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Sunday, May 17, 2009

OA Camp Erseke!

Our first official Outdoor Ambassadors camp took place in Erseke (slightly south of Korce and near the Macedonian and Greek borders) this last weekend! Such a blast!

I’m so proud to have gotten together with such wonderful kids from all around Shqiperia. Having so many interested and engaged Albanian children lifted my spirits and has given me more hope for Albania’s brighter future.

The camp consisted of several small PCV-lead OA groups that having been forming over the last year. Many of them were also English students, since it is easier to start a club of any theme if the kids can also learn and practice speaking English. We’re really hoping to get a solid group of kids formed in Gjirokastёr, and though we have tried several times it has not yet worked out. After school activities here consist almost solely of private courses— kids who want to learn anything or even pass class must pay private teachers and work with them after the regular school day ends.

So, needless to say, band, sports, journalism, hobbies, debate, etc. do not exist here, and quite frankly kids find extracurricular activities to impede on their free time (ie coffee-time). They do not take well.

But we’re really hoping to find a few kids with an interest in the environment, nature, and excursions, and maybe if we can lead weekly meetings throughout the summer we’ll be ready to bring some kids to the next Big Camp in August!

OK, so back to the camp: this place was built and is run by a missionary man and his family who moved from Chicago to Albania something like 15 years ago. The facilities are fabulous! Its not terrible large, but has enough space to comfortably fit the 50 + students we brought, and they are soon expanding the sleeping quarters. Outside the main facility exists an outdoor dining area surrounded by a volleyball court (which doubled as a Frisbee field for us), rock climbing walls, a ropes-course gym—complete with zip-lining!!--, and an enormous bonfire/trampoline pit.

Climbing Wall Fun!


The students were kept busy throughout the weekend with outdoor activities, games, sports, project planning sessions, trust- and team-building exercises, and a grand hike out of town (almost) to a waterfall.

"Team Building" They had to reorganize themselves in alphabetical order without falling off the bench, shume per te qeshir!

My favorite game: "Train Wreck", could also be called "Scrambled Eggs" I think.

To their great disappointment we didn't have time to make it all the way to the steep falls, but we got pretty darn close and had a great time hiking and jumping across the rivers. Albania really does have some breathtaking scenery; I recall being struck on the stroll back through the fields at dusk just how much like 'Old World Italy' it can appear here. You know when the light strikes just right and you get a fuzzy sense of just how postcard-esque the landscape is? Truly beautiful.

Ugh. Such a great time.

So, after the camp Meghan and I escorted her campers, a group of really great young djem [boys], back to the south through the windy, lush mountains via furgon. We were a little nervous for awhile because the buses went on pushim, and we absolutely had to get back that night in order for her to get her boys in school on Monday. Everything worked out in the end and we made the return trip safely and on time for them to catch another bus out to Sarande and then by taxi or furgon back to the village.

Peace Corps Volunteers/ Camp Leaders, what a team!

Akullore Season!

Conveniently, akullore [ice cream] season coincides with sandal season, and has sprung overnight! One of my favorite images here is when the street fills with young school children meandering home, bracing arm-in-arm, and clutching a drippy, white blob of ice cream goodness in the outer fist. That goes for people of all ages, from sprightly kindergartners to drugstore cowboys to hunchbacked gjyshias [grandmothers]. Soon the evening xhiro (public promenade, like in Spain) will begin and we’ll have loads of people strolling up and down the new town road; boys checking out girls, old men and women making small talk with lifelong friends, people munching on popcorn, newspaper cones filled with sunflowers seeds, and roasted corn on the cob…

Dukemi si Sardele!

[We appear like sardines!]

Several friends came to visit this week, including the much-anticipated arrival of Kate and David, another PCV couple who lived and worked here for 2 years before us. They rented the same apartment space in the Hashorva house where Chris and I live now, and spent their service plowing a route for Gjirokastёr’s tourism offices, where Chris is assigned. All things being Albania, we have been constantly compared to Kate and David, so it was oh-so interesting to finally meet the infamous couple. They are of course wonderful, fun to hang out with, and graciously cleared up all sorts of questions we had been bottling up. They were obviously very close with the Hashorva’s, so we spent some time all together and then various moments scattered throughout their busy schedule of coffees with old pals. Some PCV friends of theirs—a couple who recently finished service in Romania—also came to visit, so we got to show them around and learn about their service and future plans. Word to the wise: joining the PC after you retire can be a fantastic adventure!

Hashorva's + Kate and David + me

Over the weekend we hosted a plethora of volunteers in our shpie, some from Vlore, Elbasan, students in Tiranё, and even some more PCVs from Romania. There were 11 of us total so we folded out all the couches and spread cushions across the floor-- hence me title about sardines. I’m really excited for my friends from Elbasan, who are going on a COS trip to SE Asia. They’re going to follow pretty much the same route Chris and I took before coming here, so we told them about some highlights /unfortunate downers and showed pictures, just to give an idea. The group from Romania was on a tour of the region (pushim!); with them we bounced ideas back and forth about PC projects (they have an environment sector instead of a health sector, so it was cool to learn how they are approaching issues there).

Circle-dancing at the GCDO!

Besides being a little cramped, we had a great time. After everyone left I had one night to totally decompress before more chaos began. Traveling for a few nights followed by a whole week of visitors makes me kind of crazy, not because I don’t LOVE people and friends (I do! Hajdeni!), but I just need some quiet “me” time, which I can’t really get too much here. It seems that with so many projects, coffee-dates (face time is a MUST), friends to meet, classes to teach, etc., I am feeling stretched pretty thin. As Hajri said about Greg: he’s a towel being squeezed dry by everyone (Greg is a superstar volunteer, absolutely devoting 23 hours each day to the Albanian community) which is how I feel sometimes, too, when I get requests to Please translate this grant or Oh can you teach me English? But I at least take time to go running (kind of selfishly maybe, though now that Hajri and I run together I consider it health promotion) and I do pass on occasional bar-nights with the boys to stay in and read. Anyways, summer is on its way, and that means we can start going to the beach and camping with friends! But for now, we’re basking in the glory of bright, sun-shiny days, fields of blooming red poppies, cherry blossoms, and the general awakening of spirits…

Berti, Greg, Allan, and Chris at Bojkin's Birthday/ Housewarming Party

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Another one bites the dust!

Can you believe, almost a quarter century under my belt? I turned 24! Business leave took me to Elbasan where, unfortunately, Chris wasn’t able to come with, but that only resulted in getting two celebrations for the price of one! I stayed with my friend Maggie, who baked a delicious chocolate birthday cake and graciously hosted a crowd of volunteer friends for a dinner with us in her house. The reason I ended up in Elbasan was to teach an early morning environmental lesson with the new health PCVs, as well as a sexual health role play in the university, so I needed to arrive by Thursday night. I came in from Korçe, where I spent a whirlwind 24 hours meeting with various environmentally- focused groups and people to learn more about what they are doing and in hopes of expanding efforts in here Gjirokastёr. Korçe is a large city near the Greek and Macedonian border in the east, and it is hands-down the most progressive Albanian city in the country. They almost don’t even need volunteers because ‘they’ (especially the bashkia, or city government) work so well, and are known for being forward thinking. Highlights of the city’s numerous community and cultural events and activities are published in a monthly magazine, including the annual Beer Korçe Festival (Albania’s most popular beer factory), an annual byrek making contest (national food, on par with Greek spanikopita), sports, music, scholastics, environmental awareness, etc. Just the fact that they have a fantastic and functioning city website (in English too!) speaks for itself:

PCVs outfront Korce's big kisha

Well, I was able to meet with various people to talk about recycling programs, plastic bag taxes, waste management, environmental education campaigns, and development organizations, as well as see and learn about their current recycling efforts. They have some very admirable initiatives starting up (hooray! I can sleep easier), and because they are mostly all being undertaken by Albanians themselves I hope they will be successful and influence other cities. Some people stay in bed with a hot drink and read on their birthdays; I wade through waist-high piles of garbage and try to make peace with stray dogs.

Another major goal of the trip was to meet with (my PCV friend) Kysha’s women’s group, and to show them some ideas of handy-crafts they might be able to make and sell. This group of women gathers every afternoon to do crafts, projects, and basically share life and support one another, ta mam! Alissa (from Shkoder), our knitting aficionado, also presented to the group some cute models of her own hats/gloves/scarves and stitches that I think they will easily be able to pick up, and who knows, maybe create a cottage industry… [ Look for Fair Trade Shqiperia coming to a store near you ]

My contribution was two-fold: after showing a power point on plastic bags and their effects on the environment, we talked about how they can get a leg-up on the city’s soon-to-be BYOB campaign, by making reusable bags out of discarded t-shirts and selling them in the local dyqans. The women were all really receptive to the topic, and I’m hoping that they take on more projects involving community awareness and education if they continue to feel so passionately. From there, I switched to a demonstration on how to make artisan paper by hand, that they might use to sell as greeting cards, wedding invitations, or stationary, etc., which they were really impressed with. I’ve been making more batches of paper now that the weather is warmer, and am experimenting with incorporating flowers and will soon try out fruits and vegetables as pulp!

Alissa and I caught a late-afternoon furgon to Elbasan, arriving in time to spend the evening with Maggie and other friends in town, as well as the G12 PCVs (before they had to scurry off to their host-family villages). I really like the incoming group—so fresh and enthusiastic!-- and am so psyched that we get 6 more friends in the south! Specifically, we’ll have another young guy near our town, in the nearby fshat (village) called Asim Zanelli, just across the valley from us. He’ll be working with the local kommuna and helping with the development of their ancient archaeological park that the government wants to focus on, but will most likely spend a good chunk of time in town with us.

Due to convenience, we also had a GAD (Gender and Development) meeting, and began more concrete plans to organize a gender conference in the fall. Stay tuned!

Cobanet! Greek women with the community sheep!

I made the long trek back to Gjirokastёr late Saturday afternoon, and ran into my recently acquainted friend Matt (from Novacele, the smallest volunteer village I have seen yet), who was rounding out his southern tour. We crossed paths in Korçe days before, and, like many from the group who is leaving in May, he’s spending some time touring Shqiperia one last time and saying goodbye. Now that we’ve breached the “hill” I’m already feeling nostalgic for my life here. Only 1 year left… then what?
On Sunday Hajri and the guys organized a grand picnic! Half in celebration of my birthday and half because of the beautiful spring weather, we piled a bunch of friends and food into cars and drove out near the Greek border. They grilled chicken, fish, and mussels (from nearby Lake Butrinti) and after exploring the area, picking wildflowers, and several rounds of volleyball, we settled down on our blankets and feasted with a bounty of fresh Mediterranean vegetables, boiled eggs, fresh baked bread, and beer and/or sodas. I’m so glad my friend (and neighbor), Eni, was able to make it; for many weeks we keep promising to go out together but our plans always seem to get canceled.

Picnic toast: Gezuar!

The day could not have been more perfect, it was really amazing to savor life with good friends, fun, and food!