RED Adventures on a Black and White

As any crazy scheme originates as a simple thought in the mind of the tight-rope-balancing, thin-ice-walking among us; so too was our adventure born and later expressed in less-than-poetic fashion – “dude, I wanna go on a bike trip”. It’s happened to me before. Becoming wrapped up in their fervent, insane desire to push the envelope. I ran the 2011 Space Coast Marathon after a “yeah, that’d be cool” to a “we should run a marathon”. I bicycled from Empire, Colorado to Yellowstone National Park in 2013 with my brother because the idea of long-distance cycling had been so romanticized in my mind from the stories our parents told of their cycling adventures. If all the bandwagonning, cliff jumping, and occasional daredeveling reveals anything, it is that I am impressionable and at times easily persuaded to push the boundaries of my physical abilities in the pursuit of an experience, and for the sake of a good story. Though I can’t say much of the retelling, my time on two wheels through Croatia definitely makes for the latter and was certainly a hell of the former.

Prelude: Blending In

Euro-trashy was the look we were going for. Wide, frosted-tipped mohawks with double racing stripes. The local barber in Milot hooked us up with a blended pheauhawk look that took on the appearance of a duck’s ass. It worked well enough. A dollar fifty box of blond hair dye, two plastic bags, a pencil, and a couple toothpicks facilitated the rest of the transformation. We woke up early the next morning scared of our own reflection, but ready for our eight-day adventure on bicycles through Croatia. Though, we still had a lot of ground to cover on four wheels before we got on two. We hitched a ride to Shkodër to meet up with my friend and coworker, Jon, who had agreed to give us a ride across the border to Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro). It was to be the most pleasant and relaxing part of the journey.

Frosted Tips

Frosted Tips

In Podgorica we left our bags at the hostel to do a bit of exploring. The city didn’t have much to offer as the capital of a European city, but we bought a couple beers and relaxed along a riverbank, soaking up the sun and taking a dip now and then to cool off. That night we took an extended walk in the downtown area, observing the nightlife scene as scientists would a gathering of apes – keenly interested, but wary of joining in. In fact, many of the males we observed may have given a silverback a run for its money in a one-on-one confrontation. Montenegrin men are monstrously large human specimen. Many of them dwarfed my 6’4’’, 210 lbs constitution. It was perhaps the longest I have ever felt the need to stand up straight – the Napoleon complex in me surreptitiously activated as I passed by men seemingly taller than me sitting down.

The next morning, opting to hitch rather than take the 25 Euro bus to Dubrovnik, we set out at dawn with our thumbs in the air. By the time we had reached the outskirts of the city, we happened upon a small van that charged only 6 Euros to Budva. It began raining heavily, and we were happy not to be caught in the storm, but sad that our coastal view had been so sadly obscured. Arriving hours later, we again opted to take a bus as the rain had not let up. We got as far as Herceg Novi, a town only about ten kilometers from the Montenegro-Croatia border. The sun was out, and we struck out again with high hopes of landing a free ride across the border. An hour and a half later we had trekked through the narrow urban streets covering the full distance between the North and South ends of the city.

Just before losing hope, an RV pulled to the side of the road and we hastily sidled up to the passenger window. “Where you guys headed?” After a brief exchange we were invited it. Flow and his girlfriend Ella were an Austrian couple half-way through their six-month excursion through Eastern and parts of Western Europe. So far, they had made it around Austria, through the Slavic countries in route to Turkey, and were now headed North through the Balkans, having already passed through Albania, albeit briefly. They had picked up a two-week-old kitten in Turkey, and had smuggled it across numerous borders; having expressed slight reservations about picking us up less our presence elicit unwanted attention from the Croatian border police. Their “shit tank”, as Flow referred to it, was full, and they promptly apologized for the smell, which was horrendous. Nevertheless, the odorsome ride and interesting conversation was much preferred to the open air of the street-side curb and confounded mental DJ playing single-verse theme songs to accompany our previously unsuccessful hitchhiking endeavor. As entertainment, Flow stimulated the clandestine kitten’s penis as he explained how doing so would prevent the helpless animal from urinating on itself, thus sparing them the job of bathing the little hairball. The border crossing turned out to be smooth sailing, and the young couple seemed relieved at having secured safe passage for their tiny pet with an uncontrollable bladder. And, we were relieved to have secured a ride to Dubrovnik. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad ride, though we were somewhat disappointed to be dropped off on the outskirts of the city as they turned into a nearby RV park, most likely to empty that “shit tank” of theirs.

Rather than walking, we elected to wait for the city bus – another 45 minutes to add to our already time-costly trip. We were lucky enough to catch the five-o’clock bus to Split from Dubrovnik. The bus went up the spectacular Southern coast; effectively introducing us to what would be the next five days of our biking adventure. Expecting as much, and exhausted from a long day of walking, we shut our eyes to the many spectacular sun-set views which accompanied our 20 Euro bus ride to Split. We arrived very late, having saved only 6 Euros, and having lost more than 6 hours. We checked in to the hostel, grabbed a bite to eat, and managed to meet up with the guys we were renting the bikes from before calling it a night and getting some much needed sleep.

The Beginning 

Dejan and Drazen are the kind of guys you might expect to find in a start-up company like RED Adventures – Relax, Explore, Discover (RED). A dynamic duo of outdoor enthusiasts who somehow found a way to make money from doing what they love. That is, cycling, kayaking, rock climbing, wind surfing, and all the rest. Except for the paperwork, I suspect that work rarely feels like work to them. Their company, which they started only a couple of years ago, has a small, personal feel. They do both self-guided and guided tours, and handle everything from equipment rental, drop-off and pick-up, trip planning, and general support. When we arrived the next morning, Drazen was there to send us off.

Link to RED Adventures website.

They had us set up with brand new Merida Cross 10 hybrid bicycles. They were black and white with lock-out capable front suspension, seat suspension, and beefy 29’ tires. If it hadn’t been for our differing tastes in bike shorts, we may have appeared to be either differently proportioned unidentical twins or a gay couple outed by our matching bicycles and frosted-tipped mohawks. I, of course, preferred my bibs, which I had sent from home. When shirtless, they gave me the appearance of a 1920’s bare-knuckle boxer. Luke, still undergoing withdrawals caused by the recent departure of our good friend Karl, opted to wear his shorts in commemoration, which were passed down to him as a parting gift. When shirtless, Luke appeared a top-heavy hunk of rock, unfairly chiseled in a broad V-shape. We both looked like idiots wearing diapers. Or, as Dejan would later put it, “nudist bikers”.

We were fully equipped upon leaving their small, glass-paned office – two bicycles, a small tool kit, extra tubes, a bike pump, rear panniers, bike computers to track our speed and distance, and a detailed map of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia with our route highlighted in bright pink. They even lent us a local SIM card for our phones so that we could keep in touch with them in case we needed anything. It was agreed that in eight days, they would drive to the capital, Zagreb, to pick up the bikes and to drop off our backpacks, which we had left with them along with everything we thought we wouldn’t need on the trip. They took a picture of our passports and sent us on our way. We felt as though we had made out like bandits, not having spent a dime on any sort of down payment, rental insurance, or for the eight-day rental of the bikes. They hadn’t even taken our credit card information. Supposing we would pay up at a later date, we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and crossed the street to pick up some snacks at a whole-sale health foods store. The trip had officially begun.

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Ready To Go

It was late in the day to be starting our first leg of the journey, and we still had to make it out of the city. We were looking for the old national highway which ran adjacent to the new one in order to avoid the big semi-trucks and generally faster pace of traffic. But, the parallel roads proved much more difficult to discern in reality than they had on the map. After an hour or so of searching, we ended up following an old set of railroad tracks through a rail yard before happening upon the old coastal highway we had been looking for. We settled into our high gears and left the city behind. Before too long we had reached the historic island town of Trogir. With our shirts off, we toured the cobble-stone streets, weaving between the old churches, cathedral towers, and shopping districts as shameless foreigners with the feigned interest of a couple of jocks stuck in an art-history course on a hot summer day. Our true aim – ice cream, and a nap. Next door to the Kamerlengo castle was a gelato stand, and having eaten our fill, we laid down beneath a shady tree on the manicured lawn of the 15th century fortress and napped under the disparate rays of the Adriatic sun.

Nap Time

Nap Time

Smart campers would, by now, have started thinking about setting up camp. But the days were long, and we still had another couple hours of daylight and a couple dozen kilometers more to go to make up for our late start and hour-and-a-half mid-day respite. Around the 50 kilometer mark, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Primošten came into view. Doubting there would be opportunities to camp in or around the city, we ventured into an olive grove buried deep in the hillside forests overlooking the tied-island of Primošten. The forest though, had not provided us a flat, earthy space to set up camp. Strangely enough, the forest seemed fertilized not by soil, but by a great heap of stones. Our exploration had been an inopportune waste of time. The sun had set, and we had only another 20 minutes or so before the residual light of the sun would be replaced with darkness.

Out of the forest and perhaps only a kilometer or so down the road, we happened upon a vacant concrete slab just off the highway which provided us both a perfect place to set up camp, and a wonderful view of the city and sea. The slab was clearly an abandoned construction site. It concealed us halfheartedly behind a line of bushes. But as we undressed and set up camp, a number of cars and buses pulled aside to take pictures of the deep red backdrop of the horizon. The red soon turned a dark purple, and we were left out in the dark. Since we hadn’t eaten anything and had no food packed for dinner, we threw on our lights and struck out again on the bikes to grab a bite to eat in town. The bikes felt a thousand times lighter, and the night air felt refreshing as we coasted down the mountain towards the seaside city. There we ate and had a few beers on the beach before ascending back to our campsite atop the hill. We slept under the stars. Day one was over.

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The Middle

By the time we made it out of our sleeping bags, the sun had been up for hours. The view from our concrete slab was breathtaking, which explained why busloads of foreigners would unload there almost every five minutes. Out of spite, I decided to undress to air out a little before slipping into my bike bibs for the day. My naked splotchy sunburnt frame acted as a deterrent, at least for a while, from the swarms of tourists unloading to take pictures. Though the next bus load seemed not to notice us as they made their way in and between our camp – their view-finders acting as peripheral blinders that effectively blocked us from sight. We left promptly afterward, leaving Primošten behind to be captured in spectacular digital form in the SD cards of a thousand more DSLR cameras.

Our asses were a little sore, but we were really moving. We arrived in Sibenik around noon, but we were misdirected and had to backtrack 15 kilometers or so were we stopped for lunch and an ocean front nap on the grassy lawn of a brick-laid academic building. By the time we struck out again, a strong headwind had formed which battered us relentlessly backward even as we struggled against it. The road had taken us away from the coast and further inland, but as the day wore on into the evening, we veered off towards the inlet of Tribunj, which was the first of a small string of islands. There we found a flat piece of land near the water facing an old looking church just across the shallow bay. As the day signaled its end with an offering of a deep, blood-red sky, we peered into our fire, finished our humble meal of frank and beans, ripped a few, and settled once again into our side-by-side, head-to-toe formation inside the tent.

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The next morning we set out from Tribunj without breakfast, hoping to find a grocery store once we got off the isthmus. We hadn’t gotten the best of sleep and we proceeded to go through the motions of tearing down camp, repacking our bags, and gearing up in complete silence. It wasn’t that we were annoyed with one another, but we each had a mission, and we were each dead set on achieving it – finding food. Motivated by our hunger, and without a store in sight, we pushed through 25 kilometers in no time. When we finally came to a store, mastication seemed to loosen our jaws enough to enable speech, and we laughed about how we had arrived so quickly and silently to our first destination.

Restocked and refueled, we continued at our earlier pace until just before mid-day, when we stopped for a swim along an abandoned beachfront. There we found a rickety old dock and made some waves off of it. The water felt great and we stayed there for approximately two hours before drying off and suiting up to continue our monotonous journey on two wheels. The monotony continued uninterrupted except for a brief respite for lunch. Already 50-plus kilometers in, we decided to shoot for the island of Pag, some 45 kilometers away, making for our longest day yet.

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The tendinitis in my left knee remerged with a vengeance – an old war wound from a previous bike trip with my brother across the continental divide. The pain was intense, and the only way I could abate it was by pushing as hard as I could and maintaining a slow, high-geared cadence. As we pushed along, we came to the bridge of the island, adjacent to which rested an ancient cliff-side castle along a natural sea-jetty. To our left was open sea, and to the right, separated by a narrow sliver of sea, were the mountains we would soon have to climb over once we crossed the island. There we stopped to take in the view, and enjoy some cold ice cream.

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When Pag finally came into view, I was nearly at tears from the knee pain. I had popped a few Ibuprofen which hadn’t done much to subside the stomach-turning sensation I experienced with every rotation of the pedals. Nevertheless, we cruised into town and found a place to lock up the bikes as we explored, grabbed a couple beers, and enjoyed a bite to eat. Our enjoyment was a little too long lived; however, and we ended up searching until dark for a place to camp, finally finding a swampish, mosquito infested area to inhabit behind an old meat warehouse. It was already dark as we tried in vain to sleep through the balmy, sticky, itchy night ahead.

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The sun’s heat had manifested into sauna-like temperatures early on, and we awoke sore and sweating after a pitiful night’s sleep amongst the tiny-winged creatures of the marsh. As we packed up to leave, a shepherd passed by with his flock and greeted us warmly. A short conversation ensued with neither parties understanding a single word the other spoke, but somehow comprehending the meaning each evoked. We grabbed breakfast at the local supermarket before crossing the shallow bay and beginning our fist ascent of what would be a long day of steep ascents. It was hotter than it had been on any previous day. Our asses were sore from the saddles, and tendentious had now crippled the both of us.

Somehow we pushed through the pain. The long, tough climbs were made much easier with the promise of downhill reciprocation. We milked those 6 – 12 kilometer descents for all they were worth. Our emotions corresponded with their typography, and every time we regretted having begun this adventure, we would quickly and gloriously experience a change of heart. I cannot describe the joy of bombing down a mountain with the wind in your face and the Adriatic Sea stretching out beneath you, as if providing a protective net in the event that you might be tragically misdirected off the side of the two-lane cliff side highway. By noon, we had ascended three difficult passes, each over 500 meters in elevation change. The sun was merciless along that road – a completely barren strip of asphalt. But the worst was yet to come.

Our last descent took us right to the end of the island, where it would have marked a disheartening turn-around point in our journey if it hadn’t been for the ferry. As all the other passengers hung off the railings of the boat to enjoy the fresh sea air, Luke and I occupied the air-conditioned cabin and attempted to take a nap on the soft, padded benches. The ferry crossing took much less time than we had expected; however, and we were soon dispatched again on solid ground where there awaited dozens of vehicles packed with summer vacationers and college partiers who had congregated to receive passage to the very place we had just departed.

Worse than being confronted by the fact that we had clearly missed out on what we presumed would probably have been a really good time, we were now, once again a very long way from the top of a very tall mountain. It would be our worst climb yet. We were popping Ibuprofen like drug addicts and sweating like we were experiencing withdrawals. I’ve blocked out how long it took to reach the top, but it must have been close to two hours of straight climbing. The view from the top was spectacular and we felt incredibly accomplished for how far we had come despite the hard day of climbing. Unfortunately, no equivalent descent awaited us, and we continued high above the glistening ocean as our hunger grew with every rotation of the pedals.

Eventually we arrived at a gas station where we fueled up on snickers bars, cold water, and nuts. We sat on a bench across the road that was shaded by a single pine tree. It was the only shade we had come by since the ferry crossing. Happy to have found a place with food and a little shade, we made out for the city of Senj – our last coastal town before turning inland. Soon we passed by a series of restaurants and kicked ourselves for settling for roadside snacks rather than holding out for a legitimate meal. We continued to climb until finally, the road dropped off before us as if we had reached the top of a roller coaster. But on this ride, there was no loop-ti-loop to save our momentum and so we continued our dead drop for 10 – 12 kilometers before flattening out along the banks of the Adriatic Sea. With Senj in sight, we pulled into a beautifully situated RV camp, set up the tent and hammock, washed our clothes in the outdoor sink, went for a swim, ate dinner, had a beer, watched the sunset, and went to sleep. It was our first night apart.

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The next morning was brisk. We packed up and left camp without paying (there was no attendant at the gate, but we admittedly didn’t try very hard to find anyone). Our last ride along the coast was a relaxing, cool 10 kilometers that took us straight into Senj. In town we grabbed some breakfast from the grocery store and sat down to eat along the docks of the harbor. The sea air felt great, and we grew nostalgic of our time on the coast, especially since we knew our trip inland would begin abruptly with our highest climb yet. In fact, the city itself lay at its base. It would be straight up for the next two hours. In anticipation of this, we stopped by a pharmacy to restock our by now depleted reserve of Ibuprofen.

This day, our fifth, would be Luke’s worst in terms of knee pain. The climbing certainly didn’t help things, but he grunted it out without complaining. It was a more gradual rise than any of the passes we had summited previously, but the end result was 700 meters in elevation change. An old abandoned hotel sat at the top, and we traversed our way around the overgrown and damaged parts onto the second floor balcony where we granted ourselves an extended snack break as a reward for our tiresome efforts. It had been a rewarding experience. The view from the abandoned hotel balcony offered us our last view of the ocean, and we simply sat there for a while to take it all in.

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We had heard that inland Croatia was not very beautiful. But as we bombed down the other side of the pass, it became clear that one could not objectively compare two so different things. Moreover, comparing anything to Croatia’s coast is a good way to belittle that thing being compared. However, the rolling valleys and bucolic scenery which filled our field of vision on that ride down offered a promise of beauty still to come. Eventually, we leveled out onto the valley below where the road was aptly shaded and provided us an interesting change of scenery. We ate lunch in the beautiful river town of Otocac, inhaled a beer and pizza each, and immediately became very sleepy. It would be a very slow, hot, tiring 40 kilometers before deciding on a spot to camp.

We had chosen a nice looking spot atop a small grassy hill in a large rolling valley beset by mountains on all sides. In the distance we saw a paraglider descending into a field. It was a truly beautiful evening, and we were happy to be out in the middle of nowhere, away from the hustle and bustle of the coast. We had made it just to the outskirts of Plitvice national park and went to bed happy with our progress thus far. It was much more humid in the valley, which quickly manifested into dew overnight and drenched my hammock. Though it wasn’t particularly cold, the wetness chilled me to the bone. Out of desperation I crawled back into the tent with Luke, where it was much warmer and much dryer. The hammock never made a reappearance.

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In the morning we made some oatmeal as we dried our wet gear in the morning sun. We set out around nine and quickly found ourselves inside the national park. With the wind at our backs we were cruising almost effortlessly into the heart of the park, where we hoped to unload our bikes and find a good place to nap. The map showed at least two passes along the way. In no time we had made it to the top of what was supposed to be our first climb. We had noticed a possible shortcut on the map that appeared to be just after the summit. Thinking the turn would come soon after our precarious decent, we set off down an 8% grade and covered a quarter of the park’s perimeter highway in less than five minutes. It was awesome! And, it was the first lucky break we had had – having come up the short side of the mountain and down the long side. Unfortunately, we had also missed the shortcut. Looking back over our shoulders, there was no way we were turning back now. So, we continued along the perimeter highway towards our next climb, which we could have easily avoided by taking the shortcut. We weren’t hopeful of having similar luck with this second mountain as we had had with the first. Luckily, the second pass was just as easy, with the longer, steeper side being the side we went down instead of up.

Soon we had made it to the Plitvice lakes. We changed, put our bags in the luggage room of the hotel, locked up our bikes, and made our way down to the lakes where we grabbed some lunch, a couple beers, and found a nice shaded grassy area where we soon passed out in our own drool. Around three o’clock, I forced myself to wake up. The Plitvice waterfalls are an unbelievably unique sight to behold, and as we had only another couple hours or so to kill before we would have to set out again, I wanted to have some time to see them. Luke was still sleeping, so I set off by myself to explore. No words can describe what I saw. Essentially, the interior of the park is a series of lakes separated on different levels, each spilling over into one another via hundreds of cascading waterfalls and streams. It was the single most uniquely beautiful place I have ever seen.

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Luke and I met back up at the hotel after about two hours. I had been waiting in the lobby for at least thirty minutes or so, attempting to put out what had turned into a raging fire, originating from my failure to transfer funds to my checking account and over drafting as a result. It was a slight misstep that was interpreted by my parents as the trailer of some disaster movie. As I had not been able to check my e-mail for a couple days and was generally unaware of what had happened, my parents had called Peace Corps, Peace Corps had called the agency we had rented the bikes from, and when I finally did check my e-mail, it was flooded with messages from all three parties who had gathered together to form an impromptu search and rescue party. With that fire put out, we changed back into our bicycle gear, packed up, and got back on the road around six o’clock or so.

Not too far out of the park we found a town where we had dinner and soon came across a lovely public park where we eventually set up camp. The next day; however, we realized that it was in fact the back side of an enormous RV park, complete with showers, toilets, and a place to fill up our water bottles. We left this park the same as we left the first one – without paying. We had now made a habit of our outlawry. And, in that spirit, we got the hell out of Dodge. Our final destination was Karlovac, about 70 kilometers away. By one o’clock we had made it there, covering the distance of our entire first day in roughly three hours. There, Luke persuaded me to eat McDonalds against my better judgment. I must say though, those two McDoubles and Snickers McFlurry really hit the spot. As if to put the cherry on top of our gluttony, we bought a couple beers to enjoy as we laid down again under the shade of a willow tree to enjoy a long, deep nap, no doubt looking like two homeless men who had recently come to acquire a matching pair of bicycles.

Luke had popped a tire just before coming to our nap spot and we devoted some time to fixing it upon waking from our mutual slumber. Next we found an internet café, where I soon realized the fire I had put out was not as yet extinguished. Finally, after proverbially urinating over the embers of my erroneous figurative campfire, we set out to explore. Eventually we had dinner, ate some ice cream, and snuck back into the public park to find a secluded place to set up camp. Our best bet was a spot that offered the greatest cover, but that as a result was also clearly a frequented shit site for joggers who found themselves without any other option. It was smelly and mosquito infested, but despite the stench and circumstances of our camp site, I had grown to really love the town itself.

The End

The next morning, we fueled up again at McDonalds, this time shoveling down two bacon egg and cheese biscuits, along with the compulsory Snickers McFlurry. The capital, Zagreb, was only 50 kilometers North East of our current location. Our last leg of the trip flashed by in an instant, and we reached the city center by eleven o’clock, still with plenty of time to explore the city. We arrived at our hostel, cleaned ourselves up, and elected for another long nap. I noticed, sometime later, a serendipitous Facebook post by my former grad school roommate who we had planned to meet up with in Sarajevo the next day, but who had apparently decided to visit Zagreb and had in fact been there for some time. Luke and I eventually made it out of bed to explore the city, having agreed to meet up with my other buddy, Tyler, later in the evening. We ended up spotting him cruising down Zagreb’s nicely paved streets on his skateboard and were pleasantly reunited. That night, our Croatian friends from RED Adventures showed up to confiscate their mud-speckled black and white bicycles they had rented to us and, after some convincing, the money we owned them. Our journey had come to an end. It now exists only in our memories, and in the words on this page.

Epilogue: Blurry and Hazy

The weeks and months that followed our trip are all a blur. Luke, Tyler, and I ended up spending three days in Sarajevo, mostly confined to our friend-of-a-friend’s apartment, enjoying the luxury of not having to do anything and resting our legs. Then, after enduring more than twenty hours on a bus through Bosnia and Kosovo, we had made it back home to Albania. Tyler and I crashed with Luke up in Bajrum Curri for a day, and then gradually made our way down south to Gjirokastër. It was great having Tyler with me, and having the opportunity to show someone from back home what my life has been like for the past year. I’m afraid though, that I wore him out. I too was worn out, and by the time he left, I made a promise to myself to stay in site for a while. It was good to be back.

Strangely enough, my return coincided with the Albanian government’s showdown with the armed cannabis drug-lords of Lazarat. The entire ordeal was a spectacle to withhold, but thankfully, not much of a fight. The government troops easily overwhelmed a small force of inadequately armed teenagers who had attempted briefly to keep their attackers at bay. Over the next couple of days, the government burned thousands of tons of marijuana, the smell wafting over to nearby Gjirokastër and inundating the nostrils of its residents. If there was such a thing as second-hand-high, we all certainly would have been.

Since that time I have kept my promise to myself, with the exception of attending a mandatory Peace Corps sponsored training in Tirana in mid-July. However, I must now relinquish myself of being obliged to that promise. Today, I set off to visit by brother, sister, and brother from another mother in Italy. I’ll try my best to follow up on that trip in a much more timely fashion than I’ve done with this one.

Here are some more pictures:

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Plugs, Racing Stripes, And The Dawn Of A New Era

If I may, allow me to shamelessly plug two of my forthcoming Peace Corps projects. Feel free to skip this section if you feel so inclined.

1. Outdoor Ambassadors Summer Camp

Outdoor Ambassadors (OA) is a Peace Corps Albania initiative engaging youth across the country in environmental awareness and leadership development. Every year, a week long summer camp is organized for high school students which focuses on building leadership skills and raising environmental awareness. If you come to Albania, I’m sure you will be struck by the blatant disregard for the environment. People litter without a second thought, tossing everything from batteries to mattresses either on the ground, in the rivers, or in one of the informal dump sites located around most Albanian cities. Mining and clear-cutting occur unregulated. Urban development is similarly unchecked. Without the necessary regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in place, it is clear that change will be gradual. Gradual change begets a future generation of environmentally conscious and responsible adults, which is why OA is focused on building the capacity of Albania’s youth in both environmentalism and leadership.

OA’s 2014 Summer Camp will be held sometime in late August or early September. As a member of the national committee, I have been charged with soliciting funding for the camp. The committee and I have opened a Peace Corps Partnership Grant (PCPG) which draws on small donations from PCV networks, including friends and family. If you’re interested in helping out, shoot me an email and I’ll follow up with you. My contact information is listed on the main sidebar of this page. We’re also interested in soliciting third-party donors, so if you’re aware of a company, NGO, or other charitable institution interested in youth development and environmentalism, please let me know. If you’re not interested in contributing financially, consider donating your used camping equipment. We’re always interested in adding new equipment to our operating inventory of tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and sports equipment in order to expand our reach to more students and to more OA clubs.

2. Tell the Story of Gjirokastra

Tell the Story of Gjirokastra (TSG) is a cultural heritage interpretation project engaging key community members in the process of learning about and investing in the city’s unique cultural heritage. The crux of the project is a poster competition for high school students in which they will attempt to “Tell the Story of Gjirokastra” through art. Contestants will be enrolled in three courses, (1) Painting and Drawing, (2) Photography, and (3) Creative Writing. Through these and other supplemental courses and community interviews, students will prepare their final posters for the competition. Winners will be decided based on the students’ ability to creatively and appropriately convey the unique history and heritage of Gjirokastra.

My counterpart and I have just been approved for funding of up to $4,000 to implement the project. As with the environmental problems in Albania, so too is Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage slowly deteriorating and being lost. The project is an attempt to reacquaint the younger generations with their own cultural heritage so that they may become better stewards of the city’s cultural monuments and intangible traditions in the future. Though the funding we have acquired almost completely covers the projects main components, we are still in need of good cameras for the photography course. The cameras would be used by students to learn hands-on photography skills and to take photographs for their poster projects. If you’re aware of a company, NGO, or other charitable institution interested in youth development and photography, please let me know. We are also accepting personal camera donations. If you’re interested in helping out, shoot me an email.

With that out of the way, let’s depart from such blatant solicitation and get to the good stuff. Or, at least the stuff that won’t make you feel obligated to empty your pockets when you read it. 

A quick recap of the last couple of months might go something like this: hike over the mountains to the beach, new iPad, birthday celebration, Group 17 arrives, racing stripes, dodgeball, and a final farewell. In between, work on various projects, language acquisition, and community integration. But, more on that later. For now, our story begins with a single pair of microbiological underwear and eight Snickers bars.

Their tag line is something like; “20 Countries, 6 Months, 1 Pair of Underwear”. I was hooked. I bought three thinking, “this should cover me for the next year and a half”. Almost a year and a couple washes later, there I was cramming into a van packed with nine other volunteers about to set out on a two day hike over the mountains and to the coast. I had my trusty underwear, eight Snickers bars, and a few other essentials. I don’t want you to think that the hike seemed so daunting to us, as it was only a two day hike, the first third of which ended up being on paved road. But considering the fact that none of us had any idea how to get to Point B from wherever we were, it seemed somehow expeditionary.

In fact, it was. After the paved road, the way forward ceased being strictly intuitive. At one point, we navigated down a treacherous ravine demarcated by large boulders and a trickling stream. That may have been my favorite section of the hike, hopping from boulder to boulder in the spirit of a ten year old boy exploring the empty riverbed behind his house. We camped out for a night in the cold of the high southern mountains, bundled up and exhausted from the steep descent. The next day we took the riverbed to the base of the mountain village of Kuqe (“Red” in Albanian). There we stopped for lunch, depleting my once fully stocked supply of Snickers bars. We ascended the steep mountain, catching a ride with a flat-bed truck halfway to the top. There we decided to forgo the rest of the hike to the sea, and to take advantage of a local driver’s offer to take us to the sea side town of Borshe. From there, we hitchhiked further north to Himare, were we stayed the night with one of the volunteers there.

The next morning I set out with my thumb in the air for Tirana, the capital city. My parents had bought me a new iPad for my birthday, but the package had been held up in customs. I had been told the import tax would be $167, roughly 20% of the estimated value of the package. I needed to go to the customs office to pick up the package and pay the fine. I caught a few rides, no more than a couple miles at a time. Along the way I witnessed a funeral procession. As the body was being lowered, the older women began to wail in ceremonial fashion, which I took more as a sign of reverence than as a sincere expression of grief. Finally, I was picked up by a couple guys who agreed to take me to Vlore. From there I knew I could catch a bus to Tirana. The driver ended up being a police officer. He told me that if I ever needed anything, I should be sure to let me know. We stopped at a favorite restaurant of his, and he bought me a wonderful meal. I offered to pay, but he lifted his shirt in a playful manner to flash his gun, effectively refuting the very mention of it.

In Tirana, I was set up with a driver from the Peace Corps office. The plan was for him to negotiate the release of my package, without incurring the full amount of the stated tax. I thought it an unlikely scenario. Though when we met with the very friendly lady in charge, she agreed to release the package for 50 lek (about 50 cents) on the grounds that the driver return with the necessary paperwork indicating that I am a volunteer, and that the contents of the package would be used to further my volunteer work here. It was a rare, pleasant experience operating within the enigmatic cacophony that is Albania’s bureaucracy. The iPad has since proved its worth as something deserving of a $167 import tax, on which I am currently writing these words. Thanks again Mom and Dad!

The next weekend something like twenty people converged in my apartment to celebrate my birthday and to introduce a few of the new trainees from Group 17 to some of the volunteers from the preceding groups. The new group arrived just over a month ago now. I had the pleasure of meeting the rest of them the following week when I delivered a presentation on tourism and cultural preservation in Albania. They seem to be a positive and well experienced group of people, with interesting personal and working backgrounds. The day after my presentation, I went with a friend to get a haircut, and just for fun, racing stripes.

Cun Cuts Side Profile Cun Cuts with Barber

I would return the following weekend to fulfill the tradition of Sports Day, this time sporting a more “racy” look. Sports Day offered the opportunity for Group 16 to initiate Group 17 into the brotherhood of Peace Corps Albania. In less-than-classy fashion, we proceeded to hurl volleyballs at one another in a spirited game of dodgeball. In the deciding match, I alone was left to defend the title of my group, matched up against almost ten members of the opposing team. I managed to peg off a few of their best before a soft lob from the most unlikely of dodgeballers floated my way. With the intention of catching it, I managed to thwart a glorious comeback victory as the ball bounced off my fingers and struck me firmly in the face. The strike may as well have been an arrow to my pride, but I quickly sucked it up, shook hands with the victors, and went off to join them for a couple beers.

With the arrival of the new group, marks the departure of the old. It also marks the beginning of a new era. The era in which we are no longer the protégés but the wholly unprepared mentors. We will be charged with nurturing the class behind us, as we were nurtured by those before us. Though as I bid farewell to those who are leaving, I can’t help but feel unworthy in filling the void they will surely create in departing. I can take comfort; however, in knowing that they will fill past the brim the many voids which await them somewhere out there beyond the jagged red lines of the Land of Eagles. I wish them nothing but happiness and success in whatever they do, and extend to them a grand “thank you” from the heart.

For now I remain behind to look after the seeds I have sewn. In the next two weeks I will be assisting with my organizations bi-annual regional restoration camp in Gjirokastra. Thirty architecture students from around Albania and the Balkans will be working on three separate restoration projects in the city. In the meantime, I will be working with my counterparts on a community survey to assess the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, and practices of monument owners in order to gain a better understanding of why and how these owners make decisions about household interventions. The information we collect will hopefully give us some insight into how and why Gjirokastra’s historic monuments continue to be illegally remodeled by their owners. From there we can take steps towards addressing and reducing this endemic problem.

In conclusion, I leave you with a very brief lesson in Albanian toasting:

Step 1. Say, “Gëzuar”, which means cheers (pronounced “guh-zoo-R”, “guh” as in the “g” in “grape”).

Step 2. Hold out your glass, clinking against the glasses of all those in your party.

Step 3. Attempt to look everyone in the eye as you touch glasses with those in your party.

Step 4. Drink.

Step 5. Repeat very often, or anytime there is a lull in the conversation.

 

Here are some pictures:

Freezing Off Group Hike by the River Group Hike Cobani Group Hike Photo 2 Group Hike Photo 3 Group Hike Photo Group HIke Van Group Hike with Emily Group HIke with Stella Group Hike Village Frisbee Game Who's the Dummy

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Albania Year One

March 18th marked the anniversary of my coming to Albania. For a year now, I have spent my days suspended in the time-space-continuum, standing still, only to escape this petrified state upon the time machine that is Lufthansa Airlines, and only upon my return to the land where time moves its fastest – as if making up for its stillness elsewhere – the United States of America. Of course, this is a lie. In the last year I have been running like a sprinter supplanted into a marathon race. Or, perhaps it has been more like a marathon runner in a sprint – meandering at a comfortable pace as if he were setting off on a long journey, but whose journey would inevitably end much sooner than he expected. Either way, the year I have spent here has not been what I suspect many of you have imagined it to be. If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes. And though I am off in some obscure, far-away land, away from my former life, time does not stand still for me. I am not suspended but in full motion.

In the last year, I have learned a new language. I have befriended new people. I have come to appreciate another culture much different than my own. I have made millions of mistakes, and I have learned from all of them. Though many perceive Peace Corps as an altruistic organization, I know that its members gain much more from the experience than they could ever hope to give in return. The same is true for me. I have been humbled. I have been quieted. And, I have learned so much more about myself than I thought there was to be learned. To those of you who say, “but two years is such a long time,” I say, “it can seem that way, but you have to spend it somewhere.” Any moment in life is an opportunity. A year or two in a long life is but a moment, and as I intend to live a long life, I hope to take full advantage of the opportunity this moment has provided.

This video chronicles my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. It’s missing many of the down, quite moments. And, though a video can say 1000 times as many words as a photo, it is inadequate in capturing the full experience. Though, for those of you who cannot imagine the range my experiences in Albania, I hope it can offer a tiny glimpse into my life in the Land of Eagles.

Part I: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6FrqDYf2GQ

Part II: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUvg3lipn5

_____________________________________________________________

A post-script:

Peace Corps describes the emotional life cycle of PCVs as a roller coaster ride, complete with its ups and downs, twists and turns, nose dives, and loop-ti-loops. If the analogy holds true, than I must be at the very beginning; where the coaster rounds the bend, and begins it’s slow climb upward – tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. The preparation I have done thus far has set me up for this slow climb, and I feel that it is beginning to gain momentum. The last six months especially have set me up for the rest of my service. In that time, I worked closely with a team of nine high school students in preparation for Albania’s national Model United Nations (MUN) conference. If you’re unfamiliar with MUN, it is essentially what it sounds like – a simulation of the United Nations. These mock conferences are held all over the world, and cater to different age groups. On February 13th, 121 Albanian students from 14 schools around the country convened in the capital to compete in the 5th Albanian MUN conference. Team members acted as delegates representing their respective country, debating topics relating to major world issues (i.e. Nuclear Disarmament and Development, The Crisis in Syria, and Human Rights of Migrants).

I did MUN in college. The conference was held in New York City at the Marriot hotel. Almost 200 schools were in attendance, including Brigham Young University and Kings College. After a week of debating, my school earned the highest award of “Double Outstanding”, sharing the top spot with only ten other schools. Though challenging, that experience made a lasting impact on me, building my confidence and opening my eyes to the world of politics as it is practiced on the international level. I believe the experience was equally cathartic for my students. The educational system in Albania is boxy. Creativity in education is not widely practiced, but opportunities like MUN offer something both new and different, and prove that learning can be a lot of fun. As a huge proponent of MUN, I have been selected to be the coordinator of Albania’s 6th MUN conference. In the coming year I will be working with a steering committee comprised of Peace Corps staff, the Albanian American Development Foundation (AADF), the Ministry of Education, the US Embassy, and the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Albania. Running this conference will inevitably be a major part of my Peace Corps service, providing the opportunity to have an impact at the national level.

Other than MUN, I have been involved in a variety of other projects. Just last week my counterpart and I submitted a Small Projects Assistance (SPA) grant for $4,000. If approved for funding, she and I will begin working on a poster competition for high school students entitled, “Tell the Story of Gjirokastra.” To give a bit of background, Gjirokastër is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful city built into the side of a mountain, complete with cobblestone streets, stone-slated roofs, and a castle overlooking its patrons like an eagle on its perch. The preservation of Gjirokastra’s cultural heritage is vital to the city’s economy. The city’s rich built heritage, colorful traditions, and historic figures present an opportunity for targeted economic growth in cultural tourism. However, if the rapid deterioration of the city’s cultural heritage continues, Gjirokastër will lose its comparative advantage in the tourism sector and be forced to develop its economy through less strategic industries. For many years, insufficient state investment in the preservation of Gjirokastra’s cultural monuments has placed the primary burden of preserving the public’s cultural resources on private homeowners. The public value of these cultural monuments is lost on private owners who consider their homes private assets. Without a protracted and coalescing effort to inform and engender appreciation for the history and intrinsic value of these monuments, illegal interventions and indifference will continue to be the norm.

Accordingly, the idea for our project is essentially to reacquaint young people with their cultural heritage and to engender in them a renewed appreciation and understanding of its value as a cultural and economic resource. Through the education, awareness, and participation of youth and other important actors, we hope to build the capacity of the future generation to preserve and protect the city’s unique cultural heritage. The competition will be supplemented by regular information sessions, trainings, courses, and community meetings to help students tell the story of their city through photography, painting and drawing, and creative writing.

At the same time, much has changed with the advent of my first year anniversary in Albania. Group 15 volunteers are moving out, and Group 17 is moving in. On March 19th, 43 trainees arrived in Elbasan to begin their service. Only a few days ago I received a call from my host mother to introduce me to the volunteer who has replaced me in their household. It reminded me of my first day with them, completely lacking any knowledge of the language, completely at the mercy of their hospitality and understanding. For two and a half months they fed me, washed my clothes, gave me a place to sleep, and accepted me into their family – all the while exhibiting the utmost patience despite my slow progression with the language.

Today, my living circumstances are much different than they were then. I now live with three other people – a Swede, a Swedish-Iranian, and a Belarusian. They will be interning with my host organization for the next two to three months. It is a cliché of Peace Corps, but nonetheless true – “every Peace Corps volunteer’s experience is different”. When I signed up, I never imagined that I would be living in a UNESCO World Heritage Site with three European interns. Though now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here are some pictures:

PCVsAtParliament Team Gjirokaster At Parliament Team Gjirokaster

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For the New Recruits

Eleven months ago I was scouring the internet for anything I thought might prepare me for my imminent service in the Peace Corps. I watched hours of YouTube videos, spent a lot of time fine-tuning my packing list, and read a lot of PCV blogs. This is an open letter to the members of Group 17 – PC Albania. Below I will cover a variety of topics that I hope will give you greater insight into the life of a volunteer in Albania. However, you should bear in mind that such advice is inherently subjective. No one’s advice and no amount of preparation is enough to ensure a smooth transition into the Peace Corps. It is an iterative and participatory learning process – one you must undertake for yourself.

Life in Albania

Let me first say this: Peace Corps Albania is probably very unlike what most people think of when they think about the Peace Corps. The hardships here are not those of many other Peace Corps countries. We have running water (though some volunteers are on water schedules during the summer months), we take warm showers (sometimes hot ones, rarely cold ones), we have electricity and internet (though both “go out” on occasion), and it is relatively easy to get around the country (warning: in-country travel may lead to nausea). So, as you may be able to tell from the frequent use of parentheses above, there are a lot of buts, almosts, althoughs, and caveats to be considered when discussing life in Albania. That’s the reality.

Basically, you have many things here in Albania that you used to have in the States, but without the consistency. You look around and you think, “I got it pretty good here”, or “This Western toilet sure beats hand-dug latrines.” But sometimes it’s all just for show, and you might as well visit the village well or dig your own shit hole because those things that look like they should work, don’t work all the time, and sometimes don’t work altogether. That said, taking a hot shower most of the time is better than settling for cold showers all of the time.

By any objective account, life here is a strange amalgamation of the old world steeped in steadfast traditions and the new world born of flashy stilettoes, fast cars, and gradually shifting mentalities. Standing in one place, you might see hungry dogs, fastidious cats, rummaging children, and destitute men all digging through the garbage bins for sustenance as they are passed by a man and his donkey cart, and he, by a sunglass-wearing Mafioso in a brand new Mercedes. It is a country separated by a developing line – those areas benefiting from national and foreign investment, and those areas left behind. It is a formerly communist, newly capitalist society that still has a lot to figure out.

Packing

With great effort I diligently prepared my packing list for Peace Corps. I left for the airport sporting a 70-liter military duffle bag across my back, 60-liter Osprey backpack hanging off my front, 35-liter day pack slung across my left shoulder, and a camera bag across my right. I was probably carrying close to 125 lbs. I thought it might be easier to carry the load than to pull it through what I imagined would be the wet, muddy, and pot-hole-ridden roads of Albania. Besides, I liked being hands free. Had I known what I know today, I probably could have gotten away with bringing about half of what I brought.

Here are a few pointers to help you put the finishing touches on your own list. First, as I’ve said, remember that this isn’t your typical Peace Corps country. Chocolate, pizza, ice cream, and other comfort foods are equally as accessible as warm jackets, new underwear, stylish dress pants, space heaters, and functional kitchen items. So, if you’re packing like you’re preparing for the apocalypse, you can probably leave the gas mask, dry-freeze dinner packets, and Everest-ready parkas behind. To second that point, you can always have things sent from home. The cheapest USPS flat-rate package I’m aware of costs about 70 dollars. As a caveat, there are some things you won’t be able to find in Albania.

Ultimately, you should bring what is important to you. If you love playing the flute, bring it. If you enjoy blended smoothies and can’t live without your Vita-Mix 5200, bring it (just be sure to bring a Simran Voltage Transformer along with it). Or, if you have a favorite painting that you’ve had hung up over your bed since college, bring it. These are the things you won’t be able to find or replace in Albania. They may seem impractical from a packing standpoint, but they do a lot for your sanity in the borderline insane moments. We’re not surviving here, we’re living here. So, bring whatever you think you’ll need to make this place your home. (Shout out to Ian Fornshell who brought along his flute, guitar, and top-of-the-line blender).

You will also struggle to find items of similar quality to those you can find in the States. Yes, you can find a warm winter coat, maybe even a hand-made wool one, but you’re not going to come across any REI or other outdoor brand-name apparel items. No sleeping bags. No hiking packs. No Ipods – at least, none from franchised Apple Stores. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find high-quality electronics from most recognizable brands. Bring these things, if you think you’ll need them, because you won’t find them here. And, there are plenty of borderline-sketchy “Apple” maintenance stores to help when you’re in a fix.

Albanians are extremely fashionable people. You’re just as likely to come across a Gucci handbag (though probably a knockoff) as you are to never see cilantro again. Even poor farmers work in their “Sunday best”. You’ll easily find Euro-style, fashion-forward outfits and accessories if you’re looking to dress-up your wardrobe. And, you’ll find it for cheap. If you’re less worried about dressing for success and more concerned with dressing to avoid freezing to death, rest assured that you can do both with relative ease. The winter here has been far less mild than it has in the States. Unless you’re from Hawaii or Florida, you will probably have suffered a far harsher December, January, and February than you would have had you been in Albania. That said, it does get cold here, but so much depends on where you are placed in-country, that it makes it really hard to advise you on how to prepare yourself for Albania’s four seasons. The North and East are objectively the coldest areas of Albania, but the rest of the country doesn’t suffer from anything much worse than Spring and Winter rains, albeit long and cold ones. Considering this, I highly recommend wool thermals and a good rain jacket. These are things you will use regularly no matter where you are placed in the country, though I can’t say the same about snow boots.

To sum up: Winter is cold and rainy, Spring is cool and rainy, the Summer is hot, and Fall is perfect. But no matter what time of the year, the PST office is freezing. And, that about covers it. Here’s an itemized list of everything I packed for my 2-year stint in the Peace Corps. I hope it will help you be a smarter packer than I was.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Item Quantity/Unit

(+ / –)

Footwear Running Shoes 2 pairs

+

Hiking Boots 1 pair

+

Dress Shoes 1 pair

+

Casual Shoes 1 pair

+

Sandals 1 pair

+

Clothing Underwear 9 pair

+

Dress Socks 5 pair

+

Athletic Socks 5 pair

+

Wool Socks 4 pair

+

Dress Pants 1

+

Casual Pants 3

+

Sweat Pants 1

+

Casual Shorts 2

+

Athletic Shorts 2

+

Dress Shirts 4

Short-Sleeve Shirts 8

+

Long-Sleeve Shirts 3

Sweaters/Hoodies 4

+

Rain Jacket 1

+

Winter Jacket 1

+

Accessories Gloves 2 pair

+

Belts 3

+

Ties 3

Sunglasses 1

+

Tie clip 1

Watch 1

+

Replacement Watch Strap 1

+

Gear Large Hiking Pack 1

+

Large Duffle Pack 1

+

Day Pack 1

+

Camera Bag 1

+

Sleeping Bags 2 (20°, 45°)

+

Sleeping Pad 1

+

Hammock (with straps) 1

+

Close-line 1

+

Water Bottles (Nalgene) 2

Head Lamp 1

+

Backpack Rain Fly 1

+

Misc. Quick-Dry Towel 1

+

Laundry Sack 1

+

Toiletries Deodorant 3 sticks

+

Toothpaste 2 tubes

+

Toothbrush 2

+

Floss 5 packs

+

Electric Beard Trimmer 1

+

Razor (with blades) 1

+

Biodegradable Liquid Soap 1 bottle

+

Nail Clippers 1

+

Comb 1

+

Hand Mirror 1

+

Toilet Paper Roll 1

+

Toiletry Bag 1

+

Electronics Laptop Computer 1

+

Replacement Battery 1

+

Replacement Cord 1

+

Outlet Adapter 2

+

Ipod (with charger) 1

+

Camera (with charger) 1

+

USB drives (32 gigs) 2

+

AA Batteries 1 pack

+

AAA Batteries 1 pack

+

Battery Charger 1

+

Electric Hair Shaver 1

Supplements Weigh Protein Powder 1 pack

Fiber Tablets 1 pack

Multivitamins 1 pack

Tools Pocket Knife 1

+

Multi-tool 1

+

Bike Multi-tool 1

+

Duct Tape 1 roll

+

Sewing Kit 1

+

Hand-held Bike Pump 1

Carabiners 2

+

Camera Tripod 1

+

Copy Books (the paper kind) 4

Notebooks 2

+

Pocket Notebooks 2

+

Course Notes 6 subjects

Magazines 1

Stationary 1 pack

+

Stamps 1 pack

Other Frisbee 1

+

Basketball 1

+

Host Family Gifts 5 gifts

+

DVDs (The Buried Life) 2 seasons

Replacement Shoelaces 1 pair

+

Mechanical Pencils 1 pack

+

Large Trash Bags 2

+

Lace-up Ankle Brace 1

+

Travel Wallet 1

+

Passport/Bank Cards

+

Cash $500

+

Packing List Notes:

I brought a lot of shoes with me, thinking it would be difficult to find shoes in my size. If you have big feet, you might consider doing the same. Along the same lines, long-sleeve shirts and size-appropriate pants may be equally hard to come by if you’re on the larger/taller side.

Dressing up is almost mandatory for Albanians, but it’s not the shirt and tie business look you’re accustomed to. Think, Euro-chic. Or, imagine you’re dressing up to go out to the clubs. Slim sweaters. Jackets with lots of zippers. Tight pants. Sporty, narrow dress shoes. My American business attire seems a bit out-of-place.

You can’t/shouldn’t drink the tap water if you’re in any of the major cities (e.g. Tirana, Elbasan) or if you’re along the coast (e.g. Saranda, Vlora, Kavajë). In most other places it’s probably OK to drink, especially if you’re in the mountains. You will also be supplied a water purifier in the last few days of orientation. The water purifier they give you holds roughly 2 gallons, so you should be set on potable water.

I’m an “Old Spice” guy. The deodorant here sucks. I’m happy I brought a couple sticks with me but I wish I had brought more. Toothpaste and other toiletry items fall in the same boat. That is, you can find what you need here, but it won’t be Crest or Johnson & Johnson. If you’re particular about a certain brand, stock up.

I’m not a tech guy. Hence why I packed actual books and DVD sets. I also brought my hand-written notes from grad school. I could have saved a lot of weight had I gone the techie route. E-readers and tablets are probably the way to go and I probably should have found time to type up those notes. In short, the more tech-savvy you are, the lighter you’ll be. With file sharing, you’ll find everything you need from other volunteers including books, TV shows, and movies. Most people bring an external hard-drive to amass a greater virtual library. Maybe one day I’ll catch up with the rest of my generation.

For those of you who prefer to cut your own hair, don’t bother bringing your electric shaver. Most likely, you’ll need a voltage converter to use it, and besides, haircuts are ridiculously cheap here (about 150 lek).

Along with my books and course notes, supplements took up a lot of space in my bags and accounted for much of their total weight. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to maintain good nutrition in my diet, so I brought everything I thought I might need to keep me healthy including vitamins, fiber tablets, and weigh protein powder. These things ended up being completely unnecessary for me. It is relatively easy to maintain a nutritious diet in Albania. You have greater access to fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables. Though there is hardly any variety in what people eat, both omnivores and vegetarians won’t have too much trouble maintaining a healthy diet. That is, as long as you don’t mind eating the same thing every day for months at a time. Variety usually comes with the seasons. My only other complaint about the food here is both the overuse of salt and underuse of almost any other spice. Also, if you’re worried about maintaining your health, I can tell you that Peace Corps’ medical benefits are probably the best of any healthcare plan you’ve ever had. You will be given a medical kit upon arrival, and any medication or medical attention you require beyond what is afforded to you in your med kit will be covered by the medial office.

To avoid unnecessary bank charges and to give you peace of mind against those “just in case” moments, cash is a good idea. Bring it.

Finally, a few things I wish I had brought with me: (1) More long-sleeve shirts, (2) Zip-lock bags, (3) An E-reader or tablet.

Language

If you’re worried about learning the language, you’re not alone. But, there’s no secret for achieving proficiency. And, certainly no recipe for fluency. All you can do is try your best. “Try” being the key word. You have to put forth the effort. Though, as any Peace Corps Albania staff member will tell you, no one has ever failed to be an effective volunteer as a result of poor language skills. You make it work one way or another. Some people never learn the language because their work and living circumstances don’t require them to speak it. Others prosper if for no other reason than because they have to. Occasionally, sink or swim does apply. That said, our Peace Corps staff is wonderful and would never place a volunteer in a situation where they would drown. You’ll either swim, or be tossed a life preserver.

PST

Pre-Service Training (PST) is exactly what it sounds like – Peace Corps’ attempt to prepare you for your full two years of service. It is an attempt, because to adequately prepare every incoming volunteer for their individual service is an impossible task. We all come from different places and backgrounds. That applies to our work experience and professional lives as well. This means that a recent undergraduate in Public Health attends the same information sessions as seasoned doctors with twenty-plus years of experience. It means listening to a lot of redundant information, much of which is well known by almost everyone, but that perhaps one or two people might benefit from hearing. It makes since if you look at it from Peace Corps’ perspective. Their job is to make sure everyone has the basic information they need to be functional and effective volunteers. They cover their own asses by covering ours. So, when you’re pulling your hair out during an information session on Sexual Health, Safety and Security, or Stages of the Volunteer Life Cycle; save what remaining years you have left with a full head of hair and occupy yourself with something. I suggest doodling. Everyone has to sit through it, so find a way to pass the time and suck it up.

During PST you will be living with a host family in one of the training sites surrounding the city of Elbasan. At least twice a week, you will commute to the PST office in Elbasan to meet as a whole group. On “hub days”, as they are called, you get a chance to catch up with the volunteers in other training sites and are allotted an opportunity to use the internet. On hub days, you will have to sit through both large group information sessions and sector specific technical trainings. Early on, you will have the opportunity to visit remaining Group 15 and Group 16 volunteers at their sites. During these “Volunteer Visits” you will spend one-on-one time with current volunteers and will gain a better sense of what life is like outside of your training site. Later on, when your permanent site is announced, you will be allowed to visit your site, check out your new digs, meet with your assigned counterpart, and get acquainted with your host agency. Following these “Site Visits”, you will return to your training site to complete PST, and at some point down the line, swear in as an official Peace Corps volunteer.

During PST, your weekly allowance covers only those meals not provided by your host family as well as transportation to and from required events. If you plan to stay on budget, you will have to be careful about any incidental purchases. It’s generally smart to stay away from imported items, as they are typically equally as expensive as they would be anywhere else. Or, if you can’t resist, opt for the imported item from the nearest approximate country. For instance, a Snickers bar, which is made in the US, costs 50 lek (about 50 cents). You might instead consider purchasing a Winergy bar, which is made in Turkey and costs only 20 lek (about 20 cents). Either way, local items are always your cheapest bet, although you won’t find any Albanian chocolate. Below is a short list of commonly purchased items by volunteers, along with their approximate prices. Bear in mind, prices differ according to site. Typically, things cost more in larger cities.

  • Bottle of water – 50 Lek
  • Apples – 80 Lek (per kilo)
  • Mandarins – 140 Lek (per kilo)
  • Cherries – 120 Lek (per kilo)
  • Bananas – 3 for 100 Lek
  • Tomatoes – 90 Lek (per kilo)
  • Loaf of Bread – 50 Lek
  • Café Express – 50 Lek
  • Yogurt – 50 Lek (0.25 liter cup)
  • Draft Beer – 50 Lek
  • Bottle Beer – 100 Lek
  • Raki – 50 Lek
  • Byrek – 30 Lek
  • Sufllaqe – 150 Lek

Host Family

After roughly three days of orientation in Elbasan, you will repack your bags (adding to them stacks of new Peace Corps materials and a 2-gallon water filter), and hop on a furgon (van) to be delivered to your host family. That first day is awkward. If you’re lucky, one of your host siblings will be able to speak English. At least, it seems lucky on that first day. Being forced to speak nothing but Shqip while at your training site will actually pay off in the long run. Some of you will be placed with a big family, complete with grandparents, parents, children, and maybe even grandchildren. Others will be the only bird in the nest, and will be treated as such. Some host families are accustomed to volunteers. Some aren’t. There will be misunderstandings and plenty of awkward moments. Push through them. These are wonderful people and they have nothing but your best interest at heart. The will dote on you. If you’re an extremely independent person, learn to accept your host family’s seemingly overbearing behavior as affection. Let them do things for you, even if it seems silly. But don’t be afraid to set boundaries when you think they are necessary. You’ll be with these people for roughly two months. The days will go by slowly, but the time you have with them will pass in an instant. Eat with them. Drink with them. Sit with them. Listen and observe. Speak with them when you can. And, think of them as family. That’s how they will see you.

Lastly, if you’re wondering what to call them, their first names are just fine. Mami and Babi work too. I made a point of calling my host parents Mami and Babi from day one, and they love me for it.

Expectations

The best advice I can give you is to work on managing your expectations. You really can’t imagine what your experience here will be like, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much research you do before hand, and no matter who tells you what to expect. What I can say with certainty is that you will be impacted more so by your experience in Albania than you will impact lives or influence change. Whatever your intensions are in coming to Albania, let them go. Arrive with an open mind, allow things to come as they may, and try to be flexible. After being here for a while, you will be able to set realistic expectations and personal goals for your service. For now, understand that you have a lot to learn, and be prepared for an education like no other.

Coffee

The first time I ordered a coffee in Albania I expected a “Tall” Vienna roast from Starbucks, or, at least something of similar proportions. What I got had a handle I could barely fit half a pinky through. What you’re ordering when you order a “kafe” is a shot of espresso. A macchiato – a shot of espresso with a dash of milk. Anything else (e.g. frappe, cappuccino, Americano), will either be one of the former, or mostly milk. That said, I’ve come to appreciate Albania’s giant affection for such tiny coffees. Coffee is the key to any friendship and the start of every meeting. If you get invited, go. If you go, pay. Or, at least offer. The unspoken rule is, if you invite someone for coffee, you pay. Most Albanians won’t abide by that rule in the beginning and will offer to pay, but as time goes on, make an effort to overrule their ardent protests against your offer to foot the bill. And, hold off any pressing business until your coffees have arrived at the table.

Safety and Security

Name a crime. It exists here. It also exists everywhere else in the world. That said, I believe Albania is a safe place to live, especially for Americans. Albanians are extremely family oriented. This perpetuates a culture of close personal ties. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. I think it is for that reason why theft and robbery are relatively infrequent crimes in Albania. Of course, such things happen. But, what you will likely confront more often is more subdued and gender specific.

Wandering eyes, verbal harassment, groping, domestic violence, and various sexual crimes. Sometimes these things are obvious. Other times, they are obscured by patriarchal cultural norms. For instance, at the dinner table, men are always served first. Women are expected to perform all household duties including cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and the like. In many other ways, women are expected to be subservient to men. And, this ideal is manifested through various inappropriate behaviors exhibited by some men towards women. Stalking isn’t even considered a punishable offense.

Being a rather large male, I completely miss a lot of the bull shit female volunteers have to put up with here. I won’t pretend to know more than what I have been told and what I have observed. If you want to know more about what life is like for female volunteers in Albania, I would encourage you to ask one. I suspect most of them would tell you that it really sucks sometimes, but that the many positive aspects of this experience make up for it.

Success

We are not building wells or constructing latrines. We are changing mentalities and behaviors; or, we are attempting to. This is very hard to see. Many complete their service without “seeing” the fruits of their labor. That’s not to say that the seed you planted won’t one day grow into a strong fruit-bearing heirloom of a stronger and better Albania, but it is to say we must all learn to redefine success. If you are results oriented, you will have a difficult time here. Sometimes success is just making it through the day. Know that Peace Corps is an iterative process. There’s a reason why the minimum service requirement is two years. There’s a reason you are the 17th group, and that Peace Corps Albania didn’t close after the members of the 1st Group COSed. There’s a reason your group won’t be the last. We build upon the work of those before us and lay the groundwork for those who will come after. At the same time, it is not our responsibility to initiate change. It is the responsibility of Albanians to improve their own lives. If we can be a resource, if we can transfer skills and knowledge, if we can learn from each other, and if when we leave, we can leave something behind, we will have been successful. Often times, it is ourselves that undergo the greatest change, but we do leave our footprints along a more prosperous path. Just remember that your footprint is not always easily discernible.

Volunteers

Before coming to Albania, I thought a lot about what my experience might be like. I was daydreaming more so than I was setting unrealistic expectations. I thought about what Albanians would be like, how I would fair living amongst them, what I wanted out of my Peace Corps experience, and other things I’m sure aren’t much different from what you’re thinking about now. What I didn’t think about was my volunteer group. I overlooked the fact that these people would become my closest friends and confidants in a world far away from my closest friends and confidants. Value these people. Learn to accept them for who they are. And, draw on them for support.

Structure

If you’re coming right out of school, or have been working a nine-to-five for 20 years, prepare yourself for a vacation away from structure. You won’t have it, so don’t expect to. It drives a lot of people crazy. If you’re used to having people tell you what to do, when to do it, and how, you’re in for a dramatic reversal in workplace dynamics. When you’re out here, you’re out here by yourself. You have to be your own boss – your own motivator. You will have to set your own hours. You will have to assign your own tasks. It’s easy to stay in your bed and watch movies. It’s much harder to put yourself out there in a work environment where many of your coworkers behave as if they couldn’t care less. You’ll have to find a way to make it work. If things aren’t working out at your primary assignment, pick up a secondary project that you do care about and pour your energy into that. If you let the idea that there is nothing for you to do take root, you won’t make it. Find something. Search for something. Be vigilant. You will have to take the initiative. No one is going to serve it up to you on a silver platter.

Site Placements

I’m willing to bet that most of you thought Peace Corps meant living in a mud hut in Africa before receiving your assignment for Albania. If so, your perceptions about Peace Corps have already undergone a transformation. They will likely transform yet again upon arrival and after spending some time living in the country. You will forget that you once saw yourself sleeping under mosquito nets and going to the well for water and expect instead to have running water, warm showers, and a comfortable bed. You may even begin to associate larger urban sites and coastal cities with a better experience than serving in small rural villages and mountain townships. Look up pictures of Saranda on Google and tell me you wouldn’t mind being placed there. You will see that life here can be comfortable. You will associate the North with “cold and miserable” and the South with “warm and contented”. The coast will become synonymous with “tanned skin and bikinis” and the interior with “X kilometers from the coast”. But there is a much different dichotomy at play.

The place is not what will define your experience in Peace Corps. It is the people. Oftentimes, the luxury of living in a larger site with greater available resources comes at a cost to your integration. Consider this correlation: more people, more anonymity. Sometimes anonymity is good. Sometimes it makes it hard to build lasting relationships. You blend in with the tourists. You can become lost in the background if you don’t make the effort. Smaller sites mean you are the center of attention. Sometimes you don’t want it. Other times, you appreciate the fruit people bring you from their gardens and the “Si je Xhesi?” ‘s and the “Ç’kemi mo?” ‘s as you walk the two blocks from your apartment to your office.

All this is to say, you don’t know what you don’t know. During PST, you will be meeting with your program managers to discuss possible site placements. You will hear many different things from many different people about the different sites around Albania. These sources are mostly unreliable due to personal biases. Two people placed in the same city can have two very different perspectives about their site. Try to avoid having any preconceived notions about specific places in Albania until you have visited them and spent time in them. Trust your program managers to make the right decision for you. You think you know what you want, but you don’t really. The fact is you don’t have any idea about what life is really like in any of these places.

I can tell you the experience of a friend of mine who was a volunteer in Saranda. He won the lottery right? Wrong. He hated it there. Maybe you will be placed there and maybe you will love it. All I’m trying to say is to taper your conclusions about a place until you have experienced it yourself and to place your trust in the people who know Albania best. It will save you a lot of worrying. As you will hear time and time again; “Every PCVs experience is different”. It’s a threadbare aphorism, but nonetheless true.

Travel

Albania is a small country. In two years, you’ll be able to see a lot of it. You will mostly be traveling by furgon (van) or autobus (bus). There’s no ostensible rhyme or reason to the furgon system until you spend some time as a patron of it. If it existed in the States, you might expect to see hoards of middle-age men yelling profusely at passerby’s, demanding that you join the one or two other people they have managed to convince to pay them a modest fee in return for safe passage to their desired destination. Back home, you would surely consider this a sketchy method of transportation. In fact, it is. But it really works wonderfully here in Albania. You’ll learn the various spots in different cities around the country where you can catch a ride to almost anywhere you’d like to go. The drivers usually wait until they’re full to capacity, or over capacity, before taking off. They make frequent stops along the way to drop people off and pick people up. You can call them “shofer” or “xhaxhi”, the latter term meaning uncle.

The roads oftentimes lengthen what would be much shorter trips in any other European country. If you can bear the bumps and bruises and find a way to entertain yourself, it’s really not that bad. From the top of the country to the bottom, you’re looking at a ten-plus hour trip. In the summer, the furgons are cramped and muggy. You can smell everyone sitting around you, and sometimes those a few seats down. The entire van takes on the communal stench that accompanies dirt and sweat laden suit jackets, which Albanian men refuse to abandon even in the swell of the summer heat. In winter, the smell of the furgon is replaced by dampness. But, there’s usually more leg room. It’s also much harder to find a ride in the winter as there are fewer travelers than in the summer.

During PST, don’t expect to travel much. First of all, you won’t have enough money in your budget to afford extra travel costs, and second, you won’t have any time. Your days are consumed by language learning, technical sessions, and spending time with fellow volunteers and your host family. Once you get to site, you’ll have much more freedom to travel. Technically, we’re allotted eight days a week out-of-site. Some people travel every weekend. Others stay at site for months before venturing out. There will be plenty of Peace Corps trainings and various camps and other activities to draw you out of your apartment and out-of-site. And, there will be plenty of places you will want to visit when you can’t stand to be in-site another minute. Just be wary, frequent travel can influence your ability to integrate into your community. That said, don’t feel too bad taking full advantage of the summer break. Almost everyone, including your counterparts, take vacation throughout the entire month of August. Don’t feel like you have to be the sole person stuck in the office while everyone else is tanning on the beach.

____________________________________

I hope this is helpful to you as you make your final preparations for departure. I want to conclude by saying that Albania is a wonderful and beautiful country that is home to terrific and gracious people. If you can overlook the difficulties and frustrations of your work and living circumstances, you will thoroughly enjoy your time here. I promise that the two years will fly by in an instant. I also promise that if you stick it out, you’ll return a better and more knowledgeable person than when you came. My final advice is to spend what remaining time you have in the States enjoying the company of friends and family. We all look forward to your arrival and wish you safe passage to Albania. Gjithë të mirat (All the best).

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Winter’s August Abroad

Decenuary is winter’s August. Decenuary, of course, is that weird two-week limbo period in late-December and early-January, nestled delicately between prolonged periods of monotony, for which the politically correct term is now ‘Winter Holidays’, but which I have come to call, Decenuary. The only difference between August and Decenuary is destination and choice of apparel – beach and bikini versus home-of-family-member and winter coat. The rest is the same: empty offices, abandoned school buildings, forgotten emails, and gimmicky seasonal trinkets sold in mass.

Decenuary is cause for celebration of two major events – Christmas and New Years. In Albania, Christmas really isn’t a big deal, but New Years might as well be the 21st-birthday of everyone in the country. In an act of complete irony, or perhaps incompetence, I spent Christmas in-country, and New Years outside of it.

I spent Christmas alone in my apartment. There, I weathered the self-induced quite of solitude. A kind of solitude that was put in greater perspective against the backdrop of a day spent by most people in good and numerous company. So, I tried to be the good company I didn’t have. I did a little cleaning, listened to a few podcasts, Skyped my family, and attempted to make a pizza using left-over dough from the freezer, way too much tomato paste, chicken, and chopped vegetables. The pizza was a disaster, but I bought some chocolate which provided both pure enjoyment and a palette cleanse. A few days later, I packed my bags and set out for Bajrum Curri to begin the first leg of a week-long journey. New Years would be different.

You can’t be a man living in Bajrum Curri unless you are the archetypical manly man who struts around wearing at least two pounds of chest hair and who has an unmoved expression after downing what is the equivalent of rocket fuel in a cup. So, just to fit in, we threw back a couple shots of raki. It was five in the morning and we were gearing up for the start of our trip as we waited for our driver. He showed up about ten minutes later and we piled in, just the five of us.

We were an unusual cast: Karl, the effervescent life of the party and energetic troublemaker; Luke, our maletorë (mountain man) with a keen sense of direction and go-with-the-flow demeanor;  Eric, our observant compass and steady guide through many drunken and hazy mornings; Ian, the eclectic song bird and originator of many deft, yet eccentric topics of conversation; and myself, the point of reference in any crowd, save that of the Kosovars, who are a long and tall people.

Luke

Luke

Eric

Eric

Karl

Karl

Ian

Ian

Me

Me

We arrived in Prizren, having blown across the border without so much as reaching for our passports. The driver wanted 60 Euros (about 80 USD) for an hour and a half trip that should have cost about 2,500 ALL (Albanian Lek). After some arguing, we through him 4,000 ALL (about 40 USD) and left to catch our bus to Skpoje. We arrived in the newly rebuilt city around three o’clock and were greeted by a host of bronze statues, the most grandiose of which was the twenty-plus meter-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great. When we arrived at the hostel, we were greeted by a more lively host, and one of no less grandeur.

Oli wore waist-long dreads folded on top of his head and secured by a great rubber band, gaged earrings, parachute pants, a poncho, and a hippie-philosopher’s disposition. With a few suggestions from Oli, we set out to see what Skopje had to offer.

Oli and the Crew

Oli and the Crew

After exploring the city, we posted up at a local brewery near the main bazzar to sample one-few-too-many of the city’s beloved brews. We ended up befriending a group of Macedonians at the brewery who proceeded to take us under their collective wing by introducing us to the city’s buzzing night life. We stumbled back to the hostel around five in the morning. Eric was there, Karl wasn’t. Apparently he decided to give our new friends a tour of the hostel a couple of hours later, to which Oli was none too pleased.

We woke up on New Years Eve around twelve in the afternoon. Having been told about nearby underwater caves, we hopped on a bus to the end of town and took a taxi to the state park. It was foggy and dimly lit, giving the placid, narrow waters of the shallow mountain river an eerie ambiance, contrasted starkly against the jagged mountains rising from either bank. In the summer, private excursion companies take tourists scuba diving in the submerged caves laying somewhere below the glassy water and exposed mountain sides. It quickly became dark, and we made our way back into town to get ready for another night out.

The city had arranged for three separate public event venues, each with their own live bands. The main square was abuzz with people setting off firecrackers, venders peddling glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and audiences of hundreds drunkenly swaying to live music. Just before the final ten second countdown our group became separated in the tightly packed crowd of one of the main concert venues. As the clock’s second-hand ticked past its much slower appendages, Luke and I found ourselves in the midst of the lively crowd with no one to kiss but the backs of our hands. We inched our way through the mass of people convinced that it would be just the two of us for the rest of the night. However, after some time wandering through the main bazzar, we were gloriously reunited with our lost companions and proceeded as a group of five, thus multiplying our collective antics in the many and various bars and clubs we graced with our presence in the early morning of January 1st, 2014.

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Sleep came around six in the morning. That afternoon we took a bus to Sofia, this time under great scrutiny at the border patrol, which we were made to walk through in order to catch a new bus from the Bulgarian side. On the new bus, I sat next to a young Bulgarian doctor and we got to talking. It turned out he had participated in a number of Peace Corps sponsored youth leadership conferences in the early 2000’s and remembered fondly his time with a number of PCVs in his home town. His story emphasized to me that the impact you have on people may be difficult to see in the moment, but becomes more visible under the scrutiny of time.

The bus pulled into a quiet and sleepy Sofia around eight in the evening. We set out on foot for the hostel. At a major four-way intersection, a taxi, which was the only vehicle on the road, stopped to solicit us for his business and preceded to hand us his card, upon which was adorned a number of naked women and a phone number on the back. The light turned green and he drove on, leaving us behind with his card, which we promptly through in the trash. It was late and we were tired from the nights before. We grabbed a quick bit to eat and got settled in our rooms to welcome a much needed night of sleep.

Sofia was a dreary city. It was a city forsaken by its outward appearance, which reminded its residents around every corner of its communist past. We spent most of the day exploring the city. At one point, having taken the commuter train too far outside the main city center, we stepped off to make our way back by following the main tracks. This soon proved futile as the large stones accompanying the rail ties made walking a slow and rather tedious task. Soon a train arrived and took us back to the main square.

When evening came, my companions and I made our way to meet two other volunteers who were also in town for the night. We met at a local Irish pub. We started the night with a couple Irish Car Bombs a piece. This was to set the tone for the night. Luke soon befriended a sixty-something ex-pat who had been living in Sofia for a number of years. They exchanged hats – Luke’s, a beany; our ex-pat friend’s, a beret. Before calling it a night, he told us about a secret underground bar that he and his friends frequented and that he also deemed “illegal” for a variety of unspecified reasons. We took down the address and decided we would make this so called illegal bar our final stop for the night.

After bouncing around a few different places, we arrived at the secret entrance to the bar and pushed through the door to find an empty staircase leading to a cloudy open doorway which revealed our intended destination. The bar was filled with ex-pats and English-speaking Bulgarians which made having a conversation much easier than it had been in some of the other places we had visited. The mood was struck by a two-person live band which played for most of the night. We made a lot of new friends and bought a lot of drinks. After some reflection, there may be a strong correlation. Regardless, we became the life of the party. Eventually, we paid our tabs and took leave, exiting without the faintest idea as to what could have qualified that bar as an illegal one.

We got an hour or so of sleep before being rustled awake by Eric, who had vowed to get us to the bus station in time to catch our seven o’clock ride to Pristina. It had been a heavy night, and we moved along as if we were carrying a much heavier weight than we really were. In the process of gathering ourselves and our things for our trek to the bus station, we were forced to make the sobering decision to leave a man behind. Karl refused to wake up, and in-so-doing, opted to stay behind, but resolved to meet up with us the following day in Kosovo. We would not see him again on that trip.

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Arriving later that evening in Pristina, we decided to reserve our first night in Kosovo for a good night’s rest. The next day we treated our new host city as we had treated those prior by exploring on foot. Planning another late night out, we went back to the hostel to nap. The extra sleep reenergized us and we began again in earnest to repeat similar escapades from nights prior. Our preamble to the night was a couple games of poker with some of the guys we had met at the hostel. Later, we went out with them to check out what Pristina’s night life had to offer.

Luke and I stayed out later than the rest. At four, I checked my watch and, realizing I was late in meeting up with Eric to catch the early morning bus to Tirana, parted ways with Luke to make my way to the bus station. I ended up catching the five o’clock bus and, still drunk from my evening out, proceeded to pass out for the majority of the ride. I arrived dehydrated and hung-over in the capital.

I had traveled more than 1,000 km and over twenty hours in the past six days, all by bus. We hadn’t been typical tourists. We hadn’t eaten at any expensive restaurants or stayed at any of the fancy hotels. We hadn’t even visited the main tourist attractions. What interested us were the people of the places we visited. And, after almost ten months of reserving ourselves to early nights in and occasional low-key evenings out in Albania, we were interested in letting loose a little and having a bit of fun. We had escaped to places where no one knew us and where we could behave as any other obnoxious American who believes they’re invincible and who resolves to act as if they rule the world. It was a pleasant taste of life unrestricted and ungoverned. It was the kind of trip you would never feel guilty about, but that you recognize should be reserved only for those once in a blue moon occasions.

With that, my Decenuary drew to a close, and I was soon back in the saddle geared up to endure that long ride through the mountains of emails and valleys of deadlines which precede the glimmering waters of summer.

Here’s some more pictures:

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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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A New Short Story: “The Moon Song”

I’ve written a new short story. You can view it by navigating to the top-right of the page and clicking the ‘Short Stories’ tab, or by clicking here: https://tecumsehclark.wordpress.com/short-stories/?preview=true&preview_id=18&preview_nonce=6cb9c367a5. It’s titled, “The Moon Song.”

Dedicated to my grandmother. May she Rest In Peace.

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A Bloodstained Journey to the Peak of Mt. Tomorr

Dedicated to Susanna ~

The tears of the Cherokee may not have flowed with such ferocity as did the blood spilt from those thousands of sheep upon the mighty peak of Mt. Tomorr. Blood ran from their jugulars down the trepid mountain pass, illuminating in bright-red its serpentine disposition. The smell of death inundated the air rendering our olfactory senses imperceptible to any alternative sent, save that of the nearby restrooms. In this way, blood and shit combined to fill our nostrils with the putrid stench of something, only comparable in causticity, to that of body odor and perfume. These were the sights and sounds which gave birth to our emotive senses and which framed the somewhat dark and mysterious mood of Festës i Tomorrit. This was Blood Fest.

The Bektashi Sufi order is an Islamic mystic tradition rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Koran. Their characteristically liberal and secular practices differentiate their creed from the Sunni community. Their women go unveiled and join with the men in the indulgence of alcohol. The headquarters of the Bektashi religion is in Tirana. As an international holy place, the pilgrimage to Mount Tomorr attracts Bektashis from all over the world, making the festival one of the most important gatherings of the faith. Its importance to believers the world over, and to Albania, was not lost.   

Though, as a religious festival, the entire ordeal seemed to lack a certain sacrament that one might expect to accompany such ceremony. Trash littered the grounds. More than that, blood, guts, and human excrement polluted the outskirts of the festival quarters. Instead of solemn prayers or jubilant worshiping, there was overindulgence and drunken dancing. Not what I was expecting, but not a bad way to pass the time. There was; however, something more to discover. Something muted or artfully clandestine to uncover. As a non-believer, perhaps I could never understand. Although for a moment, I thought I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My companion and I had come by way of Albania’s southernmost cities. In Kuçovë we parted ways, promising to reunite at the top of the mountain. With my thumb out I hailed the attention of a mischievous looking man, eager to spare the sweat of the hopeless-looking American and to withdrawal as much as possible from the oversized wallet that must surely accompany the oversized backpack. Quickly, I talked him down – first, from 2,000 lekë (about 20 dollars), then 1,000 (about 10 dollars), and finally 700 (about 7 dollars). That was the going rate, so I jumped in to greet my new and somewhat acquiescent friend, Genti.

Halfway up we stopped for coffee and a shot of raki each – Genti’s treat. By the time we reached the festival (a 15 ½ mile trip), it was as if we were old friends between whom money could not come. Gratefully, I shut the car door and went on my way, thankful as much for the free ride as I was to have now gained a solid footing. The drive up had been somewhat discombobulating. I arrived at the center square and caught sight of my erstwhile companion. Together we lay in the grassy field that would later become our home for the night. A nearby family offered us bread and meat. We ate to our hearts content and basked our full bellies in the warm sun. But we had come with a mission, and the day was growing older.

The mission was to find the rest of our group. There was no phone reception atop the 7,927 ft. mountain. Most of the group had probably returned to the warm sanctuary of the mountain base after a night spent in the icy, windblown exposure of the mountain valley. Some though, we expected had stayed. And we were determined to find them.

Our explorations took us to the killing grounds. There we found the remnants of the slain and their unwitting successors – caged-in, condemned to be slaughtered. There were two different terraces where men butchered their sheep. Once drained of their lives, the sheep were hung on large metal hooks and skinned. The men wore heavy boots as they trudged through the hundreds of pounds of blood and gore. Some men had been tasked with clean-up duty. Outfitted with a wheelbarrel and pitchfork, they took to the task of shoveling piles of stomachs, intestines, livers, and feet into their crude depositories, but at a rate well behind that of the steadily accumulating mountains of entrails. At once they dumped their loads down the backside of the mountain, only to return to a much greater chore than they had left. It was an insurmountable undertaking.

Despite its wanton appearance, the melee between men and sheep was pure at heart. For the men holding the knives, it was a sacrificial act. The blood they spilt, they spilt for God. Some had traveled with their sheep from thousands of miles away, some as close as the nearest village. In a way, they remained shepherds up to the minute they became butchers. On a trip from the festival grounds to the tekke shrine at the peak of the mountain, we rode with such a man. There, in the back of a pick-up truck, we rode together with him and his sheep. The animal’s legs were bound together so that it could not move except to wriggle around on its back. With an empty seat in the cab of the truck, he sat with his sheep at great expense to his own comfort, if only to ensure that, at least for its final moments of life, the sheep would be comforted by its once ardent protector. On the ride up, he stroked the head of his dwindled flock. On the ride down, he lay its carcass in a bag with the knife safely wedged between its ribs. At least this one had died with a view.

On a clearer day, it is said that the view from the peak of Mt. Tomorr lays witness to the Adriatic Sea and its adjacent earthen neighbor – Italy. We had no such perspective, but the surrounding mountains and deep, plummeting cliff faces were awe inspiring enough. There the tekke stood – an insurgent to nature’s most scathing elements. There the men drenched in guilt and blood entered to wash their hands of the life they had taken. A single drop of blood smeared on their foreheads. Their candles lit at the alter. Their prayers drifting from their lips through the frozen, cloudy air.

Back at the festival, we soon realized we had missed the crowd. No other volunteers remained. So, my companion and I settled in with a beer or two each, some raki, and the company of some new friends. I had never spoken so much Albanian. The raki kept my lips loose and my pride fettered. We drank and danced. Holding hands with drunken strangers, we danced in a giant circle to the ever quickening music pumping through the speakers. Hours of sweating and noise induced deafness brought me to my limit, so I traversed down the rocky hill from the makeshift bar turned night club, away from the now unsettling music. I soon found I could not escape it. The desire to dance drunkenly into the early morning like the cocaine-brazened, rave-craved youth of Europe’s most black-lit clubs, had managed to manifest, even in those isolated mountain valleys, like mushrooms in a damp forest. I looked out onto what should have been an eerily quiet night and covered my ears to block out all sound.

In my brief deaf respite, I saw the blinking lights of the tiki-shack nightclubs as fireflies in the night. It must surely have looked quite different one-hundred years ago. In fact, it must surely look different at any other time of the year. Then I realized my disconcertment. I was in a solemn place, but solemnity was ostensibly absent. In this place I could speak Albanian for hours and pretend I was experiencing a uniquely Peace Corps moment, but with the ability to escape effortlessly into disquieted and out-of-place familiarity – the latest pop music, Amstel, and strobe lights.

As I walked back to the tent, I realized that this spectacle meant more to its partakers than mere gluttony and consumption would reveal. I couldn’t grasp it. I did, however; realize what it meant to me. I realized that Mt. Tomorr was a microcosm of the country. There, history and tradition united in battle against the encroaching forces of modernity. The babas (spiritual leaders or fathers) wore thin white robes with green jackets and a variegated sash around their waists. Upon their heads adorned green, fez-like caps. Their faces – long, straggly grey beards. Adjacent to them, punk kids emulating Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” wore fake leather jackets and knock-off aviators to boot. But it wasn’t the babas and the punk kids at war. It was a subtle confusion of old and new. Two worlds colliding like a giant ship against an iceberg.

In Albania, these two worlds mix in such a way that neither way of life is completely autonomous from the other. Living here, it can be frustrating to be in neither place.  It’s a contentious limbo with opposing forces constantly reshaping its undulating form. Some things are almost the same as in America, but not quite. Hot showers are a possibility, but only within an hour and a half block from 6:30 to 8:00 o’clock in the morning. Women are free to go where they please, as long as they can bear being stared at like a roast of meat over a fire. Beggars pull at your sleeve for money, but they are not supposedly competent adults, they are filthy Roma children tugging at your pant legs who live under scraps of refuse.

If you wanted, you could choose the life you want to live and live it; staying within the realm of modern life, frequenting the swanky coffee shops, and dining in the air conditioned restaurants. But you could never block out the rest of it. Surely, it would be more of a hassle to pretend you could. Instead you balance on the tight rope, taking care to respect local customs while also honing your texting skills and spending way more time on Facebook than you thought you ever could. My time on the great mountain granted passage into the old way of life, though still contaminated by present day’s unwashed hand. Of course, with all the blood and shit, sanitation was kind of an afterthought.

Here’s some pictures:

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Avash, Avash – Qingji Bëhet Dash

One day I was eight and I thought I’d stay eight forever. For a while, it seemed like I would. The next year I was a freshman in high school – awkward and gangly. In a week I had grown five inches and was driving my parent’s minivan around campus – an aimless college virgin. The next day I found myself a resident of a foreign country – a not-so-idealistic Peace Corps volunteer with a half-ass five o’clock shadow, three chest hairs, and wearing the same threadbare boxers from three days before. I imagine the next two years will pass in the blink of an eye. The past five months certainly have.

It’s what weeds out the would-be volunteers from the will-become, the have-become, and the became – a twenty-seven month commitment. Before I left, people would mention how two years was such a long time to be away. I would envision how I might respond in similar conversations following my service. My imagined rebuttal? The very same question, thrown back to solicit an awareness of their not-so-distant, mundane past: “and what have you been doing the past two years?” I image too, that most people will respond in the same “oh, not too much”, “nothing really”, or “just been working a nine-to-five” sort of way. It is my feeling that we are all so self-absorbed in our own trodden lives that we remain unaware of life as it is lived in whatever place AWAY might be. But, I didn’t leave my life behind. I’m alive and I’m breathing new air. I’m living new experiences. I’m expanding my breadth of knowledge. I’m developing my skill sets and strengthening my personal character. But how to explain in more vivid detail how my life is lived day to day, week to week, and month to month? What, you may ask, am I actually doing here?

I’m sweating. It’s hot in August and the heat is all I know. I sweat. Sometimes I shower. I sweat some more. I live in a damp, salty skin. Instead of sleeping in a bed, in my home; I sleep on my balcony, where the air moves and dries the day’s coat of sweat from my naked body. It’s so hot I can’t seem to concentrate. The degrees in Centigrade betray my comprehension of the temperature – 43°C or 109.4°F. I spend hours in a daze trying to find the energy and motivation to accomplish something productive. I go to my office where the air is conditioned. But I’m the only person in a great, big, sterile room that used to be the main lobby of a bank. I can only sit in that room staring at a computer screen for so long. My coworkers are on pushimë (vacation) this month. When I feel especially unmotivated I spend a day at the river or take an hour-and-a-half furgon (minibus) ride to the beach.

July passed in a similar sun-beaten daze. A USAID supported training session on Advanced Participatory Methods in Tirana. A kick-ass Fourth of July extravaganza in Ksamil. Playing host to numerous and various holidaymakers: fellow PC Albania volunteers, three PC Jordan volunteers, and CHwB Tirana staff members. But it is the day to day moments that burn more brightly in my memory. Befriending a fifty year-old antique dealer with a dirty sense of humor. Spending hours over coffee talking with people about myself and what I’m doing here. Holding a fifteen minute conversation in Shqip (Albanian). Haggling with a driver about the cost of a bus ride to Tirana and winning. Counting the shooting stars, lying on my balcony stark naked to escape the sauna that is my oversized apartment. But I’m sure, when you ask me in nineteen months about what I was doing in Albania, I’ll regale you with a more impressive- and productive-sounding story.

It might go something like this – just in a more condensed, less technical, elevator-speech style oration (and delivered in past tense):

The cool office which I frequent Monday through Friday is the regional branch of Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB) Albania – a Swedish non-profit organization working primarily on cultural restoration projects throughout the Balkans as well as elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Africa. CHwB uses cultural heritage as a tool for peace building. In a region with a very contentious history, CHwB focuses on preserving and maintaining tangible and intangible cultural heritage (i.e. important buildings, historic monuments, cultural artifacts and practices) as a way to address shared problems and rebuff heartfelt differences.

Knowing almost nothing about this conflict mitigating tool, or conflict management more generally; I have been assigned to improve the organizations community development approach in Gjirokastër. Contrary to what some might characterize my job to be, I am not here to protect or preserve the city’s cultural monuments. Rather, I am here to facilitate the participation of residents, many of whom are owners of important UNESCO classified monuments, in protecting and preserving their cultural resources. The problem, as I and many others see it, is apathy and the seemingly ubiquitous perspective that someone else (i.e. the government) should intervene to prop up the quickly dilapidating city – likely a remnant ideology leftover from communism.  The challenge is devising a way for people to recognize the importance of preserving their properties and to take ownership of their problems.

Essentially, I’m here as a community organizer. At this point, that means getting to know people, learning more about my community, familiarizing myself with the problems people face, and gaining a better understanding of the culture. If you ever wondered why the Peace Corps requires volunteers to serve a minimum of twenty-seven months; it’s because getting to know people, building trust, learning the culture, and all the other things that come with it, are really difficult to do. Most volunteers spend their first year perfecting those tasks. It is usually only in their second year that volunteers are proficient enough in the language and well-positioned in their communities to make headway on important community projects. Though I do expect to have some gradual, albeit intermittent successes; I also don’t expect that my experience will be any different. Though I may wake up tomorrow a forty-five year old husband, with three kids, and an established career; I must now live and enjoy the slow, sweaty moments. As the saying goes: avash, avash – qingji bëhet dash (slowly, slowly – the lamb becomes a ram).

Here’s some pictures (the Gjirokastër castle, Brendan, me hitchhiking, me and my language tutor Arben, the Pazar, and the beach-side town of Dhërmi):

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Sunburnt Patriotism and the Lost City of the Adriatic Sea

This is my second Fourth of July spent in a foreign country. It’s hard to explain why, but you never quite appreciate your own country for what it is (for its people, places, and things) as you do when you’re removed from it. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. You never appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Pick your cliché.

The Fourth of July is perhaps the most widely celebrated holiday in the Peace Corps. On any other day, the worldwide distribution of Volunteers would appear similar to a hundred colonies of ants scavenging the forest for food. On America’s Independence Day, the ants return to their colonies, or resurrect new ones as temporary hideaways.

What is it that brings us together? Maybe it’s that on this particular day, we choose to celebrate the one thing we all have in common – a U.S. passport. We come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, practice various faiths, and ascribe to dissimilar convictions. But, at the very least, we are all Americans living and working abroad. We may have come for different reasons, but we came after all. We’re here, and we’re all we got (besides strong and steadfast support from the home front – thanks everyone). Whatever the reason, we came together. We came to our respective countries of service. I came to Albania. And on the Fourth of July, the Albanian ants marched to the beautiful beach-side town of Ksamil.

While we were there, a few of us stuck out our thumbs and took a trip down the sun-kissed, citrus-laden coast, to the ancient Venetian city of Butrint – the lost city of the Adriatic Sea.  The pictures that look like they could be from an Indiana Jones set capture very little of the ancient city, but highlight some of Butrint’s ancient wonders. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My Head Blanket On the Water in Butrint Nuk a Di OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My Dream Come True Mordor Mordor Band Cover OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Mens Style Guide Me_Kat_Ivy OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Me and Mary Me and Panda at Syri i Kalter OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Me and Kat OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Lunch on the River Making a Fire 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 Ice Cream OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Full Steam Ahead OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Fouth of July Group Pic Fourth of July Group Pic (Buzzed) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Diving into Syri i Kalter OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Confusion Butrint Pose Butrint Pose 2 Butrint Band Cover OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Band Pose on the Edge of the Water OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Are we doing this Sittin On The Dock Of The Bay Scotch Catch Off The Dock Snag Just Keep Swimmin Go In Peace OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA American Superman GIF Backflips Chillin on the Dock OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA What... OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Walking through and ancient doorway OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This is how you do it OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Patriots OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Shqip Wrecked The Amazing Dress_Shirt 2 The Amazing Dress_Shirt Shume Turp OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Boys The Entrance of Mordor OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The Log Pose

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