Strange things at the beach

Beaches are the same all over the world. Deep blue sea. White sand. Palm trees (if you’re lucky). Fishing boats off the coast. Big colorful umbrellas dotting the shore.

It’s pure serenity.

But there’s something about the beaches in Albania that constantly keep me on my toes. Never a dull moment. Why, you might ask? Well, like everything else in this country that I love, it is full of contradictions. Welcome to the land of paradoxes.

While you sit in the sand enjoying the peaceful view of mountains behind you and endless sea in front of you, you are bombarded by the cacophony of venders. “Krofna! Hajde krofna!” After 20 days of hearing their various shouts as they pace up and down the shore, I can almost recognize their voices as they approach my lounge chair.

But never fear, because this is my favorite part. Not only do they sell the normal beach fair like deep fried donut holes smothered in chocolate syrup; but they also sell items that make you do a double-take every time. Like curtains. And bed sheets. And down comforters. And fake Nike basketball shoes. And used wallets. I could go on…but instead I’ll leave you with a stream of photos I took while sitting in Velipoja Beach enjoying the sights and sounds of summer in Albania.

Grilled corn from a wheelbarrow

Grilled corn from a wheelbarrow

The popcorn man (my personal favorite)

The popcorn man (my personal favorite)

Sunglasses stuck into a big sheet of styrofoam

Sunglasses stuck into a big sheet of styrofoam

Fruit by the kilo. Cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, you name it he's got it.

Fruit by the kilo. Cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, you name it he’s got it.

Miss-matched shoes of all shapes and sizes. Most of which I'm pretty sure are second--hand.

Miss-matched shoes of all shapes and sizes. Most of which I’m pretty sure are second–hand.

Wallets and purses or inflatable inner tubes? He usually has so many floaties that you can't even see the man underneath. It's just a wonderful walking blob of toys.

Wallets and purses or inflatable inner tubes? He usually has so many floaties that you can’t even see the man underneath. It’s just a wonderful walking blob of toys.

Bicycle plus frying pan equals freshly made donut holes brought directly to my chair. Heaven.

Bicycle plus frying pan equals freshly made donut holes brought directly to my chair. Heaven.

This one still gets to me. Why drive your homemade donut-maker on the street when you could borrow some 5-year-old’s paddle boat that he rented for the hour!

And this is how beach transportation works.

And this is how beach transportation works.

And some of my personal favorites, are the beach cows. That’s right. Beach cows. Oh and trash chickens. There’s no hiding it, Albania is a developing country. Despite the stunning beaches and nature, there’s no escaping the fact that it still has a long way to go. But in the meantime, I will do my best to not get freaked out when cows stroll next to me on the beach and chickens flock the dumpsters.

The infamous beach cows.

The infamous beach cows.

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

Boys Summer Camp in Velipoja

I’ve been looking forward to this moment all year. And it’s finally here- summer camp in Velipoja! For the last 10 days I’ve been living in Velipoja (a small town beach near my home in Shkoder) with 28 Shqiptar boys. That’s right, 28 of them.

Last year, my counterpart and I started Shkoder’s first-ever girls English Summer Camp. We invited 15 girls to spend 15 days at my counterpart’s cabins on the beach where we would do all kinds of traditional American summer camp activities. This year, to make it bigger and better (forever in the name of progress and forward movement), we decided to extend the camp to include boys. And we ended up having to turn people away. Talk about improvement!

So what does summer camp in Albania look like? For starters, it’s a lot of chaos. It’s nearly impossible to walk into a situation here with a 100% American idea and try to make it happen right off the bat. These kids have never had a camp experience in their lives. They have zero expectations and zero ideas about what they will be doing at camp. So we literally had to build it from the ground up. Layers upon layers of foundation building to teach not only my counterpart how to run and plan a camp, but also to teach the campers how to get the most out of their 10 days away from home. Exhausting. Utterly exhausting (but worth every minute!).

But honestly, these kids would be happy if we did nothing buy lay in the sun and talk and play soccer all day. In Albania there is a serious lack of youth activities. There is no where for them to go and nothing for them to do. In the summer, in the winter, it doesn’t matter. All year round the only real Shqiptar thing you can do is get coffee at a little cafe along the street and people watch and gossip about your friends that walk by. I see boredom and hopelessness and apathy in the faces of some many of my students that it truly breaks my heart. Until they arrive at summer camp, that is.

They tell me all year that they can’t wait for camp because it’s the only time they can hang out with their friends and have things to do all day long. They live for this moment. And that makes my job worth every penny (that don’t get because I’m a volunteer).

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We do tons of team-building activities, ice breakers, and group games that teach them it’s okay to be silly and laugh at yourself (a completely foreign concept in a country so focused on etiquette and appearance and social status).

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We recreated the TV game show "Minute to Win It"

We recreated the TV game show “Minute to Win It”

This is another "Minute to Win It" challenge...definitely a camp highlight!

This is another “Minute to Win It” challenge…definitely a camp highlight!

We do  scavenger hunts that make them talk to strangers and pick up trash and work in a team to uncode clues in English.

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We play word games like cherades, Pictionary, Scattegories, Bingo, and more.

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And of course we leave time for swimming and sun bathing and roasting marshmallows and staying up late gossiping in the yard under the stars.

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But sometimes I get ahead of myself and have to remember that 9 times out of 10 these kids have no idea what I’m talking about. I get so excited to teach them a new game that I always have to stop, back track, and re-think it in terms that Albanians would understand. Let’s take a simple game like Marco Polo for example. We thought we explained it perfectly, but the moment we got in the water to play, all the boys crowded around “Marco and started tagging him. They thought the point was to be “it” not to run away and avoid being “it.” Back to square one.

And other simple things from camp like serving yourself at dinner or cleaning up your cabin. My counterpart and the other American volunteers end up being the wait-staff and janitorial crew sometimes because they kids have a very different idea about what “camp” means. They are used to being waited on hand and foot by their parents and expect nothing less when they are away from home (especially since they are boys…don’t even get me started because during the girls camp they are expected to do everything themselves). And we can’t ask them to clean up or serve themselves because then their parents will be angry that they paid for camp and had to clean. So I refill water classes and bread baskets and pick up shoes with smile.

But there are always little successes like when I turned it into a competition to have the cleanest cabin halfway through camp and all of the sudden beds where being made and floors where being mopped every morning. To which I just smiled and shook my head and laughed to myself, but didn’t say a word. There’s always a way.

Tomorrow the girls arrive and we get to do it all over again. And I can’t wait.

 

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

 

My recent love affair

You know how you have those friends that when they get in a new relationship, it seems that every single conversation turns to that person? You could be talking about textbooks or sunshine or the price of rice in China and somehow they manage to spin the conversation to their significant other. I hate that person so much. We’ve all had a friend like that. And we’ve all probably been that person (whether we want to admit it or not).

Unfortunately, now I’m that person. It dawned on me the other day. I’ve fallen in love with Albania. Worst boyfriend ever by the way.

Cliche of all cliches, I know. But hear me out. Recently I’ve been catching myself comparing everything to Albania. And bringing up Shkoder, my school, my students, this country, my counterpart, etc. in every single conversation. Regardless of where the conversation initially started (this is as close to a formal apology as you’re going to get, so take it and like it). It’s like word vomit. I can’t hold it back. I just feel the need to shout from the rooftops about this love-hate relationship I’m in with Albania.

Like the tortured female in love that I am, I drive you all crazy by talking about Albania to an uncomfortable extent. And worse than that, I’m also that friend who complains and complains about how her boyfriend did this, and can you believe he said that, and then he did this. You know how it goes. To quote myself on many occasions “It’s so backwards..It’s too cold in the winter…It’s too hot in the summer. I feel like I can’t get anything done…It’s so haaarrrdd…” On and on they tell you only the bad things. So that you end up hating this guy before you’ve ever even met him.

And then you suggest she break up with him if he’s really that bad (logical conclusion based on the information you’ve been given). To which she freaks out and adamantly refuses. “Okay it’s not really thaaat bad…And I’ve made so many good friend…But I love the people it’s just the system that’s broken…And it’s so beautiful…” Because there’s more to her crazy boyfriend that just the annoying and frustrating things he does. She just neglected to tell you all the really good and kind and sweet things he does too. And because those bad days are so bad, the good days feels so much better. We’re all been there, right? But she loves him, she promises. So you can’t do anything but sigh and throw up your hands in defeat. Love makes people do crazy things. Like move halfway across the world to a tiny little country in the Balkans and never want to leave.

It’s so easy for a PCV to complain to people back home about the struggles of life in a developing country and the hardships of day-to-day living. We can spend hours telling horror stories that make you shake your head and question why we’re hear. But when you tell us just to come home, we freak out. Never! I could never leave now! I love this place too much and my students mean the world to me and my community needs me and I’d miss everything about it. I can’t even imagine going home.

So keep in mind your high school boyfriend or college sweetheart the next time you talk to a PCV friend of yours. Remember all the butterflies in your stomach, that goofy smile on your face, and those moments that sent you to cloud 9. And take what we say with a grain of salt because it’s all true.

I’m that girl. And this is my love letter to Albania.

 

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