The evacuation of 7367 Peace Corps Volunteers happened very quickly. Stand fast, consolidation, then we were all sent to our Homes of Record. We could say goodbye, kind of, and in Macedonia it meant we were all brought to a beautiful hotel in the capital to wait for a flight that was increasingly unlikely. We were finally put on one of the last flights out of Skopje airport and now we are all at home, bewildered by the whiplash of suddenly being in the United States again.
The days leading up to stand fast were so beautiful and warm. It was a very fitting but terrible goodbye. I have left behind friends, students, counterparts and family in a beautiful country. Two years of my life were mapped out, and now I have to start at the bottom again. This is where so many of us are; some Peace Corps volunteers were just starting out after university, others left careers to go abroad and add to the pool of knowledge there.
All of us from N Macedonia are in some home; we are in self-quarantine, which means different things to different people. But for now, it means that I am at home with my mother, still reeling from being torn away from what would have been my home for two years. I will miss my city and everyone who treated me with such kindness whilst I was there.
I did not want to end my blog this way. There were so many observations I wanted to make, and so many stories I wanted to share. Please think of me and the other volunteers as we navigate the future, especially in these strange times. I know we are not alone in trying to establish a new normal. Whatever happens, I hope we can return to N Macedonia or at least continue our service in some other way.
Was lucky enough to visit Ohrid this past weekend. Even in miserable weather, the lake was beautiful and the city is breath-taking. I am jealous of the volunteers who get to call this place home, but glad that it’s only a few hours away from my own site. Ohrid is another Macedonian only town, but I was understood. Also, since it’s a very popular tourist destination, most everyone spoke at least some level of English. Sometimes, I forget to be more appreciative of that fact. Imagine having to learn another language for work or some other necessity. (I know that, as the face of America changes, many people are picking up another language, and I applaud you!) I never think of my own language abilities either, at this point, but I’ve learnt two languages at the same time in six months. I forget that sometimes, except when someone exclaims excitedly when I reply in Macedonian or Albanian.
Peace Corps Volunteers around the world are in a bit of an uproar over the COVID-19 Corona virus. Each country is handling it differently, including here in N Macedonia, where it seems to be mostly travel restrictions to various countries and a reminder to be cautious about being in large groups. There are some countries facing evacuations, and the ending of the programme in China (or “graduation” as it is called, as not being a Peace Corps country is — and should be — seen as a positive) coincided with this virus. I am sorry for the volunteers who are facing evacuation or the premature graduation of their programme; it must be devastating and frightening to have to think of your future when you’re unprepared for it.
In my downtime this weekend, I watched the Netflix special Pandemic, which I would recommend. I think the whole world is unprepared for a pandemic, but I don’t think COVID-19 will reach pandemic levels. It is smart, however, to pay attention, and of course, WASH YOUR HANDS. I now have the beginning of “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance forever stuck in my brain because that’s what I’ve chosen to sing whilst I wash my hands for the requisite twenty seconds.
Other things of note: the US primary has opened up political discussions around the world, especially since we are an American organisation with younger, probably more politically active folks. I already sent in my absentee ballot for Georgia’s Democratic primary, because N Macedonia’s postal system is…ancient and unreliable. It’s been received by the registrar in my home city; I love that they have a system in place where you can see online if your ballot was received. Go Georgia! There are obviously very different opinions about this year’s election, even amongst people in the same party. If you follow my twitter account you already know my feelings, and I am doing my best to avoid discussing it with host country nationals. I never refuse to answer a question, however.
Most people don’t know much about the Peace Corps. If they do, it’s because a family member did it or they played around with the idea a few times. A woman I met back in America said “That’s my generation!” (And she was right–the 1960s did open the world up to Peace Corps Volunteers.) When I called to cancel my local NPR subscription, the woman was so kind and excited for me–another generational thing.
Most people, when you tell them that you’re going to the Peace Corps, assume that you’re going to Africa or Asia. And a majority of Peace Corps Volunteers do end up in those parts of the world. When you tell someone that you’re going to Eastern Europe, however, a few things happen. They may ask, “Why is the Peace Corps in Europe?” Or they might say “I didn’t think the Peace Corps needed to go to Europe.”
And maybe they have a point. Europe, the continent, is very well developed…for quite a few reasons. However, the end of Yugoslavia along with quite a few other factors means some Eastern European countries are still developing. And Peace Corps will go where it is invited. The governments of these countries obviously believed that volunteers would do good work here. And of course we have. Our “hardships” might look different, and the people we serve may not seem like they need our help, but obviously the Peace Corps organisation believes that the skills that we as volunteers bring are worthwhile.
That being said, Peace Corps in N Macedonia is very different than say…Peace Corps in Benin. The infrastructure is better: electricity and running water work as expected 99.9% of the time. Transportation is better; a journey to the capital of Benin (Porto-Novo) takes three days for some volunteers, versus maybe an hour and a half at most for me to Skopje. Life is very different for us here in N Macedonia, and sometimes I wonder if I’m really “doing” Peace Corps. Our struggles may be more spiritual or mental than physical. However, every volunteer’s service is worthy. We’ve chosen to spend two years away from the comfort of family and friends, to do a difficult and sometimes nebulous job.
I think “Posh Corps” is sometimes seen as a friendly jibe, a bit of a joke amongst volunteers. Sometimes, though, it denigrates the work that volunteers do in those countries, N Macedonia included. I’ve used it in a self-deprecating manner, so I’m not too bothered by it. I’m still am, and always will be, a Peace Corps volunteer.