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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!

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