I don’t know what day of the week it is, and I am beyond thankful.
The past few days have been filled with so many experiences. As I write this I realize what a privilege it is to travel, which affords me the chance to be in a mindset which opens me to new thoughts and understandings. Truly, I feel I have learned so much in such a short time. But perhaps I haven’t learned much ~ it may not stick ~ but I am humbled by the world.
When Katie and I left for Albania from Amsterdam we were unsure of our destination. We’d each met people who told us not to go ~ no one knew much about Albania but they’d “heard things.” While waiting in line to board our flight I was nervous, looking around at the people also boarding the plane and feeling that everyone knew I was a foreigner, everyone knew my vulnerabilities…
We landed and immediately faced the consequences of our planning inhibition. Neither Katie nor I had told our banks that we were going to Albania. We couldn’t withdraw money from the ATM at the airport. We sat and tried to connect to the wifi but that wasn’t working… eventually I walked outside to try to find a taxi stand. I found one and spoke to the man there ~ my card probably wouldn’t work, I told him, but could I try to buy our taxi into Tirana? He was extremely helpful and the transaction went through. We walked to the first taxi in line and the driver kindly reached for my bag to help put it into the car ~ I thought he was going for a eye-level handshake and went full-in for the shake. We silently moved on from the awkward social move, and soon we were riding toward the city center.
Our driver kindly drove us right to the gates of our hostel ~ Trip’n hostel ~ and rung the bell. We were welcomed by a guy working at the hostel and walked in. We were exhausted from not sleeping the night before (our flight was at 5:50 so we left Amsterdam at 3:30 and spent most of the night before that chatting with friends) and were over-happy to leave our heavy bags at the hostel and walk around the city.
Tirana immediately felt both extremely foreign and surprisingly comfortable. I loved it, I didn’t know why, but I loved it as soon as I started walking on the streets.
We made our way to a bus stop because we’d been advised to find the cable cars and go up a nearby mountain. We found the bus and walked on, asking the conductor if it was the right one for our destination. He didn’t speak English (okay, I really need to learn more of the languages of the countries I go to) but somehow we communicated with each other. There was another man who couldn’t speak Albanian going to the mountain and he smiled and shrugged when we asked him how much it cost ~ eventually we understood it to be 40 Lek (multiply Lek by .008 and you get USD).
The bus driver stopped some 20 minutes later and, grinning, hopped off the bus, motioning for us to follow. He walked around a street corner and pointed ~ go that way! We thanked him profusely and started walking up the hill. Another man joined us ~ he was from Spain and the first guy was from Germany. We chatted a bit and made our way toward the cable cars.
The ride was longer than I had expected and took us high above Tirana’s hills and farmlands, then entering the towering mountains. The four of us joked that we hadn’t looked up the safety of the cable cars, but it was too late now. I watched as we passed over the rubble of old stone walls, ramshackle buildings, and layers of rolling hills and endless, vivid green vegetation.
At the end of the ride was a hotel and cafe, from where we walked out toward the larger mountain. There was a small BB shooting range and our friends paid a couple of euros (they are accepted here as well) to shoot at balloons and cans. I saw horses roaming freely ahead and walked toward them, stopping to pet two saddled horses. I adore horses. Two boys were standing nearby and laughed a bit at me, asking if I wanted to ride them. No, just pet them. A man in his older years walked up after a while and smiled at me. “He said for free you can take a picture,” one of the boys said to me, motioning toward the saddle. I was alright ~ I just wanted to be with them for a bit.
Katie and I walked onward toward an empty-looking building. Our new friends went into the building and we walked on, into the forest. We moved slowly, gazing at the woods which looked like they’d appeared from a fairytale story, perfectly green and almost misty in the feeling of purity. These woods felt like their own ~ no one could lay claim to them, call them by the ugly term “property.”
When we ran into a sign reading “Military Zone” we turned around. Thunder rippled through the sky and we moved quickly toward the cable cars, but not in time to take them back. While we waited for the sky to stop drowning itself I passed out in one of the hotel’s couches.
Cable cars, to bus, to hostel… we met the two guys again and the German one had been bitten by a dog in the empty building we’d avoided! He was such a good sport about it, though. We asked if he’d want to come to dinner with us ~ but he couldn’t move much, so we went to Oda (the world’s best traditional Albanian food restaurant) and brought him back homemade yoghurt (which I’m obsessed with). The Spanish guy had returned and we all sat out in the hostel yard, chatting as the guys ate the yoghurt with coffee stirring spoons.
Ennie, who works at Trip’n hostel in Tirana, asked us our plans ~ she has the most wonderful way of approaching people and exudes peace and friendliness. When we told her we had bought a bus ticket to Kotor, Montenegro, she told us NO we had to go to northern Albania ~ to Shkoder then into the national parks ~ to trek and hike!
So this is what we did. We had to sprint the half hour to the bus station this morning because we were running late and barely made the bus, but we caught it and rode into Shkoder (2 hours away from Tirana). We walked to the nearest hostel, which was the Backpacker’s hostel, and asked if they had open beds.
I have ~ no words ~ for the feeling surrounding this hostel and the people here. It is a beautiful place. There is a dog named Ziggy, and a cat whose name I don’t know. It’s owned by a mother and daughter pair who operate it with the idea of peace and openness. The people here are beyond friendly and have kindness in their eyes.
Katie and I rented bikes from the hostel and biked to a lake and river, where we spent most of the day because the moment we walked onto the tiny beach, we met an Albanian family. “Come here, just for a moment,” the man said, and we walked over to accept the proffered watermelon slices. Five children darted around, diving and playing in the water and throwing mud at each other. The woman smiled at us and immediately involved us in conversation which lasted over 3 hours. We sat with the family, sunning ourselves and playing in the water. Isra, the oldest girl, grabbed my arm and insisted on telling a “funny story” in Albanian which her brothers and mother attempted to translate as quickly as she told it. We shared that space on the rocky beach until the family had to leave to take care of the youngest child (whom the grandmother was watching at home) but made sure we would message them after returning from our trek and then stay with them in their home if we wanted.
After they left Katie and I stayed in the sand, and watched as a young boy shepherded sheep across the hills around us. The sun slowly moved over the mountain. When it began to get colder we walked to our bikes and headed back to the hostel.
At Backpacker’s we met 3 guys as we chatted about our plans to trek. They invited us to dinner and we went. One of them, Ardeti, is a tour guide in Albania and he brought us to a delightful small restaurant and helped us order. We sat down at a table Popo, our waiter, pushed together for us and were quickly engaged in conversation. Ardeti ordered us the house wine which arrived shortly after two baskets of oiled and peppered bread.
Through our conversation I asked and learned about Albania’s history and government. OH I forgot to write, on our bikeride home we heard loud music and parked our bikes to check it out. We found a ton of people sitting down or standing, waving flags and wearing red. We asked a young man standing near us but he didn’t speak English ~ somehow Katie knew, from what he was saying, that he wanted a translation app and she got her phone out and pulled up the app. Through Google translate we conversed, and discovered that we’d happened upon a political rally because Albania’s next election for prime minister is in 2 weeks. The guy gave me his hat, which had the party’s name on it. Although I learned later in conversation with Ardeti, Simor, and Agustine that this party definitely does not represent my beliefs, I really love that hat. It’s the context…?
After we ate we sat around, chatting, until a few minutes ago. We paid and I brought the leftovers to two cats on the sidewalk ~ they ran away, but I left the food so hopefully they will get it ~ and Katie and I went back to the hostel. Which is where we are now. I’m sitting in a chair by the open window with quietly cool air on my skin. I can hear some people in the city, perhaps some music. I’m tired but enthralled. I did laundry today. I petted two dogs today, plus a few cats. I am content.