that's our james

Disclaimer: This is my blog. No one else's. This is what I think about stuff. If others think the same thing, it's up to them to express it. The sole purpose of my writings is to keep my friends and family informed. My opinions are just that, opinions so don't get to worked up if something offends you. Thanks.

25 August 2007

Northern Bound, Part Two...

The next stop on our great tour of the north was Kukes. On our way into the city we crossed over the large reservoir and saw just how low the water level is. Low water level = low energy production. Along the very dry lake edge were many lines of erosion in the dirt indicating the water at its normal level and each progressively lower level. I'm not sure how many lines there were but I am guessing that due to our lack of rain and oppressive heat, and the ensuing lack of power that there are a few too many lines. The silver lining? If the water gets much lower you can walk through an ancient city and the former site of Kukes. OK, I might be exaggerating. The town of Kukes was relocated to its current higher elevation sometime in the 1970's. When they dammed the river, the first Kukes was flooded.
I didn't have my camera with me when we explored Kukes in the afternoon. Hopefully I'll get some pictures later and post them. I was surprised at how nice the city is. The setting is quite nice. The town is on a plateau, overlooking the lake with a mountain dramatically rising behind it.

The next morning our journey continued. And of course we were out the hotel by 6:30 am. The night before we had conflicting information regarding transportation, with a departure time of 7:00, 7:30, and 8:00 am. There was a mini-bus, and I do mean "a" because there was only one, that went from Kukes to Peshkopi, our next stop. When we got to the buses, we didn't see the mini-bus. We asked around and we had one gentleman offer to take us for 100Euros. Yeah. Euros. That's like a billion US dollars. I laughed in his face. I've gotta stop doing that. A little later a man rushed over and asked if we want to go to Peshkopi. I said yes. I also said we would pay only 5Euros, knowing that the price should be between 5 and 7 Euros. He looked a little insulted. I'm guessing he wanted more. He said a cup of coffee costs 5 Euros. I asked where. I then said a coffee is not that expensive in Tirana or London. No thank you sir. We'll find someone else.
Tired from our transportation search, we sat down to have a coffee, which, by the way, cost less than half a Euro. Soon Ryan spotted a mini-bus with potential to be our ride. He scoped it out and returned with good news. The driver met us 30 minutes later and off we went. Or so I thought. First we had to make a little stop. We make a few turns and then we're in the middle of some narrow street surrounded by the walls of the houses along the street. We park perpendicular to a gate which is then opened from the inside. I peered in to see what was behind the gate. I couldn't see much in the small courtyard except a large wood pile and a rusty axe (ok, ok, there was no axe but I'm trying to set the mood). Judging from the faces of my companions as we slowly reversed into the courtyard, we weren't exactly comfortable with our little detour. When the driver got out, opened the back, and removed our backpacks, I think we all got a little more nervous. Shortly thereafter however, our fears were laid to rest. A couple of guys started loading the back of the mini-bus (which kinda like a mini-van) with cases and cases of Bik Bull which is a generic version of Pitt Bull, which is a generic version of Pit Bull, which is a generic version of Red Bull, which is just gross. After loading 700Euro of Bik Bull into the back, we were off to Peshkopi.

The road was quite an experience. In fact it was barely a road. We bumped around for several hours along the way but we were rewarded with breath-taking views and glimpse at life in rural Albania. Sadly I didn't get many good pictures. It turns out that the backseat of a mini-bus is not good for comfort or taking pictures. I did get a few good shots but I missed so many others. This ride was more spectacular than the ferry ride. It might be the best journey I've been on in Albania. The views were stunning, the countryside gorgeous, and the experience amazing. Even considering how difficult it was to begin and how uncomfortable the ride was, I would recommend it and might even be willing to do it again.

Right now, it's after 2am and I have to go to the castle tomorrow morning to survey tourist. Next post will include some pictures of a place (it's too small to call it a village) where we stopped for a rest. Good night.

23 August 2007

Fire in the hills...

No really. There's a fire in the hills. It's been at least 30 years since it last rained. Everything is really really dry. I'm not sure how the fires are starting since we don't have lightning but they are all over Albania.

The fires in Berat have been hills surrounding the city. Fortunately I am far from the flames. The fires would have to traverse lots and lots of concrete communist apartment buildings before they could reach me. Yay for communist architecture.

20 August 2007

Northern bound, Part One...

Tirana at night

After yet another series of excruciatingly long, bumpy, and hot mini-bus rides, I have returned from our journey North. Prior to this trip, my travels north had been very limited. The first time I went north of Tirana was when Mona and I were traveling out of the country to Montenegro.

The North is full of mysterious beauty and isolated tranquility (not sure what I mean by that but it sounded nice). The terrain in the North is much more mountainous and therefore much harder to get to. In fact, I would say much more painful to get to. Do you remember the toilet paper commercial where the little girl stuffs her pants with lots of cushy soft toilet paper? Man do I wish I could have done that. After each leg of our journey, I wasn't sure if feeling would return.

The Fearless Five (front row:James, Katie, Brandon; back row: Joey, Dan, Jenny, Ryan) Dan and Jenny were our hosts in Puka.
A group of us decided to journey north, do some exploring, and talk some shop with fellow volunteers. We left Tirana at 6am on Thursday morning for our first destination Puka. Five or six hours later we arrived. That being the first leg of our journey, I must say I don't remember much from the bus ride. In Puka we met two volunteers and after discussing some projects and work issues we headed out to explore the beautiful landscape surrounding Puka. We took a long hike and returned to town just in time to hike to different part of town to catch the sunset. Though I was tired from our long day and my lack of a nap, when we arrived at our sunset vantage point, it was all worth it.

An Albanian boy that joined us for our hike along the way
Sunset from the hills outside of Puka

Sunset taken through a lens filter (actually Katie's sunglasses)

The next morning we again awoke before the sun. This time the bus departed at 5am. How awesome is that. This was the special part of the journey. Our goal was to take a ferry ride up one of the three lakes formed by massive damns. Of course getting to the ferry was part of the adventure. Our early bus dropped us in some nameless town where we had to figure out our transportation options. Transportation is always a struggle here. After being told all sorts of conflicting information and being offered a ride for $15 per person (at which I literally laughed in the guy's face because the trip should cost $3), we waited at a cafe. Sometime later with the help of the cafe owner, we catch a ride with a mini-bus. Actually we had to wait for one of his friends to come so that one of us could ride with the friend because there just wasn't enough room for us all. That lone person was me. After sitting there for a minute I realized that I had very very little knowledge of where we were going. Luckily we stayed in contact with text messages and arrived at the ferry without incident.

After about an hour wait, we were able to load onto the ferry. The seating options were limited and though we knew we would roast in the sun on the top deck, we figured it would be better than the smoke-filled stuffy room below. Plus the whole point of this ride was the view. And what a view it was. The mountains, the water, and the occasional house hugging the hillside were totally worth it. I had been told that this was one of the best boat rides in the world. I was not disappointed.
The beginning of the ferry ride

Oh and while we were waiting for the ferry, a woman approached me. I assumed she was going to be a tourist and was needing assistance. Not so much. After saying hello she said that her family thought that I was the husband of one of their cousins or something like that. During the ferry ride, whenever someone from their group passed me, they took a good long look, still not quite convinced I suppose.

14 August 2007


In recognition of the very special date of 070707, we decided to celebrate in an oh so appropriate fashion. A beach party! Some volunteers in one of the northern beach towns organized a day of fun in the sun and a night of sleep by the sea.

We arrived around noon and headed for the beach shortly there after. The beach I usually go to is a rock beach instead of sand. I’ve gotten quite used to these rocky beaches but the beach near Lezha is a sand beach and I was looking forward to seeing some sand, building a sand castle, and just general merriment.
However, I soon remembered some of the annoying parts of sand. For example, the sand gets really really HOT. My poor little feet are not tough. They can’t handle it. I don’t know if I’m being particularly wimpy, which I am almost certain is not the case, or if it’s genetic, perhaps even cultural. I see all the Albanians walking around on sand that is on fire without even noticing. Then again, I also see them walk around the city sometimes barefoot. If I did that, I know I’d find the section of the city paved with shards of glass.
Another annoying thing about sand, it gets everywhere. You end up getting sand on your clean towel, on the beach lounge chair, on your clothes, and anywhere else you are trying to keep clean. Rocks don’t do that. They just stay put like good little rocks. Oh and the other thing, sand is basically just dirt. So within fifteen minutes, I was cursing the sand and my scorched feet and longing for my rocky beach.
We stayed for about two hours then we headed back for a late lunch and to chill with other people who had arrived. I am pretty tan currently and I was under an umbrella (brella brella brella, hey. Sorry stupid Rhianna Umbrella song infects your head) so I only did sun block on my shoulders and face. I HATE having a sun burnt face or shoulders. Of course I managed to fall asleep on my side with my arm up exposing the side of my stomach/back which up to that had been spared my sick sunshine needs. And of course I got a little red. I was afraid it was going to be bad and I wouldn’t be able to lower my arms because of my now rosy armpits. The rest of the day, I lotioned up pretty well and was fine by the next day. One of these days, I might learn.

When evening rolled around, we piled into a mini-bus, which holds legally 8 people (we were 9 I think), and headed for the beach. We went to a different area to begin our hike to a more secluded beach. I had only a large bill to pay for the 50 cent ride. I collected everyone’s money and gave the drive my equivalent $10. I was a little confused when he gave me only $3 change. We stood there arguing over the fare which should have come to $4.50 and not $7. First he was saying that he would come get us tomorrow and that was why it was more. I knew though that he was not going to give us a free ride in the morning so I was just paying extra for him to come get us, which was not necessary. Then he argued that since he dropped us off at a different spot, he was going to return to town empty. I informed him that that was his problem. Plus he could very easily drive 5 minutes down to the regular beach and pickup lots of people. He finally was getting tired of me. He showed me a bundle of bills and told me to take the change I thought was appropriate. I saw a $5 and thought that was fair and easy. He got a tip and I could easily take my close to accurate change. He was floored. He was SO not expecting that. I loved it. I know it sounds stupid to bicker about only a few bucks but I hate feeling like they are taking advantage of the supposedly rich foreigner. It’s just rude on their part so now I fight back and it makes me feel much better.

We found our way to the beach and hung out a while, built a fire, and hung out on some big boulders. One of the highlights (or a lowlight from my perspective) from the rocks was the unique rendition of some songs by Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. See what I mean, a little scary. We have video but I’ll spare you.
Our sleeping accommodations were fabricated from a mosquito net and a beach umbrella (brella brella brella, see I told you). It worked surprisingly well. All in all, 070707 was a definite highlight. I can’t wait till 080808.

13 August 2007

Patriotic promotion...

Above: Our Model UN team (notice map behind us)
Below: Officemates: Axhem, Vali, and Doni (or something like that, I just found out that I might be calling him the wrong name for the last year)

One of the goals of Peace Corps is to promote America. Of course they word it a bit better but that's at least part of the idea. One of the awesome things about Albania is that they love us. It's nice to be respected just because you were born on a particular chunk of land, especially since that's not the response my nationality might evoke in many other places.

So when the Fourth of July rolled around this year, I wanted to celebrate with a little bit of American patriotism. I carried a sheet of American flag stickers and gave them out all day. I even gave some to complete strangers who came into City Hall for business. They actually asked for one and I was happy to oblige.

You'll notice the white cups in the second picture. Those are filled with ice cream. By coincidence they had bought ice cream and by a even better coincidence, they ended up having an extra. And you know I HAD to eat it. It's was the 4th of July!

05 August 2007

this just in...

Though I am sure my infatuation with my Internet will be waining soon enough, I thought I would share with you some random news/rumor that previously would not have made it to the pages of my blog. I recently heard that it is now against the law to sell sliced bread in Albania. Yep. Gone are the days of "the best thing since sliced bread." I must say I think this is a step in the wrong direction. Seriously. Do they expect me to cut it myself? You know there are machines that can do that?

What is really sad about this possible law is that it will not be enforced for long. REAL laws don't get enforced. So what do they do? They make stupid laws ( in the interest of being PC, I don't know why they are doing this, there might be a good reason somewhere out there). A couple months ago they banned smoking indoors. That lasted like two days. It's such a joke.

So the next time you want to make a tasty sandwich or one of the other one trillion things you can do with sliced bread, think of Albania and our "pre-sliced" life.

03 August 2007

where was I...

I'll start with the biggest news. Surprisingly it's not the arrival of Internet. Our new site mate Marisa was medically evacuated almost two weeks ago. It was all rather sudden. She was having stomach pains and no determinable cause so off they sent her. Though it wasn't easy, she was cleared today to return to Albania and is due to arrive Monday. Soon our squad will be back in business.

Now I'll talk a little about me getting Internet at my house. I can't talk to much about because the pain is still to recent. Getting the Internet to work at my house was the most complicated thing I've done in this country. We (my sitemates and I) decided to get Internet and determined my house was the most logical location. Our plan was set in motion. On July 3rd, I, along with a coworker as a translator, went to the phone/Internet provider. The man in charge of Internet installations said the Internet could be operating as soon as I paid for the first month and installation. This was awesome news. So easy. We went to the bank and transferred the money to the telecom's account (that's the way they do it here, don't ask me). I showed the guy the receipt and he said it would work by the end of the day.
The day came and went with no Internet. I was fine with this. I didn't think it would work that easily anyway. We went back the next day and found out that I needed a splitter, a modem, and a router. We only had the router! Of course there were no splitters or modems in Berat nor Tirana at that time. Frustrated we ordered a modem from America.
Joyous the day it arrived, I tried to connect. I got nothing, nada, squat. Back to telecom I went. Then off to find the Internet guy. Apparently he works at his own shop till 1pm (I'm gonna assume that he is paid for full-time work at the telecom but that's probably because I am not happy with him and it's easy to assume that). His shop hours were a bit of a problem because the telecom was losing power at 2pm and he had lunch after his shop closed. He passed me along to another guy. Specialist 2 was there. I told him it didn't work. I tried to get him to come to my house and just check everything out. No luck. He suggested I bring everything to him to test at the telecom before he went out to my house (which is all of a 12 minute walk away). I brought everything he needed. Sadly I forgot to leave the converter with him for the American modem (American electronics are wired for 110v while Europe uses 220v). When he plugged our modem into the too high voltage, he blew the power supply. I was absolutely livid. We had waited two weeks to get that modem and he destroyed it in two seconds. I barely remained calm. Katie remembered that we had another power supply from a modem she had that we had forgotten about. Specialist 2 told her that he would wait an hour for her to return. This was her third trip to my house on a day when temperatures were around 105. She quickly went home and returned to the telecom only to learn that Specialist 2 had gone home. The reason? It was hot. The next day we tried the new plug and it didn't work either. Even more merzit (Albanian for annoyed, bored, angry, sometimes one word is better than three), I calmly told him that I was very very annoyed. I said that he too was to blame for damaging the plug. I pointed out that we paid over $80 for installation which amounted to nothing. This was now the last week in the month and we still didn't have Internet. I asked if he would like to pay for Internet but not be able to use it. I also mentioned that having to deal with both him and the other man was also agrevating. In rare nod to customer service, he stood there and listened to me. He told me I was right and almost apologized. That little exchange made me feel so much better.
A few days later we were in Tirana for a training. I found a modem, overpriced but at least a good brand and wired for Europe voltage. We bought it, brought back. Installed it and got nothing. I went to Specialist 2 and basically forced him to test it right then and there. He said he was busy. I said I needed him to do it NOW. After some trouble shooting he got it to work. The real problem was that they needed to configure the modem. I knew this and tried to tell them at the beginning. We finished at the telecom at 9:40. Power at my house is cut at 10:00. I rushed home and quickly setup everything downstairs in my landlord's hallway (the DSL comes through his landline). At 9:58 Internet Cafe James was online. Though it was brief, it was truly magical.
Today I setup the phone line from his house (I ran a long telephone line from his phone jack, along the wall, out the window, up to my window two floors above) to my modem and router in my house. Finally we have wireless in my house.
Getting the Internet was the most difficult thing I've had to do. I got just a small taste of dealing with incompetent institutions and service providers here. I hope that's the only time I have to do anything like that.

Because I'm so happy, so very very happy...

Let me tell you why I am so VERY VERY happy. I now have wi-fi at my house. Waahoo!!!!!! Getting to this point was such an incredible headache and very frustrating but it finally works.

I'll post more about this and everything else that has gone on in the last month this evening and this weekend. I'd start now but I'm going to lose power in a few minutes. Again, I'm so happy, so very very happy :)