ALBANIA ! so much fun. Volume 2 of bringing it back

You would not believe it but country/folk music exists in Albania and Peace Core Volunteers really become a tight group. Impressive sounds, people, and cause, and really made a foreign boy feel at home!

CG gloriously picked me up at the airport and I was able to literally ride her coattails the rest of the trip! Though the first picture is of CG in Tirana, the capital of Albania, this is pretty much how she appeared to me outside the airport… full of bags and a BIG smile!

So our first night we were treated to country music and an outdoor dinner with two of CG’s best PC friends in a town called Shijak (sp?). We got there by taking a coach bus from the airport that dropped us off in the middle of the highway, where we then walked around the interchange to get on the other highway where we waved down a furgone, effectively a van driven by a guy that runs a route back and forth between cities all day and will stop to drop off and pick up anywhere along the route. The furgone took us to Durres, a port city in Albania, where we hopped on another coach bus that took us to our first night’s stay. Both CG and Lenae seemed to know exactly where they were going and what mode of transportation to pick up where. I was just along for the ride, and loving it!

The next morning we rolled early and made our way, through only one bus this time, to Tirana. Here there was definitely a pulse in the city and it felt very different than Shijak. For example, Tirana is 1 million people in a country that only has 3 million total, while in Shijak I remarked at a number of billiard halls and said jokingly, “let’s go play”. The girls replied, “yea sure, you can go, but we cannot”. Only men are allowed in the pool rooms and the conservatism in the towns was much more apparent than the capital. There was lots of development happening in the city with both holes in the ground just getting started and fairly ugly buildings just getting finished… almost looked like Washington, DC in some places! This picture is me munching down on my first “Byrek”, traditional Balkan food Albanian style, which is basically a filo kind of pastry bread, preferably baked, with any kind of normal pizza/calzone topping that you can think of. And of course, its a traditional breakfast food. Let’s just say, that leafy greens and carb reduction is not part of the Albanian food pyramid.

 


One of the more interesting things in Albania is how important appearance is. Now most of this is from CG educating me and only a little was from my own observation. Many Albanians dressed quite Western and “done-up”, except for the religious, and especially the younger generation. To be honest, they looked more put together, especially in Tirana, then Americans would in cities. The women were all wearing high heels and tight pants and lots of make-up while the men wore spiffy outfits with gelled hair and made look even worse than usual! It seems though, that most Albanians will wear the same one or two outfits over and over again, as they do not have the money to own more than one outfit. (I of course could not really tell this as I only saw myself and CG, and only one of us changed, for the most part every day… I did apologize repeatedly to CG for my appearance, so you figure it out!). Also, as you will see later in pictures, many of the houses looked quite expansive and were brightly colored, yet it seems that in many of these the families will only live in one or two rooms of the house, both to conserve heat/energy costs and because they really do not need a whole lot more. But, the importance is that they look like they live like Kings. Which, as CG tells me, is very important in Albanian society.

One of the most famous murals in Albania, showing its history, that is the centerpiece to their formal plaza near the government buildings.


This is a picture of a huge second-hand market that kindof/sortof prepared for the Great Bazaar that I would later find in Istanbul. Here people play dominoes, shoot the breeze, buy food, but do not seem to buy too many un-perishable goods.

From Tirana we left and headed to CG’s third home, the town of Puka, away from her second home, the city of Schroeder, away from her first home, America! OK, so enough poetry in prose, as really the landscape in Albania is majestic. The flight into Albania was a top 5 most beautiful view with lush green rolling hills spotted with shrubs that then died into stark mountains(we think the Albanian Alps)?

Sidenote, on the plane I spoke to the only Albanian person who I met without CG’s introduction. Strangely enough sitting next to me on my flight was an Albanian college-age woman whp was going to school in Switzerland and had a Greek Father and an Albanian Mother, who seemed to have been separated for some time. She dressed exactly like what a New Jersey style steretypical college woman would dress, and then proceeded to blow the Albanian stereotype out of the water by speaking ‘Ship (Albanian), Greek, French, pretty good English, and some Spanish as well. Then to really confuse me, she also had with her a 90 euro bottle of Dior perfume that she had just picked up at the duty free shop. To put that purchase in perspective, that is more money than I spent in my 4 days and 3 nights in Albania, and about a monthly income for most people in Albania. Of course, on the plane I just thought that Dior was not my style and wondered how much she actually saved buying it duty-free…

OK, so now that the ride is over, I can tell the story because if I had known before hand I might have gotten worried. Halfway through our mountainous ride, where CG grilled me on the iron-like mettle of my stomach before letting me have breakfast (she did not eat), we stopped and I took a bunch of pictures. I thought it was just your average pit stop, but when we looked inside the restaurant, or should I just call it like it is, alcholol serving station, all the men were inside having a beer. Our valiant bus driver was not just having a cig and a beer, but also was chilling with a Rahki, which in Albania is basically just vodka. CG was completely unfazed, and was actually more worried about how she took two steps into the bar and all the men inside half-jumped out of their seats and asked her if she needed anything, because of course, what would a woman be doing in a bar where there are huge sliding glass doors that are open… CG even told me that she used to try and smell the breath of furgone drivers before getting in the van, but nowadays she can just tell, or at least comfort herself, with how quickly they see her waving them down and how easily they pull out of traffic. Nevertheless, our fearless driver hopped back into the coach bus and pulled off after a couple of happy hour drinks to ease his stomach over the bumpy, hairpin turns, along a mountain cliff. I mean, how else would you approach it? Better drive with confidence than with fear, right?

Ok, back to Puka, which is not the prettiest name, but the people were just awesome and I had an awesome time! So in general, I believe that Albanians are borderline religiously opposed to railings on stairs, and some other basic building code issues that would make an OSHA inspector faint upon site-visit. Here are two awesome pictures of CG and I walking out of what is a fairly normal third story apartment!

Next I have my favorite photo of the phenomenon that was initially unique to me, but I guess is fairly normal in parts of Europe and Turkey… the half-built concrete shell of a building just hanging out in the elements.

So what is crazy in Albania, and likely the issue that my mind kept returning to when thinking of why things were not some way in the country, is that there is really no “credit”. What I mean is, that there are no personal loans. All cell phones are pre-paid. All utility bills are paid in advance based on useage history and if less energy is used then money is given back to you at the end of the period. There are no loans for houses or cars. Everything is paid in straight cash (homie)! So the reason you see all these buildings half-built and seemingly a developer gone broke, is really just somebody who put all the spare cash they had into a building and then literally ran out of money and is waiting until the next cycle to do more work. And the reason that they do not sit on the money until they have enough to build it all at once is because construction costs keep increasing so it makes more sense to build as much as you can now and wait for more money than to build it all at once in the end. This whole system is close to the complete opposite of America, where we can even float late payment of bills to our creditors, at no extra cost! Also, I would not have had the opportunity to have completed the real estate development projects in Albania as without banks loaning me money I would have not had near the resources to complete the project. The issue of credit speaks to the larger, sometimes hidden issue in Albania, where it looked and felt on the outside quite normal to me, but the underlying systems and governance and sophistication were not developed nearly to what I expect to encournter daily in America.
That night we are dinner with 5 of CG’s PC friends after a great walk around the city of Puka. I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the PC folks, two sets of couples who planned to volunteer as they got married, (one of the women was best friends in college with a high school classmate of mine) and another woman a year out of university. It was a really fun mix and I felt totally at home! A highlight to the home cooked meal, (thank you Judy! who would travel with us the next day as well), was when the Albanian peer (mirror public health employee to a PC volunteer) to one of the volunteers came over to hang out and brought her home made Baklava (somewhere I envionsed Joelio devouring all of it including the plate). So good, and I definitely ate way more than I needed to… I do not even really like the Baklava that I have had in the States, but wow it was good!


So the next morning we got up and hopped on another coach bus to CG’s home town of Shroeder, taking pretty much the same bumpy trip as the day before. Of course this time, it was not the driver that was slicked (to my knowledge) but it was raining pretty good. Here is a good example of a hairpin turn with an oncoming mac truck. Really, take a DC bus driver and put him in Albania, or really anywhere that I have been in Europe, and there will damage everywhere! Nothing against DC bus drivers, they do a good job, but it quite literally another World. Needless to say, I held my breath going around this turn, but the truck driver and bus driver never missed a beat — really amazing! (and slightly terrifiying… CG and Judy slept basically the whole way to avoid motion sickness…) The second picture shows my effective view during this drive and the basically omnipresent cracked windshield that was all over Albania. As CG said, Albanians are just better at making things work than Americans, they really will not throw things away. Dare I say… recycle, reuse, and reuse!

Bad ass Albanian grandma with the traditional colored hair braid and clothing. She casually waved the bus down in the middle of the road and road it like just another day… tough and impressive women, as CG tells me, they do the brunt of the work in Albania as the men loiter around in the towns and villages in cafes or on the street, while the women tend the house, take care of the kids, and usually do most of the field work as well.

Traditional Albanian meal for brunch in Schroeder that was about vegetable/potato hearty soup with rice and bread, and I watered it down with an Albanian beer, just to try it out! Also needless to say, in all these places except for Tirana, there was no hope of us being anything but the only foreigners in the place. THANK YOU CG for speaking the language and using the Albanian currency, Lek, for me and basically keeping me out of trouble. There could have been no better guide, no doubt!

Walking around Schroeder felt just like another European city. As in, kind of close to home, but just a little different. Schroeder is one of the top three most populated cities in the country and according to CG much of the public infrastructure had been completed during her two year stay in the city. A big difference is that interspersed throughout the cities are mosques, which I found to be usually very pretty and much better upkept than many American places of worship. Here you can see CG on the left and Judy on the right… Albanians would be better dressed!… haha

Jimmy’s first gelato! It was much better in Albania than the dolve vita that I later had on the Southern Coast of Turkey.


To be honest it was very hard at times to visually see the difference between Albania and developed countries. There were nice parks and even basketball courts!


CG’s normal spirits are comprised of Rahki and wine bought from her local market vendor in water bottles! The wine was great, which is not saying a whole lot about wine, while the Rahki just tasted like so-so Smirnoff vodka.. not enthused.

The four-square method of cutting a cucumber. Albanians do not find a use for cutting boards, and I did not cut myself while taking this picture, how resourceful all around!

The landscapes of Albania were coldly breath-taking at times. I mean how amazing would it be if you could have this view while sipping coffee in the States??!!??


CG even gamely found me a basketball hoop, which happened to be at the house of the landlord for her site-mates (volunteers in the same town), so I could my streak alive of making a basket in each country I visited. I even had a photographer to show me just how low my hops are nowadays, likely not far different from when I was young and spritely… but hey, check out that shot-doctor textbook follow-thru!

The next morning CG and I got up early and went for a run to the local castle that was incredibly cool and stands as the big piece of history in Schroeder. The sunrise that morning tried to give my Athens morning a run as the clouds were extraordinary. The very kind Albanian guard, with some sweet words in ‘Ship from CG (I can only assume as I have no idea anything she said other than hello and thank you), allowed us to enter the Castle walls before visiting hours and we had a private tour of the place. The history from CG made the place come alive and I was ready to defend the castle from Charlemagne’s hordes from my, should I admit, well-praticed stance…?! Or really, I would likely have just stood behind this famouns Albanian warrior and let him take care of business. How would mess with such a menacing mustauche?!


Here is an example of one of those great looking houses that supposedly only have 1 or 2 rooms in use and have zero insulation, which I can attest to.

Here I go, at the airport, waiting for my flight to Turkey. CG THANK YOU SO MUCH for such an awesome trip! (Even if you did throw me in a van driven by some guy who knew no English, and resisted my attempt to give him a piece of my Byrek as a peace-offering, and was just driving to the airport to pick up his friend or do an errand… not even a furgone… though I felt quite safe in the care and he got me there in no time!)

In the end, I was quite sad to leave Albania and I guess my facial expression tells you my fortitude as I pressed on for Turkey!

About Jimmy

Just a young man living. see -- "Clinton Portis"
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3 Responses to ALBANIA ! so much fun. Volume 2 of bringing it back

  1. Jon and Emily says:

    Wow looks awesome and amazing what CG showed you. However would have been very interesting to see your blog post if you went on your own. Might have ended with one of those self pictures next to the goats on the side of the road.

  2. Lisa says:

    I love your blog. Lots of details from what seems like an amazing trip. Very happy for you, Jimmy. Now, COME TO CHINA!!!

  3. Lisa says:

    I a replying to myself…I meant the girl holding the banjo. In case this comment does not show up right under her pic. To quote Missy Elliot…she looks “supah dupah fly.”

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