Friday morning I had death for breakfast.
By late morning, as I pedaled away from Saranda into a stale bright desert valley between the coast and the mountains, death began to knock.
Death, by the way, tastes exactly like it smells – a horribly cloying sweetness cloaking a wrenching pull: the body’s natural response to the smell released with decomposition is to retch. Death surrounded me and invaded me during those first few miles, pervading the simmering air from gruesome smears on the asphalt, bodies swollen lying in the road and from hidden pockets of rotten sweet air from the ditches. Highways are a new feature to this landscape and the local fauna had apparently yet to figure out the danger they represent.
I approached a copse of trees in a cleft before the road began to climb in earnest. I was surrounded by unharvested olive groves, tinkling bells in their shadows belying herds of sheep and their solitary shepherds. Then I passed the corpse of yet another swollen dog and a wave of nausea rippled through my body as I tasted the same on my lips. It was eerily quiet. Rounding the next bend I slowed, pulling out the camera to capture a pleasant scene of a tethered donkey standing quietly next to the road. I snapped the shutter and only then noticed the cluster of gigantic black flies bursting with blood from the suppurating wound on its hide. The red of its blood was… so real. A sudden foreboding overtook me – where was I? What if something happened? There had not been a car in the thirty minutes since I left town. I got goosebumps, but only on the left side of my body. What did that mean? Why had everything stopped making any sense? Who builds a highway without cars?
The buzzing of an insect broke the silence and then stopped and in the hush I could hear every breath, every tire rotation, the crinkle of the scrap of garbage as a sudden breath of air stirred. Another carcass by the road and again that life rending smell. Involuntarily, a convulsion shuddered through my torso and an acidic bile filled my mouth. I spat it to the side and got out of the saddle. Time to do what you came for. Time to climb.
I climbed. I really had no choice.
I was alone.
The emotional pendulum had begun its ever accelerating swings three days earlier - my overnight flight from Chicago to Munich was running late and as we circled the danger of missing my connection grew. I had to make a full-on sprint down the white marble aisles of the terminal in order to make the flight to Tirana. Happily my friend Kirk was still there at the gate waiting for me – we were the last two passengers on board. As we headed down the jetway, reality set in and I mused aloud, “there’s not a chance in hell my bike is going to make this flight.”
I sat stiffly, looking out the porthole as the clock ticked prior to takeoff. I waited and watched with dread and then with amazement as the luggage carts rolled up next to the plane with my large bike box conspicuously visible. I sank back in my seat with joy and relief and had just begun to chat with Kirk when the pilot interrupted on the loudspeaker with a thick German accent, letting us know that he was sorry to inform us that due to a four hour baggage handler’s strike commencing immediately, our bags would stay on the tarmac. F*@k!
I walked forward to the still open cabin door, suggesting politely that I would step outside and load my bike myself, but the pilot indicated that the armed security would probably not take kindly to that – and so minutes later we taxied away without our luggage or my bike – and around came the pendulum, gaining speed…
Kirk was wearing a gray sports jacket, a white button down and black slacks. We would see a lot more of that in the coming days as he never, ever, received his luggage. We filed our claims at the Tirana International airport and tried to determine when our luggage might come with little success. Kirk needed to head immediately to Korca for business but my primary purpose was centered around the bike, so we decided to find him a furgone (minibus driven only by individuals crazed enough to drive in Albania for a living) to Korca. The locations for the bus stops were a riddle to even locals, but we knew they were in the general vicinity of downtown Tirana, so, after picking up the rental car, we drove into the center of the most dangerous place to drive in all of Europe – maybe the world.
Tirana was, as expected somewhat bleak and gray, with square concrete half finished facades, trash, rubble and that uniquely eastern European “new but rusting” patina to the newer parts of town. Behind the depressing fog of smog and noise, though, were some hidden glimpses of the romance of a bygone era – a crumbling arch of a stone bridge, polished patterns of angled cobbles, the delicate relief of an elegant doorway arch. Tirana despite its Byzantine madness and traffic, was softened by the rich copper hammerings of its Ottoman history and re-emerging Muslim and Catholic influences. Driving in Tirana was exactly like riding a criterium bike race: so, even if I didn’t win, I placed well.
I was in for the night, now, to find my hotel…
5 days, for 5 switchbacks.
It was still day three – Friday – and alone I climbed out of the valley of death near Saranda, rising from sea level up to 1300 feet before I finally crested the hill for my first glimpse of the Albanian Riveria – a stunning 100 kilometer stretch of Mediterranean coastline laced by the gray filament of its one and only road, speckled with the occasional ramshackle village, and dotted - of course – with bunkers. Completely undeveloped most of the way, it existed, like much of Albania, in an eerie time warp. At the end of this roller coaster route was the goal: Llogara pass – a 3500 foot climb back out of the riveria via 5 super-steep and long switchbacks along a cliff face. I reminded myself that his was why I was here.
The road remained wide, freshly paved, car free and surrounded by olive groves. The only traffic was the occasional wizened old man riding sidesaddle on a tiny donkey. With no wind and no traffic, the only sound was the sound of the clopping hooves and tinkling bells of the beasts of man. It was warm – even hot – and the sun was shining: I was in heaven – except for the occasional roiling in my stomach.
I began the first of several major descents to a coastal beach town – white crescents of sand and stone cupping water of brilliant emerald, a color more often associated with the Aegean or Thai coasts. The uphills were steep and slow – some 12% grade or more, but I kept my average speed up by flying down the descents. I was on top of the world – this was my every dream of coming here.
Another big ascent, and then, just as I began to descend the 1000 feet I had just climbed, the road went to hell. Or, more accurately, the new pavement ended, and a destroyed form of the old concrete remained – though it had been dug up, shredded, and mashed back down as a sharp, loose cobblestone fill for the new asphalt to come. Trucks, jackhammers, men and machines were everywhere and I was forced into a pace on the downhills slightly slower than the uphills, skidding and skittering at 5-6 mph. It was mind and muscle numbing, fatiguing and hot. I grew depressed as the construction extended out in front of me – one hour, two hours…
My shoulders and forearms began to grow sore with the tension and the bumpy roads were playing havoc with my stomach – I was growing more and more nauseated from that breakfast, that goddamn Albanian breakfast of “Paçe,” death in a bowl.
Paçe is the traditional morning meal of the area – it consists of a chunky soup of sheep’s brain stewed in its natural pale green juices. Offal is still common fare here – like all good peasants they use the whole animal – eyeballs occasional pop up in soups. I felt I wouldn’t be truly experiencing Albania properly if I didn’t eat as they did.
The smell of the Paçe enveloped me that morning in the close air of that restaurant in Saranda and I wanted to run before I even saw it. If I had closed my eyes, I could easily have imagined a room full of rotting corpses – an unfortunate historical reality in this former communist dictatorship where just singing a song in Italian could lead to a death sentence – for you and everyone in your family. I couldn’t do it – I didn’t want to do it – but no, you must. I sat for 10 minutes deliberating as the stench continued to set off alarms evolution had designed into us millions of years ago. I shouldn’t have done it, but I convinced myself that my body’s instinctive revulsion was irrational and I took a bite taking care to get some sizeable chunks of brain.
It was a grand mistake.
It had cooled somewhat and was now merely warm – body temperature. The pieces of green gray brain with their delicate tendrils and textures were not chewy as I imagined – they were mushy like congealed yogurt. I chewed twice and then swallowed, feeling a rippling tightening becoming a convulsion in my abdomen and I covered my mouth to stop the retching sound from escaping. I looked around embarrassed but no one was watching.
I sat for a few more minutes feeling the warm mush slide into my stomach trying while to muster the courage to eat another bite while feeling like the failed tourist I was. Five minutes later and I realized I couldn’t possibly eat any more of this.
Later, as I rode and that bite of death and its billions of active bacteria worked its magic on my intestines, I slowly came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that my failure to eat this food was not a matter of courage or an acquired taste: it was rotten – it was dead spoiled animal tissue – and no human being could possibly eat it. I quickly paid the 110 Leke for the uneaten meal – about one US dollar and headed back to the hotel to get ready. It was with that excellent pre-ride preparation of a 20 minute one-bite meal, that I had set out for this epic 8 hour bike ride.
It was 3 hours before I drifted wearily into Hamara where Kirk was kind enough to wait for me. I thought he’d be mad for waiting so long but as it turned out he had only beat me there by ½ hour. We ordered an amazing fresh vegetable and seafood lunch by an azure sea of children playing and swimming and the emotional pendulum began to swing back – I was deliriously happy.
Then I remembered the 5 switchbacks…