|On the Gorica Stone Bridge as a staging for the hike|
It is sort of amusing the words one says frequently when interacting with locals in a foreign country. The children at Summer Camp tease me because I say “shumë interesante,” which means “very interesting,” all the time when describing some great universal truth in nature during a lesson. Obviously my Albanian vocabulary lacks the volume my English one has, I am also finding Albanian is a very economic language meaning the options for adjectives and adverbs does not seem as broad. The word “mirë” (good) is used ubiquitously and with gusto in every conceivable situation in conversation. We had a song in training on “mirë”. We American volunteers often reflect on how when women and children say this word it almost sounds like a kitten meowing. What is nice about both shumë interesante and mirë is they allow my lack of vocabulary to go unnoticed, and I can get my point across in full comprehension on all sides.
|On the way to the trail head|
A word I have been saying constantly as the Summer Camp activities have progressed is “kujdes.” Pronounced as “kweedes” it means “be careful,” which one has to say continuously when doing any sort of outside activity with boys. In addition to my constant admiration and amazement of Albanian women’s ankle ligament strength in high heels on cobble stone, I am seeing that school aged boys also have a bio mechanical wonder in their bodies as well. The boys in our Summer Camp seem to not have to obey the laws of gravity, and in some instances I am convinced they are related to spider man.
Antonio and I have been diligently conducting daily Summer Camps since the middle of June and will be completing our programs on the 3rd of August. Apparently we have had the longest and most successful camp in all of Peace Corps Albania this Summer. Situations vary from site to site. In some cases, the Albanian counterparts are not interested in Summer Camps, in others strict perimeters have been set in terms of length and timing of Camps. In my never to be humble opinion, I have the dream assignment in that my school director and counter part are very enthusiastic and supportive of Peace Corps and have welcomed any of our initiatives. Antionio’s primary assignment is to teach English at the High School next to my school ( a mixed grade and junior high school called a 9 Year School) His counterpart informed him that his services would not be required until September, leaving him free for the Summer. I suggested he join me in our Summer Camp and it has been a very rewarding and entertaining collaboration to say the very least.
|View from the Trail, showing the Castle Mount from the west side|
The word “kujdes” became vital to the success of our outdoor ambassador camp week as we braved the beautiful local offerings for hiking. The River Osum separates Berat into two sections. On the northern side of Berat is what I call the Castle Mount, on the southern side is a very steep mountain where the Gorica Medieval Village is located. There is a beautiful rustic loop trail that we thought might be fun to explore with the children. Informing them to wear walking shoes, sunscreen, hats and to bring water, we assembled for our exploration. As Antonio is a generation younger than I, he led the eager children, and I brought up the rear bearing oatmeal raisin cookies I had made the day before and several bottles of water to fill in the gaps of the children who forgot theirs.
The trail was extraordinarily steep, narrow and full of loose gravel. It was actually the first time the children had gone on the trail in spite of the fact it is literally in their back yards, a 10 minute walk from the city center. Unencumbered or inhibited by heat or steep drops on one side of the trail, the children gingerly ran up the side of the mountain, much to the shock of Antonio and my constant loud uttering of the word “kujdes!” At one point, I simply could not keep up and told Antonio to hike a bit more, break out the cookies and then come back down the trail where I would be seated waiting to bring up the rear on the descent.
The children were disappointed we did not go to the top, but it simply was too hot and dangerous for Antonio and I to keep them safe. As they descended, I kept my part of the bargain to bring up the rear. Much to my dismay I simply could not get up. There was nothing for me to hoist myself up on, say a rock or a tree. The trail was very loose, with thick brush on either side. I tried to get on my knees and stand that way, but my muscles chose that very day to go into spasms, making my calves and feet go into charlie horses if I dared get into any sort of position enabling me to get off the ground. One of the younger boys who is extremely polite and helpful offered to give me his hand. Knowing it would be certain death for us both for him to pull me off the ground, I politely thanked him and declined the offer. As I continued to struggle to get up, he then started to chant “ Ste - fa - nee” over and over until I finally rose from my cramped posture, clapping for me when I stood upright.
When we got to the foot of the trail, Antonio and I were completely drenched in our own sweat, our stomach linings a bit thinner due to the constant angst of worry over the possibility of dead children on the hike. The children asked repeatedly when we could do the hike again the entire way back to the school.
We decided to try again, but next time to leave at 7 am to beat the heat. We also invited the local Girl Scout Troop to have the older members come and help corral the nimble gravity defying children. The back tail to the castle was our next endeavor, mainly because it was not as steep and had a paved road back to the city. As I am one of those annoying morning people, I arrived at the deserted city center at 6:30 am on the day of the hike. I was alone in the city, as no sane person ventures out before 7 am. At 5 minutes to 7, I saw the small herd of camp regulars slowly make their way to the school, hands in their pockets and puffy partially closed eyes. Soon cars started arriving, and children tumbled out, rumpled hair and stunned faces, obviously they had just awoken bless their hearts, but they were there and on time.
We started our ascent with me of course singing my “kujedes” song in regular rhythm. There is a point in the trail where a landslide has covered the road, forcing hikers to walk along an ancient stone wall which has a 30 foot drop on one side and the landslide on the other. Antonio and one of the Girl Scouts led the way, and I and the other leaders acted as a toll booth, only letting one child cross the patch at a time. We of course had to physically restrain the boys, and in some cases had to hold the hands of the more shy of the children as they crossed. After this stretch, the walk was through a beautiful forest leading up to the castle walls. When we got to the gates, we had a snack and played cards. After a while, the more spider man like of the younger boys started to make piles of pine needles with their feet, jumping up and tossing clumps of needles between their ankles. Others were making launching pads to climb trees with the offerings of the forest floor. Who says children need technology to be entertained?
The next day I woke at my usual pre dawn hour, to go on my deck and enjoy the sunrise. To my horror I saw open flames on the hill across the river from where I live. It is amazing how a new language can fail you when you are in a panic. It is sort of like those nightmare dreams where you are screaming and there is no sound coming from your mouth. We did not have any training in phrases for “fire.” As it was about 4:30 am, I was in a quandary as to what to do. Should I scream, should I wake my host family? There was no response of any kind that I could see, no fire crews, sirens or anything. I waited till 5 am to knock on my host families door. Sarah seemed impressed with my sentence structure in terms of saying there was a fire. She patted me and congratulated me on my language improvement, that yes, there is a fire. Should we call someone? Oh, no, she calmly said, the police will take care of it, and she went back to bed.
I then started texting everyone I could think of, my safety and security officer, my local Peace Corps Volunteer Warden, my country director, Antonio, my director and counterpart. I then wondered if I should pack my valuables, cancel summer camp and then what? Still no sirens, no helicopters, no nothing, and the fire continued to burn. Antonio told me he had been watching the fire from his house most of the night. We were both in a quandary as to what to do. We decided to show up at school for camp and see what was the best course of action. What struck me was how everything was going on as it always does, buses running on time, shops opening, people in the cafes greeting on another as they began their days all with open flames in the background.
When I arrived at school the guard was calmly watching the hillside across the river burn. I joined him in his watch, and he quietly told me how sad it was that the hill was burning and then went to sit at his post. The children also simply watched the fire, and we had our planned activity. Afterward, Antonio and I agreed to keep each other informed of any changes, and to make sure we had cash and water on hand in case of the need to evacuate. Later that day when my Peace Corps Country Director called to check on me, I told her it seemed that Antonio and I were the only ones in all of Berat that were upset (I said this as the helicopters started to arrive finally at noon that day) and since the locals were not upset, I would integrate my emotional state to the citizenry, and follow their example to not be alarmed. She agreed that it was probably the best course of action, and told me to inform her of any changes in our situation. I thought to myself, that the locals had endured five centuries of Ottoman occupation, two world wars, a repressive dictatorship, civil war and economic collapse, so forest fires obviously are low on the panic list. I also rationalized that Albania would not let its jewel World Heritage Site burn. It was one of the odder experiences I have had to date, as a Southern Californian survivor of many fires to simply watch a forest burn itself out and no organized response or concern of the local population.
Now that it is August, our camp is almost finished. We will have an ending party where we give the children a diploma for completing the activity. They have been such a delight this entire time, complying with all of our many different offerings of games, lessons and activities. One of the more interesting aspects of our camp is that the boys are the majority of the participants, regularly coming every day at 8 am. Antonio and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but we are both ready to take a bit of a break before the onslaught of activities begins in the Fall. The children would be happy to have the camp seven days a week until the beginning of school and are visibly disappointed that we are ending on Thursday. Antonio will be traveling with friends through August. I am going to stay put and work on my language and some writing projects, as well as do some early morning exploring of trails and churches that I have been unable to enjoy because of camp.
It is hard to believe we have been here in Albania for six months. In some respects it seems my life in the states is a distant memory. I feel like I am in a rhythm here in Berat. I have my vegetable sellers I frequent, I know where to get certain consumer goods, I am starting to make some local friends and know the soap opera schedules. The combination of natural beauty and unique architecture here in Berat makes for a very satisfying experience, and I have little desire to go anywhere else for the foreseeable future. I am glad everything did not burn in the fires. As I watch the rest of the world implode and explode, Albania seems a haven for me, filled with delicious Summer fruits, sweet children and a deep history I am discovering on a daily basis. While I am kujdes in terms of not tempting fate, I feel very much at home here. I look forward to the next chapter in my Peace Corps Journey.