Monday, June 21, 2010

The forbidden north (on the Edith Durham trail)

On Sunday morning I said goodbye to Peshkopi and we traveled down to Tirana to start our journey up to the "Forbidden North." The northernmost part of Albania as well as all of Kosovo is currently off limits to Peace Corps Volunteers and other US government employees living in surrounding countries. I have heard several justifications for this restriction. For the northern part of Albania it is because the area is still extremely isolated and hard to get to, especially in the winter when several feet of snow blocks the only roads in. Other reasons I've heard include the persistence of things like blood feuds and other old (possibly dangerous) traditions. As for Kosovo, the ban stretches back to the war in 1999 and the unstable conditions there since then and the establishment of diplomatic relations since they declared independence from Serbia two years ago. While all of these may be perfectly valid reasons, I tend to think that it is mostly political. Whoever makes the decision to open up these areas puts them on the line, because if anything happens once it opens up, then they will inevitably be blamed. Second, for Kosovo, the US government employees (embassy, USAID, military contractors) currently in Kosovo are getting hazard pay for being in a "dangerous" country- there is still a presence of the UN and NATO forces there. As soon as it is opened up, however, it isn't a hazardous place anymore and bye-bye hazard pay, so the people working there (and there are a lot- many more foreigners in Pristina than in Tirana) don't really want that to happen. The Peace Corps staff have actually been working hard to get these areas opened up, so hopefully sometime soon volunteers will legally be able to go there . . .

In the meantime PCVs either have to go illegally, or just wait until after they COS (we did actually have one girl sent home for being in a restricted area). I went ahead and went for the second option. So after a night in Tirana and a night in Shkoder getting ready and figuring things out, we left for Thethi.

You have probably never heard of a woman named Edith Durham. I had never heard of her either until I moved to Albania. She was a British woman that traveled to the Balkans in the early twentieth century and traveled around the area mostly by herself. At that point in time it was almost unheard of for foreigners to go to some of the places that she went, much less a woman on her own. She wrote several books about her travels and one of them, High Albania, chronicles her journey through precisely the same part of Albania that we were headed to- but she did it on foot. Anyway, since I read High Albania last year I have dreamed a bit of retracing her steps. When planning his part of the trip, it seems as if we did do that to some extent, except we were going to have to drive a bit. Also, a few weeks ago on the bus down to Tirana from Burrell, I met the most awesome old man (who gave me raki at 8 am on moving bus- only in Albania) who compared me to her, so this leg of my trip was dedicated to the memory of Edith Durham 102 years later . . .

A tip for travelers planning on going to Thethi (which I do highly recommend)- you can pay a lot for a private car, or you can furgon it like a local by going to the Kafe Rusi in Shkoder. To get there, walk on the street headed out of town to the north until you get to the area with the fruit stands, the furgons leave early in the morning (7 am).

The road to Thethi is certainly one of the most dramatic in the country. Although it is not the road in the worst shape (that honor goes to the Peshkopi-Kukes road) it is surely the scariest. Barely wide enough for one car, the furgon descends on hairpin curves over the pass and down into the valley. If another car is coming in the other direction one or the other usually has to back up to a wide enough part of the road for passing. When we got to the bottom, I understood what all the hype was about. Thethi is basically a perfect little village deep in a river valley surrounded by beautiful high peaks. Within short walking distance of the village there is a waterfall and a canyon, not to mention all the mountains that had my dad literally drooling.

Thinking of the steps of Edith, we could see the pass that led to the Valbona river valley, a hard 8-hour hike away. After much discussion and deliberation, we decided that it would not be a good idea for us to try that hike, as we were told that it was very difficult. Instead, we enjoyed a lovely day exploring the village and around and then returned on the furgon the next day.

The next step in the adventure was to take a ferry up the artificial lake created by the by the hydroelectric dams from Koman to Fierza. This is something that I have heard about and have wanted to do for a long time. Last year when my parents visited, I tried to figure out a way to make this trip, but there was no way to do it in the direction I wanted in the time that we had, so this was one of the first things on my list for this trip. We got up early in Shkoder and found the bus that would take us to Koman. At the end of the ferry trip we arrived in Bajram Curri and decided to hard straight on to Kosovo. After discovering that there was no afternoon bus, we flagged down a car on the road to the border. Our driver took us into Djakova, bought us coffee and delivered us directly to the bus to Pristina.

In Pristina, we met up with Tien-mu, a G10 volunteer that is doing a summer internship at the ministry of foreign affairs and just happened to have an apartment that we could stay in. It was great to hang out with Tien-mu, and Pristina is a nice town. It feels a lot smaller than Tirana, but is very vibrant. While we were there, they were celebrating liberation day (I assume from the Nazis) and there was a stage set up in the main square with music and dancing. It has a great xhiro street, perfect for strolling up and down slowly on a summer evening. Unfortunately, most of the "old" or historic buildings have been destroyed, so there's not actually a ton to see in town (except of course the big, gold, Bill Clinton statue!) They have a small, good, free museum, which's most interesting point is that it is missing a lot of its collection because much of it was "borrowed" by Serbia and never returned. There is a campaign to try to get their collection back.

On our second day, we headed to Prizren, close to the Albanian border. Prizren has a cute old town and a pretty bridge. The best part about Prizen was probably the museum about the Prizren League starring my new favorite Albanian folk heroes, the Frasheri brothers. I've heard the names of the Frasheri brothers here and there for the past two years (schools, street names, random statues), but never really knew what they did. Contrary to Alexi's position that they were the most famous Albanian doo-wop group, they were (especially Abdyl, with that sexy beard) leaders of the Albanian resistance movement and "Awakening" in which they started the fight for independence.

Leaving Kosovo, we headed down the brand new (and newly reopened) super highway. The only four lane divided highway in Albania, parts of it were opened last summer just in time for the national elections and tourist season (this road is mostly used as a way for Kosovars to get to the beach . . .) and then mostly closed in the fall because it probably shouldn't have been opened that early at all and the big tunnel was probably not safe for cars to go through (I went through it once last summer, on my way back from the tube trip and it didn't feel or look very safe back then). Now more of the road is open and appears to be much safer, just in time for the beach season.

Sent from my iPod

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A quick note

Hey there loyal readers!

So I have left Albania and started the 'big adventure.' What this means is, that this is no longer a Peace Corps blog, but now a 'travel' blog (ok, I know a lot of my blog has been about traveling, but you know what I mean). Traveling, being a tourist is very different than living someplace and traveling from it (which for the most part is the kind of traveling I've done). It is harder in a lot of ways- I don't know the languages of the places I'm going, for the most part, I'm staying in hostels and hotels rather than with friends and I have to carry basically everything I own on my back. So far it has been fun and interesting, hopefully it will continue that way.

Anyway, so a couple of notes about my blog for the next few months: I sent my computer home with my dad, so I'm mostly using my iPod to write blog posts, it takes me longer to write since I'm not used to the keypad quite yet. Second, since I don't have my computer, I don't generally have a way to upload pictures, but I will try to upload as many as I can whenever I get on a real computer.

Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hajde Korabi!

My dad arrived safe and sound (and with my new iPod touch!) on his wedding anniversary and just in time for my birthday. We headed directly up to Peshkopi where he immediately slept off the jet lag and I returned to packing and saying goodbye. On my birthday I had a small party. All my friends were pretty considerate of my gift restrictions and tried to give me small/light gifts. Unfortunately, lots of small/light gifts still add up to a lot and some hard decisions had to be made.

On the day after my birthday my dad, a couple of other PCVs, two of my OA kids and I started out for our adventure on Mt. Korab. At (nearly) the last minute the plans that I thought had been made fell through and other arrangements were made. Sometimes I think that all my efforts to plan ahead are just in vain, like banging my head up against a wall. . . But I still have to try.

Anyway, the arrangement's were made, we had a furgon pick us up and take us to Radomir, the village at the base of the mountain, about two hours away from Peshkopi. As we got closer it just got more and more beautiful. The weather wasn't great, but the rain and clouds added to the atmosphere of the whole thing, especially when a full rainbow came out. I don't know if I have ever actually seen the end of a rainbow before, but this one touched down in a village below us; I'm convinced that if we had looked we would have found some gold. . . Or at least really good food.

Our last minute accommodations turned out to be pretty great, with a family in the village of Radomir. We ate some good, fresh food and slept on sheep skins on the floor. In the morning, we got up early and started up he mountain. With a general direction and a map drawn on a cigarette carton we climbed towards the highest peak we could see. At about 2:00, we reached the top of this ridge. From there, of course, we could clearly see two important things- first, the ridge we were on was a peak, but not THE peak, and second that there was a much easier way up (and down) than the way we came. Knowing that we didn't have enough time to reach the REAL peak, we decided it was good enough to have reached a peak, took our pictures and headed down on the path.

We caught our furgon back to Peshkopi and I spent my last night in town frantically packing and trying one last time to consolidate everything. In the morning we headed to Tirana to have a calm night in with Jan and gear up for the next leg of our adventure.

Next up: the Accursed Mountains (finally not forbidden).

Sent from my iPod

Monday, June 7, 2010

A few last adventures

I got some great advice from a G10 PCV a few months ago about my last few months here in Albania. He said, "Do EVERYTHING you can do these next few months you have left in Albania. I mean it, do not waste ONE single day. Do those things you always wanted to do but for all the
obvious reasons never did." Thank you Matt for that bit of unsolicited advice- I have tried to take it to heart. Since the end of the Earth Day project, I have been trying to make the most of my time here and get to all the things that I wanted to do.

I started with a visit to the Venetian mask factory in Shkoder. I purposefully didn't buy any masks when I was actually in Venice, because I knew that I could get them cheaper (and help an Albanian small industry in the process) in Shkoder. Before heading on, I spent the night in Rreshen and made sure to say goodbye to the great students there that I met last year working on the play and with MUN.

A few days later I continued with a seriously awesome trip to the Skrapar region to go rafting. Seriously Awesome. Seriously. Everyone should take this trip. It is simply beautiful. I then spent a few days in Berat hanging out and finally visiting the castle there
(I'd been there twice before without making it to the castle.) Very worth it.After that, I spent the week in Tirana- getting medical stuff done, saying goodbye to a few people in my group and helping with a fundraiser party for some kids trying to go to America.

As part of taking Matt's advice and taking advantage of my last few weeks, I really wanted to make sure to spend some quality time with people in Peshkopi too. Seeing more of Albania is all well and good, but I think that what really means a lot to me is being able to go to dinner with my good friends here, having that last coffee and sharing one last circle dance.

But there were a few more things that I needed to get done outside of Peshkopi too. When we were in Italy, my traveling partner Connie and I were given a bottle of wine by the owner of the hostel we stayed at in Rome. She kept it and I promised that before I left I would come down and we would drink it together. Nothing beats a good bottle of wine or a nice walk along the lake shore . . . except maybe the good conversation with a good friend that can go along with those things . . .
What next? What haven't I done in Albania. Well, I've never ridden the train. I know what you might be thinking, "Is there even a train in Albania???" In fact there is- it is slow, only goes a few places and doesn't connect to the European train system, but it does exist! And it happens to exist from Pogradec (where Connie lives) to Elbasan. So decided to catch the train. Unfortunatly, I missed the train by about 5 minutes (the station, outside of Pogradec was a little farther outside than we planned on). But not to worry, the train moves so slowly that I was able to catch a furgon and beat it to the next stop! I actually really enjoyed the train trip. It was slow, but it was also cheap. And it was frankly nicer than I expected. Besides the fact that every window was cracked very badly, the carriages were not in that bad shape- they had comfortable seats and were clean. I could stand and look out the window, sit and read my book and not worry about getting car sick. Sure the trip took about twice as long (3 hours rather than and hour and a half), but it sure was a pretty trip!
From Elbasan I headed up to Tirana to do my final COS checkout and officially become an RPCV. The end was rather anticlimactic since I wasn't actually leaving Albania yet. After COS, I had a few days to wait until my Dad arrived, so I thought it was the perfect time to head to the beach. Probably the best (cleanest and not yet overdeveloped) beach in Albania is Dhermi, south of Vlora. I have heard nothing but good things about this place, but for some reason beyond me I never had the chance to make it down. Until now! Two days camping on the rocky, isolated beach was just what I needed to recharge. Because it was still really early in the season and the weather wasn't that great (a few sprinkles, but no real rain) there were almost no people on the beach. Just like I like it.
I headed back to Tirana to pick up my dad and head back up to Peshkopi for the last time.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Finishing Peace Corps can be compared a lot to graduating from high school or college. There are many similarities in the form and feelings- lots of paperwork and thinking about the future, lots of mixed emotions.

Last week was the "Matura" celebration here. I joined some of my students from OA and last years MUN team on their "T-shirt" day. The tradition here is that the whole graduating class gets a t-shirt of the same color (this year it was blue) printed with the "Matura 2010" and they sign each others shirts with markers. I signed as many t-shirts as I could (until my hand cramped up :). This is accompanied with dancing (always circle dancing) in the school yard that last a few hours. Now these seniors are basically done with school except for their graduation exams that are taken in June.

This week I get to complete my own graduation: Close of Service. COS includes me writing my Description of Service, taking a check out medical exam and doing interviews with various staff members. I don't think I'll have a t-shirt to sign, but I do have a COS check-list that requires the signatures of lots of people. Just like the graduating seniors here, I'm not sure what the future will hold, but I can't wait to find out . . .