Friday, August 7, 2015

HOTTEST SUMMER EVER! Official Bashkia Assignment has begun / Initial Mayoral Priorities - Schools/Bathrooms, Bashkia

I sent some of you part (last part) of this update manually - I have added in some more "color" and moved things around.  :-) The new information is first.  I will add more photos at a later date.

<SIDE NOTES: it continues to be blazing hot and humid here! Imagine living in DC or New York in the summer with no AC, almost ever! The humidity makes it crazy hot and the buildings heat up and don't cool down at night (I think the low quality cement used during the Communist Era heats up and holds the heat.  And in the winter,it holds the bitter, damp cold and is often colder inside - its really something to behold)!  

My apartment is usually 85-95 degrees every night - I've learned to sleep less and function more slowly.  My office in the Bashkia is now called the "hot box" as it is on the sunny side of the building. Even with a fan blowing on me and my counterpart (it heats up to 105+ degrees and the fan feels like a constant blow dryer), its a challenge to concentrate some days.  We bring frozen bottles of water to work each day to stay hydrated and I tell myself I'm "developing a new skill of surviving in conditions in which most of the world lives"!  Its certainly not the Palo Alto perfection climate I am used to!

The new mayor, Zef, told me I can sit in his AC (air conditioned) office whenever he isn't there (he has a second office in Bushat where he used to be mayor of a small village/komuna). "Premium" already! (Inside joke).  I haven't used it yet as I really don't want to separate myself from everyone else working here.  And I also want to see if I can adjust over time (little by little).  I have found that if I can get one hour of AC, my body can handle the rest of the extreme heat for 24 hours, then I need another break of "cooling core body temperature." 

My site mate, Sarah and I travel 30 minutes by furgon to Shkoder 3 times a week to sit in an air-conditioned bar,cafe called Exalco.  We are now on a first-name basis with the staff and they laugh when they see us walk in. They are totally on to us "the Americans need their AC!"  I now schedule my "coffee" meetings with other NGO people there as it is both a nice spot and the AC is da best!!! 

It's being said this is the hottest summer on record in Albania.  Even going to the beach, you feel like you are baking from the inside out.  

We did get to the beach 2 times - its about one hour away.  When my Albanian friend, Pranvera offers to take us, we drop everything to go!  The beaches are so crowded in July and August and the water is almost too warm - but once you swim out past everyone (and sometimes little pieces of trash), the "sea" feels like a little slice of heaven. What's cool about the beach vibe is that everyone goes, all ages.  All body types, all together and it oozes family and tradition.  You can sometimes hear foreign languages as Albania is a great vacation bargain for people and with its bountiful fruits and veggies, its a hidden gem.  

On to Peace Corps "business"...


There is a new partnership between Peace Corps and (you will hear more detail about that in the future). High level, this will allow PCV's (Peace Corps Volunteers) to submit applications to get funds for redoing bathrooms in schools (which are in horrific condition if working at all).  This will be a major project which I will describe in another posting.

In parallel, the new mayor is revamping the work style of the Bashkia employees and also the building (which is a very traditional Communist Era building).  There are bars on a lot of the windows (which my 10th grade tutor told me yesterday were installed because there were robberies of the computer equipment, etc).  It really doesn't feel like a place citizens would look forward to coming to.  

Up to this point, I have been meeting regularly with the incumbent Vice Mayor (he speaks English AND has AC lol).  After talking a lot about his family and his life, I shared with him about my background, how I though I might be able to help, etc.  When I first met with the new Mayor, Zef, it was obvious that the Vice Mayor had updated him as he immediately began asking for my opinion on everything, even when I wasn't' ready to give one yet.  We quickly established rapport (mind you, this is all with his 28 year old assistant translating all our communication AND enthusiasm)!  We are off to a great start.

Leftover from Communist Era (dictate, control and no personal ownership) the Albania culture has evolved to one of "avash, avash" (slowly, slowly).  It's very challenging to get things done and there is often a lack of drive and motivation to push hard to drive results, pretty much the opposite of Silicon Valley and America in general.  I find my new mayor the opposite of this.  He is a big man with a commanding presence.  He moves quickly, speaks strongly (probably intimidates many) and really wants to get results which benefit the citizens, the communities and most importantly, the children and girls.

It's so exciting to see and be part of these potential big changes.  

I sent the note below to my Peace Corps leadership this week to keep them posted on what's happening in our larger Bashkia (the new municipality after the territorial reform election in June) (shockingly, so quickly)!

Begin forwarded message:
Date: August 4, 2015 at 10:21:19 AM GMT+2

Subject: New Mayor GSD "Getting Stuff Done"

After only 4 days on the job, the new Mayor, Zef Hila, is delivering! I'm sharing this information to validate that there are Albanians who can make things happen quickly!

Last Friday, Zef took Sarah and me to 6 schools and we looked at over 60 bathrooms. Before we set out, we walked the entire property of the Bashkia where he laid out his vision. He would tear down walls, get rid of the window bars, fix bathrooms and overall conditions to create a new, open work space on the first floor (Phase 1). Bashkia employees responsible for providing services will sit in this open area being available to serve the citizens of Vau Dejës in a new, collaborative way (versus single/silo offices).

Today construction began - see below.

While we are now dealing with extreme heat AND dust, it great to see the work commence and how it's getting everyone to "step up their game."

Zef doesn't speak English but his assistant does and this is already proving to be a developing team. He invited Sarah to be part of the school bathrooms initiative and is asking for our opinions on everything.

Keep you posted. It's going to be so exciting to see what can be accomplished with his leadership balanced with realistic timeframes.

Have a great day!

Debbie :-)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

July Update - Heat, House guests, Art and Trash / Phase 3 Training is completer!

Hi All (I sent this manually to many of you already!  I'm going to try and use my blog again as I have access to a very old computer in the Bashkia (local municipality).

Well - I had my first guests to my Vau Dejës apartment (my permanent  site). On the left is Vjollca who was one of the language instructors. On the right is Jessica who is a 22 year old PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer - that's what we call ourselves - "PCV's"). I have one double fold out and one twin fold out - it worked out pretty well.

Of course, other than the 100 degree daily temps and 90s at night, we had a nice slumber party! I have fans in both rooms! And I haven't been "under the covers" for weeks!! Two showers a day are required!! Lol

July will NOT be the month for visiting! I'm waiting to see how September and October roll out!!

I met them in Shkoder (can't say "picked up" since I don't have a car :-) ) - had lunch and it was so hot, we nixed walking around and went to a bar (that's pretty much what they call every establishment which serves coffee AND alcohol - of which there are thousands) - few have AC but this one does! There we chilled down our core bodies and caught up.

Before they arrived (very early that morning) Sarah (my 21 year old site mate) and I took a furgon into Shkoder to go pick up my new painting and get 3 amazing care packages at the post office. I had said I wanted to get one memorable piece of art from Albania to make my apartment really feel like my new home and I believed I had found it.

I was introduced to Rron Qena by another PCV. Rron is an Albanian born and raised in Kosovo (there are many Albanians in Kosovo, another reason why Albanians love Americans so much - helped save Kosovo under Clinton).

Shkoder is the center of art culture for Albania. Rron comes here to sell his work and be inspired. He was just wrapping up 2 months here and packing up his work to go do a show in Belgrade and also return to Kosovo. He had 3 very different paintings I was interested in (if curious, you can see more of his work by looking him up on Facebook - Rron Qena, artist). He sold his first painting at 16. His father was an artist.

I'm going to help Rron redo his bio (helped bring the price down - love bartering and negotiating). Sarah was cracking up when she saw me go into "business mode" - I don't have to pull it out that often any more.

I chose this one because of the colors and because it is about Shkoder - the lake, the river, bicycles, growing energy...

After some challenges getting Euros (banks were closed for Muslim holiday), I was able to make it work and we picked up the painting at the hostel where he was staying (side note - while we were having a post-purchase "coffee" / water on my part), we watched several couples and singles arrive with backpacks and asking for confirmation that they were in the right place. I had a moment and smiled to myself that I did the same kind of travel 25-30 years ago... Prices are a bit higher now (12 euros for a bed and bathroom down the hall). I must say its fascinating to have the perspective about time and choices, etc. And I'm not a "Lonely Planet" troubadour any more - but as a PCV, I know how to enjoy the simple things and fully appreciate the luxury we have in the US.

Well - you are updated on the present moment/s, and I promise I will get back to my blog soon. I realized I don't look forward to opening my computer and writing with it as its on its last legs (cursor jumps around, letters erase, etc) - you know it's bad if I'm typing this on my phone!! I will have the first U.S. visitor bring me a new, light tablet, probably in the fall.

It's ridiculously hot, fruits and veggies are abundant, work is super slow in the Bashkia (local municipality office) until the election results are confirmed and new people in place. In the mean time we received "train-the-trainer" lessons on facilitating Youth Employability sessions in our sites.

We also have been introduced and encouraged to work in our local schools on a new initiative to update school toilets (they are horrific) partnering with a California based org called Water Charity - I will soon begin researching the needs and feasibility in our local school to see if there is a match (in order to get the funds, the community must fund 25% of the costs whether through labor or materials, etc).

I'm also helping people with job stuff (resumes, interviewing, job searches) while continuing 1-1's with Albanians who I've previously met. It's so motivating to see them explore self-awareness, new communication styles and how to more effectively influence within the work environment.

Everyday I look from my Communist Era balcony, see the tall Catholic Church tower, hear the bells sing, listen to stray dogs and roaming chickens in the street while I marvel at the daily cultural life I'm living. I know one day soon, things will shift again and more of my time will be focused on helping develop new skills of the people with whom I work and inspiration through "giving back" will be a cornerstone. Peace Corps is about developing skills and building capacity of the people in our host countries (Goal 1). At the same time we are chartered with educating Albanians on our culture (Goal 2) and absorbing/participating/learning Albanian culture and sharing it with all of you (Goal 3).

It's challenging, eye-opening, fun, rewarding, frustrating at times, and always an adventure. Albania has so much potential and beauty while difficult/hard economic issues, horrific and little waste management, a weak, inconsistent tax "system" (I use that term loosely), and lingering corruption, it could be overwhelming to see how to respond to it all.

 The PC approach keeps a focus on the people and developing trust, individual impact and educating, empowering and inspiring the youth of Albania as they ARE the future leaders and change-agents. Our work requires resiliency, an open perspective, courage and heart.

One last story to further illustrate one of the challenges along with how to make a difference... After our final Phase 3 training, those of us in COD (Community and Organizational Development) were invited for 3 more days of training in the capital of Tirana. It was hosted by USAID. The course was Advanced Participation Methods (Consensus Workshop, Focused Discussions, and Action Planning). Great refresher for me/some new techniques, and a chance to share 30 years of experience learning and developing all of these.

After it was over, I headed across town to get on a bus for the two hour ride home. It was one of the worst buses I've been on and with only 2 windows open and pushing 95 degrees, I knew I was in for a memorable ride!

After pressing the bus driver, he released one of the "reserved" seats by the window to me. I needed that window seat badly as I had picked up a virus going around the PCV circle (luckily I didn't get strep like many others) and I couldn't breathe well. For 2 hours I let the hot, dusty wind rip on my face while I tried not to "smell" the bus! (All the while smiling inside, as this is what gives color to the day and a reminder to what a great life I've had).

The "money/taker" sat down next to me and sat with his legs wide open pushing into my space - so I twisted to position myself to almost be leaning out the window. At the same time, the bus driver was finishing his final smoke sitting right underneath the No Smoking sign (gotta love it). I coughed to breathe and hoped the trip would begin soon  while in my mind I kept chanting " I receive what I need, I receive what I need" followed by - "I can do anything for 2 hours!" LOL

Once we settled into the ride, made 5 or 6 stops to pick up people standing out on the road's edge to head north, the whipping wind and dust sand-papering my face with Tirana-traffic-fumes fading, I actually got  sleepy, relaxed and stopped replying to text messages as a way to cope with it all. I began to "enjoy the ride" as many say...

Then we made a full stop at a gas station. As it turned out, not for gas, but 4 or so people got off to get water! Hmmm... On the road again. Two of the group were the young man and young woman in front of me and the money/taker. (Up to this point my only words of conversation to all of them was "Pershendetje" (greetings) and "Shumë vap" (it's very warm")

They finished their waters and the girl in front of me throws her bottle out the window. I "air gasped" and said a big "No" inside. Then the guy sitting next to her does the same. Then the money-taker reaches across me and does the same plus some paper trash. I froze. I felt all my upbringing of picking up trash days, picking up wrappers walking around the lake at Pinecrest, encouraging others not to leave trash behind, always making sure I threw away my empty popcorn bucket after the movie was over (pet peeve btw - why can't people throw out their own trash), suddenly flash before my eyes. I knew I didn't have enough vocabulary to explain why not to do that or really even question the philosophy of it all AND I was too sick to talk without a coughing fit. I calmed my instincts, acknowledged why we take care of the planet and knew that in 27 months I wouldn't be able to FIX it and would accept trash on the side of the road is a part of life here (mind you families clean and mop their homes daily, wipe down cabinets weekly and majority of people have spotless homes).

Could it be behavior passed down after communism fell and there was no infrastructure/labor to pick up trash, or that so many years of isolation, "taking care of the planet" wasn't part of the culture??? I recognized I wouldn't have answers that would allow me to find solutions. There will and have been beach clean up days with kids and adults along with educational sessions on environment and personal responsibility.

In that moment I felt I my service purpose recommitted to 1-1 discussions, group coffees with curious dialogue and "help me understand why..." in order to tackle the big issues in a way that might influence thinking and maybe ultimately change.

This story illustrates why it's important to discuss, not judge; influence through questions not "authoritative" directives, and the expression "avash, avash" might actually make a good forehead tattoo! (Humor always helps me in these situations.

Albania has multi-level challenges with gender, economics, and how to get things done. We are here to help, guide and most importantly educate where appropriate. We don't have all the answers nor do we want to own "fixing it" for them. We want to empower the people, expand their thinking in a way which increases accountability and turns their deep love for family and America into an energy source for developing new skills which allow them to improve life in Albania .

Many layers to all people and situations. I will do my best in sharing their culture along with positive progress. (Side note - I did get on the case of my Albanian friend and her brother for doing the same thing out the car window coming back from the beach. They laughed. I told them - you might want to take care of Albania for your children.  It's yet to be seen if their behavior will change).

That's all for now. We are on this journey together.

Happy (and blazing hot) July!!