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.)

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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 #4: Switchback 2 - worker's paradise

Switchback Two: worker’s paradise

 With no more identification than the motion of my hand, the driver began to unload dozens of pieces of luggage right there in the street, ignoring the traffic and the curious onlookers.

In a stroke of genius, the night before I asked Ada to tell Lufthansa to deliver my bike and luggage to the address of “New York University” – the school with a big sign right next to my mystery hotel. That way I ensured the driver didn’t end up driving around looking for my hotel only to learn that “no such place exists.”

The dispatcher told Ada that the driver would meet me there between 9am and at 9:15, and it was about 9:30am when he finally puttered up the narrow lane choked with its usual line of cars. The sun was bright and the Lufthansa van had slowed in front of New York University, the driver’s head swiveling, eyes squinting as he laid into the horn. I had stepped out into the street with a wave, upon which he promptly slammed the van into park with a jerk and popped out to begin the unloading.

The cavernous interior was heaped to the ceiling with luggage which he proceeded to empty and stack right onto the pavement behind the van, just inches from the bumper of the first waiting car. The volume and urgency of the horns increased and the line of cars now wended out of sight, but he merely looked up with a glare and continued, unhurried – stacking suitcases, bags, and rollaways into the street until the profile of my giant plastic bike box emerged from the very bottom of the pile.

It was interesting paradox to consider that even as he broke the laws of public authority, he also followed strict instructions to deliver all these late items as quickly as possible…

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Switchback two up the Llogara pass was slightly less steep and a bit of a reprieve. I toiled in a decent rhythm in the outer lane keeping my heart rate just below my maximum and occasionally having the presence of mind to marvel at the beauty unfolding beneath me - views all the way back to Saranda and the Greek coastline in the distance. Mostly though, I focused on the work of turning the pedals with the glimmer of hope of the long cool drop down the other side and a big meal as the final reward.

Switchback 2

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After retrieving my bike and rollaway from the street, I pulled out my claim ticket which the driver eyed disinterestedly – so I pointed to the third barcode on the paper – the one for Kirk’s bag. After a cursory look, he shrugged, and then said, “No.” Later I realized it was the first and only word spoken between us.

Damn. Now I had to wait for the next flight for Kirk’s bag… My day was getting longer, my trip was getting shorter…

I assembled my bike in the courtyard of Hotel H 1996/Bar Cофия and then white-knuckled it to the Tirana airport – 15 miles and an hour’s drive away. The noon flight was late, and finally, at 1:00 it was confirmed that Kirk’s bag still had not arrived, so I gave delivery instructions (yeah right) and sped back into and through Tirana and began the 100 mile, 4 hour drive to Korca where I hoped to arrive in time to get in a decent long ride up to the mountain town of Voskopoja, its Byzantine churches, and its odd enclave of an ancient and dwindling race of people – the Vlachs – that had settled there and still maintained their own language and religious practices. It said in the guidebooks that the churches with their ancient frescoes would be locked, but that I could ask any villager to open them – they all had a key.

My bike - finally arrived

Just a few miles out of Tirana on the drive to Korca the road began to climb in twisting switchbacks up several thousand feet, where it followed a knifelike ridge with precipitous drops on either side for nearly 20 miles. Tiny terraced farming plots, the occasional donkey and cart, and dozens of small vendor stands selling homemade olive oil, fresh produce, and cherries dotted the side of the road. The people were inevitably thin, with leathery skin and dark clothes. I slowed for some small boys holding out huge bags of freshly picked cherries. I paid the $3 for the 5lb bag of shiny red fruit and happily ate and drove, windows down, looking at the grand scenery falling away on both sides. 

selling cherries

When Diana Gelci – a Detroit based Albanian expatriate who had planned Kirk’s last trip saw that we had planned our own agenda to travel through Albania she was a strange combination of astonished, proud, horrified, and amused at our aggressive itinerary:

“Kirk,

“Two things for you to know:

“1. "Rigid" schedules never work in countries like Albania, where cultures are polichronic, which, in Anthropology is the opposite of strict schedules:-) So, yeah, plan big to be flexible.

“2. Your schedule has a major issue: travel timing! The activities you want to have, and places you want to go in five days seem way too much. For example, you can't spend 2/3 of a day in Korca and then head for Saranda, lol. This would be amazing. I mean you can but you, at the best scenario, should plan being to Saranda the next day or so. Or, you say that you will be in Korca at 4:00 pm of the day of your arrival. I am thinking that if you are in Korca at 8:00 pm of that day, it would be heroic:-)

“3. Avoid being in road after 7:00 pm. Remember, there are no signs showing directions so you probably will be constantly stopping and asking people around you.

“4. You, however, have the American spirit with you so everything should be fine:-)

“PS: Kirk, I have to remind you that there is election time in Albania and in situations like that you don't want to affiliate yourself with any name, period. Last time you were there with our friends and under their protection and this made a huge difference. Now things will, as you will realize, be totally different.”

It was the PS that gave me some reservations before the trip – did we need “protection?” and from whom? (For the record, we did complete the whole trip in 4 days vs. 5 and I made it from downtown Tirana to Korca in 3 ½ hours – a half hour faster than the original intinerary and 4 ½ hours faster than “heroic” speed : ))

shepherd

There are many dangers in Albania today – but they are relatively mundane in nature compared to the horrors of history - the primary risk being on the roads. Albania has the highest traffic fatality rates in all of Europe by a large margin. Beneath the surface though, like many unsettling facts about Albania, the high death rate has much to do with the former the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha had banned private ownership of cars in the country, and as late as 1992, there were only 200 cars in the whole country - population 3.6 million. Imagine that – in Tirana – a city with 1.5 million people there were only 55 cars in 1992. Now there are nearly 1.5 million cars on the “roads” of Albania.

“Hoxha,” Stavri was saying, “…Only wants us to win – not like the Olympic motto to compete – so games were only those where Albania could win – mostly we just did not compete at all.”  Stavri Bello, the General Secretary of the Albanian Olympic Committee, and former national team basketball player, was explaining to me why Albania had only attended a couple of Olympics during the Hoxha years. To add emphasis, he then used his hands to describe how this related to Albanian drivers.

Stavri Bello - Albanian Olympic Committee

“You see, when coming first is the only option, it becomes difficult for Albanians to consider coming second. There is an old joke that if you tell 10 Albanians to line up, 1 through 10 (here he moved his hands to draw a straight, vertical line) that instead you will get 10 number 1’s (here he draws a sideways, horizontal line.”

“You see this on our roads – everyone trying to “win the race” and lining up 2, 3, 4 across to pass on a 2 lane road!” I laughed and told him I had experienced this phenomenon over and over again – a 3 or even 4 across passing game. 

When you add the curious competitive streak found in the homogenous ethnic majority (95%) Albanians and the nearly 2 million new drivers fresh out of drivers ed., poor road surfaces, and unmarked intersections, you get a lethal combination. Fortunately, I planned to travel by bike only on lesser roads outside the major cities where cars were still outnumbered by donkeys and carts.

Rural traffic Rural traffic

After Hoxha ceased relations with the Soviet Union in the early 60’s, he created strong ties with China and for a decade, it was Chinese funds, raw materials, technology and factories that propped up the country’s finances and workforce. The cruel and paranoid bureaucrat Hoxha (pronounced “Ho-tcha”) used Chinese technology and Soviet communist aesthetics to create the metallurgical complex at the foot of the mountains between Elbesani and Tirana that is breathtaking in its ugliness.

As I began the drop down from the ridge toward Elbasani, there was a moment of stunning beauty as I could see the elegant curves of the road snaking through olive groves and sheep pastures, and then, in the next instant, the bleak factories of the “Steel of the Party” complex swung into view sucking the sunlight right out of the air as a cold lump grew in the pit of my stomach.

The drop to Elbasani

I felt nearly exactly as I had a decade earlier when first entering the gates of Auschwitz – it was just so foreign and bleak and cold and cruel. Sure, these workers were not tortured and starved like those in the concentration camps, however they also had no hope for freedom or emancipation. I wondered what was worse – brutality, starvation and the glimmer of hope in the form of the end of the war, or the death of all hope in the form of perpetual government enslavement.

Chinese Factories

The rusting complex by Elbasani is mostly abandoned yet still continues smoking and leaking and represents a major environmental hazard that may never be cleaned up.

"Steel of the Party"

Without the financial and technological support of China which ended in 1978, Albania’s factories began to fail, infrastructure crumbled and more and more workers rejoined the stone age being forced to relocate to state run farming collectives where, despite the death penalty being exacted for keeping any of your own produce for personal purposes, demand continued to outstrip supply. Food shortages became more and more common even as the other iron curtain economies failed and were overturned. Eventually these and other factors (including Hoxha’s death in 1985) helped the populace step up and wrest control. The fact that all religion, and the hope that goes with it, were banned in 1967also probably helped the regime stay in place as long as it did.

Lake Ohrid

fisherman's hut

Past Elbasani I drove along the coast of Lake Ohrid for 20 stunningly beautiful miles of snow speckled stone mountains reflected in the mirror of the lake’s placid waters. There was little human development other than the requisite sprinkling of bunkers guarding the shore.

bunker by lake Ohrid

 

donkey near Pogradec

 

Pogradec

Past Pogradec I climbed back up into the mountains and finally, around 5:30pm – near the second day of my 5 day trip, I finally arrived in Korca and quickly prepared for my first ride. I figured I had 3 hours before darkness…enough to make it the 25km uphill slog to Voskopoja and back, but I didn’t account for the pressures of Albanian hospitality…

Traffic in Pogradec