Friday, July 29, 2011

The Truth Lies Within

Recently, I was lucky to be invited by Sergio, a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteer, to participate in his English Camp. This was a morning program for Albanian children/teens that were learning the language. But it also provided an opportunity for Education Majors at the University to gain some classroom experience. During one of my visits, the “teacher-in-training” shared a story about an old man who wanted to teach his lazy sons a lesson about hard work. In so doing, he told a lie. If you’re interested in the parable, visit (sorry, the link feature's being a pain in the ass at the moment.)

The young teacher had students practice diction by reading aloud, answer comprehension questions and then she lead a more philosophical discussion. Have you ever told a lie? When, if ever, is it OK to lie? Are there times when you should lie? The children’s answers were diverse and brought thoughtful justifications. Not to mention, pretty impressive English skills for these “beginner-intermediates!” As you’d imagine, they talked of occasions where the truth is black and white, as well as those that called for shades of grey. Their rhetoric made me think of debates I’ve entertained about the value of stretching the truth vs. brutal honesty (Hey, what’s up, Levi?).

All that being said, let me share some (essentially harmless) fibs, misrepresentations, half-truths and/or omissions that I’ve experienced during my service so far. Aside: Isn’t it fascinating how many softer words we use to buffer the intensity of the word LIE? Anyway, here goes:

• Stickers on the back of furgons or busses that say “air-conditioned” and often have snowflakes to further entice a rider. I’ve discovered that such stickers should lead you to believe that not only is there no A/C on the vehicle, but the windows are sealed shut, so don’t assume you’ll even enjoy a hot breeze!

150 Leke sandwich. UGH! I already told you about being over-charged for my sandwich in Voskopoja! But clearly, I’m still a little peeved! A 50% MARK-UP! What about my ill-fitting wardrobe makes you think I’m a well-off American? Oh right…the part where I’m American. Whatever, that doesn’t make it right!

The meeting will start at 11.  OK, so it’s well-understood that Albanian meeting times are merely suggestions. This is something I can deal with. But I’m still trying to find the right period of lateness that doesn’t cause me to sit idle, but to be early enough to beat the last attendee. It’s a delicate dance.

• A furgon driver yelling, “Tiranë, gati!” Essentially, this means he’s READY to leave. Furgons are the mini-buses we use for city-to-city travel. The fiscally aware driver knows he gets more bang for his furgon buck if he leaves with a full load (8-10 people). So yelling GATI leads the gullible rider (guilty as charged) to assume he’s nearly full and will be departing shortly. NOT SO! In fact, there were only 3 others on the furgon I chose this morning and so we waited for about 25 minutes before heading out of Elbasan. GATI he was most certainly not.

Live and learn. And then discover that it usually takes several go-rounds to actually learn. E.G. That furgon I was “fished-into” this morning ... yea, about the 4th time I’ve been duped. Çfarë mund të bëj?/ What can I do? This is life in Albania. Should become jaded and less trusting? Or maybe I should just accept that it’s gonna be a while, turn on my iPod and enjoy another segment of “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me!” Thank you NPR Podcasts! I think I’m getting more NPR in Albania than I did in the States! NOW THAT’S THE TRUTH!

Peace, Love and Little White Lies

PS...there's a really great Freakanomics Podcast about "Faking It" that delves into the lies we ALL (yea, I said it.) tell everyday. It's worth a listen, if you are remotely interested.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Baited, Switched then Hooked

The Bait. A Facebook Invitation to help Eric, a fellow volunteer at his organization’s Summer Camp. It went down like this:

The camp would host approximately 75 children. With the organization’s staff, the adult to child ratio was already 1:6. Our role as PCVs would be to add support and maybe even develop some fun activities for the kids. Volunteers will be active, but also given some free time as well. OK, this sounds pretty good so far. Of course, I like kids and my schedule at the Bashkia was lean enough at the time to allow for a few days out of the office. My food and lodging would be paid for by the host organization and I’d just need to pay for my transportation to and from the camp. Getting better, I can save a few days worth of $Lëkë. Oh….and did I mention this camp was going to be at the beach/plazh?!? No Kidding! This camp was in Southern Albania, more precisely Borsh, a beach-front village/fshat on the Ionian Sea! (not far from Sarande, which is more likely to produce Google results. Do it and be jealous!)

Yes, please! Po, Ti Lutëm! Where do I sign up? Count me in! Clearly….I was totally and utterly FISHED-IN. In the days leading up to the camp, I sent some activity ideas to Eric (Shout Out to Childsplay and Tempe Leadership for in idea bank of awesome options!) and he developed a schedule utilizing many of them. I was so pleased to be playing an active role.

The Switch. What’s that expression? All that glitters is not gold. Which is why in instances such as this, I should remember that I’m a commitment-phobe for a reason! Do a little fact finding, test-drive that used Yugo, ask for a gelato sample before mixing Pistachio with Fruits of the Forest. The following details in the fabric were the things that made me panic (tip of the hat to one Mr. Jason Mraz):

• The only daily bus from Elbasan to Sarande leaves at 6AM. But in the summers, it can fill up, so best to get there by 5am to ensure you have a seat. Nuk jam një përsona e mëngjës. I am not a morning person.
• The 1.5 hour bus-ride from Sarande to Borsh induced motion sickness and therefore vomiting in no less than 67% of the participating children. And only 42% of them had plastic bags. Very little ventilation. (Think of Chunk’s story from Goonies about the massive ripple effect.)
• For fear of giving away the punchline, I previously elected to not use quotation marks around the word “lodging.” Now, perhaps watching too many American Summer Camp-type movies, deluded me enough to envision rustic log cabins. Stupid, yes I know! Tents, outhouses and public showers.
• Bugs. Mosquitos, Wasps, and other unidentified flying insects (more found inside our tents than outside, of course). During my recruitment interview with Lassana, I distinctly remember rating enormous insects as HIGH on the discomfort scale.
OK, so truthfully, I am perfectly capable of dealing with each of these little facets of Summer Camp. But, would I have been so Gung Ho about volunteering had I known better in advance? I like to think that I’d have been as eager to volunteer, but really, its difficult to say. That was A LOT of VOMIT.

And the Hook. What I can tell you now is this… if there’s a call for volunteers again next year, my response will surely be…. Yes, please! Po, Ti Lutëm! Where do I sign up? Count me in! Clearly….I am totally and utterly FISHED-IN.

During my time at the camp, I fell madly in love with no less than every child. Collecting rocks from the sea, playing Frisbee, Mother May I, creating secret handshakes, paper maché masks, untying human knots, falling asleep to the croaking frogs, sharing stories and dreams for the future… every moment was a gift! There’s something incredibly overwhelming when you recognize the power of encouraging words, or even simply listening* to a child’s story. Most of the children at this camp come from disadvantaged families, families where Mom and Dad’s only focus is survival. Attention, praise and affection for their children are all distant 2nds to putting food on the table. So our simple and sincere “bravo’s” and “shumë mirë’s/very good’s” and hugs and kisses on the foreheads brought an outpouring of love in return. One night, during a particularly gratifying round of hugs, one girl held on a little longer and whispered to me “Te dua shumë.” And while I unsuccessfully fought back tears, I responded with “Te dua gjithmonë.” And I always will. Thank you Eric for including me, I'll never forget it!

Peace, Love and Barfbags

*One boy came for a walk with me along the beach. And I was thinking, oh shit, how am I going to keep conversation going? Turns out, I never needed to….he did all the talking! My job was to keep him going with “the occasional “mmhmm,” “po…po” or “vertet?” All he needed was an audience and it was my absolute honor.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Eternal Damnation, Po apo Jo?

You know you are in trouble (I’m talking about After-Life trouble) when you find yourself asking… Now, this John the Baptist guy…what was he known for? I kid, I kid/Shaka Shaka. In fact, I remember a thing or two about him and his bad-ass baptizing ways. Isn’t it ironic that when you get dunked in a pool now the guy is considered a bully, but back then he absolved you of original sin? Anyway, I was knocked down a few pegs, dumb-founded even, on a recent visit to Voskopoja, a small tourist town in southeaster Albania. Voskopoja is known for its mountain views, Orthodox frescos and beautiful historic monasteries.

Each year on June 24th, this sleepy little village’s population explodes as Albanians, Greeks and tourists from all over (like a few PCV Americans) attend an annual festival for John the Baptist. I can’t tell you much more about the history of the festival because 1) my Shqip skills have not extended into faith-based vocabulary and 2) I feared that speaking with the priest would only illuminate my cavalier opinions on organized religion. But I was just taken aback by how much I either didn’t remember from my days at Sunday school or that I just never learned. As I looked upon all the incredible, ancient, hand-painted frescos of the monastery, I realized… I don’t know Jack. (OK, the 9584th time I’ve come to that realization). Essentially, in the monastery, my bumbling idiot ass went something like this:

“Ok, so that one, beard, great abs, kind eyes….that’s Jesus.”

“Oh, here’s one! Woman with a baby and skin like porcelain…that’s Mary.”
“And who do we have here, Father Time? No? Hmpf. Errrr… you guys wanna hit the beer garden?”

As I write, I imagine my more devout Christian friends are cringing. And for that I apologize, but also request… pray for me? ;) I don’t intend to be disrespectful. I do value Christianity and believe that my up-bringing associated with the church provided the guiding principles for my life choices. But the thing is, I just wonder… when the time comes for salvation…what’s more important, being able to identify the characters in the stories, or to have lived a life of humility, honor and grace? (hey…we are all works in progress!) Since we’ll likely never truly know the answer to that, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Oh shit… luck associated with the Devil, isn’t it? Well, then I’ll go with Hope…there’s that Faith, Hope and Love trifecta that sounds pretty significant! Regardless of my understanding of the scriptures, I still found our visit to Voskopoja to be absolutely amazing. Drinking in the experience, there was evidence of the Divine everywhere. Every mountain top, stream and tree. Every smile from a stranger. Every warm embrace among friends. Every time a child erupted in laughter. Now that’s where I find faith.

Peace, Love and Hope that Salvation is graded on a Curve

PS. Although I have to wonder… in a place where faith weighs so heavily, how is it that the kebab vendor charged me $150 Leke when he charged all my friends only $100 Leke. That’s a 50% mark-up. Judas!