Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Meet Xho Bonk

Someday, maybe I will travel differently. I will stay in hotels, go on cruises and rent cars. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe, I will always travel like this, staying with friends or in this case, perfect strangers that become friends. Joe (Xho in Albanian, the xh is how you spell J. If you see a j in an Albanian word it is pronounced as a y and a y is pronounced oo) is one of the new Peace Corps Volunteer in Peshkopi. He is Group 15 (I was group 11) and has been here about one year. Joe is great; he is smart, interested in fun things like old communist monuments, has a sixth sense about finding bunkers hidden on hillsides and is nice enough to be mistaken for a Canadian. He isn't perfect, however; despite his affinity for Albanian pop music, I don't think he will ever be an Albanian pop star, although stranger things have happened. So Xho, gezohem qe u njohem (nice to meet you)! Here is Xho's blog . . .

Sunday, April 28, 2013


New high school in Peshkopi
I have been away from Albania for nearly three years. Walking down the street I am keeping my eyes open for the differences. Was that building always there? How has this road changed? For better or for worse? Some of the changes are obvious and big: the high school has moved into a new building outside of downtown and the new university that had been housed in the upper level of the language school has now taken over the remodeled high school building in the center of town; the athletic center, nearly finished when I left, is now completely finished; my landlords house (next door to my place) has a new floor added on and a new roof and has been painted purple. I hardly recognize the view. These are physical changes, however. Are the changes only skin deep? A sign of what might be a larger, deeper change at first might only seem like another physical change. When I arrived in Peshkopi five years ago, there was one Internet cafe. The Internet was not reliable and they did not have a generator, so during the nearly daily power cuts (usually 12-4 and sometimes as long as 9-4 every day for months) there was no Internet at all. This was a huge challenge for us during the first Model UN because we wanted to teach the kids how to do Internet research, but could almost never find a time when we could meet after school that the Internet cafe was working. Most of the students had never really used a computer and did not yet have e-mail or even know what facebook was. This is not the case in Peshkopi anymore. Even before I left, there were several more cafes open in town and many people had started to get Internet service in their homes. Now, there are more cafes than ever, even more people in town have Internet at home and maybe the biggest difference, smart phones have also arrived, giving people access to Internet in their hands. Facebook has come to Albania, with a vengeance. Before I arrived I notified most of my friends I was coming by sending fb messages. Communication between people has changed dramatically. So the next question is, does this mean there have been bigger or deeper changes in the past three years? I don't know, but I think that there are interesting potential implications for the opening of communication to this country. Just as development happened quickly when the country opened its borders twenty years ago, development may happen quickly now that the virtual borders are open. But development twenty years ago wasn't easy. In fact, although development started quickly after the end of communism in Albania, it was a painful and sometimes violent process and it has stopped and started a few times since then. While buildings and roads have been built, ideas have been slow to enter the minds of people here. So have things here changed in the past few years? Of course, but it still remains to be seen how deep these changes might go.

The updates to my landlords house (new second story, new roof, painted purple)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Gjuha shqipe

In the ferry terminal I see the first signs that we are close. Literally, signs in Albanian, giving directions, answering questions. The people milling around the terminal are speaking many languages, but for the first time in nearly three years, I recognize Shqip as one of them. I catch words or phrases sprinkled in here and there among the Italian, English and German that my ears also try to pick out. I don't talk to anyone but just listen. The first test comes when we get off of the ferry in Durres and I negotiate the onslaught of taxi drivers. But we don't need to go anywhere yet, my first task is to find a cell phone shop and figured out why my phone is not working so that I can reach my friends. I ask a taxi driver where to find a vodaphone shop, but he tells me that there is only one in the center, far from here and I should take his taxi. I ask the girl working at the cafe and she lets me know that I fact there is one across the road; she has no stake in me getting into a taxi. I start out to the shop- crossing the road is a bit like playing a game of frogger- yes, this is starting to feel familiar. I enter the shop just after it has opened and speak to the shop girl about my issue. The whole time we are speaking, other customers are coming in and out of the shop to buy phone cards. The shop's computer system is down, so people must buy the physical card rather then an electronic top-up, and some people are confused or upset because this means they won't get a special advertised offer of some sort. The system is down in the whole country, not just here, she explains. She handles the customers smoothly, this obviously isn't a rare problem. After a few different attempts, we decide we can't figure out what is wrong with my SIM card so I go ahead and buy a new one. Only when she looks at my passport and asks what neighborhood I live in does she ask where I am from. She is impressed enough with my language skills to be surprised that I am not an Albanian living abroad. I've heard this before, but not for several years, so I feel the pride a bit. Of course this is the easiest of interactions, I have clear goals and the vocabulary is pretty easy. Over the next few days my language skills will be tested again and often. The most difficult task will surely be, as it has always been, listening to conversations on various topics by Albanians. If I am involved in the conversation, answering and asking questions, it is easier, but when the conversation swerves off to other topics I know I will sometimes let my mind wander and loose the thread. Over the next few days as I meet with friends, I slowly remember words that I haven't used in years. Si thuhet? What is the word for cucumber? Blanket? You know, that one thing we rode on the river from Peshkopi to Kukes on, that goes inside a tire? There are some words I remember on my own, some that I need to ask about and some, that even when told I can't seem to hold in my mind, it seems that I might have never learned them before. By the end of the second day speaking primarily in another language, I am tired, but also happy because it seems to have stayed in my brain somehow. This gives me hope that I can learn another language and keep it alive even if I can't use it every day. But I will use it tomorrow and I am glad that it is still there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


I am a notorious over packer. I like to have everything I might need and most things I might want. But I don't hold a candle to my dad. Somehow, for this three week trip, we are carrying more than I packed for two years in Peace Corps and WAY more than I took when I travelled after PC. Most of it is the nature of the trip. The main point of the trip and what my dad has been talking about for the past three years is to do some climbing. Everything else is centered on this one fact. Unfortunately, to be safe, climbing has a lot of equipment and we had no confidence that any of it could be rented or purchased there for any reasonable price. So we are bringing our own and that means about 30 pounds of ropes, harnesses, helmets, and metal fittings. We are also planning on camping, so that means more stuff, like a tent, sleeping bags, cooking stuff etc.  right now this whole thing feels a little bit like an expedition to Everest or something, only we don't have any Sherpas. I don't think all the stuff would be as big of a deal if we also weren't taking a long way to get to Albania. Things would be really easy if we were just flying direct and then renting a car. No problem! But that's not what we are doing. We are flying to Rome, taking a train across Italy and then a boat across the Adriatic Sea. Somehow, I have faith that it will all work out . . . Maybe we can rent a donkey to help us with the gear . . . 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A return trip . . .

In a few weeks, I will be returning to Albania for the first time since I left almost three years ago.  Somehow, these past three years have seemed to have gone by very fast and slow at the same time.  It seems almost like a blink of an eye since I left and somehow also seems like a lot has happened in the past three years.  There have been some big changes in my life since I got home- I have gone back to school and finished a program to be a licensed teacher.  In other ways, things have not changed at all- being home, I have gone back to many of the routines I had before Peace Corps.  Anyway, I am excited and nervous to go back.

Unlike my parents, who didn't return to the Philippines for almost 30 years from the time they left, I am making my first return trip only a few years after leaving.  I honestly didn't expect that I would be going to Albania so soon.  So why now?  It was actually my dad's idea.  When he came to visit me at the end of my service three years ago, we had some adventures, but there were a few stones unturned.  For one, my dad is a climber.  He likes to climb things.  When he came to visit me before, we did some hiking, but no climbing.  This was my fault- he wanted to bring a rope and harness and various other things that would have made it possible for us to climb things, but the timing was not good.  He came at the end of my service and I was leaving to travel around the world, so I needed him to take a suitcase (or two?) home with him when he went back.  This was by far the cheapest way to get stuff home (since he was planning on coming anyway and he was flying on my mom's passes).  So he didn't bring ropes or a tent or anything else we might need to have a backpacking/climbing trip.  We therefore had another kind of trip, which was great.  But . . . there are some beautiful rocks in Albania that are just crying out to be climbed.  Some people don't understand rock climbing.  What is the point of climbing that rock? Basically, it's just fun.  It's a challenge.  It's a puzzle.  And for the last three years, my dad has been thinking about the rocks that we saw in Albania and wanting to go back and climb them.  So we are.

This is the (very tentative) schedule for our trip.  It is flexible based on the fact that we are flying on passes and may not actually fly on the day we plan.  It is also flexible based on the fact that we may just decide to change plans.  Anyway, it looks like a good trip!
Sunday, April 21- Fly to Rome
Monday, April 22-Rome
Tuesday, April 23- train to Bari, ferry
Weds, April 24- Arrive Durres
Thurs, April 25- Tirana
Fri, April 26- furgon to Peshkopi
Sat, April 27- Peshkopi
Sun, April 28- Peshkopi 
Mon, April 29- Peshkopi
Tues, April 30- to Korab (camp)
Weds, May 1- Korab (camp)
Thurs, May 2- Korab (camp)
Fri, May 3- hiking? Lura? (camp)
Sat, May 4- hiking? Lura? (camp)
Sun, May 5- hiking? Lura? (camp)
Mon, May 6- to to Tirana- stop in Kruja?
Tues, May 7- Tirana to Durres- ferry
Weds, May 8- Bari to Naples
Thurs, May 9- Naples to Rome
Fri, May 10- to airport- fly home