Volunteering in Valbona

Eva puts a PostOf course, there’s another, completely different way of experiencing Valbona, and that’s as a (presumably) foreign Volunteer.

This is a pretty new thing up here, so if you’re interested, it’s good to know you’re likely to be a bit of a trailblazer (which is fun) but also possibly more ‘without a net’ (which is potentially less so).  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

Or, skip the maundering (somewhat negative) (but important to bear in mind) (which is why, after some thought, I’m leaving it first) to jump down to our own description of what volunteering might involve.


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, 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.’

Set against this the fact that I am often surprised by how many volunteers threaten to arrive with tents, and say they are happy to use them.  Although it has to be said, none of those volunteers have ever actually materialized here.  On the other hand, the idea of sleeping in tents in and of itself will run you into points: ‘1) Hospitality’ – in that most village Albanians can’t imagine anyone wanting to sleep in a tent, and would be ashamed to let you do so, and ‘4) Presentation’ – which I didn’t get to yet.

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.  (Or they would, if there were a corner shop anywhere near here).  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 . . . . and this returns me to the point about tents – namely, that if you can’t crawl out of your tent looking neat and tidy and well turned out, tent living might not be the best solution to the housing problem mentioned in 2).

The Actual Facts (as opposed to the wishy-washy ones) about what Volunteering Might Involve:

Hello!  Welcome!  We’re delighted you’d (maybe) like to join us!  The first and most important thing to understand is that The Business Has to Come Before Everything Else. Therefore the work we are most concerned about, in return for room-and-board, is work helping to keep the business running.  We kind of hate this ourselves – viz 2014, when neither Alfred nor I managed to put one 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?  Like HELL!  We start hating tourists, and spitting at the sight of them.  Which is pretty ridiculous, when you come to think of it.

Now, we feel that if this burden of hurly-burly every day stuff were shared with even 2 or 4 (or 6!) 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.  There’s something fantastic about dishing out a plate of gorgeous food, IF you haven’t been doing it day in and day out for days and days and weeks and weeks and month after month out of time memorial. So, our philosophy is: we won’t subject anyone else to anything we hate.  But likewise, we hope that anyone that joins our crew will appreciate the spirit of service that infuses the place.  No matter how much we may grudge it in private, service to our guests has to come first.

WHICH means:  The first help we need from volunteers is:  waiter and cook help with breakfast (we serve the Most Famous Breakfast in Albania), 5am-10am.  Second: There’s a wave of check in from 1pm to 5pm: someone needs to be here to welcome guests and send them happily off to their chosen rooms, and probably feed them as well.  Third: We can serve up to 60 people for dinner each night, so from 5pm to say 11pm can always use wait staff help. Fourth:  This website is now the most used for all aspects of information about travelling in the North of Albania.  In 2015 we answered almost 10,000 emails!!!! (this seems scarcely possible, but I’ve still got ’em all filed in m’gmail!).  So any help with this is great.  and finally, Fifth:  in 2016 we plan that the house in the village (with the fancy rooms in Rezidenca building next door) will begin to function a bit independently from Rilindja – up until now, all reception, feeding, information etc has happened out of the office at Rilindja, but as the business grows the fact that these two things are actually 1 km apart becomes more and more unmanageable.  Therefore, we imagine there will actually need to be semi-independent staffs at both locations, which of course may double all the work, but will almost certainly lead to a whole bunch of confusion, which I hereby cheerfully welcome you to come and help sort out (ha!).

BUT:  This is not to say that’s all there is to do.  We are also 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 . . . .

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