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!