Tag Archives: Travel

Last night I arrived back in beautiful Blacksburg after more than two months on the road. Everything seems so green, seeing as the last time I was here was after a major blizzard and at the tail end of winter. It feels good to be back and to finally put down my suitcase and unpack. However, I didn’t realize how relaxed I had become on my trip until I arrived back in the busy paced life of home. Deep breaths…

Over the next few weeks I’m looking forward to catching up with family and friends (here AND in Albania), reconnecting with my bicycle, and writing a few more posts to fill in the cracks about my travels.

Out here in northeastern Turkey, life has a different pace. On the high plains surrounding remote Lake Çıldır on the border wıth Georgia near the city of Kars, June days cater to the cycle of the livestock’s needs, wıth time for a few çay in between.

Adam is patiently teaching me to drive our manual rental car, but I’m still learning the art of idling in first without stalling – a feat which almost failed me while working our way around the lake and stopping for the many herds of cattle that crossed our path. While spluttering through the hamlet of Çanaksu in the early evening, we stopped to observe almost the entire village out in the road herding and slapping the cows in every which way between the drying piles of peat and earthen-roofed homes. Definitely a team sport – even the toddlers were involved.

While we were stopped, one of the locals came up to our window, gesturing that he wanted to invite us into his earthen home for çay, or tea – the Turkish equivalent of the omnipresent Albanian coffee. We pulled over and sat for a while in his sittıng room as his wife prepared tea and even a fried egg or two. Knowing about ten words of Turkish combined, Adam and I weren’t able to communicate much, but enjoyed the conversation nonetheless and, in a moment highly reminiscent of Albania, were shown all the family wedding photos by beaming hosts.

After a while (and when the cows were finally under control, I’m sure), a few curious neighbors came over to try their hand at communicating with us….and, before long we looked up and two French long-distance bikers en route from France to Nepal had also been invited in to tea. With their skills at both English and Turkish, we were finally able to talk a bit with our hosts in a roundabout way….but still managed to miscommunicate the fact that no, we did not need two liters of milk freshly milked for us, but yes, we’d love to watch you milk the cows. We came away from the experience a bit more caffienated from all the tea, with way more fresh milk than we knew what to do with, and with wonderful memories of a boundless hospitality and the unique mix of cultures that can come if you take the time to stall out behind a herd of cattle.

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.

A few weeks ago I went on a long day hike with Kim and Jeff near Gramsh to a help Jeff photograph a local tourist site for a website he’s been working on. Our destination: a rickety bridge across the entrance of one of Albania’s beautiful canyons. Too bad the water was cold and conditions were snowy, or we could have swum into and explored the canyon within.

Kim was brave enough to make it across first – step by step. Not as rickety as it looks, but the wood does creak ominously.

What none of us could figure out was – where does this bridge go to? It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and not convenient to anyone as the river is easily fordable (well…we did get a little wet) just downstream. Also – one side is a basic dead end into a forbidding uphill slope. A man we encountered on our hike back to the road claimed his village was up that hill….but it seems that no one uses the bridge to get there anymore. Seems like it would be great to jump off of for a summer swim….

Just another day in the life of helping develop tourism resources in Albania.

This week I was supposed to head to Macedonia with a few friends for a ski vacation to use up some last vacation days. We have our Close of Service Conference next week and we (group 13) are not allowed to leave the country for the three months we have remaining following the conference.

Unfortunately, a record-breaking snowstorm is following up the cold snap, and Peace Corps has put all Albanian volunteers to stay put where we are. So, while this would have made for AMAZING skiing…the timing is really terrible and I’m hanging out in Elbasan for the time being….which seems like the only place in Albania without any snow. Adam is here with me, and he couldn’t go home if he tried to as there’s almost 2 meters of new snow where he lives.

Reminds me of the winter back home in VA before I left for PC….except that 2 meters of snow does a lot more damage here than in the US. At least 8 volunteers are stranded and couldn’t leave their sites if they wanted to. I’m happy to be here with all my warm ski clothes waiting it out.

This past weekend I traveled to the village of Vevčani in Macedonia to experience their annual new year’s celebration and carneval. The festival takes place on the 13th – 14th of January each year, and it is supposedly a tradition that stretches back 1300 years or more.

Fellow PCV Chris and I arrived in Vevčani on the evening of the 13th after the first parade with few expectations. We hadn’t been able to discover too much about the events, but we had heard rumors of the festival’s greatness. We were instantly thrown into the mix of festivities and had an amazing time. The weekend was by far one of the most personal, memorable and fun travel experiences I have had since arriving in the Balkans.

The night of the 13th, the entire city gathered in a frenzy of multi-generational traditional music and circle dancing in the square from 10pm on. Beer tents kept everyone warm and if you looked out over the dancing crowd, swords and tridents and masks and stilts peeked up in time with the music, silhouetted against the stage lights. Chris and I found the circle dancing much the same as in Albania, if not more frenetic because of the energy of the holiday. The whole event was surreal – I was splashed with mud and we counted down to a “new year” as the fireworks went off at midnight just as it began to rain.

In the morning, Chris and I discovered that the rain had apparently turned to snow during the night. A foot of fresh powder greeted us as we ventured out to explore the town in daylight. While peeking into a pen full of sheep the homeowner on the front steps of the house next door called her daughter out to talk to us. Turns out she knew a little English, and they invited us inside for coffee.

In the house, the family’s twenty-something son and his four friends/cousins were all well into the rakia and were in the process of putting on their costumes and cheersing/dancing away the morning. The mother poured us a glass (they serve raki hot and sweetened here) and turned up the volume on the traditional music TV channel and started singing and dancing around the table. Everyone else joined in….and then the mother smashed a glass against the wall during a fit of impassioned dancing.

It was fantastic. Another unbelievable example of the unhesitating generosity I’ve encountered in the Balkans.

One thing that struck me in this home was that our visit was so natural. Unlike many Albanian hosts I’ve had, they didn’t go to any extra fuss for us or force anything on us. Even when the boys left to go visit the homes of their friends and family around the village and they invited us to come along, it was completely comfortable and sincere. No pressure. We looked at each other and said okay and headed out after them into the snow.

For the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon we were with these boys/men in four different houses. Each one was set up to receive us and other costumed revelers with food and lots of warm raki. We learned a little Macedonian, and, as the day progressed, we encountered just about all the men in town – all dressed up and in various states of sobriety. At around 2 we ended up back in the center of town and a chaotic “parade” of sorts ensued with all the costumed villagers and kids making merry around a bonfire. Many of the costumes are burned as part of the festivities. The guys we were with took good “care” of us and definitely made sure we had a good time.

Among the costumes we encountered throughout the day were Obama, Angela Merkel, cowboys, a series of trees and lots of devilish/ghoulish creatures. I gathered that the villagers are very proud of their costumes and work on making them all year long. Many are of a traditional type – the guys we were with had older costumes that represented membership in a “krewe” of some sort – but many are also metaphorical or satirical and have to do with current events or political issues, most of which I didn’t understand.

Chris and Obama

After taking a break from the revelry, Chris and I walked past the bonfire again, only to meet up with two of the guys we had been with all day….still drinking and hanging out with a few stragglers. They immediately said “Chris, Laura – you are coming with us,” and took us to their upstairs family home in the center of town for dinner with their family. The food was fantastic and everyone had that tired post-holiday dazed look on their faces so it was okay to sit at the table and just be silent and tired and take it all in.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

Photos are up on the photos page…and check out this video for an idea of what it all looked like.

Also – this article quotes the festival as ” always [being] held on St. Vasilij’s day – the beginning of the New Year according to the Julian calendar.” One of the houses we visited was the house of a man named Vasili. I now understand why they made a big deal about his name and the day.

jeto ne paqe = live in peace

I’ve discussed my New Year’s celebration in Ohrid, Macedonia….but if you checked out my photos from the newest album you may have noticed that I also went to Kosovo recently.

After spending time in Macedonia, I headed up to Prizren and Prishtina in Kosovë for a whirlwind two day tour. As volunteers we weren’t allowed to go to Kosovo until this past June – it was off limits because it was still on some “list” that meant Peace Corps didn’t want to be responsible for our travel there.

"I vote, you vote, they vote, we vote, you vote....they win" Eulex is the EU interim government.

Now that travel to the rest of “Shqiperia e madhe” is officially allowed, it’s surprising I haven’t made it up there until now. In fact, the best road in the whole country connects Lezhe with the border and I could be there in under 3 hours (speedy by Albanian transit standards). Kosovo is also the only other country in the world whose majority population speaks Albanian, yet the ethnically Albanian population (like those Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro as well) was cut off from Albania itself for 50 years during the 20th century. I’ve been eager to test my language skills in another country and to see just what makes Kosovo different/the same for some time now.

Anti Serbian graffiti mixed in with pro-Albanian: Blej Shqip = Buy Albanian

While I didn’t come away after such a short visit with any great insight, a few things did really strike me as different from Albania while I was there. The most impressive of which was the diversity – of cultural heritage, of language, of religious traditions- that I found in Kosove.

In Prizren I learned that the city has a large Turkish minority. That, in addition to a significant Serbian population means that at any time one of about five languages could be being spoken around town. And all of this just across the border from Kukes in Albania – a comparatively homogenous region. So much for being able to use my language skills! I understood Kosovar Albanians less than I understood Macedonian Albanians, as it turned out.

"What meaning does independence hold when serbia returns to Prizren?"

Unfortunately, in recent history this diversity in Kosovo has been a source of tension in the wake of the conflict surrounding the country’s independence. Evidence of the past war is everywhere. Under interim EU governments, Kosovo and its citizens are still working out what it means to be Kosovo. Throughout Prizren and Prishtina the walls are covered in political grafitti. I came away from the short visit with a camera full of slogans of just how difficult the struggles for identity in this new country have been.

No caption necessary...

view from the apartment of the port in Ohrid

To ring in 2012 I traveled to Ohrid, Macedonia with a few friends. I was there in October, 2010 briefly, but this time I had a chance to explore a bit more. We had a great time eating lots of delicious grilled meat, setting off firecrackers in questionable locations and dancing to Serbian music at a bar/club on the water on NYE. Here are a few photos from the experience. To see the full album, click here.

FOUND - the church that Adam and I searched for last year but could not find!

Ohrid is full of many generations of old Yugos, mostly yellow for some reason

Sun setting on 2011....and Albania across the lake

Many of my favorite experiences from living in and traveling around Albania are those random, wonderful cultural exchanges that teach me more about the nuances of where I am. Albanian culture itself lends itself to these types of experiences – overwhelmingly Albanians are willing to invite you as a complete stranger into their home or tell you their entire life story when they meet you on the road. On hikes through tiny villages I’ve been invited in for coffee, and on the road I’ve been given rides from a series of Albanians.

Starting out on a journey to a friend’s house across the country, I often just want to put my headphones in and sleep my way there on the bus. But sometimes, when the weather’s good and I’m up for a bit more of an adventure (and talking in Albanian the whole way), hitchhiking can be a wonderful alternative.

Since I’ve been in Albania, I’ve had the chance to hitchhike around the country quite a bit. And, for the most part, I always end the day getting where I’m going more quickly…. with a great story. Hitchhiking is something uncommon for Albanians, so it sets me apart as a “huaj” / foreigner. But when they realize I can speak Shqip, the conversations begin. I feel more comfortable with the situation being able to communicate with my ride, and a little less like a free-loader because we usually talk for the entire ride.

I have ridden with police inspectors in fancy SUVs going to a friend’s wedding, families leaving for vacation, Albanians returning to Greece for work, father and son returning home after a funeral and many more. All of the my hosts has their own view of Albanian and American politics, and I’ve learned much about different areas of the country, practiced my Shqip skills and, in some cases, made great contacts for future travel and work. I’ve even ridden with people who know what Peace Corps is and have worked with a former volunteer (this is such a small country). Sometimes we stop for coffee or a meal at a place I would never have been able to try otherwise, and once I was even taken to and invited into a ride’s home (this would be concerning in the US, but is normal here). Most people are genuinely worried about me and want to help me out the best that they can.

My infrequent hitchhiking adventures have given me a new perspective on the lessons learned from traveling. It’s wonderful to be able to communicate with a cross-section of the population, and I think it is most enjoyable because I know the language. Sometimes you get in with someone who has a bit of an agenda they want to push with an “American,” but most of the time we both learn more about each other’s culture and home while getting where we want to go. While I don’t plan on picking up hitchhikers in the US, I hope I can return the hospitality I’ve been shown on the roads of Albania in some form one day.


****Just for the record: Peace Corps Albania does not condone hitch-hiking as a mode of transportation and, in general, I do not hitchhike alone.