From Cherries to Mandarins

After it rains the entire city smells like weed. It comes from across the sunken valley, over the Ottoman castle, now so well-settled upon its hilltop perch, and into the nostrils of Gjirokastër’s dampened patrons. It is the perfume of Albania’s marijuana capital. A few months ago, I found myself taking in its lusciously green view from one of Gjirokastër’s most approximate vantage points. It was a brief moment stolen from the task at hand. For once, my job had taken me out of the office and away from the computer screen.

I was transported back to my place atop the concrete garage roof by the impatient urging of my dutiful Albanian colleague. She was a resent high school graduate who had volunteered to assist me with the interviews until the start of the new school year, which was quickly approaching. Our partnership had the makings of a comedic tale – a story in which two characters who set out together on a long journey, take on the separate roles of torch bearer and lollygagger – her lighting our way and me, stopping to smell the roses. Or, in this case, the cannabis.

We had spent the week before preparing a twenty-five question community survey to assess monument owners’ knowledge of traditional restoration practices. Gjirokastër is a World Heritage Site, designated by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO). The city’s cultural monuments are mostly privately owned residential houses. Many of those houses are in disrepair and many more have been renovated by their owners in such a way that threatens their authenticity. If these houses continue to be destroyed and/or lose those unique aspects of Gjirokastër’s built heritage, the city will lose its World Heritage Site designation.

Our attempt to determine what these homeowners know and how they behave based on that knowledge was now carefully holstered in the bag slung across my back. With enough copies to last the day, my vigilant companion and I set out to knock on a few more doors.

This adventure, of course, was only a preamble to the real week’s work – preparation for CHwB’s 13th Regional Restoration Camp. In only a few days, over 30 architecture students from around the Balkans would come to spend two weeks living, learning, and working alongside one another in a haze of sawdust, stone chippings, and course lectures. So, what happens when you put a bunch of Romanians, Serbians, Bosnian-Herzegovinians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Belarusians, Albanians, Kosovars, Turks, and Greeks under the same roof? If you were my father, I would answer – “no, this is not the beginning of a bad joke.” Rather, this would be the beginning of a two-week cross-cultural, Big Brotheresque sociological experiment.

They arrived on Saturday, carrying their heavy bags up the cobble-stone road to their mansion-like, honeycombed labyrinth of a hostel – the Babameto house. In Gjirokastër, houses are referred to by the last name of their residents. Since these homes are typically passed down from generation to generation, their names never change. Now, the Babameto house sheltered new names like Konstantina, Jankov, Pretkoviƈ, Kolbovich, Ivan, Adina, and Ioanna.

I was placed in charge of a small group of three – a Romanian studying urban planning, and two Albanian archeology students from the main university in Tirana. The group was tasked with mapping some of the old footpaths surrounding Antigonea Archeological Park (a popular tourist attraction in the district) to develop a network of interconnecting trails for would-be hikers and backpackers. We used handheld GPS devices to record our movements via satellite as we meandered through the mostly untouched foothills of the Nemërçkë mountains. We spent hours in the cool fall air warmed by the unfettered sun. Each day scraping through heavy brush, dining on the wide assortment of wild-growing fruits and nuts (figs, blackberries, walnuts, apples), fording streams, and at times, resorting to horseback for brief respites from walking.

As the camp progressed, I began attending regularly scheduled traditional Albanian dance lessons and learned a number of popular valle (dances) of which the most rehearsed, myself included, performed at the end-of-camp celebration. Our Balkan guests departed, and I, having spent three consecutive seven-day weeks in a row at work, promptly packed my bags for a week-long getaway. My destination – the Albanian Alps.

I took the night bus from Gjirokastër to Tirana, arriving around 4:30 in the morning, and waited for an hour huddled next to the grill of an early morning street food vender for warmth. By 7:30 I had arrived in the bike friendly, unofficial capital of northern Albania – Shkodër. I spent the day exploring the city. In contrast to most Albanian cities, Shkodër is pedestrian friendly and has plenty of public spaces. At one point, having spent the previous night on a bus, I found a nice patch of grass along the Bojana river which runs adjacent to the city, and took a glorious nap. Across the river were the Roma slums, situated just across from the mosque. Two worlds divided not by the tracks, but by a mighty river. The bridge which adjoined the two worlds remained populated with fishermen, and in the distance, the snow-capped mountains from which the river flowed. It was mid-October.

The next morning I took the Koman ferry across the lake to Fierzë and hitched a ride into Bajrum Curri to meet up with two of the three volunteers there. The ferry ride was breathtaking, and I had used up the battery in my camera by the end of it. The ferry boat is literally a city bus resourcefully stitched to a floating rig. It is a creation in the Frankensteinian spirit. We made infrequent stops along the steep banks of the lake where patrons of the ferry were let off – leaving one to wonder where exactly they were headed. By all observable accounts, they had been left hopelessly stranded. But then a man on a horse would appear along the ridge, forge his own path down the dreadfully steep mountainside, transfer the bags of those we had forsaken onto his horse, and disappear with them into the trees just as we disappeared from view into the heavy mist.

By the time our small posse of three had stocked up on food and water and finished packing for the overnight camping trip (which we had barely planned), we had missed the furgon (van) to Valbonë. There, the sun would soon be setting behind the towering mountains, impressing upon the earth below them a dark and chilling shadow. We ventured into it on foot, hoping to find a ride. Luke was taking a piss when we found one. He came running up half zipped and we convinced the driver to take us to Valbonë – the sleepy mountain village now mostly abandoned except for the few hardy and perennial residents brazen enough to wait out the harrowing storm of winter.

That night I froze my ass off. We had made camp on the lawn of a local guest house. Fully believing that I might lose my toes to frostbite, I jumped out of my sleeping bag at around four or five in the morning to make a fire. It was a painfully early start to what would be a very long day.

The hike from Valbonë to Theth is a popular route for tourists during the summer. Not so much in the early months of winter. Most excursion companies operating in the area advertise the route as a 6 to 8 hour hike of high difficulty. Though only 14 kilometers in length, the trail itself can only be characterized in one of two ways: ascent or descent. From either side you’re looking at about a 1,000 meter rise in elevation to the saddle (in hiking terminology, a saddle refers to a curved depression between two higher points, resembling a horse’s saddle). We did it in about 4 ½ hours. Hashtag – “beast mode”.

If I had recharged my camera, I would have captured what is now so difficult to put in words. That said, what I experienced could never be done justice through the means of photography, and especially not through my feeble attempt to recreate it in words. But as a muse for the mind’s eye, you might try imaging our journey as a scene from Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the insidious twin peaks which framed our pinnacle destination, contrasted against the natural beauty surrounding us, seemed an appropriate backdrop for an epic tale in the making. Ian, one of the most resounding fantasy nerds I know, even broke out his portable speakers to play the Two Towers soundtrack.

At the saddle, we sat straddling both sides – Valbonë and Theth. If the ascent from Valbonë had been Frodo’s climactic journey to the peak of Mount Doom, the descent into Theth would be Dr. Grant’s wide-eyed introduction to the world of Jurassic Park – its luscious green landscape standing starkly against the jagged stone-grey terrain of the eastern slope. We descended into prehistory eager to drop our bags and lay flat on our backs.

That night we set up camp under the protection of a giant tree, stoked up a roaring fire, and ate a wonderfully warm dinner with a local family. I slept soundly that night, escaping the torment of the brutal cold which had claimed me as a victim the night before. The next morning we packed up camp and set out, retracing our steps and reversing the imprints of our boots in the forest floor. I’ve run a marathon, I’ve played several successive full games of collegiate-level competitive Ultimate Frisbee, and I grew up in Georgia; but I don’t think I’ve ever sweated more than I did on that hike from base to peak. It made the downhill stretch back to Valbonë a wet and cold one.

Near the end of the hike, our third amigo, Ian, realized he had left his 0° Marmot sleeping bag back at the switchbacks. Hoping to leave him lighter on his feet, we agreed to take his pack into the village and wait for him while he hurried back to retrieve his sleeping bag. In that moment, we underestimated how far he would have to backtrack, and how long that might take. Under the premise that hitchhiking would be an easier task as a single person rather than a pack of three, Luke and I caught the last ride out of town to Bajrum Curri, leaving Ian behind with nothing but a bottle of water, his sleeping bag, and his wits. We hoped he would be able to make it back. He didn’t. Instead, he ended up being stranded for another night at the mercy of a local guesthouse owner. Thankfully, Ian forgave the other two amigos for being complete dicks.

Resolved of my sins, I returned back down south – crossing the Albania-Kosovo border without my passport in the process….

After an overnight stay with my host family in Librazhd, I took the long way back home. I first stopped over in Pogradec to have coffee with the two Volunteers there. It’s a beautiful lakeside town situated along the Albanian half of Lake Ohrid. My time there was far too short. I ended up staying the night in Korça, finding time again to nap in one of the city’s great public parks. Like Shkodër, Korça offers plenty of public spaces, as well as a modern shopping district, a friendly pedestrian main street, and even a couple breweries. No tour, but the 50 cent draft beers and meat heavy appetizers really hit the spot. I then set out on another breathtaking journey. Breathtaking both from the awe striking beauty of the natural landscape, and because the roads were so bad you could hardly breathe as you were viciously tossed around unbuckled in the small 1983 fifteen passenger van.

I stepped out onto stable soil in the small mountain town of Leskovik. There, I was treated like a king by two of the most gracious and eager hosts I have ever had the pleasure of being coddled by. Being completely out-of-the-way, I suppose they were happy to have the company. I so liked this small town that I’ve now been back two more times; once on a bike, and another time on the kindness of five separate drivers whose pity for me granted me safe and free passage. Other than defying near death by dog attack, both successive trips were well worth it.

Since then, the events of my life here in Albania have become less compelling. For now the winds have changed and the rains have come and the people of my adopted stone city have retreated into their homes to welcome the early nights and warm themselves from the cold. I have done the same, but with less success against the cold. The warm moments have been those spent with other Volunteers. A raucous Halloween Party which I only made through part of. A few paid trips to various Peace Corps conferences in both Tirana and Fier. A cookie party. A pre-Christmas party. And, most memorably, a Thanksgiving get-together in Gjirokastër.

Back home, Thanksgiving meant opening our doors to family, friends, and sometimes strangers, to rejoice in the mere fact that we all have something to be thankful for. We did our best to have perspective – to remember how lucky we were and to recognize all those things we all took for granted on any other day. In Albania, maintaining perspective isn’t such an effort, it’s blindingly obvious. The luxuries of saran wrap, barbeque sauce, centralized heating, centralized air-conditioning, reliable electricity, reliable internet, running water, a washer and dryer, and English speakers are mostly absent. But you do have near substitutes – reused jars, salt, a sleeping bag, open windows, a head lamp, internet cafes, bucket showers, strong hands for wringing out the soap, a clothes hanger, and Skype. You hold these things dear and you are thankful for them every day.

We packed over 20 people in my apartment. Many made food. But mostly, Kat made food. She was our wonderful shtëpiake (housekeeper) who both fed us and cleaned up after us. For my part, I built a ginormous table in the main living room which we were all able to fit around. There was even a fire barrel out on the balcony. We ate. We drank. We were merry. We were thankful.

Here’s some of what we were thankful for:

“Throughout the last year I have been thankful for wine, sunshine, [and] family and friends I know I will keep in touch with for years to come.”

“I am thankful for this time to finally become who I want to be, and this time to truly enjoy life.”

“I’m thankful for bagels in Tirana, stores that still sell ice cream in winter, and all my cool friends!”

“I am thankful for firewood. I’m thankful for only having five months left. I’m thankful for having awesome PCVs to hang out with today.”

“I am thankful to have the chance to drink water without worms in it twice every year!”

“I am thankful for home cooked meals and the best American company.”

“Thankful for armpit waxes that cost 300 leke.”

“I’m thankful to meet amazing friends and neighbors that made me to be more mature and appreciative of my life.”

“The people, you guys keep me going.”

“Gymnastics. American citizenship. Good students. iPhones. Warm jackets. Holidays. Jews. Airplanes. Pumpkins. Pamberlina. Oreos. Hot showers. My best friends. California. Milot. Chocolate. Peace Corps. My Mom’s health.”

“Love. MUN. GChat [with] friends [and] sisters. Food. Hope. Teenagers. Facebook. Peace. Beaches. Water. Florida. God. Family. Patience. E-mail. Wood. Wool sweaters. My friends in Albania (American and Albanian). Albania. Dhermi.”

“I am thankful for family away from family.” ­– Tyler

It’s been nearly four months since I last posted. Then, cherries were just disappearing from the markets. Now, mandarins a just appearing. The events described above are bracketed between these two seasonal fruits. They illustrate how my life has progressed from the last of the cherries to first of the mandarins. A lot is left out from the telling. Something that cannot be, is the passing of both my grandparents – my grandmother on November 4th, and my grandfather on the 13th, nine days later. On the face of it, this is a sad story. But it’s more than that at its heart. It’s the end to a beautiful love story – one I have attempted to retell (visit the Short Stories tab to read more about it).

For them I add this addendum: I am thankful for Harriet J. Strauss and Howard E. Strauss. I am thankful that life goes on. I am thankful that cherries come and go and that other delicious fruits replace their absence and are replaced again upon their own departure. I am thankful that cherries will come again. It is their absence that makes their return that much sweeter. Unfortunately, the cyclical nature of fruit does not mirror the reality of human life. My grandparents won’t return as miraculously or as sweetly as the cherries. They won’t return at all. But they will live on in my memory. And that memory will be as sweet as the first cherry of summer.

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Farewell mandarins. Mirë se vini apples. Come again cherries.

Here’s some pictures:

Antigonea National Park Group Foto Backdrop Cookie Party DSC_0019 DSC_0026 DSC_0028 DSC_0041 DSC_0059 DSC_0078 DSC_0096 DSC_0104 DSC_0105 DSC_0218 DSC_0220 DSC_0227 DSC_0238 DSC_0244 DSC_0255 DSC_0289 DSC_0296 DSC_0303 DSC_0325 DSC_0345 DSC_0387 DSC_0388 DSC_0423 DSC_0430 DSC_0439 DSC_0440 DSC_0444 DSC_0452 DSC_0469 DSC_0489 DSC_0494 DSC_0517 DSC_0522 DSC_0863 DSC_0864 DSC_0869 DSC_0874 DSC_0897 DSC_0905 DSC_0913 DSC_0920 DSC_0966 DSC_0967 DSC_0976 DSC_0981 DSC_0986 DSC_0987 DSC_0990 DSC_0993 DSC_0995 Falalalala Family Foto Grubbin Leskovik Pamje Looking Out Mandarin Eating Contest Me and Emily MUN Team OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Popi

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2 thoughts on “From Cherries to Mandarins

  1. Alex

    No pics of Valbona-Thethi? You gotta go back!

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