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

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....

Tuesday, May 12

Live Life and Get Along

Somoil Castle, a medieval
heritage sight in Ohrid, Macedonia
Many friends and family have asked, "How are you?"

I want to assure everyone that all is well here.  The violence that played out over the weekend has subsided and all is calm now.  

Last weekend, violence flared in a city about 25 miles from Skopje.  There was loss of life and damage to homes.  The episode was contained although it worried many many Macedonians.  As a new friend shared, "We've seem too much violence and suffering.  People just want to live life." 

Peace Corps has been diligent in monitoring developments and keeping us volunteers informed.  Our safety and well-being is their highest priority.  If a situation develops, there are plans in place.  I feel quite safe and secure.  

There are always problems to solve.  For example, in Macedonia unemployment is at 30% with the young and minority types even higher.  The Peace Corps is here to help.  We share our skills and goodwill. We help to build the capacity for a better life.  I think in a cumulative way we are making a positive difference. 

Right now, I'm remembering the famous quote attributed to Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along." 

Of course, this applies not only here, but also in places like Baltimore and dozens of others if we only take a moment to think about them.   What people want around the world is to just live life and get along.  

Simplistic, perhaps, but maybe worth trying since nothing else seems to be working so well.  

Sunday, May 3

No Pandora Here

They don't have Pandora in Macedonia.

It's a surprise as I take a break from language training and click on my tablet for some music. “No Pandora in your current country.” It probably has something to do with copyrights and other legal stuff.

Back in America, I got use to listening to Folk Rock from the 60s and 70s. It's music of my social activist era. But it's not available in Skopje.

It's not that Skopje is backwards. Actually this Capitol City appears quite modern. It's a city of about 550,000 where almost a third of the Country's people live.

My living space with fold down futon
My one room efficiency is in a modern part of town. I'm on the third floor and trees surround me. In the morning, sunlight floods through the windows dancing dappled patterns on the floor and walls. 

Earlier today, a couple of crow like birds (black with white on the body) squawked to wake up the morning and me too!

Morning coffee among the trees

I can walk out onto a large balcony. I love having an outdoor space. I have one chair, but my landlord says he'll bring another and a small table. In the corner, a flower pot sits neglected, but not for long. Planting time!

Outside tall sycamore trees line a wide boulevard – two lanes each way and a grassy area in the middle with more trees. Between highrise apartments, distant mountains hover over the horizon. Some are still snow capped. Lovely. It gives me a refreshing feeling even though cars wiz by.  

My boulevard and double decked bus with snow capped mountains in the distance
Across the boulevard about a block away, there's a cluster of stores including a supermarket. Wow, I've lucked out. Good karma is with me.

Though today, I'm hunting for the Green Market. It's called a bazaar in Ukraine and a farmer's market in the USA – a place for garden fresh produce.

Down a narrow alley lined by shops, I go. I walk past several clothing shops, a toy store, a barber shop and a bedding store. I'll remember the latter for another day since I'll need some sheets. These are not chain stores like the ones that have taken over America. They are run by Mon and Pop entrepreneurs.

Opening into a parking lot area, I find the Green Market. I congratulate myself. My first adventure. Success!

Today is a day for fresh salad. Big heads of lettuce, spinach, spring onions, radishes and more are displayed on the ground or in small stalls. I walk the aisles feeling a little intimidated since I'm not sure how I'll navigate through the purchasing of tonight's meal.

Peace Corps has been great in orienting us PCRV (Peace Corps Response Volunteers), but it's only been a week. Over the past 4 days, they answered questions and outlined essential health, safety, administrative and IT issues. And everyday we had 4 hours of language learning with an excellent teacher.  

Language learning works. I'm speaking “Makedonski.” I can say hello and goodbye, please and thank you. I can ask where, how much, how are you and even say, “nice to meet you.”

Of course there's more. I can introduce myself. Tell locals a little about the Peace Corps and what I'll be doing. Given enough time, I can sound out signs and guess at their meaning. But is it enough for the Green Market?

Alexandra introduced herself in English.  She worked for two years in London
Not to worry. The vendors are friendly and patient. You can communicate a lot with a few words and lots and lots of gestures. When in doubt of a price, ask for it to be written down. Numbers are universal.

One man insists that I take a “digital” of his eggs. Obviously he's proud. One of these XXL egg easily equals two large ones. As I say goodbye, he grabs my hand and I think he is saying, “Come back, come back again.” I will. His big smile makes me feel quite welcomed.
I'm ready to cook my first meal in my new home. It'll be curried lentils with olives, feta and spinach salad.

A 1st meal at home
It occurs to me that this is a meal I could share with my counterparts at Public.” 

 We only met for a few hours at the end of training, but already I'm getting a positive feeling for the leaders of Public, a civic engagement NGO.

I sense dedication. They talk about making Macedonia a better place by including the poor and marginalized.

Their passions hook into my social activism of earlier years when I worked with street gangs in Pittsburgh, organized for the inclusion of black construction workers in trade unions and started work at the Lafayette Urban Ministry.

My counterparts greet me with a gift bag. Inside is a bottle of Macedonian wine, a guide book of must-see sights and a big container of curry powder!

Imagine. They've been reading my blog and wanted to be sure that I didn't run out of curry. How sweet and thoughtful is that! We're going to get along just fine.

Natural trees to enjoy
So I'm thinking, “Tonight's meal will be a preparation for my first dinner party.” I'm looking forward to that gathering.

Macedonia may not have Pandora, but it has urban style, natural settings and a Green Market with the freshest seasonal foods. It has friendly caring people and an organization that wants to make a difference.

Who needs nostalgic feelings from folk rock music of the 60s and 70s when the challenges of real-life social activism awaits me at Public, my new NGO home for a year.