Is it 1950s America or 2013 Albania?

In many ways Albania is like small town America…50 years ago. So imagine the days your parents explained to you. Those stories they told you about walking to school through the snow, uphill both ways. Those days when you could play with your friends in the street all day and be home in time for super, all without  your mother worrying incessantly. You know, those days when people trusted each other and your neighbors knew you by name and the shopkeepers inquired about your parents as you walked in rather than eyeing the security cameras above your head suspiciously.

There are so many reasons why I absolutely love this country, and one of the main ones is that people here are good. Genuinely good. They’re not trying to screw you over or do you wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They want to talk to you and hear every intimate detail about your life and your family. And much to my surprise, I kind of like it.

When I first moved to Albania I obviously didn’t speak the language very well. But no matter, I strutted around all the time attempting to buy things and to survive on the basic Shqip that I could speak. But the shopkeepers rattled off numbers like I’d been living here my whole life and often times I would just stare at them in utter confusion. So I picked up the habit of just opening my wallet and letting them take what I owed them. They would pass over my 50 euro bills and my credit cards and pull out a 20 cent coin, smile, and say goodbye.

And then today, I had another such experience that just reminds me how much I’ll have to get used to in the US. Back to the land of me, me, me, where people are plugged into technology 24/7 and can’t find the time to smile as you pass them on the street. Don’t get me wrong, I’m American myself and proud of it. And I used to be just like this when I live in Washington, D.C. (though I’m ashamed to admit it now).

So anyway, the story begins this morning when I took my bike to the repair shop. It had a busted tire and a rusty gear and with the school season back on, it had to happen. I’d put it off for far too long. But when I got to the shop, it was closed. No way in the world was I going to carry that thing all the way back home (couldn’t roll it obviously, because of the busted tire). So what did I do? I just left it there. That’s right. I propped it against the door and walked away, fully confident that it would be there later when I went back. After about 8 hours of walking around town, meeting up with friends, shopping, and what have you, I wandered back over to the bike shop.

I peered around the corner and didn’t see my bike. Pure panic set in. I can’t afford a new bike! They’re like 100 euros! As I got closer I realized that as luck would have it, the shop was open. Maybe my bike wasn’t stolen after all. I poked my head inside and gently explained to the repairman that I’d left my bike there this morning, did he have it? He gave me a big smile and said (in Albanian), “Yes of course! I remembered your bike. I’ve fixed it before, right?” (that was legitimately 8 months ago, but he still remembered somehow).

Low and behold, he’d brought my bike inside when he’d opened his shop, fixed it up, and set it aside for me for when I returned. Can you even imagine in a million years, that ever happening in any other modern country in the world? Not only did no passersby take advantage of the dumb American that her bike unchained and unlocked, but the shopkeep himself didn’t even think it was weird that there was some random bike outside his shop. He could have easily just left it there and went on with his day. But instead he just looked at the bike and fixed what needed fixing, and got to work without another thought. God, I love this country.

I’m so thankful to be living in a place where you feel totally confident in the people not to steal your bike that you’ve left unlocked. And to be living in a place where people remember you, and your neighbors look out for you (the man next door to the bike shop had apparently told the man that “a young blond girl” had left the bike that morning). I’m so thankful to be living in a place where people are genuinely good to each other and take care of each other.

This is country where you can walk into a store and buy things on credit. And no I don’t mean on a credit card. I mean, if you don’t have the money you can just take the things you want and come back another day to pay. And if you are 5 cents short at the market, no problem; they’ll give it to you for whatever amount you have in your pocket. I regularly have lesson plans printed at a store near my school and walk out without paying because I’m late for class. But the lady at the front doesn’t reprimand me at all. In fact, she tells the others that I’m late for class and forces them to let me cut in line for my printing! Then she waves me off, tells me to hurry before the bell rings, and later in the week when I have the money I wander back in and settle my debt. It’s a beautiful thing. Reminds me of those long ago days my parents talk about. You know, you remember when…

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

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If the Balkans were an American high school class

This summer I accomplished my personal goal to see every country in the Balkans (okay I still have Slovenia but they are pretty much central European at this point anyway so I don’t count them).  And during my last trip and subsequent 16 hour bus ride back, I got to talking with a PCV friend of mine, and we came up with the most awesome analogy that I just had to share with you. It’s probably more of an extended metaphor, for you English buffs, but whatever. I’m calling it an analogy for simplicity’s sake.

So here goes. The clump of countries we loving call home in the Balkans are really way too similar to a typical high school class in the states. We decided that each country in the Balkans has it’s own distinct feel; it’s personality, if you will. And they all line up pretty well to American stereotypes.

You have Croatia: the pretty one. She’s beautiful and she knows it. So she struts the hallways showing off to the world. She won’t settle for anything less than the best and doesn’t have time for people she considers to be beneath her.

Next in line is Montenegro: the rich girl whose daddy takes care of everything and she’s had a credit card and cellphone since she turned 8. Naturally endowed with all the good things in life, she’s had very few struggles. People are always trying to be her friend since she has the best of everything, but she’s been stung a few too many times and is careful who she associates with.

Then you have Serbia: the bully. She’s the one who thinks she’s better than everyone else, even though deep down she’s no different. She’s constantly trying to tell other people what to do, and the sad thing is that most people tend to listen. And when she gets caught doing something she’s not supposed to, you’ll never see her confess. She always finds a way to spin the story to her benefit. She’ll never admit she’s wrong.

And then there’s Bosnia: the mixed kid who tries to fit into every clique in school and therefore fits into none. He tries really hard but never fits in, even though he’s actually really cool and later in life will be known for his good looks and intelligence (once he grows into them).

Farther south you have Albania: the poor kid who sits quietly in the back of class and doesn’t talk. The one who watches everything from a distance and never gets involved. Everyone makes up stories about him because no one knows the truth; he’ll never tell. He could be the coolest kid in class if only he’d stand up for himself and show his true colors. Meanwhile everyone just passes him over.

Albania’s only real friend is Kosovo: the one who always gets picked one. He’s the smallest in the class and the most vulnerable. Everyone wants a piece of him. They all use him as a punching bag to make themselves feel bigger.

On the other side you have Macedonia: the exotic one. She’s from out of town and everyone is curious to hear her story. She seems different on the surface, but deep down she’s just the same as everyone else in class.

Next to her we have Bulgaria and Romania: the twins. These two seem to do everything together. They look the same, talk the same, and dress the same but will swear til the end of time that they’re fraternal twins and not identical. They come from a middle class family that’s the ideal picture of America- 2 parents, 1 son, 1 daughter, 1 dog, 1 cat, and white picket fence. Compared to most of the others, they’ve got it pretty good so you’ll never hear them raise their voice (for good or for bad).

Last but not least (depending on who you ask), we have Greece: the stuck-up one. She thinks she deserves everything and is constantly trying to prove how good she is to the others. She wants everyone to like her, so most people in class think she’s trying to hard. She always wears the most fashionable clothes and shoes, even if she can’t afford them.

So there you have it. Just a humble world-traveling PCVs opinion on what the Balkans would look like if they were a high school class in America.

 

Disclaimer- ho hard feelings and no offense intended! If you read my blog you know just how much I love it here!

 

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

Traveling tricks of the trade

Traveling in the Balkans is a daunting task. But as a PCV in Albania I thought, how hard can it really be? I mean, I live in the Balkans and this is my life; I’m no tourist. Little did I know, the only reason I can successfully get myself around Albania is because I speak the language. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted and totally forget when they become second nature.

Belgrade, Serbia and the Danube River

Belgrade, Serbia and the Danube River

So for the last 8 days I was traveling around Serbia and Bosnia. By bus and train might I add. When I couldn’t buy tickets or reserve seats online I wasn’t surprised. Same deal in Albania, no problem. Two furgons and a bus later we showed up at the train station, bought our tickets 2 minutes before it left. Wiping the sweat off our brows, we sighed in relief and settled into our seats for the 9 hour ride ahead of us. But then we pulled into the next station and, I kid you not, about 200 more people got on the train. Yup, they sell more tickets than there are seats. For an overnight train. And it turns out that if you live there you can go to the station ahead of time and reserve a seat in person. Pure panic began to set in as we realized we’d have to stand the entire way to Belgrade.

Thankfully our desperation caught the attention of an English speaking local who finagled the system and got us beds in the sleeping car for an extra 10 euros. Crisis #1 of the trip averted.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and it's famous bridges

Sarajevo, Bosnia and it’s famous bridges

After an amazing 3 days in Belgrade we ventured off for Sarajevo. Compared to Serbia, Bosnia is way more like Albania than I thought it would be. Serbia has street signs and buses with schedules and maps of the city and English speakers everywhere. It’s a tourists dream. Bosnia on the other hand has no of those things (hence the comparison to Albania). For the first time in my PC service I began to understand just how frustrating poor tourists must feel when they enter Albania for the first time.

Mostar, Bosnia. The city most affected by the war with Serbia.

Mostar, Bosnia. The city most affected by the war with Serbia.

Let this small example give you a glimpse into what I’m talking about. We wanted to take a day trip to the city of Mostar (absolutely beautiful, check out the pictures below). So we hoped on the city bus headed in the direction of the bus/train station. I went up to the driver and in piece-meal English with hands flying trying to make symbols I attempted to as if the bus was going to the big station. He nodded in agreement and signaled with his hand that it was down the road. After 10 minutes of weaving around town I was starting to get worried. No sign of the station. So I asked again, “bus station?” He motioned for me to sit down and relax and again signaled with his hand that it was farther down the road. But when I sat down, the man next to me shook his head. “No bus, no bus. Mostar. Taxi!” He was saying. Then he went into a long rant in Bosnian with big arm motions that I couldn’t understand in the slightest. “Taxi? No bus Mostar?” I asked him again. He nods and repeats “No bus. Taxi!” But I’m no fool, I’m not about to pay a taxi when I know that there are many buses to Mostar if only I can get to the bus stations. So I look at the girl next to me (she was about 14 which means she must have an English teacher somewhere and speak at least basic English.). “English?” I asked her. She said yes and attempted to translate what he was saying but it still wasn’t making any sense.

At this point we had attracted the attention of the entire bus and everyone was swarming around us motioning behind us with their hands and screaming things in Bosnian (because saying it louder is going to make me understand better of course). Almost in tears I sat back down and shrugged my shoulders showing them I didn’t understand. Low and behold, some lady from the back of the bus gets up and walks over and in perfect English says “Okay, to end the confusion, get off the bus get a taxi to the station and you’ll find the buses to Mostar there.” I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to slap her for waiting so long or hug her for finally helping me out.

The famous old bridge in Mostar. Stunningly beautiful.

The famous old bridge in Mostar. Stunningly beautiful.

One taxi ride later we got to the bus station only to realize that we’d just missed the bus to Mostar. We waited 2 hours to catch the next one and thankfully ended up in Mostar later that day. Only to be stranded there the next morning because there are no buses down to Albania or anywhere near. Why? Oh yea, that pesky little more that happened a few years ago ruined all relations in the region. Should have figured.

In memory of the genocide against the Bosnian muslims.

In memory of the genocide against the Bosnian muslims.

I swear, I almost kissed the first person I saw speaking Albanian when we crossed the border. Finally home and in a place where things make sense (never thought I’d say that!). My advice to all you travelers out there, find a local who speaks English and don’t let go. Oh and build an extra 48 hours into your schedule just in case. You’ll need it.

But since I’m writing this happily from my home in Shkoder you can rest assured, I made it home 16 hours, 10 stops, and 3 buses later. Traveling in the Balkans is far from easy. Especially if you don’t speak the language. There are no schedules. There is limited to no information online. Things to operate the way they would in the rest of the world. And you have no way to figure it out. So suck it up and go with the flow and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a long one. Thank god for the kind people who continue to help you in their native language regardless of how much you are understanding. They mean so well and they want so much to help you. They may be poor and backwards and lacking basic infrastructure, but the people of the Balkans define the word hospitality.

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

Backpacking across northern Albania

It’s taken me a year and half but I finally did it – the infamous Thethi hike. This is one of the things that makes it into guide books about Albania. And it’s in my backyard. But shamefully I’d never done it until this weekend. I’ve been sitting here in Shkoder lazily on my computer as group after group of PCVs come through town to stay with my on their way to do this hike. Yet here I stayed. The guilt finally piled up high enough to convince me to embark upon this monster of an adventure through the Accursed Mountains of northern Albania. No joke, that’s literally what they are called. Small indicator as to what was in store for me? Absolutely.

the mountains in Valbona

the mountains in Valbona

It all started at 5:30am as I wandered the streets of Shkoder alone and in the dark before the sun had even risen to find a furgon to the ferry across Lake Koman. After a 2 hr terrifying furgon ride up and down a few small mountains, through potholes bigger than my kitchen table and whipping around corners on a road thinner than my doorway, I finally made it. All in one piece.

But it was all worth it because the ferry ride across Lake Koman had some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. Endless blue water and staggering cliffs and forests as far as you can see. Not a person in site. I know understand what they mean by the expression “breathtakingly beautiful.”

the ferry and Lake Koman

the ferry and Lake Koman

That is until I arrived in Valbona, which upped the ante and then some. Words cannot possibly explain how beautiful this place is. Honestly. They are called the Albanian Alps for a reason. Immense mountains, taller than any I’ve seen and with sharper inclines than you thought possible. They literally go straight up. If you try to look at the top you might fall over backwards. Seriously.

mountains in the valley of Valbona

mountains in the valley of Valbona

So my little group of PCVs decided to camp along the way and carry all of our food and gear for the entire trip. And halfway through we immediately regretted that decision. The hike in and of itself is only 6 hrs (3 hrs up the mountain and 3 hrs down) with quaint and adorable villages on both sides. It would’ve been so trivial to eat and stay there, but being the poor and miserly PCVs that we are, we decided to tough it out.

our camp site

our camp site

The first night we camped in the valley of Valbona and were kicked off 2 different people’s “land”. How they can possibly own parts of an Albanian National Park and ask for money for camping is beyond me. So we snuck down the trail and camped behind some trees where he couldn’t see us. Always persistent, we PCVs are.  There is something so therapeutic about being out in nature without a cellphone, cooking over a fire, not showering for days, surviving on PBJ sandwiches. Reminds me of home…in Shkoder…during the winter. Could’ve gotten this experience in my own backyard! But then again I wouldn’t have had the same views, so it was worth it.

The next day we woke up early and on we went, lugging 15 lbs on our backs up a mountain that was not intended for human beings but rather goats and sheep and donkeys. I thought it would never end, but when it did it was all worth it to sit upon that summit peak and gaze down at the valley.

herds of goats that kept bombarding us along the trail

herds of goats that kept bombarding us along the trail

Throughout the whole hike I just kept thinking about how most of the north of Albania is still untouched and unexplored land. There are glaciers up here that have only been discovered a few decades ago. And there are ruins of villages and houses everywhere you look, from lord knows what century. I kept imagining myself stumbling upon the next Machu Picchu. It could happen you know. There’s lots out there yet to be discovered. With Lord of the Rings music beating in my head, I looked around myself and finally appreciated the incredibly beauty of this country. If New Zealand hadn’t been chosen to film those movies, I hope that Albania would’ve been the runner up. Oh and the mountains in Valbona could pass for a real like White Wall. So if you all know anyone on the film crew for Game of Thrones, let ’em know. Okay, I think I’ve sufficiently geek-ed out enough on that front.

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Soafter hiking up and over the biggest peaks I’ve ever seen in my life, we finally made it to the long-awaited valley of Thethi. This village has a long history in Albania. Right in the center of town you can see one of the oldest “kulla”s left in the country. These are towers that were built periodically across the north. They were used by families in blood feuds that were trying to escape being killed. So they would run at night from kulla to kulla, where they could hide out and rest until nightfall.

the "kulla" in Thethi

the “kulla” in Thethi

And our stay in Thethi was made all the better by this little hotel owner who insisted on taking us in for free. He made us the most amazing feast of my life when we arrived in town and let us camp on his lawn for free. I think it was the fact that 6 Albanian-speaking Americans were in his town of maybe 100 people max. He was pretty excited to have tourists he could talk to. That and I was able (or forced?) to translate everything he needed to his other guests. Oh the benefits of learning the native language. It gets you places…and more importantly it gets you free things!

mountains in Thethi

mountains in Thethi

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