Counterpart Conference and Site Visit

It’s Week Nine. In two weeks PST (Pre-Service Training) will be over. Since our Site Placements were announced we haven’t had much to do. During Week Six there was a “community day” in Thane (Thon). Most of the Volunteers came. All who where there had a good time. There was music, dancing, football, and the Harlem Shake. I was running low on cash and decided to hitch from Librazhd (Lee-bra-z-shd). Decided to hitch back too. It was a long day. By the end of it my clothes were drenched in sweat, my legs were sore, and my skin burnt. That night I slept like a baby. Besides that Sunday, not much happened worth retelling. We spent our days working, studying, splashing in the river, and basking in the sun. Then came Week Eight, the Counterpart Conference, and Site Visits.

It was rainy and overcast. The first crummy day in weeks. I had packed the night before, leaving enough behind to survive the final two weeks of PST. My bags and I caught a furgon (fur-gone) to Elbasan (El-ba-saun) were we met up with the other Volunteers and their bags. We piled into a charted bus which took us through the mountain pass from Elbasan to Tirana (Tear-ana) , the capital city. It was a pot-hole infested, snake-like road that wound precariously along the cliff-sides. If I hadn’t been scared for my life and sick from the incessant twists and turns, it would have been a pleasant journey. At least the view would have been. We arrived in Tirana, white knuckled, a little queasy, but alive. I kissed the ground when I got off the bus. Not really, but I felt like it. We spent a few hours exploring the city and touring Peace Corps headquarters.

In Durres (Dur-rus), I dropped my bags off in the hotel room and sprinted to the ocean. The Adriatic Sea. The bus had just let off from Tirana. We had an hour or so before the conference would begin. Instead of unpacking I dug my toes into the sand. The waves fell over my feat in perfect rhythm and with that pleasantly familiar sound that waves have upon meeting their end. My feat were buried and I was rendered immobile. Rather, I preferred to remain immobile  and to take in the sea air and the flat horizon before me. With only twenty or so minutes to spare, I returned to my room, only to be interceded by some of the other Volunteers who were enjoying the five-star pool waters of the sea-side resort. They beckoned me to join them. I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit, and so with little foresight as to how I would dry my only pair of shorts, I jumped in. It was worth it. I rushed back to my room to shower and change. Amazingly I made it to the conference center with minutes to spare.

Then came the awkward first meeting between us – the Volunteers, and them – the Counterparts. These were the people who we would be working with for the next two years. I was introduced to a Anejda (Anaida), a young, confident woman of average build, with a kind smile and inviting demeanor. We talked for some time about our interests, hobbies, family, and work. The organization I will be working for is Cultural Heritage Without Borders. It is a Swedish-based organization involved in cultural restoration of historical monuments. Their aim is to use cultural restoration as a tool for community development and to bridge cultural differences in the Balkan Region – an area with a contentious history. Anejda works in the Tirana office in the Finance Department. There are six other permanent staff members in Albania, plus me. I’ll be working in Gjirokaster doing community development work. Our discussion ended promptly as the dinner bell rang. We were treated to a five-course meal which can only be compared to honey and Bavarian wine. It hit the spot. The night drew to a close as we sat together near the pool, the Volunteers and their Counterparts – drinking, dancing, and dreaming about the future.

The next morning we were treated to a breakfast of champions (not Wheaties). Kos (yogurt), honey, tomatoes, eggs, milk, juice, jam, cheese, ham, and an assortment of fruit. We broke out into our respective sessions: COD (Community and Organizational Development), TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), and Health. The day went on and Anajda and I caught a ride back to Tirana so that I could meet the staff there. That night I stayed in a hostel with a few other volunteers. We had some time to explore the city on our own and to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land. In town I saw a man on a motorcycle with his dog on a leash hauling ass down the center of town. The Doberman looked happy as could be. That evening we had dinner at a popular spot in the center of the city and had a chance meeting with a Missionary from Whales whom has been living in Gjirokaster for the past nine months. We exchanged information and agreed to meet later that week in Gjirokaster. I would be going there for my Site Visit the next day and would stay there until Friday.

The road to Gjirokaster from Tirana was long, hot, and generally unpleasant. There was at least a ten kilometer stretch where I felt like a tiger in a small cage, on a small boat, crossing an ocean during a treacherous storm. I was herked and jerked and beaten from side to side as the small bus swerved and cut and jumped in every direction along that weather-beaten, death-defying, seemingly insurmountable patch of gravel and boulders that they call a road. Then, out of the page of a fairy-tale,  Gjirokaster emerged into view melting away all my troubles. The castle was perched like an eagle overlooking its nest. The city was built into the hillside as if it had been divinely inspired. I took a taxi to “Old Town”, to my apartment. The front door opened up to a three-bedroom, single-bath apartment with a balcony overlooking the entire city and the castle above. I spent the day situating my place and spending time with Elena, who will be my counterpart in Gjirokaster. I had a tour of the office and was treated to a wonderful Albanian meal. That evening I attended a local folklore festival. Groups from around the Balkans came to sing and dance and to display their unique histories and traditions. It was spectacular. I met up with Steve, the missionary. We had dinner and talked through mouthfuls of meat, fresh vegetables, and Albanian wine.

I spent the next day familiarizing myself with the city and working around the apartment. I picked my favorite of the three rooms and went to work making it my own. There was a gigantic wardrobe  blocking the window, inhibiting the sunlight from coming in. I thought about moving it to the other side of the room, replacing it with the bed. Then it was all I could think about. But it was to big to move. A high-school jock could have fit one-hundred nerds in it. I placed some cardboard under each corner and spent the next two hours huffing and puffing as I moved the enormous block of furniture inch by inch to the other side of the room. When I return in two weeks my room will be ready for me. I will wake up to the sunrise in my big bed below the window. I’ve been back now for a few days. I have the LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) to look forward to. Then, the Swearing-In Ceremony. Then, the next two years of my life.

Here’s some pictures:

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