A surprise spring break in Paradise

In April the students in Kosovo enjoy a week off from school, so many volunteers took the opportunity to travel. I ended up spending the week exploring Albania and Macedonia, and it was a truly breathtaking trip. Trip Map with buses

This is a region of the world that few Americans ever explore, and let me tell you, we’ve been missing out. The coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas possesses a Mediterranean climate and is lined with white, sandy beaches. The dramatic mountain ranges, including the Albanian Alps, allow for magnificent hikes in the warmer months and skiing in the winter. The long and complex history of the region has left it sprinkled with ancient fortresses and castles, Ottoman architecture and bazaars, archaeological sites from the Hellenistic period, and Medieval monasteries and mosques .

Best of all, travel in the Balkans is unbelievably cheap. Even flights to Albania, Macedonia, or Kosovo are half the price of flights to neighboring countries like Greece. So listen to my advice and come explore the Balkans! Your camera and pocketbook will thank me.

Rather than rambling on about why you should visit, let me show you some of the sites from my week-long trip:

Tirana: The capital and largest city in Albania

Bus from Gjakova to Tirana:  $11

Tirana is the most modern city in Albania and is known for its nightlife. I took an early morning bus to meet up with the other travelers who had arrived in Tirana a day prior, so I did not get to experience a night out in Tirana, but they definitely had a good time.

We spent the day exploring the city on foot, tasting olives in the market, and feasting on fresh seafood. My camera was packed away, so I didn’t get the chance to take any pictures. We then boarded a bus to the city of Berat.

Bus from Tirana to Berat: $3.25

Berat –This city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town. It is known as one of the most beautiful towns in the Balkans and is referred to as the “town of a thousand windows.”

We checked into a hostel called Lorenc Guesthouse, which was optimally located in the heart of the old city. It was the most picturesque hostel I have ever stayed in. The owner was so hospitable and offered us free Turkish coffee and tea repeatedly, in addition to giving us samples of his homemade wine and rakia. It was about $10 each and included a delicious hot breakfast.

After spending our first evening walking around the city of Berat and resting at our hostel, we woke up ready to do some hiking. We climbed up to the fortress overlooking the city, called The Kala. It is a castle with origins back to the 4th century BC, but it was mostly built in the 13th century. The hike was a great way to wake up and we were rewarded with stunning views of Berat from above.

Saranda

From Berat we took another bus to the city of Saranda in southern Albania. This city is a major tourist destination in the summer, but for us in April it was extremely quiet. We stayed for two nights so that we could see two of Albania’s most well-known sites: The Blue Eye and Butrint. (We also ate tons of fresh seafood, which we’ve been missing in Kosovo.)

Bus from Berat to Saranda $9.75
Accommodations: SR Backpackers Hostel $11 with free laundry and free breakfast

The Blue Eye

The Blue Eye is a water spring, where clear blue water from the river bubbles up at a rate of 18400 liters per second from an extremely deep pool. The exact depth of the hole is unknown, but divers have descended to fifty meters (164 feet). It is a breathtaking natural phenomenon. The lush trees and purple flowers, combined with the vibrant color of the water, made us feel like we were walking in a fairy-tale. 

Butrint (also known as Buthrotum)- $5 entry fee

Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was an ancient city throughout Greek, Roman, bishopric and Byzantine periods. It was inhabited since prehistoric times, but was finally abandoned during the Middle Ages due to a malaria epidemic caused by the marshes surrounding it.

Despite Butrint being one of the greatest classical cities of the Mediterranean, for some reason it remains largely unknown. The current archaeological site includes an impressive Roman amphitheater, a Roman temple with mosaic floor, and a Byzantine Basilica, which is the largest in the world after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Since 2005 an international archaeological team has been performing excavations at Butrint, and archaeologists estimate that what we can see now is just 15 percent of what lies beneath.

Because we were so close to the border with Greece, we decided to drive to the border and walk into Greece, just for fun. The border guards were very confused about what we were doing. Although we didn’t see much, we can technically say we’ve been to Greece.

The most life-threatening drive of my life: Saranda to Korca $8.00

2016-04-23 (3)
The road is so perilous and winding that you save over 2 hours by driving through Greece, even though it is almost twice the distance.

After our second night in Saranda, we woke up at 4:45 AM to catch a 5:30 AM mini-bus to Macedonia. We knew it would be a 7 or 8 hour trip, but we had no idea that we would be driving on the most dangerous road in the Balkans. The journey takes you high into the mountains, driving along narrow and winding roads, many of which are not paved, and all of which are without guard rails. We were honestly driving along sheer rock faces, bouncing around in the seats and trying not to throw up for 80% of the trip.

If you enjoy living on the edge, take this trip. I wish I had not packed my camera for the drive, because you would not believe how crazy this road is.

From Korca we took a taxi to the border crossing into Macedonia, got our passports stamped, and then hopped in another taxi to the city of Ohrid, just 20 minutes away. The taxis cost us just a few dollars each.

Ohrid

Ohrid is a large town in southwestern Macedonia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to it being one of the oldest human settlements in all of Europe. The town is first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 BC.

In addition to its historic significance, Ohrid is known for its astounding beauty, tucked between high mountains and Lake Ohrid, which is over three million years old. It is the deepest lake of the Balkans, with a maximum depth of 288 meters or 940 feet.

Sadly our only day in Ohrid was very rainy, but we still explored the city and visited the ancient castle known as Samuel’s Fortress.

Skopje -Matka Canyon

Matka Canyon is located west of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and covers about 5,000 hectares. It is home to several medieval churches, monasteries and remnants of a fortress. There are also dozens of caves to explore, and many visitors enjoy kayaking in the Treska River or on peaceful Lake Matka. We spent all of our time there hiking up to St. Nicholas Monastery, which is located on a cliff and dates back to at least the 1600s.

This place left such an impression that I am making a point to see it again before I leave the Balkans.

My spring break concluded with a short bus ride back to Kosovo. This trip left me in awe of the natural beauty of the Balkans, and I immediately began telling family and friends to come visit for their next vacation.

If you would like to see more travel pictures, check out my Instagram or read about my budget trip to Germany & Austria for Christmas!

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The ugly truth behind a beautiful photo

I recently uploaded pictures on Facebook from my trip to Albania. A friend sent me a message saying how jealous they were that I am living such a fun and adventurous life. That comment prompted me to write a brief post about the trip, because even though it was a privilege to travel with my school and see Albania, it was actually one of the hardest weeks of my Peace Corps service so far.

Trip- Durres
The view from Kruja Castle.

Allow me to explain by presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my trip to Albania:

The Good

  • It was FREE: Every year the secondary schools in Kosovo organize a trip to Albania for their 12th grade students. As a 12th grade teacher I was invited along as a chaperone. Who could say no to a week-long, all-expenses paid vacation in Albania? The transportation, room, meals… everything was covered. The meals were spectacular and we even got free drinks from the hotel. Of course it was a school trip, so the teachers were not drinking in excess, but the wine with dinner and daily macchiatos were still a treat!
  • Albania is GORGEOUS. We had sunny weather all week and were able to watch the sunset over the Adriatic Sea almost every night. I will definitely be visiting Albania again. (And I did! Check out my post about my trip to Albania with friends.)
  • Sunbathing on the beach.  We spent a few hours at the beach every day, sunbathing in the sand and swimming in the sea. I even got a decent tan!
  • Bonding with teachers & students. The trip was a great opportunity to get to know the other teachers, even with my limited Albanian. There were also some fun moments with the students.
    Trip- Students at castle2.jpg
    Some of the 12th grade students and I posing outside of the Kruja Castle Museum.

    When we visited the city of Kruja I walked with about 50 of the students up to the city’s castle ruins. There we found a museum with half-price admission for the students. The condition of entry? At least one teacher had to accompany the group. But there was only one teacher around. Me. The museum curator approached and asked (in Albanian) if I was their teacher. I replied in Albanian, “Yes, I am their English teacher,” feeling proud of myself for understanding him and being able to respond. He then said, “Okay, before we enter the museum I’m going to need you to explain these three rules to the students…” And there ended my understanding of what he was saying. Here I am, supposed to be the adult in charge, and I have no idea what is going on. I just played along and to my great relief no students got us kicked out of the museum. I still have no idea what those three rules were, but I guess none of us broke them!

The Bad

  • Trip- CastleMy Albanian is lacking: When volunteers arrive at their permanent sites, they quickly realize how little of the local language they actually know. It’s easier to be optimistic about Albanian when you are surrounded by other Americans struggling to learn alongside you. I was feeling pretty good about my language abilities at the end of PST.Even in Gjakova things have not been too bad. Day-to-day interactions in Albanian are incredibly draining, but at least I am able to speak some English with my host sisters and escape to my own room when I need to.

    On this trip there was no escape. I was surrounded by Albanian speaking teachers and students 24/7. Everyday I spent several hours sitting around a table with the teachers as they rapidly chatted about the most recent gossip, politics, financial issues, and a number of other topics that I am completely unable to discuss in Albanian. I was lucky if I could pick out a few keywords. This led to me awkwardly sitting there in silence most of the time. Frequently a teacher would turn to me and say, “Why are you being so quiet Brita? Say something!”

    Then everyone is staring and expecting you to contribute to a high-level conversation in a language you just started learning three months ago. It’s rather unpleasant.

  • Trip- beachBug bites: It was a hot week, so we slept with open windows. By the end of the week I was covered in red bug bites, including at least ten bites on my face. Now I’m being whiny… but still, bug bites are never fun.
  • Broken toilet: Right before the trip began I had just gotten over nine days of diarrhea. (Yeah… I wrote a post about it.) Unfortunately I developed the opposite problem, not having a bowel movement for six days. I guess the upside is that I did not need to frequent the bathroom, because our toilet had cracks and holes in the porcelain bowl and would not flush… not a pretty sight.

The Ugly

  • Memorable showers: Our shower consisted of a hose hanging from the wall with only one temperature: frigid. We also discovered when I first “showered” that the single drain in the bathroom floor was totally clogged, thus flooding the bathroom. For every other shower I had to wash my hair leaning over the toilet with the hose. Looking back, it’s actually kind of funny, but at the time I was not laughing.
  • Harassment from students: I will probably dedicate an entire post to this in the future, so for now I’ll just say that disrespect and inappropriate comments from my male students has been a big issue. Being an American woman in her twenties working with 12th graders at a school that is predominantly male has its challenges.
  • Being called fat: People in Kosovo speak much more bluntly about physical appearances than Americans. This has led to my feelings being hurt from time-to-time, but never so much as my week in Albania. Obviously I was feeling a bit anxious about being at the beach for the first time with hundred of beautiful, thin Europeans. Turns out my fears were justified. When I first removed my cover-up at the beach the teachers openly looked me up and down and then commented that I was fatter than they expected. Some even pointed out the parts of my body where I need to lose weight. I was also mocked for being so shockingly white. I felt like I was under a microscope, and some of the comments were very hurtful.(I’ve since realized that this is primarily cultural. Even the most caring and sensitive Albanians I know talk about weight with incredible openness. It is not mean, just honest commentary. Maybe Americans are overly sensitive.)
  • Trip- Sunset
    Sunset over the Adriatic Sea.

    No Wi-Fi: This complaint makes me sound spoiled, and you are probably thinking, “Really Brittany? You’re in the Peace Corps, remember?!” But not being able to connect with other Americans or my family during the week made the feelings of isolation more difficult to bear. You don’t realize how much you rely on the internet for your mental/emotional health until it is taken away. Being the only foreigner and being unable to communicate makes you feel very lonely. Not being able to cry to your mom when you are at a low-point makes you feel even lonelier.

So let this post be a reminder that things are not always as they appear. This is one of the fundamental issues with social media. We photoshop our lives and put forth an image of ourselves that crops out the crap. We post the best photos of ourselves doing the most exciting things, making our lives seem much more glamorous and enviable than they actually are. It’s easy to feel jealous when you can’t see the hard stuff. You see a smiling picture of me sitting on castle ruins, but if you had high powered zoom you’d see the bug bites on my arms, the grease in my hair from not properly showering, and the puffiness around my eyes from crying earlier that day.

That’s the case with life in the Peace Corps: It’s an eye-opening, perspective-building cultural experience full of rich memories and sublime moments. But the flip-side is that it is hard. Sometimes people yell at you for not knowing enough of the local language. Sometimes you get called fat. Sometimes you get diarrhea for weeks. Sometimes you find yourself feeling isolated and miserable.

There’s a reason the Peace Corps has been called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

I conclude with a picture of this macchiato I was served during the trip. Its traumatized facial expression perfectly sums-up the confused emotions of my week in Albania.
Trip- coffee