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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mirupafshim Shqiperi

I admit I never wanted to come to eastern Europe.

After turning down a position in (subsuharan) Africa our recruiter said she could nominate us for an Eastern European country, but if we said no we shouldn't expect another offer. My heart sank. Europe? That's the last thing I wanted for my peace corps experience. I signed up to go live somewhere totally new and interesting, out in a lush tropical jungle or in the barren desert steps.

The peace corps website groups Eastern Europe and the Caucus region together; is she hinting that we would be in the Balkans, or would the Stans be included?

Chris and I went to the Phoenix public library and pulled out all of the country books they might send us to: Moldova,Macedonia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Ukraine, and Tajikistan. Kyrigistan boasts incredible beauty and isolated villages up in the mountains where the snow hovers 365 days per year (eek! send me to the jungle!). Georgia sounds quite interesting, though apparently a vigorous drinking culture which might be a little offputting. Ukraine was considerethe breadbasket of the communist block, that could be nice. However the one country that stood out as the most untouched and perhaps unpolluted by foreigners was Albania, the tiny once-communist outpost lodged between Italy and Greece. If we have to go anywhere in the region we hoped it would be there.

I remember landing at Tirane's tiny airport, approaching its green valley on a cold March day. The entire group of volunteers, 37 strangers I didn't know I would grow love, was bused to Elbasan and quickly herded into a large hotel at the city's edge (ahh Universe. You will forever hold a place in my heart.) I will never forget (and in case I do thank goodness I have this blog) taking a walk around town on that freezing, rainy day, hopelessly disappointed in my new foreign home. I could have been any run down American suburban neighborhood, perhaps in New Jersey- the buildings looked like normal concrete blocks, the fast food shops advertised pizza, there were portly white people wrapped in jeans and long winter coats bustling through the streets.

So much for indigenous shamans and birthing rituals.

Albania is very much a Balkan state, full of hot headed little Napoleans and women whose fashion sense is that of a prostitute. During the communist regime religious ideology was banned (unless your were worshipping the cult hero Enver Hoxha) and many of the ancient Byzantine churches and ottoman mosques were destroyed. While some buildings survived and a few have been restored, the real heart of people's faith has been thoroughly erradicated.

For a Muslim country it's a little odd that pork is practically the national dish. My host family was baffled when I asked them if they follow the five pillars of Islam, they had never heard of it. Being Muslim inside Albania means little more than perhaps what region you are from, or explains one's family name, which was surely changed during the Ottoman occupation. Albanians outside Albania (namely Kosovars and Macedonians) are far more devout Muslims; the women are more often covered and their mosques provide these Albanians a sense of community.

So two and a half years have passed since Chris and I moved to Albania. I've gained an incredible wealth of knowledge about this region's history, politics, culture, and modern life. I picked up the language (sounds very nonshalant but it was a lot of work!). I saw corruption. I still see corruption, and it's easier to pick it out everywhere, which makes me feel kind of jaded. I learned to eat and cook (and enjoy) new and previously off-limits foods (like plain yogurt and oily pastries). I even began to enjoy monotanous circle dancing!!

Ok so it's not what I expected, but I had an incredible experience in Shqiperia, and changed my opinion of Eastern Europe and the Balkans entirely. Along the way I found dozens of lifelong friends; leaving them is probably the most depressing part of finishing service.

And the people? I'm a believer that there are good and bad people everywhere. From a hitch hiker's viewpoint Albanians are the kindest and most generous people- eager to pick up a foreigner and even likely to take them for a coffee! Like many Peace Corps volunteers I too found a circle of amazing friends and neighbors, I think that's just how life works out. It's pretty hard to stay long in a small, close community without eventually finding people to love and care about. I was just lucky enough to find them in the Land of the Eagle.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pema e Thate and Plazhi Monastir

I hope to never forget the incredible beaches surrounding Ksamil, only a stone’s throw away from the Greek island of Corfu.

Corfu is so near, but our beaches are just as nice...

For 4th of July Chris and I made our way once again to the coast – how could we not?—to spend some days in the sun and join other volunteers and friends for a bbq.

Also in town were a handful of PCVs from Romania and Ukraine, as well as our Finnish friends, Mia and Ville. Chris and I met Ville 2 years ago in Laos, and through the blessings of Facebook they were able to find and stay with us a few nights in Gjirokaster. They introduced us to the beloved Finnish pepper candy, Tyrkisk Peber, which consists of ammonium chloride, sugar, licorice, and salt. It’s… an acquired taste. Anyway, they were wonderful guests, cooked us delicious Indian food, and shared stories about living up the Land of the Saami (Reindeer People). I’m even more encouraged to go there and experience 23 hours of daylight, soak in a proper sauna with birch whipping, and see the Aurora Borealis!

With 'the Fins' Ville and Mia while watching futbol at an outdoor cafe

For now, I’ll take sea & sun.

Monastery Beach is one of my favorites. It’s a semi-private cove that no one except locals knows of. There is no transportation to the beach so after swimming and lunch, then falling into a comatose state for a few hours, we walked back to town. This allowed a great opportunity to admire the view of Lake Butrint in the east and the setting sun in the west…

Me at Monastery Beach

Some men playing dominoes by the seaside

Lake Butrint is actually an estuary, where mussels are harvested (see on the right?)

The next day we walked (my first time) over the hills to Pema e Thate (Dry Tree) Beach. This area is probably the closest in proximity and likeness to Corfu Island, and although a café and beach chairs have appeared in a few of the coves, it still feels like a private oasis. I almost hesitate to write and post photos for fear of aiding the inevitable oncoming rush of tourism...

Road to Pema a Thate

Over the hills we go...

So worth the walk

In the evening we attended a bbq with the larger group. Our goal was typical American food, including burgers, potato salad, chips with guacamole (!!!), and good ol’ apple pie (thank you to whoever’s parent who shipped that Krustex mix). We stuffed ourselves silly and watched a little World Cup, played some darts, and generally made muhabet.

4th of July fun at Tani's bar

It is so not fair that we live near such awesome beaches. I know, I know, what kind of Peace Corps is this? Our friends visiting from Ukraine and Romania could not get over our luck. I am so grateful to have been placed here in Shqiperia—for many, many reasons— and not least of all for the chance to live in Mediterranean paradise...

Sun setting as we approach Ksamil. Those rings are the fish pens.

Totally bizarre juxtaposition of village life meets tourist resorts

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?

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