18 March 2017: Hello!  I’m delighted to announce that in 2016 our “do-gooding activities” finally got a formal home, when we created the Albanian NGO “TOKA: The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps.”  Please do feel free to take a look at our NEW WEBSITE!

If nothing else, this frees me from trying to update the hopeless out-of-date pages here, but for now, until I “migrate them” I’ll leave them as a fascinating-if-sporadic record of the past . . . .

19 May 2015:  This whole section desperately needs a complete overhaul, as in the past I was good about posting when we started something, but terrible about following up.  And then I gave up completely so it’s hopelessly out of date.  Well, not hopelessly.  It is planned to provide a portal to access information about the work we do to benefit the people of Valbona and the natural environment which it is our shared privilege to inhabit, and I’ll try to keep chipping away at fixing it.  The good news is that we are now involved in MANY more projects than are listed here – all looking positive and exciting!  In the meantime, thanks to Elizabeth Gowing’s suggestion we are now enrolling with Pack for a Purpose on behalf of the school, to which end I need to “insert this text:”

Pack for a Purpose

We are proud members of Pack for a Purpose, an initiative that allows travelers like you to make a lasting impact in the community at your travel destination. If you save just a few kilos of space in your suitcase and take supplies for area schools or medical clinics in need, you’ll make a priceless impact in the lives of our local children and families. Please click here to see what supplies are needed for our project/projects.


Biblioteka e Femijeve – Vazhdojme!

Well, this has been a dream of mine, probably since the “get go.”  But . . . . Valbona needs a library!  Of course it does – EVERYWHERE needs a library.  I probably think that the single most important aspect of education is that it teaches you to know books as the entry portal to . . . . anything!  Anything you want to know!  Anything you want to imagine.  Oh okay, that’s the most important goal of education:  To breed in people a confidence in imagination (is the world SO great, that it couldn’t bear improving?  And where will those improvements come from?  They will be born in someone’s imagination!).  And to view books (information) as the method of exploring imagination.  Put it this way:  Figuring out how to GET to the moon wasn’t THAT hard.  It’s a logical process:  But dreaming up the ideas and solutions?  That is imagination!  And of course, once you’re confident using books — well, everything you need to feed that imagination is readily available.  Look at Abe Lincoln and the barrel of law books!  (and I’m sorry – but the old bookseller in me STILL sniffs at the Kinedle – yes, good for what it’s good for, but you can leave a book out in the rain, you can loose half the pages and still have the remaining part make sense, AND I’m sorry, but a piece of technology that requires a significant investment AND electricity and internet connections is NOT bringing information to the masses.  On top of which, is it significant that ‘Kindle’ seems related to Kindling which is for burning, and . . . . oooh.  But I’m admittedly a grump on this point.  I also think it’s somewhat tasteless that they use that lithograph of Virginia Woolf, when if ANYONE cared about the beauty of books as objects, it was her, with all those gorgeous editions with covers by her sister the artist, whatsherface.)  Whew!Point is:  It’s started!  We are making a library! Musli & Lazer and the other teachers have given us a room at the school, and now . . . . we just have to fill it!  The families of Mary Denham and Susan Curry brought us SO much stuff at New Year’s, and on top of that, they left us with 50 euro for “the school.”  So we bought wood.  Defying several laws of physics (and good sense) Alfred brought the wood in his truck from Kosovo.  Sami Hysaj just built us shelves.  And today?  We delivered them.I’m not sure the students even know what I’m talking about.  But they are SO excited.  Everytime I talk to one (I’ve been away from the school for two months now because of the snow . . . . oh!  I never said, but I was teaching English there, everyday since October) promising to “vazhdoj” (carry on) with class, they add:  And WILL WE WORK ON THE LIBRARY?!I told them I thought they needed a beautiful room – full of books, sofas (“She says SOFAS!” I heard one say to another) . . . because . . . . and I tried to tell them about Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.”  When the body is comfortable, the mind is free to roam (my paraphrase!).Oh boy.  Anyhow, I am CLEARLY too excited about this to talk coherently.  But it’s happening.  Now of course, we need books.  If anyone likes to contribute to this, please email me!  And for ALL the tourists who slipped me an extra 10 or 50 euros, please know that I HAVE been buying books!  And they’re all ready to go on the beautiful shelves!Thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU!


Generator Project:

Good News!  Good News!

14 March, 2012

I have to begin with a big THANK YOU to everyone who’s responded, asked friends, and put us in touch with someone else . . . . The response has been great, and it’s really amazing, when you live in a place this isolated (we were just snowed in – I mean completely snowed in with snow covering the windows for 37 days!!!) to have such a present community of friends!  This internet thingie is a pretty amazing thing – I hope it catches on (ha ha ha)!

That said, the Good News is that I think we’re actually going to build this thing!  Where do I start?  Well, it turns out that people here have been building little versions of these things ever since Alfred’s grandfather Brahim lit the first lightbulbs in Valbona, some sixty years ago.  In fact, our Generator will be placed on the site of Brahim’s original powerhouse – now just the faint remains of a stone wall you can barely see in the grass.  This of course means that there’s a bunch of people here who grew up building, looking after and fixing these things, and who are therefore very capable of building a new one! On top of that, back in December, I went to Tirana, and banged on the door of every non-profit agency I could corner in 24 hours (it was sort of like one of those old game shows where you have a shopping cart, $1000, and half an hour to buy everything!  Well – not really, since I didn’t have $1000 . . . . anyhow.)  An agency who-shall-remain-nameless-for-now actually took interest, and their encouragement and intelligent criticism spurred us to spend our snowed in days voraciously reading through everything we could find online (when we had electricity!) about electrical engineering, generators, motors, capacitors, commutators, brushless excitors(!), etc.   So now we even have some modern adaptations to try to include (and don’t worry – we’re losing the gear box!)

All THAT said:  Where we are right now is with 2 more weeks to finish a grant proposal (in Albanian – god help me!) which promises to fund the project generously – although our goal of making this thing low-cost remains, so it can be repeated for other communities.  When that’s done, I’ll post it online here, in case other people want to use any part of it.  The OTHER big challenge we’re still trying to sort out is figuring out how to build an “Electronic Control Unit” (ECU).  For those of you out there who are interested in helping, read on, ’cause this is our remaining big challenge (well, that and building the damn thing, of course).

Because the generator will be running constantly, it will always be spitting out 15kW of power.  If the houses only need say 10kW, the other 5kW have to go somewhere (otherwise the generator burns up!).  In the past, this would have been handled by running over to the generator and reducing the amount of water flowing through the turbine (water wheel).  Less water, less electricity.  Of course, this meant that someone had to keep one eye on the lightbulbs all the time, and when they got dim (not enough power) or too bright (too much!) they had to run over the fields to the generator and fiddle with the water supply.

An ECU sits on the other end of the generator.  It senses how much power is being pulled by the houses, and then automatically shunts any extra power to “dump loads” – usually water heaters, but anything that will ‘spend’ the extra, unneeded electricity.  This is something totally new here, and something we only understand theoretically from reading articles online, and certainly not well enough to build ourselves.  We’re sort of hoping we can find a clever young electrical enthusiast, or super crafty TV repair guy who can invent one – I’ve found articles online that say that while these things are expensive to buy, they actually aren’t that hard to build, but there’s a couple of obvious problems here:  1) is finding someone who can build it and 2) is explaining to them exactly what it should BE.  If anyone out there from around here knows somebody who could build this (we heard a rumor that there’s some kid in Bajram Curri who’s been building robots) we’d love an introduction.  If anyone ELSE out there happens to have complete instructions and wiring diagrams in Albanian lying around their study . . . . No?  Oh well.

Anyhow – stay tuned, dear readers!  And thank you again for ALL the help!

P.S.  If anything I’ve written here reveals my shocking ignorance, please feel free to write to me and tell me I’m an idiot!


Valbona vs. The Electricity Company – Round 3:  Winter 2011

posted 16-12-2011


After a couple of weeks of frantic talking, reading and bothering people-who-have-plenty-of-work-of-their-own — Here it is:  The idea for a 5-15 kW micro hydro electricity generator.  The genius (I think) is the combination of a car’s gear-box with a broken old diesel-run generator.  The gear box allows for exponentially converting rotation generated by the water wheel — if the wheel makes 50 rpm, the gearbox can toss it up to double, quadruple, etc (I think, got to figure this out, but it’s what makes your car run!).  There are lots of (ancient) diesel-run generators around.  We have one that puts out 5kW, but the motor has been broken for a while, and the diesel is expensive and annoying to get (and smelly!).  We just take off the motor and hook it up to the water wheel. If we can make this work (and I think we can!), we can recycle old gearboxes and old generators into a mighty source of electricty (Alfred’s uncle Adem has an old broken army generator that can spit out 15kW!!!!)

With solar power costing in at $10 per WATT, this is a mighty solution, if it works!  Also, it is not very sunny here half the year . . . .  Anyhow, stay tuned for our exciting adventures in the world of DIY engineering . . . . and hope we don’t blow ourselves up (or drown?).  I’m getting to work answering a lot of the “Q”s on this diagram (measuring flow, finding wheel design, costing inverters), and Alfred and his friend Sami are going to begin collecting the bits – we need:  cement, pvc pipes, a gear box . . . . And we hope to get started on the prototype soon.  As ever, any advice or comments are welcome.  We hope to have the tax number for our non-profit (and thus a bank account) soon, so eventually we could even use contributions, but for now, we mostly need information and support!

BTW:  Below is the original email I sent out through “Linked In” which summarizes the problem . . . .

We desperately need to find a workable solution for electricity supply here in Valbona. In the three winters that I’ve been here, the villagers have never been without electricity for less than one month. The first year, two months for the whole valley, in 3 meters of snow. The second year, one month due to the flooding. This year, the transformer serving the hamlet of Quku i Valbones was struck by lightning, not only exploding the transformer, but also every electrical appliance in each of some 8 houses (also, inexplicably, reducing Artan Selimaj’s flip flops to a little black melted pile on the bathroom floor). They have been without electricity for more than two months now, with no solution in sight.

The electrical lines here are either old, overloaded or poorly constructed, and outages are a daily occurrence. The provider is a Czech company. They have no impetus to repair, as fees have not been collected, electricity is not metered, and I imagine that the area serviced is neither large nor profitable enough to justify much infrastructure investment. Nonetheless, the 50 schoolchildren of Valbona have been studying without electricity for a year now, in classrooms with no lights, heated by flimsy tin wood stoves, and that seems to me to be a situation which should not continue.

The electricity company has indicated that should the villagers purchase a new transformer for some 2000 euro, which would then become the property of the electrical company, they will hook it into the grid, although this solution has been attempted by other villages with similar problems near Bajram Curri and their transformers have not been connected. However, with the average monthly cash income per family here being around 25 dollars, that does not seem like a workable solution, particularly as the service being connected to is so unreliable itself.

We are wondering if small scale, privately-owned alternative energy solutions might not liberate the people here from the crippling problem of having no electricity. And I don’t think ‘crippling’ is an understatement. With meters of snow, and darkness arriving at 4 pm daily, to have no lights, no hot water and no heat makes people live at a 3rd world level which is shocking in modern Europe. In addition, the only hope for economic improvement in the area, up until recently the poorest part of the poorest country in Europe, is sustainable tourism. The guesthouses of Quku i Valbones account for 30% of bed capacity of the valley’s guesthouses. Although some tourists are willing to put up with candlelight, the absence of hot water or heat has already lost the area significant business in the last two months.

If anyone out there knows (or knows someone who knows) how we might have a feasability study made, or who we might reach out to, or how we could better this situation at all, I am begging you to help us make the connection.

If You Go Down to the Woods Today . . . .

More exciting news!  Not sure how much I’ve written about it (yet!) but my childhood desire was to be a 19th Century Naturalist.  As you can imagine, Valbona is a paradise to me, what with probably the largest wolf population in Europe, numerous Brown Bears, wild Boar and numerous other critters and plants.   I spend as much time as I can away from the business and the do-gooding, to wander around the woods, following wolf tracks, looking for bears and generally poking my nose into all sorts of places.  Here is a picture of my latest “Bear Trap” – a bag full of smelly fruit, nuts and chocolate, with sand  below (which I hauled up 300 m from the river in my backpack) to capture footprints.  In all seriousness, these animals are a wealth which most of Europe probably doesn’t know it has anymore, and which the people here have not had a reason to realize the value of yet.  They should be studied!  They should be visited (hint, hint!).  All of which is why receiving the below is SO EXCITING!


Dear Catherine, My name is Aleksander Trajce and I work with Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) – an environmental NGO based in Tirana – focusing mainly on the conservation of large carnivores (bears, wolves and lynx) in the country. I was introduced to your presence here in Albania by Annette Spangenberg from Euronatur, our long term partner in various projects and initiatives.We are currently shifting our focus area to the Albanian Alps, after having worked mainly in Eastern and South-Eastern Albania in the past and we are looking for potential cooperation with local activists in the area. Annette briefly described to us your activities in the Valbona valley and we would be very interested to meet with you at some point. At the moment we are busy with field research in Shebenik-Jabllanica National Park and we will be working there at least till end-April, however we were planning to visit the Valbona valley during  May-June and we can arrange for the dates together if you agree.Looking forward to hear from you.Kind regards,

We Got a Grant!

Well — a little grant!  But here in Valbona a little can go a long way.  The money is to help us working on “fixing up the valley” to make it more appealing to visitors, which we’ve interpreted fairly broadly.  Most of it though is to do with Hiking Trails.  Yes, real, proper, mapped and signposted (but not too much) Hiking Trails.  If you like this sort of thing, here is a copy of our “Concept Note” which describes everything we’re going to try to do, and why:  Grant Concept Note PDF Much thanks to all the people at UNDP for their help and patience with all of this!  Stay tuned for exciting episodes of our progress, which almost certainly will be published in the “Journal” section, as well as the finished Trail By-Products, which will be turning up on the “Your Journey/Itineraries” Page.









The first part of a short documentary about the fight of local villagers in Valbona, in Northern Albania, against an illegal land grab being made by the local government.

The second part of video about the fight of villagers in Valbona, Northern Albania, to fight an unethical land grab by the local government backed by foreign and aid funding.


Alfred started his businesses, and we set up JourneytoValbona, not merely as simple money-making propositions. From the beginning, Alfred saw his businesses as self-maintaining economic engines, bringing a sense of possibility, purpose and empowerment to the people of the valley – that’s why he named the hotel “Rilindja” (“Rebirth”).  JourneytoValbona takes this vision a step further, believing that the story and struggle of Valbona is interesting — and important and involving — to a larger audience.  Everything we do is motivated at core by love for Valbona and a desire to help the environment and people of the valley. In keeping with this sense of stewardship, in 2010 we’ve started branching out to tackle related “do-gooding” projects.  We hope you’ll want to get involved!

The following is a list of some of the projects, short-term as well as long-term dreams, that we’re currently working on. If any of these interest you, or if you’d like to be involved when visiting (’cause you’re going to come see us, right?) or by offering support (advisory, suggestive, cautionary or financial!), please do get in touch!

Outdoor Ambassadors:  Bringing young students to steward nature tourism in the valley

KRTEP:  A UNDP- administered development project

VGOA:  The first-ever, valley-based grassroots advocacy organization

Outdoor Ambassadors

Outdoor Ambassadors is a volunteer organization made up of high school students from the region of Kukes, advised by American Peace Corps volunteers based in Kukes city proper. On the weekend of April 23-25, in celebration of Global Youth Service Day, a group of 20 young volunteers will visit Valbona, camping and working on mapping and marking local hiking trails, as well as helping to improve basic camping facilities. This project is one of the first of its kind, and an important new step, in Northern Albania. We are excited about involving students in caring for the environment – helping the next generation of Albanians perceive the treasure that their pristine nature represents, while fostering the growth of a sense of stewardship. In addition, the project is an important opportunity for the people of Valbona to experience for the first time the benefits of working with non-profit volunteer organizations for everyone’s mutual benefit!

Alfred is donating lodging and food, and the JourneytoValbona staff are actively helping to plan the events of the whole weekend. Outdoor Ambassadors has applied to Youth Service America for a $500 grant to cover the $800 expenses of the whole project. If you’d like to contribute (even the smallest contributions go a very long way in Northern Albania), please do contact either Catherine ( or James Mayton, the Peace Corps volunteer in charge (

Here’s what Outdoor Ambassadors wrote, in their grant proposal:

There are many beautiful places in Albania, and Valbona Valley is among the most beautiful. Still, most Albanians and tourists can’t go to these places because there is poor access. Nobody has taken initiative to build trails or other access means in these areas, even the protected park areas managed by the government. If we set an example of something that any local resident can do to help improve access to these areas and therefore improve the local economy, other people will be more likely to volunteer their time in a way that will greatly enhance eco-tourism in our region. This is important for economic development here, which in turn will help the region create jobs and solve the large unemployment crisis in the region. Albania is one of Europe’s two poorest countries, and the Kukes region is the poorest region in Albania. A recent UNDP study developed for the Kukes Region Tourism and Environmental Promotion project identified Valbona Valley and the National Park as one the region’s most important tourism attractions. The same study points out that in 2006 unemployment in the Kukes region was 32.6%–much higher than the national average of 13.8%. Showing the many unemployed people here a productive way to volunteer there extra time can play a great role in helping to solve the unemployment problem itself. Finally, enabling all Albanians and foreign tourists to see the beautiful environment here will make them care more about protecting it, especially once they realize that it can generate income and jobs through ecotourism.”

Stay tuned for pictures and stories from the weekend!


The Kukes Region Tourism and Environment Promotion Project (KRTEP): In May of 2009, the European Commission and UNDP (the United Nations Development Programme) jointly launched a 1.2 million euro project to “contribute to the promotion of sustainable economic growth and attractiveness of the Albanian Kukes Region so as to make better use of its socio-economic and natural potentials in pursuing regional development and facilitating cross border cooperation.” Through trainings, workshops, and by involving a broad spectrum of local players in actively planning and implementing the project, KRTEP seeks to encourage the “development of local planning, management and entrepreneurial capacities, small scale tourism and environmental related interventions for an integrated approach on regional tourism development and environmental protection in accordance with the applicable national policies on regional development.” Translated, their goal is to get everyone – government, non-profits and private businesses – working together (for the first time, really) to develop the currently untapped but seemingly enormous economic potential of tourism in the region. The hope is that the legacy of KRTEP will be a powerful and functioning alliance which can move forward to promote and safeguard the resources of the region for everyone’s benefit. Towards this end, the project includes 500,000 Euro which are earmarked for infrastructure projects in the area (yippee!).

What’s JourneytoValbona’s involvement? Well, as the major business owner of Valbona (which, wouldn’t you know it has been identified by the project’s research team as the premier tourism asset of the region, on account of it’s so darn beautiful! Yippee again! We win!) Alfred has been invited to sit on the “Regional Partnership Committee” which is the coalition of local partners who are sort of supposed to make decisions and drive the project (except when the Project Management Team, aka “UNDP” OR the government ministries make the decisions, if I’m reading the report correctly). To date, he’s been the most actively involved business person from the whole region, and is taking very seriously the responsibility of steering this project (with, let’s admit it, its much needed funds) into the best channels.

While we remain cheerfully a little skeptical (well, on a good day we’re cheerful – Catherine can get pretty graceless about the whole thing) about the more lofty goals of the project, in all seriousness we do see the importance of having a voice in such large scale, and potentially hugely affecting, externally-driven involvement in the area. We’re doing our best to make sure that the interests of the Valbona, as we perceive it, are spoken up for and championed. To date this mostly involves a lot of running around and pestering people, but we’re learning a lot! Stay tuned for more news on this one.

The Valbona Guesthouse Owner’s Association:

One of the things we’re learning, encouraged initially by KRTEP (Thanks, guys!), is the importance of organizing the people of the valley into an effective non-profit association to protect and promote our mutual well-being. Such an association is crucial for the valley in the coming years, as tourism grows and the inevitable accompanying development may threaten to get out of hand, ignoring (or even stomping all over) the well-being of the little guys. Towards this end, Alfred, advised by Catherine (who learned the ropes in the good ol’ Park Slope Chamber of Commerce, Brooklyn, New York!), called a meeting in January 2010 at which VGOA was born! (Okay – it isn’t the prettiest acronym in the world, we admit it.)

Here’s our mission statement: The purpose of the Valbona Guesthouse Owners’ Association (“VGOA” or “The Association”) is to unite the business owners and people of Valbona to work for their mutual benefit and betterment, undertaking projects which improve the quality of life in Valbona and increase the ability of local people to pursue their wellbeing, as well as providing a unified voice for representing Valbona’s interests with outside entities, be they governmental, investment or media-based.

Weeell – that doesn’t sound that exciting either, but the really key aspect that we’re excited about is the “mutual benefit and betterment” bit. Together, the people of Valbona (current population 204, as calculated by the local government) can have a strong voice, and speak for this most beautiful and precious corner of the world. If we don’t, who will? (Greedy developers? Hmph.) In addition, as a non-profit association, VGOA is able to receive grants which private business owners most often can’t. To date, all funds which have been donated to the area have had to pass through the hands of local government where, to be frank, said funds mostly disappeared. It seems worth adding that approximately 60% of the valley has ahousehold income of $25 per month, so you can imagine that it’s difficult for many people to accomplish much by themselves. But together we can be strong!

VGOA is excited to begin fighting for: municipal services (like running water and trash collection, for which taxes are paid, but which aren’t actually provided), the sorting out of land-ownership issues (an estimated 80% of the valley still doesn’t have proper documentation for the land on which they’ve lived for hundreds of years!), the establishment of a reserve of funds to be held annually for use in case of emergencies (like the one month without electricity in more than two meters of snow – no lights, hot water, heat, telephones, medical service or supplies, while the roofs of the houses started caving in from the weight of the snow – which the valley inhabitants just lived through in February 2010, to the complete disinterest of the local government), as well as organizing the valley to pursue more modest improvements to infrastructure for the benefit of everyone. Here’s a dream: We would really like to buy a tractor (just a little one!), so the people of the valley can keep the road open in winter, which the government is supposed to do, but doesn’t.

As you can see, we’ve got a lot of work to do! If you know of any funding sources LAND GRAByou think we should pursue, please do let us know!

the fight of villagers in Valbona, Northern Albania, to fight an unethical land grab by the local government backed by foreign and aid funding.