It's amazing what a small camera and an asian face can do walking around some of the bustling towns of Albania. Some stare. Some look away. Some pretend not to look. Some smile. Some want to take a picture with you. Some pose. And some run away. We only had a few hours to explore this eastern region of Albania starting off in Pogradec and ending it in Mala Prespa during my extended stay in Ohrid. And while my initial goal was to try and capture all the different things you can do in Albania, things took a turn for the better when I decided to let my camera respond to the people's different reactions instead.
Some fun facts about Albania I learned on this trip:
*It is the land of bunkers. Every few blocks we drove, no exaggeration, there was a bunker. History goes, these bunkers (more than 700,000 of them), were originally built during the years of Communist rule under Enver Hoxha's leadership who made enemies with NATO to the west and the Warsaw Pact to the east. Unfortunately, these bunkers (with one bunker costing an average of two apartments) didn't really get put to use as originally intended. Today, they are abandoned all over the country and serve as a bad memory to the people of the finances they could have saved for the well-being of the country. Some however, have put in the effort to utilize these bunkers by turning them into restaurants or cafes.
*Albania is one of the poorest if not the poorest nation in all of Europe. The roads are unkept, all kinds of trash and sewer is thrown out onto the street, and gypsies as well as local children roam around town looking to pickpocket visitors (most likely instructed from home). This was especially the case when we were walking Pogradec but mostly Korçë. My word of advice, go with an organized tour group if you plan on visiting these areas and don't bring valuables along with you. (I went with Lale Tours).
*Because tourism is still fairly new to Albania, new faces are rare. There's no such thing as diversity. As an asian american, I got a lot of stares. If you ever happen to travel this area, just be prepared for the stares. Don't be sensitive because they very well just may have never seen your kind before but don't ever put your guard down because there could also be a motive behind it.
*The Albanian language is a unique one. A hard one because there's none like its kind. The only one I was able to remember and use everywhere we went was "mirëdita" meaning good afternoon or hello.
And now for the fun part: the people of Albania beginning in central Pogradec to the bazaar in Korçë to a small village in Mala Prespa.
Upon representing Korea and America to the masses, dodging glares for shooting people's faces with my camera, and forfeiting my half eaten chocolate croissant to the persistent gypsies in front of Korçë's Resurrection Cathedral, I had some endearing encounters with some of the kids in a small village in Mala Prespa. First is Marina and Benny, a brother and sister, who couldn't take their eyes off of my friend Nathalie and I as they rode their little bike past us back and forth. Unfortunately they didn't speak any english but we managed to get their names that is, Marina and Benny, who we learned, couldn't speak any english because their school teacher did not know how. Desperate to give little Marina something, I took a hair tie off my wrist and put it on hers telling her how beautiful she was hoping she would understand the full extent of it. Nathalie helped translate some things so they understood that I was visiting from the states, a faraway land that only existed in their imagination, a country that they've only seen in books and movies. In that moment, I fell in love with this little girl. She was so beautiful. So pure. So innocent. So unscathed by the complications of this world. So full of love. I so wished to bring her back with me.
As we parted she wanted to take a picture. And so we did. And as we walked away, she did the cutest thing ever.
A few more steps and we stumbled upon a group of young teenage boys. They were a rowdy bunch, who at first, kept running away from the camera, laughing and shouting at each other when they saw us. About a half of them spoke english and they asked us where we were from, what we were doing, and why we would take pictures of such an ugly place. They too, were so naive; it was refreshing to laugh and joke with them. We left after giving them this quick lecture: don't get into trouble, listen to your parents, and work hard so that you can be successful.
As poor as the country is, and as all the Albanian stereotypes out there may be true, my personal experience of Albania ultimately was not undermined because of the beautiful encounters I had with the Albanian people. A smile is a smile, a heart is a heart, a hug is a hug.