Friday, August 30, 2013

Bloodfest aka Kulmak aka DEAD SHEEP ERRRRYWHERE

I need to do a better post on religion in Albania, but a small introduction will suffice for now. 

Last weekend, a bunch of volunteers headed to south central Albania for Kulmak, a Bektashi ceremony on Mount Tomorri. The Bektashi order is an Islamic Sufi order founded in Turkey in the 13th century. The headquarters is in Tirana, and a large percentage of Bektashis live in Albania. Kulmak - or "Bloodfest," as we PCVs fondly refer to it - is a giant celebration on a giant mountain in honor of a flying saint on a flying horse but for some reason 7,000 sheep are slaughtered which is why we call it "Bloodfest" and I'm about as clear in this sentence as I am on the particulars of the event.

Anyway, the trip was an adventure, to say the least. Megan and I made it from Lushnje to Berat, where we had lunch with some PCVs (including Dan, who lives there and who I finally got to visit!) before a larger group of us headed further south to Corovode. In Corovode, we met up with even more PCVs and the two that live there, Heather and Lizzie. The town is gorgeous: built into a hill, there are tons of beautiful stone steps up the slopes, with restaurants nestled in the switchbacks of the roads. 

Because our group was so big, we split up the next morning to travel up the mountain. After some difficulty finding a ride (so expensive for my little group of four!), we flagged down a passing truck with sheep in the back. Somehow we managed to squeeze ourselves in, and braced ourselves for a hair-raising, stomach-churning, vertigo-inducing three-hour climb.

Of course, we stopped for coffee in an isolated little village halfway up.

Close to the festivities, we happened upon two other PCVs who had hiked most of the way up and who joined the sheep in the back of the truck. As we reached the top, ominous clouds were rolling in over the triple peaks of Tomorri and we all ran over to a make-shift lokale protected by a myriad of tarps and sheets. Thankfully, our luck kept and we grabbed a table and pulled up chairs just as it started raining...CATS. AND. DOGS.

It got cold - really cold - and I loved it. After this summer, a fresh, cool breeze and a couple of goosebumps were, dare I say it?, delicious. (Yes, I'm going to eat my words in about six months. Feel free to remind me and make fun of my insulation-less cement apartment. I won't be enjoying the nice fresket breezes so much then...)

After the rain abated, we checked out the festivities. The gloomy weather lent a sort of macabre air to the lively music accompanying a backdrop of bleating sheep and bloody slaughter grounds. Seriously, so. very. eastern. European. Think Dracula. Or Dracula-ish. If he didn't drink blood but instead spat it out all over a mountain.

Sorry about that imagery. Brace yourself for a few gory photos:

Of course there were some bloodthirsty PCVs who wanted to slaughter their own sheep "in the name of cultural immersion." There's a video. I feel like I must have a heart of ice because it doesn't give me nightmares. It should.

Later on, we went for a hike up the road towards the peak where the holy tekke stands. It's a good 3 hour hike, and we didn't intend on going all the way up (as it was getting late), but some shqiptars pulled over and told us to hop in for a ride to the top. The views continued to be spectacular all the way up.

After a lamb is slaughtered, everyone gets a thumbprint of the blood on their forehead, similar to ashes on Ash Wednesday.

We returned just before nightfall and made our way to where the Peace Corps Albania 2013 Sacrificial Lamb was salted and cooking over hot coals. It took about three an a half hours (and, in my opinion, was still a little undone when we ate it...but no food poisoning, I'm still alive, so it must have been okay), and when it was finished, we ate it on a table, in the woods, on a mountain, by the light of dozens of campfires and a few American LED headlamps.

Please don't ask us to explain how or why, but I didn't bring a sleeping bag and Megan didn't bring pants so we shared a sleeping bag. It wasn't the most comfortable night of my life, but there's something about sleeping (or not) under the stars on a mountain in Eastern Europe in the Peace Corps that made it all feel almost magical.

Meg and I got up around 5:30, took a walk, and found some Turkish coffee. We sat on a ledge eating fruit, sipping our terrible muddy coffee, and watched the sun rise over the valley as the rest of the camp slowly woke up. The festival was fun and interesting, but it's moments like those that made the trip so special. Not long after, Heather joined us and we started walking down the mountain, being picked up after a short period of time by a full-to-bursting furgon (including: seats for nine passengers, seventeen people, two broken stools, a sleeping baby, three American hiking packs, and a dead sheep).

 Seriously, what an awesome adventure.


  1. Mary, this is marvelous and I love your descriptive word choices. I felt I was there with you. Thank you for your details and so vividly sharing. You look fantastic and your smile warms my heart. Keep going at God speed! Hugs, Mom

  2. Hello, you don't know me but I was in Niger, West Africa with Peace Corps. I stumbled onto your blog and I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed reading through some of your adventures. You have a fantastic outlook on life! I hope you are having an awesome time - it looks like you are from your blog. Keep up the great work - you're making Peace Corps proud. :)

  3. Hi April - I'm so glad you enjoyed some of my adventures! I read some of yours from a few years back - hippos and tse tse flies and black magic, oh my!

    And thanks, Mumsy. Love you always. :)