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.

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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…


Peace Corps Pets: Meet my new kitten!

A couple weeks ago, after visiting a religious festival with my host family, one of my host sisters told me that she saw kittens outside of a family friend’s home. My host family is well aware of my love for animals, so when I begged if we could go see them they said okay.

There were four kittens, all about a month old, and adorable as can be. The woman of the house saw how overjoyed I was playing with the kittens and began chatting in Albanian with my host parents. After talking in hushed tones to each other my host parents called my name and said, “Brita, you can take the kitten as a pet if you want it.”

I was shocked. I thought they were joking.

In Kosovo having a cat as an indoor pet is practically unheard of. In fact, most people either hate cats or are terrified of them, because they are all strays.

But it was not a joke and I am now the proud owner of a Peace Corps pet!

Many volunteers all over the world get a pet during their service. This happens for two main reasons:

1.There are stray animals everywhere and our sensitive American hearts can’t take it.

IMG_0336It is overwhelming how many stray dogs and cats there are in Kosovo, as there are in much of the world. I see dozens on a daily basis. You know those heartbreaking infomercials with malnourished and sad-looking animals that get you to donate to animal shelters? Sometimes I feel like I am watching those when I walk to work.

My site-mate once saw a stray puppy snuggling up to the stiff body of a dead cat trying to get warm.

Because having pets is not a thing here, people view cats and dogs primarily as pests, which results in them being treated poorly. It’s not uncommon to see people throwing rocks at the stray animals, although this is usually done out of fear. (And I’ve learned that stray dogs can be very frightening.) Even without being mistreated, most kittens die from lack of food, the cold, or are attacked by other strays.

So when I see a bunch of adorable kittens and know what their future holds, of course I want to take them home and protect them!

2. Being a PCV can be lonely and stressful and we need an Emotional Support Animal.

IMG_0417 (2)Pets have a healing and calming presence. And being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a mental/emotional roller-coaster ride. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my service has had its fair share of lonely or stressful moments.

Having a little kitten to welcome me home after work and to sit on my lap as I correct English tests is seriously the best. Some events in the past several months have made 2016 an extremely challenging year, so this kitten felt like a gift from heaven. The first night as she sat purring on my lap I cried tears of sheer joy. I don’t know if I’ve ever appreciated having a pet so much.

The Challenging Bits…

Unfortunately having a pet in the Peace Corps presents a few unique obstacles.

  1. Lack of suppliesMy first night with my kitten was spent trying to throw together a makeshift litter box and bed for her. Turns out it’s pretty difficult to find pet supplies in most towns in Kosovo. It took nearly a week to find a store (in another city) that sold cat litter.IMG_0478 (2)Kitten food was another challenge. I had to improvise with milk and scrambled eggs for a few days. We eventually found cat food, but the kitten became sick for several days, probably due to the sudden change in diet. Thankfully after a few days she recovered.What would I do if she stayed sick? What if she gets fleas? Is there a way to get her vaccinated? What about having her spayed? These questions began racing around in my mind as soon as I brought this adorable kitten home.
  2. Misconceptions about animals
    The picture I sent my mom at 3:00 AM after dealing with the aftermath of the chocolate incident.

    Several people were warning my host family about how the kitten would give us all diseases. Most people here see cats as very mangy and unhygienic because they’ve only seen the strays that scavenge in garbage.

    One time when I was being protective of the kitten someone told me not to worry because cats have nine lives, so she won’t die. I immediately had to explain that this is just an expression, and that the kitten could in fact die very easily.

    Another night someone fed the kitten chocolate, which is toxic for cats. That night she got horribly sick, throwing up and getting explosive diarrhea. Not fun for either of us.

  3. Fear of how people will treat her

    This is a big one. Because no one has grown up with pets, people can be incredibly rough with the kitten. My Peace Corps service is about people, not pets, so I don’t want to resent anyone here because of how they treat animals.
    Luckily my host family has been absolutely wonderful so far and they are very open to my instructions about kitten-care. But a big part of me is terrified of what could happen if some younger relatives or neighbor kids come over. During PST I saw a kitten whose leg had been ripped off. It was horrific.Call me a crazy cat lady, but my mom instincts are kicking in and I am terrified of my kitten being hurt or traumatized.

4. When service ends…

The hardest question is what to do when my service ends. Do I take the cat back to America with me? I’m sure the process is not an easy (or cheap) one. Or do I leave her here in Kosovo with my host family? I’m just trying not to think about this question at the moment.

IMG_0294In the meantime having a pet is great. The past three weeks have gone surprisingly well and my host family is officially in-love with our kitten! She is completely trained to use the litter box and is quickly growing.

Having a pet has also been a valuable cultural exchange with my host family. They never understood how Americans could welcome an animal into their home or why I speak so lovingly of my childhood pets. Now they fight over who gets to hold or play with the kitten.

IMG_0484 (3).JPGThey told me how they suddenly think about animals differently. When they see strays on the street, instead of being afraid or annoyed and trying to scare it away, they feel concern. Seeing them go from fearful and skeptical to absolutely infatuated with the kitten has been amazing.

They also selected the name for our kitten by combining the first letters of our names to spell B.E.J.B. (pronounced like Babe or Baby). IMG_0406

2017 Update: After finishing my Peace Corps service I was torn about whether or not to bring Bejb to America with me. I looked into it, but the process was complicated and would have easily cost me $1,000. My family was also extremely attached to her and promised to care for her. So I left my beloved pet behind. My family took great care of her and sent me regular updates and pictures. Sadly she either disappeared or died a few months after I left, leaving my host family and I heartbroken.

Nothing can prepare you for life with a host family

As I approach the one-year mark of my service, and with the third group of Kosovo volunteers (K3) arriving soon, I’ve been reflecting on some of the greatest challenges and joys of my Peace Corps service. The first thing that came to mind in both of these categories was life with a host family.

On June 10th I arrived in Kamenice, Kosovo, where I lived for the 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training. Immediately upon our arrival at the local school, we saw local families standing outside waiting to bring us to their homes.

We all stood in a crowded classroom and were picked out one by one by the families, to whom we had been assigned in advance.

I stood with my heart pounding, watching my fellow PCVs meet their families for the first time. Then a small woman in her late 50s walked up to me, smiled, and announced that she would be my host mother. (Or I assume that’s what she said, seeing as I knew maybe 15 words in Albanian.) Before I knew what was happening she grabbed my arm and led me out of the school to her car.

Next thing I know I am driving away in a car with a Kosovar woman who speaks zero English. I quickly run through the three things I know how to say in Albanian. And then the awkward silence settles in. Welcome to life with a host family.

Living with a family from another country is a unique experience. It could be argued that it is the part of service that will make or break your time in the Peace Corps.

The host family element was definitely my biggest fear. In case you didn’t know, Peace Corps Volunteers live with a host family during training to help them learn the language and integrate into the culture. In Kosovo we live with a host family during PST and then with a different family at our permanent site for the duration of our service. In some countries PCVs have the option of getting apartments after 6 months or a year, depending on their site.

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My host family in Gjakova, which consists of two parents and their 12 & 15 year-old daughters.

Now that I have lived with two different host families over the past 11 months, I can say that my pre-departure fears were justified. It is strange and uncomfortable and easily the most challenging aspect of PC service. The good news is that each day becomes slightly less awkward and confusing. (I also lucked-out in Gjakova by being placed with the perfect host family, which makes things a lot easier.)

My first night with my PST host family involved a lot of smiling at each other in silence. Then I began pointing at things in the house and asking what they were. The next two hours were spent writing down vocab while my host mom pointed at things and named them in Albanian.

My host parents also Skyped with a number of their relatives and friends, excitedly talking about the random American girl living with them. Then they’d hold the phone in front of my face and tell me to speak in Albanian. I ran through the handful of things I knew how to say, and the relatives on the other side of the screen would laugh and say a bunch of things I couldn’t understand. I quickly realized that this would be a common occurrence for the next two years of my life.

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One of biggest challenges can be the lack of privacy. I lived in an apartment alone for the two years prior to Peace Corps service. I loved having my own space to recharge after a long day at work.

This is borderline impossible while living with a host family, especially in a culture that is much more community-focused. I’ve come to realize that Americans are hyper-individualistic compared to most of the world. In Kosovo almost everything is done in the company of others. Introvert-time is not a thing.

when PCVs go to sleep.gifI am very introverted, so for the first few months this was a shock to my system. Many volunteers would tell their family that they were tired and  would “go to sleep” at 9:00 pm, just to sit in their rooms alone, reading, writing, or just savoring the privacy.

Another challenge of life with a host family can be the sudden lack of independence. This was definitely noticeable for me. I always considered myself fairly self-sufficient, but when you arrive in-country as a PCV you find that you are very dependent. And the people you rely on most are your host family members.

I should also confess that I can be a tad controlling. But when applying to the Peace Corps one of the first things they tell you is that adaptability in a PCV is essential. So I am learning to give up control.

Your lack of control is especially pronounced living with a host family. Your schedule and what you eat is now largely controlled by someone other than you. During PST in particular it was not uncommon to arrive home exhausted and for my family to say, “Jump in the car. We’re going somewhere!” The Peace Corps has been a major lesson in going with the flow. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the memorable adventures that come from a more flexible approach to life.

Im an ADULT.gifAt first having people watch me, ask what I was doing, and ask where I was going every day reminded me of being in high school. This becomes especially apparent when your family gives you rules to follow or a curfew. At times I wanted to scream, “I am an adult! I can take care of myself!”

Although it can feel like your host family is being controlling or restrictive, they are really looking out for you. You are, after all, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar culture, and your family is there to help you integrate. Flija 1.JPGHaving a host family helps you learn the language, integrate into the community, and observe the culture on the ground-level. Although it has its challenges, I can’t imagine doing Peace Corps any other way.

It is also important to realize that you are becoming part of a real-life family. They have their own quirks and flaws, just like families in America. You will see them argue, you will see them cry, you may be with them when a baby is born or when a relative dies.

You will be vulnerable in front of them. My host family sees me when I just wake up and when I haven’t showered in days. They lived with me when I had never-ending diarrhea.  They have seen me cry multiple times.DSCN1084 (2)

You will also have incredibly touching moments. When you are sick, they are the ones who make you tea and nurse you back to health. When you receive bad news on the phone, they are the ones who hold you while you cry.

I have slumber parties with my host sisters and they share about their secret crushes. We sing off-key and dance in the living room. I can say with complete honesty that I love my host family in Gjakova. I call my host parents “mom” and “dad” without giving it a second thought.

Having a host family has gone from being the hardest thing in my service to the absolute best part. The past few months have been a bit rough at times, and when I have considered ET-ing my host family has been my number one reason for deciding to stay. I have no doubt that my relationship with my host family will be a lifelong one.

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Visiting the White Drin Waterfall in northern Kosovo with my host family.

Spring is here & I couldn’t be happier

I have a new respect for winter. And by respect I mean contempt kept in-check by fear of something incredibly powerful.

I thought I knew winter pretty well. I mean, I grew up in Minnesota, lived in Chicago, and then lived in one of the coldest parts of Alaska for two years. But winter without indoor heating is something else. Even though the temperature did not plummet to the depths I experienced in Alaska, the cold was inescapable.

But the good news is that spring has sprung in Kosovo!

It actually happened very suddenly. One day I was wearing my winter coat, and literally two days later I was wearing sandals and t-shirts.

To celebrate the first day of spring, my host family and I made the traditional Albanian dish flia. (And what I really mean is that my host mother did 98% of the work while I watched, tried to help, and then resigned myself to taking pictures.)

A couple weeks later we went to a giant park outside of Gjakova, where we had a picnic with some extended family. We packed a feast to eat on the picnic.

There’s only a couple months of school left and they are sure to fly by. In a couple weeks we will be celebrating St. George’s Day in a nearby village, which I’ve been told will involve hundreds of animal sacrifices and feasting.

School is also concluding soon, with the 12th graders finishing in early May and the 10th-11th graders going through the first week of June. We also have prom to look forward to in mid-May, which is a big deal for graduating students in Kosovo. It is very formal and includes the teachers, so I will need to figure out what to wear! Stay tuned for pictures!

In the meantime, here are some more pictures of me with my host sisters from our picnic:

To read more about what it’s been like living with a host family, check out this post.

Just let me poop in peace

Dear past, present, and future employers: Please continue to take me seriously even after reading this post entirely dedicated to poop. I swear I am a mature adult.

One Saturday during PST a few volunteers invited me to go to a festival with them in Gjilan, a nearby city. I was tempted, but I decided to stay in Kamenicë for the day. I walked home, feeling totally healthy, but as I entered the house I felt something… the stomach gurgle of doom. You know the one.

It’s your body’s single warning sign that something catastrophic is about to happen. You know that if you don’t get to a bathroom soon you will traumatize everyone in the vicinity.

Thank goodness I was a mere 10 meters from the toilet. Crisis averted.

As I sat on the toilet for the next 15 minutes I pondered what would have happened if I had agreed to go to Gjilan. I would have been on a crowded bus when the gurgle happened. Sudden-onset diarrhea plus public transportation… An experience like that would have forever altered my sense of self.

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Peace Corps Volunteers have said that everyone will poop their pants at least once during their service. It’s like a rite of passage. I’m hoping that this doesn’t apply to volunteers in countries like Kosovo. But if it ever does happen I promise to write a post about it. (But maybe I’ll wait a year or so for the embarrassment to wear off.)

Even though the Kosovo volunteers have not had many health issues, we’ve still been able to swap some poop stories. Allow me to present the unique challenges that volunteers face when needing to use the toilet:

Challenge #1: Poop Stalkers

We all have a certain bathroom etiquette. For example, if there are several open stalls and only one is taken, you never sit in a stall adjacent to the occupied one. If a guest uses your bathroom, and then you walk in and it stinks to high heaven, you pretend not to notice. If you are out at a restaurant and someone spends a suspiciously long amount of time using the restroom, you don’t comment on the fact that they were likely pooping. You just don’t.

But when you join the Peace Corps the rules change.

During my first 24 hours at my host home, I obviously used the bathroom a few times. The first time my host mother followed me in to make sure I knew how to use everything. Yup, pretty sure I’ve mastered using a toilet. Thanks for checking, host mom.

Each time I used the bathroom I was in there for less than two minutes. But after a couple Turkish coffees it was time for the inevitable bowel movement. I entered the bathroom, did my business, and washed my hands. There were no concerning noises and the entire process took less than 5 minutes. But I opened the bathroom door and found my host mother standing right there. She immediately asked, “Is everything okay? Are you healthy? You were in the bathroom for a long time!” She says this while pointing to my lower abdomen and the toilet.Shining door knocking

I felt so violated knowing that someone was listening. I should have turned on the faucet to mask the plops of shame.

This was not an isolated incident. Almost every time I use the bathroom, if I’m in there for more than a minute or two, someone comes by and begins knocking and jiggling the door knob. I say, “I’m here- I’m good!” but they continue to linger nearby and try the door every minute or so. My host grandmother has even followed me into the bathroom a few times. Several volunteers have had the exact same experience. I guess our families are very concerned with our digestive health. I call it poop stalking.

Challenge #2: NEVER flush the toilet paper… that is, assuming you even have toilet paper.

I’ve used the squatty potty during my travels more times that I care to remember, so I’m thankful that Kosovo has an abundance of toilets. I’ve run into numerous squatties in Kosovo, but toilets are definitely the norm.

However, most people in this part of the world do not use toilet paper. During PST I bought my own TP. I have also gotten used to carrying it with me wherever I go, because bathrooms rarely provide it.

My first night with my host family began with my Kosovar mother leading me to the bathroom and explaining in rapid Albanian that I must NEVER flush toilet paper (or anything else) down the drain. Instead I need to throw it away. After explaining this a couple times using dramatic hand gestures, she asked, “Do you understand?”

I assured her that I did, but she decided to act out the scenario one final time, just to drive home the fact that flushing toilet paper is bad news. If I understood her charades correctly, flushing toilet paper would not only clog the septic system, but also trigger the end of the world.

I have yet to mistakenly drop the TP in the toilet. But I’m sure it’ll happen eventually… and then what do you do?! Do you try to flush it, knowing that it will clog the pipes? Or do you reach in and fish it out??

I just hope I never have to make that decision.

Challenge #3: Power Outages and Water Shortages

I was lucky during my summer in Kosovo. I only got diarrhea twice. You’ve already read about the first time it happened. Allow me to tell you about the second time.

Because my family becomes very concerned whenever I’m in the bathroom, I began strategically timing my poops. I would wait until everyone was outside, watering the plants or gathering vegetables or something. Then I would hurry silently to the bathroom and do my business.

One Saturday the entire family was home, including extended family from Switzerland. This made trips to the bathroom extra challenging, because at least one person was always inside. I was also feeling a little sick, so I knew that things would be unpleasant. Finally the moment came when the coast was clear. I didn’t know how much time I had, so I quickly ran to the bathroom and locked the door.

I checked the lights: Power was on. (This is important, because the electricity & water goes out frequently. Some outages last an hour, some for several hours.)

Anyways, I sat down and let it all out. It was pretty bad. I’ll refrain from further description so that my friends can still make eye-contact with me tomorrow.

I finished up and attempted to flush the toilet. Nothing happened. I tried again… nothing. 

I then tried the sink and realized that the water was totally out. Not even a drop. I realized that there was only one solution: Run away. I immediately left the house and didn’t return until several hours later, pretending like nothing happened.

Challenge #4: New Diet

When you join the Peace Corps the drastic change in diet is bound to cause problems for at least some of the volunteers. My body adjusted pretty quickly and I went all of PST without major issues. However, when I moved to my permanent site my body betrayed me. I had diarrhea on-and-off for over a month, in varying stages of severity. On a couple of the worst days I was nearly pooping my pants every hour.

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Poo pourriOne random item I packed ended up being very useful: Poo-pourri. (If you don’t know what it is, look up the ridiculous commercial for it on YouTube.) It ended up being the thing that helped me preserve a shred of dignity as I trekked to the bathroom every hour under the watchful eyes of my host family.

I am happy to report that my prayers on the porcelain throne were finally answered and my diarrhea days have ended.

During a chat with other PCVs about this, a fellow volunteer sympathized by sharing her experience. She struggled with alternating constipation and diarrhea for a few weeks of Pre-Service Training. She even went for a week without pooping, causing intense cramping and bloating. One night she had explosive diarrhea strike at 4:00 AM. She quietly hurried to the bathroom, her host family sound asleep, and unleashed the unholy flood of feces.

When she finished and opened the door, she found her host mom standing by the door looking concerned. She said, “Are you okay?? We all woke up to the sound of you throwing up.”

Indiana Jones- Tell me again how much fun I'm havingAdvice to future volunteers: Prepare yourself for some shameful situations and awkward bathroom stories. You must learn to laugh at them… because crying will just make the dehydration from diarrhea worse.