What do volunteers DO in the summer?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the education sector, my job during the school year is obviously teaching. But what about the summer?

The school year in Kosovo is similar to most schools in the US. All schools here start on September 1st and most end in mid-June, but the end of the school year depends on the student’s age. That leaves two and a half months where we are not teaching.

So do we have all summer off? Do we just sit around sipping Kosovo’s world-renowned macchiatos?

Of course it depends on the volunteer, but these are the main ways TEFL volunteers in Kosovo fill their time in June, July, and August:

TravelTravel periods

Education PCVs are limited with when they can take their vacation days, so many volunteers use the summer to visit the U.S. or to travel. We can only travel during school breaks, but that excludes the first summer of training and the last summer before we leave Kosovo. So the summer at our halfway point is the perfect time to use our annual leave and travel.

Some volunteers are using their vacation days in one giant chunk, backpacking Europe for a few weeks. I decided to split up my allotted leave into several trips, saving days for winter break and next spring break. So this summer I’ve got a few little trips planned, one each month:

  1. Berlin Solo Trip (June)
  2. Albania with my host family (July)
  3. Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro (August)

To learn about how vacation days work in the Peace Corps, check out this post.

Summer Camps

Several volunteers decided to plan a week-long summer camp at their site. Many of us signed up to help at these camps throughout Kosovo. The camps have been a major success and have had themes ranging from global citizenship to health/fitness to environmental awareness.

Earlier this month I helped out at a camp in a small village where another volunteer lives. The focus of the camp was being a global citizen and taking care of the environment. Even though the village is surrounded by beautiful mountains, most of the children had never been hiking before. The highlight of the camp was taking about 60 of the kids on a hike up into the mountains with a stunning view  of their village from above.

The summer camps are not only beneficial for the kids, but they provide a chance for us to see other volunteers’ communities around the country. In addition to summer camps, many PCVs are running English clubs or working on grant writing.

Helping with Pre-Service Training for the new volunteers

Several PCVs are also leading training sessions for the K3s (Kosovo’s third group of volunteers). Pre-Service Training begins in early June and lasts about 11 weeks, taking place in Eastern Kosovo around the town of Kamenice. (Check out my post about training to learn more.) So far all of the Kosovo PCVs have been in the Education sector, but we just had our first group of 10 Community Development volunteers arrive this summer. Kosovo map label

Because the Peace Corps Kosovo program is so new, training materials and sessions are still being developed, and current staff and volunteers are playing a significant role in this process. Over the next few years our PST schedule and curriculum will continue to evolve.

Sadly I live on the opposite side of Kosovo, so I have not had the chance to meet the new volunteers yet. But in August I will be leading a training session and can finally meet them!

I also found out that two new volunteers will be placed in or near Gjakova, so I’ll have a couple other Americans to share my site with!

Advertisements

How does vacation work in the Peace Corps?

Many people imagine that being in the Peace Corps is just two years of wandering the globe, and it typically attracts people who love to travel. In reality, 95% of your service will be spent in the same village or city.

If you have a hard time staying in the same place for too long, Peace Corps service may not be for you. Serving in the Peace Corps is similar to a normal full-time job in that we are given limited vacation days.

If you are interested in how I spent my vacation days while serving in the Peace Corps, check out these posts and pictures from my trips:

Below I’ve listed a few of the most common questions related to travel while in the Peace Corps. Feel free to ask any additional questions in the comments section!

How many vacation days do you receive?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer we are allotted 48 days of leave throughout our 27 months of service. We earn two vacation days per month of service, not counting the three months of training.

When can you use vacation days? Travel periods.png

Volunteers are not allowed to use their vacation days during Pre-Service Training (months 1-3), the first three months at their permanent site (months 4-6), or during the final three months of service (months 25-27).

Depending on your work, there may be additional restrictions. As volunteers in the education sector, we can only use our annual leave during school breaks. For this reason most of us travel during winter break, spring break, or during the summer after our first school year.

In the case of an important event, such as the wedding of an immediate family member, the Country Director may approve travel during the school year. (Hopefully that will be the case with my brother’s wedding in September!)

Do PCVs travel back to the United States?

Yes. I’d estimate that the majority of PCVs travel back home at least once. In our group most volunteers have taken or plan to take one trip back to America during their service. It may be different in other Peace Corps countries, but Kosovo is pretty easy to get to. In the winter months flights are $500-$700 round-trip to many U.S. cities. In the summer the prices go up to $900-$1200.

Can volunteers travel anywhere they want?

No. The Peace Corps restricts travel to some countries based on safety concerns. Examples include Turkey due to recent terrorist attacks.

How does travel approval work?

We must submit a travel request form at least two weeks in advance, although some exceptions are made. This form must list the dates of travel, the cities you are visiting, and must be signed by you and your work supervisor at site, such as the director of your school.

Can volunteers travel within Kosovo as much as they want?

This may be different in other Peace Corps countries, but because Kosovo is so tiny (about the size of Connecticut) we are pretty free to travel within the country.

We are, however, required to notify Peace Corps staff if we are spending a night away from our site. If you spend too much time visiting other volunteers or in the capital, you may receive a warning from staff. Ideally you should not spend more than a couple nights per month away from your village/city.

What about work-related travel or emergencies? 

In September I was asked to be a chaperone for my school’s 12th grade trip to Albania. Because this was with my students and approved by my school director, the Peace Corps counted it as work-related leave. You can read about the trip here: The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo. (Spoiler alert: Traveling with over 100 teenagers and teachers who don’t speak English during my first month at site was a challenge.)

In case of an emergency, such as the death of an immediate family member, the Peace Corps will fly you to the U.S. for up to two weeks of emergency leave.

If you want to read more about the policies related to Peace Corps travel, click on this PDF: Leave Policies for Volunteers and Trainees

A surprise spring break in Paradise

In April the students in Kosovo enjoy a week off from school, so many volunteers took the opportunity to travel. I ended up spending the week exploring Albania and Macedonia, and it was a truly breathtaking trip. Trip Map with buses

This is a region of the world that few Americans ever explore, and let me tell you, we’ve been missing out. The coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas possesses a Mediterranean climate and is lined with white, sandy beaches. The dramatic mountain ranges, including the Albanian Alps, allow for magnificent hikes in the warmer months and skiing in the winter. The long and complex history of the region has left it sprinkled with ancient fortresses and castles, Ottoman architecture and bazaars, archaeological sites from the Hellenistic period, and Medieval monasteries and mosques .

Best of all, travel in the Balkans is unbelievably cheap. Even flights to Albania, Macedonia, or Kosovo are half the price of flights to neighboring countries like Greece. So listen to my advice and come explore the Balkans! Your camera and pocketbook will thank me.

Rather than rambling on about why you should visit, let me show you some of the sites from my week-long trip:

Tirana: The capital and largest city in Albania

Bus from Gjakova to Tirana:  $11

Tirana is the most modern city in Albania and is known for its nightlife. I took an early morning bus to meet up with the other travelers who had arrived in Tirana a day prior, so I did not get to experience a night out in Tirana, but they definitely had a good time.

We spent the day exploring the city on foot, tasting olives in the market, and feasting on fresh seafood. My camera was packed away, so I didn’t get the chance to take any pictures. We then boarded a bus to the city of Berat.

Bus from Tirana to Berat: $3.25

Berat –This city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town. It is known as one of the most beautiful towns in the Balkans and is referred to as the “town of a thousand windows.”

We checked into a hostel called Lorenc Guesthouse, which was optimally located in the heart of the old city. It was the most picturesque hostel I have ever stayed in. The owner was so hospitable and offered us free Turkish coffee and tea repeatedly, in addition to giving us samples of his homemade wine and rakia. It was about $10 each and included a delicious hot breakfast.

After spending our first evening walking around the city of Berat and resting at our hostel, we woke up ready to do some hiking. We climbed up to the fortress overlooking the city, called The Kala. It is a castle with origins back to the 4th century BC, but it was mostly built in the 13th century. The hike was a great way to wake up and we were rewarded with stunning views of Berat from above.

Saranda

From Berat we took another bus to the city of Saranda in southern Albania. This city is a major tourist destination in the summer, but for us in April it was extremely quiet. We stayed for two nights so that we could see two of Albania’s most well-known sites: The Blue Eye and Butrint. (We also ate tons of fresh seafood, which we’ve been missing in Kosovo.)

Bus from Berat to Saranda $9.75
Accommodations: SR Backpackers Hostel $11 with free laundry and free breakfast

The Blue Eye

The Blue Eye is a water spring, where clear blue water from the river bubbles up at a rate of 18400 liters per second from an extremely deep pool. The exact depth of the hole is unknown, but divers have descended to fifty meters (164 feet). It is a breathtaking natural phenomenon. The lush trees and purple flowers, combined with the vibrant color of the water, made us feel like we were walking in a fairy-tale. 

Butrint (also known as Buthrotum)- $5 entry fee

Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was an ancient city throughout Greek, Roman, bishopric and Byzantine periods. It was inhabited since prehistoric times, but was finally abandoned during the Middle Ages due to a malaria epidemic caused by the marshes surrounding it.

Despite Butrint being one of the greatest classical cities of the Mediterranean, for some reason it remains largely unknown. The current archaeological site includes an impressive Roman amphitheater, a Roman temple with mosaic floor, and a Byzantine Basilica, which is the largest in the world after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Since 2005 an international archaeological team has been performing excavations at Butrint, and archaeologists estimate that what we can see now is just 15 percent of what lies beneath.

Because we were so close to the border with Greece, we decided to drive to the border and walk into Greece, just for fun. The border guards were very confused about what we were doing. Although we didn’t see much, we can technically say we’ve been to Greece.

The most life-threatening drive of my life: Saranda to Korca $8.00

2016-04-23 (3)
The road is so perilous and winding that you save over 2 hours by driving through Greece, even though it is almost twice the distance.

After our second night in Saranda, we woke up at 4:45 AM to catch a 5:30 AM mini-bus to Macedonia. We knew it would be a 7 or 8 hour trip, but we had no idea that we would be driving on the most dangerous road in the Balkans. The journey takes you high into the mountains, driving along narrow and winding roads, many of which are not paved, and all of which are without guard rails. We were honestly driving along sheer rock faces, bouncing around in the seats and trying not to throw up for 80% of the trip.

If you enjoy living on the edge, take this trip. I wish I had not packed my camera for the drive, because you would not believe how crazy this road is.

From Korca we took a taxi to the border crossing into Macedonia, got our passports stamped, and then hopped in another taxi to the city of Ohrid, just 20 minutes away. The taxis cost us just a few dollars each.

Ohrid

Ohrid is a large town in southwestern Macedonia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to it being one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe. The town is first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 BC.

In addition to its historic significance, Ohrid is known for its astounding beauty, tucked between high mountains and Lake Ohrid, which is over three million years old. It is the deepest lake of the Balkans, with a maximum depth of 288 meters or 940 feet.

Sadly our only day in Ohrid was very rainy, but we still explored the city and visited the ancient castle known as Samuel’s Fortress.

Skopje -Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is located west of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and covers about 5,000 hectares. It is home to several medieval churches, monasteries and remnants of a fortress. There are also dozens of caves to explore, and many visitors enjoy kayaking in the Treska River or on peaceful Lake Matka. We spent all of our time there hiking up to St. Nicholas Monastery, which is located on a cliff and dates back to at least the 1600s.

This place left such an impression that I am making a point to see it again before I leave the Balkans.

My spring break concluded with a short bus ride back to Kosovo. This trip left me in awe of the natural beauty of the Balkans, and I immediately began telling family and friends to come visit for their next vacation.

If you would like to see more travel pictures, check out my Instagram or read about my budget trip to Germany & Austria for Christmas!

Christmas in Germany

Leaving PrishtinaOne of the benefits of living in the Balkans is that you have the rest of Europe at your fingertips. Over winter break another PCV and I decided to plan a trip to Germany, and it ended up being one of the most memorable trips of my life. Germany is a magical destination for Christmas.

Even though we traveled on a Peace Corps Volunteer’s budget, we were able to travel all over southern Germany by train and see several of the most famous sites. I included a breakdown of our spending with a total trip cost at the bottom of the post, in case you are curious. I also summarized how we spent each day, but feel free to just view the pictures!

airplane2 (2)
The view of the Rugova Mountains while  leaving Kosovo.

Day 1: Arrival in Munich

Munich is considered one of the Christmas capitals of the world, largely because of the number of Christmas markets found in the city. I have always wanted to visit Germany, and the flight prices there were surprisingly cheap, so we started our trip by flying to Munich on December 21st.

We then took the train into the city center (after figuring out how to use the ticket machine) and navigated our way to the 4-You Youth Hostel. After checking-in we immediately set out to explore the city!

I was blown away by the beauty of Munich. The smell of mulled wine, gingerbread, and cinnamon saturates the air, and everywhere you look there are handcrafted ornaments and Christmas decorations. The architecture was stunning as well. We stepped into a few churches to listen to the choirs and light prayer candles. I wish I could experience Christmas in Germany every year.

Flight= 87€ or $98 (including bags)
Train= 11.15€ or $12.50 (unlimited day pass for public
transportation, including the train from the airport)

Hostel= 13€ or $14.60 (with free breakfast)

 

Day 2: Train to Salzburg, Austria

starbucks portraitThe next day we traveled by train to Salzburg, Austria, home of Mozart and the filming location for The Sound of Music. Before departing we took the opportunity to enjoy a Starbucks Christmas drink at the beautiful Munich train station.

The weather could not have been more beautiful, so we explored all of Salzburg on foot from morning until after dark. Between the Christmas markets, the peaceful Salzach River, the view of the Alps, and the historic castles and palaces, Salzburg did not disappoint. When we finally hopped on an evening train we realized that we had not sat down the entire day.

Train to & from Austria= 14€ or $15.70 (unlimited daily
train travel in Bavaria and select Austrian cities)

Hostel= 13€ or $14.60 (with free breakfast)

1 (2).JPG

Salzburg gate
The entrance to the gardens of Mirabell Palace, where “Do Re Mi” in The Sound of Music was filmed.
Salzburg fountain 2
The famous fountain from “Do -Re-Mi” in the gardens of Mirabell Palace.

 

Day 3: Medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

 

On our third day we traveled to northern Bavaria to Germany’s most well-preserved medieval town, which is still encircled by its 14th century stone wall. I can not speak highly enough of this romantic little town. It is transformed into a Christmas wonderland for December, but with the brightly painted buildings and narrow cobblestone streets, it is worth seeing at any time of the year.

While in Rothenburg we stayed at a charming hostel, which we had almost entirely to ourselves. Naturally we explored the famous Christmas market and walked along the city walls. We also discovered a shop that sells medieval weapons, clothing, and basically anything related to Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and Game of Thrones. We spent a decent chunk of time playing dress up and exploring the hidden dungeon in the basement.

IMG_3385After wandering through this Christmas-postcard town, we enjoyed an authentic German meal of pork-knuckle with dumplings and sauerkraut, served with the best German beer I have ever had. We finished with an apple strudel dessert and complimentary Christmas brandy.

Train= 14€ or $15.70 (unlimited daily train travel in Bavaria)
Hostel= 25€ or $28 (with coffee, tea, cookies, & free breakfast)

21 BEST

Day 4: Christmas Eve in Nuremberg

train4 BEST
One of the many sunsets we viewed on the German Rail.

On the morning of Christmas Eve we explored Rothenburg some more, taking photos while most of the tourists slept in. We then boarded a train to Nuremberg, the second largest city in Bavaria . The city is known for its medieval architecture as well as its significance in Nazi Germany.

On a happier note, Nuremberg is also home to one of the oldest and largest Christmas markets in the world. While walking through the city I enjoyed the best bratwurst I have ever eaten. The sky was also strikingly blue, making the perfect backdrop for Nuremberg’s famous churches. Although we enjoyed Nuremberg, we were both relieved when we hopped on the train back to Munich and escaped the pushy crowds.

Train= 14€ or $15.70 (unlimited daily train travel in Bavaria & select cities in Austria)
Hostel= 21€ or $23.60 (We moved to the Wombat Hostel for Christmas Eve and Christmas, because it is the best hostel in Munich and we decided to treat ourselves for the holidays rather than stay in a cheaper hostel.)

Day 5: Christmas Day at Dachau Concentration CampIMG_3505 (3)

On Christmas I took the train to Dachau to visit the first Nazi concentration camp, which is open to the public and includes a Holocaust museum. I spent hours exploring the grounds and walking through the museum located in the camp.  This was easily the most sobering Christmas I have ever experienced. It prompted a lot of reflection on the problem of evil and how to reconcile that with the goodness of God. Overall it was a very contemplative Christmas.

Train= 7.40€ or $8.30 (unlimited daily train
travel within the greater Munich area)

Hostel= 21€ or $23.60 

IMG_3474 (3)

2016-03-17 (31)

Day 6: Train to Neuschwanstein CastleCastle close (2)

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Bavaria is Neuschwanstein Castle. After discovering that we could travel to the village near the castle with our train passes, we decided to go on our last day in Germany.

Two guys we met at the hostel were amazed that we could visit the castle for only 9€ roundtrip, so they decided to come along.
A group of Australians also wanted to join, so we made plans to take a train on Saturday morning.

That morning we rushed to get ready, checked out of the hostel, and waited for the Australians outside of our hostel. They were not showing up, and it was getting closer and closer to our train’s departure time, so finally we had to leave without them. We had to run from the hostel and sprint through the train station, jumping on the train at the last possible moment. It felt like we were on The Amazing Race.Walk BEST

After a couple hours on the train we arrived in the village of Füssen, took a bus to the village of Hohenschwangau (gotta love these German names, huh?) and then we began the 40 minute hike up to the castle. A lot of tourists think that you need to buy a ticket to see the castle, but the ticket is only necessary if you want a 30 minute tour of the inside of the castle. And guess what? The inside of the castle was never finished, so there is not much to see, and you are prohibited from taking pictures. On top of this, the line for tickets was over 1.5 hours long. Visitors and free to explore the castle grounds as much as they please for free. Waterfall BEST

After we walked around the castle we decided to find a different way back down. We ended up hiking through the woods for a few hours. It felt like wandering through a fairy-tale, especially when we discovered the most stunning view of the castle.

Castle view (2)
View1 BEST (2)

2016-03-17 (35)This ended up being the most picturesque day of our trip, and we only paid 9€ ($10) for it. Most tourists to Neuschwanstein Castle pay about $100 for the train and castle tour, but it is possible to do it for much less. If you ever visit Germany, seeing Neuschwanstein is a MUST. It may be touristy, but it is popular for a reason. Just don’t be afraid to do some exploratory hiking away from the crowds.

Train= 9€ or $10.15 (unlimited daily train travel in Bavaria, reduced from 14€ because we traveled with a group of four instead of two)

Day 7: Overnight bus through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia

Yes, we took a bus through six countries instead of flying. Was it fun? No. Was it cheaper? YES.

It also saved us money on a hostel because our bus first bus departed at 11:00 PM. After a full day of hiking through Bavaria and seeing Neuschwanstein, we arrived back in Munich and went out to eat, enjoying some delicious Thai food while we had the chance. We tried making the most of every last minute in Germany, so unfortunately we had to sprint to the bus station, getting the last seats after being yelled at by the bus driver. But we made it.

The bus ride was long, uncomfortable, and involved frequent border stops, where we had to stand outside and have our documents checked repeatedly. Not fun.

Finally we arrived in Belgrade, so sleep-deprived and hungry that we both nearly passed out while trying to decipher the Cyrillic street signs and find our hostel. I guess our one-meal-a-day policy may not have mixed well with hiking all day and then staying awake all night. But it was a memorable experience.

After a shower and a short nap we decided to explore Belgrade, eating dinner at the best organic vegan restaurant I’ve ever been to! (Who would have thought it’d be in Serbia?) After returning to the hostel we slept like rocks.

Bus to Croatia= 30€ ($33),  Bus to Serbia= 27€ ($30),  Hostel= 10€ ($11)

Day 8: Return to Kosovo

The next afternoon it was back to Kosovo! As much as we were burnt-out on bus travel, the 6.5 hour trip seemed manageable after our previous bus marathon.

Bus back to Kosovo= 20€ ($22.50)


All told, I was able to see and do a lot in Germany on a Peace Corps Volunteer budget! The total for flights, hostels, admission tickets, trains, public transportation, and busing back to Kosovo was 336.55€ or about $379.81.

For food we kept things very cheap, generally spending 10€ per day. We cut down on food costs by booking hostels that included breakfast and by packing snacks to munch on during the day. We only ate out for dinner. We also spent about 4-6€ on treats at the Christmas markets each day, such as a glass of glühwein (mulled wine), bratwurst, or candied almonds. In total we spent less than $500 each. Forgive me for bragging, but by the end of the trip I was pretty impressed with us.

For more travel pictures and tips, check out my trip through Albania & Macedonia for spring break!

The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo

I recently uploaded pictures on Facebook from my trip to Albania. A friend sent me a message saying how jealous they were that I am living such a fun and adventurous life. That comment prompted me to write a brief post about the trip, because even though it was a privilege to travel with my school and see Albania, it was actually one of the hardest weeks of my Peace Corps service so far.

Trip- Durres
The view from Kruja Castle.

Allow me to explain by presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my trip to Albania:

The Good

  • It was FREE: Every year the secondary schools in Kosovo organize a trip to Albania for their 12th grade students. As a 12th grade teacher I was invited along as a chaperone. Who could say no to a week-long, all-expenses paid vacation in Albania? The transportation, room, meals… everything was covered. The meals were spectacular and we even got free drinks from the hotel. Of course it was a school trip, so the teachers were not drinking in excess, but the wine with dinner and daily macchiatos were still a treat!
  • Albania is GORGEOUS. We had sunny weather all week and were able to watch the sunset over the Adriatic Sea almost every night. I will definitely be visiting Albania again. (And I did! Check out my post about my trip to Albania with friends.)
  • Sunbathing on the beach.  We spent a few hours at the beach every day, sunbathing in the sand and swimming in the sea. I even got a decent tan!
  • Bonding with teachers & students. The trip was a great opportunity to get to know the other teachers, even with my limited Albanian. There were also some fun moments with the students.
    Trip- Students at castle2.jpg
    Some of the 12th grade students and I posing outside of the Kruja Castle Museum.

    When we visited the city of Kruja I walked with about 50 of the students up to the city’s castle ruins. There we found a museum with half-price admission for the students. The condition of entry? At least one teacher had to accompany the group. But there was only one teacher around. Me. The museum curator approached and asked (in Albanian) if I was their teacher. I replied in Albanian, “Yes, I am their English teacher,” feeling proud of myself for understanding him and being able to respond. He then said, “Okay, before we enter the museum I’m going to need you to explain these three rules to the students…” And there ended my understanding of what he was saying. Here I am, supposed to be the adult in charge, and I have no idea what is going on. I just played along and to my great relief no students got us kicked out of the museum. I still have no idea what those three rules were, but I guess none of us broke them!

The Bad

  • Trip- CastleMy Albanian is lacking: When volunteers arrive at their permanent sites, they quickly realize how little of the local language they actually know. It’s easier to be optimistic about Albanian when you are surrounded by other Americans struggling to learn alongside you. I was feeling pretty good about my language abilities at the end of PST.Even in Gjakova things have not been too bad. Day-to-day interactions in Albanian are incredibly draining, but at least I am able to speak some English with my host sisters and escape to my own room when I need to.

    On this trip there was no escape. I was surrounded by Albanian speaking teachers and students 24/7. Everyday I spent several hours sitting around a table with the teachers as they rapidly chatted about the most recent gossip, politics, financial issues, and a number of other topics that I am completely unable to discuss in Albanian. I was lucky if I could pick out a few keywords. This led to me awkwardly sitting there in silence most of the time. Frequently a teacher would turn to me and say, “Why are you being so quiet Brita? Say something!”

    Then everyone is staring and expecting you to contribute to a high-level conversation in a language you just started learning three months ago. It’s rather unpleasant.

  • Trip- beachBug bites: It was a hot week, so we slept with open windows. By the end of the week I was covered in red bug bites, including at least ten bites on my face. Now I’m being whiny… but still, bug bites are never fun.
  • Broken toilet: Right before the trip began I had just gotten over nine days of diarrhea. (Yeah… I wrote a post about it.) Unfortunately I developed the opposite problem, not having a bowel movement for six days. I guess the upside is that I did not need to frequent the bathroom, because our toilet had cracks and holes in the porcelain bowl and would not flush… not a pretty sight.

The Ugly

  • Memorable showers: Our shower consisted of a hose hanging from the wall with only one temperature: frigid. We also discovered when I first “showered” that the single drain in the bathroom floor was totally clogged, thus flooding the bathroom. For every other shower I had to wash my hair leaning over the toilet with the hose. Looking back, it’s actually kind of funny, but at the time I was not laughing.
  • Harassment from students: I will probably dedicate an entire post to this in the future, so for now I’ll just say that disrespect and inappropriate comments from my male students has been a big issue. Being an American woman in her twenties working with 12th graders at a school that is predominantly male has its challenges.
  • Being called fat: People in Kosovo speak much more bluntly about physical appearances than Americans. This has led to my feelings being hurt from time-to-time, but never so much as my week in Albania. Obviously I was feeling a bit anxious about being at the beach for the first time with hundred of beautiful, thin Europeans. Turns out my fears were justified. When I first removed my cover-up at the beach the teachers openly looked me up and down and then commented that I was fatter than they expected. Some even pointed out the parts of my body where I need to lose weight. I was also mocked for being so shockingly white. I felt like I was under a microscope, and some of the comments were very hurtful.(I’ve since realized that this is primarily cultural. Even the most caring and sensitive Albanians I know talk about weight with incredible openness. It is not mean, just honest commentary. Maybe Americans are overly sensitive.)
  • Trip- Sunset
    Sunset over the Adriatic Sea.

    No Wi-Fi: This complaint makes me sound spoiled, and you are probably thinking, “Really Brittany? You’re in the Peace Corps, remember?!” But not being able to connect with other Americans or my family during the week made the feelings of isolation more difficult to bear. You don’t realize how much you rely on the internet for your mental/emotional health until it is taken away. Being the only foreigner and being unable to communicate makes you feel very lonely. Not being able to cry to your mom when you are at a low-point makes you feel even lonelier.

So let this post be a reminder that things are not always as they appear. This is one of the fundamental issues with social media. We photoshop our lives and put forth an image of ourselves that crops out the crap. We post the best photos of ourselves doing the most exciting things, making our lives seem much more glamorous and enviable than they actually are. It’s easy to feel jealous when you can’t see the hard stuff. You see a smiling picture of me sitting on castle ruins, but if you had high powered zoom you’d see the bug bites on my arms, the grease in my hair from not properly showering, and the puffiness around my eyes from crying earlier that day.

That’s the case with life in the Peace Corps: It’s an eye-opening, perspective-building cultural experience full of rich memories and sublime moments. But the flip-side is that it is hard. Sometimes people yell at you for not knowing enough of the local language. Sometimes you get called fat. Sometimes you get diarrhea for weeks. Sometimes you find yourself feeling isolated and miserable.

There’s a reason the Peace Corps has been called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I conclude with a picture of this macchiato I was served during the trip. Its traumatized facial expression perfectly sums-up the confused emotions of my week in Albania.
Trip- coffee