Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Next Step

I am now an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I signed the oath, got the pin and was directed to where I will be spending the next two years serving in the best capacity I can within my assigned community. I am curious if the massive fatigue will ever leave now that I am official, or it will simply increase. I was not alone in this feeling. After the swearing in, the volunteers were set free for several hours while our Albanian counterparts were involved in workshops to help them orient themselves to having Americans in their midst. Everyone, regardless of age, complained about how exhausted they were feeling and the desire to just go to bed instead of gearing up with limited language capacity to meet new people.

With the impending protests and gay pride parade in Tirana, the staff had to reorient the entire training they had spent months preparing so the volunteers and counterparts could leave before the onslaught that had the potential to become violent. I felt sorry for the staff, as their stress in managing this entire experience was more tiring than what we volunteers were feeling. Designing and executing such a project is more time consuming than the volunteer obligations of pre service training. Not only was the staff responsible for conducting the trainings and logistics, they also had to deal with the inevitable events that go along with managing humans in a foreign country. Their charges are not familiar with how to deal with challenges on a daily basis. Lost phones, illnesses, personality clashes, security issues and in one case a volunteer injuring himself requiring an airlift back to the states for surgery were mixed in with trying to secure housing and assignments for 41 people. This was no small feat, because the personality and skills of the volunteers are incorporated with trying to find suitable housing and counterparts. In some instances everything is set into motion after months of discussions, in person meetings, inspections of housing options, negotiations and such only to fall apart at the last minute, causing the staff to scramble for alternatives. 

Our counterpart conference got pushed up an hour on Friday, and was shortened to basically an hour on Saturday (originally it was to be four hours) to allow us to be able to disperse in time to escape the threat of the protests. Before the meeting, I was in the hotel lobby leisurely trying to post my last blog entry after breakfast, and I was gently told by one of the trainers that I had 10 minutes to check out of my room and take all of my luggage downstairs to a pre assigned room for temporary storage. I was asked to please spread the word. I thought to myself, actually no, I will not be checking out in 10 minutes, it is logistically impossible to get 41 people dispersed on four floors of a small hotel to pack up, check out and assemble massive amounts of luggage to a hotel lobby in one teensy elevator in 10 minutes. I am not refusing the order, sorry, I simply can’t do that, nothing personal, but it is just not going to happen. 

I thought it better to keep this brilliant insight to myself as the trainer looked quite exhausted, and I am sure she was just as flabbergasted by the change in the schedule as I. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I commandeered the one and only luggage cart in the entire hotel to expedite the process, much to the delight of my room mate, who told me I never looked as beautiful as I did when entering the room with the cart. We piled on our numerous bags and such, and she attempted to get the loaded cart to the lobby while I checked us out of the hotel. As you can imagine it was a mad house and the line for the elevator was massive. In case you are wondering, no, we did not check out and assemble our luggage in 10 minutes as I had silently predicted.

I had never heard my health sector director speak as fast as she did in the next 45 minutes as she did during the abbreviated session. I was actually impressed with the speed that she was able to get through the material in so little time, especially since I never heard her pause for a breath. The volunteers and counterparts were supposed to plan our first few months together in about 15 minutes during this segment. I tried to introduce the concept of Slow Food in Schools, the class exchange program and the idea of a health club. I am also interested in having an art and science either club or classes where the children are invited to observe nature and make art inspired by their observations. The session had a very detailed plan of action as a template for our integration. 

I am actually quite surprised at my level of Albanian language skills, while rudimentary at best, I am able to convey basic thoughts, speak simple sentences and understand things. The vocabulary has finally started the descent into the gray matter, it took a while but it has started. The health sector director, as I said, was speaking nonstop at a rapid pace, very important directions for the counterparts. When I say rapid, I am not sure if she actually finished a sentence or when the sentence ended, it was sort of like a stream of consciousness that went on for ever, and I understood……. “Please take the volunteer to register with the police in the first few days after their arrival” Oh my god, I understood……..  “Please make a plan for your first few months and send me a copy of your ideas in the first month.” Oh my god, another sentence comprehended…….. My delight was not shared by others, some of which were not paying attention and again, I felt really sorry for the sector trainers who were obviously quite frustrated by having to cut their carefully planned sessions by 2/3rds. I am sure they were very unhappy with both the Democrats and the Homosexuals for planning their events on the last day of our training, but what can you do? Freedom of expression obviously had precedence, much to the complete inconvenience of us all and at great expense to the tax payers of Tirana who had to pay overtime to legions of police.

And then the moment arrived, our documents were passed out, and we were instructed to get out of Tirana as fast as possible. I was absolutely dreading the thought of navigating across Tirana in the heat with all my heavy luggage, a sleeping bag and water filter. My counterpart and site mate informed me right at the end of our meeting that the professor from the High School at our site had a car and was going to drive our luggage and deliver it to my home stay. I almost wet my pants with relief, it was like the Angel of luggage transportation appeared on cue and answered my fervent prayers for some sort of solution. I loaded up my bags in the car, said good bye and my counterparts and I caught the city bus to the regional bus station and boarded a “Berat” bus with ease. Some of it actually was familiar in parts from the confused sprint we had “practiced” the week before. 

It is amazing how wonderful life is when you are not carrying 150 pounds of luggage, a very profound insight on many levels actually, almost tee shirt, self help book and bumper sticker worthy slogan if you think about it. Since it was in the low 90’s in Tirana and a bit muggy, I can not tell you the pure joy I experienced over NOT having to make that last push with three large bags, a sleeping bag and water filter. Since I plan to give away most of what I am carrying now, it was bliss knowing I will NEVER have to do this again EVER (lug bags etc.) Most of my fellow volunteers did not have it so easy, and I had great compassion watching them try to move heavy back packs and such through the hot muggy city streets.

On the way to Berat, the school director showed me many pictures on her phone of the different activities of the children. It seems as if I have been placed in one of the higher achieving schools in the country. I also learned from here that there is a project in Berat called (in English) “You Are What You Eat.” I hope to connect with this organization in terms of implementing some sort of nutrition program. I had traveled some of the road before on my shadow visit, and it was as interesting and beautiful as before, less mountainous, but still presenting the great contrasts that is the reality of Albania. One sees a computer or appliance shop next to an open field where a shepherd is navigating his flock of sheep, a new mercedes bypassing a donkey laden with firewood, bill boards promoting various expensive consumer goods with Roma beneath them begging for money and food. These are a few examples of what I witnessed on the road to the next phase of my service. 

We arrived at the bus station and caught a city bus to the center of town. After a while it then appeared, the UN World Heritage Site worthy architecture of this beautiful medieval town, the town of a thousand windows as it is called here. The other bit of information I was told was that Berat is the second most beautiful city in Europe. I could not seem to get at what was the first, I am guessing Venice. My counterparts were graciously offering to feed me lunch or walk around the city, take me shopping and such, but I felt the urgent need to meet my host family, unpack and sleep. We arrived at the stop, got off and the director pointed up to the foothills of the castle and said my house was there. Again, I silently blessed everyone I could think of that I was not having to haul luggage up these old cobble stone walkways that are on a 45 degree angle. Albanian women are famous for dressing very stylishly at all times, which means heels in terms of footware. I felt a bit sorry for my counterparts as they climbed the hill in their beautiful shoes, while my cushioned arch support sole flats were having a much easier time with the experience.

We came to the house and my host mom greeted us. I have for the last five years, kept complaining that I was wanting my happy ending after great sorrow and trial, just like in the movies thank you very much. There just had to be some sort of purpose to the endless ordeals that kept getting worse by the week in spite of many valiant efforts to switch directions, there had to be something to point to and say, see, all that (fill in the blank with awful event) and look at where you are now! Today, I got my happy ending. I feel like I am staying in a boutique B&B on the side of a mountain in a medieval fairytale setting. It is just beautiful, a garden terraced home with a large tile deck overlooking the river, part of the old city and the mountains. One can walk to the castle from here. I feel like I am living out the Balkan version of Eat Pray Love, only the love part is the adoration from the children that warms my heart. 

The couple I will be staying with is very warm and kind, the mother actually reminds me of one of my now deceased aunts in demeanour and looks. She is always telling me to be careful when I climb the stairs linking the terrace gardens and the floors of the house. When she took me to a local cafe for tea, she produced a bottle of hand sanitizer for both of us to utilize before the beverages arrived, telling me that when you are on the buses, you pick up a lot of germs. The sanitizer she told me was from Greece, and was rose scented. 

I have a sit down toilette, called French in these areas, which means I will, well, be able to sit instead of squat, and is such a liberating feeling considering my lack of thigh muscle strength let me tell you! I have my own kitchen, a porch and my own bathroom. The absolute cherry on the cake is I have NO TELEVISION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Albanians are much like Americans in that they are constantly watching TV. While I have learned language and such by watching TV with my first host family, I really dislike the constant noise of the darn thing, both here and in the states. When I live as I please, I do not have a TV, and do arcane things like read books, listen to music and write. I also am able to, you know, think, when not being inundated with ads and the inane nature of what is on the tube both here and in the states. Sometimes it is nice to be ignorant of all the thought engineering enabling mass consumerism proclaimed by television. 

I was able to share pleasantries with the couple, Sara and Abraham, give them their gifts of dates from California as well as a beautiful wall calendar with pictures of my home state. I unpacked for real this time, put things in drawers and closets and no longer have to rummage through bags to find whatever because I could not put it away, and be a real person for the first time in years to be honest.

After a nap where I felt like I had been in a mini coma, Sara came up to my flat with Chai Mali or Mountain Tea which is the word for the local wild crafted herb tea where ever one is in Albania. Sometimes it is a sage tea, other times it is a local flower or mint. We sat on the deck sipping tea and enjoying the sunset. She offered me supper, which I declined, and then offered me some yogurt, which I accepted. I had a left over muffin from lunch that I enjoyed with my “kos” which is the Albanian equivalent of Keifer, and simply relished in the silence of being alone.

Tomorrow, we go shopping to the local Pazaar, and she also wants to take me to the Castle for tea. Okey dokey, I can fit that into my schedule. I will be going to my assigned school on Monday and begin the process of integrating into the program there. Abraham has promised to get internet hooked up for me sometime next week. I learned that there is a music High School at the foot of the hill where my house is, I wonder if I could connect it with the Orange County High School for the Arts. The possibilities are endless. I told Sara after she complemented me on my Albanian, that I need to practice over the summer to be more fluent. That is my goal. That and loosing quite a bit of weight the last year of stress layered on my body. One of my site mates, Antonio, and I hope to coordinate on some projects. I have yet to meet the two volunteers that are from Class 19. Antonio and I are to meet with the local Girl Scout Troupe to discuss possibilities. 

It is so wonderful to not be freezing all the time. I know the heat is coming, but for now, I am truly enjoying not being really cold every minute of the day and night. I am contemplating purchasing an air mattress so I can sleep on the veranda when it gets to the promised 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. I chose Albania mainly to not be hot, oh well, the heat will be a small price to pay for this location and situation. Some of the northern sites only get up to the 50’s during the summer. Last year was the coldest winter in 30 years, some of the more rural areas had no water or electricity for almost two months in the depth of the cold spell, forcing schools to close due to the freezing temperatures. If the volunteer had no wood stove, it meant living in their down sleeping bags. 

All in all, I feel truly blessed, and hope to enjoy my time here as much as possible. I am also hoping that this happy ending to a very long stretch of unhappy occurrences for ever so long, will be a start to a continuous happy beginnings and a middle for the time being.  

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