Mount Dajti, December 2012


Adventure-Bound

1.21.13

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A $1500 budget, 29 days, 7 different couch hosts (and counting), 4 countries in Southeast Asia, and the adventure of 1 clinical research fellow. I’ll do my best to keep up with the weekly updates, but I imagine my access to internet being less than consistent. For now, good bye Albania, I can’t wait to see you again in a month.


Morning Conversations

1.12.13

I’ve made an unexpected friend. On the way to work every morning, I’m a frequent patron of an older Albanian vendor who makes his living selling fruits and vegetables in an open-air market. He’s round, has tanned, leathery skin and carries an infectious smile.

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He doesn’t know a word of english, so by default our conversations are in Albanian. Now, don’t be misled — I don’t speak Albanian. In fact, I still get tripped up when trying to pronounce the Albanian word for "water" when ordering at restaurants. But this guy seriously doesn’t know any english.

However, what sets him apart from my interactions with other locals is how we communicate. Or rather, how he communicates with me. Basically 95% of what’s coming out of his mouth is a complete and utter mystery. His words are slurred together, mired in a thick accent that is clearly not from Tirana. I mask my confusion with the occasional “nod-smile-nod,” which, unfortuantely, creates the illusion that I’m actually comprehending what he’s saying. And just when I realize that he’s asked me a question after a long and awkward pause, for some strange reason he answers his own question, then falls right back into his cryptic monologue. This pattern ensues for an easy 5-10 minutes every morning.

But I can’t just leave in the middle of the conversation, right? Nevermind it being rude, but this interaction is a desperately-needed vote of confidence in my Albanian. I think my fruit vendor friend genuinely believes that I can speak his language.

I’ll take it.


"On, On"

1.6.13

I joined an international hiking group called the Hash House Harriers. The Tirana Chapter, with proud British roots, began over 10 years ago and commits itself to weekly hikes across Albania’s mountainous landscape. Their slogan, which immediately clashed with my inner boyscout, accurately describes themselves as a "drinking club with a running problem."

But looking past the question of whether or not beer is an appropriate substitute for water after a hike, the past three outings have been my ideal way of spending Saturdays. The Hash members, all Albanians ranging in age from 15 to 50, are certainly no exception to the longstanding tradition of Albanian hospitality. And the opportunity to travel in the countryside offers a desperately-needed break from Tirana’s chaotic traffic, which I find strangely remiscent of the Mario Kart-esque driving culture of Beijing.

Anyways, here are a few pictures from the past few hikes.

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Nearing the top of Mount Dajti.

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Somewhere in-between Elbasan and Tirana.

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Someone needs to write the "Retrieving a fallen goat from a very steep mountain ridge: For Dummies" book.


Eve

12.25.12

Home sickness usually hits home right around the holidays for me. But seeing as traveling back home from Tirana isn't quite as easy as from Boston, I'm reluctantly spending my first winter holidays away from 94.9 mix fm, 75 degree weather, and of course, my family.

But after an accidental meeting on the street, a Christian missionary invited me over to his family's house for a traditional Macedonian Christmas Eve dinner. Let me just say that even as I write this after a full night's sleep and nearly 14 hours after dinner, I'm still savoring the contents of last night's meal. Baked potatoes and red peppers stuffed with cheese. Oven-roasted chicken and clay pots of curry. Macedonian red wine and, of course, dark chocolate cake. All while enjoying the company of children dressed up in costumes and some of the most well-travelled, well-intentioned people I have ever met.

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HTML Escapades

10.28.12

Hello (again) world! So in a new effort to become more technologically literate, I decided to take up HTML/CSS as a little side project. I plan on documenting my abroad adventures on here from now on. We’ll see where this leads.


Library

9.20.12

Today, I made my first visit to the National Library of Tirana. I wouldn't have otherwise gone, but, thankfully, American voting reps held a registration event today to assist U.S. expats apply for their absentee ballots in the general election. Apparently, the Pima County Recorder's office never received my previous request, even after I had e-mailed them to confirm the application. They must know I'm a democrat.

So after work, I made the 25 minute trek from Mother Theresa hospital down to the heart of the city, also known as Skanderberg Square - or simply "the center." Squeezed onto the corner of the sidewalk but standing nearly 4 stories tall (well, tall by Albanian standards), the library is home to the nation's largest collection of historical manuscripts.

After registering, I continued my exploration upstairs. A man ushered me into a spacious reading room with a tall ceiling and queues of wooden desks. I chose a desk by an opened window. An elderly man with dark freckles, a black cap and an arched back was sitting at a desk behind me. He was writing furiously in a journal thicker than some text books I have owned in the past. It came as a bit of a surprise when he looked up and I realized he must have been well over 80.

When we made eye contact, he smiled. He asked me in broken english if I was "Kinese," and I tried replying in my very, very broken Italian that I hopelessly tried to salvage from last night's amateur youtube lesson. Yes, but from America. He pulled out a stack full of pictures from his sweater, walked over to my desk and handed them to me. Most of the pictures were of him on a stage outdoors, boldly yelling at a microphone in front of what appeared to be a crowd of Albanians. I wrote down "1999," followed by a question mark on a piece of paper, its significance being the year Albanian protesters began a city-wide political upheaval. He squinted and replied with something I could finally understand: "Bravo!".

It remained a mystery to me throughout our whole "conversation" what language he was speaking. But then again, I'm sure he was wondering the same thing. Nevertheless, in the midst of a flurry of hand gestures and smiles and polaroid pictures, I felt compelled to listen to someone I had absolutely no idea what they were saying.

By the end of my senior year, I abhorred the day I would have to make my return to a library desk. But this afternoon, something felt welcoming, intriguing, refreshing. And then I suddenly remembered why I missed travelling so damn much.


Beginnings

9.18.12

So after a 15 hour flight, a trash can's worth of canned beans, and 2 dozen mosquito bites later, I think I may have enough information to start a blog. Here's an abbreviated highlight reel.

Jetlag is the bane of my existence. Yeah I know, duh. But despite having travelled across Eastern Asia and having to cope with the time zone issues that accompany it, for some reason the disruption to my circadian clock is worse here. Much worse. On Sunday morning, I couldn't.fall.asleep.until.10.a.m. which scheduled me for breakfast at 9 pm. And since then, my internal clock has only improved marginally -- i t's 3:15 am right now and hardly any signs of fatigue.

Diet must adapt. My very first stop was the grocery 'market' by the airport, an establishment kinda similar to an Italian version of a Frys, but with more canned stuff. I knew it was a bad sign when I had to describe in detail to my co-worker, Orland as been, by the way, nothing short of amazing in helping me settle in), what ramen noodles are. After attempting to explain, he finally said "I know!", whipping around a nearby aisle and pointing to these packets of powdered Italian soup mix, thinking he had quelled my panic. So, no Ramen. Some other things to note: They also didn't have pita bread and hummus (cmon' Greece is your neighbor!), white (asian) rice, spinach, and a very limited selection of bread.

Language barriers. I wouldn't say the local english fairs any better than that of China. It's considered the third language of choice, behind Italian and obviously Albanian. I had to resort to counting numbers on my fingers when an Albanian shop-keeper, who couldn't have been older than me, didn't understand my attempts of bargaining for a cell phone he was selling.

Despite these initial sentiments, I can't say I dislike Tirana. It has potential. Many corners of the city await my exploration, which I intend to pursue this weekend and hopefully with some company. I met an American whose the daughter of Director of the USAID branch in Albania. Like me, she just graduated from a NESCAC school and plans on being in Tirana for another 6 more weeks.

I'm also (slowly) learning Italian, in the hopes of bridging the language barrier with the local Albanese. Why Italian over Albanian you ask? A few reasons; (a) my iphone has great language learning apps (b) many of the words contain similar roots to that of Spanish (c) will probably be more useful in the future.

A short first post, but I should at least try and sleep. I intend to make a genuine effort to write in this blog everyday, focusing more on my work and research-related topics in the coming posts to document my progress as I journey through these 9 months. We'll see how it goes!