As I turned onto the third switchback, the road steepened and a treacly bead of sweat navigated down my right shin clearing a shiny path through the dust of the road. Glowing like an ember, a giant ant suddenly moved into focus on the pavement in front of me. It stopped, then reversed directions as my shadow loomed. I wasn’t traveling much faster than it – 4.8 miles per hour to be exact - so I could follow its curious movements closely. In particular I noticed that it was delicately transporting another ant balanced on its back. The clock ticked, and I completed the 180 degree turn onto the third switchback and saw the first bits of shade cast by the rocky cliff.
- switchback 3 - into the mountains
Kirk, a friend since grade school and one of the worlds truly unflappable people is the director of a library in downriver Detroit that serves the second largest Albanian population in the U.S. Kirk first visited Albania a year ago and on that trip his entire itinerary was planned out for him: he was scheduled, driven, and accompanied by the ever-hospitable friends and families of his library constituents for the duration of his trip. Day and night they provided company and made sure he was safe. He was returning again on library business, this time on “short notice (6 weeks). I, however, came to Albania to ride my bike and this time I had planned our whole trip - a fact that Kirk’s Albanian friends found disconcerting.
When I arrived in Korca at 5:30pm the next day I was very happy to see Kirk, wearing… (wait for it…) black pants, a white dress shirt, and a gray sport coat – still presentable despite its 3rd full day of use.
As I changed into my cycling clothes, Kirk let me know that Nensi, his friend and contact in Korca, had a meeting planned for me with the head of the Korca cycling team at 6pm.
“Can’t do it Kirk, I HAVE to ride – the sun’s already going down – I’ll be lucky to make it back before dark as it is…”
“Let me talk to Nensi – maybe you and Festim can meet tomorrow,” Kirk said and went down to the lobby where Nensi was waiting to take me to my appointment.
When I arrived in the lobby, dressed to ride, I was introduced to Nensi – a tall, strong, handsome woman in her early 40’s who was famous in Korca as the leader of the Albanian national volleyball team for many years, as well as being an active social presence.
Kirk informed me of the decision that had been made, “Uh… Festim is going to join you on your ride and can show you where to go.”
“I know where to go Kirk – I’m going to Voskopoja – when will he be here?” I looked at my cyclometer for the time feeling the sun sink lower with each tick of the digital numerals.
Nensi spoke up, “You can’t go to Voskopoja – Festim can show you where to ride.”
“Why not?” I was starting to get frustrated.
“Festim will show you – that road is not good – too rough.
“Well, I’m going to ride to Voskopoja.” I said, thinking it was settled.
“Festim will not allow you go to Voskopoja, perhaps you can go to Dardha if that road is OK – Festim will guide you.” She was matter of fact as though the situation was entirely out of my hands. There was no anger, malice, frustration – in fact it was exactly like a chess master explaining the movement of the Rook to a novice. “No, you can’t go diagonally…” She was kind, patient, with only the tiniest hint of being patronizing.
I turned to Kirk and lowered my voice, “10 minutes Kirk – if he’s not here by 6pm, I’m leaving… and, either way, I’m going to Voskopoja.”
“John… Uh, I think that would be really rude – Nensi really has done a lot for us – just wait OK?”
Nensi called Festim again. 6pm came and went. Then 6:15, then 6:30. I sat and stewed, and then said to both Kirk and Nensi, firmly, “If he’s not here in 5 minutes, I’m leaving
We walked out down the street toward Festim’s house. 6:45pm – 90 minutes until dark, on my second of two days out of 5 in Albania to ride my bike and I’m not riding because…. Why exactly?!!? Each step was adding to my frustration as Nensi continued talking on the phone.
Suddenly, finally, Festim materialized out of the front of his house 30 feet in front of us, with his bike… then another bike, then a bike pump, and then a young girl who looked 15 wearing a bright green sweatsuit.
I groaned outwardly, and in my mind I shrieked, “No! no! no!” – I can’t go ride with this child!” Meanwhile Festim unhurriedly began to pump up all four tires…
It was 7pm on the second of a five day cycling trip to Albania before I completed my first kilometer on the bike – at the incredibly painful velocity of 9mph. Festim and Flavia chatted and seemed little interested in me and I started to realize that they were probably doing Nensi a favor. Their job was to escort me safely on a ride. My god…
Eventually Flavia dropped back and spoke to me in halting English. I was amazed to discover that despite her youthful looks she was 23. She was quite nice and did some brief translations with Festim. I told him my intention was to go to Dardha as there was not enough time to go to Voskopoja. Flavia paused, spoke to Festim, and then informed me, “we will not go to Voskopoja.” (Err!!!!) I reiterated that I wanted now to go Dardha.
“Yes, we will go straight to Dardha,” she agreed, letting this pawn make its one move forward.
Having Google-Earthed every bit of every ride, I knew exactly where to go and I moved to the front and picked up the pace to what I thought would be at least manageable by Flavia – 15mph. She hung in there and so we made it to Bobostice and the foot of the climb to Dardha. I turned back to them and said, “I go now,” not waiting for a response, and I started hammering the hill which very quickly became very steep. I climbed 2300 feet in the next hour, happily crushing the pedals, passing bunkers and mountain streams and donkeys and riders, but no cars. I was nearing the top when the road became very steep, and very dirt. At the 15% grade, I couldn’t get out of the seat without slipping my rear tire, and after a couple of futile starts and stops, I looked back to notice that the sun had already set, so I gave up on seeing the mountain hamlet my guidebook named, “the prettiest village in all of Albania,” and turned around, frustrated.
As I sped downhill I had to ride the brakes hard as there was loose gravel on the corners. My mind considered the possibility of whether Festim and Flavia might actually still be struggling up this enormous and steep climb in the half dark and that’s when I first saw him. Impressively Festim was only half mile down from where I had stopped. We coasted down together, and a couple of miles later, about halfway up the climb, determinedly making switchbacks within the switchbacks was Flavia. You had to admire her grit. I smiled and gave in and surrendered to their role as hosts, only briefly streaking out ahead on a long straight downhill section.
We rode slowly back to town in the near dark where there was a hard handoff back to Nensi who was waiting for us.
I went and changed (Kirk wore… black slacks, a white shirt, and gray sports coat…) and then Nensi escorted us to dinner, helped us order (Qofte, kernac, and Korça cannelloni) and made sure everything was in order before leaving us to our own devices, (though under the watchful eye of her personal friend the chef – after all we were the only people in the whole restaurant.) Before she left, she provided instructions on how to return safely to our hotel, and where and when we should meet her in the morning for our appearance on the local TV talk show.
In Albania, hospitality to guests and strangers is their most sacred responsibility – their value of highest order. If push comes to shove, an Albanian will choose to serve, sacrifice or support a guest rather than their own children – no one is more important. This “closing of the ranks” around a guest has been native to the culture for hundreds of years, and is a feature that figures prominently in the blood feuds of the Northern highlands, where a murder for murder policy was the reality for five hundred years before communism, and where avenging the murder of a guest was the greatest mandate in their “Kanun” or code of rules. (See the acclaimed novel, “Broken April” by Albania’s greatest author, Kadare – a great read.)
The concept of hospitality takes on a whole new meaning in Shqiparese (the word Albanians use for their language). “Caretaking” might be one way of describing it. “Guarding” or “protecting” also come to mind. “Controlling” is not a distant cousin…
To an American, used to independent thought and action, Albanian hospitality is exactly like a friendly kidnapping. Gone is the work required for decision making, paying for things or, heaven forbid, the terrible labor of ‘being alone.’ With Albanian hospitality these worries become distant memories. The situation with Festim made me crazy, but so did the prior evening out with Ada and her friends. The total bill for the evening came to 400 Leke or $40 (food and drink for 6 people) and I quickly got out a 500 Leke bill to cover it. To me, very inexpensive – but to these younger people in a different economy, a significant expense. But NO! They resolutely refused to let me spend a single Leke and I felt like an idiot for having ordered additional food we didn’t eat and another carafe of wine when it was now coming at someone else’s expense.
I don’t know if it was because she discovered I escaped the hotel after she put me in for the evening, or because we switched to another hotel for our return visit (in order to not get locked in), but when we returned to Tirana on our last day, Ada’s reception of Kirk and I was extremely cool and distant – she had apparently abandoned her post as host.
I was near the next fourth switchback when I saw another giant luminescent ant. As it turns out, it too was carrying another ant on its back. However, this time I noticed a feature I had missed last time – these large ants, like scorpions, had curved tails. Right above the body of its hostage was stinger poised for action.