Walking home the other evening with a friend, he pointed out an uncovered manhole right in my path. Looking up to say thank you I noticed a broken toilet sitting in the middle of the sidewalk and said in response, “look out for the toilet.” We both laughed as we came to the conclusion that if it were not for the manhole, we would not have said anything about the toilet and barely would have noticed its conspicuous presence. It’s just one of those things we are used to about Albania – you never know what to expect and so you expect everything.
Often it’s slightly comical to think about the overwhelming amount of incidences besides disappearing into a manhole that may threaten the life of an Albanian PCV over the course of two years. For example, the earthquakes that we talked about in warden training are a real threat here in the Balkans. Other risks we joke about read like an Edward Gorey book: I could die from breathing toxic fumes from incessant trash burning, being blown up by an accidental misplacement of fishing dynamite while taking a dip in the river, getting hit by a crazy furgon driver while crossing the street, being in said crazy furgon when they drive off the road while the driver is texting and smoking a cigarette at the same time, contracting food poisoning or severe giardia, being consumed by a skin rash after swimming in the ocean nearby the deltas of several polluted rivers, suffering from a stomach ulcer from too much coffee drinking, sudden death from a brick dropped on my head by incessant construction happening everywhere, falling on wet marble or tile stairs when there is no railing and someone with a hose is watering the stairs, falling into a turkish/squat style toilet and cracking my head on the cement wall, suffering a heart attack induced by excess oil in the diet, lung cancer from breathing second hand smoke for two years, or gradually being poisoned by lead from drinking water laced with heavy metals. It’s definitely more of a life “on the edge” here in Albania…
While we may joke as PCVs about safety concerns to make light of the utter ridiculousness and irony of a Balkan lifestyle, I had a real eye-opening experience this week about a major safety threat for Albanian youth. I was helping out for a day at a summer camp at the beach for Roma children on Tuesday. At one point the kids were all in the water and the director turned to me and Leslie (fellow PCV) and asked us to come in to help keep an eye on the kids. At Shengjin, our local beach, it is very shallow (waist high) for about 50 meters out from the shore. I started talking to a group of girls, and was just swimming around a bit when they asked me:
“E di ti të notosh?” – do you know how to swim?
“Po,” I replied….”do you?”
“Jo!” and they giggled.
It really hit me then that I was standing in the middle of a group of 30 kids aged 5 to 18, all horsing around in the water and having a great time, who had grown up in a beach town without ever learning how to swim. I looked around at the packed beach – no lifeguards exist here in Albania – and wondered just how many people at the beach, adults and kids, do know how to swim.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of lifeguards, no swimming pools, and Peace Corps’ issues with liability I don’t think teaching youth swimming lessons will be a viable project for the next two years, but it is an idea I’d like to explore. Swimming and feeling comfortable in the water is definitely something I take for granted, and it really shocked me that so few Albanians (and pretty much all Albanians go to the beach for vacation) have this sense of security.
Besides having experiences that are gradually peeling away layers of my American cultural shell, this week I have been feeling a bit “merzit” (an Albanian word that means everything from bored to homesick to upset…they use it all.the.time.) for the US of A in the wake of the 4th of July. I had a great time camping at the beach in Divjak with some friends over the weekend, but it was not the festë e madh that it would have been in the states. However, the US embassy party is this weekend (we are celebrating the 4th on the 9th of July?) and should be a good reunion in Tirana with lots of PCV pals. In the mean time, work is picking up and I am enjoying following the end of the Kopa e Botës and the beginning of a drama-filled Tour de France and am eagerly anticipating my first out of country visitor – Cate McLean is coming in mid-July!