An afternoon in Ohrid

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I wish that somehow I could transport the sensory experience of Africa to you all - words will never do it justice. There are the rhythmic acacia trees dancing across the valley, the Masai standing ramrod straight swathed in red guarding their cows and/or goats, and people everywhere walking, standing, talking. I saw a woman yesterday with a 5 gallon carboy on her head walking. I don't think I could lift one, much less put it on my head and walk.

We left Karen and drove to an escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley. I was surprised by my emotions looking over the womb of humankind. How improbable it is that I am alive. How many generations had to defy the odds and live long enough to reproduce to start the genetic pool that I am part of? Which of the 7 original mothers can I trace back to? The valley is beautiful stretching out before us- it must have taken significant events to drive the first migrants out of the valley and onto their wanderings.

On the way to the first two nights' campground, we stopped briefly in a town. Immediately we had salesmen at the side of the truck. "Look, mama, look at what I have. Isn't it beautiful? Do you want to hold it?" One man asked me where I was from. When I said America, he said, "So we are family, now. Obama." Our guide told me that the change in attitude toward Americans in all of East Africa is unbelievable since the election. Overnight the pictures of Osama Bin Laden that were pasted on buses and cars disappeared. Now we are family.

To reach the campground, we turned off on one dirt road, onto another and another and another until we reached it at the end of the road. It was in the middle of nowhere, guarded and surrounded by 15 strands of electric wire to keep the hyenas out. The owner is a young Kenyan who was delightful, and the campground itself was nice if plain - it had a bar and a bathroom with toilets and showers where sometimes after 5 you could actually get a hot shower. We met the rest of our traveling companions there: a young British couple, 19 and 25, who had been traveling for 10 weeks, an 18 year old Aussie woman, a 50ish American man who remodels houses in Albequerque, and a 30 something British woman. Our group was a 29 year old British microbiologist, a 40 or 50 something German chemist, a young Welshman just out of University, and Michael and me. Most of the others were travelers- they worked long enough to get money for their next trip, and stayed on the road for months. It's an interesting fraternity, welcoming and enjoyable. And when I say campsite, that's what I mean. We put up our own tents and sleep on the ground. Mostly we rotate who cooks dinner and who washes the dishes. Breakfast is spartan = I usually have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast. The first night my body protested sleeping on the ground (and listening to the hyenas) but since then I've slept at least as good as I do at home. And there is a bonhomie that is wonderful that is developed among all of us.

I'll only tell now about our first day there. We arose early and went to the Nakuma Park which is famous for its birds. And although we saw white and black rhino, lions, giraffes, every manner of gazelles, elands, and other hoofed animals, wart hogs, a parade of baboons and monkeys, my favorites were the birds - 3 types of eagles, a yellow billed stork, a red throated stork, rollers, hoepoes, flamingos by the hundreds, ibises, etc. My favorite was the African Pelican. They would fish in V formations, bobbing their heads in time, until all of a sudden, in one movement, their heads would go down into the water to get fingerlings.

Enough for now. I've had other adventures and fun, but I don't want to be at the cafe for too long. I'm well, having a wonderful time, and wish you were all here with me.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Today I start a great adventure. I've always dreamed about going on a safari in Africa, and today my dream starts. There are 5 of us and we'll join 5 more on a big truck traveling across the Rift Valley, back to Nairobi, then down into Tanzania for 2 weeks. Who knows what we'll see, but it will be an adventure. My friend Michael and I arrived in Nairobi at 2:30am two nights ago. On the trip into Karen Camp, where we stayed for 1 day,there were zebras on the side of the road. My first impressions of Africa = warm, luxuriant, and well guarded - high fences and padlocked gates everywhere. It's always a treat to step away from winter into the warmth of summer. Temperatures here are in the 70's with flowers blooming everywhere. The camp we stayed at was a combination hostel, campground, and hotel. Michael and I enjoyed a room and with a bathroom. Although we may not have needed it, I slept with mosquito net over me - just seemed right. This is short - we need to go buy a couple days of lunches before we head to our first national park, but I'll try to keep you updated as I go.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Name Game

As many of you may know, Greece has blocked Macedonia from joining NATO and the EU because it of the name Macedonia. The Greeks claim that Macedonia is a Greek name that describes a whole region, and that the Slavs of Macedonia are trying to usurp Greek history and lay claim on the part of Macedonia that is in Greece by appropriating the name. Diplomats have been meeting for years trying to work out a compromise and though every meeting promises good progress, in reality it seems like very little has been done. All of this I knew in the abstract, but last week I got to live it when I took a trip with my friend Tracy down to Thessaloniki.

As I've mentioned before, the borders of the countries in the Balkans have been fluid during the last 100 years and have changed many times. The present border between Greece and Macedonia (known formally by the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ((FYROM) in the UN because of the dispute) was drawn after WWII. Thousands of Slavic Macedonians were expelled from the Greek side of the line - the politics were running hot and heavy because Tito wanted to establish legitimacy for Yugoslavia and the Allies wanted to keep Greece from going over to the Communists. Even the name of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, has been changed from Saloniki to Thessaloniki to represent that it was now in Greece. So while the countries have coexisted peacefully for many, many years, there are still some tensions, and they come out over the use of the name Macedonia.

The train master above is from Negotino in Macedonia, where Tracy and I caught one of the last trains down to Thessaloniki - the run ended Jan. 1. The train was late - very common - and we had some time sitting with him in his office chatting as best we could in Macedonia. He started talking about the name issue - his name was Risto and how could anyone ask him to change his name? What right did the Greeks have asking the country to change its name? and so on. One thing Tito did was strengthen the Slavic Macedonian identity, and it worked - they are Macedonians! We then took the lovely ride down to Thessaloniki. We were to meet the people we were staying with at IKEA (yes, it's the same one) which was on the other side of town from the train station, so climbed on a bus. It was very crowded and uncomfortable for us with all our bags, so the minute we thought they announced IKEA we jumped off, even though we weren't certain it was what was said. Sure enough, it wasn't the right stop. I asked a very nice woman where IKEA was, and she told me to get back on the bus and continue a little way farther. She then asked me where I was from. "America", I said, "but I'm living now in Macedonia." "Where?" she asked, her eyebrow raising. "Macedonia," said I, in all innocence. "This is Macedonia, you are from Skopje," was her forceful reply. Oops. All throughout our visit, if we said we were from Macedonia we got strange looks and sometimes huffy responses. "We are all Macedonians - how can you take our identity?" Most of the Greeks referred to Macedonia as Skopje, which confused me for a while until I realized they weren't just talking about the town but the whole country. It was interesting to live the controversy and not just read about it.

Going to Greece was like stepping into a whole new world. The towns were gorgeous and not filled with communist functional gray buildings, and despite the economic woes it felt downright prosperous compared to Macedonia. The weather was warm and the Adriatic sparkled. Ahhhh! We stayed outside of town with a lovely, interesting couple - the other pictures above were taken on our walks around the countryside by their home. Across the valley that their home overlooked was Mt. Olympus - we were staying in the valley of the gods. It was a wonderful break from the gray, wintery glumness that had pervaded Macedonia. We met with officials from the American Farm School to talk about possible cross border collaboration - they want us to come back in March to discuss it more. By the way, as part of the Farm School, they have a college, Perrotis College, which has an exchange program with schools back in the States. College students can come, take classes on Greek civilization and culture and optional classes including the Greek Palate, hike Olympus, take a sailing trip out to an island - sounds like a wonderful opportunity. It was a great trip and we met such nice people - I hope we do return in March!