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.

October 21, 2009

At Long Last, School Opens

So many roads, so much at stake
Too many dead ends, I'm at the edge of the lake

Sometimes I wonder what it's gonna take

To find dignity

-Bob Dylan

I learned something recently: Half-truths are considerably more dangerous than outright lies. While a lie can be easily vanquished by the antiseptic of sunlight, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, dislodging a half-truth requires considerable effort. Especially when the target audience is a marginalized one like the Roma community.

At Camp GLOW--the girls empowerment program that Jillian organized the last two summers--there is a session on political participation in a democracy and the class utilizes something called Hart's Ladder. In brief, it outlines the various levels of participation, ranging from the bottom rung (citizens are manipulated) to the top (citizens initiate action). Due to a history of chronic unemployment and spotty school attendance, the Roma community in Kriva Palanka is firmly entrenched on that bottom rung, easily controlled by external and, in this case, internal forces.

This is about the Roma kindergarten, where Jillian and I have been volunteering for the past year and which I've written about here, here, and here. There is a desperate need for this project to succeed--this type of early childhood education better prepares the children for public school and increases their chances of graduating and breaking the cycle of poverty. The project is financed by the students from a high school in Stuttgart, Germany, who conduct year-round fund raising to pay for all facets of the kindergarten. Their efforts are astounding.

Unfortunately, far too much time, energy, and money for this project was wasted by (and on) the manager of the kindergarten (whose name I won't use). Due to his incompetence and mismanagement of funds, the project struggled through the last year. The Germans wisely decided to fire him and even came to Kriva Palanka to make sure this matter was handled properly. And that's when things got really interesting.

* * *

This is one family's bathroom. It's built in the same manner as their home, mostly of scrap metal and wood. There is intermittent electricity and no running water. Around a dozen families share a single water tap that often freezes in winter. We sat with the mother at this particular home, talking about her wonderful children, who attend our English class. She was remarkably upbeat for a woman whose walls howl with the wind and leak in the rain. She's adamant that her children will finish school, an opportunity she never really had. Clustered in one corner of this single-room house were fifteen or so large plastic bottles, each filled with water. That's the family's water supply and when it runs out, they must refill them down the hill at the water spout.

I mention this because it was forgotten--all of this, the poverty and the children--when the Germans arrived to officially fire the manager and restructure the kindergarten's employment. Instead, the manager dug in his heels, hurling every lie and half-truth he could produce in an effort to save his job. The kindergarten's opening was delayed. He rallied support from some community members and they demanded that he be reinstated. A meeting was held in which the Germans hoped to answer all questions and lay the issue to rest once and for all. Instead, it turned into a feeding frenzy of lies, insults, and threats. The manager produced one half-truth after another. People were yelling things like, "Take your money and go back to Germany!"

For a bit of time, the project seemed to hang in the balance. How could this happen? How could this man, who lives in the community and understands the trials of the Roma, put himself and his own position of power ahead of the children? I've spent a lot of time here trying to heed the words of Atticus Finch--don't judge a man until you've stood in his shoes--but I found that I had simply run out of empathy for him. How many times can you look at these poor children and still sympathize for someone obsessed with stature and authority? And hearing his lies parroted by parents who told us repeatedly that their children would never attend the kindergarten again was just the last straw.

* * *

Well, the kindergarten opened today. It looks great. After a week of intensive scrubbing, painting, and reorganization, the place looks brand new. The children arrived this morning all smiles and cheer, eager to find their favorite toy and recommence that game they were playing back in June before the summer holiday. Jillian's been hard at work making a host of learning aids and activities for the classroom teacher to use after we've departed.

So I learned something else: the parents will always put their children first. After the drama that unfolded between the donors and the community, the Germans chose to ignore it all and proceed with renovations and a new staff. The first day of school was announced. And slowly but surely, parents trickled in to register their kids. Children from last year returned and new families signed up, including a particularly poor one that lives in a sort of ostracized state on the edge of town. They will be sending two children to the center this year.

In a few weeks Jillian and I will be home. We came to Macedonia to teach English but found our work at this center with the Roma children--part education, part community development--to be among the most rewarding experiences of the past two years. I believe that the kindergarten is now in a better place than it was when we first walked through the doors. I'm not bragging--the positive change has been incremental and could easily be lost. But if even a few more children are encouraged to attend and finish school, their lives will be dramatically different from that of their parents.

Students at play on the first day

The sparkling clean kindergarten finally reopens

September 27, 2009

The Pepper's Last Stand

If you live in Macedonia and maintain a blog, it's a good idea to have a generic ajvar-related post at the ready. Ajvar is a traditional local food made primarily from grilled, peeled peppers and an almost unimaginable quantity of sunflower oil and during early autumn nearly every household in Macedonia sets aside a weekend to make a winter's worth of the spreadable stuff. Last year we helped our landlords make ajvar, though by the time we got there the only task left for us was the constant stirring over the open fire.

This year, while Bube's away enjoying the American college life, we joined her family to partake in the ajvar tradition. Her father, Zoran, went to the weekly market near the center of town and bought 110 pounds of peppers and the grilling began in their yard. There was also Bube's mother, brother, aunt, and 78-year old grandmother, for whom making ajvar is about as automatic as breathing. Jillian and I were merely beer-drinking spectators during the grilling portion of the program; our real value was revealed during the peeling process. All 110 pounds of peppers, still warm, needed to be peeled before they could go through the grinder.

Peeling that many peppers takes awhile. In a rare few cases, the peel just slides off the meat of the pepper, but mostly it's a painstaking affair. Once the peel is off, the stem and seeds are disposed of and you move on the next. The family sits close together, throwing skins and seeds into a common bucket and talking while they work. It's very much an old world tradition, one of time and patience.

Apropos of this sentiment, Jillian asked Bube's brother, Milan, if he and his generation of classmates would continue the ajvar tradition when they were grown with families. Milan replied that he's never really given the subject any thought, though Zoran is convinced that young Macedonians won't be peeling peppers in the near future. Based on our experiences here, I have to agree. In the cities of Macedonia, modernity has firmly taken root, while in the villages the past is still present in many of the daily routines. It's in towns like Kriva Palanka where you can actively witness the old life being eclipsed by the new.

Having grown up in a thoroughly modern environment in which technology is king and traditions of the past were mostly abandoned by our baby boomer parents, we younger Americans have an inherent belief that progress is always for the better. When we can advance, we should. This mentality, after all, has borne us incredible achievements in work, medicine, leisure, and convenience. Along with such achievements come the markedly inane and questionably necessary peripheries; for every computer program that makes life easier, there are ten that seemingly exist only to kill brain cells. But that's to be expected. And while it's quaint to look at the villager riding his donkey through the streets of Palanka and remark, "Wow, he's from another time," it's a bit silly to think that modern automobiles are not clearly a major advance over beasts of burden.

Still, I think it's important for young people to recognize that something gets lost when society marches forward. Being in Macedonia has taught me this: it's okay to recognize and revere these vanished (or quickly disappearing) traditions without feeling like some sort of reactionary, pining for things that will never come back. The young people of our town are definitely looking forward, towards the future and the new, and I think that's great. But I'm also very happy for boys and girls like Milan who get to still daily experience such family-strengthening traditions as peeling peppers and making ajvar.

Bube's father and aunt grilling many, many peppers

Hands busy at work peeling those peppers

September 02, 2009

Starts and False Starts

Like so many people my age, I can clearly remember my first Trapper Keeper. What a marketing coup those were--hardbound containers for organizing your folders ("trappers") with a built-in notebook, all sealing up nicely with a thick piece of velcro. Mine was tiger-striped, which I assure you was all the rage among the fourth graders in the late 1980s, and my folders sported the sort of astronaut and rainbow designs now found on posters with titles like "Perseverance" or "Integrity". Yeah, my first was awesome.

Trapper Keepers provided some of the best memories for what is a time-honored tradition around the world, back to school shopping. Notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, and later (unfortunately for the Bank of Mom and Dad) the coolest clothes and accessories. What is lost on us as kids in all the excitement of getting that fresh supply is the underlying theme of late August: school is important and so being prepared for school is also important. I may have seen my tiger stripes as evidence of my eminent coolness, but to my parents they were simply a small piece of their financial and moral commitment to my education.

With school starting here this week, the school children of Kriva Palanka are out in force making the necessary purchases. Sadly, this is not the case on Edinstvo, the rundown street where most of the town's Roma population reside. For many families there and for many reasons, education is simply not a priority; for those families where education is valued, buying new school supplies every year is not always possible. Jillian's experiences in the primary school showed her what a stigma this situation creates--Roma children are teased by Macedonian students and neglected by teachers for not having even a pencil with which to do their work. This is one of the many factors leading to high drop-out rates in this community.

This year, I'm happy to say, the community received some wonderful donations to ensure the children are better prepared. My Alma mater, Holy Cross, heard about our work in the community and sent us a couple boxes worth of school supplies, including some pencil cases that the kids just loved. Additionally, a group of teachers from Germany--the same ones who fund the Roma kindergarten--donated some additional money for supplementary supplies like notebooks.

Distributing the supplies was a real pleasure for us. First we conducted a sort of census of the community and tried determine how many primary school-aged children live on Edinstvo. Establishing a true number was virtually impossible; the neighborhood is a swirl of ragtag homes built along dirt paths branching off one main cobblestone road. Parents aren't always easy to find and many of the kids don't know their birth dates, what grade they should be in, or even their last names. Still, we managed to assemble a list of around 95 eligible children. We returned the next day and passed out the goods to every child, regardless of how likely it seems he or she will actually attend school. We received some much-needed help in this endeavor from three Roma teenagers, all of whom start high school this year. They are a fine example for the younger children.

School children with their new supplies

Notebook, pencil case, pencils, eraser, sharpener, and crayons.
It's a start.

Throughout our efforts to tally the children, Jillian and I maintained a mental list of the preschool-aged children on Edinstvo. The Roma kindergarten center continues this fall "under new management." Finally, Safet has been fired. We've complained about his poor attitude before on this blog, but truth be told we've held back most of our harshest complaints. The man has no business managing this education center. His interests lie in control and power, nothing more.

And so it continues. Completely unwilling to go quietly into that good night, he is refusing to yield, despite receiving his termination letter from the German donors. He alone has the keys to the center and so plan as we might for the new school year with the Macedonian teacher and her new Roma assistant, Safet still presents an obstacle. The municipality, which owns the building, isn't interested enough in the situation to make any strong moves. Yes, the mayor supports us and our efforts and, yes, when a new contract is drawn up between the Germans and the city, the locks will be changed and Safet will be banished.

Until then, however, Safet is operating the center with no staff, no money, and no clue--and all the while confusing the hell out of the parents. This reminds me of some banana republic, where the inept, former leader refuses to accept the results of internationally sanctioned elections and instead sets up a shadow government deep in the jungle somewhere.

If ever there was a place to use a tiger-striped Trapper Keeper.

August 29, 2009

The Carnivore's Carnival

It's good to be the butcher's friend. Benefits include, but are not limited to, incredibly tasty little sausages during any random visit at three in the afternoon, perfectly flavored hamburger patties for lunch, and an overstuffed tupperware container of pork steaks for the road. And the guy loves James Bond, so we have a lot to talk about between bites of his delicious products. The butcher, Kosta, is the husband of the Macedonian teacher at the Roma center and as we gear up for this fall and all the changes coming at the center (more on that in another post), we've been spending some quality time at their house. No complaints here. Really, his little sausages are amazing.

Macedonia is a pork and chicken country, especially here in the east where the lack of Muslim Albanians means pigs can be eaten with impunity. In fact, when you order a hamburger, what you're getting is not beef, but what they call смешено месо, or mixed meat, though I think it's predominantly pork. All this falls under the broad category of скара--grilled meat. Virtually all restaurants in Macedonia feature this. During my brother's visit last summer we went to a place here in Kriva Palanka and asked for a regional specialty which, we learned, is not a summer item. The waiter nearly deep-sighed us out of the joint for ordering what is essentially a pork-and-egg pizza. Sound gross? It's to die for. Anyway, with that option off the table, we said what basically translates into "Rummage around for some meat, any meat. Cook it. Decorate it with cabbage. Bring it to us." What we got was a typical Macedonian meal.

Which brings me to the last few days here in town. The beautiful monastery that sits just a mile or so outside of Kriva Palanka has been celebrating a holiday and this normally sleepy town is wide awake with tourists from Serbia and Bulgaria for the celebrations. The monastery itself is crowded with food carts, vendors selling cheap souvenirs, and cotton candy. A local family is running the always-popular ring toss game. We didn't see anyone win.

But best of all, the monastery and the town are crowded with grilled meat and draft beer, one giant tailgate. You can't walk ten feet down the street without stumbling upon a grill and a tap. Every restaurant and cafe is getting in on the action and the sidewalks, normally reserved for blatantly-illegal-but-tolerated car parking, are full of tables and chairs and umbrellas. The weather is sunny and warm. Game on!

The crowds at the monastery do love their meat.

The simplicity is as delicious as the food. With a nice view of the twelfth-century church on the monastery grounds, we took a seat next to a pair of men. Between them were several empty bottles of beer and a couple shot glasses. Someone came up and asked what we wanted. My inner caveman replied, "Meat. Beer." Within a few minutes a nice spread of sliced meat appeared, served with five or six toothpicks for stabbing and inserting into my crudely opened and salivating mouth, along with our beers.

Back in town, we took in some local folk dancing and then took a seat and--what the hell--ordered some more meat and bread and beer. Filling our stomachs with such tasty and absorbent things proved to be the correct move because shortly thereafter, among the steady stream of people moving up and down Kriva Palanka's only main street, we spotted some friends who then joined us and insisted on buying a "few" rounds of beer.

According to the FDA, we took care of our meat allotment for the next 2-3 weeks. Then again, the butcher invited us over for some barbecuing on his terrace tomorrow...

Video: Traditional Macedonian folk dancing at the festival

August 14, 2009

The Future's In Their Hands

The question was this: Would you accept a job from your cousin that you were woefully unqualified for--even if you had a friend who was qualified--if you had been unemployed for two years? Eyes squinted and heads leaned back as the boys pondered this, one of a half-dozen queries posed to them during an hour-long session on ethical decision making. This one was particularly thorny, for it addresses two major, interrelated issues facing Macedonia today--unemployment and nepotism--and the answers the boys provided covered the spectrum. Responses ranged from "Of course I'd take the job, I need the money," to "No, it just wouldn't be fair to others." This type of honesty prompted excellent discussions, most of which eventually came to the same conclusion. In these situations, including cheating on the soccer field and plagiarism at school, everyone is doing it, they argued. How can we expect to get ahead if we don't?

All week long at the National Leadership Camp the staff challenged the 75 boys to stretch themselves, their thinking, their outlooks on life, through discussions, activities, and teamwork games. The boys, ages 13-18, came from all over Macedonia and were representative of the country's ethnic makeup. In addition to the more serious sessions, which also touched on human rights and democracy, the boys partook in American football, baseball, and art classes.

Many Macedonians we have met are both proud of their country and yet pessimistic about its future. The boys at camp were, to a large degree, reflective of that double-edged sentiment, though at the same time open to the idea that they hold the power to change things. The "everyone else does it" mentality has to end somewhere, we argued with them. Why not you?

The boys gathering on the first day

Much like last year, my favorite moments at the camp came during discussions about Macedonia's future and playing baseball with the boys. After a day of classes, they were always ready to hit the makeshift diamond for a (more or less) real game of baseball. Average pop-ups proved to be hilarious adventures and ground balls took ridiculous hops and turns on the uneven field. Hitters ran to first base holding the bat. Cows walked across the diamond. And, sheesh, my pitching arm was exhausted.

A closing ceremony wrapped up the week, giving all the boys a chance to show off what they'd learned through a series of skits and then a candle-lighting. After the perfunctory lampooning of the staff, the boys got serious and showed us all that the week had been a worthwhile one. Listening to them talk about leadership, friendship and interethnic dialogue, I was reminded yet again that the youth will carry the day in Macedonia.

Resting with a group during a hike

I'm leading a group--which is all tied together--through a team-building game

August 04, 2009

Tour de Greece

Once on this blog I wrote that I hoped to someday have a beer named after me, a nice ale perhaps. Tasty (if not tasteful) immortality. But after touring many of the archaeological sites and museums of Greece, I'm beginning to question this. No, what I really need to withstand the crushing anonymity of time is a marble bust. I can now see that my chiseled face, chiseled in stone, along side Jillian's, will have people two millennia from now wondering exactly who, "Dan Kearney, Human" was.

This could be me.

I know this is possible now because I've been to Greece where we just wrapped up a fantastic two week trip with my parents. Inside the National Archaeological Museum there's a whole colony of marble busts and statues: sages, seers, philosophers, emperors and gods. You expect those, but what I didn't expect to see mixed among the legends were ordinary citizens. There was "Man, 100 B.C.", and "Woman, 61 B.C.", and so on, saved for posterity. Who were they? Who knows, but over 2000 years later there I was, considering their lives.

The sites from which the artifacts were pulled were even more impressive--it was a veritable tour of the ancient world, from the Minoans on Crete and the Mycenaeans on the Peloponnese to the classical Greeks at Athens, Olympia and Delphi.

At Delphi, getting some sage advice from the Oracle

Ancient Mycenae, source of the Homeric tales, was particularly fascinating (despite the 104° heat) because it was one of those moments when something you've learned in school all comes rushing back. It was fun to consider Agamemnon, Helen, Argos, and the war with Troy while standing atop the ruins of the ancient palace. Legends tells us, that the Mycenaeans contracted out much of the construction of the palace to the Cyclops, the ancient world's day laborers, who built the daunting walls and the famous Lion's Gate entrance, both of which still stand. But neither of those prepare the visitor for entering the Treasury of Atreus, an immense beehive-shaped burial chamber. On second thought, maybe a marble bust isn't the way to go...

Dan atop the bee-hive tomb thought to be Agamemnon's

In both climate and terrain, Greece is much like Southern California, so it makes sense that it gets mentioned in Joni Mitchell's 1970 ode to the Golden State. She sings about having her camera stolen by a lovable "redneck" islander, and while I can't confirm the presence of thieves, I can wholeheartedly agree that Grecian islands are where it's at. In addition to Crete, full of beautiful beaches and Venetian villas, we visited Santorini, where we slept in a cave. Seriously.

Some millennia ago one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions ever to occur on Earth turned a small Mediterranean island into three or four smaller islands and the largest, Santorini, shows plenty of the evidence of that trauma. For one, volcanic rock is scattered everywhere and much of the local art is based on shaping and sculpting it. The blast also left much of the island's jagged cliffs dotted with caves made from the porous volcanic rock. These caves are basically the pre-historic version of a climate controlled apartment. Warm in the winter and cool in the summer, these caves were historically where the island's poor lived, until someone got the bright idea that visitors might pay to stay in them. The rest is tourism history and now these caves and the cliff side they occupy, painted white, are some of the most photographed sites in all of Greece.

A look from our cave villa in Santorini

It was on Santorini that my parents got their first--but not their last--taste of Balkan hospitality. Following a meal out, the waiter invited us in for a round of rakia (a regional liquor that could probably have powered early trains), called "raki" or "tsikoudia" in Greece. Much to my surprise, my father seemed to like it and went on to drink it on a number of occasions. And forget sipping the stuff, as is custom, he just sent it straight down the hatch. Shame he couldn't make it to Macedonia, he'd be a bit hit.

During the epic final scene of "For Your Eyes Only", James Bond scales an impossibly high vertical rock face to reach a beautiful old, asymmetrical building where he inevitably saves the girl and foils the villain. Once you get past Roger Moore, who somehow manages to seem wooden while rock climbing, you'll invariably ask, "Where did they film this?" Though in the movie the building is some elaborate hunting lodge, it's actually a monastery in an area of Greece called Meteora. In response to the impending Turkish invasion some 600 years ago, Greek Orthodox monks retreated to the rocky landscape and built 24 sanctuaries in some of the most unlikely places. Today, 6 remain.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

Those first pioneering monks should be happy to know the Ottomans never found then, but the tour buses sure did. Winding along roads presumably designed with pack mules in mind, the buses deliver the visitors by the thousands on a daily basis and make driving for us mere mortals in cars slightly harrowing.

But past those buses and crowds are the views, which are something a bit like the Grand Canyon: everywhere you look, it's a post card waiting to happen. The "what" is impressive enough--elegantly minimalist monasteries with fascinating frescoes--but it's the "how" that really blows the mind. How did the monks do it? What compelled them, after arriving at the base of a towering and jagged rock formation, to say, "Yeah. Let's build up there. Get that prime real estate while it's still available." Maybe they hired some Cyclops.

As always, more pictures can be seen by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.

July 16, 2009

Camp GLOW Revisited

"The toughest job you'll ever love." This is the Peace Corps slogan and I think it is 100% appropriate. While at times I find myself frustrated, sad, hopeless, and pessimistic, I still find at the same time I love my job. I love being here in Macedonia immersed in another culture and experiencing life so different from what I've known. I love being able to share and learn on a daily basis. I love finding out about myself-what I am capable of, what are my limitations. I have found that I have been tested in so many new ways here in Macedonia and I like the challenge. One area of my service, however, hasn't had the same level of difficulty; it has been a joy throughout from conception to implementation. That activity has been Camp GLOW.

For those of you who may not have read last year's post on Camp GLOW here is a summary: Camp GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is a week-long leadership camp for young ladies from across Macedonia. The mission of Camp GLOW is to develop the inherent potential found in the young women of Macedonia by providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary to become active leaders in their communities. This is done through experiential education that celebrates diversity, builds academic and social competencies, and promotes English language literacy, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and creative expression. This year I served as the Program Coordinator and feel extremely fortunate to have been given this opportunity. Not only am I proud of the changes and improvements made to the program, I have learned so much from this long process, the other leaders and the campers.

Staff greeting campers as they exit the bus

This year's camp was held in beautiful Pelister National Park outside of Bitola in southern Macedonia. Eighty campers and 30 staff members (Peace Corps Volunteers trainers and alumnae counselors) were involved in this awesome program. One veteran staff member said this year's camp was, "by far the best Camp GLOW." I was beaming.

In addition to the variety of pertinent topics covered and grueling schedule, the camp was conducted entirely in English. High schoolers from around Macedonia representing the ethnic diversity and complexity of Macedonia came together in a common language and transcended the tensions prevalent within the country. I was so impressed with their English language abilities--the girls were able to coherently and eloquently discuss issues facing their country, such as human rights and democracy, nationalism and patriotism, women in society, women in leadership and goals for the future of Macedonia. These are difficult things to address even in one's native language, but the girls took them in stride.

Like last year, the final evening ended in an emotional candle lighting ceremony. The girls each had the opportunity to share something about the week--something they learned, something they will take home with them, something they were surprised about, anything. One of the common themes was that girls made friends with people outside their own ethnicity. Seeing how things went last year I wasn't really surprised, but I was extremely moved as they shared their experiences and stories. One girl, an Albanian from western Macedonia, said she had found her "twin sister" and could not believe she was an ethnic Macedonian.

Candle Lighting Ceremony

Moments like this give me great hope for the future of Macedonia. With young people being exposed to new ideas, open-mindedness and appreciation of diversity is just around the corner. I know first hand how camps and experiential education can have a profound and lasting impact on the lives of participants and I am more than confident when I say that this program has made a difference.

I am so proud and thankful to have been part of this program. Thank you to everyone who donated money and supplies for this program. You have made a difference in the lives of these girls. Thank you.

Be a Woman. Be Yourself. Camp GLOW

July 04, 2009

A Good Day For Patriotism

We head back to America in November, which suddenly doesn't seem so far away. Like countless PCVs before us, Jillian and I have begun openly sketching out our first week at home. Dark beer, fresh seafood, Starbuck's, driving a car...aaahhh, I can feel the steering wheel now.

Today, on America's birthday and on a day in which most of the nation's newspapers reserve their editorial space for ponderings on our Great Experiment so many decades and centuries later, I'd like to mention something else I'm looking forward to: American nationality. That is, citizenship decoupled from ethnicity. Almost two years in the Balkans has given me the upmost respect and appreciation for being a citizen of a country where the two are separate.

For example: when Macedonians turn 18 they are required to apply for an identity card, which looks a lot like your basic American driver's license. These cards have nothing to do with driving, but they serve essentially the same purpose in providing a legal form of ID. On the card, right below name and address, is a category called "Nationality." What that really means is ethnicity (or family origin) and despite the card's explicit pronunciation of Macedonian citizenship, these cards emphasize the festering sores in this society--yes, everyone is a citizen of this country, but more importantly, someone is Macedonian or Albanian or Turkish or Roma. And that becomes their defining characteristic. I suppose the owner of the pub in Kumanovo has an ID which reads "Irish." But what if he's an Irishman of Scandanavian descent?

These cards bother me because they get to the heart of the matter when discussing nationalism and the pain it has wrought on this part of the world for over a century. [This is a topic I discussed with some 10th graders during my student teaching, but being in the Balkans has opened my eyes wide to this.] When you tie nationality to ethnicity, aren't you really saying, Everyone has their own country. So why don't you live there? Serbia for Serbians. Albania for Albanians. Macedonia for Macedonians. Etc.

You can forget all that stuff with Greece and the name--if Macedonia is truly going to make it as a nation it will require an internal conciliation between the country's ethnic groups. [By Balkan standards, Macedonia is quite multi-ethnic: 64% Macedonian, 25% Albanian, 4% Turkish, 3% Roma.] Superficial alliances (in politics and business, e.g.) come and go, but what about a genuine love for country that unites all citizens? That means patriotism over nationalism and not the sort of "nationality" spelled out on an identity card.

A friend put it to me like this once: In western Macedonia you can routinely see Albanian homes flying Albanian flags (that is, the country of Albania) from their roofs and not a single Macedonian flag can be found. Meanwhile, in the east, history teachers simply skip over all chapters and sections in the textbook that discuss the Albanian population in Macedonia.

The world is a richer place when peoples from all over can mix and share cultural and intellectual ideas in a free, open environment. It has helped to make America--which isn't perfect, of course--what it is today: the standard bearer for multi-ethnic relations. For cultural richness. For a national pride rooted in ideas, not skin color or family heritage.

Happy Independence Day.

June 28, 2009

8 Days a Week

We're early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of folk, which means we generally don't make too many appearances in Kriva Palanka's night life. When we do, though, two things always strike me as funny: the number of people drinking coffee at 11 o'clock at night and the fact that beer costs the same as Coke or mineral water. It's as if the cost of getting menus printed rises exponentially with each unique character used, so the cafes settled on a flat 60-denar price for all beverages.

Last night we just had to make an exception to our stay-in routine. The counselors from Healthy Kids Day Camp invited us out for some celebratory drinks and laughs about the week. The camp ended in the afternoon and we were all thoroughly exhausted, but the euphoria from such a satisfying week carried us along...though it most definitely did not carry Jillian and I to the disco with the teenagers. That's one bridge too far for us. We called it an "early" night and walked home in the chilly night air.

That chill was courtesy of the cold front that's been hanging over the Balkans since Sunday afternoon. Like I wrote in the previous post, it caused us some serious organizational headaches. The cool air and rain derailed our plans for fun in the hot sun, i.e. water balloon games out on the town's soccer field. Instead, we spent Monday scrambling, wondering if this thing was actually going to happen...where could we squeeze 100 kids, 25 counselors, content classes, an art session, and games? Luckily our only legitimate option, the primary school, was available and with some ingenuity and creative use of space we made it work.

I wonder what Oppenheimer and his team envisioned before they test-detonated the first atomic bomb. I mean, there was no precedent for the experiment, so there must have been all kinds of crazy scenarios running through their minds right before the big blast...would it be a dud? Would it wipe New Mexico off the map? I mention this because I felt this vague, floating sensation of unknowing apprehension right before the children showed up on the first day of camp. I looked around at the counselors in their team t-shirts. They all showed up, that was a good sign. But how would they react when 100 children appeared in the lot behind the school? Would a bomb of panic go off or would they rise to the occasion? Would camp run smoothly or would it be the running of the bulls?

Well, they did great. Not only did the counselors handle the pressure and chaos that came with balancing the limited space we had to work with (which slightly changed everyday), they also thrived in the team-oriented environment and helped to foster a climate of cooperation and fun. We could hardly have been more impressed with their dedication and enthusiasm. Two counselors were assigned to each of the ten teams of campers, who rotated throughout the day between five stations: two content classes about health (which the counselors taught), two physical exercise stations, and an art station. Highlights included a very persuasive anti-smoking lesson, tie dyeing white t-shirts, capture the flag, and rapid-fire team games that ended each day.

A camper shows off his tie dye

Tina, Jillian and the campers attempt a "Circle Sit"

Counselor Dani helps a camper through a posture activity

Team games

The whole thing felt like a well though-out and prepared high wire act: when it was working, it felt amazing, but disaster could always be lurking around the next corner. Jillian and I, with some huge help from fellow PCVs Carolyn and Erin and a young Macedonian woman, Marija, spent the large chunk of the week keeping the ship on course and preventing the seams from bursting. The campers were an absolute joy to be around and we never had difficulty finding a laugh or a smile. All the campers wore their team shirts for the entire week, adding to the atmosphere of comaraderie (and, tangentially, it made keeping track of them SO much easier).

We wrapped up the five-day camp with a closing ceremony. All campers received a certificate and a team-picture and we received a huge sigh of relief and some rest. Including our staff training it had been eight full days of Healthy Kids. Eight satisfying days in which we saw some real growth on the part of our teenage staff while they worked hard to provide these 100 children with some much-needed structured summer fun. While most of their friends continued with the same ol' routine of 60-denar Fantas at the cafe bar, they proved themselves to be great role models for the kids and community leaders in the making.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Jillian and I have a decidedly un-campy thing scheduled for today...season 4 of "Sex and the City." More pictures from camp can be found by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar.

Healthy Kids 2009

Thank you to all of you who donated through PCPP to make this camp possible. We could not have done it without your generous contributions. I know that the children and counselors thank you as well.

June 23, 2009

Beating the Rain

It was a clap of thunder at 5:30 in the morning that officially told me all the work we'd done was about to be tossed aside. And the pouring rain that followed? Well, that just rubbed it in. While the rain echoed off the tin roof of the carport below our bedroom window, Jillian and I laid in bed cursing Mother Nature, that bearer of perfect weather for two weeks and now, the week of Healthy Kids 2009, the bringer of low 60s, wind, lightening, thunder, and rain.

For the past two months we've been preparing for this with our trusty sidekicks, Tina and Bube. The fabulous colored t-shirts were hung by the coffee pot with care, with hopes that bright, hot weather would soon be there. [About those colored t-shirts, the printer didn't have purple, so we manually dyed them ourselves--which is to say Bube's 80-year old grandma pushed aside our Rit Dye directions, grabbed the 15 white shirts and dye packets, and went to town over an enormous metal pot and wood fire. Well, that was easy.]

Instead we got rain, which was a real bummer, especially considering we'd just held two solid days of counselor training in the hot sun. Since we decided to throw caution way into the wind and invite 110 campers (slightly more than the 25 we hosted last year), we figured some prep classes for our 30 teenage counselors was in order. We reviewed lessons, played all the team games, tried on our team t-shirts, and generally wondered just what we'd committed ourselves to.

With the counselors after training for the big week

Then Central Europe sent us a package, special delivery--a week-long storm and we suddenly became Healthy and Improvisational Kids. The sports field we had worked so hard to secure for the camp now resembles an alligator habitat and postponing the camp wasn't an option, since Jillian and the girls head off to Camp GLOW next week. So we talked to the director of the local primary school and got permission to use her gym and a few classrooms...all this after Tina spent almost two hours (beginning at 7am) calling parents to tell them about the rainout on Monday.

So with some slight alterations, the show goes on. Updates to follow...

June 09, 2009

This happened today. It didn't bother me at all.

I guess no good deed goes uncriticized.

This morning Jillian and I were cleaning a rug and the old woman next door just had to get involved. It's this enormous rug that's adorned the hardwood floors in the house since we moved in 18 months ago. Thick, with a floral pattern that's bled red over the white background (or maybe the previous tenants just spilt a lot of wine), the rug is a magnet for cat hair, Jillian hair, crumbs, and dirt. The moment we rolled it up out of the way, we looked at each other and exclaimed, "Why didn't we do this a year ago?"

Before storing it away we figured it would be good form to wash it. Typically the women of the neighborhood wash their rugs--often, this exact same one--in the parking lot beside our house. But across that lot is a six-story apartment building and the thought of being watched over, literally, by a couple dozen (inevitably) disapproving "experts" was not what we had in mind. I've seen these women wash rugs. It takes them several hours to clean ten square feet. We wanted a (relatively) clean rug, not a lesson on how Macedonian women since time infinitium have preserved their carpets.

So we went to work out in our front yard with a few buckets, some laundry detergent, and a brush cannibalized from an old vacuum cleaner:

We were in the home stretch when our neighbor emerged from her front door. Our yards are basically one yard divided by a metal fence. That and their yard is beautifully manicured and has an umbrella-protected patio set; ours, on the other hand, contains a dilapidated wooden staircase (some drunk guys pushed it over a few months ago, but that's another story) and a collection of weeds which is occasionally trimmed by a guy wielding a scythe. Really, no matter what else happens, I'll always have the memory of the guy mowing our lawn with a scythe.

So our neighbor came out, arms folded, and gave us what I believe to be the same look that I give the local butcher when he scoops up a handful of raw chicken, drops it on the scale, and then uses those same unwashed hands to grab a lump of ground pork. Her expression suggested that we Americans should stick to things we know, like baseball, and leave the rug cleaning to others.

I had a hard time conveying this to her, so I'll write it here for posterity's sake: I DON'T CARE ABOUT CLEANING RUGS. IT'S NOT A SKILL I WISH TO ACQUIRE.

Then she pulled the ultimate: our neighbor tattled on us to our landlords. No sooner had we finished "cleaning" the rug, then the owner of the house appeared with a taxi and a few men in trail. They came to take the rug! To clean it right, I suppose. Watching them struggle with that rolled-up mass of wet fabric, I felt like the repo man had just paid a visit to reclaim something I couldn't afford.

Fine, Macedonia, rug-cleaning is all yours. Now we're going to a cafe bar to drink a beer and think of something that we, Dan and Jillian, could teach you. Wait, I already thought of one: how to pour a beer without producing a half-glass of foam! Ha-ha! And that's just the beginning.

May 27, 2009

Marathon Over the Mountain

"I can't wait to go to bed tonight," said Conor.

He and his wife, Kacey, both PCVs, were visiting us for the weekend and all four of us were sitting in the town square. It was pitch dark, which lent the impression that bedtime was, indeed, a near event.

Actually, we'd been up only twenty minutes. It was a few strokes before 4 a.m. and though the sun would eventually bring with it temperatures in the 80s, an early-morning breeze had us huddled and hugging ourselves on the pavement as we awaited our taxi. Along with thirty or so other hikers, we were catching a ride to a monastery in the village of Lesnovo and then hiking back over the mountain range to our own town's monastery. The day's grand total: 44 kilometers, or 27 miles; the local hiking club's annual marathon hike. So at that particular moment bedtime felt like years away.

Spurred on by too many cups of Turkish coffee and encouraged by constant Formula 1 coverage, the taxis spent the next ninety minutes passing each other on the windy mountain roads all the way to Lesnovo. Now exhausted and carsick, we explored the Lesnovo monastery where Jillian and Kacey were obliged to wear borrowed skirts due to a monk's presence there. Sunrise over the 800-year old complex noticeably improved our spirits and by the time the group set off up into the hills the weather was already clear and warm.

At the Lesnovo Monastery before the hike

Twenty-seven miles up and over a moutain range is pretty much what it sounds like: really long and really tiring. We passed through no less than half a dozen terrains and I think several microclimates on our journey, including a boggy marsh, a beautiful meadow, some loose boulders and for about 500 meters, a desert. But the hike's best moment came at the river crossing when we waded through with the help of a rope strung across the water's width. It wasn't particularly deep, but the bottom was rocky and dark, making each step a tad precarious. I think everyone crossed with the same thought in mind: I don't want to be the one who falls in.

[I should note here that Conor's dad is currently in the midst of a hundreds-of-miles long trek through northern Spain that began with a climb through the Pyrenees. I reminded myself of that whenever I felt fatigued or sore along the way.]

At a break along the way...10 miles to go!

We reached our destination, the Osogovski Monastery, as dusk approached. Having drunk our weight in water throughout the course of the day, we happily filled our packs with beer just outside the monastery, plunked down at a table, and toasted a great hike. Following a short ceremony, dinner was served to all the hikers, though Jillian and I had to skip out to dash home and shower in time to be two hours late for Bube's graduation party. After 44 kilometers, I could think of nothing better than dancing oro with her grandmother.

No doubt the day's best performance goes to the little black dog who lives at the Lesnovo monastery. When he was still with us after fifteen kilometers, it seemed that he intended to make the hike with us and after he successfully navigated the river it was obvious that he would. As the hike neared its conclusion, we remarked to the trek's leader that this little dog was quite the trooper.

"Oh, him?" the man asked with a shrug. "He comes along every year. Then he walks home alone."

Of course he does. Probably climbs the Pyrenees every few weeks, too.

Crossing the river

With a few miles left, this guy wanted an interview. No chance.

May 24, 2009

When the Stars Come Out

Like we mentioned last year around this time, prom is a big deal in our little town. Sure, the students have been talking about it for what seems like months--but that's normal, I think. What's surprising is the way the prom becomes a public spectacle. Like the circus, it's got something for everyone who lines up outside the motel, four or five deep, to watch the seniors arrive. Girls in new, elegant dresses? Got it. Girls in new, ugly dresses? Got it. Boys in shiny suits and sports shoes? Got that, too. Cars spinning out in the dirt parking lot, coating grandmothers in dust? Oh yeah, there's lots of that. So the flashes snap away as the seniors enter along the red carpet. Jillian and I popped in for a bit to take a few pictures and then left before we got roped into dancing the oro

With Bube

Jillian with Bube and Tina

May 18, 2009

Pre-Summer Getaway

As holiday travel goes, even for cheapskate backpackers like us, this was a new one: we'd hitched a ride across Transylvania (central Romania) with a bus of second graders on a school field trip. No, there's no punchline; the driver was playing something like European "Jock Jams" over the bus speakers and a group of rowdy little boys bounced around behind us, singing along as if they were in fact seated in a soccer stadium and not row 17 of a chartered bus. A few parent-chaperones chatted in front of us and David, our friend and a teacher at this particular school, strolled the aisle taking pictures of drowsy kids. Nothing unusual here.

Actually, these kids and our bus trip are a nice object lesson on the world of Transylvania, most often associated with full moons, Dracula, and cloud-enshrouded castles. See, everyone on that bus was speaking German, not Romanian, because they are the descendents of the Saxon Germans who settled in the region centuries ago. The communities they built, called Transylvania by Romanians and most outsiders but referred to as Siebenburgen by Germans for the seven towns that encompass the area, have been impressively preserved and today stand as a beautiful pocket of Central Europe in the heart of the east.

The bus ride from Sibiu to Sighisoara (I'll use the Romanian names for the towns, since that's what shows up on most maps) wound through lush green hillsides. When the vantage point was right, the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains could be seen in the distance. In a grand arc, this range swirls in from the north, sealing off Transylvania from the plains in southern Romania.

The towns in Transylvania large and small have a conspicuously small number of ugly communist-era concrete buildings. In addition to Sibiu and Sighisoara, we also stopped in Brasov, and found all three exquisitely charming with their cobblestone lanes, baroque facades and Gothic churches.

Main square, Sibiu

Clock tower, Sighisoara

All this charm comes cheap: due to the global economic crisis, the Romanian currency, the lei, has lost half its value from this time last year. A tough situation for this newly-minted European Union member, but nice for Western tourists. In other words, you can visit Dracula's castle and buy the black t-shirt depicting some oversized incisors and the words "Somebody in Romania loves me." Or perhaps you'd like to pose with the life-sized doll of Vlad for only two bucks?

Vlad Tepes, a much-celebrated fifteenth century prince known for his exceedingly cruel punishments over those he ruled, was the probable basis for Bram Stoker's vampire. Vlad was born in Sighisoara; there's a plaque on the side of the building, now an upscale restaurant called, you guessed it, "Vlad-Dracula." We didn't go in, but I'd bet their Bloody Marys are fantastic.

We also made it to Dracula's castle--Vlad never actually lived there, but it's where the novel took place. Located in a small village, Bran, the castle is one of a few in the area immediately south of Brasov. We took a local bus and explored these castles. Fittingly, it was the only day of our trip when the weather was damp and cool. Fog hung low over the green hillsides. The castles and the little villages surrounding them were quiet--high tourist season is still a few weeks off--so it was very easy to feel the mysterious allure of the place.

"Dracula's Castle" in Bran

Outside the castle in Rasnov

We like to travel with Trivial Pursuit cards; they help pass the time during travel delays or down time between museums. Here's something that would fit nicely into the History category (and for a yellow chip): What country's parliament building was only the second to have air conditioning, maintained by placing giant blocks of ice in the ventilation system? The answer is Hungary and the city is Budapest, which we visited before our stay in Romania. Situated on an especially wide stretch of the Danube River, Budapest feels both quite large (its population stands at over 2 million) and wonderfully small. Towering churches and palaces are complimented by small, leafy streets and a cafe-oriented, casual speed of life.

No doubt our favorite site was that parliament building. Built in 1902 in the Gothic style, its elegance--or maybe opulence is a better word--is hard to overstate. Seated along the Danube like a crown jewel, the building's exterior brilliance is matched only the interior decor. Let me put it to you this way: the main hall's support beams are painted using 22-carat gold flakes. When eleven thousand of these gold flakes are stacked, they reach only one millimeter high; the artists runs the brush over his face to create static electricity in order to lift the flakes without damaging them as he places them on beams. I can only assume the janitorial staff cleans up with diamond-encrusted mops.

Overlooking the Danube from Buda Castle

One of the many memorials to the Soviet Army

A bronze statue watches Parliament

Walking the streets of the city was a real treat and we enjoyed visiting the Buda side of the river (the city was originally two municipalities, hilly Buda and flat Pest) to see the medieval castle and enjoy views of the river. But an unexpectedly good time was found at the Terror Museum, which I assure you is not so cheesy as the name suggests. Located in a fairly average-looking building along the city's most famous street, the museum documents the crimes perpetrated on the Hungarian population by both the WWII-era fascist regime and the post-war, Communist government. In both cases, state secret police housed their headquarters there, where thousands of people were detained, tortured and executed.

The man we stayed with in Budapest is Hungarian on his mother's side. His grandfather once told him that everyone knew what was going on inside that building and whenever he would pass it on the street he would remove his hat in respect to the victims.

Constructed only six years ago, the Terror Museum is perhaps the most stylish and persuasive museum we've ever visited. Its designers did a wonderful job combining images, light, sound, and period pieces to create a very compelling and disturbing picture. Indeed, more than a museum, this is a place where a country is coming to terms with its past. Point: as the tour ends and homage has been paid to the victims, visitors enter a narrow passageway filled with photos. Below each photo is a name. These are the criminals, the Hungarian men and women who took part in the shadowy terrorization of their own population. What jumped out at us about this display is that many of these people are still living. I think this museum took great courage.

Well, I've just about gone on as long as the Danube, so I'll conclude. As always, more photos can be seen by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right sidebar. This was a great getaway before the summer rush. Healthy Kids Day Camp is now in full swing with preparations and the weather has turned hot. Summer, we welcome thee with open arms! 

May 09, 2009

A Sort of Hiking Trail

We're in the full grip of spring and all the things that come with it: unpredictable weather, allergies, suddenly overgrown lawns, the greening of the hillsides, the swelling of the river and, finally, an opportunity to do some hiking. There's no shortage of hiking destinations in these parts, but there is a lack of what we Americans would term "hiking trails." This frustrated us during our first spring and summer. From the municipality we obtained a rather well-produced hiking map, made in conjunction with a town in Bulgaria as part of a cross-border project. Problem is, the map shows only two "eco-trails" (as they are called) in our greater area. And we've hiked them both.

Turns out we were going about this in the wrong way. It's like the last scene in Back the Future. Marty says, "Whoa, Doc, there's not enough road to get up to 88 mph." And wild-haired Doc Brown smiles and replies, "Roads? Where we're going we don't need any roads." And the Delorean lifts up from the ground and blasts off into the sequel.

Trails? Where we're going we don't need any hiking trails. We just pick a village and start walking.

There are three distinct settlement types in Macedonia: cities, towns, and villages. The cities, like Skopje, Tetovo or Bitola, have a distinct Western bend and include most things you'd associate with America or western Europe: expensive shopping, fast-food, movie theaters, malls, albeit with a blocky concrete/communist twist. The towns? Well, they're just lesser versions of the cities; they hold a certain amount of rustic-ness but also offer enough Western amenities to make you feel comfortable.

When you picture Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the world you probably don't envision them in places like Macedonian towns and you most certainly don't think of cities. No, if you close your eyes and conjure a PCV hard at work, what most closely resembles that image in your head is a Macedonian village. Rural and antiquated, villages are scattered everywhere across Macedonia.

In our municipality there are around 33 villages tucked into the hillsides, ravines and mountain slopes. It's quite common to hear someone in town refer to "my village" or "my family's village." Many families trace their roots back to these small settlements and have relatives still living there. So these villages become destinations in the summer, when their altitude provides some relief from the heat.

Getting to these villages--and getting out of them--is not always easy. Once you leave town, the roads quickly lose their pavement and become rough dirt trails. They're also quite narrow and every half kilometer or so there's a small turnout to assist any drivers that may meet head-on coming up and down the mountain. During the winter one particularly rural village found itself snowed in and Red Cross helicopters were called in to deliver the necessary supplies.

In other words, a walk to a village is all the hike you could ask for. Now we've realized this and begun picking villages at random and setting off. Recently we took a rather satisfying hike with our friend Tina. The original destination was a far-off village but then Tina had the idea of attempting to find some local waterfalls she'd heard lots about.

We were standing at what passes for an intersection in a village. There's a school at the intersection. It's K-8, but serves only ten or fifteen students. [And here's where the communist mentality lives on: I asked a teacher at the high school why the municipality doesn't just drive these students to the central primary school every day, rather than operate an entire school. It'd certainly be cheaper. Her reply: "But then those teachers would lose their jobs."]

At the intersection we came upon two older women who were more than happy to point us in thr right direction. They were en route to a day's work in a nearby field. We passed the field a few minutes later and saw a couple of men tilling the ground with a horse-drawn plow.

The trail soon ceased to be even that. We were walking along the side of a small river, one which, we hoped, would include some falls. Every 500 meters or so we were forced to cross the river--I couldn't tell if it was the river or our path that was winding. Most of the crossings required a simple leap; others needed some serious ingenuity, like moving a felled tree to create a (very) temporary bridge. We were determined.

Then, in a mass of enormous rocks bordering on boulders, the path ended. The river continued, but we really couldn't see any practical way to go on. Frustrated and tired, we found a seat in a prime landslide spot and had some lunch. While we were discussing the trek back and other things unrelated to waterfalls, Jillian spotted something through the trees. Closer inspection revealed that we had, in fact, found not one, but two small waterfalls. Fifty more meters of scrambling over the rocks and there we were. There was a even a makeshift picnic table constructed at the base of one of the falls. How thoughtful of someone.

So we sat there for awhile, beside two waterfalls, near a village, on no hiking trail, in Macedonia.