Let me start with saying this: Tirana is magnificent. If not for the city itself, but for the community I’ve already found between dusty alleyways and spray paint art. Besides going to work every morning, which as been a new and interesting feeling in and of itself, I’ve discovered the city in other ways. For one, in the first week I found a TaeKwonDo school to train with. The school is run by as woman named Master Ola, and I fight the men in the school, all of whom are ninja-level quick and already great in their own right. I’m getting beaten up quite a bit, but if I wasn’t then I wouldn’t be learning nearly as much. Even though I can’t speak Albanian (yet), that doesn’t stop me from making friends with the locals. And as the old saying goes, a smile is universal.
My first day was last Friday, and as soon as we started I knew it was going to be a tough practice. In combination with the new Albanian heat my body has yet to adjust to, the stuffiness of the room, and the workout itself, I was sweating bullets within 5 minutes.
On the bright side, I never slipped on my own sweat, so I’d say the day was a success.
On Wednesday and Thursday, I got to experience a new side of Albania not yet seen by outsiders. I’m telling you, “The grass is greener on the other side.” mentality really does apply here, because where I went was a remote village five hours outside of Tirana. The town is called Nivicë, and is one of the villages along the route I am working on to connect mountainous and coastal tourism.
While I was there I taught English in an old schoolhouse, picked cherries and stargazed at night. I had the opportunity to become friends with some of the architecture interns, and we went exploring on Wednesday.
As we walked along a hidden stream nestled between the mountains, a backdrop of castle ruins and the bluest sky you’ve ever seen by our side, I just remember thinking, ‘this can not be real.’ This was my job, for pete’s sake, and I was spending it traversing the mountains with strangers-quickly-turned-friends.
If someone told me a year ago I’d be here, hiking a mountain in middle-of-know-where Albania, I wouldn’t believe them. I was the shy, school-oriented type growing up. I consistently skipped sleepovers to study. I didn’t make friends, let alone talk to, random people I met on the street.
Now I can go anywhere in the world and make friends with just about anyone, regardless of language, age, background or social standing.
That, my friends, is the beauty of travel.
As night approached in Nivicë the local students and I laughed together and I got to try traditional Albanian cuisine. They were kind enough to switch to English for me. There was no wifi, and we had to kill about five poisonous scorpions in the house where we ate and slept. True to an old Albanian superstition, scorpions come out before a rain, and the next day thunder clouds rolled in.
All in all, my first week in Albania was a huge success. I ran into a woman on the street who tried to help me find the TaeKwonDo school, only to find out she teaches Albanian and English and offered to teach me for free. I love the TaeKwonDo school I found, as well as the city and Nivicë. I didn’t die by scorpion sting, which is more than anyone could have hoped for.
Until next time, mirupafshim (goodbye)
-Amanda West, National Coastal Agency Intern 2017