If you decide to volunteer in Albania, prepare to be Taken. Not by mafia members, although you may need someone with Liam Neeson’s strength to drag you away again. Taken by the Albanian Riviera, by the charm of the Ottoman style mountain villages, by the markets brimming with fresh, local produce, and of course, by the charm of the incessantly-friendly Albanians. Albania is a smorgasbord of traveler’s delights that is not (yet) crawling with tourists. As a country still struggling under the weight of many social issues, Albania is in need of meaningful travelers in the form of international volunteers.
The isolating walls of an extreme communist regime were brought down more than two decades ago, but Albania remains something of a mystery to the outside world. Despite an almost non-existent tourist industry, Albania has all of the things people travel for. From the Riviera to the Alps, Albania ticks boxes that not even Lonely Planet knew existed.
As far as capitals go, Tirana is pretty darn cool. A history of communism and isolationism hasn’t been kind to the aesthetics of the city, but you can’t hate a place that paints its buildings a rainbow of colors to instill pride in its citizens and demonstrate the spirit and resilience of its people. It is Tirana’s spirit that makes it an exceptional place to volunteer in Albania. Even at its most dilapidated, or at its ugliest and poorest, Tirana is feisty and lovable.
If urban sprawls aren’t your thing, Albania has plenty of mountainous sprawl too. The Albanian Alps are, for lack of a better word, spectacular. The craggy mountains cradle rivers, lakes, gorges, and Europe’s southernmost glaciers. As well as villages that wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard, such as the unpronounceable Thethi and Valbonë. Simple, traditional ways of life have been carefully preserved in these villages, which volunteers will have the privilege of getting to know intimately.
If you want the best of everything, Gjirokaster strikes an easy balance between mountain village and capital city. And, it definitely has the best of everything: Ottoman-era houses, twisty cobbled streets, an Old Bazaar, and a castle to top it all off. Not to mention sweeping views across the Drina Valley, and long white beaches just a short drive away.
Volunteer Programs in Albania
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Albania needs volunteers to help with a broad spectrum of projects. Whether you like working with children or working with your hands, your skills and enthusiasm will be warmly welcomed in any area of volunteer work in Albania.
As the country develops, education, community development, and construction projects are all hungry for voluntary helpers. These types of volunteer programs in Albania typically last from one to four weeks, but staying for a minimum of two weeks is recommended, so that you’re able to make more of an impact and appreciate the culture you’re working with better.
You will have the opportunity to make a real difference in local people’s lives as a volunteer in Albania. Also, if you choose to volunteer in childcare, you will probably find it too hard to leave after a week anyway (just look at those faces). So, unpack those bags, trade your hiking shoes for a pair of opinga, and get to know the natives! That is, if you can understand anyone.
The Albanian language may excite linguists with its uniqueness, but bearing no relation to any other language, it just baffles most people. Although it is possible to get by as a volunteer in Albania without any Albanian language skills, learning a handful of words will help you enormously; never underestimate the value of being able to thank someone in their own language. Beyond that, if you are going to rely on sign language to communicate, save yourself endless confusion, and wrap your head around the idea that nodding your head means “no” and shaking your head means “yes”.
Costs & Affordability
Albania is like honey to all the broke backpackers buzzing around Eastern Europe. Quite possibly the cheapest country in Europe, Albania holds the sweet promise of budget-friendly adventure. Volunteering abroad in Albania requires more dedication than money though. Program fees in Albania are some of the most affordable you can find anywhere in Europe, especially when you consider that transfers, accommodation, and meals are all typically included.
In your free time, you will be able to easily and affordably enjoy everything Albania has to offer. Burek, buses, and beers won’t set you back more than a few leke, making it easy to reward yourself after a few weeks of volunteer work in Albania. Berat and Sarande are the most popular spots to backpack your way to, but there are plenty of other smaller destinations that just haven’t made it onto tourists’ radars yet (just Google image Himare and Lukove).
It is worth noting, however, that while buses are dirt cheap, getting around can be a pain in a place you don’t want a pain. There is no national bus service in Albania, no bus stations, and usually no one around who speaks English. Trying to find the right place to stand to flag down the right (often decrepit) bus is a telling exercise in realising how under-developed Albania is, and a great reminder as to why volunteers like yourself are so needed.
The only significant costs you will face as a volunteer in Albania will be the flights getting you there (it’s not exactly a well-flown route). To help you cover those travel expenses, look into starting a fundraiser on FundMyTravel.com; it has the power to make all the difference.
Accommodation & Visas
Volunteering in Albania is guaranteed to be different. As an eclectic mix of Balkan, Ottoman, and Mediterranean influences, Albania is its own unique brand of exciting.
While volunteering in Albania, the most likely living scenario you’ll be placed in will be with a host family, meaning you will be thrown headfirst into the crazy cultural mix. You will have a reasonable level of comfort, but it is worth noting that Albania is one of the least developed countries in Europe. You won’t be able to flush your toilet paper and the tap water won’t always be safe to drink. What you may be missing in creature comforts though, you will be compensated for in fresh figs and grapes; both seem to be an almost mandatory requirement of any good Albanian garden.
There are a long list of nationalities that can enter Albania without a visa, making it more simple to become a volunteer. To make sure your nationality is included on this list, check out GoAbroad’s Albanian Embassy Directory.
Benefits & Challenges
Aside from the unadulterated pleasures of deserted beaches, budget-friendly everything, and some of the Mediterranean’s best olives, volunteering in Albania comes hand-in-helping-hand with untold benefits.
First and foremost, you will have the invaluable opportunity to get to know the Albanian people. Traveling through the country, it is easy to stay in a tourist bubble, with no meaningful interaction with any locals. As a volunteer in Albania, however, you’ll hear stories from under the communist regime, of five children sharing one piece of bubblegum because it was such a rarity, and about displaying coke cans on mantelpieces because it was a splash of color in a grey world. Volunteer work in Albania is the ultimate gateway to understanding Albania’s history, people, and mentality.
You will also have the satisfaction of knowing you are making a real difference. It might be tough at times seeing the hardships that some Albanians live with on a daily basis, but you will be rewarded with all kinds of feels when you see the hard work you put in paying off.
For sure, Albania isn’t the easiest country to travel and volunteer abroad in. Corruption is rife, poverty is widespread, and there is a significant lack of infrastructure. But of course, you wouldn’t be volunteering in Albania if it was a rich, developed nation.
Albania is nowhere near as threatening as the black, double-headed eagle on its red flag would have you believe. You might go there knowing little, but as a volunteer in Albania you will learn a lot. You may go to Albania to help people in need, but you will stay for the warmth of the local people; you will go to Albania as a volunteer, but leave as a friend.