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Monday, September 14, 2009

Mid service and Maqedonije

We’re pushing 17 months in Albania! In August G12 gathered in Korce, an eastern city sometimes referred to as the “Paris of Albania”, to recap our first year of service and create a plan of attack for the next one, as well as several sessions dealing with post-service plans. The conference was mostly run by our own volunteers; some official how-to CV and resume info, grad school Q&A, discussions with a panel of expats working within various foreign organizations (consular officer, USAID, private sector, UN)… There were also MSC University “classes” where volunteers organized skill-sharing topics. Chris and I were part of the environmental hour—Chris taught Composting 101 and I showed how to recycle household waste into useful objects, like plastic-fabric. [ I can tell you a thousand ways to reduce, reuse, and virtually eliminate all of your plastic bags, that is if I haven’t already shamed you into refusing them at the store to begin with! ]

Some of the perks of our MSC were: 1) Peace Corps worked out a sweet deal to put us up in the super fancy Hotel Grand-- which had Wi-Fi and served delicious meals, and 2) the conference was *conveniently* scheduled during Korce’s annual BEER FEST! Festes e Birres is surprisingly non-Albanian, and by that I only mean to say that it’s a municipality-led production where all sorts of organizations and vendors work together to put on a large-scale event, complete with live music, all sorts of food (meat, meat, and meat), and the general population of the city showed up to support it and have fun. No matter which political party they belong to. I guess maybe Korce beer is just too darn good to pass up, and at 50 cents per cup why not?

Some of my favorite ladies!!

On the way to the beer garden entrepreneurs sold fresh grilled meat kebabs... and yes that's a bunker behind him!

So we attended en masse. We’re like a big family. We hogged three long picnic tables and created several towers of beer cups. I spent most of the time doing crazy dances with Maggie and Amy, and whoever else was game—one the bands even rocked some SKA! Albanians don’t dance to rock music so we were the main attraction…crazy Americans…all good fun though, and no messy beer-fights like last year. ;)

I don't think I'm allowed to post pics of volunteers gezuar-ing with big mugs of beer, so instead here's one of the many dispenser tents

After MSC Chris and I jumped across the border through Pogradec, catching a bus around the rim of the lake to Macedonia’s summer tourist destination of Ohrid. This town is beautiful! There are houses built up the side of a mountain, stitched with narrow winding alleys leading to a castle at the top (hmm, sounds like home), all with spectacular views of the sparkling blue water below. Many of the houses have been restored and converted into inexpensive guestrooms, and there are several restaurants down near the water’s edge to eat at, or just drink coffee and people-watch (also sounds familiar…). My guidebooks says there are 364 holy sites scattered around town, though the most picturesque is Sveti Joni (St. John), a well-restored church perched at the edge of a cliff.

Panoramic of Ohrid's lake

Church of Sveti Joni

For the most part, Macedonia’s churches and monasteries survived throughout both the Ottoman occupation and communism-- no easy feat. During the 500 years of Ottoman occupation, churches were forbidden to be taller than mosques, and many were converted into mosques and reconverted back later. They now serve as monuments of religious and national pride-- which is currently all the rage as the citizens are pushing for EU status, despite opposition from Greece…

One of the many, many beautiful churchyards. This one is peacefully hidden away from the crowds and full of wild plum trees!

Lake Ohrid doesn’t have any natural sand beaches, but a few of the cafes built decks to put chairs or couches with awnings over, so there are pockets of cozy hang-out spots. At the opposite end extending away from the city is a biking/jogging path that stretches out toward the national park, and there are more cafes and grassy areas to picnic or set out blankets and swim. Thankfully the lake and town’s beauty has not been destroyed by overdevelopment; I wonder why Albanians didn’t take more clues from their nearby neighbor.

Fishing is a popular activity along the lake, all throughout the day. At night it gets more interesting with so many people doing a xhiro along the water...

Boats bobble in the lake waters

One of the coolest shops is a paper making/printing shop. The owner has an original Gutenberg press! They sell beautiful handmade paper cards and books and iconic prints, etc.

Anyway, we stayed with a Mak PCV, a friendly older woman who I think may be in a more posh-corp position than us. In the evening, after dining on pizza and salad along the water, we hiked up to the ancient amphitheater to watch a performance from the Summer Days festival. The stone steps were packed with families; we watched two women sing classical opera in Macedonian (which is a Slavic language with a Cyrillic script, and strangely not at all related to Shqip) until we got sleepy.

Crowds of locals entertained by Macedonian opera in the amphitheater

Chris and I continued on alone the next day to Bitola, a town 2 hours east where we have a PCV friend. I met this volunteer in Albania, when she came to host a facilitation training for OA club leaders-- super nice girl. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Bitola is a cool place—very much an ‘Austrian architecture meets Turkish quarters’, like a mini-Sarajevo. My first thought in foreign countries is how well their city planners have done—landscaped parks, public spaces, garbage collection…?!

Bitola's main road, grandiose architecture with many cafes suitable for people watching

One of Bitola's beautiful mosques

At the outskirts of the city there are some ruins from the ancient city of Hereclea, founded by King Phillip of Macedon in the 4th century BC. [King P is advertised everywhere in MAK! Their national hero en par with Albania’s Skanderbeg.] Bitola continued to be an important regional center due to its placement along the Via Egnatia, an ancient trading route that connected Rome to the east. During the Ottoman period the city was a central location for consuls, and it was here that the Albanian alphabet was unified into the modern script in 1908.

Beautiful 'curtains' of red peppers hand in the markets here, they are traditionally roasted with spices and jarred to keep for the winter. They become a delicious pepper paste called ivar

If one person is successful selling steamed corn, why not 10? No one has heard yet about over-saturating the market..

So anyways, we stayed two nights, the second night another friend came to town and we all splurged on Chinese food. Heather took us hiking in the mountains overlooking the city, which are dotted with some discarded military tanks from WWII. We went for coffee on the main drag, where everyone hangs out to people-watch and gossip. I really enjoy sharing Peace Corp experiences amongst other PCVs—so much is different, so much the same. There are many similarities in Balkan culture, and yet small treasures—unique foods, varying social and political problems, differing geography and landscapes, etc. Even life as a PCV can be totally different—one would assume total uniformity in such a large bureaucracy but in fact no, every country’s program is run on its own. We get different medical kits, water filters, training methods, and so on. I occasionally get the opportunity to call my best friend, Anne, who began her PC service in Guatemala a month after my departure, and am always amazed by how extremely diverse our lives are, even though we are both “health sector PCVs”. Check out her blog you’ll see what I mean!

We found a tank on our hike! It was discarded on the road somewhere after the terrifying so-called "zoo" and the village where we met a man carrying buckets of milk home

From Bitola, Chris and I continued by bus to the capital, Skopje, which is a big, well, city. Its crowded and has lots of highways and shops. We spent most of our time hanging out in the Turkish Quarter, which is full of mosques, shops, some Ottoman bath houses that have been converted to art galleries, and a few museums (which were sadly closed). Here is where we caught our first glimpse of the Albanian community. Well, perhaps I should say Kosavar community, because although they were speaking Shqip, (cool! We could understand speech again!) Kosovar-Albanians are of a totally different culture than Albanian-Albanians. First and foremost they are much more conservative, and the women dress covered head to toe—and for those who have seen my pics you’ll know that Shqiptare girls leave nothing to the imagination. And Kosavars actually practice Islam, which is not common here. My host family was completely unaware that Muslims don’t typically eat pork, or where/what Mecca is. In general, Albanians identify as Muslims only as a family name, and they are quick to tell you that it was a name forced upon them hundreds of years ago during the Ottoman occupation. [Families who took Muslim names didn’t have to pay extra taxes to the Turks, and generally had less restrictions than those who remained Christian.]

One of the alleys in Skopje's Turkish Quarters

Traditional han in the Turkish Quarters. Travelers would rest the night here during the Ottoman period. Those with animals stayed in the slightly larger downstairs stalls where they could tie up the horses.

General state of buildings in the old TQ. The streets are winding, narrow alleys full of completely useless shops and some restaurants, and sadly the whole area seems to be collapsing

In the evening we hung out at a refreshingly bohemian tea house (appropriately named New Age Tea), which was a darkly lit indoor-outdoor garden setting, decorated with hanging fabric and Indian art. We sipped mint tea and wrote/sketched until it grew crowded, then quietly paid our bill and slipped out. The next day we spent walking, walking again, taking pictures, sketching, and generally absorbing the city feel.

Restored Ottoman-era bridge connecting the old city to the newer sections and downtown. Along the waterfront there is a 7 km jogging/biking path that's popular in the am!

Chris was absolutely enamored by these tiny little cars that are so popular here. Every time we saw one he would grab my arm and beg "Come on, wouldn't it be great to buy one and drive across Turkey?!"

Just before our afternoon bus I found a macrobiotic vegan restaurant, Harmonije, and bought the most scrumptious seitan sandwich I’ve ever tasted. I know most people cringe when I say ‘macrobiotic’, a diet which I don’t normally ascribe to, but let me just convey the relief of opening a menu full of seitan, tofu, vegetable salads, quinoa/ amaranth, and various concoctions of creative platters and flavors. Mmmm, yum.

Inside a restored Turkish bath house, now art gallery.

Outside view of the bath houses

Back to Ohrid! The buses were kind of weird to us because: 1) they all collected in a central area called a “station”, which I haven’t seen in a long while, and 2) buying the tickets was sometimes required a day in advance and other times impossible until the bus actually arrived, and we were never really sure why. We also had to pay extra to get our tickets validated and again to bring backpacks with us. Isn’t that normally all included in ticket costs?

The last two nights we stayed again with the PCV in Ohrid, wandering the alleys, hilltop fortress, and lakeside “beaches”. Oh yes and picking shameful amounts of wild plums! Kiwis, figs, and plums were absolutely everywhere-- a tourist’s paradise.

View from the castle

Eventually our time ran out, so in the morning Chris and I caught a ‘wild taxi’ to the border and crossed back on our side of the lake. We were too late to catch the once-daily bus to Gjirokastёr, however, good fortune smiled our way and we got picked up by two French tourists on their way to Sarande. Score! We rode in their back seat, and passed the time listening to differences they noticed in Albania from their previous trip here in ’04.

This cow wanted to play 'chicken' during our face-off at the bridge. He won.

And we’re back, at least for now. I tried to really focus on getting work done and check in with all my counterparts, because we’re heading to Tiranё for our medical check-ups, and then after I’m going to the OA camp for a few days. Having said written that, I should mention that Gjirokastёr is a popular town for PCVs and we had on average 3-5 friends crashing on our couches every night since returning. I feel terribly guilty for leaving again so soon, but I’m not exactly carrying the world on my shoulders here anyways. Summer slumber will soon be over, and I’m glad to savor every moment of this before winter sets in…!

And we're back. Welcome home.

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