Tour of Albania #6: Switchback Four - Yo and Po

 
"At villages in the north, the following exchange was customary:"
 
Peasant: "Welcome to our home and share with us what God has willed us"
C: "God help you, and as they say, may your chimney be higher"
P: "Have you been able?"
C: "Little by slowly"
 
Switchback 4: Yo and Po

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. 

preparing for switchback 4

into the shade...

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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.

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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.

 ready for the big show            Kirk looking dapper in his 4th day in those clothes

 

Ready for the world's most confusing interview...

  That didn’t stop the interview - the tricky part was to coordinate a series of pre-set questions that the host would ask in Albanian (that we would not understand) that we would answer in English (that she would not understand) with the idea that it all would eventually be translated into subtitles for the broadcast (so that everyone could understand.) The risk was that we might answer the wrong question, or as it actually transpired, that our host wouldn’t necessarily know when we were done answering her questions. During the 20 minute “interview” Kirk and I both found repeatedly that our host prematurely transitioned to the next question  – even as we were in the middle of the previous answer. It was done with complete confidence… as if something about our body language had signaled that we had completed our thoughts..

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.

traffic

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.

traveling - the old way...

 

Joy on a bike

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.

 

bunker and poppies

Shepherd

And always, bunkers...

CRW_0350 (Medium)

Our newest "hosts".

He ran us almost 1km back to our turn - a young "host"

Man in Permeti

taxi and dry cleaners...

fellow traveler

clear streams

the hardest workers...

Mountain gas station

 

light blue mountain streams

rope bridge

stylish in all settings...

before the semi truck...

working...

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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 coastline and switchbacks 1 and 2

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.

the zoom from above...

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.

Switchbacks 1, 2 & 3 - higher and higher...

Tour of Albania #5: Switchback Three - Hospitality

 

 

 

Switchback 3: Hospitality

 

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 switchback 3 - into the mountains

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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

Silence.

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.

Picture 042 (Medium)

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…

Flavia and Festim outside Korca

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.

on the way back to Korca

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.

Bobostice village

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.

Flavia still climbing

We rode slowly back to town in the near dark where there was a hard handoff back to Nensi who was waiting for us.

Flavia and Festim - my guides

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.

Kirk and Nensi at Taverna Qilarni

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.)

Picture 072 (Medium)

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…

Dangerously unsupervised... oh wait, who is taking the picture?

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.

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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.

The turn to switchback 4

Tour of Albania: #2 the pendulum starts...

 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.

Death on the road

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?

 Goosebumps on the left

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.

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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 of death from Saranda

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.

Local transport, Queparo

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.

The Ionian coast

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… 

And then the road went to hell

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.

pace

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. 

 Pace

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.

Hamara beach

Then I remembered the 5 switchbacks…

Tour of Albania: prologue vol. 1

Lack of hope has a color: gray. In 1989 I was a fresh-faced 19 year old living and studying in the sunshine of California when the concept of “a world of possibilities” was destroyed. The boy/man that stepped off the plane in Sofia, Bulgaria for a world championship competition was not ready for the otherworld he entered – a world without color where lights and darks were reversed – the damp light of the shiny streets empty of cars, the bland taupe wasteland of row after row of identical tenements, and a darkening sky fed by an endless font of black coal dust – the fuel for heating humans and factories. After our warm-up jogs, we would cough up a black mucus of coal dust.

Thus - from those first imprints on my teenage brain was formed a morbid fascination with the effects of a totalitarian regime on a society and its surrounding landscape. Time has given those memories - like the negatives of an old picture - a rich patina of meaning: what is lost in clarity, is gained in grainy contrasts.

The people of communist Bulgaria lacked color as well. Desiccated by a life of hardship and conformity, in the city a uniform of black overcoats and black hats, gray trousers, and heavy black shoes framed expressionless countenances. The other athletes and I found ourselves nervous when we ourselves were found smiling or laughing – we joked uneasily that perhaps it was illegal. As we wandered the afternoon crowds, I wanted to pry open a mouth to see if it was gray inside…

In the brittle bone chilling cold of the eternal twilight of an Eastern European winter, the streets and parks were crowded with throngs of gray and graying people shuffling about with an indeterminate purpose - the shops were open, but nothing was for sale – row after row of empty shelves and the furtive movements of the slack jawed shoppers. Everyone was old – where were the children? No laughter, no voices, just the quiet rustling of despair.

In the center of the city we found a white stone monument decorating the end of the square, and, past the stern military guard, we followed the faithful and marched down a dimly lit series of stone steps, our frozen breath briefly ignited by the glare of the occasional bulb, and came into underground chamber with the same dim fluorescent lighting now directly overhead. Moving through the chiaroscuro outlines of the crowd we approached a thick glass case – and in it was an embalmed body laid out in the cold gray light where it had been since 1949.

40 years. Georgi Dimitrov, the father of Communist Bulgaria. Their god was dead.

20 years later and in the cold glare of my laptop, I’m planning a trip to Albania – just a few hundred miles away from the Sofia of old. An enigmatic small country between Greece, Macedonia, Kosova, and Montenagro, Albania’s communist past makes Bulgaria’s lockstep communism look like a carnival. For 42 years no one was allowed in or out, and the country was held in the iron grip of a dictator who, amongst other atrocities, outlawed religion creating the world’s first atheist state, and instituted a network of informers “Sigourami” who ruled the ‘lives of others’ (my favorite movie of all time) through careful compilations of each state worker’s “Biografi”. Lack of conformity meant prison camp and/or death.

Albania was the last holdout of communism in Europe, but eventually Enver Hoxha died in 1985 and communism finally fell in 1992.

-from Lloyd Jones “Biografi”

“Enver Hoxha, he continues, had been a religion.” “Even I. I was very, very sad when Enver died. At my office no one was brave enough to mention his death. Imagine, please, if we said the Emperor was dead and he turned out not to be? We waited for the radio report before we could speak of his death. Some had cried with genuine grief, others because they thought it was dangerous not to.”

“Some turned white believing something catastrophic would happen. The crops would shrivel and die. The seas would rise. They would be obliged to walk on stilts.”

Albania is easily Europe’s poorest, most backward state. So why, in gods name, would I want so badly to travel there? Why has it been #1 or #2 on my list for more than a decade?

A rent of color. The answer lies in the continuation of my first visit to Bulgaria. In that two week trip to Sofia little changed in the outward aspect of the city– still the graying men and women and the stiff formal coordination of the competition. I grew quite sick and lost 17 pounds during our time there from spoiled food. But even as I suffered, starved and vomited, little glimpses of light and color began to show through the façade. A young skater who spoke a little english smiled at me, asked questions about America, showed me a bootleg tape she had made with American music. She ended up writing me letters and a decade later, Evgenia Radanova become a world and Olympic champion.

147 lbs.

Our last night there, the figure skaters found out about an illegal party – deep in the bowels of the city, underground in a restaurant with blackened windows to hide the lights, a modern disco betrayed its presence with a booming sound system and a line of young, well dressed partiers, nervously waiting to get in, clearly worried by the armed soldier who had likely been well paid to ignore the illegal activity. Never mind that the crowd was dancing to Gloria Gaynor and disco as though it were brand new, there was an energy to that room and those people – an explosion of smiles, goodwill and freedom ready to throw off the shackles of the old gray guard.

Only 10 months later in November of 1989, loyal armed guards masquerading as a “change of the guard” slipped quickly beneath the noses of a huge encampment of protesters dominating the square and stealthily removed Georgi Dimitrov’s body from his public tomb and cremated him in a quiet ceremony w/ family. A few months later and Bulgaria elected its first parliament. Winter was over…

The same month I entered Budapest as a part of the first contingent of American speedskaters to cross the iron curtain into Hungary since WWII. We competed outdoor on the moat of a 14th century castle in a rare sunny weekend in February – but already spring had begun in this part of Eastern Europe - splashes of color and the occasional smile crossed those usually serious faces. Everyone wanted a part of us – for the one and only competition of my life, we had “groupies” who showed us around and were fascinated by our every move.

Fast forward a month and I’m in West Berlin, walking to and from East Berlin, pick-axing segments of brightly colored painted concrete from the infamous wall which had fallen just months before. Standing in the dead zone between the two walls in the island city surrounded by the state of East Germany I tried to imagine how it was possible for a society to live so long so close to each other and tolerate such a complete inversion of basic human needs – for the freedom to choose, the freedom to smile, the freedom to dissent, the freedom to pursue happiness. I imagined myself as one of those heroes who either fell trying to escape or who was clever enough to cross the border disguised as a car seat, or packed in a gas tank, or who mined a narrow tunnel for years underneath the wall.

Following East Berlin I headed to Prague where I fell in love with the rise of the human spirit from oppression – everywhere was an energy, a love of being alive, of feeling lucky to be in “this time.” Romance bloomed and everywhere you looked there were flowers sprouting and couples making out without a care for the world. I wrote about it in my journal (which I subsequently lost), took pictures, and in an adventure for another telling, lived for nearly a week with a troupe of Gypsies – Roma – who adopted me into their strange life.

Albania still lives in this crossroads – of emerging freedoms, of the resurfacing of the human spirit after decades of oppression and conformity. Its road to freedom has been difficult – much of the late 90’s were fraught with conflict, anarchy, and starvation. Since the early 2000’s though progress has been made, and spring has returned to Albania.

I go there to ride my bike, primarily, or perhaps not. Albania boasts, for one thing, the last deserted stretches of brilliant blue Mediterranean coastline, and a windy coastal road with very little traffic that is not donkey powered. It also has one of the last centers of a dying race – the “Vlachs” who were ushered up into the mountains before being ignored by the communists – only 50,000 or so of this race and language remain. Traffic in the cities is apparently truly hellish – in 1992, at the end of communism, only 2000 cars were registered in the whole country – no citizen was allowed to own a car, and most had never been in one. Fast forward a decade and a half and now over a million cars fight for space on narrow roadways and absolutely no parking lots. Albania has by far the highest death rate for traffic accidents in all of Europe. Fortunately I don’t intend to ride anywhere near Tirana where nearly half the country’s population lives.

Yes, of course I go to ride my bike – racing season is upon me – but more than that I go to witness the rise of the brilliant colors of the human spirit against the gray backdrop of tyranny. Freedom has many colors…

I’ll take pictures...

-John