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Monday, November 23, 2009

Art Projects with Eva's Class

Chris has been doing weekly art projects with some 2nd grade students in Kota Hoxhi School. Eva, one of the teachers we have gotten to know and work with frequently, is super open to all kinds of new ideas and creative ways to teach her kids (an unfortunately rare quality here), and opens her doors to us every chance possible. I've done a few health activities with the kids (for Global Handwashing Day we simulated germs on our hands using coffee grounds and Vaseline) as well as environmental games (the ever-popular Web of Life simulates biodiversity and allows a discussion for how and why we should protect our environment), so we are familiar with some of the kids and they all know us.
Here's some pics from the first meeting-- Eva explained to the children how unique our fingerprints are from one another, and then we made thumb prints and transformed them into characters. This was one of my favorite things to do when I was young-- thanks to The Great Thumbprint Book, by Ed Emberly. The kids loved it!

Chris drew samples on the board for the kids to try themselves

Kids busily printing their thumb characters

The following week Chris carved pumpkins and drew a Happy Halloween (Gezuar Halloween!) page for the kids to color in. Eva explained to them about this American holiday and what we do; something similar to the Greek version of Carnival they celebrate in February. Although for kicks we had them come trick-or-treat for bits of candy on their way out, something of course they enjoyed.

Check out them jack-o-lanterns!

Grab bag! American candy courtesy Arlene~~

Gezuar Halloween! a young vajza shows off her masterpiece

The next week Chris had the students draw fruits and fruit characters, unfortunately I was in Mal i Zi (with the camera) and thus we have no pics from that day. But we will continue! Perhaps thanksgiving this week, and then begin with Christmas festivities.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Festivale Folkloric Kombetare 2009

The long-awaited qui-annual (our best guess at every-four-years) national folk festival took place up in Gjirokastёr’s castle over the last weekend of September. During communism this gala was organized every four years, whereby groups from around the country and surrounding regions would come to show off their traditional music and costumes. It was a big deal, we’re talking shume rendesi. Well, it was scheduled to occur in 2008, but from what we were told they delayed it until this fall because 2008 was the 100th year anniversary of [the dictator] Enver Hoxha’s birthday.

Unfortunately, the festival is nowhere near as big and elaborate as it used be. National pride, state support for training and costumes, ambitions to be part of a vibrant community, etc. are severely lacking throughout the country, but there is just enough life to keep the festival going and draw a modest crowd of visitors from around the country. I presume its especially good business for Gjirokastёr-- people need to pay for hotels and food right? Though I heard afterward that the municipality demanded the hotels to put up the performers gratis, which seems unfair and self-depreciating for the local economy. So typical here!

I wasn’t supposed to be here for the festival. I had planned to visit Sarajevo with a friend, but our plans failed when she had to rearrange her travel dates. Thus, disappointingly, no half-marathon. I had trained for a few months—needed something easier than a full 26 miles, but still a bit of a challenge and a nudge to get out of bed in the early morning for a treacherous jog through dog-country. I don’t consider this a total loss, because really the training was what I wanted. And an opportunity to visit Bosnia’s capital—which I will, perhaps in November.

Most of the work during the folk fest was done by the Gjirokastёr Conservation Development Organization, the office where Allan is assigned. They are located at the obelisk which overlooks the city, castle, and valley, in a reconstructed former school. In my opinion their office (which is funded by the Packard Institute—ie Hewlett Packard-- and, who also run the Butrint Foundation) does most of the projects in the Old Town. [**Although I'm not saying they are free of corruption and inefficiency.] GCDO installed bilingual panels throughout the castle with maps that explain the layout and factoids, as well as brand new solar panels to illuminate the corridors. Ironically, the government collects castle entrance fees, which then get sent up to Tirane and into the pockets of the Ministry; so while America sends money in for local efforts, the Albanian government gets to pocket it. Gjirokastёr residents benefited: zero.

Anyway, GCDO is in the process of opening an ‘artisan incubator’ project, through which they are restoring the rooms above their Tourist Information Center, located in the center of the Pazar. In this space, they will hold workshops to train locals in artisan crafts such as woodworking and stone carving. For the first two days of the festival GCDO organized artisans from all over the country to come and sell/showcase their products in the streets of the Pazar, which brought a revitalizing sense of life to the upper city. I was placed on a panel of judges to evaluate the crafts and choose winners, which sounds easy but somehow carried on to an all-day affair. Que será, it’s nice to feel needed. The real difficulty was comparing apples to oranges— who can say whether wood carving is better or worse than the traditional costumes, or embroidery, or pottery, or woven rugs? And what can we judge these on—most marketable to tourists? Best preservation of traditional crafts (even if they are something no one would desire to purchase)? My fellow judges chose to follow UNESCO guidelines—concepts like innovation, craftsmanship, and sustainability were discussed. We eventually chose some beautiful stones that are painted with replications of the mosaics discovered in the archaeological park Butrint, woodcarvings from Shkoder, and a woman’s painstakingly embroidered traditional costumes from Tiranё. Regional, varied, categorical… voila!

OK so back to the festival. Each night we hiked our way up to the castle along with several hundred Albanians, a gaggle of PCVs, and the occasional foreign tourist. Chris and I housed a dozen or so volunteers each night, camped out on our floor, with Allan’s, Greg’s, and Seth’s houses also packed tight. On the first night Chris and I organized a bake sale with kids from the Red Cross to raise money for the youth center—we set up a table, some posters, donation boxes, and successfully sold batches of chocolate chip and sugar biskotat to passers-by. Of course a lot of people dismissed us as kot [worthless], or stingily shouted “I don’t eat cookies!” when we beckoned them, but overall I was surprised at how many people pitched in to the boxes and happily walked on. After the money was counted we decided it was a wildly successful venture, and are planning to do something similar at the schools. This was all Chris’ initiative and hard work, kudos burri!

Some nights we were able to climb up to the top of the castle wall and peer down on the festivities from above in our own private alcove. Others we piled in the back along the walls, or (once) I sat up front in the chairs with Patricia to take some photos. My pics are sorely lacking because I don’t have a zoom lens, but I hope to remedy that soon, and for purposes of displaying great art I’ll attach some of Patricia’s amazing shots.

(Courtesy Patricia Hong)

(Dancing Vajzat; courtesy of Patricia)

PCVs overlooking the fest (C. of Patricia)

Polyphonic choir (C. of Patricia)

By the 5th night of the festival I grew serenely used to the routine of “castle-time”; but ya know when you see too many temples in one trip and they all start to look alike? I definitely had that feeling for the costumes and music and general gaiety. I’m glad I was able to see the community pull together, even if for only a glimpse, and also to witness an authentically non-exploited festivity before it becomes something of global stature. That’s Chris and my dream— to peak into a piece of the world before the strings of ragged backpackers make a routine of it, before the organized tours are developed, before it gets listed in the Lonely Planet Top 100 Destinations. I hear endless stories of friends and relatives who traveled through Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Vietnam, Afghanistan… 20 years ago, when they were still traditional backwaters, off-the-beaten-path, the cheap places totally unaccustomed to foreigners wandering their streets, markets, and ancient sites. I swear I was born 20 years too late. But at least I have that now. Shqiperia is still so closed off and neglected by the rest of the world. But they will come, I know it. In fact, there’s no avoiding it, so I’m just trying to soak it up while I can. I’ll say, Yeah I used to live there. Back when they didn’t have electricity or water 24 hours/day. When people spoke in Old Leke. When the middle coast was nothing but empty stretches of white sand and turquoise water. And strangers would beckon you into their homes for a cup of strong Turkish coffee, just because you smiled as you passed by… Yeah, I lived there.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mid service and Maqedonije

We’re pushing 17 months in Albania! In August G12 gathered in Korce, an eastern city sometimes referred to as the “Paris of Albania”, to recap our first year of service and create a plan of attack for the next one, as well as several sessions dealing with post-service plans. The conference was mostly run by our own volunteers; some official how-to CV and resume info, grad school Q&A, discussions with a panel of expats working within various foreign organizations (consular officer, USAID, private sector, UN)… There were also MSC University “classes” where volunteers organized skill-sharing topics. Chris and I were part of the environmental hour—Chris taught Composting 101 and I showed how to recycle household waste into useful objects, like plastic-fabric. [ I can tell you a thousand ways to reduce, reuse, and virtually eliminate all of your plastic bags, that is if I haven’t already shamed you into refusing them at the store to begin with! ]

Some of the perks of our MSC were: 1) Peace Corps worked out a sweet deal to put us up in the super fancy Hotel Grand-- which had Wi-Fi and served delicious meals, and 2) the conference was *conveniently* scheduled during Korce’s annual BEER FEST! Festes e Birres is surprisingly non-Albanian, and by that I only mean to say that it’s a municipality-led production where all sorts of organizations and vendors work together to put on a large-scale event, complete with live music, all sorts of food (meat, meat, and meat), and the general population of the city showed up to support it and have fun. No matter which political party they belong to. I guess maybe Korce beer is just too darn good to pass up, and at 50 cents per cup why not?

Some of my favorite ladies!!

On the way to the beer garden entrepreneurs sold fresh grilled meat kebabs... and yes that's a bunker behind him!

So we attended en masse. We’re like a big family. We hogged three long picnic tables and created several towers of beer cups. I spent most of the time doing crazy dances with Maggie and Amy, and whoever else was game—one the bands even rocked some SKA! Albanians don’t dance to rock music so we were the main attraction…crazy Americans…all good fun though, and no messy beer-fights like last year. ;)

I don't think I'm allowed to post pics of volunteers gezuar-ing with big mugs of beer, so instead here's one of the many dispenser tents

After MSC Chris and I jumped across the border through Pogradec, catching a bus around the rim of the lake to Macedonia’s summer tourist destination of Ohrid. This town is beautiful! There are houses built up the side of a mountain, stitched with narrow winding alleys leading to a castle at the top (hmm, sounds like home), all with spectacular views of the sparkling blue water below. Many of the houses have been restored and converted into inexpensive guestrooms, and there are several restaurants down near the water’s edge to eat at, or just drink coffee and people-watch (also sounds familiar…). My guidebooks says there are 364 holy sites scattered around town, though the most picturesque is Sveti Joni (St. John), a well-restored church perched at the edge of a cliff.

Panoramic of Ohrid's lake

Church of Sveti Joni

For the most part, Macedonia’s churches and monasteries survived throughout both the Ottoman occupation and communism-- no easy feat. During the 500 years of Ottoman occupation, churches were forbidden to be taller than mosques, and many were converted into mosques and reconverted back later. They now serve as monuments of religious and national pride-- which is currently all the rage as the citizens are pushing for EU status, despite opposition from Greece…

One of the many, many beautiful churchyards. This one is peacefully hidden away from the crowds and full of wild plum trees!

Lake Ohrid doesn’t have any natural sand beaches, but a few of the cafes built decks to put chairs or couches with awnings over, so there are pockets of cozy hang-out spots. At the opposite end extending away from the city is a biking/jogging path that stretches out toward the national park, and there are more cafes and grassy areas to picnic or set out blankets and swim. Thankfully the lake and town’s beauty has not been destroyed by overdevelopment; I wonder why Albanians didn’t take more clues from their nearby neighbor.

Fishing is a popular activity along the lake, all throughout the day. At night it gets more interesting with so many people doing a xhiro along the water...

Boats bobble in the lake waters

One of the coolest shops is a paper making/printing shop. The owner has an original Gutenberg press! They sell beautiful handmade paper cards and books and iconic prints, etc.

Anyway, we stayed with a Mak PCV, a friendly older woman who I think may be in a more posh-corp position than us. In the evening, after dining on pizza and salad along the water, we hiked up to the ancient amphitheater to watch a performance from the Summer Days festival. The stone steps were packed with families; we watched two women sing classical opera in Macedonian (which is a Slavic language with a Cyrillic script, and strangely not at all related to Shqip) until we got sleepy.

Crowds of locals entertained by Macedonian opera in the amphitheater

Chris and I continued on alone the next day to Bitola, a town 2 hours east where we have a PCV friend. I met this volunteer in Albania, when she came to host a facilitation training for OA club leaders-- super nice girl. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Bitola is a cool place—very much an ‘Austrian architecture meets Turkish quarters’, like a mini-Sarajevo. My first thought in foreign countries is how well their city planners have done—landscaped parks, public spaces, garbage collection…?!

Bitola's main road, grandiose architecture with many cafes suitable for people watching

One of Bitola's beautiful mosques

At the outskirts of the city there are some ruins from the ancient city of Hereclea, founded by King Phillip of Macedon in the 4th century BC. [King P is advertised everywhere in MAK! Their national hero en par with Albania’s Skanderbeg.] Bitola continued to be an important regional center due to its placement along the Via Egnatia, an ancient trading route that connected Rome to the east. During the Ottoman period the city was a central location for consuls, and it was here that the Albanian alphabet was unified into the modern script in 1908.

Beautiful 'curtains' of red peppers hand in the markets here, they are traditionally roasted with spices and jarred to keep for the winter. They become a delicious pepper paste called ivar

If one person is successful selling steamed corn, why not 10? No one has heard yet about over-saturating the market..

So anyways, we stayed two nights, the second night another friend came to town and we all splurged on Chinese food. Heather took us hiking in the mountains overlooking the city, which are dotted with some discarded military tanks from WWII. We went for coffee on the main drag, where everyone hangs out to people-watch and gossip. I really enjoy sharing Peace Corp experiences amongst other PCVs—so much is different, so much the same. There are many similarities in Balkan culture, and yet small treasures—unique foods, varying social and political problems, differing geography and landscapes, etc. Even life as a PCV can be totally different—one would assume total uniformity in such a large bureaucracy but in fact no, every country’s program is run on its own. We get different medical kits, water filters, training methods, and so on. I occasionally get the opportunity to call my best friend, Anne, who began her PC service in Guatemala a month after my departure, and am always amazed by how extremely diverse our lives are, even though we are both “health sector PCVs”. Check out her blog you’ll see what I mean!

We found a tank on our hike! It was discarded on the road somewhere after the terrifying so-called "zoo" and the village where we met a man carrying buckets of milk home

From Bitola, Chris and I continued by bus to the capital, Skopje, which is a big, well, city. Its crowded and has lots of highways and shops. We spent most of our time hanging out in the Turkish Quarter, which is full of mosques, shops, some Ottoman bath houses that have been converted to art galleries, and a few museums (which were sadly closed). Here is where we caught our first glimpse of the Albanian community. Well, perhaps I should say Kosavar community, because although they were speaking Shqip, (cool! We could understand speech again!) Kosovar-Albanians are of a totally different culture than Albanian-Albanians. First and foremost they are much more conservative, and the women dress covered head to toe—and for those who have seen my pics you’ll know that Shqiptare girls leave nothing to the imagination. And Kosavars actually practice Islam, which is not common here. My host family was completely unaware that Muslims don’t typically eat pork, or where/what Mecca is. In general, Albanians identify as Muslims only as a family name, and they are quick to tell you that it was a name forced upon them hundreds of years ago during the Ottoman occupation. [Families who took Muslim names didn’t have to pay extra taxes to the Turks, and generally had less restrictions than those who remained Christian.]

One of the alleys in Skopje's Turkish Quarters

Traditional han in the Turkish Quarters. Travelers would rest the night here during the Ottoman period. Those with animals stayed in the slightly larger downstairs stalls where they could tie up the horses.

General state of buildings in the old TQ. The streets are winding, narrow alleys full of completely useless shops and some restaurants, and sadly the whole area seems to be collapsing

In the evening we hung out at a refreshingly bohemian tea house (appropriately named New Age Tea), which was a darkly lit indoor-outdoor garden setting, decorated with hanging fabric and Indian art. We sipped mint tea and wrote/sketched until it grew crowded, then quietly paid our bill and slipped out. The next day we spent walking, walking again, taking pictures, sketching, and generally absorbing the city feel.

Restored Ottoman-era bridge connecting the old city to the newer sections and downtown. Along the waterfront there is a 7 km jogging/biking path that's popular in the am!

Chris was absolutely enamored by these tiny little cars that are so popular here. Every time we saw one he would grab my arm and beg "Come on, wouldn't it be great to buy one and drive across Turkey?!"

Just before our afternoon bus I found a macrobiotic vegan restaurant, Harmonije, and bought the most scrumptious seitan sandwich I’ve ever tasted. I know most people cringe when I say ‘macrobiotic’, a diet which I don’t normally ascribe to, but let me just convey the relief of opening a menu full of seitan, tofu, vegetable salads, quinoa/ amaranth, and various concoctions of creative platters and flavors. Mmmm, yum.

Inside a restored Turkish bath house, now art gallery.

Outside view of the bath houses

Back to Ohrid! The buses were kind of weird to us because: 1) they all collected in a central area called a “station”, which I haven’t seen in a long while, and 2) buying the tickets was sometimes required a day in advance and other times impossible until the bus actually arrived, and we were never really sure why. We also had to pay extra to get our tickets validated and again to bring backpacks with us. Isn’t that normally all included in ticket costs?

The last two nights we stayed again with the PCV in Ohrid, wandering the alleys, hilltop fortress, and lakeside “beaches”. Oh yes and picking shameful amounts of wild plums! Kiwis, figs, and plums were absolutely everywhere-- a tourist’s paradise.

View from the castle

Eventually our time ran out, so in the morning Chris and I caught a ‘wild taxi’ to the border and crossed back on our side of the lake. We were too late to catch the once-daily bus to Gjirokastёr, however, good fortune smiled our way and we got picked up by two French tourists on their way to Sarande. Score! We rode in their back seat, and passed the time listening to differences they noticed in Albania from their previous trip here in ’04.

This cow wanted to play 'chicken' during our face-off at the bridge. He won.

And we’re back, at least for now. I tried to really focus on getting work done and check in with all my counterparts, because we’re heading to Tiranё for our medical check-ups, and then after I’m going to the OA camp for a few days. Having said written that, I should mention that Gjirokastёr is a popular town for PCVs and we had on average 3-5 friends crashing on our couches every night since returning. I feel terribly guilty for leaving again so soon, but I’m not exactly carrying the world on my shoulders here anyways. Summer slumber will soon be over, and I’m glad to savor every moment of this before winter sets in…!

And we're back. Welcome home.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Beach Marathon!

Breathtaking views from the top of the Llogara Pass

Man selling honey and bee products at the top of the Llogara Pass.

Lotioning-up at our first beach south of the Llogara pass. Bunkers are so handy!

So Jess and Amy invited us to participate in a coastal adventure, exploring every beach along the bregdeti [coast] that we can’t really get to by bus. Our five-some piled into their Kia rental and wound our way south, stopping in Dhermi East and West (to cliff-jump and also where we found a non-flying kite), Jali (super laid back cove, up-and-coming European tourist haven), Borsh (full of olive groves, where we ended up camping for the night after visiting the waterfall café), Lukove, and finally, our beloved Ksamil. There’s a super cool restaurant in Borsh that has flowing waterfalls underneath the tables; we stopped there for a late coffee and ended up camping out on the long stretch of beautiful white sand. We built a campfire in complete darkness and they roasted sausages on sticks while I used a melon shell to boil water for macaroni and cheese. (My newly preferred method of camping food—easy and makes no garbage!)

Trying so hard to fly a rescued kite in Dhermi

Brief stop in Himara's Old Town, up above the city. Chris fell in love with an abandoned house here with a beautiful view of the ocean, unfortunately the owners live in Greece and refuse to sell it.

Beach number 3, Jali. We're starting to wear ourselves out...

Borshi's waterfall restaurant, shume bukur!

In the morning I opened my eyes to find a herd of oversized wild pigs roaming past our sleeping bags, hunting for garbage. We quickly packed up and, after a cell phone search that led us back to the waterfall restaurant, high-tailed it to Ksamil in order to get there in time to do an English/Life Skills “game day” with some of Megan’s students. Megan, Travis, and I organized some activities that focus on sun protection while at the same time helping them to practice English, followed by some swimming races between the nearby islands.

Morning in Borsh (no pigs in sight)

Sun Protection life skills with kids. We played games and had races in the water!

Have I mentioned how in love I am with Albania’s lower coastline? I’m so glad I get to witness it at this moment in time, when its just becoming accessible but not yet overdeveloped in certain places. Ksamil was once a small, quiet fshat (village) full of orange groves, and is rapidly growing, sprawling, and filling up with big hotels and beach bars. However, its still amazing, especially from April through June before the tourists flood in.

Beach-side with friends. Life in the Peace Corps is rough.

That's the sunset I was smiling about!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vlasti Earth-Festival

Amy, her friend Jess, and I took off early on a Thursday morning, catching a ride to the border from Gjirokastёr’s crowded national road. At the border Amy sweet-talked us a lift from two elderly xhaixhai [“uncles”, an endearing term we like to use a lot] on their way to Athens. The men, dressed smartly in their woolen suits and newsboy hats, happily dropped us off in Ioannina, where we passed the morning exploring the downtown castle/ lake area. This was the town where the infamous Albanian tyrant, Ali Pasha of Tepelene, actually resided— before modern borders. What remains is an old city wall encompassing a labyrinth of aging stone and modern homes, a Byzantine mosque, an Orthodox church, Pasha’s tomb, and various other ruins. The Old City is set against the lake, separated by a nicely paved biking/jogging path and promenade, with one end stretching out to a street of large, plush cafes.

Panoramic of the lakefront; Amy and Jess sitting on bench at left, nut-seller's stand on right

Sweets shop in Ioannina-- look at all that baklava! So enticing with various shapes, sizes, and stuffings... definitely my guilty pleasure!

Discarded Byzantine-era tombstone

We wandered around the outer castle walls, under the shade of the trees, and enjoyed the breeze blowing over the water. Inside the walls I played photographer and made some wax rubbings of discarded tombstones on my handmade paper, some of beautifully carved Arabic script and others of delicate Byzantine tulips and motifs. Afterward we sat for lunch on an open street where Amy and Jess split some souvlaki (meat skewers) and I sipped a watermelon smoothie, and we happened to catch the attention of a young Greek man at the next table. He wondered if we were couch surfers and what we were up to, when we mentioned that we want to get to Meteora he offered to drive us out to the new autostrad. Free lift? Of course! Just had to grab some ice cream to cool down on such a hot day while he finished his food, then we were off.

Former mosque during Ali Pasha's reign, now Byzantine Museum

Amy and Jess "Yiamas!"-ing with local wine (that's "to our health!")

We made our way into the mountains (and I mean literally INTO, because the new road is a super highway filled with tunnels, some that stretch as far as 5 km!) via a string of friendly drivers, one including a truck driver who simply could not comprehend my attempt at speaking Greek. Finally he pointed his thumb to his chest and bellowed “Turqishte!” Ohhh, Turkish… hmm… I looked over at Amy and said “we know some Turkish don’t we?” after which she exclaimed (shoulder shake and all) Marshallah! Kizmet! And a string of random words used through the once-Ottoman region. We all laughed at such silliness, an instant friendship was born.

Eventually we arrived at Meteora and settled comfortably in a simply-built family camp ground with full facilities. Not what I was expecting because of the complete normalness—really I’ve forgotten what developed countries have available. The grounds were small but cozy, with a shaded, grassy area for tents and campers, a tiny restaurant/café in a courtyard covered in grapevines, showers, a cooking/eating space with grills, and a swimming pool. I actually have no desire to swim in man-made chemical pools, but the sheer novelty of it and surrounding scenery made it too tempting to pass up. So we took a dip—under the towering pillars of the Meteora and surrounded by multilingual European families. After showers, we somehow met up with a neighboring Englishman—Bill—who we ended up spending the next 36 hours with.

Shady restaurant/cafe at the campground

Despite my hatred for cats, this one was pretty silly and softened my cold black heart... I only sort-of wanted it to fall in...

Bill is a Grekophile. To the max.

We decided this immediately—not based on his endless stories of Greek vacations, nor his adoration for Greek food, life, history, etc., but in fact due to his constant references to the things Greece has given to the world.

For example, “I studied anthropology” “Oh! That’s a Greek word you know! Anthro, meaning MAN.”

“In Albania they sing polyphony-“ “ Oh! From the Greek, Poli, meaning MANY!”

I could go on but it would be easier for you to imagine the father in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only replace the heavy-set, black-haired actor with a crinkly-faced, chipper bloke from Old Blighty. Needless to say Bill is pretty eccentric, and quite a talker. He liked to point out the obvious, simply noticing them and commenting out loud. “Oh look, trees.” But he is also super sweet and carefree and desperately wanted to be our friend. Luckily, Bill travels by motorcycle (*fantastic* way to make friends with 20-something year-old ladies!) and generously toured us around the mountains on the back of his bike. I think it we all enjoyed this equally; he played the suave aficionado zipping us up and down the hills, stopping to show us his favorite special viewpoints, while we soaked up the panoramic views and the wind whipping our faces.

Our Brit friend Bill, chauffeuring us around the Meteora

Perhaps I should step back and explain what IS the Meteora?
Meteora refers to the unique mountains formations that jutted up from the seabed millions of years ago as the plates were cooling and shifting. The immense pressure has caused giant pillars to project upwards, which now lay uncovered in an open valley in the Western Macedonian region of Northern Greece. However, tourists don’t come here to look at the mountains. They come to see the beautiful and ornate monasteries built in the tips of the pillars, thousands of feet in the air. Dubbed the “Hanging Monasteries”, they were built in the 1700’s by Catholic priests trying to escape Islamic persecution. Originally the clergy worshiped inside caves in the mountains (circa 16th century), it was later that they upgraded to stone structures, which could be accessed only by lowering a rope with a basket down from above. One of the monasteries striking beauty has earned international fame, getting featured in a James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (I am told) as the evil nemesis’s secret lair….

Beautifully manicured gardens inside the monastery (there's a nun hiding from my camera behind the left wall)

Presently, two small villages [Kastraki and Kalambaki] straddle the foothills of the mountains, with enough small hotels and restaurants to accommodate the millions of tourists who pass through each year. The monasteries are impressively well-maintained and still used by an order of nuns, housing landscaped gardens, walkways, and museums. Since we had our own transportation we could wait and watch waves of tour groups flood in and out; sometimes the clatter of indecipherable languages would grow loud and then suddenly disappear leaving us with a hollow breeze.

Amy, Jess, and me, perched on the rocks, overlooking Kalambaki

One of the big monasteries

This was the evil hideout in For Your Eyes Only

Greek pride!

In the afternoon we backtracked about 40 km to the highway for Thessaloniki, en route to an eco-fest organized by a Greek environmental NGO Ecotopia. Once again meeting a string of kind drivers, we pieced together lifts from the big city (Kozani) to a small town (Ptolemeida) to the village (Vlasti) to our camp site up in the mountain. Upon arrival we set our tent up amidst the already present clusters, then explored the grounds and began meeting friends. Except for a Canadian volunteer, we were the only non-Europeans present, with virtually everyone else being Greeks, specifically from nearby Thessaloniki.

Daily percussion ensemble at the festival

The festival turned out to be less environmentally-conscious/awareness-raising than I had expected, but all of the elements that I was hoping for were provided in the end so I’m very happy. Meaning, at first I was disappointed to see people carelessly littering the *disposable* food tins/wrappers (!), and there was a definite lack of organized spoken word / info sessions about how to be more eco-friendly… However, I really wanted to meet cool people [ check ], eat tasty organic vegetarian foods [ check! ], hear some awesome music [ double check], and discuss at least some environmental concerns with other interested persons [late coming, but check nonetheless—thanks Zoi!]

Each night around 9:30 the village filled with people from the upper campground to listen/dance/mosh to the bands. Night one we stayed uphill getting to know people and just chill out. Night two there was an amazing Greek percussion group that opened for Kulture Shock, a (quote) “gypsy, Balkan, punk-rock band”—they put on a good performance full of energy, but it was waaay too heavy-metal for my taste. I wouldn’t say punk at all. They must be transitioning to another genre with that reputation trailing. I will say, though, their violinist (from Tucson AZ!) is a super-cute fem that rocked the stage and had every guy (and girl!) drooling.

The final night opened with a hilariously terrible Greek rock band of sorts—something pitifully reminiscent of a 70’s wedding band. We’re pretty sure the singer was the heart-throb straight out of Empire Records (Cory Feldman?). I was entirely blown away by the next group, Rupa and the April Fishes, a San Fran based collection of Indian-born/French-American singer, super chill accordionist, cellist—a very unique sound! Listen to their samples on their site:

During the day we hung out mostly at the campground, talking with people circled around a morning fire (sipping cardamom-spiced coffee and sage tea), or in the grass soaking up the sunshine. One of the groups we befriended was a group of Israeli and German hippies, currently roaming across Europe in their junker van, selling homemade vegetarian creations—hummus salad wraps, chickpeas or lentils in chapatti bread, tahini and jam wraps, etc. They have a colorful poster announcing “Falafel Family” and appropriately decked out with butterflies and mushroom clouds. Hehe!

Amy contemplating the delicious creations at the Falafel Family stand

General Hippie-ness. Note the hammock, hand-sewn leather bags, and gallons of organic taxhini for sale (in the white jugs). Oh yeah and the guys busting out the musical tunes...

Another "Yiamas!", this one in honor of Olga's Saint's Day

Greek hippies. They were the loud ones next to our tent.

Kulture Shock

Rupa and the April Fishes

So all in all well worth the trip, I’d love to go back next year.

We ended up taking a bus back out to a nearby city and from there hitching our way back to Ioannia. Along the way we met several Jorgo’s, “call me George!”, who ironically all seemed to speak German. Jorge Number Two was so excited to meet us and absolutely appalled to hear we live in Albania (still a very big stereotype of Albanians as wild, violent people—- absolutely the wild west of the Balkans) that he took us out for a coffee at a hotel whose pool/café area looks like it was built for MTV Cribs. It was there that we discussed his upcoming trip to the States; he’ll be singing with his Greek band in NYC in December.

After a series of expressways and drivers we found ourselves waiting at a ringroad outside Ioannina, searching for Albanian license plates. Several cars and semi's passed us by, shaking their fingers at us to indicate "No, you don't want me. I'm going to Albania." with us desperately crying "Yes! That's where we want to go! Ne jemi per Shqiperia!"

Eventually we talked two very skeptical Albanian semi drivers that we wanted a lift, and in fact we live in Gjirokaster. They didn't believe us, which is weird because I was speaking in Shqip to them and NO ONE speaks Shqip unless they have a darn good reason to. Trying to call my bluff they asked what neighborhood I'm in. Then what family I'm staying with. When I replied the Hashorva's they shook their heads and asked "Do you know Ermal or Alma?" [that's my landlord's son and his wife]

Well of course. Turns out they are Ermal's friend and Alma's uncle. ;)
So that was it! We jumped into the passenger seats and cruised to the border. Kizmet fare...