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- The Gift of Walnuts: Boot Camping in Albania
Jackets with lots of zippers. Tight pants. Sporty, narrow dress shoes. My American business attire seems a bit out-of-place. You will also be supplied a water purifier in the last few days of orientation. The water purifier they give you holds roughly 2 gallons, so you should be set on potable water. The deodorant here sucks. Toothpaste and other toiletry items fall in the same boat. Hence why I packed actual books and DVD sets. I also brought my hand-written notes from grad school. I could have saved a lot of weight had I gone the techie route.
E-readers and tablets are probably the way to go and I probably should have found time to type up those notes. Most people bring an external hard-drive to amass a greater virtual library. Along with my books and course notes, supplements took up a lot of space in my bags and accounted for much of their total weight. These things ended up being completely unnecessary for me. It is relatively easy to maintain a nutritious diet in Albania. You have greater access to fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables. Variety usually comes with the seasons.
My only other complaint about the food here is both the overuse of salt and underuse of almost any other spice. You will be given a medical kit upon arrival, and any medication or medical attention you require beyond what is afforded to you in your med kit will be covered by the medial office. Bring it.
Finally, a few things I wish I had brought with me: 1 More long-sleeve shirts, 2 Zip-lock bags, 3 An E-reader or tablet. And, certainly no recipe for fluency. All you can do is try your best. You have to put forth the effort. Though, as any Peace Corps Albania staff member will tell you, no one has ever failed to be an effective volunteer as a result of poor language skills. You make it work one way or another.
Others prosper if for no other reason than because they have to. Occasionally, sink or swim does apply. That said, our Peace Corps staff is wonderful and would never place a volunteer in a situation where they would drown. It is an attempt, because to adequately prepare every incoming volunteer for their individual service is an impossible task.
We all come from different places and backgrounds. That applies to our work experience and professional lives as well. This means that a recent undergraduate in Public Health attends the same information sessions as seasoned doctors with twenty-plus years of experience. It means listening to a lot of redundant information, much of which is well known by almost everyone, but that perhaps one or two people might benefit from hearing.
Their job is to make sure everyone has the basic information they need to be functional and effective volunteers. They cover their own asses by covering ours. I suggest doodling. Everyone has to sit through it, so find a way to pass the time and suck it up. During PST you will be living with a host family in one of the training sites surrounding the city of Elbasan. At least twice a week, you will commute to the PST office in Elbasan to meet as a whole group. On hub days, you will have to sit through both large group information sessions and sector specific technical trainings.
Early on, you will have the opportunity to visit remaining Group 15 and Group 16 volunteers at their sites. Later on, when your permanent site is announced, you will be allowed to visit your site, check out your new digs, meet with your assigned counterpart, and get acquainted with your host agency.
During PST, your weekly allowance covers only those meals not provided by your host family as well as transportation to and from required events. If you plan to stay on budget, you will have to be careful about any incidental purchases. For instance, a Snickers bar, which is made in the US, costs 50 lek about 50 cents. You might instead consider purchasing a Winergy bar, which is made in Turkey and costs only 20 lek about 20 cents.
Below is a short list of commonly purchased items by volunteers, along with their approximate prices. Bear in mind, prices differ according to site.
Typically, things cost more in larger cities. After roughly three days of orientation in Elbasan, you will repack your bags adding to them stacks of new Peace Corps materials and a 2-gallon water filter , and hop on a furgon van to be delivered to your host family. That first day is awkward. At least, it seems lucky on that first day.
Being forced to speak nothing but Shqip while at your training site will actually pay off in the long run. Some of you will be placed with a big family, complete with grandparents, parents, children, and maybe even grandchildren. Others will be the only bird in the nest, and will be treated as such.
Some host families are accustomed to volunteers. There will be misunderstandings and plenty of awkward moments. Push through them. These are wonderful people and they have nothing but your best interest at heart. The will dote on you. Let them do things for you, even if it seems silly. The days will go by slowly, but the time you have with them will pass in an instant.
Eat with them. Drink with them. Sit with them. Listen and observe. Speak with them when you can. And, think of them as family. Mami and Babi work too. I made a point of calling my host parents Mami and Babi from day one, and they love me for it. The best advice I can give you is to work on managing your expectations.
What I can say with certainty is that you will be impacted more so by your experience in Albania than you will impact lives or influence change. Whatever your intensions are in coming to Albania, let them go. Arrive with an open mind, allow things to come as they may, and try to be flexible. After being here for a while, you will be able to set realistic expectations and personal goals for your service. For now, understand that you have a lot to learn, and be prepared for an education like no other. What I got had a handle I could barely fit half a pinky through.
A macchiato — a shot of espresso with a dash of milk. Anything else e. Coffee is the key to any friendship and the start of every meeting. If you get invited, go. If you go, pay. Or, at least offer. The unspoken rule is, if you invite someone for coffee, you pay. And, hold off any pressing business until your coffees have arrived at the table. Name a crime.
It exists here. It also exists everywhere else in the world. That said, I believe Albania is a safe place to live, especially for Americans. Albanians are extremely family oriented. This perpetuates a culture of close personal ties. I think it is for that reason why theft and robbery are relatively infrequent crimes in Albania. Of course, such things happen. But, what you will likely confront more often is more subdued and gender specific. Wandering eyes, verbal harassment, groping, domestic violence, and various sexual crimes. Sometimes these things are obvious.
Other times, they are obscured by patriarchal cultural norms. For instance, at the dinner table, men are always served first. Women are expected to perform all household duties including cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and the like. In many other ways, women are expected to be subservient to men. And, this ideal is manifested through various inappropriate behaviors exhibited by some men towards women. Being a rather large male, I completely miss a lot of the bull shit female volunteers have to put up with here. If you want to know more about what life is like for female volunteers in Albania, I would encourage you to ask one.
I suspect most of them would tell you that it really sucks sometimes, but that the many positive aspects of this experience make up for it. We are not building wells or constructing latrines. We are changing mentalities and behaviors; or, we are attempting to. This is very hard to see. If you are results oriented, you will have a difficult time here. Sometimes success is just making it through the day.
Know that Peace Corps is an iterative process. We build upon the work of those before us and lay the groundwork for those who will come after. At the same time, it is not our responsibility to initiate change. It is the responsibility of Albanians to improve their own lives. If we can be a resource, if we can transfer skills and knowledge, if we can learn from each other, and if when we leave, we can leave something behind, we will have been successful. Often times, it is ourselves that undergo the greatest change, but we do leave our footprints along a more prosperous path.
Just remember that your footprint is not always easily discernible. Before coming to Albania, I thought a lot about what my experience might be like. I was daydreaming more so than I was setting unrealistic expectations. I overlooked the fact that these people would become my closest friends and confidants in a world far away from my closest friends and confidants. Value these people. Learn to accept them for who they are. And, draw on them for support. It drives a lot of people crazy.
You have to be your own boss — your own motivator. You will have to set your own hours. You will have to assign your own tasks. Find something. Search for something. Be vigilant. You will have to take the initiative. No one is going to serve it up to you on a silver platter. If so, your perceptions about Peace Corps have already undergone a transformation. They will likely transform yet again upon arrival and after spending some time living in the country.
You will forget that you once saw yourself sleeping under mosquito nets and going to the well for water and expect instead to have running water, warm showers, and a comfortable bed. You may even begin to associate larger urban sites and coastal cities with a better experience than serving in small rural villages and mountain townships. You will see that life here can be comfortable. But there is a much different dichotomy at play. The place is not what will define your experience in Peace Corps.
It is the people. Oftentimes, the luxury of living in a larger site with greater available resources comes at a cost to your integration. Consider this correlation: more people, more anonymity. Sometimes anonymity is good.
Sometimes it makes it hard to build lasting relationships. You blend in with the tourists. Smaller sites mean you are the center of attention. During PST, you will be meeting with your program managers to discuss possible site placements. You will hear many different things from many different people about the different sites around Albania. These sources are mostly unreliable due to personal biases. Two people placed in the same city can have two very different perspectives about their site. Try to avoid having any preconceived notions about specific places in Albania until you have visited them and spent time in them.
Trust your program managers to make the right decision for you. I can tell you the experience of a friend of mine who was a volunteer in Saranda. He won the lottery right? He hated it there. Maybe you will be placed there and maybe you will love it. It will save you a lot of worrying. Albania is a small country. You will mostly be traveling by furgon van or autobus bus. Back home, you would surely consider this a sketchy method of transportation.
In fact, it is. But it really works wonderfully here in Albania. They make frequent stops along the way to drop people off and pick people up. The roads oftentimes lengthen what would be much shorter trips in any other European country. In the summer, the furgons are cramped and muggy. You can smell everyone sitting around you, and sometimes those a few seats down. The entire van takes on the communal stench that accompanies dirt and sweat laden suit jackets, which Albanian men refuse to abandon even in the swell of the summer heat.
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In winter, the smell of the furgon is replaced by dampness. Your days are consumed by language learning, technical sessions, and spending time with fellow volunteers and your host family. Some people travel every weekend. Others stay at site for months before venturing out. There will be plenty of Peace Corps trainings and various camps and other activities to draw you out of your apartment and out-of-site. Just be wary, frequent travel can influence your ability to integrate into your community.
Almost everyone, including your counterparts, take vacation throughout the entire month of August. I hope this is helpful to you as you make your final preparations for departure. I want to conclude by saying that Albania is a wonderful and beautiful country that is home to terrific and gracious people. If you can overlook the difficulties and frustrations of your work and living circumstances, you will thoroughly enjoy your time here. I promise that the two years will fly by in an instant. My final advice is to spend what remaining time you have in the States enjoying the company of friends and family.
We all look forward to your arrival and wish you safe passage to Albania. The only difference between August and Decenuary is destination and choice of apparel — beach and bikini versus home-of-family-member and winter coat. The rest is the same: empty offices, abandoned school buildings, forgotten emails, and gimmicky seasonal trinkets sold in mass. Decenuary is cause for celebration of two major events — Christmas and New Years. In an act of complete irony, or perhaps incompetence, I spent Christmas in-country, and New Years outside of it.
I spent Christmas alone in my apartment. There, I weathered the self-induced quite of solitude. A kind of solitude that was put in greater perspective against the backdrop of a day spent by most people in good and numerous company. I did a little cleaning, listened to a few podcasts, Skyped my family, and attempted to make a pizza using left-over dough from the freezer, way too much tomato paste, chicken, and chopped vegetables. The pizza was a disaster, but I bought some chocolate which provided both pure enjoyment and a palette cleanse.
A few days later, I packed my bags and set out for Bajrum Curri to begin the first leg of a week-long journey. New Years would be different. So, just to fit in, we threw back a couple shots of raki. It was five in the morning and we were gearing up for the start of our trip as we waited for our driver. He showed up about ten minutes later and we piled in, just the five of us. We arrived in Prizren, having blown across the border without so much as reaching for our passports.
When we arrived at the hostel, we were greeted by a more lively host, and one of no less grandeur. With a few suggestions from Oli, we set out to see what Skopje had to offer. We stumbled back to the hostel around five in the morning. Apparently he decided to give our new friends a tour of the hostel a couple of hours later, to which Oli was none too pleased. We woke up on New Years Eve around twelve in the afternoon. Having been told about nearby underwater caves, we hopped on a bus to the end of town and took a taxi to the state park.
It was foggy and dimly lit, giving the placid, narrow waters of the shallow mountain river an eerie ambiance, contrasted starkly against the jagged mountains rising from either bank. In the summer, private excursion companies take tourists scuba diving in the submerged caves laying somewhere below the glassy water and exposed mountain sides. It quickly became dark, and we made our way back into town to get ready for another night out.
The city had arranged for three separate public event venues, each with their own live bands. The main square was abuzz with people setting off firecrackers, venders peddling glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and audiences of hundreds drunkenly swaying to live music. Just before the final ten second countdown our group became separated in the tightly packed crowd of one of the main concert venues. We inched our way through the mass of people convinced that it would be just the two of us for the rest of the night. However, after some time wandering through the main bazzar, we were gloriously reunited with our lost companions and proceeded as a group of five, thus multiplying our collective antics in the many and various bars and clubs we graced with our presence in the early morning of January 1 st , Sleep came around six in the morning.
That afternoon we took a bus to Sofia, this time under great scrutiny at the border patrol, which we were made to walk through in order to catch a new bus from the Bulgarian side. On the new bus, I sat next to a young Bulgarian doctor and we got to talking. His story emphasized to me that the impact you have on people may be difficult to see in the moment, but becomes more visible under the scrutiny of time.
The bus pulled into a quiet and sleepy Sofia around eight in the evening. We set out on foot for the hostel. At a major four-way intersection, a taxi, which was the only vehicle on the road, stopped to solicit us for his business and preceded to hand us his card, upon which was adorned a number of naked women and a phone number on the back. The light turned green and he drove on, leaving us behind with his card, which we promptly through in the trash.
It was late and we were tired from the nights before. We grabbed a quick bit to eat and got settled in our rooms to welcome a much needed night of sleep. Sofia was a dreary city. It was a city forsaken by its outward appearance, which reminded its residents around every corner of its communist past.
We spent most of the day exploring the city. At one point, having taken the commuter train too far outside the main city center, we stepped off to make our way back by following the main tracks. This soon proved futile as the large stones accompanying the rail ties made walking a slow and rather tedious task. Soon a train arrived and took us back to the main square.
When evening came, my companions and I made our way to meet two other volunteers who were also in town for the night. We met at a local Irish pub. We started the night with a couple Irish Car Bombs a piece. This was to set the tone for the night. Luke soon befriended a sixty-something ex-pat who had been living in Sofia for a number of years.
The Gift of Walnuts: Boot Camping in Albania
We took down the address and decided we would make this so called illegal bar our final stop for the night. After bouncing around a few different places, we arrived at the secret entrance to the bar and pushed through the door to find an empty staircase leading to a cloudy open doorway which revealed our intended destination. The bar was filled with ex-pats and English-speaking Bulgarians which made having a conversation much easier than it had been in some of the other places we had visited.
The mood was struck by a two-person live band which played for most of the night. We made a lot of new friends and bought a lot of drinks. After some reflection, there may be a strong correlation. Regardless, we became the life of the party. Eventually, we paid our tabs and took leave, exiting without the faintest idea as to what could have qualified that bar as an illegal one.
It had been a heavy night, and we moved along as if we were carrying a much heavier weight than we really were. In the process of gathering ourselves and our things for our trek to the bus station, we were forced to make the sobering decision to leave a man behind. Karl refused to wake up, and in-so-doing, opted to stay behind, but resolved to meet up with us the following day in Kosovo.
We would not see him again on that trip. The next day we treated our new host city as we had treated those prior by exploring on foot. Planning another late night out, we went back to the hostel to nap. The extra sleep reenergized us and we began again in earnest to repeat similar escapades from nights prior. Our preamble to the night was a couple games of poker with some of the guys we had met at the hostel.
Luke and I stayed out later than the rest. At four, I checked my watch and, realizing I was late in meeting up with Eric to catch the early morning bus to Tirana, parted ways with Luke to make my way to the bus station. I arrived dehydrated and hung-over in the capital. I had traveled more than 1, km and over twenty hours in the past six days, all by bus. What interested us were the people of the places we visited. And, after almost ten months of reserving ourselves to early nights in and occasional low-key evenings out in Albania, we were interested in letting loose a little and having a bit of fun.
It was a pleasant taste of life unrestricted and ungoverned. It was the kind of trip you would never feel guilty about, but that you recognize should be reserved only for those once in a blue moon occasions. With that, my Decenuary drew to a close, and I was soon back in the saddle geared up to endure that long ride through the mountains of emails and valleys of deadlines which precede the glimmering waters of summer.
After it rains the entire city smells like weed. It was a brief moment stolen from the task at hand. For once, my job had taken me out of the office and away from the computer screen. I was transported back to my place atop the concrete garage roof by the impatient urging of my dutiful Albanian colleague. She was a resent high school graduate who had volunteered to assist me with the interviews until the start of the new school year, which was quickly approaching. Our partnership had the makings of a comedic tale — a story in which two characters who set out together on a long journey, take on the separate roles of torch bearer and lollygagger — her lighting our way and me, stopping to smell the roses.
Or, in this case, the cannabis. Many of those houses are in disrepair and many more have been renovated by their owners in such a way that threatens their authenticity. Our attempt to determine what these homeowners know and how they behave based on that knowledge was now carefully holstered in the bag slung across my back. With enough copies to last the day, my vigilant companion and I set out to knock on a few more doors.
In only a few days, over 30 architecture students from around the Balkans would come to spend two weeks living, learning, and working alongside one another in a haze of sawdust, stone chippings, and course lectures. They arrived on Saturday, carrying their heavy bags up the cobble-stone road to their mansion-like, honeycombed labyrinth of a hostel — the Babameto house. Since these homes are typically passed down from generation to generation, their names never change. I was placed in charge of a small group of three — a Romanian studying urban planning, and two Albanian archeology students from the main university in Tirana.
The group was tasked with mapping some of the old footpaths surrounding Antigonea Archeological Park a popular tourist attraction in the district to develop a network of interconnecting trails for would-be hikers and backpackers. We spent hours in the cool fall air warmed by the unfettered sun. Each day scraping through heavy brush, dining on the wide assortment of wild-growing fruits and nuts figs, blackberries, walnuts, apples , fording streams, and at times, resorting to horseback for brief respites from walking.
As the camp progressed, I began attending regularly scheduled traditional Albanian dance lessons and learned a number of popular valle dances of which the most rehearsed, myself included, performed at the end-of-camp celebration. Our Balkan guests departed, and I, having spent three consecutive seven-day weeks in a row at work, promptly packed my bags for a week-long getaway. My destination — the Albanian Alps.
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- The Gift of Walnuts: Boot Camping in Albania by Linda Ann Smith.
I spent the day exploring the city. At one point, having spent the previous night on a bus, I found a nice patch of grass along the Bojana river which runs adjacent to the city, and took a glorious nap. Across the river were the Roma slums, situated just across from the mosque. Two worlds divided not by the tracks, but by a mighty river. The bridge which adjoined the two worlds remained populated with fishermen, and in the distance, the snow-capped mountains from which the river flowed.
It was mid-October. The ferry ride was breathtaking, and I had used up the battery in my camera by the end of it. The ferry boat is literally a city bus resourcefully stitched to a floating rig. It is a creation in the Frankensteinian spirit. We made infrequent stops along the steep banks of the lake where patrons of the ferry were let off — leaving one to wonder where exactly they were headed.
By all observable accounts, they had been left hopelessly stranded. But then a man on a horse would appear along the ridge, forge his own path down the dreadfully steep mountainside, transfer the bags of those we had forsaken onto his horse, and disappear with them into the trees just as we disappeared from view into the heavy mist. There, the sun would soon be setting behind the towering mountains, impressing upon the earth below them a dark and chilling shadow. We ventured into it on foot, hoping to find a ride.
Luke was taking a piss when we found one. That night I froze my ass off. We had made camp on the lawn of a local guest house. Fully believing that I might lose my toes to frostbite, I jumped out of my sleeping bag at around four or five in the morning to make a fire. It was a painfully early start to what would be a very long day. Not so much in the early months of winter. Most excursion companies operating in the area advertise the route as a 6 to 8 hour hike of high difficulty. Though only 14 kilometers in length, the trail itself can only be characterized in one of two ways: ascent or descent.
If I had recharged my camera, I would have captured what is now so difficult to put in words. That said, what I experienced could never be done justice through the means of photography, and especially not through my feeble attempt to recreate it in words. Indeed, the insidious twin peaks which framed our pinnacle destination, contrasted against the natural beauty surrounding us, seemed an appropriate backdrop for an epic tale in the making.
Ian, one of the most resounding fantasy nerds I know, even broke out his portable speakers to play the Two Towers soundtrack. We descended into prehistory eager to drop our bags and lay flat on our backs. That night we set up camp under the protection of a giant tree, stoked up a roaring fire, and ate a wonderfully warm dinner with a local family.
I slept soundly that night, escaping the torment of the brutal cold which had claimed me as a victim the night before. The next morning we packed up camp and set out, retracing our steps and reversing the imprints of our boots in the forest floor. Hoping to leave him lighter on his feet, we agreed to take his pack into the village and wait for him while he hurried back to retrieve his sleeping bag. In that moment, we underestimated how far he would have to backtrack, and how long that might take. Gwangcheonkim Gwangcheonkim set Dried Seaweed seasoning delicious delicious.
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