04 June 2006

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

That anyone is the world would care about listening to anything I have to say always shocks me. I am, above all, a very humble person who stumbled into the profession of computers at the perfect moment in time back in the very early 80’s. The DNA inside me lined up correctly to make me compatible with computer technology. Perhaps it is an extension of the inventiveness of my Grandfather that was transferred into me. All I know is that I understand computers and more importantly, I understand how to apply technology to make certain everyday things happen more efficiently. Computers help me make order from chaos.

So here I am sitting in a room overlooking the one tourist attraction in Macedonia – Lake Ohrid. This room sits on the top of an otherwise lackluster hotel but is situated in such a way that all you do see is the Lake outside the windows and the mountains on the other side of the lake which is Albania. The tremendous rain from last night has left us with a spectacular day. The cumulus clouds look like cotton candy floating in the air. The sun is brightly shining and the water is differently illuminated by the sun coming through the gaps between the clouds.

Off to the right side of the lake I can see a Castle. An honest to God Castle built in the 3rd century BC around which the old city of Ohrid is situated. The Castle is in perfect condition and it provides stark testimony to the fact that they built things to last back then. Below the Castle is an Orthodox Church which was built prior to 1058. In the States if something was built in the late 1600’s we make it a national treasure – In Macedonia something built in the 1600’s is considered recent architecture.

All of the sudden I am introduced and I need to stop looking out the Window.

…”Mr. Strachan will now speak to us about his project called Macedonia Connects…”

I am on! This is probably the 40th presentation I have made about Macedonia Connects in the past 12 months. I have grown more comfortable with each presentation but I start them all out the same way…

“I want to thank you all for taking time to hear this presentation. I am always amased that people are here to listen to what I have to say”

I make this statement as much to set myself at ease as to have a good opening line.

“Today I want to tell you about a GREAT project called Macedonia Connects which is responsible for making Macedonia the first all wireless country in the World”

And so I progress through slide after slide of my powerpoint presentation hoping to hit the most important points each time.

“…What Macedonia Connects represents is a successful public private partnership…”

I get to the slide which shows the ice covered mountains of Macedonia and people usually laugh when they see the title of the slide – “Technical Challanges”

“…While this project started as a connectivity for schools activity it grew into a national connectivity solution…”

I am on auto pilot but I am not hitting all of the points I need to make. I sense that I am rushing through it. I pause and I look out the window and see a boat going past and wish I was on the boat.

“Macedonia Connects has received tremendous publicity including the Wall Street Journal, NY Times, Business Week…”

I am almost done at this point. 30 minutes already and it felt like 5. My shirt is getting wet as I perspire during my presentation. Don’t let the audience see you sweat!!

“I will close by saying that my work in Macedonia has been an amasing experience for me and it has been a great project. I believe that our results can be replicated in other countries and I look forward to working on future projects like Macedonia Connects…are there any questions?”

WHEW…it is over, people rarely ever ask questions and when they do they are softball questions.

“…can you please tell us what elements need to be in place in a country before a Macedonia Connects type project can be executed?”

WOW, now that’s a good question. I have an answer. The answer creates more questions. We actually have an exchange of ideas going on here. Time is quickly passing. Question after question and I hit them out of the ballpark, at least I think I do…”

“If there are no other questions for Mr. Strachan I would now like to thank him for his very informative and enlightening presentation. It certainly shows that activities like this are needed throughout the Balkans region”

I heard applause and we go to a break. I just want to head to the bathroom and people come up to me asking for my presentation to be placed on their thumb drive. Some people hand me their business card while others want to ask me questions. I felt like someone with an important message that people wanted to hear.

Within 5 minutes my eyes were on the lake and the beautiful day. My performance was over. I was a little more confident in myself.

Perhaps next time I will simply start the presentation with “Today I want to tell you about a GREAT project called Macedonia Connects which is responsible for making Macedonia the first all wireless country in the World”

01 June 2006

Kosovo – Another Asterisk

I started my blog as a way to share stories about the places I travel and to allow my children to see what I am doing when I am away from them. I have been to Kosovo many times in the past 2 years but decided to write about it after making this latest visit. Nothing humerous happened to me in Kosovo during my two days. Instead, I spent time presenting the work I did in Macedonia and trying to see whether it can be duplicated in Kosovo.

It would be folly to try and understand the complexity of Kosovo unless you suffer from masochistic behaviour and have a spare 20 years to learn it all. What I do understand is that Serbia and Yugoslavia ignored it in a similar way the Russians appear to have ignored Chechnya and hoped it would simply disappear. That ignorance and then outright hostility has brought Kosovo and its residents a great deal of suffering. I walked past the government building where at least 50 pictures of the “missing” are hung. Men and boys long gone but still remembered and most likely buried in some anonymous grave which will never be uncovered. This is a country where Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Wesley Clark have streets named in their honour. They love America because it alone stood against the Serbians desire to seemingly destroy all of Kosovo in the name of ethnic cleansing.

I am writing this as I sit in an internet café in Pristina. Kosovo is the neighbouring land to Macedonia where I have been working and living for nearly 2 years. This Internet café says a lot about Kosovo, at least to me, because I am only 77km away from Skopje where Internet access is ubiquitous yet here it is limited to Cafés and businesses and not consumers. Kosovo is an occupied country being protected by NATO against Serbia. Now that Montenegro has voted to opt out of its relationship with Serbia it leaves Kosovo as the last remaining puzzle piece in former cluster called Yugoslavia. Pristina is a bustling city of nearly 200,000 people in a country of between 1.9 and 2.4 million. It is a poor nation by all standards surrounded by wealthier former Yugoslav Republics. If ever there was a place seeking legitimacy it is Kosovo.

I have been to Kosovo a number of times mostly to catch a flight since they are considerably cheaper than flying from Macedonia. I want to call Kosovo a very small country but at present it is neither a country nor part of Serbia – although I am certain that the Serbs don’t share the same conclusion. Everyone is waiting for the “Kosovo Issue” to be resolved. This means the official sanctioning of it as the newest member state of Europe.

When you talk to people working here most are not positive about the prospects for Kosovo once it becomes a country. Were it not for aid programmes and remittance from the Kosovo Diaspora this country would have nothing other than people who have learned to endure long suffering. I am left to wonder why people hold onto a place which offers so little yet they are willing to die for it.

I am back in Macedonia and I shared some of the stories I heard in Kosovo about the Albanian population of Macedonia and Kosovo. For instance, Skopje used to hold the largest number of ethnic Albanians in the world. The problem was that I shared it with a Macedonian audience and I basically opened a beehive. The tensions between the two ethnicities runs so deep that a simple statement about the relative size of the Albanian population in Macedonia was able to elicit scorn and anger. As I recall, the person who told me the many stories about Albanians was adamant in his support for his ethnicity as well.

I wish that for my own learning experience I could place the person I met in Kosovo in the same room as the person I know here in Macedonia and just listen to their interaction. I would ask HOW WILL YOU EVER RESOLVE THIS? When two people, two religions, two ethnicities claim the same land and have a totally opposed view of history how does anyone ever hope to resolve their differences? I have a greater appreciation for the problems in the Middle East because I see an absolute similar struggle here in Macedonia except no one is dying for their beliefs – at least right now they aren’t.

I have one other observation from my time living here - no country can be run affectively in two languages. While biligualism is a hallmark of Europe there must be an agreed upon single language which is used to transact government business and the education system. Here in Macedonia so much is tied to Macedonian/Orthodoxy and Albanian/Muslim that they are too blind to recognise that the best way to run a country is in a single language. In the case of Macedonia it needs to be Macedonian. People who don't learn to speak Macedonian will be left behind within the national economy leading to uneeded poverty.

This is a lesson that America is learning now. I have always been a supporter of biligualism in America but there can only be one working language otherwise there will be people trapped on the other side of the language barrier and that often results in poverty.