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Monday, May 31, 2010

Goodbyes, Hellos, and a Pagan Festival

Chris and I headed up to Tiranё again, for a farewell dinner with our friend Patricia. This month the G11ers are dropping like flies, each week it seems 2 or 3 complete their service, boarding flights back to America. Some weeks back I went to Delvine to see Monica off, and Alexi left shortly after. It’s very surreal.

We didn’t cry at our COS conference; the fact that my life as a PCV Albania volunteer is coming to an end hasn’t really hit me yet. I’ve really enjoyed the last two years here, the people I’ve grown close to, and the position I’m in. Yes there are frustrations, and I sometimes wake in the middle of the night suddenly anxious to be back at home with my family, but overall I love it here. I’m sure I’ll be back in Shqiperia someday, but it won’t be the same. I’ll be a tourist, not a banore. I won’t have my network of 70+ friends scattered around the country to drop in on. Someone else will be renting ‘my’ house, sleeping in ‘my’ bed…

Beautiful landscapes of Shqiperia, I will miss it

On Thursday, Chris, Stephanie, Becca, Alexi, and I met with Patricia, Karen, and their guys from Puke for a dinner in the Bloku. FYI: That’s the fancy-shmancy area of Tiranё, where the Albanian glitterati and expats go for late night drinking. We ate Mexican food at Serendipity, where they serve quesadillas and chimichangas, margaritas and daiquiris. There may have been a few farewell shots of Tequila. Afterward we rolled over to a quiet bar to meet with a few more people and to drag out our time together. Patricia would be leaving on a 3 am taxi to the airport, so falling asleep was out of the question.

Goodbye Gezuar! for Patricia at Serendipity

Food Porn, introduced to me by Patricia and Monica: Quesadilla entry

Food porn: Chris' chimichanga

Stephani, Paricia, Karen, and me at Moma Bar (in the Bloku)

'Gezuar'-ing at Moma Bar

The next day Chris met with some COD volunteers to give some of their program staff gifts. He contributed a beautiful pen and ink drawing, inspired by Gjirokastёr, on faux parchment (ie. tracing paper “aged” with coffee). It began raining as we left the PC office; we hurriedly crossed the entire length of the city and squeezed into a Vlore-bound furgon, headed for the coast. I have mentioned this is prime beach season, yes?

At the top of the Llogara Pass

Many of the remaining PCVs convened there for a final Dhermi camping trip, on our favorite beach, Drymades (which was warm and sunny). Still relatively untouched (though each month more enormous hotels and cafes pop up), we like to cross under the rock arch to an isolated cove, where we can swim out to a large rock perfect for jumping.

Hanging out on the sand, enjoying our Mediterranean paradise

We camped with a bunch of recently sworn-in G13 volunteers, their first weekend of freedom after PST. I like the group; new faces full of ambition, eager to learn about life in Albania, and still wearing impressively unsoiled clothing, not yet ravaged by months of handwashing and dirty furgons. That will change, as will their figures. We unanimously agree that guys lose about 15 pounds while girls gain at least that.

PCVs from groups 11, 12, and 13

In the morning the group dispersed, some up to Lezhe for Bethany’s birthday bash, others down the coast for “work” at various festivals. Meghan was obliged to help out at an olive oil festival in Butrint that evening, while I needed to get back to accompany some Intrepid Travelers to the annual Pagan Festival in Antigonea. Once again, Chris and I hitched rides from town to town, meeting with interesting drivers and stopping for various coffees. Love the beach, but love my own bed and good rest just as well.

Final coffee with Amy (at least while in Shqiperia)

Sunday morning I woke to a cloudy, drizzly day. So bizarre! I slipped on my raincoat (buried back in the closet in hopes of never needing it again) and took my new bike to the lake for an early run.

A few weeks back we met a tour guide in Gjirokastёr accompanying a group of tourist from Intrepid Travel, a company that dedicates itself to responsible travel with respect to the local people, their culture, and the environment. She was interested in arranging future groups to visit a village, an idea I had frivolously brainstormed with my neighbor, Athina, months back. Perfect! After some back and forth emails and phone calls, we were gati.

At 10 am I met the group of travelers outside Hotel Cajupi and, squeezed tightly into a furgon (we took on some extra çuna), our group took off toward the villages across the valley. Athina’s village is called Tranoshishte, it’s the 3rd of 4 on the road out from Asim Zaneli (village where Seth used to live). Her fshat is utterly charming; not more than 15 houses comprised of 4 or so families, a natural spring, a restored church, an abandoned school room. The “center” of the village is an enormous shady tree that has a spring built into its hollow center. Athina’s mom’s cousin takes care of bees; everyone pitches in to care for the cows, sheep, and goats, which supply them with enough milk to make cheese, yogurt, and butter. Fruit and nut trees are scattered throughout, so each household is stocked well with figs, walnuts, persimmons, grapes (raki and wine), cherries…

First we went to the annual Pagan Festival in Antigonea. That’s an unexcavated archaeological park up in the hills, dating back to circa 300 BC. During our initial site visit 2 years before Chris, Greg, Tara, and I hiked to the festival with staff from the GCDO-- it’s all coming full circle!

Awaiting the official start of the Pagan Festival

Having fun with costumes and grass huts...

Pushim in between performances

This year's fest was not as well organized, pretty underwhelming actually. Not nearly enough costumes, singing, and dancing like I expected. After walking around the park, admiring the views of the surrounding Drino Valley, we drove back to Tranoshishte and sat for lunch with Athina’s family. More than lunch, a feast! Her mom cooked various Albanian specialties, including qofte (meatballs), byrek (flaky pie), fresh salads from the garden, handmade dolma**, fresh cheese, urli (kind of dairy product), gjize (another dairy), kulaq (sweet bread), walnut cake… plus endless gezuars of raki, wine, and beer!

Athina loads up the plates with delicious foods

**side note: despite the melding of Greek words and culture in the southern region, they use the term sarma, which is actually Turkish for “wrapping”.

Athina's babai used to play the flute while tending his flock!

After our bellies were about to explode (or just before they exploded, rather), we took the group on a tour of the village, to meet the neighbors, see the bee boxes, and relax for a coffee in the front garden. The morning had been overcast and dreary, but by this point the sky had cleared for a beautiful, cool afternoon. Eventually we made our way back to the city and dropped them back at the hotel. I’m so glad it worked out! Everyone seemed pleased with the arrangement, so I hope Athina and IT continue to work together...

Drying nenexhik (mint) for tea

Monday, May 10, 2010

Krosi Masiv

A surprising twist of events led us to organize Gjirokastёr’s second-annual Kros Masiv last month. Last years’ election gave way to new parties in ministry positions, which in Albania means that whichever offices switched over would now fire all the former employees and hire friends and family members from their party. By that, I mean all the way down the line to teachers, nurses, everyone with a state job. It’s a convoluted, corrupt, and unproductive part of Albania’s democracy, but I imagine this sort of thing happens around the world. Very frustrating.

Gjithёsesi! Several directors around the city switched over, including the Director of Education, who was formerly a gym teacher. He had a vision to recreate last year’s ‘fun run’ we organized (in which no one showed up) and wanted help from Greg, our friend and co-organizer Hajri, and me. Luckily all the work was done, with some minor photoshop tweaking of dates, we reprinted the posters and began promoting, forced to sit through another interview on local television. I’m nervous to speak in Shqip in front of people, especially recorded on television for my whole city! This was the third time Greg and I gave a public speech together (in Shqip). We tried to pretend we weren’t nervous as hell.

Organizers! Chris, Greg, Hajri, edhe une

The actual run was a smashing success! Every school was closed for the day so that the kids could participate, and some schools were even bused in from the villages. Runners started out along the national road followed the main road to the center of town, around the big Christmas tree. Outside the pharmacies a stage was set up with performers; circle-dancing ensued around the roundabout. I’ve never seen so many people out in the center at once, it was so fun!

Circle dancing in center of town.

Dancing on stage

I’m really happy to see this minor shift of public awareness embracing physical fitness. Usually exercising, especially in public, is viewed as turp, or shameful. In general, people don’t like to do anything strenuous, and only really fat people would logically need to. My first summer here I trained for the marathon and am still known throughout the south as the girl who runs, it’s so bizarre. This winter I started hiking from the lower stadium all the way up to the top of the mountain, which is similar to an elliptical machine, for 25-30 minutes. People used to gape at me open-mouthed, crazy girl! She’s sweating! Surely she’ll catch a cold and die! (My landlady absolutely throws a fit when I come home sweaty, insisting that I jump immediately into the shower before infection sets in)

Sponsored by the Olympic Committee

Top runners

However, I’ve noticed more and more groups of people out walking through the fields, hiking to the top of the mountain, and even running around the lake! Probably this has nothing to do with me, I just happened to live here while some wider awareness occurs. I’m simply the town’s cheerleader for physical activities. But in any case, it’s been fun to be part of the change.

View from the cafe perballe

Monday, May 3, 2010

To Delvine… By Foot!

Uuaaa? Oh bo bo! [shake or slap head]

That’s the reaction I’ve gotten all day after telling Albanian friends and colleagues that Chris, Greg, and I hiked up over the mountains all the way to Delvine. It’s quite a trek—5 hours uphill (stopping once for a pushim i vogel, or ‘little break’), 2.5 hours across the peaks (plus our 40 minute lunch break) toward the radio towers, and 3 daunting hours downhill (by this time my legs were wobbly and wanted to stop!).

Finally at the top, destination: radio towers

We set off around 7:30 from our house on Sunday morning, heading up into the neighborhood of Dunovat, which is actually above the castle. The houses blend quite nicely into shepherd shacks with animals running around, hard to tell quite where the city ends. We followed a trail into the forests, an abruptly steep slope (steeper than Gjiro’s city streets? Ironic, I know) until finally the forest ended and we found ourselves in a daisy covered field, our first clear glimpse of the valley below.

Don't we look so happy and strong before setting off?

We continued on this path, a narrow trail probably worn away by decades or even centuries of çoban (shepherds) leading their flocks of sheep and goats. I love coming across shepherds in the mountains, or even throughout the city streets and villages, especially the ones who still dawn the traditional heavy woolen black coat. Çoban are almost always thrilled to chat with us, a strange day indeed that a foreigner would know their language, their smiles from ear to ear revealing gummy mouths with a few remaining black stumps of teeth. However, we saw not a soul on today’s journey, and luckily no wolves either.

Stone piles help guide cobanat to the next peak

One of the toughest parts of the hike was up near the snow, not because it was cold but just the sheer endurance needed to continue up the 75 degree slant for so long, it seemed every peak we finally arrived at revealed another, larger hill to climb. Chris let off some steam by sliding down some snowy banks; when we get it uploaded to YouTube I'll post a link!

Snowy patches

Eventually, (finally!!) we reached the top, which leveled out onto a somewhat horizontal road, I’m told this was originally a military road but I doubt a vehicle could ever have really traversed it. The three of us stopped for a picnic and rest on a ‘tender’ strip of grass, along a peak overlooking both the Lunxhёria valley behind us and the Ionian coast in front, with the Greek island of Corfu visible in the distance. We ate and relaxed for a good 40 minutes, Greg and I not entirely too eager to move past the moment of triumph. But push on we did, mostly sticking to the road, always with the towers as our goal.

Picnic time!

Sleepy boys take a pushim

Some hours later we reached the road descending from the towers into the town of Delvinё below, full of switchbacks. Walking downhill after such an already long journey can be more difficult. My quads grew tired and shaky by the very end, after 3 hours and 20 minutes supporting my body against each step. We passed through some unexpectedly, amazingly picturesque villages, with lush green gumdrop mountains always present in the background. These weren’t the menacing, intimidating mountains we usually face (and that we just climbed), but fuzzy-looking friendly hills, just for decoration.

Lunxheria mountain range down on the left, Corfu (not pictured) to the right

Two good friends of ours live in Delvinё, Monica and Alexi. Only Alexi was in town that night, and our now-foursome went out for pizza together. The guys and I were pretty pooped, so after some cards and conversation at Alexi’s apartment, we caught the 9:30 bus heading back toward Gjiro, arriving at 11 pm and making one last uphill journey back to our homes before falling into a deep and lengthy slumber…

Dita e Tokёs [Earth Day 2010]

After returning from Spain we jumped right into spring projects, including several activities to promote Earth Day.

Edlira (the nurse I work with from the Directory of Public Health), Aida (leader of Gjirokastёr’s Red Cross, who also opened the Qender Sociale), and I gave environmental lessons in all the elementary schools, a feat that is more difficult than it sounds. In order to give lessons in schools we must first get a permission letter from the Director of Health, followed by a meeting with the Director of Education. From there, each school must be visited sometime in the morning between 8:30-10 am in order to catch the school’s director and ask for permission. Sometimes directors are hard to catch, as they are usually out drinking coffee. Once we get the go-ahead from them, we talk with the teachers to see which classes we can meet with and when to come. And then of course we have to come back to actually do the lessons, which sometimes get bumped or cancelled anyway. It’s something of a long process…

So anyway, our trio managed to get in to each school and do an activity with younger children. We played a game called the “Web of Life”, which teaches children about how elements of nature are connected and why we need to protect them in order to live. The kids form a circle, each representing an element of nature (river, animals, flowers, etc.), then pass a ball of yearn to other elements they are connected to (air to trees to birds to insects, etc.), eventually forming a web. I’m really proud of the women I work with because I can see them getting better, more confident and more professional each time.

Edlira with kids from Cajupi Elementary school

Throwing yarn balls for the Web of Life lesson at Urani Rrumbo

For older students, we presented my plastic bag power point and held discussion groups. Plastic bags are the bane of my existence, and, like in many newly developing countries, they are everywhere! During communism bags were not produced or imported to Albania, everyone used cloth bags. Once the gates opened up Albanians embraced qese plastike wholeheartedly, viewing them as very modern and efficient.

Aida and Edlira talking about plastic at Kota Hoxhi school

Unfortunately, waste management is scanty, and thus bags clog the rivers, roadsides, float across fields, and generally pollute every space imaginable. I’ve spent many hours here researching the effects of plastic on the environment and the efforts governments are making to combat this destruction. I can’t be sure, but it sounds like people are starting to wake up to the problem, and that it has become somewhat mainstream for Americans to bring their own bags to the grocery store. (I hope!!)

Aida presenting to a crowd of students at Urani Rrumbo

Chris did another set of Earth Day activities with Eva’s class, planting flowers in a nearby pocket park that has been long ignored. They also planted some of the flowers around the school. We went the day beforehand to talk to the kids about protecting the environment and made drawings of examples of simple ways they can help (planting flowers and trees, riding bikes instead of cars, and throwing trash into the can came up a lot).

Chris with kids from Eva's class, planting a flower garden

Planting a flower bed outside of Kota Hoxhi school

Other projects for the month include the Red Cross blood drive at the University. We went room to room to talk with students about the importance of donating blood and the possibility to save lives. Especially in central Albania, where there are extremely high numbers of people with Thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder requiring the infected person to get regular blood transfusions (very common in the Mediterranean). We got 36 students to donate, record numbers!

Giving blood is fun!

So yeah. Kemi pune. :)

Marrakesh with Amber and Sean

Chris and I caught a 9 hour overnight bus to Marrakesh where we met up with Amber and Sean, friends from ASU. They are serving as PCVs in a village outside Ouarzazat, both health volunteers. Upon learning that they were invited to Morocco I think Chris and I were a little green with envy (we lobbied hard to go there), and though in many ways I’m much more taken with Morocco’s rich and vibrant culture, this trip allowed me to be genuinely happy for our friends while accepting that things worked out wonderfully for us all.

Couscous tagines and fresh yogurt are standard Friday afternoon fare

With Amber, posing outside an ancient tomb

One of many tombs among the city

I like how Morocco is noticeably “different” from the western world, with few European imports, holidays and religious festivals I’m unaccustomed to, inverted city structures wherein long buildings encompass luscious private courtyards, and an extreme desert climate has molded the rhythms of daily life. So Peace Corps, totally unlike anything back home. However, my experience in Albania has pleased me in many unexpected ways that are still hard to articulate. I’ve learned an incredible amount about Balkan life and history, an area of the world I had never given a single thought to. And we happened to be sandwiched in between Italian cuisine and Greek islands, both of which spill over the borders. Probably best of all are the unequivably gorgeous landscapes and mountains, prime hiking turf, coupled with paradisiacal Mediterranean beaches. Work challenges and cultural adjustments aside, who could complain?

Rosewater, lotions, henna, perfumes... they have it all

Formerly the slave selling market, now clothing and dried animal parts are on offer

One of many bread bakers, producing hundreds of fresh loaves each day

So anyway, we found ourselves in Kesh, wandering the central square if Djemaa el-Fna until Amber and Sean arrived. Together we checked into a super inexpensive hotel they knew of, accordingly at the end of a long twisting lane of other hotels. Sometimes I think PC should serve as a travel agent, make some cash on the side and fill in the gaps caused by endless budget cuts… Seriously. Dey gots da hook up.

Beautiful inner courtyard of Amber and Sean's hotel

Kesh is pretty much just a big plaza, relatively empty during the day, surrounded by pricey cafes, and full of tourists. At night all hell breaks loose; out come the fortune tellers, henna artists, endless rows of food stalls, snake charmers, monkeys on leashes, potion and trinket sellers, and various entertainers (some men belly dancing in drag for example)…

Vendors getting ready for the nightly rush

Charming snakes

Water seller of the desert, now a tourist icon

Women decorate themselves with beautiful henna designs

People play funny carnival-like games in the square

Endless rows of food stalls serve dinner every night

We spent the days wandering Kesh’s various suuqs that branch out from the main square, winding down streets and through various decorative arches. I’d call it the City of Arches (and thus Fes would have been the City of Doors). Is this a sign I’ve become Albanian? After all, I come from the City of Stone (Gjiro) which is sandwiched between the City of Steps (Sarande) and the City of Windows (Berat)….

strolling through a covered souk

Streets are broken up by old arches

Olives of many varieties and colors for sale in the souk

It feels weird to step out of my Peace Corps role and become a simple tourist, snapping pictures, posing in front of foreign signs and buildings, sampling various “strange” foods (like snail soup). Luckily, Amber and Sean wowed people with their Tashlheit language skills, instantly transforming them from disinterested workers to the friendly and generous people they actually are. Most tourists are assumed to speak French so Moroccans are delighted beyond belief to meet someone speaking their own Berber dialect. That’s one of the most rewarding things about serving as a PC volunteer- crossing behind the cultural curtain and communicating with locals on an entirely different level.

Kids wait near the entrance to Ben Youssef Medrassa

Walking the narrow alleys with Amber and Sean

As expected, Moroccan food is downright delicious. In the mornings we ordered fresh squeezed orange juice (DH 3) from one of the dozens of stalls in the square, at lunch Amber and Sean haggled for our tagines of couscous and vegetables/chicken (DH 15), at night we ate bowls of harira (DH10), a tomato based garbanzo bean soup. Another delicacy A&S introduced us to is “fat bread”. Yes, that’s a flour tortilla cooked with onions, spices, and lard in the dough! Easy to spot because of the reddish color, an alternative to the normal riifa (pancake/crepe) smothered in honey. Sadly, we missed out on the pastille, a savory pie usually made of pigeon. Next time, perhaps.

Moroccan escarole soup

So gross we had to try it...!

Snail seller, cup-o-soup DH 3

Stall #49 is serves the best OJ

We learned that the best place to spend a hot afternoon is over at the nearby Cyber Park, where packs of teenagers come to hang out and take turns using the free internet kiosks set around. There are plenty of shady areas to sit for a picnic, as well as a fountain in the center, near an indoor cyber café.

Dried herbs and skins at the Animal Souk

Amber and Sean left early in the morning of our final day, so Chris and I wandered out to a few more tourist sites on our own. We hit up the Saadian Tombs and a few mosques, bought some dates and couscous to bring home and share with our Albanian friends who have never tried them, and wandered to the upper deck of a crowded cafe to take in the view, before settling in shoulder-to-shoulder with Moroccan families for a dinner at the stalls. Our stall served plates of fried fish/calamari, frites (have yet to visit a country that doesn’t serve fried potatoes…), and a smooth dip of grilled eggplant.

Bab Agnaou (Gate of the Gnaoua) is home for enormous storks!

Inside the Saadian tombs, resting place for about 60 corpses of the 15th century Saadi Dynasty

Chaos of the square, seen from Balcony Cafe (clever name huh?)

Midnight egg vendors after my own heart!

Dates and dries fruits are readily available... so tempting!

Our flight left Marrakesh mid morning, heading to Malaga, Spain. We arranged to couchsurf there with a German/Canary Islander, an art student studying in the nearby university. Our hostess, Katarina, was extremely welcoming, though we didn’t get to hang out much beyond the nighttime at her apartment since she was in school all day. She taught us a lot about life and living in the Canary Islands, and shared books of her artwork.

Malaga is a surprisingly pleasant port city, with many lush parks and palm-lined streets, lively shopping boulevards, and a beautiful castle on the hill overlooking the city. We hiked the switchbacks up to the castle and adjacent parador, pausing for a sunset view of the city’s port, bullfighting arena, parks and boulevards, before descending down the backside along with a few couples on mountain bikes.

View of Malaga city from the castle

Unfortunately, we arrived at the airport the next day to learn that our flights home had been changed to an earlier departure, and we had missed it. The counter attendants weren’t rude, but gave us the ‘that sucks’ shrug, and shooed us away.

After an hour of panicked phone calls to the United call center, who told us they couldn’t help and that we’d need to buy new tickets, mixed with several bouts of pleading at the SpanAir counter, they finally took mercy on us and rebooked our seats for the next day. Not wanting to show up again at Katarina’s door after such a nice goodbye, we decided to sleep in the airport.

Probably one of the Top 10 most uncomfortable airport sleeps I’ve ever had—no chairs or benches, so we sprawled out on the cold tile, under blaring lights and with warnings belting out every 3 minutes on the loudspeakers. Dawn finally came, so we washed up in the bathrooms, boarded our 10 am flight to Madrid, grabbed our box from the locked luggage deposit, and continued through Munich back to Tiranё. Home at last! Almost. Our plane landed at 1:30 am, so we had the pleasure of another airport sleep, though the Rinas airport has plush chairs to lie across. Take that western Europe! Another disheveled awakening, and soon enough we were on the bus back to Skanderbeg Square, followed by the 6.5 hour ride down to Gjirokastёr… I think running the Athens marathon was less exhausting.