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.