Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Until next summer...

Summer is officially over here in Pogradec…It was remarkably and uncomfortably hot here the past few weeks and I was vocally counting down the days until fall. In fact, it has been hot enough here that my professional dress attire at work has taken a turn for the worse. I have been telling people: “Jam gati për dimër,” meaning I am ready for winter. In response, my Albanian friends have employed scare tactics on me…perhaps so that my wishes and hopes do not induce an early winter, but maybe also to prepare me for what is in store. First they say that there really is no fall here but that we move quite rapidly into a persistently cold winter. Then, they keep asking me if I have a wood-burning stove. The answer is no. Instead, I have this electric heater, which might be nice because I will not be at risk for accidentally burning significant portions of my skin. Unfortunately, it also means my electric bill will probably exceed what Peace Corps allocates to me for utilities and it will do a very bad job at keeping me warm when the electricity is out. Well, one of the old ladies that lives on the first floor of my building told me that last week summer was over. I was not sure if I believed her at the time because it was still hot. Now I believe her. It is actually cold here at night and it is raining today for the first time in a couple of weeks. Ahh…the joys of not sweating around the clock. Cold or not, I am looking forward to this perk. My friend Bruna took me shopping to buy a wonderfully soft, cozy, and warm blanket that will be my favorite possession this winter. What she failed to tell me was that when girls buy these blankets, it signifies they are preparing for marriage. Oh my….

This Saturday will mark my 24th week of living in Albania. That means I am approaching the sixth month mark of my service….one half of a year and one quarter of my entire service. This realization puts a lot into perspective for me. I have to really get my rear end in gear so that I can graduate from George Washington in a timely manner. Unfortunately, I realize that I am too idealistic and ambitious when it comes to my culminating experience project (thesis) that it will be impossible for me to implement unless I simplify a bit. It also means that I need to move into preparation and execution modes for applying to medical school. The combination of these stresses and the continuous process of adapting to a new country and culture propelled me into the culture shock/depressive stage. The newness of Albania wore off and I was disillusioned by a lot of things, including work ethic in the office, gender norms, lack of Mexican food, etc. Fortunately for me, I have incredible site mates and a wonderful Peace Corps family that brought me back with positivity and excitement.

Most of us are gearing up for the busy work schedule we anticipate (which means we could quite possibly be setting ourselves up for disappointment) once school starts again on September 6th. There are the last minute trips visiting other volunteers and enjoying the final stretch of circle dancing for the summer. As Pogradec volunteers, we have been quite fortunate because other volunteers want to visit our beautiful site and us before summer is over. Two weeks ago we had an influx of volunteers that came to attend the beer fest in Korça, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Pogradec. The beer fest was a great opportunity to reunite with other volunteers, drink $0.50 beer, eat incredibly delicious shish kebab chicken, and explore a new city. They had live music that ranged from head banging rock music, to hilarious covers of corny American music, and Albanian rap music. I loved the slogan of the festival: Gjithmonë ka një vënd për një birrë! (Always has a place for a beer).

At the end of the day, the beer festival was such a blast because of the good company I was with…

Last weekend Brad had a couch surfer from Spain stay at his place. This guy heard of a place in the mountains of Pogradec called Kabash that had beautiful waterfalls. Of course we decide we had to go check it out. We did not know where to go and tried to ask some of the natives along the way. They tried to direct us to the furgons that would drive us there and when we told them we wanted to hike there they proceeded to think we were out of our minds. So, we were left to follow our instinct in our eager search of the esteemed waterfalls. We decided that the best approach would be to follow the river up the mountain figuring it would lead us to our destination. On the way up, we noticed that the river became increasingly polluted. No matter how long we live here, the trash always disappoints.

We also had to walk through a Roma community, which I particularly enjoyed. I think the children are beautiful and I even got some fantastic high fives, which left some stinging. Also, the kids were the most helpful in pointing us in the right direction to Kabash. The only scary thing about this area was the known presence of stray dogs. Matt and Brad had hiked through this area before and were followed by barking dogs the whole time they were there.

The Spaniard was petrified of being attacked by a dog and picked up the biggest rocks he could find to use as weapons in case of an attack. He freaked me out by his paranoia so much so that I even found a rock myself. Luckily, the dogs could have cared less about us and our limbs were spared.

The trail led a lot to be desired as we approached the waterfall. In fact, there really was not a trail at all and we had to channel our inner leapfrog as we hopped from rock to rock back and forth across the river. Only once did I accidently miss a rock and nearly fall into the river (don’t worry, it was not very deep). Thankfully, though unfortunately for him, Brad was close enough to me where I could grab him and save myself. We finally arrived at the waterfalls and though they were not as big as we were expecting, it was a beautiful site.

We also heard of a church nearby so we decided to hike up some more to the church. Finding the church also revealed an actual trail that we decided to take on the way down. It was an especially refreshing trail considering the route we took up to Kabash. It also came with one of my favorite views of Pogradec.

This past weekend we had some more special company in town and decided to hike back up to the church and have a picnic. I agreed only on the condition that we found the trail we used on the descent the previous time and Brad agreed. He said he would have no problem finding that trail. During the initial part of the hike, we found a trail but it kept going up and did not really resemble what we remembered from the previous weekend. We looked around and realized we were significantly higher than the church. We found this little path that headed down and so we decided we should probably take it in the hope that it would lead us to the appropriate trial. I almost feel that it was not a trail at all but instead a dense forest of pokey trees and bushes. After swinging through trees, climbing through bushes, falling on my butt, and receiving numerous lashings from tree limbs we made it through the forest miraculously at the church. At this point we were all drenched in our own sweat and exhausted from the adventure we had. But, we had a great lunch and found some fresh cold water along the way.

Finally, I know I am in Albania when the lokali (bar/coffee shops) only let guys go upstairs if there is a girl with them. We suspect that it provides opportunity for making out in a turp (shame) – free way, though I have yet to observe said behavior. Anyway, it is a good thing I am here for my site mates and the other male volunteers because I can be their wing girl (well, except for Steven). When they want to meet a pretty Albanian girl I can go with them so that they can have access to the girls’ hang out on the top floor.

I do admit that it is fun checking out the girls. I am learning a lot about my site mates by their preference in the ladies. Also, I
can observe the interesting and intimidating Albanian fashion scene.

This is the coolest toilet I have ever seen on the beach…

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rite of Passage

I was recently told that I have been doing an inadequate job when it comes to updating my blog…thank you for your continued interest in my Peace Corps experience! I will make a concerted effort to update more often!

I am taken aback by the fact we are already in August. I have been thinking about what a whirlwind my life has been, especially in the last year. One year ago, I was about to begin my last fall semester at GW and I was worried beyond belief about where Peace Corps would be sending me. It honestly does not feel like a whole year has passed and that I have officially been in Albania for 5 months now. In fact, this will be my 21st week.

During pre-service training we were told that as health education volunteers the summer months would be incredibly slow. A substantial portion of health education in Albania takes place in the schools. Therefore, during summer vacation our counterparts often take their “pushim” or vacation time. I have been very lucky to have an eager and passionate counterpart that has continuously sought out opportunities for us to provide family planning education to the surrounding villages. Recently, we have expanded our education to include breast feeding and using uninterrupted breast-feeding as a form of birth control. My coworkers make fun of me about how much I study Shqip, but the truth is that it is completely worthwhile because I am able to actually understand the women’s comments and concerns and it helps to better understand where education is needed regarding family planning. Last week, one of the women got upset that we were talking about condoms because she said they were only for Africa. On one hand it is promising that she knows what condoms are and that they protect against HIV/AIDS, but it emphasizes how important our health education is going to be in order to counter the misunderstandings and assumptions about the various family planning methods available.

In addition to my work at the Directorate of Public Health, I have started volunteering at Nehemia. My time at this organization has already proved to be fruitful in allowing me to meet more members of the community, get health experience on home visits with the nurses, and get some education experience by helping out in the kindergarten. The home visits are incredible, to say the least. The patients that Nehemia visit are unable to seek treatment at the health centers in the city or need continuous treatment by a caregiver. All patients apply for the home visit program and then are visited by a social worker. If they are eligible for the services, they will be entered into the program. These home visits are so exciting for me because I get the chance to observe provider-patient communication, bed-side manners, I get to learn more about health conditions and treatments, and it gives me an opportunity to enrich my passion for medicine.

Language classes have also resumed for me. Twice a week Brad, Matthew, and I have language classes with a professor that worked with the previous Peace Corps volunteers in Pogradec. At first I thought we were starting off with too basic of information…but today I was struggling. On some days I can get a pretty good grip of the grammar, but today it showed me who was boss. Otherwise, I know I am progressing well with the language. I no longer feel a pressing need to bring my dictionary with me everywhere I go. I was also able to purchase Internet for my apartment and communicate with the installers without a need for a translator or that trusty dictionary. Though, that does not mean I understand everything. I have realized that if I am tired, the Shqip-speaking part of my brain becomes completely non-functional. I have also acquired a skill that allows me to fully block out sound of people speaking Shqip when they are speaking too fast. In this circumstance, it allows me to preserve my self-confidence because as the speed of the conversation increases, it begins to sound like one continuous, unrecognizable word and then I do not understand. Still, I am eagerly looking forward to that day when I am “fluent.”

With work, volunteering, and language classes, I find my weeks to be pretty full before they even begin. My weeks are never too busy, though, for taking in the sites and enjoying my time here in Albania. Ever since we moved to Pogradec, my site mates and I have wanted to visit a beautiful village called Lin that is located right over the mountain when you first approach Lake Ohrid from Elbasan. As you can see from the view, it is enticing…

We had heard that there was a very nice and generally unpopulated beach there. So, we thought we would be adventurous and see what Lin had to offer. We got to the village and just walked straight along the main road. We kept our eyes out for the beach and were not seeing any obvious sign of a beach beyond the private beach visible along the houses. Along the way we saw some spectacular sites.

Before we knew it, the road led us to a hiking trail. We were in beach attire, meaning I was wearing a summer dress and flip-flops, and Brad was carrying our beach umbrella. But, we were determined to find this unpopulated beach we read about in the tourist book. We should have been suspicious because the book also mentioned that if we were interested in the village’s history we should seek out an elderly man that would be more than happy to tell us about Lin. Who knows how long ago our tourism book was published and whether or not that man still lives in Lin. Anyway, we decided to hike into the unknown. We kept going and going. In the distance there seemed to be a beach, but we never reached it because we were dismayed by the seemingly endless marsh. Fortunately, Brad was proactive and climbed through the bushes to find a way for us to reach the water. What he did not know at the time was that the bushes were stinging nettle plants. After learning they were stinging nettle, I made the wise decision not to inflict stinging pain on myself all over my exposed skin. So, I left the boys and tried to find a less risky entry point to the water. I found a path with less plants, but still got a little bit of a sting by that terrible stinging nettle. Even after all of this I did not jump in and enjoy the lake. I was mortified by the presence of snakes on this side of the lake and I could not get over the abundance of algae. The view alone, however, was worth it all.

On the way back out of Lin, we noticed the beach was on the opposite side of the road when you first enter the town. Oops.

We have also been pretty active in Pogradec this summer. There was recently a concert of sorts in the center of the city. They have this American Idol/ So You Think You Can Dance competition for adolescents and the top youth went on tour throughout Albania. It was a pretty entertaining concert if you like blaring loud music that literally vibrates everything within (at least) a two-mile radius, lip singing, non-choreographed group dancing, and a continuous reminder that Albanians do not have a personal space boundary. But at the end of the night, we had a great time. We were able to enjoy some dancing with great company. I would like all my devoted Pepsi drinkers to take note of their sponsorship of the event.

The end of July also brought us Connie’s three legitimate birthdays. It’s true, she has three and she is not even being greedy about it. According to her birth certificate, her family’s recollection of her birth, and the medical records, she has three birthdays: July 26th-28th. The first night we all went out to dinner. The second night we went dancing at Euro Korca, which is a hotel along the xhiro (boulevard where people walk back and forth) that has a dancing stage set up outside where people circle dance. For the longest time Connie promised us that they had circle dancing there but we never saw it. Now we believe her and it was an absolute blast. We danced and danced and danced. We were even able to keep up with the faster songs. There was only one instance where Connie lost her shoe and I thought I was going to have to forfeit the dance for laughing so hard. I never thought Peace Corps was going to be this much fun. We also noticed that the women do this impressive shoulder shake. It is not the shimmy, because I can do that. But it is a movement of just the shoulders at a rate that I do not think I am capable of in this moment. I hope to acquire this skill before my service is over. It will be an inherent part of my perceived success.

Finally, I took my own mini-pushim and traveled back to Belësh to visit my host family. They invited me to a wedding in the village and so it was a perfect opportunity for me to go back to my “Albanian roots.” The road to Belësh from Elbasan was newly paved. Before, it was the bumpiest road I think I have traveled up to this point in Albania. It was most certainly unpleasant on those days we were traveling back from Elbasan with five of us shoved into the backseat. As soon as I got to the door, my host mother ran down the stairs and gave me a great big hug. I immediately felt at home and had almost forgotten how important that feeling is. My host father’s aunt was over for a visit and so I met her for the first time and she gave me more kisses than I have ever received in a greeting. The baby, Ansila, has grown so much in the 10 weeks since I moved to Pogradec. She is smiling now and I was elated with all the goofy faces I got to make for her to smile. Eventually, she started to smile at me every time I looked at her, even if I did not make a face.

My host mother’s sister, Gerta, also came into town from Durres. She stayed in Belësh for the first two weeks I lived with the host family. She became a really close friend and it was wonderful to spend more time with her as well.

The wedding itself was a blast, as is to be expected at an Albanian wedding. The wedding was in the village at the place where most weddings are celebrated there. The bride was my host father’s cousin. Weddings are such a big deal that his brother working in Italy and his brother working in Greece both came back with their families. As such, we had quite the wedding party.

Of course, we engaged in circle dancing. One of the servers that remembered me from when I lived there told me “bravo” as we were leaving because I guess he was surprised that I could circle dance. I did miraculously forget to mentally and physically prepare for the terribly loud music that is associated with every Albanian wedding. I am not sure how I could have had such a lapse in judgment. Unfortunately, our table was right next to the speaker and I seriously thought my ears were going to bleed by the end of the wedding. Luckily for me, my hearing is generally still in tact.

Now time for the “I know I’m in Albania when…” segment:
• Students in the high schools are taking an exam for entry into the university and all my coworkers are sending text messages to students to give them answers
• The mother that asked me to marry her son came to our office to tell me about all the benefits her son would bring to my life and offered me the proposal again
• I ran into a coworker that just retired while walking home one day and she looked down my shirt to see whether or not I have been going to the beach
• I was literally kidnapped at work because they said I was working too hard and needed a break before I got too tired.
• I have officially received my “rite of passage” into the Peace Corps Volunteer family by having had giardia…

Friday, July 9, 2010


I have been living in Pogradec for over a month now. At this point, I am officially considering myself to be a Pogradecare. Apparently this is coming off to others as well, but this is starting to complicate matters because when I meet some new Albanians I have to argue with them about how I am not Albanian but am fully American. Sometimes they take this to mean I am Albanian but happened to be born in America. My solution is to say that I am American but Albanian at heart…they think this is cute.

The last couple of weeks have been particularly busy, but enjoyable. I will just share the highlights to spare you from my own overindulgence of reflection. Two weeks ago I was invited to travel to Tirana, the capital, to assist a presentation being made by Peace Corps at the Institute of Public Health. One of the group 12 volunteers put in a lot of work and time to prepare the presentation she gave (entirely in Shqip) on making lesson plans for a group of health educators (including many of our counterparts). Traditionally, the health educators review the information available to them and then regurgitate the information in their lesson. Our responsibility as health education volunteers is to enhance their capacity to plan for a lesson that is more interactive and engaging. The golden standard for health education right now is to prepare a lesson plan that identifies target population, goal, objectives, materials needed to conduct the lesson, a comprehensive outline of the lesson, then revisiting the lesson plan after the lesson to make a reflection of what worked well and what did not, and making any modifications where deemed necessary. I am trying to study these words in Shqip so that I can relay this information to the nurses in my unit. Wish me luck.

While in Tirana, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore. I have decided that my sense of direction is only fully functional in Tirana, for some reason, because I was able to find my way around the city with no problem at all. I was so proud of my ability to find the Peace Corps office on my own the first time given that the only other time I had been there was on our tour of the capital. One of the best parts about Tirana is that they sell avocado. That’s right, avocado! The next time I go to the capital, I am going to bring another bag to be filled with avocados. I will proceed to make guacamole and freeze it for strategic consumption over time. Another unique characteristic of Tirana, and this country in general, is the colorful painting on buildings. Along the “river road” there are many buildings with the most colorful and interesting paint jobs I have ever seen. Apparently the mayor provided funding for the beautification of the city and this is at least one of the outcomes.

And this is how much Albania loves America…

Work-wise, things have been progressing along and we have been productive. The director wanted us to focus on family planning this month and so we have been traveling to the villages around Pogradec to talk to women there about the various contraceptive methods available to them. Albania has a “Planifikimi Familiar” emblem that is placed on all clinics where contraceptive methods are available for free. For the villages, these family planning clinics are within the community health centers but the cities typically have their own separate family planning clinics. One of the villages we visited had this family clinic located in a classroom at the local kindergarten. In general, the resources in these clinics are very limited. The villages are on a water schedule and so during the day, working hours, there is no running water. As such, the expected normalcy of hand washing by health professionals in the US is not thought of much here. These village clinics do not have the capacity to run tests or to use basic diagnostic tools for complicated health matters. Instead, the patients are referred to larger clinics. First, it seems they are referred to specialized care centers here in Pogradec. Afterwards, if the medical condition is serious, the patient is referred to Tirana. Of course, many families cannot afford to travel to these cities let alone afford the prescriptions and tests they will have to pay for. Back to family planning…it has been an interesting project for us. Many of the village women have not been exposed to modern contraceptive methods or are unaware that they are available for free. The women get so embarrassed during these lessons, especially during the condom demonstrations. Sometimes they start laughing uncontrollably (sometimes even to the point of crying) and other times they turn bright red. At one of the villages this week, Qibrie was giving the condom demonstration and of course the women were laughing. At this same moment, the donkey right outside the window started making its ridiculous noise, which managed to make the situation even more awkward for the women. I thought one woman was going to fall off the chair because she was laughing so hard. We are going to continue focusing on family planning through August, including having a project on the beach where we set up a booth and give family planning education. Qibrie envisions having a seriously oversized condom to draw attention. I am not sure what I think about this idea so far…

I have also established a working relationship with another organization operating here in Pogradec, called Nehemia. It is a German, Christian organization that is quite impressive in terms of the reach it has with education, social work, medicine, and even religion. It is really an honor to get to work with this organization. Last week I was invited to attend an organizational event in Peshkëpi, a village just outside Pogradec. Nehemia was celebrating the inauguration of their mission house and a community center there. This community center will be a space for the community to have their meetings and cultural events. Also, the organization will run a soup kitchen out of it during the evenings. Nehemia also operates a school and a medical clinic there. All of the employees were so nice and welcoming.

For the rest of July, I will be working at Nehemia in Buçimas once I get off of work, another village just outside Pogradec, helping the social work department with their summer projects and events. At the end of July, I will move to Pogradec to work with Amarotan, the Roma school. At this school they have a very well developed social work department and they provide medical care to the students, whch I am particularly interested in.

I have a very important introduction to make: last week we had a new addition to Team Pogradec. Brad, a volunteer from my group who was previously assigned to another town, was moved to Pogradec. He will be teaching English which means we now have all the Peace Corps sectors in Pogradec (community development, health education, and teaching English as a foreign language). Brad was moved from his previous site because they did not have adequate housing for him and his site mate there. I personally think he got a pretty good deal out of this whole ordeal because Pogradec is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and he has some great site mates, if I do say so myself…

On a fun note, I have just experienced my very first birthday and Fourth of July in Albania. My birthday was great. I had to work during the day, and afterwards I had dinner with my site mates and Steven at Connie’s house. The food was delicious, as always, and I even had an Albanian cake with candles. It was a special birthday because of the company I had, so thank you all for making it so memorable.

For the Fourth of July, my site mates and I decided to walk to Vila Art, which is the place where Enver Hoxha, the previous communist dictator, used to go for his vacations. Connie said the only authentic part now is the chimney in the main house, but that is ok for me. Now, it is a primary tourist attraction of Pogradec. Essentially it is a park with beautiful flowers, trees, ponds, boats, and swans. We decided to relax, drink a beer and eat French fries in honor of our holiday. Connie even brought some peanut butter with crackers as an American treat. It was pretty dang amazing…I guess I am missing peanut butter more than I let on, which is interesting because I did not eat a lot of it when I lived in America. I guess you always want what you can’t have. On the way back, Brad took us to a place where he saw a sign for hot dogs. We all thought they would not really be hot dogs, but in fact they were!

So, it looks like we celebrated the Fourth of July appropriately. Oh, and we even had fireworks! On July 3rd, a beach bar had its opening night. Given there were so many of us interested in seeing what it was like, we decided to go. At exactly midnight they had fireworks! We pretended they were for us and for the Fourth of July.

When I look back at my experience so far, I think I am starting to get so well adjusted to life in Albania that I no longer take notice of the things that stood out to me in the beginning. As such, I am deliberately trying to take note of the occurrences and observations I have which remind me I am in Albania:
• The adolescent and young adult males walk around with what we affectionately call the “çuni roll.” This is where they pull up their shirt so that their belly is hanging out. Apparently this is their preferred method of cooling off but makes me laugh every time. Could you imagine if I picked up this habit?
• The local government ordered road spikes to be inserted into a road that leads to the city center as a way to enforce the one-way rule. First, the spikes are metal so when you are driving over them, they make this horrible clanking noise. It would be terrible if you lived on that corner because I am sure you would hear it at all hours of the day. They also did not put a sign telling people that if you are going the right direction, the spikes will go down with no problem and your tires will not be damaged. Some drivers stop and wonder whether or not they should go over them. Other drivers will come and honk which only flusters the driver in question even more. Now, some people have put these wooden planks over the spikes so that they no longer make the clanking noise and so they can drive the wrong way (I am sure). I noticed today that the wooden planks have nails sticking up which probably will manage to pop some tires no matter if they are going in the right direction or not.
• This week, the laboratory at the Directorate of Public Health, where I work, has been testing beer for their content.
• Water problems have continued in my apartment. This time, I have droplets of water that are falling from the ceiling in my bathroom. They usually appear in the evening and persist until the morning. At first, there would be one or two drops but they would not disturb toilet activity. Now, the water droplets have extended across the width of the bathroom ceiling, which means that I am experiencing potentially poopy water droplets during all toilet activity that takes place in the evening and morning. I will not lie; I have waited to use the bathroom facilities until I get to work just to avoid the icky water. I have communicated this problem to my landlords, but they say it is not their problem, that it is the problem of the residents above me. Pieces of ceiling are falling these days…I have a serious fear I will die on the toilet when the ceiling falls in on me.
• There is an overall resistance to change and work here. People complain regularly how there is no work, even at work. But at the directorate when I propose that we do a new summer project or event, I hear that it is impossible, they do not have enough resources to make anything happen. Maybe this is the case, I have never held a summer event, but we will never know if we do not try. Speaking of work, I have also observed how it is acceptable for the men to be intoxicated off of raki (the local alcoholic beverage) at any hour of the day.
• I have received serious marriage proposals at work and on the street. Today for instance, I was walking with Qibrie and we met one of her friends. She was asking about where I am from, what I do, and the usual and so I was responding. Then she got very serious about how she has a 30-year-old son that she wants me to meet. Qibrie just started laughing and told her that I am already taken because she has a 25-year-old son for me. There was even one time where women at a garment factory interrupted the presentation on blood donation to offer their sons for marriage. Now Qibrie is even teasing me about marrying the new psychologist in our unit….interesting.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ujë, Dasma, Punë, dhe Pushim

The last two weeks were quite eventful, including water explosions, my first Albanian wedding, a lot of work, and fun time.

My second week at site started out really promising. School was wrapping up for the spring signifying that the Education and Promotion unit was frantically trying to finish up all the health education it could do at the schools before summer break. The last topic to cover was drug education, including peer pressure. My counterpart was unsure of how to plan the lesson and so I took that as an open invitation to propose a more interactive activity. To ease her into the idea of activities as part of her promotion work, I proposed a role-play for the students that would emphasize the life skill of overcoming peer pressure related to drug consumption. She liked the idea and allowed me to draft up two scenarios – one that demonstrated a student overcoming peer pressure and refusing drugs, and one that demonstrated a student that succumbed to peer pressure and accepted a drug offer. She liked them both, said “I love you,” and before I knew it we were having the students doing the skit during the lessons.

Unfortunately, not everything in life can continue to go so well. One evening I was finally at home and relaxing when it was as if life said: “Not so fast!” Before I knew it, I was enduring my first water explosion in the kitchen. The pipes burst under the kitchen sink and in the blink of an eye my entire kitchen was flooded with water. I am not sure I ever have jumped up off the couch so quickly but I had to because I had no idea where to turn the water off and so I had to run across the hall to ask for help from the neighbors. It is actually comical now when I think back because I was so freaked out that I could only say: “Kam problem i madh me ujë” (I have a big problem with water). Luckily, they were able to help me right away to turn off the water to the kitchen and shuttle buckets of water onto the balcony. My landlords came by the next day to check out the kitchen and to identify what parts they needed to buy for the repair. Life wanted to test me one more time that night, around 2 am. I woke up from a dead sleep to the sounds of another, more aggressive water explosion. This time, the problem was in the bathroom. At this point, I run straight into the bathroom to confirm my worst fears and also because this is where I have to go to turn off the water. As soon as I stepped foot into the bathroom I was completely drenched with freezing cold water because it turned out that the pipes were exploding in all directions imaginable. I tried to turn off the water but it is so tight that really you need pliers to get it to turn enough. I had no choice but to wake up my neighbors, again. It was so sad because they were also in a dead sleep. This explosion was a little bit more serious due to the amount of water coming out. There was even a pipe in the hallway that burst so their front doors were also in jeopardy. Luckily, one of my neighbors brought a pair of pliers and we were able to turn off the water enough to where we could relieve the remaining pressure by keeping the bathroom sink running. I am happy to report that it has been about a week and all water problems have been remedied.

Later on in the second week, I was able to attend my first Albanian wedding! I love learning about the Albanian wedding traditions because they are quite complex and deliberate. From my understanding, there are generally three weddings – one for the bride, one for the groom, and then one joint wedding.

Matthew and I attended the wedding of our friend Alda (the bride’s wedding), whom we met the very first weekend we lived here in Pogradec. Matthew had been worrying a little bit more about how the dynamics would be once we got to the wedding, if we would be able to figure out what to do, and when to do it. I, on the other hand, was completely nonchalant and excited about even getting the chance to go to a wedding. Apparently I ought to have been a little more concerned because when we got there, the room was full and we had no idea where to sit. Everyone just looked at us. Fortunately, that was the most awkward moment. We just sat down at a table and they started serving us loads of food. We went over to “Gezuar” (cheers) the bride and then I think people felt better about whether or not we were supposed to be there.

The music and circle dancing were the most noticeable features of the wedding right off the bat. I have heard from other volunteers and even Albanians that weddings have very loud music. Some volunteers were smart enough to cut up earplugs so that they were not noticeable in their ears…unfortunately, Matthew and I did not think that far in advance. At times my ears actually hurt. It was funny because when there was a break in the music, it sounded like we were in the ocean. The dancing was incredible, though! There was a group of younger girls that liked to circle dance. They noticed us watching intently and invited us to dance. So, we joined the circle and we were on our way! They were pretty impressed with our skills, but I did not have the heart to tell them that my counterpart practiced the dance with me just before I left work. We did not dance the whole time, because certain dances were reserved for the family. As the family members would circle dance, other family and friends would come up and throw money at them or place the money on their forehead or on the top of their head.

The wedding party had a lot of little helpers that would dive down to collect the money and would run to the bag where the money was being collected.

For the most of the wedding ceremony, only the bride’s family and friends were in attendance. The bride’s immediate family went around and greeted every person there. Her brother told Matthew and I that he could tell right away we were American (I thought great, are we that obvious?). Luckily, his sister told him we were coming and he was looking out for us. About three-quarters of the way through, the groom and his party arrived. The bride’s party all lined up and greeted them as they made their way into the building.

I thought it was really interesting. It was the way for the bride’s family and friends to welcome the groom into their family. At one point, the bride and the groom got on top of a table. Alda’s grandmother also got up there and presented him with gifts. After the groom and his party left, we continued to dance for a little bit longer. Then the party ended, which was good because my feet could not take dancing any longer in mini, non-Albanian sized heels. Overall, it was an incredible experience. It was so much fun going to the wedding and meeting the family in the way we did. I hope I will be able to keep in touch with Alda and her brother because they are back in the US. Maybe we can have a reunion when I am finished with my service here.

At the end of the week, I had seven volunteers stay with me because we were all attending the Gender and Development conference being held here in Pogradec. I was happy to see so many of the other volunteers again. I know it had only been about two weeks since swearing in, but we were all so used to seeing each other everyday during training. The conference was interesting. I think that there were too many cooks in the kitchen with so many extra volunteers eager to get their hands on something. There were seven girls that attended the conference from Pogradec. I did not have a chance to meet them prior to the conference, but I was really elated to see how bright and passionate they were. I am hoping to keep in contact with the girls whether or not our activities are GAD related. While in Pogradec, we made sure to have a little fun as well. I have been secretly wanting to jump into one of the many boats that line the lake but have been too chicken to do it on my own. Thankfully, Katie was there to cross off one of the activities on my Albania bucket list.

One of the other items on my Albanian bucket list was to take one of the paddleboats out on the lake and go swimming. I am happy to report this has also been accomplished. Matthew, Katie, and I hopped on paddleboat 13 as a sort of tribute to our Group 13 volunteers.

After swimming, laughing, eating watermelon, and learning how to get back on the paddleboat from the water (a technique we like to call beached whale), we were ready to call it a day. That is until we saw the seesaw. I am pretty sure the children thought we were crazy, but then they were also more excited about this part of the playground after they saw how much fun we were having…

After this our batteries were recharged and we were back to work. Katie and I headed to Permet to meet with some of the other health volunteers working in the South. Catherine had planned a seminar for us to discuss a project for collaboration. The intention is for all of us to create a health education video that can be shown each month at all of our permanent sites. This would give us eight full months work with a new health topic that has never been covered previously by the Peace Corps. I appreciate the guidance and support the group 12 health volunteers are giving us with this opportunity and I am excited to have such an intense project to start off with considering that the summer months have a tendency to be a little bit slow for health volunteers because schools are out for the summer.

Permet itself is also a very beautiful town.

It is known as the city of roses. Before I got to Permet, all the women at the office were telling me about how many roses there are in the city. When I got there, however, I did not really see too many flowers. I learned that after 1997 there stopped being so many roses. Most Albanians I have encountered do not discuss 1997 too often because it was a really difficult year for the country. There was a civil war that broke out and six Permet residents were killed.

Finally, a tradition in Permet is to hike up City Rock, which of course we had to do. When I first saw this rock, I was a little worried that we would be scaling the wall. Luckily for us, there are stairs that lead you all the way to the top, albeit stairs that are a little wobbly and slanted. But, the view from atop the rock is worth it because you can see all of Permet and the surrounding area.

Random event for the week: I received a call today from a Peace Corps staff member (which always worries me a little because I wonder what they are calling for). She said that she had a weird call for me because there was a woman from the DC office that wanted to talk to me. So, I say OK. It turns out she works at Peace Corps headquarters in DC with the Private Sector Initiatives. She is traveling in Albania right now to learn about some of the Peace Corps Partnership Programs being conducted. She is the sister of one of my sorority sisters back in Colorado. It is such a small world! I have to say that it meant a lot to hear from her. I feel I am in good hands now that I know she is working at headquarters and a call from a fellow Coloradan always makes my day!

Monday, June 7, 2010

One week in...

At the end of my first official week in Pogradec, I am feeling content and confident that I will be able to realize my full service in this city. My first week was nothing but productive - I was productive nesting in my apartment, productive in establishing relationships in the workplace, productive in cooking for myself, and productive in terms of exploring my new home.
One of the most consistent pieces of advice I received from returned Peace Corps volunteers was to make sure you make your house your own as quickly as possible. I employed this tactic and was surprised by how quickly the space felt like my own. I rearranged some of the items left in the house and created a picture wall of my friends and family that have inspired me over the years. So, whenever I am having a rough day, I’ll look at my picture wall and be ready to go again. Here are some pictures of my house and the view from my balcony.

Work is definitely going to be a unique opportunity and challenge. I am no longer intimidated by the fact that no one in my office speaks English, but am learning how to catch on quickly and/or pretend that I am. Really I am getting quite good at writing down words I don’t know and looking them up later. Qibrie also finds it especially exciting to teach me a few random new words everyday and then she will test me on them the next day. Those are definitely the words I study every night! For example, mornica is goosebumps (because I have them almost all the time in the building) and çorape is socks. We did three antismoking lessons in the middle and high schools in the first week. For each one, I did my sponge demonstration that we used during our practicum in Belesh to demonstrate how difficult it becomes for the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen after being exposed to smoke. Sometimes it is amusing because the male students do not think I can understand Shqip right now and so they will say inappropriate comments, to which Qibrie will yell at them, or to which I decide to respond and startle them. My name in Shqip is spelt Stejsi and they often find it hilarious to start calling me Strejsi, which just so happens to mean stress. I hope this is just a coincidence and has nothing to do with my character or my tendency to stress about things...I mean, how could they know this already? The students keep this job interesting and I am looking forward to all the experiences we will have with them.

Cooking has also been quite interesting. It is not like I never cooked for myself before, but chips and salsa and Mexican food are not so easy to come by here. As such, I am learning to broaden my horizons out of pure necessity. The first thing I made was tarator, a traditional Albanian salad. It is actually pretty simple, it is made with yogurt, grated cucumber and leek, and some olive oil. Then I decided to get really fancy and bake my own bread. Theoretically it is not too difficult, but after I already prepared the dough, I realized that my oven does not actually have a dial so I can never know what temperature the oven is at. Unfortunately, that meant my bread came out especially yeasty. Maybe I’ll just stick to vegetable soup and rice dishes.

Another piece of advice we received as we became official volunteers was to be sure to get out of the house every single day. Thus far I have been able uphold this piece of advice and have gone out on new adventures. Every time I go out I think of it as an opportunity to meet someone new. The first weekend Matthew and I met this girl that is from Pogradec but has been living in Wisconsin for the past 11 years or so. She has returned because she is getting married. She invited us to her wedding the second week of June and we quickly accepted her invitation. This will be our first Albanian wedding and are both perhaps too eager to engage in some circle dancing fun. I also met a 12 year old boy named Mario that works at the coffee shop with wireless internet. Since we started going there, he has been communicating in both English and Shqip to us but always hesitated because he did not quite know what we spoke. Yesterday we both realized that the other speaks English. Let me just say that this kid is incredible! He has been teaching himself English. They start teaching English in the schools here in grade three, but he wanted to learn before that and taught himself. He was two full classes ahead of his peers by the time it was offered to him. Because he is so far ahead, he goes to the library to read the English books there. I asked what kind of books and he said chemistry, physics, and math because those are the only kind of books that are available. He wanted to show me some of the essays he has written in his English class and I was really blown away. Not only was his English impressive for a non-native, 12 year old, he was also expressing deep philosophical perspectives that I am not even sure I could write about in English. Then last night after dinner we went walking along the lake with the only intention of buying these delicious doughnuts that we know all too well are keq për shëndet (bad for health). This was a success but we also stumbled upon a concert in the city center. They lip-sang Albanian music and there was even a stand-up comic (we did not understand but elected to laugh when everyone else did). I love these random moments more than I can say.

Over the weekend my site mates and I went to Korca just to visit a new city. We went to the open market there which is far larger than what we have in Pogradec. Luckily I was able to find more knock-off undies!

Korca is a beautiful city. This church is newly built and stunning to look at. Also, the school here was the very first school in Albania.

Here are two of my favorite views in Pogradec: (I am not sure why I love the peeing fountain but I think it is hilarious!)

Though there have been many wonderful experiences as an official Peace Corps volunteer, my first week also had some downsides. My apartment gets especially quiet sometimes and it gives me too much time to think about how I miss friends and family. I do not think this feeling is ever going to get better with time. I think it is going to be an ongoing challenge that is unique to this type of experience. Also, I experienced the first set of rocks thrown at me by youth. I first read about this behavior in the invitation material sent to me by Peace Corps and we all heard about it during out Pre-Service Training. However, I never experienced anything like it in Belesh and I just did not think that it was as common as they always mentioned. At first it is a sad feeling, but then you have to realize that it is not a personal attack; they just do not know who you are and it has never been a behavior that has been reprimanded. Connie has been asking the kids outside her apartment building “did you throw rocks at my friend?” That will teach ‘em!

I am looking forward to the next two weeks, but they are going to be quite busy. At the end of this week, there is a Gender and Development conference that will take place here in Pogradec. Young girls from around Albania will be coming to this conference to learn about gender issues, body image, the environment, leadership, etc. We have a Gender and Development committee in Peace Corps Albania that allows volunteers to create and run Gender and Development groups at their permanent site. There has not been a group here in Pogradec, but I am hoping to get one started. In fact, one of Connie’s co-workers really wanted some young girls from Pogradec to attend this conference and so she distributed the application and permission slips. We have had six turn them in already and I’ll be getting to meet them tomorrow. This seems to be the perfect way to start a group here! Another good thing about the conference is that it means other Peace Corps volunteers will be coming into town. I will have a house full, but I think it will be a blast! Then early next week the health education volunteers working in the south of Albania have been invited to meet in Permet to work on a project together. It involves the development of health education videos that have been translated into Shqip for subtitles. I was so excited when I found out about this opportunity because it will allow me to use some of the communication and social marketing skills that I have hopefully acquired from graduate school and I think it is a fantastic way for us to collaborate with each other!