Monthly Archives: October 2011

Many of you may know that the Peace Corps-initiated program called Outdoor Ambassadors (OA) has been one of my most significant ongoing projects since I arrived in Albania.

I serve on a national steering committee of six PCVs that promotes the programs of Outdoor Ambassadors’ network of youth environmental education clubs around the country. In addition to supporting actions at the local level (like our reusable bag project here in Lezhe), the committee has been able to organize annual national-level events such as a summer camp and leadership training for members of local clubs. These events are planned in collaboration with Albanian counterparts and are valuable events that promote networking between students and inspire and give local groups the skills to implement community projects when they return to their home cities.

One such national level event is our Youth Leadership Training, to be held this coming February. The training will bring together 30+ youth from around Albania to hone their project design and management skills and environmental knowledge, giving them the tools to bring implementable project ideas back to their home clubs and communities. I helped organize and run a training like this in 2010, and it was a wonderful experience for the students and facilitators alike.

In order to fund this training, Outdoor Ambassadors was selected to be a part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program. This means that we are listed as a project accepting donations online through the Peace Corps website. All donations through the site are tax-deductible. If you wish to donate or find out more about the project, please visit the PCPP site!

I am continually thankful for all of your ongoing support of my time here in Albania through comments, emails, letters and calls. I have tried to keep up with telling my story to you all through this blog, but sometimes I feel like the fun/travel side of my life rather than the work side is more represented here. As you can see from this post, in the life of a PCV, fundraising is often a large portion of the “work” that gets done!

The Youth Leadership Training will be one of my last projects with OA, as I will be finishing up with PC not long after its implementation. I hope to keep you posted as the planning continues, and hope you’ll consider supporting the project from afar!

Raki, similar to grappa or moonshine, is the Albanian social drink. In the morning it’s served with a Kafe Turke and, whenever you visit someone’s home, their version of the drink is poured in a glass for you as a sign of respect. Of course, all of this applies only to men, as it’s rarely consumed by women. In general, raki is a high-proof, clear liquor that can get you into trouble…but if you follow the custom and sip, don’t shoot, it can be an enjoyable drink (some think). I still haven’t gotten used to it.

Raki can be made from just about any fruit, but in Lezhe it’s mostly made with grapes. Most families make a small amount using the grapes from their arbors at home. Since the grapes were harvested here in early September and have had a while to ferment, right about now is prime raki-making season. My landlord Selim is in the process of running his still every afternoon after work, and I’ve been able to get a sense for the delicate nature of the raki making process.

Selim's still

Selim uses a copper still of traditional design. Inside the copper device the fermented grape mash boils over heat from the fire. The alcohol then evaporates and is forced into a tube running through a cooling pan of water, where it condenses and falls into the receiving glass container. The fire underneath the still can’t be too hot, though or the mash will boil too quickly and either explode the still or produce a product so hot that all the alcohol evaporates. In all it takes about 2 hours to go through one fillup of the still.

The end product

After trying so many kinds of raki over the past year and a half, I’m glad to see how it all works, finally – and, I’ve been able to taste the real thing coming fresh from the still.



The view of Lezhe, Shengjin and the surrounding area from a recent jaunt to the church on the hill behind nearby Laç was astounding. Yes, Andrew Baker, Albania is just that beautiful (no photoshop required).

Lezhe is the city on the right at the foot of the cone-shaped mountain. Shengjin is just to the left/west of Lezhe. The mountains to the west in the distance are in Montenegro. The factory in the foreground is Laç’s abandoned communist-era phosphorous production/processing plant.

It might be because I’ve been listening to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs on repeat. Or, maybe it’s because I’ve been getting to know my neighbors a bit more lately. Then again, it could be because I’ve been spending a lot more time at home now that it’s no longer summer.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of the Albanian neighborhood a lot recently.

It seems these days that the kids across the road from me are always out in the pomegranate trees making forts and fighting in the dirt. In the evening they play soccer on the sidewalk at the bottom of my hill and no one seems to care where they are and what they are doing. Nearby, a group of ladies sits around on the steps of their apartment building and spends the evening talking, but they’re not concerned about the kids. It’s a very Jane Jacobs eyse-on-the-street atmosphere. As long as the kids are home for dinner, everything is fine. After all, because the community is so interconnected a family would know in five minutes if something happened to their son or daughter.

In Lezhe, a dense city of mostly apartment buildings that is also small and contained, everyone knows everyone else. This, along with the value of family in Albania and a lack of after school extra-curricular activities, lends itself  to a kid-friendly street and neighborhood culture very different than that in the US. Maybe my parents’ generation could run around the neighborhood until the dinner bell rang, but I doubt that many people my age had that experience. Maybe it’s just me having grown up in a rural area, but somehow I feel like I am more of a participant in a neighborhood now than I have ever been. Even in college I didn’t know the people in my apartment building at all. Here, I get stopped daily by the ladies who live down the street from me while they sit out knitting and chatting on the stoop. It’s a very social culture.

I went for a hike last week with a few of my Outdoor Ambassadors club members. After I said hello to a few people that we passed on the road one of the girls in my group exclaimed that I was really nice to people I didn’t know. I responded by observing that in Albania, most people say hello, regardless of who they are greeting/passing on the road. This interaction is a large part of my experience here, of my feeling at home in Lezhe. It brings me into the “neighborhood,” makes me a part of the daily experience of those around me, and it is something I hope I can bring back to wherever I find myself in the future.

Riding in a “furgon” or minivan/bus is an experience unique to Albania. It’s how most of the population gets around. In reality it’s a very efficient system – you can get on or off a furgon wherever you want along its route. Not so with buses in the US. The soundtrack of traditional or europop music, the degrees of seat (or stool) quality and the driver’s recklessness all vary each trip, but in general it’s a crowded, bumpy, noisy ride.

With some other PCVs I often joke around about the fact that “Furgon Driver” should be a video game. Navigating curvy mountain roads with bald tires and 4 more people than seats with chickens in the back is a real skill. Add to that two grandmothers throwing up in plastic bags and try and adjust the radio while texting and smoking a cigarette (not to mention driving a manual, vintage machine) at the same time ….. bonus points.

In fact, it seems that every city in Albania has its own furgon driver culture. Peshkopi in Diber functions as a regional hub/market city so there are many furgons that go out to the surrounding villages. And, it seems, a large number of those are not only large Mercedes vans, but are painted bright colors and decorated with LED lights. They remind me of Tata trucks in Nepal, and are, to date, my favorite furgons in Albania. They may not be comfortable or get me where I need to go, but they definitely have style.