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.
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.
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.
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.
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.