Hiking the Tallest Mountain in Macedonia – Mt. Korab

The Peaks of Korab

The Peaks of Korab

Two other volunteers contacted me to go for a camping/hiking adventure at Mt. Korab, the tallest mountain in Macedonia, which also happens to be in my backyard (about thirty kilometers away).  I felt a bit of trepidation about the trip as it would be only three of us wondering into the wilderness, I was just getting over being sick, and the temperature was beginning to drop.  Trepidation, cold and wimpiness aside, I packed my backpack Friday night and awoke the next morning (mostly) ready to hike the 2700 meters to the summit of Korab.  Though the mountain is not far from my town, logistics for getting ourselves to it were a bit complicated.  There are no direct kombis (buses) to the trail head, or even to get to the road leading to the trail-head.
We met in Mavrovo, where one of the free roaming, pony-sized mountain dogs befriended us.  I think he was mostly liked us due to the fresh bread I was carrying for our PB&J sandwiches.  Unfortunately, we had to leave him behind in order to catch a ride to the road leading to Mavrovo.  After about two hours of transportation mishaps, which resulted in us traveling back and forth across the same thirty kilolmeter area a few times, we finally ended up at the correct, unlabled road – thanks to the help of some fellow kombi passengers.
We were now at the right place, but how far did we have to hike to the trail-head?  I had read online that it was 19 kilometers from the base of the road to Pobeda police/border station, where the trail-head could be found.  I sincerely hoped that it was not that far.  Comforted by the fact that we were actually at the right place, we began the trek.  It was quite beautiful to walk alongside the river, Radika, and we had the road to ourselves.  At one point we went up the wrong hill, only to be informed by a baba (Macedonian grandmother) sitting on her front porch that we had gone the wrong way and had to go back down the hill and take the other road.  Once we were on the right road, we encountered another baba in the yard with her chickens.  She was dressed in the traditional dress, with a handkerchief wrapped around her head, knit leggings, and a knit dress with fringe at the bottom.  She waved to us, saying “Aјде да пиеме кафе!”, which was an invitation for conversation and  turkish coffee.  We eagerly accepted – it was cold out and some fresh, hot turkish coffee sounded very appealing.
She motioned us into a small stand-alone room with two beds, a cupboard and a stove.  One bed was occupied by drying beans, so we sat in the other.  She was shocked that we were hiking – three females with no men.  Upon discovering that the volunteers I was with spoke more Albanian than Macedonian, she switched from speaking Macedonian to Albanian, asking “A keni ju vellai, kusheri, shoket?”  She was asking where our brothers, cousins and male friends, etc. were – three women hiking and camping, especially without any men, was a very foreign concept to her.  While we might have disagreed about the need for male protection, we enjoyed our conversation and learning more about our hostess, Sveta.  She invited us to stay, shaking her head at our refusal.  We hit the road again, huffing our way up the mountain for another three hours to reach Pobeda.
We think that we are going the right way!
We reached the police station, and the police,curious about three Americans, invited us in for tea and helped us to build a fire outside.  We placed our tent in the shelter that they had for their wood kindling, as it helped to block some of the strong wind blowing around us.  When Kelly (one of the other volunteers) could not get her camp stove to light due to the wind, they let us use their kitchen.  Upon seeing that we were eating packaged ramen, they set about making sure that we had a more nutritious meal.  One policeman, big and smiley, made us a shredded beet salad from the biggest beet that I had ever seen.  The smaller, skinny one offered us bread.  In a poor exchange, we gave them one of our ramen packets.  Two other policemen joined the others – they had been outside and had gathered a bunch of bright yellow mushrooms.  The policemen were all excited to cook them and insisted that we try some as well.  Against my better judgement and fear of mushroom poisoning, I did.  It was delicious!  The small, skinny policeman regaled us with stories of his service twenty years earlier – when there had not been any electricity, this meant no phones and no light in a very isolated place subject to cold, snowy winters.  He also warned us to be careful of bears in the area.  Just what you want to hear whilst camping and hiking!
We bid them goodnight, promising that we would find them if we had any problems.  We proceeded to squeeze into Kelly’s two person tent. Alarms were set for 5 am the next morning, and snugly squished together, we fell asleep.  When we woke the next morning, the sky was still dark.  We filtered water, made our PB&Js and waited for the sun to rise.  At 6 am, we hit the trail.  Out of shape, I wheezed along for the first hour, and eagerly sat down for our breakfast of granola bars an hour later.
 Breakfast Break
The road split, with one way appearing to peter out by an abandoned house, and the other continuing in the opposite direction.  We chose to head in the direction away from the house. After walking for about two hours, we noticed that the road seemed to be one of the most indirect hiking trails that we had ever taken.  It would dip down and then rise back up, challenging our mostly unused hiking muscles.
Kelly happened to notice a footprint in one of the muddy sections of the road, and called us over.  It appeared to be a bear footprint.  The sight set us on edge, but as the print was pointing in the direction from which we had come, it seemed that the bear must have heard us and run back into the forest below.  We continued walking, passing a pile of fresh bear scat on the way.  Britt bravely temperature tested the scat, and told us that it had residual warmth.  Not the words that you want to hear about predator scat.  After a quick powow, we decided to continue on – as the bear had been going in the opposite direction – and reassess if we passed any additional signs of bears.  The next hour passed without incident.
The views along our walk were gorgeous, and the landscape was like nothing I had seen before.  Above the treeline, only golden grass was visible, and occasional mountain streams. The only other sign of human life came in the form of a small homestead type structure that we passed on the way.
The Climb
We finally came up amidst the peaks after two more hours of hiking.  Our trailed ended at the site of an old foundation – perhaps for a shelter.  Kelly was determined to find the summit, but we were all uncertain of where exactly the summit was, or whether we had already reached it.  We pressed on for another thirty minutes or so, until the foot trail that we stumbled upon disappeared.  We sat down to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and decided that it was time to turn back.  It was ten o’clock and we had a good 8-10 more hours of hiking ahead of us, and buses to catch back to our homes.
We were pretty well exhausted already, and trekked in silence back the way that we had come.  When we arrived at the police station, we were greeted by a new group of policemen – the day before the policemen had been Macedonian.  This day they were Albanian.  They complimented us on our Albanian and we chatted for a little while.  We pulled down our tent and grabbed our bags, and waving goodbye to our new friends, we began the rest of the journey back to the main road.  On our return we called out to Sveta as we passed her house to let her know that we had safely made it back down from the mountain.  She must have been inside, as we weren’t able to find her.  At the bottom of the road, we said our goodbyes – I left for Debar, while Britt and Kelly walked to the nearby Communist monument to wait for their kombi.  We hugged, and agreed to meet again for another hiking adventure soon.

 

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A Day in the Life

Many of my friends and family from home have been asking me about what I usually do every day as a Peace Corps volunteer – which made me realize that I have been good at sharing snippets of my experience, but not really sharing the specific details of what my life looks like here.

I work at a Municipality (local government) full time with a project team that is responsible for implementing an EU funded grant for regional tourism.  As a volunteer, I can take on other projects as well…which in my case currently involves teaching English to municipal workers – and beginning a women’s yoga class at the local house of culture.  I am so excited about kicking off the yoga class; I think that there is a growing shift in consciousness about health here, and while yoga classes are available in the capital, there are no resources in my town.  It is difficult for many women here to find the time to exercise or to attend a class like this due to the many responsibilities that they have in the home and at work.  Most women that are around my age are “nuse’s”, or new brides.  The majority of them move into their husband’s household after marriage and become responsible for managing (or co-managing, with their sister-in-laws – and mother-in-laws, depending on how nice the mother-in-law is) the house – which means cooking all meals, entertaining guests, and keeping the home clean.  This is on top of their jobs outside the home, which means that these are some very busy women.

On a typical day, I will wake up at about seven a.m. to get to work at eight a.m.  I greet the security guards of the Municipality in Albanian or Macedonian.  I am perfectly fluent in greetings, it’s the next levels of conversations that are problematic!  I settle in at the office and check my e-mail before joining a group of my female co-workers for our morning coffee.  Below is a photo of one of my colleagues and I sipping a cup of delicious Turkish coffee.  Coffee is made in every office using a small gas burner and finjan (the object you can see sitting on the burner).  Work here (and truly everywhere) is all about relationships, and the way you build relationships in Macedonia is over kafe.  The women that I drink coffee with every morning were my very first friends, and I love to start the day with their laughter and to hear the mixture of Albanian and Macedonian languages.

Coffee at the Office

Coffee at the Office

Turkish Kafe

Turkish Kafe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After coffee, I spend my time in a variety of ways: either A) working directly with my colleagues for project-related activities B) planning the curriculum for my next English class, or sequences for the yoga class C) working on my Peace Corps committee work for the Environmental Working Group or the Volunteer Support Network, or D) helping other volunteers with their projects or committee work (for example helping to interview applicants for this year’s Girls Leading Our World camp).  I take a break for breakfast at about 10:30 or 11 am (most people here eat their first meal at this time), either returning home to make a sandwich or going to a nearby restaurant with coworkers for my favorite dish, the pita submarine. In addition to my usual projects, I also usually have meetings or training related to the Peace Corps or my work at the Municipality.  My workday at the Municipality ends at 4 pm.

I return to my host family’s house to relax and grab a snack before going to the gym, going to language tutoring, or going for a run.  Whenever I tell people that I am going for a run, they usually look at me a bit quizzically, and either warn me that there are wild dogs around or ask me if I am worried that the wild dogs will attack me.  Of course, I was really worried when I first started running, and while I still give dogs – especially sheep dogs – wide berth, I feel comfortable with my running route.  Now that the weather has become more pleasant, I also see other people out for a walk or bicycle ride.

I also love going to the gym.  One of my friends at work invited me to go with her, and I was excited to have a gym buddy to work out with.  I knew that there was a gym or two in town, but I heard that it was mostly only men who worked out.  My friend’s neighbor works out at the gym too, and took us under his wing.  There are women who go to the gym, but we are few and far between.  I have found that the guys who regularly go to the gym are welcoming toward us, but there are also those few who simply stare or leer at us awkwardly.

After working out or finishing language tutoring, I go home or visit with my site mate to recap our days or to discuss some plans for new projects and activities – or I drop by a friend’s house for dinner.  I have found that I am incompetent at cooking meals over a standing gas canister, so if I eat dinner at home, it’s usually another sandwich or a salad.  And then?  I wrap up any outstanding Peace Corps related work, check and respond to e-mails, Skype with friends and family, and then get ready for the next day.

When I applied to the Peace Corps, I thought that I would be cooking my meals over a fire, or living in a hut in a village that has no internet or cell-phone service, and that my workplace would be in the fields.  Among many Peace Corps volunteers there is a skewed perception that in order to really be a PCV, you need to placed in areas of extreme poverty (which certainly do exist in Macedonia).  In reality, volunteers are sent to developing countries in all stages of development – we go where there is a need, and where we are invited to serve.  I am incredibly grateful to be a volunteer, and to be living and working in Macedonia.  It is a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming people, and it is my hope that I will be able to give as much to them as they have given to me.

 

A Walk at Dawn

Sunrise over the Mountains

Sunrise

The snow capped mountains

Snow capped mountains

The lake at dawn

The lake at dawn

A beautiful assortment of colors

A beautiful assortment of colors

The view is marred by wild landfill

What the others photos do not show – wild landfill

A stray dog

A stray dog

I woke up at 6 am this morning and rather than re-setting my alarm to wake me in another hour, I rolled out of bed, took a shower and shuffled out the door. I had been warned by a few acquaintances not to go walking or running by myself due to the presence wild dogs, but I am not very good at being inactive (especially after gaining a few Peace Corps pounds). I had also heard about other people who went for morning walks by the lake – reassured by this and propelled by the need to maintain some level of fitness, I decided to venture out for a walk

Upon leaving my house, I heard the unwelcome sound of barking dogs. I grew up with dogs, but the dogs that range through town are strays, slightly wild, and often hungry. They are not exactly the same as the loving and loyal pets that I had as a child. I saw a few other people out and about though, so I decided to continue on my walk. I passed by the dogs who didn’t give me a second glance as they lounged in the morning sunshine. The rest of my walk went by without incident, and I was happy to enjoy a relaxing walk and to catch a few photos of the landscape around Debar.

Introductions

I have been in Macedonia for two months as of today, though in many ways it feels as though I have been here for much longer.  My daily pattern involves waking up at 5:30 am  (no one is more surprised about this than I am!) to read or practice yoga, as mornings are one of the rare occasions when I have time to myself.  In an attempt to burn off the calories gained through overconsumption of bread, I used to run along the dirt road that runs behind the village, but it has been raining lately and mud cakes to my shoes in heavy clumps that makes them more akin to Shape-Up sneakers.  I now completely understand why Macedonians have a separate pair of shoes to wear in their homes.  Below is a photo, from sunnier times, of the view outside of my house.

The road to school

As a Peace Corps volunteer, even those in training – as I am, one of our primary goals is to integrate into our communities.  I have not had one big “aha” moment, instead I find my time in Macedonia measured in small, and some might say minor, experiences.  For example: I can now identify the unmarked village transit buses rather than attempting to flag down unsuspecting minivan drivers, as I did for the first month.  In all seriousness, some of my favorite memories include laughing at my host grandmother’s jokes over breakfast, a neighbor having me over for coffee after a long bus ride, and talking to the drugstore owner about the cookies I am going to make from the margarine I bought – yes, margarine; butter is more difficult to find than one would suspect in a community that produces cheese and yogurt.  It is these types of moments that make the unavoidable culturally and linguistically awkaward moments bearable.  I am fortunate that the majority of people I have encountered in Macedonia are in possession of excellent senses of humor and are willing to welcome a bumbling foriegner in their midst.