Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Until next summer...

Summer is officially over here in Pogradec…It was remarkably and uncomfortably hot here the past few weeks and I was vocally counting down the days until fall. In fact, it has been hot enough here that my professional dress attire at work has taken a turn for the worse. I have been telling people: “Jam gati për dimër,” meaning I am ready for winter. In response, my Albanian friends have employed scare tactics on me…perhaps so that my wishes and hopes do not induce an early winter, but maybe also to prepare me for what is in store. First they say that there really is no fall here but that we move quite rapidly into a persistently cold winter. Then, they keep asking me if I have a wood-burning stove. The answer is no. Instead, I have this electric heater, which might be nice because I will not be at risk for accidentally burning significant portions of my skin. Unfortunately, it also means my electric bill will probably exceed what Peace Corps allocates to me for utilities and it will do a very bad job at keeping me warm when the electricity is out. Well, one of the old ladies that lives on the first floor of my building told me that last week summer was over. I was not sure if I believed her at the time because it was still hot. Now I believe her. It is actually cold here at night and it is raining today for the first time in a couple of weeks. Ahh…the joys of not sweating around the clock. Cold or not, I am looking forward to this perk. My friend Bruna took me shopping to buy a wonderfully soft, cozy, and warm blanket that will be my favorite possession this winter. What she failed to tell me was that when girls buy these blankets, it signifies they are preparing for marriage. Oh my….

This Saturday will mark my 24th week of living in Albania. That means I am approaching the sixth month mark of my service….one half of a year and one quarter of my entire service. This realization puts a lot into perspective for me. I have to really get my rear end in gear so that I can graduate from George Washington in a timely manner. Unfortunately, I realize that I am too idealistic and ambitious when it comes to my culminating experience project (thesis) that it will be impossible for me to implement unless I simplify a bit. It also means that I need to move into preparation and execution modes for applying to medical school. The combination of these stresses and the continuous process of adapting to a new country and culture propelled me into the culture shock/depressive stage. The newness of Albania wore off and I was disillusioned by a lot of things, including work ethic in the office, gender norms, lack of Mexican food, etc. Fortunately for me, I have incredible site mates and a wonderful Peace Corps family that brought me back with positivity and excitement.

Most of us are gearing up for the busy work schedule we anticipate (which means we could quite possibly be setting ourselves up for disappointment) once school starts again on September 6th. There are the last minute trips visiting other volunteers and enjoying the final stretch of circle dancing for the summer. As Pogradec volunteers, we have been quite fortunate because other volunteers want to visit our beautiful site and us before summer is over. Two weeks ago we had an influx of volunteers that came to attend the beer fest in Korça, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Pogradec. The beer fest was a great opportunity to reunite with other volunteers, drink $0.50 beer, eat incredibly delicious shish kebab chicken, and explore a new city. They had live music that ranged from head banging rock music, to hilarious covers of corny American music, and Albanian rap music. I loved the slogan of the festival: Gjithmonë ka një vënd për një birrë! (Always has a place for a beer).

At the end of the day, the beer festival was such a blast because of the good company I was with…

Last weekend Brad had a couch surfer from Spain stay at his place. This guy heard of a place in the mountains of Pogradec called Kabash that had beautiful waterfalls. Of course we decide we had to go check it out. We did not know where to go and tried to ask some of the natives along the way. They tried to direct us to the furgons that would drive us there and when we told them we wanted to hike there they proceeded to think we were out of our minds. So, we were left to follow our instinct in our eager search of the esteemed waterfalls. We decided that the best approach would be to follow the river up the mountain figuring it would lead us to our destination. On the way up, we noticed that the river became increasingly polluted. No matter how long we live here, the trash always disappoints.

We also had to walk through a Roma community, which I particularly enjoyed. I think the children are beautiful and I even got some fantastic high fives, which left some stinging. Also, the kids were the most helpful in pointing us in the right direction to Kabash. The only scary thing about this area was the known presence of stray dogs. Matt and Brad had hiked through this area before and were followed by barking dogs the whole time they were there.

The Spaniard was petrified of being attacked by a dog and picked up the biggest rocks he could find to use as weapons in case of an attack. He freaked me out by his paranoia so much so that I even found a rock myself. Luckily, the dogs could have cared less about us and our limbs were spared.

The trail led a lot to be desired as we approached the waterfall. In fact, there really was not a trail at all and we had to channel our inner leapfrog as we hopped from rock to rock back and forth across the river. Only once did I accidently miss a rock and nearly fall into the river (don’t worry, it was not very deep). Thankfully, though unfortunately for him, Brad was close enough to me where I could grab him and save myself. We finally arrived at the waterfalls and though they were not as big as we were expecting, it was a beautiful site.

We also heard of a church nearby so we decided to hike up some more to the church. Finding the church also revealed an actual trail that we decided to take on the way down. It was an especially refreshing trail considering the route we took up to Kabash. It also came with one of my favorite views of Pogradec.

This past weekend we had some more special company in town and decided to hike back up to the church and have a picnic. I agreed only on the condition that we found the trail we used on the descent the previous time and Brad agreed. He said he would have no problem finding that trail. During the initial part of the hike, we found a trail but it kept going up and did not really resemble what we remembered from the previous weekend. We looked around and realized we were significantly higher than the church. We found this little path that headed down and so we decided we should probably take it in the hope that it would lead us to the appropriate trial. I almost feel that it was not a trail at all but instead a dense forest of pokey trees and bushes. After swinging through trees, climbing through bushes, falling on my butt, and receiving numerous lashings from tree limbs we made it through the forest miraculously at the church. At this point we were all drenched in our own sweat and exhausted from the adventure we had. But, we had a great lunch and found some fresh cold water along the way.

Finally, I know I am in Albania when the lokali (bar/coffee shops) only let guys go upstairs if there is a girl with them. We suspect that it provides opportunity for making out in a turp (shame) – free way, though I have yet to observe said behavior. Anyway, it is a good thing I am here for my site mates and the other male volunteers because I can be their wing girl (well, except for Steven). When they want to meet a pretty Albanian girl I can go with them so that they can have access to the girls’ hang out on the top floor.

I do admit that it is fun checking out the girls. I am learning a lot about my site mates by their preference in the ladies. Also, I
can observe the interesting and intimidating Albanian fashion scene.

This is the coolest toilet I have ever seen on the beach…

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rite of Passage

I was recently told that I have been doing an inadequate job when it comes to updating my blog…thank you for your continued interest in my Peace Corps experience! I will make a concerted effort to update more often!

I am taken aback by the fact we are already in August. I have been thinking about what a whirlwind my life has been, especially in the last year. One year ago, I was about to begin my last fall semester at GW and I was worried beyond belief about where Peace Corps would be sending me. It honestly does not feel like a whole year has passed and that I have officially been in Albania for 5 months now. In fact, this will be my 21st week.

During pre-service training we were told that as health education volunteers the summer months would be incredibly slow. A substantial portion of health education in Albania takes place in the schools. Therefore, during summer vacation our counterparts often take their “pushim” or vacation time. I have been very lucky to have an eager and passionate counterpart that has continuously sought out opportunities for us to provide family planning education to the surrounding villages. Recently, we have expanded our education to include breast feeding and using uninterrupted breast-feeding as a form of birth control. My coworkers make fun of me about how much I study Shqip, but the truth is that it is completely worthwhile because I am able to actually understand the women’s comments and concerns and it helps to better understand where education is needed regarding family planning. Last week, one of the women got upset that we were talking about condoms because she said they were only for Africa. On one hand it is promising that she knows what condoms are and that they protect against HIV/AIDS, but it emphasizes how important our health education is going to be in order to counter the misunderstandings and assumptions about the various family planning methods available.

In addition to my work at the Directorate of Public Health, I have started volunteering at Nehemia. My time at this organization has already proved to be fruitful in allowing me to meet more members of the community, get health experience on home visits with the nurses, and get some education experience by helping out in the kindergarten. The home visits are incredible, to say the least. The patients that Nehemia visit are unable to seek treatment at the health centers in the city or need continuous treatment by a caregiver. All patients apply for the home visit program and then are visited by a social worker. If they are eligible for the services, they will be entered into the program. These home visits are so exciting for me because I get the chance to observe provider-patient communication, bed-side manners, I get to learn more about health conditions and treatments, and it gives me an opportunity to enrich my passion for medicine.

Language classes have also resumed for me. Twice a week Brad, Matthew, and I have language classes with a professor that worked with the previous Peace Corps volunteers in Pogradec. At first I thought we were starting off with too basic of information…but today I was struggling. On some days I can get a pretty good grip of the grammar, but today it showed me who was boss. Otherwise, I know I am progressing well with the language. I no longer feel a pressing need to bring my dictionary with me everywhere I go. I was also able to purchase Internet for my apartment and communicate with the installers without a need for a translator or that trusty dictionary. Though, that does not mean I understand everything. I have realized that if I am tired, the Shqip-speaking part of my brain becomes completely non-functional. I have also acquired a skill that allows me to fully block out sound of people speaking Shqip when they are speaking too fast. In this circumstance, it allows me to preserve my self-confidence because as the speed of the conversation increases, it begins to sound like one continuous, unrecognizable word and then I do not understand. Still, I am eagerly looking forward to that day when I am “fluent.”

With work, volunteering, and language classes, I find my weeks to be pretty full before they even begin. My weeks are never too busy, though, for taking in the sites and enjoying my time here in Albania. Ever since we moved to Pogradec, my site mates and I have wanted to visit a beautiful village called Lin that is located right over the mountain when you first approach Lake Ohrid from Elbasan. As you can see from the view, it is enticing…

We had heard that there was a very nice and generally unpopulated beach there. So, we thought we would be adventurous and see what Lin had to offer. We got to the village and just walked straight along the main road. We kept our eyes out for the beach and were not seeing any obvious sign of a beach beyond the private beach visible along the houses. Along the way we saw some spectacular sites.

Before we knew it, the road led us to a hiking trail. We were in beach attire, meaning I was wearing a summer dress and flip-flops, and Brad was carrying our beach umbrella. But, we were determined to find this unpopulated beach we read about in the tourist book. We should have been suspicious because the book also mentioned that if we were interested in the village’s history we should seek out an elderly man that would be more than happy to tell us about Lin. Who knows how long ago our tourism book was published and whether or not that man still lives in Lin. Anyway, we decided to hike into the unknown. We kept going and going. In the distance there seemed to be a beach, but we never reached it because we were dismayed by the seemingly endless marsh. Fortunately, Brad was proactive and climbed through the bushes to find a way for us to reach the water. What he did not know at the time was that the bushes were stinging nettle plants. After learning they were stinging nettle, I made the wise decision not to inflict stinging pain on myself all over my exposed skin. So, I left the boys and tried to find a less risky entry point to the water. I found a path with less plants, but still got a little bit of a sting by that terrible stinging nettle. Even after all of this I did not jump in and enjoy the lake. I was mortified by the presence of snakes on this side of the lake and I could not get over the abundance of algae. The view alone, however, was worth it all.

On the way back out of Lin, we noticed the beach was on the opposite side of the road when you first enter the town. Oops.

We have also been pretty active in Pogradec this summer. There was recently a concert of sorts in the center of the city. They have this American Idol/ So You Think You Can Dance competition for adolescents and the top youth went on tour throughout Albania. It was a pretty entertaining concert if you like blaring loud music that literally vibrates everything within (at least) a two-mile radius, lip singing, non-choreographed group dancing, and a continuous reminder that Albanians do not have a personal space boundary. But at the end of the night, we had a great time. We were able to enjoy some dancing with great company. I would like all my devoted Pepsi drinkers to take note of their sponsorship of the event.

The end of July also brought us Connie’s three legitimate birthdays. It’s true, she has three and she is not even being greedy about it. According to her birth certificate, her family’s recollection of her birth, and the medical records, she has three birthdays: July 26th-28th. The first night we all went out to dinner. The second night we went dancing at Euro Korca, which is a hotel along the xhiro (boulevard where people walk back and forth) that has a dancing stage set up outside where people circle dance. For the longest time Connie promised us that they had circle dancing there but we never saw it. Now we believe her and it was an absolute blast. We danced and danced and danced. We were even able to keep up with the faster songs. There was only one instance where Connie lost her shoe and I thought I was going to have to forfeit the dance for laughing so hard. I never thought Peace Corps was going to be this much fun. We also noticed that the women do this impressive shoulder shake. It is not the shimmy, because I can do that. But it is a movement of just the shoulders at a rate that I do not think I am capable of in this moment. I hope to acquire this skill before my service is over. It will be an inherent part of my perceived success.

Finally, I took my own mini-pushim and traveled back to Belësh to visit my host family. They invited me to a wedding in the village and so it was a perfect opportunity for me to go back to my “Albanian roots.” The road to Belësh from Elbasan was newly paved. Before, it was the bumpiest road I think I have traveled up to this point in Albania. It was most certainly unpleasant on those days we were traveling back from Elbasan with five of us shoved into the backseat. As soon as I got to the door, my host mother ran down the stairs and gave me a great big hug. I immediately felt at home and had almost forgotten how important that feeling is. My host father’s aunt was over for a visit and so I met her for the first time and she gave me more kisses than I have ever received in a greeting. The baby, Ansila, has grown so much in the 10 weeks since I moved to Pogradec. She is smiling now and I was elated with all the goofy faces I got to make for her to smile. Eventually, she started to smile at me every time I looked at her, even if I did not make a face.

My host mother’s sister, Gerta, also came into town from Durres. She stayed in Belësh for the first two weeks I lived with the host family. She became a really close friend and it was wonderful to spend more time with her as well.

The wedding itself was a blast, as is to be expected at an Albanian wedding. The wedding was in the village at the place where most weddings are celebrated there. The bride was my host father’s cousin. Weddings are such a big deal that his brother working in Italy and his brother working in Greece both came back with their families. As such, we had quite the wedding party.

Of course, we engaged in circle dancing. One of the servers that remembered me from when I lived there told me “bravo” as we were leaving because I guess he was surprised that I could circle dance. I did miraculously forget to mentally and physically prepare for the terribly loud music that is associated with every Albanian wedding. I am not sure how I could have had such a lapse in judgment. Unfortunately, our table was right next to the speaker and I seriously thought my ears were going to bleed by the end of the wedding. Luckily for me, my hearing is generally still in tact.

Now time for the “I know I’m in Albania when…” segment:
• Students in the high schools are taking an exam for entry into the university and all my coworkers are sending text messages to students to give them answers
• The mother that asked me to marry her son came to our office to tell me about all the benefits her son would bring to my life and offered me the proposal again
• I ran into a coworker that just retired while walking home one day and she looked down my shirt to see whether or not I have been going to the beach
• I was literally kidnapped at work because they said I was working too hard and needed a break before I got too tired.
• I have officially received my “rite of passage” into the Peace Corps Volunteer family by having had giardia…