An afternoon in Ohrid

Monday, October 8, 2012

The fabulous fall!

The tent where I slept with the pasture in the background
 Welcome to the most fabulous time of year in Macedonia - Autumn!  It's been quite a while since I last wrote, but only because I have been crazy busy!  Last night I got to drive through my favorite place in Macedonia, Mavrovo canyon.  Like many places in the fall, it is especially beautiful now, with an artist's palette of colors laid over its natural beauty.  We drove past many places that will always have a special place in my heart - Rostuche, Jance, and high in the mountains, Galichnik.  And it also brought back memories of last fall when Chris visited and we had such a fabulous time!  But enough of being nostalgic.  There are still things to do and memories to make ahead before I return home!

One of the 1100 sheep at the camp
Last month I was able to live one of the dreams I have had since I was assigned to the Sheepbreeders' Association - spend the night at a sheep camp in the high mountain pastures.  Friends of Luli's, Hassan and Akise, invited us up to the pasture where they summer their sheep.  The high pastures are leased to farmers by the government, and since many of the pastures are leased on a yearly basis and farmers have no guarantee that they will return to the same one, the camps themselves remain pretty primitive. 

Me serving coffee to the shepherds and Hassan
Hassan has a 4 wheel drive Jeep, which we needed to travel over the road up to the pasture.  His son and two other shepherds stay up there full time, and Hassan and Akise travel there and back bringing up supplies, checking on what needs to be done, and cleaning, doing chores, picking up cheese, etc.  The camp itself consists of a cobbled together shack with 2 beds, a couch and a table, a couple of wood stoves, one now inside (they moved it in while we were there because the cold weather was moving in) and one outside, and another shed for storing cheese and supplies.  Water is piped down through a hose from a natural spring higher up on the mountain and connected to a faucet over a bathtub.  Cheese is refrigerated in buckets in the bathtub - the water from the spring is cold year round.  The shepherds bring the flocks (there are two - one of 400 that they manage for another man, and Hassan's flock of 700) back to the camp in the evening, and during the day they range throughout the area taking the sheep to fresh pastures.  The three men milk the sheep twice a day - it's hard for me to imagine - and eat lots of sheep and goat cheese, yogurt and lamb.  Bathroom facilities are non-existent - if you have to go, there's lots of pasture around!

It was misty when we arrived, and the mist soon turned to a cold hard rain.  Since it had been very warm in Gostivar up until the time we went up, I definitely underdressed!  Akise brought up sarma (you may be more familiar with it called by its Greek name, dolma) and bread, which we combined with cheese, cheese and peppers, olives, and yogurt for a delicious dinner.  The hut actually has power fueled by a small solar panel, and after dinner we looked at pictures of the area on Hassan's son's computer!  Hmmm, where were we going to sleep?  The shepherd's hut only had 3 beds, and there were 7 of us....But Luli must have read my mind.  Shortly after we finished looking at the pictures, Hassan and Akise left and he told me they had gone to fix up the place we were going to sleep.  We walked up the hill to the tent which held two double beds.  Fully clothed, Luli and Hassan jumped into one bed and Akise and I into the other.  I had been smart enough to restrict my fluid intake after dinner - there was no way I wanted to have to leave the tent, surrounded by sheep, goats, and huge Shar Planina sheep dogs, to pee in the middle of the night.  The bed was actually very comfortable, and I went to sleep with a big smile on my face - now this really was Peace Corps!

We had another huge and wonderful meal in the morning that included the best hard goat cheese I have ever had, then spent the morning doing chores around the camp before the men moved the sheep out for their day's grazing.  Akise never stopped working - she would complain about how with no women around the men let the camp get so dirty!  I played with some adorable puppies from Akise's favorite dog - she looked to be part border collie and part mountain dog.  As you can see, I also served coffee to the men - a traditional job for the woman!!!  But I loved every minute of it - another treasured memory.  We might go up again next weekend to slaughter a goat and salt it down using a tradition method called pastrimaja.  I'm looking forward to it!

We also had the third annual Gostivar Fun Run/Walk.  It's become quite the event in Gostivar.  We work with the School Sports people and almost all of our runners are students from the local schools.  Not much happens here, so the kids are so excited to participate in something, and each year we have more and more kids run.  This year we had 158 finish the race, the highest number ever.

The unbeatable team of Fezullai and Wiggum!
After the race, I had something happen that was my absolutely favorite thing ever.  The girl that had finished second had not come up to receive her certificate and medal when we announced her name, but she came shortly afterward to get it along with her father and her family.  I gave it to her, hung her medal around her neck, and her father kept saying:  "This is my daughter"  He was so proud!  Then he showed me his family:  "This is my family!"  I cannot describe how heartwarming it is to see the response of the kids and  their families.

PCV's at Vrutok!
Of course none of it could be done without help.  The city of Gostivar helps finance it, the police donate their time to clear the course and make sure it's safe, the public health clinic sends out an ambulance to follow the racers, the sports teachers get the kids excited about it and pick representatives from their school, and the municipal works folks clean, put up signs, and do whatever is needed.  That's the other thing I love - in a country where different parties and levels of government often don't work together, this is truly a multi-agency, multi-party effort in order to benefit the kids.  And we also couldn't do it without all the people that help.  The sports ed folks volunteer, local high school students monitor the course and give out water, and this year about 25 peace corps volunteers came to lend a hand.  Afterward we went up to Vrutok for a lovely fish dinner - how I will miss my Peace Corps family!

The bride and groom
Finally, the reason I traveled through Mavrovo Canyon last night was to go to the wedding of Elona's brother, Fatjon.  It was the first Albanian wedding party I have been to, and I had a ball.  Like Macedonian weddings, the night is spent eating and dancing the Oro, though in Macedonian weddings the way they do it is a little different.  The Oro is a giant line dance - think My Big Fat Greek Wedding - with simple steps that I never can quite get down, but it doesn't matter - what matters is you get up there and dance.  There are sets of about 5 or 6 songs, starting slowly and ending at a more rapid beat - the shifts between rhythms always got me off step - and you just keep dancing.  At this wedding, often at the last song the line broke and people just danced in small groups!  Occasionally they would also just play songs to dance to like we would dance, and the music would be a combination of Albanian, American, Italian and Spanish, from what I could tell!

And eat - OMG, we ate!  We started off with a table full of salads, cold cuts, cheese, and potatoes, and then the waiters brought chicken steak and what looked like a chicken fried steak.  After awhile they brought a slice of veal and put on top of that, then after another pause to digest they brought a thin steak, followed after another pause by a slice of roast beef.  I though we must be done, but at about midnight they cleared our plates and brought each of us an entire trout and french fries.  All of this was accompanied by all the beer, wine, soda, or water you could drink.

The dance group plus Luli and Lindi
At what I think was the end, Elona, Lule, her brother, and a couple of others disappeared and returned in traditional costumes to dance for all of us.  I don't know how long the party went on after we left at 1:30 am - as it was with the drive we got back to Gostivar at close to 4am.  But what a night and what a wedding!

On top of all this, the new Peace Corps trainees arrived in September - the 17th group to arrive.  I love watching thenew arrivals' nervousness, excitement and anticipation, knowing that their time will be filled with adventures and frustrations beyond their knowing and our ability to tell them.  Living on your own in a different culture is fabulous, and it is also definitely challenging to be far away from home, know no one at your site, and have to figure out how to fit in, what to do, and how best to connect both at work and in your community.  But what a ride!  I think of returning and trying to explain it to someone else, and know that words will fail me.  You just have to experience it to understand what a privilege it's been the last three years!


  1. The trust and affection behind that invitation to the high mountain pastures is what makes it all worthwhile. After three years it is going to be hard to come back! But oh, to have experienced it in your lifetime is replaceable.
    Miss you a lot! Happie

  2. I love the Dad who took such pride in his daughter's victory! I hope the other dads took note.