Of course, there’s another, completely different way of experiencing Valbona, and that’s as a (presumably) foreign Volunteer.
Since 2016 (and the rise of the Hydropower Fight), the original JourneytoValbona commitment to ‘do-gooding’ got kicked into hyper-drive and we started the NGO “TOKA“. In 2018 we’ve had 6 funded projects on the hob, our usual commitment to wandering around the national park fixing things, making trails etc AND a huge project to open a new info office / shop / community center in Bajram Curri, as well as trying to launch a new website which can bring some economic benefits to all. All while continuing to fight the evil hydropowers tooth and nail, of course!
So basically Summer 2018 is proving to be a bit of a nightmare of over-committment, with too many carts before too many horses and it’s all a bit confusing. With that said however, I have reacted by putting my foot down, and am actually spending more time out in the NP working on trails and talking to locals than I seem to have managed in the past years.
Therefore: What Volunteering this Summer looks like!
I can offer accommodation in my private house in a small village just outside of Bajram Curri. I should be clear that this is not INSIDE the National Park, but it’s a short drive away. In the past, when I was based inside the Park, there was no accommodation option but camping, so now it’s a bit different: ie, you can cook your own food, sleep in a bed, and have a hot shower, BUT the view is a bit different (still gorgeous, but less vertical). Anyhow, you can always camp in the NP when you want I suppose?
We really need help with a lot of boring stuff: getting the office and shop up and running (building a whole retail space out of pallets, anyone?). Updating all the reporting on the various projects and doing a lot of (really boring) bookkeeping. Still, if I had any help with this, it would get done, and then BE done (please god). There’s always a ton of emails to answer, and there are increasingly a lot of meetings to go to . . .
BUT – the other half of the time, I’m committed to being out in the NP, making maps, marking trails, exploring and researching.
At this point, almost any skill is welcome. There’s also the possibility that we could arrange a sort of time-share between the TOKA office and Alfred’s hotel inside the NP (my first home for 7 great years!). Both places need (or are going to need) people with foreign languages who can explain trails to people. Of course this is intense in July-August-September (ie, NOW), and you’d have to come and DO some hiking first – but that can be arranged!
Being me, I thought I would maunder on for a while about general theoretical and philosophical aspects and considerations of volunteering, both generally, and as regards Valbona specifically – both culturally and economically – or you could skip all that by seeing our listing on HelpX.net
In fact, there is a strong local tradition of banding together to realize projects, most famously (as far as we’re concerned) given form by the Enver-period phenomena of aksions or ‘actions’: Basically, one weekend day every week or two, the whole community was expected to turn out to do some kind of caretaking. This could take the form of trash pickups, tree plantings, or the notable building of a tremendous number of schools, hospitals and roads. UN-fortunately, this concept is now associated with koha e Enverit which means it also seems sometimes to be filed away in the collective consciousness as ‘repressive.’ Interestingly – if not surprisingly – it seems to be urban youth who are reviving this concept for Albania. Well, the wheel was a good idea – it bears repeated reinventions, I suppose.
With that said, and that context established, I will tell you that there are 4 things which I feel like I might as well warn you about, that make volunteering by foreigners a whole new kettle of fish.
1) Hospitality. Aksions were a move, no matter how externally imposed, by the community to look after itself. As a stranger, a foreign volunteer falls conceptually much more easily into the category of ‘guest’ – and Guests are sacred here. Most rural Albanians will be made acutely uncomfortable, on the deepest cultural level, by letting you do ANYTHING – and they certainly won’t feel comfortable asking you. Put it another way: This is a place where people (okay: women) will proudly fling themselves at your feet, in order to busily take off your shoes for you at their door. They will give up their beds for you, let you eat all their food, and sneak into your room to wash and iron your clothes. They do this with pride, because that shows they are good people – good hosts. Are they going to ask you to muck out the cows? They’d rather eat their own eyeballs! Which of course makes volunteering a more than ordinary challenge here.
2) Space. Up until very recently (ie, when I got my own house last year) this was probably the single biggest obstacle to volunteering. Most volunteer services, from HelpX to Peace Corps, cheerfully toss out a suggestion of ‘room and board’ in return for volunteer labor. But living space is limited and precious in Valbona. Until very recently (as in, up til 5 years ago), houses were built by hand out of mortared stones. It might take 5 years to build a small house, and the houses tended to fall down pretty much as fast as you could build them. Consider: Tourists love the look of our old stone houses with their picturesque wood tile roofs, but the oldest of these ‘ancient’ houses is 70 years old, and most of them are probably more like 30 years old. Compare this to your average brownstone apartment house in Brooklyn (my frame of reference) which is likely to be more than 100 years old. Houses here look old because they’re actually just really crumbly. So my point is that there is not a lot of spare living space, hanging around unused. Most families live piled on top of each other, and the concept of a ‘private bedroom’ – or indeed any privacy at all – is an extremely foreign one. Add to that, that the emergence in the last 7 years of Guesthouse Tourism as the only economic game in town means that most families are actually evacuating every single available bed for the duration of the summer, and taking themselves off to live, en masse, in attics, sheds or even sleeping on mattresses in kitchens. So the idea that they would necessarily have a ‘spare room’ to offer you? (Let alone a private apartment with cooking facilities, as suggested by Peace Corps). Ho ho ho. That’s what I have to say about that idea. Plus maybe ‘easy for you to say.’
3) ‘Helping’ versus Imposing. This is more a problem with large-scale aid projects, but I think it plays out on all sorts of levels. Ahem. People here may be ‘developmentally backwards’ – although where I’m coming from (1st world, NYC urbanity) – ‘backwards’ is the new ‘forward thinking.’ Or put another way, ‘pre-industrial’ and ‘medieval’ looks a lot like ‘post-organic, back to the land, slow food, sustainable living.’ So my point is, to encourage people to think of themselves as a resource being made available, more than as . . . . er, god’s gift. While you may be spilling over with fantastic ideas I would respectfully urge you to go slow and remind you that the most attractive potential (I think) of a volunteer is as someone who is ready to help someone ELSE realize their ideas, dreams and projects. So take the time to ask local people what they’re trying to do, and be creative about finding ways to help them. Hopefully this is really obvious, and doesn’t need to be said.
4) Presentation. Northern Albania is a remote, rural community. It is also a historically poor community which (as is so often the case) means that they are fiercely proud of appearances. People here iron their jackets before going out, I am not kidding. Old men will not be seen in less than jacket and vest. (Well, and trousers and socks-and-shoes and all that I mean) (obviously) Women dress up to the nines, just to go to the corner shop. It is also a modest culture. Remember when you were little, and people kissing on TV made you cringe in horror? Well here, as soon as that stuff starts, they change the channel. Although (it must be said) they are bizarrely immune to the horrors of Albanian music videos which ought to be classed as mushy-porn (if some sub-level below ‘soft’ existed). Anyhow, point is: They have little patience with grunge, or any of the other counter-cultural, sloppy modes of self-presentation that any thinking person elsewhere would naturally adopt. Piercing and tattoos just look like slightly embarrassing self-mutilation to your average rural Albanian. If appearing in torn clothes and flips flops is truly integral to your sense of self, you might want to think about going elsewhere.
The first and most important thing to understand is that The Business Has to Come Before Everything Else. We kind of hate this ourselves – viz 2014, when no one put foot outside of Rilindja for months and months and months. No trail marking, no exploring, no adventures, and nothing much to put in your book of ‘things my mother would be proud of,’ not even taking the dog for decent walks – just a lot of frying eggs, ironing sheets, and answering the same (stupid?) questions over and over again. To be fair, the questions aren’t stupid, they’re just really, really, really boring, after the 3,000th time. And did we resent it? Now, in 2018, that we have the office and shop and new website, as well as all the projects with all their picayune reporting requirements, this has the potential to be even more oppressive.
However! if this burden of hurly-burly every day stuff were shared with even 2 or 4 other people, it wouldn’t be so bad: There’s something nice about doing comforting tasks that you could do in your sleep, if you’re doing them in the afterglow of a day of adventure. So, our philosophy is: I won’t subject anyone else to anything I hate, any more than I have to put up with it myself.
We are the organizers of most of the fun and interesting projects in the area (if I do say so myself) so you are welcome to split your time between the “boring stuff” and wackier projects like: Bear Monitoring, Emergency Rescue Training, Trail Marking, Explorations and Expotitions, small scale Construction Projects, Education programs, Awareness raising, Map Making, Outdoor Skills Training, etc. If you have a talent or a skill you’re itching to exercise, we’re happy to let you experiment on us as well. We can always use help documenting, publicizing and promoting our do-gooding, so if you’re a filmmaker, or photographer or artist, or anything else I can’t think of right now, we can for sure find a way to put those skills to work, too . . . .