Saturday, September 29, 2012

Gut Anarchy and Spitali Amerikan

Cipro takeover is still preferable to being a sock puppet.

I generally don’t get sick, but teaching is like swan diving into a festering pool of germs every day, followed by basking in a sun of virus rays. The first semester of my student teaching intern year I was sick several times, because apparently my immune system has about as much gumption as a Victorian woman on a chaise lounge, in need of her smelling salts in between regular bouts with the leeches. I eat a healthy diet, I work out, I drink water and I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, so I’m not sure where I’m going wrong here. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised when I came down with a nasty cough and cold two weeks ago, since I had seen it on display in several students and staff. Prior to that I had what we have dubbed “Tirana Tummy”, which was a natural and wholly expected digestive rebellion against the bacteria unique to Tirana. It lasted a few days, came back on a few occasions, but thankfully left residence right before the cold came to visit. Remember my post about taking a sick day last Sunday to rest up and recover? Yeah, I was finally starting to recover from that cold and feeling nice and rested when I wrote it. I was feeling so ambitious I even went ahead and whipped up the Durres post and scheduled it for Monday, and started patting myself on the back about getting back into the swing of blogging. I went to bed feeling pretty great- rested and ready for the week ahead.

Instead I woke up at 4 a.m., frantically clawing my way out of blankets so I could stumble to the bathroom and proceed to vomit violently for about two hours, interspersed with brief interludes where I lay on the cool tile, curled up on my side around the base of the toilet. Apparently such proximity was still too much distance to cover, as I ended up puking on myself towards the end. It felt as though I had swallowed a large, flaming brick, and it was trying to explode out of me Alien baby style. I finally dragged into the living room, where it took me half an hour to e-mail my boss with sub plans because I kept choking on my own dry heaving, and running to the bathroom because that’s when the stomach problems really started to kick in. The rest of the day I couldn't keep down water, and I hadn't eaten since the afternoon before. I was getting delirious with a mild fever, starving, and the stomach pain was getting worse. Swallowing my own spit was making me gag, which is just annoying. I felt like a husk by the end of the miserable day.

The point, and I do have one, is that here’s where all you potential Albanian travelers get the benefit of a firsthand review of the Spitali Amerikan (American Hospital) in Tirana. My boss, Jeff, came to get me that evening and took me to the hospital. It was as advertised: clean, modern, and staffed with English speaking doctors*. I was taken to the emergency room where I was immediately treated by an incredibly attentive and kind doctor who listened to my lungs (since I still had that cough), poked in my belly, and took my temperature. I had my blood drawn (gloves, everything in packages, just as you’d expect anywhere) and then I was given IV fluids. The blood was analyzed for signs of infection while I napped fitfully for almost four hours as the IV worked its magic. In my last hour there a German tourist took up residence in the bed beside mine. As we were separated with only a sheet it was impossible to not hear him say that he had been up since 4 a.m. vomiting, and he had terrible stomach pain that wouldn't go away. If it wouldn't have been weird, and if I could have held my head up, I would have been all “Twinsies, dude! What an interesting intestinal coincidence!” I pondered a high five, or, less aggressive- a thumbs up around the edge of the sheet. Instead I just went back to sleep and enjoyed the relief of cold liquid in my veins.

I was checked on regularly by kind nurses, and once the IV ran dry I left the hospital with a prescription for Cipro, electrolytes, and pro-biotic powder. We hit up the pharmacy next to the hospital and headed on home. For all of the meds plus the blood draw, blood test, IV, and fluids I spent about $100 USD. For comparison’s sake: in America about 3 years ago I had an allergic reaction to a medication. I was taken to the ER and given an IV with fluids- that’s it. I was charged almost $1,000. For a total, out of pocket expense $100 USD is pretty great and won’t break you even if you do end up with a surprise visit of flaming brick stomach** during your travels.

Tuesday I woke up feeling better by the slimmest of margins, but totally wasted, and Wednesday and Thursday continued the same into Friday. Basically I ended up bed-ridden for the rest of the week, because while I could eat again I just had no energy and I still needed to be near a bathroom. I tried on Wednesday and Thursday to go to work, but I ended up a sweaty, shaking, puke-y mess each time. I’m just now feeling like a real person, after a few false starts where I thought I was feeling better but standing for a few minutes humbled me. I think a huge part of it towards the end of this week was the Cipro making me feel like hell as it worked its way through my body killing everything in sight- I told a friend I felt like it was kitten scruffing me by the back of the neck and rendering me totally immobile. Regardless, I haven’t been sick like this since an ear infection/pneumonia combo laid me out for a week my senior year of college.

The moral of the story is that I have no qualms with the ability of the American Hospital to take care of normal to pretty awful sicknesses, and I would be confident with having a broken bone set there, or getting stitches. I am definitely better off here than in many other places in the world.

*I’m not implying that doctors everywhere in the world should speak English and pander to me. I’m just specifying this because it was pertinent information. I’m also specifying things like clean needles/gloves to describe that it is an establishment up to par with modern hospital standards, not because I was preparing to see them spit on an old rusty needle, say “It’ll do” and jam it into my arm with bare hands. I think a lot of the info on the internet pertaining to medical services in Albania is woefully out of date and/or inaccurate, so I'm just trying to say, this hospital was legit.

**This was not food poisoning or a problem unique to Albania- just a normal, awful stomach virus- so don’t be worried you will come here and this will happen to you. Unless you come here and teach a grip of first graders. Then it might happen to you.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Durres: Golem Beach Day, or, Going With the Flow

Scott's sand angel was, quite possibly, the prettiest thing about the beach.
The first weekend trip we made was to Durres, about two weeks ago (yes, friends, this is a back post, but don't worry pictures will be sprinkled copiously throughout). Tiara, Scott and I had finished our first week of work lesson planning and classroom decorating, and the kiddos were due to roll in the next week, so we decided we needed a beach day. 

Now, Bobby and I had sailed into the port of Durres, and I was well aware of the noxious slurry that is that particular patch of sea. However, I had read online that as long as one goes far enough south the water clears out and it's a perfectly acceptable beach- no Thailand or Hawaii to be sure, but a solid beach. Another reason I was excited to head to Durres was so that I could try out the train. We agreed to take the 7:30 a.m. train, which meant a very early wake-up call on Saturday. Scott had picked up a couch surfer at 5 a.m., so he (Julius) came along with us to pick up Tiara.

The train station is about 20 minutes from our apartment, and on the weekend it is filled with people selling their wares on the street. One patch of sidewalk will be lined with heaps of tobacco, another decorated with watches and lighters, yet another with mounds of vegetables. We found the train station without a problem, but we had missed the train as we had the wrong time for departure. Luckily the train station is basically the Durres bus station, so when we turned away from the empty station a man quickly scooped us up onto his bus. It was 125 leke for a 40 minute ride, the bus was clean, it wasn't crowded, and the driver didn't seem hell bent on killing us all, so it was a win all around.

We made it to Durres and hopped on a local bus to Golem. We were told that Golem would be our best bet for clean beaches near Durres. As we traveled to Golem we could see patches of sand and blue water in between the cafes, hotels, and shop buildings. Durres and the surrounding cities are much dirtier, to me, than Tirana, which is certainly a direct result of the port, but the water and sand looked beautiful and we couldn't wait for a day of lounging on the beach.

The bus stop dropped us off right next to a market, so we stocked up on beach snacks, water, and beer for those partaking. We walked closer to the beach, and as we did we were hit with a smell, like sewage, and we saw runoff heading right towards the beach and the water. Okay, no big deal, keep on keepin' on. We decided to go down the beach a bit away from the runoff. At one point, we noticed rusted out barrels in the water, so we decided to head still further:

Julius, aforementioned couch surfer. Please note: dirty water, rusted barrels, schwack all over the sand. Paradise! ;)

We started realizing that this beach day might not be quite what we expected, but we all rolled with it and just started making jokes about it. If there is one motto I have about travel, it is this: have NO expectations, good or bad. Then you can just have an experience, without being disappointed that it didn't live up to some fantasy in your head. We ended up in an area a short walk from the picture above, with umbrellas and chairs for rent. It was 9 a.m., so there was no one to take our money yet, but it was next to a boardwalk, toilets, and a cafe so we figured it would be a good spot to set up camp.

We still planed on having a great day, dirty beach and all. Tiara had been sick but was able to eat beach snacks:

Scott had beach beer:

And Julius stole my floatie and used it as a recliner:

Oh, couchsurfing- you bring us the most interesting temporary friends

We sat on the shore and watched as the waves rolled in- thick, watery bellies filled with brown, brackish water. As they broke, fluttery debris rushed through to the beach. If it had been a lake, the brown water would have gone unnoticed. As this was the sea, it was jarring since one usually expects, well, something approaching blue instead of brown. Of course, we were still going to swim, sludge and all. So we did.
We love Dirty Durres!

Mmmm, sludgey. My skin was itching a bit at this point, not gonna lie. 

We're swimming in diesel particulates, and we LOVE IT!
 As we swam, bits and bobs of this and that would brush past us, and when we left the water, there was a line of black flutter strips caught under the edges of my bathing suit. I felt grimey and dirty, but I don't particularly care about feeling dirty, so no big deal. Julius and I cat napped on the beach while Tiara and Scott went out exploring- when they came back about an hour later, they told us the water a bit further down the beach was black. Good to know!

Around noon the beach started getting a bit more lively, and the attendant came to work and collected our money. We paid 400 leke for 4 lounge chairs and two umbrellas with small tables around the base. The vendors started patrolling the beach as well, peddling sunscreen, water, snacks, but best of all, fruit. These donkeys would stroll down the beach ahead of their owners, loaded with fruit. This one was loaded with figs, so I bought a bag.

His owner fed him figs and scratched his face, so it seemed like beach day was probably better than farm day for Mr. Donkey. Later I kept saying I bought figs from a donkey, although said donkey clearly has no opposable thumbs and couldn't possibly count money or bag up my figs.
From a distance- looking good, Durres beach!
We took a break at the cafe and then went for another swim before calling it a day around 2 p.m.- 5 hours felt like plenty of time to soak in this particular beach. All in all, it was a fantastic day and I was definitely glad we went. We got out of the city, we explored the beach options, we had great company, and it was a dirt cheap day out (for breakfast, transport there and back, lunch, snacks, and my portion of the beach fees I spent less than 1,000 leke/ $10 USD). Speaking of dirt- I was incredibly dirty after the beach. Not just normal salty skin beach day dirty, but thin layer of oily grime dirty. When I took a shower that night, the water coursing off of me was a dark brown- hey, I'm just being honest so you know what to expect if you go for a dip in Durres. I don't think I care about swimming in Durres again, but I would love to go back to explore the city proper, and maybe even just to hang out on the shore in a lounge chair and watch the waves roll in.

Verdict: I don't regret going at all because it was a fun weekend adventure, but I live here and have the luxury of a kooky weekend trip gone interestingly astray. If you're visiting Tirana and want a break from the city, get thee at least as far south as Vlora, or, of course, the well known and beautiful beaches of Saranda.

Sidenote: One of Tiara's students was telling her about a visit to Durres: "We went to Durres, but we swam in swimming pools because the water is too dirty." Teachers: we have lower cleanliness standards than first graders. 

Opinion: Water regulations and dumping laws are your friends, fellow Americans. Trust me. Quit bitching about environmental protections. Really. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sick Day, Well Earned

Me on Friday night at the Agricultural Expo (basically a farmer's market). 

Right now my friends and co-workers, Scott and Tiara, are climbing a mountain with Bobby. I, however, am at home, lounging on the couch in my yoga pants. I managed to catch a nasty cold and have been sick since Monday night. I thought it would release me sooner, but unfortunately it has barely let up at all. I powered through and plastered on my happiest First Grade Teacher Smile all week, I went out with Tiara and Scott on Wednesday for dinner, and on Friday night we went out again. Yesterday was a trip to Carrefour** followed by a visit to Stephen Center restaurant (Dr. Pepper, WHAT?), and finally we ended the night with dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Villa 31. What I'm saying is, I've been pushing on through and trying to hang and be all positive and continue life and all that jazz. Which, let me also say, is pretty hard when I cough all night and get zero sleep, feel like there are watermelons rolling through my sinuses, and can't breathe about 90% of the time.

But this morning? When the alarm clamored in my sinus congested ears at too early o'clock, I knew for sure I was not climbing a mountain. I have a hacking cough (that conveniently almost made me puke in Carrefour**) so a hike that is more than just strolling around town didn't seem like the nicest thing to do to my lungs. I decided to stay home and give myself a good old fashioned sick day, since I'm back at the factory bright and early tomorrow morning. I curled up with my laptop and tackled a computer housekeeping to-do list. My gmail was backed up to 500+ e-mails, many of which were from real people to whom I needed to reply, so I did that first. My desktop was littered with random lesson resources and Word documents related to planning, or scanned in pictures of diplomas, or notes to myself on how to get my birth certificate apostilled, so the next order of business was a grand computer clean-up. I also had all of my annual plans and lesson resources for my current school saved all over the desktop, so I just sucked it up and spent... wait for it... TWO HOURS sorting through my digital pack rattery. Most importantly, I also finally re-started my licensure application with the state of Colorado, and I verified my voter registration in Colorado so that I can get my absentee ballot. I tied up a host of other loose ends thanks to the miracle of the internet, and since we cleaned house yesterday and I already sorted my out of control stack of papers from school work, all I have to do today is plan a 4th grade World History lesson. I can do that. I know I can.***

I think it's time to put on real clothes and go grocery shopping. It's a 3 minute walk and not a big list, so this still fits my rest day plans. I'm feeling pretty productive for someone who didn't get dressed before noon!

**Carrefour is basically a Super Target. Would you want to puke in the yogurt aisle of Super Target? Exactly.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Plans, and Then, Reality

I had all of these grand plans to blog about our No Plane-ia to Albania trip. Then we got to Albania, I had a short week of getting moved in, and then I started work (two days earlier than planned). Then, a week later, the bunnies came pouring in and the first week of school went by in a flash. Now I find myself in my third week of work, my second with my students, and here, once again- I am not blogging about our trip. I have not blogged very much at all.

I'm not really sure what is behind my stubborn refusal to just log in and bang out something, anything, but I think it's because I feel like I'm behind on work, and back tracking and doing moving to Albania posts feels like a homework assignment for which I'm past due. I have so many other obligations right now- work, sleeping, eating, filling out paperwork so I can actually stay here, opening bank accounts, and learning my students' names- that I just can't stand to think that I have even one more thing I have to do. On top of that, there is a lot of turmoil in my personal life (which I'm choosing not to go into here, mostly because I just don't want to talk about, and also because I want this blog to be more of a travel/info blog than a personal journal type blog) so when I have a free minute I sometimes sit and stare at a wall and think totally emo thoughts. If I'm feeling really super overwhelmed about life and how much it can suck sometimes when it comes to people you love, I cry.

See? That's totally depressing. Who wants to read about some random chick in Albania crying? I'm just going to go full on ramble blog in 3, 2, 1....

So far work is going well and reminds me of a mix between my public school experiences in Colorado and my ESL language school experiences in Japan. I have 12 gremlins in my care and keeping, and I'm not just saying this because their parents might find my blog: they are totally adorable. I was nervous about teaching primary because I hadn't done so in 6 years (since the Japan gig) and my most recent teaching experience was with my kick ass high school students in Colorado. Going from discussions about news articles and science fiction short stories to singing ABC's and helping little ones navigate the intricacies of a pencil was a 180, but I think it was what I needed this year. They already love me way more than I think I deserve, they call me "Ms. Cor-tuh-nee" with such a sweet over enunciation of syllables, and they hug me on the regular. It's a pretty sweet way to make a living. I'm using a lot of Whole Brain Teaching** techniques, and it's been great fun to teach them all the "games" we play in class, which are really just ways Ms. Cortney uses to control the herd (shhhh, don't tell them that Class-Yes is not really a super fun game of mimicking words).

Work being wonderful has a lot to do with my fantastic co-workers. Some names you'll probably see again and again on this blog are: Jeff, Scott, Tiara, Kevin, and Adam, among others. They are seriously great people with whom I am lucky to have an easy rapport. Jeff is my boss, and he is the hardest working man in school business (name that reference). My director is also amazing and he and Jeff have been really kind to me with all the family tragedy awful that has gone on this summer. I know that if I need anything, I need but ask, and they'll do their level best to help me. It helps immensely to have that security.

Tirana itself has been so much better than I expected. Albania is a developing country, but Tirana has all the creature comforts of civilization I need, so I can't complain. I'm wracking my brain to think of anything I want to have/want to do here that I can't have/do, and seriously all I can come up with is that there is no Mexican or Indian food, which is a statement that could honestly be true of many cities in the good ol' U.S. of A.

More seriously, here are the main cons of Tirana (they don't really bother me, just keepin' it real):

1. The traffic is Traffic laws are mere suggestions, and those suggestions apparently haven't been given to 80% of the driving population. Lanes are just ground decorations, stop lights are pretty lights, crosswalks mean nothing, and horns are liberally and frequently used (often to chastise the rare driver who does something legal, like, say, allow a group of pedestrians to actually use the crosswalk). When you want to cross the street, you don't wait on the sidewalk for a car to stop. You kind of.. smoodge out into traffic, and once you're in front of the cars they will (theoretically) stop for you then. It's this side eyed, slanting walk dance with traffic where you stare hard and then just step out into a sea of traffic, praying that said traffic will part like the Red Sea as you perch in between lanes. Honestly, everyone does it, so I'm sure it's safe (said the lemming)....

2. Air pollution. Let's talk about how everyone wants to get all "Regulations ruin our life!", shall we? Let me just say, come spend a week in Tirana with tailpipes belching black dust in your face and you will change your tune no matter what Ayn Rand and her rabid contingent might say. The mountains are gorgeous, but they are often misty with smog. There is a fine layer of grime- diesel particulates, anyone?- on everything. Some days, as I walk to work with a bouquet of pollutants assaulting my nose, I mutter a quick apology to my lungs as they work with the silt I'm pumping through them.

3. Trash. Yesterday, I saw a well dressed young gentleman purchase an ice cream cone (the kind that are wrapped). He then proceeded to unwrap said ice cream cone and drop flutters of paper on the ground as he walked. He left in his wake no less than 6 scraps of sticky trash on the sidewalk. Mind you, many places are spotless, but there are also a lot of vacant fields with more trash than grass. Dropping one's trash on the ground is a-okay, and recycling is just not done. On top of that, it is virtually impossible to refuse a plastic bag here- even when you emphatically say "Skaproblem" (no problem/don't worry about it) vendors will take your items and drop them in a plastic bag. These bags then end up dotting the vacant lots. Ah, the life cycle of plastic.

Even these big three, though, are not deal breakers at all. I make note of them to be accurate in my depiction of Tirana, but they don't keep me up at night, and even though I cross a huge round about twice each day on my walk to and from work through a nasty knot of aggressive cars, buses, and motorcycles, even the traffic is more comical than anything else. I've heard it said that Albania is the South America of Europe, which is a strange and strangely perfect description. Bobby and I thought it looked like Lima when we first arrived, and my co-worker Tiara said it reminded her of Honduras. It is much, much more developed and filled with modern conveniences than I was expecting, our standard of living here is great, and I have no worries at all about spending the next 10 months of my life here. Tirana feels like home already- a smog filled, kinda trashy, crazy traffic-y home.

**I must say this- I find a lot, a LOT of the Whole Brain Teaching methods inane, controlling, and frankly, creepy as all hell. When it comes to teaching content, I find them over simplistic and I think they squash creative thinking, plus I think if you tried that with a group of high school students they would do it (maybe) but they'd hate you (definitely). However, I love a lot, a LOT of their techniques for classroom management in the lower grades. I just wanted to clear that up because if you Google "Whole Brain Teaching" the videos are sometimes kind of terrifying/depressing. I pick and choose, and I'm picky with what I pick...when I'm... picking. Okay, I'm out.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Final Destination: Tirana

We completed the transatlantic cruise and visited:







Cinque Terre day trip from Florence

We're safe in Tirana and have been for a little over a week, but between moving in to our apartment, getting settled in, and starting work I have had little to no desire to blog from the internet cafe. So, for now here's a picture of our first day wanderings, as we trekked from the park through Skanderbeg Square with everything we owned on our backs.

Once we have internet at home (which should happen in about two days, fingers crossed) and I can upload pictures and blog in my underwear, I will start writing again, beginning with trip recaps.

See you soon with more pictures and more stories!