Anti-Trafficking Training of Trainers

For the past year I have been working with three other women in the health sector of my group as part of the Peace Corps Anti-Trafficking committee. This was one of the many committees that I decided to join when starting my service. The group before us had created an anti-trafficking facilitation guide during their service and we wanted to expand on that during our time on the committee. We began brainstorming and reached out to an anti-trafficking NGO in Tirana to partner together for an anti-trafficking training of trainers. We decided that we wanted to work with professionals across the country to implement activities for youth and marginalized populations regarding human rights and anti-trafficking. The NGO, Different and Equal, was extremely interested in working together to make this dream a reality and we decided to apply for a US Embassy Democracy Grant in the summer/fall of 2014. Another member of the ATIP committee spearheaded most of the grant writing with help for the rest of us on the committee and after a few months of waiting, we were informed that we had received the grant. Then the work began. We emailed back and forth, sometimes over ten emails a day, to make sure that all the details were in order throughout the entire planning process. Each member of ATIP was in charge of leading a session at the national training of trainers conference. I led a lesson about working with youth and developing interactive lesson plans. It was really quite the experience for me to have the opportunity and the honor of working with so many wonderful professionals dedicated to stopping trafficking in Albania. We were even able to print and translate over 500 copies of the facilitation guide that the group before us created. Those guides are being distributed to Peace Corps volunteers and organizations all over Albania. I am so proud of the work our ATIP committee did over the past year and I can’t wait to see what the next group has in store for the committee. Here is the press release with more detailed information about the project.

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER COMMITTEE AND LOCAL NGO COMPLETE ANTI-TRAFFICKING TRAINING IN TIRANA

The Peace Corps Albania Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee (ATIP) partnered with Tirana-based not-for-profit organization, “Different and Equal” (D&E), completed a successful training of trainers (ToT) at the Hotel Mondial in Tirana on Feb. 11-12.

The trainers were awarded a US Embassy Democracy Commission Small Grant for a year-long anti-trafficking education prevention program last June. The project consists of two parts: Phase I, a 2-day training of trainers; and Phase 2, community-based educational sessions by the participants in their communities, in conjunction with a 6-month monitoring and evaluation component, implemented by Different & Equal, assisted by Peace Corps Volunteers.

Approximately 40 Albanian professionals, representing many communities were educated on human rights and human trafficking, along with key sessions preparing participants with the information and skills needed to deliver trafficking prevention lessons to raise awareness and strengthen grass-roots efforts to end trafficking within their communities.

Sessions included topics such as, What Makes a ‘Victim’ Vulnerable, Risk Factors and Warning Signs, Designing Your Training: Step by Step, and How to Deliver an Effective Presentation.

Trafficking of human beings continues to be a major problem for Albanian society, rooted in deep poverty, corruption and the pervasive desire of poor people to migrate in search for better opportunities within or outside the country. According to US Department of State TIP Report 2014, Albania is a source country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor.

Participants were enthusiastic in their participation and role as trainees and trainers. The ToT had a wide variety of individuals from small towns to the capital city. Participants were chosen for a variety of attributes, including diversity of experience, access to a variety of communities, and skill sets. Most participants seemed invigorated by the sessions, as expressed by lively discussion and sharing of thoughts and experiences. ATIP and D&E are optimistic that the energy displayed during the two days of training will drive participants to provide a variety of community activities to educate a broad range of Albanian society.

Also present at the concluding ceremony were Deputy Minister of Interior and National Coordinator for Anti-Trafficking Elona Gjebrea, US Embassy Public Affairs Officer Valerie O’Brien, and Peace Corps Country Director Earl Wall.

Anti-Trafficking in Persons Committee (ATIP) Albania: ATIP is a an initiative of Peace Corps Albania, which promotes the dignity and safety of vulnerable women and children by combating human trafficking through spreading awareness and reducing stigma, empowering women and children to recognize and avoid dangerous situations, and supporting Peace Corps Volunteers, local NGOs, and state agencies in the fight against human trafficking.

Different & Equal: D&E is an Albanian non-for-profit organization established in May 2004 that provides education, intervention and reintegration services for Albanian victims of trafficking.

Two of my Albanian friends were participants

Two of my Albanian friends were participants

An anti-trafficking activity

An anti-trafficking activity

The ATIP Facilitation Guide printed in Shqip/English

The ATIP Facilitation Guide printed in Shqip/English

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During my presentation on how to work with youth and develop engaging lesson plans

ATIP Group 16 Committee

ATIP Group 16 Committee

Discussing ideas during group work time

Discussing ideas during group work time

The director of different and equal beginning the training

The director of Different and Equal and a Peace Corps volunteer doing an interactive activity to show the effects of trafficking 

Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green Talent Show

My students in Outdoor Ambassadors, a youth group focused on environmentalism and leadership skills, decided to hold a talent show to fundraise money for community projects and future activities. We have been discussing and planning this show since the beginning of the school year in September. The show was originally planned for the beginning of January, but the students did not use their time correctly over the winter break to plan so we had to postpone the show until February. My site-mate Chuck and I wanted this show to be a student-run operation, so we gave the students some guidance, but left most of the decision making, planning, and preparation up to them. They wrote the program, found performers to partake in the show, made and sold tickets, decorated the auditorium, and coordinated with everyone to make sure the show happened. We helped push them along the way and make sure that they were adhering to deadlines, but in the end the students ran the entire show.

The show was focused on promoting environmental awareness in our community. The performers spoke with the audience about the importance of throwing away garbage, reducing pollution by riding bikes or walking, the effects of smoking on the environment, etc. We also had several other performances such as singing, bands, and dancing. It was a very dynamic show with fourteen different acts. The students really put in a lot of work to make sure the show was interesting for the audience. I also created this video to show the garbage problem in our community to persuade people to begin taking an active role in keeping their city clean.

It was quite the learning experience for all of us. The students got a taste of new and different leadership roles; they did not have prior experience planning and running a show. Not going to lie, much of the planning was chaotic. The students were confused about what roles everyone had and who were supposed to do which tasks. This meant that things often did not get done when they were originally planned. They ended up pulling it together with the proper amount of direction and time.

They began holding rehearsals several weeks before the show. The first initial rehearsals consisted of a lot of confusion and arguing, but things began to have more of a flow and consistency after a few tries. Still things were a bit rocky all the way up to the day before the show, so the students decided to hold one last rehearsal before the final show today and that is where the true madness begins…

Here is a breakdown of the day.

9am: Students begin arriving at the auditorium for rehearsals. Most of the students do not arrive until around 9:20am. Some other random students decide to skip school and attend the rehearsals as well.

9am-9:30am: The group starts decorating the auditorium with balloons. The balloon project does not get finished until around 10:30am. We had less than 40 balloons…

9:30am: Still waiting for most of the student participants to arrive. The power in all the building goes out. We have no lights in the auditorium.

10am: The power is still not back. The students are starting to panic. Everyone is using their phone lights to navigate through the pitch-black room. People are trying to change into costumes, put on makeup, and practice before the performance.

10:20am: The lights are still out in the auditorium, but power has come back to the rest of the building. We try to figure out what the problem is with the lights in the auditorium and supposedly the lights in the auditorium are connected to a separate generator that is part of a different breaker of a surrounding village. Very confusing situation.

10:40am: Still no power. Haven’t been able to start rehearsals. Now students who bought tickets begin to show up… over an hour early. They expect to be let into the auditorium, but I refuse because we still do not have light and still haven’t begun rehearsals.

11:20am: No lights still. The show is supposed to start at 12pm. The students (and myself) are really starting to stress out. The students who aren’t stressed are messing around in the darkness. People keep saying “Inshallah” or “God-willing” in hopes that the lights will return soon.

11:30am: The students from the high school are let out from school early. Over 300 tickets were sold. Hundreds of kids are standing outside the auditorium and trying to get inside. I was afraid there was going to be a stampede.

11:40am: The police arrive to help control the crowd. People are getting anxious all around. I am running around trying to calm everyone down and get everything together for when the lights come on. They tell us the lights should be back soon. They have been saying this for a while.

11:50am: The lights come back on!!! We begin letting students into the auditorium. It’s madness. Students without tickets are trying to enter and some of the Albanian adults are letting them in anyways, despite the fact that they don’t have a ticket.

11:55am: The auditorium is completely full – past capacity. Everyone is running around backstage trying to get everything together to start.

12:05pm: We begin the show without any rehearsals or preparation. The show must go on! Everyone was a bit nervous, but began to calm down as the show started.

12:15pm: I helped backstage with the music and technology. Sadly, since we did not have time to check the sound before there were some problems. The music was on way louder than the microphones, but everyone still did a great job. I accidently played the wrong song at first for the first singers, whoops.

12:30pm: The students’ energy backstage was so cheerful. All the students were cheering each other on and taking videos/pictures. Everyone practically forgot we didn’t even get to rehearse.

1:30pm: The show finished and I could breathe again. We celebrated with a big group cheer and group hug after dancing the finale to the “We are the World” song. It was a very happy moment.

Despite all the problems that we faced throughout the day, the students pulled off a wonderful show all on their own. They planned it. They implemented it. They did it all. I can’t explain how proud I was the moment that it began. It was such a crazy day, but totally worth it. The students made close to $400 for future community projects with the youth center and our city. They are such amazing leaders. I don’t know how I will ever leave them…

During rehearsals

During rehearsals

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Waiting for the lights to come back on

Waiting for the lights to come back on

The full auditorium

The full auditorium

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

An anti-smoking skit

An anti-smoking skit

Another great singer

Another great singer

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Our great narrators and directors of the show

Our great narrators and directors of the show

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

The entire cast during the finale

The entire cast during the finale

Me and the valle group

Me and the valle group

Part of the group after the show

Part of the group after the show

Model United Nations

Model UN is a youth group focusing on mock debate and international relations. There are nine students per Model UN team and they are split into three separate UN committees. The students in General Assembly are discussing achieving sustainable development: prioritization of the sustainable development goals; enhancing global partnerships through tri-sector development; and preconditions of sustainable development: safety, security, and good governance. Security Council is discussing conflict prevention and mitigation: measures to combat terrorism and trading in illicit markets; preventing regional escalation of internal conflicts in Middle East and North Africa countries; and preventing and reducing conflicts over natural resources. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is discussing coordinated action against human trafficking: the costs of human trafficking to development: economics, society, and health; protecting refugees and marginalized groups from human trafficking; and the rule of law in the fight against transnational organized crime and human trafficking. Each student group represents a certain country and their views on particular topics affecting our world. They work together with students from other high schools across Albania, representing different countries, to develop problem-solving resolutions. This program is a great opportunity for the students to develop critical thinking skills and to practice English while learning more about the world around them through individual research. The team that I am facilitating is representing India.

As you can see the students are debating some pretty serious topics and to top it off they are doing it in their second language. It really is quite impressive. Our group meets twice a week for an hour and we discuss current events, the students’ research, public speaking and formal debate, UN committee procedures, etc. It is a lot of extra work for the students on top of their school course load and extra classes course load. (Note: A lot of the students in Albania take extra classes outside of public school in the afternoon because it can be difficult to actually learn in some of the public classes. There are usually some students in every class that have bad behavior and bring down the moral for the rest of the class making it more difficult to actually learn.)

Part of Model UN this year is completing a community project. The students in my group worked together to get over 400 books in English donated to our newly created youth center. This is the biggest collection of English books in the entire town. I am currently working on cataloging all the books to have a fully functioning library as part of the center.

We also recently had the opportunity to visit the UN House in Tirana. The students heard from representatives from UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, UNFPA, UNHCR, IOM. It was an extremely informative session and the students all seemed to really enjoy our field trip together. During our time in Tirana, Chuck and I wanted to show the students a taste of American culture, so we took them out to eat at Cinnabon (which recently just came to Albania) and a restaurant called the Stephen’s Center, which serves American food. We’re hoping that we can also go and visit the US Embassy before the final conference as well.

One of the struggles that I have had as a teacher for the group is getting the students to put their research into their own words. Plagiarism is not taught in the same context here in Albania and copying articles word-for-word is the norm. Besides that though, the group has been going great and I am super proud of all the students thus far. The students recently participated in a regional mini-conference with other teams to practice what they had learned so far. The students all learned from the conference and were able to get a better understanding of what will be expected from them at the final conference in April. I can’t wait to see all their hard work at the final.

The entire group during one of our MUN meetings.

The entire group during one of our MUN meetings.

The group with all the boxes of books that were donated to the youth center for their community project.

The group with all the boxes of books that were donated to the youth center for their community project.

Before the mini-conference in Elbasan

Before the mini-conference in Elbasan

General Assembly room at the mini-conference

General Assembly room at the mini-conference

The GA team from Kavaje

The GA team from Kavaje

ECOSOC room at the mini-conference

ECOSOC room at the mini-conference

The ECOSOC girls

The ECOSOC girls

The Security Council girls

The Security Council girls

Practicing unmoderated caucus

Practicing unmoderated caucus

Waiting for the UN House presentation to begin

Waiting for the UN House presentation to begin

UN House Visit

UN House Visit. Don’t worry it hadn’t started yet. That is why everyone is on their phones… 

Hearing from different UN agency representatives

Hearing from different UN agency representatives

Eating American food for the first time!!

Eating American food for the first time!!

My counterpart Entela teaching the kids how to write resolutions in the proper format

My counterpart Entela teaching the kids how to write resolutions in the proper format

2014 in a Glance: My 365 Grateful Project

At the beginning of 2014 I decided to begin a project where I reflect on something that I am grateful for every day. I was having a hard time maintaining a positive attitude and I felt that this project could really help me reflect and appreciate more in my life. I never really knew what kind of effect that doing something like this would have on my life, but it really helped me realize that in every day (even really crappy days) there is something to be grateful for, whether it’s a hot meal or good friends. I found something to appreciate every day in 2014.

2014 was the best year of my life. I have grown so much over the past year and I had the pleasure and opportunity to experience so many new things and travel to new places. During my first year of Peace Corps work and life moved very slowly for me and it wasn’t until 2014 that things really started to pick up. I felt more integrated into my community, hung out with more Albanians, and began to find meaningful extra projects outside of my primary assignment. I traveled to Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Washington D.C, Colorado, and Italy. I reunited with friends and family that I had not seen in over a year. I also met Quinn. Quinn is the most amazing and kind guy that I have ever been with. I am continually grateful to share this experience with him.

Here are some highlights from my 365 grateful project:

january 11

January 11th: I am grateful for beautiful bike rides to the beach.

I started biking around the villages surrounding my town to explore and get some exercise. This was a photo from the first long bike ride I went on. I biked for about an hour and a half to get to this spot and was completely in awe when I found this beautiful area. I remember sitting on this pier and contemplating about how amazing my life had become.

jan 14

January 14th: I am grateful for my wonderful neighbors. They gave me some homemade byrek for lunch and delivered it by tossing it in between our balconies.

My neighbors always wanted me to help their daughter with improving her English skills. They paid me in delicious homemade byrek. I had a pretty good laugh when they were tossing me food like a football between our balconies, which are not part of the same apartment complex.

february 18

February 18th: I am grateful for Irida. She is a leader in our new youth group and a sweetheart. Today she invited me and my site-mate over for homemade lunch. Te lumshin duart Irida!

At this point in my service I just started the Outdoor Ambassadors group at the high school and it was completely new. Irida was one of the first students interested in taking part of the club. This was the first time that I was invited over to an Albanian’s house for lunch and she specifically made my favorite dish, fasule, because I had mentioned how much I loved it and how I couldn’t find it anywhere in town. It has been amazing to watch Irida grow over the past year and she is now one of the top contenders to go and study in the USA next year as part of the YES Program.

feb22

February 22nd: i am grateful for our first youth group hike.

This was the first time that we went on an excursion with the Outdoor Ambassadors students. It was such a new and fun day for all of us. It had rained the day prior and the pathway was extremely muddy. Right after this picture was taken the group got caught in the mud, trying to take a shortcut back into town. Luckily, we all helped each other get past the mud, but I can’t honestly say that my shoes have ever been quite as clean since.

march 5

March 5th: I am grateful to Skype with my long-lost best friend. We haven’t been able to talk for almost a year because of schedule differences. It was nice to catch up and we can’t wait to catch up more.

It can be hard to keep in contact with friends and family back home with the distance and the time difference. This was the first time that I was able to talk to Lane since joining the Peace Corps in March 2013. Keeping in contact with people back home is very important to me, even though it can be difficult at times.

march 28

March 28th: I am grateful for evening coffees with my good friend Erin in Shkoder.

Erin has always been such a good friend to me throughout Peace Corps. We don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like because we live in different regions of the country, but occasionally we are able to get together and it’s always a blast. This picture does not do that sunset justice, but it was absolutely beautiful. Erin and I were enjoying coffee together before having dinner with a bunch of Italians who are also living in Shkoder working with families in Northern Albania regarding blood feuds.

april 8

April 8th: I am grateful for late night showings of How I Met Your Mother with Quinn.

Quinn visited me and my old site-mate during his volunteer visit while he was in training. While he was visiting I was in the middle of marathoning How I Met Your Mother, so we spent our evenings watching HIMYM together in my apartment. It was nice to kick back, relax, and get to know Quinn.

april 17

April 17th: I am grateful for my host family.

The children in my host family are absolutely adorable. I always loved hanging out with all of them. I went for a short day visit to see the family that took care of me during pre-service training before giving a presentation to the new trainees. This was such a nice day because I was able to have a coffee (and a real conversation because my Shqip skills had improved greatly) with my host family.

april 20

April 20th: I am grateful to reunite with my mom in Japan after a year of not seeing each other.

This was the first time that I was able to see my mom in person since starting my Peace Corps service. My step-dad had a work meeting in Tokyo and agreed to fly me out there to be part of the trip. It was amazing to experience a completely different part of the world while hanging out with my family, who I had not seen in such a long time. I had such a fun time shopping and exploring the city with my mom. Plus, all the Japanese food was to die for!

may 10

May 10th: I am grateful that I finally had the opportunity to climb to the top of the pyramid.

Basically if a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania does not climb to the top of the pyramid in Tirana before the end of their service then it’s a crime. On this day I was helping give a “Tirana Tour” to the trainees in the new group. As part of the tour we walked around the entire city, had lunch at a Mexican restaurant, and climbed to the top of the pyramid.

may 20

May 20th: I am grateful that Entela and I are spending the afternoon planning GLOW.

This was a fun afternoon for me and Entela, one of my best Albanian friends (and now counterpart). Entela and I met through another previous Peace Corps volunteer who was her teacher at university. We became close friends and I asked her to be my counterpart to help run the GLOW: Girls Leading Our World summer day-camp in my community. That afternoon we made lesson plans, started compiling a GLOW manual, drank wine, and ate American goodies (cookie butter). It was lots of fun.

june4

June 4th: I am grateful for the crazy high school beauty pageant I attended tonight. It gave me a good laugh. Is this real life?

This was seriously such a strange event. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed to buy some tickets from a few of my students. During this show, the high-school students modeled and acted out skits. There were also some talented hip-hop dancer and other performances. The weirdest thing about this though was the progression of the modeling outfits. It started out as regular school clothes, more scandalous “summer” clothes, prom clothes, and then ended with all the girls in wedding dresses…

june12

June 12th: I am grateful for afternoon beers from Brauhaus on the beach with my site-mate.

It ended up working out that Peace Corps sent another volunteer to my city who also enjoyed biking and drinking. Chuck and I would go to the beach together often when the weather was nicer to have a few brews. I especially enjoyed coming to this spot because they served Brauhaus beer from a micro-brewing restaurant in Tirana.

june24

June 24th: I am grateful to teach yoga at GLOW camp.

I love yoga. And I love teaching yoga. I was not able to teach yoga since a summer camp in 2013 and I was really excited about the opportunity to show some of my girls at camp how amazing of a stress release yoga can be. I prepared flows and music that I thought would be appropriate. They learned the moves and were extremely attentive during the first class.

june 28

June 28th: I am grateful for this cutie. Think I’m gonna keep it.

I had a cat for a little while in 2014. I found Spec on the road near my house and noticed immediately how he was more friendly than other street cats I had met. I also noticed how he was a little baby and I really wanted to take care of him. He was one of the best cats I have ever had, but sadly I did not keep him because he was too big of a responsibility for me. I was traveling too much over the summer to really properly take care of him. I miss snuggling with Spec and having him to come home to. Luckily, another volunteer agreed to take care of him for me.

july2

July 2nd: I am grateful for Kampi pa Emer.

Kampi pa Emer was a camp coordinated by a Returned Peace Corps volunteer and his Albanian wife. They come back to Librazhd every year to hold this camp. The aim is to help integrate Roma and Albanian children through shared activities and games. This was such a fun camp to work at because it was with younger cuties. I taught hoop dance and GLOW. The GLOW lesson was led entirely in Shqip, and I was pretty proud of myself for that.

july8

July 8th: I am grateful a friend from America is visiting Albania.

My friend Bryan visited me in Albania before we went together to a music festival in Croatia. Bryan is the only friend (or family member, for that matter) that has visited me in Albania. Hint hint everyone.

july11

July 11th: I am grateful for epic selfies and night 1 of Ultra Music Fest.

I saved up a bunch of vacation time working during my first year of Peace Corps. I took some time off over the summer to go to some big name music festivals in Europe. I always loved live music, especially electronic music, so I was extremely excited to go to a real concert again. It was also a lot of fun to hang around Croatia in summer. It’s true; the beaches are spectacular.

july27

July 27th: I am grateful for an amazing last night of the best festival of my life. Thank you Tomorrowland. Hope to come back someday!

Tomorrowland was an epic festival. There were so many famous electronic musicians there and over 100,000 people from across the world. I met people from all continents. It was quite the experience and I don’t think any festival will ever top how awesome that experience was.

august11

August 11th: I am grateful to finally commence the summer camp I’ve been planning for the past 9 months.

I spent the majority of the summer coordinating all the details for the Outdoor Ambassadors summer camp. It was a lot of work and there were times that I wanted to gauge my eyes out. The camp ended up being quite the success and it was worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. Thankfully I had a lot of other amazing volunteers to help make sure the entire event went off.

sept7

September 7th: I am grateful to live in such a beautiful country and to partake in such a gorgeous hike to the northern blue eye.

Hiking in Thethi/Valbona was always at the top of my Albania to-do list. My friends and I finally planned the trip up and it was everything I could have imagined. It was beyond beautiful and it was actually my first experience backpacking. Back in Colorado I hiked a few 14ers, but never with a pack. It was fun to hike, camp, and then hike some more. Northern Albania is absolutely gorgeous and I may even try to do this hike again before I head back to America for good.

sept15

September 15th: I am grateful to be in Washington DC for the Blog It Home competition and for my first Chipotle burrito in over a year.

I was honored by Peace Corps and chosen as one of the winners of the national blog competition. During my entire flight back to America I dreamed of American cuisine, specifically Chipotle. After my extremely long flight, almost 24 hours to be exact with layovers, I finally made it to the hotel in DC. Immediately I convinced my roommate that we must get Chipotle burritos NOW. That burrito was so delicious. I miss Chipotle and guacamole.

sept 24

September 24th: I am grateful for a day in the breweries in foco with my friends.

Since Peace Corps flew me back to America I decided to take advantage of my geographical location and head back home for a few days to visit friends and family. I wish that I would have stayed a bit longer in Colorado because a week really wasn’t long enough to catch up with everyone. I was able to travel back up to my college town of Fort Collins and reminisce with some of my social work buddies. We also went to the breweries, one of my favorite past times, to have a few good beers.

sept27

September 27th: I am grateful for family.

My family is so important to me and I really wanted to see everyone while I was home. I miss spending holidays with everyone and being able to catch up on the phone anytime. It was truly wonderful to see everyone again.

oct23

October 23rd: I am grateful that the municipality has agreed to give us a room to start the youth center!

This was the first time I was able to check out the room that would become the future youth center of Kavaje. Having Chuck at the municipality finally gave us the in to make my dream of a youth center a reality. It’s crazy for me to see this picture now because this room has been completely transformed. I actually just came back from a meeting at the youth center. The room is fully functioning with internet, the necessary essentials, and a lot of the art materials that friends and family sent me. We have four different groups meeting their weekly with activities almost daily. I will update you more on the youth center later!

oct27

October 27: I am grateful to run into one of my OA students on the road just in time for a bike ride to the beach.

This was a fun bike ride to the beach. We ran into one of my students on the road and asked him to join us to the beach. The man on the left ended up giving me and Chuck handmade raki (Albanian moonshine) and some other traditional food. Just because. It was nice to be treated for absolutely no reason at all. I cannot tell you enough times how much I love, and appreciate, Albanian hospitality.

nov7

November 7th: I am grateful for these crazy kids. They are not only my OA students, but my friends. I love them all so much.

Can you tell that biking to the beach has become a theme in my service? This was the first time that we biked to the beach together as a group. It was absolutely pouring rain that day and I was shocked that any of the students actually showed up in the first place. Since they showed up I was ready, and willing, to go on the adventure. Most of the students had never even seen the areas of town that we were biking around and they mentioned that I know our city better than they do.

nov15

November 15th: I am grateful for a nice dinner with good friends.

Sometimes volunteers get together and enjoy delicious meals together. This is always a nice contrast from my usual daily dinner alone. It can get boring, and tedious, to continually cook nice meals alone.

nov23

November 23rd: I am grateful for my new tattoo.

I got another Albanian tattoo to commemorate my service thus far. This time I got the word “avash” tattooed on my left wrist. It’s funny because avash is actually a Turkish word, but it is used so common here in Albania. Avash avash is a phrase that means slowly slowly and it is representative of life and of many situations here in country. I always try to remind myself avash when something is frustrating me. I also want to be reminded of how working quickly is not always necessarily the best way to get things done.

dec24

December 24th: I am grateful to hear part of the Pope’s Xmas Eve mass and the ballet.

I tried not to include too many posts about Quinn and how grateful I have been to have him in my life. His fresh perspective and caring personality has helped me so much throughout the past year. He has been the main person that has been there to listen to me complain, to share in my successes, and to spend time with. To celebrate Christmas and New Years we went on a vacation together to Rome, Florence, and Venice. It was a blast and probably the best vacation that I have ever been on (probably because he is the best company that I could ever ask for). We spent the morning of Christmas Eve at the ballet watching the Nutcracker, which is one of my childhood favorites. Then we ventured out at night to hear the Pope give mass.

january-1

January 1st: I am grateful for new beginnings and the new year. I am grateful that I finished my 365 Grateful Project.

Back in Albania again and happy to begin 2015. The grateful project truly taught me a lot about myself and about how perspective changes everything. I am proud of myself for actually sticking to a New Years goal for the entire year. How often does something like that actually happen?! It was a nice ride. I can’t wait for all the things I have to be grateful for in 2015. It is already turning out to be a very special year. Life is so beautiful.

NYE in Shqiperi

New Years is a big holiday in Albania. Everyone celebrates it. Many people decorate fake trees and give the children presents to rejoice the New Year. Last year I celebrated New Years in Kosovo, Albania’s closest neighbor that is primarily ethnically Albanian. This year I wanted to celebrate in my country because the end of my service is coming up in four months and I want to soak up as much Albanian culture as I can before I head back to the states.

Like I’ve mentioned before, most Albanians celebrate New Years with their family. They cook a special meal, usually consisting of turkey and other delicacies, and sit down to a long dinner with their families. My counterpart told me that she was cooking New Years dinner from 8 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock at night. After the long day of cooking she was so exhausted that she didn’t even stay up for the midnight celebrations. Albanian women are excellent cooks; I wish that I could cook half as well as them. Many people tell me I will never get married if I don’t learn to cook a proper meal for my man. Obobo. Along with the meal, the family will usually drink wine and the men drink raki as well. Children, only children, are given presents of toys and dolls.

Fireworks went on sale about a month ago in my city and since they began selling the fireworks all I have heard most of the day and night is the loud bang that comes with fireworks. A lot of the fireworks that people buy here are just noisemakers. I honestly don’t understand the point of buying fireworks that don’t even look pretty because I find noisemakers ridiculously annoying. A lot of volunteers here like to play the game: firework or gunshot? So often during the end of the year, we hear loud noises that sound like guns, but they are probably fireworks. Anyways, there is no enforced age limit for who can buy fireworks, so I usually see boys younger than 10 lighting off fireworks haphazardly in the street, sometimes even lighting the fireworks and throwing them into crowds of people or random pedestrians on the street. It can be a dangerous time walking around on the streets with all the fireworks in the hands of young troublemaker boys.

Then at midnight Albanians hit the streets to set off fireworks and go clubbing until the early hours of the day. Let me just tell you that the midnight celebration in Tirana was chaotic. It was one of the most craziest (and probably most dangerous) things that I have been involved with as a Peace Corps volunteer here. The epitome of this chaos was in the center square in Tirana on New Years Eve. A group of volunteers decided we would spend the holiday together in Tirana. We made plans to go to the square at midnight and then go out clubbing after – the real Albanian experience (besides a nice home-cooked meal, which would have been nice). Somehow we managed to get caught up right in the center of all the fireworks. Hundreds of people were lighting off fireworks all in one small little area. I am honestly surprised that more people do not get hurt during these demonstrations. That being said, it was exciting and fun; luckily I still have my hearing. The city also did a firework demonstration at midnight and it was honestly pretty impressive. I enjoyed watching the city fireworks, along with all the random fireworks literally ten feet away from where I was standing. It was quite the experience. After the firework show we went to a small bar and danced the night away. It was a good time and we definitely brought the American dance party to the bar. Second goal, right? Overall, New Years was everything that I could ask for. I got to spend the evening with my boyfriend and all my best friends in Peace Corps. Gezuar Viten e Ri!

Just a small portion of the group that evening.

Just a small portion of the group that evening.

Check out all that smoke. What a crazy night. (Photo cred: Alayna)

Check out all that smoke. What a crazy night. (Photo cred: Alayna)

Brrrrrr, It’s Cold In Here

So let me start off saying that this blog post is not to try and illicit feelings of sympathy from all my readers, it is merely to explain my battle with the winter chill here in Albania. I am from Colorado; it is cold in Colorado. We receive tons of snow each season and currently (according to my father) there is several feet of snow on the ground back home. Sometimes I feel like a real wimp saying that Albanian winters are more difficult to endure since I come from a state with below freezing temperatures. I honestly don’t know how the Albanians do it; they are so strong and resilient. I can barely ride my bike outside without whimpering about how cold I am. This is usually one of the first things that I talk about with my coworkers, students, and fellow volunteers: the extreme cold. Winter is rough.

When looking at the actual numbers, Albania does not seem that cold. We have been hovering in around 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. That is nothing in comparison to the Colorado cold, but back home I could escape the cold. I would shovel off the snow from my car and wait a few minutes for it to warm up, but it eventually warmed up. I would head from my warm car to my warm apartment. The cold wasn’t so bad. I could watch the beautiful snowflakes fall from the comfort of my cozy home. Here it’s different. There is a constant cold that is trapped inside this concrete ice-block communist style architecture. Central heating? Please. I have my space heater and that only really heats a small area of space directly surrounding the heater. I am basically stuck in my bedroom for the rest of winter because that is the only room in my house that the space heater can almost adequately heat. Breakfast in bed, anyone? Last winter I wanted to be badass suffer and decided that I would rarely use my heater. This year that isn’t an option. If I didn’t use my heater I would probably die from hypothermia. I am joking, but sometimes it seriously feels like that. Thank goodness I have a sleeping bag. I tried sleeping without a sleeping bag for a few nights and then deemed myself partially insane because I didn’t bust it out earlier. My sleeping bag and my space heater are my new best friends.

Outside of my apartment is actually warmer than inside. If I want to escape the cold I just head out to a local coffee bar, my workplace, or the newly renovated youth center. All of those places have heat and it’s a bonus that I don’t have to pay for the heating on my tiny volunteer budget. Plus, I can sip on a coffee with friends or work on the Internet while I’m out. Most of the coffee shops in town have begun to get wireless Internet, so that is really exciting for me because it gives me something to do when I go out for a coffee alone.

It is now that time of the year where I live inside several layers of clothing at all times. Who needs to worry about fashion when you can just wear a giant puffy coat over everything?! Pretty much every inch of my body is constantly covered until I crawl into my sleeping bag at night. I now wear this ugly sweater that I bought at the second-hand market at all times inside my home because it is one of the warmest items of clothing that I own. I would wear it outside more, but my counterpart told me that she would not allow me to wear it in the office (it’s that ugly).

Basically this blog is to just discuss how cold I feel. Sometimes I never warm up throughout the day; my feet are perpetually frozen. I am in awe of how Albanians deal with the cold with such grace. Most of my students sit inside a classroom all day (that is just as cold as my apartment) with no heat. They don’t complain. It feels like such a privileged thing for me to complain about – not having central heating. In reality though, this is a major difference, for me personally, when it comes to experiencing seasonal changes here in country in comparison to my life in America. The infrastructure of many buildings here is poorly planned and doesn’t allow for adequate heating/cooling during different times of the year. Luckily I do not live in one of the colder, mountainous regions of Albania; some of the other volunteers have broken/frozen pipes and cannot leave their city because the roads are iced over with snow. Things that you wouldn’t even know could freeze… well they can, indeed, freeze. I have heard about shampoo, toothpaste, honey, and oil all freezing inside volunteer’s apartments. One volunteer mentioned that she is now keeping things inside of her refrigerator because that is the warmest place inside her home. Most of those volunteers can find respite with their wood stoves though, a luxury that sadly many are not privy to in central Albania.

Who needs a refrigerator when the house is just as cold?!

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My friend’s mom knitted me this wonderful socks to help keep me warm this winter.