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!

1 comment:

  1. Too bad you can't be in Kukes those pictures were amazing. How do you even make tortillas?, I would be so lost! Good luck with your site assignment hon. Also tell them I'm not afraid to fly to Albania and kick some butt for hurting my Stacy :)