Finally the end of PST is near—thus PC hosted the annual Counterpart Conference, which took place in Hotel Universe (where we stayed for Orientation upon arrival in Elbasan some 2 months ago) and we were able to meet our future co-workers, a slightly awkward but altogether positive experience. Everyone who came from Gjirokaster speaks English, but most of the Albanians who came do not, so we were all prepped to have an introduction and description of ourselves ready. The counterparts spent day one at the hotel attending sessions about the Peace Corps’ goals, methods, cultural awareness, etc., while the PCTs boarded a Tiranё-bound bus and took a tour of the PC office and city. Day two we stayed in the hotel together, doing session activities such as discussing our hopes, expectations, and fears. Each satellite site also shared a PPT presentation about our recent community projects, sort of to show off that we have tried to be productive, and immediately afterwards Chris, Greg, and I began the long, bumpy ride to the south.
We drove in two cars with Chris and Greg’s counterparts, and several of their friends who were returning from a conference in Tiranё, arriving in GJ in the evening. Traveling this route is amazingly frustrating—the 127 mile journey takes over 6.5 hours of driving (plus rest stops), especially since the road remains flat and only passes through a few mountains toward the end. However, rumor has it that over 23 construction companies were hired to build the “road”, which is why sometimes it is a long, wide, perfect stretch of asphalt that stops short into a loose-gravel, pitching path full of holes for a few miles, then followed by another decently paved stretch perhaps with many or only a few irritating potholes and jagged chunks of missing ground, etc. It’s a cycle, over and over. Apparently everyone had an uncle in the business with favors to call…
Regardless, the opportunity to live in Gjirokaster is priceless, and we are stoked to call this our new “home”! The city is built into the hillside, extending down from the enormous castle that dominates the mountain, and is surrounded by an array of gargantuan mountains and forests and scattered villages. The old quarter is the most beautiful, with a few hundred large stone houses nestled into the steep, twisting cobblestone roads, and is brimming with shady grape vines and fig trees. Chris and I are reminded of the silver city we visited in Mexico, called Taxco, which also had winding, sheer streets and cobblestone roads, as it was developed on and around the mines that have now made it very wealthy, though I prefer it here because the food is better. Its so odd that this medieval site is not yet swarming with tourists-- although there are a few now and again who are so obvious and fun to pick out—but the tourism office just opened last year and is only just now (with Chris’ help) creating a plan to advertise, make the city accessible, develop necessities such as a collective hotel/ restaurant guide, and generally improve tourist-minded initiatives to draw in traffic through Greece and/ or Italy.
Chris’ counterpart, from here on Luis, has spoiled us by giving a private tour of the city, treating us to many meals and kafé breaks, introducing us to numerous awesome people, and generally making sure we are absolutely comfortable in every way. He is really great—in fact, so are all of Chris’ counterparts! He is working in the Office of Administration and Tourism Development, which is located in the old quarter, and they have presented him a private desk with a computer, internet, printer/scanner access, and they even remodeled and installed red carpet for his arrival! Luis, who is also a tour-guide in the nearby seaside resort town of Saranda, took us around different neighborhoods of the old and new quarters, into the castle, and to several historic buildings such as Enver Hoxa’s childhood home (which has been turned into the ethnography museum) and the former residence of Ismael Kadare, Albania’s famed author.
Greg, who is also a talented artist, has been assigned to work in the fine arts school; and, together he and Chris are already conspiring to collaborate on an endless list of projects that can be mutually beneficial, for example, having the high school artists work on a traditional Albanian mosaic that can be used to beautify some of the public walls.
I will be working down in the new town, within the Directory of Public Health, where (I think) I will be doing health promotion. The office consists of 3 persons, including myself, and although the man who came to the CP conference can speak English words, I often do not understand the meaning of his messages, so I hope to use Shqip mostly.
We have a 4th site mate, Tara, who arrived late last night, and with whose counterparts we were invited to go on a long hike through mountains. Our group set off at 8:30 this morning, intending to walk to an archaeological site Tara will working at, called Antigone. The ruins date back to the 3rd century B.C. and were built by “King Ptolemy of Egypt”, who we are inferring to be the Greek Ptolemy who had an affair with the Egyptian queen… The city, which is situated in what was then Greek soil, was apparently a large and prominent center, named in honor of Ptolemy’s niece. Our journey into the mountains became more than I expected—literally scaling mountains farther than our eyes could see! We stopped a few times in the shade, where my skin would suddenly wretch out buckets of sweat, but thankfully we were high enough to catch a breeze that dried me off. Once at the site, I was surprised to find furgons arriving with school children, and then several cars full of “important city people” and computer/speaker equipment to set up the makings of a pagan festival! At noon we watched young kids perform traditional games and dances, then took off once again into the mountains and back to the city. The return trip should have been easier, mostly downhill, and faster, however we didn’t have a guide this time so we became somewhat *utterly* lost and trailed over and around several different mountain paths that sometimes led us astray… Eventually we did make it back, stopping for a rest and drink in the town center, before being dropped off back home to shower and rest.
And that’s where I am now, typing on our balcony that overlooks the city of Gjirokaster. From here I can see the length of the castle, endless speckled stone rooftops, the lower modern city, and beyond that an enormous wall of green and bluish-grey mountains. Tomorrow morning we will board the bus back to Elbasan, and we have 10 final days with our host families before returning for good. Gezuar!