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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Maiden Voyage

Destination: Tepelene, city of Ali Pasha
Distance: 32 KM x 2= 64 km round trip
Time: 3.5 hours
Terrain: semi-mountainous, patchy road

Last weekend I took my first long ride on the bike!

First, the scene:
A few dozen volunteers --mostly those in the group that recently arrived, as virtually all of the G11ers have left the country-- gathered just outside of Gjirokaster for a critical mass tubing excursion down the river.

Chris has been organizing tubing trips since last summer, usually starting at the bridge in Kardhiq (head of tributary and near an air-pump station) and getting out where the river collides with waters from Permet. They assure me the water is fine, but I have my doubts. I know for a fact the hospitals dump their waste into the rivers, and the idea of swimming with aborted fetuses and syringes makes my skin crawl... Not to mention the garbage from every village and town upstream...
But the others are brave!

While the group embarked on their floating adventure, I slipped into my new jersey and padded shorts, then packed my klean kanteen, a camera, towel, and spare clothes into my side pannier. Mp3 player? Check. Helmet? Check.

Totally legit with helmet and all!

Ahhh… freedom! The experience of biking versus riding in a bus or car is absolutely incomparable. I was able to stop and explore many times-- near an old bridge I always notice, in a village with a pretty church, at the fish tank stand with the lonely seller... Without the restrictions of glass windows the view of Albania’s landscape is even more majestic.

Sa bukur!

Fresh fish anyone? Raised right here in the mountains!

There were some mediocre hills to climb, which weren’t so hard, however, it was midday so the on-coming winds were mighty strong. Even on the downhill I was forced to pedal. Near Tepelene is a place called Ujё Fhtotё (Cold Water)—one of many roadside springs in Albania—where people sell snacks, local honey, and mountain tea in the shade next to a few restaurants and cafes. I happened to meet people from one of the dozens of “I Love Çamёria” buses also stopped. From Elbasan, a lady explained to me, on their way with hundreds of others for a Cham festival in Sarandё.

At Ujё Ftohtё, where people stop for fresh spring water and to buy mountain tea and honey

Chams are an ethnic group from Chameria (Çamёria), in the northern Greek Epirus region, who were expelled to Albania after WWII. They have their own unique clothing and music, and are fairly active in minority rights activism around here. Family origin still runs deep.

Dozens of Cham buses decked out with banners passed me on their way to the festival

So, after filling my canteen with fresh water, I finished the last hill up to the city of Tepelene to wait for the tubing crew, resting again in the cool shade overlooking the valley.

View of the valley below from Tepelene's castle

Somehow I beat them—the tired, worn out, and sun burnt group meandered up towards our friend Alana’s house where we then had a bbq party in her front garden. Not only is her garden beautifully manicured (by her adoptive gjyshja), but her house sits on a street inside the city’s ancient castle walls. How cool is that?

Some of the survivors!

Alana's front yard/ garden is shume e bukur~~

With tubes doubling as chairs, we feasted on grilled summer vegetables and chicken, potato salad, watermelon, and Albanian spice cake. Before the vodka-spiked watermelon made the rounds, I set off for my journey home to Gjirokastёr. The trip back was so much easier, as the wind came from behind me, and it was cooler out. Chris and a small group caught a ride back to town, passing by me with cheers, and only one dog came chasing after me from the fields. All in all—success!

Relaxing on the tubes while food is cooking

My ecstatic anticipation for our upcoming bike journey is good compensation for having to leave Albania. :)

Monday, June 28, 2010

MMmmm mmm Kos!!

For anyone who has ever met me, you’d know that food is an important part of my life. Especially in the PC, we tend to talk a lot about foods— some kind of coping mechanism or something, who knows? I think for a traveler food is also one of the most interesting and pleasurable cultural experiences; a comparable set of snacks, dishes, and flavors based (mostly) on indigenous ingredients that visibly shift across regions. Sometimes the food can make or break a country’s like-factor; for example, Laos. Beautiful landscapes, people, and traditions, but sheesh! Raw minced meat salads? And buffalo fat stews? Not my cup of tea…

Albania has AMAZING food. OK I’m stretching my opinion a bit. Albania has amazing ingredients. Traditional foods in the south are pretty similar to Greek foods we all know: spanikopita (is called byrek here), pastiçio (cheese and macaroni casserole), dolma (stuffed grape leaves), musaka (layered casserole of potatoes, eggplant, meat), etc. I get pretty sick of Albanian foods though. There are 2 types of restaurants in this country: Pizza/pasta and default Albanian, which rarely strays from an unwritten menu of qofte (lamb meatballs), fries, thick yogurt, and 'Greek' salad.

Some selections from Kujtim's, a restaurant in the Old Town

But I want to talk about my food. Over the last two years, I’ve found a plethora of delicious fruits and veggies to experiment with. Albania also produces lentils, beans, bulgur/ wheat, and an assortment of dairy conditions. I say ‘conditions’ because it starts with milk but can turn into butter, white (feta) or yellow (kaqkavallё) cheeses, ice cream, gjiz (which is something like cottage cheese, but really not the same), dhallё (salty yogurt drink), sour cream, yogurt, etc., all depending on simple variations of temperature and time.

Elbasani couple selling their home made cheeses, Kaqkavallё on the left, Djathe i Barthё on the right

But do you know how amazing yogurt is? Its variations start with fermented kos from cow, sheep, or goat milk, and they do taste very different. Sheep milk is very thick and creamy (much fattier) and usually hard to come by, goat milk is smoother (less fatty) and almost impossible to find, and cow's milk (sold in stores and typically made at home) is kind of sour compared to the others. It can be thickened to make salce kosi, and then (!) can be turned into urli once it sours. Dairy has evidently been a lifeline in this country for centuries and Albanians have mastered ways to consume it!

Near the top of Mt. Gjallice, this gyshja and her family live off of the bi-products from their cow and sheep milk. They kindly invited us for a lunch of yogurt bowls...

I appreciate the way villagers recycle water and soda bottles to sell milk. Just don't forget to boil it!!

So anyway, back to yogurt. One of my proudest achievements in the last two years (please don’t judge me) has been mastering the art of yogurt making. I have created dozens of batches of spoiled milk along the way, sheepishly returning to my landlady and komshi [neighbor friends] to ask politely for another gotё of starter kos. I have also boiled more than my fair share of milk clouds over the stove. They say a watched pot never boils, but I swear as soon as I turn my head the milk inevitably foams up, exploding all over my kitchen! I’ve got it down now though. And it is sooooo worth it. I swear natural yogurt must have some addictive substance in it, because after you try it the taste of store bought yogurt simply isn’t worth the calories.

This is a milk cloud just before it explodes all over my stove

Absolutely the best breakfast post-run: homemade goat yogurt+ homemade granola+ village cherries~~~ Yummm!

I’ve been inspired to share my love-hate relationship with yogurt making because I recently read Julie&Julia while hiding out on Ksamil’s beaches. Such a funny writer! I won’t recommend the movie though, because I’m pretty sure the producers had to censor Julie’s sarcastic foul mouth rants and sexually explicit friends, and really that’s what makes the book. But if you’ve seen it let me know, I could be swayed.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Vetem Vajza (Girls Only)

Recently I spent the weekend with my friend Meghan, on a girls-only vacation.
Well, we didn't necessarily mean to exclude our sitemates, but we happen to be girls and we wanted to do things that the boys simply don't enjoy doing. Such as eating a batch of chocolate chip cookies for dinner and watching a Glee marathon. (FYI: I just got a copy of Glee season one and I'm hooked! I know its stupid, but the characters are so over the top that I can't help but laugh. My favorite is the cheerleading coach. Yours too, right?)

Thai noodle picnic (with Leslie, but she took the picture)

Anyway, Meghan lives in Ksamil, a tiny village south of Sarande, near the big archaeological park of Butrint. The beaches here are absolutely PRIS-teen, and not too overdeveloped with restaurants. Local specialty is mussels, grown right there in Lake Butrint. Yes, dining on greek salad, white wine, and mussels in red sauce while overlooking the sparkling water or a blazing purple and pink ocean sunset is the epidomy of posh-corps. Also, since Meghan is the village's first and only English teacher (so funny to walk around and constantly be assalted with children shouting HELLO teacher! Howarr youuuu?) she has free and unlimited access to beach chairs and top service at the lokales. So that was our plan: beach by day, movies/ World Cup by night. We also took some secret trips to some secret islands, but I won't talk about that here now... you'll have to email me if you want details.

Absolutely the ugliest picture of us. But you can see the beach is beautiful!

Unfortunately, this tiny village once known for its aromatic orange groves has been razed and replaced with a smattering of big ugly cement hotel-homes. Meaning that, while comatose in the winter, the place explodes in the summer when people return from Greece and rent their empty rooms to Kosovar and Albanian families. Specifically, in August. During that month electricity dwindles (last year Meghan didn't get enough surge to keep her mini refrigerator running, or heat the oven--although really who wants to cook in August?-- and her one bare bulb light flickered with barely enough juice to read by). Ksamil also trucks in water. Yes. Evidently no springs nearby, so when all those families come for their pushim and want to take nice long hot showers, well, there simply isn't enough. So poor Meghan doesn't get to flush her toilet for a month. That's ok though, because maybe the mosquitos will stay in the toilet bowl instead of galavanting out on a blood sucking mission...?

The Gjiro guys came for awhile, trying get in on the fun. They went home promptly when we threatened an evening of Glee...!

I'm getting off topic. I want to talk about the political mahem that has shaken Ksamil. Some months back the government in Tirane decided it was high time to start punishing people who built illegal buildings. Something or other... Tirane has jurisdiction over Ksamil... blah blah and they happen to be Democrat.. Ksamil happens to be Socialist... So they posted notices with lists of illegal homes that were to be demolished. And indeed they were-- bulldozed, toppled over, blow up with dynamite.

The doll out front is supposed to protect the house from evil.

Most of them appear to be unfinished, typically families away in Greece who use their earnings abroad to bit-by-bit build their homes. Some of them were totally finished with families inside. Entire life savings that were poured into their homes-- wiped out in an instant. While I do wish the government would step up and protect cities/villages from this form of rampant 'development', its deplorable that they ignore it for so long and then step in so late in the game. Especially since these 250 chunks of rubble are now an even bigger eyesore, left behind like a post-war apocalypse.

This is the village's only school. What a school yard! Who's up for some hopscotch or b-ball?

Along the dirt road to Meghan's house...

Please don't get me wrong, I love visiting Ksamil. Full of lovely people that
have been good to Meghan. But its such an iconic example of how government functions here.

A neighbor. They probably live in Greece.

This post is entirely my opinion, thoughts from my head with absolutely no political bias or real emotional ties. Please don't take offense if your view differs. I welcome readers comments, but am not interested in a debate. My intention is only to illustrate to friends and family a snippet of life around here.

View from Meghan's shpie. See all those buildings?