The Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival (Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar i Gjirokastrës) is one of Albania’s most important cultural events, held every five years atop Gjirokaster’s ancient fortress. The weeklong festival showcases traditional costumes, dance, music and songs from all of Albania’s regions, Albanian communities in other Balkan countries, as well as the diaspora. There is perhaps no better location to host such an event, with the castle providing jaw dropping views of the old city below, and the Gjerë mountains across the valley.
Gjirokaster was the first town I visited when I came to Albania in 2013, and I remember it being a sleepy city with people seeming surprised to see a foreign tourist wandering around. This year was a little different, with streets being jam packed with performers, family, friends, spectators, journalists and a handful of foreigners. Every evening crowds of people made the journey up to the fortress, vying for the best seat to take in views of the performance as well as the spectacular sunsets. Continue reading ›
I’ve started my trip of southern Albania in Pogradec, a relaxed city located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, bordering Macedonia. The city was a favorite hangout for Albania’s ex-king Zog, as well as communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When coming down the Thane pass, one notices the village of Lin, situated on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. I ended up spending a few days in this quiet fishing village. Wandering down the narrow lanes felt like stepping into the past. Old women sat in doorways to escape the afternoon sun, quietly chatting or knitting. Children roamed the streets playing football, while the distant drone of fishing boat motors mixed with the ringing of a church bell.
It was here that I first met Mihal Gjora, riding his donkey Marko, on his way to a plot of land outside Lin. I asked if I could take his photo and he laughed in a hearty way that I would become accustomed to during my time with him. Shy at first, he was surprised I could speak Albanian and invited me to come with him to feed his animals. We walked the trash littered lakeside, greeting farmers working in their fields and talking about life in America. America is like the promised land here, a place of opportunity, wealth, freedom to be who you want, and progress. I sometimes feel as if I see more American flags flying here than back home. Continue reading ›
Montenegro is currently home for around 16,000 refugees from the 1990 wars in the former Yugoslavia. Displaced Bosnians, Serbs and Croats are spread out in camps throughout the small country. Last year I read an article about Konik, a camp that currently houses around 1500 ethnic Roma who fled Kosovo during the 1999 war. Situated near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Podgorica, residents have been in a state of limbo for fifteen years, in increasingly deteriorating conditions. In 2012, a fire and subsequent flood made conditions even more appalling, leaving over 800 refugees homeless. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has described conditions at the camp as being “inhumane and hazardous,” and recommended the swift closure of the camp. Improving the situation of refugees is currently a key issue for Montenegro’s possible ascension into the European Union.
Now the Montenegrin government wants refugees to sort out their citizenship. They must apply for foreign residency status in Montenegro, go back to Kosovo, or remain as illegal residents devoid of any health, education or economic assistance. However, for many the options are not so simple. Many of the refugees lack their residency documents from Kosovo, a requirement to apply for permanent residence in Montenegro. For a family to return to Kosovo to apply for passports and the necessary documents would require hundreds of Euros, far more than most currently have. Their current non-resident status means finding legal work is impossible, making it difficult to even imagine saving enough money to return to Kosovo.
I’ve returned to Albania to start what I hope will be an ongoing project for a year or two. When I speak to people back in the US about Albania, most cannot even imagine what it’s like here, much less find it on a map. From my previous time here I have found Albania to be an incredibly interesting, culturally rich and beautiful country. It is also still one of the poorest countries in Europe, and very much in the midst of transforming itself from over 40 years of communist rule. So I’ve decided to work on my first book documenting modern Albania, it’s transition into modernity, and how it’s people are reconciling their tough past while trying to hold onto the traditions and customs that make this country feel so unique. I’ll be living in the town of Shkodër for a few months before traveling around the south of the country. Albania still seems to be a little known country, even in Europe, and it’s fascinating to spend time in a place that hasn’t been overrun with foreign investment, development and tourism. Unfortunately it is these very things that stand to improve the lives of the average person in this country, but will also be instrumental in vastly changing the landscape and customs here. I look forward to bringing you periodic updates and the eventual publishing of my book. Stay tuned.
Close to 90% of the terrain in Oaxaca state is mountainous and rugged. Three larger mountain ranges converge in the state, forming a complicated system of smaller peaks, valleys and ravines. Driving even short distances can take time, due to roads that hug the contours of these gentle green outcroppings. It’s this complicated terrain that accounts for the indigenous diversity here, with languages and customs changing from one valley to the next. From a distance it’s impossible to notice, and hard to understand, the unseen world that exists within these mountains.
To get to the village of San Pedro Leapi is simple enough. Head southeast from Oaxaca on Highway 190 for about 2 hours, until you reach the town of El Camaron Yautepec. Turn off here and follow the road towards the mountains, through ever smaller villages and shrines to Catholic saints, until it turns to dirt. From here you’ll either need a donkey or a sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicle. In my case, we had a late model Chevrolet pickup with a burnt out headlight, half the recommended level of motor oil, and an engine that sounded like it was running on a few less cylinders than usual. Perfect then, for driving the remaining 3-4 hours deep into the Sierra Madre del Sur.
I traveled to the mountains with workers from the department of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a bit of a local celebrity due to her fight for women’s and indigenous rights. Hailing from a rural village not far from Leapi, she successfully led a 2008 campaign to change the State constitution, giving women the same political and voting rights as men. She became Chair of the Congress of Oaxaca (the first indigenous woman to hold the position) and is currently Federal Deputy for the National Action Party (PAN). Her office is one of many working to support undeveloped communities, through government funded projects meant to stimulate productivity and self sufficiency.
The state of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most diverse in terms of climate, geography and culture (there are 16 officially recognized indigenous groups in the state). It is also one of it’s poorest. Roughly 61% of the population lives below the poverty line, with 23% living in extreme poverty. In a 2005 report the United Nations compared conditions in some of Oaxaca’s pueblos to rural African villages. With almost half the population living in highly mountainous rural communities, providing health and education services is often difficult. Weaknesses in infrastructure, planning, development and implementation of services all contribute to the problem. Further, with 418 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities running on an autonomous system of “customs and traditions” (where selection of local officials, customs, and communal work obligations are dictated by ancient tradition), organization of a cohesive budget for services and infrastructure gets complicated very quickly.
Most tourists who visit will only ever see the city of Oaxaca or beach resorts like Puerto Escondido, where the economy thrives on their business. Life for people who live in the pueblos is different. Most struggle to find enough work to make ends meet and provide a decent life for their families. Many have left their hometowns to search for work in the capital or other states within Mexico. For most, the possibility of their situation changing or assistance from the government is slim.
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit founded in 2010 with the goal of supporting the development of income generating small businesses, within pueblos around Oaxaca. With interest rates for micro loans in Mexico being anywhere from 75-150%, they are completely out of reach for most people in these communities. En Vía offers a solution as simple as it is well thought out. They provide 100% interest free micro loans to support the growth of businesses; with the loans being fully funded by proceeds from tours to the very communities they help. In addition, they offer free English courses to anyone interested, taught completely by volunteers.
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.
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.
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.
Kilis is a small town in southern Turkey, situated a few miles away from the border with Syria. Under normal circumstances the town would be just another sleepy border city. However, since the civil war in neighboring Syria started, Kilis has been inundated with Syrian nationals who first began filling the government run refugee camps there, and have subsequently began spilling into the city itself.
I spent some time there staying with two pediatricians who work at the local state hospital. Before doctors can practice in Turkey they must work for a year and half in a hospital in the south, a sort of hardship post. Many of the doctors I met at the hospital were working one of these posts. The Turkish government has had to increase the staff at the hospital to deal with the influx of patients from Syria, many of whom are badly injured, having come from Aleppo and surrounding areas where fighting is heavy.
When I arrived at the bus station there were whole families with large bags of possessions and muddy shoes, possibly having just crossed the border. I was picked up by one of the doctors and hadn’t been in the car for more than 5 minutes before he received a call that he was needed at the hospital immediately. I would get used to him receiving these emergency calls over the next few days, having to make a U-turn and accelerate to the hospital at a rapid pace. This first night it was for a Syrian baby born prematurely. The hospital in Kilis lacks the means to deal with serious cases and has to send some patients to the larger hospital in Gaziantep, about a 45-minute drive north. The pediatricians told me there are many cases of parents not wanting to leave to go with their children to Gaziantep, instead returning to Syria or to one of the camps, effectively abandoning them. “I don’t know what happens to them after they go to Gaziantep,” one doctor told me.
I heard stories about the hospital being filled with victims from Aleppo, lining the hallways, many critically wounded. The doctors save those that they can, but all they can do for some is comfort them until their inevitable demise. All of this is pretty much on display for anyone to witness. I was a bit shocked at the access one has being able to walk around the hospital. Patients were being wheeled openly through large waiting areas, family members wandered through the corridors of the hospital, Syrian rebel soldiers loitered around outside. One man showed me where he had been shot fighting, and removed his shoe to show where he had lost his big toe. The language barrier only further complicates matters, as many Turks don’t speak Arabic and Syrians don’t speak Turkish. You could see the confusion at work with people wandering around trying to find anyone who could answer questions for them, but with the hospital largely relying on a few volunteer translators, most simply have to wait. Continue reading ›