of this budding tree?

Anyway, below you'll find some decidedly un-convert pictures from around town as the warm weather has begun its descent.

April 02, 2008

Cleanup Day

A few years ago, while researching a paper at URI about the environmental movement during the Sixties and Seventies, I was struck by descriptions of our rivers, lakes, hillsides, and streets. It was eye-opening to learn how polluted and trash-strewn the U.S. was before we came to our senses and adopted the three R’s. Of course, it also helped that we were by then a very wealthy nation. Ecological consciousness tends to follow prosperity.

Which explains Macedonia.

Last weekend we took to the backyard, which is really more like this sort of deep ditch along the side and back of the house, and excavated what had to be several generations of discarded bottles and shiny wrappers. It was like a poor man's cultural history of the town. "Ahhh, I see that in the late 80's Schweppes Bitter Lemon was in vogue. It then went out of favor, only to come back strongly sometime between 1997 and 2003 A.D. Discuss." Jillian even found what appeared to be a cow skull. Yeah, we really felt like archeologists.

Our two hundred square foot backyard yielded—wait for it—five full bags of trash.

Macedonia is a struggling nation and the environment is not of particular concern, just as it surely was not so important in pre-affluence America. But we’ve seen some evidence that this is beginning to change—a recent town cleanup day, our Lorax-esque tree-planting holiday, and many of the students at the high school speak about the condition of the environment with genuine bitterness.

Even as Macedonia's economic situation improves, cleaning up the country is a daunting task. The sheer volume of garbage scattered throughout our town, for instance, makes any really meaningful pickup very intimidating. Well, we started in our own backyard. A few neighbors passed by offering curious glances. Maybe it was my surgical gloves or the cranium Jillian was holding, but I’d like to think they were processing: What’d ya know? A few trash bags and an hour of your time go a long way.


Jillian unearths some...nylons