Switchback Two: worker’s paradise
With no more identification than the motion of my hand, the driver began to unload dozens of pieces of luggage right there in the street, ignoring the traffic and the curious onlookers.
In a stroke of genius, the night before I asked Ada to tell Lufthansa to deliver my bike and luggage to the address of “New York University” – the school with a big sign right next to my mystery hotel. That way I ensured the driver didn’t end up driving around looking for my hotel only to learn that “no such place exists.”
The dispatcher told Ada that the driver would meet me there between 9am and at 9:15, and it was about 9:30am when he finally puttered up the narrow lane choked with its usual line of cars. The sun was bright and the Lufthansa van had slowed in front of New York University, the driver’s head swiveling, eyes squinting as he laid into the horn. I had stepped out into the street with a wave, upon which he promptly slammed the van into park with a jerk and popped out to begin the unloading.
The cavernous interior was heaped to the ceiling with luggage which he proceeded to empty and stack right onto the pavement behind the van, just inches from the bumper of the first waiting car. The volume and urgency of the horns increased and the line of cars now wended out of sight, but he merely looked up with a glare and continued, unhurried – stacking suitcases, bags, and rollaways into the street until the profile of my giant plastic bike box emerged from the very bottom of the pile.
It was interesting paradox to consider that even as he broke the laws of public authority, he also followed strict instructions to deliver all these late items as quickly as possible…
Switchback two up the Llogara pass was slightly less steep and a bit of a reprieve. I toiled in a decent rhythm in the outer lane keeping my heart rate just below my maximum and occasionally having the presence of mind to marvel at the beauty unfolding beneath me - views all the way back to Saranda and the Greek coastline in the distance. Mostly though, I focused on the work of turning the pedals with the glimmer of hope of the long cool drop down the other side and a big meal as the final reward.
After retrieving my bike and rollaway from the street, I pulled out my claim ticket which the driver eyed disinterestedly – so I pointed to the third barcode on the paper – the one for Kirk’s bag. After a cursory look, he shrugged, and then said, “No.” Later I realized it was the first and only word spoken between us.
Damn. Now I had to wait for the next flight for Kirk’s bag… My day was getting longer, my trip was getting shorter…
I assembled my bike in the courtyard of Hotel H 1996/Bar Cофия and then white-knuckled it to the Tirana airport – 15 miles and an hour’s drive away. The noon flight was late, and finally, at 1:00 it was confirmed that Kirk’s bag still had not arrived, so I gave delivery instructions (yeah right) and sped back into and through Tirana and began the 100 mile, 4 hour drive to Korca where I hoped to arrive in time to get in a decent long ride up to the mountain town of Voskopoja, its Byzantine churches, and its odd enclave of an ancient and dwindling race of people – the Vlachs – that had settled there and still maintained their own language and religious practices. It said in the guidebooks that the churches with their ancient frescoes would be locked, but that I could ask any villager to open them – they all had a key.
Just a few miles out of Tirana on the drive to Korca the road began to climb in twisting switchbacks up several thousand feet, where it followed a knifelike ridge with precipitous drops on either side for nearly 20 miles. Tiny terraced farming plots, the occasional donkey and cart, and dozens of small vendor stands selling homemade olive oil, fresh produce, and cherries dotted the side of the road. The people were inevitably thin, with leathery skin and dark clothes. I slowed for some small boys holding out huge bags of freshly picked cherries. I paid the $3 for the 5lb bag of shiny red fruit and happily ate and drove, windows down, looking at the grand scenery falling away on both sides.
When Diana Gelci – a Detroit based Albanian expatriate who had planned Kirk’s last trip saw that we had planned our own agenda to travel through Albania she was a strange combination of astonished, proud, horrified, and amused at our aggressive itinerary:
“Two things for you to know:
“1. "Rigid" schedules never work in countries like Albania, where cultures are polichronic, which, in Anthropology is the opposite of strict schedules:-) So, yeah, plan big to be flexible.
“2. Your schedule has a major issue: travel timing! The activities you want to have, and places you want to go in five days seem way too much. For example, you can't spend 2/3 of a day in Korca and then head for Saranda, lol. This would be amazing. I mean you can but you, at the best scenario, should plan being to Saranda the next day or so. Or, you say that you will be in Korca at 4:00 pm of the day of your arrival. I am thinking that if you are in Korca at 8:00 pm of that day, it would be heroic:-)
“3. Avoid being in road after 7:00 pm. Remember, there are no signs showing directions so you probably will be constantly stopping and asking people around you.
“4. You, however, have the American spirit with you so everything should be fine:-)
“PS: Kirk, I have to remind you that there is election time in Albania and in situations like that you don't want to affiliate yourself with any name, period. Last time you were there with our friends and under their protection and this made a huge difference. Now things will, as you will realize, be totally different.”
It was the PS that gave me some reservations before the trip – did we need “protection?” and from whom? (For the record, we did complete the whole trip in 4 days vs. 5 and I made it from downtown Tirana to Korca in 3 ½ hours – a half hour faster than the original intinerary and 4 ½ hours faster than “heroic” speed : ))
There are many dangers in Albania today – but they are relatively mundane in nature compared to the horrors of history - the primary risk being on the roads. Albania has the highest traffic fatality rates in all of Europe by a large margin. Beneath the surface though, like many unsettling facts about Albania, the high death rate has much to do with the former the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha had banned private ownership of cars in the country, and as late as 1992, there were only 200 cars in the whole country - population 3.6 million. Imagine that – in Tirana – a city with 1.5 million people there were only 55 cars in 1992. Now there are nearly 1.5 million cars on the “roads” of Albania.
“Hoxha,” Stavri was saying, “…Only wants us to win – not like the Olympic motto to compete – so games were only those where Albania could win – mostly we just did not compete at all.” Stavri Bello, the General Secretary of the Albanian Olympic Committee, and former national team basketball player, was explaining to me why Albania had only attended a couple of Olympics during the Hoxha years. To add emphasis, he then used his hands to describe how this related to Albanian drivers.
“You see, when coming first is the only option, it becomes difficult for Albanians to consider coming second. There is an old joke that if you tell 10 Albanians to line up, 1 through 10 (here he moved his hands to draw a straight, vertical line) that instead you will get 10 number 1’s (here he draws a sideways, horizontal line.”
“You see this on our roads – everyone trying to “win the race” and lining up 2, 3, 4 across to pass on a 2 lane road!” I laughed and told him I had experienced this phenomenon over and over again – a 3 or even 4 across passing game.
When you add the curious competitive streak found in the homogenous ethnic majority (95%) Albanians and the nearly 2 million new drivers fresh out of drivers ed., poor road surfaces, and unmarked intersections, you get a lethal combination. Fortunately, I planned to travel by bike only on lesser roads outside the major cities where cars were still outnumbered by donkeys and carts.
- Rural traffic
After Hoxha ceased relations with the Soviet Union in the early 60’s, he created strong ties with China and for a decade, it was Chinese funds, raw materials, technology and factories that propped up the country’s finances and workforce. The cruel and paranoid bureaucrat Hoxha (pronounced “Ho-tcha”) used Chinese technology and Soviet communist aesthetics to create the metallurgical complex at the foot of the mountains between Elbesani and Tirana that is breathtaking in its ugliness.
As I began the drop down from the ridge toward Elbasani, there was a moment of stunning beauty as I could see the elegant curves of the road snaking through olive groves and sheep pastures, and then, in the next instant, the bleak factories of the “Steel of the Party” complex swung into view sucking the sunlight right out of the air as a cold lump grew in the pit of my stomach.
I felt nearly exactly as I had a decade earlier when first entering the gates of Auschwitz – it was just so foreign and bleak and cold and cruel. Sure, these workers were not tortured and starved like those in the concentration camps, however they also had no hope for freedom or emancipation. I wondered what was worse – brutality, starvation and the glimmer of hope in the form of the end of the war, or the death of all hope in the form of perpetual government enslavement.
The rusting complex by Elbasani is mostly abandoned yet still continues smoking and leaking and represents a major environmental hazard that may never be cleaned up.
Without the financial and technological support of China which ended in 1978, Albania’s factories began to fail, infrastructure crumbled and more and more workers rejoined the stone age being forced to relocate to state run farming collectives where, despite the death penalty being exacted for keeping any of your own produce for personal purposes, demand continued to outstrip supply. Food shortages became more and more common even as the other iron curtain economies failed and were overturned. Eventually these and other factors (including Hoxha’s death in 1985) helped the populace step up and wrest control. The fact that all religion, and the hope that goes with it, were banned in 1967also probably helped the regime stay in place as long as it did.
Past Elbasani I drove along the coast of Lake Ohrid for 20 stunningly beautiful miles of snow speckled stone mountains reflected in the mirror of the lake’s placid waters. There was little human development other than the requisite sprinkling of bunkers guarding the shore.
Past Pogradec I climbed back up into the mountains and finally, around 5:30pm – near the second day of my 5 day trip, I finally arrived in Korca and quickly prepared for my first ride. I figured I had 3 hours before darkness…enough to make it the 25km uphill slog to Voskopoja and back, but I didn’t account for the pressures of Albanian hospitality…