July 24, 2008

Hear Him Roar (Ok, Squeak)

We decided some time ago that we were absolutely, positively not in the market for a pet while living in Macedonia. In addition to the responsibility of caring for that pet, there was the whole question about what to do when it was time to come home--could the pet come home? And if so, exactly how many bureaucratic hoops would we have to jump through to make it happen? And there was the whole question of veterinarians and pet health. Simply put, it all sounded like a bit of a headache that we didn't want.

How quickly some convictions die.

But before I introduce little Arye, some background: Bob Barker would be terribly appalled at the lack of pet management in Macedonia. There's little-to-no sterilization performed on cats and dogs around these parts and as a result strays are ubiquitous. Combined with a very different attitude about what constitutes a pet (for instance, it's extremely rare to find households where the cat or dog is allowed inside), and you have a recipe for some rather heartbreaking situations.

The most common situation is that in any given litter of cats or dogs, those that can't be given away are cast out on to the street. Some survive, most don't. It's not an act of cruelty, per se, but simple economics--families here can't support feeding and caring for many animals and since strays are an accepted part of community life, it doesn't seem particularly inhumane to turn puppies and kittens out on their own. For we Americans this can be a bit rough seeing small, malnourished cats and dogs scavenging for food or, even worse, stumbling upon a corpse.

Anyway, we wear our concern for animals on our sleeves, which must be why someone got the idea that we would be an ideal home for a kitten. Whoever it was, I can't be too mad at them--however uncool it may be to drop a kitten on someone's doorstep, the alternative was, well, you know.

It wasn't even our doorstep the kitten landed on, but rather our balcony, accessible only by climbing up on the roof of a carport. Someone undoubtedly enlisted the aid of one of the local kids, who routinely climb up to fetch their soccer balls off our balcony if we're not home. So there we were, having a study session with a couple of students, when we heard some uncommonly loud crying outside. We first assumed those same local kids were torturing a cat (unfortunately, known to happen). Then we peered out. And found a tiny kitten on the balcony.

Based on everything we've read, we're guessing he's around four weeks old. Ok, for starters, we don't even know if it's a "he" because the sex of a kitten doesn't become readily apparent until the sixth week or so. Since kittens should ideally remain with their mothers for 8-10 weeks, this little guy missed out on some quality mom time. He obviously just learned to walk and he's a rather uncoordinated player. He can't yet jump, so every ascension of the family couch or easy chair is an epic climbing expedition.

He's tiny and cute and cuddly. There's basically two things he wants: his food dish full and our laps empty. To say that he mews would be a bit grandiose; it's more like a little squeak, something exhaled from a dog's toy. So far he's confined his exploration of the house to two rooms--well, given that he can't navigate stairs, that's all he can really do.

His spotting pattern led Jillian to say that he appears to be wearing a yarmulke. In honor of that astute observation, we named him Arye (R-yay), which is Hebrew for "lion."

As for our promise to avoid pets while living in Macedonia...that evaporated into the summer air in about two minutes. Besides, what could we do? There's no one to give him over to and we sure as heck weren't about to turn him away. And so far he's been nothing but adorable and fun.
Next week we're off to Paris for the wedding of Jillian's sister and then on to Spain for some sightseeing. Arye will be well cared for by some friends in Skopje. See you in a few weeks!

July 15, 2008

Girls Leading Our World

When I was told that Peace Corps volunteers in Macedonia conducted a national leadership camp for high school girls every summer, I knew I had to be involved in some way. After years of dedicating a week of my summer, every summer, to a similar program in California, I couldn't imagine not contributing to such a worthy endeavor. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) here in Macedonia proved to be as valuable as I had imagined.

Arrival at Camp

Last week, this camp was realized in Pelister National Park in southern Macedonia. 80 talented young women from all over Macedonia came together for a week of classes, activities and fun. They learned about topics such as discrimination and cultural stereotypes, self-esteem and body image, career planning, women's health, volunteerism, environment, objectification of women in the media, peer pressure, peace education, nutrition and many others. Oh, and by the way, not only did the girls participate and engage in all these topics, they did so in their second language--English!

Team Building Activity

The girls were organized into 8 groups, each group having a Peace Corps Volunteer Counselor and a Macedonian Junior Counselor. These group leaders kept a close eye on the girls, ensuring their attendance, participation and understanding in the classes. The day started at 8:00 and kept the girls busy until 11:00 every night. Although the girls complained about being too busy, by the end of the week they were so thankful that we packed the schedule with such meaningful activities.

Making Friendship Bracelets

Alas, I did not have a group and I found myself missing the interactions with campers which I know can be so fun and rewarding. My role was a little different than I was used to back in California. As one of the coordinators of the camp, I did a lot of the work required to create and implement the program elements. This year, I was sort of an assistant, learning the ropes of the camp, shadowing the other coordinators, tying up loose ends, while next year I'll be running the show. There is quite a lot of preparation that goes into planning and running a camp of this magnitude --recruiting, staff, training, rosters, program elements, schedules, materials, manuals, facilities, not to mention the financial aspect, which another volunteer is in charge of (thankfully). It was a bit of an adjustment to this new role, but I really enjoyed it and found I was kinda good at it. It actually sparked an interest in me in the area of curriculum development and administration. Who knows...

Bube & Me in Tie-Dye
The highlight of my week though was watching the girls I had sponsored to come to GLOW from our town. We had 5 girls attend GLOW as campers and 1 attend as a senior counselor. I was like a proud mother cheering for them as they contributed something to a class or displayed their excellent English language skills. Many of the counselors commented that our girls were, as a group, the best. They had the most developed critical thinking skills, great attitudes, the most fluency, the largest vocabulary...they were great! I was so proud of them.

The Campers From Our Town

Camp GLOW was not only an amazing experience for the campers, but also for me. Every summer after camp, I always feel incredibly empowered, inspired, and rejuvenated. I questioned whether or not this camp would have the same impact on me. Well, it turns out it did...and I'm GLOWing.

July 06, 2008

Boys of Summer

The sun was beginning its long, slow dip behind the mountains and the field was increasingly painted a blinding orange. An old farmhouse sat somewhere out beyond centerfield, seemingly guarded by three patrolling horses. Just off the third base line a cabbage patch stretched a good one hundred meters and the entire scene played out under the watchful eye of a ski lift, disused in these summer months. The boys in the field awaited the first pitch, their gloves hanging uncertainly on their hands. The batter stepped up to the plate. He held the bat awkwardly but enthusiastically as I delivered the ball towards him. There was the ping of a metal bat on a hardball and the hitter took off running...to third base.

Ooops, we forgot to explain that rule. We also neglected to tell him to drop the bat after he hit the ball, so there he stood, grinning widely on third base with the bat in his hand. It was the first time he had ever taken a cut at a baseball. It was the first time any of them had. This was the National Leadership Camp for boys, a week-long gathering in the idyllic setting of the mountain town Krusevo. At this moment, fellow PCV Frank and I were holding a session on baseball and thanks to a generous donation of gloves, bats, and balls, we were able to teach throwing and hitting, as well as stage an actual game.

Frank and the boys take the field

Ninety boys, ages 12-17, gathered for the week. In my charge were 16 seventh and eighth graders and we called ourselves the Crazy Campers. Like the other five teams of boys, we had our own flag, cheer, and idiosyncrasies. I was teamed up with a Macedonian co-counselor named Igor. We hit it off immediately and had a very fun, very funny, and very tiring week guiding these young men.

The camp served two very important purposes. First, it gave the boys the uncommon experience of exploring their leadership potential and discussing that potential in the context of Macedonia's future. There were teamwork activities all week and leadership opportunities for all the boys. Second, the camp brought together boys from all over Macedonia. Despite its geographic petiteness, Macedonia has a surprising amount of cultural diversity, the result of a history of poor roads that made regional travel very difficult--for example, the citizens of Bitola have different customs and dialect than those of, say, Stip, a mere 50 miles away. This created a lively atmosphere of playful rivalry and humorous cultural exchange.

Even more to the point, the camp brought together ethnic Macedonian and Albanian boys. Membership into NATO and the EU aside, the relationship between these communities will be the defining question in the country's short- and long-term future and if tensions and suspicions are to be settled peacefully, it will be young people like these boys who will make that decision. All week we saw new friendships blossoming and heard genuine talk of understanding in their Civil Society classes.

These heavier things were balanced perfectly with the fun and games that go with any good summer camp. Daily sessions included music, outdoor skills such as using a compass and tying knots, and art, where we made origami and tie dyed t-shirts. And, of course, there were camp pranks and team rivalries. Igor and I led our team on a successful water balloon ambush on the last day of camp after being awoken at 6am that morning by a rival team banging on our doors and windows.

Teamwork games

On the final night there was a closing ceremony that featured a candle-lighting, during which boys were free to volunteer thoughts about the week. Their comments about friendship, leadership, and the future of their country were very touching and left all the counselors feeling quite satisfied with the week. I know our boys, the Crazy Campers, got a lot out of the camp and repeatedly told Igor and I (usually prefaced with, "Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan" or "Igor, Igor, Igor, Igor"...what can I say? Thirteen-year old boys are not known for their patience) that the camp was much more fun and interesting than they ever thought it would be.

Everyone exchanged contact information and headed back home on Saturday with new friends, skills, and ideas to carry them through summer and into the next school year. And if even a few of them can share what they learned with their friends, if even a few can be an example to their peers, than Macedonia's future just got a little bit brighter.

Just don't count on a national baseball team anytime soon.

Jillian is now off at the national girls camp, GLOW. Tune in next week to hear all about it...

With two of my boys, Muhamed and Denis

The Crazy Campers