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Exposure to others is a learning experience

Many people have never heard of Albania or have no idea where it is. That was me before I went there last October. Now I have learned many facts about this basically Balkan country. The capital, which is Tirana, is located about 30 minutes inland from the seacoast town of Durres, where we stayed.

Albania has a population of nearly 3 million people, and most of them are Muslims, along with some Catholic and Orthodox folks. Their money system is leks -- 1,000 of which are equal to $10 of American money. Since 1942, the country had labored under communism. But in 1992, university students staged an uprising and a break was made. It is now an emerging democracy.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to travel to many faraway countries, most of them vastly different from America. But it has only been in the past five years that I have been privileged to be more than just a tourist, which is wonderful in and of itself.

Going to a foreign country as a learning experience really makes a difference. I never knew what I was missing. I have been to Africa and the Holy Land, but my most recent adventure took me to Albania. Our church had established a church there in the 1990s because one of our pastors had learned this most difficult language while in the service.

This poorest of the European countries, Albania is located north of Greece and east of Italy. I found the people to be very friendly and hospitable to Americans.

While there, we had the opportunity to teach in a preschool for four days. We loved the children and found them to be very cooperative. We had taken all of the materials that we needed to teach the crafts and share the stories we told. The group we taught was composed of preschoolers who were missing either one or both of their parents and thus lived with grandparents. A real highlight for the children was the parachute that we brought with us, along with sunglasses for all of the children. They loved them.

One of the most enjoyable parts of our trip involved visiting people in their homes. Often on previous trips, we were unable to interact with the citizens of the country. But the many Albanians we met were gracious and hospitable. They welcomed us with open arms and provided us with a series of delicious treats soon after we arrived in their homes. Even though they had little, they wanted to share what they had with us. We were exposed to byreks, made with layers of phyllo dough and filled with spinach, cheese and meat if it was available. They are sold everywhere on the streets.

I sincerely believe that if we Americans were able to travel to other countries and interact with folks who lived there, we would soon learn that most people are alike, regardless of their locale, the language they speak or what they wear or eat. People around the world just want to live a decent life, take care of their families and get along with others.

We here in America take so much for granted: clean water (we drank only bottled water in Albania), the privilege of driving (we walked almost everywhere) and the availability of jobs (many people in Albania must go out of their country for employment in order to provide for their families).

I would love to see everyone have the opportunity I have had to travel and experience so many places in the world.