Village Life

This past week, the speed of work has picked up at the health center. Pause for excitement!

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We lined up to have a local driver take us to surrounding villages over the course of three days. We brought pamphlets, posters, educational books and vaccines with us. This has been one of the most productive weeks for my coworkers and I, which felt great. It also provided me with a unique insight into the health centers & hospitals of some of the smallest villages in my region.

Every morning, about half an hour before we were supposed to leave, I would get a phone call. My coworkers husband, would ask if I still wanted to go, what I was doing and that I should hurry so they didn’t leave me. I would thank him, become nervous that they forget I was coming and arrive 15 minutes early. Which was followed by 25 minutes of coffee talk as we waited for the driver to come.

One of the first villages we went to was located 15 minutes from Permet. They say, in the Peace Corps, that you will often feel like a celebrity. This is true, and all because you are an American. I am more used to being referred to as “American” than I am Amber. When we walked into the health center, this stayed the same. The nurse there, followed me around and kept smiling at me as she asked questions. My sense of personal space was completely invaded by this friendly older lady. Some days though, any human affection is welcomed. Peace Corps can get lonely.

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The patient files were stacked in shelves along the main wall. To say there is no confidentiality in the Albanian health care system, is a VAST understatement. Names, conditions, medications and a patients history are openly discussed. Whether you ask to hear about it or not. I have found myself, on multiple occasions, being told by a health care worker, what condition a person has. What medications they are taking. What they are doing right or wrong and why they can’t pay for their needs. This is usually followed be a complete history of their family and any and all issues they might have.

After the health center, we checked out the school.

After the health center, we checked out the school.

Who wishes they had sheep to play with at recess?!

Who wishes they had sheep to play with at recess?!

At the school, we made our way through the four different classrooms. The kids were divided by age and there was a total of close to 50 students that attended the classes.

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Most of the health centers in these villages served as the hospitals as well. If they were lucky, there was a doctor on staff. If not, there were only a handful of nurses. The staff were not only in charge of that village’s needs, but also of many smaller surrounding villages. They make house calls with one of the classic doctors bags you would only see in older movies now. The few I met, seemed drastically understaffed and overwhelmed. But never hesitated to sit down and chat with me about my family and where I am from. The coffee culture reigns supreme, no matter where you are at in Albania.

The health center, which houses one doctor and one nurse.

The health center, which houses one doctor and one nurse.

My coworker and I

My coworker and I

A patient room. With a black mold problem. But everywhere in Albania seems to have this.

A patient room. With a black mold problem. But everywhere in Albania seems to have this.

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Brochures

Brochures

On our last stop, I found myself walking around the center alone. My coworkers had wandered off into another room. Instead of going outside and waiting for them, I pushed outside of my comfort zone. I was invited to sit with the doctor and nurse next to a heater in his office. We talked for the next 25 minutes about his education, the health care system and what problems it has. Of course, we talked about his kids, and my family and life back in America too.

Health Center in a village a few miles from the Greek border

Health Center in a village a few miles from the Greek border

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On the way home, I sat in silence in between my coworkers. After four hours, my head had reached its maximum Shqip capacity. I was tired, and the terrible roads forced me to stare outside to try and keep my breakfast down. It did, however, provide me with the perfect time to reflect on all that happened in the past week.

I had watched as my coworker stopped the vehicle to throw up on the side of the road. Then calmly climbed back inside and asked me how my stomach was doing.

Laughed as I was being groped, poked and prodded by an older nurse in the health center, just because I am American.

Was jerked to a halt when the car had to stop every few miles so the herders could move their sheep, goats and cows across the road.

Listened while a doctor told me about the medication a Schizophrenic patient was on while he sat, staring at us from three feet away.

And finally, stopped for a moment and realized I haven’t even batted an eyelash, because it’s just another day in Albania.

Volunteer Visit Reversed

Group 17 has arrived in Albania and have completed two weeks of Pre-Service Training. At the end of the second week, the volunteers are all given a much needed break from language classes. They are sent to currently serving volunteers that are scattered around the country. This gives them an opportunity to see what day to day life is like. I was having a hard time registering that the new group was here. It didn’t fully hit me until my visitors got off the bus. I had actually been here a year. I was now one of the older group members with experience as a volunteer!

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Last year, I went to Fier for my visit on the second week. I still remember walking around and taking everything in with big bright eyes. The two girls I was visiting had their lives together at site. They were integrated, had adjusted to Albanian life and were using their shqip with anyone and everyone they saw around the city. I was so impressed, and it gave me hope that I would one day be at their level. Now, one year later, I am that person for the new volunteers. Do I feel as though I have my life together here? Not even close! I am still confused most of the time, don’t understand most things in Albania and am astounded that a year has already passed. To give myself a little credit, I have learned a lot. I have settled into my city and am slowly getting the hang of life here. It has made me realize that the confusion and feelings of being a foreigner will never, truly go away.

Peace Corps sent me one of the married couples in Group 17. They are originally from the UK, but have lived in California for the past 25 years. Graham, was a small business owner and is in the Community Development Sector. Teresa, is a nurse and will be working in the Health Sector.

Out for coffee

Out for coffee

Gezuar!

Gezuar!

As PCV’s, you get used to spending a lot of time by yourself. Whether you have a site-mate or many volunteers close to your city, won’t make that much of a difference. You live alone, go to work alone and spend your evenings, alone,  curled up on your couch watching reruns of a random tv show. This usually doesn’t bother me that much. I lived alone for a few years before coming to Albania, and have no problem entertaining myself. But I am human and it does get lonely. Needless to say, I was excited to have people coming to visit my city. The new volunteers stayed with me from Saturday through Tuesday. As you can imagine, that was quite the change from my normal solitude.

The first few days we did some hiking so they could see more of Permet and the surrounding mountains. We ended up crawling through a hole in a fence in order to get through to the main road. The owner of the property was standing there, spouting off random directions in Shqip. An Albanian, yelling, telling us what to do and then laughing at our weird foreign tendencies. There couldn’t have been a more fitting snapshot of life here for the new volunteers.

Sure, we will crawl through the hole in your fence.

Sure, we will crawl through the hole in your fence.

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One of the sketchier bridges on the outskirts of Permet!

One of the sketchier bridges on the outskirts of Permet!

When volunteers get together, we always try to make as much delicious food as you can. More times than not, this involves a Mexican feast. We stayed true to style and made fajitas one evening. The new volunteers visibly relaxed as they realized the next few days were at their disposal. They were getting a well deserved break from the jam packed schedule of PST. It was fun for me to hear them talk about the challenges of those first few weeks. There are so many awkward incidences when living with a host family and not having the language skills to communicate. I had forgotten about a lot of these moments. As the weekend wore on, the best advice I could give them, is to just make it through PST. Life gets so much better once you arrive at site and gain your independence back!

Touring the cemetery of Permet

Touring the cemetery of Permet

Checking out the soccer stadium

Checking out the soccer stadium

On Monday, I took Teresa to work with me. Graham and the other COD volunteer went with my site-mate to the Municipality. Teresa and I made our way over to the health center. We talked a lot about what she might come to expect in her workdays with a health center. My coworkers were in the office that morning and plenty of introductions were made with the rest of the staff.

Teresa and my coworkers

Teresa and my coworkers

Another great shot with Vike and Oli. They make me squat down now so I don't look like a giant.

Another great shot with Vike and Oli. They make me squat down now so I don’t look like a giant.

Vike, Oli, Teresa and I all wandered towards the center of town later that morning. They wanted to hang some health posters up to promote healthy eating. Afterwards, we headed to a cafe that sits alongside the river. During our coffee break, Teresa got a true sense of what life might be like at a health center. Vike and Oli do not speak any english, so her shqip skills were put to use. I helped translate throughout the conversation, but she understood a lot of what was happening. I was very impressed by how much she had learned after two weeks. She did a great job with the limited vocabulary she has at this point.You could see the wheels turning away in her brain as she struggled to retrieve the meanings of various words. It was just another reminder of what life was like at the beginning of service.

In the center

In the center

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Why not hang a poster on a tree

Why not hang a poster on a tree

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The volunteer visit is a great way to give the new trainees a glimpse into the future. After recalling what it was like to be the newbies on the visit, I still can’t believe I’m on the opposite end of the equation. I have unconsciously switched into the role of an older group member. I answered their questions with the experiences and lessons I have learned since being here. I recounted many of the funny, confusing and frustrating stories that make up my life as a PCV. It’s a great feeling to be able to sit back and revel in the fact that I have made it through an entire year in Albania!

Because you know I am sitting alone in my apt!

Hiking. Albanian Style.

The winters here are drastically different from what I am used to in North Dakota. I have been able to go for runs, picnics and drink coffees while sitting outside. Even so, I started having a small dose of cabin fever  this past month. I was ready for summer, camping and bon fires! Whether I am ready for the  lack of deodorant and never-ending smells is another story. Nevertheless, a fellow volunteer had started organizing a hike near my site and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I excitedly packed my bag to spend a few days exploring the mountains.

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Getting ready to head out.

Getting ready to head out.

The group

The group

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I have said it before and I am sure I will say it countless times again; this country is absolutely beautiful. We started our hike from a village located about an hour from Permet. Once there, we hiked across the mountains to eventually arrive closer to the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Our Albanian habits shown through, as we all had enough boiled eggs to last us through the next few days.

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As we walked farther into the mountains we passed through various villages. The first of which, we stopped for a coffee break. There were some kids playing soccer in the old school yard. A few of us wandered down to meet them and throw a frisbee around. This attracted more and more children and eventually we were the minority strewn between excited children. Near the cafe, some Albanian men sat, drank their coffee and watched us play. We couldn’t have created more of a Peace Corps scenario if we tried.

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The village kids wandered out to meet this parade of Americans!

The village kids wandered out to meet this parade of Americans!

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The cutest little boys

The cutest little boys

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After our coffee break (told you we were becoming more Albanian), we passed by a smaller river. One of the volunteers in my group, will literally jump into any body of water if you ask him to. It didn’t take long for us to convince two of the boys to jump in the river from the bridge. We all laughed at their stupidity as they shrieked when they hit the freezing water. But, true to style, five minutes later, I found myself doing the exact same thing. Nothing like a mini polar plunge to wake you up for the rest of the hike!

Brrr!

Brrr!

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We were feeling alive!

We were feeling alive!

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After breaking for lunch we continued on, edging closer and closer the mountains. Hidden among the various villages, was a huge monument. None of us knew what it was for or why it would have been built where almost no one would see it.

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After reaching the point where we had to turn off the main road, there was a little more hesitation in our direction. Lucky for us, 3G saved the day and we were able to verify that we were heading in the right direction. In the midst of which, we got chased by a few crazy Albanians that wanted to charge us for the “information” they gave us. We quickly decided to camp as far away from them as possible. Which is how we found ourselves scaling, climbing and falling down the side of a mountain into a river bed. Some of us went ahead to try and scope out a trail while others worked together to help get each others bags down the hill.

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Now this is some legit hiking

Now this is some legit hiking

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Nothing like a little teamwork

Nothing like a little teamwork

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All 14 of us made it and we set up camp for the night on some grassy land. After building a bon fire, eating and finally sitting down, you could hear a collective sigh of exhaustion from everyone. Every time I think I am in shape, I go hiking and it undeniably proves me wrong! Winding down in front of the bon fire and eventually climbing into my hammock was a perfect ending to the day. However, for future reference, March may be a little too early for sleeping while slung up between the trees. I was more than a little chilly in those late night hours!

A beautiful view to wake up to!

A beautiful view to wake up to!

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Day Two was spent crawling through thorny bushes, following goat trails and crossing the river more times than most of us cared for.

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We eventually arrived at our final destination, most of us unscathed and a few with minor scrapes and bruises.

Lunch break!

Lunch break!

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The beautiful views of Borsh

The beautiful views of Borsh

As we sat there and ate lunch, I felt a sense of accomplishment wash over me. We had just completed two full days of hiking in the mountains of southern Albania. Most of which was done without any semblance of a trail. We had slept outside, carried all of our belongings with us and used the river as our guide. We were becoming more and more Albanian every day. As my feelings of pride continue welling up, a large group of goats began making their way towards us. There were two Albanian men with them, a donkey and their two dogs. They were heading into the direction from which we had come. The exact place that I had just praised myself for making it out of. We soon learned they were heading into the mountains so their herd could graze and they could make goat cheese. Only difference is they were staying more than a few nights. They were “camping” in the mountains until September. That was all it took to knock me back to reality. I still like to think that we went hiking Albanian style. But we inevitably did so with an American twist.

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We survived!

We did it!

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Water Schedules

Arriving home and realizing that I am back on a water schedule:

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Accepting that I am being a tad melodramatic and reminding myself I am in the Peace Corps.

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Later on, when the electricity in my bathroom quits working and I am bucket showering in the dark.

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30 Things

Marc and Angel, two passionate writers, life-hackers and “admirers of the human spirit,” have come up with an amazing list of 30 things to stop doing to yourself. If you like their list, make sure you check out their site and sign up to their amazing newsletter.

#1. Stop spending time with the wrong people. – Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you.  If someone wants you in their life, they’ll make room for you.  You shouldn’t have to fight for a spot.  Never, ever insist yourself to someone who continuously overlooks your worth.  And remember, it’s not the people that stand by your side when you’re at your best, but the ones who stand beside you when you’re at your worst that are your true friends.

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#2. Stop running from your problems. – Face them head on.  No, it won’t be easy.  There is no person in the world capable of flawlessly handling every punch thrown at them.  We aren’t supposed to be able to instantly solve problems.  That’s not how we’re made.  In fact, we’re made to get upset, sad, hurt, stumble and fall.  Because that’s the whole purpose of living – to face problems, learn, adapt, and solve them over the course of time.  This is what ultimately molds us into the person we become.

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#3. Stop lying to yourself. – You can lie to anyone else in the world, but you can’t lie to yourself.  Our lives improve only when we take chances, and the first and most difficult chance we can take is to be honest with ourselves.

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#4. Stop putting your own needs on the back burner. – The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.  Yes, help others; but help yourself too.  If there was ever a moment to follow your passion and do something that matters to you, that moment is now.

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#5. Stop trying to be someone you’re not. – One of the greatest challenges in life is being yourself in a world that’s trying to make you like everyone else.  Someone will always be prettier, someone will always be smarter, someone will always be younger, but they will never be you.  Don’t change so people will like you.  Be yourself and the right people will love the real you.

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#6. Stop trying to hold onto the past. – You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one.

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#7. Stop being scared to make a mistake. – Doing something and getting it wrong is at least ten times more productive than doing nothing.  Every success has a trail of failures behind it, and every failure is leading towards success.  You end up regretting the things you did NOT do far more than the things you did.

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#8. Stop berating yourself for old mistakes. – We may love the wrong person and cry about the wrong things, but no matter how things go wrong, one thing is for sure, mistakes help us find the person and things that are right for us.  We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past.  But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.  Every single thing that has ever happened in your life is preparing you for a moment that is yet to come.

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#9. Stop trying to buy happiness. – Many of the things we desire are expensive.  But the truth is, the things that really satisfy us are totally free – love, laughter and working on our passions.

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#10. Stop exclusively looking to others for happiness. – If you’re not happy with who you are on the inside, you won’t be happy in a long-term relationship with anyone else either.  You have to create stability in your own life first before you can share it with someone else.

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#11. Stop being idle. – Don’t think too much or you’ll create a problem that wasn’t even there in the first place.  Evaluate situations and take decisive action.  You cannot change what you refuse to confront.  Making progress involves risk.  Period!  You can’t make it to second base with your foot on first.

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#12. Stop thinking you’re not ready. – Nobody ever feels 100% ready when an opportunity arises.  Because most great opportunities in life force us to grow beyond our comfort zones, which means we won’t feel totally comfortable at first.

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#13. Stop getting involved in relationships for the wrong reasons. – Relationships must be chosen wisely.  It’s better to be alone than to be in bad company.  There’s no need to rush.  If something is meant to be, it will happen – in the right time, with the right person, and for the best reason. Fall in love when you’re ready, not when you’re lonely.

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#14. Stop rejecting new relationships just because old ones didn’t work. – In life you’ll realize that there is a purpose for everyone you meet.  Some will test you, some will use you and some will teach you.  But most importantly, some will bring out the best in you.

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#15. Stop trying to compete against everyone else. – Don’t worry about what others are doing better than you.  Concentrate on beating your own records every day.  Success is a battle between YOU and YOURSELF only.

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#16. Stop being jealous of others. – Jealousy is the art of counting someone else’s blessings instead of your own.  Ask yourself this:  “What’s something I have that everyone wants?”

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#17. Stop complaining and feeling sorry for yourself. – Life’s curveballs are thrown for a reason – to shift your path in a direction that is meant for you.  You may not see or understand everything the moment it happens, and it may be tough.  But reflect back on those negative curveballs thrown at you in the past.  You’ll often see that eventually they led you to a better place, person, state of mind, or situation.  So smile!  Let everyone know that today you are a lot stronger than you were yesterday, and you will be.

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#18. Stop holding grudges. – Don’t live your life with hate in your heart.  You will end up hurting yourself more than the people you hate.  Forgiveness is not saying, “What you did to me is okay.”  It is saying, “I’m not going to let what you did to me ruin my happiness forever.”  Forgiveness is the answer… let go, find peace, liberate yourself!  And remember, forgiveness is not just for other people, it’s for you too.  If you must, forgive yourself, move on and try to do better next time.

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#19. Stop letting others bring you down to their level. – Refuse to lower your standards to accommodate those who refuse to raise theirs.

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#20. Stop wasting time explaining yourself to others. – Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it anyway.  Just do what you know in your heart is right.

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#21. Stop doing the same things over and over without taking a break. – The time to take a deep breath is when you don’t have time for it.  If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.  Sometimes you need to distance yourself to see things clearly.

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#22. Stop overlooking the beauty of small moments. – Enjoy the little things, because one day you may look back and discover they were the big things.  The best portion of your life will be the small, nameless moments you spend smiling with someone who matters to you.

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#23. Stop trying to make things perfect. – The real world doesn’t reward perfectionists, it rewards people who get things done.

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#24. Stop following the path of least resistance. – Life is not easy, especially when you plan on achieving something worthwhile.  Don’t take the easy way out.  Do something extraordinary.

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#25. Stop acting like everything is fine if it isn’t. – It’s okay to fall apart for a little while.  You don’t always have to pretend to be strong, and there is no need to constantly prove that everything is going well.  You shouldn’t be concerned with what other people are thinking either – cry if you need to – it’s healthy to shed your tears.  The sooner you do, the sooner you will be able to smile again.

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#26. Stop blaming others for your troubles. – The extent to which you can achieve your dreams depends on the extent to which you take responsibility for your life.  When you blame others for what you’re going through, you deny responsibility – you give others power over that part of your life.

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#27. Stop trying to be everything to everyone. – Doing so is impossible, and trying will only burn you out.  But making one person smile CAN change the world.  Maybe not the whole world, but their world.  So narrow your focus.

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#28. Stop worrying so much. – Worry will not strip tomorrow of its burdens, it will strip today of its joy.  One way to check if something is worth mulling over is to ask yourself this question: “Will this matter in one year’s time?  Three years?  Five years?”  If not, then it’s not worth worrying about.

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#29. Stop focusing on what you don’t want to happen. – Focus on what you do want to happen.  Positive thinking is at the forefront of every great success story.  If you awake every morning with the thought that something wonderful will happen in your life today, and you pay close attention, you’ll often find that you’re right.

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#30. Stop being ungrateful. – No matter how good or bad you have it, wake up each day thankful for your life.  Someone somewhere else is desperately fighting for theirs.  Instead of thinking about what you’re missing, try thinking about what you have that everyone else is missing.

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Chicken. It’s what’s for Dinner.

A couple of months ago, I decided I wanted to kill a chicken during my time here. For my fellow Albanian friends, this was a run of the mill, every day type of thing. The fact that I was an American, planning out every detail of killing a chicken, made them laugh quite a bit. Not to mention, that it was my main topic of conversation for a couple of weeks before the actual event.

One afternoon, I started talking to my coworkers husband about where I should find a chicken. Gjergji immediately called over a younger Albanian that was having coffee in the corner. He told the boy that I would like to buy a chicken and started talking about prices. I realized that they were discussing an already butchered chicken so I had to interrupt. I told him that I wanted the chicken alive so that I could kill it and eat it. I threw in the knife slitting its throat action to make sure there was no confusion. Gjergji burst out laughing and was no help for the remainder of the conversation. The boy just stood there awkwardly stuttering about prices to this excited, and I’m sure in his mind: crazy, American girl. We decided that I would get a hold of him once I figured out the date for my chicken feast. I left the cafe feeling proud now that I had a chicken guy.

A few weeks later, we had decided on a date for our chicken slaughtering and feast. A group of volunteers were visiting Permet for the first time. One of the volunteers had experience killing birds and he was going to show us how to skin and clean it so we could prepare it. Gjergji, my coworkers husband, had told me that he would get a few chickens for us from a neighboring village. Some cities in Albania, have a weekly farmers market where veggies, clothes and animals can be bought. Permet however, doesn’t have one of these so I had to reach out to the villagers. Gjergji had the connections to do so and was excited about helping me become a little more Albanian. The week leading up to our chicken killing, I visited Gjergji’s cafe on a few different occasions. With the language barrier, you can never be 100% sure that you are being understood. We discussed the details of how many chickens, if he would cook them for us, what time we would kill them and so forth. Feeling confident that all was correct, I kept busy until Saturday rolled around.

Gjergji decided I should use his hatchet to kill the chickens. Um, okay I guess.

Gjergji decided I should use his hatchet to kill the chickens. Um, okay I guess.

On Saturday, the other volunteers and I headed to the cafe to figure out what time we should pick up the chickens. I walked in and started talking to Gjergji about how his day was and how I was excited for our chicken feast. He had this goofy smile on his face when I told him we would come back to get them in a few hours. He proceeded to lead me into his kitchen, and opened his oven. Inside, I saw two chickens, nestled in between veggies and broth, cooking away. I asked him why on earth were they already dead?! He knew we wanted to kill them. He knew that we had planned this entire weekend around our chicken slaughtering. He just shook his head and told me that the chickens were making too much noise in his kitchen. As I stood there, more than a little agitated, he made loud chicken noises to prove his point. As I just stared, unsure what to say to him, he started laughing and kept telling me this wasn’t a problem. I guess I had tried, and coincidentally failed at killing my first chicken. You can plan and plan and plan here, but things tend to fall through the cracks for one reason or another. As a volunteer, I have gotten used to this and found myself hoping I had better luck next time.

Turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long. The following weekend, a group of volunteers and I headed up north. Things seem to be more rugged and conservative up north and there is a running joke that only mountain men live up there. What better place to kill a chicken?!

Almost to Kukes,  a city in the far northern corner of Albania.

Almost to Kukes, a city in the far northern corner of Albania.

In Tirana

Pit stop in the capital

When we arrived in Kukes, we ended up going on a run to see more of the city. We will ignore the fact that I felt as though I was going to die and didn’t enjoy much of the scenery. The staring and hollering that we got from the boys in Kukes edged onto the ridiculous side. Two girls running, obviously foreign, ate up the attention of every single male in the city. One thing I have noticed since arriving in Albania, is that I am getting very good at ignoring stares and unwanted attention. Of course, I still have my moments that I would like nothing more than to yell back every obscene word I know. Thus far, I have refrained, which is usually followed by marching to a store and purchasing a chocolate bar.

My only random shot of Kukes

My only random shot of Kukes

After our run we were more than warmed up to say goodbye to our chickens and hello to dinner.

Poor guys had no diea.

Poor guys had no idea.

Our teacher ready for some bloodshed

Our teacher ready for some bloodshed

Emily, another volunteer, and I cut the heads off the chickens and put them in a bucket to bleed out. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to cut through and we literally had to put our body weight into it. A sharper knife would have made the whole experience much less traumatizing for the killers and the chickens.

I'm up first.

I’m up first.

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Done! Bloody knife ready to be handed off.

Done! Bloody knife ready to be handed off.

Emily's turn

Emily’s turn

We also learned how to skin and clean our chickens. The apartment we were at was on a water schedule so we had to clean them with buckets of water that we had gotten earlier.

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So happy to be holding a dead chicken in my hand. I think Peace Corps is making me weird.

So happy to be holding a dead chicken in my hand. I think Peace Corps is making me weird.

Our chickens went into a soup with other fresh veggies and cooked for the afternoon. It was the first meal that I had made from literal start to finish and it was delicious! It did turn out to be a little more work than I had expected but definitely worth it. After returning to Permet, I was able to tell my Albanian friends about my weekend. I earned more street cred from the kids in my neighborhood for spending the weekend with the rugged people of the north. Likewise, I earned a note of respect with the farmers for slowly becoming more “Shqiptar!”

Assumptions in the Kitchen

What have I learned about making assumptions in Albania? Don’t do it. There are times when the situation might still play out as you had hoped. But add in the language barrier, difference in culture and general confusion of life and there is a recipe for disaster.

If you hadn’t guessed, I love food. I love cooking and baking and everything that goes along with it. More so, the taste testing than the actual clean up but beggars can’t be choosers. Whenever I make something here, it is usually the “Albanianized” version of that dish. Unless we had some of the foreign ingredients sent in a care package, we’re out of luck. Therefore, plenty of substitutions and twists are made on those delicacies that we are craving. You can usually find me in the corner aisle of the store in Permet, with my phone out and Google translate working hard.(I know, I know, Google translate on my phone in a Peace Corps country. Albania is a strange country, with some of those first world luxuries, mixed in with those third world struggles.)  I prefer the brands that have pictures to cut out some of the guesswork. However, I am starting to get better about reading labels in Shqip and Greek. Or so I thought. 

Making pizza dough!

Making pizza dough!

 

 

Almost ready!

Almost ready!

Becoming a good cook is all about making mistakes, learning, adjusting and becoming a better chef for it. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. When it’s just me in Permet, I don’t mind making errors in the kitchen. I have been known to eat almost anything and when you factor in our volunteer budget. Well, lets just say I would have to mess something up quite badly to throw it out! I am sad to say, this last week was one of those times. I had bought ingredients to make cookie and pizza dough earlier in the week. This was one of those trips that I wanted to get in and out of the store as fast as possible. No translating, searching or trying to ask for an ingredient. If we’re being honest, I was just being lazy. I did stop to answer the usual questions about my health, my family, where I was the previous weekend, and where I would be this next weekend. You can’t cut out Albania completely. After getting home, I started a movie marathon and began making my cookie dough. After tasting it, I thought something tasted a little off but figured they would taste better after baking. Something still tasted weird. I triple checked the recipe and that I added everything I was suppose to. At a loss for what went wrong, I moved on to my next recipe. I made pizza dough according to my new-found skills from my Italy trip. After letting the dough rise for a couple hours and making a pizza, I tasted that same weird flavor. I realized I couldn’t be imagining that sourness and got out the “salt” packet that I had bought earlier. It looked like salt, had the same packaging as salt but had a word I didn’t recognize on back. I tasted a tiny bit, and it definitely was NOT salt. I broke out my Google app and realized that I had accidentally bought tartaric acid.

Tartaric acid is a white crystalline diprotic aldaric acid. It occurs naturally in many plants, particularly grapesbananas, and tamarinds, is commonly combined with baking soda to function as a leavening agent in recipes, and is one of the main acids found in wine. It is added to other foods to give a sour taste, and is used as an antioxidant.”

As you can imagine, tartaric acid does not taste good in cookie dough or pizza dough, or anything else for that matter. Intense disappointment set in when I realized I had used a precious cup of my brown sugar to make these cookies that were going in the trash. Brown sugar is one of those ingredients that you cannot find anywhere in Albania. Which is why cookies are a special occasion only dessert here.

In between cooking failures, I hosted some volunteers in Permet. We had a great weekend hiking around Permet and soaking up the spring weather.

Rocking the sweatshirt around the waste look.

Rocking the sweatshirt around the waste look.

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What you find in the foothills of Permet!

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Catching rain off the rocks by the church is supposed to be a blessing.

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Getting cozy

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We also found our way to the water reservoir that is located about an hour’s walk outside of Permet. After trampling through a farmers yard, trying to ask her where this “lake” was, confusing her more and not getting a clear answer, we continued on our way. Not before, setting off every single animal in her yard. The dogs were barking, chickens crowings, sheep baaing and the cows were mooing as we stepped off her property. We were able to find the water reservoir but figured it was best to find a different pathway back home.

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In honor of Saint Patrick’s day coming up, I decided that beer bread would be a good side dish. We even had some green food coloring left over from a care package. After baking the bread for an hour and taking it out of the oven, I could tell something wasn’t right. Turns out, you shouldn’t assume that you are using self rising flour. Since the entire package was written in greek, I actually had no idea what type of flour I was using, just that it was white, like flour should be. As I sat and stared at my brick of beer bread, I got a little frustrated. I was going to make it again and it WAS going to turn out. Round two came out of the oven looking better but it was definitely “Albanianized.” We didn’t have a loaf pan so we had to use a round flat pan that is used for almost everything else here. This resulted in a round, green flat-bread of sorts. At least, this time the bread was quite tasty, looked festive and wasn’t burnt so I viewed it as a big success.

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Yum

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On top of the city Rock in Permet

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My favorite little girls in Permet

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They are all about the photo shoots in my apartment

I printed off some of these photos for the girls and handed them out this last week. I found out I may have opened up Pandora's box to photo shoots and getting myself roped into printing photos off...

I printed off some of these photos for the girls and handed them out this last week. I found out I may have opened up Pandora’s box to photo shoots and getting myself roped into printing photos off in the future…

After a week full of cooking mistakes, these memories are permanently etched in my brain. Never again, will I buy tartaric acid. For anything. Nor will I make assumptions about what I am buying in the store. Unless the package is in Greek, of which I cannot read a single word of. More “learning lessons” are probably in my future here in Albania. Which is okay, as long as my success record doesn’t turn into a negative number. Of course, there are always those go to recipes that you know will turn out. Which I found myself needing this last weekend. What better to turn to than a delicious box of American Brownie mix. Can’t mess that up and when we threw some Oreos in the mix, it was literally success in a pan!

Don't judge that we ate out of the pan!

Don’t judge that we ate out of the pan!

GLOW

GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World. Camp GLOW began in Romania in 1995. Since that first camp in Romania, Peace Corps has actively supported and began camps in other countries. In each country, the camps are individualized to support their community needs. However, certain principles and themes exist through all the camps, no matter their location. These include developing leadership skills, improving self esteem, increasing knowledge of women’s health issues, respecting and caring for the environment, and promoting the belief that every young woman can make a difference in their community.

Last year, the PCV’s in Albania, determined there was a need for a Camp GLOW. This last week, I attended the first ever conference to jump start Camp GLOW throughout Albania. Twelve volunteers, along with our Albanian counterparts, attended the two day long conference in Tirana.

Valmira and I

Valmira and I

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Before attending the conference, I visited another volunteer who lives in between Permet and Tirana. Jill and Kat were two of the girls in my training group during PST. They were around for those first ten weeks of ups and downs. It was fun to be able to catch up without a host family curfew looming in our futures. We ended up having an impromptu candlelight dinner as the restaurant we were at lost power. Thankfully the pizzas were being cooked in a brick oven or there would have been some HANGRY volunteers.

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I also had the opportunity to hang out with my friends visitor from the states. Spending time with other Americans who aren’t PCV’s is always a nice change. Peace Corps tends to bring out the weirdness in people, and Albania is no exception. I like to think that visitors bring some sense of normalcy that we forget exists. Which is why Sam glanced at us weirdly as we all got very excited to see he had brought real American Quarters. It may not have been the most appropriate reaction to coins from the bottom of his bag.

Double rainbow in Tirana

Double rainbow in Tirana

I don't care what you say, I will be as excited as I want when I find Strawberries!

I don’t care what you say, I will be as excited as I want when I find Strawberries!

Rakiatos- An albanian tradition

Rakiatos- An albanian tradition

Fun little group

Fun little group

The rest of the conference was spent learning about what GLOW is and how we can utilize different tools in our community. It was completely designed by other volunteers and they did a great job. Unfortunately for Valmira, that meant everything was in English. As I glanced over at her face, I couldn’t help but notice a certain look of overwhelming confusion. The same one that had been splashed across my face for a good majority of my life in Albania. She didn’t understand all of the topics we discussed but she did her best to keep up and I was grateful for her effort.

Talking about our camp in Permet

Talking about our camp in Permet

Certificate of completion

Certificate of completion

GLOW Albania!

GLOW Albania!

Yay!!

A wonderful group of women from America and Albania working together!

Empowering girls in Albania to improve their lives is an issue that I feel passionately about. As volunteers, we are used to such equality in the states.There are constant reminders of this issue here, and we often feel like we have stepped back in time.  Whether it is when we are out having coffee and cannot see another female in sight. Or when we hear girls talk about how their dream is to get married and become a housewife. Or when I go for a run and stop almost every boy/ man and car in their tracks because a female is out exercising. In public. Something needs to budge and this year volunteers will be working with the girls of Albania to do just that. Change is bound to happen and it all started with something as simple as a summer camp!

Lipstick Anyone?

Every so often, I have a day where I can’t stop shaking my head at the sheer ridiculousness of my life here. Before moving to Albania, I worked at a wide variety of jobs. Everything from mowing lawns, to personal training, to secretarial work to a PT Aide. I am no stranger to working at a job that entails me to run every errand under the sun. Some were more fulfilling than others and some were only a paycheck. The Peace Corps has a slogan “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” This is without a doubt, one of the strangest, low to high roller-coaster of a job that I will list on my resume.

I work at the health center and have settled into a rhythm of regularly talking with five women there. One is my counterpart, she is the Albanian that can understand my Shqiplish the best. The other four women are my coworkers, and your guess is as good as mine to what their title might actually be. This last week was full of self-esteem boosting moments with these women. Okay, boosted may have been too strong of a word, or the completely wrong word in general. They do mean well, and that’s what matters right?

I am slowly getting more confidence in my shqip skills to throw in random comments or remarks. My counterpart had straightened her hair one morning and I thought she looked really nice. I told her she looked pretty and that I liked her hair that day. She said thank you and then eyed my hair and commented that it looked like I hadn’t showered that day. Then she started laughing and I had no choice but to join her because we both knew she was correct.

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The following day I decided to put some more effort into what I was going to wear. I broke out my dress pants and one of my fancier shirts. I even threw in a sparkly scarf for a good Albanian measure. I felt quite fancy as I walked to work that morning. My coworkers liked my outfit. But, it turns out there was a problem with my face. I hadn’t worn makeup that day, which wasn’t out of the ordinary for me at the health center. However, my face had been breaking out a little bit and it was obvious I had some pimples on my cheeks and chin. My coworker was quick to point that out and thus began the Q & A. Why on earth was I not wearing makeup today if my skin looked like that? Didn’t I know that makeup would cover up pimples? Why hadn’t I planned more time to get ready before I left my apt? My teeth were still white but they were distracted by my pimples and became very concerned. Lucky for me, my coworker whipped out her extremely bright pink lipstick and ordered me to put some on. She explained that if I was wearing this lipstick people wouldn’t notice the pimples on my face. If I am being honest, this is not the worst logic that they have had.

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And that concluded my workday.

During our coffee break, not only was I rocking my bright lipstick, I was having an actual conversation. I even strung a few sentences together with correct grammar, which my counterpart pointed out. I had no shame as I clapped and jumped for joy at my elementary school level shqip skills. We started talking about prices of homes and apartments in America, as well as other costs. The owner started asking me about where I had lived, the price and how I paid for it. I told him that I moved out of my parent’s house when I was eighteen and went to the university. I explained all of the different jobs I held throughout my four years of earning my diploma. They were shocked to hear that I went to school as well as had one or two jobs at the same time. When I started to talk about the cost of universities, their mouths dropped. Not to mention, the bachelors degree is thought of as the new high school diploma. Just another topic that is a normal part of American’s lives, but a foreign concept to the people I live with now.

It was a frustrating week with my coworkers and a bit of a dagger to my self esteem. But, as I was walking home, my favorite veggie guy waved me over and talked my ear off. I told him I would take one apple and he ended up sending me home with two bags full of free produce. All it took was a walk across town to cheer me up, and free food never hurt! DSC03173

And if all else fails, hiking in the beautiful mountains surrounding Permet is a perfect afternoon getaway.

Liila and I hiking to the village of Benja

Liila and I hiking to the village of Benja

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