Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Photo courtesy of AFP and Aljazeera

Last week was an interesting one as I had my first experience with flooding and its effects on Albanian infrastructure. On Friday, I planned on making the 4 hour trip to Lezhë for the weekend. A friend of mine was visiting from Budapest and we planned on meeting in Lezhë and hanging out with the volunteers there for a bit, then going to Peshkopi before he needed to head back.

Over the course of the last week, a combination of severe rain and dams in Montenegro and Macedonia letting out water due to said rains flooded portions of coastal Albania. These rains also caused landslides and additional flooding in other parts of the country due to lack of drainage infrastructure. I didn't really know how bad it was outside of the most affected areas (Shkodër and Fushë Kruja) until I made my trip - I should note now that my town and region are relatively mountainous and were not affected by flooding and experienced only minimal effects from the rains. I left at 8 in the morning via the scheduled morning bus to Tiranë. The trip was fine, though I noticed a higher-than-normal level of water in the rivers. As soon as the bus arrived in Burrel (halfway between Tiranë and Peshkopi), I started to notice that the rains had been taking some effect. Water was pouring down the hill that climbs into town, bringing pebbles, trash, and other debris along with it. As drainage ditches were either overflowing or non-existent, most of this came down the road. In Burrel, the storm drains were completely full, to the point that water was gushing out of them. Many roads were covered with water - some even covering the sidewalks - but traffic was not really slowed by this. The first real delay in the trip was just outside Burrel, where drainage from a nearby hill concentrated itself and covered the road, bringing with it rocks, mud, trash, and so forth. There were a few cars that had gotten themselves stuck in this, blocking the road. Somehow, the initial culprits were able to make an escape, and traffic flowed for a short period. Right before the bus was to make its attempt, however, two more cars got stuck and therefore so did we for the time being. One, and after a while two, local tractors were hired to clear the road, and after some time of watching them move loads of debris, we were free to go once again.

The remaining part of the trip, from this east-west road until the north-south road to Kukës and Kosovë was uneventful until about 200-300 yards before the entrance to the road. I was excited to get to this road, because i knew that once there, I only had about another 15 minutes on the bus before my turnoff for Lezhë. My spirits plummeted, however, once reaching this crucial 200-300 yards, when I saw that it was completely flooded.

A nearby river sits significantly lower than this portion, so much so that one wouldn't really consider having to worry about it becoming flooded (a partially build house right in the middle of it all is a testament to this theory).

There were three furgons in front of the bus and two decided to go for it - in my head I was strongly encouraging the third driver to go as well because the bus probably would have followed them. As the vans got about 1/3 of the way through their fording, the leader of the two partially drove off of the road, his vehicle slowly tilting to maybe a 45 degree angle and becoming like an iceberg, with an unrepresentative portion remaining above the floodwater. Luckily, it wasn't completely engulfed and the passengers were able to escape the driver's window with the help of an excavator sent for the stranded. The second van did not suffer the same fate, and instead merely got stuck and died since it could not proceed.

There were probably 50-60 people stranded on my side, including the bus and other furgons on their way to Tiranë and other destinations. Luckily for us, the floodwater had not cut us off completely, and we were able to circumnavigate it by foot through a nearby patch of waterlogged land. Luckily for me, I only had a relatively light backpack, and i was able to cross several ditches and pockmarked stretches while staying dry. I felt bad for all the passengers with heavy bags and/or high-heels, who suffered a different fate. While we worked our way around the water, we passed people who were heading east, but were also stranded at the turnoff. Once reaching the highway (raised well above the water), I competed with the other 50-60 individuals vying for a seat in a furgon (many of these vans were the ones who initially were heading east, but were unable to do so). I ended up catching a ride to my desired turnoff as it was getting dark and had started to rain more heavily. This ride was short and I still had some daylight left with which to get another ride to my destination 12km away.

When I got to the turnoff, I saw a driver who had previously refused me a ride, even though I was going the same direction and it appeared as if he had space. I had walked past his van and said something like "I'm only going to Milot (the turnoff for Lezhë). can you take me there?" and he said "Shkodër, Shkodër" while leaving me behind. Going with him on the way to Shkodër would have been even better because it would have taken me directly to my destination. Either way, I ended up at my desired turnoff only to see this driver stopped, calling another driver to take his passengers to Shkodër, and leaving them there. I ended up catching a ride shortly thereafter. The trip ended up taking nine hours instead of four, but I arrived relatively dry - though incredibly hungry - and safe.

The floodwater has since gone down and the roads are fine for travel. There is extensive damage due to the flooding and many families were evacuated from their homes. All volunteers are safe, and in my opinion, Peace Corps did a good job of keeping us informed.

Now, instead of rain, I am expecting snow, or at least drastically colder temperatures. The "winter" here in my mountain town has consisted of a oddly cold October, followed by a warm, sunny November, and a cloudy, yet warm (weather in the 60s) December. This is soon to change, as Friday is supposed to be in the mid-30s (Friday night dropping to the teens). For me, this means that my house will be several degrees colder than outside temperatures and I best have all the wood necessary - next to my stove and ready to go.

When I returned to Peshkopi, the approximately 170km trip took the usual 4-5 hours.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fishing Peshkopi Style, Washing Clothes by Hand, and More...

A couple things have gone down in the last couple of weeks that are definitely worth sharing. First of all, I did laundry by hand for the first time last week - I don't think it would've been so bad if I didn't do almost all my clothes at once and hadn't done a full upper-body workout at the gym that day. My arms were so beat that for the next day and three after that, I couldn't extend my arms completely they were so sore! I was very excited to wake up last Friday to find that I could lock my elbows. I did another load of laundry yesterday and am happy to report that I could move fine today. We'll see how this goes when it's cold enough in the house that the water freezes before I can finish washing all the clothes...

Last weekend we did our first expedition to the nearby Drini river - that seems to flow in every direction at some point in its course - and experienced a new way of fishing that I only imagined hillbillies doing. Fishing Peshkopi style is not really much different from other types of fishing, except that it does not involve a fishing pole or a net, and instead uses rocks... and dynamite. We first witnessed this up-river when we heard a large explosion and looked up just in time to see water shooting up well over our heads. What followed was a crowd of men and boys combing the water downstream from the blast for anything floating belly-up. As we were discussing this new event, we heard a second and third explosion, both from the other side of the river.

The strategy for fishing with dynamite has relatively few steps:

Step 1: Gather rocks and throw them in the water in order to scare possible fish upstream.

Step 2: Light dynamite and throw it in the water.

Step 3: Search for floating fish after detonation.

Step 4: Repeat and work your way down the river past where other people are relaxing.

Steps 1-4 continued all afternoon and I guess were successful as we saw one group with at least one fish.

Back in Librazhd, I was told by a volunteer that while the summer heat isn't extraordinary, it is overwhelming because there is not way to get out of it. This information is starting to become apparent, even here up in the mountains. Apparently the summers in Peshkopy are warm to hot, with temperatures typically in the 80s. This week, however, it is supposed to stay in the mid-90s and possibly reach the 100-degree mark. There are certain place to take refuge from the heat, like the municipality and houses that don't receive much direct sunlight, but I feel that I should be preparing to live in an oven for the next few months. My apartment is not helping much because it deals poorly with temperatures - in the summer it is incredibly hot and doesn't cool down much at night, and in the winter the refrigerator keeps food from freezing.

There has been a recent discovery, however, that should make the summer more bearable at my place. On Sunday, I awoke to find that a visiting volunteer had chosen to sleep on the floor instead of the futon 6 inches away from them. They kept repeating how amazing and comfortable the floor was - we kind of laughed at the time, but now I think they were right. The other day, I got home from work feeling a little under the weather from something I ate only to discover that there was little temperature change between outdoors and the inside of my apartment. I tried to take a nap on my bed but just couldn't do it, and decided to give the tile floor a shot - what a great decision that was! The floor was cool enough to relax and not feel overheated. The only downside is that you get whatever is on the floor all over you when lying down - this can be fixed though regular cleaning so I'm not too worried. So when it gets ridiculously ot here soon, I feel that I will be taking refuge quite often on the tiled floor of my oven-like apartment.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's up second post?

It's definitely been a long time since I have last written. I had grand ideas of keeping a journal and constantly blogging, writing emails, etc... I need to be realistic, or adjust my routine. Since my last post, I have (in no particular order) visited and permanently arrived in Peshkopi, explored the capital, gone camping with fellow trainees, and seen more of Librazhd.

I'll begin with my site visit to Peshkopi. Overall, the visit went really well and I am excited to get up there and start my time as a volunteer. The site visits for all trainees began with a two-day conference in Durrës, in which each trainee met their counterpart, which is someone who works in the organization each trainee is assigned to at site. The objectives for counterparts are to help volunteers integrate into their sites and work together with trainees on various projects. At this time, I met my counterpart, Ejona, who is a recently-graduated civil engineer working in the economic development and urban planning departments of the municipality. She is all of eight or nine months older than me and we seem to have similar ambitions regarding making a positive change in the community. We spent the two days at the conference getting to know each other, while also attending several presentations. Several future sites, like Peshkopi, are fairly far away from Durrës and volunteers going to these sites were given an extra night to stay in order to leave early the following morning. This free time was well-spent. Many of us took part in hours of beach volleyball and an excursion into the city. It was nice to take a break from the constant scheduling of training.

The next day, trainees left for their respective sites. I was a little apprehensive about the journey to come due to all the stories I had heard regarding the road from Tirana to Peshkopi - this was further solidified when the counterpart of another trainee going to Bulqize, a town on the way to Peshkopi, did not eat breakfast before leaving, even though the trip to Bulqize was a good four hours. My counterpart also did not eat much, but I was hungry. I decided that I would be better off facing the possible consequences rather than my stomach eating itself. The drive to Peshkopi was very beautiful when we turned off the main North-South highway and headed East. There were plenty of rivers and lakes along with hills and mountains. For all the talk to the road being bad, I was fairly disappointed. I was expecting some sketchy road, full of potholes, in which it would be a squeeze to have two cars pass each other. In reality, it was paved almost all the way and in great condition. It was pretty windy, however, so I can see why some people have a difficult time on it. It was nothing out of the ordinary though.

We arrived in Peshkopi in the afternoon, met up with Becca - who is a 2nd year COD volunteer soon to leave Peshkopi - and dropped off our bags. John, the health volunteer and I were to stay at Becca's, which is to be my future home. We then grabbed a bite and explored the town. Peshkopi proper is set up a bit differently than Librazhd in that the main area isn't located on only one street. Peshkopi downtown is more of a grid with the boulevard being its most distinctive feature. Part of the main street is for foot traffic only, and is lined with cafes, restaurants, and other businesses. This area is also lined with large trees that keep it cool in the summer. The next day, each of us met up with our respective counterparts and went to work. I was in the municipality for the day with Ejona and was able to meet with many of the department heads as well as the mayor of the town. It was a very good experience and it seems like many of the people are looking forward to working with me. The mayor was talking about the option of me working in the finance department, but we will see how that goes as my counterpart is in two of the other departments. In a perfect world, I would be able to work within each department and improve communication and collaboration between them.

Jump forward two weeks. Pre service training (PST) finished. Etc. Etc. Hopefully the following will explain most of everything…

Today was day three of my second week of work at the municipality. Most people said that the first few months are slow – I thought it may be different for me, because I was immediately involved in an application for a European Union grant when I arrived – things slowed down a bit since arriving, however. Most people at the municipality seem like they have a lot of work. Since I am new, I don’t feel like my coworkers know what to do with me yet.

I am trying to make progress on this grant application, but it seems very difficult to get everyone in the same place at the same time. The grant itself is about cross-border communication and collaboration between Albania and Macedonia. In order to apply, eligible parties need a partner from the other country to work with. The deadline for application is July 19th and as of right now, the municipality does not have a partner yet. I was a bit negative on most aspects of the project until yesterday afternoon when some direction was finally established. The project is being driven by the mayor and deputy mayors – with my counterpart and me also involved – and most of them are so busy doing other things that they have little time to work and meet to answer questions. Yesterday, my counterpart and I met with a deputy mayor and established what we will be focusing on for the project – we hope to involve certain available natural resources as a means to drive tourism development in the area. Up until today really, if I wanted to be busy, I would need to create me own work.

I am also working on relationship building with my coworkers and my counterpart has been introducing me to many people around the municipality. I’ve been given an office too, which didn’t really matter last week because I had nothing to do in it. Today, however, I had work! All I needed to do was clear out the cobwebs (literally) and spider nests. The room is nice – I have a large desk right next to a window, that when opened lets in a nice breeze and plenty of light. The window also overlooks a backyard with a constantly gobbling turkey, so that’s nice…

Besides work – or the lack thereof – life after pre service training (PST) has been pretty amazing. The transition from a completely scheduled life with few freedoms to one in which I am in control of making has been very nice and liberating. My world here has been opened up and I am able to start writing the pages myself. With this new freedom I’ve been able to explore the country a bit more and meet many new people.

Hitchhiking is much easier here than in the US or Canada, and as of now, it is my favored means of transportation. Hitchhiking (autostop in Albanian) is a seemingly new concept here, and as a foreigner I have a distinct advantage. I have been told that Albanians are much more likely to pick up foreigners than other Albanians – which isn’t the best situation, but I have not seen an Albanian trying to flag down a car yet. I always hitch with at least one other person for the sake of safety, and also so one of us can make conversation if the other wants to sleep, tune out, etc. Hitching has helped with my conversational skills greatly I think, but it is very difficult to chat with people who have very different accents or speak a different dialect. The biggest benefit I believe is being able to meet so may different people. Besides being wealthy enough to own a vehicle, I have not noticed many similarities or patterns across people I have ridden with. The only hypothesis I can extrapolate from all this is that the people who have picked us up have had more exposure to foreigners and understand the concept of autostop more.
While I’m sure at one point I will not want to talk at all during a ride, I really enjoy shooting the breeze with Albanians, most of who are surprised I can speak the language (albeit limitedly). Three months ago I never would have believed I would have the comprehension I have now.

In most cases, hitching has been fine, but we still need to be careful. I believe that language is the key to remaining safe and out of trouble. Most people have been incredibly friendly and willing to travel with us, but a small few have sough to exploit us for stereotypical rich foreigners. For example, a ride was set up in which the original one-way price is 150 Lekë (about $1.50 USD). Once the driver realized he would be driving Americans, he raised the price to 1,000 Lekë per person. Another case: we were picked up by a guy who said he was traveling to visit his cousin in a nearby town. We asked if we could travel there with him and he said sure. We chatted with him the entire way and when we got out to say goodbye, he said that he was a driver and that we each had to pay him 10 Euro. While this situation was a hassle, it also helped because we had to explain to him that we weren’t going to pay him 20 Euro and why we weren’t – all in Albanian. We probably had a good 10-minute argument and ended up giving him 200 Lekë each for gas. We probably shouldn’t have paid anything, but he also probably wouldn’t have left in that case. The best part was that his battery died when he tried to drive away all disgruntled and we pushed his car so he could get a jump. Every situation has been an excellent learning experience.

Hitchhiking also helps to stretch our volunteer budget, but it usually takes longer and requires a more open schedule, not to mention patience. I also am at a disadvantage in that I am very far away from main corridor routes and must bank on someone visiting a larger city in order to get West. However, with proper time management, this hasn’t been much of an issue.

I have heard from some Albanians that the country gets a bad image in terms of tourism marketing. They say surrounding countries claim that Albania isn’t nice and that people should visit the other Balkan countries instead. Regardless of the truth of this statement, I believe this country is extremely underrated and has some of the most beautiful and varied landscape in such a small area that I have ever seen. Granted you need to be more patient and probably more adventurous here – as you will probably be creating your own itinerary – but the payoff is definitely worth it. For example, a few new and current volunteers visited a beach town called Dhermi after swearing in. That place has some of the most picturesque coastline I have ever seen. Heading from the North, we traveled up into a possibly national park with tall pine trees! It was the first forest more similar to some in the States that I had seen. We drove from sea level up a couple thousand feet to a pass, then crossed over to the coastal side of the mountains with a clear view of the sea as we descended all the way back to sea level. The drive reminded me a bit of the drive along Highway 1 through Big Sur in California. The sea, however, was much more blue, clear, and war. We camped right on the beach. We were also lucky enough to have clear skies and a full moon, which led to swimming at all hours. The water is so clear there that you can easily see your feet while swimming at night. I feel that I have already seen one of the most beautiful beaches and definitely plan on returning this summer for a more extended stay.

After a little more than a week in Peshkopi, little exploring outside of town has been done. As I mentioned before, Peshkopi is surrounded by beautiful mountains (some of which still have snow on them). John, one of my sitemates and fellow Washingtonian, and I plan on doing some hiking around ASAP. There are an almost infinite number of routes here and overnights are definitely being planned. I have yet to find out how to get to the national park from here, but it is a three-hour trek over some pretty rough road – nonetheless I plan on getting there this summer as well.

Other than scheming about new adventures, I am very excited about having control over my diet again and am eating well. Fresh local produce is readily available and delicious – I’m taking advantage of that for sure. A kilo of cherries here costs less than $1 USD. I didn’t gain as much weight during PST as I thought (only a kilo or two), so eating right again and exercising regularly should put me back where I want to be. There is a gym here, and though it is sketchily located behind a gas station and some sort of distribution warehouse, it is reasonably equipped. John and I have been going and will probably make it a regular thing – hopefully Dylan, our other sitemate, will get in on it and the Peshkopi crew will be fully represented there.

Regardless of how much work I have or what issues I am dealing with, each day I am growing more and more thankful that I made the decision to come here, not to mention how thankful I am for all of the support I received in making this decision. This is an incredible opportunity and I hope I can make the most out of it while I am here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life in the Land of Eagles

Alright, I have now been in site for about a month and I feel this has been sufficient time to answer the many questions you may have for me. My apologies for taking a while to get back in touch, but I feel that if this had been any sooner, I would have been saying "I don't know, I'll find out later..." So without further adieu, please enjoy my first blog post from Albania.

Before I go into my life here, there is one thing I feel must be discussed right away: the head motions for "no" and "yes" are, in fact, REVERSED here. My host mother shakes her head "no" the way I'm used to every time I speak with her - this is taking some time to get used to. Oh, and when you ask permission for something and they shake their head "no" that is "yes." There is also another head bob that's more like putting your ears toward your shoulders that also means "yes." There are also quite a few minor nods that mean either, but that's a story for later.

Who: There are 49 new trainees in Albania of all different ages - from 22 to about 55 years old. There are three married couples and the gender breakdown is about 17/18 males to 31/32 females. The most represented states are California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington in no particular order (I am the only one from the East Side of WA).


Where: For training, all volunteers are spread out in several sites around the 3rd largest city in Albania, Elbasan (3rd largest depending on who you talk to, but that's for another day). Sites are broken down by sector - health, English teachers, and community and organizational development (COD). My group of 6 is COD and is located in a town called Librazhd (seen in above picture), which has around 10,000 inhabitants and is located 26km east of Elbasan. Librazhd is by far the largest trainee site and has much more opportunities for trainees to spend their money. We are getting a bit of a town experience, while most other trainees are living in small villages and are learning things like how to milk cows, plant crops, and pluck chickens (I think this is pretty awesome and kind of wish I had that experience, while some of those living it say otherwise).

What: Right now is the training period of Peace Corps (PCT) and is a 10 week process. During this time we are all learning language (Shqip) and undergoing several days of sector-specific technical training a few days a week. For the last few weeks, we have spent most of the time in our sites going to school for language, and meeting up in Elbasan once or twice per week for sessions with the entire group. This week, however, marks the beginning of practicum for trainees, and COD trainees are going to Elbasan every day.

Technical training is very broad for COD, as we are tasked with quite a variety of projects. One reason I waited to start posting is because last Friday we all received our site announcements; we learned where we will be living for two years after training, where we will be working, and who we will be working with.

I am to be sent to a smaller town called Peshkopi(above) in north eastern Albania. For those of you who remember me saying something along the lines of "some places in Albania are isolated in the winter..." yep, that's me. When I asked my host dad how much it snows in Peshkopi, he answered in meters... Apparently, one of the volunteers currently serving there had his entire toilet freeze (including the tank) last winter. So I have that to look forward to. I'm not too worried though. I feel the pros greatly outweigh the cons to living there. For one, it apparently is veeerrrry beautiful there and has nice, clean, mountain air. The town sits at a little over 2,000 feet, which is somewhat high, as the highest town here is at a little over 3,000 feet. Another bonus is Peshkopi's proximity to Macedonia, at about 20km, I can see myself exploring there quite a bit. Funny enough, the two new trainees Peace Corps are sending to Peshkopi are both from Washington... coincidence? I'm very excited for this, because we both get along really well and will probably be doing a lot of adventuring there.

For my work in Peshkopi, I am assigned to the Bashkia, which is essentially the Municipality for the area. I don't know exactly what I will be doing there, but it will probably have something to do with business development in the area, organizational and management development, with a bit of English teaching mixed in every now and then. That won't be for another 5 or so weeks though. I will be an official volunteer on May 27th.

Back to life in Librazhd/Elbasan though. I absolutely love it here. The country is beautiful and the people are friendly. My host family talks to me every day and feed me tons of food. Librazhd is surrounded by mountains with a large range just to the east (see top picture), past which is Macedonia.

I have been hiking just about every weekend and have seen some pretty cool geography. Last weekend, one of the volunteers in Librazhd and I hiked to just a few hours from the top of this range, and plan on making the trip to the top sometime in the summer when there is less snow.

Oh yeah, the language... Albanian, or Shqip (Shkip) is a very different language from English, with plenty of new consonant blends to learn. For instance, I realized today that the word for everything (Gjithçka) has a consonant blend of "thtschk" in it. Luckily, it is a very phonetic language so if you know the alphabet you can pretty much pronounce anything...eventually. The hardest letters for me to distinguish between at this point are "L" and "Ll" - believe me, they can tell when you are saying the wrong one. I'm getting along alright though and feel I am learning an adequate amount. The more I work, the more I learn, and speaking with my family definitely helps.

Now that this post is up, I will be adding more frequently and will try not to bombard you with books every time. I am also working on video edits to post, so you can look forward to that as well. I hope all of you are doing well and I look forward to keeping in touch frequently (internet is not scarce around here).