If I may, allow me to shamelessly plug two of my forthcoming Peace Corps projects. Feel free to skip this section if you feel so inclined.
1. Outdoor Ambassadors Summer Camp
Outdoor Ambassadors (OA) is a Peace Corps Albania initiative engaging youth across the country in environmental awareness and leadership development. Every year, a week long summer camp is organized for high school students which focuses on building leadership skills and raising environmental awareness. If you come to Albania, I’m sure you will be struck by the blatant disregard for the environment. People litter without a second thought, tossing everything from batteries to mattresses either on the ground, in the rivers, or in one of the informal dump sites located around most Albanian cities. Mining and clear-cutting occur unregulated. Urban development is similarly unchecked. Without the necessary regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in place, it is clear that change will be gradual. Gradual change begets a future generation of environmentally conscious and responsible adults, which is why OA is focused on building the capacity of Albania’s youth in both environmentalism and leadership.
OA’s 2014 Summer Camp will be held sometime in late August or early September. As a member of the national committee, I have been charged with soliciting funding for the camp. The committee and I have opened a Peace Corps Partnership Grant (PCPG) which draws on small donations from PCV networks, including friends and family. If you’re interested in helping out, shoot me an email and I’ll follow up with you. My contact information is listed on the main sidebar of this page. We’re also interested in soliciting third-party donors, so if you’re aware of a company, NGO, or other charitable institution interested in youth development and environmentalism, please let me know. If you’re not interested in contributing financially, consider donating your used camping equipment. We’re always interested in adding new equipment to our operating inventory of tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and sports equipment in order to expand our reach to more students and to more OA clubs.
2. Tell the Story of Gjirokastra
Tell the Story of Gjirokastra (TSG) is a cultural heritage interpretation project engaging key community members in the process of learning about and investing in the city’s unique cultural heritage. The crux of the project is a poster competition for high school students in which they will attempt to “Tell the Story of Gjirokastra” through art. Contestants will be enrolled in three courses, (1) Painting and Drawing, (2) Photography, and (3) Creative Writing. Through these and other supplemental courses and community interviews, students will prepare their final posters for the competition. Winners will be decided based on the students’ ability to creatively and appropriately convey the unique history and heritage of Gjirokastra.
My counterpart and I have just been approved for funding of up to $4,000 to implement the project. As with the environmental problems in Albania, so too is Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage slowly deteriorating and being lost. The project is an attempt to reacquaint the younger generations with their own cultural heritage so that they may become better stewards of the city’s cultural monuments and intangible traditions in the future. Though the funding we have acquired almost completely covers the projects main components, we are still in need of good cameras for the photography course. The cameras would be used by students to learn hands-on photography skills and to take photographs for their poster projects. If you’re aware of a company, NGO, or other charitable institution interested in youth development and photography, please let me know. We are also accepting personal camera donations. If you’re interested in helping out, shoot me an email.
With that out of the way, let’s depart from such blatant solicitation and get to the good stuff. Or, at least the stuff that won’t make you feel obligated to empty your pockets when you read it.
A quick recap of the last couple of months might go something like this: hike over the mountains to the beach, new iPad, birthday celebration, Group 17 arrives, racing stripes, dodgeball, and a final farewell. In between, work on various projects, language acquisition, and community integration. But, more on that later. For now, our story begins with a single pair of microbiological underwear and eight Snickers bars.
Their tag line is something like; “20 Countries, 6 Months, 1 Pair of Underwear”. I was hooked. I bought three thinking, “this should cover me for the next year and a half”. Almost a year and a couple washes later, there I was cramming into a van packed with nine other volunteers about to set out on a two day hike over the mountains and to the coast. I had my trusty underwear, eight Snickers bars, and a few other essentials. I don’t want you to think that the hike seemed so daunting to us, as it was only a two day hike, the first third of which ended up being on paved road. But considering the fact that none of us had any idea how to get to Point B from wherever we were, it seemed somehow expeditionary.
In fact, it was. After the paved road, the way forward ceased being strictly intuitive. At one point, we navigated down a treacherous ravine demarcated by large boulders and a trickling stream. That may have been my favorite section of the hike, hopping from boulder to boulder in the spirit of a ten year old boy exploring the empty riverbed behind his house. We camped out for a night in the cold of the high southern mountains, bundled up and exhausted from the steep descent. The next day we took the riverbed to the base of the mountain village of Kuqe (“Red” in Albanian). There we stopped for lunch, depleting my once fully stocked supply of Snickers bars. We ascended the steep mountain, catching a ride with a flat-bed truck halfway to the top. There we decided to forgo the rest of the hike to the sea, and to take advantage of a local driver’s offer to take us to the sea side town of Borshe. From there, we hitchhiked further north to Himare, were we stayed the night with one of the volunteers there.
The next morning I set out with my thumb in the air for Tirana, the capital city. My parents had bought me a new iPad for my birthday, but the package had been held up in customs. I had been told the import tax would be $167, roughly 20% of the estimated value of the package. I needed to go to the customs office to pick up the package and pay the fine. I caught a few rides, no more than a couple miles at a time. Along the way I witnessed a funeral procession. As the body was being lowered, the older women began to wail in ceremonial fashion, which I took more as a sign of reverence than as a sincere expression of grief. Finally, I was picked up by a couple guys who agreed to take me to Vlore. From there I knew I could catch a bus to Tirana. The driver ended up being a police officer. He told me that if I ever needed anything, I should be sure to let me know. We stopped at a favorite restaurant of his, and he bought me a wonderful meal. I offered to pay, but he lifted his shirt in a playful manner to flash his gun, effectively refuting the very mention of it.
In Tirana, I was set up with a driver from the Peace Corps office. The plan was for him to negotiate the release of my package, without incurring the full amount of the stated tax. I thought it an unlikely scenario. Though when we met with the very friendly lady in charge, she agreed to release the package for 50 lek (about 50 cents) on the grounds that the driver return with the necessary paperwork indicating that I am a volunteer, and that the contents of the package would be used to further my volunteer work here. It was a rare, pleasant experience operating within the enigmatic cacophony that is Albania’s bureaucracy. The iPad has since proved its worth as something deserving of a $167 import tax, on which I am currently writing these words. Thanks again Mom and Dad!
The next weekend something like twenty people converged in my apartment to celebrate my birthday and to introduce a few of the new trainees from Group 17 to some of the volunteers from the preceding groups. The new group arrived just over a month ago now. I had the pleasure of meeting the rest of them the following week when I delivered a presentation on tourism and cultural preservation in Albania. They seem to be a positive and well experienced group of people, with interesting personal and working backgrounds. The day after my presentation, I went with a friend to get a haircut, and just for fun, racing stripes.
I would return the following weekend to fulfill the tradition of Sports Day, this time sporting a more “racy” look. Sports Day offered the opportunity for Group 16 to initiate Group 17 into the brotherhood of Peace Corps Albania. In less-than-classy fashion, we proceeded to hurl volleyballs at one another in a spirited game of dodgeball. In the deciding match, I alone was left to defend the title of my group, matched up against almost ten members of the opposing team. I managed to peg off a few of their best before a soft lob from the most unlikely of dodgeballers floated my way. With the intention of catching it, I managed to thwart a glorious comeback victory as the ball bounced off my fingers and struck me firmly in the face. The strike may as well have been an arrow to my pride, but I quickly sucked it up, shook hands with the victors, and went off to join them for a couple beers.
With the arrival of the new group, marks the departure of the old. It also marks the beginning of a new era. The era in which we are no longer the protégés but the wholly unprepared mentors. We will be charged with nurturing the class behind us, as we were nurtured by those before us. Though as I bid farewell to those who are leaving, I can’t help but feel unworthy in filling the void they will surely create in departing. I can take comfort; however, in knowing that they will fill past the brim the many voids which await them somewhere out there beyond the jagged red lines of the Land of Eagles. I wish them nothing but happiness and success in whatever they do, and extend to them a grand “thank you” from the heart.
For now I remain behind to look after the seeds I have sewn. In the next two weeks I will be assisting with my organizations bi-annual regional restoration camp in Gjirokastra. Thirty architecture students from around Albania and the Balkans will be working on three separate restoration projects in the city. In the meantime, I will be working with my counterparts on a community survey to assess the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, and practices of monument owners in order to gain a better understanding of why and how these owners make decisions about household interventions. The information we collect will hopefully give us some insight into how and why Gjirokastra’s historic monuments continue to be illegally remodeled by their owners. From there we can take steps towards addressing and reducing this endemic problem.
In conclusion, I leave you with a very brief lesson in Albanian toasting:
Step 1. Say, “Gëzuar”, which means cheers (pronounced “guh-zoo-R”, “guh” as in the “g” in “grape”).
Step 2. Hold out your glass, clinking against the glasses of all those in your party.
Step 3. Attempt to look everyone in the eye as you touch glasses with those in your party.
Step 4. Drink.
Step 5. Repeat very often, or anytime there is a lull in the conversation.
Here are some pictures: