On the wrong side of the law

Racial profiling, discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, and whatever else you want to call it unfortunately exists in every corner of the world. It’s one of those strange things that we all know we shouldn’t do, yet all seem to do anyway. Okay, fine, you don’t have to admit it but you know it’s true. Try as you might, no one is perfect.

America, a nation of immigrants, has a long history with these issues. Although I’ve witnessed my fair share of racial prejudice and discrimination, I’ve never actually been a target of it (this probably has something to do with my white protestant young brunette female characteristics). That is, until my recent trip to Croatia.

 

Croatian coastline (Dalmatia)

Croatian coastline (Dalmatia)

As a Balkan nation full of angst and anger toward different ethnic minorities and border issues and post-communist genocidal wars, Croatia is not the most politically-correct place in the world. But they’re trying. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every single minute of my tript here, except for the harassment at the border crossing.

The beautiful city of Dubrovnik

The beautiful city of Dubrovnik

A little background first. It’s pretty damn near impossible to get from Shkoder to Croatia directly. Thanks to the war with Bosnia, Milsovic, the war with Kosovo, the creation of Montenegro, and everything else, there are high racial tensions in this region. So there are no direct buses or trains that run from Albania to almost any of its neighbors. That means when I want to get out of the country for a vacation I have to take a bus to the border crossing, make it past customs, and find another ride on the other side (by hitch-hiking, finding a taxi, commandeering a bus, or whatever else I can think of). Not the most relaxing or enjoyable way to travel. But hey, I’m a poor PCV I do what I have to.

Dubrovnik's marian and port

Dubrovnik’s marina and port

 

Anyway, so now that I’ve been in country for more than a year I’ve made more connections and integrated with my community and all those other Peace Corps buzzword activities. So this time when I wanted to go on vacation I asked an Albanian friend of mine to drive me and some friends. All the way to Dubrovnik. A 5 hour drive across two different borders. Personal taxi, door-to-door service all for the low low price of $60 a person. I’ll take it. Got to love Albania.

This taxi-driver friend of mine is so well-intentioned, but so poorly informed and stuck in his Albanian ways that I just laughed to myself as I watched him pick up watermelons and newspapers and bottles of brandy “for the people at the border.” He knew it was going to be an issue for him, so he tried to preemptively solve the problem by bringing bribes. In Albania, that’s totally kosher and standard-fair. But this is Croatia. And on July 1st they will officially be a member of the EU so they’re trying to forget their shaddy past if you know what I mean.

We passed the Montenegro border no problem. But then we got to Croatia. And the man in the boot took one look at our driver’s ID card and pulled him out of the car. He then proceeded to check every inch and crevice of this old beat up Mercedes. He took out all our luggage and search it. Then he took out all the seat and cushions. He dismantled the hood and the trunk. He got on a roller thing and went under the car too. Then he got a little camera wire gadget and sent it through the empty spaces along the underneath and sides of the car. This man was bound and determined to find something. He was 100% sure there was no way an Albanian would be bringing 3 American girls across the border without some kind of illegal drugs or contraband.

Meanwhile our poor driver was doing the best he could to remedy the situation. “Quick Danielle, give me 100 euros!” he whispered to me in Albanian, which is exactly how this would have been fixed back in Shkoder. But the Croatia customs police took one look at his bribe and figured this man for suuuure has illegal things in his car or he wouldn’t be bribing us. So then our driver tries to give them the watermelon. And the brandy. And everything else he can think of. Thank god his first born son wasn’t on the scene.

Needless to say after a solid hour of being interrogated and search and stripped of every single right and I can possible imagine myself as a citizen not only of the U.S. but of the world to have, we were released. Nothing was found. That’s right Croatia, non-criminal Albanians do exist.

And I got to thinking. My poor taxi-friend new this was coming. He prepared for it and he still offered to take me to Dubrovnik regardless. He goes through life knowing that it will be harder for him just because of the nationality written on his passport. As for me, I thanked my lucky stars to be born in America. And now I can walk through life a little more aware of what it means and feels like to be blindly hated and targeted and discriminated against just for the color of your skin. Not something I ever wanted to experience, but definitely something that will stick with me wherever I go.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

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Elections and politics

It’s that time of year. The roads are all being repaved. Storefronts are being remodeled. Power lines are being mended. Plumbing pipes are being laid. Everything seems to be functioning in a semi-normal kind of way for once. Why, you might ask? It’s election time.  Time to follow through on those campaign promises so that you actually have something to put on your flyers and posters this time around. Got to show the people that your government can actually make the changes it promised…four years ago. Too little too late? Naahh. So at least for the meantime, things in Albania are functioning like they should. The blessing in disguise that is the election cycle.

I’m not sure if its a blessing or a curse to be in Shkdoer to witness the chaos of an election in Albania, but as a former poli sci student it has really opened my eyes and blown my mind to watch developing world politics and democracy in action.

There are definitely some commonalities between American democracy and Albanian democracy (and not always in a good way). Every 4 years we vote for a new leader. In the U.S. we vote for the president directly but in Albania they vote for the governing party which then selects their own prime minister. And since the fall of communism, this country has been locked in a political brawl between the Democratic Party and Socialist Party. And ironically enough, the same two men have been vying for office. Yup, that’s right. Ain’t no such thing as term limits in this place. Makes me love the founding fathers that much more, if not just for the sake of staring a new person’s face on all the posters and signs come election time.

Democratic Party flags covering the streets of Shkoder

Democratic Party flags covering the streets of Shkoder

So for those of you who don’t follow Albanian politics religiously (which the domino-playing grandpas in my town would find incomprehensible, mind you) let me fill you in a little. On the “right” we have Sali Berisha, the current Prime Minister and leader of the Democratic Party. He’s been in power for the last 8 years. But that’s not it. He was also the personal doctor to the communist dictator Enver Hoxha all those years ago. And he was the man in charge when Albania fell into turmoil in 1997 during the collapse of the the pyramid schemes (he even went so far as to make announcements to the people that they could trust the schemes and should invest all their money. Oops). But don’t worry, Albanians either are the most forgiving people ever or they all have short term memory loss. Sometimes I just smile as I think about what Fox News would do to this guy if he tried to run for office in America.

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On the “left” we have Edi Rama who has been fighting for his turn at the reigns ever since Berisha was elected. These two are long time political rivals. Only poor little Edi never seems to win. With rumors floating around that he is drug-running gangster who rapes his girlfriend and leaves her out naked in the middle of the street, I wonder why. And I also wonder where they people get their facts from?! Seriously. But without the means to verify or deny anything that the media spins, what can you do. Unfortunately, it’s not all that different from the ridiculously wild accusations that are debated on national television in the U.S. either.

Socialist Party flags covering the other half of the streets in Shkoder

Socialist Party flags covering the other half of the streets in Shkoder

So who would you vote for? And does it even matter? I’ve asked so many Albanians what they think will happen after the election and the most common response is this: nothing. What?! After all this, nothing will change?! Nope. So many people here think that Edi Rama and Sali Berisha are too sides of the same coin. The corruption and lack of rule of law in the country make it very different to enact real change.

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So what’s going to happen after D-Day on June 23rd? Well first of all it will take up to 2 months for the results to come in. That’s right. None of this late night watch parties and final countdowns or predictions after the polls are closed. Then when everything is settled (and of course assuming there are no protests or riots over the results) the new party will take control. If we DO in fact have a change of party, then all the current government employees will lose their jobs. You guessed it. Almost every single job in Albania is a political appointment. From principals of schools to judges, doctors, economists, teachers and everything in between. Trash it all and start a new. And not necessarily based on who deserves the job. If you have the right last name, the biggest paycheck, or the right connections then you get the job.

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The other big change after election day is that all of the sudden half the population is insanely wealthier than before. Yup. Vote buying. And not so subtle either. I’ve seen people walk up to teachers after school and ask them “how much for your vote”. The last election four years ago was won by Sali Berisha with a difference of just 82 votes so this is no joke. All those people who are sick of their low income job just have to go to their local party office and sign on the doted line. The parties will readily buy your vote for upwards of $1,000 and more if you can get your friends on board too (mind you the average salary here is equivalent of $300 a month so just imagine how much this money means to people here). Then after you vote you just have to come back with a picture of your ballot showing who you voted for and the money is yours. One day you’re fixing bikes for 20 cents a pop, the next you’re the new regional director of the national internet company.

And all the big time supporters of the winning party, those who donated company vehicles and hotel rooms and free restaurant dinners, will end up with big fat paychecks too. Not that I think America is the wonderfully non-corrupt place where elections are free and fair and unbiased without a question of a doubt, at least we do our corruption and bribing and deals behind closed doors.

But I do have to commend my wonderful city on their attitude to elections this time around. For once, there is actually a real choice. Shkoder has long been the Democratic Party’s stronghold with almost 100% of the population voting Democratic. And not necessarily because they even like or support the democratic party. But rather, because they have to. About 15 years ago Shkoder voted against the Democratic Party for the first time and after the election the Prime Minister shut off the power to the city. And kept it off for 3 years. That’s right. Wouldn’t you think twice about voting against the government the next time around? But this year, about half of Shkoder is supporting the Socialist Party. Openly and proudly. I personally have no preference over which party wins (since they seem the same to me), I’m just glad that people finally feel like they have the right to choose and vote fot their government. This is a democracy after all.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Lazarat, marijuana, and raising babies

There’s a little town in the south of Albania called Lazarat. Lazarat is a very famous town in Albania, but for all the wrong reasons. This town is a marijuana growing hub. It’s become a kind of running joke with teens here in fact. The marijuana industry in this town is so extensive and strangely blatant that nearly every single farm in town is growing marijuana. And not just a little. Miles of it. Out in the open. No qualms about it.

As for me, I’ll only know about this strange mystical land through word of mouth since it’s strictly prohibited for PCVs to visit Lazarat and could mean the end of my service if I get caught there. So for now, I’ll just believe the rumors I hear and share them here on my blog as fact. I’m not a journalist; don’t hold it against me! At least you’ve been warned of where your information is coming from.

Marijuana is such a common thing in Albania that you’d think I lived in the Amsterdam of Eastern Europe. Which is far from the truth. Marijuana is actually illegal here, I swear. But like most laws in Albania, there is a lack of follow through on behalf of the police and government so people pretty much do what they please.

Which is when I discovered this funny little story. You know those old wives tales we joke about in America? Crazy things like putting whiskey in your colicky baby’s bottle so he falls asleep. Or rubbing vodka on you baby’s gums when he’s teething. You know the things I’m talking about. Before public health campaigns warned about the risks of intoxicating your baby and the like. These are the things that children of my generation just laugh about and shake our heads at when grandmas begins to a rant of “well in my day…” You know those stories that fall into the category of “we walked up hill both ways”. Oh, the crazy idea of giving a baby alcohol. What was grandma thinking?! But whatever, we turned out okay…right?

Well, I learned today that in Albania instead of putting whiskey in your baby’s milk, they grind up marijuana and put it in their food to help ornery babies stop crying. Say whaaaat? So there’s high little Albanian infants wandering around the city. Wonderful. This brings the fight for legalizing marijuana to a whole new level. Grandmas all over the world are probably loving this.

Every culture has its old wives tales and at-home remedies but this has to be my favorite. Way better than the other Albanian ones I’ve heard so far- put yogurt on sunburn to make it go away; snort raki up your nose to get rid of congestion; put vinegar on your body to ward off mosquitos; put crushed garlic on bruises to reduce the swelling. So now I just have to hope that public health campaigns in Albania make this one of those old wives tales instead of a doctor recommended treatment someday. And in future generations of Albanians smile and laugh and shake their head at their grandmas’ stories about giving marijuana to babies. One can hope.

 

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

Two birds with one stone

“Heeeeekura! Heeeekura vjeeeetra! Heeeeekura!”

I hear this chant every morning and every evening. At least. And no this is not the new Muslim call to prayer. Actually, its the slogan of quite an ingenious little recycling system that developed naturally to fill a vacuum in the infrastructure here in Albania.

You see, there are two stark problems in Albania- garbage and unemployment. It’s no surprise that Albania does not have a centralized recycling system (we barely have a trash collection service mind you). There are no recycling bins, recycling planets, or anything like that. And besides the 20% of the population that can’t or won’t find work, Albania also has a large population of impoverished, unemployable Romanis (unemployable due to institutionalized discrimination, lack of access to education, and so much more). How are these things related, you might ask?

Well, the simultaneous solutions to these two problems is actually quite remarkable. I love watching the free market at work. So, in Shkoder these unemployed Roma people have decided to take advantage of a little government caviot. The local municipalities will offer a small amount of money (like 10 leke) for metal, glass, and plastic as an incentive to recycle. But know one really does this because they are either lazy, busy, or just don’t know about it. So in come the Roma.

They drive through the streets of Shkoder on these little jimmy-rigged motorized tricycle-like wagon thingies screaming “Heeeeekura vjeeeeeetra!” I’m not going to lie, when I first saw this happening I was so confused. I asked myself, what are they screaming?! What are they doing? Why people are throwing old tvs, bicycles, broken fans, and old pots out their windows?! And then it all made sense. In Albania “hekura” means iron or metal and “vjetra” means old.

So as the Roma drive these wagon tings through the streets screaming (regardless of the time of day and whether or not your lazy-American self maybe be trying to sleep past 8am for once), people come to their doors or windows and throw their old metal scraps down into the wagonbed. When they fill up their wagon, they drive it to the municipality and get a nice little paycheck. Okay, so it’s not very much obvious, but its more than they could get begging on the street (which is the other main occupation of Roma people in Shkoder).

So there you have it. Privatized recycling, door-to-door service, wages for the Roma, cleaning up the city…all in one. Problem solved. It kind of makes me smile actually. A truly Albanian solution to an Albanian problem. The trash piles up all over this country. It lines the rivers; it clutters the beaches; it dirties beautiful parks. The Roma may not be doing this to channel their inner environmental activist-selves, but it makes no difference to me. It’s still a step in the right direction.

The only downside? Being woken by the “hekura, hekura” man every morning. But I suppose it’s a small price to pay for a simple solution to so many problems. I’ll take it.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”

You don’t need Peace Corps when…

During my 27 months as a PCV I’m really trying to take advantage of my vacation days and get out and see the world. Which is made easier by the fact that I live in Eastern Europe where a million little countries are all squished together. And the Balkan countries have quite a tumultuous history, which makes traveling between them even more interesting. Did you know that I’m not allowed to cross the border into Serbia from Kosovo after having a visa stamped in my passport from Albania? It’s like mini Israel up in here.

Anyway, I just got back from a much needed respite in Istanbul and Romania (a little reward to myself after making it through my first full school year as a teacher in Albania). In all honesty, I was little afraid to see the outside world for the first time in over a year. It can be overwhelming to be surrounded by all that noise, people, technology, opportunities, food, drinks, etc. Especially when you’re like me and have the willpower of a 2 year looking into a bowl of M&Ms. After 4 days of binge eating all the food I’d missed out on while living in Albania I woke up in the most excruciating pain of my life and couldn’t eat for the next 2 days. My poor stomach just wasn’t ready for the processed ,cheesy, creamy, meaty, deep fried goodness of modernity that I wanted to fill it with. I’ll skip the rest of the details for your sake. But lesson learned, I’ll tell you that much. I will now be fasting and detoxing for the next week.

So back to the Balkans, where I started this whole story. I was in Romania and it got me thinking. Just like Albania, Romania had a brutally long communist reign. And like Albania it has now come out the other side. But unlike Albania, it is on the fast track to EU membership and the last PCV group just left the country this spring. So how do you know when you’re country doesn’t need Peace Corps anymore? Here’s what I’ve come up with after some deep reflection.

You don’t need Peace Corps when…

1. You have a centralized transportation system that consists of more than men standing on the side of a street yelling their destination and pulling you into the back of their van to sit with the chickens as they speed down the road.

2. You have a metro. Period. End of sentence. What a freaking luxury that thing is. I’ll never complain about WMATA again I promise.

3. You have McDonald’s, Burger King (Burger Turk doesn’t count), Starbucks, Subway, Sbarros, or any other American fast food chain.

4. You have street signs. It’s amazing how much easier it is to travel when you know where you are.

5. Everyone speaks English (albeit broken English) from the random grandmas on the street to the store clerks and police officers and train ticket sales ladies.

6. You have paved streets. A few potholes are acceptable I suppose.

7. You have stoplights. And more than stoplights, you have the little “you can cross the street now” walking man lights to go with it.

8. All your grocery stores sell both produce and packaged/refrigerated goods.

9. You have constant electricity all day long (exceptions being during a thunderstorm, construction, or of course if you hit the switch).

10. Your airport has more than one terminal and more than one gate.  Oh and more than one flight in/out each day.

I know that no matter where you are or what you do, someone always has it better and someone always has it worse. It’s all relative, right? But I’m having some serious jealous and envy issues of all the PCVs serving in countries with modern amenities. Oh the temptation. I love my Peace Corps service and I love Albania, but all I can say is thank god Romania ended its PC contract. That place is wonderful! Congrats to all the PCVs who helped make it that way. I can’t wait for people to say that about Albania in the future. Some day.

“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”