Wild and Wonderful Albania - West Virginia X 10!

 

Ill be totally honest, I find it almost impossible, and really dislike it when people ask what my ŌfavouriteÕ country has been, but that being said I think I would have a very hard time not recognizing Albania in the very top of the list. 

     Albania is so raw and untouched.  ItÕs a country that seems to explode with potential – especially for its phenomenal geographic beauty – but yet its been hidden under the thick blanket of left over, extreme hard-line communism.  Life is very cheap there.  You can eat happily on the streets for a dollar, or have a coffee at a cafˇ for well under.  The leisure that the rest of Europe seems to boast about is actually affordable here.  The people are some of the kindest, nicest, and most hospitable that I have ever run into.  This I think gets said a lot about a fair number of poor countries – but here it is true and real. 

     Everywhere I stopped, mostly lost and confused, I was immediately surrounded by people looking to help guide me to wherever I was going.  Sure they struggled with a the map of their country – echoes from it being illegal to own one in the recent past – but they would all make sure that the language barrier that we all had would not stand in the way of their helping me.  So many times I was invited into homes or out for coffee, or even offered accommodation when it was clear that I needed it.

     From the very first minute I crossed the border I had truckers guiding me and making sure that I knew the right exit to take when I was headed to Durres.  ŅRogueogene!  Rogueogene!Ó he kept saying with his arms making a wide exit motion.  Though I didnÕt know it a noon when I finally found and crossed the border, he saved me probably at least an hour of extremely hard night driving in confusing cities. 

      I guess I didnÕt know what to expect when I crossed over.  Montenegro had been poor for sure.  Especially in Podergice and on my way south to Tuvi.  The road leading up into the border was a small one lane stretch of weak pavement that was probably built around the turn of the last century.  It was a landmine of potholes and sharp drop offs which would throw me down the mountain with nothing to break my fall except some very prickly looking bushes. 

    When I finally made it down I saw a small shack and near by a faded rusted stop sign.  There was no sign of anyone being around.  I pulled up to the stop sign and waited.  Nothing.  I saw a building a bit further up which seemed a bit more promising so I fired up the bike and started to head that way.

     This is what you call accidentally trying to illegally cross a border check point.  It is a strict no no, and taken quite seriously.  It was only about 15 feet down the road before all hell broke loose.  There were alarms and whistles and an armed man running out of the mobile home.  I shat my pants. 

     When I wheeled back, red faced and embarrassed he screamed at me and pointed at the stop sign.  I tried to convince him that I did stop and that I thought the border was actually a bit further up.  He demanded my passport which he snatched out of my hands and stormed back inside the mobile shack and slammed the door.  I was left by some dogs that looked starved and half dead.  And I waited.  and I waited. 

    About twenty minutes later he came back and told me ok and pointed to the next building.  I very cautiously drove over to it.  This is where they scanned my passport for another twenty minutes and asked for my bike documents.  It was only after they gave them back that I realized I had given them the wrong papers for the bike – but they never seemed to notice.  I think just having papers, especially in German, was good enough.  They charged me a one euro tax to enter (I have heard though that its ten euros for people coming in on a bus) and I was let loose into Albania. 

    Talk about culture shock.  The roads for one, did not improve.  They remained a very beat up old half extinct excuses of a road riddled with holes.  I passed about a dozen abandoned gas stations and started to get a bit worried about what I was getting into.  I had no Albanian money, and only a very few euros accessible to refill, and I knew that there would be no chance that my credit card would be accepted.  This is what you get for crossing into a country knowing absolutely nothing about it before you come. 

    After about a half an hour ride (or about 10 km or something ridiculous like that) I came to the small town of Keokie** and after I had made it to the other side of the town I found a gas station which seemed to be operating.  I knew that I needed a map, and thought it would be a good idea to make sure I had a full tankÉjust in case.  This I have learned is one of the critical lessons of the road.  Make sure you have all you need because you have no idea what will happen to you a bit further on the road, and chances are whatever it is, it will be 100x more difficult to get. 

     I pulled up to the side and an older man came out to help me.  At least I thought he was older – but as I later found out he probably wasnÕt much past thirty.  I asked him if he could speak english, hoping against hope that he might be able to.  The other place I had inquired about a map brought only confused, if enthusiastic looks.  This man said of course.  Where are you from?  You sound American.  I was quite relieved.  At first I brushed the question off – its very common to get it as your travelling, people who have heard of one state and can start a very basic conversation from it – or some have even bothered to learn a bunch of capitals or major cities and will use that to befriend themselves to youÉalmost always with the intention of trying to get you to buy some sort of crap that they have.

    Near Washington I said – State or capital?  I was impressed.  Virginia actually – Oh sure, I know Virginia.  I lived in Detroit for three years until I was deported.  Cool!  did you like living in the USA?  Actually no, its all work work work.  Sure you have a lot of stuff, but no time.  And its very cold in Detroit, here the weather is nice all the time.

     Before I had left I had made a real friend who had asked very sincerely if I would come in and have some tea with him and his family, because it was thanksgiving after all!  He was quite proud that his children had been born in the US though, and had US passports.  I have learned what a real boon it is to be able to flash the blue passport.  Oh the doors that it opens!  Though I could not stop and stay (I was beginning to realize that the 200 km that I had to go would probably take me the rest of the day) he did accept my euros for gas, and gave me a map of the country that ended up being quite helpful.

     I was able to actually cover a decent amount of ground pretty quickly in the next two hours.  A motorcycle is quite a useful form of transport and I was able to weave around the traffic and potholes with increasing ease.  After I passed Skoder signs for Tirana and Durres became more and more frequent and I was beginning to relax a bit and really enjoy the bumpy ride.

    But I clearly did not stop to knock on wood, and of course made a wrong turn.  Instead of heading towards Durres, I followed some directions that I had been given which took me over into Kruja the ancient city of Skanderbeg, the national hero.  Hell of a guy actually, he was able to defeat the Turks 25 out of 25 times that they attacked him and it is claimed that this was able to distract their most powerful army and allow the ŌwestÕ to remain Christian.  The other thing of note about the city, other than its real mountain beauty is that olÕ George W came here not long ago.  Albania is the first country I have come to that REALLY LOVE Americans.  Like I passed by the George W Bush Bar and Cafˇ (which was packed).  They have more American flags on buildings than they do Albanian flags.  Its crazy!  They love us, and what a relief after the rest of Europe which seems to find it quite fashionable to hate America.  Ill avoid a nice rant here, but its amazing how quickly they seem to have forgotten the money and technological advancements that America has poured into this part of the world, and focus only on our recent presidents lack of acceptable foreign policy.  Travelling actually has made me a lot more patriotic – but like I said, no time for ranting here.

      So it was kinda cool to drive to the top of the mountains around Kruja and see old SkanderbagÕs mountain fortress.  Scary drive though winding up some shity shitty gravel and concrete roads up into narrow villages.  It however did seal the fate on my ability to make it to Fier with any shred of light left in the sky.  This I was particularly afraid of, because I felt that in my danger stew I had thrown in a bit too many ingredients.  Driving a motorcycle on bad roads, in countries with some of the worst health care in the world, at night with crazy other drivers with different driving customs is just a bitÉover spiced for my liking.  But sometimes you just donÕt have a choice.  This was to be one of those nights.

     By three I had realized my mistake and was rushing back down the mountain to try to get back on the main road.  When things go wrong though they tend to snowball.  It wasnÕt long before I realized that I was on another wrong road heading actually on a pretty decent road at breakneck speeds into Tirana.  I knew within 2 km that I didnÕt want to be on this road, but it is separated with a large concrete barrier for the entirety of the 18+ km into Tirana.  Actually the road is also not quite finished, so when I did get to the other end I was met with massive traffic trying to squeeze all together to get into the city around the 4 oÕclock rush.  I was finally able to push my way out and after a few turns get myself headed back out towards Durres.  I was flying recklessly hoping that I might be able to make it at least back to the road that I wanted before the real night set somewhere around 4:30.  The sun goes down around 4, but there is a bit of light lingering for those who are desperate, and by god I was one of them.

     As I wizzed closer and closer to Durres I saw out of the corner of my eye ŅRoguogeneÓ and I braked as hard and fast as I could to make it onto the ramp.  It was a bit dicy, and I did both fishtail and squeal my tires, but I was able to make it.  Surprisingly my heart didnÕt even pick up its pace, but that was probably because it was already racing at about top speed. 

     It wasnÕt long before true night set in.  This then began a really tortuous hell of a for some 75 km towards Fier.  It was horrible from the start – the roads were packed (and still horrible) and my bike sits high enough that most people think that IÕm blasting them with my high beams.  So what do they do?  blast me right back.  The honking is ever-present as it is used instead of turn signals (which I guess most people donÕt have) to indicate passing.  Adrenaline filled my brain and I was ultra aware of every hair of my surroundings which just frightened me even more. 

     After passing Progogene the roads actually improved greatly.  A highway started at long last.  See the thing was I was on the main highway of the country.  This was the major road which connected all the major cities.  It ran right through villages, towns, and cities.  I found out later is was actually built by the Italians during WWII in thanks for Xhoja the dictator of Albania for allowing Mussaline to enter with his troops and attack Greece.  But for about 20 kilometres the road was pretty good, and I started to breath a bit easier.  I kept saying to myelf that before long I would be with Jen and her friends, and i would be enjoying my Thanksgiving.  I kept chanting the Turkey song by Adam Sandler in my head as I pushed on.  The sign that said Fier 50 km made me practically jump out of my seat!  50 km is roughly 30 miles – and at the time I was going a whole 50 miles an hour!  I might make it in just over an hour!!

    Clearly I pissed some minor deity of the roads and travel off though because things went swiftly from bad to just fucking horrible.  For one the road disappeared.  Instead I was left with a one lane dirt and gravel one with spots of wavy remnants of road.  My turkey song became quite a desperate and pathetic mantra as I bit my tongue, squinted my eyes and slowed down to a massive 15 miles an hour.  This was torture.  Bright bumping lights blinding me from the trucks, furgons and Mercedez that were flying at me from the other direction and honks from the angry ones that were coming from behind me and had to pass.   To make matters worse the dirt and dust of the road was being thrown constantly into my face as I had to ride with my visor up because I was a stupid idiot and washed it once with an abrasive surface so that it now creates bright beautiful sunbursts with every light source.  Great.  and I still had 30+ km to go.  What is mot abserd about this whole thing though, is that I was on the MAIN HIGHWAY for the country.  I mean this is it – the Highway 1!  This is what all vehicles have to use to transport goods and people around the country.  This disgusting excuse for a country road was their main highway!  

    I mean, the rest of Europe has small Ōmagic boxesÕ that produce light and can compute billions of computations a minute – that have satellites dedicated to BEAMING invisible information down to them at real time so that they can communicate with sound, picture, and practically smell with other people across the world AND THIS COUNTRY HASNÕT MANAGED TO GET OVER THE EVOLUTIONARY HURDLE OF ROADS!!!  ROADS!!  how can you think to ever progress until you can create trade not internationally but NATIONALL!  ok, Im sorry, end rant.  I really do love Albania!  Some things though justÉbaffle me. 

     I donÕt know how I did it to be honest.  It was certainly a test of every ounce of strength, concentration, focus, and endurance that I had.  Maybe it was the intertwined turkey song and pleading prayers to God, maybe it was luck, maybe it was just that I have become a bit of a better motorcyclist than I give myself credit for but eventually I saw a sign which really made my heart sing.  Fier – 11km. 

     Over the next 18 km I stopped four separate times to make sure that I was going the right way to Levan.  Every time I was greeted by extremely friendly people who used the hands and every bit of gesturing they had to direct me towards Levan, the village that Jen actually lived in.  Her instructions were basically that it was about 20 minutes after leaving Fier, and that I would go up a hill, come down a hill, pass some piles of car parts on the road and that her school would be there.  Ask for the American.  Well I guess I missed the pile of broken carparts in the dark and drove almost all the way towards the next town before I asked again and a group of boys sent me back to Levan. 

    Ok during the day it seemed a lot bigger, but at night I saw like 2 buildings.  I stopped at one which happened to be a bar.  See the village is built, like most in Albania, right on the main road.  They might have one or two around them (Levan has two dirt roads which branch off) but mostly they are just stretched along the main national highway. 

     I pulled over and pulled my helmet off.  Within  few seconds there was a crowd around my bike and people asking what I needed.  Actually they seemed to be able to speak english pretty well.  Two of them at least.  I said ŅIÕm looking for the American.  Jen.Ó  They all knew of her but the one I was talking to at the moment didnÕt know where she was.  I said I had her phone number, but it turns out she had given it to me with one number missing.  Another guy asked what I was looking for and said that he knew Jen.  She is living with the parents of my best friend.  His name was Manilla and was to become my best friend in Albania. 

     We walked to her house and called out to her from the locked fence.  Waves of relief rushed over me when I saw her come out of the house.  I had made it, at last I had made it! 

     Well actually not yet.  I had left my bike back at the bar and so I went back with Manilla to get it.  He told me that I should call him and we could have a coffee or something if Jen was busy.  I said that would be great but that I didnÕt have a phone.  He gave me one – he had 5.  I took the bike back, and thatÕs where I had my accident.  Can you believe it, I made it through HELL, and then tripped and fell on the doorstep to sanctuary.  I miss judged the space I needed for my luggage to get through the gate and bumped into one side which threw me into the fence.  It was embarrassing more than painful, but he real pain came when I realized that I had snapped my break handle completely off.  Great.  IÕm sure they are quite plentiful here in Albania.  They arenÕt.

  

     So yea, I made it.  Jen thought that I was strung out on drugs when she saw me because my face was black with dust and dirt, my eyes doopy, body half dead, but my eyes were darting still with the nervous energy that I still had rushing through me.  She rushed me into the shower so that I could become human again and worked with her host mom to prepare the Thanksgiving feast.  The power cut off during my shower – clueing me on one of the other wild bits of Albania.  They donÕt have power for 12 hours ever day.  Do you understand why I have a hard time believing that this is a European country?! 

     They also donÕt have any heat but that did not matter at all for me.  After dinner, and a cup of the homemade moonshine/raki I passed the fuck out.  I tried to keep conscience enough to thank my hosts and be polite.  They had gone out and bought a very delicious cake for my birthday/thanksgiving which was extremely nice,  but I had woken up at 5:30 that morning and had one of the hardest days I have ever had (barring the one in Czech of course) and was just dead. 

     The next morning when Jen came back from teaching we walked around her town.  Talk about a celebrity!  Britney Spears wouldnÕt get half of the smiles and hugs as Jen did walking through her town.  Everyone knew her, and everyone seemed to love her.  Especially when we walked through the Roma community.  The Roma or Gypsies are actually a bit of an issue in Albania.  For one they arenÕt really recognized, and though there are a lot of them, they donÕt appear as any part of the ethnic makeup of the country.  They live mostly on the outskirts of town and are wildly discriminated against.  Parents warn their children not to go out at night because a Gypsie will steal them.  This has been pretty present in most of the Balkan countries I have been to, but I noticed it mostly here. 

     Jen explained that her job is pretty hard – she is here on a mission to improve the english skills of the area.  From what I understand, its pretty much as loose as that.  Do what you want day to day, but basically – get people better with english.  She tried first at the high school.  There she found that the students were insulted and discouraged by overbearing teachers – not as we would imagine them as giving too much homework, but overbearing as in yelling, insulting, and hitting the children.  Here they havenÕt quite bought in to the idea of positive reinforcement I guess.  After months of being forced to sit and watch her english teacher counterpart butcher the language she finally transferred to the elementary school.  I went there with her – it was all smiles and hugs.  They kids were very bright and happy, rushing up to us when we walked through the gates excited to say hi to Jen and see who her visitor was. 

     I actually became a bit known in the town while I was there.  A bunch of the guys knew me through Manilla and the fact that I was the Ōguy on the motorcycle!Õ  The bike actually made me quite poplar everywhere I went.  For most Albanians it is unthinkable that they ever go much outside of their own small village.  They were just amazed that I was taking this giant of bike and travelling alone all over Europe.  Hell most Americans even are a bit surprised by it, but hereÉ I mean, Im not trying to make it out like I was some white god that came to the backwaters of the world – and was greeted everywhere by gazes of wide wonderÉbut I certainly was noticed, and found it very easy to strike up friendships.  It was great! 

     That night we went to the big city Fier.  I left the my broken, brakeless bike, and headed out to catch a ŌfurgonÕ with Jen.  I love public transportation in these kinds of countries.  For Albania basically you just go out to the main road and wait a few minutes.  Before long a big van, or Furgon, will come up and scoop you to take you wherever your heading.  Though they wont actually take you to some specific address, they practically do because most of the places youÕd go are on this main road (they are an odd mix of buss and taxi).  On the way I realized how small town Albania can be as far as the gossip mills.  A random man on the Furgon we caught struck up a conversation with Jen.  He and the driver were amazed that she spoke good Albanian and after apologizing to me, her man, for wanting to speak with me, they started to just chit chat away.  The drive gave her all sorts of information about how to live healthy and wise.  The other man was a bit worried about me because it was his understanding that she had struck up a relationship with the guy at the internet cafˇ.  This was because she had gone in there three times in the last week to check for e-mails from me because she knew that I was coming and wanted to make sure she knew when I would be coming in.  The amazing thing was this guy wasnÕt from Levan!  As another Peace Corps. guy, Adam, said – if cellphone companies could harness the raw power of the gossip circuit in Albania, they would be able to invent faster than real time communication machines!  It was amazing.

     Fier is a city for Albania, more of a large town by our standards, but next to Levan its huge.  I think its got 30k people.  We were to stay in another volunteerÕs house, Sandra, who had had enough of Albania and was headed back to the States.  Her house was the holy land for all the other volunteers around because she had a warm apartment!  Most others would practically freeze during the night – including Jens house.  She also had a lot of just general creature comforts, the biggest and most amazing one being a drip coffee machine.  Though it was slightlyÉoff and had to be held during the process it brewed up a mean, non Turkish, cup of Joe which was revered!

     That night we picked up Andrew who was also volunteering and after a slice of Pizza Roma (famous in those parts and a must have if your in the area) we started to get things together to make dinner.  Food isnÕt particularly something that is more than a necessary part of life for Albanians.  It certainly is nothing of an art form, and there is no such thing as high cuisine.  There are very few restaurants (most that claim it are just cafes) and those that do exist generally have Italian food.  It is afterall just about 70 miles by sea to Italy! 

      So where the Albanians donÕt take their food seriously (except to make sure that they have it, and as much of it as they can) the PC volunteers handle it quite differently.  Every meal I had with them was like a religious ceremony.  We would spend 2 plus hours gathering ingredients, savouring the idea of what feast we were to make, and then painstakingly preparing it with what scattered and sparse resources we were able to fashion to fit our needs.    More than that its quite therapeutic, and I completely understand why.  When IÕm camping probably my favourite part is cooking.  All day during the hike I think about what IÕm going to make and then take real satisfaction in making and enjoying it.  It was the same here.  Most of the Volunteers are alone most of the time, and by this I donÕt mean physically but more emotionally alone, and cooking seems to really hit the spot (ok some pun intended).  Spicy food is quite rare, but Sandra had a bottle of Chili pepper, so we decided to make some makeshift fajitas. 

    Of course half way through the power went out as it does most evenings right at dinner time (between 6 and 7 give or take).  To fill the time we drank beer.  It comes in big 1.5 liter bottles that each cost about a buck.  Problem is they are terrible, Norga and Tirana being palatable, Stella is retched and weak (4 or less %).  But who am I to look down on beer in any form!  So guzzle guzzle and before long the power was back and we were munching away.

     Saturday was our Thanksgiving.  Actually I must say it turned out to be one of the best I have had.  Certainly the most exotic.  Jen and I caught a set of Furgons to take us up north to Pecin (less than 100km but over 2 hours) where Volunteers were gathering from all over, bringing with them different parts of the feast.  We brought an apple pie which Jen made the night before.  It was great to see her rolling the dough out with her nalgene and doing the lattice work for the crust.  Well worth it.

     The turkey we had that night was fresh.  And I mean DAMN fresh.  We had to travel back to Rogogene to buy it, live, from the market.  Ever picked out a turkey or any animal for that matter which you are planning to eat?  itÕs a bit more tricky than finding ripe tomatoes.  It was brought back, still live, in a sack.  We killed it (throat slitting) over a Turkish toilet, and struggled to hold it down while during its bird dance as the blood pulsed out and painted an amazing contrast of dark red on the pure white of the ceramic toilet.  Then we poured boiling water over it to loosen its feathers and plucked them off with the help of the next-door neighbour.  The bird then needs to be held over an open flame to help kill the bacteria that is in its skin before being gutted and then stuffed with yummy stuffing.  It was then sewed back up with some metal bit (no needles) and thrown in the oven.  Karl, the master chef watched it attentively through the evening, basting it constantly, and complaining that the oven didnÕt keep heat so it was constantly being overcooked on top.  Of course the power went out again while we were getting everything ready, but Karl was prepared with Gas stoves (oven was gas as well).  In the end we had a truly amazing feast!  Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, devilled eggs, stuffing, and of course warm apple pie!  I contributed as well – I supplied the beer – all 7 liters of it.  IÕve never seen five dollars go further J

     That night we went out and shot some pool with Eddy the cultured Albanian who had eaten with us.  He had lived in Canada and in England and knew quite a lot about our culture.  Still he had come back at 31 to find a ŅnuciaÓ (wife).  She was 17, but he promised he would make sure she finished school. 

     Actually the roll of men and women is anther of the just stark cultural contrasts.  They are, from a very young age just held completely separate.  There are extremely distinct and rigid societal rolls for both to play.  Women tend to the house, and Men work and mostly live, out of it.  Actually even still most marriages are arranged, or at least excessively dependent on the parents.  It is forbidden (except in big cities like Tirana) for guys and girls to really meet much on a social basis, and its joked (though its not completely because its absurd) that after two coffees the couple will be engaged.  And now many Albanian men are leaving to find work outside of the country.  But for some reason or another, most find it difficult to make foreign wives, so around 30 or so, most come back to get a wife and make some babies.  Some stay with their family, some go back and just send money home.  

      This is really apparent in the night life of Albania.  For one there isnÕt really much of one, outside of the billiards.  I guess it doesnÕt help that the power shuts off at midnight every night.  But right, the billiards are just smoky places, filled exclusively with men talking, often a bit ludely about the conquests and thoughts of women, that they seem to forcefully separated.  Man, talk about a sexually frustrated country. 

     I must take the time to say now though that what Im saying is general.  I am worried that someone would read this and think that these are absolutes and that things arenÕt changing.  In fact Im not so sure if things are changing, but they are certainly not absolutes – but you will certainly notice them.  For example Jens host dad did proudly tell me that both of his daughters had love marriages.  But the thing is – thatÕs something worth being proud of because its not the norm, or at least not something as it is in the States that is just the way things happen so its not even worth mentioning.  Certainly in Levan I didnÕt see a single girl out, not past dark, and come to think about it I donÕt think I did in Fier either. 

      This did not stop a group of us, Jen and and another Jen from coming out to have a good game of pool after dinner.  Eddie and his friend came with us.  But when we got to the pool hall we were not greeted with suspicious gazes and castigating frowns, but instead by grins and curiosity.  It probably was that our girls were clearly foreign, but the men had a great time coming over and helping them to shoot pool – pointing out the angles and laughing when they missed a shot.  Jen actually is a bit proud of tying to change the views of social rolls, at least to a small degree in her town.  From what I gather she admits that she wont be able to do much, and society has pushed even her, a strong independent American woman, it a bit of the roll of housewife, but she still boldly walks down the street at night, walks around with different men (like me) and will be seen in the pool halls.  Albania is for sure a country with tons of tradition – I mean these are the direct decedents of the ancient Illyrians, but I donÕt see these gender rolls being so rigidly enforced for too many more years.  Unfortunately it seems that those with modern views are being sucked into the cities and the old fashion ones are remaining.  Like any developing country it certainly is struggling not just with international brain drain, but rural drain as well. 

     It was a great night, a truly great Thanksgiving, and I woke up the next morning with a huge grin on my face!  We went back to Fier and I called up Manilla to try to deal with the nagging fact that I didnÕt have a break for my bike.  He wanted me to come and get him in Levan (only 8 kmÉbut it is Albaian so it was a hard 8km) and then come back to Fier.  The problem was that it was already a bit after 3.  It would be cutting it real close to get there, get my bike, get him, and get back before dark.  I did NOT want to add one more ingredient to the afore mentioned stew of doom I was cooking up.  Actually it ended up being two new ones – having a passenger, and not having any breaks.  I was nervous as all hell, and Manilla didnÕt make it any easier waving to everyone we passed, but I did end up making it. 

      The first place we went to was closed.  As we were getting back on the bike to drive to the second Manilla asked if he could drive.  Gulp.  I did some quick math in my head.  On the plus side he knew where he was going, knew the roads, seemed to be able to handle a bike – even a broken one (he was studying mechanical engineering) – but on the other hand..it was my bike, one that for sure was much bigger than anything he had ever driven, and if something went wrong there was no way he could make it up to me – though Im sure he would have died trying.  With my heart beating ever faster I gave him the keys and jumped on back. 

      He was an excellent driver, and to my relief a bit cautious especially on the turns.  I was laughing a bit behind him though because I think he spent more time honking – making sure everyone noticed him – than he did not.  We went to the second place, a friend of his fathers – no luck.  Then another place – no luck.  I was beginning to get rather discouraged.  I was sure that I would have to take a furgon all the way back to Tirana to shop around for one and then come back.  He said that there was a fourth place, but that it was a bit out of town.  Without much hope I got on the back of the bike and he drove us out of town.

      We pulled up the shop and called in through the bars for the mechanic to come out.  He checked out the bike and walked into the back of his garage leaving us to wait for what seemed like ever before finally coming back and saying that he had one that might work.  To my relief it fit!  It cost about $23, but in the grand scheme of things I was very happy to have it.  I tried to see if he might have another used one – but this was all he could sell me.  Manilla asked him what my bike might be worth – and he said coolly that it would be at least 4,000 euros!  Guess they donÕt get many Africa Twins in these partsÉI may just have to come back I thought.

     We drove back to Fier – or rather I let Manilla drive and I hung onto the back.  This time he couldnÕt hold back and opened her up the whole way back.  He laughed at me because I was clearly nervous, but reassured me that he knew the roads like the back of his hand. 

     When we got back we had a coffee and he gave me the first of several of the birthday presents that he got for me.  This one was special – and one of the greatest gifts that you can give.  I really enjoyed it when I got back to Fier where I was staying for the night.  I stayed up till Midnight thinking and gazing over the city until the power went out. 

    Huh – 24 now eh?  How the hell did I get here.  Where the HELL am I going?  Im in a strange country, on a motorcycle, alone – but not alone.  A huge grin crept over my face.  I was what I wanted to be.  I had achieved what I love most.  I was making friends in these strange countries.  I wasnÕt alone.  I was self reliant.  What more could I want?  I struggled to find things that would really make me happier.  A real sense of self satisfaction came over me. 

     But where was I going – where was there to go once I already felt so complete?  I started to think about how I might be able to keep this sensation alive.  It made me think and reassess some of the values that I have always had.  I had always felt that what I wanted – truly wanted was wealth.   To be Ōsilly rich,Õ because then I would be free.  I could do anything I pleased, go anywhere I wanted.  But wasnÕt that what I was doing now?  wasnÕt I already going wherever I wanted – and I am a damn pauper in the grand scheme of things! 

     I wont bore anyone any further with my thoughts that night – but in the end I had the crazy idea that I would like to set up a motorcycle mecca somewhere out here.  Here not necessarily being Albania – but not necessarily not being Albania – but here in the wild.  Then I could own my own business, and attract those people to me that understand what it means to be free (and I there is no greater freedom I have felt than that which I feel now, here, on my motorcycle seeing the world) and who are willing to take some risks and grab life by the short and curies and make it their own!  It felt good.  And hell, it gave me a good excuse for continuing on with what I was doing – making my life all about travel, about people meeting, boarding horizonsÉ.yeaÉ

     I woke up the next morning as I always do on my birthday at 6:12.  I made myself a great breakfast and wrote until the battery drained out of the computer that was unable to get charged (power is out from 9 am to 4 pm as well).  Then I read a bit, had a long shower and walked around the town feeling completely internally satisfied.  I think other people understood, because every time someone caught my eye, they mirrored my own grin right back at me. 

     Jen, Sandra, Karl, Andy, and Manilla came and met me later that night.  We made a half attempt at lasagne while drinking copious amounts of wine and laughing like kids.  It was perfect – really!  Here I was completely out in the middle of nowhere, alone as far as my old friends are considered – and I was having an amazing meal with new friends from all over (Natives and Americans).  They gave me gifts, and made me feel like I would if I was right at home.  What an evening!  What a life!  I went to sleep that night, sober probably for the first time since I turned 18, with a grin on my face that stretched from ear to ear.

      Whof – 11 pages now and Im still like a week away from leaving Albania!   Haha – I need to be a bit more concise! 

 

     Ok the next morning we all went back to Levan to judge an english competition that Jen had set up.  It was fantastic and the kids all did a super job.  She clearly is doing a great job!  It was great to see that actually a ton of people from the community came out for it!   We even had to stand and give autographs for quite some time after the competition! 

     When it was all over Jen and I decided to walk out to Apollonia which just two villages away towards the coast.  IT was some old Greek city I believe of some importance.  The walk there brought us through Stulious which really is a village.  Its named after the single roman column ontop of a hill outside of the town.  We came by the dirt farming trail and it just continued out into the village which seemed as populated with Cows walking down the roads (ok trails?) than people.  Poor doesnÕt really quite describe it, it was more as if it just never developed.  Ever!  you could see where it might have had a cobblestone road once, but the stones were dug up and used for some reason or another.  There were a few old Mercedes around town – but the really old ones that one would be surprised if they worked, and of course the cement filing cabinets that the communist used for people.  Other than that it was just as Im sure it was 100, and a 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.  Maybe people were using old plastic buckets to slosh things around, and maybe you could see a faded ŌNikeÕ across one of the dirty shirts – but this was a rural farming town which seemed for all intense and purposes just missed the development boat. 

     An old farmer walked us through town with his cows and then some guys probably around our age started to follow us.  They asked what our names were and what we were doing (in Albanian of course).  They pointed us in the right direction and then ran ahead of us.  When we finally caught up to them we saw that they had stripped their shirts and shoes and were wrestling greek style!  We couldnÕt but stand and watch.  Eventually a victor emerged and we applauded.  He then jumped down and did a split.  Just like that – and urged me to take a picture.  How could I not.  Then they just got up, waved and ran off on whatever errend it was that they were supposed to be doing. 

     The landscape and walk was just beautiful though.  We had these giant mountains behind us which stood faded in the distance, and the sea out infront of us.  On either side there were fields being tended by old ladies (maybe some men too) and of course the bunkers.  The bunkers are everywhere.  At first you might not notice them – I didnÕt, but then once you are clued into them you cant look anywhere without seeing them.  Im serious – they are EVERYWHERE!  Basically Xhoja the old extreme hard-line communist dictator pissed off the Russian communists, the Yugoslav communists, and the Chinese communists and felt that he had to build these strange mushroom bunkers all over to protect his country.  I cant really think of a reason why anyone would want to invade Albania, be it made him worried enough that he build enough bunkers so that there would be 1 bomb proof mushroom shaped for ever 4 Albanians!!  Some would have thought that roads would be a bit higher on the priority list, or even ensuring power for everyoneÉbut he went with bunkers.  Hell I know where Im headed for WWIII.  Itll be funny though, Albania will be the only country to completely survive! 

     Apollonia isnÕt much anymore, and both of us agreed that the walk there was the real purpose for the outing, rather than the destination.  Still we snuck around the back to avoid the entrance fee and checked out out for a few minutes.  Im sure if some old historian read this he would gasp and have a minor heart attack but all I saw was a bit of ruins, whats left of the fa¨ade of a old temple, and a small amphitheatre.  cool – butÉ

      Walking home was a bit dodgy – mostly because we decided to bushwhack and ran into quite a bit of mud and a small stream which couldnÕt be passed.  Finally we pipe that we used as a bridge and made it home a bit after dark (like 5?)  The last 2 km were quite nice actually because and old man saw us and picked us up.  

     When we got back I went to the internet cafˇ and checked my e-mails.  I had like 65 letters!  It was amazing – all wishing me happy birthday!  Its nice to know that people still remember you, and think about you even though your off travelling and not around.  I liked it at least.

     The next day we hopped on a Furgon and headed down to Vlora.  It was the 28th, which depending on which party you are part of, is the national independence day (from Turkey back in 1912).  The other party says that itÕs the 29th – so it leaves a nice two day break.  Whats more is it all started in Vlora so the Prime Minister Salli Barerecha was headed here to give a speech.  Unfortunately we missed him by minutes – but we did see his entourage leaving.  When we got off the Furgon we saw a city ablaze in red flags.  I love the Albanian flag.  It is a deep red with a giant two headed Eagle on it.  It was Skanderbags crest and represents the Albania he saw as having different ideologies – but the same united body.  Kinda cool actually. 

    As we made our way closer and closer to the heart of the city we were greeted with screams and what sounded like gun shots.  The crack crack of interspersed gunfire that you see when you look at footage of some of the cities in Iraq on the news.  Though we didnÕt feel it was dangerous we did wonder if they were celebrating Mexican style and shoot gus up in the air.  When we got there we found out that in fact it was just that every kid had a box of these extremely loud firecrackers.  They were throwing them around and dropping them next to unsuspecting eldersÕ feet.  We, of course, went out and bought some of our own.  It was a bit ominous though to be there in the main square with all these blood red flags waving in the violent wind, the sound of gunfire, and the backdrop of what looked like bombed out, abandoned buildings.

      See Albania has had a hell of a time in the twentieth century.  First you had this feudal society, then the turks came in and occupied it for like 500 years, then this King Zog came around and as far as I can tell didnÕt do much.  But it wasnÕt long then before Xhoja came in and just isolated the country completely.  When he finally passed on and Albania became a market economy again around 1997 there were these huge pyrimad scams which like sucked out all the wealth of the country.  Basically they have just moved from oppression to oppression, poverty to poverty.  Im not saying this as an excuse – Im just saying thatÕs kinda what they have been doing. 

      Im not sure if itÕs the Pyrimad scams that led to all the damn abandoned, half finished buildings, or if its just a huge lack of accountability but they are everywhere.  Actually you probably have more living spaces that are not complete than ones that are inhabited!  You look out and see a concrete graveyard of buildings that are just sitting there, finished to some degree and then left as if the rapture happened and took up everyone who could build! 

     I know what happens with a lot of them are that wealthy people start building them, and get at least a framework structure before the state realizes that they donÕt have a building permit, and then they shut down the building.  These guys arenÕt going to then pay to bring down the building, and maybe they donÕt have the money to bribe the officials anymore (perhaps what happened to have them realize they didnÕt have a permit) and so they leave them.  This was the case with the biggest building in Vlora – the one in the main Freedom Square – its just sitting there – completely unfinished and abandoned. 

    The worst one is right on their nicest strip of beach.  Vlora could be a paradise.  It easily is set up to be a booming industrial and vacation hotspot.  It lies on a choice bit of the Mediterranean, close to Italy, with perfect weather.  On the beach, which gets extremely crowded in the summer, but only for July and August (though the weather is very nice for many months), sits the largest and most hideous scar.  Its old Xhojas beach house – situated of course, on the most prime bit of real estate in the city over looking a bay with a private cove on the other side and views out to sea.  It has been completely ransacked, and then abandoned.  Now its stands with the sole purpose of serving as a great spot to jump from, and a hideout for adolescent boys who cover the walls with very lewd graffiti.  The capitalist in me just screamed.  It would not take that much to fix the place up.  I mean – if the state cant afford it, sell it to some private person or company to rebuild it.  The place is amazing!  Gah!!

     We had an amazing night in Vlora.  We stayed with another Volunteer who had a very full spice kit sent from home.  He made his own very taste beer and we cooked up some fantastic stuffed peppers with rice covered in a tomato, onion, pepper and carrot sauce.  it was delicious.  then we drank, watched Flight of Condor episodes and threw the remaining firecrackers off the balcony.

      When we got back from Vlora I tried to get everything ready to finally leave Fier.  I wanted to spend a couple days down in the south before heading to Greece.  As it turns out the weather report sent all hopes of leaving the next day right out the window.  Rain and more rain it called for.  I decided I would NOT risk adding rain to the shitty roads and would just chill for an extra day.  Besides I really liked Levan.  I had friends there with Manilla and Jen, and after any extended stay in a place (extending in my books being more than a two nights) its hard to get back on the bike and head back out into the unknown. 

     I had decided not to leave when I went to bed, and held to that even though it was nice outside.  I actually spent most of the day just writing, reading, and having some coffee with Manilla.  We went back into Fier and did some minor work on my bike.  Basically a chill out day, which I guess I needed to prepare myself for getting back on the road.   Haha, I never come or leave when I think I will!

      That night we stayed up very late talking with her hosts and their daughter about their lives.  As I have said before, the reason I love this area so much is that its history is all so recent!  They are still making it – and in a big way.  There were big gunfights in the streets only ten years ago.  People my age can remember running home from school ducking because there were people shooting in their town!  Jens host parents had spent most of their lives living in communism.  It was fascinating to pick their brains and try to find out how life was different for them – what changes they saw, if they saw them as positive.  Im also also very interested in learning about the positive things that they felt that communism had. 

     For them they remembered fondly big meetings where they would all sing traditional songs and recite old stories (carefully chosen to not be contrary to communist philosophies of course).  The mom remembered that she really liked being a ŌvolunteerÕ to help build cities, drain wetlands, build roads (ha!)É It was here that she met her husband.  They liked that everyone could read and write.  They saw lots of advancement until the mid 70s.  Up until then Albania was able to bring in a lot of technology and development from its fleeting ties with the other communist states.

     But it was hard as well.  For example they told me that even though most people were farmers it was very hard to get food because it was all being exported away so that the government officials could get money from other countries.  As in all the communist places I have visited there also was a very large secrete police which went out of its way to make sure that if you complained at the grocery store that there werenÕt any products that you would be reported to the authorities and then be sent off to Ņre-education camps.Ó 

     But now the misguided and doomed to fail communist ways have morphed into a hyper and evil version of freedom and market society where corruption is the name of the game.  The corruption is at all levels, and is crippling the country.  Jen told me that students have to bribe their teachers!  Those charged with building roads just keep the money, even the doctors have to be bribed to perform the duties that they state pays them to do.  And itÕs a vicious cycle!  Why pay taxes if you donÕt see any benefit to them?  Its hard to convince someone to pay taxes when their roads are horrible, their schools are taught by angry teachers who insult kids and demand bribes, the police are corrupt, and the doctors have to be paid off to help the sick?  But if the state has no money, how can it help to fix things? 

      We stayed up past midnight talking about all this and more.  I loved it!  I have really gotten into learning as much as I can about the history and the different social views of the countries I visit.  One thing that I find interesting is how generational it is.  Their daughter I felt had very similar views as Jen and I had.  Despite out different social upbringing we as a generation probably shared more than me and people of my fathers age back home. 

     The next morning was bright and sunny.  I met Manilla for one last coffee and said good bye.  I kept looking at Levan in my rear view mirror – completely glad that I had come here! 

     The drive down south was extremely difficult, extremely beautiful, and extremely rewarding.  Just after I passed by Vlora I started to climb up and up into the mountains.  The road wrapped up higher, and higher through villages and eventually climaxed at around 2,700 meters (or so my GPS read but I think now that it was off)!  I was so high up I was above the cloud line.  The view from the top was just a massive and spectacular view out into the great expanses of blue sea.  The mountains fell sharply on a very long windy road do Dherva off into the sea.  Just sat at the top for probably half an hour soaking in the warm sun (though it was a bit chilly that high up) and looking out to the horizon where blue sky met blue sea.

     When I finally came down the beautiful road left me.  It was actually very well paved – the best I ever saw in the country up over that mountain – but as soon as I was down it disappeared abruptly taking me into the worst roads that I had yet come across.  For one they kept going through towns – but this time they werenÕt flat towns they were towns on mountains and the roads curved and wound through them.  It also became very narrow – so much so that it was difficult for me to pass by the oncoming car.  Actually I had a Ņnear hitÓ coming around one of the bends as the oncoming car rushed up and didnÕt see me until the last minute.  I gunned it to get out of his way and then slammed on the breaks to avoid flying off the road and crashing down wherever it lead.  I did stop in time thank god, but lost my balance and was forced to drop my bike.  The other car started to drive off but I ran in front of his car and made him stop and come out and help me lift it.  Im sure if he knew that I couldnÕt have done it myself he would have helped me in the first place. 

    But even these roads eventually gave way into nothing more than a bit of gravel and rough rocks.  This was real off roading – I was moving at a snails pace trying to keep my balance and avoid what were now pitfalls in the road.  This continued on for about 30 kilometres, and I could see that once again, even at noon, I was risking not being able to make the rest of the 100 km before dark.  Haha – and then if you could imagine it got even worse!  Even the rocky road disappeared and there was just nothing.   The road had been completely torn up – and actually there were still some big machines there throwing some of the rocks and trees near the road onto it!  I had to honk several times to get the guy to finally notice me and to pause in throwing all this crap in my direction long enough for me to manuver past him.  Really the only way I was able to make it was because I was on a tall – offroad bike.  I wouldnÕt have been able to do it any other way, and I would have had to have gone back the whole way – past Vlora, past Levan to Fier to catch the road to Gyrocaster. 

     To be honest I was warned about this road before I went on it.  Jens host dad had warned me that it wasnÕt paved in pathes, and had recommended that I take the road down from Fier to Gyrocaster that most Albanians use when they want to get to Greece.  The problem was that that put me very far to the East when I wanted to be on the coast.  That and of course I had no idea how bad it would be.  Hell, even if I did know I probably would have done it, hoho what would life be without adventure?

     I was able to make it past, and it was only about 8 more km of this extreme driving before I was finally able to make to Himora.  Talk about a paradise!  This place just has that untouched Mediterranean beauty like you can only imagine.  Its no wonder – there arenÕt any damn roads to get to it!!  I sad on the beach and had a bit of bread that I had brought with me thinking God that I had made it this far and praying that he would let me get the rest of the way before it got dark.  The last thing I wanted was to try to be navigating these kinds of roads in the dark.  Haha, how many times have I said that.  Its as if by praying to avoid it, He tests me with it.  Well IÕm still writing this with all my fingers and toes so I guess I shouldnÕt complain.

     Actually the rest of the road towards Saranda, the capital of the south, were much better.  And the coast continued to dazzle me with its blue shimmering waters and crystal clear beaches.  I picked out countless spots that I will return to and camp on, or even come back and build a house on one day.  It just blew my mind.

      When I finally left the coast and started to head into the last few kilometres before Sarandas I crossed one last mountain which bright me into a valley.  I road around the side of the mountains with a wide extremely lush, green, fertile plains stretching out on my right side.  In the distance i could see another mountain range forming the other side of the valley.  Man this was the icing on the cake.  A long day of extremely difficulty riding through just amazing, untouched, natural beauty.  IÕm happy to say I have found a place that gave me a better ride than driving down the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.  Actually this was in a way just continuing down on that journey.  I was essentially on the same road riding the same coast, just under much different conditions. The descriptive words I need are failing me – but I felt as if I was one of those covered wagon settlers who came over a ridge and looked down at the land just rich with possibilities and beauty.  There was also a round pointy mountain kind of in the middle which really made it like the old paintings of the frontier west. 

     I was amazed when I got to Saranda by three in the afternoon!  I called up Jen to tell her that I made it safely and she told me that I had some CS messages and should go check them out.  I found an internet cafˇ and found that I didnÕt have a place for the next few nights, but that by Wednesday of the next week I had a good place to stay down in Zacharo with a motorcyclist! 

      By three thirty I knew that I had better get out of Saranda and start heading towards Delvine.  There was apparently a Volunteer there who was a bit of a chill and groovy cat.  Jen had called up and he said that his place was all full for the night I wanted to come, but that I might be able to find a place near by as there was a cheap hotel (8 bucks or something a night).  Well I had an alternative to that.   I figured I would head his was and then camp if I had to, or more likely whip out my emergency card. 

     The emergency card is what I try to carry in all countries.  Its basically a piece of paper that says ŅIF your reading this, I need helpÉ.Ó  It goes on to explain who I am and what Im doing and that I would be more than happy to do some chores for a piece of floor to sleep on to avoid the cold.  I was actually pretty pumped to use it here, and I knew of all the countries that I would be invited in – it would be Albania. 

     IT was supposed to be only 10 km from Saranda to Delvine, but I clearly did not take the right way.  Actually as it turns out I took a really ass backwards way!  I missed the turn off for the real road that goes there (no sign) and headed n the main highway to Gyrocaster.  Again when I say highway I mean poor excuse for a village road – but it wasnÕt that bad in comparison.  If I remember correctly it actually had some lines on it.  Well I wrapped up and along this road for a bit and then came up to a sign which said that to the right was Gyrocaster and to the left was Delvine in 11 km.  The problem was that the road to the left was immediately just a rock road similar to that which i had to go to from Himara.  Bad!  It was now just about 4 and I knew that the sun had fallen behind the mountains and that I was really under the gun to make it by dark.  But in a way I wasnÕt so worried.  I was sure that I would see a farm house or something on the was to Delvine and that my case for pleading a place to sleep would be better if it was dark.  So with a big sigh, I headed left.

     The road was difficult, but just as beautiful as any that I had done that day.  The setting sun threw its soft gold, crimson, and pink blanket on the round slopes of the mountains and valleys that I was climbing and going through.  If I had already throught I had had the icincy on my pleasure cake for the day, then this was the birthday candle – and the light with which it painted all that I was passing was not unlike how a candle lights up the cake it crowns. 

     I did make it eventually to Delvine just as the real dark was beginning to creep in and drove into the center of town.  I had seen a few places where I could have stopped and asked for a place, but I figured that I would head into town just to see what Adam, the Volunteer here, recommended.  Well just as had been my experience everywhere I went as soon as the bike had stopped running people began to come up and see what I was doing there.  I had a phone, and Adams number but for some reason, the phone decided to go on the fritz.  Well this wasnÕt much of a problem because these guys that came up were more than eager to help.  I asked if any of them spoke english and eventually they ran and found one that did.   I told the guy that I was looking for Adam.  He had heard of him, but didnÕt know where he was but another of the group knew that he lived on the side of the town near the Church with the German nuns.  So the english speaker took me over that way.  When we got there we ran into a nun.  She also knew Adam, but didnÕt know where he lived so she called the Mayor.  Before long the mayor came down and said that he knew where Adam lived and had his phone number.  We called his phone (I had tried earlier actually by putting my sim in the english guys phone but Adam didnÕt anwer) and again no answer.  So we went to his apartment and knocked – no body home.  Drat – oh well.  I figured by now I knew half the city so I wouldnÕt have to work hard to find a place to stay and just as I was bringing it up with the Mayor Adam walked up the street.  Super! 

     As it turns out the guy that was with him that night had decided to leave a day early so he did have a free place for me.  Even better!  The mayor insisted that I put my bike in his private garage (which displaced his new land rover – the nicest car I had seen in the country).  he wouldnÕt take no for an answer.  So by the end of the night I was pleased as a peach – munching down on this pasta with goatcheese Adam had made, listing to good music and laughing my head off at what a wild, wonderfulÉand STRANGE country Albania is!