Avash, Avash – Qingji Bëhet Dash

One day I was eight and I thought I’d stay eight forever. For a while, it seemed like I would. The next year I was a freshman in high school – awkward and gangly. In a week I had grown five inches and was driving my parent’s minivan around campus – an aimless college virgin. The next day I found myself a resident of a foreign country – a not-so-idealistic Peace Corps volunteer with a half-ass five o’clock shadow, three chest hairs, and wearing the same threadbare boxers from three days before. I imagine the next two years will pass in the blink of an eye. The past five months certainly have.

It’s what weeds out the would-be volunteers from the will-become, the have-become, and the became – a twenty-seven month commitment. Before I left, people would mention how two years was such a long time to be away. I would envision how I might respond in similar conversations following my service. My imagined rebuttal? The very same question, thrown back to solicit an awareness of their not-so-distant, mundane past: “and what have you been doing the past two years?” I image too, that most people will respond in the same “oh, not too much”, “nothing really”, or “just been working a nine-to-five” sort of way. It is my feeling that we are all so self-absorbed in our own trodden lives that we remain unaware of life as it is lived in whatever place AWAY might be. But, I didn’t leave my life behind. I’m alive and I’m breathing new air. I’m living new experiences. I’m expanding my breadth of knowledge. I’m developing my skill sets and strengthening my personal character. But how to explain in more vivid detail how my life is lived day to day, week to week, and month to month? What, you may ask, am I actually doing here?

I’m sweating. It’s hot in August and the heat is all I know. I sweat. Sometimes I shower. I sweat some more. I live in a damp, salty skin. Instead of sleeping in a bed, in my home; I sleep on my balcony, where the air moves and dries the day’s coat of sweat from my naked body. It’s so hot I can’t seem to concentrate. The degrees in Centigrade betray my comprehension of the temperature – 43°C or 109.4°F. I spend hours in a daze trying to find the energy and motivation to accomplish something productive. I go to my office where the air is conditioned. But I’m the only person in a great, big, sterile room that used to be the main lobby of a bank. I can only sit in that room staring at a computer screen for so long. My coworkers are on pushimë (vacation) this month. When I feel especially unmotivated I spend a day at the river or take an hour-and-a-half furgon (minibus) ride to the beach.

July passed in a similar sun-beaten daze. A USAID supported training session on Advanced Participatory Methods in Tirana. A kick-ass Fourth of July extravaganza in Ksamil. Playing host to numerous and various holidaymakers: fellow PC Albania volunteers, three PC Jordan volunteers, and CHwB Tirana staff members. But it is the day to day moments that burn more brightly in my memory. Befriending a fifty year-old antique dealer with a dirty sense of humor. Spending hours over coffee talking with people about myself and what I’m doing here. Holding a fifteen minute conversation in Shqip (Albanian). Haggling with a driver about the cost of a bus ride to Tirana and winning. Counting the shooting stars, lying on my balcony stark naked to escape the sauna that is my oversized apartment. But I’m sure, when you ask me in nineteen months about what I was doing in Albania, I’ll regale you with a more impressive- and productive-sounding story.

It might go something like this – just in a more condensed, less technical, elevator-speech style oration (and delivered in past tense):

The cool office which I frequent Monday through Friday is the regional branch of Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB) Albania – a Swedish non-profit organization working primarily on cultural restoration projects throughout the Balkans as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Africa. CHwB uses cultural heritage as a tool for peace building. In a region with a very contentious history, CHwB focuses on preserving and maintaining tangible and intangible cultural heritage (i.e. important buildings, historic monuments, cultural artifacts and practices) as a way to address shared problems and rebuff heartfelt differences.

Knowing almost nothing about this conflict mitigating tool, or conflict management more generally; I have been assigned to improve the organizations community development approach in Gjirokastër. Contrary to what some might characterize my job to be, I am not here to protect or preserve the city’s cultural monuments. Rather, I am here to facilitate the participation of residents, many of whom are owners of important UNESCO classified monuments, in protecting and preserving their cultural resources. The problem, as I and many others see it, is apathy and the seemingly ubiquitous perspective that someone else (i.e. the government) should intervene to prop up the quickly dilapidating city – likely a remnant ideology leftover from communism.  The challenge is devising a way for people to recognize the importance of preserving their properties and to take ownership of their problems.

Essentially, I’m here as a community organizer. At this point, that means getting to know people, learning more about my community, familiarizing myself with the problems people face, and gaining a better understanding of the culture. If you ever wondered why the Peace Corps requires volunteers to serve a minimum of twenty-seven months; it’s because getting to know people, building trust, learning the culture, and all the other things that come with it, are really difficult to do. Most volunteers spend their first year perfecting those tasks. It is usually only in their second year that volunteers are proficient enough in the language and well-positioned in their communities to make headway on important community projects. Though I do expect to have some gradual, albeit intermittent successes; I also don’t expect that my experience will be any different. Though I may wake up tomorrow a forty-five year old husband, with three kids, and an established career; I must now live and enjoy the slow, sweaty moments. As the saying goes: avash, avash – qingji bëhet dash (slowly, slowly – the lamb becomes a ram).

Here’s some pictures (the Gjirokastër castle, Brendan, me hitchhiking, me and my language tutor Arben, the Pazar, and the beach-side town of Dhërmi):

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