Sunday, April 8, 2012

Post Script

We were in Boise for a couple of days and noticed that the local art-house movie theater, The Flicks, had a movie in Albanian with English subtitles. “Forgiveness of Blood” is set in a small town near Shkoder in northern Albania and tells the story of a family caught in a blood feud under the ancient Kanun law which has seen resurgence since the fall of communism. We called up several of our friends that had expressed an interest in our experiences in Albania and six of us went to see the film. It was a well done and moving story about modern Albania. We were about half the audience. It only showed for a week at the theater.

I think I have mentioned before that one of the goals of the Peace Corps is to introduce Americans to other countries, so the movie and our discussion afterwards helped fulfill that. We explained that was what Albania looks like (although they had picked up most of the trash from the roadside) and that the family depicted was middle class, as they had jobs, an inside toilet with hot water, a kitchen, cell phones and a TV. I have given a few talks and lectures since I have returned and usually am asked to say a few words about Albania before I get to the scheduled subject. We have even been asked to present about Albania to the McCall library travel series next fall. The Idaho Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group is fairly active. The regional Peace Corps office, in Seattle, calls on it to help whenever they come to the area. We have participated in a few recruitment events in Boise,in the community and at Boise State University. Most of those interested are young, but a few are older. We tell them about our experiences and answer their questions.

Lots has happened since returning home. I got a new puppy, a miniature Australian shepherd, named Merle Barkham. Catherine finished her rehab at Barrows in Phoenix and then flew home to Oklahoma in November for the first time since Albania. I then drove with MB in a pick up truck to meet a few of her friends and family and ferry her and some of her stuff back to Idaho. An Idaho friend needed an antique radial aircraft engine delivered to a repair shop near Oklahoma City,so I had a load going both directions. It was a long drive. I had hoped to visit friends in New Mexico or Colorado on the way, but had to divert to avoid early winter snow in the high country going and we were delayed a couple of days in Wyoming on the way back. The tarp flew off in hurricane force winds, but we repaired it and trudged on. It was a relief to see the Snake River valley, at last. The sun came out and the wind subsided. We stopped in Twin Falls so Catherine could see Shoshone Falls (the Niagra of the West) and then detoured, slightly, past Thousand Springs near Hagerman on the way home.

Catherine transferred her care to a doctor friend of mine and finished her outpatient rehab at the Elks Hospital in Boise. It was a relief for me to know that she was in capable hands of people I knew and trusted. Maybe that is one of the definitions of “home”. Since then she has worked as a part time volunteer at the Middle School in McCall. She has not been cleared to return to full work and we have not heard anything about vocational counseling to help her with the transition. She does receive a small amount of support from the Office of Workers Compensation Programs of the Department of Labor as a work injured Peace Corps volunteer. Peace Corps service does entitle returned volunteers to purchase low cost, private health insurance for up to 18 months after return. One thing they might also consider is a private disability insurance program for volunteers, especially for older volunteers who might be planning to return to professional work after service rather than retiring. Because of uncertainty about Catherine’s needs, I decided to resume part time work, mostly filling in where I used to work and consulting. It is not onerous and I enjoy the stimulation of my profession, maybe more than I did before I joined the Peace Corps. I had thought about flying a small plane around the country and writing a book about the unique aviation history museums found at many small airports (like the Warhawk Museum at the Nampa airport in Idaho). That can wait and it is no great loss if it never gets written. Perhaps the internet has made projects like that obsolete, anyway.

We still keep in touch with friends from Albania and our fellow Peace Corps volunteers, both in the US and some still in Albania. We have had visitors from both groups to Idaho, most probably never planning a visit to the Gem State before our meeting. It seems no one, either European or American, ever plans on visiting Idaho. Too bad, it is a great state. Lawrence, my Maltese teacher friend in Korce, came to visit with a friend of his from Malta. We hiked and flew and river rafted, went to a baseball game, outdoor Shakespeare and a blue grass concert. The highlight of their visit was at the State Capitol. The governor, Butch Otter, came out of his office to greet them and insisted on having pictures taken with them sitting in his official chair. That is something that just would not happen in most states and definitely not in most European capitals. They were simply astonished. It made me proud to be an American and, especially, an Idahoan.

Amid the vitriol of the election season when each side, it seems, paints the opposition as not just wrong, but traitorous, it is easy to lose sight of the many blessings of American democracy. People may camp out in protest in front of the capitol, but they are fed, provided free health care and would even be helped to find employment (if they wanted) by government, church or community agencies. Stories about corrupt politicians or police are still news. Riots and beatings are rare. People still care about and take pride in their communities. Service in government, or the military or, even the Peace Corps, is still valued and done for reasons of altruism and patriotism. These are values I hope take root in countries like Albania and, perhaps, the Peace Corps can help with that. I know that my time in the Peace Corps has helped me see more clearly and appreciate them at home.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Should You Join the Peace Corps?

After "How was it?" and "Are you happy to be home?" the most frequently asked question is, "Are you glad you joined the Peace Corps?" This is usually meant as passing conversation. They are usually not looking for a complex answer. "Yes" or "No" will do just fine. Since there is intrinsic satisfaction in completing something you decide to do, I can honestly answer in the affirmative without confusing and unwelcomed qualifications. If you are reading this and would rather not have any elaboration, please feel free to log off now.

If you are still with me, here is the long answer.

Would I do it again? I don't know. The Peace Corps did not seem very adept in using the expertise brought along by an older volunteer, but I was able to find and develop projects that did. In all fairness, the program does encourage that. I think if I had just stayed in my primary assignment, I would have wound up pretty frustrated. Two years was a long time and I don't think it was used as efficiently as it might have been. Many professional organizations, including some that I belong to, offer volunteer opportunities in developing countries. These are much shorter term than the Peace Corps. Most likely, however, it would be at a university in the capital. There wouldn't be the chance to live in a village or smaller city, to get to know a cross section of the people of the country, to learn the language and the culture, and to feel a part of the community.

I met a professional from another country who actually has less experience than I do. He worked in the captial with the appropriate national agencies. He lived in a four star hotel. He ate most of his meals in restaurants. He was picked up each morning and driven to his workplace. He didn't speak the language. He gave me his business card. I didn't have any business cards, so I wrote my name and cell number on one of his and gave it back. I never heard from him.

With the Peace Corps, I walked everywhere in town and took buses or furgons for longer distances. I ate most of my meals at home or with my local friends. My language skills weren't stellar, but I could get by well enough. I'm not sure my accommodations rated even one star, but they were ok, especially compared to the people I worked with. I don't need that much. Anyway, the countryside is much prettier, less crowded and more interesting than the capital. I didn't envy him at all.

Also, in addition to the opportunity to get to know locals, there was the interaction with the younger volunteers. It is not often that oldsters get to know young people as peers, rather than as friends of their offspring. I didn't have to pretend to be in my twenties and didn't participate in all the group activities, but there were many things we did together that I found both interesting and enjoyable. That opinion is independent of meeting Catherine.

One big down side, however, was the care of my place back home in Idaho. Younger volunteers haven't accumulated the big possessions in life. This presents another challenge for an older volunteer. I have a place in the city. It is comfortable and convenient, so I didn't want to sell. Initially, good friends stayed in it while they built a new home outside of town. I am sure they took great care of it, but they didn't need it for the full 27 months. Eventually, it was rented out by a property management company. Most of the shrubs in the small back yard ended up dead and they made interior modifications that I didn't authorize or appreciate. At least it didn't burn down and it was left clean. My main home is in the mountains. Living there is a bit complicated, so I didn't want to rent it out. Unfortunately, the friend who stayed there didn't understand or get help with the water system and the iron staining that resulted is daunting. Too bad, because it could have easily been prevented. Back up plans for other friends to look in on things apparently fell through. Also, moving out was delayed by complications, and I guess it seemed easier to impose on me than insist that the place they were moving to was available on time. I did arrive a bit earlier than I anticipated because of cancelled travel plans after Catherine's accident, but it is going on beyond that. It is awkward for all of us, but I am not happy being made to feel like a visitor in my own house.

I suppose I will have to accept that it is too late to do anything about all of this now. One should not expect that anything you do not sell or put into secure storage will end up to your personal standards for maintenance by the time you get back home. Friends will undoubtedly help a lot and make service much easier, but Americans lead busy lives and don't have time for things that are not their personal prioritites (and hardly have time for those). 27 months is a long time and one is almost sure to be disappointed. Maybe that is another lesson from Peace Corps service. I'll come around to accepting whatever has occurred. Things can be repaired or replaced. Normal routines will be slowly reestablished. At my age, I'd much rather lose possessions than friends. Even so, I would recommend that older Peace Corps volunteers consider disposing of all of their possessions before they leave home. It will make homecoming far less problematic.

The sum of Catherine's injury and subsequent rehabiliation in a far away city, readjustment to the pace and complexity of life in the US, negotiating bureaucratic hassles, and reorganizing and repairing a life and its accoutrements has made the post service period much more difficult than I had anticipated. It has been more difficult, in fact, than Peace Corps service itself. Nevertheless, it is hard to say whether it would have caused me to change my plans had I known it all in advance.

According to Garrison Keillor, "Sometimes good fortune lies in not getting what you wanted, but what you ended up with, which is what you would have wanted had you only known". Surely the short time since I have returned home is too soon to make any kind of reasoned judgment about the relative worth of my Peace Corps experience. Ask me again in five years.

Should you join the Peace Corps? There are probably as many answers to that question as there have been volunteers (about 200,000) and countries of service (about 130) in the 50 years since the Peace Corps was founded. Of the current 8000 or so volunteers in 70 countries around the world, only about 6% are over the age of 50. Even so, speaking for the few hundred of us "senior" volunteers, I know I can't give any kind of valid answer to that question. That, of course, has never stopped me in the past, so here goes...

If you are looking for a mission, I think you will be disappointed. If you want an extended vacation to an exotic locale, in spite of the remarks you might hear about the "Posh Corps", the odds are greatly against a "Club Peace Corps" assignment. You will most likely go to a village, small town or city in a developing country. Because of potential health problems, the Peace Corps does tend to keep the older volunteers away from the more remote and isolated assignments. Still, it is unlikely to be really comfortable. As far as I know there are no Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Monaco.

Finally, experience has taught me that I have almost never been happy with a decision I made for the reasons I made it. Long after I have forgotten exactly why I decided to apply to the Peace Corps, something will arise which will make me really happy I served, or, perhaps, really regret that decision, or, more likely, some combination of those sentiments. Life is like that, whether or not you choose to add Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to your resume. I learned a while back that the magic in life is not volitional. So I figure that unless you are a Buddhist, you only go through life once. If you can spare 27 months, accept the bureaucratic hassles, adapt to the difficulties, deal with the disappointments and focus on the positives, then...what the heck, for good or ill, you'll never know unless you do it. I wish you the best of luck.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Coming Home

The local elections held throughout Albania a couple of weeks before my close of service date could not have been closer. The counting went on for more than a week, and even that took prodding from the American ambassador and representatives from the EU. The closest count was for the mayor of the capital, Tirana, which is by far the biggest and richest city in Albania. The incumbent, a socialist, is also the head of the opposition party and had run against the current prime minister two years ago in a highly contested election. Protests against that result had lead to shooting deaths of marchers in February, which had affected my departure on my visit home. Now, with the initial result of this election a win by the current office holder by only 10 votes out of about 300,000 cast, a painfully slow recount was conducted, live on television. It seemed to go on forever, although Albanians throughout the country watched intently. I suggested that, to make it more interesting, they might bring in celebrity counters, sort of a “voting with the stars”. My Albanian friends have learned, as my friends back home already know, to ignore me.

Protests were held in the center of Tirana. I was afraid that I would end up being evacuated from the country as I was in the midst of my close of service processing. Fortunately, they remained peaceful and we only had to avoid the large gatherings in the center of town. As of Wednesday, May 15, I became a former Peace Corps volunteer. I took a bus to Kukes and spent the night with a volunteer in my group who was still in for a few more weeks. The next day I took a furgon across the border into Kosovo. I went to visit another from my group who had closed service a couple of months back and now lived in Prizren. Kosovo is off limits for volunteers without special permission. Given the turmoil surrounding the election, it actually seemed safer.

I visited the museum that marks the League of Prizren formed in the waning of the Ottoman Empire to work for the independence of the Albanian people. The buildings were demolished by the Serbs during the Kosovo war in 1998, but have been carefully reconstructed. Prizren, in general, was quite beautiful, with most buildings restored, with the exception of Serbian homes and churches scattered along the hillside, whose owners had fled when Kosovo went for independence. It was interesting for me to see the contrast after more recent destruction than that seen in Albania following the anarchy of 1997.

Early Saturday morning I took an express bus back to Tirana to meet up with my friends Lawrence and Nicole and join them for a road trip through Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia. When they turned back to return to Korca, I caught a bus from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. I then took the train to Vienna, Prague and Berlin. From there, I flew on Air Berlin to JFK, visited friends and relatives in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, before flying on Southwest Airlines non-stop to Phoenix, where Catherine is in outpatient rehabilitation at Barrows Neurological Institute.

After two nights back in the States, I drove a rental car in 16 lanes of traffic to Philadelphia. Even though I was driving ten mph above the speed limit, cars passed left and right, cut in front of me and across three lanes to gain a couple of car lengths in the stream. I visited a couple from my Peace Corps group in Saranda. They had returned in November for her to have surgery on her knee. She is finally scheduled to have it in a week.

We talked about the after service experience. We discussed the pace, the aggressiveness, the fiscal difficulties (he had only recently been able to find a job, having been greatly limited in his search by the need to stay with family while awaiting the surgery and she couldn’t take a new job only to take medical leave), and the daunting array of choices for almost everything. We drove downtown, past the statue of Rocky Balboa by the Art Museum. I was reminded of the heroic statue in front of the library in Korca, only that one honored the partisans who struggled against the Nazi occupiers during World War II rather than a mythical boxer who trained on the steps of the museum.

In other visits, I told my stories about Albania. They seemed to flow out to the general boredom of my listeners, and even though I tried, I don’t think I listened enough to their experiences in the past two years. I have to keep reminding myself that there is a limit to their interest in the Peace Corps and Albania.

Catherine met me at the airport in Phoenix. She was with our good friend, Kristine, who was with our Peace Corps group in Elbasan. She is studying in the critical languages program at ASU in preparation for her FBI exam. If you thought the Peace Corps was full of volunteers in tie dyed shirts, sitting in circles, singing kumbaya, you are misinformed, but even among the generally impressive young people in my group in Albania, Kristine stands out. I am glad she is in Tempe, close to where Catherine has her apartment for the duration of her program at Barrows. I could not wish for a better person to have close at hand, if Catherine needs help or just someone who knows her to chat.

We joined Kristine and her friend Chris and their dogs at the dog park in Gilbert early Saturday morning. Kristine brought her adopted dog, Albie, back with her. He is turning out to be a great dog, and is now learning English and Spanish in addition to his native Albanian. The dog park in Gilbert should be on the map for any dog loving tourist. It has a pond and an obstacle course and even a fenced area for timid or disabled dogs, not something one would ever see in Albania.

We went to a gigantic shopping mall near Catherine’s place and caught the new Woody Allen movie in the 24 plex theater. The mall was more than overwhelming. The heat of Arizona drives the locals into the air conditioned space so there were throngs of shoppers. We bought a coffee maker for Catherine’s apartment, even though her doctor limits her coffee intake (very un-Albanian). There were way too many choices. We finally settled on a percolator model similar to the one she had in her apartment in Permet, probably as much for reasons of nostalgia as utility. We can use it for camping after Catherine finishes her program. On Sunday, we drove the rental car to Sedona and hiked among the towering red rocks.

On Monday, we met with Catherine’s doctor and I was able to watch her in therapy. It seems like a good program and there is no doubt she is progressing rapidly. They could use a social worker, however, to help with problem solving and counseling. I hope Catherine isn’t tempted to take a job with them after she finishes, although I am certain she would be a terrific asset to them. I am pretty sure she has no intention to be a permanent resident of Phoenix.

Catherine told me that while she was spinning her wheels at her sister’s house in Tucson, waiting to begin rehabilitation, she attended a meeting for the Peace Corps Fellows program at the University of Arizona. This is a program at several US universities that allows Peace Corps service to be credited towards a graduate degree. A woman told Catherine that because she had served in Europe, she wasn’t a real Peace Corps volunteer. The premise was that unless you served in the jungle, lived in a thatched hut, used a snake and spider infested pit toilet (I guess the rats in Catherine’s Turkish toilet didn’t count), hauled water from a distant stream and brought home at least one parasite as a souvenir, it wasn’t the Peace Corps. That reminds me of the zealots who believe that you can’t be a Christian unless you belong to their particular church. I hope there is a special place in heaven reserved for people like that because, assuming I get in, I wouldn’t want to spend eternity with such sanctimonious snobs, indeed, I don’t want to spend any time with them at all. Catherine didn’t tell her the reason she was in Tucson. One afternoon, Catherine went with Kristine to a Peace Corps recruiting session at ASU. She spoke and answered questions about her experience in Albania, but didn’t mention the accident. She told me she thought the attendees seemed more interested in employment than service.

My friend Paul picked me up at the airport in Boise and drove me to his hangar in Caldwell where he had kindly let me store my car for almost two and a half years. He had taken it off the blocks, disconnected the trickle charger and made sure the tires were properly inflated. It started right up. He then asked if I wanted to fly with him in his Husky tail dragger to a back country strip to drop off some equipment. He has befriended the young son of a caretaker family at Sulfur Creek Ranch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church Wilderness. It was a cool, clear evening and there was plenty of daylight left for the trip. We flew low and slow over the snow covered mountain tops and meadows verdant with snowmelt and spring rains. We met some French pilots who were buying light sport aircraft made in Idaho. They were spending the night at the rustic lodge adjacent to the strip. They had a guide from the manufacturer introducing them to Idaho Mountain flying in aircraft like their new ones. We chatted briefly and then took off on the return flight. The angle of the sun set the mountains aglow and cast deep shadows in the valleys. We flew over a few rafters enjoying the high water of the early float season. We scanned the terrain for moose and elk that are most active at twilight. It was good to be home.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Close of Service

If one could die from overeating, I might not have survived my last two weeks in Korca. Friends and coworkers insisted on taking me out to eat before I left. This meant huge meals at lunch and dinner almost every day, and when I complained about my inability to keep up, they replied, “How about breakfast?” Also, I was trying to keep presents and keepsakes as light as possible, since I planned a bit of traveling before I got home. Ultimately, I had to mail a box home. It was a bit expensive, there is the possibility it will be rifled in transit and one risks life and limb in a post office line, but it was well worth it. Who would want to drag a chipped, plaster wall hanging of scenes of Korca, signed by the nurses at the public health department, among other souvenirs, through the great capitals of central Europe?

On Friday morning, I started walking with my backpack and bag toward the furgon stop for Elbasan. I walked past a neighbor who asked if he could come along. Then I visited the office of Dr. Isufi to say goodbye, and picked up more escorts. Then, Jani showed up on his bicycle, grabbed my backpack and rode away. At first I was pretty angry since I thought I would have to track him down to get my things, but Isuf explained that Jani just wanted to carry the bag for me and would meet us at the furgon stop. There were eight of us by the time we got there. They all wanted to take me to coffee. The last thing I wanted to do was to drink coffee before a 3 hour furgon ride, but Albanians have a deep seated need to buy you coffee as a gesture of friendship and respect and refusing this is a great personal affront. I solved this by having them buy each other coffee in my honor. This seemed to settle my social difficulty but left them to haggle with each other about who would get to pay. I have told several disbelieving Albanians that one of the differences between America and Albania is that in America, we argue about who has to pay.

In Elbasan, I stayed with a friend and fellow volunteer from our group. She and Catherine are especially close since they roomed together in many of the initial trainings. There were also a few other friends from our group there making connections for travel or presenting pre-service training sessions for the new group. We got to hang out together a bit and have dinner. The dinners were light since most of us were also visiting our host families in villages around Elbansan and had to recover from meals eaten there. It was very good to see them, share stories and exchange post-service plans and contact information.

I took a bus to Thane on Saturday to visit with the host families there for the last time before I left. I was also able to give my laptop to the older boy in my host family, as I had planned. He was thrilled to get it. I had him promise to help Catherine’s host family talk with her on Skype. We went over it together while his brother and cousins watched and his mother whipped up lunch. This was, of course, more than anyone could possibly eat with chicken, noodles, homemade bread, homemade yoghurt, hand churned butter, fresh cucumbers and tomatoes and scallions….

Early Monday morning, I caught the furgon to Tirana for processing out at the Peace Corps office. This involves three days of paper work, exams, and exit interviews with various staff. It seems I neglected to submit one of the required reports at some time along the way. I had not been notified about it. I might even have done it, but I had cleaned my computer of any extraneous files before giving it away and so I had to complete the report again. You can just imagine how thrilled I was at that prospect. I may have set a record for the most superficially completed government document, but, who reads that stuff, anyway.

The interviews covered a few routine areas. I was asked a few times if I had any suggestions. Being me, of course I do. I think it would be beneficial for the oldsters to have their own language group to improve language learning, since our style tends to differ significantly from the youngsters. I think a mentoring system would be more useful than volunteer visits during PST. This would entail having a successful volunteer in the same discipline visit the new volunteer in site for a week or so, to help solve initial problems and then keep in touch as an ongoing resource for the new volunteer as they settle into the new routines of work and life in Albania. I have a lot of suggestions for the Peace Corps in Washington about how they handle significant injuries. Their case management leaves a lot to be desired. That explains a lot of the bad press they have had recently. It is not only a disservice to the volunteers, but ends up producing worse outcomes and increased costs. I am willing to offer my personal expertise for improvement, but I doubt if it would be accepted. In any event, it is a separate matter than providing feedback to the country staff, which is quite apart from headquarters in DC.

I was also asked what accomplishment I was most proud of. That’s a hard one. I know I could have accomplished a lot more. But that is more of an epitaph than an answer. I did a lot of things. How useful they will prove to be, I don’t know. I ran into a few of the kids from my Life Skills classes a few days before I left. They told me how much they appreciated what I had taught. I had the same experience with the home care nurses. I am not sure that anything I did at my primary assignment at the health department will make much difference. The work most likely to make a difference is my work with Isufi and the Shoqata. He is already independently and appropriately using the equipment I brought back and trained him on. I am especially hopeful for the recent grant which will enable collaboration between therapists in Korce and therapists in Boise. It has surely been done before, but it has potential to improve services in Albania. It cost hardly anything to set up and our tests of the system went well. I have to pray some irreparable virus doesn’t consume his computer.

Another question was what I had gotten out of my experience. Again, I’m not sure what will prove significant. Certainly, I now know a lot more about Albania than I did before, which was mainly where to find it on a map (more than some of my friends who thought it was in Africa). I have lots of new friends, both Albanian and other volunteers. The main thing, though, I think I can best express by the analogy of a record needle stuck in a groove. Before I came here I was in a bit of a rut. A very pleasant rut to be sure, with good friends, a good job, a comfortable home and lots of fun activities to keep me occupied, but a rut, nonetheless. I think that spending two years in Albania has nudged the machinery. I am not sure what comes next, but I am looking forward to hearing how the record ends.

Just today, I had an email from a group of pilots from England who are planning an aviation adventure flying light aircraft along the Dalmatian coast. They had some questions about Albania. I really wish I were going to be here when they come through and would love to facilitate a landing at the grass strip near Korca. If I were here, I would organize a team to clean up the strip, put up a wind sock, mark the perimeter and welcome them properly. As it is, I gave them what limited information I have and referred them to the main, and only, airport in Tirana. I gave them the phone number of an Albanian who might help them. It is time for me to head for home.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Circle of the Peace Corps

On Sunday afternoon I received a phone call from Tirana asking me to host one of the new volunteers from Group 14 for his site visit. This is the few days allowed to see your future city or village and meet with your counterparts in your assigned work before the end of pre-service training and swearing in as a full-fledged Peace Corps volunteer. I was happy to comply, but it did seem a bit unusual. I was only two weeks from leaving Korca and would not even be in the country when he started work at the end of the month. Also, he is an English teacher, while I am in health education. Then I learned the two other volunteers from Korca were at meetings in the capital. I was the only volunteer available.

Late Tuesday morning, he sent an SMS that he had arrived. I was not expecting him until the afternoon and was in the middle of talking with a young woman who had just been given a probable diagnosis of a terminal disease. I gave him directions to the main hotel in the center of town and asked him to wait in the lobby until I could get away. I hope the woman did not feel rushed and that I answered all her questions despite my limited language proficiency. I am not sure she understood how dire her prognosis was. Maybe she could allay some of her fears by attributing them to miscommunication. In any event, I excused myself from the clinic for the rest of the day and walked over to the Hotel Grand Palace.

We took his large bag over to Dr. Isufi’s office to leave it until the other volunteers returned, so he could store it until June. Then we walked up the hill to my apartment. I made some lunch and then I showed him around the city. I bought some fresh veggies and some bread at my favorite bakery. For dinner we had a stir fry. We walked up the hill to the cross the next morning and then he went off to the University where he will work and I headed to Isufi’s. That afternoon I took him to meet Iris. I am hoping he will continue with her and keep her tutoring unbroken since Group 6. That evening he went to the championship soccer match between Korca and Elbasan and I was taken out for another going away dinner.

Thursday morning was rainy and I didn’t go up the mountain. My guest slept in and I headed to a conference, where the nurse educators I work with were presenting their report on a series of round table meetings held in the region on the health needs of women and children. This had been done through an EU sponsored program. In the afternoon, I helped some people from the Public Health Department watch a lecture on an air pollution and health study done at the Beijing Olympics. We were able to watch it live on the internet from the University of Rochester in New York. It was a good lecture and a topic that my counterparts are very interested in, but, unfortunately, the webcast had many features that required more bandwidth than is available in Korca, especially in the afternoon when the teens get out of school and hit the internet cafes for Facebook and gaming. The lecture stream was frequently interrupted and had to be reloaded. Fortunately, I had downloaded the slides previously and translated enough of them for the small group to follow pretty well.

After that, I had my last meeting with the Aviation Interest Club of Korca at the American library. The kids had done a flight plan as a project and flew it on Flight Simulator on the computer which had been previously donated to the library, but is not used much. To my amazement, the “flight” was flawless. They found their check points and navigation aids. The destination airport appeared on the screen. The descent check list was completed, the airplane was slowed to approach speed, the flaps and landing gear lowered, the plane touched down and came to a stop on the runway. I was so impressed I felt like tearing their t-shirts off them, writing their name and the date on them and posting them on the library wall. This is the traditional commemoration of a pilot’s first solo.

That night the other volunteers had returned and we got together at a favorite pizzeria. I was not feeling well, probably from overeating the night before, and headed home early. They went out to orient the new volunteer to some of the night spots in Korca. There was a huge political rally going on in the square in front of the theater, complete with bands, search lights and fireworks, that went on longer than the celebratory fireworks that followed Skanderbeu’s, Korca’s soccer team, championship victory the night before.

Friday, the weather was better and we were able to walk to the chapel on the hillside and return through Mborje, the village just east of Korca, a scenic loop of a little over an hour. I went back for the second day of the conference and at the coffee break helped the new volunteer move his bag to one of the other volunteers who will still be here when he returns. Isufi was at the conference although the discussion groups didn’t cover any topics related to disability. One point he did make was that the Association for Physical Benefit was able to do many things for itself and he thought this was a good model for improving healthcare in other situations by empowering the patients and not wasting resources on the usual top down bureaucracy. This idea was not well received. After all, the conference was sponsored by the EU and run by the Public Health Department. He was probably the only private health care provider in attendance. A doctor from Azerbaijan represented the EU. She works in Tirana, administering the program in Albania. She told me she had previously been a Peace Corps medical officer and was pleased to see someone from the Peace Corps at the meeting.

I had my last class with my visually impaired student. He is in college now, and probably doesn’t need to continue. Even so, I had previously introduced the new volunteer to his family. His father is now teaching at the University and should be a good contact for him.

Local elections are being held around the country tomorrow. The candidate of the ruling national party has spent a lot in Korca, with multiple offices in each neighborhood, lots of posters and banners, and young people driving cars around town as they wave flags and honk their horns. A sound truck with Tirana license plates drives up and down the streets carrying large billboards and playing a recording promoting the candidate. This has not been matched by the other candidates and I am a bit worried by the imbalance. The safety officer has asked volunteers to steer clear of the offices and rallies and to avoid travel around the country on the day before and after the election. I hope the elections go smoothly and that observers from the EU, the US and elsewhere can certify a free and fair election.

I am spending Election Day with Iris and her family on a hike and picnic in the mountains; another event in my continuing going away partying. I made brownies to bring along as a contribution, but I am sure they will be superfluous. This being Albania, I wonder how we will be able to carry all the food. We are meeting at 6 AM in front of their home to begin walking.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Peace Corps Potlatch

As I rode the furgon to and from Tirana this week, it seemed that about half the streets in Albania are torn up and being repaired. The new pocket park in the empty lot between apartment buildings near my home was recently finished. Water and electricity service are noticeably more reliable. It is no coincidence. Local elections are scheduled of the first week of May. I asked a friend if he thought it would be good if they could have elections year round. He said they had to pay for all of this after the elections and that the increased spending also meant increased payoffs through the various levels of corruption. He didn’t think it was so great.

I had to go to Tirana to have my eye seen by a doctor. I had tripped on the stairs at the nursing school where I teach a class. I did a face plant at the bottom. There was a fair amount of blood and lots of bruises on my face, chest, left arm and right leg. They crowded around, but I was able to get away from the surge of helpful students. I limped home and stopped the bleeding with a butterfly bandage and some pressure. I sat for awhile with ice over my eye. Ibuprofen was pretty effective. Nothing was broken and my vision seemed ok, so I got on with my work. I took it easy for a couple of days, but then the eye began to show signs of infection.

Pilots tend to be pretty cavalier about their health, but anything that might potentially ground them sends them running to the nearest clinic, preferably one that does not keep good records. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about the FAA on this one, as there was no abrasion of the cornea and the infection seems to be clearing with the prescribed antibiotic drops from the Peace Corps medical officer. Maybe I just did this in sympathy with Catherine.

I asked the country director if he thought the older volunteers were more fragile or more accident prone. He said no and that he had just had to send one of the young new volunteers home from pre-service training with a broken leg. All of the volunteers in my service group who are over the age of 50 have had health issues or injuries. Half have been medically separated from the Peace Corps.

I think the problem is that as we age we get used to our routines and supportive environment in our home community. Youngsters are not so enmeshed. Also, the Peace Corps medical services are very centralized in the country of service and the world, so any need for care pulls the volunteer out of the community and sometimes out the Peace Corps. In that, the treatment philosophy is like the military which relies of quick medical evacuation of wounded troops for comprehensive care. Unfortunately it is also the most psychologically stressful. Proximity of treatment and the maintenance of routines are techniques which the military has evolved to try to avoid secondary problems from “battle fatigue”. The Peace Corps does not seem to understand this and some of the problems I have heard of in the treatment of volunteers who have been medically separated and seen with Catherine’s care and other volunteers from my group may be a result of this. In her case, the disruption of waking up in London and then being plunked down in Tucson with an uncertain status and without a structured plan of treatment has been almost as stressful for her as recovering from the injury itself.

For me, my neighbors and Albanian friends called frequently and came by to visit. They brought gifts of food and probably would have brought raki, as well, if I drank alcohol. Actions of that sort seem to be reflexive among Albanians. Of course, I had to serve coffee and cookies to my visitors. Luckily, I have a pretty good stock in my pantry and my wonderful drip coffee maker allowed me to make coffee despite my physical impairments. I had to retell the story of my injury many times as my listeners intoned, “Bo, bo, bo, bo”, which is the shqip expression of sympathy. We would shake hands, hug with air kisses to both cheeks, and they would wish me “te shkuara” as they left. I would head back to my sofa and ice pack for a few minutes before the next group arrived at the door. I was also offered all manner of folk remedies, but I think I will limit the treatment of my eye to the prescribed eye drops, thank you.

Both before and after my misadventure, I have had visits from other Peace Corps volunteers to put dibs on my stuff. It is embarrassing how much I have accumulated in just two years, but a PC tradition is to pass it on to those remaining in the country. I wanted to give the volunteers in Korca first pick. One, from a previous group, who has returned to live in Korca because of an Albanian boyfriend, even recognized some of her stuff among my belongings, although she admitted a few items had been passed to her from her predecessors. The coffee maker will go to a volunteer who frequently has multiple houseguests passing through Korca. The matching dishes (service for 6) will go to another volunteer who likes to cook and entertain. Markers and crayons, and, especially, 3 by 5 cards are valued for teaching project. Good books are always passed around. I have some board games; Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, and Twister. No one was particularly interested in Furgon Driver. There is not much novelty in something you live with every day. My oven thermometer, sewing kit, iron on patches for jeans, feather duster, and my large roll of duct tape elicited anticipatory cries.

My worn clothes will be given to the Catholic sisters for distribution in their work with the Roma community, although my coat, gloves and ski hat will go to Isufi and Macha for use at Bigell. My computer and associated paraphernalia are going to the older boy from Thane where I lived during PST (sadly, the boys never did get to Korca for a visit). I plan to travel pretty light on my way home and I hope not to have to ship anything.

The swelling on my face seemed to subside pretty quickly and the bruises almost look like a port-wine birthmark. People in Albania are very tolerant of abnormalities of appearance. They rarely seem to have benign growths removed from their face or neck. Large goiters are common. Noticeable limb abnormalities never seem to evoke a second look. I have been told it is part of the culture to accept “God’s will”, but maybe it is also because many are relatives or from large enough families that any disrespect would be avenged. I continued with my usual activities and even used my injury as a visual aid for a first aid lesson in my high school life skills class.

On Friday evening there was a string quartet recital at the Kultural Palace. They were from Tirana and played works by Mozart and Debussy. It was quite good and I noticed two things that were new to my experience in Albania. First, no cell phones went off during the entire performance. There were still noisy interruptions, however, as young people in cars, with political party flags flying, raced up and down the city streets, honking horns in support of their candidates. Second, after prolonged applause from the audience, the group played an encore.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Just a couple of weeks into their pre-service training, the new group of volunteers that arrived in Albania in mid-March were sent to visit current volunteers throughout the country. Three came to Korca. They all will work in community development, so they were placed with the two volunteers in the city who work in that area. I joined them for dinner one night.

They are all young, eager and well educated; typical Peace Corps volunteers. I think there are only two over age 50 among the new arrivals. They all had the usual reasons for volunteering. They all seemed happy with their host families around Elbasan. They all seemed a bit frustrated and confused with the language and culture. After dinner they went to a new recreation center for young people. It was recently opened by the city government in the upstairs of a restored 19th century building. I checked it out, and they had done a nice job fixing the space, but it was loud and crowded. I left before my ears were too painful.

I offered to show them the trail to the top of the mountain, but they thought my usual 7:30 am start time on weekends was a bit too early, so I headed up the road to the cross by myself. There were lots of people out since it was a fine spring morning. I saw many of the regulars and we exchanged greetings.

It has warmed up considerably recently. We have had sunshine a few days in a row and temperatures have climbed into the upper 50’s. Daffodils and dandelions are blooming and fruit trees are in blossom; seems like it happened overnight. My neighbors across the alley from my kitchen window have spread out a large collection of shoes and sneakers which they are offering for sale (one seldom sees used household items or furniture, but used clothing is for sale everywhere in Albania). Several families came by to try on a pair or two and I could overhear lively discussions as to price and desirability. I don’t know how long this improvised shoe store will continue. The little general store which my other neighbors ran in their modified garage for years, recently closed when the government mandated that all such stores had to have electronic cash registers that could automatically calculate sales tax (20%). Most of shops like this only make a few dollars a day, and can’t justify the expenditure of a few hundred dollars for the required machine, so there has been a spate of closures around town. I have heard that in other cities, where the enforcement has been lax or the officials more readily paid off, this has not yet occurred.

My Peace Corps experience is limited to Albania, but I have worked in missionary projects in Vietnam and Mexico and have seen the same thing. When a market opens up, entrepreneurial people will jump at the chance to participate. It is only when it is closed by corruption or safety concerns or limited by transportation or other infrastructural needs that it fails to flourish, and even then, there is usually some attempt at commerce.

It seems to me that the best thing we can do for a developing country is to provide market opportunities. Isn’t that really what has helped China develop? Much of the West has provided markets for goods produced by inexpensive Chinese labor and the US Navy provides security for ocean transport. I sometimes think that providing money to a corrupt administration just incentivizes that element of society that finds it easier to steal than to create. That money can come from foreign aid, or from exploitation of natural resources, or from trafficking in drugs, women or children.

The Peace Corps, of course, gives young, eager, well intentioned and, mostly, inexperienced volunteers to do…what? It seems we hang out among “the people” for a couple of years and teach English or health topics or write grants (at least that is the menu in Albania); nothing there to motivate the kleptocracy that rules much of the developing world. I am not sure exactly how it fits into any model of foreign aid. Some projects I have seen do seem to have potential, like the cross border project between Macedonia and Albania to stimulate a garment production industry. The community development volunteer in Korca has been busy with that and seems to be accomplishing something.

The effects of my projects seem more nebulous. Dr. Isufi is making great progress in his training. He is a quick study and eagerly reads through any material I provide. Our course is frequently interrupted by people just barging into the clinic room where we work. One day it kind of got to me, but Isuf just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It is Albania”.

Work with the environmental test equipment at the public health department has been slower. One day we spent an hour learning to turn the apparatus on and off. There is a button on the gadget that is pretty clearly marked as a power switch, but I had difficulty getting that concept across. After we finally achieved consistent performance, we all went out for coffee to celebrate. Later this week we will tackle storing data and downloading it to a computer for analysis. I am working hard to figure out how to present this. Given the problems we have had, I am not optimistic we will accomplish much except consuming prodigious amounts of caffeine.

My life skills class at high school is going ok. My co-teacher is away in the US, having a baby there to procure the child an American passport. I am not confident she will return. There may be another teacher to take the class when I leave, but it will likely revert to the passive pedagogical practice that characterizes the system here. I doubt that the more active curriculum I developed last year will persist in any form, so this time I am doing lesson plans that conform more closely to the textbook. I am also being stricter with the kids if they are disruptive. Isufi has told me repeatedly that when I go home I will be part Albanian. Perhaps he is right.

Catherine continues to spin her wheels in Arizona. Really, except for her evaluations she probably could have done her rehab here in Albania and received a more active program. Fortunately, her clever nephew had the idea to look up computer programs used by the VA for returning Iraqi and Afghan war vets with brain injury. The two of them went down to the local computer store and purchased a couple for Catherine to work on. He works at a Walgreens, and I know Americans often go to the drug store to inquire after over the counter remedies. Catherine is also going to a local gym to participate in an exercise class. Maybe “do-it-yourself” rehab is what the PC had in mind all along. At least there will be no impediment to her continuing this when she heads back home to rural Oklahoma.

In spite of this, I still think she has the potential for a pretty good, if not complete recovery. Unfortunately, it will not be in time for her to return to Europe for our post PC travel plans. Right now I am not confident she will be able even to do the US part of our plans, so I have checked into changing our tickets to shorten my travel time alone and get myself home to Idaho. It is amazing how little credit the airlines give you when you have to change your travel plans. The US portion of our tickets actually cost almost twice as much to change as to buy entirely new tickets with another airline. Europe is more regulated, so I don’t think it will be too bad if I use the value of Catherine’s ticket to come back home a bit earlier, although I have offered it for free to any of the other volunteers in my group who is willing to pay the transfer fee.

This is not the finale I had envisioned for my two years of service, but, I suppose it will have to do. I have been working on my “Final Site Evaluation” document, one of many that is required at end of service (I have learned of this piecemeal, since I missed the classes on this held at the Close of Service conference when I was in London). There are four categories for projects: finished, unfinished, abandoned, and just an idea (never started, but has potential). I have had my share of all of these, and for a lot more in life than just the Peace Corps.