This past Friday I hosted a small goodbye “koktejl” at my house. It was a hot afternoon, but everyone enjoyed themselves and made the most of the view and the company. It made me so happy to see so many of my friends together in one place outside of work and to finally have them to my house, but it was a bit bittersweet because I may not see many of them again. So odd and sad to think about!

We danced, a few people gave me gifts, but mainly we just all caught up and had a great time enjoying each other. I will miss this city, this country and its culture of family and making time to be together.

4 days left in Lezhe….

This past weekend I explored the Sheher neighborhood on the city’s periphery. The neighborhood of mostly stone homes and small farms sits on a small saddle behind the castle, up above the road out of town to Kallmet. The view of the surrounding landscape is a startling green and blue in the late Spring sun, and the surrounding pastoral fields made me feel far from the bustle of downtown below.

While exploring, I discovered an abandoned Ottoman era home in the midst of the winding paths of Lagja Sheher. As far as I know, it’s the only house of its age and quality in Lezhe and would have been the home for the large family of a pasha or other dignitary during the 18th and 19th centuries. While it is unfortunate that it is falling in today, the entropic state of the house has a mysterious charm, recalling scenes from the Secret Garden and inspiring the series of photos that follows.

Each outgoing volunteer since way back when has had the opportunity to paint a tile to decorate the office walls in Tirana. Here is mine – beach, mountains, castle, river, ocean, city….I tried to incorporate it all.

This past weekend I traveled south for a last jaunt in the Albanian wilds before closing my service. Chris, Adam, Casey, Ryan and I aimed to head from Gjirokaster to the beach town of Borsh just south of my friend Meredith’s house in Himare….but instead we got a bit turned around in a few canyons and ended up in Kuq, the town we camped in last April (see this post).

The weather broke just as we were leaving Tirana to go south, and the weekend was clear, sunny and wonderful – a warm respite after all the rain we had in April. As usual at this time of year, the hillsides were carpeted with flowers…..making all the bushwhacking we did a bit more pleasant.

We hiked from the village of Zhulat north to the nearly abandoned hamlet of Kaparjel. After asking the two villagers we could find the way to the coast, we followed a wash north on the second day, finally popping out on top of a ridge above the tree line after several hours bouldering without any evidence of humans at all. And all we saw from the top were more mountains….

Thinking we might be in trouble, we headed down towards the only road we could see (road = civilization), traversing until we arrived at the dirt track in the valley. At that point, a few of us who were on the hike last April recognized where we were, and, feeling a whole lot better, we all headed downstream to the village of Kuq.

Ironically in Kuq there had just been a celebratory ceremony with the PRESIDENT of Albania….so there were plenty of people around leaving town to give us a ride out to Meredith’s house in Himare. Even after all the natural diversity we had just hiked through, the ride out was comparatively gorgeous – we caught the sun going down over the Ali Pasha castle in porto palermo and the ocean beyond.

In all it was the most adventurous of all the multi-day hikes I’ve completed in Albania. But, there isn’t much that a few days at the beach in Himare can’t heal, and I’m feeling very recovered after a few refreshing jumps from this cliff:

More of my photos from the excursion are here. Adam’s are here.

I’ve hit my two-weeks-left-in-Lezhe mark and there is so much to be done, that life seems a little crazy.

Packing for a two month trip, contemplating moving, searching for a job, saying goodbye to friends and colleagues, giving words of wisdom and showing around new trainees, and cleaning up and organizing my house are all on my to do list. Despite it all, it feels great to be busy. I’m also having great success finishing up two other projects – a tourist map for Lezhe and a needs assessment document that I’ve been writing with six other community development PCVs that we presented last week to USAID and the national Association of Municipalities. I’m glad to have work to do right to the end.

In other news, I’ve decided to continue with this blog during my travels after Peace Corps, so stay tuned throughout the summer for updates!

In Albanian, yll means star. And it’s safe to say that Yllka, my counterpart, is just what her name implies.

She’s a colleague and friend, a motivated woman and social worker who has helped me both understand working in Albania and have fun doing it. I’ll miss having her around when I move on, but am thankful we’ve both had the opportunity to grow together so much over the past two years.

Here are our happy faces after the library project’s closing event this morning:

Today my six-month USAID Small Projects Assistance grant project came to an end with a grand celebration of reading, books, and community.

After purchasing needed books back in December with grant funds, I worked with Yllka and the library staff to implement the second phase of our project, a month-long book drive that ended today. All in all, we collected over 1,000 new and used books for the library, an outpouring that is amazing for the first book drive ever in the Lezhe community. Each book donated was given a stamp, specific to the project, with a place for the donator to sign their name.

Today, at the celebratory event, we had all the books on display. The library staff prepared a small program including a poem recitation, a musical interlude, the first showing of a brief documentary about the library’s programs (produced by the Bashkia), and a presentation by myself and my country director who came out from Tirana for the day. It was wonderful to see almost everyone I know in Lezhe in one room – Bashkia staff, school directors, students, friends – gathered together in support of this project that my counterpart and I have worked so hard on for so long. And, the soft-spoken yet eloquent Gjergj Shyti (library director) specifically made mention in his remarks of the fact that I was leaving soon and wished me luck with all future endeavors….and then everyone clapped. It was a memorable, fun and heartwarming end to one of my most successful projects during my time as a PCV.

Lori, one of my Outdoor Ambassadors students who also recited a poem at the event, came up to me afterwards and said “you know Laura, a lot of people will miss you when you leave.” I’ve been so fortunate to be part of such a vibrant community here in Lezhe…and I’m going to miss these people a lot, too.