Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Beautiful Stranger

Is it a sign of something special when a New Zealander finds your country fascinating?  I'd say if you have people from the country where "The Lord of the Rings" was filmed impressed, you must be doing something right.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Gearing Up for Next Year

Daytime temperatures have yet to dip below 20 degrees as summer continues to cling to Albania and the tourist press is already touting the country as "the best bargain vacation destination."  Check out this gentleman's take on Frommer's recent rating.  He starts out with:

“… I had never been there before and I knew nothing about it, and neither did anyone else,” Paul Theroux wrote of Albania in 1995 in The Pillars of Hercules. “… here on the most heavily beaten path in the world, the shore of the Mediterranean, it was still possible to travel into the unknown.” Still remote, Albania – for 40 years the most isolated country in communist Europe – is blooming. 
To me, Theroux's blank slate is the best way to approach your first trip to Albania.  You'll never be disappointed if you don't build your expectations. You'll also be directly observing the country rather than looking to confirm the things you've "learned" before you arrive.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Parrullat (Slogans)

A catch phrase.  An advertising jingle.  A right-wing talking point.  The rote recitation of prayers over worn rosary beads.  All serve the same function of constantly reminding us of what the dominant forces in our societies want us to retain.  To internalize.  To accept without question.  It's a frighteningly effective technique that touches us all. 
Don't agree?  What comes to mind when I say, "You can take Salem out of the country, ...?"  If you are an American of a certain age you most certainly finished the phrase with, "... BUT, you can't take the country out of Salem!"  And you probably put a lot of stress on the "but" part of the jingle, just as it was originally sung back when it was still legal to advertise tobacco on American TV.  Granted, these light-hearted rhymes used to encourage us to buy smokes, or cereal, or B-O-L-O-G-N-A don't seem all that important, and certainly not sinister.  Move to the realm of political or governmental sloganeering and the power of these phrases begins to emerge. 
These Guy's Slogan Must Have Been: "Get Your Sh*t Straight!"
"Uncle Sam Wants YOU!"  "Loose Lips Sink Ships!" Powerful phrases which stir deep emotions even in those of us who weren't alive during WWII.  Governments know the power of slogans and, when they really have nothing else to offer their citizens, they excel in the art.  Albania was a classical example of that under communism.   
There is a great film entitled "Parrullat" (Slogans), made by Gjergj Xhuvani which illustrates the extent to which this obsession with slogans extended to under Hoxha's regime.  A commenter on the IMDB website summed up the movie very well: 

 Slogans' is a wry and entertaining commentary on the excesses of Communist Albania in the early 1970s. Andre, a new biology teacher posted to a school in a remote mountain village, soon finds the staff and students there to be far more concerned about the upkeep of the Communist slogans they have depicted on the surrounding hillsides in large white stones than the Three Rs. Failure to devote one's full time to this endeavour will supposedly earn the wrath of district party officials, although as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the village itself seems far more obsessed with the task than the rarely seen bureaucratic overlords themselves, and failure to uphold the zeal for rearranging the stones becomes ammunition for the true believers to engage in witch hunts against anyone they have personal grievances. Andre and those of the village not fully enraptured with the community's purposeless raison d'etre find themselves forever treading through a minefield of contradictions, paranoia and party dogma that could explode around them at any moment.

The film is an excellent study in farce, and claiming to be based on real events, it is a very welcome and healthy progression for Albanian society to be able to laugh at the absurd, almost Orwellian blind alley they once stumbled down. Indeed, 'Slogans' takes many delighted pot shots at the futility of the locals' single-minded determination to pepper the hills with important-sounding slogans - the meanings of which they are unable to actually explain, such as the declarative 'American Imperialism Is Only A Paper Tiger' and 'Finish Successfully The Campaigns Of Our Harvests And Sowings'. The loss of a generation of children, so tired from spending their days building giant letters for phrases they cannot hope to understand that they have no energy left for actual studies is all the more tragic because of their excited determination and uncomprehending devotion to the task, reminiscent of the first generation of the children who grew up in Mao's China, becoming the most devout party members of all, yet the most ignorant.

'Slogans' also shows the way in which the real world continually steps in to foil the Party's designs and is punished for doing so. The giant letters are continually unearthed by fauna, romances evolve, and children play, all resulting in stiff penalties for the unwitting transgressors. One of the most touching scenes for me features Andre and a dirt-poor, illiterate herdsman, who implores the teacher to help him convince the local government to provide him with better housing. The poor peasant, whose lack of education precludes him from understanding anything of the local politics, is ultimately destined to be condemned for his ignorance, his plight an excellent metaphor for the absurdity and failure of the Communist ideologies, which have been stripped away of every last scrap of meaning and do nothing for the people who actually matter. Ultimately, any such efforts at normality are quashed, and the final message of the film is clearly that the people are slaves to the system they themselves willingly perpetuate, which is ultimately too powerful to resist. Thankfully, history has proved this not to be the case.

The slogans now are mostly gone.  You catch a glimpse of one now and then on a dilapidated factory wall or under the peeling paint of a rural school building.  In fact the farther you get from Tirana, the more likely you are to find slogans that have not been erased or painted over too well.  And you can't get much farther from Tirana than Shistavec. 
South of Kukes, snuggled up against the Kosova border at almost 1,500 meters above sea level, time passes un-noticed in Shistavec.  Life is controlled by the passing of the seasons, the coming of the snow, planting, harvesting.  Things change slowly. The old building still bear their parrullat.

"Socialist Albania Marches On" and "Glory to Marxism and Leninism!"

This one says, " The Seventh Five-Year Plan Is A Work Of The Masses."  Evidently the people were so overwhelmed by this work they were too worn out to re-do the whole slogan every five years.  You can make out under the word "Seventh" the outlines of the word "Sixth."  

The film had a wonderful scene where the district party official was inspecting the route Enver Hoxha was expected to travel through a village and he stops at a one-shack village and demands to meet the "keeper of the slogan" which is prominent on the hillside above the road.  It says "Vietnami do te fitoje", or "Vietnam will be victorious!"  The local leader points out that Vietnam has already won the war against the Americans and the village will be assigned a new slogan which must be ready before Hoxha's visit.  The new slogan is very, very long.  The old man protests that he is the only male left in the village and can't possibly finish the task in time.  The official relents and tells the old man to put up a slogan of his choosing.  During Hoxha's drive-by we see the new slogan "Mbahu Vietnam" created from the old slogan with minimal work.  "Hold On Vietnam!"
These little guys won't have to live through the tyranny of slogans their parents and grandparents did.  With luck, Shishtavec will be spared from the invasion of modern parrullat for some time yet. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's Not Albania, But You Can See It From Here

Kosova is not technically in Albania, but its population is predominantly Albanian and figures large in the history of preserving ethnic Albanian identity.  It's also a beautiful city within a few hours drive of Tirana thanks to the recently completed 1-billion Euro road/tunnel project.  A sunny day, a quick hop across the border, and here we are! The pictures give a small taste of the city.

A River Runs Through It

Striking Ottoman Architecture

In The Old Hamam, Looking Up

Offered Without Comment

League Of Prizren Museum

Snow-Covered Albania In The Distance

Albania In The Spotlight

Seems this country continues to capture attention in a variety of ways.  Athletically, Albania will soon host the World Mountain Running Association Championships for 2011.  Evidently there are people who have no aversion to running up and down some of the most rugged territory in the world.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

On a less sweaty (I hope) front, Eliza Dushku continues her whirlwind tour of Albania,  The petite starlet is of Albanian descent on her father's side and has for several years taken an interest in her dad's native land.  She joins the distinguished list of, well, basically her and Jim Belushi who have received the prodigal son's welcome upon return to Albania.  She one-upped Belushi by getting a two-headed eagle tattooed on the back of her neck a few years back and now has done it again.  She was officially made a ctizen of Albania and presented a passport and identity card by the President of the Republic.  She says she is making a documentary to highlight the history and tourist potential of her adopted country. It remains to be seen if she will go "full Belushi" and make a cheesy commercial for a cell phone company to cash in on her regional fame.

Best of all, from the perspective of showing an authentic face of Albania, we turn to Sundance.  Josh Marston, director of the Academy Award-winning indie film "Maria, Full of Grace," has had his most recent production picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution in the U.S.   This means we may get a chance to see it soon.  The film, "The Forgiveness of Blood," is set in modern-day Northern Albania and tells the story of a family afflicted by an ancient curse: the blood feud. 

Like all things Albanian, I managed to be separated by two degrees from the making of this movie.  I got an e-mail from a production assistant who was looking for a hairdresser for one of the actors or somebody.  She found me via the intertubes and gave me a brief rundown on the production schedule and general theme of the flick.  She mentioned Mr. Marston's name but it did not click at the time who he was and I remember thinking, "Good luck getting your film made."  Over two years later Albania has the good luck to have its story told by a true artist.  I can't wait until we can get a pirated copy of it here in the videoteka!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fool Me Once ...

A few years ago I took a quick trip in August to Theth and have been meaning to get back again to further explore the area.  Alpine scenery, dirt roads winding over high mountain passes, authentic Albanian culture preserved by the remoteness of the valley.  What's not to like?  This year I chose the May Day holiday weekend to make the journey. I reasoned the valley would be even less busy with tourists as schools had not let out and the locals would be even more welcoming of paying visitors after a long winter's isolation.  Heedless of relatives warnings, I packed up the family, convinced some co-workers what a glorious spring outing it would be, and headed north for adventure.
The first clue things might not go my way was when I got lost on the paved portion of the road up from Koplik to Boga.  Usually I have a keen sense of direction and good memory for roads I've traveled before, but something went wrong and we ended up at a dead-end in a village I think might have been Rec but I can't be sure.  The road was newly paved and seemed to be "the way" rather than a little side road.  At least we got to see some cool old military storage tunnels.
Back on the right road I felt a little unnerved by my unplanned detour and this feeling of unease wasn't helped when the road ended in Boga.  I mean, it just ended.  I remembered the end of the paved road from the last trip.  The gravel road into the village seemed like the right one.  Then...... pffft, nothing.  Road dead ends in a creekbed. Map consulted.  Head scratched. Alternatives considered.  Against my best instincts, which now seemed to be sorely lacking, I took advice and drove up what looked like a driveway paved with boulders from hell.  After 200 meters we were back on familiar terrain with the road heading up the valley like I remembered.  Either the road had been recently re-routed or I had "sleep-driven" that section last time around.
Once the ascent started up the steep Qafe Thore road I started to regain confidence.  From here to Thethi there's only one road and it was looking mighty familiar.  The emerald fields of grass before the switchbacks start; check.  Broad views down onto Boga as we crisscrossed the face of the pass; check.  Amusing, yet tragic, roadside monument to a truck driver who lost his life on this perilous road and left one word for his epitaph engraved on a roadside marble slab: "Accidentally"; check.   I was on familiar ground now..... Oh, wait... make that "snow."  Near the top of the pass there was still snow on the ground.  By the time we crested the pass, drifts up to two feet high lined the road.  "It's May, for crying out loud.  This is not supposed to happen!"
The kids loved it, but the prudent adults in our party were starting to doubt my rosy depiction of flower-strewn meadows and sunny afternoons spent basking under the pines.  The lowering grey clouds did little to ease their doubts.  Then it started to rain.  Just a little.  At first.
Dropping into the valley, we began to pass the first of many guesthouses which operate in Thethi.  I knew of four from first-hand experience and had read of many more.  They all had one thing in common: closed, closed, closed.  Evidently the road had been cleared on snowdrifts only the week before and the owners of some of these places had not yet returned to gear up for tourist season.  I kept my hopes up as we finally entered the village of Thethi proper and began to see signs of life. Some people working on the roof of their house.  A truck rumbling down the riverbed, loaded with construction material.  The one sign of life we didn't see was electric light.
Four false starts later we settled on our accomodation for the next two nights.  The other places we visited that were inhabited were just not ready for guests.  They would have accepted us but it would have meant we lived with cement dust everywhere and climbed over piles of stone and wood to get to the bathrooms.  Our default home ended up being the guest house of Ndoc Gjecaj, smack in the "center" of Thethi.  They were eager hosts and soon arranged for our families to occupy two rooms on the second floor with a recently upgraded bathroom right next door.  They even moved a Dutch gentleman to a smaller downstairs room to make room for us.  I don't know which suprised me more; their willingness to accomodate us or the fact that we were not the only guests!
By now it was dark, the rain had started in earnest, and we were hungry.  Our hostess explained that the small hydropower station was out of service so there was no electricity.  Thethi is not connected to the national power grid so when the aging Soviet-built turbine conks out, it's back to the 14th century.  She assured us the village "specialist" was working on it and light was expected soon.  We were joined for a candlelight dinner by the Dutch tourist who was returning for his third trip to Thethi.  His guide, the 10-year old son of the guesthouse owner, spoke good English and helped relieve the kids boredom from being trapped in a dark, cold, wet vacation by their overly-optimistic father.  We rewarded Ronaldo with uniquely American treat of marshmallows roasted over a woodfire.
The lights did eventually come back on but with only enough voltage to push 5 watts of light from a 100 watt bulb.  Depressing.  Better to light a candle than to curse the Russians... or something like that.  As we tucked ourselves under a large pile of blankets and drifted off to sleep my wife snuggled close and whispered in my ear, "We are SO leaving tomorrow morning!"  I agreed but crossed my fingers, hoping for a bright sunny day to lift the gloom and change her mind.
Not so much.  Morning came in exactly as night fell.  A pale dawn and persistent rain.  Quick showers, stuff packed back in the car, and down to breakfast.  The fresh bread, yogurt, and jam warmed us up a little but was not enough to counter the negative effects of the rain and overcast clouds.  We paid our hosts and promised to return when the weather was better.
So, what is the proper reaction when your optimistic forecast for pastoral bliss turns into a nightmare ordeal of disappointment, discomfort, and gloom?  Apologize?  Lick your wounds and retreat tail between legs?  Hell, no!  Double down on the crazy!
"You see," I explained, "the road leading south out of the valley is shorter and stays open all winter.  It's only 40 kilometers and couldn't possibly be worse than the one we came in on.  Plus we'll get to see the storied Shala river valley, the canyons of the Kir river, and the famous bridge at Mesi."  I truly believed these statements (or had talked myself into believing them) and did my best to convince my companions in misery that this route would redeem what was until now a sub-par outing.  You know the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me?"  We've now replaced that with "I will never travel with you again, idiot!"
Thethi - Not So Bad When It Doesn't Rain
I must say things started out OK.  The rain let up as we visited the church in Theth.  We had nice views of the tower of refuge, one of the finest examples of the defensive architecture used to harbor men who were at risk of revenge killings.  Th road out of town followed the river and was better than the one we arrived on.  The narrow gorge of Grunas was dramatic with the Shala river roaring below and the waterfall of Grunas putting on quite a display due to last night's downpour. 
 We continued without incident down the valley, green fields on each side set against rocky hillsides which rose to meet the still-snowcovered peaks which disappeared into the clouds.  As we passed the turn-off for Nderlysa, I mentioned there was a guesthouse there which might be a nice place to spend our second night.....  aaaand so we continued.
Nderlysa - Maybe Next Time
The Shala river valley is a gem.  Isolated, clean, green, dotted with occasional small farmsteads.  We continued along and spirits rose as we began to enjoy the pleasant drive through this majestic scenery.  OK, it would have been better if we could have seen the tops of the mountains instead of just clouds, but so far, so good.

Shala River In Spate

Just as our spirits began to rise, so did the road.  We crossed the river for the last time and started to climb.  It was as if they countryside had heard my interior dialogue about not seeing the tops of the peaks and decided to remedy the situation.  Evidently, you can see the tops of the peaks, you just have to get above the clouds.  We did that by scrambling up one of the most rugged roads I've crossed since... well since my last trip to Qafe Shtama.  Endless rocky switchbacks led to more switchbacks which led us into the clouds.  At times the views of the cloud draped mountains were fantastic with valleys below shrouded in mist.

This Is One Of Those Times

So Is This
At other times, the fog wrapped our vehicles in a shroud of thick cotton, limiting visibility to a few feet.  This may have been a good thing as on the few occasions when the cloud parted, the view of the road and the sheer drop to the left was terrifying.  When we crossed a bridge over a waterfall as the road clung to the cliffside, I quietly chanted, "Bring back the cloud.  Bring back the cloud!"  Eventually we dragged the bottom of the car over enough boulders to satisfy the road's bloodlust and it brought us down to the Kir river valley where we passed a small group of neatly attired children walking along the road.  We stared at them wondering what they could be doing all dressed up in this place while they stared at us wondering who could be so clueless as to take this road from Thethi to the outside world.  "That would be me."
Kir River In Grykemadhe
We continued punishing our vehicles and kidneys as the road wound through the big gorge known as Grykemadhe. It means 'Big Gorge" in Albanian. By now my fellow travellers were seriously doubting this trip would end. A lapidari on the side of the road graphically demonstrated this gorge had seen the end of many journeys, but not in the good way. The large slab of polished marble was inscribed with the names of 19 unfortunates whose journey ended prematurely in the 1950's when their vehicle plunged into the river. We kept our speed down and our attention up to avoid a similar fate.
Finally the rocky road gave way to new asphalt as we reached Prekal. What relief to be back in civilization! The village center was playing host to a political rally of sorts with a huge speaker blasting out the Democratic Party's theme song "Shqiperia Po Ndryshon" or Albania Is Changing. We smiled and were glad of the change which included asphalted roads..... until it ended at the other side of the village. Seems the pavement only lasted as long as the population density of registered voters! Back to the non-stop vehicular shiatsu massage.
I have vague memories of the rest of the trip as the road paralleled the river which cut a narrow canyon through the white rocks around Ura e Shtrejnte. I think I tried to comment on the unusal nature of these little slot canyons and their resemblance to similar features of southern Utah. The response? Let's just say it can only be described in polite company as "One finger, two words." The bridge at Mesi was as beautiful as the tourist brochures described, but seeing it from the upriver side was a letdown as you could also see the modern bridge just downstream. Or maybe it was a result of having all my motivation beaten from my skull by the road and the oppressive glares of my passengers who just wanted to go home. Still, it's a cool bridge worth seeing.
Please? That's My Bad Side!
Forty kilometers in six hours! Would I do it again?  Of course, but we've already established I'm a glutton for punishment.  The real question you should be asking is, "Should I go?"  And I think you already know my answer!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Frugal Travel

Frugal travel?  Albania?  Enough said.


Friday, June 17, 2011

The Indians Are Coming ...?

No, this won't be a rude "Custer's Last Stand" joke.  It's just the first time I've come across an article in the Hindu press extolling the benefits of visiting Albania.  Not only does the article point out some nice aspects of Tirana, it highlights some of the continued economic growth occuring throughout Albania.   It also gives us hope that we may get an authentic Irish Pub in the near future. 

After reading the article, I started to wonder:   "What  is an Indian businessman doing in Tirana in the first place?"  Please let his business be the beginning of a wave of Southwest Asian exchange that results in an authentic Indian restaurant opening.  That would be progress!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Teutonic "Tsk, Tsk" With A Little Hope At The End

I like to read Der Spiegel to get a German perspective on the problems plaguing the EU and the rest of the world.  Having lived in Germany, and being of German descent, I am acutely aware of their superiority complex and their need to lecture other nations.  Granted, they've earned some credibility through fiscal discipline, civic-mindedness, and work ethic.  I guess it's natural they would wag their fingers at the lazy French, cringe at the antics of Berlusconi, and threaten to cut off the allowance of the profligate Greeks.

Today was Albania's turn.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sympathy Pains?

I've heard it said that Albanian's would like to have their country become the 51st state in the U.S.   I've also heard statistics bandied about claiming that nearly 1/3 of the Albanian population has or is on the way to getting U.S. citizenship.  True or not, it is a fact that Albanians have an affinity for America and Americans.  As the video below shows, maybe it even extends to the weather.  While Joplin, Missouri was being ravaged by tornados, the town of Kavaje experienced the meterological equivalent of "sympathy pains." 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Screw You, Google Earth!

There is always one in the crowd.  Not the leader, but an enabler.  The inconspicuous rabble-rouser who goads you into action, whispering in your ear, "Go, on.  Do it!  It's easy.  How could such a little thing cause any problems?"  Then there are those like me who succumb to the siren song and routinely bite off more than we can chew.  At some point in every adventure I pause, take stock of my discomfort, and wonder, "How did I convince myself to do this?"  I usually end up briefly cursing the enabler before buckling down and getting on with the task at hand. This explains why recently I could be found battering my kidneys as I coaxed my trusty X-Terra up the last hundred meters of cobbled hell that passes for a road over Qafe Shtame muttering, "Screw you, Google Earth!" 

In the air-conditioned comfort of my apartment in Tirana it looked so easy.  Gliding effortlessly through the virtual canyons and forests of the wilderness behind Skanderbeg mountain piqued my interest.  A quick day-trip to the National Park of Qafe Shtame seemed just the ticket to shake off the winter lethargy and kick off another summer of exploring the nooks and crannies of Albania.  Some quick internet research, a perfunctory virtual overflight of the route, and loading up the backpack with survival supplies (water and GORP*) saw me out the door with kids in tow. 

Of course, nothing in Albania goes that smoothly.  As news of the trip leaked out, the number of travellers increased and I got requests to bring back some 5-liter jugs of water from the famous Qafe Shtame springs.  Political rallies had the center of Tirana plugged up tighter than a Japanese subway at rush hour so I had to take the back road around the lake to avoid the congestion.  There is a 400-meter unpaved, bumpy section which I felt was a good warm-up for the conditions we might face later.  Forty-five minutes and a lot of well-paved kilometers later, we left the asphalt on the outskirts of Kruje and entered the "Gorge of Death."  OK, I don't really know if  that's its official name, but I have to call it something. 

One feature of Albanian geography results from the African tectonic plate snuggling under the Eurasian plate, rumpling it like a frisky puppy looking for his chew toy under the hallway carpet.  The carpet, in this case Albania, gets messily folded up in a series of parallel ridges.  The mountain ranges of Albania run roughly north-south and get progressively higher as you get farther from the coast. As the ridges were lifted up, the rivers coming off the mountains to the east carved canyons that deepened as the ridge rose.  The mountain range behind Tirana is cut by several of these impressive gorges on the Erzen and Tirana rivers and the streams which feed the Ishem river including the Perroit i Zallit te Brrares, the Perroit i Zezes, and the one we followed which has no name on my map.  Hence, Gorge of Death.

As the road drove deeper into the chasm, it was carved into the cliffside with a drop of hundreds of meters in places.  There were several memorial plaques erected on the spots where unlucky travellers had met their end. These are a common sight along mountain routes throughout the country.  At one particularly impressive dropoff there was a large, concrete marker detailing an even more gruesome event. 

The spot is known as the "Shkembi i Vajes" (Stone of Mourning) and the inscription reads (I'm paraphrasing here):

Here ninety women from Kruje bravely threw themselves to their deaths to avoid capture by the invading Turkish forces.  They preferred to remain clean, untouched, and free.  Their heroism is passed on through their daughters and grand-daughters to the glory of xxxxxxx and the motherland.

I was informed the word which had been chiseled off the of this marker was "socialism."  Evidently no legendary act of bravery was exempt from Enver Hoxha's desire to tie the communist party to every aspect of Albanian history.  Neither is any area of natural beauty is immune to the Albanian desire to get rid of household trash without too much effort. Just a hundred meters from Stone of Mourning was the "Gully of Burning Garbage" whose smoke reduced visibility to zero, making the hazardous road even more thrilling! 

Once through the Gorge, the road climbed south to the saddle above the village of Noje where the landscape spread out in all directions.  You could actually see over Bovilla reservoir, past Mount Dajti, to Tirana.  The road twisted upwards as we wound our way around the flanks of the 1300-meter peak of  Maja i Liqenit to reach the national park of Qafe Shtame.  It was about now that I began to wonder if I had been fooled by the deceptive visual display of Google's excellent mapping tool.  The road twisted and doubled back on itself turning a 10 kilometer virtual flight into 40 minutes off butt-numbing punishment. 

When we reached the modern water-bottling plant of the Qafe Shtame Company I had two simultaneous thoughts: "We must be almost to the park." and "How do they get truckloads of bottled water down that road?"  I was left to ponder the second question as the road got exponentially worse, disproving my first statement. Narrower, steeper, and more rutted by heavily-laden logging trucks, the road continued up through a dense forest of pine and birch.  The richer, softer soil was great for the flora, but made for a muddy road when wet.  The solution?  Cobblestones.  More precisely, a bunch of rocks heaved onto the roadbed to provide traction and prevent you getting stuck.  Just when I was certain I was about to spit out a filling, we arrived at the fabled spring of Qafe Shtame.  The water gushed crystal clear from the pipes set in the wall below the spring.  I filled the bottles, drank deep of the clean, cold stream, and started to get hungry.

The hotel a few meters down the road provided the answer.  The owner was cleaning the place up and getting ready for the tourist season when we drove up looking for food.  He prepared a basic lunch of grilled beef, fried potatoes, and salad with local feta cheese.  Washed down with the local water, it did the trick.  Fully fed, we had to decide on a course of action.  According to the hotelier, it was equal distance back to Kruje or onward to Burrel and paved roads.  His description of "a few hundred meters of really bad road and then it gets better" convinced us to continue on instead of backtracking over roads we knew were pretty brutal. Plus, my time on Google Earth made it clear that it couldn't be that bad. 

Screw you, Google Earth.

Suffice it to say the road did get worse.  And worse.  The better part didn't come until we hit pavement 25 kilometers later outside of Burrel, shortly after passing the derelict chrome processing factory.  The trip down the east side of the pass was notable only for its duration and level of suffering.  Snaking down the side of the mountains denuded of trees, the road gave a ride quality which gives new meaning to the word "juddering."  There was only one notable sight to relieve the incessant pounding the road dished out to our vital organs and suspension -  and it involved death.  Another roadside monument, known as lapidari, carried the inscription:

Sul A. Sula

Ketu pushoi Sula dhe u bej legende
jo se e lodhi rruga
por nje aksident

Here Sula stopped and he became legend
not because the road tired him
but an accident

In America, you die in a traffic accident and you become a statistic.  Here you become a legend.  I love it!

Now that we reached paved road, things were more comfortable. The Mati river valley stretched for miles and the road wound through the scenes of pastoral beauty.  We moved along at a good clip to make up for the time we spent on the pass and because we had a new goal: the dam at Ulza. 

This dam was the next on my list of hydro-electric facilities to "bag."  I may have mentioned earlier that visiting Hoover Dam in my youth left me with a weird fixation with dams and water diversion systems.  Anyway, a part of my wanderlust is geared to checking out these facilities in Albania, which has the second greatest hydroelectric potential in Europe behind Norway.  Damn those fjords! We had coffee at a roadside locale just below the dam complete with some delicious revani provided compliments of the owner who regaled us with stories of German campers who had recently stayed on the lakeside just below his establishment.  Wait.  Lake below his place?  But we were downstream of the dam....

Turns out we were in for a double play.  Below Ulza, the Mati river enters a narrow gorge and, sure enough, it was dammed.  The structure at Shkopet was even cooler than Ulza.  A concrete plug in a very narrow gorge produced a long lake that stretched upriver for kilometers. Green forests reached down to the lakeside and several promising fish restaurants advertised their prowess at cooking up the bounty of the lake.

After Shkopet, we quickly reached the new road and were as good as home.  I settled into the nearly automatic mode of driving, knowing that reality would be much closer to Google's version than it had previously. I reconsidered my harsh judgement of the enabler.  If I hadn't fallen prey to its simplified view of this crinkled country, I may have missed out on a beautiful part of the country and two magnificient engineering feats.  Plus, while we were transiting Burrel, I could see to the east the jagged mountains that marked the western boundary of the Lura Lakes National Park.  That could be the next adventure.  Just let me check it out on Google Earth....!

(*Good old raisins and peanuts)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When I Can't Write ...

I read.  I found this article which, while dated, is well written and helps rekindle my urge to go tramping around Albania again.  Thethi in springtime?  Hmmmmm....?

Monday, January 31, 2011


I've heard it often from friends and strangers, "You sure are taking a big risk living in Albania!"  The can't imagine giving up the comforts of American society with all its law and order and cleanliness.  Sometimes I take the time to give them a more realistic idea of what my life is really like here.  Other times I let them persist in their perception of me as a modern-day Byron or a cross-dressing Edith Durham, braving the hardships and insecurity of inscrutable Albania.

The truth is I live in central Tirana, have a decent apartment, drive a nice car, and have the luxury of  choosing when to expose myself to the more remote areas of the country.  I'm firmly connected to the expat community and am financially secure.  Living in Albania requires no more heroic commitment from me than living in Albany might.  I would probably suffer more in upstate NY as it is a heck of a lot colder there.

There are occasionally people here who demonstrate real commitment to immersing themselves in Albanian culture and society.  The Peace Corps volunteers, for example.  Granted, they are supported by the U.S. government and have a "bail-out" lifeline if things get too tough.  Former Peace Corps volunteers who stick around after their assignment is over form the next level of commitment.  They liked it so much and became so attached to the people or places they served that they choose to stay.  I've met them in Tirana, Elbasan, and even Gjirokaster with no official lifeline, only their informal contacts with the Embassy and their own initiative.

Then there are people like Catherine Bohne.  I came across her article today and was floored by what she was doing.  Read the whole article because my account will not do justice to her writing.  She's ditched everything to live in the Tropoja region, starting in the middle of winter: 

I have given away my business, sold my apartment for break-even, and moved with a few suitcases of random possessions to Albania -- specifically to Northern Albania, the District of Tropoja, to this point possibly one of the most backwards, impoverished and forgotten regions of Europe. To absolutely damn the impracticality of my decision, I should add that I have no income, no plans for any income and no clear thoughts about what my future looks like.

 I'm caught between scoffing at her recklessness and jumping up and applauding her willingness to jump in at the deep end.  This, I will tell my friends, is what commitment looks like.  Comparing my commitment to hers reminds me of the old saw, "The chicken is involved with making omelets; the egg is committed."  

I hope she continues to write with such keen observations and moving prose.  I'll risk tiptoeing over the line into copyright violation to entice you to read the whole article, in case you have clicked the link yet:

On the television, we watch as a handful of men mill around the side gate to the Kryeministri. Suddenly -- the video has no distinguishable sound -- one man falls silently to the ground. He has been shot by one of the snipers on the roof of the government building. The old man nearest him looks down, as if to say, "What are you playing at?" Then realizes. He moves to stand over the body, his arms thrown out at his sides as he cries and calls for help. Others rush in to carry the body to safety. Do you see what I see? Nobody ran away. They didn't run from bullets. They ran in, to help.

 Just before we leave Kamenica, I am sitting in the snow on the edge of the wall surrounding the entrance to the house. One of the daughters of the house crouches beside me. Together we gaze out at the snow-covered hills, absolutely silent and gloriously empty. An enormous mockingbird plays in a frozen fruit tree, knocking lumps of snow to the ground. "You like Albania?" she asks. "Oh yes," I say, "I love it." I turn and we look into each others eyes, smiling happily "You?" I ask. I watch her as she returns watching the mountains. "Oh yes," she says, still smiling. "Yes."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


In high school I used to hang out with a guy who thought he was quite the comedian.  Let's call him Lenny.  We took turns doing what Ashton Kutcher would later term "punking" one another for our own amusement and the entertainment of those around us.  What the nuns would have referred to as "acting the fool."  I was reminded of one of his stunts after posting the previous article.

Lenny and his co-conspirators stood clumped in the hallway when I arrived.  Their furtive glances and subdued chortles piqued my interest so I took the bait.

"What's up?"

"Oh, man!  We just heard about Tony's brother!"

"What about him?"  I should add that Tony was a jock.  Varsity football, wrestled, thought of himself as an all around tough guy.

"We heard his older brother has been taking ballet lessons! Can you believe it?  "Super stud's brother in a tutu! We've been giving him grief about it all morning."

After a few minutes of chuckling over the rumored sissy-link to Tony I decided to join in the tormenting. I walked over to his locker and smirked, "Hey, man!  How's your brother's ballet lessons going?"

Tony turned with tears in his eyes and his lower lip trembling as he choked out the words, "My brother lost both his legs in Vietnam."

I stood gaping, caught between my sophomoric effort to embarrass him and the enormity of the tragedy that clearly was breaking his heart.  The best I could manage was, "Uh.... mmm...uuuuh" as all the smart-assery melted away and I edged closer to tears myself. Lenny's shrieks of laughter were the first clue that I'd been had.  Tony soon joined in and I knew I'd been set up as the whole hallway showed their appreciation for my discomfort with chuckles and jeers.

"Good one, guys.   Ha,ha, very funny.  Eat me!"

I never forgot that feeling of realizing I had violated a solemn taboo in search of a cheap laugh.  Last Friday, after publishing my entry about the unrest in Tirana I got the same feeling.  Three of the protesters had been shot dead and many more had been injured, both protesters and police.  My jokes didn't seem so clever any more.  Unlike the high school prank, there's no laughter from the crowd, only the grief for wasted lives and the dread of worse to come. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Wake-Up Call

More than half a year has passed since I last felt motivated to pen an entry about the goings on in my temporary homeland.  The routine of work to home to work sets in and gets hold of you.  August holidays, school starting in September, the bi-cultural holiday season captures you: Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Liberation Day, Bajram, Christmas, New Years, MLK Day... sometimes the burden of celebrating two countries significant dates can be overwhelming.  A quick trip to Italy for Burger King on a miltary installation kept me focused on things other than writing.  I needed something exciting to kick me out of my doldrums.

Enter, stage left, Albanian political protests!  You can always rely on them to shake things up every now and then.  To tell the truth, the last couple of rounds of protesting left me vaguely unsatisified.  A hunger strike in which most of the participants looked suspiciously well-fed folded peacefully.  Later there were huge, organized marches demanding opening of the ballot boxes from June 2009.  Thousands of people in the street peacefully petitioning their government for change.  Boringly similar to the Tea Party in the States, except with fewer mis-spelled signs and better fashion sense. 

Pro-government rallies followed to celebrate visa-free travel, Mother Teresa Day, and the anniversary of the founding of one of the political parties.  Nothing more upsetting than hideously loud, inappropriate music occured.  Really? Who decided that the best way to commemorate the life and charitable works of "The Angel of Calcutta" was blaring Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in Mother Teresa Square?  Tacky, annoying, and poorly attended but not much excitement to be found.  When will they realize the sidewalks in front of the Prime Minister's Office are cobbled with fist-sized stones for a reason?

Today is my lucky day.  After accusations of corruption were aired on a TV news broadcast, the opposition scheduled protests that lived up to the reputation Albanians have established through the long years of turmoil.  Police lined up around the Prime Minister's office.  Protesters met at 8 points around the city and slowly wended there way to Skenderbeg Square to get fired up.  Once their confrontational juices were flowing, the mass surged down the main boulevard to confront their nemesis.

Now I was expecting more of the same lame shouting, speeches, and then off to the coffee bar to rehash the day's events.  When the first police officer got beaned in the noggin with a brick-sized missile I sat up.  "What's this?  Could it be?  A real Albanian protest?"  Six injured cops and ten or more torched cars later I had to admit that this was not your run-of-the-mill shout-fest. 

They're still out there as I type.  Police shooting in the air... tear gas... several square meters of sidewalk cobbles fulfilling their prime directive... That's what I call protest!  OK, I walked my son home from school and passed within two blocks of the melee and heard and saw nothing.  Life in Tirana proceeding apace with less traffic chaos than normal, but the TV never lies: they are a-protestin'.

The long hiatus between 1997 and now seems to have taken its toll on the protesters skills.  I could swear I saw several of the cobble tossers nursing torn rotator cuffs after just a few half-hearted heaves.  The police behaved magnificiently, refraining from opening fire after their comrades went down.  They formed up in a group with interlocked riot shields creating a multi-legged plexiglass turtle.  Hey, that's going to be the name of my next indie grunge band... The Plexiglass Turtles. 

The saddest moment came when the protesters broke open the vehicle entrance gates to the PM's office block.  A clapped-out Mercedes was brought up to ram its way through the vehicle barrier. With the assistance of several enthusiastic orc-wannabes this modern day Grond accelerated toward it's target.  As the protesters pushed from behind, the driver gunned it and crashed into the barrier.  Didn't try to knock over a section of fence on the side or open a hole in the low wall around the garden.  Oh, no.  No half-measures for this guy.  Rammed straight into the hydraulically-activated vehicle barrier (which, incidentally, is designed to stop a vehicle intent on ramming something more vulnerable).  The impact of the car with barrier was mildly amusing. The impact of frenzied pusher's noses with the back of the car was much more satisifying.  You go, guys!

The protesting goes on.  I hope no one gets badly hurt as none of the issues are worth shedding blood over.  The forecast is for heavy rain which I hope will dampen the protester's ardor like hosepipe directed at a pair of furiously mating dogs.  Regardless, I have to thank these dedicated protesters for breaking me out of my stupor and reminding me there is magic out there if you only listen.