The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Friday, August 14

Never Has A Cold Beer Tasted So Good

One of the benefits of Peace Corps Service is the chance to visit neighboring countries and sometimes at bargain prices. 

I just landed a deal with Wizz Airline to explore Venice, Italy for four days. It's a short vacation, but then again it's only an hour-n-half hop away.

I arrive with temperatures soaring - 36 degrees Celsius. That's 97 degrees Fahrenheit! I'm hugging the coolness of shadows while walking the pedestrian paths towards my hotel. Google says it's a 15 to 20 minute stroll. 

What's making it difficult is the fact that there is no proper grid pattern in this city. Instead of streets, canals wander off of the Grand Canal.  They twist and turn like branches on a tree. 

I see my first Gondola.  Everything  is new to me, yet strangely familiar.  Images of Venice are in movies, advertisements and part of our 21st century sub-consciousness. 

Water-ways rule here.  No cars or trucks, bikes or scooters exist in Venice. Instead there are boats - lots of boats.  Besides gondolas, I see motorized taxis, barrages, water-buses, delivery boats, and fishing vessels.  

Every shop, market, restaurant and cafe must get its product via the water-way.  There's no other way unless you hired a porter to wheel your packages along the paths and across the bridges.  Many Venetians aspire to have a boat parked at their front door on the canal. 
There are paths. Some follow the canals and then veer off in another direction. Others open into a court yard and seem to disappear. It's a maze of confusion.

The affect is charming unless it's sweltering and you're feeling kind of lost and smothered in the heat.

I'm walking more slowly now.  The heat is oppressive.  Around a corner I spy a table and chairs in front of a cafe.  Gladly I shed my backpack and flop into a chair shaking with exhaustion.  Never has a cold beer tasted so good.  I want another, but think it's better to get a liter of water instead.  I guzzle it down.  

Refreshed, I ask directions. The waiter points down an alley to another path. I move onward. 

Imagine my delight when I see “La Forcola,” my hotel, less than 100 meters in front of me just over one of the ubiquitous pedestrian bridges.

Success!  Air conditioning...although it's struggling to keep up.

Late afternoon comes and I think it's the perfect time to explore. The heat is a little less and the setting sun gives a warm glow to the buildings.

I can easily see why Venice is a magnet for tourists. A Venetian tells me, “We use to think of ourselves as invincible to invading armies until tourists discovered us. Now we've been overwhelmed.”

I'm struck by the diversity of the invasion. I discover that extending a friendly hello usually starts interesting encounters. I meet people from China, Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Guatemala, Thailand and America. 

We are all different, yet one family.  As Mark Twain once remarked, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…”
Rialto Bridge filled with high-end shops and hordes of tourists

I buy a 72 hour pass on the Vaporetto, the Venetian Water-bus.  Learn more

I scramble on board to ride the length of the Grand Canal.  More details here. 

Seats are filled, but by the time we get to Rialto Bridge, I have a window for photo taking. 

Guide books urge getting lost in Venice.  They say that you really can’t get too lost when you’re on a island.  So I spend my days wandering.  When I get too hot I stop for a beer or another liter of water.   

What a pleasure to take photos and soak in more of the sights even as I soak in the heat. 
Steps from the canal

Street artists inspire me

Venice is known for masks.  Note the Dolphin!!

I love the colors

Striped poles give whimsy to Venice 
Art adorns buildings
New sights round ever bend in the Grand Canal
Night falls upon the Canal
Greeted in 15th century garb

One night I arrange for an opera.  It’s Verdi’s Rigoletto.  But instead of going to a theater, I make my way to the 15th century Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto.  See more images.

Tonight as the opera unfolds, the audience of about 60 will follow singers and musicians through various rooms.We all are enthralled.   The Bass holds a really low note as he walks pass me.  And then the Soprano’s voice reaches into the heavens. She’s only feet in front of me.  

It’s so intimate.  “Never have I experienced anything like this,” I think.  “This is how the rich and powerful enjoyed culture back then.  Unbelievable and here I am.”  
Another night I go to San Marco Plazza.  It's a huge space and has been the center of Venetian life since before the 12th century.
San Marco Cathederal
Relics of the Apostle St. Mark reside here although some say that they may have gotten confused with the remains of Alexander the Great when both bodies were stolen from Alexandria, Egypt. 

Whatever the truth, San Marco Plazza is rich in drama and history.  Learn more. 

I stroll into the Plazza. Even though there are many people here, it could easily hold three times more. I meet a couple from China. It's another of those brief encounters that make travel so interesting. We exchange pictures.

I listen to music. Three orchestras take turns serenading customers seated in front of restaurants. They've paid a premium to be there. Others, like me, listen from a standing position behind. A few couples dance to a waltz.

The highlight of my last day is seeing Venice at water level.  I’m making my way towards an outfitter known as Venice by Water to meet up with Phillip.    

Under the 1st of many bridges
I can't wait to slip into one of their kayaks. I change clothes and put on the life vest. Phillip goes over a few simple rules and we're off.

Step into the garden
The view from down here is amazing. When these homes were built, the main entrances were from the canal. 

 We cross under many pedestrian bridges. A young kid points to us and yells, “Ciao!” I yell back, “Caio, don't jump!” 

Many take our picture. I smile, wave and think, “What will they say when they show this picture back home?”

I look into a garden that's part of a front entrance way. It's been welcoming guest for centuries.

We're poised to cross the Grand Canal. It's kind of like crossing a four lane highway at rush hour. Gondolas, motor boats and water-buses wiz by.

We wait for a slight lull. I'm so glad that Phillip is guiding the way. “Stay to the left,” he says  “The motor taxis have right of way.”  Good advice, as one speeds by.
Me with Phillip after an amazing paddle

My kayaking time ends too quickly just as my time in Venice will end too soon. Tomorrow I fly back to Macedonia.   

It's been an exceptional vacation and I recommend it. 

Just don't go in August unless you love the taste of a cold beer on a sweltering day. 

And if you do, I know this place about a 100 meters from the Forcola Hotel. 

Saturday, July 11

Macedonian Collaboration and Social Entrepreneurship

Coming together is a beginning,
keeping together is progress,
working together is success.
                           ...Henry Ford

Our office is buzzing with activity.  Tonight at a cafe, we'll launch another issue of Лице в Лице, our street magazine. 

Lice v Lice means “face to face” in Macedonian.  The name is based on the way the magazine is distributed.  Instead of selling on-line or by subscription, it’s sold on the street “face to face” by vendors.

Our vendors are the homeless, Roma, disabled and others living on the margins.  They go to office buildings, street corners and other public places selling Lice v Lice. For their efforts, they collect half of the cover price - about a dollar.   It’s a form of social entrepreneurship. 

Social Entrepreneurship is an idea that has been expanding among NGOs. Business practices are used to sustain NGOs while achieving social good. For my organization, the business need of selling the magazine also achieves income and opportunities for those who have little of both. 

Street papers are a movement that has been spreading across the globe. Recently leaders from 115 papers in 36 countries gathered in Seattle, Washington to share best practices and be inspired by achievements of one another. 

Together the street papers boast 6 million readers for each edition. Learn more. 

Lice v Lice participated in the conference and presented a workshop. Others were impressed with the depth of our magazine's content. Every issue is over 65 pages and focuses on a major social issue.

To give you an idea in English, here is a link.  Read more about this social issue called Embrace Rarity.

I like the mix of data with human story and policy suggestions. People say they buy the magazine to support the marginalized but then discover it's a good read on issues that rarely are heard in mainstream media. What do you think?

The launch event starts.  We're filling the Rakia Bar, a trendy place in the heart of Skopje. The event is part of an emerging marketing strategy. It draws attention of the media and brings together a growing number of supporters. 

Tonight 200 will eventually spill onto the streets.  It's exciting.

Bundles of the magazine are carried in. I leave the heavy lifting for the younger ones. This month’s issue focuses on social responsibility and collaboration between business and NGOs. 

According to Klimentina, Director of my organization, “It’s an area that is not well developed in Macedonia. We want to encourage more.”

Underwriting tonight's event and publication costs is Knauf, an international building supply company. 

It's a first for them in Macedonia and demonstrates corporate leadership. Robert, our liaison, tells me he admires the work of Lice v Lice and is glad Knauf can help.

Robert and Klimentina
Actually, his involvement sparked a creative idea. In transporting their products, Knauf uses industrial bags. Could these bags be re-purposed?

I'm not sure how, but together Klimentina's and Robert's creativity went into over-drive. They caught an idea that these old bags could be transformed and made into something beautifully unique.

Klimentina contacted a designer friend, Irina. Soon she came up with a pattern and created a prototype for a tote bag. Other designers got involved with original art work to decorate the bags. From industrial bags emerge totally unique totes. Collaboration works.

At the event, the bags, a la totes, are on display for sale. People crowd in to take a look. It feels a little like bargain day at Filene's basement. Before long, actually less than 30 minutes, all the bags are sold. 

Cory, the Peace Corps Director in Macedonia, beams as she snags one of the last ones.

I think it adds excitement and an urban edge to the evening.  And I can’t help making an analogy. If these industrial bags can be transformed, then maybe urban societies can be too. People on the margins included and valued face to face.  Read more about the bags

But there’s more to the evening. I had assumed that the proceeds would go to Lice v Lice. Budgets are always a challenge. But no, Klimentina informs me that there's a special purpose.

We decided to organize a collaboration with the Center for Street Children,” she says. She goes on explaining how they helped them before, but nothing sustainable. The Center tries to offer a lunch program, but sometimes there's not enough food.

Staff: Aneta, Zarmena, Alexsandra, a vendor, Klimentina, Maja
Nebojsa missed this picture.  He is off doing something important
Unknown to me, Zarmena on our staff makes many calls until she finds 4 food companies ready to donate. Tonight's money will provide the missing link.

We'll rent a van and every week the driver will collect and deliver the food,” says Klimentina as she turns to me and asks, “What do you think?”

I’m amazed. Food for street children. 

 Lice v Lice not only writes about collaboration, publish a magazine about collaboration and gets Knauf and designers involved, but they also manage to create collaboration where street children are fed. And to make it even more amazing, it's sustainable – food from re-purposed industrial bags.

I'm thinking...

“Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress and working together is success.” 

Henry Ford said it first and now I see it in Macedonia.  Collaboration and social entrepreneurship working together.  


Sunday, June 28

Kindness - On the Way Home and Beyond

It's a day for festivities. Peace Corps Volunteers are being celebrated for their work in Macedonia.

This story has an unlikely beginning. It started decades ago when Ace, our Macedonian host, was young. As an adventuresome boy might do, he was exploring the town's graveyard when he discovered a stone in English. It was for an American doctor – James F. Donnelly. He lost is life here while treating others during the great Typhoid epidemic of 1914.

Ace tells us the story 
Ace was deeply moved then and now in the retelling - “A man, not Macedonian, leaving family and home, helping others and losing his life here – the first American.” 

 As the gravestone says, “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

This boyhood memory connects years later when Ace meets his first Peace Corps Volunteers. Again, here are Americans leaving family and homes to help Macedonians. 

As a result of this friendship, he became involved in projects helping disabled children. “We didn't know there was such a problem until David helped us become aware.”

PC Country Director, Corey, assists 
Ace in laying flowers on the grave site
We walk to the town's graveyard. Flowers are laid on the doctor's grave. The story is retold and we pay our respects. James F. Donnely is remembered even though there's no mention of him on Google as far as I can tell.

As I walk back, I have a growing awareness that acts of kindness are not lost. They live on. And sometimes, even out of grave yards, a century later, they inspire others.

We gather in a room. Volunteers sit with Macedonian counterparts. All take turns sharing glimpses of Peace Corps service. I marvel at the enthusiasm of younger volunteers. Young in life, they already are making a difference.

The celebration part of our day begins. We make our way to a grand winery outside of town. As we drive down the dusty drive, I see neatly staked vines already filling with clusters of grape. It'll be a good harvest.

On the veranda of the main house, a luncheon is ready for us.

Everyone is in high spirits as we take our seats.  The day is beautiful.  A cool breeze, unusual for this time of year, sweeps down the long table.  

The meal starts with offers of Rakia – alcohol content 60% plus. It's traditional Macedonian welcome.

Two new friends.  One directs a local cultural center and wants to teach youth film making and the other belongs to a wood carving guild and mentors the next generation into the craft.  
After toasts and careful sips (at least for me), we dig into large platters of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted peppers and shredded carrots. Side dishes with feta and olives are passed along too.

I ask if the peppers are hot ones. “Just the small.” I'm told. “But try them all, you'll like.” I smile and pass the plate along. I've been there before.  Salad is followed by platters of meco. The meats include slabs of pork ribs, chicken and tasty sausages.  I transition from the Rakia to a nice Rose wine.  It's fresh and not too sweet.  

And then I try the Cabernet.  

Wow, I've never tasted such a delicious wine. It's wonderful - full body velvet with a smooth finish.

We share lots of toasts and lively conversations.  It's like we have a lot in common and of course, we do - Americans and Macedonians serving together through the Peace Corps.  
The owner beckons me to follow him. We descend into the wine cellar. It's cool and the shelves are neatly displaying bottle after bottle. I tell the owner how much I enjoyed the wine. He stands proud and I ask to snap a photo.

I buy four for about $20. I would have bought more, but I knew I had a bus ride home at the end of the day. Four is enough for now.

We say our goodbyes and head for Skopje. Along the way we see young men on bikes and others on foot moving northward. At first I thought they might be Euro-kids trekking for the summer, but no.

Internet stock photo
These are people fleeing the blood bath of Syria and Iraq. Even though I've seen images before, the horror of it all begins to seep through the car windows into my consciousness.

One fleeting image sticks with me. It's a father carrying a toddler and holding the hand of another on the side of the road and we wiz pass.

Two hours later we're on the outskirts of Skopje. My Peace Corps friends drop me off at a bus stop to get to my home. With back-pack and box of wine, I look like an American Baba.

Here comes the bus. It's #5 just as I expected, but with an added A. I ignore the A, climb aboard and buy a ticket. We get to the edge of the Center when the bus veers right. Soon I'm in unfamiliar territory.

Suddenly, the bus stops and all the people get off. What to do? I try to ask the driver. He grumbles three, three and points across the 4 lane parkway. I'm not sure what to do other than get to the other side of the road.

It's not easy, but I make it still carrying my box and clutching my bus ticket for a re-entry.

I ask an older woman about getting a #5 bus to my home in the Aerodrom neighborhood. She takes me to a bus shelter about a half a block away. I keep saying - #5 here? And she keeps looking at my ticket.

We are not yet communicating.

She opens her purse and pulls out her ID card pointing to her birth date – 1950. Huh?  And then I get it, sort of. I tell her 1945 for me. Actually, I write it since I can't recall how to say numbers that large. She points to my bus ticket saying, “ne, ne ,ne.” Finally, I figure it out. She's been trying to tell me that seniors ride free on Fridays.

We're communicating.

Suddenly, a #50 bus swooshes to a stop in front of us. She pushes me forward. I'm thinking it's not #5 or any number that I've taken before, but I'm in her hands, almost literally.

She insists that I take one of the last seats and finds a place for my box which has begun to feel awkward. Others look at us with curiosity. I try to remind myself that I'm on an adventure.

After a few stops, we get off. I think we're at a mega stop where many buses crisscross. Sure enough, here comes #5 without an A. The woman once again finds me a seat and a place for my box.  

The man next to me wonders who I am. She tells him I'm American and lots of other stuff that I don't understand. Maybe she's telling him about me buying an unnecessary ticket.  A young woman stands in front of us. She's smiling. I ask her to express my appreciation to the woman who has been so helpful. Others turn to see what's going on. Strangers are becoming friendlier. Questioning stares become gentle smiles. It's kind of amazing.

I step off the bus with farewell greetings, lots of smiles and great feelings. At home, I brim over with thoughts of my day. I'm thinking about kindness - How it works and what it does. I'm glad kindness lives on, maybe forever....
Across from my balcony,  a rainbow spreads across the sky

Sunday, June 21

Macedonian Legends

I'm in historic Dorjan in southern Macedonia at a Peace Corps language camp. We're here to learn more Macedonian and soak in the culture of this fascinating country.  

Our location is Lake Dorjan. People have lived here since prehistoric times.  Even the Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote about the Paeonians who were fishermen and lived in settlements accessible only by boat.

During a break from Macedonian classes, I join a group who are searching out ancient ruins amidst the modern building of this place. We walk along the rim of the Lake. 

In the far distance are mountains and the shore of Greece. If I was strong enough swimmer, I might be able to swim to Greece. Imagine that.  The lake is round in shape formed by powerful tectonic movement under the earth's crust. It's maximum depth is only 10 meters keeping the waters warm.

It's known for abundant algae that not only feed an abundance of fish, but whose mud is said to have curative powers. People come to cover their bodies with the mud, bake in the sun and realize relief from aches and pains of modern life. 

Does it work? People swear by it.  

I'm learning that there are many truths tempting belief.  Here's another.  It's the legend of how the lake was formed.    

Once there was a young woman named Dojrana. Everyday she went to draw water from the powerful springs near her village. Like everyone she knew that the springs had to be resealed after use to prevent flooding.

As she was filling her jugs, suddenly her lover appeared having returned from battle. She rushed to embrace him and in their passion retired to the village.

Of course, the springs kept flowing and the result of their love and deep, though mindless,  passion is what we now call Lake Dojran. 

We cross a road and begin climbing steps up a hillside. I notice that they're made of thick slabs of stone. Each one is cut into the hillside. Some are broken or slanted to the side. It's probably caused by that tectonic movement or centuries of use. My brother, Warren, who undertook a similar project on a hillside of his home in Connecticut, would appreciate the work which has endured so long.  

At the top is a church built in 1874 and named for Saint Ilija. The yard thick walls show faint evidence of frescoes. It must have been a beautiful church.

I say "must have been" because the church was bombarded during WWI.  The walls stood firm, but the dome was destroyed. It was rebuilt only to have it destroyed again by the warfare of WWII.  Macedonia has often been in the cross-hairs of bloodshed.  For decades the church stood broken and open to the elements.

Then villagers began to notice something strange. On Saint Ilija's feast day in August, a drowning would always seem to occur. Our guide, who tells us this story, swears it is true since both his grandmother and mother told it to him.

Strange as it sounds, these yearly drownings continued.  "No one knew what to think about this," says the man, "until an old Baba had a dream."

Her dream warned that until the dome was rebuilt drownings would continue. People heeded the warning and in 1992, the dome was finally restored.

No one has drowned on Saint Ilija's feast day since then,” swears our guide. 

I couldn't help but notice that 1992 is about the same time when Soviet influence collapsed and religion could once again be openly practiced. 

Coincidence? Connection? Causality? Who knows? With legends, truth is in the eye of the beholder.   

Further at the top of the hill is an ancient clock tower. Exact date of its construction is unknown, but it's likely to be from the late 1300s. At that time, a great Ottoman general, Evrenos, was sweeping through Macedonia consolidating the lands of the empire.

As legend has it, he came upon Lake Dojran. Fortunately, it was frozen solid. He was able to lead his army across the ice without any loss of life. To commemorate the safe passage, the clock tower was built on the highest hill. Of course, it also served as lookout and symbol of conquest.

Our walk is all down hill now. Instead of the stairs, we walk along winding roads – another legacy from Ottoman times. They apparently preferred winding paths to the straight broader roads of the lower Macedonian village.

My day concludes with a most unusual movie - Whose Is This Song? Check it out.

Adela Peeva is the film's maker and a kind of social archaeologist. She follows the history and national ownership of a traditional song. 

You Tube says in an introduction:

“In her search for the true origins of a haunting melody, the filmmaker travels to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and Bulgaria. The trip is filled with humor, suspense, tragedy and surprise as each country's citizens passionately claim the song to be their own and can even furnish elaborate histories for its origins.

Watch with a few friends and it's bound to open a lively discussion. Enjoy.  

Friday, May 29

Matka Macedonia: A Special Place

Just do it. I'm waking up with energy for the weekend. I've explore my new home base and now it's time to step out.

I say to myself, "Let's find new places and experience Macedonia beyond urban Skopje." My destination will be Lake Matka.  It's about 20 kilometers from Skopje. 
Hydro-electric plants.  New on the left and older on right.   

 It’s the site of Macedonia’s first hydroelectric plant. It was built in 1936 during Soviet times and has been the major source of electricity for Skopje. It's remains a favorite place to soak in the colors and sounds of nature.

Before human times, the river Treska has been gouging a pathway through mountain ridges. I’m told the rocky masses consist of thick layers of carbonate and slate carbonate stone.

Looking up through the grooves is like seeing back into a billion years. Punctuating the facade are caves. Several are among the largest and deepest in the Balkans and Europe.

Getting here has been an adventure.

While I had the bus number, I did not know where to catch it. At the bus station, I scurry from one staging area to another. I decide to take a short-cut around a high fence. 

But then, a guard yells, “Not this way. No one is allowed.” Or at least, that’s what I think he is saying since, of course, he is speaking Macedonian and I’m not.

My time is running out. I have just 5 minutes to find the platform for bus 60. “Take a deep breath, Jud,” I say to myself. “Remember, it’s all an adventure.”

I ask a man for directions thinking how grateful I am for learning those Macedonian words. He points over there and I arrive just as the last passengers are climbing aboard. I’m meant to take this trip.

Inside the bus is crowed and becoming more so when others join us at stops along the way. I notice a baba and her grandson. He’s older than my grandson, Max. He's maybe three.

The boy's face is fixed towards the smudgy windows. When you’re three, there’s a lot to see. It's a parade of new sights. With wide eye wonder, he's enjoying the crowded bus more than anyone. I think.

The bus takes a long time to wind through the streets of Skopje. Slowly the concrete gives way to fields of green and newly turned soil. Our road narrows. We creep through several villages and come to a dead end. “Are we at Matka,” I ask the driver? He nods a da.

I hop off my bus. My first impressions are of sounds and colors.

River Treska roars down a steep hill. Even though a new hydro plant has nearly tripled output to 9.6 MW of electricity, the river still thunders with energy. 

They tell me competitive kayak racing takes place here. I believe it. My nephew Garth would love it.

I wander closer. I feel the coolness of the mountain stream. The color is amazing. It’s a deep turquoise even on this gray day. Maybe I’ll try capturing the tone in a watercolor. I’m mesmerized.

Overhead in trees, birds compete with their own territorial sounds. I smile to myself when I spot a little bird with a big song and snap a picture. 

It’s great to be surrounded by nature.

A narrow path follows the river hugging the mountain side. I see that it’s been equipped with new guard rails.  Since Macedonia has been featured in western publications, including the New York Times, tourist preparations are everywhere. I even saw construction for a new Hilton Hotel in Skopje. It won't be long....

I learn that Matka is the Macedonian word for womb. Is it like a place of birth or rebirth? What's the mythology behind the naming of this place?

Locals say they don’t know of any kind of mythology. For them it’s just a nice place to go with family and friends. “We go there to get away from the concrete and heat of Skopje.”

Still I think it’s a pity because such beauty deserves a legend or at least a good story. 

It's having an affect on me. I’m feeling rejuvenated. Like the little boy on the bus, my senses are seeing colors and hearing sounds as if for the first time. For me Matka is becoming a special place. 

I continue my stroll to an ancient Monastery – St Andrews. It was built at the end of the 14th century. I'm intrigued by the decorative brick work and try to imagine workmen who laid the bricks for the glory of God and probably the King too.

A little further on is a cafe attached to a small hotel. Seeing it and comparing it to photos from the Internet, I realize it too has been rejuvenated. 

I check out the menu – ones in English – and sit down for a snack. It's a lovely place available only to those who walk the path.

In the distance, I hear afternoon thunder. I check the bus schedule and realize one will be leaving in about a half hour. If I hurry, I can catch it.

But still on my way back, I pause to take a few more mental impressions. The lure of this place does rejuvenate even without a legend. Matka - I won't forget you. 

PS   As I was ending my experience, I came upon this trio. 

It's an electronic world too....