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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The One Year Mark

On September 15th last year, I officially arrived as a Peace Corps trainee in Macedonia.  The time has passed so quickly, that I am beginning to realize with growing trepidation that I will find myself sitting in front of my computer typing the words “Saying Farewell” in very little time at all.

In looking back over the past year, I am beginning to realize how far I have (and have not) come from the version of me that stepped off the plane last fall.  More than anything, the multitude of experiences – good and bad – have refined my values, ideals, and boundaries – perhaps because the experience has tested all of these areas.

Over a cup of coffee with one of my language teachers, he jokingly remarked “You came to change Macedonia, and we changed you!” I laughed – isn’t it true that as Peace Corps volunteers, we arrive with the hope to help the citizens of the country in which we serve to make a positive impact in their communities?  We (or at least, I) could not anticipate all of the changes that would occur internally in order to be able to do this work – to integrate with a foreign community and culture, to overcome adversity, to admit weakness, to create strength (or even just the illusion of it), to step outside one’s comfort zone.

Some of these changes occur unwittingly, such as when I catch myself staring in true dibranche fashion – aka, like a local – at someone that I do not know walking down the street (I completely understand why I was stared at when I arrived in town – I was an unknown face, a rare occurrence in a town of 8,000 people); while others I made by choice or through experience.  Some changes I adamantly decided not to make, which taught me about my own character.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, you become what you are needed to be and what you are willing to be.  None of us came perfectly pre-packaged to fulfill the expectations of our communities or our organizations.  When I had spoken with RPCVs in the U.S. as I prepared for my departure, they all universally said that it was in their second year that they felt as though they “hit their stride.”  In other words, they understand what needed to be done, what they wanted to do, and they had a the knowledge and resources (hopefully) to do the work that they had joined the Peace Corps to do.

Fingers crossed that the same is true for me.

 

European Vacation!

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

 

Unlike the squirm-inducing hilarity of the Griswalds European Vacation, my European vacation was like an amazing dream. Fate manifested a sign of things to come in the form of not one but two “good luck” bird dropping  incidents on the date of my departure, August 9th.  Lucky me!  Seriously.

I shall have to plant myself under heavily bird-trafficked areas in the future, if I owe the loveliness of my vacation to these two “gifts.”  I will not go into too much detail, except to say that I had a wonderful time with three of my best friends in some pretty awesome places – Budapest – where we danced with a caveman to the Bloody Beetroots, a show which did, as our new French acquaintances promised, “rip our faces off”; bathed in the largest medicinal bath in Europe (and got our mint sauna on); and joined the other young tourists to explore the city’s ruin bars – Vienna – where we walked off our significant sacher tort, coffee, dumpling and beer intake while enjoying the beautiful architecture and history of Austria’s capital – and, Prague – a city filled with interesting, ancient urban legends of a golem, a pagan fire that could not be extinguished, a princess prophet, statues coming life to catch those seeking to steal from the church (I am kicking myself for not buying a book highlighting these, plus 74 other fascinating tales, at the Strahov Monastery); and a city that is also home to the beautiful astronomical clock and is the capital of a country with one of the largest atheist populations in Europe (and perhaps the world, depending on your source).

These are three amazing cities, and I do them a disservice with my short descriptions.  I hope that you will have the opportunity to visit them yourself, or that you have already had the chance to do so.

I also visited Italy to attend the wedding of my friend, Bridie, to her Italian fiancee (now husband), Francesco.  They are a lovely couple, and the wedding could not have been more beautiful.  I was fortunate to have chosen, rather randomly *ok, actually because the hotel was a bit cheaper than others and I have a small budget* to stay in Certaldo Alto, which is the ancient part of the city.  It was well worth the extra walk or funicular ride, for the amazing view and ambiance.  The ceremony was held in a church dating from the 12th century (imagine how many people have been married in it!) in the Tuscan countryside.  The officiating priest was excellent and warm, and managed to maintain a perfect balance of seriousness with humor for the ceremony.  I also loved the sprinkling of references to philosophy and Bruce Springsteen he added to his comments.  I also had the opportunity to spend time with some of Bridie’s co-workers (old and new) and friends from Northside Social, one of my favorite coffee shops, which is also home / place of work for some very awesome people.

I also ran around Rome a bit on my own, picking up new friends as I went, and also getting my first Dottor Fish pedicure.  Wow.  What an amazing trip.

Camp GLOW!

Earlier this week I packed my bags to join 80 high school girls, camp staff and other Peace Corps volunteers at Camp GLOW (an acronym for Girls Leading Our World) as a guest instructor.  I was only staying for one night – just enough time to lead  classes on   interpersonal violence and how to make American pancakes.  The diversity of class topics reflects the nature of the camp – while there is a focus on friendship and fun, it is also about creating a safe environment for girls to discuss topics that are typically taboo – the things that they can’t or don’t want to talk to friends and family about.

The night that I arrived at camp, I was invited by a camp counselor (and fellow PCV) to join one of the groups of girls to participate in an activity called identity circles.   The activity began with each girl writing five words to describe herself, and then sharing these words and the reason that they were selected with the group.  It was evident that the group had established trust with one another as they were very open about their lives -stories of grief, hope, loneliness, strength, confidence, uncertainty, and loss all emerged through five words.  When I went to bed that night (or at least tried to sleep while wedding music blared into the wee hours from the restaurant next door), I was a little overwhelmed and apprehensive about the class that I was to teach on interpersonal violence the next day – did I have the right material? Was I really the right person to be facilitating this class?  I have experience with interpersonal violence within my extended family, but what could I offer to these girls?  I just told myself to take a deep breath and to focus on the campers.  This was about providing them with important information and creating a safe, confidential space for them to discuss the topic openly and without judgement.

The format of GLOW is that required classes, like the one that I was teaching, are taught to four different groups of girls.  The first class began at 9 am and the last class ended at 1 pm.   I was lucky to have a great co-facilitator, a former camper turned camp counselor, as well as another counselor who bravely volunteered to share her personal experiences with the class.  The classes flew by, and each class was different – the dynamic varied on the group, with most of the class being dedicated to discussion.  The topic is emotionally charged, and I was impressed by the ways that the campers would open up and empathize with one another.  I think that the opportunities available to these girls to candidly discuss issues like interpersonal violence and other class topics, including sex education, stereotypes, etc., are too few.  GLOW provides a forum for these “taboo” discussions to occur and for girls to establish really strong friendships and support networks.  I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play a small part in the camp and to meet so many future young leaders from across Macedonia.  It is my hope that these girls will in turn carry what they learned and experienced at GLOW to their communities, and to help to support other young women as they grow into confident and healthy adults.

 

Puppies and Breakdowns

I was woken up by insistent, unending crying outside of my window one morning earlier this month.  The sun was just beginning to rise, and I was still clinging to sleep.  There are occasional dog and cat fights during the night in my neighborhood due to the large population of stray animals, and as I lay in bed – resisting waking up – I thought of all the possibilities that could be waiting for me outside.  What if there was an injured animal?  What would I do? After determining that the idea of staying inside simply because I was afraid of what I might find outside was ridiculous, I kicked off my blankets and made my way outside.  The first thing that I saw was an adult dog and her puppy.  The mother seemed beaten down, cowering away from me.  The crying continued, but seemed to be coming from my neighbor’s yard.  As I leaned over the fence, I realized that the crying was coming from a concrete hole, about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.  I approached cautiously, watching the mother carefully to see if she became aggressive, and peered into the hole.  Inside were two small, furry puppies – exhausted and deeply offended by their current situation.

I reached down cautiously (the puppies seemed too young to be aggressive) and I scooped one up easily, and deposited it near the mother and the other puppy.  The next puppy, while unhappy in the hole,  did not like the idea of being scooped up, and burrowed into the least accessible corner.  Fifteen minutes of huffing, puffing and contorting myself into a myriad of uncomfortable poses was rewarded, when I succeeded in using a hose to pry the puppy up and to place it near the rest of its family.  I felt like a super hero – the puppies and their mother were reunited and happy, and through a simple act, I had been able to help them.

PuppiesPuppies with MomThe hole

The next few days were spent taking care of the puppies – I felt as though the mother and I were sharing custody.  She would leave them during the day to join her pack and to rummage through dumpsters for food.  I would bring them water and milk, and play with them after work.  At first, I minimized contact, worried that she might abandon the puppies or become aggressive toward me.  As the days passed, we came to have a tacit agreement – she tolerated (and dare I say, appreciated) my presence and help, and I loved seeing the three little furry bodies that would come hurtling toward whenever I brought water or food for them.  I deluded myself into thinking that this would continue – that I would be able to help protect and care for these three little lives.

I grew up around dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, goats, chickens, horses, etc.  I love animals, and it is very natural for me to surround myself with them, and to care for them.  However, in Debar people rarely keep pets and stray dogs are treated with fear and revulsion.  It was also explained to me that in Islam, dogs are considered to be ritually unclean, and are to be avoided.  As the majority of the residents in Debar are Muslim, it is very unusual for dogs to be kept as pets.

After work one day, I went to the pharmacy to pick up flea shampoo for the puppies – they would whine out of pure frustration from itchiness.  I returned home to find that the puppies had disappeared.  They were always in one area of our neighborhood – mostly in the next door neighbor’s yard – a neighbor who lived in Italy most of the year.  I looked and looked for them.  I told myself that they would probably show up – they could not have wandered far.  My biggest fear was that they had been dumped somewhere; they had not been a popular addition to the neighborhood, but had been mostly tolerated by my family and our neighbors.

Two days later, when I was walking  home, I heard a familiar whining.  I realized that the puppies were living in the trash dump area close to the main road.  I saw that one puppy had an eye infection that had worsened, and that it could no longer move one of its back legs.  I felt so sad and helpless.  I brought them food, which they gobbled up.  That night, I skyped with my family, as soon as my father asked me how I was, I lost it.  I had not cried since I left America for Macedonia, and my walls came crashing down.  Everything that had been building up – issues around of gender equality, the overwhelming  feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, exhaustion from always being “on” – bubbled up from from the anger and sorrow that I felt about the puppies.  I turned into a blubbering mess.  After the conversation, in which my father and stepmom were amazingly supportive and kind about my sudden emotional meltdown,  I looked up a prayer written by Albert Schweitzer for animals (I have included the prayer at the end of this post).  I do not often pray, but I found comfort in saying the words and resolved that I would do what I could to help these animals, with or without support from anyone else.

The next morning, I spoke with my coworker to ask if she could show me where the veterinary hospital is located.  She responded that her cousin is a veterinarian, and she offered to call him to explain the situation.  He said that he would be happy to meet us after work to see the puppy with the eye infection and injured leg.  My coworker and I waited by the trash dump for him to arrive, drawing curious stares from passersby.  He arrived, and and while gently examining the puppy, explained that he and some of his colleagues from Switzerland (where he had attended school) had implemented a program to vaccinate and fix the street dogs in Debar a number of years ago, but without new funding and support, it was not possible to sustain such a program.  He said that he could help to wash the puppy to get rid of its skin infection, provide eye drops for the eye infection and provide vaccinations, but that it ultimately needed an owner.  I so badly wanted to be able to say that I would keep it, but I live with a host family, and keeping the dog was out of the question.   We agreed to meet the next day to take care of the puppy.  The next day arrived, and the puppies had again disappeared. I saw the mother, and I tried to follow her to find the puppies, but they were nowhere to be found.

The next few days were filled with puppy sightings – of every puppy except those I was looking to find.  While walking to the grocery store, I saw a dead puppy on the sidewalk, with flies hovering over it.  While looking around my neighborhood in search of the puppies, I saw a white, Labrador-looking puppy, being tossed out of a yard and landing with a yelp on the ground outside.

When I described everything that I had seen to my coworker, she suggested that I put forward an idea for a project on the street dog issue at a meeting we were having later that afternoon with members a local associations and NGOs.  I doubted that the idea would be taken seriously and was surprised when members indicated that they supported the idea.  Out of twelve ideas put forward, it was agreed that the street dog project would be the first project that the group would collaborate on – it would not only affect the lives and health of the dogs, but also of the community.  We are currently looking at similar projects that have been executed in Macedonia to put together a project plan that would be appealing to funders.

You can access more information on street dogs in the Balkans (it is a region-wide problem), via the following links:

Solving stray dog problem proves difficult in Balkan countries

Balkan Underdogs

A Prayer for Animals (Albert Schweitzer)

Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them
we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful.

Ramazan in Macedonia

Ramazan officially began this past Saturday, which means that the majority of my friends and colleagues are fasting from about 2 am in the morning until 8:30 pm at night.  No food, no water or other drinks.  I was in Skopje for the weekend and returned on Monday night to the sound of drums and a large iftar meal (the meal eaten to break the fast). Children play the drums, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood.  They are provided with some gifts (money) as go.  Sounds like a pretty good gig , right?

Onions are the prominent vegetable in the iftar meal.  The most traditional dish is made of onions that have been cooked down for at least four hours, ground beef is added, and once the four hours have passed, eggs are cracked over the hot mixture.  My host mom purchased 15 kilograms of onions to prepare this dish – which will be served at every iftar meal.  I was hesitant to try it at first, given my stomach issues, but I threw caution to the wind and prayed that the water had not been shut off (it usually is shut off for a few hours every day in the summer) in case I had a need for the toilet *ahem*. It was absolutely delicious – the taste reminded me a bit of sloppy joe filling.

After dinner, my host mom offered me coffee as she joked that she had not missed eating food all day, but missed coffee. I politely declined as I was uncertain of how my stomach might respond to this volatile combination.

It is interesting how the dynamic of the town changes during Ramazan.  The coffee bars and sidewalks are usually packed with people during the day, but during Ramazan the streets are empty.  Most people are relaxing and sleeping at home.  The real party begins after the sun sets – after the iftar meal families, children and teens spill out of their homes to walk around town and to meet with their friends for coffee.  During Ramazan the activities of day and night are almost reversed.

This morning, I decided that I would try to fast, which was a short lived experiment.  The office that I work in does not have air conditioning, and while the floor to ceiling windows surrounding the office are beautiful, they also insulate the room – creating the sensation that you are baking in an oven.  I admitted defeat, filled my water bottle and grabbed a banana.  I am impressed by those of my Muslim friends and coworkers that do observe the fast for Ramazan – it is an especially difficult time of year to abstain from drinking water.

I should mention that not every Muslim fasts for Ramazan, for a variety of reasons, and the fasting portion of Ramazan (to my understanding) is only one facet of observance.  Indeed, it seems that this month is a period of particular spiritual and religious observance for Muslims, when expectations for striving to follow the tenets of the Islamic faith are high.

Now, I am off to meet with some friends to go out for coffee after finishing my vezë dhe qepë (eggs and onions).  Gezuar Ramazani!  Happy Ramazan!