Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
May 27, 2003
Some birds made a nest right outside my bathroom window, the kind of dome-like nests built into corners of buildings. It is nice to wake up and go to shower in my metal tub, and hear little baby birds peeping for food. I walk to work on a muddy trail with my laptop bag over my shoulder, marveling at the mix of baby sheep, tractors on paved roads, new cars, buildings in various advanced stages of dilapidation, people looking like their clothes have seen a washing machine in the past four months (mine haven’t) and horse-drawn buggies. I actually saw strawberries for the first time yesterday at the once-weekly fruit and vegetable bazaar. I anxiously await a box of my summer clothes and sandals that should be arriving this week from my mom. I have Macedonian friends from the capitol city Skopje in town this week and they have been dropping by periodically, along with my usual mix of little neighborhood kid visitors…
I hope that this little update has found everyone happy and well. To be honest, it isn’t all rainbows and smiles. I do get really bored, frustrated, and lonely. If I didn’t throw that in there, this wouldn’t be a real letter.
July 22, 2003
Next month I will be a co-facilitator at a camp developed by two of my PCV colleagues, M and J, and funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in conjunction with the Peace Corps Small Project Assistance fund. The activities of the camp will include English speaking [lessons], nature hikes, some fun environmental activities, sports, a talent show, crafts, and leadership workshops.
As far as my own projects…things are in full swing. The grant I wrote for renovating the local elementary school playground was approved, and construction should be starting early in August. The grants I am working on together with Kladenec Ecology Association (my Peace Corps site here in Pehčevo), redeveloping the water piping system in nearby Berovo, renovating the Pehčevo House of Culture, and renovating an old school building that was donated by the municipality for an eco-museum, are all somewhere in the process of being approved.
I recently assisted in writing a grant for an ambulance for the local hospital in Berovo (the next bigger town to here) and it will be reviewed by the Japanese government in September. Actually, this entire week too, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from all over Europe have been camping in the hills beyond our own Pehčevo! Last Tuesday the President of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, came and gave a speech to them in our town center. He also was our honored guest at Kladenec for about a half an hour.
August 26, 2003
I compose this letter on my laptop, which is running off battery power. A couple of hours ago I was all set to put a zucchini-cinnamon bread in the oven when a crack of thunder split the sky and shortly afterwards all the power in my apartment went out. I leaned over the balcony and shouted to a neighbor to confirm whether it was a building-wide problem, or just a problem “kaj mene” (at mine). I asked because I was debating whether to call my landlord to come and put new fuses or whether to just wait. This mountain town of Pehčevo is prone to these summer storms. Most summer afternoons around 3 or 4 the heat becomes too much. The sky gives way and whoever is unfortunate enough to be out for a stroll will be drenched in less than fifteen seconds. Usually they clear up after an hour or two and the village street below is again filled with people as the sun hurries to the horizon to start the day in some other land.
I have seen some of the most stunningly gorgeous sunsets from my kitchen window that have had me scrambling to get my camera before one more precious shifting minute passes. I know that when the snows come again I will miss the pleasant summer evenings here: the sounds outside, the quality of the light, the reflections on long past less lonely summer days and the promise of going home someday. I try to make ruchek (lunch) before I see the sky clouding over: today I had broiled tomatoes with kashkaval (yellow cheese) and fresh parsley, and stuffed peppers and I got to finish cooking them before the apartment went dark…
I spent this last weekend in the capital, Skopje, with my best friend in this country, MM. Some of you might know about her. I met her last summer on a tourism page when I was trying to learn about Macedonia and she stunned me by writing me a long e-mail the same day and answering all my annoying questions in detail. As soon as I came here she got in touch with me to see if I was okay, and I went to see her for the first time a couple of months [later] and we bonded instantly. [Note: MM was a bridesmaid in my wedding ten years, one month, and two days after I sent this email.]
September 11, 2003
Happy Patriot Day! …Last week there was an environmental disaster in the town of Kamenitza, where we have a English teacher PCV named M. Apparently an old mine shaft that was not sealed properly (and possibly was being used to store trash as they have no developed landfill) opened and spewed I don’t know how many tons of toxic black sludge into the lake and surrounding rivers, leaving many people in the smaller villages around Kamenitza without drinking water. I saw it on the evening news at a friend’s house and I couldn’t believe my eyes! M has started to notice some stuff in his water so the Peace Corps is going to test it for lead, etc.
My colleagues and I from Kladenec Ecological Association went to sit with the local eco association (which doesn’t have much experience) in their meeting with the mayor. I didn’t understand all of the conversation, but afterwards JA translated for me, and the extent of it was that the mayor felt because the mine was once operated by people from the opposite political party that he didn’t feel any responsibility to do anything about it, including mobilizing citizens to help clean it up…
He furthermore stated that he would sit back and watch to see what the people would do, and then no matter what they did that he would publicly criticize them! How disappointing and disheartening. Supposedly this week there was supposed to be a big meeting high up in the government to try and decide whose responsibility it was to clean it up (um, I have an idea….) but Monday was a national holiday so I don’t so much think that anything got done.
It kind of reminds me of the large building on the school property behind my apartment building that has sat unfinished since way before I got here. I asked someone once and they told me that it was started by the opposite political party as a school gym, but when there were elections and the party changed, all work stopped because one party wouldn’t let the other take credit for accomplishing any project. It is literally sitting there with a frame and a roof and nothing else – those kids will never get their gym. I shook my head in disbelief for the first of many times. Welcome to the Balkans! I tried to imagine California electing a Republican governor and all teachers, principals, and state employees that were registered Democrats getting ousted from their jobs, all funding for CalTrans and everything else stopped while people fought over it and paid off relatives in the court system to lean their way…it’s just a little too mind-boggling until you lived in a society that “functions” that way.
…I have been looking into masters programs in international relations in Australia. My idea is that in 2005 when I finish my service I am going to travel a little bit in Western Europe, head home for a couple months and then launch off again to Australia. There are a lot of benefits of doing a masters program there – for starters even private universities [can be] less expensive than the States, and many degrees can be finished in only a year!! This might sound random but it is actually something I have been looking into and gathering information on for a few months. [Note: And so as I wished it, I made it happen…]
October 8, 2003
I woke up this morning to hear that the Terminator was indeed elected governor of California. I didn’t actually need to see it online; I could have heard it from any number of people here who wanted to be the first to tell me! Perhaps you don’t realize that most people in California have never even heard of Macedonia, but kids here can recite all 50 states…
Much to my chagrin, all the people who have been predicting from the first day I set foot in this village that I would get married and stay here in Pehčevo forever…are claiming victory since I have according to them, “finally found” a Macedonian boyfriend, this guy named D. That’s not exactly the situation according to me. If you are seen in public enough times with someone that you may or may not be interested in, you will be just minding your own business and one of your neighbors will inform you about your upcoming wedding. The other day I was in the post office and one of the [ladies] who works in there was telling me that I should get married this year or risk being a “stara moma” (what they called unmarried women in their late 20s and older). It’s basically what we would call a spinster, only half a century sooner. So D is a nice guy who works at the Civic Association of Berovo (an NGO in the next town) but there will be no wedding, I assure you, so don’t worry. That’s about as likely as me quitting the Peace Corps to run for governor of California. Well… maybe not the best analogy, perhaps me running for governor would be a more likely scenario!
November 11, 2003
All over Macedonia right now, truckloads or donkey-pulled cartloads of wood are going back and forth between the forests and the villages/towns. Men and boys are outside after ruchek (lunch) chopping wood for an hour until it’s dark. For the last month and a half, stacks of wood have been accumulating next to homes. Everyone has their little vrski (connections) of how they are getting wood, how much they are paying, etc. Whenever I stop by a shop or home for a cup of tea, they want to know how I am heating my apartment. When I tell them with electricity, they are quite jealous. Central heating doesn’t exist here. Whenever you look outside, you see the plumes of smoke going up from chimneys all over the village. I wake up about one hour before I take a shower, run in the bathroom to plug in the heater, and then flee back to my bed. And this is nothing – when I moved here last February, it snowed at least a little every day for my first 41 days in a row.
December 2, 2003
So what’s new in Pehčevo? This is a question I often ask [people here]. Sometimes I am really interested, and sometimes I am just being polite. But the answer is always the same. “Nishto.” (Nothing.) The answer is usually accompanied by a shrug and bemused smile. I used to think it was so weird the way people would just sit around and stare at nothing. I thought they were all waiting for something to happen. I have finally realized that I was wrong; they are waiting for nothing to happen.
Those two things are more different than you think. I should know – I have been waiting for something to happen and it has driven me up a wall for the past year. Realizing that [people here] have also been waiting for me to solve…their problems has brought the uncomfortable realization that I am viewed as the foreigner with the magic wand… Funny, with developing language skills and minimal understanding of the way things happen… I can’t do much without their cooperation. And even if I could, without passing on knowledge and skills to host country nationals, none of my work would be sustainable, and thus pointless.
…This might sound silly, but if you didn’t grow up in the United States, the idea of changing your life and things around you [may be] very unreal. The difference between waiting for nothing and waiting for something both indicate a fundamental difference in the way the world is viewed; the locus of control is external rather than internal. Bottom line: the individual isn’t empowered.
…Everyone here still wears those blue smocks when they are at work, even though socialism ended in 1991. People really are still waiting for someone to hand them a job and a new life; their government, and if not them, then all the foreign assistance that has been pouring into this country for years and is now slowly withdrawing as it becomes obvious that people here are educated enough to do for themselves. But will they? And more importantly, will they even be able to imagine a reality in which such possibilities…exist??
I have had many conversations lately, especially with older people here, and their view is mostly hopeless with regards to changing anything about their government, their society, gender roles between men and women, how their children behave, etc… They’ve seen it all, and nothing surprises them. Nothing makes them mad. I got so mad when I realized you can’t get an itemized phone bill I almost hit the ceiling, but these people are unflappable.
Maybe one of the biggest obstacles that you may have never considered is that change isn’t good everywhere. American society rejects tradition for new and improved. A new and smaller cell phone, a car with more horsepower that uses less gas, faster and faster internet connections, more efficient grocery stores where you can buy a cake, drop off your dry cleaning and pick up film all in the same location. When something changes, Americans automatically nod in approval. The value behind our behavior is that new is better, that change is part of the normal process of moving forward. All hail the almighty progress of America!! People here fight change with all they have. Change brought the downfall of their government; the death of Yugoslavia in 1991 sparked this region’s decent into war and chaos.
The Balkans will change, and Macedonia will change, eventually, but it will take a lot of help from developed countries and the most talented and visionary Macedonians to shape their country into a free and transparent society. It seems that in the 12 ½ months that I have been here, the most helpful thing that I have done is to build friendships. I have become more and more jaded about what I can accomplish during my service, between the Peace Corps administration and the quagmire that is the foreign aid development community here. That combined with my ever-sharpening focus on issues of reality and possibilities across culture, I have put more focus onto showing people that there is [another] way… I am more focused on giving people hope. Hope that their lives will improve, and an example of how people can change their lives, even if only a small bit.
If someone asked me today what is happening in Pehčevo, I would probably tell them about my upcoming vacation to California, because…I can scarcely think of much else…
February 24, 2004
This morning I went to the weekly fruit and vegetable bazaar. The outdoor market is surrounded by stairs and the different levels of snow and ice-covered concrete make for dangerous walking. It snows during the day and at night everything freezes over and in the morning there is layer upon layer of weird, marbleized (if that is a word) ice. I still haven’t been able to figure out how the women walk around in high-heeled boots and manage to not fall; I was walking the other night in tennis shoes up a snowy hill and I fell on my elbows, which luckily was witnessed by no one other than a pack of surprised stray dogs. It’s kind of funny, a five-minute walk through the village now takes fifteen minutes, nearly every step accompanied by a slip, a gasp and the preparation to fall hard, but I just keep looking forward to the spring and summer afternoons that I know are coming…
And now for a little bit of humor. A couple of weeks ago I came home to see that my cordless telephone had stopped working. I opened the battery cover and saw that I had accidentally put non-rechargeable batteries inside and they had heated up during the charging and leaked into the circuitry of the phone, apparently ruining it. I pulled out my one-year warranty and discovered with dismay that it had expired that very day!! I thought, this isn’t possible. It isn’t like there’s a Circuit City in Pehčevo …I would have to travel half a day by bus to the capital to get to the store where I bought it.
Not in anger but rather in a misguided, frustrated attempt to get the phone to magically somehow start working, I slammed my fist down on it and the entire shelf that it was sitting on tore out of the concrete wall, knocking everything to the floor and showering plaster all over the hallway. Merely glancing at the hole in the wall, I casually strolled to the kitchen and made some tea and didn’t clean it up until later that evening. My dad always told me, if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it, but on occasion we have all gone beserk and punched our old television set only to be rewarded with it sputtering back to life, hence my childish behavior! A friend of mine took the phone apart and cleaned it, to no avail.
Several days later I was in the capital and took the phone back to where I had purchased it one year earlier for 100 euros (it was the cheapest one available – things here are imported and so outrageously overpriced) and they told me that they wouldn’t help me even if my warranty hadn’t expired, because they no longer sold Alcatel phones (from France). Right behind the girl telling me this was a huge sign that said Sakam Servis (I Want Service). Smiling politely I walked out of the store and later obtained a spare phone from my landlord – a bright red phone… three decades old, and yes, it’s a rotary.
OK, so I don’t have a cordless or an answering machine anymore, and I don’t enter the apartment to the little green light blinking as if to say, you’ve got friends, and now during conversations I often peer around the corner in surprise as something boils over on the stovetop as I am connected to the now precariously reinstalled shelf. Whenever any of this annoys me, I go into the bathroom and stare lovingly at my washing machine. My patience level truly exceeds normal now…the other day I tried to raise a [metal] rolling curtain for nearly a half hour before it came crashing down to the windowsill, and my reaction was absolutely nothing.
March 17, 2004
Last night on my evening walk I discovered some more illegal dumpsites around the town. Down the sides of river banks, down the hills behind homes, along the sides of country lanes. It is so appalling to see sheep grazing on a field absolutely covered with bottles and plastic bags blowing passively in the wind. The only words of wisdom I can offer about this, after 16 months in Macedonia, are that people don’t feel any obligation to take care of “common areas” – people’s yards are clean and swept, but just outside the fence will be piles of garbage. They either smile and say the government should do something, or shrug and say “What can we do?” and then invite you to sit and drink coffee.
Later last night I was speaking to one of my colleagues about the mentality in this country that leads to garbage all over the ground (every time I am on a bus I see someone eat something and then throw the wrapper out the window), and he suggested deporting everyone in our town and importing all new people after subjecting them to an exhaustive behavioral assessment to determine whether or not they were litterers. We laughed and then decided it would be most realistic to change the mentality; one day at a time, and accept that it would be an extremely slow and frustrating process.
The weather is starting to warm up – the first day of spring is this Sunday…I did a massive spring cleaning of my apartment over the weekend, I must have been in each room for over an hour. My colleagues and I plan to clean our office next month from top to bottom. Curtains need to be taken down and washed, old paper moved into the back room, the woodstove cleaned out, etc. I have been entertaining myself lately with daily reruns of a ten-year old series called “Melrose Place” on my black-and-white television, stacks of books borrowed from the Peace Corps library, new features for my website, and jogging for a couple of hours between work and sundown. This weekend I will be in the capital for the going-away party of a volunteer who is going back to America, and next month will be back in Skopje for a concert of the “Buena Vista Social Club”, a Cuban band which I have been looking forward to seeing for a long time.
June 3, 2004
Part of adaptation to a new culture is learning to look at situations in the context from which they originated. For example, I was shocked and upset last year around this time when a lady in the town asked me to write an English composition for her teenage son. She said, “Please help us.” I thought this…sent the wrong message to her son about earning grades. I decided that she was a dishonest person, and that no one who was really my friend would have asked me to do something like this.
Little did I know that I was making this judgment based on values as if they were the set-in-stone values of the world. From her point of view, she decided that I wasn’t a good friend and couldn’t be trusted in a pinch! I was even more disturbed that my colleagues, dismayed by my attitude, decided to write her the composition in my place. A flashback to something I read in a Peace Corps manual: Just as you are looking around and judging the host culture, they are watching and judging you by their rules, as well.
…My idea of helping remains sustainable; I help you, and then you don’t need my help anymore, whereas by and large the idea of “help” in Macedonia means, “You have more so you give it to me,” and in my opinion this creates dependency. However, what I am saying is that over the course of the past year, I learned some things about why her behavior was reasonable in context.
Number one: My definition of what friends do for each other was out of context here. Number two: The majority of the students here get grades based on familial association or other “connections” rather than by the merit of their work. It is both expected, and accepted. Number three: In Macedonia, if you think you are going to get that project, good grade, or job based on merit, you are going to be the last one still sitting there with nothing, because everyone else will have already beat you to it with their own political affiliations, family ties, and shady connections. It’s a total free-for-all, and if you don’t help your friends any way you can, honestly or otherwise, well, when you need something, you’re going to be out of luck. People have learned not to depend on their own merit…
I had an opportunity to revisit the topic with the woman recently as we sat in her front yard on a sunny afternoon. I asked her if she remembered…and I did my best to explain to her why I responded the way I did. I told her that in American culture, individual merit is valued highly. I explained that friends didn’t ask each other to lie, and that parents usually wouldn’t tolerate any kind of dishonesty from their kids regarding school or university assignments. She told me that she had grown to respect me for my directness and honesty… (Even though she probably still didn’t like the answer, at least I didn’t tell her yes and then avoid it forever, as someone here might have.)
She also reminded me that in the name of “help” I had [repeatedly] offered her son free tutoring, and an opportunity for me to look over his work and help him correct it before he turned it in, and that he hadn’t been interested enough to take me up on it. Just then a young girl came up to the gate, obviously a relative of hers. She asked if the woman would mind calling her professor so that she could have an “A” for the semester, and the woman agreed. The conversation was very circular and mostly consisted of the two females agreeing with each other, smiling, saying it was no problem, and making comments like “That’s right, like that” and “It is agreed” and so forth. As the girl walked away, I eyed my friend speculatively as she rolled her eyes. She shook her finger at me and said firmly, “I do it just for family now!”
Last two nights in Pehčevo with my counterpart N, July 2004
Like your emails home, my mother’s weekly letters to her parents are a roadmap to the overseas experience. I’m using Mom’s letters as I blog and, especially, as I write my memoir, Embassy Kid: When the dictator flew over our house & other true stories. Maybe your children will look back at your record with the same appreciation!
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This was such a great post about the realities of Peace Corps and about perspectives! I love that you were able to be forgiving about the academic dishonesty. This weekend I was feeling really frustrated about people who only frame my accomplishments in the context of resume building and career development, not my genuine interest in connecting with other human beings. But my mom told me that that is just how those people were taught and that I should have a bigger heart and look at things from their perspective (maybe they think I’m running around with my head cut off because I’m not as cutthroat as they are!) and forgive them. And this post just reinforces that. Thank you 🙂
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