*Written while on the World Race
You and your team wake up around 8:30am. You are thankful that you feel your body is relatively adjusted to the time change, and that you can actually begin your day off right. Yesterday felt like the longest day of your life. The memory of it barely exists and you faintly remember walking the streets of Tirana the day before, just trying to get a handle on it.
This morning, the streets look a little less blurry, and you actually have a destination to go to rather than just walking around for the sake of gaining familiarity. The reason you don't have any more plans other than walking to this one cafe owned by Christians is because you don't have an itinerary at all. It is your first month of the World Race and you are doing what is called Unsung Heroes month.
That means you book the first decent cheap hostel you find for your group
for the first few days so you have a basecamp, pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you the rest of the way. Will your group stay in Tirana (the place your airplane landed) or will you feel the Holy spirit take you to a village in the Balkan mountains of northern Albania, or will He lead you to the beaches near Vlore, by the Adriatic Sea to the south? Your goal is to simply listen to Him, and to find those unsung heroes who are doing work for God's kingdom and could use the help of future Racers.
First things first. We are walking because we heard about this cafe that is owned by Christian missionaries, remember? You heard that missionaries frequent that place, ones who speak English! You walk the streets. Watch life happen. Buy some cherries at the market. Arrive at this cafe with your group. You enjoy solid fellowship, talking about your upbringing, your life, your dreams. Anytime someone who looks American walks in, you obviously talk to them and tell them why you are here, and ask if they are missionaries or know anyone who needs help. because what else do you do?!
You meet a young couple who have lived in Albania for the last 4 years, and have been involved with a church here. They invite you to church the next morning (an answered prayer that we prayed while leaving the hostel an hour earlier). You find out the church has their own little cafe. You get very vauge directions as to how to get there. Thanks to the jetlag-filled adventure the night before, you have very tiny idea of where "Mustafa" street is. You tell all your teammates every little bit of information you got from the conversations so that you don't forget, because you don't have your journal out of your backpack for whatever reason. One more conversation is had with one of the servers who says in a thick Albanian accent "Friend of mine might want help. I call you tomorrow and, we go see her" You give him your Albanian number that you have to read off of a Vodafone card because you've only had it for two days and can't remember it.
Lets go see exactly where this church is so that you know where to go in the morning, right? We walk down some new streets. Connect the dots. See the city in a new light. More Cherries for sale. Paul buys a pineapple. Kirsti thinks a pipe would look good in my beard-surrounded mouth. Bridge that gives amazing glance at the mountains where river is running from. Tennis shoes for sale stacked on top of each other. Places to eat near budget price. Wifi at previous cafe had enough juice to empower Google Maps to get group to Mustafa street. You find a different cafe where your Irish friend from the hostel happens to be writing an article on traveling. You say hi, but you feel the urge to encourage half of your group to keep looking for that cafe/church place while the other half can continue to talk to him.
Strange, you see about a million cafes but you are basically without hope for finding this place. You ask around. You walk around but don't want to walk too far as to lose the other group possibly. You stumble upon a taxi driver who gives you a rate to get a ride to Vlore. 18 Euro's for 8 people to go 2.5 hours south. Not bad. You head back to try to find church. It takes a nice Albanian bartender/server to point you in the direction of a place that really isn't a cafe but is actually just a church. He also invites you to Disco Funk night at 10 and promises you a free drink.So, you head towards the gate and hope someone is inside as you sort of...give out a shy "helloo?". Someone is there! He confirms the time the service starts.
So then you go to where you left your group. They aren't there. You go back to the bartendender you were talking with before. He says he saw them walk by while you were in church. He then says he also invited Them to disco funk night. He is excited to find out all of you Americans were friends to begin with. We tell him we are all missionaries and that we love Jesus. He is a little apprehensive about those statements but we enjoy conversation. He heads back inside and we are standing around outside of his bar trying to figure out what to do next. Are we hungry? should we go back to the hostel and rest? Bartender then walks back outside of his bar and says "friends, come in and have a drink now, I am afraid you will not come tonight and I will never see you again."
That moves you.
You realize there is some kind of connection and respect here, and you would be honored by such a proposal. We then sit around for an hour maybe? Who cares.. What is time? Certainly not something relevant right now. We could stay here all the way until disco funk night. We press more into his view on Jesus. He has a fiance. He wants God to be a larger part of his life when he has a kid someday. That is okay. You pursue him for him. You are in this moment with this person who has embraced you with kindness. You talk about your dreams. He talks about his dreams; the classic open road scene with the yellow painted lines in the center, desert surrounding, and mountains in the distance. He wants to explore America one day.
You leave. You say you will be back, but deep down you can tell he just isn't sure you will keep your word.
Long walk home. Tiring. More sights, pastries, another ice cream stop, seriously guys? :)
You take fun pictures with all the different colored brick walls that outline the Albanian streets.
Street boy walks up with drums. You ask if you can take a video. He inspires you just as much as any other moment from today. Did you expect him to sing also? Nope, but he nailed it. We reward him with an ice cream snack because he freakin deserved it. He deserved any ice cream snack that he felt like having. He walked away with the drum on the right side of his waist. Drum stick in left hand. Ice cream treat in right hand. Proud.
You make it back. Shower. Prepare for disco funk night. You invite everyone at the hostel to come with you. You get two takers. Australian friend, and Japanese friend. You ask Japan friend what he loves on the walk to bar. Music. So, you talk about ALL the music. Then you talk about travel, the ideal lady, and how it is hard to have both. Australian friend gives your team his version of the "Tirana walking tour" that he experienced the day before. Albania is inspiring. But sheesh, the architecture is deeply embedded in communism.
Boom, you've arrived at the bar. Bartender greets you with a smile. Your group claps and makes a big deal of how awesome Bartender is and how you all could never let him down. It is a celebration. He is in the zone, making his creative drinks. You tell him you want to buy Kirsti a drink because you "owe her one" because she ironed your khakis for this particular occasion, but he says he's already making something special for each of us. ALSO. You have boundaries. You know you nor anyone else you are with are going to drink too much. This isn't about that. Bartender already knows you aren't there to get "fu*ked up". This was about sharing moments and laughter: Not temporary, selfish pleasure.
After much time, It is realized it is time to move on. There are sparklers to set off on top of the pyramid downtown. It IS the 4th of July.
You are then greeted by a server of another restaurant. This one is brand new. The owners insist that you come in to look around this beautiful establishment with white, flush walls that look like marble. You go into room after room, up the steps. You sing happy birthday to what appeared to be one of the owners. Literally no one is there except for you and your friends. They insist on serving you, while you learn more about your Australian friend's background and thoughts towards Christianity. Khari asks him.. "if you believed in something that was extremely important to you.. how would you share it others?"
He appreciates that humble question.
More time goes by with the owners of this restaurant. Server considers himself Muslim and doesn't want to go to church with you in the morning, but does want to spend more time with you and your friends. Boom, you give him that Albanian number again. You wish it were easier this time, but same struggle. You insist he must meet you at pyramid right after he finishes cleaning up restaurant.
Sparklers in hand. We head towards the pyramid. Australian friend goes over the plan. "Ryan, we climb up that thing. I ring the liberty bell down at the bottom. My music will be playing. The girls will do the sparklers, and the moment will be cemented in history. This was almost executed perfectly. Though,yes you did gash a hole in your finger as you reached for your tripod and instead sliced it with your shaving razor. There are Albanian receipts in your pocket for that. As in, for making it as a band-aide. Too bad blood is already all over your well-ironed khakis! Thanks again Kirsti.
The climb happened. The sparklers were lit. The "liberty bell" was rung. Freedom was declared over that pyramid that once commemorated communism.
Albania is awakening. They are becoming more curious and aware of religions. The problem is, there is competition. A massive mosque is being built near the center of the city. It could just become another trend for the Albanians. That is where you need to pray. You need to pray that they won't just be impressed by that architecture and lifestyle. Pray for the bartender. Pray for the server. The Australian, the Japanese friend. That they wont slip into just another flavor of bondage that they could be free from!
Pray for my team and for all of us racers in Albania this month. We are trying to find more contacts to partner with in Albania. Our itinerary is whatever the Holy Spirit scribbles on our hearts!
We want the cross that Jesus died on to be the only architecture that is praised in Albania.