When looking back at our month in Albania as a whole, I am overwhelmed by how sweet of a season this was in life. When I read my entries from my time there, I am moved and brought back to a nostalgic wonderland full of aged canyons, blue oceans, and rooftop experiences. Simultaneously, while experiencing so many incredible people, places, and miracles, I was falling in love with my wife Kathryn.
It is important to note the context of this trip: We had a team of 7 people. Our goal with our organization was to find new contacts who could benefit from the help of future teams in their church or communities for a month (sometime in the future).
Arriving in a mysterious land: as the leader
I'll never forget landing in Tirana and knowing very little about where I actually was. I do know that the layover the night before in Istanbul was rough. I also remember I booked a hostel for seven before leaving in Atlanta. Had I ever been to a hostel? Nope. I was still trying to understand how the whole hostel thing worked, still deciphering if I thought it was weird or not to sleep in the same room with strangers. Taking it in stride is the only option as we stumble our way to the taxi. It is hard enough to take care of yourself in this situation let alone try to answer questions coming from seven other people about what we are doing.
The words "Milingona hostel" glide off my tongue. Just kidding- I'm straight up fumbling these words out having no idea how to pronounce these words. The hostel name as well as the address "Villa Nr.11,, Rruga Vehbi Agolli, Tiranë, Albania" are in the note section of my old retro travel phone. The taxi driver is peering into the dull phone screen avoiding the sun's rays. I mean, at this point all of our bags are stuffed like Christmas stockings inside of two taxi's, so I sure hope this guy knows where this place is.
Suddenly myself, and the people around me (who will soon become my best friends, and the one next to me who will become my wife) are listening to a taxi driver struggle at telling his life story in English and are surprised to have found that they also drive on the right side of the road here in Albania.
The wonderful woman who runs Milingona greeted us with kindness and grace as many of us were new to this whole thing. We got our bags situated in the hostel and put our feet up. We were surely exhausted but perhaps there was too much pseudo-energy built up from being in a new place. Or perhaps we were hungry?
The rest of that day was a jet-lag haze of wonder and newness. There are few things on par with the glory of a new arrival. For me, the exhaustion just adds to the experience and quality of the story.
I remember taking a short walk near the city center and eating a rather cheap dinner. I remember walking to the pyramid that night with a concert happening. People everywhere. Lights. People not dancing. Actually, that was indeed quite strange for a concert. They just stood and took in the moment without any outward expression. A few of us climbed the pyramid to get a top-down view. Where were we? and How did we get here? Two questions that were going to overwhelm us the rest of this month. We experienced a few awesome days in Tirana, and a phenomenal 4th of July.
Going big and going anywhere
I'm no surfer, but common sense tells me that though the rush of riding a wave must be glorious, that wave is going to crash into the shore and flatten out. I think we miss out when we settle, get comfortable, and don't glide onto new waves despite risk. Tirana had been awesome that few days. Our group of friends had grown in comradery, We got to know some class act Albanians, and we grew more comfortable abroad. The whole transition from Tirana to Vlore can be read in my post "Inheriting Family through Adventure".
On our way to Vlore we were so curious as to how it would pan out. We had a very brief interaction via facebook with folks we had never met, who just said "see you tomorrow". Tomorrow came and we found ourselves arriving at a university where a man with a kind face welcomed us and made sure we were his group. They gave us an extremely afforable place to stay and welcomed us to dinner with them that night.
It was incredible to be shown around someone else's city. They were so proud of where they came from yet so hopeful for how it could be made better. They helped us find many more contacts in southern Albania, providing us with transportation, and taking us to some of the most beautiful places we had been.
After our time in Vlore, we had to decide to either go back up to Tirana where we were familiar, or to go in the region of the third city where my heart was drawn toward because of that random dialogue with that woman.
Again we used the internet to send an email to some church there, and there were just a few messages back and forth. We didn't have a formal invitation to go there, but it was Sunday morning and we had to choose where to go. So we went to Berat. Little did we know, there was a penthouse suite waiting for us.
The other incredible aspect of this time in Berat was that while attending a random church service with those who had hosted us- I miraculously met the woman from Poliçan who I'd emailed prior to going on the trip. She happened to be sitting right behind me during the service.
Apparently she had wanted to continue to try to meet, but she didn't know English well enough to continue dialogue with me.
It turns out her meeting our group was a huge blessing to her because she ran a ministry by herself, and the potential to have future teams come help her was huge for her.
After Berat, we went back to Tirana and wrapped up our time in Albania.
Illegally in love.
The amazing thing about this entire month was that it took no preparation on our end. No prior planning. We just arrived, listened to where we were to go, and were present where we were. Everything was prepared and laid out for us. It felt like a story had been written already, and we were just participating taking the necessary steps.
Incredibly- This is the same thing that was happening with my relationship with that one girl on my team- Kathryn.
Three weeks into our trip we knew this was it. We knew we were getting married (I will go into detail about how I knew I wanted to marry her).
The problem was: Dating wasn't allowed on our trip.
All of a sudden. Here you are in some of the most beautiful places you've seen, experiencing the most awe-inspiring moments together, and you are with that person (and the rest of your team) literally all of the time. You already know this is the person you've been thinking about your whole life, and you aren't even supposed to talk about your feelings with them.
Perhaps at some point we will go into detail about the trip's policy.
But, For now I will just say that our intention was to continue to be friends, with the knowledge that we were going to get married. I can tell you right now that we only lasted on the 11 month trip for 3 more months. We then made our escape to Thailand. And now we are married. Stay tuned