June 28, 2008

First Camp of the Season

Wow. We're tired.

Yesterday marked the end of a whirlwind two months in which we conceptualized, planned, and carried out a day camp in our community. Not just us, mind you, but also the excellent team of teenagers who volunteered a lot of their time (including much of the first two weeks of summer vacation) to make this thing happen. As I've mentioned before, the camp was called Healthy Kids and it was a mix of camp games, physical activities like running, soccer, Frisbee and agility, and playful content sessions on topics like anti-smoking, healthy daily routines, the cardiovascular system, dental hygiene, and the food pyramid.

We had a total of twenty-five campers ranging from grades 4 to 6, and roughly half boys and half girls. They showed incredible enthusiasm all week and many asked if it was possible to continue the camp into next week. Judging by the exhausted looks on all our counselors' faces yesterday afternoon, the answer was most definitely...no.

It was an amazing, rewarding week and Jillian and I are very happy for the kids who attended and proud of the teenagers who made the whole thing possible. Not only did they assist in the planning and creation of many of the resources, they also taught all the classes and led all the activities.

It was awesome. Here's some of the highlights:

**Water Balloon Craze
Before Matt came to visit us a few weeks back, we asked him to bring some things from his local Rite-Aid: coconut-smelling sunscreen, Jillian's must-have hair products, "MY NAME IS" stickers, and, happily, water balloons. He came through with a whopping 800 and, equally whopping, we threw 'em all. Like a moth to the flame, the kids gravitated to our buckets of balloons and--to mix my insect metaphor--we swatted them away like mosquitoes. "Wait for the game to begin!"

And the games were a big hit. With the temperature reaching 90 degrees everyday, getting wet was a major priority. And when getting wet involves racing across the soccer field to a waiting chair, placing a water balloon down, and sitting on said balloon, well, who doesn't love that? Another popular game was water balloon volleyball, in which both teams hold a sheet and use it to catch and throw a water balloon back and forth over the net.

A few other games involving buckets and sponges helped us beat the heat and end each day on a really fun note. Inevitably, it would all conclude with the kids chasing the counselors around the field, dousing us from their filled water bottles. Our lead counselor, Tina, routinely bore the brunt of this and left her family thinking someone had shoved her in the community pool.

Counselors and campers playing "volleyball"

Sponge games

**When All Else Fails, Scare Them Into Brushing Their Teeth
As we were wrapping up on Friday afternoon, the counselors asked the campers what their favorite content classes had been. The answer: the ones with the gross pictures. It's true, a couple of the lessons used some rather "persuasive imagery" to get the point across, and these kids now know (and probably won't forget any time soon) what a smoker's lungs look like and what advanced (alright, REALLY advanced) gingivitis does to your mouth.

But how's this for instant payoff: this morning, one of the campers told a counselor that she woke up and brushed her teeth for two minutes, placing a watch on the bathroom sink just to make sure. While visions of rotting teeth danced in their heads...

The campers, standing in as teeth, learn about flossing

Counselors teaching Staying Healthy

**They Probably Don't Need To Know About Sacrifice Bunts
One of the few sessions Jillian and I led was a class about the rules of baseball. Standing before the kids with our baseball gloves, a carefully drawn picture of a baseball diamond, and a trusty translator (Tina), we dove in, keeping things as simple as possible. And you know what? There's nothing simple about baseball! (And there's no crying in baseball!) Go to the bathroom mirror right now and try to explain to yourself the basic rules of the game. There's nothing linear about it, it's got all these seemingly nonsensical moving parts, and men are wearing big slabs of leather on their hands.

The campers loved it. After an absorbing thirty minutes of the down-and-dirty rules, we let all the kids practice having catch with our gloves and capped it all off with that time honored school yard tradition of kids without gloves and bats: kickball. The rules of baseball + something these kids already love (kicking a ball) = voi-la! It was the biggest surprise hit since Tony Bennett's comeback.

A few of our trusty counselors

Camp games

**Stretch That Denar!
Perhaps one of our greatest coups of the week was getting all the kids t-shirts, made right here in town, from the paltry registration fee they paid. Complete with the logo that Jillian and Tina created, they are a big hit with the campers. We were able to do this with some creative finagling of our tiny budget, not the least of which was Jillian and I rising somewhat earlier than planned each day to assemble lunches for all the campers. It felt a bit like "Cheaper By The Two Dozen" with our lunch assembly line (which, I must note, included all 5 food groups), and the money saved became those kickin' t-shirts.

More generally, the camp was a fantastic study in working with limited resources. Our mantra was something like: If we can't buy it, borrow it. If we can't borrow it, make it. If we can't make it, fake it. And it all came together, created from scratch.

June 23, 2008

I'll Have a Beer...and Some Ice Cream

Summer is in full effect here, with temperatures reaching the 90s and Macedonians categorically refusing the prepare certain meals. On the second point, we took my brother to a restaurant in town and were told, in no uncertain terms, that what we ordered just couldn't be made--it's June, for god's sake! Well, with summer also comes the rather expansive cafe culture, something my brother mentioned in the previous post.

In America, just about the only place one can nurse a single drink for two hours is Starbucks--but even then, dirty looks are sure to follow if a comfy chair is involved. Even the dive-iest of dives isn't going to let you sip on that lukewarm Coors for more than thirty minutes before the bartender starts laying down some serious pressure about the next one. Are you drinking or are you leaving?

Not so in Macedonia. Not only does the bartender/waiter (inevitably the same guy) not interrogate you about your next drink, but getting the check from him often requires some real effort on your part. Making eye contact is a pipe dream--just go ahead and wave your arms like an airport runway signaler. So people tend to sit. And talk. And people watch. And drink their beer and coffee and eat their ice cream.

Ice cream is really popular here at all the cafes. It's not unusual to see a table of four at which one patron is downing a Skopsko beer, a second is sipping a cappuccino, and the other two are eating soft serve vanilla ice cream. It's four guys dressed for the discotheque and it's something like eleven at night.

And then there's boza. Apparently this is a really Balkan beverage. My first taste of boza had me thinking someone left a vat of Orange Julius out in the midday sun for a few weeks. It's kind of sour, kind of sweet, and it had this slight kick to it. Is there alcohol? I'm guessing not, since I've seen every seventh grader in town drinking a boza float. I can't blame them--a boza float is where it's at. Personally, I let all the ice cream melt and the creaminess mixes with the whatever-the-hell-it-is for a taste I find quite irresistible.

I'm just afraid one day I'll spy someone drinking a beer float.

Our day camp--Healthy Kids--is now in full swing. More on that later...

June 16, 2008

A Visit From The Bro

As I type this post my brother is sitting in some international airport. Or maybe he's in the air between two international airports. He came for a visit to Macedonia and we just sent him off to begin the journey home, a trip with more legs than a spider. Even if he does arrive in Los Angeles relatively near his scheduled time, his luggage will undoubtedly be another story. His suitcase is probably drifting through some central Asian republic, heading for the far east and the international date line. Maybe it'll beat him home.

So to reflect on Matt's visit, I interviewed him about his travels and impressions of Macedonia. Seeing as how he's in the air somewhere or eating airport food in Rome, this is the interview I imagined he'd give if he even knew what time zone he was in, let alone the day of the week.

Dan: So where are you right now?
Matt: London. I'm enjoying a 5 -hour layover. If my math serves me, I just paid twenty-one dollars for an awful piece of pizza and a beer. But that was after converting my Bulgarian lev into Egyptian pounds into British pounds, so it was probably more like thirty bucks.
Dan: Why Egyptian pounds?
Matt: So I could buy twenty dollar pizza at the Cairo airport.

Dan: How was the bus ride from Skopje to Sofia, Bulgaria?
Matt: I've never had to pee so badly in my life. How do Macedonians do it? Do they have bladders of steel or what?
Dan: I guess they're used to it. And they don't really drink a lot of water.
Matt: We stopped at the border for passport checks and everyone got out and went into this little building. I thought, "At last, a bathroom." But no, it was a cigarette vendor.

Dan: Still, it had to be better than the bus ride to Struga.
Matt: Oh, that was like a sauna on wheels. Or the bus from Chashka which didn't even show up.

Dan: Ok, transportation issues aside, how did you enjoy the trip?
Matt: It was lots of fun. And incredibly cheap--I think I spent a hundred bucks all week.
Dan: Well, when beers are only $1.25...
Matt: Yeah, I love the cafe culture. What was that first city we were in?
Dan: Tetovo.
Matt: Right. There must have been ten cafes for every city block.

Dan: Yes, our tour of Balkan beers was quite impressive.
Matt: Lots of Skopsko.
Dan: Don't get too proud about that. It's the Bud Light of Macedonia.

Matt: But I have to say, we were enjoying it in some pretty picturesque places.
Dan: Yeah, what did you think of the historical spots?
Matt: Ohrid was great. My favorite stop was the fortress over the city--the view was incredible and the fortress is still in really good shape. Though I have to say, I can't imagine running up and down those steep stone steps in the heat of battle. That alone must have cost an army a few hundred men.
Dan: Probably not much workers' comp.
Matt: Just rub some dirt on it!

Dan: And what about Bitola? It was our first trip there, too. I was impressed.
Matt: Me as well. That central pedestrian area below the clock tower was awesome. Again, so many cafes.
Dan: And I couldn't believe how packed with people it was at night. By the way, you did a nice job ruining a perfectly good picture of you and Jillian on that street.
Matt: My eyes are closed, yes? Can't help it, it's a family trait.
Dan: When is Photoshop going to add an "Open Eye" feature, right next to the red eye reducer?

Matt: How did the pictures from Heraclea turn out?
Dan: Solid. Those Roman ruins were quite impressive. I was amazed at how much color the tiles still retain after all those centuries. And the fact that we could just walk all over the ruins.
Matt: The old amphitheater there was another highlight of the trip. I'd guess that place must seat about two thousand people.
Dan: No doubt they packed the place on Saturday nights for Antonious Bennettus.
Matt: Only when the toga-clad Tomas Jonius wasn't available.

Dan: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about the Macedonian food and drink you tried.
Matt: The food was quite delicious. That flaky pie we ate on the bench--
Dan: Burek.
Matt: --I think that was my favorite, though your host mother cooked up some pretty amazing stuff us. Not bad, considering we arrived unannounced.
Dan: Cell phone malfunction. And how was the rakia?
Matt: (long silence)
Dan: I think your exact words were something like, "If you hadn't told me what it was, I'd have assumed it was bad tequila."
Matt: I'll refer you to my earlier statement. I may be delirious, but I think I just heard my flight being called. Or maybe it was being canceled. Who knows.

Dan: Alright, enjoy. Chiao.
Matt: Chiao. And fa-la.

Postscript: To read some of Matt's actual thoughts on the trip and to see some more pictures, click here.

June 05, 2008

Nine Months In

It's official: We've been in Macedonia for the length of one human gestation period.

Maybe this is the sort of fact that one only finds interesting at 3:37 in the morning. I'm up watching the Celtics-Lakers in the NBA Finals on Macedonian television--it's the only way to see it live and on our decrepit TV set I have the choice of a color picture with static or a black and white picture with sound, depending on how I tune the channel with the little white knobs. I've opted for door #2 so that I might hear the Macedonian announcer. He keeps saying something that sounds like, "Boston feels tasty." Unfortunately, sports vocabulary wasn't part of PC curriculum.

Anyway, back to this whole gestation thing. We learned that two friends back in San Diego just had their first child and I was reminded of something humorous I read a few years ago about Rhode Island. In addition to being the smallest state in the union, it is also the largest unit of measurement, as in, "forest fires rage across a swath of land the size of Rhode Island" or "a Rhode Island-sized asteroid is hurtling through space." Utilizing that same logic, Jillian and I can now take stock of our first gestation period in Macedonia.

Summer is officially here with the end of the school year. If anything, this means our lives are getting a whole lot busier. We're currently working with a student organization in creating a week-long camp for elementary students. We call it "Healthy Kids" and its focus will be teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth graders the benefits of a healthy lifestyle (healthy eating, daily routines, anti-smoking, etc.), complete with all the fun camp games we got to play growing up.

The planning of this camp--which will be held in late June--has been extremely challenging but also completely rewarding. As PCVs we're given a wonderful amount of autonomy to create our own projects and in the high school we've found a small but dedicated cadre of students willing to partner up for something positive. Unlike in America, where parents often have a slew of options for their children during summer break, there is a real vacuum of opportunity here. That being said, it has been rather difficult to convince students to sign up for the camp--of all the logistical difficulties we've experienced, this one has been the steepest and most surprising. But it's coming together...

Speaking of logistics, on Saturday my brother is flying in for a week-long stay. He's coming into the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria, and then (hopefully...really, I'm crossing my fingers) catching the bus to Macedonia and asking the driver to drop him off on the side of the highway as they pass through our town. We even went so far as to write him a little note in Macedonian that he can slip to the driver like a bank robber. So if all goes well, we'll soon be touring the country, showing off all we've learned of the language, sites, food, and people during this first gestation period. And watching basketball at 3am.