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Thursday, February 26, 2009


Here's the lake I've been running around every afternoon with Hajri!

Its about 3 km outside of town, and we run around and back to complete 3.5 circuits of 3 km each-- or 10 km total. Nothing compared to marathon training but its nice to get out and MOVE!

Oh yes, and there are dogs there but they are stuck on the other side of the water and can't get to us. :)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chris is now a PLAKU!

Plaku is the shqip term for ‘old man’. Plaka is ‘old woman’, but I have many more years before he can call me that. We celebrated Chris’ 26th birthday in Delvine, a small hidden town about 1.5 hours south of us, in the company of our friends Monica (Del), Alexi (Del), Allan (Gjiro), Greg (Gjiro), and Meghan (Ksamil). Monica put together a delicious Mexican-Albanian style feast of beans, salad, spit roasted chicken, fruits, and to top it all off: Betty Crocker’s very own Funfetti cake. Ahhhh cake in a box. America.

On Saturday afternoon we went walking out of town (not far) to an old mosque that has been kept up very well. There is a nice woman who lives adjacent to it and owns a cafe next door. She maintains the mosque and surrounding grounds and opened it up to our posse, happy and excited to meet a group of shqip-speaking Americans. Especially Monica-- I've decided its her dimples Albanian women seem to fall in love with, or perhaps the way she's mastered the sideways head bob to indicate 'oh yes of course I agree'... ;)

View from the outside

Monica and Alexi are participating in the Model UN conference with a group of students from their high school, which will take place next weekend. Their group was chosen to represent Vietnam, and will be debating their resolutions with other Albanian students regarding Climate Change, Anti-Trafficking, and Deforestation. Because of their newfound interest in Vietnam, Monica asked Chris and me to give a presentation based on our trip there. We ended up showing them some photos, a small peek into modern culture and geography, which seemed to open their eyes to a larger world beyond the policy decisions they have researched for months on the internet. The next day we went back and actually stood in as 'expert witnesses' in order to allow them to practice debating and prepare for outside questions, which was a lot of fun and hopefully helps them in Tirane!

This is from Day 1 practice session, there are actually 13 kids in the group. But you get the idea.

Ahh well the trip was short but fun, its nice to get out of Gjirokaster every once in awhile. We took a 7 am bus back over the mountain on Monday morning, arriving just in time to march into the office. I am a little 'merzit' in my office, having "communication" problems with my counterpart. I can't spill the beans publicly but oh man sometimes its hard not to spontaneously combust... We're working on a sexual health seminar with the university students and well.. I just can't even explain why its so frustrating to try and get people to think outside the box. 'Nuf said.

Oh yes, and Monday morning the guys in Chris' office organized a party in his honor-- complete with a breakfast shot of raki! [this is the traditional Albanian moonshine]

And later that night Hajri hosted his own party

This is Chris, Hajri, Adrien (waiter and friend), Allan, and Greg

Now its back to the grindstone.. I'm more interested in working on environmental awareness projects and March is here! Now how can I get the ball rolling....?

Some ways winter in Albania has changed me:

I crave shredded red cabbage with lemon juice for lunch, every day, and boiled beets for breakfast.

My splotchy red hands have sausage-fingers. [I thought this was a medical reaction to extreme salt intake or something, but after conferring with other volunteers it turns out this is a freaky winter phenomenon in which fingers swell due to the inescapability of super cold weather. Or possibly there are invisible bugs that bite our joints at night. We’re not sure.]

I cannot get out of bed before 7 am. Its too cold and I don’t want to move!

The increased presence of stray dogs keeps me on guard 24/7.

Having a wood burning stove seems like a much better idea, despite the obvious deforestation it promotes.

My blow drier has become my best friend.

Smelly people no longer bother me. That's probably because I might be one of them.

My hair is actually starting to dread itself.

Romantic candle dinners are no longer a choice.


So I woke up last week and lifted the shades to our living room— it had been an especially cold day and night so I insisted we sleep in the slightly warmer TV/kitchen room. I was surprised to reveal a yard covered in SNOW! In February?? I thought we were passed this! Well, it’s back, and stronger than ever.
I insisted to my friend Alissa, who came from Shkoder to stay with us during her country-wide tour , that the sky is falling—a heavy downpour of thick white puffs, like sheets of dandruff. The snow fell for two days—nothing like our peaceful Christmas layer—then finally the rain washed it out.
The snow did finally melt, but ice-covered cobblestones proved dangerous! I slipped on my way to the bus station with Alissa— imagine a cartoon character who slides on a banana peel, feet shooting straight out in front. I semi-braced my fall by landing hard on my palms, which later swelled and turned purple. Sadly, my computer also landed hard on the ground, though at this point it seems to be in working order still… (teeth grinding)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Obama Rolls

I just found these sushi creations from so cool!

I don't know who this guy is, but he has uber vlere!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mardi Gras, Poker Night, Valentine's, and Birthdays

Do we really need an excuse to party? If so, this weekend we had at least 4. Not only did we have double and triple shared b-days, but on Valentine’s night a bunch of volunteers got decked out in Mardi Gras apparel (well, sort of, it was 40 degrees after all), put their dancin’ shoes on, and played Texas Holdem’.

Chris and I caught a direct furgon from Gjiro to Berat on Friday afternoon— joining up with Monica, Alexi, and Meghan who started out from Sarande. The twisted and bumpy road seemed humorously similar to a Disneyland ride—forcing me to sit upright, gripping the seat handle in front and peering quizzically over the edge. I was half wondering if and when we would go teetering over the edge; however, after so many months here I’ve given up the anxiety of impending death on the roads.

We’ve spent the weekend crashing at Lauren’s lovely apartment, which is on the third floor of a pallati [post-communist style concrete apartment] with a body-building gym underneath. Its really quite spacious, with two parallel bathrooms [labeled SEAT UP and SEAT DOWN] and several storage rooms. In the summer she puts a kiddie pool on the roof and sunbathes—I plan to come back a lot more for that!

There is quite a large crew of us here left in the wake of the party, 13? Last night most people crashed at the party (Corrine’s apartment) though we left around 1 am or so, after a series of unfortunate events involving out-of-town futbol players who couldn’t seem to keep their hands off the girls. Today has been a pretty subdued day, allowing hangovers to lift, and by 3 we were all our chipper selves again, ready to go out for coffee and crepes, and then begin a string of goodbyes while friends dispersed back to their hometowns.

For now we’re relaxing near the wood burning stove; various volunteers are reading, cooking, playing with Clara (Lauren’s 3-legged dog). Tonight’s menu includes homemade spinach pasta with garlic tomato sauce and salad, veggie delight! I think we’re gonna take off tomorrow and brave the road at 9:30, giving us enough time to get to work in the afternoon if we want. It’s been a nice break from G-town, too short. I realize how much I miss the other volunteers, and luckily we’re having a new group arrive next month! So there will be several meetings throughout their training (ahhh.. training! Has it been a full year already?) --luckily we will see each other again soon, when we come to meet them in Elbasan and share stories.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Adventures in Permet

Last weekend the guys and I took a day-trip with Hajri and his wife, Lori, on what turned out to be an unexpectedly worthwhile adventure. Hajri, who has become our newest closest Albanian friend, owns the lokale in the Old Town, under Chris’ office. He speaks a little English (learned from working in Greece for a few years), and is absolutely in love with all things American-- like most Albanians I know.
The six of us piled into Hajri’s station wagon at 8 in the morning and drove to Permet, which is a small town about 1.5 hours on the opposite side of the Lunxheri mountain range. Along the way we stopped for tea at a beautiful restaurant set over a spring with many cascading waterfalls surrounding. For now it’s still cold and dreary but in the spring/summer this area is breathtaking—I can hardly wait for the flowers to bloom and the bright sunshine to return!

Once in Permet we took a ‘xhiro’ [promenade] straight through town and ended up climbing a steep path to visit an old church. I’m not the biggest fan of churches but this one I will admit is beautiful—completely covered in Byzantine-style icons and frescos, delicately fading in color… Unfortunately most of the icons have been defaced, with words/ marks etched across the sacred motifs, and with their eyes completely scratched out…

After our church visit Hajri drove us about 10 km out of town and then down a desolate, unpaved and unmarked road to a hot spring! The spring is located alongside a small river, with an old Ottoman stone bridge crossing overhead. The churning pool of water is a milky blue-white, with a very faint sulfur smell, and absolutely no trash! [this is a rarity here!] We only dipped our hands in the warm water, vowing to come back for a longer picnic or even a camping trip—there are even nearby caves in which we could pop some tents.

From there we headed back to a big restaurant near the main road. I think its cute how there are so many glorious restaurants scattered in the middle of nowhere-- literally-- which seems like terrible business sense. In America all about location, right? But here these big isolated caf├ęs cater to a surprisingly steady stream of customers, which has led me to conclude that for Albanians who cannot leave the country (due to visa restrictions and lack of money) they provide a fun road trip for people who want to kill an afternoon with their families or lovers. Like us! We went for a weekend jaunt and ended up there for lunch. :)

In fact that lunch turned out to be a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner rolled into one—so much food! Typical Albanian fare: salad, cheese, bread, salse kosi (thick, garlicky yogurt), grilled and pickled veggies… and meat. This place specialized in leper [rabbit], so they brought out a kilo of charred bits, followed by a kilo each of baby pig, baby sheep, and village chicken stuffed with walnuts and breadcrumbs! Between the guys, at least 4 carafes of red wine were also consumed, thus we had an excitingly loud meal followed by a quiet, sleepy car ride. Overall, the amount of food was sickeningly gluttonous, but a lot of fun. I don’t understand why guys haven’t gained weight here?