A green wave of nausea washed through my system and my stomach started to rumble like a clothes dryer containing a single wet towel. All desire and energy was draining away - I just wanted to stop and lie down – but the mountain loomed relentlessly - filling my view with its brooding presence.
I had finished the third death march into the sky and made the next arbitrary 180 degree-degree cut into the mountain. I was out of water, so I moved over into the mottled shade of the left lane which was both cooling, yet somehow depressing. I missed the view.
Usually, when one travels to a foreign country, there are found in those first moments and hours a kind of dissonance that creates a subtle sort of fear – odd smells, different light, harsh or melancholy sounds, guttural or sibilant languages and impenetrable menus. Inevitably though, there is a natural dampening of the emotional pendulum as the culture shock and associated foreboding is calmed, slowly and simply, by simple human touches that need no translation – the smile from a waiter, a wave from a child, or, sitting on a terrace for coffee in the morning, watching a strangely dressed man unfold an untranslatable foreign newspaper, using a set of common gestures and movements exactly identical from Morocco to Memphis.
Eventually the contrasts and dissonance resolve themselves into a slightly extended palette of the human condition – a smile is a smile after all – and we smugly consider ourselves wiser and even more ‘well traveled.’Not so in Albania – in fact the original ‘travelers dissonance’ I experienced driving into Tirana that first day only continued to increase. The inhuman elements continued to play havoc with my emotions – the burning garbage, communist memorials, dead animals, and sheep’s brain playing their notes, but the human dramas playing out were also a bit too loud, too garish to soften the contrasts. Like a child on a swing, I was being pushed and pulled, light and dark, life and death, left and right, switchback after switchback. Significant amongst these cultural contributors were the confusing non-verbal cues inherent to Albanians and their language.
On the third day, while still in Korça, Kirk and I made our breakthrough appearance on Albanian TV for an interview with a local broadcasting personality. What might have been an easy Q&A exercise quickly became logistically complicated because our host did not speak English and we did not have a translator.
As it turns out – that is most likely exactly what had happened – unknowingly Kirk and I were probably signaling that we were concluding even as we were really intending to make another point. Even Albanian body language requires a translator: to illustrate let me provide an example:
If, after nearly retching on that Friday morning after my first bite of sheep’s brain, an Albanian had asked me if I liked the horrible Paçe I had just swallowed, the correct answer would have been for me to gently nod my head up and down and say “Yo.”
And, of course, in the usual riddle of all things Albanian, that gentle nodding “Yo” actually translates exactly to an emphatic “No.” (To say yes, you shake your head side to side and say, “Po”…) Try this – it is nearly impossible to do on purpose…
The confusion of language aside, it is actually a rarity to hear these words: Albanians, as a rule, prefer not to give yes or no answers and in fact they prefer not to answer certain questions at all. Gregarious to a fault with regards to hospitality and being welcoming to strangers and asking kind questions, any turn of the conversation toward the personal becomes an elegant orchestration and demonstration of the latin “non sequitur”.
Question: “Hello – A flisni Anglasht?” (Do you speak English?) Said to a man on the street in Erseka.
Answer: (He shakes his head like he’s saying no) “Po.” (he translates) “Yes!”
Question: “Yes? Great, say, I’m trying to find a certain restaurant…its called…”
Answer: “Where are you from? What brings you to Albania? What do you like here? What don’t you like about Albania? Why don’t you just follow me? – I’ll show you a great restaurant – everything you want. Please, you must take care of the roads – Albania roads very bad. Make sure you watch out for the bridge – is very narrow. What do you like to eat? I make sure you have a great meal.”
An hour later, after finishing our repast, our new “host” is still there, talking with the restaurant owner with all heads occasionally turning our way. They are talking about us. He returns and we ask another question:
Question: “So, thanks for taking us to this restaurant and making sure we and ordered the right things and liked the food.” (And watching us eat). “Where do you live? Here in Erseka?”
Answer: “Albania city not like USA no? I have cousin who live there – in New York – you know it?”
Non sequiturs tend to follow any personal inquiry – no matter the format - email, phone, or in person and it can be infuriating. (Nensi was the rare exception to this rule.) There are two variations: the first is to answer a different question than asked, the second and frankly the more infuriating is the tendency to skip the question entirely (this takes place in email as the default – in order to do research to complete these posts, I had to start numbering my questions in email and to specifically request that my correspondents actually answer the numbered questions.)
It is easy to assume this is another outcome of the communist era, the secret police and sigurami (informers) creating the need to dance around all things personal. However the voice of an analytical co-worker (Torg) suddenly speaks in my head, reminding me not to confuse correlation with causality – it is quite possible that some or many of these cultural phenomenon pre-existed before communism, providing fertile ground for that choking transplant to take root.
After the TV interview, on the 3rd day of my five day cycling trip to Albania, I finally mounted my bike for a real ride – 60K uphill to Erseka – through the mountain valley and up into the highlands. Kirk followed me out of town in the car and then sped on ahead.
For the next 3 hours I was in cycling fantasy land – untrammeled roads, snow capped mountain backdrops, twisty climbs and speedy downhills, peasants, donkeys and fields plowed by horses or mules and harvested by hand with scythes. I worked hard on the climbs and raced down the downhills, taking pictures as I went. Near the top of the climb out of the valley I watched a man traveling a trail with snow covered mountains in the distance, his horse laden with his belongings – no different than 500, 1000, 2000 years ago. I felt incredibly lucky to be able to see into the past like this and wondered how quickly this would all change.
Eventually I made it into Erseka and met Kirk for the “hosted” lunch referenced above. We then piled into the car for a 4 ½ hour drive to Saranda via Permeti and Tepalane – forested mountain slopes, dramatic snow covered mountain passes, and light blue rivers. It was stunning scenery and worth much more time – but we did not want to be on the roads after dark (so we were told), so we sped ahead. There was no traffic, and really, no other roads to get lost on except one turn in Leskoviku, so it seems we could have driven this in the dark. Still, we were glad to pull into the brightly lit crescent of the Albanian vacation resort of Saranda just after sunset, the sky still glowing over the azure waters of the bay.
Switchback four continued its steep incline and the shade was not helping much so I moved back out into my lane by the crest of the road, the entire world now below me. Dangling 2500 vertical feet straight up over the sea, I could see the variegated edges of the coastline increasing in intricacy and reducing in amplitude the farther I looked, the glowing white beaches and emerald waters of the Ionian sea stretching all the way back to Saranda. The colors were so brilliant it looked fake - like those contours drawn and colored on a map. I was hurting, I was suffering, I was in love with the light and the air and the heights.
The light was entering that magical prismatic angle into the sea where it was bending and then returning up into my own blue-green irises with a deeper richer color, stirring those first feelings of joy as I neared the top. I knew now I that I would make it. The light was so pretty and bright it hurt, but I still took off my glasses on intervals to take it all in.
I began to feel like I had earned it – this view, this feeling, and the coming dinner conjured from the sea when I could finally coast into Vlore. Still, the nausea was still there, and something small and still spoke its concern to me as I focused on finishing this 4th switchback.