“Where am I going and why?” I asked myself on the 9 hour bus ride.
A 5 day, 4 night bus tour to Macedonia from Bulgaria, all lodging and most food for just $175 --- sign me up! Inexpensive and exotic- sounding.
“Where in the world is Kathy now?” I could hear my friends asking. Macedonia! "And where in the heck is that?" I was about to find out. Never mind that the tour was in Bulgarian. Sure I missed the history and descriptive facts, sometimes for hours at a time as the guide lectured. Rather than be frustrated I decided to gather impressions. And to look for the pearls of Macedonia.
This relatively poor area that became a country after Yugoslavia dissolved has been sought and conquered for thousands of years. Alexander the Great is its most famous son. It has changed hands in battle countless times. Greece is still upset by the name Macedonia and has demanded they change their rising sun flag. Why? I wonder. Why is Macedonia so desirable?
Mountains, forests and some agriculture whizzed by on the bus ride and I hoped to answer those questions in Ohrid, the destination.
But first was Skopje, the capital.
Devastated in an earthquake it now sports marble bridges, marble fountains and marble sculptures. On one side of the river is the old town – Muslim with minarets. The Turkish baths have been turned into art galleries.
On the other side, the new.
We were allowed one hour to sight-see after the walking tour in Bulgarian so I headed for the Holocaust Museum.
Why? To determine if the Jewish situation in Macedonia was the same as in Bulgaria. Apparently the Bulgarian King and Church kept putting Hitler off when he demanded their Jews, appeasing him for awhile by donating some Jews from the outlying areas. No actual Bulgarian Jew died. What happened in Macedonia?
When I questioned the guard about the Bulgarians’ kindness to Jews, he just laughed and pointed to a room that was occupied by a cattle car. One that had been the horror transport to Treblinka for Macedonian Jews. On its side were the stenciled ownership of the car– “Bulgaria.”
Tentatively, like approaching a graveyard or gallows, I touched it. The smoothed -from-wear wooden threshold which was the last taste of Macedonia for hundreds. The airless dark interior that surely stunk of urine and fear. We’ve all read the stories and seen the movies and uniformly hate Hitler. I’ve been to Dachau and seen the barracks and pictures. But there was something more real and urgent about this cavernous-mouthed structure.
And rather than hate Hitler even more or wonder at the complicity of citizens, I made a personal vow.
And please help me keep it! I decided to look at the underlying cause of intolerance and even violent thoughts – inside myself. Making a person, a whole group of people, a religion, a country -- “Other”. What drives us to do that? I know that I can “kill” someone with my thoughts, load them into a cattle car by my judgement and push them far away. (Note my careless blog references to "gypsies" or "corrupt politicians.") Why? Fear? Arrogance? Self-protection? Perhaps even the pleasure of judgement?
And right then I decided to not do that anymore! To not contribute to the violence of the world by my thoughts and to cultivate peace. It sounds trite, doesn’t it? Don’t we all want peace? But even in Skopje there were instant challenges to this new vow! A Muslim man disregarded us thirsty women at a fountain as he took his time doing his ritual cleansing. A gypsy beggar boy annoyingly ran after me.
But there was also inspiration!
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, preached the family-hood of all humans and cared for the dying of all religions. In modern Skopje now marble fountains of women arise from the earthquake’s rubble.
And mosques live peacefully with Orthodox churches.
This cattle car with “Bulgaria” boldly written on it, the horror of group discrimination in my own mind and the vow to not put anyone out of my heart -- this was my first pearl from Macedonia. I looked forward to more.