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 #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