Friday, April 18, 2008

Always wear a seat belt..... what do you mean I don't have a seat belt?!!

So as you might guess from the title, traveling in Albania can be quite the adventure. This weekend I went on a volunteer visit to Lezhe. I was super excited because that meant no language classes and a chance to see another part of Albania. Well being in Lezhe was great but the trip there got a little complicated…….

So there were 14 volunteers going north for volunteer visits. To go north in Albania, you pretty much have to go to Tirana first. We all met at 7:45am on Sunday in Elbasan so we could go together to Tirana. Well our furgon from Cerrik to Elbasan first of all, almost didn’t make it. It took 20 minutes before the furgon was pulling out because no one was going to Elbasan so early on a Sunday morning. We left with one seat empty but picked up some guy on the side of the road on the way in. However, right after we entered Elbasan we were pulled over by the police. I had never seen this happen before so I was very shocked and didn’t know what to think of it. We sat there for about 5 minutes while the driver showed the officer all his papers and stuff. We then finished the drive in to town. Well after that happened I knew the rest of the day was going to go just as well. We met everyone at the PST office and walked over to the furgon stop. We had to split up and take 2 furgons.

The drive to Tirana was amazing. It was up and through mountains so if you get motion sickness you would hate it but the views were gorgeous and the mountains are so beautiful! When we got to Tirana about 2 hours later we were supposed to be dropped off at the European Trade Center. We texted the current volunteer meeting us in Tirana and told her we were at the café across the street. Well she got there and it turned out we were not close to the European Trade Center! Luckily after I described where we were she was able to find us. We ate lunch and walked around for awhile and then headed off for the other furgons where we would all split ways. The first 8 volunteers going to different sites got on furgons with no problems. Then there was 7 of us with only one person speaking decent Albanian. The furgon drivers were trying to get us to all get on their furgon for a set price. Unfortunately we were going 2 different places. Winifred, the volunteer who met us, was trying to explain that we were going two different places but they did not care. We were all American and therefore could only possible be going one place.

After about 30 minutes of walking around we all ended up getting on one furgon going to the city of Milot where both groups could transfer to other furgons going to their respective cities. Winifred told the furgon driver that 4 were going to Rreshin and 3 were going to Lezhe. He said he would take the 4 going to Rreshin directly there and the other 3 to Milot. Winifred and him agreed on a price and we were on our way. Well, about 45 minutes outside of Tirana, he told Winifred he was not going to Rreshin and that the price was more than the one originally quoted. Winifred gave up trying to talk to him so we all got off in Milot. Luckily there were furgons for both Lezhe and Rreshin waiting. However, it meant we all had to pay more than we should have. I went on to Lezhe with Winifred and the other Leslie.

Lezhe was great. We got to go to the city hall (bashkia) and met everyone, a center for mentally handicapped children, and a culture center where Winifred taught English. In Lezhe I was also able to find a doughnut, cheesecake and Winifred made lasagna. Even though the Lasagna was quite an ordeal, because she lost power for a day so we had to walk to another volunteers house to make it. Overall it was a great visit.

The trip back from Lezhe was not nearly as eventful but still long and tiring as I see most travel in Albania will be. But my advice is to anyone traveling in Albania, hang on tight because there are no seat belts!!

Monday, April 7, 2008

It's not better. It's not worse. It's just different.

This is how the Peace Corps staff introduced to what life would be like in Albania. After being here now just over two weeks, I would have to agree. It’s not better but I’m thankful for that because I did not sign up for Peace Corps to live in a different country with all the luxuries of the US. It’s not worse but then that’s how you look at it. If you’ve ever read the book "It Could Always be Worse", well that’s exactly life in Albania. It could always be worse. It is most definitely different but I like that about Albania.

Here’s a little glimpse into what my life here in Albania is like. On a typical day, I wake up about 7am. Then I eat breakfast, which is always made for me by my host mom. Usually it is some type of bread, eggs, fruit or cheese. It’s always good though. My training starts at 8am. If I stay in Cerrik, it’s for language. Language class goes from 8am till about 1 pm. If I go to Elbasan it is for a hub day which is for the technical, safety, health or cultural training. That goes from about 9am until 4 pm. In Cerrik, at both my home, the school, and most places we go to drink coffee or eat we find Turkish toilets. Now I mentioned them a little bit in my last note but here’s a little more info on them. 1) They are not always very clean/fresh smelling. 2) There is not always toilet paper. In fact most times there’s not. Thank God for pocket packs of tissue! 3) When there is toilet paper, you’re not supposed to flush it but instead throw it away. Yeah, wouldn’t want to be the one emptying that trash bin! 4) There is not always a flush on Turkish toilets. Sometimes it is just a bucket of water that you throw down the basin to "flush" it. 5) When washing hands, the water is a) very cold and b) there’s not usually soap. Thank God for hand sanitizer!

Ok now that I’ve mentioned what I would consider to be the worst part about life in Albania there are many things I’m thankful for. There are walls, windows and doors. For those of you who though I was going to live in a mud hut, please educate yourself on what Albanian homes really are like. Now indoor heating is not really existent in Albania, so even though it is April I am sleeping in long pajama pants, a t-shirt, sweatshirt and curled underneath three blankets. I definitely am going to love long underwear and my sleeping bag come winter! For some reason that I don’t understand though, they will complain that it’s cold, start a fire in an old stove in the living room, close the doors to that room, but the door and window in the next room will be left open. I am not sure if I’ll ever figure that one out. I am fortunate enough to currently live in a city where there are sidewalks. If I end of being placed in a small town or village, this probably will not be the case. In large cities though there are sidewalks. There are also numerous places for me to go to to drink coffee or eat food. I am overall very pleased with my current living situation.

Life in Albania is very different. For starters, there are cars but many people don’t have them, or the ones that do do not use them frequently. The main mode of transportation is by your own two feet or bike. To get farther distances there are buses (which I have not experienced yet but heard stories about) or furgons. Every time I go to Elbasan I take a furgon (which is like a mini-bus) and it is a good time. The roads in Albania are very narrow and not in the best condition. Whenever you want to pass you just put on your blinker and honk once to let the car in front know. I would be terrified to drive here because there is a complete lack of rules. I have no idea how drivers know what is going on but somehow they manage to not crash everyday so I guess the system works.

Another difference is that meal times are all over the place. For example, I eat breakfast around 7 am. We have a coffee break during our lesson usually around 10:30. We eat lunch when we get done around 1 pm. My host parents get home and eat a small meal around 3:30 – 4 pm. I’ll drink a coffee or eat some fruit with them usually. Dinner is not served until 9 – 9:30 ish. I’m being served this big meal and usually I would rather go to bed than eat but you know it’s their way. None of us volunteers understand why they eat so late. I see my host parents take food with them too so I don’t know if they are just on this 4 meals a day routine or what.
Anyway, there’s a million other things that are different here but I’ll save those for another time. I’m going to visit the trainees at another site today and next weekend I get to visit a current volunteer so I see what life is really like. I’m sure I’ll have some stories after that. Keep your eyes open for more updates!

Leslie :)