#HowISeePC: Albania Photography

Here is a collection of some of my favorite photos that I have taken over the past two years in Albania.

The lady I bought most of my vegetables from in Kavaje.

The lady I bought most of my vegetables from in Kavaje.

We only have the freshest of meat in Albania.

We only have the freshest of meat in Albania.

Men playing their daily afternoon boardgames on make shift tables.

Men playing their daily afternoon boardgames on make shift tables.

Goats hanging out next to the sea.

Goats hanging out next to the sea.

A man walking around in old town Gjirokaster.

A man walking around in old town Gjirokaster.

A man collecting recyclables from the garbage cans in Berat.

A man collecting recyclables from the garbage cans in Berat.

A creepy doll hanging above a byrek shop in Gos.

A creepy doll hanging above a byrek shop in Gos.

A lady selling honey and raki elixir on the side of the road between Vlore and Himare.

A lady selling honey and raki elixir on the side of the road between Vlore and Himare.

One of the thousands of bunkers built across the country during communism.

One of the thousands of bunkers built across the country during communism.

An elderly couple having an afternoon conversation in Kavaje.

An elderly couple having an afternoon conversation in Kavaje.

Proper disposal of trash is still a huge environmental issue faced in Albania.

Proper disposal of trash is still a huge environmental issue faced in Albania.

Colorful balconies in Elbasan.

Colorful balconies in Elbasan.

A man charges people a small feee to take pictures with this bear in Durres.

A man charges people a small feee to take pictures with this bear in Durres.

Some sheep trying to escape the heat on a hot spring day in Kavaje.

Some sheep trying to escape the heat on a hot spring day in Kavaje.

A husband helping his bride after a photo-shoot at the amphitheater in Durres.

A husband helping his bride after a photo-shoot at the amphitheater in Durres.

My neighbors in the village of Pajove. They've gotten so big these past two years.

My neighbors in the village of Pajove. They’ve gotten so big these past two years.

An adorable kitten in Gjirokaster. There are a lot of kittens in the spring time because most street animals are not spayed or neutered.

An adorable kitten in Gjirokaster. There are a lot of kittens in the spring time because most street animals are not spayed or neutered.

Waving goodbye to daddy in the castle of Berat.

Waving goodbye to daddy in the castle of Berat.

Chicken dinner at my host family's house. It's fresh from the backyard.

Chicken dinner at my host family’s house. It’s fresh from the backyard.

Going on an afternoon trip in the rain.

Going on an afternoon trip in the rain.

My neighbor's flowers blooming in the spring. They smelled so good.

My neighbor’s flowers blooming in the spring. They smelled so good.

Traditional music during the trip to Kosovo with the Municipality of Kavaje.

Traditional music during the trip to Kosovo with the Municipality of Kavaje.

Moonrise over Mt. Tomorri.

Moonrise over Mt. Tomorri.

Children playing at the roma center in Berat.

Children playing at the roma center in Berat.

Seafood dinner in Kavaje.

Seafood dinner in Kavaje.

Sunset at the castle in Berat.

Sunset at the castle in Berat.

Another traffic jam.

Another traffic jam.

Genie land in Fier.

Genie land in Fier.

Ancient artifacts in Apollonia.

Ancient artifacts in Apollonia.

Dinner at my host family's house during my final visit back to their home as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Dinner at my host family’s house during my final visit back to their home as a Peace Corps volunteer.

More old men playing boardgames in my neighborhood.

More old men playing boardgames in my neighborhood.

A furgon and a bunker in Pogradec.

A furgon and a bunker in Pogradec.

A nice police officer that I met during a bike ride enjoying an evening snack.

A nice police officer that I met during a bike ride enjoying an evening snack.

A lone flower near the Durres amphitheater

A lone flower near the Durres amphitheater

This doll caught my eye because it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.

This doll caught my eye because it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.

Nuts, eggs, and spices for sale in Kelcyre.

Nuts, eggs, and spices for sale in Kelcyre.

There were sheep skinned alive and slaughtered on my walk to work.

There were sheep skinned alive and slaughtered on my walk to work.

Santa is keeping the evil eye away.

Santa is keeping the evil eye away.

More of the street art and mountain tea in an abandoned building down south.

More of the street art and mountain tea in an abandoned building down south.

A boat restaurant between Fier and Berat.

A boat restaurant between Fier and Berat.

The town of Himare at night.

The town of Himare at night.

The path to my host family's home.

The path to my host family’s home.

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My Favorite Memories in Albania

My Peace Corps service and time in Albania is full of so many hilarious, crazy, sad, happy, exciting, and wonderful memories. My time spent here would not have been the same without some of the wonderful Albanians and Americans that I met along the way and I am thankful that we were able to create these memories together here. These people were my students, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. Some people were strangers who took me under their care without asking for anything in return. They helped me when I was down, worked with me to volunteer in the community, and supported me throughout this journey. Every day in Albania was an adventure and I honestly never knew where each day would take me (and that is part of what made everything so exciting and interesting). I cannot begin to explain all of the wonderful memories from this country, but these are a few of my favorite memories from my past two years as a Peace Corps volunteer:

Finding the right eyebrow tweezers.

During my first few months in Albania while I was living in the village of Pajove during pre-service training I went on a hunt for some eyebrow tweezers. I forgot to bring a pair from America, so I decided to check out some beauty shops to find some new ones. I came across a small beauty shop in Pajove while searching, but I still had broken Shqip skills, so playing charades was common. As I was miming what I wanted to buy, the lady realized what I wanted. She took out the best pair in the shop and started tweezing my eyebrows herself to prove that they were indeed high-quality tweezers. So, I bought them.

Hiking Valbona to Thethi.

I’m a Colorado girl at heart, so I love my mountains. It was really quite a special experience to hike this mountain with some of my favorite Peace Corps volunteers. Even though it was foggy when we reached the summit, trekking down into Thethi was magical. Thethi is like something out of a magazine.

The view from our campsite in Thethi.

Surprise visit from my neighbor.

While my mom was in Albania I truly realized the extent of Albanian hospitality. Everyone wanted to meet my mom and take us out to show their respect for her and for me and my service. My neighbor Luci was very excited to meet my mom and one day invited us over for coffee… or so I thought. Instead Luci invited herself over to my house for coffee and I didn’t even realize it. I was so embarrassed because my house was a disaster and I did not have any caramels or drinks to offer her. Luci was really sweet and helped me be a good hostess by giving me some homemade juice that I could serve her and my mom.

My first surprise birthday party ever.

If you haven’t realized already, I worked with the most amazing group of students. They were all hard-working, creative, and smart individuals. I was extremely lucky to have so many awesome students (and friends). For my 25th birthday they coordinated a small party for me and our youth group students at a restaurant. There was dancing, food, and a delicious cake. I was so touched and happy because I had never been thrown a surprise birthday party before. That will be something that I never forget.

The entire group.

Free produce.

I created bonds with many of the vegetable vendors in my neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to literally live a minute away from the market road which had at least twenty different vendors selling produce daily, sometimes more on Sundays when all the villagers came into town to sell their goods. The olive man was always very sweet to me; he would always tell me that I’m a vajza e mire (good girl). He would ask me about my family and about my brother Steven. Sometimes he would even throw a few extra olives in with my purchases or give them to me completely for free. There was another woman who was always very sweet with me and would always give me the best deals on her goods. Whenever she saw me she’d call out to me oooohh Amerikane” (oh American)! She would tell everyone else around her sweet and beautiful I am and she’d refer to me as a little kukulla (doll).  She always got a kick out of me bringing my own plastic bags from home to reuse instead of taking new fresh bags.

Holding a baby goat for the first time.

There are so many cute farm animals roaming around in Albania and I always wanted to hold one. When I was on a bike ride to the beach with some of my students we happened to come across a shepherd with his flock. He was kind enough to let us all hold one of his baby goats and have a mini-photo shoot.

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Meeting my host family for the first time.

I think one of the most awkward moments of my entire time was when I was dropped off at my host family’s house to meet them for the first time. I still barely spoke a word of Shqip and no one except my host-sister Merushe spoke any English (and Merushe did not speak a lot of English). When I arrived my family took me into the kitchen area and made me a Turkish coffee. I sat on one couch and they sat on the other trying to ask me questions about whatever I could understand. There was a lot of uncomfortable laughing during the encounter. We sat there for a few hours trying to communicate the best we could before I finally conjured up enough Shqip to ask if I could go unpack my room. Later on that evening after dinner I tried to plug in my Eurosurge and took out the electricity to the entire home. I didn’t know how to explain myself and felt very bad, so I stayed hidden in my room until the next morning.

Having the electricity come back just in time for the OA Go Green Show.

The morning of our Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green show was supposed to be time for our final rehearsals before the show. The students had not fully gone through the entire show rehearsal prior, so they were going to run through the entire thing last minute the day of the show. Sadly those plans were quickly ruined when the electricity went out to the auditorium. After waiting several hours, the lights came back on just in time to let in the hundreds of screaming students waiting outside to see the show. The students ended up doing a great job and raising a lot of money for OA, despite the mishap beforehand.

The entire cast during the finale

Having to “prove myself” planting grape trees.

When I first arrived here I never really had any idea what I was getting myself into. One afternoon I thought I was going to coffee in the village with my host-sister Merushe, but it turned out we were going to plant grape trees in the hills behind our house. Of course I was not dressed appropriately, did not bring any water, and was not expecting to spend my one day off from training working in the fields. The sun was beating down on us and I was already pretty tired from climbing up the hills, but Merushe handed me a shovel and told me to “prove myself.” Quickly, they realized that I would not be too much help in the fields because I did not use the shovel the correct way and because I was far to slow. Either way, it was funny.

Co-facilitating a GLOW session at Kampi Pa Emer.

Last summer I had the opportunity to work at a wonderful camp in Librazhd coordinated by a former Peace Corps volunteer Joey and his Albanian wife Alba. The purpose of the camp is to bridge the gap between Roma and Albanian youth. Alba and I decided to co-facilitate a GLOW: Girls Leading Our World session about self-esteem. During the lesson we did an activity where one girl would sit in the front of the room and the other girls would tell her things that they liked about the participant. It was really powerful because the girls were genuinely caring about each other despite their difference in age, economic status, and background. Everyone had the chance to give and receive compliments from the other girls in the room. Then they made self-esteem flowers and presented them to the group. Each petal of the flower represented one thing that each girl liked about herself.

All the GLOW girls.

Traveling to Tirana for the first time with Mary.

Peace Corps always paired Mary and I up together. We were in the same village and they sent us to visit the same volunteer during volunteer visit. We were set to go up to Rreshen for our first time traveling around outside of our host village by ourselves. My host dad Buyar helped us get on this random furgon heading towards Durres and we were dropped off in the middle of the road near a market. Neither of us had any idea where we were going, but there was a random guy on the bus (who knew Buyar) who was going to help us a bit along the way. Then out of nowhere a random Tirana bus picked us up on the side of the road. Our random guardian got off the bus in Durres and then we were truly on our own. We ended up jumping off the bus in the middle of the street in Tirana because we had no idea where we were and when we should get off. We eventually found a city bus and just kept a look-out for the “pyramid” because that is where the volunteer told us to meet her. We kept our eyes peeled for this mysterious pyramid, but luckily the random city bus we got on dropped us off right in front. It was quite the adventure for our first time out by ourselves.

Finding an abandoned building full of street art and mountain tea.

While my dad and Nancy were in Albania we went on a tour of southern Albania. During our travels we found an abandoned building full of intricate street art and çaj mali (mountain tea). There isn’t much of a street art culture here, so we were surprised to find this random building in the middle of nowhere full of designs of bees and monsters. Also, it was strange to find a building full of tea. That was the most tea I have ever seen.

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

When my blog went viral.

During my first summer at site I had no idea what my blog would eventually turn into. It started out as a way to just let my family and friends back home know what I was up to. It ended up becoming so much more when Albanians from across the country and people across the world read my 50 Unique Observations About Albania post. Having my blog go viral really allowed me the opportunity to express myself to a big audience, which has helped me grow professionally and personally through this experience.

Drinking beers on the beach with Chuck.

Chuck was a pretty amazing sitemate and we were able to complete several projects together for the community of Kavaja. During our free time we’d go on bike rides together to the beach. Chuck had a “regular” beach that he’d visit every afternoon and sometimes I’d even come along for the ride. It was nice to beat the summer heat on the beach with a cold beer and a good friend.

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Getting a ride into Tirana with Kate.

My sitemate Kate and I were trying to catch a bus to Tirana for our mid-service conference one afternoon, but we were not having much luck. It was annoying too because that day it was pouring rain. After waiting around for a while, a nice couple stopped and motioned for us to get in. Normally I don’t advocate for hitch hiking, but we were together and it was an older married couple so we felt like it’d be safe. The couple ended up being Albanians who live in Kosovo and they were in town visiting family and friends. They spoke some English and we were able to have an interesting cultural exchange on the hour and a half drive into the capital. They dropped us off right in front of our hotel so we wouldn’t have to walk in the rain anymore. It was really kind.

Attending my host sister’s engagement party.

My host-sister Merushe got engaged while I was living with the family. It was a surprise to me because she wasn’t even dating anyone as far as I knew, but a week after the announcement there was a giant party with half of the village in attendance. We spent the afternoon dancing valle, eating plates upon plates of meat, and drinking the endless supply of beers available. Every time my beer was finished it would be immediately replaced with a new cold beer. I have always wanted to go to an Albanian wedding (but sadly I did not have the opportunity), so I consider this party the next best thing.

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Making dinner with Quinn.

Almost every weekend I was able to see my boyfriend Quinn, another volunteer who lives in a different city. We’d spend our weekends having coffee, working on youth center projects, and creating new dinners with our limited resources. We’ve had some really good meals during the past year from tacos, to sushi, to Asian chickpeas. We would often use the coveted ingredients sent to me from my family in the states. Quinn is a better cook than I am, so it was always nice to actually eat a good meal for a change.

Seeing the fountain complete in the center of Kavaje.

A year ago the city of Kavaje tore out our entire main street and bulldozed numerous buildings across the city in order to refurbish the town center. I was a bit skeptical at first because it seemed like there wasn’t much of a method to all the madness. They tore out streets and sidewalks leaving no place for people to walk except through all the rumble and the construction. I was told that the center would be finished after a year and at first I just laughed because I didn’t believe it would actually happen. But dealing with all the annoying construction eventually paid off because the center was basically finished by the time I left Kavaje. They redid the entire center and put in a beautiful boardwalk for people to xhiro in at night and a lovely fountain to sit next to. I was very impressed.

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Muzik Shqip

I love Albanian music. Since I arrived here I loved jamming out to music in furgons and at my host family’s house. My host sister loved to blast music at all hours of the day while she cleaned the house, so I became pretty familiar with Albanian music from the beginning. There are several different genres of Albanian music, but folk music and pop music are the most popular. Pop music has a lot of rap and electronic influences. Folk music is still extremely popular and it varies from northern to southern Albania. Clarinets are often used in songs, along with the drum box, saxophone, and electric bass. I cannot wait to listen to Albanian music driving around in my car on road trips in the states. Here are some of my favorite Albanian pop songs:

Valle Kosovare – Shpat Kasapi

This is a famous traditional valle song that you will here at every wedding, party, etc. The dance moves to valle kosovare are a bit more complicated than some of the other valle songs that you’ll hear. This song is technically the Kosovo valle tune, but it is played often here in Albania.

Syte e Blu – Sinan Hoxha

The woman with blue eyes is what this song is focused on. Blue eyes are rare in Albania and they are prized. This one goes out to all the girls with elusive blue eyes.

E Imja Dashuri – Anila Mimani ft. Rati

I also know all the lyrics to this song because me and my boyfriend Quinn like to sing it to each other. It is another cutesy love song.

Ngjyra e kuq – Adrian Gaxha ft Floriani 

This song is about a woman who wears red perfectly. She makes all the men go crazy because of how beautiful she is in red. Even though everyone wants to have her, Adrian will give her his heart and will have her in the end.

Moj Kavaja Jone – Grupi i Kavajes

This is a song from the famous singing group in Kavaje that I have actually had the pleasure of meeting. They are singing about how wonderful Kavaje is.

Mrekullia e 8 – Alban Skenderaj

It wouldn’t be right to talk about Albanian music without mentioning heart throb Alban Skenderaj. This is another music video set inside a mall. Gotta love it.

Gili Gili – Sinan Hoxha 

I find this music video interesting because they are all dancing around inside the TEG near Tirana. The TEG is one of the only malls you can find in Albania.

Te Ka Lali Shpirt – Silvia Gunbardhi ft. Mandi ft. Dafi 

This song was really popular when I first arrived in Albania and you could hear it playing pretty much everywhere. The title literally translates to “Lali has you (in the) spirit).

Kuq e Zi – Sinan Hoxha ft Selda

Kuq e zi translates to red and black. Red and black are the colors of the Albanian flag. This song talks about Shqiperia e madhe (big Albania), which refers to how Albania used to include parts of the surrounding balkan territories.

Ku Ma Ke – Adelina

Another interesting music video and love song. The two in this song are not getting along and the woman is wondering where the man went and what went wrong.

Inshalah – Ingrid Gjoni

Inshalah means ‘god-willing’ in Arabic. As you can see in the music video this song is referring to the husband returning back to his home if god wills.

Xhamadani Vija Vija (Proud to be Albanian) 

Another Albanian nationalist song. Albanians are very proud and nationalistic. This song also refers to the idea of a bigger Albania.

Sa e Ke Numrin – Met 

My favorite teeny bob pop song. The boy is asking the girl for her phone number and her name because he is fixated with her.

Fol Shqip – Artiola & Poni

This song is titled Fol Shqip which translates to speak Albanian. I like the chorus of this song because it says, “speak Shqip because you are Albanian.”

Tavolina – Ermal Fejzullahu, LumiB, and Ledri Vula 

This song is a bit inappropriate. It is about a girl dancing on top of the table and partying.

Valle e Tropojes 

Another popular valle song to circle dance to. This song is from the region of Tropoja in northern Albania (a beautiful, more isolated region of the country).

Nese m’don ti – Blunt & Real ft. Ledri Vula 

Another party song from the one and only Blunt. To be honest I’m not totally sure what this song is discussing, but it has a catchy beat and I hear it often here.

Ti Se Din Se – Samanta ft. Onat

Another song about relationships. I really dig the outfits in this music video.

Kuq e Zi – Elvana Gjata ft. Flori

This song is extremely popular and nationalistic. It came out after the incident in Serbia during the soccer match last year. Quinn calls it the “football, riot, cheers” song.

Nje Moment – Blero ft. Maria 

A popular love song you will hear out at the clubs at night.

Vallja e Tiranes 

This is the valle and traditional dance of the region of Tirana. Kavaje is considered to be part of the region of Tirana. You can see the difference in traditional costume in the north vs. south if you check out the valle tropojes video above.

Kukulla – Sinan Hoxha ft. Seldi

This is another one I particularly enjoy. It’s about a girl who is being referred to as a doll, which is a term of endearment here.

Southern Tour of Albania with Dad and Nancy

Have a week to spend in Albania? I suggest you follow this amazing itinerary that I created for my Dad’s first trip outside of North America. My Dad and his partner Nancy recently came to visit me to celebrate the end of my Peace Corps service and to get a taste of the beautiful country I have been inhabiting for the past two years. I wish we could have spent more time together traveling the country (because there are SO MANY WONDERFUL PLACES to visit), but sadly I am extremely busy trying to finish everything up before I officially end my time as a Peace Corps volunteer on May 29th. Luckily, they were both able to take a week off work and we were able to see a good portion of southern Albania. Check out our trip below!

Day One: Arrival in Tirana, Night in Kavaje 

My parents arrived at the Tirana International Airport in the afternoon after a long trip from Colorado and they were pretty tired. We rented a car because public transportation can be unreliable and often tacks on several hours of travel time. We also wanted the freedom to travel in the evening and see things on our own time. I’d definitely recommend renting a car if you can afford it. It is only about thirty euro per day to rent a car here, so it’s pretty cheap.

Our first day we spent exploring the city of Kavaje. This is the city I have been living in for the past two years, so it was a must that my family experience a night in my town and a night living in my apartment. I think they both got a kick out of the layout of my apartment and it was definitely an experience for them using a Turkish toilet for the first time. We went to my favorite seafood place in town with my sitemate before they fell asleep from exhaustion. Kavaje is not a tourist city in Albania, but it could become one in the future because the local government is redoing the entire city center and making everything a lot more bukur (beautiful).

If you’re traveling to Albania I would recommend spending your first (or last) couple of nights in the capital city of Tirana rather than in Kavaje. There is a lot to do there and you can find many delicious restaurants and bars in the block area.

Drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It's a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje

We drove out to Generals Beach, which was deserted at the time. It’s a great place to go in the summer near Kavaje, but you can only reach it by car (unless you’re my athletic sitemate Chuck and bike the entire thing)

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

Checking out the mural our Outdoor Ambassadors group did in the high school

Day Two: Kavaje to Berat 

The second day we traveled down to meet my boyfriend Quinn and visit the UNESCO heritage site of Berat. Berat is a must-see city for tourists because it is full of history, hiking, and beautiful scenery. While in Berat we went on the herbatorium hike up the mountain on the other side of Osum river. To get to the top of the mountain it took about an hour. I was surprised because the trail was actually marked well in the beginning (although towards the end it wasn’t quite as easy to follow). After the hike my parents went up to the castle and then we all had dinner at Mangalemi. My parents also stayed at the Mangalemi hotel and it was very impressive. Mangalemi was the most expensive hotel during the trip, but it also had some of the nicest amenities and all of the rooms have been renovated.

We were happy about the trail being marked

We were happy about the trail being marked

On the hike in Berat

On the hike in Berat

The view from the top

The view from the top

My dad is looking pretty majestic

My dad is looking pretty majestic

Day Three: Berat to Himare, Excursion to Apollonia

We went from Berat to Fier and took a small side-trip to the ancient site of Apollonia. Apollonia was a beautiful place to stop and see some ancient architecture and statues. I am not sure what the normal price is to enter Apollonia because no one actually charged us to enter the sites or the museum. You never know whether you’ll luck out while visiting Albanian castles and historical sites because sometimes you have to pay and sometimes you don’t.

After Apollonia we stopped for pizza in Fier. Peace Corps volunteers love to have pizza in Fier because they have barbeque chicken pizza, which is extremely rare here. It’s always nice to have a taste of home right in our own backyard. Once we filled up on pizza, we continued our way down south to the small beach town of Himare. Himare is on the southern coast in between Vlore and Saranda. It takes a while to travel down to Himare, but the view along the way is beautiful. Most of the drive is along the coast, with a short portion in between the southern mountains. In Himare we stayed at an Airbnb apartment that another volunteer recommended to me. It was absolutely wonderful and had a beautiful panoramic view of the coast and town with breakfast included. We went to dinner at a seafood restaurant in town and had coffee the next morning in the center near the beach. I went for a brief swim, but the water was still pretty cold. I hear it begins to warm up a bit more in late-June and remains that way throughout the summer. Beware though because there are a lot of tourists in July and especially August.

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Random boat restaurant in the middle of no where on the road from Berat to Fier

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Ancient columns at Apollonia

Appolonia

Apollonia

Statues at Appolonia

Statues at Apollonia

Inside the church

Inside the church

The outside of the church

The outside of the church

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

The view from the road between Vlore and Himare

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

Panoramic of Himare from our bed and breakfast

Day Four: Himare to Ksamil

On our fourth day we continued driving down the coast to Ksamil which is one of the most southern cities in Albania. On our way down we came across a castle that was built on a small island in the sea. We thought it looked neat and it was only accessible by private vehicle (or by walking from the highway), so we decided to check it out. Before we headed up to the castle I noticed an abandoned building that was decorated with colorful street art. The paintings masked a portion of the cracking exterior of the concrete block structure, so of course that was very intriguing. Me being me, I decided to check out what was inside and was in shock at what I found. Not only was there more street art, but there was also gigantic piles of çaj mali (Albanian mountain tea) everywhere. I was so surprised to find enough tea to supply an entire village for the whole winter. It was so unexpected and I definitely think it was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in Albania. Then we went to the castle, which was also pretty neat, especially for those historian buffs.

As we continued our way down the winding road I was curious if we’d ever make it to Saranda. Even though Albania is a small country, about the size of Maryland, it sure does take a long time to travel across. We also took the scenic coastal road, which added on several hours of winding roads. After we finally made it to Saranda we had lunch near the port with the volunteer who lives there and she gave us some suggestions on things to do in the area. We made it down to Ksmail in the mid-afternoon and went for a swim and a xhiro around town. The water was crystal clear and pretty warm once you got used to it.

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Outside of the building full of traditional Albanian mountain tea and street art

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

Inside of the castle off the side of the road between Himare and Saranda

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

I still cannot believe I found this in Albania

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hanging out on our hotel balcony

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

Hotel castle is a great deal and beachfront in Ksamil. As you can see Albanians really like their castles

Day Five: Excursion to Butrint

We stayed an extra night at Hotel Castle in Ksamil so that we could go on a mini day-trip to the best-preserved UNESCO heritage site in Albania. It is another must-see if you are in southern Albania. We spent hours walking around the various sites in Butrint and one could honestly spend an entire day exploring and reading about all the history from that region. My dad even met a new friend, a random sleeping dog, off one of the main roads while we were hiking around Butrint. In the afternoon we went for another swim and then had the best seafood dinners I’ve had in Saranda at Demi Restaurant. One plus to having tons of delicious fresh seafood is pairing it with the tasty, yet cheap, white wine.

The ancient ruins of Butrint

The ancient ruins of Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

Amphitheater at Butrint

The beautiful couple

The beautiful couple

Stunning views

Stunning views

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

Dad met a little friend while we were walking off the main path in Butrint

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

We ate a lot of delicious food on our trip

Living the life in Saranda

Living the life in Saranda

Day Six: Ksamil, the Blue Eye, and Gjirokaster

The next day we continued our journey back up north to Gjirokaster. Along the way we stopped at the southern blue eye, which was on my Albanian bucket list. Thanks dad! At the blue eye we were able to relax right next to the water and have an afternoon coffee to keep us going for the rest of our drive north.

In Gjirokaster we stayed at an adorable, traditional bed and breakfast. Kotoni BnB was a great deal because it was inexpensive and the hosts were great! Both of them spoke fluent English, gave us tips on things to do in Gjirokaster, and provided a pretty nice breakfast complete with Turkish coffee and mountain tea. Both rooms we had gave us a lovely view of the castle and old town Gjirokaster. Definitely a place that I would recommend staying at!

We toured some traditional houses in the city and also went up to the castle. The city was preparing for the traditional Albanian folk dance festival, so tourist season was just about to begin. If only we had planned their vacation a week later we could have experienced some traditional valle dances from different regions all over the country. Of course we tried lots of traditional Albanian food all throughout our trip and we couldn’t leave Gjirokaster without trying qifqi, rice balls made with egg and seasoning, a dish known in the Gjirokaster region.

Albania <3 USA

Albania

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Finally got to experience the blue eye down south

Pretty gorgeous

Pretty gorgeous

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Having a nice coffee at the blue eye

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Inside my room in Gjirokaster

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Had a view of old town and the castle from my room

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

Our tour guide explains how women would sit in the above area because they did not socialize with the men

The newlyweds room

The newlyweds room

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Inside the Gjirokaster castle

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Hello from one of the best castles in Albania (in my opinion)

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

Old town Gjirokaster square at night

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

We had some cute neighbors at our last BnB in Gjirokaster

Day Seven: Back to Tirana

My parents trip came to an end and we traveled back up to Tirana so that they would be ready for their early morning flight at 5am the next day. If you have some time in the Tirana area before you go other places I would recommend checking out are Kruje and Mt Dajlti. There is a cable car that runs up Mt Dajti and there is a traditional market and castle in Kruje (plus there is also a statue of US President George W. Bush).

If you’re staying longer than a week in Albania, I would recommend spending an extra day down south and going to the Benji hot springs near Permet. Northern Albania is also especially beautiful because it is full of mountains and friendly people. Shkoder is a beautiful city with a great evening xhiro and a beautiful lake (plus another castle). And if you like hiking you should check out the hike from Valbona to Thethi in the summer months!

I am so happy that I was able to share a bit of wonderful Albania with my dad, Nancy, and my mom back in March. Now I feel like my family a better understanding of where I have been living these past two years. Goal three of Peace Corps is to share Albanian culture with people back in the states and there was no better way for me to show them with Shqiperia has to offer than by giving them a complete tour. This trip was also very special for me because I am used to living the lifestyle of a volunteer and it was interesting for me to experience Albania as a “tourist.” The country is really making great strides in the tourism industry and I know that in five to ten years Albania will be one of the top spots to visit in the Balkans because of the stunning nature and hospitable locals. Just FYI, Albania was voted #4 of the top 52 places to visit by the New York Times in 2014. So this is me telling you that you should visit Albania while it’s still cheap and undiscovered!

Outdoor Ambassadors Go Green Talent Show

My students in Outdoor Ambassadors, a youth group focused on environmentalism and leadership skills, decided to hold a talent show to fundraise money for community projects and future activities. We have been discussing and planning this show since the beginning of the school year in September. The show was originally planned for the beginning of January, but the students did not use their time correctly over the winter break to plan so we had to postpone the show until February. My site-mate Chuck and I wanted this show to be a student-run operation, so we gave the students some guidance, but left most of the decision making, planning, and preparation up to them. They wrote the program, found performers to partake in the show, made and sold tickets, decorated the auditorium, and coordinated with everyone to make sure the show happened. We helped push them along the way and make sure that they were adhering to deadlines, but in the end the students ran the entire show.

The show was focused on promoting environmental awareness in our community. The performers spoke with the audience about the importance of throwing away garbage, reducing pollution by riding bikes or walking, the effects of smoking on the environment, etc. We also had several other performances such as singing, bands, and dancing. It was a very dynamic show with fourteen different acts. The students really put in a lot of work to make sure the show was interesting for the audience. I also created this video to show the garbage problem in our community to persuade people to begin taking an active role in keeping their city clean.

It was quite the learning experience for all of us. The students got a taste of new and different leadership roles; they did not have prior experience planning and running a show. Not going to lie, much of the planning was chaotic. The students were confused about what roles everyone had and who were supposed to do which tasks. This meant that things often did not get done when they were originally planned. They ended up pulling it together with the proper amount of direction and time.

They began holding rehearsals several weeks before the show. The first initial rehearsals consisted of a lot of confusion and arguing, but things began to have more of a flow and consistency after a few tries. Still things were a bit rocky all the way up to the day before the show, so the students decided to hold one last rehearsal before the final show today and that is where the true madness begins…

Here is a breakdown of the day.

9am: Students begin arriving at the auditorium for rehearsals. Most of the students do not arrive until around 9:20am. Some other random students decide to skip school and attend the rehearsals as well.

9am-9:30am: The group starts decorating the auditorium with balloons. The balloon project does not get finished until around 10:30am. We had less than 40 balloons…

9:30am: Still waiting for most of the student participants to arrive. The power in all the building goes out. We have no lights in the auditorium.

10am: The power is still not back. The students are starting to panic. Everyone is using their phone lights to navigate through the pitch-black room. People are trying to change into costumes, put on makeup, and practice before the performance.

10:20am: The lights are still out in the auditorium, but power has come back to the rest of the building. We try to figure out what the problem is with the lights in the auditorium and supposedly the lights in the auditorium are connected to a separate generator that is part of a different breaker of a surrounding village. Very confusing situation.

10:40am: Still no power. Haven’t been able to start rehearsals. Now students who bought tickets begin to show up… over an hour early. They expect to be let into the auditorium, but I refuse because we still do not have light and still haven’t begun rehearsals.

11:20am: No lights still. The show is supposed to start at 12pm. The students (and myself) are really starting to stress out. The students who aren’t stressed are messing around in the darkness. People keep saying “Inshallah” or “God-willing” in hopes that the lights will return soon.

11:30am: The students from the high school are let out from school early. Over 300 tickets were sold. Hundreds of kids are standing outside the auditorium and trying to get inside. I was afraid there was going to be a stampede.

11:40am: The police arrive to help control the crowd. People are getting anxious all around. I am running around trying to calm everyone down and get everything together for when the lights come on. They tell us the lights should be back soon. They have been saying this for a while.

11:50am: The lights come back on!!! We begin letting students into the auditorium. It’s madness. Students without tickets are trying to enter and some of the Albanian adults are letting them in anyways, despite the fact that they don’t have a ticket.

11:55am: The auditorium is completely full – past capacity. Everyone is running around backstage trying to get everything together to start.

12:05pm: We begin the show without any rehearsals or preparation. The show must go on! Everyone was a bit nervous, but began to calm down as the show started.

12:15pm: I helped backstage with the music and technology. Sadly, since we did not have time to check the sound before there were some problems. The music was on way louder than the microphones, but everyone still did a great job. I accidently played the wrong song at first for the first singers, whoops.

12:30pm: The students’ energy backstage was so cheerful. All the students were cheering each other on and taking videos/pictures. Everyone practically forgot we didn’t even get to rehearse.

1:30pm: The show finished and I could breathe again. We celebrated with a big group cheer and group hug after dancing the finale to the “We are the World” song. It was a very happy moment.

Despite all the problems that we faced throughout the day, the students pulled off a wonderful show all on their own. They planned it. They implemented it. They did it all. I can’t explain how proud I was the moment that it began. It was such a crazy day, but totally worth it. The students made close to $400 for future community projects with the youth center and our city. They are such amazing leaders. I don’t know how I will ever leave them…

During rehearsals

During rehearsals

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Getting ready backstage before the power went out

Waiting for the lights to come back on

Waiting for the lights to come back on

The full auditorium

The full auditorium

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

Two beautiful girls singing All Of Me by Ed Sheeran

An anti-smoking skit

An anti-smoking skit

Another great singer

Another great singer

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

The valle dance group in traditional dress from central Albania

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Another OA student giving a motivational speech

Our great narrators and directors of the show

Our great narrators and directors of the show

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

These guys were great; they really brought the energy out of the crowd

The entire cast during the finale

The entire cast during the finale

Me and the valle group

Me and the valle group

Part of the group after the show

Part of the group after the show

The Albanian Healthcare System

After working in the Albanian healthcare system for over the past year I have begun to understand the way things work here little by little. Healthcare systems across the world are often a point of criticism, especially in America. People are not happy with the recent Obamacare regulations and many people do not have access to adequate healthcare services. The healthcare system in Albania also is not set up for success in the current capacity, but that is why the Ministry of Public Health is constantly striving for better results and more action. Many Albanians are continually working towards a better society that impacts more and more people. That is also the reason why Peace Corps volunteers are placed in health organizations to help build capacity. Things aren’t perfect, but slowly we are working together to make this place better.

Public vs. Private Sector

The Albanian healthcare system is set up in the private and public sector. In the public sector there are two ministries – the Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Health. The Ministry of Finance controls the insurance commission that pay for public health service specialists. The Ministry of Health has authority over the regional public hospitals, Directories of Public Health (DShP), and smaller health centers. There are twelve regional public hospitals in Albania where the specialists work. Under the hospitals you will find the DShPs and then the smaller health centers and polyclinics. Family doctors work at the health centers and polyclinics. Government employees, children, people with disabilities, students, soldiers, and retired persons are covered under public health insurance and patients without insurance are expected to pay for public health services. The prices are as followed: $10 family doctor visit, $15 polyclinic visit, and $20 hospital stay. They also need to pay all the costs for all medications as well.

The private sector definitely holds monopoly over the healthcare system in Albania. There are many pharmacies, laboratories, private doctor officers, speciality clinics, diagnostic centers, and hospitals. The private hospitals are mainly in larger urban cities such as Tirana, Durres, and Vlore. All dental clinics are also in the private sector. The majority of Albanians cannot afford to be covered under private healthcare.

Culture

There is an interesting culture surrounding healthcare in Albania. The culture of turp (shame) causes many people to have the fear of embarrassment when it comes to health knowledge. Some doctors do not collaborate with other doctors on medical cases because they fear that others think they do not know what they are doing if they have questions or would like a second opinion. In America, it is common for doctors to collaborate and work together, especially in the case of difficult diagnoses. Cooperation amongst coworkers is not the norm and rivalry is common. I have even witnessed this within my office; some of my colleagues will fight over who gives education to certain schools based off of what their job title is. This sometimes leads to no one giving lessons at the schools.

Continuing medical education is also not enforced and is often hard to find. This is not only for the health sector, but also for other areas of Albanian society as well. Teachers do not attend continuing education trainings either. The ministries require workers to continue their education, but in reality there is no enforcement and no consequences if people do not attend these trainings. I have attended several continuing medical education sessions since arriving in country, but all these sessions outline basic information that can be found by anyone on the Internet. The lessons usually do not go in depth into information.

Challenges

There are many challenges that people face working in the healthcare system here. The system is hierarchical, political, and bureaucratic. I quickly realized this during election time last year because no one could work at my DShP until they knew who the new Prime Minister would be. If the political party changes, like it did last year, then most of the directors in control of these public institutions also change. Those in power demand respect and all authority comes back to the directors in control. People cannot step outside the bureaucracy and must receive permission for everything.

There is a lack of organization and chaos. Often times maybe one or two people may know what is going on, while the rest of the office has no idea. Time management is an issue, as well as a lack of planning and proper needs assessments. Even major health events usually come down to last minute planning and fumbling around to get everything together in time. Coffee time takes precedent over work time frequently. Although, I cannot deny that a fair amount of work does happen over coffee, so sometimes coffee can actually be a good thing. Numerous people will arrive late, or just don’t arrive at all. I have several coworkers who habitually do not come into the office, or they will come into the office and then leave for several hours to go shopping. There is no accountability.

Lack of proper funding and physical resources is also a huge issue. The ministry will require all public health institutions, including DShPs and health centers, to perform certain examinations and education each month, but does not provide adequate funding or resources to see out these expectations. Just recently there was a huge controversy over who would get free breast exams during the month of October because the Ministry of Public Health announced that all women over 40 have the opportunity to receive a free mammography. Sounds great, right? Problem is the only mammography machines are located in Tirana and the rest of the country does not have access to the resources needed for the exams. There were supposed to be two mobile vehicles traveling around Albania to help give examinations, but no one had any information about how to get the mobile units to visit their cities. We often run into issues giving health lessons in my community as well because we do not have the money, the gas, the car, or other resources to reach the villages outside of walking distance. The village schools and health centers are all under our jurisdiction, but receive little to no attention.

Relationships are extremely important while working with people here. If you do not have a positive relationship with someone, then you don’t work with those people. This comes back to the fear and rivalry mentioned before. Trust and respect are critical. This has been one of the most difficult things for me while working here because many people are suspicious of Americans and think they Peace Corps volunteers are “spies” sent from America to keep tabs on the rest of the world. There are also ridiculous expectations of Americans. Often I am expected to do everything by myself such as creating Powerpoint lesson plans, making brochures, or anything regarding technology. Working together and transferring skills occasionally happens, but is not always common.

Community Attitudes towards Health Professionals

There is an extreme lack of trust in healthcare professionals from the public in this country. Many people are not qualified for their positions and it is common for people to pay their way through school (and life) to get to the top. That being said, people are suspicious of doctors and often trust friends or family members over their physicians. Patients do not want to take medicine unless someone else in their family has used it before. Many people will lie about their previous health conditions and they will not tell the doctor what is wrong and any of their previous diagnoses or treatments.

Traditional myths towards healthcare can make it difficult while working with community members as well. People believe that fresh, cold air will make you sick. Wet hair will also make you sick, especially if it is cold outside. I never previously dried my hair (because I love those natural “I-don’t-give-a-f*$#” curls that I have) and have had many conversations with community members about why in the world I left my house with wet hair and how I am going to catch a cold. I now don’t leave my house without covering my wet hair because I don’t want to cause a ruckus while walking down the road. A diet based on carbs is also supposed to be good for you. I cannot tell you how many Albanian women have told me that a diet of only potatoes is the best way to lose weight and be healthy. Ummmm, no! Cancer and other significant health problems are thought to be caused by the evil eye and bad luck. Emotional problems should be dealt with within the home and are often seen to only affect the weak. Yogurt, cheese, and rice work better than medicine. Supposedly applying yogurt to a sunburn is the best cure.

People feel that they need to give money to receive proper care. There are a lot of under the counter bribes that happen between patients are doctors. People will give money to have their tests read first and they will give money to receive special treatment and jump the line.

Visiting the Doctor

Visiting the doctor in Albania is a completely different experience than seeing a physician in the states. Like I have mentioned in blogs before, lines are non-existent here. So everyone who comes into the office requires immediate attention and often those who yell the loudest receive it first prior to those who have been waiting. Privacy is not a priority. During a tour of a village health center during pre-service training, our training group walked in while a doctor was examining a patient. The doctor motioned for us to stay as he explained a bit more about the health center, as he was continuing the examine the patient. I felt extremely uncomfortable for the patient because she had no say in the matter.

Instead of wanting an examination many people want an ultrasound and an IV. So many Albanians I know go to the hospital every time they are sick with a basic cold to receive an IV. It blows my mind. I have only received an IV once when I was incredibly sick, but here people will get an IV for a hangover.

Another thing that is different about visiting the doctor in Albania is that the patients are required to go to the Pharmacy to buy there own medication and, often times, their own supplies needed for regular examinations.

Working as a Health Education volunteer in Albania

So now I have mentioned some of the issues that the healthcare system in Albania faces. There is a need for a change regarding the way things are currently in place here. Most Peace Corps volunteers in Albania are placed in the local DShPs or health centers to work with the health promotion department. Currently there is not a health promotion department at the health centers because the entire region is supposed to be covered under the DShP, however funding and lack of resources inhibit those centers to adequately cover everyone. I am placed within the office of health promotion at the DShP in my city. There have been many challenges that I have faced working there, but I can’t deny that there have been a few successes as well. Most of my work consists of developing materials that my counterparts can use to help give more interactive lessons. Normally the way that health promotion works from my experience is that the promotion office will visit the health centers to give brochures, information, and posters. Then they will visit the schools to give short 15-minute lessons in the “good classes” and sometimes students will be used to do promotional marches in the community to raise awareness about topics such as breast cancer and road safety. Most of these activities are not planned ahead of time and involve giving a short lecture without any materials or interactive discussion. This is changing though with the health of Peace Corps volunteers and younger generation Albanians. Now we try to give more interactive presentations that involve Powerpoint, games, pre-post tests, and discussions. Often times, it is difficult to have the full class time (45 minutes) to devote to these lessons because when we give presentations in the schools. Usually we are interrupting classes that are already in sessions. Other times, we may plan to use a Powerpoint or a lesson involving technology, but the room doesn’t have the adequate resources or the power in the school is out. These are some of the many reasons why it is difficult to give health education lessons, even with adequate planning ahead of time.

Things are not always awry here, despite all the difficulties that we face. I have seen strength and intelligence in some of the women that I work with. I see that certain people go out of their way to try and help despite the challenges they face daily in their work and with the system. We may not be giving health lessons everyday, or every week for that matter, but slowly educators and health professionals are building capacity to plan a project and the capacity to give an interactive lesson incorporating the audience into the discussion. I am trying to look past all the obstacles and road-blocks and just focus on the little things that I can do to help. I can’t change the system, but I can help empower Albanians to do little things to help take control over what they can do for their country.

Some of our wonderful helpers during a recent breast cancer awareness march.

Some of our wonderful helpers during a recent breast cancer awareness march.

Smoking presentation

Smoking presentation

Asking the students what they know about HIV.

Asking the students what they know about HIV.

Giving dental demonstrations.

Giving dental demonstrations.

My Voice of America Interview

While I was visiting Washington DC back in September for the Peace Corps Blog It Home competition we toured several agencies, including Voice of America. I actually had no idea that Voice of America is popular in Albania and learned a bit more about the station during the tour. Voice of America serves countries all across the world giving people news and information in their native language. In Albania, Voice of America is part of the national news program aired nightly.

Before I did this interview I had NO IDEA that I would be filmed, which is probably better anyways because if I had known that I would be taped speaking Shqip for national television beforehand I probably would have stressed myself out. That being said, I had absolutely no time to prepare myself for this interview, so I definitely sound like a toddler. Plus I had not been practicing my Albanian most of the summer, so I was a bit rusty. Usually I can speak a little bit better when I am not under pressure, but I am still pretty proud of myself for giving a complete interview in Albanian on national television. I never expected that I would do something like this during my Peace Corps service and it truly was an honor.

For those of you who do not speak Albanian and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about I will give you a brief explanation in English.

“I have studied Albanian for 10 weeks and I lived with a host family in Pajove. They helped me with my Shqip. I am happy that I am in the Voice of America studio in America… Oh goodness. Excuse me, my Shqip is not very good, but slowly slowly. I work at the Directory of Public Health and give health lessons in all the schools. I have two clubs at the high school: Model UN, GLOW, and Outdoor Ambassadors. In the morning, I make Turkish coffee or sometimes American coffee. After that, I go to work and drink another coffee with my coworkers. Sometimes we give lessons in the school. After school I have a group with another American volunteer. In the afternoon, sometimes I take a nap, workout, or run. In the evenings, sometimes I eat dinner in a restaurant or drink another coffee with friends. It’s nice. Right now, I have been in Albania for one year and I will stay one year more. Maybe I will stay two years more if I have another project. Right now I want to start a youth center in my city and then maybe I will stay for two years. I have visited Theth, Valbone, Vau Dejes, Shkoder, Berat… Berat is very beautiful – the city of windows. Oh Berat. In the south the beaches are very beautiful; I have been to Saranda and Ksamil. I love Albania very much, maybe I will return in the future… Oh my gosh!”

In order to watch the video you need to scroll down in the playlist and click “Xhilli in Albania” or click this link.

PS: The music in this video is hilarious.