Friday, December 25, 2009

Roman Holiday

Italy was the only place left on my list that I felt like I just had to visit before I left Albania . . . it is just across the water! I started asking around my group to see if anyone wanted to come along for the holidays. I knew that I wanted to go to Italy and I also knew that I did not want to go by myself, especially for Christmas. I was lucky that Connie, one of the volunteers in the more recent group thought Chrismas in Rome was a great idea and we started the plans for the trip.

Our plan for the week: squeeze as much culture as possible into 10 days without actually killing ourselves. This started with seeing La Traviata on Wednesday night just a few hours after landing. You know the best part about only going an hour and a half away for vacation? No jet lag! We also had tickets for The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve. Opera, ballet, now we needed some religion! After the ballet we headed over to the Vatican, but found that they closed early for the holiday. After much discussion we decided to forgo the craziness of the Papal visit on Christmas and instead did a much calmer and very beautiful midnight mass at the basillica near our hostel (which happens to be the second largest in the city and seriously amazing!). It was all in Latin and Italian and I didn't really get much of it, but Connie was raised Catholic, so really understood what was going on.

For Christmas, we decided to go another rought- we did Catholic, now lets get some Jewish in there! Rome has the largest Jewish population in Italy and has an excellent Jewish museum and Jewish quarter, which was perfect to visit on Christmas since most everything else in the city was closed. I was able to get one of my long time cravings- falafel (not so Italian, but you really can only eat so much pasta and pizza!). We also had Chinese food for dinner (the only other thing open!).

Our plans for the next few days include a trip back to the Vatican and lots of art, then on to Florence!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Let it snow . . .

Winter has arrived in Peshkopi. I know that some of you in Denver have had a pretty harsh, cold and snowy winter already, but here in Albania, the winter so far has actually been pretty mild. This is of course mostly good news because when it gets cold here, it gets really cold because there is no insulation or central heating. This week, however, the winter has arrived. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be out to dinner with Dylan, Turi and Dylan's counterpart Habibi when it started snowing for the first time this winter. I say I was lucky because it was beautiful and also because by the morning there was barely a dusting and by the next afternoon the snow was gone. Driving home from dinner as the big, wet flakes fell on the lit city . . . gorgeous. I wish that I could have effectively captured it on film, but I'm afraid that I couldn't. Over the weekend it continued to snow off and on and I snuggled into my wood-stove heated room. Up until this point, I've felt pangs every time I started up my stove- is it really cold enough? Do I want to waste this wood? (not to mention the pollution pangs I always get), but when it is really cold, I feel less bad about using the wood for some reason. Anyway, don't ask me . . .

Next week I'll be going to Italy for Christmas and New Years with Connie, another PCV. When I get home, hopefully I won't have frozen pipes like I did after my vacation last year.

Happy holidays and let it snow!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

After living in Albania for nearly two years now, I think that I have become (as much as you can be) somewhat of an expert in Albanian transportation. There are some ways that Albania seems to really be coming along in terms of development and as far as being a PCV here, it is definitely the Posh Corps in many ways, but in terms of transportation, it is clear that Albania still has a long way to go and I'm entirely convinced that this country will not be considered "developed" until major changes are made in many areas of transportation.

For most foreigners, Albania's public transport system is a mystery at best and can be a frustrating experience. First, to be a tourist here, you really have to mean it. It is not that easy to get to Albania. Since it is the one European country not connected to the rest of the continent by rail lines, it is impossible to be sitting in a train station in Vienna wondering where to go and hop on a train to Tirana (like you could with basically every other capital city). This lack of effective train system also makes in country travel more difficult than in the rest of Europe. There are a few train lines going in between a few of the major cities, but the trains are run down and slow and very few people use them. In the summer when I was traveling with a few volunteers from Macedonia (which has an incredibly advanced transportation network compared to Albania) what the Albanian word for "platform" was, I couldn't tell them, because I realized that I had never used that word!

So, without trains, you are left with buses, taxis and mini-buses (furgons). I was contacted a few days ago by a guy that is in the process of updating a guide book for Tirana and is wanting to add in a bus schedule to his guide. He was hoping that he could help with the bus schedule for Peshkopi. The problem with this is of course that a schedule doesn't really exist as far as I have been able to figure out. There are a few buses, I think two that leave at 7 and 8 in the morning, and maybe another one later in the day, but it is not as if they sit at any sort of "station" or that there are "tickets." I have only taken the bus twice in my time here. Usually I take a furgon, which is kind of like a combination of a bus and taxi. Usually a mini-van or mini-bus size (with 8-15 seats), they circle the town until they find enough people and leave when they are full. There is no schedule, but I have been able to figure out that certain drivers like to leave at certain times of the day and that if you can call these drivers and reserve a seat the day before. Even so, if I call a driver and he says he is leaving at 7AM, we will only leave when the furgon is full, so if he doesn't have enough reservations it may still be a while before we are on the road.

Travel is easier for some other parts of the country, particularly the larger cities in the south and close to Tirana. For many sites, there are scheduled buses and there is even a "bus station" that serves many cities in the south (but even this "station" is a challenge to find in Tirana- there is no sign outside, you just have to know it is there . . . ). But for the rest of us, the "stations" are spread out at rather random spots along the side of the road and parking lots of Tirana. I honestly think that a major tourism development priority for the Albanian national government should be a central bus station- how can they expect tourist to find their way to Peshkopi when the "station" is an unmarked strip mall parking lot on the road out of town?!

Once you find your furgon or bus, that is usually not the end of your challenges. On my way to Rreshen last week, we were talking about all of the things that might delay your journey . . .

Top 10 best reasons your trip might be delayed when traveling in Albania-

10. Road Construction
9. Sheep
8. Overloaded Donkey
7. Overloaded gjushe (grandmother)
6. Someone in the furgon wants to buy fruit
5. Pilaf/kafe/cigarette stop
4. Stopped by the police (for a bribe?)
3. Someone in the furgon gets sick (although to be honest, this usually doesn't mean the furgon stops- just throw the bag out the window and keep going!)
2. Driver stops in the middle of the road to say hi to friend in furgon traveling in the other direction.

And the number one best reason that you might be delayed . . .

1. Driver stops to test drive a new truck! (not kidding this happened on our way to Rreshen last week- we stopped for about 15 minutes while the driver negotiated the purchase of a truck.)

Happy travels!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

District XI: Beso tek Une!

Last week I was invited by another volunteer to come to her site and help her in putting on a musical extravaganza with 45 Albanian students and 5 other volunteers. It was a show that her and some of her students worked on last summer when she took them to a theater camp in Texas and then adapted slightly for Albania. The show included singing and dancing as well as small scenes of school life and I have to say it was pretty amazing. The kids worked incredibly hard on it as well as an amazing amount of effort by Sarah, Tauchia and Travis to get the kids ready. Amanda and I came in to play the role of teachers in the show and to help corral the kids as well as joining in on the singing and dancing. The show had the potential to be cheesy or bad and I have to admit that when I first came up two weeks before I was a bit worried. But as these things often do, it all came together in the end and we had three really great shows.

The shows took me back to my days in theater in school and made me realize again what many students here are missing out on when these programs are not available to them. It was great that Sarah has formed a theater group in Rreshen, but this is something that doesn't happen in every town and it is likely that unless the next volunteer to come to Rreshen is interested in theater that the program will not continue after Sarah leaves next year. This is one of the real challenges to being a volunteer- finding ways for the projects you start to continue on after you leave. It has to be a perfect storm of circumstances- a local person that is committed to the cause or other foreigners willing to take it on. But we can only start something and try to build the right conditions, we can't be here forever.

Anyway, even though they were a pain in the butt sometimes, the kids in Rreshen were great and I am really proud of all of them and really proud to have worked with them. Congrats to all the kids that participated on a job well done. Together we can!

Thanksgiving part two: Peshkopi style

The town I live in is in the northeast of Albania near the Macedonian border. The road to get there takes about 5 hours from the capital and the road (which is not that great, but getting better all the time) winds through the mountains. The trip is beautiful, but long and many Albanians and PCVs have this idea that Peshkopi is really far away, so not many people visit us. It is far away, but it is not really THAT far away, anyway, that is what I keep trying to tell people. . .

So, American Thanksgiving falls at a great time in Albania because usually it coincides with two (and this year three) holidays that are celebrated here. Meaning that we actually get a long weekend- longer than we would have in the US. Most people here had a full five days off- Friday to the following Tuesday and the Americans went ahead and took Wednesday and Thursday off, so basically it was a full week . . .

Taking advantage of this big holiday weekend, I invited some people to come up and extend the eating frenzy. Since they didn't have to be back to work on Monday it worked out. It was also Dylan's birthday this week, so we celebrated that as well and invited some of our Albanian friends to join us. My second Thanksgiving was almost as good as the first, if a bit more Albanian.
We still had all the standards (thanks to a care package or two- thanks Kenji!), but decided to go the slightly lazy rout and get some rotisserie chicken instead of cooking (and killing) our own turkey. We even stuck some sparklers in a pumpkin pie for Dylan . . .

It's funny, I don't think that many people in America have two Thanksgiving dinners, but for some reason I have had successive Thanksgiving dinner repeats for the past two years. Since we are so far away from the normal traditional things and our families, we unapologetically extend Thanksgiving into a full weekend with multiple meetings of different groups in several locations. I know some volunteers that went to as many as three dinners this year. We have a lot to be thankful for and I'm glad that I got to share this with so many good friends.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Diten e Falenderemeve

There are a few words in Albanian that I love to say like lulestrudhe (stawberry), infaktekisht (in fact) and diten e falenderemeve (Thanksgiving Day). I love saying it. Diten e Falenderemeve.

Anyway, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday whether in America or Albania . . . I love that the point of it is taking time to think about the good things in our lives and reflect on the year. Plus there's the food. The people that work at the US Embassy here have made it a gracious tradition to invite Peace Corps Volunteers to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. This year I was invited by Mark and Mary, a wonderful couple that works for the military at the Embassy. They live in a big house in Tirana with their dog and cat. Three of us came down on Wednesday night and helped with pie and other food- we made a pretty impressive three layer jello, pumpkin bread (with fresh pumpkin) and lots of goodies. The best thing about staying with expats is that they have a whole bunch of American food. When embassy employees come over from America, they get to bring with them an incredible amount of food. Their allowed amount of consumables (things like food, but also cleaning supplies and laundry detergent) for one year is more than the combined total of all the luggage that all 37 people in my group brought initially to Albania (we get 100lbs. of luggage each . . .), so yeah, it's a crap load of food. They also get to shop at the military commissary in Italy for all those "fresh" kinds of food, like cheddar cheese . . . so in addition to the normal Thanksgiving type things we also got to sample things like queso dip, dill pickles, Dr. Pepper, etc. There were six of us for dinner, plus a few other people from the embassy. I literally ate until I couldn't anymore. And then I ate some more. And then I had dessert. The other great thing about Mark and Mary's house is that they have the Armed Forces TV, so we were able to watch the Macy's parade and the football games. We also went to the "Ridge" (the American Ambassador's housing compound that is basically a small American suburban neighborhood in the middle of Tirana made up of modular houses . . . almost feels a bit Stepfordish . . .) to play touch football with the Marines and Embassy staff. In PC vs. Marines, the Marines kind of killed us . . . but I think I would have been a bit worried if they didn't :).

All in all it was a very American Thanksgiving, which is exactly what I wanted.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mail call

It was looking to be a crappy day. It was one of those cloudy, rainy days where all that you want to do is stay home and snuggle with a good book and a cup of hot cider. It’s so cloudy and foggy that you can barely see the house across the way much less the mountains in the distance. It’s eerie and a bit creepy and when you walk outside it feels like you are walking through water; your clothes never seem to be completely dry. When you get into the office, you find that the internet is out and a trip to the internet café down the street tells you that it is in fact out in the whole town. There go those e-mails that you need to send and the research that you need to do for the training you are doing on Friday. You should have just stayed in bed.

So I walk over to the post office expecting the same- no, the packages I am waiting for are not here. Instead, I find (to the delight of post office ladies and me) that in fact I have TWO packages waiting for me. Bingo! And the day starts to look up. I want to give some credit here to two people that made my day today: My mom and Kenji. First, Kenji- who filled a package with everything needed to make a great thanksgiving (except the turkey, but he’s a vegetarian). When I think back to a year and a half ago and how worried I was that I wouldn’t get along with Kenji, it seems so silly. In the year that we spent here together, he became one of my closest friends and someone that I really came to depend on to listen to me (sometimes to the point of over-sharing, sorry K) and even though he is back in the states, he still is someone I can depend on to cheer me up. Second, my mom- of course, she is basically obligated to send me things, especially because I usually ask for specific things to be sent (in this package- some DVDs I ordered and a new hard drive . . .) but I want to give my mom credit here for having a singular ability for packing a care package. She knows how to use every bit of space- packing small, useful things (granola bars, starbursts, hot cider packets) into the spaces (no need for packing filler here!). She also knows the secret of packing everything into it’s own Ziploc bag. The Ziplocs not only protect everything in the package, but also are extremely useful as for some reason that is beyond me, Ziplocs are not widely used overseas. She also knows how to throw in some unexpected love into the mix- something to make me smile. I think that all moms and dads out there sending out care packages to their kids the world over could take some package-packing lessons from my mom. So to Kenji and my mom, falemenderit shume for the much needed cheer up today. And if you ever need a perfect care package, call my mom, I’m sure she’d send you one . . .

Monday, November 2, 2009

baking experiments

I set out to try to make bagels yesterday. It didn't quiet work out, but I got a loaf of bread out of it. Oh, well. Will try again today . . .

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where's my flying car?

Last night, my friend visiting from Lezhe again convinced me to host a "Kinema Rebecca" party at my house including cooking (lasagna) and a movie projected on my living room wall. As it has been getting cooler all week, it was a perfect time to start up my wood stove and welcome everyone into my nice warm home. We decided to watch Back to the Future Part II, which I love, but haven't watched in a long time. We realized when we were watching that the future that Marty goes forward into is now only 6 years away!

And I want to know: where is my flying car? Or my hoverboard? Or my hanging fruit thingy in the kitchen? Where are the people that are supposed to be inventing these things? Right now we can barely get an electric car on the market, much less a Mr. Fusion. Maybe my hopes are too high and I should worry about the real important things (like heath care and war and things like that) but some part of me just wants the flying car that was promised to me 20 years ago . . .

Saturday, October 3, 2009

End of summer

The dip. I was looking back and at about this time last year I had a similar dip feeling. Summer is really over and I can feel winter getting closer. I bought my wood last week- this time all at once so that I don't have to buy more in the middle of the winter. Today it is rainy and not quite cold, but you can tell that the colder weather is coming. A perfect day to snuggle into bed with a good book. I've been searching for the reason for my current dip- I'm not unhappy here by any means. Work things are generally good, I'm getting busy again with the start of school. We had a really successful summer camp at the beginning of Sept. and I had a really successful workshop with my staff about time management and strategic planning. I've started English lessons with a few people in my office. The radio station is very close to being registered and start looking for funding. We had more than 20 kids come to our last Outdoor Ambassadors meeting and are hoping to go camping next week. With one of the girls from my MUN team, I am starting a girls leadership club for the girls that live in the school dormitories. I'm busy. And yet I'm feeling melancholy and homesick. I understand it to be more of an abstract sort of melancholy, rather than missing anything specific. I think part of it is the fact that the end of my service now is closer than the beginning- sort of a theoretical reality that I will be going home sooner rather than later, so I feel homesick because I will be there sometime soon (and by soon I mean within the next year or so) but I'm not there now. Ok, I don't know if that really makes much sense, but anyway . . .

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

not quite fixed

but getting closer and closer. After a month of panicky kernels, I am getting closer to figuring out what is wrong with my computer. We think that we have maybe narrowed it down to being a problem with my wireless card, which means that I can use my computer again as long as I don't try to get online with wireless. I really don't know what I would have done if I had not been able to use a computer at my office to search message boards and help sites to figure out what is wrong and then how to go about fixing it. A bit ironic, I suppose, that in order to get my computer working again I need another computer . . .

I have never thought of myself as a computer expert in any way, but (especially since I have a mac) I feel like I am probably more qualified to work on my computer (and fix other small problems with other computers) than many other people here, just because I have been around computers for a long time. I also have figured out a secret- in this time of technology, it is not any magical skills that are really needed most of the time, but rather the not so magical skills of asking the right questions and looking things up.

This is exactly the kind of computer expert I am . . . also maybe why I've thought I might want to be a librarian- I'm good at looking up the answer when I have no idea!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Technically possible, just not very practical

Looking at a map, it is hard to tell a few things- are there places where the river is too shallow or too deep? Are there natural or un-natural barriers? Is the river slow or fast moving? Looking at the map and even getting in the river, we found that it is technically possible to go from near Peshkopi to Kukes (about 60km) but just not in less than about three days. This was a problem only because we thought that we might be able to get there a lot faster and we wanted to bring as little stuff with us as possible (one backpack for four people).

The beginning was pretty great. It was Dylan, Leslie and this German guy Johan that's doing forestry research here and me. The river was really perfect for tubing- not too deep, but deep
enough that you didn't get stuck too often. And our packing system was pretty ingenious- we put a tarp on the bottom of an extra tube and tied Dylan's backpack into it, then one of us held on to the "raft." It took a while to get used to it and we capsized twice (and got ourselves stuck in a few trees), but by the end of the day we had all pretty much gotten the whole steering and paddling to stay in the middle of the river down. We found some villagers that told us the bad news- we were not nearly as far along as we wanted to be- only about 20km away from where we had started.

We made camp on the side of the river and it was a great spot. Sandy, but with a grassy area nearby and lots of trees (so lots of firewood) and close to the road. It would have been perfect if we had a tent (or sleeping bags) but we had tried to pack so light that we were really not ready. We also didn't really have enough food. We got a fire going and were fine until we tried to sleep- then we found how cold and uncomfortable it really was. There was a hay pile nearby and in the middle of the night we got the idea to bring over some hay to sleep on- that made it a little bit better, but not really. Basically we were freezing, even with the fire going all night (which meant we got no sleep).

In the morning we were cold and tired and decided that the last thing we wanted to do was get back in the water, so (for better or worse, who knows) we deflated the tubes and started to walk, hoping that we might find a car going our way (which really was either way, cause we were less than half-way and I would've gone back to Peshk if there had been a car). I think we walked nearly 20km overall, on almost no food. We stopped twice to get water at people's houses and Leslie and I got a short ride from two guys going to a wedding. After the guys caught up, we kept walking . . . Finally around 4 we got picked up by another car from the wedding and they took us the rest of the way into Kukes (about another 20km). This was lucky, because I think that we were all basically at a breaking point- we had had almost no food all day (the fact that it was berry season really saved us) and it was still a ways into town. We were lucky to find a ride, although we would have gotten there eventually- at this point we had already asked the Kukes PCVs to look for someone to come pick us up. But anyway, after a few bumps on the road (including a flat tire!) we got into town ate two dinners (to make up for all the berry eating) and spent the night there, exhausted, but happy in our attempt (at least I was). Things I learned- it is possible to get to Kukes by river, but it will take you three days and you really need to pack well because there is NOTHING out there (we saw more donkey carts than cars, no surprise).

The best thing about this trip, even though it didn't end up exactly as expected, was that we did it! Most of the Albanians that we told about the trip told us that we were crazy. Maybe we were, but we saw something that no one had ever tried before and decided to try it. We had to walk a lot, slept on a hay pile, got bitten by ants and were really hungry, but we survived and actually had a really great time. It was kind of like going to Antarctica or the Moon- people tell you that you're crazy and it's not possible, but you will never know that it's impossilbe until you try . . .

Monday, August 24, 2009

Probably the Best City in the World

Probably the best City in the world. This is (no joke) the motto of Brasov, a town in the Transylvania region of Romania. It is on every umbrella at all the cafes and restaurants downtown. Seriously, I can just imagine someone coming up with that, "Well, we haven't been to every other city in the world, so we can't really say 'The best city in the world, period', but we've been a lot of places and none of them were as good as here, so we can say 'Probably the best city in the world' until someone proves us wrong . . .

Anyway, Brasov is a pretty cool place, but I don't know if I was there long enough to really be sure of it's supremacy over every other place that I've been (I'm particularly partial to Prague myself, but that's just me . . . ). The town center is full of beautiful buildings and there is a slightly out of place giant Hollywood-esque sign on the side of the hill (just in case you forgot where you were?).
We actually didn't spend too much time in Brasov itself (except Amanda who decided that castles were not her thing and had an adventure with a red scooter . . . ) rather we used it as a base to see a bit more of the region and the castles that this part of Romania is famous for. The fairy tale tourets of Bran Castle harken back to princesses as much as Dracula and I'm all in favor of the former. The only mention of the famous literary biter was in an upstairs room talking about how the castle actually had nothing to do with the historical Vlad Tepes or the fictional Dracula at all except that maybe Bram Stoker may have based his description of Dracula's castle on Bran. What the castle did have, however was a lot of information about the Romanian royal family (who had most recently used it as a country home) and some pretty great views.

The next day, on our way back to Bucarest, we stopped in Sinai and explored another fantastic castle- this one much more royal palace than quaint country home. It seemed that every room we went into was more lavishly decorated than the one before (and it's no wonder that they charged a whole lot extra to take pictures!). Based soley on this and the Parliment I would have to say that the Romanians are skilled interior decorators . . . they take their palaces seriously!

Leaving Romania, we had a truly unpleaseant train ride to Sofia (lights on all night, loud, cold, uncomfortable seats . . . ) and arrived in Bulgaria to a rainy day. We had planned to spend the day exploring Sofia, but after the bad train ride and the rain, we decided to get the earliest possible oppourtunity back to Macedonia. As we crossed this last border, I realized that in just under two weeks I had completly crossed through Bulgaria three times (and had the 6 passport stamps to prove it) without stopping for more than a quick meal. I guess I've technically been to Bulgaria now but I think I might have to go back as I didn't actually see a thing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Overnight train and Bucharest in a hurry

After doing everything possible in Istanbul (ok, not really, but everything that was possible to do in four days) we hopped on an overnight train to Bucharest, Romania. After a very short (ha ha!) 20 hours on train and two more border crossings (across Bulgaria again) we arrived in Bucharest in the evening. The next morning we got an early start since we only had one day planned to see the Romanian capital. We were told by our hostel that to see the Parliament Palace we would need an appointment and they were kind enough to call for us. The earliest appointment available was apparently noon, so we decided to head over to the recommended Village Museum first. I probably could have stayed at the Village Museum for days. A really unique concept, starting in 1936, they moved typical houses from villages in different regions of the country or rebuilt replicas of the houses. The houses are filled with traditional clothing and furniture and there is staff that makes traditional crafts with kids who come (basically a living history museum) that you could then buy from the artisans. I really wanted to stay all day and make dolls and clay pots with the summer camp kids, but unfortunately we had an appointment to make at the Parliament. The Parliament building happens to be across town from the other museum and we only gave ourselves about an hour to get there. Even taking the metro (oh, metro! oh, advanced transportation!) we had to walk quite a ways (or run) because the metro stop was not really close to the entrance. Even with running we were late for our appointment, but it turns out that it didn’t really matter because there was a tour that we could join leaving at 12:30 . . . oh, well, we got our aerobic exercise for the day.

The Parliament building was kind of crazy. It is the biggest (not tallest) building in Europe, the second biggest in the world (after the Pentagon). It cost something like 6 billion dollars to build, but no one really knows how much it cost because they didn’t really keep track. Everything inside was made in Romania, including the most ridiculous woodwork, marble work, chandeliers and carpets that I’ve even seen. It was probably the most decadent building that I’ve ever seen. After a (rushed) tour we headed back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and get the afternoon train to Brasov. Again we rushed and barely caught the crowded (hot) train. When I found my seat and finally stopped rushing, I realized that I had left my pocket knife behind at the Parliament building (apparently you can't take a knife into public buildings . . .who knew?). But winning the award for the nicest person I have ever travelled with, my new friend Melissa gifted me her barely used leatherman tool to replace my lost knife since she is leaving PC in a few months and I have another year to go (plus adventures after). Thanks Melissa!

Up next: Transylvania- more than just Dracula!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Kernel Panic

For some reason, kernel panic sounds like such a funny thing to be wrong with my computer. Like, "hey how are your kernels doing?" "they're going CRAZY, it's a PANIC!"

In reality, a kernel panic is a pretty serious problem, making my computer basically unusable for the moment (as in I can't turn it on). Luckily, I have a great dad who knows a thing or two about panicky kernels and is sending me the tools to unpanic them. But in the meantime, I am only able to get online at the office, only occasionally and several things are trapped on my computer (like written blog posts and pictures), so I will be a little bit behind in updating here for a while.

In completely unrelated but coincidental news, the same day that my kernel panicked, my camera panicked too. Hopefully, the pictures from Romania and my crazy tubing trip can be saved . . . relying on my great dad for that too . . .

Friday, August 14, 2009

Making Friends and Taking Names

We’ve decided that the men of Istanbul must go to some sort of school to learn how to be smooth talkers. With lines like “I speak body language” and “How can I rip you off today” (to make us laugh) followed by “I wish I were a fish so that I could swim away in your eyes,” it’s no surprise that I spent way to much money . . . but also had some good times and made some fun friends. The area we were staying in is full of tourists and full of guys trying to convince you to eat at his restaurant or shop in his store. The touts of Istanbul are rarely rude, but certainly persistent and we were convinced by a few to actually stop. We also saw all the touristy attractions (Blue Mosque wins for beauty, Aya Sofia wins for awe inspiring impressiveness), took a boat trip on the Bosporus and the ferry over to Asia (where it seems like a lot of actual Turks live and the vying for our dollar basically stopped). We spent our last day at the Topaki Pallace- I’m in love with the tiles there- and the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar was more . . . polished than I was expecting- more like shopping mall than middle eastern souk, but I still bought a few scarves, some earrings and a ceramic bowl. While leaving Istanbul, I was sad to go. The food was fantastic- don’t tell the Albanians, but Turkish food is like what I think Albanian food should be like. Like Albanian food cooked better and with more flavor . . . I think that Istanbul (and the rest of Turkey) is someplace that I can see myself going to again . . . someday . . .

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople (and wasn’t it once Byzantium?)

I was sad to leave the conference in Ohrid early, but I was excited to get on with the rest of my trip. I headed north to meet up with Meredith, Melissa and Amanda, Macedonian PCVs to begin our adventure. The bus wasn’t very crowded, so we were able to spread out a little bit and we might have been able to sleep, if only we didn’t stop so much. I have never been on a bus that made so many pit stops. We had two borders to cross (and we had to get out of the bus twice at the Bulgarian-Turkish border) and we stopped at least 4 additional times. Every time we stopped, we all got off the bus and ran to the bathroom (whether we had to go or not) because we were not sure if we would stop again (but oh, we did!). Just before the Turkish border checkpoint, we stopped at a huge duty free mall that also had a food court. For some reason, Popeye’s Chicken sounded really good at 3:00 in the morning. We ordered our chicken but the order was taking forever- we almost had to leave without it as the bus driver was walking around trying to collect everyone and get out onto the bus. Finally at the last minute our food was ready and we ran out onto the bus just in time.

We arrived in Istanbul around 8:00 and after finding our hostel and dropping off our bags we walked around and got a feel for the city. In the afternoon we decided to clean off the travel dust and road weariness with a Turkish bath, possibly the best idea ever. Seriously, the baths are amazing. The whole thing was bit confusing (how does this work exactly?) the next time I go (and oh, yeah, there WILL be a next time) I think I will feel a little bit more comfortable because I’ll have a better idea of what is going on. Basically, you go into a big hot room with a stone floor, lay down and get all sweaty, and then someone comes and scrubs you down with a scubby cloth mit (layers and layers of skin and grime and grossness) and then soaps you up and give you a massage and then rinses you off with cool water. Heaven.

After we were all clean and shiny we went and took a nap (much needed) and then sat in a park and listened to a pops orchestra. Basically a perfect Turkish evening; tomorrow-another busy day with all the big sites: Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Bosporus boat . . .

Monday, July 27, 2009

Conference Crasher

When Jennifer (one of the wonderful social studies teachers at DCIS- my alma mater and former workplace) told me that she was coming to Macedonia for a conference, I made it a point to arrange my vacation time to see her. I didn’t really plan on it, but I have ended up being a Conference Crasher. When I showed up on Friday afternoon, I had already arranged for a hostel bed that night and left my stuff at the hostel, but once I was at the conference hotel, Jen made it clear that I was a welcome crasher- with a free bed, free food and lots of social studies teachers from all over the world, right on the beautiful lake Ohrid . . .

As a Peace Corps Volunteer you know I’m never one to pass up free anything, but I’m also not someone that likes to impose on anyone. But seriously, the teachers at this conference have welcomed me with open arms and lots of questions about my work. I feel like maybe this is a little bit of a taste of what it might be like when I go back to the States and have to field a million questions from people about my service. Some people think I’m a little bit crazy to be using my vacation time to go to an educational conference, but honestly, in addition to meeting a ton of awesome teachers and hanging out with Jennifer, maybe most importantly, I’m learning about and hoping to take the program called “Deliberating in a Democracy” back to Albania to use at least with my MUN team, but hopefully with the whole advanced English class at the foreign language high school. Part of the program is an exchange online and through video chats between the schools in the US and the schools in Europe and even though Albania is not officially participating, I’m hoping to hook up some students with some kids in Jen’s classes at DCIS as well. I still have no idea if it will work, but I would also like to figure out a way to do a cultural exchange trip between the two schools at some point as well.

And then there is the best part of the vacation- hanging out with Jen, her telling me about all the things that I’ve missed since I left Denver almost a year and half ago. From gossip to politics and hiring and firings, it is just nice to talk to someone that knows people that I know and places that I know about. No to mention being able to sing, “If I Had a Wagon (I would go to Colorado)” on the mini-bus back to the hotel . . . and actually have someone sing along with you . . .

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Why modern technology should make life easier but doesn't

What did we do before cell phones? No, really, that's a serious question because I don't remember. So a story of missed connections (and lost luggage):

My friend Jennifer came to Macedonia for a conference and so I decided to go on across the border to meet her. Our fist connection was mostly without incident (except that she was a few hours late in arriving and her luggage was lost who knows where). I came to her hotel, when she wasn't there I waited in the lobby and read a book. But then we planned on meeting up again in the morning and this time we decided to rely on modern technology. Instead of setting a time and place to meet, we said "We'll text." When I hadn't heard from her for about two hours after when I expected to get the message and two of my texts went unanswered, I decided to go ahead and take the bus the 15 minutes to her hotel. Of course about the minute I got to her hotel I finally got the text from her saying that they were downtown! (I'm pretty sure we must have passed each other on the road, but who would ever know!) This whole thing may have been avoided if we had actually tried to make more concrete plans like "meet you at the post office at 10."

This is not the first time when I have relied more on technology than a clear plan to meet someone and have been let down. On the other hand being able to make last minute changes and make other great random connects because of technology is great. I guess the point is that I probably wouldn't want to give up my cell phone, computer etc, but maybe wish I relied on it a little bit less . . .

Luggage update- after two days of calling the airlines to try to locate the missing bags, they were finally found and delivered to the hotel on Sunday morning!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gearing up for summer vacation part 2. . .

Normally, taking off for a few weeks in the summer is no problem as not much work really gets done in the months of July and August anyway since most of the Albanians are off on vacation too. But in the World Vision office that I am working with, we have a lot to do, mostly because there was not a lot to do in May and June. We finished the main product of the past year- the Project Design Document (PDD) a detailed plan for the projects for the next three years- at the end of April and May and June were spent mostly in the process of hiring new staff. Only two of the four staff members were kept on for this next phase and 5 more staff members were hired. So now that the staff is complete, we have a lot to do to start implementing that big plan that we spent the last year working on.

The problem is of course, that I already had made plans to take a trip to Istanbul and Romania with a few other volunteers. It was originally planned for the end of August but was moved up due to various schedule conflicts. I almost canceled the trip (in fact I did cancel the trip and then uncanceled the trip), because this is just not that good of a time to go. But it is a better time to go than later when we are likely to have even more to do in the office, not to mention side projects that will really get going again when school starts like MUN and OA. Maybe I'm alone in this and no other PCVs end up with this dilema, but finding a balance between travel, vacationing and staying in site can be hard. I travel much, MUCH more than the average Albanian. Most of my friends and coworkers have not been to many places in their own country besides Tirana and maybe to Durres or Vlora for the beach in the summer. That being said, I generally feel justified with most of my travel. I usually take trips for work/training/meetings and will occasionally add a few days (the weekend) for fun (like my recent trip to the beach). I also feel justified in taking some vacation time and going out of the country. When else will I have the chance to take an overnight bus ride (rather than a plane trip) to Istanbul? Part of the great thing about being in a country like Albania is that it is right in the middle of a great region of the world with easy access to Greece, Italy, Turkey, Macedonia, Croatia etc.

But even with all this, I feel a little bit guilty about leaving right now. I know that if I were here for the next two weeks, I would have things to do, which has not always been the case over the past year (especially over the past two months when the office was basically closed). It's just too bad that I couldn't take this trip last August when I really didn't have anything to do yet . . . Oh well, anyway, I'm taking the trip and I'm going to have a great time and it will all be here when I get back . . .

First stop- Portillo in Macedonia! Can't wait to see you Jen!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Environmental Club Outing Foiled by Climate Change

For the second time in a row when we planned to have a hike with the kids participating in Outdoor Ambassadors (Ambasadores e Natyres) it rained. This summer is noticeably cooler and wetter than last summer, so much so that I am even hearing Albanians mention “Sa bie shi!” (How much rain!). While on one hand the rain is good (cools down the house, keeps the electricity going), it may be a sign of a larger change in the climate of the area . . . or it could just be a wet summer. Either way, we are talking about climate change in OA and we decided to try again on Sunday.

Luckily, Sunday lived up to its name and we had a wonderful piknik! Dylan and I met 8 students and with Vali (one of my new coworkers) we headed to Vali’s village about an hours walk away. From the village we went down to a beautiful spot along the river to relax, eat lunch and play in the water. Some members of Vali’s family and other kids from the nearby villages joined us along the way. I was particularly impressed by the innovative use of soda bottles as flotation devices by some of the village boys! All in all I think it was a most successful outing and all of the kids were asking when and where we would be going out again!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Life's a Beach

Summer in Albania means the beach.

Just because I live up in the mountains 5 hours away from the nearest ocean does not mean that there is still not a mad dash for the beach starting on the first of June. For many Albanians, this means beach vacations for much of the summer and for those people close to the sea, daily or weekly trips to the water. Up here in the mountains we don't have a seaside, but we do have a nice cold river and last week I made a trip there with some of my friends.

Since returning from my vacation with my parents, I have been settling back into life in Peshkopi. This summer I am planning on not traveling too much, but when my coworker offered me a free trip to the seaside for a three day training (and then the weekend) it was hard to pass up. So here I am relaxing . . .

Even though I'm glad I came and am having a lot of fun, I'm missing Peshkopi a little bit. Peshkopi is nice and cool and every time last summer I went to other parts of the country, I was relieved to come back to my nice cool apartment. I know that I complained a lot about the cold over the winter, but I think that in general I deal better with cold than I do with heat. Luckily, this summer has not been as hot (so far) as last summer. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean a few things- besides more comfort, it also means more electricity because most of the country gets power from hydroelectric dams. I think that I will be traveling again this summer anyway- in a few weeks I'm planning a trip down to Istanbul, but I know that I'll be happy when I get home . . .

Friday, July 3, 2009

MUN video

I don't talk in this, but I do show up for a few frames when my friend Tienmu is talking about the role of the PCVs in the project.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


It’s never been any secret that I like to sleep. One of the major issues that I had with my job as a substitute teacher was the fact that I had to wake up at 5:30 every morning. I just think that is cruel, and studies have shown that teenagers do not function as well that early in the morning (and neither do I). One more of the unexpected perks of Peace Corps is the amount of sleep that I have gotten over the past year. I think that if you were to take a poll, you would find that PCVs as a group (at least in Albania, but I hypothesize that it is similar in other places) are very well rested compared to our counterparts in America (or even our previous selves). I just sleep more here. I go to bed early (not much of a night life to speak of) and I wake up later (work starts at 9:00) and I often take an afternoon nap. I don’t think that I’ve been this well rested since elementary school. This has a lot to do, of course, with the slower pace of life in countries like Albania. Naptime is part of the culture here. The first question that is always asked is “are you tired?” (the correct answer is usually ‘a little’). You don’t hear about sleep deprivation here like you do in the US. I think this is something that we can learn from the rest of the world . . . and now it’s naptime!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It’s All Greek to me

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. I don’t understand a word of Greek. It has been a really long time since I arrived in a country without any knowledge of the language. In Peace Corps, I think we take it for granted a little bit that our language training starts right away so that even by the time we get to our host families we can mumble a few key phrases. Unlike Athens, where at every turn you heard people speaking any one of ten or more different languages (my mom described the crowds at the Acropolis as the Tower of Babel), in Thessaloniki, you hear Greek. I know that many people speak English and I have so far had no problems getting directions, ordering food or finding a place to stay, but the people on the street are speaking Greek and I’m not understanding a word of it.

I also realized that this may be the first time that I am traveling alone in a country where I don’t speak the language (my parents got back on a plane to the states this morning and I took a train to Thessaloniki). This evening I went out in the city to find some food and found the life of the town. This is a young city with several universities; at 10:00 many of the streets were still buzzing with people and I could tell that the night was only just getting started. As I walked with my sandwich towards the seaside, I thought about traveling alone. Tonight, I am staying with a couch surfer host. They are a Spanish girl and a German girl, my age, living here and going to school. I get the feeling that normally, these girls would be all about showing me around and hanging out, but this week happens to be exams and they are both justifiably busy. It is lovely that couch surfing exists, I’m glad I found it and it makes traveling much easier, cheaper and I think more interesting. But at the same time, there is strangeness in couch surfing- you enter someone’s home and life. When I am a host, I often feel the need to make my guests feel comfortable, but when I am a guest, I never want to impose on my host. I guess I make a good guest and a good host . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Out of Albania

And into Greece.

From Kruja last week we headed down south to the touristy heartland of Albania- Gjirokaster and Saranda. I spent nearly a week in Gjiro for this past Christmas, so I already knew about its cobble-stoned charms. But as it is the beginning of summer and the busy tourist season and I was traveling with my parents, this was a completely different visit. First, I noticed how many tourists there are. I mean, we get a few way word souls that decide to get off the beaten path and go to Peshkopi, but nothing like the south. When we went to Saranda and Burtrint (ancient Greek ruins- really cool), there were even more.

And then we came to Greece. I won’t even talk about the touristy-ness of Greece- you already know all that. I’m joining in on it- doing a double-decker bus tour with my parents, climbing up to the Parthenon, wandering through museums with my nose stuck in a guidebook.

What I’ve been thinking about a lot since I got here is the contrasts. You hear a lot about how Greece is a county of contrast- old and new- but for me, I see the contrast in another way. I see Greece as a major contrast to Albania. Albania has the old-new contrast too, but the new has been hard to come by and isn’t really working yet. Greece on the other hand is truly modern (at least the little bit of it that I’ve seen- Corfu (directly across a short channel from Albania) and Athens.) Athens is this crazy, busy, full city of course with amazing history. And it is so very different than anything in Albania. The thing is, that it is easy to imagine that 1000 years ago, 500 years ago, even 100 years ago, that wasn’t really the case. The Greeks and the Albanians have a lot in common historically and culturally (more than most Greeks would probably be willing to admit, probably). Maybe it’s not fair to compare modern Albania and Athens (for one, the city of Athens has more people in it than the whole country of Albania). Maybe I need to go out into the Greek country side to find the “real Greece” of villages and small towns and maybe these are still not so far removed from modern day Albania, but at the moment I’m really struck by the contrast between these two neighboring countries and amazed at the effect that some choices can make on a whole society (like what if Albania had gone in a different direction after WWII?).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shi, Shi, Largoheni

(rain, rain, go away)

Today was another rainy, cloudy day. It was actually not bad because we were inside the museums in the Kruja citadel for most of the day and the clouds and fog were really beautiful for all the pictures that we took at the top of the mountain. Kruja is the one place that I have been to in Albania that really has it together as far as touristy things. The history museum is very well done (very Skanderbeg-y, shume mire!), and the ethnographic museum was great. The man running the ethnographic museum is simply adorable. Kruja also really has it together for souvenir shopping. I decided to go ahead and spend some money while my parents are here and buy some things that they can take home with them, so I bought a nice hand woven rug. I also bought myself a necklace and my mom bought me some hand made silver earrings (did I mention it's my birthday?). I really can't imagine a better birthday then exploring a castle in Albania with my parents . . .

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Parents in the country

My parents have come to Albania!

Albania was one of the few countries that they missed on their way home from their own Peace Corps service in the Philippines over 30 years ago. At that time, Albania was completely closed to the outside world (they also missed Greece because of a war going on in Cyprus), so they were really excited to be able to come and visit me (oh, and they also maybe wanted to see me a little bit). Being good parents that they are, they brought me lots of presents, including a 5lb block of cheddar cheese and huge jar of peanut butter. Because my mom is currently working for an airline, they were able to fly for very cheap.

After they arrived (only 12 hours later than we had hoped- oh the joys of flying standby), we headed up to Peshkopi to meet my friends and see my place. It was a bit of a whirlwind of a few days with lots of coffees and lots of people. Dylan, my new sitemate came up the next day; Kenji, my current sitemate is still around for a few weeks; and Meredith, our closest neighbor right over the border in Macedonia came for a visit. The three days we spent in Peshkopi would have been perfect if it wasn't for the rain. Now, I have to be careful here, because in general I would say that rain in Albania in the spring and summer is a good thing- it means 24 hour power and cool temperatures that are not unbearable to live in. Unfortunately it also makes it a little hard to really explore town and means that the hike I had planned with the Outdoor Ambassadors kids was not a roaring success (we had 3 kids show up and went out in the rain anyway, by the end of the hike, the weather had cleared up and it was lovely). Even with the rain, we had a good time and my parents got to meet most of my friends and coworkers, if only briefly.

The next part of the trip is what I like to call the "Albanian travel experience." Now first, I really wanted to go on this boat trip in the north that goes down a river/lake from the town of Fierza to Koman (or more usually from Koman to Fierza). I tried for weeks with some of the volunteers in that region to figure out a way to do it in two days from Peshkopi. For the life of me, I believe now that it is not possible. Because the ferry leaves at 7am from Fierza and it is not possible to get to Fierza before then without spending the night there and it is also not possible to get from Pehskopi to Fierza in one day . . . Anyway, so we gave up on the boat trip. I guess I will just have to try to do that before I leave when I have more time (3 days instead of 2). Even though we couldn't get on the boat, we went up north anyway, over the mountains to Kukes. The road between Peshkopi and Kukes is only 88 km-about 55 miles- for those of you in CO, think Denver to Fort Collins. Normally the drive from Denver to Fort Collins takes about an hour, maybe and hour and a half if you have traffic leaving town. Ok, now imagine that road is unpaved and goes winding through some crazy mountain peaks and valleys full of switchback turns . . . the drive takes about 4 hours and you get out of the car (or in this case an old van with almost no shocks or suspension). My parents are tough travelers (former PC and all), but I may have overestimated them on this one.

Once we got to Kukes, the plan was to continue on down the road a bit, but the volunteers there convinced us to stay the night there (which I am really happy we did). We got to hang out with the truly cool PCVs of Kukes (who are now my new neighbors) and got to see a children's day festival in the morning. Think combination field day, talent show, dance team performance, and three ring circus . . . it was fun.

We are now in Tirana, staying with Jan. Today we did the grand Tirana tour including the history museum (not bad, but not great- it helps if you speak Albanian because not everything is translated). Tomorrow we are headed up to Kruja to see Skanderbeg's castle. Then it's on to Gjirokaster, Saranda and Burtrint before heading to Corfu and Athens in Greece. Happy travels!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Where is Illyria?

Oh, yeah, that's right, it's Albania . . .

This weekend I went to a nearby town (by nearby I mean only 5 hours away!) to see a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by my friend Sarah. They adapted the language quite a bit (honestly now, Shakespeare is usually difficult to understand even for most native English speakers), but I think that they did a great job with the adaptation in making it still sound formal and Old-Englishy but understandable. The kids did a great a job- I was sooooooooo impressed with their acting and comedy as well as their memorization (now tell me, could you do a two hour play in a foreign language? No? Neither could I!). They used physical comedy well, were generally easy to understand and seemed really comfortable in their roles. I really have to give a shout out to Sarah because she has done great work with these kids. I saw some of the same kids perform A Christmas Carol last fall and although that was also a good show, I have to say that there was great improvement in this production. It was easier to understand, funnier and better acted.

So if you didn't remember (been a while since you read Shakespeare . . . ) Twelfth Night takes place on the mysterious shores of Illyria when a ship wreck washes up on shore. And just in case you didn't know, the mysterious shores of Illyria are now the (not so mysterious) shores of Albania (and also parts of Croatia and Montenegro). Albanians in general are really proud of their Illyirian heritage, especially that the Albanian language is supposedly the last of the Illyrian tongues (and why the Albanian language is different from all the other languages surrounding it- not Slav, not Latin, not Greek, but Illyrian!). The name that most of us use when referring to this country (Albania) was actually the name of an Illyrian tribe that lived here (the Albanians themselves call the country Shqipëria, the land of the Eagles). Anyway, so the costumes for the show were traditional Albanian clothing (kostuma populore), which, when you think about it are probably very accurate as far as period clothing goes- it is much more likely that the Illyrians (at any point in history) would be wearing traditional Albanian clothes than they would be wearing Victorian English clothing . . .

One of the best parts of the show was a guest appearance of another PCV, Dan. He had a non-speaking background role, but for the PCVs in the audience he was a dose of extra comedy in an already funny show. First, seeing any American in Albanian garb can get a chuckle, but he was also playing a çiftelia, prancing around stage during scene changes and making eyes at the high school girls . . . At the end of the show, the students did a special presentation for Dan as he is leaving in a few weeks. Many of them were also on the MUN team that he ran and he took some of them last year to a theatre camp in Texas with another PCV. Their words about his effect on their lives teared up almost everyone in the audience.

Anyway, great job Dan and Sarah and the Rreshen Theatre Company!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This feels like when my seniors graduated . . .

When I was a freshmen in high school, I was adopted by some seniors. They had known my sister and they must have thought I was cute or something (like a kitten) and so they allowed me to follow them around for the year. I had friends in my own grade too, but particularly that year, I hung out mostly with older kids. When it came time for graduation, I nearly had a breakdown. I mean, the people I had gotten closest too in that year (and remember high school is hard) were all of a sudden leaving, and many of them were going far away to scary places like California and Colorado Springs. I was afraid that I would never see them again! Of course, that didn't happen. I e-mailed with some of them regularly, hung out with them when they came home for holidays and when most of them moved back to Denver at some point after college, we became close again. In fact, a few of these kids are still some of my closest friends more than 10 years later.

Right now, the volunteers from Group 10 are getting ready to leave. This has a big impact on me since my sitemate (read platonic husband) is in this group. I was worried when I first moved here that Kenji and I would not get along. Of course this didn't happen and we have become great friends. I'm really excited about having a new sitemate (Dylan, I'm sure you'll hear about him soon) but I'm sad that Kenji is going to be leaving. And just like at the end of high school, this time is full of goodbyes, parties and questions (that I'm sure they are tired of answering) about what will come next. Most of the group is doing some sort of traveling before eventually ending up back in the states, although a few are either staying here and looking for jobs or going to some other far off land. The first of them left last week (I miss you JK!) and there is a big group leaving this weekend. Kenji won't leave until the middle of June, but that seems to be coming faster every day.

The difference between when my seniors graduated and the group leaving now is that my seniors (for the most part) all ended up back in Denver for a time (some of them went off again for grad school or jobs), but with this group there is a good chance that they will be far flung forever. This is not a bad thing really, it just means I will have lots of people to visit in the future . . .

Anyway, good luck to all of G10 on your next big adventure wherever that may take you and I hope our paths cross again someday . . .

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why haven't you visited me yet?

It turns out that Albania is the new, hip and cool place to take a vacation. At least according to all these guys:

The Guardian
National Geographic
The Daily Camera (Yes, the one in Boulder. Actually from their community blog, but cool nonetheless!)
Lonely Planet Slide Show
Reuters (not really on tourism, but on general development)
The Independent
South Eastern European Times

So seriously- why haven't you visited me yet? There is only so much time left when you can say "I visited Albania before it was cool to visit Albania" and actually be telling the truth! You may even be too late! I have a couch and will travel . . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In lew of anything real today I am going to point you in the direction of the blog of an American guy that has been living in Albania off and on for the past 9 years. He is really funny and has some great insight on Albanian culture. A few key posts:

On women and men: Beauty and the Beast

On tourism: Tourist Boom?

On religion: Life in a Muslim Country

On traffic: A Dance with the Devil and on roads: Highways of Death

On money: Who wants to be a millionaire?

On superstition: Very superstitious

He also has quite a few good pics of the country and links to lots of articles about the increased appeal of Albanian tourism. Anyway . . .

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Staring at the wall

Last weekend I had two of the new volunteers come and visit me.

At this time last year, I was really happy to get out of my host family for a few nights (not that I don't love my host mom, but it was nice to travel) and finally get a chance to talk to some current volunteers and see what their life was like. One thing that I remember clearly is meeting Winifred in Tirana (and I'm not sure if she told us this or if I just heard it later) but her saying that she liked to spend time in her apartment and stare at the wall. At the time, I thought that Winifred was nuts (I now know that she is a little bit nuts, but in that "fun to watch when she is drunk" kind of way, not in a scary way that I originally thought). Now, the reason that I am bringing this up is this: after this winter, I think I understand what she meant.

I'm not saying that I spent a lot of time in my apartment staring at the wall. But I did spend a lot of time in my apartment- knitting, watching movies, reading, listening to podcasts and music and yes, doing absolutely nothing at all. I've never really been one to do nothing. In fact it is much more likely that you will find me doing more than one thing at a time than nothing (watchin TV while reading or knitting, cooking while reading, listening to music or podcast while writing, reading or doing anything else). My friend Linus has been talking lately about his return to regular meditation. And while I wouldn't call what I'm doing meditation, it is like meditations distant cousin. While I still usually am doing something when I am alone, the fact that I am alone and ok with it is a big step in itself. I have always kind of thought of myself as a really extroverted person who needs to be around people a lot. When I am in Denver, there are usually several options for interaction and entertainment available every day- when I sit at home alone there, I always feel like I am missing something (because I usually am). I still feel that way sometimes, but I have also started to come to terms with those feelings and learn to just enjoy my solitary time.

As spring and summer come around, I will have less time to do nothing as I travel more and hopefully spend time outside. I hope however that when I come back to the US I don't lose my peace in solitude. Don't be surprised if you call and I'm just at home staring at the wall . . .

Friday, April 17, 2009

I must have pissed off the computer gods . . .

Apparently, I pissed off someone upstairs that has particular control of things like laptop charging units . . . again . . .

Really, I had a feeling it was coming. The charger that my dad sent me in February (remember how excited I was?) was already not in great shape- it was from my old, old computer that was urinated on by my cat when I was in on vacation in Israel a few years ago. Let me tell you, cat pee does nothing good to a computer. Anyway, so this charger was in fact even older than the one that had been broken and although it was not damaged in the cat pee incident it had some wear and tear on it. The iffy electricity situation in Albania took care of what was left of it in just two short months and I looked down yesterday and noticed that once again although the light was on, there was no charge entering my computer. So once again my computer is dead (well almost, I think it might turn on one more time if I asked it real nice) and once again I am stuck waiting for what will hopefully be a suitable replacement. To make matters worse, a few weeks ago my TV stopped working so good (I have a theory that it has something to do with a satalite switch to HD or something) and now I have mostly the same channels, but with a lot less clear quailty (and I no longer have my former main source of TV entertainment- Junior TV). Since I don't exactly pay for the cable I have, I'm afraid to complain about it to anyone so I'm expecting to do a lot of reading in the next few weeks . . .

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Newbies

This week I got the first real chance to get to know some of the new group of volunteers. They arrived a few weeks ago and have been keeping busy with language, training and awkward host family moments . . . oh the memories!

So first, I had two of the group come up to Peshkopi to visit me for the weekend. As you know, I don't get too many visitors, so I went a little nuts preparing for them- I made chocolate chip cookies and stuffed peppers and then pancakes and I shared my peanut butter, ranch dressing and maple syrup . . . they were in American food heaven! Anyway, Kenji and I had a really good time showing them around town. On Sunday, Katie wanted to go to church. Although the pastor of the church is a good friend of mine (he is a great young guy, really motivated and working with us on the radio station) I have never actually gone to services, so I decided to go with her. The church is small and the congregation small and young. The service was really nice and simple- lots of songs, not too heavy on the preaching or ceremony. Throughout the weekend I acted as an interpreter for the newbies (they have only been here three weeks) and I was able to understand and translate most of what happened during the service.

After church, Jennie from Puke showed up (all these visitors at once!) and we walked all together (with Kenji and Seth) to the hot springs just outside of town. The Peshkopi hot springs is probably one of the better-maintained springs in the country (I know of one outside of Elbasan that is apparently really dirty). There is a private hotel and state owned spa building in which you can get a private bath (I think, we didn't actually go inside). But outside there are a few natural pools that you can just dip your feet into. We were just planning on walking by, but of course we were hajde-d (told to come in) by all of the Albanians wetting their feet. After our dip in the hot springs, we headed back to town to watch a soccer game. Peshkopi won the game against Kukes 2-0. Jennie, Katie and I were the only women at the game and we all attracted a huge group of young boys (mostly wanting to talk to us in English). This is actually the first game that I have gone to in Peshkopi, mostly because I never seem to know when they are and it has been so cold . . .

On Monday Seth and Katie came to work with me, sort of. I say sort of because we went to my office and said hi, but left pretty much right away. My office is about the size of a large closet and already had 4 people in it. There was not really anywhere to sit and I also didn’t want to disturb my coworker’s work- right now they are working on the large report for the program design and have a lot of work to do. So instead, we went across the street to the café where I can pick up the wireless from my office and hung out. We talked about what my daily routine usually is (like I usually would have stayed in the office) but also how flexible my schedule is and I told them about the different projects I am working on. In the afternoon we met up with Kenji and I decided to bake him a chocolate cake for his birthday. In the evening we met up with a couple of our Albanian friends (Turi and Kenji’s counterpart Habib) and went out for pizza to celebrate. We couldn’t find any birthday candles so we lit sparkers on my cake. Turi also brought a cake (with actual candles) and so hopefully Kenji will get two wishes.

When Seth and Katie left Peshkopi, it was really just the beginning of my week full of new volunteers. I have been working for a few months with a woman at the Tirana World Vision office on a workshop on stress management and office conflict. Our first two workshops were scheduled for Elbasan this week, so I traveled to Tirana with Seth and Katie. On Wednesday morning I found out that one of the trainees wanted to do a Passover Seder that evening. For me, Passover has similar feelings and memories as Thanksgiving and other holidays because when I was young my family would always hold a Seder. Some years we would have up to 30 people and usually my dad was the only Jew there. When I heard about Molly’s plans I sent a text to my mom (probably at like 4 AM- sorry mom!) to have her send me the family recipes. After my training I headed over to Ornela’s (one of the Albanian teachers) house to join the cooking all ready in progress. Passover has some very specific traditions, especially around food. Although there are many things that we did not have, we made due and used what we thought were appropriate substitutes. We had homemade matzo (a first for both me and Molly) and no horseradish (we used pickled vegetables- we couldn’t think of anything really bitter!). The meal was great though with soup, chicken and of course lots of wine! The really interesting part of the evening was introducing both other Americans and some of the Albanian staff to Passover. Molly is much more religious than my family has ever been (grew up in New York, keeps kosher) and so we had very different traditions and experiences of the holiday. As she said often- put 3 Jews in a room and get 5 opinions!

Today I met even more of the trainees when I gave a presentation on NGOs with some other volunteers for training. I have now met all of the COD volunteers, but not many of the Health or TEFL. They find out next week about their site placements- I am hopefully getting both a Health and TEFL volunteer up to join me in Peshkopi. I think I am almost as anxious as they are to find out where they are going and to find out who I will be living and working with for the next year. Overall, this has been a great week getting to know Group 12. I’m excited about them and I know that they will do a great job!

Monday, April 6, 2009

spring fever

Spring has arrived in Peshkopi very suddenly this week. I guess that it has slowly been getting warmer for a while now, but the heavy snow a few weeks ago made it feel like winter was never going to end. I could tell that it was actually spring on the day that I decided that starting my fire was just not worth it and getting a new gas bottle for my gas heater was a waste (I do have about two days worth of wood left just in case we get a cold day or two).

With the arrival of spring I have regained use of all parts of my house (I may even actually sleep in my bedroom tonight) and cooking is no longer a series of (cold, quick) trips back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. With the arrival of daylight savings time last weekend (normally I hate daylight savings time, but this year I'm feeling ok with it) the evening is nice- kids playing out in the street, reading next to my open window (I think I might be the only person in this country without a balcony). And maybe my favorite thing about spring is the return of warm sleep- I no longer have to mumify myself into my sleeping bag, trying to make sure that the smallest amount of skin is exposed (including wearing a hat and gloves to sleep). Now I can actually just sleep with a blanket. And I can take afternoon naps. You may be wondering why I could not take afternoon naps in the winter . . . the answer is that going home to take a nap meant that I would have to start a fire (which is actually a pain) or just huddle under the covers (see above sleeping bag). So most often, I avoided going to my house until I would be there for a while (and therefore warming it up would be worth it). This meant that I usually would bring my lunch to my (warm) office or skip lunch and go home early for dinner . . . and no afternoon naps. Sad . . .

I know that in a few months I will probably be complaining about the heat and the bugs, but I also know that at least the summer is not quite so bad up here in the hills and at least winter is over . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Peace Corps in the 21st century

I have a bit of Posh Corps guilt. I just finished reading “Living Poor” a chronicle of a PCV in the ‘60s in South America. It is hard not to try to compare his service with mine. In most ways it was much more difficult than mine- living in abject poverty so bad that the people (especially young children) were constantly suffering and many dieing, no running water, limited food choices and extreme emotions.

Looking at my own service so far and I think, “Isn’t this supposed to be the hard life?” I live in my own apartment that comes complete cable TV and a flush toilet. Sure, there are hard things in my life- my freezing bathroom, the 5-hour trip to the capital on bad roads, misunderstandings of language and culture, challenges of finding projects to work on- but for the most part, I feel like I’m living a pretty comfortable life. And so far, I’m happy here. I have experienced a few serious moments of homesickness, but for the most part, these are overcome by my excitement to be living someplace new. Even after a year as the newness has worn off, it has been slowly replaced by fulfillment of work and new friends.

I think that one question that people living in the Posh Corps tend to think (and get asked by others) is “what am I doing here?” This is actually something that I have though about a lot and discussed with various people. It has a lot to do with a few things: the point of the PC, the PC model of development, and the interesting position of a NIC (Newly Industrialized Country) or a CTC (Communist Transition Country) (I made up that last term, but it was the best thing I could think of, I’m sure that there is someone that already coined a term for these countries, but we’ll just use this one here for the sake of my laziness!).

So, almost 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps. There have been some changes over the years (there is now much more of a focus on the safety of the volunteers, for instance), but the basic goals of the organization have been to send out motivated American citizens to countries in need in order to: assist the populations of these needy nations to fulfill basic needs for all of it’s citizens, educate the local populations about American culture and bring culture from the host nations back to America in order to educate the American population. The way that all of these goals are accomplished is by sending volunteers into communities and working with the local populations on various projects (goal 1). By working on the projects, they get to know us (goal 2) and we get to know them. When we go back to the US (or send an e-mail or blog), we tell our friends all about the people we met (goal 3). It’s not big, it’s not flashy and it’s not like any other development organization out there. The PC does not solve problems by throwing money at them or building big projects. The idea of development is: one person at a time with small successes. For both the communities and the volunteers, this concept can be a little bit hard to take. The communities want big projects and the volunteers want to do big things, but that is not always what really makes changes. Add to this, the added challenges of working in NICs and CTCs and you can get frustrated.

When most people think about PC, they tend to think in terms of mud huts. Mud huts and bringing clean water to far off villages. “Living Poor” is a perfect example of this model of PC. The author brought modern farming techniques (and foreign aid chickens and pigs) to a small coastal village in Ecuador. But the interesting thing about the Peace Corps is that every single volunteer experience is different. There are even huge differences within one country and over time. My parents didn’t even live in a mud hut when they served 30 years ago. Sure there are people that live in mud huts, but I would be willing to bet that more PC volunteers actually live in real houses (with electricity and running water) than you would guess. And the question is: “is it really Peace Corps if I’m not living in a mud hut?”

In addition to the mud hut conundrum, there is a question about the actual work. I think that many people imagine working in small villages giving vaccines to babies and building water systems. There is certainly that aspect in some parts of the world, but the projects that PC works on around the world are as varied as the countries that they serve in. Environmental protection, tourism, business development, and teaching English as a second language to name a few. My parents did teacher trainings in science and math. I am working in NGO development. This is about the PC approach to development. Is PC a development organization? Not in the way that you are thinking. PC develops capacity and people, not always countries or economies. This question is especially relevant in the context of the NICs and CTCs. Let’s take Albania for an example (since I’m here and all). There are still some serious poverty issues here: there are villages without running water or electricity, there are street children and unemployment is estimated to be over 50% in some areas. That being said, the quality of life for most Albanians has risen in recent years. Most people have at least one family member living abroad and sending home money (the whole remittance system is for a later discussion). Things are getting better: roads are being built, houses are being built, farms are producing, and people are surviving and even sometimes thriving. I do not walk down the street and see starving children with distended bellies. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to do here. It is just different things. I am working with an NGO here that works with children. So I am working on training three or four people to improve their skills to work with many children. It is indirect development. I develop people, people develop the country.

In some ways, I think that the sort of service shown in “Living Poor” is, well not easier, but clearer. He had a clear objective when he landed in Ecuador- bring modern farming techniques to the people. He wasn’t always successful, but the successes he had were clear- a chicken coop with 100 chickens producing eggs for a formerly poor farmer, pigs taken to market, a farming cooperative planting corn. The kind of development I am trying to do is harder to see- I am not going to see a new school or a water system built while I’m here. Maybe, when I come back after 30 years, then I will feel the effects of what I have done here. My parents went back to the Philippines after more than 30 years. They met children that they had taught, teachers they had worked with and people that still considered them members of their families. They met Patring, who was their housekeeper (and basically their little sister) for most of the four years that they lived in the Philippines. She even moved with them when they transferred sites and extended their service. Not only did she finish high school (thanks in large part to my parents) but also she continued her education and is now the midwife of her town. Would she have gone on to do this without my parents? Maybe, but it is sure that my parents had a positive impact on her life. I just hope that I can have a similar impact on someone’s life here.

They say it isn’t your mama’s Peace Corps- see my actual mom’s thought on the subject: a comparison of her service to mine.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Taco movie party

Some volunteers live in towns that are frequented by lots of visitors . . . other volunteers, foreign guests, couch surfers etc. Peshkopi is not one of those towns. I rarely get visitors and almost never have people (besides Kenji) over to my house. So it was kind of nice this week to be able to play hostess. We had two young Korean girls visiting the World Vision office (South Korea is our Support Office- they raise the money for all the programs in two of the ten offices in Albania). Orgerti, from the Tirana office, jokingly suggested that we could all go to my house and watch movies and that I could cook for everyone. He was only joking, but I thought it was a great idea. I decided to make what is kind of becoming my specialty: chicken tacos. The night before I made about 30 tortillas (my tortillas get more round every time I make them) and then right after work I went home and cooked up chicken and made salsa. I also decided to make an apple pie since one of the Korean girls said that she loved American apple pie but could never find it in Seoul! (she had spent a year going to school in the States).

Everyone (the Koreans, Orgert, all my coworkers, and Kenji) came over and hung out while I finished making the pie. Orgert brought chestnuts that he roasted on top of my wood stove for an appetizer. When the pie was in the oven and everything for the tacos was ready, the Albanians were introduced to real American hospitality: serve yourself! In Albania it is very uncommon for the host not to get everything for the guests and even buffet style meals are uncommon. But I grew up in "serve yourself" household and I don't presume to know how you like your tacos! Even though they were a bit messy, everyone loved the tacos and the pie. After we finished eating we turned my living room into a movie theatre- borrowed the projector from the office and turned one of my couches around so that we could project the movie onto the wall. It was great!

Part of me is glad that I am not on the "beaten path" with people staying with me every week (I really do feel bad for the PCVs in Elbasan sometimes), but it was also nice to have people over. So if you feel like going off the beaten path, you are welcome to come up my way. I'll make some tacos and we can see if we can borrow the projector . . . and there will always be pie!