Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Garden

Peace Corps Volunteers Weeding

On paper, Peace Corps Volunteers have to meet numerous well titled goals. We are to be a representative of the United States of America, we are to share our culture as well as immerse ourselves in the culture of our host country. We are also to share our host culture with Americans. Peace Corps Volunteers are to lend our expertise to the people of our host nation. While these goals are laudable, they are by no means easy to meet, and often require great ingenuity and perseverance to  uphold. 

Depending on the sector where one is serving, there can be what are called “secondary goals” to be met. As a Health Sector Volunteer, my primary goal is to provide health education within my assigned school. Secondary goals are often met through service projects in the local community. Since I am serving in Berat, I have the good fortune of having several other Volunteers in my community, as well as Volunteers who are a short bus ride away to draw upon for projects. Anywhere in the world, one can find numerous opportunities to help communities improve. Here in Berat, a United Nations World Heritage Site, the opportunities are unique indeed.

When I arrived in Berat, I was immediately contacted by the two existing volunteers from the class before me. They are both involved in the Community Organizational Development (COD) sector and were working with the municipality and social services department in Berat. Both volunteers had been working on garden based projects, and asked me if I wanted to contribute. After learning about the specifics of one of the gardens, which was to be part of a community center within the Castle Village, I set to designing a program incorporating the concept of the “Edible School Yard” project, my school and the community center in the Castle Village. I brought in one of my pre-service-training classmates who was an architecture student in undergrad. She had a program on her lap top that would produce visuals for the garden design. I compiled research on the need for nutritional education in Albania. After writing up a proposal and including the very slick visual design from my fellow volunteer, I went about presenting it to the community center municipality representative, as well as an Albanian regional director of a German NGO for agricultural development in rural areas.

The director of the German NGO’s name is Qamilla. I had met her earlier in the Summer at a Cherry Festival in one of the villages near Berat. She was with an organization called “Women in Sustainable Agriculture.” We had an excellent first conversation, and both vowed to try to coordinate our respective efforts in the future. Qamilla really liked my proposal and responded by telling me she would do everything possible to help this project along. The appeal for her and her organization was the proposal to create School Garden curriculum which included classroom visits by local farmers to educate children on where their food comes from, and who grows it.

Albania is like the rest of the world in that the newer generations are moving off the land and into the cities. Traditionally, the majority of the Albanian populations was involved in agriculture. While this is still true in many respects, as economic conditions improve and education is more widely offered, the younger generations are choosing the professions. Another issue is the younger generations are also choosing to leave Albania due to the lack of economic opportunity, in many cases to work in agriculture in neighboring countries. Qamilla felt that such a curriculum, combining school gardens with classroom visits from farmers, would be helpful in presenting agriculture as a viable vocation, as well as increasing awareness of healthy nutrition. She also noted that Berat used to have a vocational High School for Agriculture, that had been closed over a decade ago, and there really was no opportunity to present educational opportunities to students in this very important economic sector. 

My proposal included bringing chefs in addition to farmers to the classroom, so children could be exposed to this career as well. The chefs would present cooking techniques and skills in combination with what ever crop was being featured for the lesson. I asked Qamilla if she would be willing to introduce me to the director of the Culinary School in Berat. She laughed quite heartily, and said she was happy to do so, since the director was her sister. They both came over to my flat on July 4th for an American style Fourth of July celebratory supper (vegetarian red lentil burgers however, along with three bean salad, potato salad and of course apple pie.) A very lovely exchange and dedication to future projects ensued. 

French Scouts Peace Corps Volunteers Enjoying Lunch Together

After this collaboration, a group of French Scouts came to Berat for a two week service project. In addition to Albanian language lessons and enjoying both the natural and cultural beauty of the region, the volunteers participated in numerous events designed to beautify Berat. Picking up trash around the castle was one activity, helping to prepare the community center garden was another. Weeding, removing large dead bushes and tilling soil filled up the morning. I called our local Peace Corps volunteers to come and assist in the endeavor. After the work, they all came to my flat for a “California and Albanian Fusion Cuisine” luncheon. It was a very sweet event to see three sets of volunteers, Berati High School Students, French Scouts and Peace Corps Volunteers chatting away  over lunch after a long hot morning of gardening. One of the Artisan leaders from the Castle Village kept remarking on how clean my flat was, and how well organized the food presentation. What can I say, years of catering and also of living in very small apartments with tiny kitchens obviously paid off. I told her the key is to clean as you go, since there is no place to pile up the dishes. I now have the high respect of the Castle Artisan community because I know how to cook regional dishes and keep a very clean and orderly kitchen. I must say this is refreshing, since my own culture does not value me because I am older and do not look like Samantha from “Sex and the City.” It is rewarding to know one can be appreciated for things other than youth and looks.

Part of the garden project was to feature an herb garden. I had met what is called in these parts a Mycksi Popullar, which translated means “Folk Medicine” Another way to understand this term is “herbalist” or “folk healer.” He had been at my school trying to get hired to teach the children about herbalism, and we became fast friends. I knew he wild crafted herbs from the local forests. I thought his expertise would be useful in designing an herb garden, and also be a way for him to showcase his knowledge and hopefully lead to some sort of position in the school. 

I also had plans to have a series of raised garden beds featuring how agriculture has evolved in Albania with each wave of conquerors. We planned a Medieval garden to show what Albania's were growing and eating in the Middle Ages, an Ottoman garden showing the influence of the Turks on Albanian agriculture (cherries  for instance, were brought by the Ottomans and have been cultivated widely in the region ever since) and a modern garden with items such as Tomatoes and Corn, which as we know came to Europe after Columbus.

Several weeks after the combined volunteer work party, I attended a meeting with Qamilla, the municipality and representatives of US AID on the project. To say it was a roaring success would be an understatement. I returned back to my flat from this meeting in the Castle with a very warm satisfied feeling in my tummy. Not twenty minutes after I entered my flat, I got a phone call from my Peace Corps Volunteer partner who began the conversation with “are you sitting down?” My heart sank, that is never a good way to start any conversation. After a few minutes of explanation, he told me that somehow the community center property that he had received grant money for and had been working on for over a year, a higher level official informed him that the proper paperwork had not been completed to use the property. (It had actually been properly filled out by his counterpart on the project, who had proposed it in the first place and asked for his help in executing it.) He was told that the property (a closed school with no electricity, running water or easy access for tourists) was to be sold. It seems on examination, that the recent elections put a different power structure into the municipality, and this particular official was being let go due to party affiliation. As an act of personal profit and spite, he was taking away the permission for the project that had been granted last year. I have come to learn this is standard procedure here in Albania and is a leading cause of the young and ambitious for leaving the country.

Luckily for me personally, I had not submitted my grant proposal before this shattering development. I had, though, worked quite hard at researching, developing, designing, networking on the proposal for the entire Summer. To say it was deflating is an understatement. My greatest sorrow was for the Castle Community, to lose such a great project, and for my fellow Peace Corps volunteer Miguel, who had worked much harder than I for the entire length of his service. As my previous life experience had taught me, it was time to pivot, re-invent and go in a different direction, and let my mystified rage at the situation be tabled for a later date. 

One of the reasons I incorporated the Castle Community Center in my garden project was that my school had no place to grow a garden. It is completely paved, with a basketball/ volley ball court and a play yard. I thought the community center would be ideal for a garden plot where the children could learn and also bring foot traffic to the Castle. A leading educational trend for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is incorporating what they call “urban gardening” into local and regional food policy recommendations. More and more people are leaving rural areas for cities. To meet the food demands of an exploding global population, there are concerted efforts to educate people to start growing food on roof tops, apartment terraces, in container gardens and in small spaces of land that cities offer. I also noticed that the High School I was working with had a couple of plots of mostly barren dirt in their courtyard. I thought, well, we can do container gardens on the roof of my school and small plots in front of the High School and it would be quite difficult for any future disgruntled municipality official to rescind the land for the gardens. So I had to re-write my proposal and set a new budget that included lumber and old oak barrels for container gardens.

In the process of all of this, I signed up my school to be part of the Edible Schoolyard Project based in Berkeley, California. While mostly in the United States, there are member gardens of Edible Schoolyard throughout the world. I noticed there were none in Albania, and of course made everyone know that my school gardens would be “The First In Albania,” or as I call it “FIA.” FIA is a great selling point to the locals. I also made Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley aware of this, and they were quite enthused about the prospect.

The School Director of 22 Tetori, English Teacher and a High School Student preparing for a Skype Call to Edible School Yard Headquarters in Berkeley

I set up a skype meeting between the project managers in California and my director and one of the English teachers. With the time difference, the meeting was at 6 pm at my flat and 9 am in California. We made contact and conducted our introductions via skype. I must say, it was probably the most moving thing I have witnessed here in Albania, this connection between Americans and Albanians via the internet, in real time, collaborating to create opportunities for children to grow and eat nutritious food. To say the Albanians are were on Cloud Nine, would be an understatement, it was more like Cloud 378 and rising. The Californians were unfamiliar with Albania, so it was a unique opportunity to spread one of our Peace Corps Goals of sharing our host nations culture with Americans. We are now on their radar, and it is very possible that one of the Edible School Yard staff will come to the opening of our garden in March of 2018. I also informed the US Embassy of this development, and the Public Affairs official is on board to cover the event from that angle. In an attempt to spread Albanian culture, get some publicity at home and create other partnerships, I asked the director of California's Roots of Change for some assistance, but he told me he has other priorities, and can not use any favors to help out, apparently writing an email on our behalf was too “expensive.” So I learned that it is not always disgruntled Albanian municipality staff that are unwilling to help out in great projects that assist farmers and children. 

At present, I am awaiting approval of the grant. It is an interesting and informative exercise to apply for these sorts of things. I have never applied for a grant from a US agency before, and it is a very laborious and thorough process. Luckily, I had my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Miguel to basically sit next to me and answer questions on how to fill out each aspect of the application. He did this graciously, while he designed the visuals for the gardens at both the grade school and high school. We were sitting in the municipality together for several days, trying to lobby for the castle community center in a last ditch effort to save the project, but alas, we were never given the chance. Miguel has now experienced what it is like when your project gets pulled because of “circumstances beyond our control.” He is busy returning unused funds and trying to find eligible parties to donate the equipment already purchased for the project. Since several children at my school are members of the Castle Village, we are hoping some of the equipment can be given to 22 Tetori.

Meanwhile, the Herbalist, Demo, is absolutely chomping at the bit to teach herbalism at the High School. He had his suspicions that the Castle Community Center would not happen, so he is very intent that the opportunity through Edible Schoolyard not fall through. After lengthy conversations, often with an interpreter so there are no misunderstandings, and my carefully hand written notes in Albanian telling him about the process and need to wait till the grant money comes through to start our collaboration, I get almost weekly surprises from him. One morning, I got a phone call from Antonio, my fellow volunteer who is teaching English at the High School where one of the gardens is proposed, asking me if I was planning to attend a function at his school that day. I said no, and he told me, “Well, Demo (the herbalist) is giving a presentation to the faculty and students at 1 pm today, and there is supposed to be a local television station covering it, we have to come because it is a Peace Corps event.” 

What was problematic about this specifically, was that the week before, after lengthy meetings and agreements with the Berat Municipality chief of city park and grounds keeping to help remove dead trees and bushes from the High School garden, he (the grounds keeper) informed me a group of children had insulted him. He called the head of the school district to complain and nothing was done. He was so upset, he had to go to the doctor to get medication to cope with the stress of the incident, could not sleep for an entire weekend (the incident apparently happened on Friday afternoon, and our meeting was the following Monday,) and upon careful reflection, while he loves his country and is very grateful to Peace Corps for wanting to help the children, he will not be involved in anyway. He did invite us to dinner at his olive grove, though. So, once again, back to somewhat of ground zero in terms of how to prep the land for the garden. Having the Herbalist present to the students and local television media, when I was in the midst of yet another setback was extremely problematic, especially when representing Peace Corps in the process. 

I quickly emailed my director and sector director, because Peace Corps wisely has media policies with which we must adhere. I frantically typed on my laptop, while trying to fix my wet hair and put on make up, “I was just informed of this, what do I do?” My sector director immediately called me and on conference call with other staff members gave me excellent talking points on how to manage things, mainly because the project had not yet been approved by Peace Corps. I was to calmly say that Peace Corps was in support of Demo. We all laughed that I remarked how I was glad I had washed my hair that morning so as not to appear greasy on Albanian TV, (no small feat in these cold damp days with no heat.) I showed up to the gathering where there were about 50 students and 6 faculty members present. Thankfully there was no media, and I fully supported Demo in his announcement of the garden and his desire to teach herbs.

I met with him a few days later, again with an interpreter and a carefully written four page note in Albanian explaining the status of the grant, the upcoming winter holidays and how I could not guarantee anything, and it might be wise to wait till January. He smiled at me, gave me an incredible curriculum which included a class on Christmas Day for teaching herbs and a design for the herb garden according to regions in the area of Berat. He was going to start teaching anyways. He promptly walked over to the school director, who gave him permission to use the community center hours to start his herb classes. Obviously, I am a bit annoyed that I go to all this trouble to communicate with him as to the realities of the grant. But then, this ultimately is not about me or even Peace Corps, it is about him and the school, and if he wants to take on this project by himself, it is actually the ultimate goal of any Peace Corps initiative, to foster independence and sustainability in a project. Most volunteers complain they can not get projects going, this man has taken the project and ran with it, which in the end is actually a relief and truly a wonder to watch evolve. He is a gifted practitioner with immense knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He also has a lifetime of experience, and will be an asset to the community in numerous ways. In a certain way, this entire process is actually about Peace Corps goal of giving expertise and assistance to the host nation. I am certainly doing this, and the project obviously evolves in spite of my efforts and setbacks. What keeps me going is that essentially everyone in happy, and that it will actually happen in ways I had not imagined.

The ultimate goal of the Edible School Yard project in Berat is to collaborate with teachers to create an Albanian centric curriculum that can be implemented in any school in Albania. The teachers I am working with will help design both the curriculum and teacher training seminars. This has the attention of the School District Superintendent as well as the Curriculum Director for the Berat Region. For me personally, it gives an opportunity to address what I see as a glaring problem of rapid industrialization in Albania.

On the one hand, the problem of trash is just heartbreaking to witness here in the absolutely breathtakingly beautiful land. The lush pristine countryside is strewn with trash, mostly from packaged junk food and sodas. The waste from these foods carpets every school I have ever visited, and keeps the janitors quite busy in terms of picking it up. The eating habits of the younger generation are contributing to “first world” health problems of obesity and diabetes, while many children are malnourished due to poverty, eating only cheap packaged junk and not enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Agricultural traditions are being lost due to the movement into the cities, specifically Tirana. In a country of 3 million people, over one million live in Tirana. How can this be sustainable in terms of food production and access? 

While growing gardens seems like a leisurely pass time, knowing how to do so is actually one of the most powerful counters to rapid industrialization of the food system and increasing diseases related to this process. What I have also learned is that school gardens were part of the curriculum during the communist era, a sort of “Victory Garden” initiative. Students cared for and competed with one another in terms of their gardens. With the fall of communism and rapid industrialization, the gardens disappeared. The enthusiasm I meet whenever this project is proposed shows that memory of communism at least in this respect will not thwart it’s development. My experience with the children over the summer, providing healthy snacks as part of healthy living, was very successful. When they have fruits and vegetables presented to them, they eat them. It is a simple concept actually, but the basis of the Edible School Yard in general, and here in Berat specifically. 

I feel there can be a sustained process of education long after my service is over to make the newer generations of Albania as healthy and resilient as possible in this time of transition. It has been exhausting and informative along the way, but I also am very blessed to be working with excellent teachers and community members. I look forward, with cautious optimism that all will be well, and our first seedlings will be planted in March. I know for sure, that the Herb Garden will be carried through, and I have a good feeling about the curriculum development.

Stay Tuned, it actually might be on Albanian television!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Albanian Volunteers at Water Station during Service Project at the Grand Park Tirana

The word service has seven definitions. Ranging from maintenance of machines to religious rituals, the word “service.” in the case of Peace Corps matches the Marriam-Webster dictionary entries of “the action of doing work for or helping someone,” and “an act of assistance.” Our training to become Volunteers was called “Pre Service Training” and keeping with the theme, we just finished an “IST” or “In Service Training” to equip us for our assignments.  Before the “IST” we had an “AVC” or “All Volunteer Conference” where the classes of the year before mine, and my class of Peace Corps Volunteers gathered to hear one anothers stories and participate in a first of its kind in Albania, multi agency service project.

Cooking up After the Fourth of July BBQ at the US Ambassador's Residence

Every year, the United States Ambassador hosts a “post Fourth of July” party for Peace Corps Volunteers at his residence. This year was no different, and our Country Director decided to combine an All Volunteer Conference (AVC) along with a joint service project in Tirana. 

(Sorry about all the letters, this I am learning, is basically how PCV ((Peace Corps Volunteers)) speak with staff and the CD (Country Director,)) apparently staff is not shortened to (S,) for obvious reasons, and saying titles is well, so not PC ((Peace Corps and not Pericardium, Post coitus, Pancreas or Politically Correct.)) I am not sure this has to do with trying to conserve breath by eliminating extended syllables, save ink on print materials or a way to create a tribal language that only we in PC (see above first definition) can decipher, but if one wants to get with the program here in Albania ((HC or Host Country)) one has to learn what these letters mean in addition to the HCL ((Host Country Language.)) With my medical background, I can assure you it is utterly confusing to have all these letters flung about in conversations and memos, I am thinking they are talking about medical tests or pathological states, which in some cases are actually more descriptive that the intended phrase………)

Back to the AVC…… What was unique about this effort was to bring the entire corpus of volunteers together in once space. We A20’s (The 20th Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers class) Had yet to meet all the G19 (Group 19, the name was changed with my class) It was so inspiring to meet all the faces behind the names, and hear about their respective projects. It was also a shot in the arm so to speak to see that volunteers had served before us, lived through the experience and were there to tell their stories.

The focus of the gathering was on “service,” a term our CD likes to infuse in most of her addresses to the volunteers. In fact, she always signs her emails “in service.” Our first speaker was via Skype from the USA. Retired Senator Harris Wofford. Harris was in President Kennedy’s administration as Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Senator Wofford also worked with Sargent Shriver to found the Peace Corps and later collaborated with President Clinton to help create AmeriCorps. Our Country Director was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and worked in developing and implementing AmeriCorps. Americorps is a governmental service organization similar to Peace Corps, only based and executed on American soil. It was very inspiring to say the least to be addressed by Senator Wofford. He worked to found the Peace Corps as well as carrying out the goals of King, and urged us to keep the flame going, especially during such dramatic social and political times in the USA. Wofford also spoke of how central youth and students were in the creative enthusiasm both for the formation and implementation of Peace Corps. He charged us to carry on that spirit that is so necessary during our challenging era.

PCV and Tirana Parks Department helping Trees at the Grand Park, Tirana

The next day was spent collaborating with the Tirana Parks and Recreation department and a newly formed Albanian organization “Different Weekend,” or as the natives would call it “Fundjavë  Ndryshe” There is a Facebook page of the same name, please “like” it to keep abreast of their impressive activities. We American volunteers were rewarded for our work with tee shirts commemorating our 20 years of service in Albania. Donning the shirts, sun screen, hats and garden gloves, we all went to  the Grand Park of Tirana to help mitigate the effects of the drought that was affecting Albania. What was particularly impressive was the extreme heat in which our service project was conducted. I can speak for myself in that I looked like I had jumped into the lake after the mornings activities.

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, Grand Park Tirana

The Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, is a progressive visionary who was initially inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers when he was a school boy. He has initiated numerous projects like a plastic bag ban and tree plantings. We were charged with helping the young trees this vibrant mayor had gotten planted in the park. As anyone who has been part of a city wide tree planting knows, the planting is the easy part, it is the care and watering that makes it sustainable. Due to lack of funds and basic drought conditions, the Parks and Rec department of Tirana has had difficulties in tending to the trees as well as basic fire abatement in this very beautiful and well loved park. Along with the Green Shirted Tirana public works employees, Peace Corps and Different Weekend volunteers worked shoulder to shoulder helping to loosen dirt around the young trees (which at times might have been better served with jack hammers the ground was so dry and dense.) We cut weeds which in some instances were about 3 feet high, watered and basically made the place look quite spiffy. We were told by the Mayor during his press conference that our combined morning efforts would have taken the park employees weeks to accomplish. 

Clean Up Crew at Grand Park Tirana Service Project

While we Americans are used to such volunteer efforts, this collaboration was a first in Albania. It has been about a generation since the fall of communism. While the nation is still reeling and adjusting to this event, one thing that has taken this long for the economy and civilians to become stable enough were the concept of volunteerism from the natives has become an acceptable, even an enthusiastic reality for the people of Albania. 

Tirana Park Workers, Grand Park Tirana

With the fall of communism, there was a rush from both America and the European Union to help modernize and stabilize Albania. USAID, the European Union, various religious organizations and Peace Corps came to help fill the void left by nearly 50 years of an isolated dictatorship. It has not been a smooth path of recovery, but the combined efforts of effective aid, diplomacy and the resiliency of the Albanian people has resulted in dramatic advances. In the early days of post communism, volunteerism was seen as something foreigners did to and for Albania. The word volunteer (vulnetar) had bad memories and connotations, as a misnomer for enforced work camps and slave labor on behalf of the government. It is also difficult for a people who are struggling to feed themselves and combating corruption to have the energy or time to volunteer. Thanks to great efforts in no small part of the Embassy of the United States and the efforts of our Ambassador, corruption is being cleaned up and sustainable businesses are being set up. As my pastor used to say, one has to be in a place where they can help others, the “put your own oxygen mask on before you help your children on the air plane” analogy. The people of Albania are now ready and very willing to help themselves. I saw this miracle of transformation in action on that steaming hot morning in central Tirana.

Panel at Univeristy Hall

After our fire and drought mitigation activities in the park, we were treated to a panel discussion in the very hall at the University of Tirana, where the students had started the uprising that led to the fall of the communist government. One of the leaders of that historic event was present on the panel. Blendi Gonxhe was a student during the fateful days of late autumn of 1990. He is now the Parks Director for the city of Tirana. He was joined by the US Ambassador Donal Lu, Arber Hajdari, founder and director of a Fundjavë  Ndryshe/Different Weekend, Manjola Gega, teacher from Rreshen and founding board member of Girl Scouts of Albania, Enrik Deda, student from Rreshen and Girl Scouts Volunteer, Gillian Richter, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni, Michael McLemore, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni and Ola Keci, college student from Shijak Albania and Fundjavë Ndryshe Volunteer. 

We listened to how Blendi Gonxhe described the fateful events leading to the collapse of communism, and how he has experienced his nation since those dramatic days. Ambassador Lu shared that he too, was a Peace Corps Volunteer and how that shaped his desire to serve in the Foreign Service. Manjole Gega spoke of how she along with Peace Corps Volunteers created the environment for Girl Scouts Albania to thrive. Fundjavë Ndryshe founder Arber Hajdari and fellow volunteer Ola Keci gave us details of how they started this organization and had raised over 2 million Euro from Albanians within and abroad in just two years to help the most needy citizens of this emerging nations. Projects ranging from help to pay hospital bills, to repairing houses, weekend service projects and recovery from natural disasters are quickly addressed by Fundjavë through its efforts. The American Peace Corps volunteers shared how both their Americorps  and Peace Corps inspired them to give back to their communities at home and abroad.

What struck me as I listened to the stories was how Albania had been exposed to Peace Corps Volunteers for most of the time since the revolution that had occurred in the hall where we were sitting. The mayor of Tirana was served by Peace Corps Volunteers as a boy, and the director of the park services in Tirana had by his actions made it possible for everything to happen since the Autumn of 1990.  Gonxhe was asked why he did not run for public office. His response was that he felt he could do more for his people outside organized government. From what I was witnessing through the panel, it seemed he had a point. In my own humble opinion, the mayor of Tirana is the new face of politics in Albania, one inspired by public service as demonstrated by his programs to plant trees, bring healthy food to school children and ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that are choking Albania's beautiful landscapes. It struck me that through the long process of consistent service in this emerging nation, Peace Corps had inspired a new generation of public good.

Fundjavë  Ndryshe Volunteers, Grand Park Tirana

I think it is profound that the service organization I am involved in through the United States government is called the “Peace Corps.” It is fitting that what we do is called “service.” As Kennedy and so many presidents after him often say, the United States does not wish to go to war. War in and of itself is often a quick way to solve disputes and address certain injustices, but the lasting road to what I would call deep diplomacy and global citizen ship is through peaceful service. The creativity, passion and in many cases long slog of Peace Corps Volunteers under seemingly insurmountable odds in many instances actually does pay off in the long run. In our own way, we paved the road for the service project that day, of both governmental, local and international volunteers to come together to address the drought and help the people of Tirana have a safe, beautiful place to rest, exercise and contribute to their fresh air. It was a first ever in Albania, and I for one was proud to be part of the service to this emerging nation of incredibly resilient and generous people. 

The people of Albania love their country and are eagerly working to make it better through Fundjavë  Ndryshe and other organizations. It was a grand weekend at the Grand Park Tirana indeed!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Choosing Life

Throughout Pre-Service Training, we trainees were exposed to all sorts of sessions on various topics related to how we could best serve the people of Albania. As Peace Corps is constantly reviewing and revising, it was determined that more of an emphasis needed to be placed on youth development, and my training reflected this orientation. Special focus was placed on cultivating youth through projects such as camps, clubs and events. Two of the three sectors in Albania are school based, Health Education (HE) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), the other is Community Organization and Development (COD), which often involves youth organizational endeavors. Since we have been released to our site assignments, most of the Volunteer efforts I am observing are reflecting the emphasis in our training.

As I watched quite a bit of television with my host family during training, one recurring segment of the evening news had caught my attention. There seemed to be an on-line interactive game sweeping the planet, including Albania, that was a teen suicide challenge. According to the reports, Eastern Europe was especially hard hit with this wave of Internet game inspired deaths. It had claimed the lives of young people across the globe, and was alarming public health and educational officials in Albania enough to where strategies and warnings were filling the evening news. The game is called "Blue Whale," and is enough of a phenomena that it has earned a Wikipedia page (eerily informative if you ask me,) and numerous on-line chats and YouTube videos from mental health professionals seeking to stem the threat of this deadly game.

Blue Whale is the name chosen because of the tragic phenomena of whales beaching themselves, seemingly to commit suicide. The game was originated by a 20 something Russian man, who felt the world needed to be rid of stupid people, a creative eugenics one might say, so he designed the game to have a 50 day/step process where he would interact with willing participants and invite them to do increasingly dangerous and scary things ultimately resulting in a social media documented suicide. The Russian court system apprehended the Blue Whale designer, and he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced, but the game persists and has morphed into similar challenges under similar names.

During my practicum and at my site school, I encountered a frequently asked question by the 12 - 15 year old children. After the basic questions of where I am from and my age, I was always asked about the Blue Whale. What did I think of the Blue Whale? I would respond that any thinking person would not listen to or do what the Blue Whale asked, the Blue Whale does not care about you, no one who cared about you would ask you to hurt yourself, the children agreed, but the questions persisted. I also felt my 15 + conversations about this horrible phenomena were woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. How could one convey on a large scale to match the Blue Whale, for youth to choose to embrace life and nurture themselves? What could compete with this carefully crafted program that increasingly lured otherwise normal youth to hurt and kill themselves?

During training, we were given a session on dealing with the "post communist mentality." We were encouraged to conduct leadership trainings with youth to encourage them to think in independent and creative ways. I had some deep conversations with my health sector trainers regarding the challenges the younger Albanian generation was facing. If we are honest, when communism fell in Albania, a large segment of the population was living in the same way they had lived for hundreds of years. At the time, Albania was existing much as North Korea, completely isolated from the outside world and held in a constant state of siege/panic mentality in fear of both the government as well as the rest of the planet. Considering that youth of today in developed countries are having difficulty coping with modernization and technology, it was daunting to imagine how much more difficult it was for the youth of Albania to adapt in such a short amount of time to the stresses of modern materialistic life within one generation.

Another challenge is the competing attention between a secular culture and the reintroduction of religious life after two generations of enforced atheism. Religion gives context to life, as well as rituals surrounding transitions such as birth, marriage and also the entry into adulthood. Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah are examples of ritual initiations for youth entering adulthood. In Aboriginal cultures, we see elaborate initiation practises requiring youth to go out into the wilderness and face their fears through various exercises. In these practises, youth are pushed to their limits, face conflict and learn to overcome using their ingenuity. Modern secular culture does not offer such initiations, so youth, in attempt to mark the great tumult that accompanies the stage from puberty to adulthood,  "initiate" themselves.  We see this attempt at "self - initiation" in modern gang culture, in the exploration of sex and mind altering substances, participation in the military, most dangerously in the flocking to terror organizations.

Teen "self-initiation" is a major factor in the obsession and compliance with on-line games such as "slender man" and now the Blue Whale. The evil side of confronting and challenging the self is seen in all aspects of these exercises. There is a pledge to an over arching principle or being, a series of challenges that go beyond the normal day to day activities, resulting in the transformation of the individual. Tragically, in these games as well as terror organizations, the transformation is physical death as a badge of courage. Young minds lack the physical mechanisms, full Frontal Lobe brain development to be specific where reasoning is conducted, to discern the full implications of their decisions to participate in such deadly endeavors. The deep question is how to meet the realities of a very disheartening world, constant technological media distractions, the physical limits of adolescent brain function and the need for healthy initiations to offer alternatives to video captured suicides.

The purpose of the Blue Whale is to damage the participants, to scare them and overtake their decision making process to the point of willing compliance with directions to harm and kill themselves. When we consider the initiation process, we can understand the attraction on a certain level. Obviously, participation in these cult like behaviors is a cry of pain and disorientation, a desire to transform into the next phase of life. It shows a lack of modern cultures ability to meet it's youth, there is a void, so the question is how does one fill that void?

I was talking with a group of children from my Summer Camp about the Blue Whale. It seemed that the game held all the thrill of my own youth filled memories involving telling scary stories round camp fires until we were terrified to sleep that night out in the wild. I asked the children what they thought of the Blue Whale. I then introduced the concept of an alternative game. I asked them to vote on a color, and then another ocean mammal. We decided, very democratically I might add,  on the "Purple Dolphin" which would be the name of a game where participants would do healthy activities. One of the girls who was interested in science, chimed in, "Oh that will be the antidote to the Blue Whale." Check, she got it, first step achieved.

I started asking my health sector classmates to help coordinate the project. I got some great ideas, and invited a volunteer who is a nurse from another site to brainstorm, compile and design the Purple Dolphin. This volunteer has experience in Psychiatric Nursing, so her input and experience was invaluable. What resulted was a forty-step program compiled into a booklet with activities designed to foster healthy habits, self esteem and positive interaction with the community. Where the Blue Whale commanded that gamers watch horror flicks in the middle of the night, the Purple Dolphin invited participants to watch NASA television exploring the galaxy. The Blue Whale commands gamers to cut themselves and post on social media their bleeding limbs, the Purple Dolphin invites children to do a Yoga Pose, pick up trash, help to cook a meal, offer a complement. Other Purple Dolphin activities follow the Albanian Ministry of Health guidelines for subjects such as Oral Hygiene, Nutrition and Exercise. Purple Dolphin also aims to create a happy sense of self for its participants. When appropriate,  gamers are to post pictures of themselves doing various activities on social media. Each step needs to be signed and witnessed by a caring adult. When the forty-step cycle is completed, the final stage is to promise to choose to do things that will foster a healthy rest-of -their-lives, which they are invited to post and document through social media. The final step is in direct contrast to the posting of a youth falling to their deaths from windows or bridges.

Visiting a local pharmacy on the dental health scavenger hunt in search of tooth paste and dental floss

We created a series of lesson plans that subsequently were used in a one-week summer camp that circled around the concept of the Purple Dolphin. In the beginning, we created pledges with a Purple Dolphin on the page. The children had to stand, raise their hands and promise to choose to live a healthy life. We then used face paints to paint purple dolphins on the children's forearms. This exercise was in direct contrast to the demand that the Blue Whale gives for children pledge loyalty to it, and to create a razor cut image on their forearms or thighs of a whale. The oral hygiene lesson featured a tooth brushing and flossing exercise, a dental health scavenger hunt where the gamers went out into the community to find where tooth paste was sold and were to find dental floss. We had the children go to pharmacies and ask the pharmacist for help, requiring them to list names and prices of these items. Next it was to find a local dentist and list the address, and finally go to a fruit vendor and list the different kinds of apples and what they cost. When the children returned from the hunt, there was a lesson on snacks that do not harm the teeth: carrots, cucumbers, nuts, apples and water. One of the later lessons was on self esteem, where children made "self esteem flowers" writing their names on the center of a paper flower and putting things they liked about themselves on petals to create the picture. We ended the lesson with reading to each child what they had listed, and telling them they were special. At the end of the experience, we had a party and a ceremony where they received certificates of participation.

Learning the delicious joys of healthy snacks that do not harm the teeth

We plan to release the project through a club format at the beginning of the school year. Depending on how it goes, we hope to share the project and have some simple trainings for teachers who would like to have the project in their communities. Another plan is to have a Face Book page where children can post their Purple Dolphin Task pictures, in addition to having them share on Instagram with the hashtag #PurpleDolphin.

Self Esteem Flower Activity

The goal is to shape those frontal lobe brain synapses to choose to live and choose health. With practice, such behaviors as "eating a vegetable" or "giving a complement" become habits. Instead of jumping off a cliff to prove ones courage, life itself can be seen as a daily initiation toward wholeness. Instead of escaping into violence, numbing through drugs,  alcohol and sex, the invitation is to embrace things that enhance life. The exercises are mostly simple things that most youth have access to, the nature of the booklet also allows those who do not have Internet capability to participate.

Children writing on flower petals what qualities they appreciate about themselves

It is my personal hope this catches on, as always time will tell.

May the Purple Dolphin be with you!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Many years ago, way back in an innocent age when it used to be embarrassing the admit one was a sexual predator and racist, I attended the United Nations Fifth Conference on Women in Beijing, China. This was in an era when the Internet was in it’s infancy, cell phones almost non existent and people had to talk to one another on a land line to get things done like plane reservations. At that time the only thing China was adept at was denying Visas and mowing down peaceful protesters with tanks. While agreeing to host the conference, little else was done to prepare for the thousands of the world’s women who would be coming to network and lobby for the betterment of half of the global population. The utter lack of preparation other than to assemble legions of armed soldiers from around China to monitor the event was evident at the NGO pre-conference, which was held in Hwairo. 50,000 women were pointed to an open field with 10 meter diameter circular slabs of concrete on which we were to hold our different workshops and panels. A day later, we were provided with inflatable tents and fans with generators.

Some women had ridden on trains for weeks to get to the conference. To say we were greeted with a giant foam middle finger is an understatement. What was the women’s response? What did the women who came from every nation on Earth do with the ultimate lemon catapulted in their direction? They decorated the tents with beautiful handcrafts, brought out tea and coffee service, sang, danced and carried on in spite of being literally abandoned in an open field to face 100F+ temperatures with 99.9% humidity. I have carried that image with me these many many years, how it is the women who always try and make everything nicer with their decorations, hand crafts and hospitality, in spite of extremely oppressive external circumstances.

I was thinking of this when I was invited to watch my host mom create Byrek. As the followers of this blog may remember, I live with the Albanian version of the Darlings in a terraced garden on the side of the Castle Mountain in Berat. The garden is a model for urban agriculture in that it maximizes a small plot of land to produce numerous food crops on a vertical plane. One of the more amazing techniques they employ is growing vine crops on a series of ropes, wires and trellises. The ripening (what I have called) “air squash” and the locals call “kungull,”  while others might call a fairy pumpkin, are being harvested on a weight basis. This means when the squash is so large that the intricate system of wires, platforms and ropes can no longer support the squash, it is picked and then turned into something delicious.

Since my arrival, one of the great cultural sharings has been through food. My hosts offer me supper and coffee with regional dishes. I cook for them in what I would call a “Californian Albanian fusion” style, meaning I try my best to recreate California cuisine with Albanian ingredients. Somehow I am able to convey the essence of the gastronomy without my beloved Cilantro, various peppers and hot sauces and cheddar cheese, but they are getting the hint. We trade plates, when I cook, I bring them a plate of my creation. I am treated to plates of various Albanian culinary gems left for me on my kitchen counter. Now that the Summer is in full swing, I am also treated to cucumbers, various fruits and of course the kungull. Sara, my host mom, asked me if I was available to watch her make byrek the next day. I eagerly said yes, and asked what time. She said she would be ready at 9 am. I arrived on the dot to witness what can be described as kitchen alchemy, the taking of maybe five ingredients and transforming it into gastronomic gold.

Byrek is a staple of the Albanian table. It is also the go to fast food available on every street corner. During training, volunteers had scouted out the best Byrek stands in Elbasan. Since I am not all that into the know at times, I only found the gem during our last two weeks of training, and I can recommend the cheese and tomato Byrek quite highly, I can tell you where this place is even though I could not tell you the name of the place to save my soul. 

The first time I heard the name “Byrek” was during one of my trips to Macedonia. In Skopje, the different bakeries proudly displayed their offerings of either spinach, cheese or meat. I had never seen Byrek in my past trips, and was never exposed to it through my grandmother. We ate “banitza” and it was more like what most people understand as “spanikopita” the famed Greek spinach filo pastry wonder. My grandmother made her banitza with hand rolled filo sheets. Her living room, kitchen and dining room was transformed into a pastry drying rack, with the delicate sheets draping towel lined flat surfaces. Grammie as we called her, filled her banitza with either cheese (cottage and feta) ground meat and onions, spinach and cheese (see previous ingredient list) or apples and raisins. She would either make a tray or roll it up in the style most would recognize as the Austrian Strudel. On New Years, she would bake in silver dollars into her pie, and if you found one in your piece, it would be a lucky year for you.

The Albanian table and agriculture has been influenced by the many invaders to their land. Byrek may be a legacy of Ottoman  occupation in that similar dishes are found in Northern Africa and they are called Börek. Some sort of variation on the theme of layers of thin flaky pastry with a variety of available fillings can be found throughout the Balkans. What some would call Greek cuisine, I would say is actually Turkish. Regardless of it’s origins or accurate nomenclature, Byrek is delicious. Byrek is also a symbol of the resilience and constancy of the women of Albania.

When I entered the kitchen of Sara, my host, she had already cooked the kungell from her garden. It was steamed, mashed and seasoned with butter, eggs, milk, a bit of sugar and salt. The dough, known as yufka (we Americans would call this filo,) was prepared into small balls. Sara took the ball of dough, rolled it in corn starch, the magical ingredient that I now know will enable me to actually roll out the pastry without having it stick to the table, and rolled it into a paper thin consistency. Sara would then take each sheet and dry fry them in a large pan she had on her stove, making what looked like to me extremely large thin flour tortillas. I realized that she was making what I have been seeing in the markets in plastic bags, a sort of “instant Burek” stack of the prepared cracker like yufka. She repeated the rolling, frying and stacking into a separate dish until there was only two balls of dough left. One of these, she made into a very large sheet that she placed on a towel on her couch, the other was smaller, which she placed to the side of the larger pastry. 

When the “kungullur” or squash Byrek was ready to assemble, Sara rolled the large uncooked pastry sheet on the bottom of a large circular pan. She oiled the pan with a mixture of sunflower and olive oil, and then drizzled oil on top of the sheet. Then the layering magic began; one dry fried layer of pastry, then drizzled oil, then the squash mixture, over and over until everything was used up. The final layer was the smaller raw sheet of pastry, and then the larger bottom layer was rolled up on the sides to complete the construction. Oil was drizzled on top and the creation was popped into the oven, where is expanded into a flaky domed fragrant example of the deliciousness of the Albanian kitchen. 
As I watched Sara roll the dough into the corn starch in meticulously equal portions, I noted that she does not use any sort of measuring devices. She patted the dough into small flat circles, then rolling them out on a kitchen table dusted with corn starch and a dowel with almost machine like precision. I wondered how many thousands of times she completed this ritual. As Sara is a grandmother, she had endured the aftermath of World War II and the subsequent entire generation of communist oppression. She also lived through the fall of communism and the resulting turmoil that accompanied that transition. 

Sara’s hands create the most amazing dishes, her hands keep a spotlessly clean home. She gardens and tends the many plants that make up the lushness of the terraced levels. Her children and grandchildren are quite successful people. The resulting Byrek that we all enjoyed later that afternoon was incredible. Knowing it had come from her garden, and the organic flour she told me was the best for making Byrek, I think influenced my experience. My lack of sophisticated language skills keeps us from having more complex conversations, but the food speaks for itself. 

Sara is like those women I witnessed at the UN Conference. In spite of being given very difficult circumstances, they all make life more pretty and delicious. During the years of great oppression under the dictatorship, Albanian women continued to love their families, grow and make food, keep their homes immaculate, and make countless Byreks. While I enjoy the Byrek from the local bakeries and fast food establishments, there is something intangible yet present when the Byrek is made from garden fresh ingredients and by hands that have shaped and rolled the dough for decades. It just tastes different, and is more satisfying. As Albanians become more educated and two salaries are needed to keep the family budget in tact, one of the casualties of this modernization is less time for cooking.  As television and exposure to all that entails, markets and tastes are moving towards prepared and pre packaged foods. The younger generation understandably is moving away from the cooking traditions of prior years, mainly due to lack of time. As I watched Sara make her work of art, I wondered if such a tradition would continue. 

As I forced myself to eat Sara’s “air squash” Byrek slowly, as it was melt in your mouth delicious, I said a prayer that such traditions survive in the transforming modernization of Albania. 

Some wonderful websites for learning more about Albanian food:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Kujdes (Careful)

On the Gorica Stone Bridge as a staging for the hike

It is sort of amusing the words one says frequently when interacting with locals in a foreign country. The children at Summer Camp tease me because I say “shumë interesante,” which means “very interesting,” all the time when describing some great universal truth in nature during a lesson. Obviously my Albanian vocabulary lacks the volume my English one has, I am also finding Albanian is a very economic language meaning the options for adjectives and adverbs does not seem as broad. The word “mirë” (good) is used ubiquitously and with gusto in every conceivable situation in conversation. We had a song in training on “mirë”. We American volunteers often reflect on how when women and children say this word it almost sounds like a kitten meowing. What is nice about both shumë interesante and mirë is they allow my lack of vocabulary to go unnoticed, and I can get my point across in full comprehension on all sides.
On the way to the trail head

A word I have been saying constantly as the Summer Camp activities have progressed is “kujdes.” Pronounced as “kweedes” it means “be careful,” which one has to say continuously when doing any sort of outside activity with boys. In addition to my constant admiration and amazement of Albanian women’s ankle ligament strength in high heels on cobble stone, I am seeing that school aged boys also have a bio mechanical wonder in their bodies as well. The boys in our Summer Camp seem to not have to obey the laws of gravity, and in some instances I am convinced they are related to spider man. 

Antonio and I have been diligently conducting daily Summer Camps since the middle of June and will be completing our programs on the 3rd of August. Apparently we have had the longest and most successful camp in all of Peace Corps Albania this Summer. Situations vary from site to site. In some cases, the Albanian counterparts are not interested in Summer Camps, in others strict perimeters have been set in terms of length and timing of Camps. In my never to be humble opinion, I have the dream assignment in that my school director and counter part are very enthusiastic and supportive of Peace Corps and have welcomed any of our initiatives. Antionio’s primary assignment is to teach English at the High School next to my school ( a mixed grade and junior high school called a 9 Year School) His counterpart informed him that his services would not be required until September, leaving him free for the Summer. I suggested he join me in our Summer Camp and it has been a very rewarding and entertaining collaboration to say the very least.

View from the Trail, showing the Castle Mount from the west side

The word “kujdes” became vital to the success of our outdoor ambassador camp week as we braved the beautiful local offerings for hiking. The River Osum separates Berat into two sections. On the northern side of Berat is what I call the Castle Mount, on the southern side is a very steep mountain where the Gorica Medieval Village is located. There is a beautiful rustic loop trail that we thought might be fun to explore with the children. Informing them to wear walking shoes, sunscreen, hats and to bring water, we assembled for our exploration. As Antonio is a generation younger than I, he led the eager children, and I brought up the rear bearing oatmeal raisin cookies I had made the day before and several bottles of water to fill in the gaps of the children who forgot theirs. 

The trail was extraordinarily steep, narrow and full of loose gravel.  It was actually the first time the children had gone on the trail in spite of the fact it is literally in their back yards, a 10 minute walk from the city center. Unencumbered or inhibited by heat or steep drops on one side of the trail, the children gingerly ran up the side of the mountain,  much to the shock of Antonio and my constant loud uttering of the word “kujdes!” At one point, I simply could not keep up and told Antonio to hike a bit more, break out the cookies and then come back down the trail where I would be seated waiting to bring up the rear on the descent. 

The children were disappointed we did not go to the top, but it simply was too hot and dangerous for Antonio and I to keep them safe. As they descended, I kept my part of the bargain to bring up the rear. Much to my dismay I simply could not get up. There was nothing for me to hoist myself up on, say a rock or a tree. The trail was very loose, with thick brush on either side. I tried to get on my knees and stand that way, but my muscles chose that very day to go into spasms, making my calves and feet go into charlie horses if I dared get into any sort of position enabling me to get off the ground. One of the younger boys who is extremely polite and helpful offered to give me his hand. Knowing it would be certain death for us both for him to pull me off the ground, I politely thanked him and declined the offer. As I continued to struggle to get up, he then started to chant “ Ste - fa - nee” over and over until I finally rose from my cramped posture, clapping for me when I stood upright.

When we got to the foot of the trail, Antonio and I were completely drenched in our own sweat, our stomach linings a bit thinner due to the constant angst of worry over the possibility of dead children on the hike. The children asked repeatedly when we could do the hike again the entire way back to the school.

We decided to try again, but next time to leave at 7 am to beat the heat. We also invited the local Girl Scout Troop to have the older members come and help corral the nimble gravity defying children. The back tail to the castle was our next endeavor, mainly because it was not as steep and had a paved road back to the city. As I am one of those annoying morning people, I arrived at the deserted city center at 6:30 am on the day of the hike. I was alone in the city, as no sane person ventures out before 7 am. At 5 minutes to 7, I saw the small herd of camp regulars slowly make their way to the school, hands in their pockets and puffy partially closed eyes. Soon cars started arriving, and children tumbled out, rumpled hair and stunned faces, obviously they had just awoken bless their hearts, but they were there and on time. 

We started our ascent with me of course singing my “kujedes” song in regular rhythm. There is a point in the trail where a landslide has covered the road, forcing hikers to walk along an ancient stone wall which has a 30 foot drop on one side and the landslide on the other. Antonio and one of the Girl Scouts led the way, and I and the other leaders acted as a toll booth, only letting one child cross the patch at a time. We of course had to physically restrain the boys, and in some cases had to hold the hands of the more shy of the children as they crossed. After this stretch, the walk was through a beautiful forest leading up to the castle walls. When we got to the gates, we had a snack and played cards. After a while, the more spider man like of the younger boys started to make piles of pine needles with their feet, jumping up and tossing clumps of needles between their ankles. Others were making launching pads to climb trees with the offerings of the forest floor. Who says children need technology to be entertained?

The next day I woke at my usual pre dawn hour, to go on my deck and enjoy the sunrise. To my horror I saw open flames on the hill across the river from where I live. It is amazing how a new language can fail you when you are in a panic. It is sort of like those nightmare dreams where you are screaming and there is no sound coming from your mouth. We did not have any training in phrases for “fire.” As it was about 4:30 am, I was in a quandary as to what to do. Should I scream, should I wake my host family? There was no response of any kind that I could see, no fire crews, sirens or anything. I waited till 5 am to knock on my host families door. Sarah seemed impressed with my sentence structure  in terms of saying there was a fire. She patted me and congratulated me on my language improvement, that yes, there is a fire. Should we call someone? Oh, no, she calmly said, the police will take care of it, and she went back to bed. 

I then started texting everyone I could think of, my safety and security officer, my local Peace Corps Volunteer Warden, my country director, Antonio, my director and counterpart. I then wondered if I should pack my valuables, cancel summer camp and then what?  Still no sirens, no helicopters, no nothing, and the fire continued to burn. Antonio told me he had been watching the fire from his house most of the night. We were both in a quandary as to what to do. We decided to show up at school for camp and see what was the best course of action. What struck me was how everything was going on as it always does, buses running on time, shops opening, people in the cafes greeting on another as they began their days all with open flames in the background. 

When I arrived at school the guard was calmly watching the hillside across the river burn. I joined him in his watch, and he quietly told me how sad it was that the hill was burning and then went to sit at his post. The children also simply watched the fire, and we had our planned activity. Afterward,  Antonio and I agreed to keep each other informed of any changes, and to make sure we had cash and water on hand in case of the need to evacuate. Later that day when my Peace Corps Country Director called to check on me, I told her it seemed that Antonio and I were the only ones in all of Berat that were upset (I said this as the helicopters started to arrive finally at noon that day) and since the locals were not upset, I would integrate my emotional state to the citizenry, and follow their example to not be alarmed. She agreed that it was probably the best course of action, and told me to inform her of any changes in our situation. I thought to myself, that the locals had endured five centuries of Ottoman occupation, two world wars, a repressive dictatorship, civil war and economic collapse, so forest fires obviously are low on the panic list. I also rationalized that Albania would not let its jewel World Heritage Site burn. It was one of the odder experiences I have had to date, as a Southern Californian survivor of many fires to simply watch a forest burn itself out and no organized response or concern of the local population. 

Now that it is August, our camp is almost finished. We will have an ending party where we give the children a diploma for completing the activity. They have been such a delight this entire time, complying with all of our many different offerings of games, lessons and activities. One of the more interesting aspects of our camp is that the boys are the majority of the participants, regularly coming every day at 8 am. Antonio and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but we are both ready to take a bit of a break before the onslaught of activities begins in the Fall. The children would be happy to have the camp seven days a week until the beginning of school and are visibly disappointed that we are ending on Thursday. Antonio will be traveling with friends through August. I am going to stay put and work on my language and some writing projects, as well as do some early morning exploring of trails and churches that I have been unable to enjoy because of camp. 

It is hard to believe we have been here in Albania for six months. In some respects it seems my life in the states is a distant memory. I feel like I am in a rhythm here in Berat. I have my vegetable sellers I frequent, I know where to get certain consumer goods, I am starting to make some local friends and know the soap opera schedules. The combination of natural beauty and unique architecture here in Berat makes for a very satisfying experience, and I have little desire to go anywhere else for the foreseeable future. I am glad everything did not burn in the fires. As I watch the rest of the world implode and explode, Albania seems a haven for me, filled with delicious Summer fruits, sweet children and a deep history I am discovering on a daily basis. While I am kujdes in terms of not tempting fate, I feel very much at home here. I look forward to the next chapter in my Peace Corps Journey.