Transportation within Kosovo

I thought it would be helpful to give a summary of how to get in/out and around Kosovo for future travelers and potential Peace Corps Volunteers.

Prishtina International Airport (PRN)

This airport is located outside of Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. It is small.

Flight prices tend to be the highest in July and August, because that is when the Kosovar Diaspora (those living abroad) return to Kosovo for about a month to see their families. In the winter prices are the cheapest, but this is not the best time weather-wise to visit Kosovo.

As an example, my round-trip flight from Chicago to Prishtina in late September was $580 and in March it was $530. I’ve seen prices as low as $450 in the winter. July and August prices triple, costing about $1,500 from Chicago.

My favorite months in Kosovo are September-October and April-June. These months have mild weather and people are out and about without things being overly crowded.

Getting to the city center is simple, but expensive compared to most transportation costs in Kosovo. A taxi ride from the airport to anywhere in Prishtina should cost 15€, but the taxi drivers frequently try to charge up to 30€. If you hold your ground and insist on paying 15€, they will eventually relent. Tipping is not necessary, but a tip of 2-4 Euros is definitely appreciated, especially if you have bags. The trip takes approximately 20 minutes.

Most taxi drivers do not speak English, so make sure you have the address of where you are going to give to them.

Apparently there is a bus to/from the airport, but I’ve never used it. It only goes to the airport at 10:30 AM and 2:35 PM, so those times never lined up for me.

Buses

14523125_318042468555432_8824404030102293907_n (2)You can get almost everywhere in Kosovo by bus. The buses are also quite comfortable, except on hot summer days.

Buses are timely and pretty easy to figure out, even if you do not speak Albanian. The name of the destination and time of departure will be posted on a sign in the front window of the bus. This is the Prishtina bus station’s website: Stacioni i Autobuseve.

I also used this website to figure out bus times while living in Kosovo: Balkan Viator. It is pretty accurate for western cities in Kosovo, but less accurate for eastern cities. Many PCVs, especially those in the east, found this site the most reliable: Gjirafa.

Here is a map of the bus costs from Prishtina to most major cities:

Bus prices in Kosovo

How to Buy Tickets/Pay:

You do not need to purchase bus tickets in advance or make reservations. Simply hop on the bus, find a seat, and wait for the driver’s assistant to walk around and collect money. This typically happens ∼10 minutes into the drive.

When the driver’s assistant comes around, simply say the name of the city you are traveling to and hand him the money. If you are under 30 and say “student” when you pay, you will likely get a discount of 50 cents or a Euro. No need to show a student ID.

You must pay in cash. Smaller bills are preferred. If you try to pay with a bill larger than a 20, they will give you a glare and may not have change. The assistant will probably give you a receipt. This is your ticket, but there is no need to display it anywhere. Sometimes they will not even give you a ticket, because they can just remember who has paid.

In the summer months buses get PACKED, so be sure to hop the bus early enough to get a seat. After the seats are gone people will cram into the aisles and stand. Almost all of the buses do not have air-conditioning, so be warned that traveling by bus in the summer is miserable. It also gets quite stinky. If you must travel by bus in the summer, try to take the buses early in the morning or after dark.

If you are traveling outside of Kosovo, like to a city in Albania, you usually need to make reservations in advance. Most cities have small travel agencies near their bus station where you can buy tickets. A round-trip ticket to many cities along the beach in Albania only costs 8-10€.

Directions from the Bus Station to the City Center:

The Prishtina bus station is outside of the city center, so it can be difficult to find your way on foot the first time. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the bus station and a trip to the center should only cost about 3 or 4€. Me and Bill (2).jpg

Walking to the center takes 20-30 minutes and takes you past the beloved Bill Clinton statue, so I recommend saving your Euros for macchiatos and going on foot! There are no signs to direct you, but you can easily follow the people walking into the city.

Here are basic walking directions from the bus station into the city: Pass under the small bridge and go up the stairs leading toward the apartment buildings. Follow the curving road that passes between the apartment buildings. This will take you to the main road that leads into the city.

Be sure to wave at Bill as you pass!

What do volunteers DO in the summer?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the education sector, my job during the school year is obviously teaching. But what about the summer?

The school year in Kosovo is similar to most schools in the US. All schools here start on September 1st and most end in mid-June, but the end of the school year depends on the student’s age. That leaves two and a half months where we are not teaching.

So do we have all summer off? Do we just sit around sipping Kosovo’s world-renowned macchiatos?

Of course it depends on the volunteer, but these are the main ways TEFL volunteers in Kosovo fill their time in June, July, and August:

TravelTravel periods

Education PCVs are limited with when they can take their vacation days, so many volunteers use the summer to visit the U.S. or to travel. We can only travel during school breaks, but that excludes the first summer of training and the last summer before we leave Kosovo. So the summer at our halfway point is the perfect time to use our annual leave and travel.

Some volunteers are using their vacation days in one giant chunk, backpacking Europe for a few weeks. I decided to split up my allotted leave into several trips, saving days for winter break and next spring break. So this summer I’ve got a few little trips planned, one each month:

  1. Berlin Solo Trip (June)
  2. Albania with my host family (July)
  3. Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro (August)

To learn about how vacation days work in the Peace Corps, check out this post.

Summer Camps

Several volunteers decided to plan a week-long summer camp at their site. Many of us signed up to help at these camps throughout Kosovo. The camps have been a major success and have had themes ranging from global citizenship to health/fitness to environmental awareness.

Earlier this month I helped out at a camp in a small village where another volunteer lives. The focus of the camp was being a global citizen and taking care of the environment. Even though the village is surrounded by beautiful mountains, most of the children had never been hiking before. The highlight of the camp was taking about 60 of the kids on a hike up into the mountains with a stunning view  of their village from above.

The summer camps are not only beneficial for the kids, but they provide a chance for us to see other volunteers’ communities around the country. In addition to summer camps, many PCVs are running English clubs or working on grant writing.

Helping with Pre-Service Training for the new volunteers

Several PCVs are also leading training sessions for the K3s (Kosovo’s third group of volunteers). Pre-Service Training begins in early June and lasts about 11 weeks, taking place in Eastern Kosovo around the town of Kamenice. (Check out my post about training to learn more.) So far all of the Kosovo PCVs have been in the Education sector, but we just had our first group of 10 Community Development volunteers arrive this summer. Kosovo map label

Because the Peace Corps Kosovo program is so new, training materials and sessions are still being developed, and current staff and volunteers are playing a significant role in this process. Over the next few years our PST schedule and curriculum will continue to evolve.

Sadly I live on the opposite side of Kosovo, so I have not had the chance to meet the new volunteers yet. But in August I will be leading a training session and can finally meet them!

I also found out that two new volunteers will be placed in or near Gjakova, so I’ll have a couple other Americans to share my site with!

2 Turkish coffees + 3 macchiatos + 4 cups of tea = 1 day in Kosovo

Coffee quote democrat

Coffee 1Kosovo is a coffee culture. It is amazing. I did not know when I signed up for the Peace Corps that I would be moving to a coffee-lover’s paradise.

Fellow coffee-drinkers: Get ready to become thoroughly jealous and prepare your bank-account, because you just might be buying a plane ticket to Kosovo at the end of this post.

Not a coffee person? Well there’s hope for you. Kosovo is also big on tea, so let’s start there:

Russian Tea

chai rusi Russian Tea in Kosovo.png

The most popular tea in Kosovo is a type of black tea known here as Russian tea or chai rusi. It was actually brought to the region during Ottoman rule and therefore it is more widely known as Turkish tea.

This tea is served with lots of sugar in small narrow-waisted glasses from a double-stacked kettle. It is typical to be offered tea in the evening after dinner or when you visit someone’s home. As a female volunteer, you may be expected to serve the tea for guests. I felt like a nervous Mulan the first time I had to serve tea in Kosovo!

How I feel about the amount of chai I drink on a daily basisEven though the glasses are small, be careful, because your glass will be continuously refilled. Before you know it you’ve had 6 or 7 glasses of black tea with tons of sugar. Good luck sleeping.

Although Russian tea is delicious, I try to drink mint or chamomile to cut down on the caffeine or sugar. I probably drink three cups of tea per day, which may be on the lower end of the scale compared to many volunteers.Coffee quote caffeine sleep

Now it’s time to take a little journey through the main types of coffee people drink in Kosovo:

Nescafe

Let’s start with the simplest one of the group, which is instant coffee or Nescafe. I remember being surprised by how popular instant coffee was when I traveled to Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. Turns out it is pretty popular in the Balkans as well. Every cafe or restaurant has it on the menu and most people drink it in their homes.

I’ve never been a fan of instant coffee, but lately I’ve been craving American coffee, and this is about as close as it comes. I also miss filling a big thermos with coffee to bring to work.

One downside to coffee-culture in Kosovo is that to-go cups don’t exist. In America coffee is prepared in a hurry and guzzled on-the-go to provide an energy boost for our hectic lifestyles. In Kosovo coffee is primarily a social binder. Drinking coffee alone or on-the-go contradicts its purpose.

Kosovo is such a coffee culture that many people go out to a cafe daily, sitting and visiting with friends, family, or coworkers for hours. Visiting over coffee is seen as an essential part of daily life. It is a lifestyle I think many Americans could learn from.

Coffee quote strong as death

Turkish Coffeecoffee turk

People in Kosovo adore Turkish coffee and most drink it daily. The above proverb perfectly defines Turkish coffee. It is like coffee in the form of a shot. It is small, potent, and typically saturated with sugar.

Kosovars love their sugar when it comes to coffee and tea. Because it rare to drink coffee without sugar, I often get strange looks when I ask for my Turkish coffee that way. On more than one occasion the hostess serving the coffee has insisted on putting at least one spoonful of sugar in my cup because it’s just not natural to drink coffee without sugar!

Coffee quote another cup

My least favorite thing about Turkish coffee is that it is served in such tiny cups. I feel like I take two sips and my coffee experience is over! Fortunately my host family quickly learned how much I love coffee, so they’ve begun preparing an “American sized” Turkish coffee for me, which is served in a cup twice the size of theirs.

In terms of quantity, I probably drink about three Turkish coffees per day. One in the morning, one at school with all of the teachers, and one in the evening with my family. I think my coffee intake has been one of the primary things I’d attribute to my success as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Coffee quote personality

Macchiatocoffee 3
The king of the coffees in Kosovo is hands-down the macchiato. This is not a frilly American knock-off like what you’d find in a Starbucks. This is a genuine European maacchiato: small, strong, and oh-so-delicious.  In fact, the Kosovar macchiato has been voted the best in the world.
Coffee quote truth
If the above quote is true, then people in Kosovo must be some of the most understanding people in the world. They are coffee experts, and this applies not only to taste but to the appearance. The artistic flair on the macchiatos definitely adds to the experience of drinking one. Here are a few of my recent macchiatos:

The best part? These beautiful cups of heaven only cost 50 cents. So if you come to visit Kosovo the coffee is on me!
I have to say I feel pretty European when I sit outside at a cafe reading at a book and sipping a petite macchiato. Life in Kosovo has its hardships, but when drinking the coffee here I feel pretty Posh Corps.
coffee potAlthough I love Kosovo’s coffee culture, I have to admit that I miss brewing a big-ole pot of American drip coffee in the morning. Turkish coffee is great, but take one gulp and its gone. I miss having a giant mug of strong coffee that I can sip and refill for hours. Part of me even misses those seasonal flavored creamers…
Alas, I’ll have to tough it out with my classy European macchiatos for another year.

How does vacation work in the Peace Corps?

Many people imagine that being in the Peace Corps is just two years of wandering the globe, and it typically attracts people who love to travel. In reality, 95% of your service will be spent in the same village or city.

If you have a hard time staying in the same place for too long, Peace Corps service may not be for you. Serving in the Peace Corps is similar to a normal full-time job in that we are given limited vacation days.

If you are interested in how I spent my vacation days while serving in the Peace Corps, check out these posts and pictures from my trips:

Below I’ve listed a few of the most common questions related to travel while in the Peace Corps. Feel free to ask any additional questions in the comments section!

How many vacation days do you receive?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer we are allotted 48 days of leave throughout our 27 months of service. We earn two vacation days per month of service, not counting the three months of training.

When can you use vacation days? Travel periods.png

Volunteers are not allowed to use their vacation days during Pre-Service Training (months 1-3), the first three months at their permanent site (months 4-6), or during the final three months of service (months 25-27).

Depending on your work, there may be additional restrictions. As volunteers in the education sector, we can only use our annual leave during school breaks. For this reason most of us travel during winter break, spring break, or during the summer after our first school year.

In the case of an important event, such as the wedding of an immediate family member, the Country Director may approve travel during the school year. (Hopefully that will be the case with my brother’s wedding in September!)

Do PCVs travel back to the United States?

Yes. I’d estimate that the majority of PCVs travel back home at least once. In our group most volunteers have taken or plan to take one trip back to America during their service. It may be different in other Peace Corps countries, but Kosovo is pretty easy to get to. In the winter months flights are $500-$700 round-trip to many U.S. cities. In the summer the prices go up to $900-$1200.

Can volunteers travel anywhere they want?

No. The Peace Corps restricts travel to some countries based on safety concerns. Examples include Turkey due to recent terrorist attacks.

How does travel approval work?

We must submit a travel request form at least two weeks in advance, although some exceptions are made. This form must list the dates of travel, the cities you are visiting, and must be signed by you and your work supervisor at site, such as the director of your school.

Can volunteers travel within Kosovo as much as they want?

This may be different in other Peace Corps countries, but because Kosovo is so tiny (about the size of Connecticut) we are pretty free to travel within the country.

We are, however, required to notify Peace Corps staff if we are spending a night away from our site. If you spend too much time visiting other volunteers or in the capital, you may receive a warning from staff. Ideally you should not spend more than a couple nights per month away from your village/city.

What about work-related travel or emergencies? 

In September I was asked to be a chaperone for my school’s 12th grade trip to Albania. Because this was with my students and approved by my school director, the Peace Corps counted it as work-related leave. You can read about the trip here: The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo. (Spoiler alert: Traveling with over 100 teenagers and teachers who don’t speak English during my first month at site was a challenge.)

In case of an emergency, such as the death of an immediate family member, the Peace Corps will fly you to the U.S. for up to two weeks of emergency leave.

If you want to read more about the policies related to Peace Corps travel, click on this PDF: Leave Policies for Volunteers and Trainees

Things we do that Kosovars consider odd

As I adjust to life in Kosovo, it’s easy to come up with a list of things about the culture that strike me as odd. But that’s not entirely fair. The cultural perceptions go both ways.

What about how the American volunteers are perceived by the Kosovars?

I decided to start asking around my site to see what people considered odd about me and other Americans. These are some of the things they mentioned:

Cold greetings

You know that thing you may have seen in movies where people kiss someone on their cheeks three times when saying hello or goodbye? Yeah, that’s what we do in Kosovo. Typically you shake hands and then lean in, touching/kissing cheeks two or three times.

When arriving at school, the teachers go around and do the handshake/hug/kiss thing with nearly everyone in the teacher’s lounge, even though they see each other almost every day. My host mother and sisters do the hug/kiss thing every time I leave the house or come home. Americans, on the other hand, reserve hugs for close friends or family we haven’t seen in a while. An American teacher would arrive at work and say “hey” or “good morning,” sometimes with a halfhearted wave.

Because Americans are less physical in our greetings, I’ve been told that we come across as cold and distant. Sometimes when I’ve greeted people the “American way” by waving and smiling I’ve been told that I come across as rude. So I’ve been trying to imitate the Kosovar style of greeting, but I’ll admit that the hugging and cheek kissing makes me uncomfortable at times, causing me to feel a bit like Ron Swanson.

Dressing casually

When I asked people at my site what stands out to them about Americans, I repeatedly got this response: “You don’t care what people think of how you dress.”

odd judgment when I where sweatsOuch. 

But in comparison to people here it is definitely true. People in Kosovo take their appearance very seriously, especially the women. In America we tend to be a bit more casual, especially when we are not working. It’s not uncommon to see people, especially those in their twenties, wearing t-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, or no make-up.

In Kosovo that is a rare sight. I brought a lot of business casual clothes, but I still get comments from family or coworkers about my attire. So future Kosovo PCVs, heed my packing advice and bring nice clothes!

Running

Turns out going for a run is a very American thing to do. If you go outside for a run, you will face far more strange looks than normal. A lot of volunteers are avid runners and have funny stories about the reactions from locals. how people respond to pcvs runningSome people point and laugh, while others may stop you to ask, “Are you afraid?” or “Are you running from the stray dogs?”

When you tell them you just like to run, people will be very confused and may suggest joining a local gym.

Joining the gym

Speaking of joining the gym, this is another largely American phenomenon. One of the reasons is that Americans are a lot more sedentary, so we have to set aside a time and place to be active. In Kosovo people walk a lot. Many people don’t own cars, so they walk to and from work or school daily. It may not seem like much, but all of that walking adds up. Even simple things like going to the grocery store become a form of exercise.
groceries.gifKosovo has gyms in the larger towns and cities, but most of them are heavily male-dominated. If you are female and decide to join one, people will automatically assume that you are trying desperately to lose weight. I’ve had to explain repeatedly that I go to the gym to be healthy, not because I think I’m fat.

Working out was never a priority for me in the States, but here it has become my go-to stress reliever. (And it helps counteract the bread-dominated diet!) I hope it is a habit I’ll carry with me after my service ends.

Odd facial expressions & endless smilesawkward smile.gif

Maybe this relates to us being more laid-back about our appearance, but I’ve been told that Americans are extremely expressive, especially when it comes to making weird facial expressions.

I’d like to blame YouTube or Snapchat for this phenomenon. We’ve spent so much time watching strange YouTube stars or testing out Snapchat filters that we make strange faces by default.

On the positive side, Americans smile a lot, especially compared to Eastern Europeans. We therefore come across as very approachable and happy, at least until someone tries to hug us and we get weird.

 

Prom Kosovar Style!

DSCN2251 (2)

I never expected that my Peace Corps country-of-service would have prom. Not only do Kosovars have it, but it puts American prom to shame.

Because I taught 12th grade English for most of the year, I was invited to celebrate prom with the graduating class and the other teachers. All throughout the year I heard people referring to prom, so I quickly realized that it was a big deal.

Brita and Vlora3.jpg
Me with my counterpart, who I co-teach with at the secondary school.

Turns out prom in Kosovo is not just teenagers grinding on each other like it often is in the States. It is primarily a graduation celebration for the 12th graders. There is no graduation ceremony, so prom night marks the end of their schooling. At the end of 9th grade students have a semi-prom, which marks their transition into high school and is also taken very seriously.

The first thing that stood out to me about Kosovar prom was how impeccably dressed everyone was. The students have style. Women here are also experts at doing hair and make-up.

Speech 3The evening began at 8:00 PM and took place at a luxurious venue on the outskirts of the city. The teachers entered first, followed by the students walking down the grand staircase in pairs and posing for pictures. We then had a traditional meal served in a fancy ballroom, with live Albanian music to accompany it. Then the school director, class president, and Minster of Education addressed the students. I was also asked last minute to address the hundreds of graduates. So I gave a short but sincere congratulations speech. (Side note to future volunteers: You never know when you’ll be asked to give a speech in Peace Corps, so get ready to improve those public speaking skills!)

Then the dancing began. Albanians LOVE dancing. I’ve always been pretty shy about dancing, so I was planning to sit it out most of the night. The students and teachers, however, had other plans. I was quickly pulled onto the floor to participate in valle, the traditional Albanian circle dance. We then transitioned in to the clubbing type of music I’d expect at a prom, but the dancing stayed classy. Even the teachers danced for most of the evening, which is a major difference from American prom.

A few key points about Albanian dancing:

  1. Lift up yours arms. Wrist movements are key. In American dancing it’s about the butt. In Kosovo it is about arms and elegance.
  2. Consider holding a handkerchief in one hand to emphasize wrist movements.
  3. Possibly place a glass of water on your head while dancing to showcase your poise. (Really, I’ve seen multiple people do this at each dancing event.)
  4. Men love dancing just as much as the women. Maybe more.
  5. If trying these things alone on the dance floor is intimidating, grab hands and join the circle dance! All you do is (to the right) step, step, step, touch/kick and then (to the left) step, touch/kick. Then repeat. It’s very simple!

If you are having a hard time picturing this, check out the video I made with clips from the evening at the bottom of this post.

The students also prepared a little comedy show where they impersonated some of the teachers. Even though I could only understand 70% of it, it was still pretty funny. After the comedy show we had a couple more hours of traditional dancing, with me trying to dance like an Albanian but probably still moving my hips too much and my arms too little. Oh well, I’ve still got a year to improve.

DSCN2277 (2)
With the school’s director

One of the reasons that prom is so serious relates to one of the differences in the school system. Students here are placed in a class of approximately 35 students when they enter secondary school. They have every subject with that group of 35 students until they graduate. They literally spend 6 classes, 5 days per week, with the same group of people for three years. This leads to very close bonds between classmates.

Prom included a lot of celebrating, but also tearful goodbyes at the end. It brought back memories of my high school graduation and saying goodbye to friends before we all parted ways and moved away for college. I was struck by how similar people are across cultures. Here was a group of Kosovar teens experiencing the same types of emotions that I was at 18.

The celebration lasted until nearly 3:00 in the morning. And 85% of it was dancing. Although I was exhausted by the end, it was a memorable experience. I look forward to another prom next year!

 

Waterfalls in Kosovo

As I’ve mentioned many times before, Kosovo possesses a lot of natural beauty. (Have I convinced you to come visit yet??)Kosovo mirusha white drin waterfalls

As the weather has gotten nicer my host family has taken me on a few memorable outings to see some of their favorite sites and to learn about the culture of Kosovo. This included celebrating St. George’s Day in a nearby village, where we witnessed hundreds of sheep being sacrificed and a giant regional feast. Fortunately we’ve also had some outings that are a little less… intense.

Two of my favorite family field trips this spring have been seeing Kosovo’s waterfalls.

In March we visited the White Drin Waterfall, which is located near the city of Peja.

The waterfall is 82 feet (25 m) high and is located at the mouth of the White Drin river. The area is surrounded with beautiful mountainous scenery, including a cave that can be explored in the summer months.

In the summer the waterfall is surrounded by lush green scenery, but when we visited the first signs of spring were just starting to show. In many ways that made the vibrant blue color of the waterfall even more striking. The water was incredibly clear.

It was also a great time to visit because there were not many visitors. In the warmer months the waterfall is a very popular destination. We spent the day hiking around the waterfall, taking pictures, and of course taking a break to make Turkish coffee in the park. It is not an outing in Kosovo without at least one coffee break.


Last weekend we visited Mirusha Waterfall in central Kosovo. This site is actually a series of seven major waterfalls located in a 6 mile-long canyon with 13 lakes separated by the waterfalls. Unfortunately we did not have time to see all of them because it takes a few hours to hike the length of the canyon, and it was a very hot day.

The canyon also includes several caves. Mirusha Park is one of the most popular sites in Kosovo, and because the weather was hot and sunny when we visited it was more crowded than the White Drin Waterfall. A lot of people also swim in the lake located below the largest waterfall, which is 72 feet (22 m) high. Although the water was very cold, several people were swimming and jumping from the waterfall while we had our picnic.

Pano picnic (2).JPG
Enjoying a picnic with a perfect view of the brave souls jumping from the waterfall.

Because it was such a hot day, I was extremely tempted to jump into the water. My host sisters and I finally decided to go for a swim with our clothes on, but host dad stopped us. This ended up being for the best, because I later read that the water in Mirusha has been known to cause infections. Visitors are advised to avoid contact with the water during the spring because the water often becomes contaminated after the snow melts.

Unlike the water of the White Drin, the Mirusha River’s water is more greenish-brown. But it is still a beautiful site, especially with the white and pinkish canyon walls surrounding the lakes. I’d still consider going for a swim if we visit later in the summer. Not so sure about jumping from the waterfall though…