the trip

Peace Corps volunteer in Albania: The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I really do try to make these short, ow well!

UNDP meeting for re-development of Industrial area. Mayor Mark is in foreground, and that is Nik behind him. The rest are staff and UNDP staff with me looking really interested!
Female pensionsits (that is the word in Albanian) they are waiting for government assistance at the post office. Check out the Mirditore clothing. We call them Ninja Gjushes (grandmothers)
Seth and I checking the sharpness of the knife before the slaughter.
Me and Seth after the first kill. It was raining so don't mind my awesome poncho.

Alex, Lesley (my site mate) and I after a grueling hike where we followed a sheep herding dog who got us lost and then we had to traverse a mountainside where there was a fire last year. People in town were asking if we got in a fight or if we were mechanics!
Rubik Christmas tree, put up by the crazy guy who lives in my building!
View from my office during the snow!

I really hope killing a lady bug is not bad luck because if it is, I am S.O.L.!!! My building has a problem. I probably killed somewhere between 10-15 lady bugs, or some sort of creature that looks like a lady bug, every night for the week following my trip to Turkey, we have had quite the problem. I realize that I am in no way, shape or form in danger from sharing living quarters with these bugs but they are everywhere. Call me what you will, my site mate Lesley said, “shame on you!” O’well, what can she say, she doesn’t have these things all over the place. I told her I don’t feel guilty because they are uninvited and they don’t pay rent! Alright, so following my trip to Turkey and Greece I tried my best to get right back into work. As I have written here before, I received a Small Project Assistance grant back in May or June. The project has been a bit of a head ache ever since. First, the Peace Corps and I had a paper work problem. The problem was their mistake and my actual problem. Without going into too much detail, I did not receive the funds for my project for over three months following the approval date. Issue one! The second problem or series of issues came with the municipality. As part of the SPA agreement, the agency requesting the funds (in my case the municipality, I may also call it the Shqip word, Bashkia) is responsible for 10% of the budget in cash and 15% in what is referred to as in-kind (something the agency already has access to, for example a current staff member, unused office space or electricity). Although the project was approved and the funding was in route, the staff of the Bashkia failed to take the initiative. I shouldn’t say initiative because I was constantly bothering one Director or another to do something. I waited patiently from June until November for something to happen. The only part of the project that was completed on time is a survey. On one of the rare occasions that every member of my Directorate was in the building I made sure we at least did the one thing that did not require any other office’s help. Sander (my counterpart and the director of the Office I work in) has always been one of the only employees of the city who actually does work, and he does good work. There are three other fairly young women who work in my office. Just to understand one of the problems that exists in Albania keep this in mind. Communism ended about twenty years ago and the education system in the country has never recovered. First, people who were educated during communism are now teachers and professors. They are also the leaders of the country in government, business, and the NGO sector. The communist education system in Albania, like in many other countries, was not all bad. Math, science, trades, and related areas were taught extremely efficiently from what I have been told and read. The problem comes with critical thinking. If you are not told what to do and how to do it, it simply does not get done. This is the same issue that troubles many, not all, of the youth currently. They are taught to regurgitate information and are never questioned why this? or why that?. I have had many conversations with the four most open minded and intelligent Albanians I work with (Mark the mayor, Sander my counterpart, his wife Bardhe, and Nik the Vice-director of the High School and director of the NGO) and they emphatically agree. Mark even went as far as to higher two new young women in their mid and late twenties to begin work in my office in an effort to shake up the work a bit. This outcome was not achieved but we are all working on it. Back to the point.

So we sat down to write this survey that would be given to 65 total people in the community among all three of our neighborhoods and a few of the villages. The survey would not be perfect of course but I wanted to make sure that the three women in my office and Sander understood what the goal of the survey was. My job in Albania is to develop the capacity of the people I work with. So I try to make an effort whenever I can to not do the work but to lead the people I am with to do the work themselves, facilitate you know! First I explained to them this exact point. I am the second volunteer one of the girls has worked with and the first for the other two. I initially attempted to find out what they knew of a survey and if they understood what the goal of our survey was. Ow, by the way we were trying to determine the quality of information dissemination throughout the community and then see if that quality is changed once the Information office is opened in February. Also by the way, I have never actually written a survey of any type before. I first started by asking them what kind of questions. This was a mistake. Nothing was happening. We sat there in silence for a bit. Then I decided, okay, I guess it would be better to start with answers. After discussing it, mostly me talking them out of things, I led them to decide 5 possible generic answers and one comments space. You know poor, fair, good, better than good, and excellent. This was in shqip so “better than good” sounds a lot better. This lasted about half an hour. We decided that the minimum amount of questions would be 10, and one of them would ask what the type of employment was. This question is not really important for the project but I was curious, hahaha. For the next hour we maybe got through 4 questions. Even though we had earlier established that all the questions, baring the one about employment, would have one of 5 responses the girls could only come up with yes or no questions. This was an easy problem to fix but I was baffled at the…um I don’t want to stay stupidity because I really just think it is a problem with the lack of critical thinking about anything. For example, they would give me a question in Shqip that was something like, “Are you informed about information related to the Bashkia’s budget?” A yes, no, or maybe question right? So then it would take another 10 minutes and some wrestling to realize that the question was good at the core, we just needed to reword it to fit our established answers. “How would you describe your knowledge about budgeting in the Bashkia?” A side note, this is a simple survey and there is a good chance that a handful of the people being surveyed would not know how to read or write well. Not to beat this horse any more but I think you get the idea. This process took us almost three hours to come up with ten questions, translate what I had typed from English to Shqip and then to proper Shqip with no spelling or grammar errors. I have found it easier to drive and take directions when working with Albanian colleagues (I type and control the computer while facilitating the discussion why they focus on discussing things and the task, plus I can understand Shqip better than I speak it so I find it more productive this way). After the three hours were over one of the girls told me I was a mean teacher, in ENGLISH! She is probably right, well slightly. Ah, good day I thought. Something was accomplished and I think the girls all left that day having learned something. Then I thought, oh great, now we have to distribute the thing. The next morning I had a café with Nik and discussed my frustrations with the project. He assured me he would talk to Mark and we would get things figured out. Then when I got to work I was greeted with a surprise. Without any one asking him to do so and without even thinking of this issue yet myself, Sander had sent around a memo to every directorate in the building requesting them to send any relevant information to us by the beginning of the next week. He had also made plans to distribute the surveys by that time. I was pumped, now that that was out of the way we were sailing straight. Monday came around and to the disgust of Sander, not one person in the building had given him anything. Sander however did distribute all of the surveys and put the results in a spread sheet. 50% is not bad I guess. That night, Nik called me and said Mark had requested my help with something at the Bashkia. It was about 7pm so I kinda figured this was not a work related matter. I was half right. The owner of the best winery in Albania, my opinion of course, is one of Mark’s good friends and was at the Bashkia.

We spent much of the night drinking his fantastic wine and eating meat in the Bashkia café while discussing various topics, one of which was the SPA project. We also discussed some other things that I have a problem with at the Bashkia. I am a really lucky volunteer in a few ways. I have friends in other municipalities throughout the country who have met their mayors maybe once or twice. I also have friends whose mayors refuse to take them seriously and in one case even worked to have the volunteer removed from the town. Mark is not perfect but I know he respects my opinion and has truly become a great friend. He really is a good Mayor as well. Having said that, we talked for a good while about the problems that exist in his government and the road blocks to alleviate them. Keep in mind, here is this 52 year old man who is at the end of his second term as mayor and is listening to advice from a 24 year old fresh out of college foreigner! The best part is he listened, but I will get to that in a minute. After the serious talk, we started to discuss the expansion into the States of Fran’s wine and he gave me a few bottles to take home. At the end of the evening, Mark assured me that the Information office was a high priority of his and that he “guaranteed” that the project would be completed. The next week Mark would be off in Switzerland for a conference related to the competition we won during the summer. The week Mark was gone; absolutely no work was done on the office or come to think of it in general.

I am also very lucky in the quality of my counterparts. Sander is my official counterpart but I also do a lot of work with Nik. Sander felt awful of the disrespect the Bashkia had shown by not turning in any information for the project and that we had not bought any of the materials yet, these are his words not mine. I didn’t see it as a disrespect but just laziness and incompetence. In Albania, most actions can be reduced to a show of respect. That week, Sander and I went to Tirana and bought the computer and other materials that needed to be purchased in Tirana. I was happy that we finally got the materials but I was a little nervous that we would have spent the money that SPA provided while not fulfilling the Bashkia’s side of the agreement. Fast forward a few weeks and Mark calls me into his office. It is the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and for the 3rd or 4th time I bring up my concerns about the office not being completed and the work that still needs to be done. At this point I was extremely unhappy and unsure if the project that Sander and I had fought for would proceed. Mark told me again that he guaranteed the offices completion. The previous times I had discussed the project with Mark we never set down a specific date. He knew that the final report is due in February but we never discussed any completion date. In my frustration during that particular meeting I asked Mark what exact day the office would be done by. Due to the holiday season he said he would like to complete the project following the new year but I explained that we have already waited too long and that if the Bashkia’s portion of the project was not completed before January, I would have to return the items purchased and the funds from SPA. Total lie, I would have asked for an extension. He conceded that the office could be ready by December 17th and that we would inaugurate it officially on January 17th. I had heard statements like this before so I asked him if it would be alright to invite my Peace Corps bosses (the country director and my program director). While still in the meeting I called them and got confirmation from both on their attendance. Now if the office is not finished it would be turp (shame) for both of us. Now that the office was in order, I headed for Tirana on Thursday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Every year the various American ex-patriots who work in Tirana for the Embassy, Peace Corps, and USAID invite PCVs into their homes for Thanksgiving. Alex, James, Jenifer, 4 other volunteers and I were invited to the Albanian Defense Attaché for America’s home. He is basically the highest ranking American Military Officer in Albania. His wife is also a Embassy staffer and although she is overqualified for her position as the Integration Officer (not her actual title but how she described it to us) she took it so she would not be without work while her husband was stationed in Albania. In fact they were both Officers in the United States Air Force and actually met while in Helicopter school. They had an awesome house and it was excellent to spend a night in an atmosphere that was the most similar to home that I had experienced in almost two years. They had NFL on in the living room, a Butterball in the oven, A&W in the refrigerator and Ethan Allen furniture. This was maybe the first thing I noticed, not that I have the slightest sense of what Ethan Allen furniture looks like or anything but it was obvious that this was not Albanian furniture. It was comfortable and excessive in the best possible ways. Apparently the US Government has some deal with Ethan Allen to supply all American Government staff oversees with their digs. We had an excellent time and I got to talk with my family back home as well. The food was absolutely fantastic but the highlight of the evening was a tie. I can’t decide if I was happier with the NFL on TV (which I hadn’t watched for two years) or the pillow top oversized bed I got to sleep in! The next morning we awoke to brewed coffee (coffee made with a filter is also something we don’t really have) and leftovers. We thanked the family profusely and then headed to Burrell for our second Thanksgiving. The idea was for Seth and I to arrive in Burrell before the sun went down so we could slaughter the two turkeys that Rachel had bought. We arrived in Burrell on time but it was raining pretty hard and the power kept on going out. We elected that if we were going to be cold as hell, wet, and in the dark we better wait until we had a little courage in us. So we had a few cocktails and then decided it was time. I killed one turkey while Seth held the body and then we switched for the second turkey. I think because we gave Seth so much guff last year about his spastic nature he was well prepared this year and the killing went off without a hitch. The next day we prepared the turkeys but one of them was slightly dry. We had an issue with electricity and the oven shut off a few times during the cooking process. I joked that it was because Rachel was a vegetarian. She cooked one of the turkeys and I cooked the other at a separate house. Ya, that is right mom, I cooked a turkey, I am becoming quite domesticated. The night was a lot of fun. We had about 18 Peace Corps Volunteers, 4 Albanians, and 2 Welsh guests. It was a lot of fun to get together with the rest of the PCVs to talk about work and to not talk about work, hahaha. This is a good time of year if you don’t want to work but a bad time if you do. I do. This is my last few months as a PCV and I haven’t done as much as is possible, or at least it feels that way. So, Thursday and Friday were holidays for Americans and Monday and Tuesday were holidays for Albanians.

When I returned to work on Wednesday Sander handed me a memo that said there would be a Bashkia staff meeting on Friday and one of the topics listed were projects related to our office. This was only the 4th staff meeting that has been called since I have been working at the municipality. Two of these staff meeting were called to present my family both when my Mom and Uncle visited and the other when my Dad, Laurel, and her mother came. I knew what to expect for this meeting, or at least I thought I did. I knew it was basically a yell fest in which blame would be rationed out to all the staff members. What I didn’t realize is that some of the yelling would be over things I had mentioned and projects I had done. Not in a negative way. It’s not like I ratted anyone out or anything it was just things I had discussed with Mark or Sander that were brought up, using my name of course. I sat there in silence for three hours while occasionally adding my Po or Jo (yes or no) to the heated discussion, only about 1.5 hours of this was dedicated to issues relating to the information office, the foreign language lab, and a DLDP project that I am involved in. It even got to the point of name calling, “Fshatare,” “Rrenacak,” “Kot” (villager, liar, and worthless to name a few). By the end of the meeting it obvious that Mark, Sander, and I were not in least happy with the performance of the staff, who cares if I am happy or not I am just a volunteer. But apparently it matters. Then at the end Mark asks if there is any other business that needs to be addressed. Sander stood up and said that he would like to nominate me for “Qytetar pёr viten 2010,” (Citizen of the year for 2010). They all voted and of course, yes, I am the man of the year for Rubik and will receive a plaque and a gift on Christmas Eve during the annual concert at the cultural center. After the meeting Mark kept me after and apologized for the yelling and that they are all friends, but this is work. I don’t really understand the logic there but okay.

Friday, December 17th came just last week. This was the day that the physical office was supposed to be finished so we could move in the materials purchased and begin training of the staff member who would work in the office. I arrived to work as I often do sometime between 9:30 and 10:30am and no changes had occurred to the office from the day of the staff meeting a week before. Needless to say I was not very happy. The power had been going in and out so Sander and I had a coffee in the Bashkia café. During the coffee Nik dropped in so we had another coffee and talked for a bit. He was on his way to Tirana so after he left Sander, two of the other girls who work in my office, and myself were called into Mark’s office. We were there to discuss several things which started as usual with the problems with the 9-year school and the foreign language lab. We called in the Director of the school and arranged a meeting for me to go to the school and work out some schedule with the teachers to begin implementing the lab. Something that should have been done half a year ago, hahaha. After the director left we started working on a project proposal that is due in just a week or so. Perfect time to begin writing it huh? The project is a doosey as well, almost 80,000Euros! It is a program called Decentralization Local Development Program (DLDP) from the Swiss equivalent of USAID, the difference being that in Albania, DLDP has there ducks in a very nice and clean row. This has been the most important work I have done as a PCV. I am doing exactly what it says in the Peace Corps Act. Instead of leading the project and doing most of the work, I am helping them to write the project while teaching them how a project is written. We were cruising along and everyone was working together and submitting ideas, while helping each other decipher what I was trying to explain in Albanian, when Mark got a phone call about three hours into the process. Nik’s father had died just an hour before. This was awful news and Nik is a close friend to all of us and a former Professor of the two girls that work in my office. There would be no more work to do that day. I called Nik right away and expressed my condolences. I didn’t know what to say. Nik speaks English but I still wouldn’t know what to say. I asked Sander and Mark to be sure to call me if there was anything they were going to attend; I know that as soon as someone dies the house of the deceased is open for several days following. Sander said he would call me the next day and we would go together. On the way downstairs Mark, for reasons I don’t know didn’t tell me, but surprised me with a brand new door, window, and walk-up window in the Information Office installed and lookin nice! This was good news.

The next day, Saturday, Sander called me and said we would go to Lezhe to visit Nik and have coffee. During the furgon ride out to Lezhe, I asked Sander if there was anything I should now, culture wise before we got there. He told me that he would instruct me whom to shake hands with and he also told me something that I have heard before during training. We came into the apartment and Sander immediately told me who to shake hands with and told them who I was. We saw Nik and I gave him a hug and told him an Albanian phrase Sander had told me. He was really pleased and his Uncle was also surprised I knew the phrase. I was told where to sit in the living room, which had been set up with long benches and table for the occasion. A young male relative, the room had only males in it, came and brought Sander and I a Turkish coffee and a raki. I then cheered Nik a phrase I had learned a long time ago and the Uncle went on a speech for a few minutes on the respect it showed to Nik’s dad that a foreigner who had never met him would value his life and the respect I brought to their family. It was really sad to see Nik so unhappy, he would speak that his dad was more like his best friend. Don’t really know what else to say about it except it was a really sad and interesting cultural experience.

That brings me pretty much up to today. It has been really cold in Rubik and it even snowed for two days straight. It was so beautiful but then rain came and washed it all away. I have been freezing but it is great. Washing my clothes is a bit of a problem though. It takes a while for them to dry and even longer if they freeze! Alright, everyone have a good Christmas.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Istanbul, 15km of exhausting fun and Thessaloniki!

Awesome way to have a meal, choose what looks good from a huge selection. The police eat there so it must be good, right
Marathon expo with some sort of weird mascot. James, Jenifer in the armpit and myself.
The "Blue Mosque" and the sultan himself!
Gearing up for the big race, you can see the bridge across the Bosphorus Strait behind us. Jenifer, Alex, and myself.
Before the race with some of the other PCV's (Peace Corps Volunteers).
Kristen, Alex, Erwin, Me, James, and Jenifer.
After the race finished. Notice the change in color of my shirt. I wasn't really standing on my own at this point!!
Turkish Viagra at the Spice Bazaar. Thing was huge, the spice bazaar that is.
Spice Bazaar, this place was awesome. So many free samples, i even bought some Apple tea and some tea for an Albanian friend.
Turkish ice cream. Stuff is like cold bathroom caulk but actually tastes good.
Eating dinner on the Asian side of Istanbul. They must not get too many Americans cause they put this on our table when we arrived.
Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul.
Aristotle Square, Thessaloniki.
White Tower, Thessaloniki.


Friday October 15, 2010 I headed to Istanbul, Turkey for the 32nd annual Intercontinental Marathon. I of course did not participate in the full marathon but instead opted to run the 15km race. Fellow PCV’s Alex, James, Jenifer, Erwin, Katharine (age 53), and Kristen also participated in the 15km race while Katie, Carrie Anne, and Chris ran the full and arduous marathon. In case you don’t care about the history of torturous activities that crazy people partake in for fun I will enlighten you. The marathon is a 42.2Km race (26miles) that originates from a story of a messenger who ran 22 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of the Athenian victory over the Persians, only to collapse dead upon arrival after delivering the message. Ya, sign me up for that, sounds like a great idea!? In all seriousness I really do respect, envy, and for some reason distrust anyone who can complete a ridiculously unnecessary distance like a marathon. I thought I was going to pass out after I ran about a third of the marathon distance, but we will get to that later.

We started the trip out of Tirana International (A.K.A. why would we fly anywhere but international) Airport on the somewhat deceivingly nice Albanian Airways. On first glance of the airplane I was honestly a little intimidated. I am not the biggest fan of flying to begin with and this thing looked like a furgon with wings. I could not have been more struck by “don’t judge a book by its cover.” The inside of the plane, the staff, and the comfort of the ride was up to par with any other line I have flown. We even got a sandwich on the 1.5hour long trip which was great. We arrived in Istanbul without a hitch except that when we arrived Alex and I remembered that we had no money except for Albanian lek, otherwise worthless outside of Albania. The fee for a Turkish tourism visa is $20 and between the two of us we had 15euro. Lucky for us there was a non-functioning ATM machine at the gate of the visa window. We had to roam the hall of the airport for 3 hours looking for some gracious person to transfer our lek into Euros, Dollars or Turkish Lira. Totally kidding, although this may seem like something that would happen to me while travelling unprepared, our friend Katharine just let us each borrow the visa fee out of the oddly large amount of USD she brought with her, you know just in case some idiot may need USD.

Although we were not prepared financially we had, surprisingly enough and against my usual travel etiquette, already secured a hostel. We really lucked out. Although James and Jenifer were not entirely thrilled with the conditions of our temporary living quarters (a 6 bed dorm room that smelled like a locker room in an apperantly clean hostel with a clueless staff), I was absolutely smitten with the area the hostel was located in. As far as a traveler is concerned, accommodations are not as important as location and the area we stayed in was perfect. Just to be specific and a bit pompous, I am not a tourist. One, I don’t spend any money that helps the economy so I don’t affect the tourism industry, hahaha. And two, a tourist is someone who travels to other places in order to claim that they have been there and of course to see some famous shit. While a traveler is someone who travels to other places in order to experience culture, something outside their normal environment or activity, and of course, to see some cool shit. Like some leprechaun once said, “There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The only pot of gold is the rainbow itself. So leave us the fuck alone!” Taksim Square appeared to not have many tourists; in fact I don’t believe we ran into any other English speakers except a particularly amusing encounter that I will touch on later. The area, called Taksim Square, was vibrant and teeming with people but as far as I could tell by their interaction with wait staff and shop keepers they all seemed to be Turkish.

The first thing we did following checking into our hostel, as any real traveler would, was to engage in the local fare. Albania is not known for being a culinary capital of the world and frankly the food is good, but fairly repetitive and boring. Turkey was not. It did not take us long to find the first feeding ground. Many of the eateries in Turkey have items displayed in the window to entice passing onlookers. We were suckers to such a brilliant marketing tactic. The first cafeteria we walked by, I’ll add a photo, reeled us in and the food was awesome, inexpensive too. I can’t exactly say what we ate but I split a number of items with James, who salivates at the very thought of new food.

When travelling with a group of people larger than two, I tend to take the easy way out. When it comes to choosing refection, I don’t make too many decisions, or even participate in the decision making process. I have come to learn over my days that my indifference can sometimes appear as annoyance, but I really and truly do not care where I eat most of the time. On any menu throughout the world I am 82% sure that I would be able to find something palatable. My parents know this fact all too well. Even on occasions that are designed for my benefit, I often respond to the question of what I want to eat as “I don’t care.” Seriously, I am just happy to be out of my usual routine. On the other hand, people I tend to travel with have extremely particular eating habits and preferences. For example, I traveled through Europe with my man Pat. Dude is picky as picky comes. He doesn’t eat tomatoes, or anything new for that matter. Really, tomatoes. Unless they are in a sauce or ketchup the dude will not have it. How does a guy of 24 not eat tomatoes, ow the puzzle that is Patrick. Anyway, my current company was a mix between two vegetarians and a guy who gets distracted by the slightest of culinary savvy, a trait that makes him incredible to hang out with but a bit of a pain to pick something to eat. Kid wants to eat everything he sees. Thankfully, since I was so hungry after our extremely long flight (kidding of course but I am usually hungry) we ran into this cafeteria with all kinds of traditional items for everyone.

After our first feast we headed straight to the Marathon expo. The expo is where we would gather our t-shirt, bib number, and electronic chip that would calculate our times. Alex had participated in a half marathon in Maine before and informed us that there would probably be some free shwag at the expo as well. They must do something a bit differently in Turkey because there was no free stuff, just a handful of vendors attempting to sell things. We did however get a pasta meal because we were participating in the run. This was good because I was already hungry again. Following the expo, it was time for some real Turkish culture. I had observed along our journey from Taksim square to the expo (a marathon shuttle had picked us up at the square) that everywhere I looked there were Turks drinking these small transparent glasses of tea and smoking nargile. Turkey was a place with a culture I could easily get used to. The food was great and it didn’t seem like anyone was in too much of a hurry to get anywhere special. You could just sit, drink a tiny cup of tea and smoke a fruit flavored tobacco that came out of a really gorgeous pipe for hours while chatting with friends, or in our case a waiter who seemed to enjoy our company (most likely because of the American girls).

The next day we woke, ate of course, and searched out a tour of some sort in order to gain our bearings on this new and exciting city. We decided to take one of these “hop-on-hop-off” tours. I had taken them before and really enjoyed it in the past. You are able to get a pretty good grasp on the layout of the major attractions of the city without becoming lost. Istanbul is a city saturated in history. As the capital city for two empires, the city is a palimpsest. Everywhere we walked, minarets of historic mosques, old city walls, or hamams could be seen. One of the main tourist areas of the city is a section of attractions which include the Basilica Cistern, Sultanahmet Mosque, and Hagia Sophia. We of course went to all of these places, but if you want to know what it was like you are going to have to make the trip, or look it up on the internet I suppose. Sunday was the race so we tried our best to make it back to the hostel early enough to get to bed at a decent hour.

The Race We woke at around 6:30 Sunday morning so we could make it to the location where the shuttles would pick us up at 7:30. After getting dressed we headed to the main square and as soon as we got there, James of course realized he had forgotten his electronic chip which would record his time. Alex and I decided to go on without him while Jenifer went back with him to make sure he didn’t get lost on the way, a fate which often finds James. We didn’t see the dastardly duo again until about 15 minutes before the race started. I was honestly a little nervous during the minutes before the race began. Although I wasn’t running a full marathon, I had been having trouble with my knee so I hadn’t really prepared enough. I had hurt my knee in a biking accident during my final year of college and it periodically gave me trouble, but lucky for me it was only a problem during the last 5km of the race. When the race started it really was an amazing feeling. Here I was in a beautiful and historic city with thousands of other people from around the world about to run across a bridge that separates two continents! I have never enjoyed a run so much. Seeing the city via a 15km route, that was of course closed to traffic, with people cheering you on as you went was something special. Towards the end of the race however I was getting extremely tired. I had never run that far in my life and the last 5km were a little rough. It got even worse after we passed the golden horn. I knew that the race would finish at the Sultanahmet Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque) which is famous for its 6 minarets. Every mosque I saw I grew increasingly hopeful that it was the finish. I must have run past 5 mosques, it actually made the time go by quicker because I was so preoccupied with counting all of the minarets! I had split up from the rest of my PCV friends during the first minutes of the race but I would sporadically pass one of them or in one case be passed. Alex and James were a ways ahead of me the entire race and there is a point in the 15km route when you loop back and see all the people who you are ahead of. This is towards the end when I was running along trying not to cry, and heard some crazy blonde girl yelling from across the barrier. Kidding about the crying part, I was really enjoying myself. This was also the motivation I needed. Alex was a good ten or fifteen minutes ahead of me so I started to kick it into high gear, well that was until I saw the sign that we still had 3km to go! Around this time of my motivating competitiveness, I passed another girl in our group named Kristen. I was pretty happy about this because she had run the full marathon in Athens the year before, this did not last long. As soon as I saw the sign displaying the length remaining in the race she passed me. I did my best to catch up to her for the rest of the race but was unsuccessful. This would have been fine except that at one point towards the last 700meters the race starts uphill. I can see Kristen in the distance, about 20 meters ahead of me, and she is power walking! I was trying nearly as hard as I could to catch up and this girl was walking! This only lasted for a few minutes and then she picked up the pace again. I asked her after the race if she was just mocking me the whole time which she denied. I finished the race in 1hour and 30min, 8.5 minutes after Alex, 12 minutes behind James, 1 minute behind Kristen and thankfully ahead of the rest.

Darken pa Mayton Following the race we basically just hung out and did the tourist thing. One night however Alex and I went out for dinner without the other two. We were having a great time with the other two, don’t be mistaken. We decided to replicate our operational procedure that worked so well in our Balkan tour. We would go to several places to eat and just split something, in order to spend less money but get a taste of many different places and cuisine. We started with sushi, moved on to a greasy bar platter, and finished with illegal Turkish street food, drinking Turkish beer along the way. Just a note on our choices; we chose sushi because the one place that serves it in the capital of Albania is way too expensive and the bar food because you just can’t get that stuff in Albania. The final course was actually something we had seen on a downloaded copy of “No Reservations.” If you aren’t familiar it is a travel show where this dude cruises around to different cities around the world and eats. In Istanbul there are these guys everywhere in the more popular areas of the city who sell muscles that are stuffed with rice and spices and then drizzled in lemon. I forget why the “No Reservations” guy said they were illegal but it had something to do with how the muscles are procured and the informal nature of their sale. There may be a small issue with health code also but it wasn’t like we bought these from a guy who hid them in his pockets and then we found a dark corner to gorge on them. They were sold out in the open, and they were goooooooood. They were served cold but I didn’t get sick, did I mention they were cheap as hell, 1lira for two. After we finished with our muscles, we decided we would check out one of the many establishments that seemed to have live rock music. The area we stayed in had a plethora of bars, cafes, and restaurants. The two bars we went to and listened to music were excellent and we had a fantastic time.

The Turkish Bath The day after the “Mayton free evening,” the four of us headed to a hamam to do the Turkish bath thing. I honestly am not into getting a rub down or massage from anyone but I had to experience it once. I mean it would be against my nature to travel to a place and not indulge in what the city is famous for. We asked around and found a cheap hamam that was coed. Coed in the sense that it catered to both men and women, not in the sense that we were all in the same room. James and I were given a small dressing room and instructed in barely audible, broken English to disrobe and don a small towel. We were then led to our respected hamam, or bath. The room had three sections. One held a large marble slab that and the area where the attendants worked on the guests. The other two rooms were areas where the guests could lay down and pour warm water over themselves while they waited for their turn. The entire area was marble floors and basins with domed ceilings. James and I immediately went to one of the “waiting” rooms and laid down on the floor, for no other reason but because we saw some older German gentleman do the same. After a ten or so minutes waiting and discussing how strange it was to just lay on the floor next to other sweaty foreigners in a steamy room, a large, hairy Turkish man came into the room wearing a similar style towel as the guest but in a different color. He didn’t speak English but kind of motioned and gestured his way around. He motioned for me to sit down near a basin and brutishly moved my body into the positions that he required to begin the first phase of my “bath.” In case those reading this do not know what a Turkish bath encompasses I will explain. They start with a cloth scrub that is placed over their hand, one side of which is extremely coarse and intended to remove all dead skin (and possible the first live layer). I imagine this would not be a good experience for a germa-phobe because the cloth was visibly dirty, but I didn’t care. It was like having someone scratch your entire body, I tried not to focus on the fact that the person doing the scratching was a giant Turkish man. After the exfoliating, he began to wash me with soap and water, including a shampoo job, hahaha kinda weird to be honest. I should mention that this is not a gentle wash; he was basically stretching my limbs and roughing me up a little. The second phase of the experience was a bubble massage. He guided me over to the large marble slab in the middle of the room, adjusted my towel so he could work and my nuts weren’t hanging out, and then began the beat down that is a bubble massage. He started out with a large towel that had wooden balls in it and was extremely bubbly, then he used the towel and his enormous weight to crack most of the joints in my body. It was a strange and awkward experience that I would probably never do again but “when in Rome.” When he was done he motioned for me to return to the original waiting room and rinse myself off, now it was James’ turn. After I sat and rinsed myself off for a bit and contemplated what had just happened, I realized I did feel a lot better. My muscles that were sore from the race were feeling loose and I felt fluid. The attendant then pointed at a towel that was hanging in the corner before you exited the room and made a motion for me to use it. I thought it was to dry myself but after I futilely attempted to dry myself with this coarse thin material he motioned that I was to change into the fresh dressing. Not knowing what was custom, I dropped the old and wrapped myself up in the new towel, apparently there is a method in taking off the old towel and putting on a new one that requires a lot less exposure because the attendant shot me a whistle and laughed. If the experience wasn’t strange enough I left being made fun of, o’well. In the lounge area of the hamam I was given another towel, one that is meant to dry yourself with, and a hot apple tea. I sat there waiting for the others and thinking that although this was an interesting and slightly rejuvenating experience, I had just spent about $40 for someone else to bath me!! Don’t get me wrong, if anyone reading this is headed or ends up in Istanbul, go to a hamam. It was an interesting and mostly enjoyable experience, I however prefer the type of bath we went to in Budapest.

Thessaloniki, Greece We stayed a total of 5 nights in Istanbul and then Alex and I took an overnight train to Thessaloniki, Greece. We shared a berth that was really awesome, two beds bunk style and a sink. It was the best way to travel. You go to sleep in Turkey and you wake in the morning to the Greek landscape flowing past you through a large window. I have also travelled on overnight ferries which was a comparable experience. I was not overwhelmed with excitement about going to Thessaloniki. We had heard that it was an okay place to spend a day but was nothing to write home about. I have found that taking other people travel experiences to heart is usually a poor decision. I really enjoyed the city and didn’t realize what a historical place it is. The food was also excellent and we stayed at an inexpensive but charming hotel close to most of the attractions. I have never seen so many bakeries per square mile in my life, so needless to say we had a pastry or two while we were there. We spent one night in Thessaloniki but because we arrived before noon and left on a night bus around 8pm we saw most of what was to offer in the town, although we discussed staying an extra night. Then it was back to Albania, it was funny, they have about 5 bus operators who go between Albania and Thessaloniki. All of the carriers leave at the same time, have shops located in the same block, offer the same price and service, and are of Albanian nationality. We hadn’t even left Greece and where already speaking Albanian. My fellow PCV friends like to call me “old man bait.” Men in this country seem to love me. As soon as these men waiting to leave Greece heard me speak shqip I was arm and arm with some old dude telling him about why I live and speak shqip, Alex thought this was particularly funny. Jenifer calls me a Chameleon. In this part of the world, I can pretty much blend in. When we were in Turkey I was asked several times for directions by both Turks and foreigners. Many of the waiters also thought I was a translator and would look to me to order for the table, even though I don’t speak a lick of Turkish. Most Albanians I meet also think I am a native. They often ask me, “what is your origin” which I always respond to as “I am American.” Often I get the response, “but your parents are Albanian, right!” This works in our benefit most of the time, instead of the foreigner price for things I always get the Albanian price. This included our taxi trip from Durres to the Airport before we left for Turkey. Jen had walked around the day before trying to figure out what was the best method to get to the Airport. All the taxis she inquired upon instructed her that the price was 2500lek to the Airport and she would not find a cheaper price. The next morning we went to the first taxi we saw and I told the rest that I would handle it since I had done so in the past many times. The driver told us that the price was in fact 2500lek, then in Albanian he said, “for you it will be 2000.” This may not seem like a big decrease in cost but we get about 700lek per day as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Okay, I see this is getting a bit long, as usual. I will try to be better and update about the holiday season following its completion of course. Happy Holidays to anyone who actually got this far to read the greeting!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Just some Photos over the last few months.

Chuck (his last few days in Albania), Sarah (her last week in Albania), myself, and Nik (who has worked with all of us and is also a great friend.) We are in the local cell phone shop making copies, nice paint job huh?
Learning how to read maps, why marking the trails is important to tourism, and an introduction to GPS.
Learning how to properly mark trails.
Making a fire at our campsite.
My group of boys (the only badly behaved group on the trip by the way) cleaning up the Valbona River.
James, Edi (Albanian student), Erwin, Myself, Alex, and Jen. Valbona trail development Project.
Foreign Language Lab, 9-Year School Rubik. Thank you French Embassy!

Dad, Myself, and Laurel somewhere in the Achilles tendon area of Italy.
Seth standing next to a village house in the mountains east of Librazhd. The white bag is making cheese. We were hiking and camping for a few days in a new National Park.
Inside the villagers summer home, on the table is a hot pale of milk served with spoons like soup. I don't like the goat milk but the Raki was great! We also ate fresh bread.
Shepard just outside of the shack we were hanging at. Notice the shotgun, they have a healthy population of wolves out where we were hiking!
My Kitchen, with the sink full of dishes, I was on a water schedule, give me a break!
My bathroom, the beer bottles are full of water, the damn water schedule again. That hole in the ground is the only external drain in the place, this is also where I shower and evacuate, and the blue bucket is my laundry "machine" and how I flush.
This is my main room, I took this from the kitchen. Thanks for the Flag dad!