Every once in a while I have these out-of-body moments when I feel that I am truly a Peace Corps Volunteer:
I’m running along a mountain path, I turn a corner, and my path is blocked by a couple dairy cows. I turn around.
I get pulled out of a meeting to shake hands with thirty-four Miss Elbasan pageant contestants. It is broadcasted on local television.
I’m hitching home in a late-evening act of desperation, only to be picked up by a slick-looking, sure to be well-connected Mafioso type in a brand new Mercedes Benz. I get his number.
I push aside a handful of cobwebs and step into a 17th Century Turkish bathhouse, pencil and paper in hand, surveying the ruins of the underground geothermal vents as if out of a scene in an Indiana Jones movie. I wish I had a hat.
Sometimes I’m not a participant in these moments. Sometimes I’m just an observer:
A ten year old boy driving a 1980’s Mercedes 350, his grandparents in the backseat and his mother on the passenger side. Going into town.
A Doberman Pinscher on a leash, held by a man on a motorcycle, driven down the main strip of the capital city. Both hauling ass.
Of course, other times I’m just IN the moment. It is only later that I can see the strangeness of the moment I was part of. Of the moment that has passed.
I’m running through the mountains, running from the mountain dogs. The strays aren’t the problem. They roam the streets in packs searching for food. But they’re skittish. They’ve been abused and abandoned and have been fighting for their lives since day one. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. It’s the dogs with something to protect you need to watch out for, the ones with owners. The sheep dogs, guard dogs, cow dogs…even lap dogs. They nip at your heels as you’re kicking up dirt. They’re out for blood.
Finally finding time to work out, but to an audience of more than 15 çunat (Albanian boys), all smoking cigarettes, all making comments about your routine, all the while laughing and blowing smoke your way as you struggle to breath in those most sweaty and energy-draining moments.
These are Peace Corps moments. They are moments similar to those you might have heard about from other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers). They are moments that might have made good photo-ops or that might have been used to highlight what life as a PCV is really like. Though in Albania, there are many other moments which are likely atypical of what some might image Peace Corps moments to be. Certainly, there are no stories involving mud huts, malaria, or digging trenches to poop in. You might replace mud huts with communist era bunkers in your mind’s eye. They scatter the hillsides here, invading farmlands and vineyards, littering cityscapes, and distracting from otherwise perfectly elegant beach-side resorts.
That’s the thing about Albania. It’s an eclectic wonderland. A place where women in Gucci sunglasses and stiletto heels coexist alongside women with hunched backs and calloused hands. Where dirty, naked Roma children panhandle for Lek (Albanian currency) and chubby Albanian princes throw stones and kick bottles on the same streets. It’s a place where the man on his donkey cart must sometimes yield to the man with the 2013 Ferrari 458 Italia. Albania is an imperfect incubator of the old and the new, of extraordinary beauty and the mundane, of first-world-status developmental achievements and depressingly obvious unrealized potential – all melded together in brutish heterogeneity.
My site is a microcosm of Albania’s strange eccentricities. The city is divided into separate neighborhoods. I live in the Pazar, the old town. It is the ancient buildings, the historical monuments, and dilapidated communist blocks, all built into the mountainside. My balcony overlooks new town. It is the up-and-coming, the flashing lights, the paved roads, the buzz of youthfulness, and feigned nightlife. I meld into the background of old town as just another tourist and pass through new town as some other punk kid with nothing better to do than cause trouble.
I spent my first week here performing manual labor. My office, a brand new building, repurposed after the bank moved. Now I was moving and refurbishing its storage area. Tools here, papers there, dust in my mouth, mold in the air. But I had something to do, and that was better than most volunteers had on their first week. That weekend I hiked to the nearest peak. It stared down at me from my balcony. I traversed its pursed lips and crinkled nose to the very top of its furrowed brows. There I danced shirtless and yelled and hollered for all of Gjirokaster to hear. I lifted stones and sweated and stared down at the city beneath me. Then a man came from further up the mountain to meet the crazy shirtless man on the hilltop. He owned a café just up the path and had been witness to the whole spectacle. He invited me up to coffee. Sweating, and a little embarrassed, I followed. My shirt was on. At the mountaintop café I was treated to wondrous foods: cheeses, turshis (pickles), peppers, and of course raki (Albanian spirits). I spent the afternoon there, chatting, eating, and drinking to my heart’s content. I stumbled back down the mountain and called it an early night.
As the next week came and went, I struggled to balance being both sociable and frugal. Being sociable here takes time and effort, and Lek. I ultimately sided with the latter considering I had no friends to socialize with anyway. After a few too many nights spent alone as a lab rat for my own home-cooked kitchen experiments, and some five or six episodes of Law and Order SVU under my belt, my recluse was broken upon meeting two sisters at the local grocery store who spoke some English. As it goes with Albanians, if you’re friends with one, you’re friends with many. At the end of that night I found myself shirtless in a pool hall, playing ping pong with a seventeen year old çun well into the early morning. And so life has progressed like this in such a way that I have gone from being virtually friendless in a foreign land, to being a king in my adopted home.
This weekend was the cherry on top. Ujë Ftohtë. Literally, “Cold Water”. It’s the most beautiful river spot I’ve ever been to. The water is freezing, even on the hottest of days. Water flows from every earthly orifice; all of it feeding into the most perfectly clear, emerald green water. There’s even a rock to jump off of – a not so perilous excuse to immerse yourself in pebble-lined coolness. It’s a perfect summer’s day. It’s a perfect shirtless day too – which at this point, is becoming somewhat of a running theme. Considering how hot it’s been, it will probably continue to be.
Here’s some pictures: