Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Barney Smith's volunteer experience in Macedonia and Greece

Picture: Barney and the other international volunteers in the monastery in Macedonia

A bus to a town distinctly off the beaten track, another bus to an even more remote town, a car ride to an extremely remote village and finally a steep climb by car along a winding road to an isolated monastery perched on the top of a mountain….. I began my international volunteer project in Macedonia, as with every volunteer project before, with the feeling that I was stepping into the unknown as I took on this new challenge. I looked forward to discovering a new culture and meeting so many different people; for me, this is what makes these volunteer projects so interesting and so enjoyable. As I walked through the gates of the Monastery of St. Jovan Pretaca, near the village of Slepce, this sense was as strong as ever. I knew that I would be living and working in a completely new environment with people as yet unknown to me. This, my twelfth international volunteer project, was also an intensely emotional experience for me personally. My last project - last August in Turkey - was interrupted by the devastating news that my mother had been rushed to hospital and was critically ill, an illness which would lead tragically to her death nine months later.

As I tried to deal with grief and bereavement for the first time in my life, the setting of this project seemed particularly fitting. Living and working in a monastery, high in the mountains, was for me an immensely therapeutic experience. The group, also comprising volunteers from Croatia, France, Hungary, Serbia and South Korea, was ably led by two Macedonians. Our work consisted of gardening in the monastery grounds, renovating a nearby picnic area, and clearing vegetation and litter from the side of the road leading up to the monastery. We made the most of our free time, with visits to a convent and to the Monastery of St. Naum, as well as guided tours in the towns of Krusevo, Bitola, where we also watched a rock concert, and Ohrid, where we also went swimming in the lake. We ate well: we cooked some of the meals ourselves, others were cooked by the monastery staff and sometimes we ate in restaurants. After all our hard work, we felt we deserved it!

Although Bitola, the nearest transport hub, is only a short drive from the Greek border, crossing into Greece was not as straightforward as I had imagined. Relations between the two countries are frosty: some Greeks object to the name Macedonia which they assert implies territorial claims on the region of Macedonia in northern Greece. The Macedonians understandably resent the suggestion that they should be bullied into changing the name of their country and ask how the Greeks could possibly feel threatened by their much smaller neighbour. Alluding to the Greek name for their country (Hellas), some Macedonians have gone so far as to dub the road from Bitola to Florina, the nearest Greek town, as "the Road to Hell"! I saw firsthand the inconvenience caused on a practical level by this political dispute. There was no public transport across the border, so my only option was to take a taxi to Florina. "The Road to Hell" was all but deserted and the border crossing almost eerily quiet. "We feel like Palestinians going through an Israeli checkpoint," whispered one of the Macedonians in the car with me, as we went through Greek passport control. "Only joking!" she added quickly.

Greece was the fifth country I was visiting for the first time this summer. During my trip I had flown from England to Croatia and travelled through Montenegro and Albania before crossing into Macedonia. Greece was the last country on my list, although I was not ready to go home yet: after visiting three Greek cities (Thessaloniki, Igoumenitsa and Ioannina) it was time for another project. From the relative comfort of a Ioannina hotel (albeit a cheap and very dirty one!), I was soon on another bus to another remote village, the location of my next volunteer project, Pentalofos.

I had already received from the excellent two Greek camp leaders a list of participants; this was my introduction to the other fifteen volunteers who came from a wide variety of countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Spain. The first part of our work consisted of uncovering a stone path dating from the 19th Century: we used tools to remove the earth and vegetation from the stones. Guided by a local specialist, we also built part of a new stone path. In our free time we went to festivals in Pentalofos and the surrounding villages, visited a local monastery, walked in the mountains and went swimming. After the strain put on my waistline in Macedonia, the exceptionally good Greek cuisine presented a new challenge: on this project we ate almost all our meals in restaurants and the food was superb. As a result we always started work feeling refreshed and knew we had a delicious meal waiting for us at the end! In every international volunteer project the hardest moment is always saying good-bye to the other participants, and this one was no different.

Now that I have arrived back in my adopted home, Kuwait, where I teach English in one of the British schools, I feel like I have stepped into another world. I often think back to my summer in Macedonia and Greece. I think with a smile of my attempts to learn a few phrases of the local languages, and how I did my best to help the other volunteers with their English. I think of how we lived together and worked together. I think of the new people I met and the good times that we shared. I cherish every moment and every new friendship made, and value my new skills and experience. Every volunteer project overseas is for me a life-changing experience, and no summer would be the same without it.

by Barney Smith

Picture: Barney and the international volunteers in Greece

MKYCCBT01-08 SLEPCE was hosted by YCCB Macedonia from 21/07/08 to 31/07/08.
CIA-03-08 PENTALOFOS was hosted b y CIA Greece from 04/08/08 to 20/08/08.

Click here for pictures of projects in Macedonia
Click here for pictures of projects in Greece

Click here for a country profile of Macedonia
Click here for a country profile of Greece


Jo Abbotts said...

Hi Barney! Really interesting blog. Jo

Janet Hall said...

Hi Barney
It makes me wish I was 40 years younger!