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Kisha Pada

CROATIA | Friday, 14 November 2008 | Views [1787]

Finishing Slavsko Polje

Finishing Slavsko Polje

The rain is falling and falling and falling! Soon we will have to build an ark to float away in. The ground has turned into a big sponge and mud oozes out as you squelch along. We need a 4WD to navigate our driveway (now outabounds). The rain is not heavy, more of a drizzle really. You can walk outside and not get soaked but it just didn’t stop for 2 full days. A novelty for us! The novelty will wear off quickly though as the open drains outside are filling and our toilet rises now instead of going down when we flush!  When the sun comes out it should smell great! Yesterday we had a massive fog – all day – which kinda felt a bit like walking in the rain and was really spooky driving home last night from Slavsko Polje (more about that later…). And although we seem to be surrounded by water we can’t drink the water from the tap! It got contaminated – not sure how or with what but we have been waiting a week now for the ‘tests’ to come back and tell us it is OK to drink. The local shops keep running out of bottled water and the council has supplied a fire truck in the town square for people who can’t afford to buy water and apparently it’s OK to drink if you boil it. Anyhow, we are all fine and I haven’t heard of any illness around town from bad water so we shall wait and see – there is a lot of ‘wait and see’ around here.

We have settled in well to our little life in Gvozd.  Our cottage is cosy, a kitchen, 2 bedrooms and bathroom with a woodfire in each. For the first 3 weeks we only had the fire in the kitchen going but now have all 3 flaming just to keep the damp out. There are also a couple of sheds and big grassy yard and pergola with grapevine but none of these are much use to us now summer has officially ended and autumn (Listopad – leaves falling) is also almost over.

Our days are really busy – believe it or not! We start the day with about 2-3 hours schooling with the girls, which takes my undivided attention – they all always need help at the same time! Then we have lunch and head into Suncokret (pronounced sawnce-o-kret,which is sunflower in Croatian), the community centre where we are volunteering for 2 months.  Suncokret Centre for Community Development is a local non-government organization run by two wonderful people, Maya and Predrag. They both work tirelessly and for not very much, to improve the opportunities for the young and support the community. They are amazing people and have quickly become good friends. If you would like to know more about Suncokret I’ve put some details at the bottom of this blog.

And so our day continues… If anyone of us needs to use internet, check emails etc we try to go in at 11am when the centre opens and use computers before the kids start arriving usually around 1pm. The internet is also available for all the locals to use for a small fee. The internet is itself an exercise in learning patience and tolerance as there is only dial-up and it’s sloooow, especially if others are using it too. It’s taken us all this time to make the adjustment to waiting, waiting, waiting. (We play solitaire on the computer while we wait but even that gets pretty boring after awhile.) Of course, if you have never experienced ADSL or beyond then dial-up is brilliant – it’s just us spoilt westerners who complain!

And for those of you who think Croatia is a ‘western’ country, think again! It’s not quite 3rd world but it’s pretty borderline. People live here with no glass in their windows, concrete floors (not polished!) and only turn on the water heater on Sundays. The staple diet is pork and cabbage and not much else, (green vegies come mostly in tins or the frozen section). They all, with hardly an exception, smoke like chimneys (we call it ‘the Croatian salute’) and beer or wine is cheaper than lemonade! And don’t get me started on the bread – let’s just say it makes Brumby’s and Bakers Delight look like gourmet health bread. The local supermarkets have very basic necessities – not even tinned tomatoes! And in the big supermarkets the flour section is very complex. There is bread flour tip 550, 850, 1250 in white, wholemeal, corn, cake flour, yeast cake flour, pancake flour but no SR flour. Baking powder comes in wee packets and we just guess how much to use. Of course all our baking is in a woodfired oven with no temp guage never mind control so everything is a bit hit and miss anyway. We have had some hits, a few misses and a fair bit of cussin’. It’s a bit like campfire cooking in a box! But I digress…

The centre is open until 7pm from Mon – Thur with a movie night every Fri till about 9pm.

So, on a good day, one of us tries to be home by 6pm to get dinner started but usually, like today, it’s 7.30 before we get home and dinner is about 9pm! At the centre we play games with the kids – card games are very popular with UNO being #1 with the older kids, although Ruby and Audra and now taught them Cheat and Shithead to broaden the repertoire a little. The UNO cards are so worn that some of the cards have corners or half the card missing but that doesn’t seem to deter their spirit at all. They also have a few different rules and they all cheat like crazy. We brought with us an Aussie snakes n ladders. We had to teach them how to play (I thought everyone knew snakes n ladders?) and the kids were cheating like crazy by throwing ‘fake’ 6’s etc only to find that a snake would take them all the way back to the start!

The younger children paint, draw or do other art activities. And of course there are the computers for ‘games’, very popular with boys mostly!  If it’s a nice day we play Frisbee outside and last Monday I bought a soccer ball at the market and we had a very competitive ‘friendly’ game that lasted all afternoon – which was a nice change from sitting in front of computers! Some of the older kids also bring their homework to the centre to do research on the internet for projects or get help with Maths, English (language) & German.

This week has seen fun and games with some pretty vitriolic attacks from the local school Principal who accused the volunteers of using drugs and lots of other total bullshit. She has caused problems for Suncokret before but has been relatively passive for the past 18m-2yrs apparently. Nepotism, corruption and most forms of powerplay and manipulation are rife here and it starts at the very top. The national government is full of guys with ‘mob’ connections and there has been two assassinations in Zagreb while we have been here. Anyway the local school Principal, (who once told a parent when asked who they could speak to ‘above’ her replied ‘the only person above me is God’ !!!!!!!)  has ‘banned’ three classes from attending the centre and has lined all the other kids up and asked each one of them if they visit the centre. So the children are mortified and confused and it’s all a bit sad really. Hopefully, she will soon find something else to beat up on – we have considered making a voodoo doll and starving it ‘cos she likes her food. We haven’t met her yet but look forward to Friday when we will all be at the opening of the new Rural Cooperative and Rural Development NGO in Slavsko Polje promoting Suncokret’s partnership with the co-op and volunteerism!

In typical Sestak form we have taken on a couple of ‘projects’! Murray spent the first week cleaning out the storeroom/warehouse where furniture, bedding, clothes and other stuff is kept for families in need. He has also become the Suncokret handyman. There are lots of little jobs that need attention so he is working his way through a never-ending list. Tradesmen here have absolutely no pride in their work as far as we can tell. Jobs are only half done if they are even finished or if the tradesman turns up! In our house alone he has so far fixed the kitchen water heater (the plug was out when we arrived because when you put it in it overheated and the smell was bad), unblocked the kitchen drain (the sink was not draining at all), put up a new clothesline (the old one always collapsed under the weight of the wet clothes), unblocked the septic (eeuuw), made us some book shelves and chopped a winters worth of wood! He is now focussed on fixing the driveway to the Suncokret Art & Craft centre, locally known as the Japanese House because it was purchased with funds from the Japanese NGO ‘Kids Earth Fund’. The road up to the Japanese house is very boggy and has lots of holes. We have seen piles of gravel and sand on the sides of the roads (read: one up from a goat track) everywhere around here. Maya explained that the council dump the sand and gravel and it’s up to the local residents to spread it out over the pot holes and boggy bits on the roads but most people just take it home for their own use! 

Tomorrow Murray is helping shift/steal some bricks from the old Suncokret centre which is being pulled down. Then he is also going to help Maya and Predrag with the floor boards in the house they are renovating. All over this area the traditional houses are/were timber. Huge planks hewn like railway sleepers and joined in a “keyed” style. Many were destroyed during the war or have been deserted and are falling down. The government provides brick housing for returnees, which they only complete to lock-up and then the families move in – quite often 2 or 3 generations – with no possessions and no money. So most of the houses look unfinished because they are!  Maya and Predrag are renovating a beautiful old wood house and making it sustainable – solar power, composting toilet and a beautifully restored ceramic tiled wood heater which heats the entire house on a few logs.  Compared to our UNHCR donated wood stove, which must be constantly loaded and stoked to provide any heat for either cooking or comfort, theirs is sustainable even though it burns wood. Anyhoo, the tradesmen that have been helping them renovate are simply a joke! The guy that did the floors (new oak, recycling hardly exists around here) didn’t punch the nails in far enough so the floors need to be sanded by hand as the nails will wreck the floor sander. Murray bought a doover(nail punch) that he can use to punch the nails down and they don’t have to sand on their hands and knees.

Next day…

Murray spent 3 hours today shifting the bricks and then helped Predrag pick a few buckets of grapes which they pressed by hand! They are used for ‘mosht’, which is the juice just before it turns to alcohol and tastes like a yummy sparkling burgundy. Any ‘mosht’ not drunk is made into rakija (grappa).  There is a big copper stil on a trailer, which is towed around behind a tractor to peoples homes to make rakija. Hilarious! It is in constant use and don’t worry about all those plastic bottles from the water they are not wasted at all. There was a death across the road our first week here and everyone (no kidding) who came to pay their respects came with a 1.5lt bottle of water – weird? No, it was rakija – just looked like water.

There have been 3-4 funerals since we arrived. The town has no morgue so the bodies are kept at home until they are buried. We got to check out the finer nuances when our neighbour passed away. The weather was fine that week so all the chairs were outside in the front garden for the wake, which was held before the funeral. Then a tractor with a big trailer pulled up and hey presto here’s the hearse. The service was at the graveside and then everyone went to the town’s big hall for what we thought was the wake but, no. It was for lunch and once it was eaten they all left! Spit spot all 60 people fed in under an hour!

Suncroket has a partnership with the Rural Initiative Development NGO based in Karlovac and the Rural Cooperative in Slavsko Polje. Somehow, in our first week here, we were introduced to these people and my services offered to help them with a mural design for their new centre. Well, they were so thrilled how could I say no? So we had a meeting – in a café over coffee – and went to look at the space and the whole thing turned into bigger than Ben bloody Hur. The design in the community room is over 4 walls covering all the seasons and the changes in the chestnut trees with lots of colour and there will be another mural in the foyer once I catch my breath. The first stage is now finished in time for the grand opening and I will start work on the second stage next week after a bit of R&R. Working 8 hour days is a shock to the system – I need a holiday to recover!!!

We did manage to get away for a long weekend last week to Zagreb for Eva’s birthday. We splashed out on a really cheesey hotel in the centre of town and had a ball. Best thing was long hot showers everyday (our water heater is small and so is the bath and there is no chance of standing up for a hose down). We also ate our first asian meal since leaving Melbourne and it was great. We saw the new James Bond film in a proper cinema – pretty good, went to the Naïve Art Museum – excellent, the Arts & Crafts Museum – good, hit the shops, kids watched a heap of TV, we browsed the flea market, the girls had manicures, we ate take away (also first time since leaving Melb – we were all too tired to go out!!), had the best hot chocolates ever at Vinceks, skyped the Bernardis and Nankovics and took complete advantage of hotel hotspot and ADSL and we went to the Dulac Market and bought a truck load of green vegies – yum! Not bad for a 2 night visit and a birthday that was going to be ‘bad’ because of no friends or family!

Eva’s birthday went on for days. We had a little surprise party for her at the centre on Thursday – we made honey joys and fairy cakes. It was so cute, they all sang happy birthday and then lined up and shook her hand and wished her happy birthday. Then on Friday there were two more cakes at the centre – they weren’t ready in time for Thursday! – and the movie night, new Batman film, which they brought forward an hour so we could have a birthday tea for Eva with Maya and Predrag and 2 new volunteers, Sheena (Scottish) and Loreen (Irish), known locally as the Irish girls. Our girls ran home after the film, it was raining, and left Sheena and Loreen behind so Murray went to collect them and Domagoj, a young boy, gave him a gift for Eva – a red rose and a box of chocolates! 

The kids here are so gorgeous – they happily share everything they have with us and are already asking if we will come back next year in the summer! Our girls are part of the furniture already too. They hang out with all the kids at the centre, playing cards and kidding around. Ruby is as loud as the locals, not hard I know. They are having a lot of fun and enjoying themselves which is great.

Gvozd: There are ~4000 inhabitants in the municipality, ~1000 living in Gvozd.  There are ~120 employed individuals, and ~1000 beneficiaries of Red Cross and 570 households are social welfare beneficiaries.  So the town is poor. Also it is an ageing community hence the number of funerals. There are 250 pupils in a P-8 school in Gvozd. Once an industrial center with many shops and a vibrant community, Gvozd was destroyed during the war and is in the process of return of the Serbian returnee population as well as resettling of Croatian refugees from Bosnia. There are 4 mini-marts, like large milkbars, a weekly market, a chemist, a hardware, a medical clinic, a post office, a police station with 16 policeman (!), a petrol station, a restaurant, 2 hairdressers and upteen cafes (drinks only). Problems persist as there are tensions between returnees and settlers due to issues such as inadequate housing, nepotism, etc.  Gvozd Municipality is also separated and isolated from the wider community.  Poor infrastructure, poor transport connections with larger towns and dislocation make opportunities of both youth and adults living in Gvozd Municipality for living a decent life and inclusion into society difficult. Furthermore, unemployment is extremely high in this area and as a result there is much lethargy and a general lack of motivation. 

Sunckret CCD: The overall project goal is to promote youth participation and social inclusion and encourage civic engagement of youth. The Suncokret Center offers unique and innovative projects and activities for youth. The approach is youth centered and based on modeling, mentoring and informal education. In addition, the activities are intended to facilitate local development through volunteerism, reintegration of Croat settlers/refugees and Serb returnees through educative, skill building, and community activities. The project aims to encourage participation, reintegration and revitalization of this rural postwar area. In addition, the center provides a neutral non-threatening space where all national groups have the opportunity to meet and invaluable skills and competencies can develop and be formed which ultimately contribute to the development of interethnic/national understanding, tolerance and reconciliation. There is very little nationalist tension at the center compared to the community at large, and it provides a safe and interesting place to interact.

The Suncokret Center also strives to be a place where historical and cultural heritage is preserved, shared and enjoyed in a mutually-appreciative atmosphere.  Through participation and education in activities (such as dance, sewing traditional costumes, festivals, crafts, films and exhibitions) various facets of both of the local ethnicities cultures, are passed onto the youth and other interested parties and enjoyed by all.  This establishes a bridge for mutual respect and understanding that is an essential element for community building in a multi-ethnic society.

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