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Sastavila: Snežana Radojičić
First Kilometers in Albania
We were excited about crossing into Albania as if we were crossing into another world. The first sights greeting us along the Bojana river coast were an absolute contrast to the bling and opulence of the Montenegrin coast that we had left behind. Driving towards Skadar through Albanian villages and small towns we were struck by poverty – ugly, dirty, smelly poverty, the kind you would expect to see in Africa or Asian countries, but not in Europe.
Laundry was hanging from the windows and balconies of ancient houses, one-floor concrete buildings with peeling facades and sheds made out of dirt and cardboard with tin roofs. It was mostly children’s clothing, which unmistakably pointed to the large number of family members. It seemed like many families lived off the fishing; or, it was an additional source of income, because the river was almost covered with fishing nets.
Dozens of people were passing us on bicycles, although the vehicles they were rolling around on could more properly be called velocipedes than bikes, and pre-war ones at that. Their chains were hanging and dragging through the dirt, they had two spikes where pedals should be, and often only one of them had the function of feet supporter, as breaking was usually done by foot. These devices were driven mostly by older, working people dressed in colorless old suits consisting of the mismatched jacket and pants, and wearing caps that were fashionable right after the Second World War. However, their faces were peaceful and we had a feeling that nobody was in a hurry.
Soon after we crossed the border my cyclometer showed that we have traversed the five thousand kilometers mark on this journey. We stopped at the side of the road where the fields began and invited two dwarfy looking guys, who pushed a three-wheeled trailer loaded with old stuff, to join us. Both of them were wearing stone-washed jeans with belts that had striking (and false) Dolce Gabbana buckles on them, and did not know any other language but Albanian. We kindly asked them to take a photo of us, as it had become a tradition for us to mark each new “thousand” with a photo on the spot where three new zeroes appeared.
Just before the bridge over Bojana River, at the very entrance to Skadar, we noticed the walls of the medieval town. I tried to introduce Bryan to the epic poem about the building of the Skadar on Bojana River, but there were just too many things that needed to be explained – starting from who the Mrnjavčevići were, to why the feries, although being benevolent mythological beings, insist on such a horrific sacrifice. I got entangled in my own explanations of why it was that young Gojkovica, the mother of newly born babies, needed to be built into the construction, so I gave up trying in the end.
Upon entering the city we drove towards the center. It is impossible not to notice the dramatic contrasts: ugly old buildings and decrepit houses as opposed to the new, modern ones that do not have any inhabitants yet; pavements made out of high quality and expensive Italian ceramics as opposed to the muddy streets full of holes; and miniature shops in ground floor houses as opposed to the big, sparkling boutiques…
We were surprised to find out that every cafe had an internet connection. We set down in one of them and, while we were uploading the photos to our web-galleries, the space was filled with guests – exclusively men. They did not even try to act like they were going about their own business, but instead were quite openly looking at us and exchanging comments amongst themselves. Although we could not understand what they were talking about, we did not have the impression that their comments were nasty or insulting. Quite the contrary. From the first moment in this country, we felt welcomed. Everybody was very friendly towards us, and we got the confirmation of that each time people would speak to us, offer help or simply greet us.
The streets were full of men who were openly but politely checking out women that were passing by. They looked very different: they were either of the medium or tall build and completely “trendy” as was the case everywhere in Europe, or of almost dwarfy build and in old-fashioned clothes from the late 70s. The trend was similar with girls, although the difference in clothing style was much less obvious. On average, they are neither very ugly nor very beautiful, and Bryan and I were pleasantly surprised with the appearance of both men and women.
December started and it was raining almost every day on the Adriatic coast. Last night when we went to bed, the rain was pouring down, but in the morning we were sprinkled with light rain that increased in power in the next hour or two. We could not decide whether to leave or stay, and as soon as we packed the owner of the field in which we were camping showed up. An old man with a rifle that did not look like an air-gun. He barely managed to understand what we were doing there, although we gave it our best to try and explain with both our hands and legs. He did not take his rifle off his shoulder, but he followed us and was watching us struggle to drag our loaded bikes through the muddy field and to the road that turned into bog and lake, making it impossible to ride a bike on, even if we had special tires.
Once we somehow managed to get to the asphalt road we parked our bikes, took the load off them, and tried to clean the wheels. Patches of mud were stuck to the tires and around the brakes. The weight of the mud broke the carrier of the third bidon on my bike.
In the middle of those attempts to get ready for the road, a woman peaked out of the first house and started chanting something that sounded like a prayer to Allah to us. We were laughing out loud before we finally realized that she was offering us water to wash our bikes. We accepted the offer and pushed our bikes to her gate. While we were cleaning and scrubbing three of her daughters were watching us, while her six to seven year old son was timidly peaking from behind them.
The girls exercised their practical skills: one of them run off to get a scrub while the other was helping her mother with a hose. And my bike was clean in no time (Bryan gave up on washing his). The woman then invited us in to eat something, and we accepted.
We entered a huge yard and then onto the porch that was paved with Italian ceramic tiles. We were going to take our shoes off, but they stopped us and pushed us towards the porch. They sat us down in the chairs and brought milk, homemade jam, goat cheese and homemade bread.
Bryan and I took out our Albanian language dictionaries, and the youngest girl – Selma, brought her notebook with lessons in English language that she just started learning this year. We were ready for the “conversation”.
Conversing with people that did not speak any other language but their own, which we happened not to know, was always the most entertaining part of our encounters. It required a lot of patience and goodwill, as well as an effort to understand associations or mimics and body language. In return, it always produced a lot of laughter which relaxed the mood and was the fastest remedy against mistrust, if it was present. That’s how it was this time too.
However, I was a little bit worried about the moment in which our host, who called herself Big Mama, would ask me about my country of origin. And when it happened and I answered the question; I was surprised – she did not react to it at all. Big Mama was much more interested to learn how Bryan and I met than to give any political commentary. Along with her three daughters she was trying to do her best to make us feel welcomed, especially me. They gave me a doily that Big Mama had crocheted. We took a farewell photo, embracing each other, and Big Mama packed us some homemade yogurt and a couple of Japanese Persimmons from the tree in her yard.
24 Hours of Nightmare
The most beautiful part of Albanian coast starts after Valora, and it continues all the way to Saranda and the border with Greece. In the north the road is some kilometers away from the sea, but now it is on our right side almost all the time. Whether we were going up on the steep climb at 10 degrees (and almost all climbs were that steep), or whether we were going down the hills, we always had the view of the waves that were very surprisingly quiet during those days.
The night fell when we were in Orikum, close to the archaeological site that we failed to visit. Sandy beaches were up to twenty meters wide at the very entrance into the city, and they were filled with hundreds of brand new and empty multi-floor buildings that were meant to harbor tourists. We were wondering how it can be profitable to build apartments which will end up being empty, as it was obvious that these buildings were finished some years ago. I thought of a stereotype (or a fact) about the origin of the bigger part of Albanian money – arms smuggling and drugs trade – and investment of it into real estate as the fastest way to launder it.
We drove towards the Karaburn peninsula when we decided to stop at the concrete plateau on the rock which harbored a cafe-bar, now closed. The night was falling, so we raised our tents underneath the cane roof of the building’s garden. For the last few days we had slept apart – each in our own tent. Our relationship was in crisis and we were planning to part our ways after Albania.
As soon as we settled in, such a strong rain started falling that we barely managed to tighten the ropes and rush in. The wind, which was already strong, now started blowing with horrific strength, raising one side of my tent that I had pinned down only with my lighter loads. It kept pushing them towards me, so I was holding the roof of my tent with both my hands and feet, lest it broke the construction down on my head. The rain poured through the cane roof of the cafe garden as if it wasn’t even there, so in less than half an hour my tent was full of water. It pushed in from all sides, as the outer connections that held the tent canvas tight as an umbrella loosened, so now it glued itself to the inside layer and the water poured in. A puddle formed on the floor and it kept coming closer to my sleeping mat.
Never before was I outdoors in such a storm, not to mention trying to sleep in a tent through it. I was scared. I started bombarding Bryan with questions on what we should do, whether he was scared, had he ever experienced a similar storm while camping, what we should do…
“We can only wait for it to pass, or pack up and go somewhere else, but I think it is not that bad yet”, he answered.
I did not want to even imagine how bad it needs to get before an unfortunate camper should pack up in the middle of a storm and, soaking wet, starts looking for an alternative spot outdoors to spend the night. Therefore, we were staying put.
Whenever it seemed like I had no choice, I would surprise myself with my own reasonable and practical reaction. I took my heavy load and used it to pin the tent down. Then I found a kitchen sponge in my luggage which I packed because one experienced camper told me I might need it precisely in a situation like this, which I never thought I would live to experience. I got down to work. It felt like I was on a sinking ship, trying to salvage whatever can be salvaged, but I did not give up. I could not understand how Bryan managed to stay cool – he was lying down and reading. He did not even think of helping me.
After about two hours, the rain calmed down. But the wind was still blowing, even stronger than before, striking from all sides. I arranged my loads in all corners of my tent, so that they pinned it to the floor, but this wind had no trouble pushing them aside with just one blow, throwing them onto me. Well, no can do! I pushed them off with my legs and arms, and since my tent was too small for my height, every time the wind would strike, that side would push against my head or feet.
At least my tent would dry off, I thought, so I will be able to sleep in an almost dry environment. Through the roaring of waves I was able to hear Bryan snoring, and was possessed with the wish to join him, since I was very tired. However, my sleep was intermittent and I kept waking often, so in the end I barely managed to sleep a couple of hours.
In the morning we were surprised to find out that we did not lose any of our things, and that nothing was broken during the storm. We dried our things only to the point at which we could pack them, and immediately took off towards the Ćikeš Mountain and the Logaraja crease, the highest one we would travel through while in Albania. Our starting point was at the sea level, and in 20 kilometers we were supposed to be at 1.055 meters above it – there was no doubt this would require a lot of effort.
Soon we discovered that Albanian road builders did not care one bit about making the climb easy for riders by making serpentines, but were instead opting for the shortest, and therefore the steepest way to climb to the top. At the beginning of each climb there was a signpost warning us that a 10% slope was ahead, which was not correct – the slope was at least 15%. I would have put money on it since on a couple of occasions, on the parts of the road which was aiming towards the sky, I had to get off my bike and push it. The final time I had to do it was just before we reached the peak. The driver of a car that was coming towards me honked in support, while his fellow passengers were giving me thumbs up and congratulating me while laughing. Bryan was quite ahead of me, riding persistently. He waited for me at the top, near a restaurant that was closed.
“Tough, huh?” he asked me.
Indeed it is – the real camper-bicycle nightmare that had lasted for the full 24 hours.
In the Land of Eagles
It is a peculiar thing with Albania: it seemed to me that it had nothing that I like, but when I was thinking about my overall impression of this country, the answer was quite different: there is something irresistibly likable about it. I tried to figure out what it was. Surely, it is not natural beauty, at least not in the parts of the country that we were driving through, because most of its coast is rather ugly – I can’t remember that I have ever seen an uglier and less used coast. I did not like the towns either. As a matter of fact, they were horrific: a traffic madhouse that looked like the street chaos in India at times, because in Albania the cars were driving on the side which suits them best, in an attempt to avoid the potholes. The very concept of towns also reminded me of Indian towns, with all of their contrasts between the new modern buildings made of glass and steel, and inhumane, social-realistic high-rise buildings that looked like an unfinished project, as their facades were never finished (is it cheaper that way?), or the sheds made out of mud, no bigger than 20 square meters, which housed all sorts of shops: markets, barber shops, bakeries, crafts… The roads were not it either, as the undeveloped network did not leave much choice for the bicycle rider: you will either ride your bike on the highway full of fast-driving cars, or on the side road that is full of holes and mud.
Despite everything, however, there is a wonderful impression about the people, the Albanians that we never got to know in Serbia: cordial, always smiling and open to foreigners. The quantity of their cordiality is really exceptional – in every village we visited children would surround us with questions; whenever we would stop for even few minutes, people would approach us, greet us with a handshake and then offer help, or bring us fruit and food. Albanians are hungry for foreigners. As a matter of fact, they are crazy about them. It is no problem if that foreigner is a Serb. The worst that can happen is for them to comment about Albanians and Serbs fighting, although it has nothing to do with the Serbs who visit Albania. In the Land of Eagles, the guests are deeply revered, whoever they happen to be – that is the strongest impression that stayed with me after everything.
Serbus i najte kaj zameriti.
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