The Little Things

Many days pass by without anything significant occurring. After almost two years in my site, I can honestly say I have acquired a normal routine. Even the strange “Only in Albania” moments no longer phase me. Now I know when the town crazy starts to yell AMERICA at me, I should just ignore him and he will eventually walk away. Or when my favorite veggie man hounds me as to why I haven’t been around in three days. It’s not creepy, he is genuinely interested in why he hasn’t seen me. Or when there is a knock at my door and a shy boy sweetly asks for help with his English homework. Or when six neighborhood girls show up, grins spilled across their faces and “AMBER” spewing from their lips. Followed by me taking pictures with each individual and promising to post them on Facebook. Obviously. Because it’s just another day in the life of an American living in Albania.

Such a cutie

Such a cutie

Permet is burrowed between two mountain ranges. The mountain tops are covered with snow from November to April. Beautiful to look at, but rarely does it get cold enough to actually blanket the city. The other week we had an exciting turn of events. There was SNOW in my city! As I walked outside, residents of my neighborhood seemed a bit confused about how to handle the strange weather. Umbrellas were brought out for those brave enough to walk around. Others just stood under awnings and gossiped. I strode through the city center, grinning and feeling right at home. Later on, I bundled up and set out for my daily run. Not five minutes out the door, I was ambushed by a group of little boys, their arms loaded with snowballs. Now that is one way to add excitement and speed to my workout!

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Chickens for sale

Chickens for sale

When I was younger, I used to spend hours at the library. I would scour through the stacks and stacks of books, continually finding new favorites. Eventually walking home with my arms loaded with that weeks chosen items. I had never thought about that as luxury, not available to everyone. Until I came to Albania. There is a library in my city but it is hardly ever open. On top of that, the books are so old and lackluster that it would take an avid reader next to no time to get through them. When a young girl in my Youth Council mentioned how much she loves to read, it struck a chord with me. I quickly arranged with a neighboring volunteer to borrow books from their library each month. When I told the girl at our next meeting, she was visibly touched. As she thanked me I could see tears in her eyes. All because of a few books. Something I completely took for granted growing up.

The past few weeks have been filled with seemingly insignificant events. However, those little moments hold more importance than I originally thought. I am realizing, those little things are actually the big things. And they form the memories I will look back on and remember with the most fondness.

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Valentines Day Traditions

Last year, I distinctly remember I spent Valentine’s day cleaning the mold from my apt and watching a gory war movie. Thankfully, I spent this year celebrating a bit differently. I started off the weekend with an impromptu trip to Tirana with my sitemates. I soon realized the capital city isn’t so bad when you go with friends. We spent the day eating bagels, consuming fancy coffee drinks and relishing in the luxuries of movie theaters. A welcome change from sitting in my icebox of an apartment and studying for the GRE.

Being photobombed by some Albanians

Being photobombed by some Albanians

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Fresh squeezed fruits and vegetables for $1!!

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Upon returning to Permet, the youth council and I dove head first into finishing up the details of their fundraiser. They had decided to plan another movie day, inviting kids from the high school to watch a Nicholas Sparks movie. In the spirit of Valentines day, even the boys were on board to watch this “chick flick”. Throughout the week, we periodically stopped at the cultural center to make sure everything was working with the TV and speakers. Everything seemed to be in order and ready to go. Some of the girls even baked heart shaped cookies and bought other snack options.

The day of the event, the kids and I arrived an hour before the movie time to set up. We plugged the USB into the TV and nothing happened. We then tried the dvd player. Again nothing. One of the boys ran home to retrieve a cord to allow us to plus his phone into the tv and watch the movie that way. It still didn’t work. As the movie start time approached, it quickly passed by. For the next half hour, we had way too many cooks in the kitchen, as we tried to get the movie on screen. I stood in the corner, kept my fingers crossed and tried to keep the boys from getting out of control. Thankfully, a half an hour later, we finally got the movie working. Better late than never!

The Youth Council was able to raise a good chunk of money for their club. With each fundraiser we do, they are becoming more responsible and proactive. It has been fun to sit back and watch each of them slowly grow into their own kind of leader. Each member contributes their own unique qualities to the group. I am very proud of them and can’t wait to see what they come up with next!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

26 and Flooding

This year my birthday cake was served with a healthy dose of flood warnings. After living through several floods in Fargo/Moorhead, this was not uncharted territory. My junior year of college was the most memorable. Classes were cancelled the week before spring break because of an intense blizzard. Not news worthy in North Dakota. However, this was immediately followed by warm temperatures and an overflowing river. My spring break turned into a sandbagging marathon. Classes were then canceled for an additional week, as students banded together to help the effort.

Part of the sandbagging efforts at the Fargo Dome.

Filling sandbags at the Fargo Dome.

Much like I remember, the river in Permet, seemed to rise out of nowhere. Soon, the main bridge into my city was in serious danger of flooding. As albanians like to do, residents of the city stood near the river, contemplating and discussing what will happen next.

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Thankfully, as soon as the white rapids appeared in the raging river, they seemed to disappear. Peace Corps has volunteers in my area on a travel restriction, but our fingers are crossed the worst of it is over. Just in time for chocolate cupcakes, filled with chocolate caramel ganache and topped with chocolate buttercream frosting. If your mouth isn’t watering, then it should be. It was the absolute best dessert to ring in my last moments of being twenty five.

YUM!! My sitemate is an amazing cook!

YUM!! My sitemate is an amazing cook!

So much wonderful homemade food!

So much wonderful homemade food!

Face masks. Minus Emilie who was a little hesitant of putting cocoa and coffee on her face.

Face masks. Minus Emilie who was a little hesitant of putting cocoa and coffee on her face.

Who you celebrate with is far more important than the how or where. My grandma used to always say “Everyone deserves to feel special on their birthday.” As I was surrounded by some of my favorite people, that is exactly how I felt. The abundance of chocolate didn’t hurt either!

I run. You stare.

As a part of my COS (Close of Service) plans, I decided to set my sights on running my first full marathon. Some people might ask what got into my head, with a bewildered look on their face. Others understand, and agree with me, that this is one of the best excuses to center a vacation around.

The farthest I have ever run is a half marathon, followed by a Tough Mudder (12 miles) and a lot of 3k runs. These races have peppered my past and become some of my favorite memories. Some looked upon more fondly then others. One winter I got the bright idea that I should take part in “fun runs” in the middle of the North Dakota winter. As I crossed the finish line of one particular race, it was negative fourteen degrees, my eyelashes were white with frost and I literally could not feel my face. Like I said, some were better than others.

As I embark on this sixteen week training schedule, gearing up for the big 26.2 mile race, I can’t help but get slightly overwhelmed. In the dark about running anything past fourteen miles, I am not sure what I am in for. Thankfully, I have quite a few avid running friends in the states that have been my go to for advice. While running one morning, I also came up with my very own mantra. “One day at a time. One week at a time.” Reminding me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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Training in Albania is quite a bit different from training in America. The most obvious of which is, I have to exercise outside- rain or shine. Luckily, I much prefer running outdoors to treadmills so this may be a blessing in disguise. Unless it’s raining, which usually results in multiple cars stopping me to ask if I need a ride somewhere.

Ultimately, the biggest lessons about running in Albania, can be narrowed down into three categories.

1. Don’t get hit by a car. 

Yes, some Albanians will stop and ask you for a ride. While others, usually teenage boys, think it’s funny to race past you as fast as possible. But, not before they creep alongside you first and stare. You can about imagine my face when that happens.

2.Don’t fall into a hole.

There is a reason I keep my eyes glued on the ground in front of me while I am running. Not only does this help me ignore all of the pointing and whispering, but it keeps me from literally falling into a whole. Or drain. Or gutter. Or twisting an ankle on the trash I’m constantly hopping over. Safety first people!

3.Don’t get bit by a dog.

This one may be the most important. There are only a handful of runs that I haven’t encountered a growling dog. Most of the time, they are harmless, unless they are sheep herding dogs. Then I shift my butt into gear and hightail it away from them as quickly and quietly as possible!

Beautiful mountain views.

Beautiful mountain views.

Over these next four months, when I need to, I can just repeat my mantra. One day at a time. One week at a time. Reminding me to get out of the driver’s seat, have faith and trust the training process.

Vote for Me!

I recently stumbled upon an amazing contest with the ultimate prize: the opportunity to travel the world. If won, it would allow me to travel clear across Asia. Two young gentlemen from Canada came up with a sixty month goal to hit every United Nation Country in the world! (Now, that is my type of five year plan!) Which would ultimately give them their “global degree.” For their second season, they have started a voting competition for one lucky female to join them in making their way across Asia.

Please go to this link and vote!! :

http://www.globaldegree.tv/#!contestants/c1gzb

‘Like’ the Global Degree FB page, their YouTube channel and press the little blue ‘like’ button on the right hand side of my “Amber Wunderlich” video. You must confirm the like for it to count.

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Celebrating Christmas and Ringing in the New Year

My last holiday season as a PCV had to be done big. If there is a better way to celebrate almost two years of service, you would have a hard time convincing me. (Actually, is there a better way, other than an amazing trip, to celebrate ANYTHING?!) Which is how Emilie and I settled on a vacation starting in Spain, traveling through Morocco and ending in Portugal. Two continents, three countries and eleven cities, all within two weeks. Excitement didn’t even begin to cover how I felt as I loaded up my backpack for this venture. With too many stories to cover in one blog post, I have rounded up fifteen of the most memorable moments that helped us ring in 2015.

1.When PCV’s travel here, we are required to use public transportation. This will take the form of either a furgon ( think of an old van) or a bus. When you board the vehicle, someone will take your bag and put it in the back of the furgon or under the bus. My bag has ridden next to a frozen goat carcass (on a 90 degree summer day), live animals, bags of produce, vats of wine and anything else you can imagine. On this particular trek, after six hours of traveling, I arrived in Tirana. As I went to retrieve my belongings, I had to move a live turkey out of the way. No sweat. But then as I grabbed my bag, I realized it was soaked. My first instinct was that it was covered with turkey pee. Great, I was going to start my vacation in Spain, smelling like bird urination. But upon closer inspection, I noticed it smelled like beer. How in the world that happened, I had no idea. All I knew was my backpack and most likely clothes, now smelled like a frat house. But hey, that’s better than the alternative.

Nothing a blow dryer can't fix. So ready for vacation!

Nothing a blow dryer can’t fix. So ready for vacation!

2. When I travel, I get lost. A lot. Finding hostels, or anything for that matter, the first time is always a bit challenging when you arrive in a new destination. Add the lack of English speakers to that and you have yourself a challenge. Albania has taught me, when you ask for directions, ask at LEAST two or three people. If that’s not an option, wander until you find what you’re looking for. In my experience, you will eventually get there. And as silly as this sounds, I always feel a tiny sense of accomplishment when I do. Like when I wandered around for over a half hour, asking at least five Spanish-only-speaking people, where an ATM was. Not going to lie, I was a bit frustrated. But on a side-note, I am becoming exceptionally good at charades.

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3.Sitting in the sun and enjoying the leisurely pace of Spain, we had our first taste of Sangria and Seafood Paella. It was delicious and much needed after escaping Albania.

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followed by fancy cakes of course.

followed by fancy cakes of course.

Christmas day! Our hostel had swings.

Christmas day! Our hostel had swings.

We love English

We love English

The palace in Madrid

The palace in Madrid

4. Barcelona and Madrid have these markets that I can only call a “food lover’s paradise.” We made more than one appearance at each and if you look at the pictures, you will see why.

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5. In order to cut down on travel time, we booked a cheap Ryanair flight from Spain to Morocco. Ryanair is not known for their customer service, but it’s cheap for a reason. And we weren’t picky. However, I wasn’t quite prepared to actually walk out to our plane. We should have known this was foreshadowing for our next few days in Morocco!

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6. After we made it to Morocco, we took a taxi to our hostel. Marrakesh is unlike anywhere I have ever visited. It didn’t help that we arrived in the midst of rush hour, it was CRAZY!! You could not pay me enough to try and drive there, and that is coming from a girl living in Albania. There were horses, cars, pick-ups, buses, but the wildest, were the motorcycles. Without a moment’s hesitation, countless bikes would weave through traffic or down little side roads that you were trying to walk down. Pedestrians in that city are brave souls.

henna

henna

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7. Marrakesh, and a large portion of Morocco, depend soley on the tourism industry. Because of this, people can be aggressive when they see you are foreign. We are both blonde haired and blue eyed, making it near impossible to blend in. Resulting in the full tourist treatment from locals. Thanks to living in a PC country, neither of us were newbies to the concept of harassment. I did not feel unsafe as I walked around. However, among shouts and catcalls, a woman grabbed my hand and tried to force me to buy her product. Finally releasing her grip, I walked away, unsure of what I had gotten into traveling here.

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8.Despite stories of harassment (and please keep in mind, that doesn’t mean everyone treated us this way), Morocco was easily the most intriguing country I have visited. With beautiful snow-capped mountains, land bordering the ocean, canyons filled with date trees and the Sahara desert, it literally has a little taste of everything. Not to mention, the amazingly rich culture that could provide countless stories. I hope one day I can return and learn more about it’s people and history. As well as visit more countries in Africa, which are now added to my ever growing destination wishlist.

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9. I love, love, love adventures. I actually have a bucket list soley devoted to the wild and crazy things I would like to accomplish in my life. Whether camel riding can be classified as adrenaline filled or not, it was something I thoroughly enjoyed checking off my list. We quickly found out camels are not the most comfortable animals to ride, nor are they always the nicest.

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Watch out!!

Watch out!!

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10. The more active I can be while I travel, and in general, the happier I am. It was a pleasant surprise when our guide handed me a snowboard to bring with on our journey into the desert. One of my favorite moments of the trip was when I stood atop a giant sand dune, with my feet strapped into the board and glanced at the immensity of the Sahara desert, while the sun was setting in the horizon.

So, I think I need to learn how to snowboard now.

So, I think I need to learn how to snowboard now.

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11. Our trek into the desert involved a night spent in traditional Berber tents. I love camping and was very excited to experience that side of the culture. Our camp was located 50 km from the Algeria border and you could easily see their mountains as you sat at our tent. Before we left, our guide had warned us that the desert can get cold at night. Which it did, but nowhere near the frigidness we experience in our apartments in Albania. So that didn’t phase us as we sat under the stars, parked around a campfire and listened to Moroccan drums.

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12. Looking back at our journey from Fes, Morocco to Seville, Spain, I just have to laugh. It was slightly ridiculous. When we arrived in Fes the evening after our desert trek, we came to an unfortunate conclusion; buses in Spain stop running earlier than normal on New Years Eve. When planning, I hadn’t taken this into consideration, which meant we had to leave Fes earlier than the 8am train. The only other option from Fes to the port city was 2 am. So, I found myself taking my first ever overnight train in an Arabic speaking country. Um… cool I guess? From the train, we took a taxi to the ferry, rode the ferry to Spain and eventually caught a bus to Seville. After sixteen straight hours of overnight traveling, we literally jumped for joy when we checked into our hostel. Sand covered and bone-tired we collapsed into a motionless heap on our beds.

Gratefully welcoming the beautiful lights of Seville

Gratefully welcoming the beautiful lights of Seville

13. In spite of being exhausted to the point of relentless laughter, I drug myself out to experience New Years Eve in Spain. And I am so happy with my decision. For good luck, the tradition at midnight is to eat 12 grapes at each chime of the clock. Which I did, while standing atop a rooftop bar, overlooking the beautiful cathedral and sipping champagne. All while surrounded by new friends I had literally met hours earlier in our hostel. Traveling, with it’s cool opportunities and people you meet along the way, make my heart happy. :)

The cathedral

The cathedral

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14. New Years Day was treated as a day of recovery. We needed recuperation from Morocco, the pace of which we covered ground there, the travel day back to Spain and the overall lack of sleep. Emilie taught me how to play rummy and we spent the day sitting outside, drinking tea and laughing.

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15.We ended our trip in Portugal. With a relaxed vibe and beautiful views, it’s a country I need to go back to and explore more of. Sadly, we only had time to stop in it’s capital, Lisbon. For those of you that don’t know, I grew up in Lisbon, North Dakota. I had finally traveled almost 4,300 miles to visit the sister city to my hometown. It was the perfect place to end an amazing vacation. And a great reminder to how far I’ve come since graduating from  that little town, halfway across the world.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

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Ferocious Fans

Recently, I attended my first soccer game in Albania. Permet was playing the nearby town of Kelcyre, and a friendly rival was in place. In our preservice training, I remember hearing that girls didn’t go to soccer games here. In the very least, it wasn’t common, unless you were in the big city. Unsure of what to expect, Jackie, Will, Monika and I all headed to the stadium to cheer on our respective cities.

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The game was already underway, and the first thing I noticed was the police lining the fields. Crowd control was their main concern, but they were also there for the players’ safety. Albanians are passionate and don’t exactly keep their emotions in check.

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After halftime, the referee made a questionable call in favor of Permet. This resulted in a penalty shot that won Permet its first goal of the day. Permet fans went absolutely wild, while Kelcyre started shouting in outrage. This keyed a major shift in the crowd atmosphere. As we sat on the Kelcyre side, I sat there and took it all in. Grown men were acting like little children throwing tantrums. As Permet, rode their endorphin high to another goal, it sparked even further chaos. Men and teenagers began throwing rocks and water bottles on the field. Screaming every obscenity under the sun at the referee and players. The policemen retrieved their batons and stood there gripping them with white knuckles. We decided to leave the game, not wanting to be a part of the mayhem. Thankfully the game ended without a serious incident. However, it was an eye opening experience. As I walked home, glad I wasn’t the referee, I realized soccer here isn’t just a sport. It’s a way of life and you couldn’t pay me to get in the way of that!

Christmas Crafts

After the success of the haunted house in Kelcyre, we decided to hold a little Christmas workshop for the children. We found some fun little crafts they could do on Pinterest, as well as color some ornaments for their trees at home. With Christmas music playing and the tree lights dancing in the corner, we all felt the holiday spirit. Or maybe it was the sugar high from the cookies!

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My little presents for some kids in my neighborhood!

My little presents for some kids in my neighborhood!

As the kids colored their ornaments, the amount of concentration they put into them was utterly adorable. Every 5 minutes, someone would hold theirs up, ready for praise and a round of applause.

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The group!

The group!

After an hour, we ushered the kids out of the house. One thing you should know, that is never the end of it. Word had spread and it seemed as though every child wanted to do a Christmas craft or consume a sugary snack. For the rest of the afternoon, there were little knocks on the door and shouts from outside.

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Host Family Homeyness

It had been way too long since last visiting my host family. Summer and the business of fall had taken over my life and before I knew it, 7 months had flown by without seeing them. Feeling like a terrible host daughter, I boarded a furgon (bus) for an overdue visit. I have recently begun studying to take the GRE exam in March. Equipped with all my study materials, I found the 5 hour furgon ride flew by. Apparently, the frustrations of math are good for something!

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Greeting my 9 year old and 16 year old host sister put a permanent smile on my face. They are amazing girls and undoubtedly, my favorite part of Albania. I had brought a flash drive full of movies for us to watch, Christmas colored nail polish and the ingredients to make cookies. The perfect way to spend the weekend! Although, I didn’t take into account that one couldn’t find a stick of butter in the village. Only a 1 kilogram blob of village butter. The cookies had to be put on hold until next time.

My little host sister

My little host sister

Oh, technology!

Oh, technology!

Host family breakfast of champions!

Host family breakfast of champions!

Mr. Bean keeps her interest.

Mr. Bean keeps her interest.

I spent the next few days hearing about school and which boys were now in my host sister’s life. No matter what country you are a teenage girl in, the interests remain the same! When we weren’t watching movies, I was getting stuffed full of homemade soups and byrek (a flaky dough like pie here). Prepared for the forced feedings, I brought my tennis shoes to hopefully run off some of the calories. When I returned to Permet that following morning, I found a surprise present from my host sister. She had hidden a jar of Nutella (she knows I love chocolate!) and a few other goodies inside my bag. Visiting my host family is very different than my family in the states. However, the undeniable feeling of being loved, helps chase away any semblance of homesickness.

Sisters!

Sisters!

Training Success

November and the beginning of December was devoted to organizing a training seminar at the Permet hospital. The date and time were changed more than once, which in itself was no surprise. Furthermore, the lack of certainty when planning anything here and the communication barrier, had me in a state of frenzy.

Fortunately, I had around $200 from a grant I had written, to fund the seminar.This provided some relief to my ever haggard nerves. I devoted a chunk of the money to paying for the nurse’s transportation costs. Most of the 22 nurses, were traveling from nearby villages. The rest of the money was spent on materials for the training. The largest part of my material budget was spent on 100 page manuals for each village. Printing front-to-back page manuals here turned out to be a 3 day process. THREE DAYS to print 9 manuals. In itself, that was frustrating enough. In addition, I knew how easy that would have been in America, and I wanted to scream from the mountain tops. Or just sit down and cry.

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Finally, the big day had arrived!! Our main topic for the seminar, was teaching the nurses how to deliver a successful and interactive health lesson to their community. With this is mind, Monika and I planned an activity plan format, followed by a mini lesson using that example. Our mini lesson topic was focused on Domestic Violence.

Presenters!

Presenters!

Full house, with everyone arriving on time!

Full house, with everyone arriving on time!

I thank my lucky stars, that Monika committed to helping me plan and run this training. Tackling anything here is much less daunting when you have another volunteer by your side. Plus, then you have someone to laugh with when things go wrong. Despite that, training day held no disasters, big or small. Everyone showed up on time and seemed to pay attention the entire morning.

Huge thanks to our translater

Huge thanks to our translater

My Permet Clan

My Permet Clan

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It wouldn’t be Albania, if we didn’t include a coffee break.

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My coworkers were extremely pleased with the entire day and I walked away from the hospital with a budding sense of pride. In spite of a few small bumps in the road, the overall result was a huge success. Finally having a project work out, gave me a small boost of confidence. As well as, further hope for my remaining months in Albania.