I’m in my final week of my service and the past few weeks have been busy doing everything that I can before I leave Albania. Today, I got to experience a true traditional Albanian festival called Babaj Boks (or Babaj i Bokes) that happens only one a year on May 6th in a small, remote village in Kosovo near the Tropoje border crossing. I wasn’t able to do last year because I had work with my hypertension training, so I was so happy that I had a chance to go this year with the family.
We started preparing for the feast the night before by cooking byrek, French fries, fli, salad, and other snacks for UA to eat there. Mama Gjylle woke up at 6am to make sure the pumpkin byrek would be warm and fresh for the event. Also, to my surprise, while we were all sleeping, Mama Gjylle came around to each of our beds and sprinkled a small amount of flower water from the cup she was holding. I later learned that this was a traditional thing to do each year on May 6th and is known to ward away evil. This is just one of many superstitions that Albanians have (read more about Albanian superstitions that I’ve experienced by clicking here). The rest of the family woke up at 7am to get ready. The family’s aunt and uncle from the village T’Pla were already there, sitting in the living room waiting for us to get ready. After about an hour, we all headed out in the families mini SUV to meet two other uncles of theirs and their families at a gas station near the Kosovo border. When everyone arrived, we all drove together in a line to the event (our cell phones don’t work in Kosovo, they only work if someone puts extra money on their phone a which still ends up not being enough to talk for a good amount of time so we usually don’t do that).
As we drove up the long road to the field where the fest was being held, we passed by many carriages and trucks filled with sheep and chickens. There were people everywhere! Many people took buses or taxis just to the turnoff from the maim highway and were walking up the long, windy road. And at that time, it was already at least 85 degrees. I was happy to be comfortable in a nice, air-conditioned car, blocked by the heat. As we got to the place where we parked the car, I could see in the near distance old, rundown fair rides with children swing in the air. It reminded me a lot of the Renaissance Festival that we have in Colorado with the field parking and outdoor festivities, but just WAY more simple and rusty.
Before checking out all the rides and games, we followed a crowd of people walking further up the hill to a small mosque-like building (I really couldn’t tell what it was because it didn’t have the traditional mosque tower, but I do know that it was for Muslims). Gimi told me that it was traditional that everyone goes into this building before they start their festivities to get “blessed.”
I joined in on the traditions which included placing my hand on what looked like a long coffin box covered in handmade blankets and asking for blessings, getting a giant hoop made out of beads thrown over me as I tried to climb through it, and finally getting a blue piece of yarn to put around my wrist to wear throughout the day. They all knew that I was a foreigner and allowed me to take photos and videos of the traditions. See them in the videos below.
This next part is a bit gory so if you don’t like seeing or reading about the killing of animals I suggest skipping a head. Next, Gimi and I went behind the building to see the butchers with the sheep that they had slaughtered for the fest. Normally, I would not agree to see this as I’m a vegetarian and very against the slaughtering of animals for fun. But, today I felt very open-minded and interested in experiencing this tradition, knowing that I would probably never get a chance to experience something like this again.
There was blood everywhere! The sheep were lined up on two sides of a large tarp and the butchers went around cutting off the sheep’ tongues and handing them to people which is also a seen as a symbol of luck. Then, the butchers began to prepare the sheep for the food vendors to cook and sell down at the tents closer to the festival grounds.
When we got back to our cars, we found a tree close to the carnival rides and set up our blankets and pillows in the shade. I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement so Gimi, Joni, and I head towards the rides to get a better look at the festival.
The scene was exactly like a stereotypical Albanian country fair. There were multiple swing rides made out of chains and metal, throwing children in round-abouts as they tried to bump can tackle each others’ seats in the air. Small, homemade roulette tables and spinners were set up under umbrellas with teenage boys huddled around. Ring toss games over soda bottles cover in euros and cheap cellphones as prizes were spread out through the fairgrounds for people to test their depth perception and luck. On the opposite side of the fair, there was a small farmer’s markets-like setup of food and clothes vendors and eating areas under large tents for people to relax and enjoy their food. Two men with dressed up in traditional wear walked around the park pounding on drums the size of their stomachs while various people would stop and dance around them until they headed to their next destination.
After exploring the grounds we went back to the swings where Joni met up with his other friends and gave the ride a go a couple of times. After the second round, Gimi looked at me and said “Hajde” (come here) as he pulled me to the swings. Just like before, usually I would never partake in this, seeing that the ride was clearly very old and would never pass the regulations that we have for rides I’m America. But again, I was feeling open-minded and adventurous so I hopped on an open swing and handed my camera to Joni.
It was the craziest ride I’d ever been on. The people in front of me would randomly bang on my seat as they twisted and turned to make the ride more enjoyable for themselves. Gimi was sites behind me and at one point during the ride he grabbed my sit and twisted it until I was facing him and was flying in the backwards direction. The funny thing is that I wasn’t scared at all. Not even a bit. Even the fact that I was the only female on the ride didn’t bother me. I just enjoyed the moment and took it all in. It was simple amazing. And of course we went for a second time. But by the third time, Joni was getting to anxious so we let him and his friends continue their fun and let them take our seats.
Gimi and I then went to try the ringtoss game which we completely failed both times, then grabbed some ice cream and a hamburger (for Gimi of course) and then head back to the picnic area with the rest of the family.
The blanket was covered in foods made by each of the families. Everyone was either laying in the shade or playing soccer nearby. I sat down and ate some of Mama Gjylle’s pumpkin byrek which I had been thinking about since waking up to the smell of it baking that morning and watched as the kids tossed the soccer ball back and forth.
And that brings me to where I am now – sitting on a furgon (Albanian for “bus”) reflecting on the day I just had. It was definitely a much different experience than I’ve had during the my service. And it was so much fun. I loved how much I felt part of the family and how I truly got to experience something that foreigners probably never get to experience while traveling. I feel Albanian, yet I know that it’s only temporary. I could not think of a better way to end my experience, feeling like I’ve truly mastered a culture and feeling comfortable to live in that culture as if I am one of their own. It’s the perfect final experience before heading to Peace Corps office to end my service.
Now the tough part is coming…saying goodbye to everyone. It’s something that I’ve been trying to prepare myself for because I know it’s going to be one of the hardest goodbyes for me to say. But I’ll be sure to write about it in another blog post for you to see how I handle the situation. 🙂