Friday, August 22, 2008

Life in a Muslim Country? Part II

Thanks to Our Man in Tirana, who may be physically gone but remains engaged in Albanian issues, I can provide a link to a fantastic analysis by Miranda Vickers on the state of Islam in Albania today.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Foreign currency has always been a weak spot for me. I was never all that attentive to my spending habits in the U.S., but at least I developed a general sense of what something should cost based on how long it took me to earn that amount. A pair of jeans was $20.00, which took me about half a day to earn. Hey! Cut me some slack. This is 1976 I'm talking about!

My first experience with foreign currency was a riot. Greece, 1982. My first trip abroad and I've now turned my small stack of greenbacks into a mountain of indecipherable banknotes. Drachmas, spelled with a triangle! As I slowly woke up to the mystery of exchange rates, I had a wonderful idea. If I buy Draculas when they are cheap and sell when they are expensive, I make money. My next paycheck was converted at the incredible rate of 95 drachma to the dollar after I watched the rate soar from 75. All I had to do is hang on until the mighty dolllar fought back. Ten days later the Greek government did some financial sleight of hand and the exchange rate went to 125. Bad foreign currency! Bad!

From then on it was, "ignorance is bliss." I didn't want to know how much something cost in dollars. "An apple is 20 dracs? OK. A beer is 400 yen? OK. I just lost 200 pound and 14 shillings at the dog track? OK. A Turkish hooker is 650,000 lira? No thanks, not interested, but the price seems OK." For over 19 years all was well. The locals knew their currency, scrawled it on a piece of paper for me or pointed at the register readout and I paid. Then I landed in Albania.

I'd done my homework. A dollar was about 150 lek. On my first amble around Tirana, I passed the Rinia Park in the center of town. At that time the park was a shanty town of illegal buildings. Restaurants, clubs, pool halls, and a hotel sprawled in un-plumbed squalor. Passing by one of the forgettable restaurants, a young man sprang up from his chair and joined me on my walk. He spoke English and started peppering me with questions.

"Where you from? Where you going? What's your name? Have you seen the pyramid? Do you want to see Hoxha's villa?"

I tried to be polite yet dismissive. I'd been warned about crime and still was not comfortable in my new environment. Long story short: After pouring out his life story and offering to be my guide, friend, and confidant Genci starts telling me about his mother in the hospital and asked for financial help. In my head I'm thinking, "I wonder what the going rate for buying your way out of an uncomfortable mooch is here?" If I was still in DC I'd give the homeless guy a buck and be on my way.

I did the only civilized thing - I asked, "How much?" He immediately replied, "Two thousand."

Now my head is spinning. "How many dollars is that? Divide by .66. Or is that multiply? How much did I get from the bank today? Is that the big green one or three of the triangular bills? Oh, shit, what if he sees my wallet and tries to kill me?" I decided discretion would be the better part of valor and forked over two 1000 lek notes. Genci transformed from the misty-eyed supplicant to a Wal-Mart employee who just won the powerball jackpot and begged me to meet him again tomorrow. I declined and scuttled home trying to rationalize my generosity.

I told this story to an Albanian colleague a few days later and when the laughter stopped he said, "You got scammed. The guy saw you were a foreigner and decided to work you. There's no way he has a sick mom, he wanted 200 lek for coffee."

"So why did he ask for 2000?"

"Oh, he was talking old lek."


"Yeah, old lek. Most people still haven't gotten used to using the new lek values after the government devalued the currency by a factor of ten. It's very common to hear people refer to 1000 lek when they are talking about 100 new lek."

"So he really wanted 200 lek (about 2 bucks) and I gave him 2000 (about 20 bucks)?" I could feel the donkey ears sprouting on my head like you see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"Oh, yeah. You made his day!"

"So when did this devaluation happen?"


I was speechless. The currency was devalued before the majority of the current population was born and they still use the old values? Unbelieveable. I could understand if there was still old currency in circulation showing the old value and people referred to it. It would seem reasonable if the change had only happened a few years before. The entire continent of Europe switched from marks, francs, piasters, lira, and good old draculas in just six months and now everyone talks in Euro and Albanians still refer to a currency which was phased out when Mick Jagger was just getting famous? What is wrong with this picture?

There are some advantages to this system. Every payday, I can be a millionaire again. All it takes is a trip to the ATM and the withdrawal of 1,000 USD. That's around 100,000 new lek, but thanks to the magic of time travel in Albania, I can call it a million. Even though the dollar is worth about the same as a wilted lettuce leaf, I can still close my eyes and imagine Regis Philbin asking me:

"Can you give me a million for my sick goat's medicine?"


Monday, August 18, 2008

A Dance With The Devil

It has been compared with the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Survivors refer to it as "a Tango with Satan." Others refuse to speak of it, hoping that ignoring it will make it disappear. No one leaves Tirana without being touched by it. Once touched, you're changed forever. Crossing the street here is a life-altering experience!

I've lived in several countries around the Mediterranean and have come to know well the perils of crossing the street on foot. Athens, Naples, Istanbul. Each new city had traffic rules slightly different than the others yet they shared a common factor. Successfully crossing the street requires adapting your behavior. If you stood waiting for a traffic light to change and cars to stop, you could very well grow old and die in one spot. Stepping out onto the crosswalk and expecting cars to stop would have the same result, only you wouldn't have to wait so long. No, you have to play by the local rules.

In Tirana this means learning to play "Frogger." Remember the video game where you had to hop your frog across a river without getting drowned, munched, or squished by the various denizens of what looked a lot like a five-lane highway? That's the Boulevard of The Martyrs of the Nation (Bulevard e Deshmoret e Kombit). Six lanes of speeding death which occasionally turns into eight... or twelve. I cross it at least twice a day and have learned the rules.

First, try to make eye contact with drivers. It's harder for them to kill you if they have seen your eyes and recognize your basic humanity. The flip side of this rule applies to driving: Never make eye contact. You can't be held responsible for hitting something you didn't see.

Second, realize and accept that traffic will not stop for you. You are the twig tossed on the torrent. Find the space, use it, move on. Just as it won't stop, the traffic won't alter course to hit you. If you're on the center line you can remain still and read the smallest print on the bus ads as they whoosh by, confident that you're in your space and completely safe.

Third, hesitate and you're done. There's no second chance. The quick and the dead.

Fourth, ignore the policeman and the traffic signal. He's only there for decoration. In the event of an emergency such as traffic actually flowing smoothly, the police will intervene. Mostly they just observe and chat with passing friends.

The internal dialogue sounds something like this: "OK, he's turning right... three steps across the first lane, wait for Mercedes .... three quick steps ... stop, wait for the very clean Porsche ... step, step, step and we're halfway ... look right ... six steps across two lanes ... ignore the horn ... two taxis pass and then three more steps to the curb."

It's easy to spot the newbies. They look apprehensive, tense. Like a young wildebeest approaching the Mara River for the first time. They know about the crocodiles are there but don't yet know how many times the crossing can be safely made. Experienced crossers don't even break stride. Cell phone on the ear and staring straight ahead they step into the stream and glide effortlessly across. They take the same risks as everyone else but have learned to live with, and minimize, the risk. I admire them.

So, like the annual migration across the perils of the Serengeti, street crossing in Tirana has evolved and achieved balance. Then something changes and chaos ensues. I noted before that the surest way to screw up traffic is to get the police involved. Make the policeman a German and the results are even more hilarious. Unless you're a driver who actually has someplace to be.

Earlier this decade, the EU sponsored a police training program to help Albania bring their law enforcment operations up to Western standards. I would have loved to have been at the meeting where each country staked out their area of "specialization."

The Italians: "We'uh shalla teacha thema to fightuh the corrupzione!"
The French: "Mes amis! We take les customehr relacions departmahn!"
The Germans: "Ve vill brink order to zee traffik!"

OK, I could buy the first two. Barely. But, please, Hans, you have no idea...

Sure enough, August of 2000 found teams of one Albanian and one German traffic cop standing at almost every major intersection in Tirana. As I sat in the snarled mess that resulted I had a ringside seat to the spectacle. The Albanian cop knew better than to exert himself too much in the 40+ degree heat. Spent most of his time trying to stay in the shade of the German who flapped, whistled, and waved like a madman with the veins popping out in his forehead. His directions were ignored faster than he gave them and all he got for his efforts was a lot of honking and a mild case of heat stroke. The "training" program was mercifully short and by October things were back to normal.

Since then, change has slowly occured. Most of the traffic lights work most of the time and most of the drivers obey them. Most of the time. Lately I'm noticing people waiting for the walk signal and crossing when the little green man gives his consent. That's a good thing. I know it will cut down on traffic accidents and is yet another sign of the development of a culture of rule of law. Little changes in behavior build up into the solid foundation of modern society. But, every now and then I get nostalgic for the good old days.

When I approach the Boulevard and see the signals are out I am secretly pleased. I take a deep breath and smell the sulphur. My awareness peaks, my pulse pounds, and I step off the curb.

"OK, Old Scratch, let's dance!"


Monday, August 11, 2008

My Secret Beach


I have a secret beach.

It's not mine alone, but near enough. On an August Sunday it's just me and a few other hardy souls who venture out this far. Tirana's gone. No Durres. No traffic. Just me, the incandescent sun, and the beach. It's been strewn with the obligatory plastic bottles, some trash, and a set of quickly dissolving tire tracks testifying to someone's futile effort to drive out on the sand. The breeze is lazily erasing the tracks and pushing the refuse off into the far corner.

Here, hemmed in between shoulders of stone, I lie upon my secret beach. The sun, past its zenith, warms but does not burn. Beneath me the sand holds a reminder of midday's furnace, baking my back and melting sore, old muscles. I let go of the tension from the jolting ride in and surrender to the embrace of radiant silica. Each breath brings a slight readjustment as the sand sifts in to fill the gaps, forming an exact match to my body's form. A glove, a grave, an acceptance.

Above me the blue is marked with a few stray wisps of cloud. Cirrus? Stratus? Whatever, beach clouds. I stare into blue emptyness, anchored to Earth by the grip of the beach, and marvel at the range of colors. At first the sky looks just "blue", but after a while I notice the different shades. Deepest cobalt directly overhead. Milky blue around the fringes of the clouds. Pale, watery blue at the horizon. The moon, anxious to take the stage from the dominant sun, appears faintly as a blue-grey disc patched with dark spots. "Take your time,' I think. "You've got all night."

Across this azure expanse, a silver glint traverses, leaving a thin contrail behind. Even the vastness of the sky bears the imprint of our activities. So precise, so linear, so full of purpose. Yet, before the jet exits my field of view, the ruler-straight contrail begins to fray. Like the tire tracks on the beach, this latest mark of men begins to disappear and melt back into nature. That's how it is. The tracks, the contrail, the trash, you, me, everyone, everything. We come, we leave our mark, and we go away. A second, an hour, a year, a lifetime. Nature erases us, consumes us, re-uses us.

And that's OK. I feel best when I'm closest to nature. Closest to my eventual destination. Stay close and she reveals her secret wonders. The zephyr whispering across the water, over the sand, carrying the smell of brine. When the wind calms, the pungent tang of pine drifts over me. The stand of trees has worked its way onto the crest of the dune over the centuries and takes advantage of the lull to stake further claim if only for a brief moment. The breeze returns and carries with it the hiss of breaking waves.

I roll over and look out to sea to watch the waves break. They're not huge waves. Not North Shore monsters, curling over on themselves in a savage display of physics. But to me, raised on two-inch wind-driven wavelets lapping at the lakeside mud, these waves are fascinating. Random. Individual. Yet regular. There's a pattern that emerges from the chaos briefly to create a train of impressive little breakers before dissolving away into general waviness again.

The trick is to look far away. North. Up the beach. At the limit of my vision I can see a wave start breaking on the sand. This same crest continues south in an irregular yet unstoppable advance. As it gets closer I can hear it unzipping its way down the shore. Louder now, almost here, and then with a slap more than a crash it passes. It continues south, its sound fading. "Doppler effect?" I wonder.

Near me the water that the wave pushed up the sand is sliding back into the sea to await its next charge up the slope. I realize that the wave I watched travel over a mile down the beach was not made of water. The heaving water was just the track of the passing pulse of energy, of activity. Like the contrail. Like the tracks in the sand. It's all temporary, all impermanent.

From my warm cocoon in the beach's embrace I watch this timeless display of transient energy passing in and out of my existence and it's all good.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Life in a Muslim Country?

"So, what's it like to live in a Muslim country?"

I hear that a lot from lots of my stateside colleagues, friends, and family members. Let me tell you, life in a Muslim country was oppressive. I was forced to always wear long pants and a collared shirt, preferably long sleeved. When the call to prayer was sounded, I had to go sit on a bench on the street and wait for the shops to open back up after prayer. I couldn't find an alcoholic drink of any kind, anywhere. When I went out in public with female co-workers, they had to cover up entirely with only their face showing. Any infraction of the religious rules risked a scolding by the religious police (muttawa) who were alway accompanied by armed civil police. The muttawa would hit you with a long stick and yell at you about your infraction and, if you didn't fix the problem immediately, the civil police were ready to use more persuasive methods. And don't get me started on the public executions. Let's just say I never, ever wanted to even think about jaywalking after I saw a few heads parted from their owners! Yeah, life in Saudi Arabia was tough.

But you meant in Albania, right? I thought you meant life in a Muslim country. Albania is not a Muslim country. It's a country with a majority of citizens who would probably identify themselves as Muslim if asked. The last time anyone asked was in the 60's or 70's so all estimates of population and religious affiliation are WAG's. (Wild Ass Guesses).

So why does everyone say Albania is a Muslim country? It's the inescapable burden of history combined with recent isolation. As in almost every aspect of Albanian life and culture, these factors play a huge part in modern perceptions of the role of religion.

Before the Ottoman conquest of Albania, the majority of the inhabitants of this land were either Catholic or Orthodox Christians due to the influences of Rome and Byzantium. Prior to that I imagine many worshipped Roman or Greek gods, depending on whose yoke they lived under. The point being that in a country that has experienced repeated invasion and occupation, religious affiliation was often a function of who is the oppressor d'jour.

The Ottomans recognized this and used their governance as a prod to conversion. Muslim families in Albania paid lower taxes, did not have to involuntarily send their children to train as soldiers in Istanbul, and were generally better treated than their non-Muslim neighbors. Surprise, surprise: 60-85% of the population converted to Islam during the 500 years of Ottoman rule in Albania.

The breadth and depth of conversion can be traced today back to the amount of control the Ottomans exerted in an area and how long they held the territory. One author I read compared it to a tide that filled the lowest areas first and remained there longest before receding. In the mountain fastness of the Northern Albanian Alps, the Ottomans never really managed to bring the people under effective control, hence they remained mostly Catholic. Ditto for the remote areas of the south where Orthodoxy held sway in the isolated villages. In central Albania, along the invasion and trade routes of the river valleys, the Ottomans came and stayed and established effective government and commercial structures and made more converts. Around Elbasan, Tirana, and Fier the majority still identifies itself as Muslim.

Fast forward to today. You ask someone, "What faith are you?" Statistics say about 60% will answer, "Muslim." If you dig a little deeper, many times you find out this means the person's family is historically Muslim, not that the individual is a practicing believer. The spectrum is wide and varied.

Some are observant Muslims who fast during Ramadan, abstain from alcohol and pork, and adhere strictly to the tenets of the religion. Other Muslims are actually Bektashi, a sect seen as heretical by other Muslims. The sect began in Turkey and was driven out to eventually make Albania the world center of Bektashism. They combine elements of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and some Christian ideas. Very tolerant, may or may not abstain from pork and alcohol, and not inclined to jihad at all. Still others will identify themselves as Muslim because their family comes from an area which was under Ottoman sway for a long time and is still identified as being a Muslim family even if they don't believe or practice any faith.

It's an oft-quoted truism that "The religion of Albanians is Albanianism." Religious tolerance between the denominations has been held up as an example of how disparate communities can live together peacefully by many educated experts... and George W. Bush. Historically it has been true. Under the Ottomans, there was no conflict between those who converted and those who didn't. The common dislike of the Ottomans united them. Albanians of all faiths united to push out Serbs, Austrians, Greeks, Italians, and Germans when they felt their nation was imperiled. Under communism this unity was brutally enforced by the regime as they tried wipe out all traces of organized religion and gather all the citizens around the nation. And by nation, they meant Party.

This worked fairly well in uniting the people, not because the regime did anything right, but because Albanians naturally unite around any power center that claims to make the Albanian nation the center of their focus. It was like trying to force all children to love ice cream by outlawing all other dessert choices. You won't get any of them to disagree with love of ice cream, but some will be disgruntled that they can't get their hands on a little custard every now and then. I mean, really, religion has never been a threat to Albanians national unity... until now.

After thousands of years of changing religious affiliations by Albanians in response to their circumstances, I claim they are in more danger than ever of being divided? Yeah. Here's why. The influx of religious influences since the fall of communism is different than ever before. This is the first era in which proselytizing and conversion is being done without an accompanying invasion and occupation. The Saudi Wahhabists who are trying to establish fundamentalist mosques and medrassas aren't doing so to increase the size of the Saudi Empire. The born-again Christians are not here trying to convert the people to support a crusading occupier. The Jehovahs' Witnesses aren't fighting for establishment of support for a Jehovan state. They're coming to build numbers for their faiths only. The successful governance of the territory and the peaceful inter-relations of the community matter not one iota to them.

Proof? For the first time in Albanian history, fundamentalists of all stripes are intentionally taking actions to antagonize one another. Christians of all ilk are planting huge crosses high above towns, symbolically indicating their dominance of that region. They seem to take great joy in doing this above historically Muslim villages and towns. Elbasan is one example. Mosques under the sway of hard-line imams are mounting bigger speakers on the minarets close to Christian churches. Jehovahs? Their biggest impact seems to be convincing lots of Albanian teenagers that life sucks so they throw themselves off the balcony or eat rat poison.

I kid! I kid the Jehovahs!

The final proof is made of concrete, right in the center of Tirana. First the Catholics erect "the biggest cathedral in the Balkans." Not to be outdone, the Orthodox Church is almost done with "the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Balkans," squeezed right in between the Ministry of Defense and the Socialist Party Headquarters. The Muslims feel left out and want the state to give them permission to build "the biggest mosque in the Balkans" in the center of town.

Don't get me wrong. As an American I understand the importance of separation of church and state and don't support any effort to outlaw a religion. I do understand the divisive nature of fundamentalist religion and support a state role in limiting the types of actions believers can take in the name of their faith. I'm just not down with this whole jihad thing, be it Christian, Muslim, or Jehovahn! Albania would be better off if they spent more time building a functional civil society and less on divisive religious displays.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tourist Boom?

If the local press is to be believed, Albania is experiencing a huge increase in tourism this summer. My own experience confirms that to a degree and evidently there are enough solid facts to support an article in the Southeastern European Times which makes the same claims. Forty-six percent increase over last year? This is great - or is it?

Like I said, the newspapers here are full of articles about the tourist boom. Hotels full to capacity. Durres ferry port deluged with passengers and cars. Border crossings between Kosova, Macedonia, Greece and Albania recording record levels of inbound travellers. Cruise ships calling at Sarande.

My own experience with the crush includes a 60-minute transit over a section of highway near Durres that normally takes 5-10 minutes and a quick trip to the port of Durres last night to drop off a departing passenger. I couldn't even drive within three blocks of the ferry terminal. I booted him out with his luggage in the 80 degree heat and wished him well. Geez, I hated doing that to a seventy-some year old relative, but the traffic really was bad. :-)

So it looks like the increase is real, so what's the downside? In principle, nothing. I am a great supporter of tourism as a boost to the Albanian economy. At every chance I get I tout Albania as fantastic destination to family, friends, colleagues, complete strangers. My internet pimping for this place is getting a little out of control. The only problem with the reporting of this increase is what the newspapers don't tell you.

First, much of the increase in passenger traffic is Albanian emigrants coming home for holiday. This is good for the country as these folks are bringing back money earned abroad and injecting it into the economy. They're also bringing back valuable experience and perspective on the benefits, and costs, of living abroad. It's more exposure to the Western ideas of citizenship, environmentalism, and community involvement. This is the "intangible currency" the returnees bring back along with the Euro's, dollars, and pounds. But visiting emigrants don't have the same economic impact as actual foreign tourists. They often stay with relatives or in their own houses, cook and eat at home, and generally are more frugal. Good for them, not so good for the tourism industry.

The second unreported aspect of this "surge" (with apologies to the people of Iraq) is that it happens in a very short time. From July 15 until August 30th the horde descends. Come the first week of September, it's done. The only crowds are outbound at the border crossing points, ferry terminals, and the airport. Reminds me a little of lemmings all coming and going at the same time. From October to mid-June, the country is a ghost-town, touristically speaking.

Filtered out of the background noise of emigrant returns, my impression of the tourist situation is there are improvements, just not the 46% increase cited. Two of the biggest increases come from what is known as "patriotic tourism" by ethnic Albanians living in Kosova and Macedonia. Since the declaration of independence by Kosova the political landscape has changed and these changes influence people's travel choices. Since Montenegro has not recognized the independence of Kosova, Kosovars are abandoning Budva, Kotor, and the other wonderful coastal resorts and flocking to Velipoje, Shengjin, and Durres.

Similarly the little name-related brouhaha between Macedonia and Greece has pushed a lot of the Macedonians to choose Albania as a destination vice Thessaloniki or other Greek vacation spots. The really interesting part of this is it's not just ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. A co-worker of mine owns an apartment in Vlora and has been amazed at the number of Macedonian-speaking tourists holidaying there. She quipped the other day, "Now I know what it must be like to live in Skopje." Sure, Skopje... with beaches, beautiful ocean views, wonderful fresh seafood, sailing, and lower prices. Just like Skopje .... not. Anyway, official estimates are that around 10,000 Macedonian tourists have opted for Albania this year. Bravo.

I've also noticed an increase in young foreign travellers in Tirana. More backpackers trekking along Rruga Elbasan trying to find the only youth hostel in Albania as well as a couple of Scandanavian beauties strolling along the Blloku getting stared at by all the Albanian guys. I attended a wedding with over 20 American guests in attendance, many of whom had chosen to make a vacation out of the event and had spent nearly two weeks touring around the country. All of this is anecdotal evidence of improvement in the non-emigrant sector.

What's next? Albania has to expand it's tourist window and market outside of the traditional summer beach holiday zone. Spring holidays, school breaks in winter, adventure travel, historic and cultural tours aimed at specific markets in Europe and the rest of the world. And it has to be the private sector. The ministry of tourism can assist and monitor the situation, but the real effort must be done by private enterprise and local communities. Outdoor Albania is a good example of a private company finding its niche and aggressively marketing a specialized product that is not "tourist village" oriented.

Now lets get a walking tour company to cater to the eccentric Brits who love to hike. What about the a private company partnering with the Albanian Alpinism Society to bring in climbers to the Accursed Mountains, Nemercka, or the peaks around Korabi? My personal favorite would be an adventure motorcycle outfit that arranges two-wheeled tours of the back-country. There are some roads to die for out there. (That's to die for, not to die on!) The attractions are there. The country is ripe for exploration. Build it smart and they will come.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Road Trip!

One of my favorite activities is getting out of Tirana on the weekends and driving. Don't care where, don't care why. Give me an excuse to saddle up and drive and I'm on it. You need fish from Kavaja? I'm there! A visitor needs a guide to Berat? I'm your guy. Gas costs somewhere north of six bucks a gallon? I'll put off buying a new set of shoes for a month or so. So many roads and so little time.

My most recent walkabout led me south to Korca, then to Vithkuq, and beyond. I'm not exactly sure what the reason was. Something about a little family dispute over land inheritance and use. Did I want to drive down? Let's see ..... six or more hours on the road including 25 kilometers under construction between Pogradec and Korca ..... off-road driving up past Vithkuq... and then the whole thing over again in reverse the same day. Schweet! Where do I sign up?

I'll fast-forward through the parts up to Korca. If you're interested in seeing pictures of Korca, try Google images. I want to show you how beautiful the countryside is.

Once you turn off the main road from Korca to Leskovik and head for Vithkuq, you pass by the reservoir at Gjanci. Kinda looks like Montana, doesn't it?

This was our eventual goal: the valley above Shtylla. Green, clean, and at almost 2000 meters above sea level it is cool. Bliss. Drop the windows, kill the AC and breath deep the pastoral smells of grass and flowers carried by the slight breeze. Yeah, I could live here.

Up the valley we continue on a pretty good dirt road, save for the parts that cross the wet meadows. There the passing of laden trucks has gouged gaping ruts in the mud and we tiptoe across trying to keep the wheels of our car on the high central mound of mud. Even with 4WD, it's hard going at times. The view is worth it though.

Albanian literature is full of vivid descriptions of the beauty of the country and the names given to prominent features often reflect the poetic nature of the Albanian soul...... like this soaring spire. It's called "Shkemb i Gjate" - The Tall Rock. OK, I shouldn't be sarcastic, but I asked one of the guys with us, "What do you call that?"
He replied, "Shkemb i Gjate."
I said, "I know it's a tall rock, but what's its called?"
"Shkemb i Gjate," he insisted.
"No, no! What's its name?"
Then I realized we had gotten trapped in an Abbot and Costello moment and started laughing my head off. When I calmed down long enough I was able to explain the whole "Who's on first?" routine, kind of.

This, then is the end of our journey. Mali Rungaja. The north face of this mountain is part of the land in dispute. It's currently used as pasture for sheep herded up for the summer. We need to do a little investigating to find out what's really been going on up here so we seek out the guardian of this pristine realm. Wait. There he is!

Our intrepid party finds the guardian of this natural splendor a-snooze in the shade of a few trees near the Tall Rock. Once he's satisified we are not going away without a little information, he shares what he knows about the activity on the disputed land and offers to show us what's what. So we saddle up and.... no, really, he saddled up and headed further up the valley.

Finally our new guide led us to what we feared. A little further up the creekbed we come to the place where the forest is being chopped down, burnt into charcoal, and shipped off to Bulgaria. Evidently Bulgarian goat burgers taste much better if cooked over illegally produced Albanian charcoal.

It was kind of interesting to see how they made the charcoal. A pile of wood is built, set afire, and then buried under sand and dirt. The fire burns slow and leaving a lot of unburned energy in the coals. Once cooled, it's packed in bags and trucked out.

To add insult to injury, this fella drives by loaded with pilfered wood stacked to the rafters. Going to Korca to sell it for firewood. This explains the large pastures all over the mountains and lack of forest close to the road. With our mission accomplished, we started the long drive back and allowed ourselves to indulge in a little schadenfreude when we came upon this truck stuck to the axles in one of the quagmires created in a stream crossing. "May you stay stuck for a long time." When their hands are busy digging in the muck, they're not chopping down trees.