Chapter Two: The Orphans
Our first stop was an orphanage housing perhaps fifty to one hundred children from the ages of three to about six. The building, a two story affair made of concrete and stone, sat back from the beach about three hundred feet. For the first time that day we heard sounds of laughter and cries of joy as the orphans ran out to meet us. They were an exuberant group as only children can be. The sight and noise of those little angels energized us after our tiring journey. It did not take them long to get in trouble with their nurses. They just had to finger and inspect our van, tools, hardware, sleeping bags, personal luggage and the containers of food and water. Their guardians tried in vain to control them. We did not interfere. We soon adopted some of them (or maybe it was the other way around. I was never quite sure!). My keeper was a little girl whom I named Alice. She followed me everywhere; she even became my 6:00 a. m. alarm clock. After we had unloaded the van (with many helpers), we set about planning our activities for the next day.
On Monday morning the Major, Bennie and the directress by the name of Victoria, met with the town judet (ex party official acting as mayor) to obtain permission to work at the orphanage. I suppose that was necessary since the school was government run. The mayor explained that since the Italian charity organization, Caritas, had already agreed to do the job of modernization then any major work on our part would be superfluous. We had come prepared to do a job, so we set about doing it without the man’s approval.
After a quick breakfast we brought in the refrigerator and one electric stove that had so mysteriously become surplus back in Naples. As my son had so accurately predicted, I handed out the tools to the Major and the guide as they hammered their way through a foot thick concrete wall to run new wiring and rip out the existing antiquated cables. Both dedicated men bled a lot and shook their numb fingers but did not complain. If the ladies were delighted with their new acquisitions, they were totally ecstatic with the washing machine.
We three men took turns pounding holding devices into the unyielding wall for the water heater, copper piping and the valves. When we finally turned on the machine, the “oohs”and Iaahs” sounded like music to our ears. The guide patiently explained to the ladies the action of the agitator and the importance of the sequence of operations. We hoped that he impressed the staff sufficiently to insure a long life for the machine. The directress begged us for a shower hookup, but we had to refuse her because we did not have an extra head. We tried vainly to rig up something. We felt badly about it, but the matter was out of our hands. It took a while for the guide to get that point across; nevertheless, our inability to help the lady did not diminish our feeling of regret.
At one point Alice took my hand and with a mysterious and secretive look on her face walked me over to the communal wash room. She pointed to the water gushing out of the faucets at full force. The Major had brought replacement parts. But I made a big deal out of the discovery, expressing surprise and dismay. I looked around for the shut off valve but I could not find it. I was on the verge of panic when a neighbor who had been supervising the whole operation came to my rescue. He directed me to the beach area where we found the proper mechanism. In no time I had the water shut off and the dozen faucets repaired much to the delight of Alice and the other children. I guess they figured us to be miracle workers. I did not dare tell them the truth.
The ladies treated us to lunch one day. They fussed and flurried about the kitchen serving up all sorts of foods, the names of which I could not comprehend, cooked in true Balkan style. The meal was marvelous and so were the ladies. Their shyness slowly disappeared. From out of nowhere we heard all sorts of English words (we marveled at their fast learning abilities!). A picture taking session followed the meal. The proverbial “ice” had been broken. As the house staff posed for posterity, great smiles transformed their faces into things of beauty, both physical and spiritual. We felt good about ourselves, not only as altruistic Americans, but as fellow human beings. We went back to work with a lightness to our feet and renewed strength in our arms.
After supper each night we bedeviled the children with American games and pranks (I was never really sure who bewitched whom!).
One day we took tools and goods to the neighboring nursery. It was the home of babies two years old and under. We installed a showerhead, two water heaters and ceiling lights. The heater in the laundry room cheered the women working there. Finally, they all exclaimed at the same time, we have hot water and will not have to work like animals any more. “Amen” to that we said. We only had to look at their arthritic hands to agree fervently with them.
The nurses voiced much approbation for the showerhead, crying out that they could now wash themselves and their babies properly. But the babies seemed to be in pretty good health considering the fact that the nurses were operating under extremely trying conditions: few amenities, few medicines. I had not seen so much joy expressed by so many people over so few gifts in a long time. I must comment here about a seeming paradox. Even though the Albanians are hesitant about accepting personal presents, they appreciate donations made to the community.
We finished late at night and since the ladies had absconded with the van after they had done a great job as ceiling light installers, we were faced with the prospect of lugging everything on foot or leaving the equipment behind. So I volunteered (again) to stay. It wasn’t that we mistrusted anyone; it did not seem prudent to leave so much valuable stuff unguarded. I spent a pleasant evening conversing with the three night nurses in English, French and sign language. We sat around a small heater plate boiling water for tea. As I surveyed the nursery that night, I was touched by how so much adversity and material shortages in poor countries such as Albania are overcome by the love and devotion of the caregivers. In my travels there I saw the same pattern repeated time and time again. But actually they were no different from all the other caregivers the world over: nurses, doctors, nuns, parents, teachers, medical personnel, members of the clergy, devoted, efficient, sometimes appreciated, sometimes maligned, sometimes even murdered. God bless them all, I prayed.
Late Wednesday afternoon we finished our chores in Vlora and made preparations to leave for Tirana, the capitol and the guide’s home. It was a sad departure. The children insisted that we stay. After a photo taking session and many hugs and kisses from everyone, we drove away. The children ran alongside the van for a distance yelling and waving their arms. We waved back until we no longer could see them. I was relieved to see that mine were not the only misty eyes in the van. I have carried that scene with me for a long time. It was late in the evening when we arrived at the guide’s home. Some of us stayed with him and others spent the night at a neighbor’s. We had a delightful evening. Our hosts impressed us with their interest in the outside world, especially the U.S. It was illuminating to discover that they had retained a natural curiosity after a lifetime of brain washing and anti- western propaganda.
I became aware of that great pride and self respect mentioned before. To sit and talk to someone who had gone through that hideously debasing and chilling iron rule of tyranny imagined by Orwell and executed by Hodja was a humbling lesson, something that all Americans should experience for themselves. However, I bad forgotten that these people were mountain folks, proud descendants of those tough warriors who had fought with their national hero, Skanderbeg, holding the Turks at bay for twenty five years in the fifteenth century when those fierce conquerors were at the height of their power.
That night I introduced my hosts to the joys and benefits of Irish coffee. After ignoring admonitions to take it easy on the local firewater, I proceeded to make a fool of myself. I did what every two fisted, red blooded American male does: I “chugallugged “a few jiggers and then poured one into the coffee. My hosts paled when they observed that. The combination of thick Albanian coffee (strong enough to revive the dead) and firewater was an eye opener for me. It hit me like a bomb. But I refused to show the effect. Needless to say I did it only once.
The next morning by some Byzantine, under handed finagling, the Major obtained the use of a Chinese made truck. With that worthy vehicle we headed west to Durazzo to reclaim our supplies for the next campaign. Our two intrepid ladies went directly north with our personal belongings. At the port we once again bad the pleasure of lunching at the Italian mess hall.
The road followed the coast for a while and then turned east and north to run sandwiched between the inland mountain range and a long agricultural valley that we quickly titled “the Albanian Central Valley”. It seemed to be that productive. Our destination was a hospital, in a small town named Bushat, maintained by the male auxiliary arm of the Missionaries of Charity, the world wide organization led by Mother Teresa. The town had the usual collection of nondescript houses about which I have already commented. The hospital, a jerrybuilt concrete affair, bad an emergency room, a dentist office containing rudimentary equipment such as a foot operated drill, a dispensary and about a dozen patients’ rooms, some with lights, some without. There was no running water and no washing facilities. In fact there was no water anywhere in the community because someone had stolen all the piping, the holding tank and even the pump itself.
The missionaries did their best, but here again shortages of medicines and modern equipment made the job of care giving seem almost impossible. The ignorance of basic hygienic practices among the population was not assuaged by the national government, itself suffering from an acute shortage of funds. Still, the locals managed to survive largely due to the help and advice of a remarkable young woman doctor by the name of Odetta, Odetta Maria Hasaj.