First moment – New level of hospitality
Gabriela is leaping on her right and left foot and is confusing the steps. Only after a couple of attempts she remembers how it goes: right foot to the front twice, then left foot once. Hip to the side and all over again. Gabriela is twelve years old and is teaching us a traditional Albanian dance. It’s late evening and we are hopping on her grandparents’ stoep.
We’ve been here for two hours. We’ve just arrived in Albania. There was a pig on a new road from the border. Locals were sitting on the train tracks calling their goats and Albanian disco was blaring at the petrol station. Evening was coming. We chose a nice house and waved a note trying not to mistake ‘Tundja tjeta’ for ‘Faleminderit’ and smiling broadly. The elderly couple invited us in as naturally as if they’d had cyclists from Poland asking for permit to camp in their garden every day. They sat us down, gave us cold Pepsi and told us to wait. So we were waiting, learning numbers in Albanian and eating cookies. But it turned out that Albanian hospitality is on a whole different level than anything we had been through before.
We were invited in and we were put in a bedroom on the first floor. Nobody even wanted to hear about the tent. To leave a guest in the garden would be dishonorable for the host in the traditional Albanian approach to strangers. Our host showed us the bathroom, explained where was the hot water and where to turn off the light. We waved our hands a lot because there was not enough vocabulary to have a proper conversation. They told us to come down for dinner after the showers. But before we had time to go downstairs, Gabriela arrived with her parents. They live in a village nearby but they came to help us communicate because the girl had English at school and she was supposed to become our translator.
So we explain to each other who we are: why we are there and who is whose grandmother, daughter or aunt. Gabriela, although so young, is doing her job great. She teaches us some Albanian words, offers us drinks, warns us about cycling on small, mountain roads, translates questions and answers. If she can’t say something, she’ll show it. Then her grandmother and mother start cooking dinner, her grandfather and father start watching a football match on TV and we are learning dances on the stoep. After dinner we keep talking for a long time until her younger brother falls asleep on the sofa which is a sign to end this wonderful evening.
What else can Gabriela do? The next day, when we find her mom’s hairdressing salon in the nearby village, she’ll offer us coffee, show us her school, explain that we can change euros in a supermarket, make sure that we buy some food for the day and show how to get to the main road again. Gabriela, let me remind you, is twelve years old.
Second moment – Little India
You can move as you wish on the streets in Shkoder. There are cars parked by the curb. On one of the lanes bicycles, scooters and motors ride and people walk. Sometimes someone goes the wrong way. From time to time there’s a double-parking car. On the inside lane there are those who actually want to drive through. Still they can’t drive too fast as you really need to look around and mind all those people who want to invade the road. On the pavements there is a wave of people: mothers with daughters hand in hand, grandmothers wearing traditional white clothes and home woven aprons, men dealing with their affairs. Products float outside from the cramped shops enticing the pedestrians with sequin dresses and T-shirts of famous footballers. Inflatable Superman leans against a tree and rubber balls with Albanian flags couch on the side. Sellers of tobacco, live chickens and home-made bread sit on their stools. Between hundreds of feet there are homeless dogs. In street bars there are men sitting, drinking coffee and raki, smoking under NO SMOKING signs and talking about their affairs. It’s loud, there’s a lot of honking and calling friends on the other side of the street. Sometimes there’s a wedding driving through and it gets even louder. Horns beep, wedding guests lean out of the car windows, waving red tissues and cheering. Some people wear traditional clothes on that occasion. After they’re gone, everything returns to normal. A solitary traffic policeman looks at this vital town helplessly.
Third moment – Mountain road
They tell us: ‘There’s no road’. It means there’s no asphalt but there’s a dirt road for jeeps. We think that if it’s fine for jeeps, it will be fine for us too. First we cycle along the Osumi gorge. Rock walls reveal greyish line of the river down below. It’s cloudy and it thunders. Lightnings appear on the sky near the surrounding us mountains. Small villages fill the slopes wherever there’s a little of farm land. The asphalt finishes at the bridge. Then you need to climb a narrow rocky road full of puddles. There aren’t any houses anymore, just the narrow road on the slope of a mountain, the stream below and cloudy sky above us. I have a flat tyre, then the next ones, sponsored by Albanian quality of inner tubes. We can still hear the roar of engines of some tracks building a road on the top of the mountain. Sometimes there’s a single 4×4 car passing us by. Then it becomes quiet. We can only hear the bells on animals’ necks and the calling of shepherds from the stream below. The afternoon changes into the evening and we are halfway the mountain road from Berat to Gjirokaster. Suddenly we see a small herd of cows without shepherd on the road. They look perplexed at two loaded bikes. The meadow on the left, probably their favourite pasture, is rescue for us. We pitch the tent between cows’ pies with the darkness falling around us. First stars start shining on the sky. We prepare supper and the night fog floats around the trees. A belated car drives on the nearby road. Its lights reveal the switchbacks that we’ll need to climb the next day. Sometimes stones fall from the rocky walls by the stream. Airplanes find their way between the stars. It’s the only sign that there’s a different world somewhere out there. Here in the majestic mountains we happen to have our first wild camp.
Fourth moment – Evening walk
In Kelcyra at 7p.m. the streets become crowded. Kelcyra is a small, backwater town without any attractions. There are some small houses with gardens and some neglected blocks of flats falling to pieces. Kids get bored on the streets and you can buy counterfeited clothes of well known brands and fencing net. There are heaps of rubbish by the stream and one dead dog. I’m glad I don’t live here. But at 7p.m. the town changes like by the wave of a magic wand. It gets dark, the air becomes cooler and suddenly everything comes alive. Everyone goes out: old men head to bars for their coffee and a card game, old ladies in black meet at street corners, young mothers push their prams on the main street, teenagers show off on the pavements, women do the shopping and men drink a glass of beer and rest after the whole day of work on the fields. Sometimes a motorcycle drives through breaking all the rules of the Highway Code and a belated bus spits out the last travelers. It’s time for an evening walk in Albania. Time to socialize, exchange the latest gossip and information, greet friends and strangers and show up on town streets. Time to offer coffee to two cyclists from far and unreal Poland.
Fifth moment – Our Albania
We call him ‘our Sir’ because we have dinners at his place. ‘Our Sir’, as every morning, invites us for a local herbal tea. We’ve been in the beautiful Gjirokaster for three days now so when we walk the street of the old town in the morning we are greeted by almost everyone. There’s ‘our Sir’ of not-so-good coffee bar, ‘our host’ with family running souvenir business, ‘our Sir’ from the greengrocer’s and ‘our Lady’ of the best breakfasts in the world. There’s also somebody who greets us from the car and we’re sure we’ve already met but can’t remember of why he is ‘our Sir’. Gjirokaster is an old, stone town full of reminiscences of great past and evidences of difficult life nowadays. A town, like all Albania, in between the past and the future. A place where you can hear the muezzins calling from minarets, the ringing of church bells and where people live from hand to mouth peacefully next to each other. They live in stillness but pulsing with energy at the same time. They are mobile, enterprising and charmingly kind but there’s also the ability to wait for a change of fate in them. There’s strength, honour and pride. Like in those rugged mountains surrounding the country from all sides. It’s a place where I wanted to return the most on our way through the Balkans.