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Poor children in the Albanian slums. (photo courtesy of  Balkan Sunflowers.

Where Not to Do Good

One volunteer's bittersweet week in Albania

By Melissa Schultz

At the Albanian border they made us dismount the bus to check our passports and give us our visas to enter. My traveling companion, a mousy English girl named Alex and myself, a tall blond Californian, were unusual passengers on this trip. I feared that due to our nationalities, we would be charged a fee for our visa.

But, after a few cigarette butts were scattered on the floor around me, we were given permission to cross. I imagine it was the letter from our NGO stating our mission was work-related that got us through without any hassles or arbitrarily implemented foreigner fees that were applied according to the wealth of our countries. I was joining Balkan Sunflowers, on a project to help poor Albanian children.

We were clear, on our way to Tirana, an 8-hour bus ride. As we climbed back on the bus and the same silent faces greeted us; they did not seem pleased to be going wherever they were headed. I had a nervous stomach that since my stay in the Balkans, had grown increasingly more viscous.

I thought about what the head of my NGO had said before my departure, this was no holiday. The Mafia pretty much ran Albania and there were bad stories that ranged from petty theft to murder.

The was a huge market for kidnapped girls sold into slavery, but according to some unspoken code, foreigners were usually left alone. Still, this did not reassure me. We started down a winding mountainous road that barely seemed wide enough for the bus.

I looked out my window to be greeted by a steep drop hundreds of feet down. My nerves were crying out for a beer, luckily I had foreseen this and came prepared with a six pack of Pivo. Alex and I began to drink greedily. It worked for a while until I saw the driver was partaking in the same ritual.

After some hours of winding roads freckled with round igloo-shaped bomb shelters, installed all over the countryside by a the xenophobic leader, Hoxha. The road leveled out. We started to let people off in small villages where vengeance murder between tribes was an accepted aspect of their modern society. We passed small cafes were men drank beer and played cards on the side of the road.

The road turned to dirt and the ride became very bumpy, and since we were sitting in the back we were thrown about like popcorn kernels. It was a long stretch of land and most of the half-built houses bore the flag of Albania, a black, two-headed eagle centered on a red field.

Some houses had lynched dolls or scarecrows hanging from windows, apparently this was to keep away bad spirits from the newly built homes. The whole scene seemed threatening and quite a contrast to the beautiful countryside.

After hours of bouncing about we finally arrived at the Adriatic, the sea that separates these people from gaining a livelihood. The water was crystal clear and hotels scattered along the coast. I did not imagine many occidental tourists wandered to these parts--a shame because it was just as beautiful as some of the beaches in Greece.

We arrived in Tirana later that evening to be greeted by the head of our Albanian NGO. His name was Rob, an ageless man I already knew from his visits in Macedonia. He was trying to get me to work with him on his projects in the slums surrounding Tirana. His background is vague, but he was a freedom fighter in South America at one point in his life, and now lived a very non-violent life dedicated to helping the Albanian people. He was never without his suede cowboy hat, onto which he pinned memorabilia from all parts of the world.

Later, back in Macedonia, after one night of drinking he let me wear the hat, but when I woke up in the morning it was gone, most likely stolen by one of the village kids. It's something I still feel bad about today. He greeted us with his peaceful, confident manner that suggested he could walk straight through a hurricane, which is figuratively, what we did next.

There are no rules in Albania, and that also applies to driving. No streetlights or crosswalks. He marched straight into a stampede of Mercedes Benz (one out of every three cars is a Mercedes, a big business with the Mafia) without even looking left or right. Amazingly, the cars slowed to let us pass. I followed in his wake hoping to absorb some of his unworldly power. "You just have to stare them down, then they stop," he said. Amazingly it worked.

We made it unscathed to the apartment, and my body was literally itching for a shower. I scraped a nail along my skin revealing a white streak in a layer of dust. But, we were greeted by bad news; the water was not running, a regular occurrence, so if we wanted to bath we could take a prostitute sponge bath with bottled water, only washing the important body parts.

I was exhausted but we decided to get a drink. We went to a local bar that catered to NGO workers and stayed open past eleven. On the streets of Tirana not many people wander out past this hour. But, I was with Rob, who carried a large knife and felt some sense of safety, even as we watched the Mafia steal a Mercedes in front of us. That night I fell asleep to the random sounds of gunshots.

The next day we decided to visit the projects our organization had set up. A few local Albanian volunteers came over and we hired a van to take us to the slums called Bathore. The ride there was the closest to death I think I have been, but everyone else did not seem to mind as we barely missed pedestrians or other speeding vehicles. They chatted amongst each other seemingly oblivious to impending death. We pulled into a muddy slum where hundreds of children gathered around our vehicle.

As soon as we exited a child pulled out a knife to threaten us, apparently just a joke. Rob grabbed him by the shirt and spattered out words in Albanian that made the kid retreat like a wounded animal. The children ran without shoes screaming excitingly at our presence. I was used to this from my projects in Macedonia, but there were only five of us and more than 100 children. After the knife, I was becoming quite nervous.

The living conditions were deplorable, like most of the slums where we had projects. Skinny animals wearily watching us, houses made out of any material they could find, tires, old car doors, no running water and the heart-wrenching sight of malnourished kids.

Next, we were greeted by the Mafia and the mayor of the town, who sat outside drinking shots of the local alcohol all day long. Rob did not like them, knowing they ran child prostitution rings, but had to establish a rapport over the last months to be able to carry out the projects. The men eyed me; Rob shook his head and we left them behind to play with the kids. He said they asked if they could buy me, but he said I would cost too much.

Our activities here seemed futile, we tried to organize masses of screaming kids who grabbed repeatedly at my breasts until Rob would threaten them. They ran around in disorder as we tried to put on a puppet show. Some became very touchy with me, but one young teenage boy stood at my side telling the others to back off.

It was utter chaos. Seeing such despair I wondered what positive influence we could possibly make here. Fights broke out and we decided to leave; it was too much for so few volunteers. We went back to the van and the mayor personally invited me to dinner. I was sick looking at these men who had no value for the human life, these men who sold children into prostitution.

Rob had told me he wanted to make a documentary, but would most likely be killed for it. Alex and I scrambled into the van and Rob followed shutting the door behind us. I was relieved, but it was a fleeting emotion as the men surrounded our van.

They all carried weapons and for some reason, today, they had a problem with the driver and they did not want us to leave. I saw the empty drunk eyes of the man fighting with our driver, I imagined being kidnapped, sold into prostitution. Sickening fear began to rise into my throat and my surroundings became like a movie happening around me. It was not real.

Finally, we saw an opening in the circle of men, and we gunned it, speeding down the muddy road. As soon as we had reached a safe distance, conversation amongst the locals commenced as normal. It was just another day to them.

Find unique Albania hotels and interesting tours in Albania.

Melissa Schulz currently teaches English in Paris, and is moving back to the States to pursue her Masters in Social Work.



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