Saturday, January 10, 2009

Christmas and the New Year

Very rarely do I get a chance to write a blog in 'real time.' I'm in Saranda right now, stealing wireless internet at the Hotel Butrinti. When I was on the bus coming back from Tirana after IST (see last post) I realized that any good hotel must have wireless internet. Indeed the Hotel does. I wish I had realized this earlier.

Anyway, here is the run down (complete with pictures!) of my holiday activities:

On the last day of school before the break holiday parties were thrown at school. Holiday parties in Albania celebrate both Christmas and the New Year. New Years is a much bigger holiday in Albania. I assume this is because its not religious. Holiday parties in Albanian classrooms aren't that different from what I remember in school. Its basically organized chaos. Dancing, singing, junk food, etc. The biggest difference was the presence of lit sparklers (yes. fireworks.) in the classroom. Those, I'm not going to lie, freaked me out.
Left: 6th class circle dancing.
Right: 6th class group picture with our school director.

After the class party, everyone gathered outside for an 'all school assembly." Where the director and the Mayor of Ksamil announced and handed out gifts to the two best students in each class.

After school, the teachers had a celebratory lunch in Saranda. It was a lot of fun and, in true Albanian fashion, a ton of food! There was also circle dancing at this party, but fortunately, no

Left: Lunch, Right: My counterpart and I

On Christmas eve, I attempted to go to Gjirokaster. I did eventually get there, but not until early, early Christmas morning! As I frequently write, most of the time the living is pretty easy in Albania. This notion goes out the window when traveling is concerned. I tried to leave Ksamil on the 1:45 bus, putting me in Saranda around 2:15, with plenty of time to catch the 2:30 bus to Gjirokaster. Of course, it being Christmas eve, the 1:45 bus didn't come. I finally caught a bus out of Ksamil at 2:30. This of course meant that I missed the 2:30 bus to Gjiro. What I didn't know is that the 2:30 bus is THE LAST BUS OUT OF SARANDA. I arrived at the empty bus station around 3. Fantastic. I could either go back to Ksamil and try again on Christmas or wait for the night bus to Tirana, which passes by Gjirokaster and leaves Saranda at 10.

I really didn't have anything to do at home, so I decided to wait it out. I went to the internet cafe, had dinner, sat in a cafe and read; my parents called. It wasn't so bad, but it really wasn't how I wanted to spend my Christmas eve.

The rest of my Christmas visit to Gjirokaster was fantastic, however. We cooked a gigantic meal and ate at Allan's office, which is pretty 'homey' for an office. We also had some visitors from the US, Courtney's Aunt and Uncle were in town. They're incidentally from Bainbridge and showed me some fun pictures of all the unexpected snow back in Seattle.

Cam, Allan, Chris, Courtney, Alexi, Stephie, Becca, Becky and I before Christmas dinner.
The day after Christmas, we visited the castle and played board games. Chris and Allan taught Becky and I how to play Risk.
The prison at the top of Gjirokaster Castle and The view of Gjirokaster from the top of the castle.

I went back to Ksamil for New Years, which I spent with (ok, and stay with me, this is convoluted) my landlord's sister's family. Besnika, my landlord's sister is a teacher at my school and I give private lessons to her daughter, Klea. They've basically taken me in, kind of like a host family. On New Years eve we had a big dinner with baklava for dessert (yum!) and waited until midnight to shoot off fireworks. It was a really low-key new years, but fun.
So, I guess those were the big holiday events. School is back in session now and everything is back to normal. The next big event on my calendar is Katherine's (one of my Osiauri Cluster-mates from Georgia) tentative visit to Albania in February. When I transferred to Albania, she transferred to Romania, so she's in the neighborhood. Other than that, I'm just trying to stay warm!

Ups and downs

I told my mom on the phone today that I would be more regular about keeping up my blog, so in keeping my promise, here’s what’s been going on:

Last week was IST (in service training…the Peace Corps is all about acronyms, in keeping with governmental agencies.) It was in Elbasan, in central Albania, which was where the original G11’s did their training. So, they were a little bit over being there. It was all new to the new G11’s (ie. me and the other Georgians) so, the location was not a problem for me. It was really nice to have reliable hot water and heat for a week. I also learned a ton about other people’s projects and had an opportunity to learn a little bit more Shqip. Honestly, though, it was a little overwhelming to be in such a large group for six days. I spend so much time alone here that being with people has become a little foreign.

I’m back in Ksamil now for a week and a half before Christmas. My break doesn’t start until Christmas proper which is a little different than back in the US. New Years is the biggest holiday here, which I’m excited for and have yet to make plans for. For Christmas, I’m going to Gjirokaster, only about 3 hours away. Its much more of an ‘old’ traditional town, more ‘Christmasy’ in spirit than Ksamil. But, like Christmas in the US, its not about the place, its about the people you’re with. I think some of the Georgians are going to come down and the lovely Chris and Courtney will be hosting us. I am so lucky to be so close to such amazing people.

What has really inspired this blog entry has been the ups and downs of Peace Corps service. I thought everything was going pretty well, and then I went to IST. Hearing about all the other volunteers amazing accomplishments kind of got me down a little bit. I have to remember that they’ve been here for 6 months to my 3, so it makes sense, but it was still a little jolting to be faced with. Maybe I was also feeling a little bit jealous of their situations. Most of the other PC volunteers have site mates and live in places much bigger, so they have things. For example, I’m the only volunteer in Albania in a site without even a bank. Additionally, I’m also the farthest away…a whopping 9 hours from Tirana.

I was really getting down on myself and Ksamil as a place. I doubted that I would ever be a good volunteer.

I was feeling not particularly integrated into my community, which is goal one of PC. My language isn’t great (but getting better everyday, I hope) which makes it hard to just go out and meet people. In addition, Ksamil is a tourist place…people see me; they know I don’t belong here, but they don’t really see a reason to get to know me. I’m just another person passing through. Also, the people I work with mostly live in Saranda, so its been a challenge to get to know the Ksamilis.

Yet, despite all this, I recognize that I am so lucky to be here. I really do love Ksamil. I love that it is small and that I will have the opportunity to get to know everyone. I love that I’m the first volunteer in Ksamil and only one here currently, which allows me to take a special kind of ownership in the town. I even love being far away from Tirana, as inconvenient as it is at times. I also love my counterpart who is a wonderful teacher. Some teachers in Albania (and throughout the world…this isn’t a country specific issue) don’t take their profession seriously and just get through the day. My counterpart is the opposite. She is amazing. I am also really lucky to have amazing students. Challenging at times, for sure, but hearing other TEFL war stories at IST really made me appreciate how wonderful my kids are.

So, back to community integration, while I was standing at the bus stop in Saranda, waiting for the Ksamil bus, who walks up but Orreta, the lady who cleans my school and whose house I take Shqip lessons at. She doesn’t speak much English, but it was nice to ride home with somebody and answer questions as to where I’ve been. I felt a little missed…like they actually noticed I was gone, which was really re-assuring. On my walk home one of my neighbors stopped me and also asked where I was. I guess people are finally starting to notice me!

The next day at school, it was wonderful to see my counterpart and check on what the kids had been doing in my absence. They’re still a little wary of me and my weird ways…but they too were happy to see me. Slowly, but surely, I think I am becoming integrated. It just takes time. Which I have to remind myself of…constantly.

Today I woke up with an inexplicable swollen lip. I think it was a mosquito bite. I was dreading going to school today because of it. The language barrier makes even the smallest things gigantic. (On my first night here, I awoke to like 45 mosquito bites ON MY FACE…people are still talking about it). In any event, it just wasn’t as big of a deal as I expected. Then, one of the teachers brought in a letter for me and a package slip. As mentioned before, packages make even the worst days bearable. I was elated.

After school I traveled to Saranda to pick up my package, it turned out there were two. One was from Lindsey, a former G8 in Georgia with me, and one from my parents. The package from my parents was gigantic. Which, quick note, while I accept with open arms all packages without complaint, do remember that I have to carry said packages and take them on the bus with me as well as walk them from the bus. Just something to keep in mind, haha, gigantic packages are a tad cumbersome.

I brought my package home and it looked like Christmas exploded in my apartment. Included were some much needed foodstuffs, Christmas ornaments, some presents which (according to the explicit instructions included by my mother) are to be opened on Christmas day and, perhaps one of the most amazing things I’ve received in my life: A beautifully decorated book with messages from so many members of Kent First Presbyterian.

I cannot convey how amazing this was to read. After kind of having a hard week and a hard day, to open up that book and read all the good wishes was nothing short of inspiring and totally uplifting. I wish I had words to describe how amazing this was. At that moment I only had tears.

And just as I write this, feeling all warm and fuzzy about Albania, the PC, Ksamil, etc, the power goes out. I haven’t made dinner yet. I guess that’s the perfect analogy for how things go here. Just when you’re feeling things are great…a tiny little challenge ruins your evening…and dinner plans.

Oh, and PS. To those readers who are sticklers about grammar. I know, its totally a mish-mash in here and my tense keeps changing. It annoys me too. All the Shqip speaking and working with non-native English speakers has affected my English in horrible, horrible ways.