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.


  1. Sounds so exciting!!! Beautiful pictures!! And I totally agree about the waiting....I'm of course still waiting to here news from the PC. Congratulations on almost completing your training! Crazy how time flies by. Like always, you will be the first to know of my location. Keep your fingers crossed its near you! :) Miss you!

  2. These pictures are amazing Stac, what a beautiful place to live. I knew you would rock your presentations, it doesn't surprise me you're fluent already! Tell them if they Jackie Chan you again I will come over there and kick some butt. Love you, good luck tomorrow with your swearing in !!!!!