This is the last week of March, 2013. During the first week of this month my cohort and I participated in MST (Mid Service Training). Officially marking the midpoint of our service has caused me to have many reflections during the past few weeks about how long I have been here and what I have experienced, learned and accomplished.
A common thought I have had is how much I have adapted to and how my initial enthusiasm has waned, leaving me feeling so tired most of the time. There are many aspects of living here which cause me to realize how much I took for granted back in the States. One thing we PCVs do not have to worry about is the cost of gas for cars, because we are not allowed to drive during our service. The cost of gasoline here is more than twice the cost in the States. That, in perspective of the much overall lower cost of living here, makes the cost of gasoline here almost prohibitively high in comparison with the cost in the States. I do not usually miss driving and all of the walking is actually healthful. However there are all of the other aspects of daily living which do affect my daily activities in ways I rarely ever had to contend with in the States.
One of those daily challenges is the water situation here in my town, which is due to two significant factors. One is the fact that the main source of water is a stream that flows from the surrounding mountains to and through the town. The other factor is the antiquated infrastructure; the water purification system simply cannot meet the demand and has to stop pumping for this time periods in order to ‘catch up’ each day. By the way, that is not true in other areas of this country. I have been working with the American Embassy and the US Army Corps of Engineers to see if something such as more efficient, pumps will alleviate this. Unfortunately, the supply is limited because of consumption of the water by the villages and towns upstream of this town. Larger pumps here will not totally resolve the problem.
While on the topic of public utilities, I can also tell you that the waste water (sewage treatment) in all areas of this country is also antiquated and cannot handle much without backing up, or breaking down. The biggest problem presented by this is that NOTHING except “whatever has gone through your body” can be flushed in a toilet. This holds true for flush toilets as well as for squat toilets (a hole in the floor). So, what does that mean? Well, it means that just like anywhere else, we cannot flush paper towels, or feminine sanitary products. However, it also means that here we cannot flush ANYTHING ELSE. Yes, this means that not even toilet paper can be flushed and ALL toilet paper must be put in a trash can that we find beside every toilet everywhere, even in our own home/apartment bathrooms. Taking out the trash has become a more frequent event for me. Oh, another frightening thing is that if you do not carry your own toilet paper with you at all times, you will be in a real predicament when using a public toilet, even in such places as the опстина (opstina = city hall); There is usually no toilet paper in public toilets, which are also frequently likely to be squat toilets.
Then, there is the matter of the electricity rates . . . they are very high. As I mentioned, there are off-peak periods, such as between 11pm and 7am and all day Sunday during which times the electricity is one-half as expensive as during the other times. Can you see what is coming? In order to keep expenses low, I must run my electric water distiller at night, or on Sunday. It takes about 4 hours to make a gallon of pure water. Oh, the public water is potable, but laden with chemicals and heavy minerals. So, I distill it. Speaking of saving costs, I feel it prudent to do my laundry and house cleaning on Sundays when the electricity rate is half that of other times. However, despite having low electricity rates all day on Sunday, I must start early in the morning in order to get the laundry done before the water is shut off. It is also necessary to do the laundry early if I am going to hang everything out to dry. Otherwise, I have to leave it out overnight and hope it will be dry the next day. When we do get rain, it is more likely at night. I do not know of any Macedonians who have a clothes dryer because of the high electric rates. The few stores that sell washing machines do not even have clothes dryers on display. Still, I feel fortunate when I realize that some of my fellow PCVs must wash their clothes by hand.
Then, on top of dealing with all of these challenges, there is the constant mental effort involved in all activities throughout every day. I must consciously be thinking ahead of what I am doing and try to have comments and questions formulated in Macedonian, using my limited vocabulary and grammatical abilities in creative ways to express even the most common thoughts and questions in ALL interactions. Responding to unexpected comments and questions from others is always a stress-inducing challenge. It is exhausting.
As a result of all of the above, I am feeling tired most of the time. I have come to realize that I am beginning to feel soooo old. On the bright side, the enthusiasm I feel among the younger PCVs and their accomplishments which I marvel at provide some compensatory incentive for me to continue going forward in my service. Above all, the enthusiasm which I see in the faces of the beneficiaries at my NGO when I organize trainings, workshops and sport/exercise activities and the eagerness they express to be involved in yet more such activities gives me an incentive to continue to try to overcome most of my fatigue. They seek me out and talk to me excitedly and rapidly in Macedonian with their various dialects and speech impairments and never react negatively to my language limitations. In fact, we often laugh together at the creative ways we have developed to communicate. We have developed our own, humorous individualized means of communication which always helps me feel that I am filling a needed role here.
So, as I reflect on what has transpired in the past 16 months I feel a renewed initiative to work toward even more improvements for the lives of the intellectually challenged beneficiaries of my NGO. Focusing on this helps me to realize that the various annoyances in my daily activities do not really matter all that much.