Llogara Pass: Switchback 5 - the top and the future Switchback 5: I was nearing the top of the pass as marked by the appearance of a graveyard of stunted Cyprus skeletons, their bony limbs pointing toward the sea. It had become steeper, but no cooler, and even now, 3000 feet up a cliff from the endless sea, not even a wisp of air moved and my body shined darkly with sweat and oil and pain.
The unrelenting pressure of each long pedal stroke, the rise and fall of each quadricep, tendon, shin, calf and ankle required an exhausting concentration of physical focus so as to not immediately stop and fall. I had slowed to 3.8 mph – I could have walked faster. Worked by the magic red hydraulics of blood, the slow pistons of my legs moved, up and down, over and over...
The nausea had returned - the pale green poison spreading out from my stomach to share its enervating lethargy. It spread slowly through my body and removed all care– I was no longer a man with hopes and dreams, instead I became an empty wrapper of waxy skin coating a viscous green ooze of gray despair. I desired nothing other than to stop and wallow in my fear and misery. Death began to feel like a cool relaxing alternative to this bruising monotony and pain.
By chance or plan, Peter Gabriel’s Passion was playing on repeat on my iPod, putting a voice and sound to the anguish. I felt, rather than heard the music and the startling agonizing crescendos crackled through my overheated brain, altering it somehow. I was on the landward side of the road in a strobe of shadows and sun and in the flickering light, life became dream sequence: I lost all sense of sea and sky - just flashes of broken rock and gray pavement and obliterating white light. Inside me, I sensed a thin red filament soaked in blood being pulled from me and dipped in a green gray wax. My mind and body were fraying, unraveling, and something new was emerging. My new brain, intertwined with the growing evil sickness in my stomach began to invent alternate realities. A grand and insane idea occurred to me and began to repeat itself with each flashing pedal stroke: I was Albania.
Shimmering in the heat and hard stone, bound to an arbitrary and ever reversing cruel gray road, I had been toiling for an a minute, an hour, a day, a year, an age exposed to the sun in the unmoving air trapped by mountains: I was Albania.
Scaring myself with these odd thoughts I tried to regain some perspective and abandoned the shadowy lane on the right, riding blindly out into the constant brilliant sunlight where I could peer over the rails to see the zig-zag slashes in the broken land beneath me.
I was in trouble. Six hours of hard riding over very rough terrain had elapsed, the last seventy-five minutes of which were right at my maximal effort. I had run out of water a while back and my vision had started to narrow and darken – yet brighten at the same time – everything had become more and more overexposed – the blue had drained from white hot sea and my ears were buzzing.
I crested the top of the pass and suddenly the view changed from the scorched shrubs and brilliant stone of the coast to the deep green grasses and trees of the interior and the first tendrils of the cooling, perfumed air of the lush river valley in front of me. With the release of the unrelenting pressure of the climb came a feeling of expansion and a separation from the fear lurking in my brain. I shuddered thinking about where my mind had strayed. I was so relieved I felt like I could cry.
There was an overlook with some tour buses to the left so I coasted to a stop and dismounted, shaking with weakness. Nearby a group of gray older men – bus drivers - huddled together smoking and talking – white and black outlines of grey men surreal against the brilliance of the distant mountain. The sound of their voices seemed to grow in volume while receding in the distance. Straightening out after the long effort, a wave of nausea washed through my limbs and I tasted the sheeps brain soup - the "Paçe" yet again and then all thought, sight and sound were muffled in a velvet cloak.
Bent over, the sky throbbed and the world exploded. Like a sailor in a gale I held onto my bike, holding the top tube, rocking forward and back, knuckles white, riding the roiling sick. I dreaded sight, dreaded sound and clamped down my eyelids and inner ears. Then the storm passed and I tilted on my cleats, the voices of the bus drivers resuming their discussion. I wiped the dangling white tendrils of spit and vomit from my lips and decided I had better get down the mountain quickly and remounted my bike.
For the first time in well over an hour, I could coast, no pedaling – what a joy after the unrelenting pressure of the mountain. I drifted around a bend, and then another, relishing in the cooling air rushing over my burning skin. I sat up and finally began to smile: I was a shell of myself filled with green gray blood - but what remained was dizzyingly happy. It was accomplished – I had conquered the mountain and the poison. Back up out of the saddle the razor sharp ridges of my forearms glistened as I resumed the futile efforts against the accursed mountain. I finally understood: this is the real Albania, there is no end to the suffering, there are only riddles and turns, cruel mysteries and arbitrary hardships. I put everything I had into the pedals but it was beyond the green gray power of my heart and there was nothing left.
I had transformed. Transfixed by the road and the illness within me I had become nothing. Head down, arms draped over the bars, I dry heaved a vomit of the emptiness and fear inside me, my abdomen clenching with incredible power but finding nothing to release. When the first wave subsided, beyond all care or embarrassment, I began to sob, and couldn't stop.
When Hoxha’s form of communism finally fell in late 1991, throngs initially filled the streets in celebration. All across the country graven images of Hoxha were decapitated and destroyed and a new freedom was born. Gone was the unrelenting pressure to conform – to toil for the machine of the state – gone was the glaring scrutiny of the sigurami and the compression of freedoms. When the winds of freedom finally blew, they brought a release of joy demonstrated in mass of celebrations across the whole country. A new hope was in the air – of choice, of color, of prosperity.
No one knew it could actually get worse – that the five hour lines for bread would be replaced with no lines and no bread. The ugly rusting machine of communism had managed to provide a modicum of the basics – food, water, shelter, and safety from traditional crime. As the shackles fell, the prisoners began to run the asylum – mobs began to rule once safe streets, robbery and rape become daily occurrences, gunfire echoed off the bleak communist apartment blocks at all hours, and then the food ran out. During the chaos, privatization of the banks occurred and along with it, a pyramid investment scheme was created that subsequently collapsed taking along with it the life savings of 70% of Albanians. The guardrails were off, and anarchy ruled.
Which is worse? To have no hope for the future and to toil in ignominy, or to find the promise of a hope and then have it summarily crushed?
The wheels began to turn again in Albania only when the Italian government, the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups stepped aggressively into the gap, sending a large peace keeping force, food, and loans. This time of chaos and anarchy only last a couple of years, but for the citizens of Albania used to the exact opposite, these were devastating times. Slowly but surely, in the late 1990’s the country began to regain control and move forward.
For me, my savior was my friend Kirk, who had waited at the real top of the pass and answered his phone when I called in desperation. He drove back down the mountain bringing hope in the form of water. I shakily filled my bottles and said little. Oddly, Kirk didn’t say much either and did not chide me in his usual fashion – I think he could hear the urgency in my voice when I called and when he arrived, merely asked, “how’s it going, pal?” and handed me the water. After some huge gulping swallows, tears came streaming out of my eyes as sweat suddenly came out of all my pores and I shined from head to toe. “I’m not crying,” I assured him. Those were old tears anyway.
I resumed the climb and a relatively short while later made the top of the real pass where a restaurant and bar, scenic overlook, and garbage dump awaited my senses. I stopped in this nether region between worlds: the hot dry cruel mountain was now all below me to the left, and to the right the towering cypresses, gurgling streams, wet foliage, and dappled meadows of the river valley.
I bought and drank a Coke, and looked into the gap in the mountains that would take me down towards Vlora, its beaches and hotels and, at the end, a great friend and as much fresh seafood and pizza as I could possibly eat. Several of our protective Albanian friends had suggested that this ride was impossible and I had scoffed at their disbelief – it was only 130 kilometers (and, I still had 50 kilometers yet to go) but times and distances are different in Albania – this time they were almost right. I had climbed 8300 feet today, burning 6300 calories.
I turned my back and prepared to depart the source of my suffering – the hot stone cliff cut with the switchbacks of my pain. The sweet brown fizz of the Coke having tackled, for the moment, the residual taste of Paçe, I again mounted my bike and began to coast downhill, then quickly gained speed as the descent began in earnest.
In the 2000’s Albania has moved into fast forward – copying western fashion in dress (if not in behavior), music, and a desire for coolness demonstrated that even in one of the poorest countries in Europe, Mercedes are the choice of vehicle by 80% of the population. Some suggest these are stolen vehicles brought over in the black market - but regardless, more than every other car is a Mercedes.
Everywhere there is construction and the associated destruction. Roads that were once donkey trails now find themselves hosting these Mercedes racing each other four abreast while the drivers smile at the sheer joy of driving. Everything is new territory, and expertise in basic infrastructure, sustainable development, safety practices and zoning laws are completely missing. The country is speeding to catch up and at the same time putting its environment and culture at risk. Still, it is a heady energy this new freedom, and behind it all the ever brightening color of hope.
The route forward for me was lost in the shadows of the trees and the roads were damp and slick and there were no guardrails – I had to ride the brakes to maintain some semblance of control. I had no fear though – instead a real, sustained and tangible flush of joy thrilled through me and I noticed everything – the smell of the jasmine when passing a garden trellis, the aqua water and taupe limestone of a crystal clear mountain stream, the braying of a donkey stamping his feet as he prepared for another trip. In the distance a shirtless man cleared a field of fragrant hay against a backdrop of the gigantic mountain I had just climbed using only a scythe. I slowed to watch his strokes and found in his rhythm an echo of my climb up the mountain.
The wondrous scale and golden colors of the evening found me yet again feeling different. With the final release of the compression came a new expansion – I felt open, observant, ready for what, I didn’t know.
Eventually I broke free of the forest entirely and the road leveled off and I began re-entering civilization, coming upon the first of several unmarked intersections – the first choice of road I had had since leaving Saranda 7 hours previously. I had flown down the mountain on eagles wings, red blood re-circulating, taking more risks than I should have, passing several cars that, upon glancing back, were still well out of sight. It wasn’t courage and it wasn’t flight though it had elements of both. To my right was the most beautiful sea I had ever seen - it was though you could see right through it all the way to far side...
Mostly it was a rush to an imagined future: a destination of promise, of beauty, of hope like an amber jewel hanging over an emerald sea.
As I entered yet another unmarked intersection full of the rubble of construction, I didn’t really know the way but I was too exhausted to slow down – I just picked a road that that seemed to be in the right direction and followed it at high speed, smiling.
After a maniacal drive back to Tirana on the fourth day I found myself sitting across a large wooden table from Stavri Bello, the secretary general of the Albanian Olympic Committee, who, at 58 exuded the happy boyish energy of a 20 year old. “Forty years I spend under the old regime – can you believe it – at age 14 I see my very first TV – black and white only – now my son has a color TV in his room.”
“At age 40,” he continued, “I learn to drive for first time!” His smile was infectious, “even if 24 hours a day I cannot develop this skill at driving, so for me it is very nervous.
During our visit, Stavri had showed me the 2008 budget for the Albanian Olympic committee. Funded mostly by the International Olympic Committee, the budget included 21 projects, 6 full time staff, the rent and overhead for the office, also coaches, equipment, and travel. “2008 was an Olympic year – 20% more than normal” Stavri grinned happily.
The total budget for 2008?
38 million Leke – approximately $380,000 US dollars.
Our hour was up and we began to make our goodbyes – “Falamendert – Mira Popfsh – Mira Popsch.”
His mood suddenly darkened, “Why is it not more time – to prepare – to talk – where do you go? Where do you stay? Where do you eat? We should be having dinner and talking much more – learn about each other…” His protective hospitality was coming out but he suddenly relaxed when we indicated we would return next year. He shook his head with the negative – no wait – in the positive. “Next year I show you Tirana and make you my guest."
I shook my head left to right.