Comparathon

I have learned a lot since moving to Albania. With no stone unturned, I have discovered things, not only about myself, but about this culture halfway across the world. Some of these lessons came as no surprise, while others caught me completely off guard. Which seems to come with living in a foreign world.

– I have discovered I do not like to eat brain, whether it is cow, sheep or goat. I gave them all a fair try. And while we are on the subject, I don’t care for eyeball, tongue, cheek, or intestines either.

– I have officially become addicted to the STRONG espresso that is served everywhere in this coffee culture.

–I still like living alone. However, serving in a Peace Corps city with very few Americans near, takes the alone factor to a whole new level.

–There is no harm in throwing yourself a pity party. Just don’t stay there too long.

–Loneliness won’t kill you. And lucky for me, my loved ones are just a skype call away.

– Catcalls and obnoxious boys can be ignored. But will get to you some days. Sometimes walking around with headphones will save the day.

–Running is still my sanctuary. Even though I have to deal with stares and questions, it can still be my saving grace. For that I am more thankful than you can imagine.

–Patience truly is a virtue. And if you want to get through life smiling, it’s something you can’t live without.

–When it rains, it pours. Bad stuff tends to happen in threes. Or fours. The only thing you can control in those situations is your attitude. For me, that is harder than it sounds, but it is a work in progress.

–Cooking and Baking for others is a universal sign of love. Even if you can’t speak a word of the same language, a homemade cookie will put a smile on even the crabbiest of faces.

–The quote “Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer.” is 110% true.

–True friends will make an effort to keep in contact, even when you’re halfway around the world.

–Don’t be afraid of change.

–Trying to fix things can work out great. But if you have no idea what you’re doing, maybe it’s best to ask for help. Or you might get electrocuted. (Whoops)

–Snail mail will brighten someone’s day a lot more than an email.

–When shopping for products that are written in a language you don’t understand, look at the pictures. But when in doubt, always take the time to translate the word. Don’t just assume it’s salt because it looks like salt. (Personal experience here.)

–In order to keep your sanity, set boundaries for yourself and others. But at the same time, try to embrace the awkwardness that comes with sitting outside your comfort zone.

–Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learning a new language has cured me of worrying if I look like an idiot. Most days, it’s inevitable as I stutter through sentences like a third grader!

–When traveling, sit in the middle back. It’s the safest spot. Unless its a 95 degree day, then sit by an open window.

–ALWAYS use your water filter!

–Slowing down from the American pace of life isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Welcome those afternoon siestas with open arms.

–Ants can literally crawl out of your outlets. And kitchen sink drain. And holes in the walls. I swear, they are invincible.

–Empathy is a powerful thing. Lean on those who understand what you’re going through.

–Nothing is 100% reliable. If your electricity doesn’t come back on for eight hours it isn’t going to kill you. But maybe throw out the raw chicken in your fridge.

–Bartering in another language is an important milestone. Celebrate those small successes.

–Don’t judge.

–You can’t save every stray dog you see, no matter how badly you want to.

–Just because it’s different than what you are used to, or how you might do it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

– Kids in underdeveloped countries LOVE getting their pictures taken. When you take the time to print them off and hand out, you can become the neighborhood celebrity.

6266ec2a18e08831dbca5f7839e039fc

Above all, the biggest lesson I have learned is to stop comparing myself to others. This is no “the light-bulb burst on with a bright flash” epiphany type of moment. But it has literally made or broke the small achievements I have reached here. There will always be someone who speaks Albanian better. Who blends in easier. Who learns faster. Someone who is bigger. Stronger. Faster. In the Peace Corps and after. In Albania and America. Comparing yourself to them only takes away from you. It’s okay to redefine what success means to you if it helps keep your head above water. Keep redefining and improving, each and every day if that’s what it takes.

So, I guess, that’s it. My one piece of advice to future PCV’s on how to have a successful service. Stop the comparathon. The only thing that matters is that YOU make an improvement from yesterday.

d3a6d96558c25914f019b84408ff7128

 

Heat, Heat Go Away!

I have told myself, multiple times, that I have adapted to the Mediterranean heat. Which has turned into a mantra I utter throughout the afternoon. I made it through last summer. I can do it. Even if I have to stay camped out one foot away from my fan, I will be somewhat productive!

I am not exaggerating at all!!

I am not exaggerating at all…

I can’t lie, the heat does get to me. Let’s just say, I am a bit more, uh irritable. Much like if I am hungry for prolonged periods of time. So, when I plugged my beloved fan in one evening, I about jumped out of my skin when there was a tiny explosion.

The electricity, well, it's not the greatest. I have no figured out the maximum amount of electronics I can have plugged in at once in order to not trip the breaker. Or blow something up.

The electricity, well, it’s not the greatest. I have no figured out the maximum amount of electronics I can have plugged in at once in order to not trip the breaker. Or blow something up.

All I could do was stare. And want to cry. (The heat may give me a bit of a dramatic flair as well.)

giphy

I try not to dip into my American money unless it is absolutely necessary. I once survived on $5 for almost two weeks because I was too stubborn to withdraw from my personal account. Five dollars goes a lot farther here than it would in other countries, but I was definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel to get through. After my fan fiasco, it wasn’t fifteen minutes later, that I was marching my sweaty body straight to the bank. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Quite frankly, during an Albanian summer, a fan is worth far more than the $20 I spent.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of catcalls and obnoxious phrases yelled at me the last few months. If summer is to blame, then I have decided these boys should just stay in school. As I carried my new fan home, it helped me let their comments flow in one ear and out the other. Lucky for them, I only gave them half of a death stare. But, inside my head, and almost every other day, I just want to yell…

fqwaa

Sadly, it is a losing battle.

Another plus of summer, is the influx of bugs (the heat has provided me with an extra dose of sarcasm). Creatures I have never seen before have been invading my apartment on a regular basis. The fact that I live on the ground floor doesn’t help matters. One morning, I was talking to my counterpart, about how I spent the evening catching all the spiders in my living room. I described, how I grab my designated bug jar (YES, I have a bug jar, and it’s cool), sweep all the creepy crawlies into it and then flush them. Well, apparently Albanians do not go about killing spiders like this because she starting laughing hysterically at me. She then proceeded to tell me what I should be doing differently. All I kept thinking was, is there really a wrong way to go about this, as long as they ultimately end up dead?!

After our spider conversation, I lent her my notebook. As she was handing it back to me, some sheets of paper fell out. When she bent down to hand them back to me, my face turned three shades darker.

Yep, this is what fell out.

Yep, this is what fell out.

I had completely forgotten about the photos I had stuck in there at some point. Which, for the record, my old coworker mailed to me as a joke ( I SWEAR!!) As I stuttered and stammered through an explanation as to why I would have these with me, every single day, she just laughed at me. It was quite obvious she didn’t believe a word I was saying. So I just shut up and sat there embarrassed. However, after sneaking a peak of the beautiful men in those photos, I did feel a tiny bit better! ;)

Due to political changes, the Director of the hospital changed this last week. My program manager, counterpart and I had a meeting with her. I am excited to say that it went really well and she would like to collaborate with my office. She is a doctor who has worked in the surrounding area for the past 28 years. One of our main hopes, is  to organize trainings on a variety of health topics. We will be targeting the nurses from villages on the outskirts of Permet. Her experience is going to be an invaluable resource as we tackle projects together this fall.

Work can be slow here and a lot of times, it is hard to see any progress. I have learned, in this environment, you have to pick something you are passionate about. The hoops to jump through and the overall resistance to change, will weed anything else out. Which is why, it’s no secret to the residents of Permet that I exercise a lot. They now call me “Sportiva” and everyone from my veggie guy, to the post office women, to the store owners have mentioned they see me running. I preach to anyone who will listen, about the healthy benefits of physical activity, never quite knowing if I got through to them. However, a few days ago, on my morning run, I spotted two other girls jogging towards me. This is extremely rare and for a second I thought they might be tourists. As we crossed paths, I couldn’t suppress my grin, as I recognized them from my GLOW camp. They puffed out their chests and proudly kept jogging passed me. They had listened!

image (2)

Seeing change here is rare, and sometimes, it may not be exactly what you had envisioned. To me, being a healthy role model to these girls, even if it is just to show that running outside is okay, that is success. That is the kind of influence I want to have. That is a small step in the right direction. And when you can actually see it with your own eyes, it’s enough to make all of your sacrifices flow right out the window.

7d8a3e4eded30242a8af15f02677ab65

Hotels and Watermelons

Peace Corps has a lot of conferences. Some are voluntary, most are required, but all take place in a hotel with air conditioning!! This may be the single most exciting sentence you could tell a PCV in the summer months. That, and the fact that most of the meals are provided. It’s a surefire way to get us excited about sitting in front of powerpoints for three days straight.

The latest conference was Mid-service, which was meant to help prepare us for our remaining year of service. The fact that we are more than halfway through our 27 months was not lost on the group as we gathered in Tirana. It would be the last time we would all be together, before our Closing of Service Conference in February. Even as I write that, I have a hard time believing it. The past year and a half have went unbelievably fast and throughout those few days in Tirana, I had to sweep that to the back of my mind. Otherwise, there would be some minor panic attacks setting in as I try and figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

On my morning run in Tirana. It smelled a little too much like garbage.

On my morning run in Tirana. It smelled a little too much like garbage.

When my group arrived in Albania, we were told that the Health Sector might be closing. At the conference we were told by staff that Peace Corps Washington had sent word that it would indeed be closed in two years. The health volunteers gathered to discuss what impact this would not only have on our sites, but also on Albania. The need for changes in the hospitals and health education here, are HUGE. It also brings into question, whether the projects we are doing will be sustainable or not. This is always a priority with the Peace Corps, however the dynamics change when there is a guarantee that another volunteer will not be replacing you.

Health volunteers, were a smart bunch!

Health volunteers, we’re a smart bunch!

Safety first!

Safety first!

DSC04865

The rest of the conference was spent going over our successes, resume building and job opportunities after the Peace Corps. My roommate, Emilie and I, quietly retreated back to our room at the end of each day. We recuperated by doing the only plausible thing someone should do in our situation. We trudged through pouring rain, bought a watermelon & snacks, cranked our air conditioner to high and watched Disney movies on an actual TV.

Sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference. Case in point, I present to you my very HAPPY face!

So worth it!

Why can’t it always be watermelon season?!

Grant a what?

The health center in Permet has the bare bones of a normal Albanian office. There are a few desks, plenty of health education pamphlets, posters and a few broken chairs. Which they keep anyway, and resulted in me almost falling on my butt, more than a few times in the beginning. Now I know which chairs are the good ones and make a beeline for them in the morning. I like to think of this as progress.

At the beginning of July, with my office in mind, I hunkered down in front of my fan and wrote a grant. I decided to apply for a SPA grant, which is one of the two types of grants that Peace Corps offers to it’s volunteers. I was hoping to obtain a few more supplies for my coworkers, that would enable them to join the technology world. I did some research and decided upon a laptop, projector and printer that is available in Tirana. This would open many doors for my coworkers to deliver health lessons to the people of Permet. But importantly, to branch out and give lessons to the surrounding villagers. My excitement seemed to fade as I turned through page after page of this grant. For a good chunk of the first hour, I ended up just staring at my computer screen.

313

This was my first ever grant writing experience. I am not going to lie, I had no idea what I was doing. We had a conference at the end of last year that helped lay out the process of grant writing. I was still confused. After a few phone calls to a fellow volunteer, I had finished about half of my grant. Which was followed by more confusion and computer glitches. Did I mention that I had no idea what I was doing?

giphy

Working in a third world country, grant writing is unavoidable and should definitely be taken advantage of by volunteers. Even as I struggled through section after section, I felt great about making progress towards getting my office a computer. After finishing the price sections (the worst part), I ended my week long process of writing my first grant.  After hitting submit, I felt my hopes surge and couldn’t wait to tell my coworkers about it.excited-gif22

Just as I was getting situated upon my high horse, I heard back from the grant committee and was told that my grant wouldn’t be funded.

frustrated-cameron-o

The committee made a few great points about flaws in my project proposal and ideas on how to improve it. They also made suggestions on follow up projects that I could do instead of focusing on supplies for my office. The next round of grants happens in October and I will be brainstorming a few different ideas until then. After all, this wouldn’t be the Peace Corps, or life for that matter, if everything worked out on the first try.

 

 

GLOW Camp 2014

A few months ago, I attended a training in Tirana starting up GLOW camps. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, and this is the first official year that Peace Corps Albania has partnered with this cause. The last few months, a handful of volunteers, have held these girls camps in their sites. I am happy to say they have all been a huge success. Personally, I can’t think of a better cause to contribute to. You can’t go a day without noticing the gender roles here, and as an American female, that can be a bit frustrating. These camps have turned into a way for us to give back to the girls of Albania, and show them some of that wonderful female empowerment.

I had planned to hold my camp at the end of July, with help from the school Psychologist. A few weeks ago, I was told that we would have to move my camp up three weeks. Uh, okay, great?! So I set my planning into fast gear, which is not something that comes easy here. Regardless, we lined up the venue, girls and different activities that we would do at the first ever Permet GLOW camp! Things were looking up and I was excited to have an official project running smoothly. Earlier this week, as I was making last minute preparations, I met with my coworkers to set things in stone. The gym, where most of my activities were going to be held, had just become off limits to us. Apparently, there was now a camp with kids from Tirana that would be held at the same place for the entire week. So, the day before my camp was about to start, we sat at coffee, scrambling to find a different venue. I had to just sit there and laugh, and wish upon every star that my camp wasn’t going to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, my coworkers husband, who has been a godsend to me, provided some help. He called around the entire city and found us the keys for the middle school gym. We also decided that we would use his cafe for part of the camp. There have been countless projects that he has helped me with and I don’t know what I would do without him! Not to mention, he is the best cook in Permet.

My coworker and her husband. So lucky to have their help!

My coworker and her husband. So lucky to have their help!

I will admit, I was pretty nervous about my camps the night before. There have been so many things that have fallen through the cracks here and been a letdown. After living in Permet for well over a year, I NEEDED something to finally work out for the better. My site-mate, Jackie and close site-mate, Monika, had agreed to help me with my camp. They were so much help and provided another voice of support for the girls. The first morning, as I sat there and explained our agenda, they laughed at  my visible jitters. The espresso I had while sitting there, probably didn’t help matters either.

Jackie and Monika!

Jackie and Monika!

The girls arrived and we started off with an ice breaker activity, something Peace Corps volunteers know all too well! Our first lesson topic was sexual health and we showed a few different videos and presented the different options they have for contraceptives. We also passed around sheets of paper to each girl and they had to write three questions each, which were anonymous and would later be answered by us. In my opinion, this was one of the most successful parts of camp. The questions we got from the group were so simple, but crucial knowledge for a female teen.

Can you get pregnant the first time? When is the right age to have sex? What is the best form of birth control? How does birth control work? Can you get pregnant on your period?

Most of these, are no brainers for those of us who went through sex-ed in America. However, for these girls, they have no one to ask these questions to. There is such a stigma attached to most of these topics that no one ever talks about them. Which results in friends talking to friends, and most likely, hearing the wrong information. It felt great to have a bare bones discussion with these girls about putting their safety first. Of course, in the midst of all these questions, someone wanted to know why my teeth were so white. Every time Albania, every time!

My coworkers

My coworkers

Writing questions

Writing questions

Talking about birth control

Talking about birth control

Translating questions

Translating questions

I can kind of read Shqip

I can kind of read Shqip

DSC04832

To get the girls up and moving, we did a few teamwork activities later on at the gym. Most of which, they had never heard of. Judging by the smiles and laughter, you could tell they were enjoying themselves.

The human knot

The human knot

Working to untangle themselves.

Working to untangle themselves.

For the remainder of camp, we focused on body image, confidence, nutrition and healthy stress outlets. The girls had a lot of questions, and we spent part of the morning, answering questions about basic nutrition and fitness. I also showed a few of the Dove Beauty Campaign videos and the girls were incredibly surprised at the amount of work that goes into the beauty ads that they envy.

I wanted to make these days as interactive as possible and I am happy to say I succeeded. One of the days we made “self-esteem flowers”, which were filled with adjectives that they like about themselves. I had forgotten, as a teen, how easy it is to focus only on the properties you don’t like. Jackie, Monika and I talked in length about why it is important to embrace your strengths and accept your weaknesses.

DSC04830 DSC04829

After our discussions about a healthy body image, we headed to the gym to get in a little exercise.

Yoga!

Yoga!

As my camp came to an end, I literally couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. For the first time in Albania, I felt as though I had run a successful project from start to finish. There had definitely been some bumps along the way but this time, it had actually worked out for the better! As the girls were leaving, we asked them if they had any tips on how we could improve the camp or if there was anything we should change. My favorite answer came from one of the quieter girls in the group. She said the camp was very different than anything she had ever been to before and that difference, is exactly what made it so great. Which is exactly why we, the strange Americans, are here. To show them that different is not only a good thing, but sometimes, it can be amazing!

Group shot with the Americans

Group shot with the Americans

Group shot with everyone who helped!

Group shot with everyone who helped!

 

Making Plans

Summer is here! My days consist of beautiful sunny days which are perfect for the river. An amazing selection of fruits and vegetables, which are finally cheap again. And of course, the inability to not get sweaty while sitting perfectly still, much less walking across town. I may or may not have a love/hate relationship with the heat in Albania.

Last year, I had just gotten to site and didn’t have much to do. I spent my first few months in Permet integrating and trying to learn the language. A lot of people here also go to the beach in the summer, so I found my days to be quite monotonous. This year however, it is turning into the busiest time of the year for me. I am in the process of planning a GLOW camp, writing a grant and continuing to make new contacts throughout the city.

I have been working with the school psychologist on several projects. She lives in a neighboring town, so we have been mainly communicating through text and email these past few months. With July fast approaching, we decided to meet for coffee to talk about more of the details of GLOW. Imagine my surprise when I walk up to the table and realize she is five months pregnant!

DSC04801

Due to complications, she can help me set up the camps, but that was about it. She needs to stay off her feet as much as possible and take it easy in this heat. I was ecstatic for her, but In the back of my mind, I tried not to panic. Who was I suppose to work with now? There goes my fall projects that I was supposed to collaborate with her on. There goes my counterpart for these camps. There goes the only English speaker I have found to work with in my remaining year. I could tell I had been in Albania for over a year, because this didn’t make me instantly freak out. It was just back to the drawing board. Again.

Later on, we met with the physical education teacher for the high school. She was willing to help me with my July camp and I could feel myself breathing a little easier. She knew a good group of girls that should be able to come and she also has great contacts in the schools. There was still a language barrier, despite me having lived here for a year. Then again, I have come to expect that in my day to day life. She decided that we should move my camp up to the beginning of July instead of the end. I tried to explain why that was not a good idea. I had to plan my agenda, get supplies lined up and talk to more people about helping. We finally compromised on the middle of July and hoped for 15 girls to attend.

Throughout coffee, the Phys-Ed teacher, kept commenting on how beautiful she thought I was. She wanted to know how tall I was. Why were my teeth like that. If my eyes were natural. If I dyed my hair. How much I weighed. And of course, if I was married. Admitting that I was not, opened up a can of worms. She was soon talking about every Albanian man she knew my age and how I needed to meet them.

tumblr_mvwxqyfelS1szadl6o1_500

The first few times, I laughed at her attempts of explaining why I needed an Albanian husband. I would just smile and then try to keep planning the details of my camp. To which she would answer one question, and revert back to talking about finding me a husband. This back and forth battle lasted for another half an hour as we finished our coffees. I did succeed in getting the bare bones of my camp hashed out and managed to not get engaged. Success?

Sus came back to visit!

Sus came back to visit!

Nettles, an herb that will sting your skin if touched uncooked.

Nettles, an herb that will sting your skin if touched uncooked.

Don't be fooled by my smile, they tasted like weeds.

Don’t be fooled by my smile, they tasted like weeds.

They wanted to show me how they're working in the community. Hanging up a "No Drugs" sign.

They wanted to show me how they’re working in the community. Hanging up a “No Drugs” sign.

A soccer tournament in the center

A soccer tournament in the center

DSC04796 DSC04794

Some of my favorite neighborhood soccer players!

Some of my favorite neighborhood soccer players!

This past week has reminded me, the only things that are reliable during an Albanian summer are the stifling heat and my water schedule.

giphy

Special Kind of Surprise

A few days ago, I quickly walked down the streets of our capital, Tirana. Lost as usual, I barely noticed the surrounding cafes, stores and street venders. On the corner, I saw a younger mother was trying to reign in the four children who were scrambling around her. Moving past them, I continued checking Google maps on my smartphone. All of a sudden, I felt something grab my leg. I turned around and stared straight into the eyes of one of the young girls. With my backpack and foreign looks, her mother had undoubtedly sent her chasing after me. She was about 5-6 years old, had crumbs in her hair, filthy clothes and wasn’t wearing any shoes. This is not an uncommon sight in Albania, and it wasn’t the first or the last time I will be approached. As she started asking me for money, I swiftly told her to go away. After a few minutes of this as I tried to walk down the street, she stopped me and literally wrapped herself around my leg. I stared helplessly until she stood up. I told her to go back to her mother and continued on my way. As I was walking away I felt her jumping up and trying to grab at my backpack, but ignored her. After a few blocks, she gave up and returned to her little spot on the street.

As I made the trip home from the capital to Permet, my bus broke down. I am actually surprised this hasn’t happened to me before. I guess life in Albania wouldn’t be complete without encountering some sort of furgon troubles over my two years. A burning smell drove all of us out of the van, as the driver tried to figure out what was wrong. As ten minutes stretched into half an hour, I sat down in the ditch and watched what I can only call Albanian chaos. The driver hitch hiked to get a new part. He returned an hour later, was unsuccessful at fixing it, and hopped into the next car for more parts.

image (2)

Where I spent most of my Monday evening

As I waited, I started getting hungry and went to get some snacks from my backpack. I took out a banana and noticed a small hole in the plastic bag. The homeless girls big eyes popped into my head. She had been trying to grab the apple and banana from the top of my bag. Instantly, I felt like a terrible human being. I knew she had been hungry, but I barely gave her a second thought as I walked by. It seems to be a lose-lose situation with the kids that are begging on the streets. If you give one of them money, ten more appear with the same sad faces. Even so, I felt incredibly jaded to have barely blinked an eye at this little girl. And couldn’t have felt worse as I sat in the ditch and ate the fruit that cost me less than a dollar.

The next morning, my coworkers and I were discussing how much time I have left in Albania. I replied that I was down to the ten month mark, which is still crazy to me. My counterpart looked at me and said, “well why don’t you just go home now? You have already been here over a year.” I stared at her for a few moments, and finally explained I would be here until next summer because my commitment is for two years. She just laughed and told me to do as I wished. Some days I can just feel the “love” pouring out from my coworkers.(Please note the sarcasm.)

After work, as I walked to the post office to mail some letters, the past few days started to get to me. In desperate need of a mood changer, I thought about holing up in my apartment for the rest of the day. However, as I walked into the post office, I got one of the coolest surprises that has happened to me thus far in my service. A woman from Brooklyn, New York sent me a care package!! She is married to an Albanian in the states and had been reading my blog. I literally could not wipe the grin off my face as I sorted through all the goodies she sent.

image

All of my favorite wish list items from the blog. THANK YOU!!!

As I read her card, I could not get over the amazing thoughtfulness that she put into this package. Just as I was getting extremely frustrated with life here, I got the pick up I needed from a stranger halfway across the world. Sometimes, a card and a few nice words are all it takes. Of course, a little chocolate never hurts either!

image (1)

Travelin’ Soldiers: Part ll

Our next city stop was Pamukkale, a tourist town if there ever was one. We could instantly feel a difference as we sat down. It was a night and day difference from Istanbul. Pamukkale is home to hot springs and travertines, which are terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water. On the top of the hill is the ancient Greco-Roman City of Hierapolis.

DSC04188 DSC04191 DSC04194 DSC04217 DSC04233 DSC04249IMG_1797 DSC04265 DSC04268 DSC04273 DSC04280IMG_1809IMG_1804IMG_1807

After seeing the ruins located in the mountain tops of Pamukkale, we headed to the ancient Greek City of Ephesus. At its height, it was thought to have 33,0000- 56,000 people living within its walls. We walked the same outdoor market steps that Julius Cesar was thought to have walked. Many of the buildings and statues are still so well preserved it was fun to imagine what it looked like in its prime. As we made our way to the Church of Mary, it started down pouring on us. Which seemed to be a theme of our trip. But we were determined to get our $20 worth and trudged on through the storm!

DSC04289 DSC04300 DSC04310 DSC04311 DSC04316 IMG_1841 IMG_1843 IMG_1851 IMG_1852 IMG_1861 IMG_1864

Our hostel had 11 day old puppies. After getting soaked in a thunderstorm, soaking up some puppy love was the perfect end to a tiring day!

DSC04332IMG_1819IMG_1865

As a change of pace, we headed to the second largest port city of Izmir. There was a smaller version of the Grand Bazarr here and we spent the day touring the city and eating local sandwiches. As we tried to decide which boat ride to take, it started thunder storming again. Lucky for us, we stumbled upon a movie theater and were able to sit in amazing comfy seats and watch a movie. A luxury that most pcv’s have forgotten about!

DSC04333 DSC04337 DSC04341 DSC04345 DSC04347 IMG_1941IMG_1818 IMG_1877

To get from Izmir to our last destination, we decided to fly instead of take an overnight bus. As we left our hostel at 5:30 am, we followed our googlemap directions to try and find the metro system. We found the train station but couldn’t figure out where the metro was. As we tried  to talk to numerous overnight guards and groundsmen, we were stuck in an extremely dificult language barrior. One of the younger guards took pity on us, brought us through a back gate and led us directly to our station. He waited with us and told us we didn’t have to buy tickets, “no problem, no problem.” We both started getting nervous we weren’t going to make our 7:15 am flight as our train didn’t pull up to the airport until 6:45. We ran across the airport to the check in counter, where they told us baggage was closed. At 6:55, the manager took pity on our exasperated state, printed off our boarding passes and brought us over to security. We were literally waved through security without a second glance. We ran to our gate and were driven out to our plane with a special bus and made it on board 15 minutes before take off. Nothing like a little excitement to wake you up in the morning!

Cappadocia, is known for it’s many rock formations. It is the perfect destination for some outdoor adventures, and that was the theme of our trip. One of the coolest things we did on our trip was a hot air balloon ride at sunrise.Getting up at 4:30 am can be a little rough but it definitely helps when you have something awesome to look forward to. Our pilot was from Egypt, had been on over 1,600 flights over a span of 9 years. He pointed out many of the important sights as we peacefully glided over the region.

IMG_1930 IMG_1949 DSC04361 DSC04364 DSC04369 DSC04375 DSC04385 DSC04391 IMG_1921DSC04400 DSC04406 DSC04414 DSC04419 DSC04420 DSC04421 DSC04464 DSC04497 DSC04511 IMG_1899 IMG_1900DSC04522 DSC04523 DSC04551 DSC04562 DSC04564 IMG_1892 IMG_1893

We spent the rest of our time hiking, touring monasteries, underground cities and reveling in the beautiful landscape. When we weren’t getting rained on at least!

DSC04580 DSC04582 DSC04584 DSC04585 IMG_1957 IMG_1958 IMG_1962DSC04590 DSC04598 DSC04604 DSC04609 DSC04615 DSC04623 IMG_1927 IMG_1906DSC04658 DSC04670 DSC04671 DSC04680 DSC04682 DSC04683 DSC04684 DSC04692 DSC04694 DSC04733 DSC04717 DSC04747 DSC04781DSC04758

We were full blown tourists for a few days, walked until we dropped, learned a lot about history, food, architecture and everything in between. It was a wonderful vacation with an even better friend!

DSC04750

b0a8fbcf018ea4222c5e19f8383670a9

Travelin’ Soldiers in Turkey

One of my best friends from Group 15 is the amazingly infamous, Emily. I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with her for part of her COS (Closing of Service) trip before she returned to America. Our first stop was Istanbul, a city of over 13.5 million people. That is by far, the largest city I have ever visited and I would lie to say it wasn’t a little daunting.  My flight from Albania arrived 5 hours before hers, so I was on my own to find our hostel.

After buying my first visa into another country, and getting through passport control, I wandered outside. Not sure where to go or how to find the bus I needed, I walked around with a lost look on my face. Don’t worry, this is my normal traveling expression. The ticket collector was closing up a full busload of people and he waved at me to wait on the sidewalk until the next bus arrived. The driver came outside at just that moment, and realized I was by myself. He smiled and told me to get on board and I got to sit up front with him. Not a bad start to my Turkey adventure! After an hour bus ride and wandering up and down the streets of Istanbul for about 45 minutes, I stumbled upon our hostel. I felt so incredibly accomplished and was sitting on Cloud 9 as I waited for Emily to arrive.

DSC03959 DSC03961 DSC03971 DSC03979 DSC03982 DSC03985 DSC03989

Istanbul is sprawled over two continents and has an impressive amount of hills. Our main day of sightseeing consisted of a LOT of walking. For some reason, we decided that we didn’t want to take public transportation and we trudged up and down those hills enough times to put us into a semi- comatose state. Right of the bat, we visited the famous Spice Market and Grand Bazarr. The spice market has numerous little shops selling everything from spices to nuts to teas to turkish delight candies. Competition is high and so you are constantly harassed as you walk by these stands.  This was actually a theme throughout our entire vacation, whether it was for a shop or just a restaurant. It didn’t help that we were two blonde, foreign looking tourists! The Grand Bazarr is a famous attraction as well and holds over 4,000 shops which are strewn throughout maze like hallways. The lights that were sold in every other shop were absolutely beautiful. Lucky for my bank account, these weren’t going to be fitting in a backpack.

DSC03994 DSC04000 DSC04008 DSC04021 DSC04023 DSC04027

We also headed to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. These are the biggest mosques in Istanbul and they are absolutely breathtaking. In order to go into the mosques, women had to dress in long garments and a headscarf. As we strode into the mosque, I couldn’t quit staring at the differences in gender rules. This continued to startle me throughout Turkey, as I saw women dressed in full hijab’s and their husbands were walking in shorts and a t-shirt.

Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

DSC04038 DSC04042 DSC04046 DSC04055 DSC04062

Emily and I both like to run so we set a goal to run a few times throughout our vacation. We set out one morning from our hostel and put in 5 1/2 miles throughout Istanbul! There was a lot of people dodging as we made our way along the water and to the bridge. We were the only runners that we saw in the entire city for our stay there. Of course, we finished in style and drank coffee and stretched at Starbucks.

IMG_1738 IMG_1737 IMG_1735 IMG_1741

One of our favorite splurges in Istanbul was a Turkish bath. There are quite a few traditional bath houses strewn throughout the city. After sitting in a sauna, we were scrubbed down by two strong Turkish women. Following that, they had some sort of soap bag that they washed and massaged you down with. After which, they wash your hair and send you into a wading pool. You finish off with another round in the sauna and a shower. Never before, have I felt so clean!! It was such a fun experience and I would high recommend it!

Turkish bath Time!

Turkish bath Time!

Spice market

Spice market

IMG_1777 IMG_1780 IMG_1781

One morning, we stopped for a coffee close to our hostel. There was the cutest woman inside that ushered us to a corner seat. She didn’t speak more than a few words of English so we sat in silence as she  brought us our coffees. As we waited for our drinks, we were snacking on some cherries I had bought on the street. They weren’t washed but we have both eaten worse things in Albania. She was appalled and brought my fruit in the back to wash for me. She returned with a bowl that contained significantly less fruit than I brought in and she set the bowl down as she visibly chomped on some of the cherries. She then, proceeded to teach us turkish words that we had no idea what they meant. She also stared and tapped my teeth and seemed to be asking if they were real. In the corner of her shop, a mama bird flew inside and fed two baby birds. We were staring and taking pictures at this unexpected decoration and she started blabbering at us. We finally figured out that she was asking us for money to help pay for bird feed. We declined and she brought us our bill, which ended up being almost as much as Starbucks. Which is ridiculous and way too expensive. We walked away from the cafe with a sneaking suspicion that she has done that more than once before.

DSC04088 IMG_1743 DSC04070 DSC04082 DSC04085

We also visited Topkapi Palace. It is placed on one of the hills overlooking the city and was home to Ottoman Sultans for over four hundred years. The Harem was home to the Sultan’s mother and the other woman of the empire. It was a maze of impressive rooms, unfortunently the pictures do not do it justice!

DSC04108 DSC04115 DSC04118 DSC04135 DSC04138 DSC04143

 

To be continued…

New Volunteers. New Family.

Whenever work, life and Albanian encounters get extremely frustrating, I start counting. Calculating in my head, the exact amount of days until I return to the infamous land of America. Where things are safe, expected and from what I remember: easy. As most volunteers know, you settle into this spot between uncomfortable and a hard place. I have forgotten what it is like to walk into a store and know exactly what and how you are getting something. Or ordering something on an actual menu and having no surprises. Or having safety regulations and food sanitation laws. Or speaking English. (Oh, how I miss that!)

51981ea3781f1260f8116173037e25e3

But then I remember why I came here. This is the kind of adventure I was looking for as I went stir crazy in North Dakota. And of course, that along with the bad days, there are always good days. That I am not here to change the world. I am just here to try and make a positive impact on one person’s life.

I was recently given a GREAT read about finding your niche in life. I highly recommend checking it out:  The-Life-and-Times-of-A-Remarkable-Misfit

This past week, three new volunteers have settled into my neck of the woods.

DSC03896 DSC03899 DSC03938 DSC03943 DSC03946 DSC03947 DSC03950 DSC03952 DSC03953 DSC03954

As I have gotten to know them, I find myself breathing a little easier. These are people I truly enjoy being around and I can tell they are going to be an amazing support system. It’s exactly what I needed to remind myself to take in each day, crazy as it might be, and enjoy it. This is a once in a lifetime journey and I’m not going to waste it by wishing I was still in my comfort zone.

My new Peace Corps family

My new Peace Corps family

38d4a38b43067f43dd91fd357842062c