The Leuse-Lipe Hike

On another beautiful weekend, I go on another hike from the village of Leuse to the village of Lipe! The route was long, but absolutely gorgeous! We explored historic churches, frolicked through flower-filled fields, and experienced true Albanian hospitality in the villages!

Saturday, June 10, 2017, 10:37pm

What a beautiful day for a hike! 

Out of the blue, one of my coworkers invited me and the other volunteers in the area on a hike in the mountains around Permet. I had no idea where we were going or how long the trip would last, but I agreed anyway, eager to explore the natural beauty of my new home.

My coworker and the rest of the group set out for the morning at 7:45am. The weather was cool, and we set off in good spirits. To begin our hike, we trekked up a mountain road to the village of Leuse before continuing deeper into the forested area.

Leuse is a small but quaint village about 1.5 km (0.9 mi) outside of Permet. It’s famous for the Orthodox church Kisha e Shen Merise (the Church of Saint Maria), which was built in the 18th century by the Greeks. The exterior of the church is painted with many different frescoes, and the interior remains largely intact despite the passage of time, World War II, and communism because the building was seen as more of an art gallery than a church. Continue reading “The Leuse-Lipe Hike”

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Day Trip to the Benje Thermal Waters

On a beautiful Sunday, I took a weekend day trip to the thermal waters at Benje with some Peace Corps volunteers and my new coworkers! We explored the Katiu Ottoman bridge and the many different pools (which are said to have different healing properties). It’s definitely a must-visit place here in Permet!

Sunday, May 28, 2017, 9:54pm

It’s been a really, really lovely day! I woke up at a leisurely hour, ate breakfast, and then got ready to leave the house at 10:00am for a day trip to Benje, the famous thermal waters of Permet!

Some quick facts about Benje: 

  • Benje is located about 14 km (8.7 miles) outside of the city of Permet.
  • The name “Benje” comes from the Albanian word for bath (which is “banja”). The thermal waters are located near a village, which is also named “Benje.”
  • The Benje thermal waters are said to have been known since ancient times.
  • The waters flow from a deep joint and carry chlorine-sodium-calcium substances, and the water temperature is between 23 and 32 °C (72 to 89.6 °F).
  • The thermal waters flow naturally and rise to the surface in the form of six natural “bathtubs,” which are visited by domestic and international tourists.
Scroll to the bottom of this post for more information about traveling to Benje!

My coworkers from the bashkia organized the trip, and they invited some other volunteers in the area to come along as well, so in the morning I met up with in the city center with the entire group. Benje was a short (but very scenic) drive away from the city, and we were at the hot springs by about 10:30am. Continue reading “Day Trip to the Benje Thermal Waters”

Hiking to Shen Elena In a Thunderstorm

On my second weekend at site, I get caught up in a thunderstorm halfway up the side of a mountain! The road was slick and dangerous, but the sense of adventure made the whole experience exhilarating – despite the danger.

Sunday, May 21, 2017, 9:41pm

It’s been a bizarre day. The rainy weather was perfect for staying indoors and watching television, napping, and reading. But it was absolutely terrible for hiking.

Unfortunately, I did all of the above.

I started out the morning bright and early at Barbara’s apartment. The seven volunteers and one Albanian student gathered, and then we started up the mountain around 7:00am. The idea was that we’d hike to the Church of Shen Elena (Saint Helen) for the annual Festival of Shen Elenes.

Some background on the church and festival:

Every year people from Permet and the surrounding villages take a pilgrimage to the church and celebrate with special dyed eggs and traditional food.

According to the Visit Permet website, this annual event dates back to the 1600s, but the original church was destroyed by the communist regime. In 1999, nearly a decade after the fall of the communism, villagers decided to rebuild the church. Initially they wanted to construct a new space in a less rugged and rocky area, but a strange light appeared in the place where the church was originally built. “Guided by the light of St. Helen,” they rebuilt the church in the same place where it had been destroyed decades before.

On Sunday, May 21st, vespers begin at 8:15 in the morning, followed by a mass celebrated by the village priest. After the celebration, the priest invites the believers to receive the blessing with blessed flowers. Many people from the District of Permet participate, as well as pilgrims from the other Albanian cities. People from all religious backgrounds are welcome.

The hike was pretty intense right from the very beginning. It was a steep incline the entire way with very few flat areas for breaks, and the air was cool but humid. So I was huffing and puffing all the way up and definitely broke a sweat.

The weather was overcast the entire hike, and as we got further and further up the mountain the clouds grew more ominous. The scenery was beautiful, but eventually it became obscured by the veils of mist. And by the time we were about two-thirds of the way up it began to rain. Continue reading “Hiking to Shen Elena In a Thunderstorm”

5 Tips For Eating Healthy in Peace Corps Albania

While I was lucky enough to dodge the worst of the Freshman Fifteen in college, I’ve found myself gaining a little bit of weight here in the Peace Corps. I don’t have a scale in my house, but I’ve been able to gauge the changes in my body by the way my clothes fit and how I look in the mirror. And in my first few weeks after PST, I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing.

After months of eating carbs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (I’m talking meals consisting of fried potatoes, rice, and a healthy serving of bread on the side), my pants were tighter around the waist, and I noticed that I was bloating like crazy during the day.

I wasn’t alone. There’s a saying in Peace Corps that men lose weight during their service while women gain a few extra pounds, and from my experience that seems to hold true! There are a few exceptions, of course, but many of my female Peace Corps friends have expressed concerns about the way their Albanian diets have affected their figures.

It’s incredibly important for volunteers (or anyone living in a new country) to find ways to remain healthy and eat a well balanced diet. So without further ado, here are my 5 tips for maintaining healthy eating habits:

*Full disclaimer: I am not in any way qualified to give professional health or dietary advice. These are just some rules I personally follow for a happy and healthy Peace Corps service. 

Continue reading “5 Tips For Eating Healthy in Peace Corps Albania”

5 Lessons From My First 5 Days in Permet

My first full week of work as a Peace Corps volunteers is filled with ups and downs! I also learned a lot of lessons throughout my first five days at the bashkia. Overall I feel happy and optimistic about my new life in Permet!

Monday, May 15, 2017, 9:46pm

Lesson 1: When in doubt, Google Translate!

My first day of work was interesting – to say the least. I walked with my host sister for part of the way to the bashkia (city hall), but I marched up to the front doors all by myself. I was so intimidated, nervous, and uncertain – but I took a deep breath and walked inside. The journey of a thousand miles and all that.

I stopped and asked for directions in the lobby, and I ended up in a conversation with the cleaning lady. Then not long after my counterpart arrived and we walked up all four flights of stairs to the Urbanistika (urban planning) office.

I’d heard stories in PST of Community and Organizations volunteers entering the bashkia and not having a counterpart, not having an office, or not even having a desk. But to my surprise I found myself in a spacious room with lots of natural light, space for three desks (one for me!), and lots of maps of Permet. It definitely felt like I was in the right place.  Continue reading “5 Lessons From My First 5 Days in Permet”

Celebrating the Bektashi Festival

On my second day at site, I go on an adventure to a Bektashi tekke to celebrate the Festival of Ali Postivan! I learn more about the religion (which is unique to the Albania region), eat delicious food, and even join in the traditional dancing!

Sunday, May 14, 2017, 10:59pm

I slept extremely well because I was so exhausted from my first day in Permet, then I woke up bright and early to go to Kelcyre for the Bektashi Festival of Ali Postivan!

A quick cultural note: 

Albania is a Muslim majority country, though many other religions (such as the Greek Orthodox Church and Catholicism) are practiced. Truly one of the most unique aspects of Albania is the country’s attitude towards religion. All faiths are welcome, and all beliefs are respected. Many of the Albanians that I’ve met identify themselves as a believer of a particular religion but practice their faith more casually and are open to celebrating festivals from other religions.

The Bektashi religion is part of the Islamic mystic tradition, but is considered blasphemous in many eastern Muslim countries1. The Bektashi order was widespread in the Ottoman Empire, and in Albania the Bektashi community declared its separation from the Sunni community. Ever since, they have been perceived as a distinct Islamic sect rather than a branch of Sunni Islam2.

When I arrived in Kelcyre, I met up with Tim, a Peace Corps volunteer from the previous cohort, and we sat and drank a coffee in true Albanian style. We waited a long time at the cafe for the other people in our group to arrive, but once everyone was accounted for we finally got on the road.

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The gorgeous view from the top of the mountain

The mountain was beautiful, but crawling with cars. We patiently drove through the worst of the traffic jams with relatively good humor, and once we got close enough to the top, we got out of the car and walked the last bit of the way (which was an intense fifteen minute hike up a very steep slope).

The view from the top of the mountain was absolutely gorgeous. The sprawling mountains, lush river valley, and patchwork farms were breathtaking, and we could even see Greece from our vantage point. I could have stood there staring at the scenery all day. But it was very, very hot, so we moved on. Continue reading “Celebrating the Bektashi Festival”

My First Day at Site

I finally arrive at my new home for the next two years! My overall impressions: spacious apartment, gorgeous city, friendly people, and a wonderful new area to explore! I’m so excited to settle in and really start my Peace Corps journey!

Saturday, May 13, 2017, 10:11pm

Today I officially began my first day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it’s been a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and emotions.

After a very, very brief morning session with our counterparts, all of the COD volunteers hugged and said our goodbyes. Then by 9:30am, everyone was on the road to their new homes. We went from what felt like zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. One minute I was with all my friends, and the next I was on the road. There was no time to get emotional – we just up and left without a word. The ride from Tirana to Permet took about three and a half hours.

Some quick facts about my new home:

  • Permet a town of about 10,000 residents located in southeast Albania near the Vjosa River and Dhembel Mountains
  • The city itself dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries (though much of the architecture is new because the city was burned down in World War II)
  • Permet is known as the city of flowers, hospitality, and lyrical folk songs
  • The official city slogan is, “Pervec detit, kemi gjitchka tjeter,” which translates to, “We have everything except the sea.”

I realized that we had made it to Permet when I saw the giant stone in the middle of town (which merits an entire blog post of its own), and immediately I became both excited and terrified. My counterpart and I found my house with no problems at all, and my new host sister, Serena, greeted me at the gate. She’s thirteen years old and speaks almost fluent English, so we chatted a bit as she helped me with my bags and showed me to my apartment.

It was truly overwhelming to step into my new home. I had seen a few pictures of the space and knew that it had a few rooms and a bathroom, but to actually experience everything in person was like a glass of cold water to the face. Reality hit me all at once, and while I wanted some time to just process all my emotions, I didn’t really have a chance to just take in the moment alone. My host mother came downstairs, and my host sister was excited to show me around. Continue reading “My First Day at Site”

Coffee, Coffee, Everywhere: Albanian Coffee Culture

Here in Albania, coffee is so much more than a morning beverage. It’s an invitation to collaborate, the first step in a courtship, or an informal business meeting. Coffee culture is reflective of the slower pace of life and the importance of relationships within the community. And for Peace Corps volunteers, learning the many hidden meanings behind a simple coffee is essential to a successful service!

To be completely honest, I am not a coffee person. Apart from the occasional sickly-sweet frappe, I always avoided it in America because I hadn’t wanted to become addicted to the caffeine. Then when I traveled abroad in China, I treated myself to the occasional coffee because I wanted to spend time studying in a relaxed cafe environment.

So when I learned that coffee breaks were a regular fixture of Albanian life, I accepted it as a cultural quirk and resigned myself to a new coffee drinking habit. Over time the bitter taste of coffee grew on me, and after many, many cups I’ve learned that coffee here in Albania has several hidden meanings:

  1. Coffee is a way to build and maintain relationships.
  2. Coffee is a reflection of the slower pace of life.
  3. Coffee is an expression of community.

In the rest of this post, I’ll introduce you to coffee culture in Albania, starting with coffee shops and coffee etiquette, then I’ll dive into the hidden layers of meaning! Continue reading “Coffee, Coffee, Everywhere: Albanian Coffee Culture”

Swearing In and New Beginnings

I’m officially sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer, and the day is filled with emotions, from excitement to anxiety and even a bit of sadness. But overall I’m extremely proud of how far I’ve come and optimistic about where I’ll continue to go in the future!

Friday, May 12, 2017, 11:45pm

I’m officially a Peace Corps volunteer! It’s incredibly exciting and yet completely nerve-wracking at the same time.

I started the day by getting ready alone in my room. For the first time in weeks, I put on music and was able to dance around the room, which was incredibly freeing. I decided on my suit since it’s more professional, and I ended up regretting that decision because it got so incredibly hot.

Because it’s the 20th Anniversary of Peace Corps Albania, we had our Swearing In ceremony at the ambassador’s house. We had a long and hilly walk and trees were very sparse, so everyone was sweating by the time we reached the house. Which, of course, was when Peace Corps staff decided that we all had to take a group photo. Wonderful. After I cooled down a little, I busted out my own camera and got some really nice shots of the Librazhd group and other volunteers.  Continue reading “Swearing In and New Beginnings”

Countdown to Swearing In

In the last two weeks of Pre-Service Training, I hit a slump in my service but continue working hard until the very end. I try not to dwell on the “last‘s” and enjoy my time with my Peace Corps friends and Librazhd host family!

Monday, May 1, 2017, 9:50pm

11 DAYS TO SWEARING IN

We’re finally able to count down the days to Swearing In.

  • Only four more language classes.
  • Only four more lunches in Librazhd.
  • Only one more weekend.
  • Only two more projects (hopefully).
  • Only six more Hub days.
  • Only eleven more days.

The morning passed slowly. But I perked up as class ended because we took a field trip to the tregu (market). The rest of Albania had the day free (May 1st is an Albanian holiday), so the tregu was filled with people and vendors selling everything from produce to machetes and athletic wear. It was a lot of fun to browse through the stalls, try on sunglasses, and look at the pretty jewelry.

I came home around 5:30pm, and I had the house all to myself since the family had gone into the village for the holiday. I’m definitely going to miss my host family and I want to spend as much time with them as possible before I leave, but at the same time I know that I’m probably going to be pretty swamped once I get to my permanent site (or at least it’ll be weird if I lock myself away like a hermit in the very first week), so I’m trying to enjoy my little bits of alone time as much as possible. Continue reading “Countdown to Swearing In”