Saturday, March 26, 2011

Albania Mission November 2010

Our journey began November 4th, 2010 when we departed Dublin for Albania. Deanne and I had been asked to go to that small country to teach the church leaders in that nation the welfare principles we were teaching in Ireland with an objective of establishing an Employment Resource Service Centre in that land. The church leadership was concerned about the large exodus of members from that country seeking employment elsewhere in Europe and not returning to help build up the church in that land. Many of these members were return missionaries who had gone to other areas of the world when their mission was finished, because they were finding it difficult finding acceptable employment when they returned home.

Our first stop was Budapest, Hungry. Budapest does have one thing in common with Ireland. it was founded by the Celtics and named Aquincum. The Celtics came into Ireland, Scotland and Whales about 500 BC and quickly became the most influencial culture on Ireland. The Irish language is the only true Celtic Language being spoken today. Irish ledgends tell us that these Celtics were remnants of the tribes of Israel. French is a close kin to the Celtic langurage. The city became known as Budapest when taken over by the Romans. It became one the centres of Renaissance humanist culture in the 15th century and enjoyed an age of prosperity in 18th and 19th centuries, becoming a global city in 1873. In 1918 it fell under Soviet influence and remained a part of the Soviet Socialist Republic's spire of influence until the Revolution of 1956 when it again become a democratic state.

This picture dose not do justice to the beauty of the mountains surrounding Budapest. It is cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with its extensive World Heritage Sites including the banks of the Danube, Buda Castle Quarter, Andrassy Avenue, Heroe's Square and the Millennium Underground Railway (second oldest in the World). The city boasts 80 underground geothermal springs and the world's largest thermal cave system. The cities current population is over 1.7 million inhabitants.

Perhaps the most spectacular sight in Budapest is the beautiful River Danube and its bridges. The most famous bridge is the Chain Bridge in the upper right of the picture. It is on all their postcards and pictorials of Budapest. The lower bridge is the Elizabeth Bridge which carries a huge volume of the traffic through the old city. Forbe's Magazine ranks Budapest as the most livable Central European city and as Europe' 7th most idyllic place to live.

Our next stop was Albania. The Republic of Albania is located in South Eastern Europe. It is bordered by Montenegro on the north west, Kosovo on the north east, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south and south east. All centers of a great deal of upheaval in the past few years. It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea to the west and the Ionian Sea to the south west. The Albanian Capital, Tirana is home to approximately 600,000 of the countries 3,639,453 people.

Approach to Tirana, Albania by air. As I look down I was struck by the view of a myriad of small farms. The information I read in advance on Albania discussed these small farms which make up the bulk of Albania. They make up a major portion of the Albanian Economy, but most are too small to be economically viable. The agriculture sector accounts for over 60% of the employment but only 20% of countries gross domestic product and is limited to primarily small family operations and subsistence farming because of lack of modern equipment, unclear property rights and prevalence of small inefficient plots of land. Yet the quality of what is produced is above average. What does that tell us about some of our modern farming practices?

View from the plane on landing. Albania was chosen as the top country in Lonely Planet's list of ten top countries for 2011. Albania is only one of two countries in Europe to achieve positive growth in the wake of the 2008 - 2009 global financial economic crises.

The landscape is a beautiful temperate Mediterranean scape similar to what you would expect in Greece or Italy.

The palm trees at the front of the air terminal were beautiful sight to see.

Tirana from our hotel window. Everywhere you looked were signs of construction. Once labeled as Europe's poorest country, Albania has enjoyed annual real economic growth rates of around 6% over the last 10 years enabling it to join the ranks of the world's upper middle income countries. Domestic private investment increased over the past 5 years from 19% to 21%.

Tirana from our hotel room. Free market reforms have opened the country to foreign investment, especially in the development of energy and transportation infrastructure. But this prosperity is slow in reaching the average person on the street with a per capita income of $4200 U.S.

An apartment building near the hotel. Every balcony displayed the days washing hanging out to dry. 12.4% of the population live below the poverty line.

During the communist rule the buildings were constructed drab and colorless. When the communists rule ended in 1992, people wanted to add color to the world by painting the apartment buildings in a mosaic of colors.

Behind the mission home we found a small grove of oranges and lemons. The variety of orange grown here is a type of mandarin. No orange tastes better than one fresh picked off the tree.

These are lemons also grown behind the mission home.

Sister Hancock picks her first orange.

Albanians are very resourceful people. Anywhere where there is a vacant space on the street a enterprising entrepreneur will come and set up a small shop selling just about anything.

On any large public area a vendors market will quickly rise. What surprised us was the quality of the produce sold. Far superior to anything back home in our large super markets. Most are fresh from the farm to the market that day.

Albania is a Islam nation. Twice a day, a call would go out for prayers. While they are Muslim in belief, you could not tell. The men and women would fit in any western county without standing out. Albania was amongst the earliest areas to accept Christianity and was visited by some of the early apostles. The area was conquered in the 15th century by the Ottoman Empire and forced to convert to Muslim religion. It remained under Ottoman control until 1912. During World War 2, Albania was annexed by Fascist Italy and Christianity was recognised again. At the end of the war the communist party took power in Albania. When they were in power the communists persecuted and suppressed religious observance and institutions. All forms of religion were entirely banned soon and the country was declared as the worlds first atheist state. Currently the religious mix is 70% Muslim, 20% Eastern Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic.

After the collapse of the Axis powers, Albania became a communist state. The communist regime collapsed in 1990 and the Republic of Albania was founded in 1991. The communist party was routed in the elections of march 1992 amid economic collapse and social unrest. The glass pyramid behind the trees was build by the communist government to be a parliamentary building but never used for that purpose. The quality of construction was very poor and the current government wants to tear it down and build a new building. This has led to a lot of public debate for and against.

More street vendors. Economic reform is hampered by Albania's very large informal gray economy, which the International Monetary Fund estimates at 30 - 40% of the economy. This sector contributes nothing in the form of income to run the counties economy.

And more street vendors. For many this is their only option for an income. However there are changes coming. In 2010 Albania saw a sharp increase in new business registrations with new business start ups, up by 48% from previous year.

A country side view. Without any planning controls new housing developments spring up anywhere, often using up some of the countries best agricultural land.

More country side views.

In the background is a large American style Mall with a number of large American stores. We were told that there is even a WalMart. But few of the population could afford to shop here even with free bus service from the city centre. The man on the side of the road makes a living herding cows on the road side to make sure they stayed off the road. They have herders herding cows, horses, sheep, geese and turkeys due to lack of quality fences. But it does keep the road sides mowed.

These are olive groves on the hill side.

Olive tree above the road.

This is an ancient castle built on top of a huge rock formation. It is the only castle we saw in Albania. It would certainly be easy to defend. How they got the construction material up there is a mystery. Probably through a lot of slave labour and the lives of many surfs. It is now used a a very elite restaurant and hotel.

Tirana from the castle. The majority of trees seen here are olive groves. Olive trees will grow in any spot and use very little water compared to other fruit trees.

A close up of an olive tree. Notice the barren rock formation it grows on.

If you look close you can see the olives.

Thats better! There they are. Not a bad flavor either. Especially for someone like me that dose not like olives.

This is one of Tirana's best restaurant and very popular with visitors. Our meal was 75000 leks each. A fortune for the average Albanian. But less than $10 Canadian.

Another Orange tree outside of the Tirana District Centre (Stake Centre)


More oranges

More colorfull apartment blocks

This is our hotel. The Tirana International Hotel. One of the flags flying in front was a Canadian Maple Leaf in honor of the Canadians staying a the hotel. In 2003 Albania applied to join the European Union. While we were there, a delegation from the European Union was staying in hotel. They had come to investigate the potential for Albania's membership. There were demonstrations everywhere in support of joining. Most Albanians we talked to, saw it as their countries only hope for breaking out of its narrow growth potential on its own. It received favorable reports, but the European delegation told them that the government had to do more to eliminate corruption in government bodies.

This was the large public square in front of the hotel. Normally if was well landscaped, but at the moment it is dug up to install an underground subway.

This is the statue of Albania's National Hero; General Gjergi Kastrioti Skenderbog, who in 1443 let a successful rebelion against the Ottoman rule and united the country into its current borders of today. He was supported by Rome in this cause. After his death in 1468 the Ottoman's were once again able to conquer Albania and bring it back under their rule.

Another ramshackled vendor in front of our hotel. This shop sold souvenirs and the music of a local artist. This is the shop we bought a uneque two string guitar, the Cifteli, which we purchased as a gift for Brody's birthday. The shop owner, Zanat, played the guitar for us and included a copy of his latest CD in the sale. We afterwards learned that he is one of the most popular folk artists in Albania with large CD sales throughout the world.

A beautiful large palm tree in front of our hotel.

One enterprising entrepreneur set up on the side walk just down the street from our hotel, a small midway for children. It became so popular that the city decided to let him stay permenently.

Recognising a good thing, another entrepreneur set up a popcorn stand near by. What more could we ask for. Reminds me of the popcorn vendor who use to be set up in Galt Gardens in Lethbridge when I was in my youth. We as kids always looked forward to his popcorn everytime we went to the city. It was our parents way of bribing us to be good while they shopped. While they shopped we played in Galt Gardens and ate popcorn.

Tirana from the moutain side. The homes just below were very beautiful but would be beyond the price range of the majority of Albanians.

Albania's version of the Statue of Liberty and tribute Albania's war dead.

Tirana from the war memorial.

Many of Albania's war heros are buried here.

Fellow Canadians, Elder and Sister Wilson hail from Chillowack, BC are our equivalent missionaries in Terana with a dual charge of Humanitarian Aid and Employment.

A day at the beach. Was not a good day. This is the Adriatric Sea and Albania's summer meca at Durres. Tourism, textiles and shoe manufacturing are expected to be the primary growth areas in the near future.

Albania is Europe's best value for tourism and identified as one of the countries biggest growth industry. The cost of staying in one of Europe's finest hotels is but a fraction of the cost in Italy or Budapest.

In the summer these beaches are flooded with tourists from Europe seeking a low cost holiday.

This is the street leading to the LDS Tirana 1st Branch chapel. If you didn't know where the church was you would never find it. There are no street signs or direction signs to follow. Parking is almost non-existant.

This is the Tirana 1st Branch Chapel with sister Hancock standing in the entrance. The chapel occupes all 3 floors of this building. There is room for 3 cars to park in front.

This is the view of the yard behind the chapel.

Here is the reason we are here in Tirana. Sitting on the left is the District President. He is 27 years old. He served a mission in Scotland. At present he is still single but engaged to a member of the Branch. They are hoping to be married in the Temple but have been upable to obtain an exit visa to leave the country to be married in a temple. Although the communist era has ended, some of the communist's practices are still in place. The fear is that if they allow too many of one family to leave they will not return to their homeland.

Here is a beautiful hedge of many colars near the chapel.

This is a tribute to The National Hero, General Skandergog in the National museum across the street from our hotel.

More of the tribute to General Skenderbog

This is the Tirana 3rd branch chapel and Young Single Adult Centre. The church puts a lot of emphasis on th YSA programs in Europe. If the church is to grow in many of these countries it has to come from the YSA age group. They are the church's future leaders.

More of the Tirana 3rd Branch building with some of the young single adults outside the building.

The streets in this area were certainly not built for autos. Parking is just about non-existant.

This is a huge Albanian apple we found in the local farmers market. It weight 5 lbs. must have fed it Popeye's spinach.

When the Communists were in power only the leaders were allowed to own cars. Private ownership of cars in Albania is only a recent event. Less than 15 years. There are rules of the road but nobody pays any attention to them. At entersections it is a case that only the brave cross over to the otherside. No one pays attention to street directional signs or traffic lights. If there is a space to enter you enter and slowly force your way through to the otherside. Yet strangly there are less auto accidents in countries like Albania than else where in the world. This is probabley because you are unable to get up enough speed to cause any damage.

Down below a lone police officer was trying to direct traffic, but being totally ignored. Finally he gave up in discuss and stood and watched the mayham from the sidewalk.

On November 10th we returned to Dublin. On the return trip there was a lot of turbulence. As we crossed the Alps the plane began to shake and bounce violently in the air. This disturbed many of the passangers. One man across the isle from us got very agitated and he was sure this was the end. As I silently prayed for protection a voice came to me saying "use your priesthood to bless the plane". This I did and suddenly the turbulence ended and we proceeded on to Dublin without further incindents. The Lord was demonstrating to me his power, the power of the priesthood and his protection over us. A lesson I will not soon forget.

Albania was an interesting experience. One which we will never forget. The country and the people were beautiful. We hope to go back there some day, but the likelyhood is very remote. We wish the members of the church a sad but emotional farewell. Your strength and testimony were a strength to us. The Willson's are a dedicated couple and we know they are where the Lord wants them at this time. God bless!!!!!!

View our older blogs entries including the following entries:

Christmas 2010



Welcome to Ireland

Birminham England

The MTC Experience

Ron's Family

Salt Lake City Spring 2010

How we got here