Thirty-two hours in. No sleep. Philadelphia. New York. Munich. Tirana. Elbasan.
It was all a blur. In that time I met thirty-three other people as crazy as I am. I traveled nearly half way around the world: car, airport, plane, van, hotel, bus, airport, plane, layover, plane, bus, hotel. I cried for the people I left behind. I smiled for the people I have come to know. I was along for the ride. My journey had begun.
My eyes were wide open. They were heavy from not sleeping, dry for the same reason, and red. But as we passed over the German Alps, they were as wide as they had ever been. It was the first decent view from the plane. Not decent – breathtaking. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon we were flying parallel to the coastline – high, jagged-edged mountains falling steeply into the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. Small towns came into view. They were scattered haphazardly among the foothills and throughout the valleys. To describe it well, would be to recite a passage from a Dr. Seuss book. One thousand and one small Whovilles. We were all excited. It was impossible not to be.
We were shuttled to the bus, and quickly taken away to Elbasan. The road there provided a brief introduction to the country: mountains, valleys, farms, bunkers, hillsides, small houses, tall buildings, antiquated roads, new-aged neon, filth, beauty. It can’t be adequately recounted.
For three days we kept stowed away in our hotel rooms, spending hours in training sessions, surviving countless introductions, all in preparation for Saturday – the day we were to meet our host families. That day would come. The furgon headed for Librazhd, taking me and a few others with it. We had no idea what was going on.
“Tyler!” Someone shouted. I was the first to get dropped off. I got out and shook hands with who I thought was my host father, but who turned out to be the other furgon driver. Honest mistake. I think the picture of us was well worth it anyhow. I am escorted into the house by at least ten people. Who are they? I didn’t know. The house was huge. Five stories. I was on the top floor. I had – have – a balcony of my own. It overlooks the north side of town, with the snow-capped mountains in plain view. I have a western toilet. Pleasant surprise. I have a flatmate – a PCV from Group 14. Oh, and a wonderful host family, whom I did eventually meet. Actually, it turns out I had met them in route to my room. My host sister, Xhulijeta (Juliette) speaks good English. My host parents do not. Nor does my host brother. They are all wonderful and gregarious. They feed me mountains of food for every meal. Cheese, fruit, salad, vegetables, meat, soup, bread, yogurt, anything, everything. I am well-off. I am spoiled. I am happy. A fine beginning. An unworthy title. An inadequate synopsis.
Here are a few pictures from my going away party. Thank you everyone for coming – for your presence, your presents, your cards, your words of encouragement, and your prayers.
Here are some pictures from the plane, the hotel in Elbasan, some random sheep, the road to Librazhd, views from my balcony in Librazhd, and a few shots from the cemetery on the outskirts of town: