Monthly Archives: February 2011

Why my home smells like a hair salon


A year and a half ago, when I learned my site placement for these two years, I told pretty much anyone who would listen how my town was famous for its hot springs. This was back when I believed that no one would have anything better to do with their free time than travel across the entire country to my town to sit in a pool of hot water.

Despite bragging endlessly about these hot springs, though, I didn’t visit them until yesterday. A few volunteers came out and we went to Banishta with my friend Y., paying fifty denars (about a dollar) to float in a pool of sulfurous water for an hour. The spa in Banishta, as in Kosovrasti, functions as a sort of medical center as well as a bath house, with a hotel and rooms for different therapies including massages and mud baths.

What is interesting or maybe weird from an American perspective is that people really do visit the spa to take baths. I knew my family sometimes went to Banishta after a slaughter, but didn’t think too much about what those visits entailed. While we were in the pool, a woman came in with her son, along with bottles of shampoo and a razor blade, and as we floated and examined the pruning of our fingers they proceeded to, well, bathe.

Y. told us that the waters in Banishta are fed by a dead volcano. Outside of the spa was a small yellowish, steaming river, pretty cool since it was surrounded by snow.

Back in town, visiting the store to buy things for lunch/dinner, we got some stares, and the woman bagging our groceries told me to be careful not to get sick (wet hair, outside) and wanted to know whether we’d visited Banishta or Kosovrasti. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized she might have figured out where we’d been not only by sight; we reeked of sulfur, and had to spend the next few hours taking turns in the shower to wash the smell off.

More visits in order, I think, when the spa reopens fully for spring.


“Halfway” Home


This week saw my mid-service conference, getting together in Skopje with most of the other volunteers to, I don’t know, get energized for the second half of our service. It’s not going to be the second year of my service though; we’ve been here almost a year and a half and will be ending our service in November 2011. Really, it was more like a 2/3 Service Conference.

The idea is a good one, but being around a bunch of volunteers who seem to be in the same (not particularly energetic) place as I am made it even harder not to think about What’s Coming in ten months, and about the frustrations of working here after a year and a half.

When I started Peace Corps, and probably through my first year at site, I was convinced that there would be a turning point eventually. I’d hit it and things would become easier, implementing projects would be a simple matter of finding the right person to get things done, and I’d be so busy I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. But since the spelling bee (which I’m now labeling my “big project” mostly because I’m not sure if I’ll have anything like it again during my service) I’ve felt exhausted by everything about life in Macedonia: working in classes, running after-school clubs, dealing with the library grant, going on na gostis, even sliding across the sheet of ice covering my town so I can go to the prodav for a PopKek.

A big part of this is probably just circumstances – the spelling bee was a bigger project than I expected and took a lot out of me and apparently my immune system, judging by the month of illness that followed it – but it’s hard not to judge where I am in my service kind of negatively. After over a year of trying I’ve pretty much given up on making significant changes in the classroom, and comfort myself by smiling, a lot, at my students. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do my English Clubs or after-school activities because of the spelling bee/vacation/back-to-school hectic schedules, and those were probably the most fun thing I did at my school. One of the programs I’ve been doing all year, English Stars, has come to a halt because the bag of prizes disappeared from a locked cabinet at my school.

All of this is compounded by it being winter (again, see: having to slide everywhere instead of walking, being cold) and the realization that I have only four or five “real” months of school left. March, April, May, October, up to five if we count the last weeks of February and the first of June. September is a fake month of school – we didn’t do anything last year until weeks into the schoolyear – and before I’ve had a chance to do anything in the fall I’ll be on my way out of the country. I probably feel, now, a lot like I will when I hit 80 and think, “Oh shit, I didn’t do everything I meant to do – and now there’s no more time.”

Still, there are things: for the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps, there’s a national essay contest in Macedonia which I’m hoping to work on with my students as well as with students from some of the schools I did the regional spelling bee in. This weekend I’m heading to Tetovo to help with a GLOW training event, which is a happy reminder that this summer I get to go back to Camp GLOW as an instructor. (I think. I hope.) And the biggest thing of all is that my school just won a grant to improve its library; for the next ten months I’ll be working to help my school catalog its books and implement a reading program.

So, mid-service: not a real useful conference, but an unnerving reminder that time is going a lot faster than I think it is. I guess I better go on a coffee visit now, while I still have the chance.

It’s a blog…again.


I guess this counts as the “relaunch” of my blog. There are plenty of very good reasons to delete one blog and start another (see: I got tired of 50 people a day coming to my site just to read about halal slaughter; I wanted a blog that wasn’t so explicitly linked to my being in Macedonia, so that my future travels can be written about here; I want to be able to write about my American adventures too, someday, like, “Ellen Working in a Coffeeshop”) but the big one is that it finally, after a year and a half, occurred to me that I wasn’t doing a very good job of respecting my host family’s privacy.

To an American it doesn’t seem all that weird to write about someone you see every day, or to sometimes post pictures of them. If there is one thing I have learned since joining the Peace Corps, though, it’s that I am Not in America Anymore, and these American standards of privacy kind of fail when faced with a family that doesn’t want to uncover photos of themselves on google image search.

I will probably pull some of my old entries over here, but since this is a time-consuming exercise involving actually rereading all the posts to see which ones are “okay” by my new standards of blogging, and then to edit out names and identifying details such as a giant photo of the person in question, it may be a while. Most of you reading this now are probably family/friends/Peace Corps staff members (hi!) and therefore already familiar with my life and host family; so to tell you, from now on I’ll be referring to my family members just by their first initails so as to better protect their privacy. I’ll still be taking photos and keeping them around on facebook and email, but they probably won’t be appearing on my blog as often.

This is kind of vague, but suffice it to say when I realized that everyone – not just my mom or dad or friends from college – could come to my blog and see, say, photos of my little sister playing Donkey Kong, I felt awful. It’s kind of weird to delete a blog and then nearly immediately start it up again at a different address, but that seemed to me the fastest way of erasing the offending posts and images from google’s cache.

Things are going to be getting pretty busy in Debar soon (after-school clubs, begging students to participate in a national essay contest, working on the library grant we just won), but right now I am going to take advantage of my freedom to watch Gilmore Girls…