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Friday, May 23, 2008

Elabasan Pazar

I haven’t yet written a spiel on the wonders of the Elbasan pazar, where one can buy all fruits, vegetables, fresh dairy products, meats, grains, and extensive varieties of mysterious canned/ packaged foods unfamiliar to the America eye.
To begin, the market is largely outdoors; most of the fruits and vegetables are piled into tall stacks under a great ramada, just off the main road, near the furgon and bus stops. Surrounding this first area are many densely filled shops brimming with bags of grains, various salts, kitchen utensils, candies, meats, specialties, and whatever else they can fit in the modest spaces. Then, around the back an additional ramada full of vegetables emerges, stocked with another round of similar goods. Along with the many shops there are dozens of unofficial vendors, each crouched on their heels with bags of home-picked produce in front, usually of salad, spinach, weeds, fig leaves, and other foliage. And, despite having seen numerous markets of late, I still cannot decipher how to know which vendor to buy from, when they all have the same price and clearly provide foods from the same sources (hence same quality)?

The great thing about our markets here in Albania, which only strike me as special because they weren’t present in any of the markets in Asia, are the mass dairy centers. In Elbasan there is a building in the pazar full of giant clumps of yellow and white cheesewheels, as well as plastic buckets of gjalpё (butter), kos (yogurt), gjiz (semi-cottage cheese), Fanta bottles filled with qumestё (milk) and various other degrees of homemade dairy products. The smell of the building alone can knock you off your feet, it’s intense!

During our recent trip to the market I snapped some photos of the bountiful cherries (just came in season—they are the “expensive” ones at 200 lek per kilo, which equates to less than $1 per pound!), assorted piles of olives sold by origin, some cheese vendors happily posing for us silly American folk (who also lovingly like to ‘shoot the shyet with’), and hopefully in the background you can pick out the completely old-school scales, whereby the vendors chuck weights into one bucket while increasing or decreasing the amount of produce on the other side until they balance. I think they must be decades old, and every once in awhile I come across someone with a real antique—wonder if they could sell to a dealer in the US and buy a digital one with the profits?

Another funny thing about the market (and all shops) in Albania is that everything is quoted in “old lek” prices; so when they answer “dy mi e gjashtё qind e pesё” (two-thousand six hundred and fifty), we have to first convert to English, then remember to drop a zero. It becomes especially confusing when the occasional vendor quotes in new lek, knowing that as foreigners we probably don’t know the system, and in turn causing us to think they are giving us a fantastic deal! However, in general, we are all very confused as to why they changed the system of money and bills, and refuse to speak with the correct numbers, considering they adapted the currency over 35 years ago… S’ka problemё (not a problem) but it just goes to show how stubborn their mindset is when adjusting to new ideas…

(Please stay tuned for future pics!)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hipuam kodra

This weekend about 25 of us volunteers gathered our sleeping bags, stuffed snacks, water, and beverages into our backpacks, and had an all-night rendez-vous at the top of the plateau in Belёsh, where sheep herders regularly take their “dela” to graze. From the top of the “koder” it is possible to see endless green layers of farms, lakes, tiny villages, and even Elbasan in the distance, which is “shumё i bukur”! [ie: very beautiful] Some people brought speakers and ipods, one gal actually lugged her acoustic guitar up the steep slope, and together we sat around the bonfire drinking and laughing until the wee hours of the morning. No surprises here! It was a lot of fun—and luckily the weather was warm and without wind or rain. Around 2 a.m. everyone slowly crashed on top of a giant plastic tarp purchased in Elbasan; the sun was kind enough to rouse us groggily from our shut-eye at 6:15, and we spent a long morning getting refreshed, recovering lost articles that somehow were strewn down
the mountainside, and chatting once again around the (morning) campfire.

Eventually we gathered our belongings and cleared the area of signs of a party, then walked back down to the town and had brunch in a restaurant overlooking the central lake. From here many people were exhausted and caught furgons to go back home, while Chris and I joined a small handful of people to participate in the first meeting our PCV History Club. We went to the house of another married couple and watched part of a DVD relaying the history of Yugoslavia’s break-up, followed by a short (due to our own exhaustion) discussion. Next week we’ll be taking a historical tour of Elbasan, and I imagine there will be plenty of opportunities in the next two years to visit sites and really get to know Albanian and/or Balkan history. I really appreciate the PC’s encouraging of these various clubs with which we can really enjoy our time here and develop our experience here in multiple ways.

Once back home, Chris and I were pretty useless for the day. We lounged upstairs for most of the afternoon, where it was sunny and warm, and we could read books and catnap to make up for lost hours the night before. Sunday is our only day off here, so we usually plan trips to other villages or random PCT get-togethers, but sometimes it’s good to just relax and turn off the socializing and language practice!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Practicum begins!

This week we started out with our first health practicums in Gjergjan! I took the bus in the early morning and joined the other PCT group for language classes, and then afterward we went into the classrooms to perform our lessons.

Monday morning my group taught germ theory to the kindergarten students, while Wednesday I was part of the anti-tobacco campaign in the 7th grade, and in the early evening we had a young women’s sexual health meeting. Overall the lessons went quite well—except for perhaps the sexual health meeting in which the “surprise guests” (older women and mothers of the community) showed up and wouldn’t stop laughing or talking and shuddered away in terror at the site of a cucumber with a condom on it. However, the kindergarteners all sang our ‘Row Row Row your Boat’ rendition of ‘Wash Wash Wash your Hands’ and the 7th graders successfully interacted with the anti-smoking station posters we created. There were so many unexpected twists and down-right annoyances but all in all it was worth being thrown into pit and having to get in front of a classroom full of kids who speak a language I don’t understand. In my future site I will be working more closely with the nurses and teachers before doing any lessons (if I choose to work in the schools at all) so I hope it will be slightly easier, though I am sure there will always be certain cultural beliefs that impede learning about such topics. I digress!

So otherwise, the week was pretty slow but on Sunday we celebrated Cinqo de Mayo in one of the villages near Elbasan. Monica’s host-parents, who own a locale in Haydara, let us cook a bunch of food in their closet-kitchen, and all of the volunteers took a bus up the hill to feast on “Mexican-Albanian” food. I stayed overnight in Elbasan with a few other girls in order to make tortillas at one of the current volunteer’s houses; though, unfortunately the “corn flour” here turned out to be more like powder with some corn bits mixed in and the dough wouldn’t stick together enough to cook… So instead of tacos we made chicken salad, mashed potatoes, Mexican-seasoned rice, and rice pudding.

The party itself was a lot of fun—we broke a piñata in the shape of a gomar (donkey) and did the limbo, while rocking out to a Latin American- themed playlist. (That is, until the Albanian sisters turned up the volume of the TV’s music videos to full blast in hopes of inspiring us to dance, which that did not.)

Tomorrow is our hub day for the week—another Friday recap in Elbasan with all of the volunteers. It’s also a chance for us to stock up on supplies needed for the camping trip on Saturday. We’re all meeting in Belesh, where we will hike to the top of a plateau and probably drink ourselves silly. From what I hear there is a lot of sheep poo at the top, so I think we need to go buy some heavy sheets of plastic to lay down under our sleeping bags…. But I’m sure I will be fun regardless of comfort. ;)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Culture Day in Elbasan!

Saturday was Culture Day in Elbasan! Chris and I caught a furgon around 9 and met with all the volunteers at Skampa Theatre, near the old castle. There the PC had set up “culture stations” for us to learn (and have fun) with Albanian culture. They also arranged for a dance/performance troupe of young kids to present Albanian songs and dances in their traditional costumes, which was adorable and reminded me of the little figures from Disneyland’s It’s a Small World. PC also had a station for ushime e Shiperisё , or Albanian foods. Even more popular were the Turkish food tables, serving baklava and Turkish coffee. In case I haven’t already stated, there is a lot of Turkish influence here beyond the Ottoman mosques, which aren’t actually widely used. For example, many Albanian words are borrowed from Turkey, as well as squat toilets—called “Turkish toilets” since Turkey introduced them to the region. We learned a bit about Albanian literature, folklore, superstitions, and religions, as well as more circle dancing and watching videos of traditional singing in costume. I really appreciate how the PC tries to have fun and educate us, and to be as creative as possible.

*On a side note, I’ve recently gotten word from Anne that she has flown to DC for staging before her Guatemala departure, and I know she must be having an equally exciting time! I can’t wait to hear about her own cultural lessons and adjustments….!
After “Culture Day”, we had some errands to run in Elbasan, such as buying ingredients for making a cake. We wanted something to present for Karen and my birthday party the next afternoon (Sunday). Becca and I tried to be creative with this cake, but with such limited ingredients we decided to make a simple white cake with a layer of lemon custard in the middle. Becca came home with Chris and me, and we cooked it from scratch—even beating the eggs until stiff by hand . No appliances here—only the richest people can afford things from the Elektro Shtёpiake (“Electric Housewife” store). Unfortunately, and for reasons we haven’t yet worked out, the cake failed to rise, so we ended up making two giant pancakes with a layer of custard smooshed between. Even the frosting failed miserably, because we couldn’t find any powdered sugar and we didn’t foresee the disasters of substituting regular white sugar in its place… ;(

You can see in the pictures. But the party was a blast none the less! Almost all of the volunteers caught furgons here to Cerrik, and we gathered in the internet café for drinks, cake, and extra goodies that people gifted us with. We’re so lucky to have a nice big place in Cerrik that can accommodate so many of us—and we’ve agreed that we’re still having a cultural exchange with the Albanians because they all watch us and see how we Americans interact {— what? that girl is drinking beer! And she’s talking with a guy! And look how they hug each other hello/ goodbye instead of kissing each other’s cheeks!} . I am going to really miss having these impromptu gatherings with all of the PCTs—from what I hear after we leave for our sites we’ll only see everyone at once 3 or 4 times each year. I am on the PC Party Planning Committee, so I hope to at least coordinate frequent get-togethers in the southern region though…

As for this week, our technical practicums began, which means that the health volunteers are teaching lessons to the kindergarten kids, and next week we’ll do one with the 8th grade, as well as a community group (for us in Gjёrgjan we will be having a session about reproductive health with girls 16-22). I joined the language class in Gjёrgjan yesterday and afterwards we watched the first group teach a dental health lesson, which didn’t necessarily fail but also didn’t occur as planned. I guess there will always be some unforeseeable barrier in our jobs, but we simply cannot know until we try. In the afternoon we hitched a lift in the PC car to Elbasan, where I spent two hours at the post office trying to pick up my packages—successful in the end, however tired—and then did some internet research for our sexual health and anti-tobacco classes next week. I got home pretty late and busied myself with language homework until dinner was served—peppers stuffed with rice—at 9:30. Every day I am growing one step closer to requesting to eat earlier, even if I do have to eat alone, because I hate to wait so long between lunch (at 1 or 2) and dinner (usually between 9:30- 10:30), and also eating so close to sleeping. Maybe tonight.

For now, we’re making posters to advertise our Art Fest that we will be having later this month. Then I’m off for Shtёrmen, to watch another group’s health presentation…! Mirupafshim!