Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This time we had marshmallows

I went camping with a group of about 20 volunteers in the mountains near Puke this weekend. Karen, our designated G11 master cook, made hobo packets (meat and veggies wrapped in foil and placed in the fire) plus franks and beans (that were good even if the beans were hard!) and two kinds of pasta salad. When we finished even the pot of hard beans, Karen declared that we were all way too easy to please and that she should not try to work so hard in the future. I don’t believe her- I think that she will continue to cook incredible food (and I hope that I get to be around to have some of it!). The best part of the evening was when Jenny, who just returned from a trip to the States to have her wisdom teeth out, pulled out three bags of marshmallows and a box of graham crackers! We roasted up the ‘mallos and introduced some Albanian guests to the magic that is S’mores!

In the morning (after a very early rise- thank you Karen for the alarm, ha!), we hiked back down to town and had a visit with the Puke girl’s friend Peperimi. He is an “alpinist,” as well as a beekeeper and a funeral director and was part of the first Albanian expedition to the Himalayas. He has a passion for showing the beauty of the Albanian Alps and is working hard for the Puke Eco-tourism Association. In the summer he takes groups camping and hiking and in the winter he does snowshoeing and alpine skiing. I think that at some point (if he can get enough money) he would like to build a lift and open up a ski area.

I think that the area around Puke (and Peshkopi too) has great potential for outdoor recreation activities. Coming from Colorado, where most of our economy comes from summer and winter recreation tourism, I see a great potential for development of an industry here. The wilderness is mostly untouched, mostly because for a long time it has been inaccessible and isolated. The roads are getting better, however, and environmental dangers are looming. There is a huge problem with trash all around the country and the mountains are no exception. In a recent trip into the mountains near Peshkopi, a friend of mine witnessed clear cutting of the forests (for fire wood) in what was supposed to be a protected area. The central government has not done much to protect or promote these areas and so it falls on local associations and individuals. The biggest challenge that I see currently is a lack of access and ease for outsiders (this is a problem in the whole country). There are no established hiking, biking or ski trails and there are no campgrounds or services for outdoor travelers. Many of the Albanians I speak to about this think that there is no market for this kind of travel because they would much rather spend their time at the beach in a nice hotel (people think we are nuts for sleeping outside on the ground), but believe me, I know people that love the outdoors and I think that my philosophy is “if you build it (and advertise that you built it), they will come.” I just don’t really know how to build it here . . .


August is wedding season. All of the young men come home from working abroad to find themselves a pretty young wife . . .

I attended my first Albanian wedding celebration last week. The Albanian wedding is actually a nearly weeklong celebration with complicated rituals. There seems to be a combination of old Albanian traditions combined with new Western traditions. There are generally two separate (large) parties for the bride’s family and then the groom’s family and then possible several smaller parties. The bride’s party is first (usually on Wednesday or Saturday night). Some members of the groom’s family (but not his parents) come and dance and then leave. The next morning, the groom drives across town with a caravan of friends and family and “kidnaps” the bride. The groom’s car is decorated and the caravan honks loudly so that the whole town can celebrate the wedding. In the past, this was done on horseback, and instead of honking, the escorts shot guns off into the air, so every time I hear the honking and am annoyed with the noise, I’m just grateful that they don’t use the guns anymore. That evening, the groom’s family hosts the main party. Again, members of the bride’s family come and dance and then leave. From this point on the bride lives with her husband (if he is the youngest, they stay with his parents). Most brides have adopted the Western “white dress” and may even do a more Western ceremony or combined party.

We were invited to one of the smaller party for friends and extended family. It was sort of like a combination bridal shower/ bachelorette party as it was only for people that know the bride, and the groom wasn’t even there. Even so, the bride dressed in an elaborate white dress and then changed into an equally elaborate red dress (I don’t know the significance of the red dress, if there is one). We danced (mostly in the traditional Albanian circle dance style) late into the night.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Three Olympic sports I didn’t know existed:
synchronized diving
pistol shooting
handball (kind of like soccer except all you use are your hands)

I’ve been watching the Olympics this week in three different languages (none of them English)- Albanian, German and Italian. I like the German channel the best because there is one announcer that gets really excited at the end of every race and starts yelling, especially if it is a German team winning, but sometimes even when it’s not.

Besides the Olympics, the best part of my week was riding back to Peshkopi in a car (yeah for no bus!) and stopping on the side of the road to pick fresh wild blackberries. Yum!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

This is not a vacation-

Although it feels a bit like one right now. There is not much going on in August in Albania except pushim (vacations) and dasme (weddings). Summer in general is a pretty slow time for people in Albania. There are often power cuts during the day and in the afternoon without an air conditioner it gets too hot to do much of anything (although Peshkopi is not nearly so bad as the rest of the country). In June and July, I had a lot of work to do because my office was preparing a huge assessment report about the region. I was able to contribute with something that I am good at- editing in English. The report was very well researched by my coworkers and it really helped me get to know more about the situation and needs here. I also did private tutoring sessions with two of the girls in my office (trade off of English for Shqip). Outside of the office, I started working on a project with Kenji. Working with a local NGO, he had the idea to start a community radio station. Once we get money to purchase the equipment, it will be run mostly by students at the two high schools here in town. Both the assessment report and a grant application for the radio station were done at the end of July and now . . . not much to do for a while. I will have more work starting in September- school will be starting and I plan to work with Kenji on some things like a Model United Nations club, maybe an English conversation group and the radio station. Also starting in September, the next phase of the project with World Vision will start and we will be having community meetings and writing a project plan.

Most volunteers take advantage of this time to do a little bit of traveling. Last week I had my very first houseguests when Denise and Julie (Group 10) came through town on the last legs of their grand northern tour. Since we don’t get too many visitors up here (something about 5 hours on a bumpy bus discourages people- I don’t understand!), we tried to make them feel welcome. When they got off the furgon from Kukes (4 hours, not paved, bumpy but beautiful I hear), we had dinner ready and fresh warm cookies. We spent the next day showing them around Peshkopi including a walk to the Llixa (hot springs).

When our guests were getting ready to leave, Kenji and I started to feel lonely, so we decided to leave with them! We got on a bus headed towards our friends in Rubik and Reshen, the last towns on their tour. Now, I have always had a bit of a problem with motion sickness, but so far I’ve been doing pretty good here in Al. I’ve been taking pills to help me get through the trips and practicing zen-like breathing and mind clearing to not get sick. So far it had been working- until I got on the Puke Bus (not to be confused with the Puke bus- which actually takes you to the town of Puke). We were surrounded by sick children and about halfway through the trip I lost my zen-like concentration and my breakfast. I think that my amount of road sickness is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle- car, furgon, bus= sick, sicker, sickest. I think that I will probably avoid the bus if I can for a while (even though it is cheaper and has more comfortable seats).

Anyway, the long weekend was spent in Reshen, then to the beach near Lezhe (just like a real Albanian), before heading down to Elbasan for one of my language teacher’s wedding. I am back home now, but I expect to take a few more trips this month and enjoy Albania while I don’t have too much going on!

Sunday, August 3, 2008


I wake up and glance at the clock- 4:30. The silence around me is absolute. I lay with my eyes closed listening to the silence around me. “Allahu Akbar” The silence is broken by the early morning call to prayer coming from the mosque on the hill. When the call to prayer ends, there is silence again and I slip back into sleep.

A rooster crows far away. Another rooster closer to my house answers its call. They will continue this back and forth for several hours. The clock shows 6:15.

Cars slow down as they approach the curve in the road- just enough. A quick honk as they turn the corner announces their presence as they pick up speed below my window. Some trucks rumble by full of bricks or wood. Some cars speed by music flowing from their open windows. The cars create a constant background noise- like waves crashing on a shore.

The metal doors of the shop downstairs slide up to let me know that the business day has begun. The slide down again in the heat of the afternoon to let me know that it is time for a break.

At 7:00, I can hear a young cow tied to the tree in front of the butcher across the street. Either he doesn’t like to be tied up or he knows his fate. No matter the reason, he makes his displeasure known. By 9:00 the cries have stopped and I bet there is fresh meat in the butcher’s shop.

As the metal shaves metal I imagine the sparks flying orange in different directions. The construction of the new court building is almost complete and the workers start early in the morning on the finishing touches.

All the cars in the line repeat a long slow honk. The second car holds the bride and groom- it’s wedding season. In the first car, a man sits precariously on the edge of the window or (even better) stands through the sunroof, filming the bride and groom’s procession through the town.

The packs of dogs, now more wild than tame but still resembling the everyday Fido, bark as night falls. A ripple of barking travels from west to east as they carry messages on to their friends in the hills.

Different than the sound that any car makes, the horse draws a two-wheeled cart down the street. The sound of the horse’s hooves on asphalt is cheerful and light even though the burden it pulls is not.

As darkness falls, music pounds out of the street. The origin is unclear- maybe a cafĂ© or the hotel. If this was not a nightly sound I would think that there was a party in the apartment block across the way. It’s late and I imagine the chairs empty on the street being moved by the music. I can’t hear the words; only feel the beat. As I fall asleep the music fades into my dreams.