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Monthly Archives: August 2010

On your birthday, Albanians wish you “and another 100 years” (edhe një qind vjeç!).

Thanks to all of you for the bday wishes and wonderful mail I have been receiving. Celebrating in Albania was definitely a bit different, but a lot of fun. I traveled to the south to take part in a festival for the Bektashi sect of islam – based here in Albania – that took place on top of Mt. Tomorri near Berat, followed by some canyoneering in nearby çorovode….the festival was a bloodletting like no other (many many sacrificial sheep!) that deserves its own post when I have time.

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After two summers working at Explo, I know that camp is sometimes like an alternate universe.

Working at an overnight camp in Albania in a different language and cultural climate is another thing altogether.

Despite all the distress and chaos of changing the date of our Bashkia-sponsored camp for children living in poverty in Lezhe several times, we finally actually held the camp from August 5th to 9th(see photos here). It’s something my counterpart and I have been looking forward to and planning all summer, and I think she and I feel that it went over very well, despite a few hiccups.

A few PCV friends from across the country came to help out with the camp while my counterpart Yllka as well as a friend who works for the red cross here in Lezhë made up the Albanian staff. We had a blast with the kids – 46 in all, aged 6-14 – and helped run activities like a climbing wall, crafts, archery, and the pool during the day and team building games (think scavenger hunt and water games) organized by my counterpart in the evening. For most if not all of the kids it was their first camp experience if not their first experience staying outside of their own home.

After a stressful and long first day, we hit a bit of a routine….and by then it seemed like it was pretty much over. But it’s funny how in only 4 days we created a microcosm of the “camp” cycle that I noticed so much at Explo: beginning staff stress and adjustment to the schedule and life with the kids, then the middle period where you enjoy getting to know the kids and joke around and see them develop and open up while you enjoy doing all these activities you haven’t done since you were a kid, and finally the weepy parting period where the kids hang all over you at the end and exhaustion takes over.

Highlights of our camp included: playing popcorn on the trampoline (hilarious way to pass the time…and something I have not done in years and years), getting to see a few kids who were afraid of the pool when they arrived finally get in and swim, being a “leader” for a group of 9 kids – grupi rose! – who were a team for all the activities, speaking shqip all day every day, night swimming after the kids went to bed, watching the kids receive gifts of clothes and shoes from the Red Cross at the end of the camp, and dealing with the chickens that were running around the compound everywhere (and my counterpart thought would be funny to include as an item in a scavenger hunt – so funny! – imagine a group of kids running towards you holding two chickens in each hand!).

Kyle and Libby play chicken

A bit of my initial frustration with the British organization that owns the property the camp was held on remains because of how they treated my Albanian counterpart noticeably differently than the American (English speaking) PCVs. But, as I have talked through the camp with Yllka and Jen and the other volunteers involved in the weeks since it took place, the one thing that I’ve really taken away with a bad taste in my mouth is the weight that the desire for recognition places on decision making in this country. In all our dealings with the British organization who owns the property before camp began and even at the beginning of the camp, they made Yllka’s job pretty difficult (see above and my previous post). Then, while the camp was actually happening they were very unavailable (actually NOT PRESENT at all) to help us actually run the programs, which was pretty unprofessional and unsafe in my opinion. Finally, when all these gifts and volunteer help from the Red Cross became such a part of the camp in the vacuum that the British organization created, they actually got upset that the Red Cross was present because it was “their” camp. It’s hard to explain how this happened and I don’t even know all the details, but basically instead of the focus being on the kids, it was definitely on the organizations and how much who was helping the kids and how….

This desire for acclaim and praise is really frustrating to me, but is something that happens ALL THE TIME here in Albania among the Bashkia staff and other quote-on-quote humanitarian organizations. BUT it takes place in ways that are counterproductive and don’t make sense. For example, every little thing that anyone does is on the TV news here, but very few events are advertized before they take place. What??

As a Peace Corps volunteer we are lone rangers in our communities and rarely if ever get recognition for anything we do (which is not the point at all). But because we are volunteers involved in many diverse projects, it is common for us to be caught in the crossfire of organizations vying for recognition. This struggle is something I find frustrating and a bit sad, but is definitely a part of development work everywhere and makes those selfless instances of collaboration and teamwork all the more amazing when they do occur.

Ne duhet të bashkpunojmë!

PCVs at camp

Yesterday marks my five month in-country anniversary, which is crazy to think about. Some days it still feels like I am on vacation, while others it really hits me just how long I will be here (and have been here). I feel that a lot of the novelty of living in a new community and country has worn off, and life here in Lezhë has started to take on a bit of a pattern. I know I am missing some events and celebrations at home, but so far my life is so full each day here that it makes it easy to be engaged in what I am doing, enjoy doing it, and not obsess about what is happening in the US.

However, this week I’ve been contemplating two events that are definitely making me think of home. Next week I will both celebrate my 23rd birthday and my little sister will move into Dunglison and begin her own journey at UVA. Two landmarks…though hers is more significant by far. It’s odd to think that I started my time at UVA on my 18th birthday, and to me my birthday always has been a time to be at home in the yard with family and friends or in Charlottesville reuniting with good friends.

Last night I started to make a list of things I love about Charlottesville to send to Wilson in an email as a silly something to start off her time there, and then I just got to feeling melancholy. I miss the way the summer smells and feels at home, and I miss that I won’t be able to be there to share this milestone with her in a place that is so much a part of me. And on this side of the world almost all my American PC friends are from the west or west coast…it’s a bit hard describing the Lawn or the late summer light in the Ellett valley, and even harder when the people I used to talk to and reminisce with about those places regularly are far away and busy in different time zone. I guess that now I have so much of a life here, that I feel very disconnected from my friends lives at home because I can’t really communicate what Albania is like to them. And most of the time that doesn’t bother me too much, but sometimes it just hits me really hard. Like today.

korçe

When I think about all the things that happen to me in a week, or even a day here in Albania, it is a comical and never regular slew of experiences that paint a collage of collective experience and create what it is to live in Albania as a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s an experience that is entirely impossible to describe, is never boring, and is eternally changing.

One of the most interesting, frustrating and entertaining elements of this crazy culture is transportation. Getting anywhere is an adventure. There are no transit schedules posted and most things “leave when they are full.” Keeps life interesting. This past weekend I took a trip with a few fellow PCVs down to Korce for their annual beerfest (festivals are a new phenomenon here in Albania, but they are catching on fast). My transportation on the way down included:

1. Trying to hitchhike to Tirana then accidentally getting in an unmarked taxi. Talking the taxi down to a furgon price (300 leke). Talking to the taxi driver’s daughter on the phone in English while on the road after he figured out that I knew English and Shqip. Time: 1.5 hours

2. City bus across Tirana to the Peace Corps Office

3. A furgon from Tirana to Elbasan with friends along the mountain ridge road and watching the sunset over ¾ of Albania – we could see ridge after ridge and the reflection of the sun on the Adriatic beyond. Time: 1.5 hours

4. A train (yes, we have trains….! Though they are few and far between and seldom used) from Elbasan to Pogradec with 8 others including many card games, a 7 minute tunnel, views of lake Ohrid, broken windows, and a lot more time than it would normally take to get between the two locations. Time: 3.5 hours

5. Furgon from train station into Pogradec

6. A furgon to Korce. Hot and dry… Time: 1 hour

traveling in style on the train

Not a super crazy trip by any means, but definitely diverse. I love this kind of travel though, especially with friends and to an interesting destination. I really liked Korçe – lots of historic buildings from the Ottoman period. We stayed in a rickety inn that has been a boarding house for 200 years, explored the city and drank a fair amount of beer at the fest in the evenings – while listening to Albanian music, of course.

Updates on the camp to come!!

our ottoman abode

****To clear up what a “furgon is” – it’s a small mini-bus or van that is the predominate mode of transportation here in Albania. Usually the driver goes back and forth along one route and lives in one town on either end. There are no furgon schedules – you go to the area of town where the drivers usually hang out for your particular destination and wait….sometimes for a while, because furgons only leave when they are full. Sometimes I have tried to get out of one empty furgon and get in another that is filling up more quickly, but this is a bad idea because the drivers will get really upset with you. But, if I really want to just get on the road sometimes it’s a risk I am willing to take. Also, furgons stop often (which is  annoying if you are actually trying to get somewhere) because people flag them down on the side of the road, BUT that also means that you can stop them and get out wherever you want along the route. Often, riding in a furgon is a smelly, squished and bumpy experience. However, in the summer I prefer them to a bus because they are faster AND they have windows – a breeze is essential to surviving a ride here!

Recently I had a coffee with one of my co-workers and friends here who is a bit of a culture and history buff. At one point he worked at one point for a newspaper in Tirana as a culture editor, and he supposedly knows more about the castle and sights here in Lezhë than a lot of people. I am working on a few tourism projects with him, and he’s a great resource for random trivia about the area.

Like so many conversations I have had with Albanians, we soon started talking about family and heritage. I explained that my family is originally pretty much all from Scotland and England, and that I had a great grandmother who came down to the US from Nova Scotia in Canada.

At hearing this he looked up at me and said, “You are half Albanian, then.”

“What?” I exclaimed a bit confusedly.

He then explained that the word “alban” originally meant east to the Romans, and so it actually was used to refer to several different populations or areas, including the Scots. I looked it up, and he’s right.

Who knew I was half Albanian?

See wikipedia for more info

In August life gets crazy in Albania.

Right now it seems like everyone is either getting married or on vacation. The beaches are packed and the night air is thick with the sound of multiple wedding dance parties happening at once.

The past week or so has been crazy for me as well. Leslie, my sitemate for two months and Shqip-speaker and Lezhean extraordinaire, finished her service and took off for the midwest and to prepare for Peace Corps round two in Morocco…she will start there in September. It already feels so different without her here! In addition, the camp I’ve been alluding to for a while took place in a sweaty mess of heat, language barriers, and fun times with chickens and on the trampoline and climbing wall (I’ll write a longer post on this soon). Today, though barely recovered from camp, I am headed out of town for some meetings, to see my host family again and then to Korce in southern Albania for the beerfest there this weekend.

Lots of updates to come…stay tuned