Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hitch-Hiking Eastern Europe

46 drivers, 7 countries, $70, and 5 couch surfing hosts. Those were the numbers from our hitch-hiking trip around South-Eastern Europe. **Scroll to the bottom to see a list of all the drivers (with all the stops we made) and hosts.**

“Hey Jenny, let’s hitch-hike through a bunch of countries”


And that was how our journey came to be. Summer time is a little boring in Albania. School is out, the weather is hot, and everybody leaves town to go to the beach. I spent my whole summer last year integrating into my community, and as a result this summer has been filled with weddings on weddings. I like Albanian weddings, but you know…a little moderation always does a person good. It was time for me to leave Albania. The only issues:

1) Super broke from losing my things in a river and then getting $100stolen from me at a gym in Tirana.  2) Oh wait yeah…that was the only issue.
So I didn’t have much money to spend which meant I was going to need to hitch-hike and couch surf/camp out. This trip didn’t need to be about luxury anyway, it was more of a search for adventure, new experiences, and well…getting out of Albania for a while.
I have to say that I felt it was necessary for me to do this kind of trip now while I’m young and a volunteer because I don’t know how likely or appropriate it will be for me to do this later in my life.  Even if hitch-hiking adventures somehow do find me in my future, well why not now anyway?

I keep on saying “I” but it is important that I mention that this journey was not just me; I had companions. For the first half of the trip I had Jenny alongside, and for the 2nd half I had both Jenny and Ian. Having them along the way definitely made the trip feel safer and added an element of comfort to the excursion.
To get into the very details of this journey, you’d probably have to sit me down and swap some stories, but to keep this blog interesting, I suppose I’ll share some highlights. For example, we were picked up by a driver who was paralyzed from the waist down. We also got picked up by a cop, a man who was driving home to get married, a dude whose house was just struck by lightning, the president of the Bulgarian Ski Federation, and quite a few other special characters. Our drivers ranged from early 20s to possibly 80s and while most of them were men, we did have a few couples pick us up and even one awesome Bulgarian woman.

Driving through countries with locals is an experience in itself. They often told us of historical moments that conflicted with the stories of other drivers’ recounts of history i.e. “Alexander the Great was obviously Greek” “Alexander the Great was clearly Macedonian”. We had very talented drivers who could manipulate a semi truck like it was tiny sports car to horrible drivers who couldn’t even handle a brand new Mercedes. The views were magnificent and it was cool to see the local drivers’ reactions to our awe of their land. We scored free coffees, snickers, snacks, and even meals along with our rides and the entire time I couldn’t help but think “How are these people so generous and trusting of strangers?!” Even when we arrived to the border of Romania and Serbia we were pleasantly surprised by a smiling border patrolman who asked us if we needed help. When we responded yes, and that we were looking for a car to take us across the border, he replied “I know. I assumed that and already found you one!” It was kind of an amazing feeling, especially because we thought crossing into Serbia would be the most difficult seeing as we have so many Kosovo stamps on our passports. Perhaps it’s the cultural difference between Americans and Europeans or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that I want to be like that. I want to show kindness to others just to show them that it exists.

I took note of every drivers name and tried to jot down something interesting about them (if they spoke enough English for me to learn something about them). We also took a photo with every driver that picked us up. It was a great thing because every person who picked us up seemed really flattered that we would want a photo with them. There were only a few exceptions of people we didn’t even ask to take photos with because they were either in a rush or a little bit weird/creepy.

Our hosts were to thank just as much as our drivers. They not only gave us a place to stay, but went the extra mile to feed us, take us to parties, teach us to salsa dance, show us the sites, and really get to know us as friends. Along with our hosts, we met some other pretty special people. One man that we met at a gas station café invited us to his home to meet his wife and children. They made us a home-cooked Bosnian meal and gave us some homemade jam. More importantly they shared some real time with us and really gave us some insight to what living in Bosnia as a Muslim was like. Another man pulled us off the road in Serbia to give us some watermelon. He then introduced us to his friends who took us onto their boat on the Danube River and fed us a wild mushroom risotto. They also gave us plants to take home and a kind of wood you can put in your tea or raki. They shared with us stories of Serbian hardship and still treated us with incredible hospitality even though we were American living in Albania.  One truck driver had a truck full of gadgets, such as a lap top with internet, an on-road camera, and speaker system. He also has drawings made by his son and a lot of photos of his family. He, along with many other truck drivers made us realize that for a truck driver, the truck becomes a 2nd home. He told us that he had to be kind to us because, we were guests in his home. 

The other experience that stands out in my mind was of meeting Jenny’s ‘cousin’ in Bosnia. She showed us around and explained in great detail the history of Bosnia and its hardships. It made me feel so much more connected with the country. It made me wish I knew more about Albania’s history.
Oh yeah, and one night we also slept in a public park because it was too late to try and find a host and the hostels were all too expensive. Hah.

I wish I could share more, but I worry about posts getting to be too long. I’d like to end this post with my thoughts on the journey overall. It was the trip of a lifetime. I got to meet people I never would have. I trusted in myself, my drivers, my hosts, and in everything turning out okay. Jenny was an incredible travel buddy from beginning to end and Ian added a whole other dimension to the trip. Most importantly, and I can’t say this enough: There are kind people out there. Kind, courageous, and spontaneous people who are willing to help out a stranger just to be nice or to make their day more interesting. I am so thankful and grateful for every single character that played a part on this journey. Every country was beautiful, interesting, and unique. 

Here is a list of all the drivers (and the places they took us) and hosts who helped us on our journey with some interesting fun facts that I jotted down along the way!

1) Bilisht - Thessaloniki (Erion: Jewish Albanian!)
2) Thessaloniki outskirts to center (Jonis)
3) Thessaloniki to Serres (Dimitris: horse back rider)
4) Serres to Bulgaria border (Olina and Gena) and (Numi--we couldn't pronounce his name so we called him this)
5) Bulgaria border towards Sofia- (Miroslav)
**Host: Shenol 2 nights**
6) Sofia to Plovdiv- (Amiana: The only single woman to pick us up!)
7) Plovdiv to Istanbul exit- (Diakus)
8) Istanbul exit to Stara Zagora (Marian)
9) Stara Zagora to Bourgas (Valentin: president of BG ski federation, former politician, had a Beatles playlist)
10) Burgas to Veliko Tarnovo (Ivano: "Catastrophe and da" were his favorite words)
11) Veliko Tărnovo to Bucharest (Andre)
12) Host and driver to Bucharest, Vama Veche, Vadu, Mamaya
Bucharest: (Filip)
13) Bucharest to Pitesti (Tibi: A Romanian policeman)
14) Pitesti to Craiova (Andres/Andi: Dual citizen, okay with gay people because he thinks it's a medical problem)
15) Craiova-Filliasi (Adi)
16) Filliasi to Drobeta Turnu Severin (Nikolai: Drove a pick up truck)
**The Serbian border cross police helped us to find our next car**
17) Severin to Serbia border(Draga)
18) Border to Tekija (Misha)
**Enjoyed Watermelon, berries and a nice convo with Bojana Serjan, Steven, and Bratislav (made a cook book) who live on a boat in Tekija**
19) Tekija to Belgrade (Predrag: paralyzed from waste down from falling off rocks when he was 25)
**Host: Daniel (beekeeper and massage therapist)**
20) Belgrade to outside city (Miki)
21) Outside city to Dobanovci (Dushk)
22) Dobanovci to Ruma (Zdravko)
23) Ruma to Nova Gradiska (Tomo: Was getting married in 3 days)
24) Nova Gradiska to Okucani (Mario: Works for Mazda, and his house was hit by lightening the day before)
25) Okucani to Banja Luka (Gorad: Owns chicken farms, daughter is on scholarship for swimming in England)
**Host: Marko**
26) Banja Luka to Jajce (Vlado)
27) Jajce to Bugojno (Oslo: Invited us to have lunch in his home with his family. Lived in US and has parked Oprah Winfrey's car!)
28) Bugojno To Novi Tranik (Emir and Šulo)
29) Novi Tranik to Vitez (Jaravo)
30) Vitez to Sarajevo (Avdo)
31) Sarajevo to Pazaric (Sakib)
32) Pazaric to Tarcin (Odakle)
33) Tarcin to Mostar (Azer) --Ian got a bee sting in this vehicle!
34) Mostar to Buna (Ivica)
35) Buna to Dubrovnik (Eddie: Bosnian living in Germany-- drives a nice Mercedes)
36) To Dubrovnik center (Bosco: had a dog named Osho in car)
37) Dubrovnik to Cilipi (Dario: has friend in Mountain View, California!)
38) Cilipi to Budva (Suzannah and Roman: A couple from from Slovakia and Bordeux)
39) Kotor to close to Budva (Philip: from Crimea)
40) Close to Budva To Budva (Lena and Sasha: from Moscow)
41) Budva to Bar (Mile: Very old guy who told us he had a water bottle full if vodka in his trunk)
42) Bar to Dobra Voda (Sead)
43) Dobra Voda to Ulcinj (Halil)
44) Ulcinj to Zogaj (Masi)
45) Zogaj to Supinë (Samen an Kamplen)
46) border to Shkoder(Çimi and Suela)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Unabridged Tale of How I Lost My iPhone, My Wallet, My Prescription Sunglasses, and Many Other Things

WARNING- This is a dramatic story

I needed a break. I had just finished the school year and spent the day at my host sister’s wedding, which was a day that lasted from 5am until 3am. I was tired. I was stressed.  I needed to get away from Milot for a while. I figured the best thing for me to do was to head down south to a place of anonymity, cool rivers, sunshine, and best friends. My itinerary: Permeti and then Gjirokastra.
My trip to Permet was anxiety filled and difficult – a whole other story in itself, but I can’t tell you it because it is nothing compared to what happened to me in Gjirokaster. Permet itself, and time with Amber, however, was phenomenal!

Ok so without further ado, here it is:
I arrived in Gjiorkaster chipper as ever. I had just had a nice time in Permet with Amber and I was excited to spend time with my #1 fan, Tyler. Tyler met me at the bus station and greeted me with a warm hug and the suggestion to go tubing. The sun was shining bright, I had a bathing suit, and the idea seemed just about perfect. We made the plan to pick up tubes, grab some fruit, hitch-hike to the river, float down it and then eat lunch at a beautiful restaurant surrounded by nature, waterfalls, and super fresh honey. We also decided we would buy fresh fish for dinner there and some honey, and bring it back to cook at Tyler’s friend’s restaurant.

Everything seemed wonderful and in order and as we hopped into the river on our tubes; we smiled and felt glorious. We took many pictures with my iphone of us enjoying the river, waterfalls, and serenity of the river and talked about how we hoped it would be a couple hours of floating before we had to get off our tubes to get to the restaurant. I should mention at this point that I had packed my iphone, wallet (complete with driver’s license, Peace Corps ID, 2000lek, American and Albanian bank cards, and photo of me and 2 Japanese girls), Tyler’s house keys and shirt into a big red bag for the trip because Tyler and I were both under the impression that the river was calm and we had no reason to worry about losing our things. My iphone was in a waterproof case and two zip lock bags as well so I truly thought there wouldn't be any issues. Anyway, we floated, snacked on fruit, chatted and were in the middle of a game when suddenly we heard the sound of rushing water. The sound was quickly met by the image of large rocks and rapids. And much like the titanic and the iceberg, we knew nature was going to win this one. We were unprepared.

“You have to go feet first!” was all I remember Tyler saying to me as our tubes crashed into the rapids. Unfortunately, we had bound our tubes together by rope and so the angle made it hard for me to turn to face the rapids feet first. I hit the first rock while facing sideways and immediately fell off the tube and into the rapids. It was at this point that the bag with all of our things fell into the river. I was wedged in between a big rock and a current and finally was able to get my feet in front of me. However, due to the strength of the current, my bikini bottoms had most definitely fallen to my ankles. For some reason, my first concern was not that I was in a dangerous situation or that I had just lost all of our things, but instead that Tyler not look at me with my bottoms down. He stood in the rapid against a rock, both tubes in hand and eyes closed trying to get me back on the tube and out of the rapid, but I struggled. A minute later, backside scraping against the rocks, I moved along the current and out of the rapid back onto my tube. I felt relief for a second, but then realized we had to go find our things. I was silly to think that the one rapid was all the river had in store for us.

Along our journey/mission to retrieve our things, we encountered another small rapid where I again fell off my tube and this time lost my prescription sunglasses.  We found the red bag, but the plastic bag with our fruit and the other will all of our valuables were gone. The only things left in the bag were Emily Thorn’s sunglasses. Tyler climbed out to shore and went back a ways to see if he could spot a sign of anything, but there was no luck. We decided to continue down the river to see if maybe the bag had floated further down.
It was a big mistake. We immediately hit a giant rapid that led to a current into a huge fallen tree. Unable to fight the current, I hit the tree first and fell backwards into the river. Tyler hit right after and fell off as well, but was able to use the tree as a block against the current. I, however, went under the tree only to find a bunch of pointy branches right at my face. I dove under the branches and into a current which kept me under water for a while. Tyler thought I had been dragged down and panicked to find me. I eventually popped up and caught a branch and waited for Tyler to find me. When he finally discovered where I had wandered off to, he pointed out that our tubes were stuck on the tree. I held onto my branch as he climbed a tree on the side and swung himself into the spot where we lost the tubes. He had to be precise as there were rocks and branches all around him. I was so nervous about his endeavors that I didn't notice the fact that my arms were covered in dozens of maggots. Unable to wash my arms off—as  I was holding onto a branch for dear life, I ignored the maggots and waited until Tyler floated by with the tubes. We continued to float on until…

Again rapids. Mother effing rapids. I decided that we couldn't handle another trial through the rapids, and so we found a place to climb out on the side. The only land we could get to was filled with very tall grass; the perfect home for a snake or two. Because the grass was so tall, it was difficult to know what we were stepping on, and a lot of spots led to deep river puddles. I formed a method of pushing the grass aside and tapping my foot around to find rocks, and guided us into the clear that way. Once on dry, visible land, I immediately heard Tyler say “ow!” followed by a slapping sound. I wondered what had happened, but then suddenly felt a burning feeling myself on my leg. We were being attacked by horseflies. Many horseflies. I now understood why there were so many maggots on my arms before. We quickly jumped back into the river and finally found a way out. We called it quits on trying to find our things, and just turned our attention onto figuring out how to get home. After all, we didn't have any money to eat at the restaurant or buy fish. We were soaking wet with two giant tubes, and Tyler was shirtless so our chances of getting picked up by hitch hiking were slim. We didn't have any phones and Tyler no longer had keys to his house.

Luckily, we found some policemen who waved down a furgon to take us back to Gjirokaster for free. Tyler ripped three holes into the red bag and made himself a shirt. We decided to buy fish in town to try and recover the “awesome day” we planned on having. Unfortunately that ended in Tyler swallowing a bone that impaled his throat and me having to pull it out with tweezers and a flashlight. The whole day was an adventure and a mess. I've spent the last couple of days trying to get my life back in order, which has been tough on its own. On top of all other things, I have a very busy schedule, and my amazing school director was just fired due to political reasons. Despite everything, at the end of the day, I’m just glad that Tyler and I are okay. Things can always be replaced, and while it sucks to feel money-less and phone-less for a while, the important thing is that we’re here to tell the story and can do it with some laughs. I am so grateful to have supportive friends and family, and a good attitude. I may have lost a valuable item or two, but my friendships, stories, and optimism are intact and here for forever. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Peace Corps Age and Roles

I hear it all the time from RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) that after your service is over, it almost feels like a piece of your life that never happened; it becomes some sort of crazy dream that only you experienced.

In just one week I can feel like I was born in several different decades.  I go from feeling like a grandma while giving life advice to my students, colleagues, and new , to feeling like a high schooler while gossiping with other volunteers and Facebook stalking out of boredom. I jump from eloquently speaking in public and giving presentations as a seemingly 35 year old business professional at trainings and workshops, to barely getting out sentences in shqip like a 5 year old. I’ll party like a college kid, and the next day sit down and have a coffee with 60 year old men while discussing political issues. I run around and play Frisbee with children like a middle school child and then close out a grant and complete a project as if I were a 50 year old CEO (yeahhhhh like a boss!). I get worldly experience by speaking with various locals about different ways of life and culture than my own, and then go straight to watching hours of Disney movies at my apartment without leaving for a whole day. I travel with the independence of a 40 year old, the irresponsibility of a 16 year old, the financial stability of an 8 year old, the appearance of a 20 year old, and the apathy of an 80 year old. I am constantly moving around and am engaging in all sorts of different levels of responsibility and maturity. It is easy for me to forget how old I am –except for the fact that Albanians constantly remind me that I am “marriage age.”

I think the Peace Corps can be for volunteers who are any age because in a way, it covers all of the ages you can be—even if only for brief moments. It is these constant changes in roles and “age” that cause the Peace Corps experience to not seem like a reality. There is so much that happens in 2 years. Sometimes, there is just so much that happens in one day. It makes me feel like Peace Corps, in that sense, is more of reality and more ‘living life’ than ever. It’s living a lot of styles of life. Before Peace Corps I was a student athlete. I spent my time studying, training/doing gymnastics, and yes occasionally partying—as student athletes do. I began looking at my future, and yet held onto all the comforts of a child (i.e. my parents paid my cell phone bill etc.). I had a pretty set schedule and knew exactly what my responsibilities were.
Other volunteers came from stable jobs, some from retirement, and others from tragic life events. There are a lot of reasons to join the Peace Corps and there are a lot of different backgrounds that people come from. While the phrase “every Peace Corps experience is different” is extremely true and follows suit with this range in backgrounds, I personally feel that every PCV feels that they experience these changes in roles. Nobody’s life is the same here in country as it was in the states or wherever they were before Peace Corps. We are thrown in many different positions and at the very least, no matter what age you are in Peace Corps you go through Pre-Service Training feeling like an infant and wind up at site as an adult out in the world on your own in a foreign country.

Peace Corps has me all over the map figuratively and literally. I’m always learning some sort of life lesson here, and I really enjoy getting to know other volunteers’ background stories. As the new group of volunteers settles in and the last of the older group leaves, I find myself very much at the heart of my service. I can reflect on an eventful and adventurous year, and look forward/wonder to what the rest of my service has to offer me.

I’m waiting until my next post to share with you all the details of the sports court project that I’m currently working on. It’s really exciting! Also, I apologize for the lack of keeping up with this blog. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Back on my feet – Literally

As some of you know, I had been pretty down for the last month. The month of April was rough. I let my apartment become a disaster, my ankle was hurt so I stopped exercising, I hated going to work every day because of the adjustment to my new counterpart, and my SPA grant that I worked so hard on did not get approved this time around.  Even an amazing quick trip to Turkey and a couple fun nights with volunteers couldn’t snap me out of my slump here. I really just let myself be a sad panda for a month.


After downloading 50 new songs and throwing myself a 3 hour long dance party last night, I got up early today to do morning yoga, taught 6 classes, ran a little over 5 miles, and did 3 rounds of a strength circuit. I’ve also been writing Albanian poetry, and I turned in another grant application. I have a very busy month coming up, but I’m ready for it now. I also have a fitness training plan to get this neglected body ready for bikini season (Uhh or at least back into my pants again).

It was really difficult to be sad for a whole month. I didn’t cry at all, but I often sat alone in my house with just me, my thoughts, and whatever pot of food I was eating. My neighbor literally told me that she thought I died in my house. However, in a sense, I needed that. Just like my ankle, I needed time to heal. ß Haha I can’t type that too seriously, but you know what I mean.

I had a couple days in the month where 1 good thing would happen and I would concentrate so hard on that 1 thing that I would think the slump was over, but then it would just reset to “shitty day” the next morning. However, that month is over and now it is BIRTHDAY MONTH! I know things are changing for the better because I cleaned my house. That sounds weird, but the cleanliness of my house is directly linked to how I’m feeling. Some of you might think… “Well, then keep your house clean, you lazy mofo.” It’s not that easy for me. I have to be feeling good and motivated to clean. Well, I mopped and scrubbed the shiz out of this place. And I feel great! I’m also excited to be up and running again and to be more involved with work again. I’ve also sprung back into being the little social butterfly around Milot that I’ve always been. I have a lot of cool things to look forward to this month including: School excursion to Kosovo, finding out if my grant gets approved, presenting at the counterpart conference (with my old counterpart), welcoming the new volunteers to their sites that are by me, 1st Ultimate Frisbee competition, and my birthday!

Although I spoke with some wonderful friends who really showed me their support through this time, and I’m so grateful for them, I have to say the choice to perk myself back up was mine alone. I feel good about myself and more independent now. Peace Corps has truly given me the opportunity to learn more about who I am. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fears, struggles, and coping mechanisms

As a gymnast I suppose you could say that I spent a lot of my life facing fears. Flipping on 4 inch surfaces, performing in front of judges… in a leotard of all things, coming back after injuries etc. Gymnastics is a sport for the fearless. However, Peace Corps is a totally different experience when it comes to fear. I suppose this is because in gymnastics, if you get too scared, you can choose not do whatever it is you’re scared of. You can pick your skills that eventually go into your routines. However, in PC life, situations are kind of thrown at you and then it’s either sink or swim. Here are some fears/struggles and coping mechanisms I’ve been working with lately:

1)      Fear: Loneliness and the rest of the world moving on without you.
This particular fear is my number one only because sometimes I feel pretty damn isolated. I find myself constantly talking about people back home, so much so that I feel like my community knows who all my family and best friends are. They always ask me when people are going to come and visit me and it’s difficult to explain that it’s not super easy or inexpensive for Americans to just hop on a plane and come and see me. As I talk about everyone back home, I just can’t help but feel like I’ve probably been somewhat forgotten. I speak of times that have passed and every time I look at my Facebook Newsfeed I see so many pictures of what is going on back home without me. As much as I try to keep in touch with people, there is nothing like the presence of being next to someone in real life. I fear that sometimes I’ll get back and have nothing in common with anyone anymore. I know these fears are extreme, but they’re honest and I suppose that’s part of fear anyway, having negative feelings toward a result that will likely never occur.

Coping Mechanism: I spend a lot of time giving myself pats on the back for learning to be alone. At the same time, I do my best to fill my life with optimism and hope. And what I’ve really been working on is allowing myself to just be. If that makes sense… There are a lot of things I can’t control in this world, but my own brain (luckily) is one of the things I can control. Do I want to spend my entire Peace Corps career being butthurt that people in America don’t miss me as much as I want them to? Absolutely not. I want to enjoy this time so that when I get home I can share my new additional life experiences with the people I love. It’s a good life lesson because if you’re lucky, you won’t always be living in the same place as you grew up in. You’ll get out there and meet some new people and experience some new cultures—even if it’s just one city over. You won’t always be surrounded by the same people, and therefore, your communication with your social circle will change. Learning to deal with that can be difficult, but it’s extremely important.  Even when it’s hard, at the end of the day I’m always glad to be here doing whatever it is I’m doing—despite how far I am from the people I love and miss.

2)      Fear: Finally getting comfortable/used to something and then having it be taken away from you.
This shit…this shit is just annoying, and isn’t it just how life goes. Whether it’s a job, a relationship, the weather etc. things always seem to shake themselves up once you get into a groove. My new counterpart has certainly thrown me for a loop. She is an incredibly nice lady, but her English is…uhhh…rusty (I’m being nice). She is from Korca, but she got married to a man in Lac and had a baby right after getting married. She is sad because she misses her family and home and has no friends, except for me I guess. The students are all really mean to her, and my colleagues aren’t much nicer. It’s definitely a difficult situation, but I guess Peace Corps wasn’t supposed to be easy. Though I keep trying to make it that way…

Coping Mechanism: First I turned to running…then alcohol… Then I took a vacation to Istanbul—and ate massive amounts of food. Uh, so yeah I guess you could say I went a little backwards on that one, but whatever. My coping mechanism now is to focus on all of the other things here that make me happy and to embrace every moment where a smile meets my face naturally. I also just laugh a lot when the stressful things happen because often times when I get angry I picture looking at myself from someone else’s perspective and there’s really nothing funnier than watching a tiny 4’10 woman getting pissed off and yelling nonsense in a mix of 2 languages. Also, I realize I’m only here for 2 years. Sometimes I feel like it’s like watching a hamster in a cage and observing its emotional reactions to various tests.

3)      Fear: Being around strangers and creepy people.
I spent my entire adolescence being afraid of strangers. I suffered from paranoia and the fact that I roam around, get into cars with strangers, and strike up conversations with random people strictly out of boredom is kind of odd. It’s cool though. We’ve all seen “Taken” and of course I’m in Albania—without Liam—so you’d think I’d be setting myself up for all sorts of kidnappings and interactions with scary people. Being around strangers and creepy people in a foreign country can be really scary. Seriously, who is going to save you when it’s just you and a scary man in a dark alley…or vehicle? I always carry pepper spray and a knife on me, but as a little woman, I think man with a gun would always win.

Coping Mechanism: The truth is I have had some bad interactions with creepers here. However, I have reacted extremely well when they’ve occurred. As opposed to freezing up or panicking, I’ve been very calm and in charge of my thoughts. It helps. I believe there is something to be said for being someone who finds strength in times of fear. A very direct: “No thank you. Please stop you’re making me uncomfortable” comes of a lot better than a shaky “umm..excuse me..but uh…” and trying to wiggle yourself away from the situation. Speaking up for yourself, remaining calm, and being direct is the best way for me to handle creepers. Also, trying to avoid those situations in the first place; the preemptive strike is an even better way to go.

4)      Fear: Getting lost.
I am the master of getting lost. I can remember the first time I got lost driving around in California I somehow got all the way to Stinson Beach from the center of San Francisco. There was no cell phone reception and I was super scared. There’s a feeling of “I’m never going to make it home” that hits you when you’re lost. Maybe that feeling is why people feel lost in many different ways.
Coping Mechanism: Embrace the chaos. So you get lost… big deal.  Maybe you feel like you’ll never find your way back, but that is a silly and false feeling. If that guy from Man Vs. Wild can find his way back to civilization, then I can find my way back from… a capital city surrounded by people. I have begun to see getting lost as more of an adventure and a fun piece of life. Often times, I feel lost in life here, but that’s cool. I find comfort in knowing there’s always going to be a way to get where I’m going. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

I'm Feeling This!

Today's blog post is about feelings... and boy do your feelings get weird in Peace Corps. I am already an emotional person, but when you isolate yourself in a foreign country, I believe you get even more in touch with those inner emotions.

For some reason I have developed the habit of crying every time I someone else cries. In fact... I haven't cried at all here without the triggering of another's tears! Today was my counterpart's last day teaching the 1st and 2nd years. Monday is her last day overall, and I'm sure there will be a rainstorm of tears then. I've never seen students so attached to a teacher before. They have written her poems, signed petitions, and well... have cried too. Elsona, my counterpart, was really the best counterpart I could've asked for and I could not be any happier with the time we have spent together. She has become a wonderful teacher and a best friend. I am going to miss her a lot, but I know we will still continue to work together. It will be interesting to begin working with my new counterpart on Tuesday. We have never met so I am really clueless as to how Tuesday will go. It kind of feels odd...the idea of walking into school, meeting my new counterpart, and then suddenly co-teaching together in a class mid-school year. I guess we'll see how that goes down.

To keep the topic on feelings, I've decided to put my emotional energy into various things. Along with exercise (and umm...retail therapy), I have decided to begin writing poems... in Albanian. I have also decided to study for the GRE. I don't even know if I want to take the GRE, but I thought studying would be a good idea just in case. What's the harm in becoming a little more academic, right? The biggest outlet I've found seems to be my sense of adventure taking over. I've been all over the place lately...both physically and mentally. Now, this ubiquitous sensation isn't a bad thing as it might sound. It's actually wonderful. I feel like both mentally and physically my wanderlust is being filled, and along with it this giant sense of luck has taken over me. Every time something that I normally would consider bad or unfortunate happens, I just smile because I know that right behind it is something really awesome. It's like receiving a dirty old box as a present only to open it and find your favorite jewelry inside (in my case something tacky and covered in sparkles...likely an animal or plant of some sort...God I have terrible taste). Anyway, it's awesome... and like my hypothetical jewelry, my adventures are cheap, over the top, and they have brought me way more happiness than they should. I like being lucky! Maybe it's my lucky year :)

I dip into feelings of longing and immediately bounce to feelings of excitement and mostly the feeling of "new." I love Spring because Spring is the season of growth and freshness (and my birthday!). After a year in, what better way to begin than by being refreshed. In the winter I spent a lot of time feeling detached from America, and recently I've decided that, well, I don't care about becoming detached anymore. I have a year left. That is not a lot of time. I'd really like for myself to focus on me this year. And my life in Albania. I always say that..although extremely philanthropic, Peace Corps is selfish time. It's my very own experience that nobody else gets to have or fully understand. I bought a diary to document all of the things that are sometimes hard to say out loud, and I am excited to read it one year down the road.

I've got a lot of feelings people! haha... Happy Spring! Enjoy these photos :)

                                                                    Delicious cookies!
                                                                        Donkey ride!
                                                                Just enjoying it all
                                                             Frisbee with my kiddos :))
                                                           Serenades and Raki in Bilisht
                            How I love waiting on the highway every time I want to go somewhere
                                                              Acquiring lumberjack skills
                                 I killed, plucked, and gutted this rooster... As organic as it gets

Friday, March 7, 2014

To open doors, roads unknown, and a truly wonderful week!

I’m writing this blog post with an incredibly full and satisfied heart. This week will go down as one of the most epic weeks of my young life and here’s why. It began with me learning that I can be productive, efficient, and independent. I finished and turned it my first grant proposal a week early. My Counterpart and I planned and ran a Community and Cultural Exchange day for our High School and Elementary School. I got to spend time with my 2 best friends in Peace Corps down South. I got to play tour guide and travelled around with my Adventure Buddy, Sam, from America (who also brought me American Goodies. Thank you to everyone involved in that—Sam, Janie, Aunt Rosanna and my parents. To top it all off I celebrated Teacher’s Day with all of my students and colleagues and enjoyed every moment. I already thought I loved teaching, but this day really threw that passion over the top.

To break it down, I’ll give you guys some sub-categories as usual.

1)      Grant Proposal
A grant proposal is a lot of hard, teeth-grinding work. It takes a lot of time, patience, and detail. There’s nothing like saying the same thing over and over again in different ways and identifying/predicting all possible outcomes and preparing for those outcomes. For me, writing this grant proposal led to me eating a whole chicken in one sitting (It was too late to buy chocolate and that was all that I had).  My project proposal is to build an Activity Room in the high school so the kids will have a place to hold club meetings, attend after-hours lessons, run student government, and participate in conferences. It will also be open to the community. I’ll keep you guys updated on my project as time goes by. Anyway, the best thing for me about writing this grant proposal was realizing that I had improved myself. There was nobody here pushing me to finish this grant application. My motivation stemmed from my love for my students and the school itself. I had no coach or teacher giving me a grade for completing this assignment or punishment for not completing it. It was really all up to me. After completing the grant I looked at myself in the mirror and truly saw a volunteer; I saw a girl who went out into the developing world to give it her best helping hand—who succeeded. J. Maybe it’s easier to not procrastinate and to work hard when you’re involved in something your extremely passionate about. Maybe I’ve just grown up a lot. Whatever it is, I am proud of myself, and I see so clearly the importance of following your passions in life.

2)      Community and Cultural Exchange day
Milot has never really had a community gathering before, and with me having an American visitor and some close-by volunteers I saw the perfect opportunity to host a day to embrace both of these things. Although there were kinks in the organization, overall the day was fun and a great experience for me and the people of Milot. I’ve actually never seen that many people in Milot before, not even at our giant Sunday Markets. The students prepared songs, poems, and dances for the day—some of which went wonderfully, some of which created a lot of laughter, and some that I wouldn’t mind forgetting haha. But I loved every piece of it. The beauty of trying things like this is that there are imperfections and room for improvement. However, I accomplished my goal of showing Milot that days like this are possible. I left my counterpart, other teachers, and student leaders in charge of running the event to show them that they didn’t need me at all. I am so proud of all of them, and very grateful for the volunteers and Peace Corps staff who came to watch the event. It was also really cool for me to have Sam there so somebody from back home could see what I actually do here through something other than a computer screen.

3)      Running Around Albania With My Adventure Buddy
Last year at almost exactly this same date, Sam and I took off on a road trip to go see the Grand Canyon, go snow camping, and catch spring training. It was an incredibly fun time, and I remember thinking that touring beautiful places close to home was a wonderful way to spend my last days in America before leaving for the Peace Corps. I didn’t really think I’d see Sam again until I finished my Peace Corps service, but I guess life just hands you what you need at the right time sometimes. I was beginning to feel pretty detached from America. Seriously, I felt like I was even forgetting how to speak English—not good for an English teacher! However, this week brought a new kind of adventure, still full of awesome times. Keeping a similar theme, we jumped into the freezing Blue Eye (as opposed to last year’s jumping in a snow-surrounded Lake Tahoe). We hitch-hiked, chilled with a lot of locals, travelled down roads unknown, had some awesome conversations IN ENGLISH!!!, ate amazing food (probably more amazing for me than Sam seeing as I’ve been deprived of food), hung out with other volunteers, and spent a lot of time in buses. I was reminded of how beautiful Albania is. It was a great journey, and a great way to spend my half-way point. I am so incredibly grateful to have a friend like Sam to share my
life experiences with, take part in my excursions and support me through the crazy things I do. I will never take for granted the importance of true friendship that at the end of the day remains no matter where life takes you. Thank you so much, Sam!

4)      Teacher’s Day (March 7th)
Teacher’s Day is apparently a big deal here in Albania. I didn’t think I was going to go to school today because I was exhausted from the week of adventuring around Albania, but this is how the story goes: Okay, so to set the scene I actually came back from the airport yesterday after dropping Sam off. I proceeded to pass out on my couch. It was maybe 3 o clock. I woke up at 7 starving, so I opened the fridge and ate the only edible thing I saw in their—a sausage. I literally just unwrapped it and began devouring it. After, I told my counterpart that I would probably take the day off to rest.  I woke up at 7:35am (10 minutes before I usually leave for school) to a text from my counterpart. She said I had to be there and that I wouldn’t want to miss this day. She was right. I threw on the first things I saw in my room and ran to the school. I arrived to see all of my colleagues decked out in dresses and suits. I looked terrible. After 20 minutes of sitting around all my pretty people, I learned that we didn’t even have school today and it was just a day for the teachers to be respected by our students and to go off and party. They politely suggested I go change into something “more special” aka less heinous! I went home, threw on some makeup and a dress and came back to applause from my colleagues who were showered with gifts and flowers from our students. Everyone looked so happy and I thought it was such a wonderful thing to see all the teachers getting the respect they deserved. I must have received over 100 kisses from my students all thanking me for what I do and I also came home with a rose. It was a total feel-good day, and after seeing all the students, us teachers hopped in a few cars and headed to the highway for lunch, dancing, and drinks. I led a few circle dances and had so much fun just goofing off with my colleagues. Although every teacher paid for themselves, they would not let me pay for my portion as respect for me volunteering my time. I felt so appreciated and happy.

I am so happy.

Peace Corps hands you a lot of ups and downs, loops and twirls, but I believe the trick is to really highlight the good times, and let the bad ones pass without much thought. This week will definitely stay with me through rough patches and will bring a smile to my face when I need one.   

And one more thing! Congratulations to one of the PCVs in my group who is marrying a local. Let the festivities begin :))

And as are some photos. Enoy!

                                                                     A lot of students!
                                                       Reading to the younger children

                                                            Traditional Albanian Dancing
Penguin Dance :)

                                                                View of Gjirokaster
                                                             In front of the Blue Eye
                                          Luckily this unknown road led to something beautiful
                                                                       Sam Jumps

                                                                          I jump.
                                                               View from Saranda
                                                                  Delicious seafood!
                                                                     Long bus ride!
                                                         Eating fish eyes for good luck!
                                                        Some of my favorite people
                                                              Teacher's Day Lunch
                                 Welcoming everyone to Community and Cultural Exchange Day

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A bit about learning disabilities

I am so happy that I am a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer because I have truly fallen in love with teaching. It just feels so important and it challenges me in many ways. Every day I gain and learn something in the classroom where I am co-teaching. Something I would like to discuss, however, is learning disabilities. In the states, learning disabilities seem to be identified at a pretty young age. They are not considered to be too shameful or problematic, and the US works extremely hard to accommodate those with learning disabilities. Here in Albania, there seems to be zero diagnoses of these disorders, and therefore there are no accommodations.

I first began thinking about learning disabilities during one of our TEFL trainings when another volunteer gave us a presentation on them. She reminded us that we are not doctors, and therefore cannot diagnose any disorders, but instead can help our school communities to become aware that such things exist and to help them create a better learning environment for those with symptoms of various learning disabilities.

After class today, I could not agree any more with that volunteer, and I find it extremely important to educate my colleagues about the existence of learning disorders and various classroom coping strategies. Things kind of clicked in my head today as I sat watching one of my students unable to sit in his chair. He has almost been expelled multiple times for disruptive behavior and can't ever seem to get through a class without pissing the teacher off. We had no idea what his actual skill level in any subjects was because it was always just assumed he was a "difficult student" and would never try anyway. Today was different though. I've always liked this kid's smile. He has such a truly happy looking smile, and he smiles so often it really makes it hard for me to believe that he is an evil kid. On a side note I don't think any of my students are evil. Anyway, today he bothered my counterpart (as usual) enough to the point where she was about to kick him out of class when I decided to have him come up to the blackboard to work one-on-one with me. We were looking at when to use "do" vs. "does." Because he has never paid attention in class or done his homework before I knew he had no idea how to do the exercise in the book so I changed it up for him and gave him space to move around and write on the board. I wrote "Do" in a box leading to a trail of the words: I, you, we, they, and anything plural ex// "students" or "Jack and Jill". Then under that I wrote the word "Does" in a box leading to a trail of  words: He, she, it, and names of things that are singular ex// "a student", "Jack", "Jill". We then looked at the book together, identified what the subject in the sentence was and matched it with one of the trails on the board. After finding the subject on the board, he could trace his hand back to either the word "do" or "does." In this way, he finished the whole exercise by himself. Every time he got a correct answer his face lit up, and the entire time he did not pay attention to anything but the problems at hand. The bell even rang and he kept going until he finished the problem he was working on.

Today really inspired me to learn more about learning disorders and creative classroom techniques. As a teacher, it is not my responsibility to diagnose or find cures for these students, but instead to figure out the best ways to work with and educate them. As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job is to transfer this knowledge to others so that Albania can continue to improve its overall level of education (specifically regarding English) and have a better understanding of why some students are the way they are. I get really overwhelmed with all the projects I want to do/have coming up, but I feel that it is imperative to work with my colleagues on adjusting classroom techniques for those who may have learning disabilities. Once I figure it out, I'll let you know. In the meantime, stay tuned for the awesome things to come this month-- It's a surprise!!! ;)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Relationship and a Positive Reflection

For those of you who didn't know, I am now in a relationship…

A relationship between me and Albania, its people, its culture, and its language. On the other side of that I am exchanging myself, my culture, and my language.  As in any relationship, there is learning/growing, commitment, and passion involved. I allow myself to be vulnerable here because I think relationships are all about taking risks. I believe this is a healthy relationship and is extremely fitting for where I am in my life right now (my early 20s). It is much like those who are currently in a relationship with their studies, business, or even just life in general. While Albania and I may not be together forever, I will never forget the journey within this experience.

To prove this statement, I’d like to share some of the most recent exchanges between me and Albania:
      1.    Project Design Management Workshop (PDM)  
All of the volunteers in my group and I attended a conference in Tirana with (most) of our chosen counterparts to learn how to build a project. This workshop was wonderful for many reasons. First off, we had hot showers… which was a mega plus for me. 2nd, we got to see each other which is always nice after some time apart.  3rd (And this is probably the most important—though hot showers tend to dominate my mind) was that my counterpart and I really gained an understanding of how to make a project. It’s definitely not as simple as I imagined. There are intricate details and jargon that I hadn't thought of and a project proposal/grant is kind of a piece of art. You have to have structure and appeal, and now my counterpart and I are super excited to begin our project to build an activity room in the high school because we strongly believe in our abilities to be strong and appealing. Although I am here to help Albanians understand how to make a better Albania, I myself am learning how to begin projects anywhere in life. I feel like the training here is truly priceless education.

      2.       Language

My favorite part of being an English teacher is seeing my students improve. I have mentioned this many times before in my blogs. However, although I don’t have a tutor, my Albanian (shqip) has improved a lot as well. After official testing at the PDM Workshop, I learned that I am now at an “Advanced-Mid” level of the language which means I am 2 levels up from where I started at “Intermediate-High” and am 3 levels away from the highest level of Albanian, “Distinguished.” I am most proud of the fact that I can switch on and off using Milot’s Dialect and the standard Albanian language.  My goal is to finish my service at least one level ahead at “Advanced-High,” and I intend to get there by beginning to study Albanian grammar. I feel that language has definitely helped my relationship with Albania grow stronger, and culture and integration are currently the 2 elements of my PC service that I am the most satisfied with.
       3.       Real Life and Tragedy
      So now I've spit out a lot of good things about this relationship, but we know there are always little bumps along the way. Recently some extremely sad/scary events have taken place here. My counterpart’s best friend’s father died while fixing a window. The latter he was on was unstable and he fell to his death. Shortly after there was a random attack on a bus by the city of Tepelene and a man proceeded to rob and murder people on the bus. Lastly, a boy from Milot (and my School Director, Host family, and Landlord’s cousin) was squished by a heavy piece of iron that fell on him and also died at only 21 years of age. I personally did not know any of these victims, but am extremely close with those who it affected. Hardest of all was speaking with my 17 year old landlord’s son (who is also my best friend in Milot). What can you possibly say to a 17 year old boy whose cousin has just died in such a terrible and traumatic way? It is hard enough to talk about feelings with any teenager or in my experience with any boy. On top of that my language is just not good enough to really express what I want to say. I told him I was there if he needed someone to talk to and that he shouldn’t feel ashamed of any feelings he has. Sometimes life incidents being you back to the reality of things and for me it was remembering that life still goes on-tragedy and all. I get to see how people here participate in life events such as weddings, engagements, graduations, births, but along with those come sadness and death as well.

To bring this post to an end on a less depressing note, I’d like to just banter about my thoughts on life right now.  Oh wait… also I want to mention that my neighbor has been out of town for 2 months and therefore I have not had a washing machine to use, and because it is winter, hand washing clothes is not only painfully cold, but the clothes dry too slow and collect a mildew-ish smell. Yummm. Ok back on track to my thoughts! I think it’s really important for people to do some good solid self-reflection. I have actually been somewhat self-critical lately in a negative way, and I finally have begun to come out of it. At the Tirana conference we also had some IST training and overall Peace Corps-ish activities and in one of them we had to write down our 3 biggest struggles/stresses here. Most people had written something along the lines of 1) Loneliness 2) Integration and 3) Language, but mine were completely different. They were 1) Cold Showers 2) Acne 3) Weight gain. I was originally disappointed in myself because I felt like my struggles seemed to be a lot lamer and more superficial than everyone else’s, but then I realized…hey, that’s the truth.  In order to combat these struggles, I really had to give myself some self-love and compliments (my favorite)! As cheesy as it sounds (and this is super cheesy), I really began to feel that for each physical flaw Peace Corps makes me stress about, I also get a compliment for each of those gosh darn inner beauties. I love helping people. I love going out of my way to make my friends feel special. I am generous with my time, energy, and money. Realizing these things really brought me back up, and although un-showered, pimpled, and a little heavier than the NCAA athlete I once was, I am completely satisfied with myself. J

And now… photos:
                                         My Counterpart and I at the PDM workshop in Tirana
                                     Following suit and putting my head in a hole at the Church of Lac
                                          My published news article for the Tirana Times :))))

Monday, January 13, 2014

Winter Edition...Yeah I am behind.

Hello there! I haven't written for a while and honestly I don't really feel like catching people up here in detail so I will just quickly run through on some important things that have happened (with a few highlights) and then continue on with where I am now :)

Ok Thanksgiving/Hanukkah --> A lot of volunteers gathered in Gjirokaster for a Friendsgiving and I (with some help) cooked the turkey :))

Language Refresher --> A conference/workshop designed to help us refresh our language skills was held in Elbasan. We also had a talent show that was a bunch of fun! Unfortunately after, we lost another volunteer, and another volunteer fell in a hole ( happens here). She was okay though--just a few stitches and she was super champion about it.

Christmas --> Some other volunteers went "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" status and went to Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava together. It was awesome. We had leggings with denim print that fit all of us.

New Years Eve --> I spent it with my counterpart and her family in a small town next to Lac called Sanxhak. I stayed for a couple days hanging out with her and eating a lot of wonderful traditional Albanian food. Turkey and Baklava are 2 things that are traditional for this holiday. The fireworks were nuts! There were also a lot of AK47s and firecrackers being shot out of people's windows. It kind of felt like I was in a battle zone and I even got hit in the head by a firework sparkle.

And now...NOW!

I have reach my month long mark now of running 4-6 miles 4-6 days a week and it feels awesome! Except of course, for the quarter-sized blisters on my feet, my arthritic ankles, and for the cough I've developed from the little sick boy in a furgon I took. However, they are of no matter! I have always made excuses for why I don't run (especially more than 1 mile at a time). I never liked running. It took me like 5 tries to pass the mile test in college (1 mile in 7:15) and I kind of always viewed running as punishment. For whatever reason now, I enjoy running. I love when Albanians stare at me like I have 3 feet. I love my running buddy who keeps my pace even though he's 6ft tall. I love the view and the fact that I can be outside in WINTER! I love feeling healthy and athletic, and I love that running helps to build my schedule.

My running buddy has also told me that our running has inspired him to plan to build a gym in Milot for men AND WOMEN! Yayyy.. I couldn't be more proud of him, and I am excited to help him begin this endeavor!

Besides running, I now have 2 extra courses after school to help students who are behind. I love the extra courses because I get to work with students who are there solely because they WANT to learn and not because it's required. This course is a teacher's dream.

I haven't been in a writing mood lately, hence the lack of blog posts. Hopefully, I'll find that mood somewhere in the near future so I can do a better job keeping you all updated, but until then...

That's all. Here are some photos!

Performing in the Language Refresher Talent Show
                                                          Finding a Kosovare in Vienna!
                                                              Bratislava, Slovakia!
                                                     Circle dancing at 1:30am in the airport
                                                                  Christmas Markets!
                                                          Kidneys from the T-day Turkey
                                                                A view from my run
                                                              Friendsgiving in Gjirokaster
                                                               Ugly Sweater Party