Guest Writer Sheryl Burt
I had the opportunity and the privilege of being Kelly’s first American visitor during her first year of service in Macedonia! In my short week stay I was able get a glimpse into her new world.
Let me begin by explaining how I got myself into traveling to such an unknown (by many Americans) place. It was senior year. Kelly and I were finishing up our education requirements, gearing up for student teaching, and excited about making a difference in the minds of the munchkins. She told me that she was seriously considering the Peace Corps and asked if I would visit her. Fresh off of our New Zealand Adventure, I was itching for more. So, of course I said YES without hesitation or knowledge of where Kelly would be placed. When Kelly found out she was placed in Macedonia (a country that I had never heard of and couldn’t locate on a map), I wasn’t swayed. The only stipulation was that I had to get a job…graduation was approaching and there were so many unknowns.
Well, everything worked out. I started my first year teaching kindergarten and Kelly was making a difference halfway around the world.
My Macedonia experience started with about 40 hours of travel (flights, layovers, time zone changes) and arriving in Skopje at about 12:30am. We did some exploring and traditional Macedonia hamburger eating before getting some sleep. With Skopje being a larger city, the first adjustment I had to make was the language barrier. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to understand or talk with the Macedonians but the experience was more than expected. I like to be able to do things for myself but the simple tasks like purchasing a bus ticket, ordering a meal, or paying for a purchase I had to entrust to Kelly. Don’t get me wrong, I’d trust this girl with my life, but there was a sense of helplessness that was uncomfortable. The biggest struggle was not being able to communicate with Kelly’s host family. She’d spent the last 8 months living with this family and I would have loved to get to know them more. During our shared meals, I would have liked to partake in the conversations or at least understand their discussions. Her host brother is fluent in English and I enjoyed the time I got to spend with him.
Another thing that took me a while to grasp (and I still don’t understand), is some of their priorities. I understand that each culture is different and we all deem things more important than others. Kelly has told me from the beginning that Macedonia’s economy is in trouble and her village in particular is very poor with a high unemployment rate. However, while walking around the village, I didn’t see it. I expected to see the poverty in the buildings and houses, but it wasn’t there. The houses were aesthetically pleasing, a decent size, and the yards were well kept. Kelly explained that appearance is a high priority. Poverty is not seen in the objects they own but in the hunger in their bellies. Along with appearance, family is one of their main priorities. Extended families usually live in the same village and are very supportive. They help each other out in any way they can. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Kelly’s extended host family. They welcomed me with open arms. Their love and support was evident even with a language barrier. The respect exhibited towards their elders was inspiring. Sometimes I feel like we have lost that in our culture. Kelly’s host grandmother was a remarkable lady with an awesome garden!! She let me sample some strawberries and dragon beans…oh my!! It makes me want to ditch the city and buy a plot of land!
Everywhere we went, we ran into some type of market/bazaar. I wish fresh fruit and vegetables were that easily available in our society. After I left, I found myself craving the watermelon that I had been indulging in for the past week. Another thing that amazed me was at the end of the day, the sellers left their produce/products on their stands. Even in a poverty stricken community, there was a sense of honor and respect. Stealing was not an issue. This is not something we could find in our society. Just think about this for a second…high poverty, high unemployment, and hunger bordering on starvation, yet stealing is not a concern. I truly believe that speaks volumes.
Macedonia is not one of those places you find in a destination book and you’ll never see it on the top 100 places to visit before you die. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer! However, I wouldn’t recommend the trip unless you speak Macedonian or Albanian or you happen to have an awesome connection (like I did). It would be extremely complicated to navigate.
I’d like to conclude with a shoutout to all the Peace Corps Volunteers who were apart of my Macedonia experience. Y’all are doing amazing work! I know that some days may be rough and you feel like your not making progress, but remember, your presence and attitude of caring is sometimes all that’s needed. I see it in the classroom all the time! Keep you head up and hearts open and never stop being awesome!!!
Kelly, thank you for an experience of a life time! Love ya girl!!!