Lost and Found in Macedonia: A Journey to Unexpected Places
By Marilyn Wheeler (Macedonia 2004-06)
Park Place Publications
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe, (Honduras 2000-03)
Lost and Found in Macedonia is the only recent Peace Corps narrative I know of, beyond my own, describing the experiences of a “mature” volunteer. Although older volunteers may not be starry-eyed idealists, they are still beckoned by the unknown, which provides both the thrills and frustrations of Peace Corps service. The adventure of joining is precisely not knowing quite what to expect, finding surprises at every turn, with no two experiences being alike. Like volunteers of any age, author Marilyn Wheeler found strength in her own resourcefulness in confronting new challenges. Since I often talk Peace Corps with over-50 audiences, I’m delighted to have another book to recommend.
Many parallels emerge between myself and the author. Inspired originally by President Kennedy, we were both divorced, were over 60 when we joined, endured the skepticism of children and friends, and evoked surprised reactions from in-country natives when we first arrived. We also both encountered our share of marriage proposals while in service and started new careers after our return home.
While family and friends questioned Wheeler’s decision to join the Peace Corps at her age, she notes, “‘Old’ does not happen in your heart or soul. Your age shows on the outside, not on the inside… You have only one life-this is it.” At one point, missing home, she acknowledges, “I knew all worthwhile experiences were not necessarily enjoyable.” Her own morale and that of other volunteers was severely shaken when another senior volunteer, age 70, died suddenly of pneumonia. “The only positive thing I could see from her fast death,” Wheeler writes, “was that she went out living life fully, doing what she wanted to do.”
Wheeler was more intrepid than I, deliberately seeking to serve in a totally unfamiliar region where she didn’t know the language. Since her only requirement was access to a sit-down toilet, she chose Eastern Europe, reasoning that plumbing there might be more advanced. Assigned as a business volunteer to Macedonia, once part of Yugoslavia, she found mixed results in the plumbing department, once refusing a teaching assignment until a sit-down toilet for her use was located in a neighboring house.
Macedonia, which I visited back when Tito was still in charge, has obviously changed considerably since. It’s quite small geographically, a landlocked country with a total population of only 2 million. (An orienting map beyond the partial one illustrating the back cover would have been helpful.) The author gives a flavor of the country’s wonderfully varied topography, including scenic lakes, mountains, and rivers, some of which she eagerly explored.
Not only is Macedonia small, so is this book, a slender volume with short chapters, tiny type, and smallish photos, yet once the reader adjusts, the story moves right along with fluidity and honesty and without unnecessary detail. Baby boomers and seniors at a crossroads will find to their surprise, as Wheeler and I both did, that Peace Corps not only enriches and changes the lives of younger people, but can have an unexpected impact on older volunteers who consider their own character and outlook fully formed. In service, the author found reserves of patience and extracted meaning from the hand she was dealt after voluntarily plunging into the unknown.
With considerable effort and tenacity, Wheeler finally mastered the grammatical intricacies of Macedonian with its Cyrillic alphabet, only to move to a new locale where Roma and Muslim people spoke other languages. But this new environment afforded her more satisfaction than her first where she’d run up against one intractable obstacle after another. Due to their many challenges, some fellow volunteers virtually gave up, giving rise to the derisive observation, “Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll never do.”
Just as Wheeler was finally hitting her stride in the new place, a daughter’s newly diagnosed medical condition impelled her to leave Macedonia after only 15 months, a disappointing outcome for her and for the reader, but one all too common. Still, she felt that she had had an impact and that her Peace Corp service had made a definite impact on her. No longer an obsessive planner, living in a future that never arrived, she had learned to appreciate what actually happened rather than pining for imagined goals: “When I moved from the comfort of the familiar to the discomfort of the unknown leaving all my insecurities behind, I actually expanded my life.”
This flowing narrative tells it like it is, no romanticizing, “Each day a little more change (or a lot), a little more acceptance-a little less resistance.” The book contains a few inevitable typos and a couple of places where past and present tenses collide, such as, “She scrapes my plate into the big community pan and ate it.” (Yes, such recycling of partially eaten food was also common in Honduras, as was Macedonian-type nose-blowing sans handkerchief, common habits in poor countries around the globe.) Although her service was cut short, Wheeler’s book contains valuable lessons for would-be Peace Corps volunteers. True to her title, she captures many newbies’ feelings of being utterly lost when they first arrive in-country, but gives them hope to perserve.
In addition to this memoir, the author has written Problem People at Work, the Essential Survival Guide and now owns a weight and lifestyle business (thehealthyway.us) in Monterey, California.
Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000–03) works as a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter and translator in Washington, DC. Her book Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras was declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers and is available on Amazon, also on Kindle and The Nook. She returns yearly to Honduras to participate in humanitarian projects, with her 9th return trip scheduled for February 2013.