An afternoon in Ohrid

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hardest thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer

Right now we're compiling a list of the difficult things about being a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia. Mostly they're a reflection of the funny things that are different here that we have to deal with every day, but for me the most difficult thing is none of those that are listed. The most difficult thing for me is being so far away from my parents. In some ways, I'm lucky. Both my parents are still alive at 92 and 89, but since I've been in Macedonia they've declined precipitously and for the most part I can only watch from a distance and call them every week or two to talk. I know it wouldn't be much different if I were still in the States, but being so far away makes me feel extra helpless as I watch these two wonderful people disappear.

I talked to my mother the other day. She's being engulfed by paranoid delusions, where everyone is trying to take everything from her, including her money, clothes, husband, respect, and even her children, and in a way, age is taking all those away. Usually there is a part of her that can be present and at least for awhile talk about reality, but our last conversation had no connection at all. She couldn't hear anything I said, and so translated it all into her delusions. I doubt that there is a heaven or hell after we die, but I can tell you for certain that there is a hell possible while we live, and my mother is currently in it. This bright, capable, vain, headstrong woman is living a life of fear. She's surrounded by caregivers but feels unsafe constantly. Whether it is the result of overuse of medication or a natural deterioration of the brain, it is terrifying to watch.

My father, while in the throes of dementia, at least seems more content. While he doesn't ever really know where either of us are, it doesn't seem to upset him greatly. He knows who I am and that we love each other, and that seems enough. When he was young he wanted to be a hero. He joined the Air Force before WWII because he knew it was coming and became a pilot, but while his brother flew bombers in impossible raids, he trained other pilots. But he was a hero in so many other ways. He saved his brother's life when his brother was getting into trouble - not that he told us, but our cousin did. He saved my life when I was little. He taught me all I know about good leadership. But being a hero is costly - you have to be right, you have to be in control, you have to be a man, and you can't be emotional. I always loved my father, but in many ways I liked him better as he aged and gave up his hero status. It is how I know he wants to be remembered, though, like the picture he had hung in the house for so many years of him standing, dressed in his flight suit and holding his helmet, beside the fighter he had just flown. And he will always be my hero.

I love them both and miss them.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Gordana, my friend and Macedonia tutor, took me up to the mountain village, Duf, that her father's family came from. Duf is high in the mountains of Macedonia, about 2000 meters up. Like many mountain villages, no one lives in Duf year round any more, but people have maintained or newly built some homes and come up for celebrations, weekends, and when it's hot down in the valley. Gordana's house is to the right - and to my surprise it wasn't primitive, but had gas, electricity, heat, and creature comforts! We took a short hike out to the viewpoint above. It was so good to be walking out in the woods and the views were spectacular. The Albanian name for Albania means eagle's nest, and that's what Duf reminded me of - being on top of the world looking down. People probably initially moved up there during a war to avoid the marauding armies tramping through the valleys, and they were able to scratch out a challenging living in that high isolation. They must have been in fantastic shape hiking up and down the mountain to get into town for anything! Although no one lives in mountain villages like Duf any longer, it retains a strong hold on family hearts, and they maintain the ownership of their land. Gordana, too, loves it, although she was born in Gostivar and never lived there on a permanent basis. With many young people leaving the country or moving to Skopje to try to find work, I wonder how long that attachment can be maintained.

We're also getting the first hints of spring - the early crocuses were all over. I saw snowdrops blooming, their heads bent over glancing at their home soil. Home is a powerful draw, and soon I will be back in NYC for Kacy's 30th birthday. It will be good to see them.

After returning from Africa I went to our mid-service conference. If I don't extend, I would only have 9 months left to serve. It is hard to believe that the time has passed so quickly. I may extend, though, and spend one more year here. There is still much to do and see. But for now, I am eagerly anticipating the beauty of the Macedonian spring, and all the fresh fruits and vegetables that will soon be in the pazars. Yummmmmm, fresh and local, succulent and ripe when you buy them, not a week or so afterward!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Out of Africa

Africa - what can I say? I can only try to synthesize all that happened to give you a taste of my experience, so here goes:

Traveling: We rode on the back of a big truck with the sides rolled up down rutted dirt roads and tracks. We bounced unmercifully (I went totally airborne a few times), were windblown and caked with African dust. We went to bed early and were often up before dawn, packing up our tents, getting dressed, and having breakfast in the dark and early dawn. Most showers were cold dribbles - the occasional hot one a luxury - and toilets were often squats with no toilet paper unless you brought your own. The food budget was $4 a day for breakfast and dinner combined, we shopped in local supermarkets, cooked over a 2 burner gas stove or charcoal wood fire for 15 people with unknown ingredients and seasonings and cleaned up after ourselves. In short, it was glorious.

People: This was not a discrete tour, but part of a continuous tour where people blended in and out. But it became family. When people left we mourned their loss, and then quickly bonded with the new folks that came. The accents were broad and varied, ages all over the place, but we worked together, helped each other and celebrated together. Everyone we traveled with will remain as an important part of the total experience - yea for Facebook and staying in touch (and having places to stay when traveling!!!)

Animals and Birds: Michael and I went on 5 different safaris in our two weeks, each different with its own pleasures. People in Africa talk about seeing the big 5 - lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and giraffes - and they were exciting to see, especially the leopards, which are the hardest to spot. But what excited me the most was just seeing all that life in action. We watched a tawny eagle and a jackal have a standoff over who was going to get to eat the big insect nest they found. The eagle eventually won because as we moved closer the jackal slunk off (but not too far - he returned when we left). The eagle stayed though we were only a few feet from it and was rewarded with some big tasty something. We watched hyenas hunting a baby wildebeest - the herd circled around it but the baby was freaked and ran. It was successful - it outran the hyenas, but it was doomed anyway, because it had left the herd and the herd moved on. We watched a pride eat a wildebeest, then moved around and watched the male come up and over a hill to go down to water, blood streaked along its mouth. We saw a leopard with its kill hauled up in a tree to keep it safe, and its cubs in the distance, and another who stretched out on a dead tree cleaning itself leisurely. The matriarch elephant of a large herd mock charged us twice warning us not to get any closer. We had a close-up view of lions mating. The female is in heat for 5 days and they mate every 15 minutes - suddenly it made sense why the females do all the hunting and the male just lays around - he must be exhausted! They would mate, then the female would fall over and sleep while the male waited and watched over her. I saw her dreaming - her lips smacking and jaws working while she dreamed of a buffalo dinner - and after about 15 minutes she would stretch, roll over, tap the male, get up, they would mate, and bang, she would fall over back into a deep sleep while he stood by. It was mind-boggling to witness first hand the many adaptations in the wild. The wart hog, who eats on bended knee because he has such an ungainly body, runs with its tail straight up in the air so his fellow hogs can see where he's going in the high grass. A leopard is almost unseeable in a tree because it is so well camouflaged. And the herd mentality - the group is more important than the individual. A lot of baby elephants are orphaned because they fall into water holes and cannot get out. The mother tries to help, but when the matriarch says it is time to move on, she leaves with the herd. The baby wildebeest's mother did not go after it, but stayed with the herd. To do otherwise meant death. Everywhere the wonders of evolution and survival of the species were on display. It was thrilling.

Favorites: Since I've returned, people have asked what my favorite thing was. It's hard to say, because I loved it all. But two things stand out. The first was when we hiked to the green lake crater. Before we went up the crater, we hiked around the nature preserve. Instead of watching the animals from the truck or Landrover, we were in the forest with them. This was a small preserve, and there were no lions, hyenas, and the cape buffalo we saw were distant. But we were with gazelles, zebras, giraffes, elands, wart hogs, and dik diks. Dik diks were favorites, because they were shy and would bound away quickly. They almost always were in pairs. They mate for life and if their mate dies, they usually die soon afterward - perhaps from sorrow? It felt so good to be with the animals instead of just watching them, and the crater and lake were beautiful. My other favorite was the Ngorangora crater. We came up the side of the crater out of a sere, desert landscape. As we climbed, it changed into rich farmland, and as we entered the park, into jungle. The crater itself was amazing - a large plain with a couple of lakes for water and steep sides. The walls of the crater keep the animals inside where there is enough food and water. About 12,000 wildbeests and 6,000 zebras, along with lions, a lot of hyenas, a variety of hoofed creatures, a few elephants, and assorted other critters live in this constricted area, so everywhere you look, you see thousands of animals. The sheer numbers are almost overwhelming.

Danger: My doctor in Macedonia kept telling me not to pet the animals, and Darko, I didn't, except for a baby elephant or two at the elephant orphanage. I never felt in danger, though we did have to be careful. The last two campsites we stayed in were not fenced, and we had to lock our food and anything that had a good smell, like toiletries, in the car. We were warned that if we had to pee in the middle of the night, to take two steps away from our tent and go there - walking across camp to the toilets were dangerous after dark. In the Serengeti I got up before dawn, and did see a hyena slink away. In Ngorangora we had elephants at the camp, zebras, buffaloes, bush hogs, and who knows what else in our campground. One lunchtime I had a kite (like a hawk) swoop down from behind and take food from my hand without leaving a scratch - their eyesight and aim are amazing! But despite the huffing and hoots and noises that were often outside the tents at night, I slept like a lamb and never felt in any particular danger.

Enough. Pictures are posted on Facebook, more to come. It was a trip of a lifetime.