Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Work hard and play hard...

We are officially past the half-way point of pre-service training. After this week, we will have only four more weeks of PST. Actually, the time we have left here in Belesh is less than four weeks since we will be at our counterpart conference in Durres for one week and then visiting our permanent site for a weekend.

In the meantime, I am really enjoying my time here in Belesh. I am trying to savor every moment I have with my host family and trying to take in as much of this beautiful village as possible. I love how every morning just before school my host father will ask if I am well, if I slept well, if I had any dreams, and when I will return home. Upon returning home each day, the family asks if I had lunch since I learned early on that every restaurant here in Albania does not actually serve food. Instead, some serve only coffee or tea. I enjoy waiting for the other trainees outside of the school in the morning and afternoons and having the kids come up and talk to us. Though, now they are starting to get tricky and quiz us on their names…We know all the best places to get byrek, ice cream, pilaf, and salads. On days when I have to study or have homework to finish, I think it is fun to run up the stairs of my house as fast as I can before the kids call me out to play. Overall, I love the sense of connectedness and comfort here in Belesh. Everybody knows everybody, or is even related in some way. This means it somehow gets back to the family that we eat ice cream every day! Though I may be a little sad to leave Belesh, there is no doubt I will be returning to visit several times over the next two years.

Peace Corps has managed to keep us especially busy as of late. We are currently completing the requirements for our technical practicum. For those of us who are health education trainees, we are required to teach three health topics to three different populations, including: hygiene and hand-washing for first graders, anti-smoking education for seventh grade biology students, and hypertension for community members. Last week we successfully completed the hygiene and hand-washing lesson. I gave the education portion of the lesson about what germs are and how they are spread. The most important, potentially surprising, and empowering part was that I was able to do it all in Shqip. Good thing no one else knew it took me about three hours to write and edit my talk. In the end, Darina, the Health Education Coordinator was pleased with our lesson and the kids had some fun, too.

We will be giving the remaining practicum lessons this week on Wednesday and Thursday. Hopefully they go as well as the first one did, but any successes or challenges we have will all be important as we prepare for our service.

Since the practicum requires a lot of time and energy, we have been sure to supplement our work with fun and adventure. Every Saturday in Belesh, there is a pazar (market). My family does most of their food shopping for the week here at the pazar. They also have clothes, furniture, music, and any other random assortment of goods you could imagine. Usually, we are in school on Saturday so we have never been able to attend the pazar. Luckily for us, we got out of language class early on Saturday and so we all took a stroll down the pazar. My favorite part was observing all the knock-off items, especially when they are spelt so wrong! Here are some of the undies I stole a picture of:

I wonder how Calvin Klein feels about this? It is a bit difficult to see in this picture, but there are also some Versage (Versace) undies. It is just fantastic!

For me personally, the best part of our weekend was the adventure we took to the bunkers. Many of us wrongly thought that the bunkers were used for protection and safety during wartime. Instead, the bunkers were put into place (some hundreds of thousands of bunkers, that is) throughout Albania in the 1970s to enable mountain-based guerrilla warfare to be implemented in the plains when necessary. Essentially, they represent Albania’s strategy at that time for protecting itself from foreign invaders. During our time here, we have seen bunkers that people live in and also one newly constructed house that has actually been built over a bunker. Anyway, just before you enter Belesh is a series of bunkers that I have wanted to visit since we arrived and the time came where we were finally able to do so!

These bunkers represent an important historical component to what it means to be Albanian today and I am so excited to have had the chance to visit some so closely. Apparently there is another series of bunkers in another direction from the village center that we may visit this coming weekend.

The random event of the week was actually a painful one. We toured the hospital in Elbasan last Friday and as we were exiting the hospital, I walked straight into a cactus. It was along the wall in the entrance of the hospital. I guess I was too busy talking away to notice the cactus, but then again who puts a cactus in the entrance of a hospital? I had pokies in my jeans at the knee. I tried to remove as many as I could but before I knew it we were off to our next site and so I had to deal with a handful stuck in my skin until lunch. I am happy to report removal of all pokies was a success. Lesson learned!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My permanent site is...

This Friday was the day we had all been waiting for. Ok, some of us waited two years to even find out we were coming to Albania, but that is beyond the point. Friday was one of the days we will never forget among all of our Peace Corps days because it was the day we found out our site assignments. For the last couple of weeks I have occupied my anticipation by developing various theories as to where I would be placed. All of them were completely wrong and I could not be happier. I will be moving to Pogradec (pronounced Pogradets) at the end of May to begin my service as a Health Education volunteer (assuming all goes according to plan and I swear in on May 27th). Go ahead, google Pogradec, Albania!

We were all so excited to receive our placements! Finally, so much of the unknown that comes with the Peace Corps is starting to go away. Now we can really figure out our approach to the tasks we have been assigned. They shared the big news by calling each of us up one at a time and revealing our location. They also had a huge map projected on the wall so that each of our pictures would appear at our site.

The only thing I knew about Pogradec at the time of my announcement was that Albanian youth go there to get it on with their partners. In Albanian culture, it is not appropriate for youth to date as we do in the states. Therefore, if they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they do so secretly. Pogradec is often used as a site where the youth can get away and, well, be together.

Pogradec is located in Southeastern Albania right along the border with Macedonia. In fact, from the city center in Pogradec, Macedonia is approximately 5 km. As luck would have it, Pogradec also has a huge lake called Lake Ohrid. Apparently, this lake has been formed by tectonic plates and these types of lakes have very unique species of fish living in it. The loch ness monster also lives in a lake formed by tectonic plates which means I will not be found taking a dip in Lake Ohrid during my service. Because of the scenery in Pogradec, it is a tourist attraction area and there are currently numerous efforts to continue to advance tourism there. Again, you are welcome to visit anytime…

I was elated to find out that I will have two site mates (at least for the next year). Connie is a current volunteer in Pogradec working in Community Development (COD) and has one year left in her service. She has actually been in Elbasan this past week helping with our pre-service training and was present when we received our site announcements. Once I received my placement, I introduced myself and immediately she gave me a great big hug and said “I’ve been waiting for you.” I think I am just as excited to have a current volunteer in my site as she is excited to have just any volunteer in the site. Also joining me in Pogradec from our group 13 is Matthew, he is also a COD volunteer. I am not sure how I got so lucky to have such great site mates, but I will certainly take this with a tremendous smile.

Introducing my group 13 site mate, Matthew:

I am only the second health volunteer to serve in Pogradec, and the first female health volunteer there. I have been assigned to the health education and promotion unit under the Directorate of Public Health. In addition to working within Pogradec, this department also works with rural health posts surrounding the city to provide health information to nurses and village residents. My counterpart at the Directorate is Rajmonda who is a nurse. I will also have the opportunity to collaborate with other nurses, epidemiologists, school personnel and community members for our various projects.

Here is the tangent for the day: In Albania, I have come to appreciate the completely random things that happen on any given day. Friday morning as we were all arriving in Elbasan, one of the other trainees sent us a text message saying there was a bear by the castle. To be honest, we sort of thought she had lost it. But, it was completely true! There was a man who was walking a small bear around on a leash. He wanted people to pay for the photos, but I have a rebellious streak and tried to sneak some free pictures (therefore I apologize for the poor quality).

Love and miss you all.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Meet and Greet

My third week of living here in Albania has been quite exciting. In retrospect, the elements that comprised this exciting week all revolved around some form of meet and greet. Last weekend we all departed our host families for a site visit with current volunteers. I got to travel up north through Albania to Kukes, which is one of the two northern most sites where current Peace Corps volunteers are serving. Actually, my group going to Kukes got two volunteer site visits for the price of one.
We left Belësh early Saturday morning to meet the other trainees who were also traveling north in Elbasan so we could travel to Tiranë, the capital, together. We arrived in Tiranë around 11. Unbeknownst to those of us traveling to Kukes, the first bus leaves Tiranë at 10 and the last bus leaves at 6. So, we were in store for a seriously long day hanging out in the city. Luckily for us, the current volunteer helping other trainees get on the bus to their sites lives in Pukë, which is on the way to Kukes. To break up the day, we went to Pukë and got to visit with the two volunteers that live there. One of the volunteers has successfully applied to and been accepted to medical school while serving here in Albania! I am hoping this is a sign that I, too, will be fully capable of accomplishing such a feat from Albania.

The four of us heading to Kukes boarded the bus at 9 pm. The Pukë volunteers explained to the driver that we do not really speak Shqip and we do not know where Kukes is so he said he would tell us when to get off. Thank goodness because the bus was going to Kosovo, which is off limits for all Peace Corps volunteers. We made it to Kukes and went immediately to bed. In the morning we went on a stunningly beautiful hike that neither words nor photos can bring justice to, though I will try both. The trail we hiked on was called “the bad stairs.” Jennifer and James, two of the three current volunteers in Kukes, work with a group of youth there called Outdoor Ambassadors so we also had a small group of Albanian youth that hiked with us.

Once we got as far as the majority of the group wanted to go, there were a small handful of us that wanted to go just a bit further to capture more of the view. My sense of adventure has been heightened (probably because I am deliberately trying to enjoy my Peace Corps experience to the fullest) so I decided to hike on along the supposedly narrow part of the trail. In actuality, that part of the trail was easier than some of the parts we had already passed and the benefit of the view was well worth it!

Later that evening, we went to a place called Bar America where we could get extremely delicious ice cream and go to the roof of the building to see all of Kukes. This is definitely one of the bigger sites where Peace Corps volunteers live in Albania.

One of the interesting things I learned about Kukes this weekend was that during communism, a dam was built that ultimately flooded the old Kukes. The lake you see in this picture is actually over old Kukes. They say that when there is little rainfall, the lake recedes enough where you can actually see the roofs of buildings. The Kukes you see in the previous picture is referred to by inhabitants as the new Kukes.

Kristen, another trainee, and I went with Jennifer to the places she gets to work, including the health center and the women’s center. At the health center, we got to meet the counterparts she works with on a daily basis because they are the conduit through which her work will be sustainable. I valued this opportunity to meet her counterparts because this is really the part of my service that I know so little about. I also very much enjoyed meeting with the director of the women’s center because they serve women who are victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. The director was very open to our questions so we were able to learn a lot from our meeting. Judging by the visceral reaction I had from the meeting, this is an issue I am very passionate about and would be interested in working with a similar organization at my permanent site if there were one. Jennifer admitted that because the director is so progressive compared to the norm for women in Albania, her reputation has been tarnished within the community. From my point of view, it would be an honor to work with a woman who believes so much in her work that she is willing to tarnish her reputation for the sake of progress.

For our last night in Kukes, we prepared completely homemade Mexican food and I am nearly positive I have not been this excited to eat in a very long time. I was in charge of making tortillas! Let’s just say this task was a little stickier than I had anticipated, but now I know I can do it and will probably live off of tortillas once I am at my permanent site.

Overall, I had a fantastic weekend in Kukes, even despite the 10 or more hour commute it required. Too bad there is no chance of me being assigned to Kukes because they already have health, community development, and teaching English as a foreign language volunteers there.

On Friday last week, we were lucky enough to get to meet and hear from the US Ambassador to Albania, Dr. John Withers, Jr. I was impressed and excited to hear how enthusiastic he was about the work Peace Corps volunteers are doing in this country and how interactive he is. He described how when he travels to various sites throughout the country, he tries to meet with the volunteers there if his schedule permits. He also said that though he is the official Ambassador, we are all ambassadors at one of the most important levels – the human level. He will be swearing us in as official Peace Corps volunteers on May 27th.

This is a picture of our Peace Corps Albania Country Director, Hill Denham and the US Ambassador, John Withers, Jr.

On a different note, one of the characteristics of Albanian culture which Albanians pride themselves on is their hospitality. We have certainly faced many examples of this hospitality in our three short weeks here. Today we had lunch at a local restaurant in Belesh (a gyro with french fries inside). We decided ice cream was a necessary addition to our lunch and when we were looking at our options, the owner gave all three of us free scrumptious ice cream cones. Then we went for a walk through Belesh, actually on a road past my house that none of us had been on. We passed by a woman named Liri who invited the three of us in her house to visit over drinks. I have to say, it was entertaining to listen to us try our Shqip and to see her understand maybe 30-40% of what we said. It was one of the greatest encounters we have had while here in Belesh. Unfortunately, not all Albanians depict said hospitality. While we were walking along the very edge of the road, two guys on a motorcycle drove especially close to us and one hit me in the back with his fist as they drove by. Another man on a motorcycle stopped after and Joe and Katie said not good in Shqip while I decided it was a better idea to curse up a storm. Anyway, I am fine and will now flinch every time I hear a moving vehicle (including horses) nearby...lesson learned.

We find out this Friday where our permanent site will be and I am elated and nervous to find out!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Culture Corner

One of the best parts about being in another country is having the opportunity to learn about a different culture. I am hoping to share some of the Albanian cultural traditions with you as I learn about them. When we arrived in Albania, many of us noticed there were dolls of various shapes and sizes hanging on most houses. For some, these dolls brought up thoughts of voodoo. For the rest of us, we were simply wondering what their purpose was.

I have learned these dolls are hanging on the house to ward off the evil eye given by a passerby. The evil eye could negatively impact the health and safety of the household. Some people also wear a distinct necklace to ward off the evil eye.

Some parts of adapting to Albanian culture have been confusing. One, which I knew of in advance, was that our shaking of the head ‘no’ is ‘yes’ here (as is a side-to-side motion) and our nodding of the head ‘yes’ is their ‘no.’ I have not been able to appropriately shake my head yes or nod my head no consistently, so my family always confirms with a 'po' (yes) or 'jo' (no). I tried to explain to my host sister that in the US, our meanings are the opposite. After this, I tried to be Albanian and she tried to be American and we were still confused!

The other confusing part has been using the local currency. Here, they use the lekë. The ratio is approximately 100 lekë to 1 US dollar. After communism, the lekë changed by a factor of ten. Despite the change, people still say the price in old lekë while actually meaning for you to pay in new lekë. For instance, a tea usually costs $50 new lekë. When you ask how much it costs, they will say $500 lekë. Therefore, not only do we have to think about the numbers in Albanian, but we have to always be cognizant of whether or not they are telling us the price in old lekë.

Everyday, I am so grateful to be in such a beautiful city. I came prepared to the Internet cafe today so I can share some pictures of my temporary home. This lake is just across the street from my house, which is great because I have always wanted to live near a lake.

Finally, all of the female trainees here in Belesh went for a walk around our village after class yesterday. We are always eager to get some form of exercise because we are in class during the day and then usually in the house from 5 pm and on.

This weekend I will be going to Kukes, Albania for a volunteer visit. There are four trainees going to Kukes to visit current volunteers that are assigned there. From what I know, Kukes is up north and is very mountainous. My family said it might take me 6 or 7 hours to get there. I am excited to see what a day in the life of a current Peace Corps volunteer is like and to see a new city. I am afraid I will ask too many questions of the current volunteers, but I will need to take advantage of the opportunity!

PS - there is a boy, maybe 10 years old, smoking next to me in the Internet cafe.