Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog

This Peace Corps Life – Albania

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Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world!  This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Albania.

Meredith Porter – Age 24

Meredith (left) with another PCV and her Albanian counterpart.

Meredith (left) with another PCV and her Albanian counterpart.

Where are you from?
I’m from South Carolina.

What country and program do you serve in?  
I serve as a Community Health Educator in Albania. Our health program is in the middle of a redesign. It currently has four program goals, related to non-communicable diseases, alcohol and substance abuse prevention, maternal and child health, and sexual health and reproduction. In future cohorts, the focus will be on Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health.
In my primary projects, I already tend to work on youth sexual and reproductive health as well as life skills education. I’m assigned to a small town health center, but I work at least as often with the local schools, where I give lessons on health, life skills, sex education, healthy relationships, etc. I’m currently working on grant projects related to reproductive health training for medical staff and diabetes education for family caregivers.

As secondary projects, I lead weekly youth meetings- some weeks it’s GLOW, some weeks it’s environmental activities, English club, etc. I serve on the national Outdoor Ambassadors committee as the Training Coordinator and on the GLOW committee as the Curriculum Development Coordinator.

What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
Like most volunteers in Albania, I live in my own apartment, but unlike most of them, I live semi-attached to a family. My counterpart is also my landlord, which works out surprisingly well. She and her family are so sweet, and it’s kind of between independent living and host family living.

My apartment is fairly large, as it’s probably meant to hold a family one day. I have a shower, a Western-style toilet, and a washing machine. Like many volunteers here, my town is on a water schedule. Luckily, I share a deposit with my counterpart’s family, so I usually have some water, even if it’s only a trickle. I also have a fridge and a stove/mini-oven combo (we call it an easy bake among PCVs), so I’m able to cook some of the same things I eat in the States. In the summer, I mostly eat a lot of fruits and veggies, since they’re fantastic and cheap in season. In the winter, I often make a pot of soup and eat that until it’s gone. I mostly focus on warm foods, since it’s consistently cold inside. A typical meal out with friends involves salatë fshati (tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, etc), patate të shkuqura (french fries), perime te zgara (grilled veggies like eggplant and peppers), maybe some lamb or other meat, and of course, bread.

Meredith teaching about health and hygiene in her village.

Meredith teaching about health and hygiene in her village.

The main physical challenges here are the heat and cold. The heat isn’t all that bad, coming from South Carolina, but not being able to escape it sucks. Nevertheless, I find it easier to bear than the cold. Volunteers in Albania don’t consistently have good heating (wood stoves are the best). I rely on an electrical space heater, and my drafty apartment generally sits at 35-40ºF in winter. I consider myself lucky that it’s only this cold- some of our volunteers in the coldest sites (somehow) don’t have wood stoves, either. One of them unplugged her fridge and freezer to save money this past winter- it was unnecessary given the weather.

What are Albanians like?
Of course it’s difficult to sum up an entire people. But, I feel the best of Albania is the saying, “ask and ye shall receive.” I cannot count the times I have found myself in a bind, freaking out or on the verge of tears because I cannot figure something out, I’m lost, at the end of my rope, etc… but virtually every time I think I’m at my limit, a kind stranger steps in to help. And by help, I mean take me all the way to my destination, or defend me without even knowing me, explain things to me over coffee, or fill my purse with fruit. In Albanian, ç’do pyll ka derra: every forest has pigs. There are pigs everywhere, but overwhelmingly, Albanians have been kind, hospitable, helpful, and loving to me and to my fellow PCVs.

For my neighbors and colleagues, life is vastly different from my life (even here) despite Albania being one of the “most developed” PC countries. Most people I know who have jobs work incredibly hard at mediocre salaries to feed their families of four, five, etc. Meanwhile, while some infrastructure, like roads, are improving, others, like water quality, waste management, and health services are still sorely lacking. Even for the middle class, life is difficult and rife with uncertainty. Meanwhile, I’m able to see more of this beautiful country than many Albanians ever will, eat nutritious food, and take care of all my basic needs.

I feel so lucky to be spending my two years here. This country is gorgeous, and it’s small enough that I can visit PCVs and their beautiful towns easily. People are generally kind, and they love to see outsiders interested in their culture. I’ve never met an Albanian who turns down an offer to teach circle dancing.

Meredith teaching about gender relations in an Outdoor Ambassadors camp.

What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?  
I have been in-country for 15 months now, and it’s very little like what I expected. Most of us in Albania applied for PC assuming we’d be living in mud huts, taking bucket baths, and riding our bicycles for an hour to send a letter. Instead, we live in apartment buildings (albeit really cold ones), visit gorgeous beaches in the summer, take hot showers, chat with fellow volunteers via Facebook.

The most rewarding part of my service so far has been working with youth through Outdoor Ambassadors and GLOW. Albania has many bright, motivated youth who are open and ready to learn. I love working at conferences and camps, where I get to see them engage with materials and work together to grow. Getting to be a small part of that process is a great gift.

I think my greatest challenge is pretty universal in PC- isolation from others of my own culture. I was surprised how hard it was at times to live away from other Americans during my first year. It’s somehow different than loneliness at home.

Living here is definitely different for women. We tend to face more security incidents than men, and virtually all of us face harassment. As I start to consider whether I’ll stay or go at the end of my two years, I find that the pervasive harassment is my main deterrent from staying. In the States, harassment and male entitlement are certainly problems. Here, though, I feel keenly aware of literal male gaze every second I’m outside my house, and the figurative male gaze heavily influences the culture and daily lives of women. It affects who I look at, what I feel I can wear, where I walk, and other decisions every day.

Why did you join Peace Corps?
I had a lot of reasons I wanted to join, as I had wanted to join since I was 15 and had plenty of time to consider service. Overall, I’d say I wanted to learn more about the world and myself, I wanted to travel, I wanted to gain experience, and I wanted those things in a context where I could help people. I think those reasons still apply, but really, those aren’t why I stay day-to-day. I stay because I have people I care about here, and because I’ve made a commitment to those people to try. I stay because I like the work I do. I stay because I have a vision for a better Albania, and that means being a cog in the machine to improve lives here.

Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Yes! I can understand why it’s an easy program to criticize- we send relatively inexperienced people to do these jobs, for one. But some of these communities don’t need experts. They need someone who cares, who will learn, and who will try, even if it means failing sometimes. They need a catalyst. I’ve seen through my work that I don’t need to be an expert, I just need to encourage them to do things that they’re capable of and show them that breaking out of their comfort zone can get things done.

Besides, I think the US needs more people (a lot more) who understand more of the world and empathize with people of other countries. Talking to people here and in America tells me that neither knows much about the other, to the detriment of both.

Meredith with her visiting mother and brother from America and her Albanian host family.

Meredith with her visiting mother and brother from America and her Albanian host family.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Don’t be embarrassed to be wrong. The faster you get used to being wrong, the faster you’ll communicate with people, learn the language, fix your mistakes, and adjust your worldview. 

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Vague ones. Grad school in Health Education, perhaps. But I’m definitely looking forward to spending a few weeks with my family and friends before moving on to the next adventure!

Thanks Meredith!

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