We walked for 8 hours to promote World Peace and Understanding. We never gave it a name until now. It didn’t matter at the time. It was a pure coincidence but then it wasn’t. I started to admire mountain climber Uta Ibrahimi’s passion for nature and discipline in keeping control, dedicating herself fully to something she realized is her dream.
We didn’t manage to hike together this time, probably because we need to prepare to catch up with a biker who goes around Kosova on a 500km (no mistakes in zeros!) bike ride within three days to promote children’s rights and protection. I also admire my colleague, Gjeni’s father, Mr.Sadik Shporta who hikes for years and has rejuvenated by hiking. He, Uta, and Uncle Ilir Himaduna (our actual ‘kismet’ guide) are emitters of pure natural energy and hope, because that’s what climbing mountains does to you; it shows you the roughness of mother earth but also how protective she is in rising your awareness to watch out for your steps, or else, you may fall into an abyss! Uncle Ilir was fasting. I could not completely understand how he could do it, but he did take care of himself by pouring spring-water to his head and swimming for a small while.
He, Ermal (YES 2015-16, Pilot Mountain, North Carolina), a superbly polite young man who just returned from the program and Alisa (YES 2010-2011, Baxter, Iowa), who reminds me of the image of the woman on the famous “ We Can Do It!” poster, challenged themselves into reaching the Konjusha peak (2570m height), while the rest of us were resting our feet on the cold waters of the Konjusha lake. Alisa and Ermal who I went for a drink after the hike with told me that ‘uncle Ilir’ shook their hands when they reached the peak. It is a hiker’s gesture of congratulating their peer ‘when a mountain peak has been inhabited’.
Uncle Ilir is a myth in Prizren, known as ‘The man beaten by the bear’.
When ‘The Revenant’ was screened in the cinema in Prizren, everyone who saw it, related it to uncle Ilir’s story. He showed my YES alumni students his wounds while they had heard of him as of an urban legend who fascinatingly survived a bear attack. Now he was their hiking-guide!
Our target was the spring of Lumbardhi river, (means ‘white river’) at 2100m height. The four newcomer alumni were aiming to bond with alumni from all YES Program generations in Kosova. Some of them now hold master’s degrees: Dite Gashi, (YES 2008-2009, Rockville, Maryland), MBA from Stuart School of Business at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Alisa Hasani, MA in Political Science from Iowa State University. Some have a GPA of 4.0 as an international student in a Turkish language institution of International Relations in Eskisehir University in Turkey- please join me in congratulating Mjellma Vula (YES 2012-2013, McPherson, Kansas) , everyone!!!
The hike was rough, so our bonding needed to be real. We needed to support each other- the ones who were left behind were taught to be looked after by the prior hiker. At some point I thought that playing snowballs by a lake at the height of 2450m on June 25th in 36 degrees Celsius was not such a well-developed idea, due to the roughness of the terrain. We had to climb through rocks to get from the river-spring to the lake. Getting back was the difficult part. At some point, I lost sight of both the group in front of me and behind and my coin flipped! This is no way to hike! I somehow managed to follow my instincts and trace the group on the front, but I was missing the younger ones behind. I screamed from the top of my lungs ‘Rina!!!’. Rina (YES 2013-2014, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) is the YES alumni momma, the coordinator who everyone utterly respects and admires for her dedication and thinking head- smart as a whip! It is said that when you’re on top of a mountain, you should scream to relieve stress! I did!
At some point I saw Dite on the other hill, but he didn’t see me. I’m still not sure whether they heard my voice or saw me. I finally saw a hand-wave, I think it was Migena (YES 2015-2016, Appleton, Wisconsin), a newcomer alumni who was persistent enough to apply for the YES program twice in a row and got it the second time! My request from then on- not verbally but by example was that everyone watches out for the person in front and behind of them. Even the roughly 70 sheep we saw cross the river 100m down our hike were walking one by one, drawing the line for each-other!
I think this is what we considered community service. Starting the bonding within our own small circle and then once we’ve secured it, moving on to a bigger impact!
Many international friends of my YES alumni started looking at their calendars to book a vacation in Kosova, inspired by facebook and instagram photos they posted. There is so much space in this country to be productive and impactful. What we need is to open our hearts and never give up on our vision. There is no such thing as two human beings being unable to communicate! We only need to find the appropriate circumstances to convince them that it is about time to open up! Sometimes, it has to start by hiking in the mountains!
Fjolla Hoxha is the YES Program Coordinator at American Councils for International Education Kosova for seven years.