Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's Official!

We have been in Albania for 10 weeks now. This past week has been one of the most exciting and yet most emotional weeks for me. Everything we have done during our Pre-Service Training has contributed to our eligibility to swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers. We have worked tirelessly on our health projects, Shqip-speaking ability, cultural adaptation and relationship building. I have been thinking about whether or not I have changed over these 10 weeks and if so, in what way(s). I know that I most certainly have changed, but it is difficult to pinpoint how right now. One thing I know for sure is that my life has been greatly touched by my new friends and family.

My host family has been such an important component to my experience thus far in Albania. I think it is amusing to remember how I was so nervous to meet them for the first time that my hands were shaking and I could hardly even muster any of the 10 words I knew in Shqip at that time. Now in only 10 weeks, they are my family. Last week, they took me to the village where my host father grew up. There, they dressed me up in traditional clothing that my host gjyshe (grandmother) made by hand. I hope you can tell from the photos just how beautiful the clothes are. There are so many intricate layers to an outfit. There are pants, a skirt, a long sleeved shirt, a belt, an apron, a vest with embroidery, and two veils.

My host mother also got dressed up in the traditional garb. She kept joking about how she is a modern woman and so the traditional garb is a bit too interesting for her.

It was so much fun and a fantastic way to wrap up the home-stay experience together. I am especially appreciative for how willing the entire family has been to help me learn Shqip and learn about Albanian culture and traditions.

On May 27th, all 50 of us swore in as official Peace Corps volunteers. This was certainly one of the most exciting moments I will have as a volunteer. I am proud of how far we have come in these 10 weeks and I am excited about all the potential we have with our projects at the permanent sites. The ceremony was great, albeit a little sad because it forced me to realize how finite our time is together. I have made so many great friends with the other volunteers and with the staff, but now we are all dispersed throughout the country.

We were lucky to have both the mayor of Elbasan and the US Ambassador to Albania partake in our swearing in ceremony. The mayor said he always asks for Peace Corps to send all of the volunteers to Elbasan because he knows that we are all motivated to get things done. The US Ambassador, John Withers, talked about how when Peace Corps was started, many critics said the organization would never last and that the model would be ineffective. Well, the organization has endured and done so successfully. Next year, Peace Corps will experience its 50th anniversary and I think it will be an incredible honor to be serving during this time.

Earlier in the week we learned that two representatives from our group 13 would be able to give a speech during the ceremony and the catch was that it was to be completely in Shqip. After a round of rock-paper-scissors, Nathan and I were granted the opportunity to give the speech during the ceremony. Contrary to popular belief, we did not coordinate our ceremony attire.

Luckily, we were able to write the speech in English and then have one of the language teachers translate. That gave us more time to practice saying the speech in its entirety. And by practice, I mean that my host parents probably knew my part by heart by the time I actually gave the speech. It was a high pressure situation because first and foremost, we wanted to describe our experience and extend our deepest gratitude to the host families, community members, and staff members that have made this experience so special and that have equipped us with the skills we need to be successful volunteers.

I was scared that my voice would crack or I would be so nervous that I would not be able to pronounce the difficult words. Somehow, I was able to suppress these worries and it went well. Ok, there was still one word that I could never pronounce properly despite repetition and a strategically implemented foot stomp...After my first paragraph, my host mother stormed the stage and gave me a bouquet of flowers. It was an amazing moment for me and it took nearly everything I had not to cry. Good thing Jan came and held the flowers for me. During the speech, it was reaffirming to hear the audience laugh at our jokes and applaud our series of “thank you.”

Apparently we were also on the news. The media came to our ceremony, I think in large part because both the mayor and the US Ambassador were there, but they showed us giving part of our speech. Katie’s host sister saw me and they texted me about it right away. Then as I was saying my goodbyes in Belesh, one of the restaurant owners told me he saw me and was so proud! My counterpart’s husband here in Pogradec also watched us on the news. Too bad I never had a chance to see, but maybe it is better that way :). At least now I am spared any potential embarrassment.

The worst part about actually swearing in was the fact that it meant we had to say goodbye to all the people we have grown so close to in such a short time. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that I am horrible with goodbyes and have a propensity to cry. Well, there was no difference here. I cried when I said goodbye to my “pasty white Belshians” and to my host family. I am trying to be positive, though, and remember the fact that I have been so lucky to meet such incredible people. I am excited about being able to share this entire Peace Corps experience with them!

I am now settling into my new apartment in Pogradec. Nesting has been going well thus far. Yesterday I was able to go to the outdoor market and pick up a lot of items for the kitchen, which will be fantastic for when I decide I am hungry enough to start learning how to cook. My neighbors are already pinching my cheeks and kissing me more than I am comfortable with, but I’ll adjust eventually. I found tabasco sauce yesterday which pretty much was a hallmark experience. Tomorrow is the first day of work and I am excited, nervous, continuously crossing my fingers (and toes) that I will be able to communicate at least to some extent, and hopeful for everything we will be able to accomplish through our collaboration.

Cool experience of the week: I felt my first earthquake! Well actually there were three small tremors. Matthew and I were making our way to Pogradec from Elbasan and we had to wait in the furgon for about 45 minutes before it filled up enough to make the drive. Being in the furgon allowed us to feel these tremors because it absorbed and transferred the shocks pretty fantastically.

Love and miss you all.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Site Visit

So much of the Peace Corps process is waiting (sometimes patiently and other times not so much) for information about being nominated to serve, then waiting for medical and legal approval, waiting for the invitation to serve, waiting for the departure date, arriving in country and waiting to hear site placement and job description, then finally waiting to get a good idea of what you actually got yourself into. Now, with two weeks left in pre-service training, I finally have a fairly good idea of what a day in my life will be like as a Peace Corps volunteer in Pogradec, Albania.

Last week we had our counterpart conference and site visit. The counterpart conference took part in Durres and it is where we were able to meet our counterpart, or the individual(s) we will be working with for our primary projects at our permanent site. I have heard about some great experiences with counterparts and also some bad experiences, so I was nervous going into this first meeting with my counterpart. The only things I knew going into this first meeting was that my no one at my organization speaks any English and that my counterpart was maybe apprehensive about taking on another volunteer. Needless to say I wanted to make a good impression...

All of my worries were quenched after that initial meeting. Qimbrie (pronounced Chimbrea) seemed very warm and interested in working closely together over the next two years. She gave many hugs, high fives, and pinches during our conversation. She was impressed with my ability to speak Shqip, and honestly so was I. That is not to say I understood everything she said, but at least I could grasp the topic of the conversation. She said that over two years, we will laugh together, cry together, eat together, drink coffee together, and do a lot of work together.

The next day at the conference, we had a series of presentations that would help prepare both the counterparts and students for the work that we would be doing. We had to practice putting together a lesson plan for a health education topic of our choice. This is when I actually started to get worried because she was not slowing down her Shqip so I was having a difficult time understanding and I did not feel that I was able to impress upon her my ideas for the lesson. I tried to turn this potentially stressful interaction into a positive learning experience because it gave me the opportunity to see what her typical lessons are like. From there, I can start to supplement it with additional information, activities, and interactive lessons for the population. The trainees also presented three activities we gave during our practicums. One group presented an activity they did for drinking and driving education, one group presented a demonstration that can be used to show youth what is in a cigarette, and my group presented the sponge and straw activities we did for our antismoking education. From my experiences, and especially with the practicum, these activities really engage the audience members and hopefully this makes health education more fun which means they are more likely to adopt healthier behavior changes.

Matthew and I left pretty immediately from lunch to go to Pogradec for the first time with Qimbrie and her husband. It was a fairly long drive from Durres to Pogradec, but the view was incredible. Pogradec is located on the south side of Lake Ohrid and there is a point in the drive where you come up to the top of the mountain and can see the lake for the first time. Honestly, it was breathtaking.

We stayed with Connie, a group 12 volunteer that has been living in Pogradec for one year. It was fantastic to finally have all of team Pogradec together! The first night, we went out to xhiro (walk) along the lake. In some cities in Albania, people will xhiro back and forth along the boulevard and I am elated that Pogradec has a pretty lively xhiro.

Not only is the view spectacular, but also that water slide looks incredible! Apparently the water slide only worked the first summer it was constructed and never again. Good thing they have three Peace Corps volunteers now...we’ll assess our resources and make the slide operable. It is for the betterment of the entire community, I am sure.

I was able come into the office everyday during my site visit. I appreciated this opportunity because it allowed me to become comfortable with the work environment and get an idea of what actually goes on at the Directorate of Public Health. The Directorate is located on the second floor of this building. The first floor is the kindergarten (which means easy access to the kindergartners for health education messages). I’ll be sharing an office with both Qimbrie and Rajmonda (my counterparts) so we will be able to work closely together on all projects being conducted by the education and promotion unit. The first couple of days consisted of me being introduced to people at other organizations and institutions we will collaborate with. I was able to visit the hospital, dentist offices, specialist centers, the women’s clinic, and the children’s clinic.

There is ample opportunity in Pogradec for health projects and I am elated with the potential I have in this placement. While there, we had four health education sessions with students. Two were on sexually transmitted infections and the other two were antismoking. For the antismoking lessons, Qimbrie asked me to do my sponge activity which I did gladly. I am happy she wanted to incorporate the activity into her lesson plan. It has provided a great starting point for us to begin introducing informative activities into the original lesson plans. Though, I will admit that the classrooms were often in a state of chaos. One of the teachers was literally beating the desks with her hands or whatever she had within reach to quiet the students. On a bright note, I am pretty sure my Shqip improved considerably during this site visit because I could only communicate in Shqip with my coworkers. I cannot wait to be able to understand everything they say and to be able to communicate my thoughts.

Another great part of the site visit was getting to see my apartment for the first time. My communist block apartment is located on one of the main streets away from the lake. It is on the fifth floor so in the remaining two weeks I have before I move there, I will be deliberately building up my stamina so that I can lug my luggage up all the stairs. It seems like a pretty good place. I have two rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom with a western toilet. My balcony also gives me a spectacular view of the city and the mountains. I’ll be living right here...

Finally, we could not have a site visit without a little adventure. We tried to explore the city as much as possible. We tried to find the Gabi (gypsy market) that we knew was near my apartment. We turned the wrong direction but came across these great views:

We also went on a hike to get a top-down view of the city. This is definitely not where I expected to be living when I first applied to Peace Corps...but it is completely amazing.

I will go ahead and apologize now because you will probably see a bazillion more of these types of photos over the next two years. I just find it so beautiful and I cannot get enough of the view.

One of the parts of Pogradec that I appreciate is the abundance of art. Pogradec is known for the artists it has and also for being the source of inspiration for other artists. As you walk around the city, some of the people have painted their doors and gates beautiful colors as a part of a creative city project. I think they are wonderful and I hope to see as many of them as I can.

In the center of the city there is this beautiful art display. I am not entirely sure at this moment what the display signifies, but it provides a splash of color to the city. Around this display are plaques on the ground that pay tribute to artists from singers to authors. Mostly they are Albanian artists, but then there were some familiar artists, too, including the Beatles and ABBA.

Then along the lake there are these statues that are interesting, though I do not know much about them right now.

Further down the lake there is this fountain with a boy literally getting ready to pee. I guess this is not as alarming in Albania as it was for me because I even saw several old men walk up to the lake shore and pee. At this point, though, I’m thinking that this peeing issue does not detract from the beauty of the city as long as I can continue to overlook it.

Random event of the week: I have been Jackie Chan-ed. Throughout training they try to prepare us for any potentially adverse interactions we can have with the locals. One common issue is getting rocks thrown at you (which I am happy to say has yet to happen) and the other is getting racist remarks said to you if you look different. Asian people are told to prepare for getting a Jackie Chan comment said to them and it has definitely happened to volunteers and trainees. Well, apparently some of the boys in Pogradec think I am Asian because they yelled Jackie Chan at me as I was walking by with Qimbrie. I even got some karate motions.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

End of Practicum...

We are in the middle of week 7, which means I have officially been out of the country longer than ever before. It also means we are quickly approaching the end of Pre-Service Training. As such, we have met some important milestones in our Peace Corps career and are about to reach several others.

Last week we finished our practicum, which consisted of giving three health education lessons of our choice. We had two practicum lessons back to back last week so it was a busy and stressful time preparing for those lessons. I am proud to report that I gave my part of all three lessons in Shqip, thanks to the editing of my host father and language teacher.

For the second lesson, we discussed anti-smoking with a 7th grade biology class. Going in, we wanted to not only educate them as to why smoking is bad for all of our health, but also to give them practical life skills to withstand peer pressure and make decisions for themselves. In the beginning, Joe discussed the biology behind how smoking leads to the many adverse health outcomes. We had so much fun preparing the visual aid for this section - Joe smoked a cigarette through the cotton inside a maxi pad to show the nastiness of what a person smokes. The kids all cringed when they saw it...hopefully they remember this!

After the education portion, I did a demonstration with sponges to represent how a damaged lung from smoking is less able to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide compared to a healthy, non-smoking lung. During this demonstration, Katie had them breath out of a straw. After I was done, Katie had them do 30 jumping jacks. The kids loved this activity and it was able to convey the message of this is how it feels when you have damaged lungs from smoking. We concluded our practicum lesson with the life skills portion. Joe has been smoking for the past five years, so he was able to honestly tell them about how difficult it is to quit and why it is so important to quit. Finally, the students split into groups and presented on ways they can overcome peer pressure to smoke cigarettes.

We had so much fun giving this lesson and it appears the students had a great time too considering they pleaded us to stay and do more activities. Actually, we were supposed to give this lesson to one 50 minute class while the other group from Belesh was supposed to give their lesson to a different 50 minute class, either before or after ours. Unfortunately, the director changed his mind and we ended up having to give both of our lessons to the same class. We only had about 20 minutes to give our lesson in the end, but it taught us a lot as Peace Corps volunteers in terms of expecting the unexpected and being flexible enough to withstand pressure and changes at any point.

The next day we had our final practicum lesson on hypertension for community members. This lesson was to take place at spitali (the hospital) and was coordinated by the director there. The other group from Belesh did their final practicum lesson on food safety and we had 30 minutes each to deliver the lesson. Though our practicum lessons were pushed back a half-hour, there were no major obstacles to deal with like the previous practicum. Going into this practicum, we knew the topic was substantially drier than hand washing and anti-smoking because there are not as many activities to do. So, we solicited our creativity and came up with ways to involve the participants. We did some basic education in the beginning of our lesson as to what blood pressure and hypertension is. We used a balloon to explain the force being applied to the wall of the arteries as the heart pumps blood through the body.

We wanted to emphasize how important diet and exercise can be in mediating hypertension. So, we used audience participation to organize various foods and physical activities. It worked really well and the nurses and doctors there were definitely engaged. Then I presented a hypothetical person called Zonja Zemer (Mrs. Heart) that had hypertension and described her behavior. The participants then described what she could do to reduce her blood pressure. Then, to emphasize prevention, we represented Zonja Zemer when she was younger and had normal blood pressure so they could identify what she should have done to keep her blood pressure within the normal range.

Overall, the practicum lessons went really well. I found it to be a very empowering experience (though I am not sure all the trainees felt this way). For me, I was able to prove through this experience I can do an entire presentation in Shqip and I have the resources, creativity, and flexibility to have a productive and successful lesson with my counterpart once I am in Pogradec. Poleta, our health technical coordinator, told me I was fluent, but I know she was lying a little bit since I had to read off of my notes, meaning I only partly knew what I was saying.

Besides lots of work, I have been learning how to cook. I told my family I am not a good cook, and they practically interpreted that as I do not even know how to cook. My gyshe (grandmother) told me she is worried about how I will be able to eat when I am living on my own. So, she has been putting me through a series of trainings so that I will be able to cook for myself. The best part was cooking byrek, which is a traditional Albanian dish which is a fried pastry made of phyllo dough. It is filled with a variety of innards, including cheese, tomato and onion, spinach, potato, fasule (beans), and meat. We made the potato kind. They roll each of the layers of phyllo dough one by one so it is quite the process. I am slow at the rolling part, but got good enough by the end of our byrek that I was no longer tearing large holes in the middle.

Last night consisted of no work! My host mother, father, and I went out to have “coffee,” which meant a beer. We got to go to the restaurant where people go to have the wedding reception. This was where my parents had their wedding reception last August when they got married. It was really nice to get out of the house and just enjoy the time I have left with the family. Here are my host parents at our “coffee date”:

And here is a picture of part of my host family. Sili, Lubjana, Gyshe (usually lives near Durres) and Arjani. Usually, Arjani’s mother lives with us, but she is visiting her children that work in Italy right now.

Random outcome from being in the Peace Corps: Serious freckle acquisition on my nose. It has become noticeable to other Americans and Albanians alike. I am not sure how I feel about this.