I, like Aaron, also was a counselor for a summer camp, This camp is called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), and is a leadership camp for girls all over the country. This year it was held in Tetovo, Macedonia at The Wilson School, a brand new private school. We had about 80 girls from around the country, from big cities and small villages. The camp is run by Peace Corps Volunteers, Youthink (an NGO), and many young women from Macedonia.
Camp GLOW was first organized in 1995 in Romania by Peace Corps Volunteers and local teachers. Since then, it has spread to many countries, providing young women with the opportunity to develop their skills and confidence in themselves and as future leaders. GLOW began in Macedonia in 2000, not only having a week-long camp, but now also supporting small Club GLOW organizations in the larger cities throughout Macedonia.
We started with two days of intense training, poster making, and dance rehearsing to prepare for the group of girls. I was paired with a Macedonian GLOW alum who had gone to camp last year. Together we looked after our group of 10 girls all throughout the week of camp. Our team name was “PGL” (Powerful Girl Leaders), and we even had a team chant and flag. Each day was packed full of classes, starting at 7:45am and ending at 11pm. The entire week was strictly in English, an amazing feat for high school aged girls. Classes ranged from project development, environment, health, women’s’ studies, recreation and creative expression. We sang endless songs, tie dyed, ate s’mores, and made friendship bracelets. In just one week, these girls went from strangers to best friends. Definitely my most rewarding time in Macedonia.
The Young Men’s Leadership Project (YMLP) is a yearly summer camp for High School boys here in Macedonia. It is run by Peace Corps Volunteers and partner organizations such as YMCA Bitola. YMLP’s mission is, “…to develop the core values of social inclusion, commitment to democratic processes, and civic engagement in the emerging leaders of Macedonia in an inter-ethnic environment while providing them with the personal and professional life skills that will make them effective and responsible citizens.”
This year, I had the privilege of serving as one of five camp counselors for the roughly 45 boys who attended. My group consisted of ten boys from all over Macedonia and representing three different ethnicities (Roma, Albanian, and Macedonian). They named themselves “The Death Eaters” (after the Potter characters). During the week long camp they attended classes in topics such as project design and management, environmental awareness, and media. They played football (soccer in the U.S.), Ultimate Frisbee, and baseball. Throughout the week I watched as these strangers became friends. It was awe inspiring and demonstrated that despite the myriad differences we as humans like to point out, essentially, we’re all the same. We’re all able to work together, to share life together. I can’t wait until next year!
As part of being a Community Development (CD) volunteer, I am constantly asked to write grants/find funding for projects throughout the municipality. These requests inherently raise issues of sustainability as well as the true purpose of my work. On the one hand, I want to help these organizations in their quest for financing. Yet, I don’t want to become what’s known as a “money volunteer”. That is to say, I’m not here to bring in money. That’s not sustainable, and when I leave in November of 2014 what will have been truly gained? This means that I must work hard to create a balance between how and how much I help in the acquisition of funds.
In early spring I was approached by members of the local museum about their desire to develop a presentation center where they could show video of the municipality to tourists. Whenever I’m approached like this, the first question that I ask is: Why do you need this? In this case, the idea came from the fact that most of the archaeological and natural sites in the municipality are inaccessible to visitors. This is, in turn, part of a larger initiative throughout the municipality to increase tourism. In the view of city officials this will be the best method of increasing employment in the municipality.
Thus, during April and May of this year I worked with one of my counterparts at the Opstina to write a SPA grant for the museum. SPA stands for “Small Project Assistance”. The money for the grants comes from USAID but they are managed/awarded by a committee of Peace Corps Volunteers. The idea behind these grants (which cannot exceed $4000) is that they are an opportunity for organizations to learn how a proper grant proposal should be written. The writing of the grant provided me with an excellent opportunity to study the capacity of my Opstina. I insisted throughout the process that I would serve in an advisory/translator capacity.
We didn’t receive the grant during the first round in the Spring. This was due to a number of different issues. However, we were asked by the committee to resubmit our proposal (with revisions) in June as part of the second round. Our second application was much improved and in late June we received the grant. During the next several months my work will concentrate on implementing it.
For anyone interested in reading the application I’ve uploaded it here: SPA Application for Presentation Center in Museum Demir Kapija
During the last week of May Lori and I hosted six people at our apartment at two different times, attended a wedding, and went to Greece to meet up with a group of Heidelberg students inAthens. Here’s how our week went day by day:
Monday May 21st
Kelly (a fellow PCV stationed in Kumanavo) and her parents came to see wine country. Lori and I showed them around town and then we all went to Villa Marija (the old royal winery for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to take a tour and sample the wines. We ended the Day at Popova Kula with a delicious meal and more wine.
Tuesday May 22nd
Nestled in the mountains of the famous canyon of Demir Kapija is a small village called Klisura. The name literally translates “canyon”. Every year on the 22nd of May they host a large celebration called a slava. It is a celebration of the patron saint of the local church, St. Nicholas. Many of the residents of Demir Kapija have ancestors who lived in this tiny hamlet and they proudly call themselves Klisurtsi. Among them are the mayor of Demir Kapija and my counterpart. During this day the entire town of Demir Kapija effectively shuts down as everyone travels into the canyon for the party. Lori, Kelly, her parents, and I were among them.
The line of cars stretched far beyond the village limits. Nowadays few people actually live here. In fact the current village is only a shell of its former self consisting of perhaps half a dozen houses. Yet, despite its size, the village throws one of the largest parties in the municipality. The church was packed but we managed to pry our way in for the end of the service. Then the party started. Surrounding the small church is a covered porch with picnic tables and benches. This in turn opens onto a large walled courtyard paved with flagstones all of which was constructed over 200 years ago. This area was overflowing with people. From all directions came different delicious smelling dishes. From one corner a stew of potatoes garlic and beef. From another corner came grilled trout. Another corner produced large salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions on a bed of lettuce covered in oil and vinegar. Through a small doorway leading to the grill house came kebabs, kilbasa, loaves of freshly baked white bread, and the multicolored traditional bowls of steaming tafche grafche (beans). We sampled it all until our sides hurt and still we heard the words “Jadi, Jadi!” (eat, eat). Rakija, mastika, and beer flowed freely. Rain prevented the traditional dancers from performing but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the locals as they continued to party late into the day. At six, Kelly and her parents began their journey home.
Wednesday May 23rd
Late in the afternoon Candy, Kerry, and Nikola (other Peace Corps Volunteers) arrived in town for a wedding. It was a small event, by Macedonian standards. There were a handful of friends and family members in attendance. It started out at the local municipality, where all of the paperwork and signatures took place. A toast of champagne and chocolate wrapped up the formal part of the day and then we went to a local restaurant for the reception.
Thursday May 24th
After saying goodbye to everyone, we re-cleaned our place for the third time that week, relaxed a little and did two loads of laundry. Luckily, this was a holiday (celebrating Cyril and Methodious- the two men who founded the Macedonian language) and neither one of us had to work.
Friday May 25th
After working a half day, Lori and I headed home to finalize our packing and prepare for our 6 o’clock train to Gevgelija. The plan was to spend the night with a Peace Corps couple there and then take the 8 A.M. bus toThessaloniki. At 5:15 we received a call from the bus company informing us that there would be no bus Saturday morning. We looked at our watches and realized the last train out of town departed in 30 minutes. We called another company in Skopje that told us it had a bus leaving at 2 A.M. We grabbed our bags and rushed to the train station. That night, we met up with Claire, a PCV inSkopje, and pulled an all-nighter until the bus arrived in typical Macedonian fashion at 2:40 A.M. We then found out that contrary to what we were told by the bus company, this bus did not offer round trip tickets unless we were returning on a Saturday. Unfortunately, we were not, and for our return trip, our transportation dilemma continued!
Saturday May 26th
The bus ride took roughly four hours dropping us in Thessaloniki around 7:00 A.M. but since Greece runs an hour ahead of Macedonia, the local time was 8:00 A.M. It was raining heavily and in our haste to leave the house I had forgotten the pack cover for our backpack. After trudging fifteen blocks or so we met up with our host. For any of you who have looked with interest at Airbnb.com Lori and I can attest that it is a great way to travel. Our host in Thessaloniki was excellent. His apartment was very nice and located in a beautiful part of town. He picked us up when our bus dropped us off, took us to the train station to help us purchase tickets, made us breakfast, and provided us with a map and tons of suggestions on sites and restaurants. It rained throughout the day Saturday but this provided Lori with an excuse to go shopping.
Sunday May 27th
It turned out to be a beautiful day. We continued to traverse the city, this time we were able to see it much better with the clear skies, taking in the sites and sounds. At 3:30 we hopped onto a train bound for Athens. The train ride was beautiful. We traveled across the agrarian Larissa lowlands of upper Thessaly, through the Kamvounia, Ossa, and Pelion mountains, sped through the fertile river valleys of central Greece and finally arrived in Athens nestled between seven hills on the plain of Attica. During the trip, Lori took the opportunity to eat in a railway car (something she’s wanted to do since reading the first Harry Potter novel). It was late when we arrived, but once again our host (arranged through Airbnb.com) met us at the station and led us to our place.
Monday May 28th
In order to meet the Heidelberg group in time to go on a tour with them we had to get up at 6 A.M. to walk 30 minutes to the tram station and then catch a 45 minute tram ride to the other side of town. It made for a hectic day but it was nice to see everyone. With the group we traveled to the Olympic stadium where the torch begins its journey every four years and then to the Parthenon. It was difficult to contemplate just how old the building really was. Construction began 447 years before the birth of Christ. That evening, Lori and I ate at a Cretan food restaurant. Our waiter (the only one that spoke English) noticed that we wanted to try traditional food. Part way through our meal he presented us with a free pitcher of the island’s traditional drink ‘Raki’ which is essentially the same as hot rakija (rakija + water + caramelized sugar) with the addition of cinnamon.
Tuesday May 29th
To start off our last day in Athens we once again traveled to the Heidelberg group’s hotel. There, we gave a presentation to the students about Macedonia and the Peace Corps. From there we took the tram to the Temple of Zeus one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Then, on to the Parthenon museum where we stood in awe at the myriad of artifacts from the ancient site. It was there that we said goodbye to the group. We decided to try and see the southern slope of the acropolis (a less touristy section of the site). The sky was somewhat overcast and it was late in the day so the place was empty. Even the guards were either missing or too preoccupied with the daily crossword to notice us. As such, we ended up unwittingly crossing into areas where actual excavation was taking place and we had an opportunity to sit in an ancient Greek amphitheater. When we began to trek around the eastern slope on the way to the northern, we noticed that the site had been closed and we were locked in. After an interesting encounter with a guard curious as to why we were there, we left and began to follow the old twisted streets on the eastern side of the Acropolis. It was here that we found one of the most beautiful and least touristy areas ofAthens. Here, the houses were made of whitewashed stucco and trimmed in the deep blue of the Aegean. Small stairways twisted their way between the houses and culminated at a magnificent outlook over the city. That night we had our last dinner in Greece at a small restaurant back in the bohemian part of town. It was a little expensive but the food was excellent. As we sat there drinking our wine, a very large group of student protestors marched by with anti-austerity measure banners and slogans. It took them a full 20 minutes to pass us. It was one of those surreal moments when you’re actually experiencing something that is the focus of world news.
Wednesday May 30th
We woke early to eat our breakfast and book it to the train station for the first train north. By the time we arrived in Thessaloniki we still hadn’t figured out how we were going to get home. Luckily I found an address of a possible ride on the web the night before. We rushed to the address and luck was on our side. We were able to purchase the last two tickets on the only bus headed to Macedonia that day. It began to rain so we killed our remaining two hours by doing some window shopping which is a lot less fun when carrying a large backpack. The ride home was uneventful. We made good time and crashed in our living room. It was our first foreign adventure and not one we’ll soon forget.
A few weeks ago on Thursday (April 12th) when I arrived at work, the first thing my colleagues asked me was whether or not I’d taken a shower with a red egg. My immediate reaction was to go look into a mirror to make sure I didn’t look like I’d washed with one. It was only after confirming that I didn’t have red all over my face that I learned washing with a red egg is the first of many rituals that take place for Macedonian Orthodox Easter (Велигден).
Велигден takes place one week after Protestant Easter and begins with the dyeing of eggs. Eggs are only allowed to be dyed on the Thursday or Saturday before Easter. This is also often the same period that people start fasting and do not eat anything with eggs or milk in them. Among the dyed eggs is one that is colored red. In order to commemorate how Christ’s blood washes away our sins, people shower with this red egg, rubbing it over themselves to cleanse their sins.
The night before Easter, people begin gathering at the local church, usually around 11pm in the evening. Once at the church, people can buy candles, pray, exchange eggs with friends, and view the relics inside the church. Right before midnight, chanting and more praying is started by the priests and everyone walks around the church three times. At midnight, people crack eggs and eat them, ending the fast.
For Easter we went back to our host parents’ house in Probistip and stayed there for two nights. It was nice to see them again and talk about what we have been up to lately. There were also a number of other volunteers returning to visit their host families, so we had the chance to meet up with other volunteers and friends that we made during training. It was a nice break from work, a good taste of culture and of course, as much food as you can think of!
While everyone back in the states is buying tickets for Friday’s record breaking lottery, we feel as though we’ve already won. When I got to work this morning Borche, the driver/delivery man/comedian/go-to-guy informed me that I have two packages waiting for me at the post office. Yeah that’s right, we live in a small town, and when a package arrives from the states it’s big news.
One package was from my parents, but the other came all the way from our favorite other “O” state, Oregon. I picked the packages up from the post office around 9 A.M. but had to sit and stare at them until Lori came to pick them up to take them home around 1 P.M. (she gets off work early on Thursdays). When work finally ended at 4 P.M. I raced home on my bike (oh yeah, I haven’t told that story…well, next time).
Rather than describe everything that was in the package, I figure I’ll just let you see for yourself:
While the larger gifts can only be described as awesome (peanut butter, coffee, ducks swag, etc.), the best part of the package was the cards. Tears welled as we read the warm wishes and the jokes (Mike). For the most part you don’t really think of home during your everyday routine. But, at times like this, the tides of memories from your past life roll in and quickly drown the present. You look into the waters and see all of the moments you shared together, times of joy, times of sadness, times of struggle, times of rest. We cannot describe how much we appreicate the package. Know that we love and miss you all Sanjuanita, Kelly, Wesley, Mercedes, Keenan, Sanjuanita, Kris, Sophie, Amelia, Randy, Kathy, Matt, Mike, Tracy, Haley, Sydney, Carrie, Ryan, Tom, Judy, Aerin, Sky, Erma, Daphne, Mike, Katelyn.
As Lori mentioned in her earlier post, I had the opportunity to go to the Strumica Carnival during the last weekend in February. The event is truly one-of-a-kind. But before I talk about the actual festival, I’d like to tell you about a couple experiences I had in Macedonian hospitality earlier that day.
It was Saturday, and because there’s an extremely limited bus schedule here in DK, I was forced to take the 8 A.M.. On my way to the bus station, the local baker (whom we had visited the day before) saw me and called for me to step into the bakery for a moment. The conversation went as follows (but in Macedonian):
Doncho: Hey! You’re headed to Strumica right?
Me: Yeah, I’m taking the bus at eight.
Doncho: You’re going to be staying overnight there right?
Doncho: Well how can you travel without some bread?
So he handed me a loaf and sent me on my way saying, “You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back!”
Taking the bus at 8 A.M. was nice because I arrived in Strumica around nine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet up with Dale (the volunteer I would be staying with) until three. I tried contacting the other volunteer in Strumica but had no luck. Let’s face it, 9 A.M. is early for volunteers. So, despite the fact that I was loaded down with a change of clothes, a bottle of wine (the customary nagosti gift in DK), my camera case, and a loaf of bread, I decided to walk around the city a bit.
From the main square I could just make out the white spires of a nearby church. Since they’re usually quite beautiful inside, I thought I’d head there. It was clear, as I walked the streets, that the festivities had started the night before. As I ascended the hill towards the church I spotted an old ruin. It was quite large and looked to be very old. I tried to get a closer look, but there was no access from the street. Everyone who lived around it had commandeered a section which they then used to serve as part of the foundation for their own buildings. I guess it’s true that they don’t make things like they used to.
Along the way to the church, I ran into a group of street sweepers cleaning up from the previous night. I asked if I could take their picture to which they obliged. As I cracked off a few shots, they asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Strumica, and what Peace Corps was.
Then, they asked if I wanted to grab a drink with them (non-alcoholic). Since this is very customary, and I had nothing else to do, I said, “yes”. Now, I was under the impression that we would go to a кафич (kafeech) and all grab a cup of coffee together. Yet, before I knew it one of the sweepers had stepped inside a продавница (prodavnitsa) and came back out with a bottle of coke and some candy which he promptly handed to me. He then explained that aside from the old church there was also an old mosque nearby and some old fortifications as well. Both he said, would be great for picture-taking.
As I thought back on the events of the day thus far, I was at once in awe, and inspired. In the case of the street sweepers, I had met them randomly on the street. These are men who make right around $100/month, requiring them to work several jobs. Yet, it was unthinkable for them to allow me to visit their city without giving me something to eat and drink.
When we swear in as Peace Corps volunteers, we commit ourselves to three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Almost everyone who thinks about Peace Corps focuses on goal one. Even most volunteers, when assessing their success, measure themselves only according to this goal. It’s the American in us all. We want to see stuff happen, and we want it yesterday. Yet, without question, the other two are equally important, and while success in these areas is much harder to see, it is often more rewarding.
And so, by telling you about my Strumica trip, by writing this blog, Lori and I are striving to achieve goal three. And, by visiting Doncho in the bakery, by taking time to talk with the street sweepers, we hope to achieve goal two.
On that Saturday, Doncho and the street sweepers did more as ambassadors of their country…of their culture, than even the best diplomat could hope to.
Oops. Looks like I forgot to talk about the carnival. Well I guess you’ll just have to wait for the next post.
Demir Kapija is well known for three things: Popova Kula, the gorge, and it’s bread. That’s right, the bread here is legendary. Here, our bread is baked in one of only two bakeries in the country with a wood oven. And, because we’re situated on the main highway in Macedonia, we not only receive a lot of tourists, but we even have people from Skopje drive down, just to buy the bread!
Since the town is very small, and Lori and I possess the only two non-black jackets in this part of the country, everyone knows us. And, since we’re the new guys, everyone wants to meet us. That’s how Lori and I were asked by the local baker to come visit sometime when they’re making the famous bread. Well, as you know, bakers work early. Thus, on the morning of Friday, February 24th we found ourselves standing in the back room of the bakery at 7 A.M. watching the magic happen.
The smell of fresh baked bread was pervasive and the entire building was warm (a luxury in Macedonia in the winter). Doncho, the baker, mechanically measured the globs of dough on an old, flour covered scale, while his brother spread coals in a large pan and began to make coffee for us. Soon, Doncho was hand rolling the loaves which he then placed onto a set of long, rough-hewn boards worn smooth with age using a long grey cloth to separate them. They asked us about America, why we were volunteers, how we liked Demir Kapija, and a host of other questions. When it finally came time to leave, they filled a bag with a fresh loaf, a handful of гевреќи (gevrekyi – but pronounced gevrechi in the Tikvesh dialect), wished us well, and told us to come back soon. It reinforced the fact that here in Macedonia, relationships matter, that a host must take good care of his guests, and in the end, that life is never going by too fast to have a cup of coffee and talk.
We just uploaded several videos from our St. Triffun’s day celebrations. Make sure you check them out.
The weekend of February 25th and 26th is a holiday in this part of the world. It is called Прочка, meaning “Forgiveness Day”. It marks the last Sunday before the “Great Lent“. The younger generations visit their elders, grandparents and relatives, where they ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoings they have done in the last year. Then, they kiss the back of the person’s hand for a sign of repentance, and, in return, they are given a coin or two (or three, depending on how much your grandparents like you!). This holiday typically involves feasting, and there are often carnivals and festivals during this time. Strumica, a city about an hour away from where we live, holds an annual carnival celebrating Forgiveness Day where everyone in attendance wears costumes or masks. It is one of the largest festivals held in Macedonia every year. Aaron was able to attend the carnival and visited many other Peace Corps Volunteers who were also in town for the festivities.
On a more local level, I have come to know this holiday as the week of baklava. Baklava is a traditional dessert, originating from Turkey. With numerous layers of very thin dough (now-a-days they use phyllo dough), nuts and syrup, it is very sweet and delicious. This dessert is traditionally made by everyone for Forgiveness Day. It is given to neighbors, family members, and apparently, Peace Corps Volunteers. I have eaten many varieties of this tasty treat, and all in one weeks’ time. There is the traditional baklava with a hint of lemon, then some have coconut, dried fruit, poppy seeds, white chocolate and milk chocolate pieces in them. The chocolate variations, were by far my favorite. I ate baklava at home, at school and at the winery where we have an English class. And, I believe I have tasted the works of at least ten different bakers. This is one dessert that I will definitely need to try my hand at sometime. Maybe in a month or two once I have fully recovered from the week of baklava.