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 cafĂ© 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.