Monday, July 25, 2011

Remember Serbia

Hey there! Reporting from the most southern and western state for the first time since last August. Reporting from home, that's better.

Home is beautiful and I'm so grateful to be here, but I wanted to put one final word in for Serbia to close up this blog about perhaps the most meaningful nine months I've lived thus far.

This blog was about my year. It was designed to share information about a region of the world about which most of my friends knew little. It was designed to help me better understand my year through sharing impressions, observations, inferences, and reflections. Hopefully it fulfilled the former's aspirations and hopefully it will continue to serve as a reference to those who stumble upon it. Without question it served its later purpose. Not only did this blog help me discover an affinity for writing and sharing, it helped me to sort out my thoughts, to appreciate and remember moments and experiences as they came, to keep focused, to maintain perspective, and more generally to grow, and knowing that I had some small group of readers helped to push me to explore and take advantage of all I could. So thank you for reading and emailing and commenting and sending letters and packages.

I'd like to leave you with a final thought: remember Serbia. After typing it out it feels like some slogan, but I write it in earnest. Remember that tiny country in the Balkans. Remember the extraordinarily kind, elderly couple who lived next store. Maybe that's too specific but remember there are extraordinarily kind people there. Remember the Belgrade Pride Parade and how there is a small group of dedicated people about whom Margaret Mead preached but also remember that the small group needs to expand, and that it will in time. Remember the delightful villages like Čerević and quaint towns like Ohrid. Remember the traditions like slava. Remember Djokovic, now number one in the world. Remember the kafana culture. Remember my Roma students. Remember the Balkan wonders of the world.

This is a lot to ask, and I don't expect you to remember it all, but I would like to urge you to remember the beauty and wonder that lies in the customs, the music, the dancing, the countryside, the cities, and the people of Eastern Europe. I hope to someday be able to verify that this beauty and wonder lies in every continent, in every village but for now I am more than satisfied with two homes and many friends in a small corner of the world. After this year I have a strong inkling that it does. I'll it remember forever. I hope you'll remember it too.

Ima Vremena

Final Princeton Update

In high school, a history teacher gave us a class period to come up with a definition of time. This ostensibly simple task produced one of the most stimulating seminars in memory. “Time is a universal enigma” was the truest characterization my group produced. We also toyed with verbose depictions of the past, present, and future, none of which proved effective in conveying the curious nature of time. Although I had just spent an hour trying to make sense of time, I missed the point of the exercise for ironically as soon as I walked out the door my mind was on to the next subject, the next project, the next obligation. In high school there were a lot of activities and assignments and not a lot of time and then come September there was. Time to question, to infer. Time to realize, to understand. Time to decide, to conclude. Time to appreciate. Time to reflect.

September meant Serbia and Serbia, among other things, meant the first year I didn’t have responsibilities already lined up from the previous year and additional activities which would undoubtedly arise. This isn’t to say that the past nine months consisted of merely downtime. My days were occupied with work, interactions with my group and host families, and immersing myself in Serbia and language classes but within those areas I wasn’t time-bound as I had been in high school. At work I was given the freedom of working within preexisting programs or establishing a new program at a Roma settlement. Because I wanted to work directly with the Roma youth, I implemented English classes in their settlement and independently created three levels of English curriculum. No one at the Roma settlement spoke English and only a handful at my service placement so although I kept myself busy teaching and preparing to teach I was essentially in charge of my time and how I invested it.

This personal commitment factor was equally applicable to my involvement in the host families and Serbian culture as a whole. I learned early on that the host family experience brought me the closest to Serbian culture and I set as much time as I could to understanding and appreciating this culture through my families and their friends. I chose to help prepare family meals, participate in cultural and religious celebrations, and visit their childhood villages and other parts of Serbia. Time was well spent and the delegation of it was up to me. No one had expectations for how I would spend that time, which was surprisingly relieving, and I was left alone with my thoughts more than ever before. Thoughts, mind you, make for vital but unsolicited company and often I found their progeny overwhelming.

Time and time again I confronted focus, a concept I tended to steer clear of in high school. I’ve learned to appreciate the value of saying “no”, or rather the value of saying “yes” to things of most importance instead of spreading myself out so thin that each activity is given less commitment than it deserves. My Roma classes quickly became the most important aspect of my life in Niš and though my service placement offered other areas I could volunteer I chose to devote my time to making the most and best English classes rather than stretch my service over various departments where each would receive less than its due. I expect some of my focus-repellent habits will again tempt with the variety they offer, but in the end I’ve realized that I learn the most about the world and myself through investing fully in select projects.

Another conclusion I’ve reached through musings made possible by time is that not knowing is perfectly fine so long as you never stop wanting to know. Last August I had an idea of what I planned on studying at Princeton stemming from my preconceptions of what should be studied at college. This May I am more uncertain than I was nine months back but blissfully so. Though I know it will be a challenge, I’m determined to take advantage of Princeton by seeking the most meaningful and rewarding experiences.

Figuring oneself out is a daunting task but the insight gained is well worth the undertaking. The key ingredient is having time to explore beliefs, discover interests, and thoughtfully reflect. Learning to focus, to say “no”, and to be comfortable with the unknown are three of myriad conclusions reached through reflecting invaluably in time. In Serbian there’s a phrase ima vremena; you have time, there is time. Perhaps the point isn’t defining or categorizing it, just knowing ima vremena and being at peace with this universal enigma is enough.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A bit more to come

Until mid-June I'm away from home (in Italy with my family and a day and night in Belgrade) with somewhat limited internet. I have a few final thoughts and pictures to share which I'll get to when I finally return to the 'aina (Hawaii). After nine months. Baš sam uzbuđena = I'm really excited!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Split, Croatia

Our final nine-day stretch is filled with re-entry workshops and program reflections in Split, a delightful seaside town in the Dalmatia region of Croatia. This is our last day here and we love it. Ceca, our program director, grew up in Split, has many friends here, and knows the best spots. For some reason this town of tourism is not teeming with tourists, the streets and city center aren’t packed with vacationers. Kotor, the tourist town in Montenegro, is very small: the center has four main open areas with shops and restaurants and the rest of the center is just a labyrinth of alleyways between those squares. Split is larger with a larger center, a long and wide boardwalk, and a few beaches (pebble and sand). Maybe the tourists are more spread out so they appear fewer, but we’ve only seen one cruise ship so I have a feeling the peak season for Split hasn’t begun.

Isn't this a neat picture? I swear it has no effects; Catholic church

Diocletian's Palace. The remains of this palace from the 4th century AD are in the center of the pedestrian zone in Split. The palace was built for the Roman emporer Diocletian in preparation for his retirement. Since the palace was spread out in its heyday, a large portion of the city center has pillars and disintegrated palace walls. The architecture in general is more Roman-esque at these cities along the Adriatic Sea so though the remains have kept their glory they don't stand out too much from the rest of the city center. The preservation of this palace eludes me. It's seventeen centuries old! And it's not simply roped off and looked at from afar nor has it ever been. Many tourists, including ourselves, enjoyed walking on, sitting around, and dancing through the remains and there's nothing prohibiting it.

Kotor, Montenegro

We stayed for four days by the sea in Kotor, a town Montenegrins call the pearl of Montenegro. It’s a tiny, charming town about an hours drive from Budva, a more famous settlement on the shore. Although it’s scenic and quaint, it’s basically built and fueled by tourism and three cruise ships had docked on one single day so the place was packed. It was only mid-May so I cannot imagine the high season. However it was more than tolerable, practically comforting at times because there were so many English speakers roaming about and all the various accents are quite fun to hear in passing. Plus with all the tourists scampering about shop owners and waiters normally used Serbian/Montenegrin to communicate because we could, unlike most of the other foreigners.

Kotor has a magnificent view to the top of the fortress which requires climbing innumerable stairs positioned barely close enough to take one step per stair. Oh and I can’t believe it took me so long to get to this but it’s warm! It’s short sleeves and shorts time for the first time since September (Serbia had a colder fall than usual this year). Finally it’s summertime, Hawaii-time, comfortable-weather-24/7-time and it makes for a better atmosphere (bon mot unintended) for travel, relaxing, reflecting, and appreciating alfresco (Italy’s on my mind because I’m meeting my family there after the program is done!). The year-round Hawaii summer was missed tremendously and I’m glad it’s not going anywhere, well, until September at least when I’ll head back to higher latitudes.


Kotor from afar

This is a Serbian Orthodox church in the middle of a town in Montenegro. We’ve been told Montenegro doesn’t have as much of a religious following as Serbia. The four Cs (S in the Cyrillic alphabet) cornering the cross stand for "Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava" (only unity saves the Serbs). This symbol is graffiti-ed everywhere around Serbia – we saw it a handful places in Macedonia, Montenegro, and Croatia as well – by Serbian nationalists – and it’s also put on bread for Slavas (patron saints) and Orthodox holidays.

Perest is a pedestrian-only neighborhood in Kotor and off the coast one can take a short ferry ride to this man-made island with an Orthodox church.

Ceca’s friend lives in a 300-year-old house in a village on the outskirts of Kotor and we were lucky enough to be toured around their property. They said no one had renovated drastically since it was built, just the roof a couple of times and restoring chipped stones.

300 years old!

This is one of three circular spaces on the property called guvno where your voice is magnified if you stand directly in the center. The villages would hold town meetings there and there was some sort of wheat grown or stored there.

Montenegro's Independence day is May 21st, while we were in Kotor, and the red sign on the entrance of Kotor's center celebrates the 5th anniversary

Dubrovnik, Croatia

On our trip from Kotor to Split we stopped at Dubrovnik, a tourist hotspot in Croatia. Despite the infestation of tourists we had a very nice time taking a break from the seven hour drive between the two towns. However that’s all it was, a ninety-minute break. We walked around for a while and got ice cream but I don’t know a thing about the town, just that it’s pretty. And here are some pictures to prove it!

Street merchants

So many tourists!

Street performance in traditional wear

Friday, May 27, 2011

Big news: Mladić and RTS

This news week has not been a slow one in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia. The most substantial news was that Ratko Mladić was found, captured, identified, and arrested on Wednesday. A fugitive for 16 years, Mladić is Serbia’s most wanted war criminal who orchestrated a genocide at Srebrenica. In 1995 he managed the rape of hundreds upon thousands women, slaughter of 8,000, and forceful removal of approximately 30,000 in a massive scale ethnic cleansing campaign. This took place in a town called Srebrenica in Republika Srpska, an autonomous province in northern Bosnia. This terror has been called the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.

The day before he was arrested I wrote about the treatment of war criminals in Croatia and Serbia. This is a huge victory for the Serbs and for Serbia, some have compared it to Osama bin Ladin for the States. The European Union has tossed around Mladić's name for years claiming they won’t accept an application until he is arrested and tried at the Hague International Court of Justice. Serbia is still bogged down by a weak economy, unemployment, corruption and, in particular, Kosovo disputes and poor relations with its neighbors, but this is a monumental step. Some speculate that this arrest was planned as a show for the visit of Catherine Ashton, the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, on the same day. Immediately following the arrest she voiced the significance for such an event for Serbia and its EU integration and stressed how Mladic should be tried in Hague without delay.

Everything I’ve read emphasizes how old, pallid, and weak he looks. I guess we don’t know how Osama looked before his execution but I sort imagine a similar sorry sight, vulnerable and feeble. It seems a paradox that this vicious Serbian general who is unquestionably culpable for the Srebrenica genocide had some difficulty carrying himself after being found, according to one report.

Today President Obama said called Wednesday an “important day for the families of Mladić’s many victims, for Serbia, for Bosnia, for the United States, and for international justice.”

The second noteworthy headline this week deals with the Radio-Television Serbia (RTS), Serbia’s state-run radio/television station. During the 1990s the station was used as Slobodan Milosević’s key propaganda tool. On Monday, May 23rd, the station admitted this propaganda “hurt the feelings, moral integrity and dignity of the Serbian citizens, intellectuals, members of political opposition, journalists, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as certain neighboring peoples and states.”

They apologized to viewers throughout former Yugoslavia “who were subject to insult, slander and what would now be termed as hate speech.” They claimed their programs during the ’90s were “almost constantly and heavily abused” by Milosevic’s regime to spread propaganda. Milosević fired longtime directors and workers of RTS when he first came to power in ’89 and put his accomplices in charge, turning the station into his mouthpiece.

Serbs were shown as the victims of ethnic attacks, foreign opposition was portrayed as evil and false, and injustices (like in Srebrenica) and uprisings in Kosovo and other countries were concealed. National propaganda 24/7 from one of the most popular and trusted stations played a large part in fueling the nationalistic wars of the ’90s. NATO declared RTS a target in the ’99 bombings and sixteen employees died.

Eventful week for Serbia. Laku noć (good night) from Croatia!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A bit about Montenegro

A bit about Montenegro: It’s known through the Balkans to have the most crime and corruption. It has a higher EU status than Serbia and uses the euro. A few Montenegrins have guesstimated it will become a member state in four or five years. Montenegro is known through the Balkans as being the least sympathetic to minorities (LGBT, Roma, etc). Driving through makes it seem like a lot of untouched land. It was the first ecological state in the world. Montenegrin language is really similar to Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian; if you’re familiar with Russian or other Slavic languages the lj-nj-pj-mj sounds are used more often than in Serbian, but we didn’t have many difficulties communicating. Crna Gora (black mound) is how you say Montenegro in Montenegrin/all Slavic languages. I’m not sure where the word Montenegro came from or why that’s what we call it in English and when I asked a couple of Montenegrins they both laughed it off saying we westerners don’t bother to get our facts straight in the Balkans.

Podgorica is the capital. It’s more like a town than an industrial epicenter but given the rest of Montenegro that we saw it’s not surprising that the capital isn’t booming and that you can always see the sky. That’s probably what I liked the most about it: everywhere we were, you could easily see the sky since no building appeared more than 12 floors, most were less than four I’d guess. The city center is a couple of blocks with an open square surrounded by many cobblestone streets and old street lamps. It’s a sweet town and considering Montenegro’s relationship with nature it is appropriate that the capital is no metropolis.

The true highlight of our excursion to Podgorica, however, was the tear-gas incident. Yes, you read that right, our group was amongst a crowd driven out of a concert by a nefarious gas. We were invited to a concert of a popular Croatian indie-pop group but we weren’t informed that the purpose for the event was to protest the nonexistent rights of Montenegrin’s LGBT population. Ljubav je stav, love is an attitude, was the gathering’s header. A few women who pulled attention to themselves by dress and behavior at the concert were reportedly beaten later that evening. The event was to be a sort of trial performance for the Gay Pride Parade scheduled a few weeks later. Because of what transpired at and due to the concert Montenegro has canceled what would have been their first Pride ever. There were police at the concert and there would have been some police at Pride but most say there weren’t going to be enough to stop the expected rebellion against it. In Serbia’s Pride Parade last fall there were 5,000 police for 1,000 Pride-ers and still the hooligans wrecked havoc. And get this, the reason the police gave for canceling (read: refusing to defend the scheduled Pride because of what happened at the concert) was that there are no gay people in Montenegro. How twisted is that.

Here are some pictures of Podgorica
Town plaza

The concert

Traditional clothing

In and around Montenegro

When I said we more or less saw Montenegro in those fifteen days I wasn’t exaggerating. It’s a small country to begin with and we had so many excursions during which we drove through all regions of this ecological state that both our program director and Montenegrin contacts said we’ve seen Montenegro. And here are a bunch of pictures so you can see it too!

Unlike Kotor and Biogradska Gora, we didn’t spend more than a few hours, normally just a few minutes, at the next places but they gave us a balanced overall impression of Montenegro so here are other pictures to document those fifteen days.

Cetinje the old capital of Montenegro which now has many used to be embassies that taken up other uses since the capital switched to Podgorica. For instance the German embassy is now an art school.

Pršut, a sort of smoked ham that this region of Montenegro is known for. Njegoš (author/prince) lived in this area so it’s called Njeguška pršuta.

This is a fishing town called Rijeka Crnojevica built around Skadarsko jezero (lake)

Bijelo Polje, a town an hour away from Biogradska Gora.

Bečiće, the first beach I’ve been to since August! The water felt freeeezing to me and the sand was sort of dirty and moist so I’m still looking forward to familiar beaches back home but I’m so glad it’s beach weather again!

Tara Bridge overlooking Tara Canyon the second deepest canyon in the world (1300 meters!), the deepest in Europe, and the longest canyon in Montenegro.

A monastery near Tara Canyon where the nun made the girls put on skirts to enter!

Etno selo (ethnic village) near Tara Bridge. The man who lives on and owns this land was more than happy to show us around. He herds sheep, leads water rafting tours, and rents these cabins in which there’s a bed and only a bed, not even a square inch of floor space.

A second etno selo with slightly larger cabin rentals. Again we were treated with utmost hospitality by the couple who run this “village” and they even gave us some domestic raspberry juice they make.

Kolašin, a town half an hour from Biogradska Gora

A second of six national parks in Montenegro. We got to the very top by route of a narrow and bumpy path and discovered untouched, fallen snow! So obviously…

During the winter this national park operates as a ski center

Lovćen: another national park (the third of six) in Montenegro. This one had a long staircase leading up to a tomb of a famous Montenegrin author and royalty—son of King Nikolić—Njegoš.

That is not the long staircase; the majority of it is through a tunnel behind me.

Montenegrin coast, prelepo (so beautiful)

I think this is Budva but I could be mistaken

Montenegrin inlands, prelepo

Another monastery we stumbled across, no skirts required.

Lastly Bosnia! We didn’t really go to Bosnia—we didn’t even get stamps on our passports, the best part of crossing a border!—but the only way to get from Montenegro to Croatia is by an 8 km stretch in Bosnia. To play up this trip to Bosnia we stopped at a gas station which had a view overlooking the one coastal part of Bosnia. There are two international students in our group and they’re required to get visas for all the countries we’ve gone to and a few months back Andres (from Colombia) realized we’d have to pass through Bosnia to travel between Montenegro and Croatia so Ceca, our program director, looked into whether they would need anything for those 8 kilometers. At first she was told that they’d need a letter of invitation and a transit visa but eventually they said it’d be alright to do without anything. Still we were all a bit hesitant when we got to the Bosnian border but everything turned out absolutely fine.