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The smell of marigolds and candle wax was heavy, as I carefully tiptoed between graves in the town of Atzompa, early in the morning hours of November 1st. This was the third cemetery I had visited that night, and the atmosphere was something far removed from the first two. San Miguel cemetery, in central Oaxaca, and the Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan had seemed almost like county fairs. Children screamed on carnival rides of varying quality. Venders sold tortas and tamales to drunk tourists who fell over each other, attempting to navigate the maze of families and dimly lit graves. There was too much noise, there were too many people. In Atzompa, there was relative calm. There were no tourists, no carnival rides, no rock bands. Families were diligently decorating the graves of loved ones, or huddled close together talking and sharing stories.

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I reached a point where I could no longer move forward without lighting myself on fire from a bevy of candles, or stepping onto someone’s final resting place. In America, doing the latter would be a sign of utmost disrespect. As I contemplated this moral conundrum, a group of young locals came running up behind me, looked at me as if I were a huge imposition on their fun, and then ran passed me trampling over the grave. Death is a little different here.

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After several months hiatus in the States, taking a few classes and doing some work, I’m back out into the world. I’ve come to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, where I’m studying Spanish as well as covering the Dia de los Muertos festivities and trying to put together a reportage about poverty in the surrounding pueblos. I’ve been interested in coming to Mexico for some time, simply because I only ever hear negative things about it in the States. I don’t know much about Mexico, I’ve only ever been to tourist areas in Baja as a child, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s a very misunderstood and misrepresented place. That being said, the danger talked about back home does seem to be real, if not as widespread as people imagine. Police presence is huge, there is talk of murder and “disappearances” all over the news and in the streets. People have been more than candid in telling me these events are carried out by those in the government, as well as the drug cartels.  I’ve been here in Oaxaca for about a week and there has been at least one major disruption, march or protest every day for a variety of issues. The tension in these dark issues seems to be balanced by the beauty of cultural and religious rituals. For every story of death I’ve seen on the news, I’ve seen something equally beautiful. For every look of fear I’ve witnessed, I’ve been greeted with a smile. Turn a corner after a police truck goes flying by to some distance crime scene, and there’s a massive, colorful parade for a saint. Mexico seems to be a place of intense forces of opposition with the general population straddling the line between light and dark, just trying to get by, pray, and celebrate in the midst of corruption, a fading drug war, and massive poverty. Just the kind of place I love to work in.

Church bells mingle with the call to prayer as smoke rises from chimneys and sunlight pours through clouds. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts that somehow come together to make something very special. I must have missed something when I came here in the summer, maybe walking the hills in the stifling heat deterred the development of any romantic feelings for the city. I’ve been staying the last week here with good friend and fellow photographer Cat Norman (http://catnorman.com), who’s shown me lovely tree lined parks, small neighborhood mosques with rugged wooden minarets, a smoke filled speakeasy-esque  bar (that’s technically not allowed to be open right now for some reason), and of course where to find the best burek. It’s a city teeming with life and smiles, but also harsh memories of the past. Children play next to buildings riddled with bullet holes, while the hillsides are dotted white with tombstones in what were formerly public parks, filled up with bodies from the 1992-1995 siege. I’m always taken by the dates when I walk in these cemeteries, they all end in 1992, 1993, 1994, a stark reminder of the great tragedies that occurred here twenty years ago.

But all that’s in the past now and the people of Sarajevo have made great strides to pick up the pieces of their city and turn it into something truly lovely. It’s got all the beauty and style of cities in Western Europe, with half the price tag and half the crowds. Some magazine called National Geographic put it on their list of hot places to go in 2014, and I’d definitely put it on my list as well. Plus if you come later in the year, my friend Cat will have opened the swankiest new hostel in town. Should be exciting.

I’m heading to Istanbul tomorrow and will be joining a Reuters journalist down in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. We’ll be investigating the situation with Syrian refugees trying to integrate and survive in cities along the border. It’s something I’ve been interested in working on for a long time now and I can’t wait to get down there and start working. In the meantime, below are some reasons you should visit Sarajevo!

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Shkoder is the idyllic country town. Here people get up to the sound of roosters crowing at 4am, huge flocks of sheep in the road cause traffic jams, families help each other in their fields, men spend the day distilling rakia with the season’s grape harvest, and stray dogs chew on the discarded entrails of cattle in the streets. Oh Albania. It’s Eid al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and the call to prayer is filtering through my open window. The early autumn sunlight through a thin layer of clouds has given everything a very film like look the last few days, which I used to my advantage yesterday with a good photo walk. I found a lovely local market tucked down a few alleyways, where I’m almost certain most tourists visiting would never go.

I wandered into a small warehouse where butchers were selling freshly carved meat, but was told to leave by a heavyset man. I get a lot of odd looks here from passers by on the street. Those who speak English usually ask where I’m from, often assuming Germany, and then usually look confused and ask why I came here when I tell them I’m from the States. When I told a man yesterday that I like Albania he let his cigarette sort of drop out of his mouth for a few seconds, then shrugged and said “But your country is more better I think.”

I’ve had an almost unbelievable run of good luck thus far. My project on blood feuds stems largely on gaining access to isolated families currently involved in feuds. I’ve been quite nervous at my ability to get that access, but upon contacting the Justice and Peace Commission (an outreach group I’ll be working with up here) they immediately got back to me and told me they were meeting with a family today and invited me to join. This should be an important opportunity for me to get an idea of the situation and mindset of some of those involved in these feuds.

I’ll post more about the experience later, until then enjoy some photos of the lovely place I find myself in.

 

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The first few times I visited Tirana I wasn’t impressed with it. It’s not one of those cities you can point to as having some distinct landmark or experience to  have as a visitor. Having spent a few more days here though, I realize that this is one of the reasons I enjoy it. It’s a lovely place to hang out and enjoy just being. There are endless cafes, bakeries, markets, and antique stores to discover. Walking around and trying new places is a great way to find things in the city that become important to you, rather than some landmark that you are supposed to visit because a guidebook tells you to. There’s no pressure to hurry and see everything, you just learn to sit back and take your time sipping coffee, chatting with locals or fellow travelers. One of my favorite places is a small restaurant down the street from Milingona hostel, where they serve excellent Tru, cow brains fried up with egg. It probably doesn’t sound like the most appetizing dish, but each bite has a wonderfully light and buttery crunch to it. For less than $2 US, it’s hard to go wrong. Time to jump on a furgon (local minibus) to head up north to Shkoder.

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I arrived in Tirana late yesterday evening. I’m staying here at Milingona Hostel, where I had previously stayed during a visit last Spring. Juli, the owner of the hostel, is a welcoming, knowledgeable, and gracious host. It’s one of the cleanest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, and is well situated for exploring all of Tirana’s sights. I had planned to head up to Shkodra today, where I’ll be staying for the next month or so, but ended up staying an extra day in Tirana to see the Albania v. Switzerland football match. This afternoon I went out to the Pellumbas Cave near the village of Ibe, which proved to be more of a hike than I had planned for but was very much worth the trek. The countryside is beautiful here, and I walked along the trail gorging myself on perfectly ripe figs that were practically dropping off the trees. I almost forgot how friendly complete strangers are here, stopping to say hello, even while I had inadvertently wandered onto their property. I used to think that people were only friendly to me because, being an American, I’m a bit of a commodity here. However, in general it seems people are very friendly and open with each other, there’s much more of a sense of community and common identity than people have back in Southern California. That’s part of the reason I’m staying for the football match, you really can get a sense of the pride people have for their country and culture here. Hoping for a win for Albania!

 

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