We left for Valbone with barely a clue as to what we were doing. We had a new travel partner though, Agustín, who we met at Mi Casa es Tu Casa in Shkoder (aka the best hostel ever with the cutest dog, Ziggy Stardust).
1st mode of transportation: a minibus filled with travelers and a few Albanians headed for a funeral. When we dropped them off in a village, our driver began playing music, explaining, “No music for a funeral.” We bumped on toward Konan lake and our ferry.
2nd mode of transportation: the ferry! We sat around for a few minutes before boarding, and Arteri, a guide who rode with us (and with whom we’d become friends over dinner the night before) led our group of trekking bag-bedecked travelers toward a cafe with COFFEE. The ferry was breathtaking. It lasted around 3 hours and Katie and I stood by the helm of the boat, watching the mountainscape shift and change. We made ourselves pb&js and subsequently realized we would run out of food far sooner than we anticipated.
3rd mode of transportation: Another minibus. Katie, Agustín and I watched as first our friend from Wales, then a lovely Austrian couple, and finally a group of awesome young French friends with a kitten hopped off the bus and went on their way. We were the last to be dropped off, on a gravel road leading…?
We grabbed water from a nearby guesthouse (tasty mountain water) ~ this is where we realized we’d be drinking actual glacial water for the next few days ~ and walked, mapless (to Katie’s chagrin), toward the trail which was marked with red and white stripes painted on rocks and trees.
We decided to stop pretty soon to find a camping spot. We’d heard of “Daniel’s guesthouse” which was apparently somewhat close… our trail brought us to a farmhouse and we saw an older woman dressed in all black preparing a horse to gather firewood. Agustín had been in Albania longer than we had, so he tried his Albanian with her. Slowly we came to realize that the farmhouse was indeed “Daniel’s guesthouse” and that we would be allowed (with a grin from the woman) to pitch our tents up a small hill near their barn. So that is what we did.
After our tents were pitched (during which time my tent decided to attempt flight because I hadn’t staked it down, and Katie, Agustín and I were forced to chase it down) we made our way toward the living quarters. We met Daniel’s brother on the way, who was a man perhaps 40 years old. We couldn’t communicate in each other’s languages yet he handed us a handful of wild strawberries he picked and this was enough. At first Katie and I supposed that the strawberries were for the sheep and tried to feed them to these sheep ~ Agustín ate his right away and got more from us when we had no success with the sheep ~ but we ended up eating them. They were tiny and surprisingly delicious.
At the house we met two small children, one maybe 5 years old and the other probably 3. They were extremely shy and we tried to involve them in playing with a soccer ball we found, to no avail. A woman walked out and greeted us, asking if we wanted tea. YES we’d love tea, we told her. Agustin had asked if we could have dinner already and established we’d eat around 8 o’clock. So we sat down at an outside table and Agustín attempted to woo the kids with magic tricks using a stone. The 3 year old became curious and laughed but the older girl remained shy.
Soon our dinner arrived and was wayyy more than we’d expected. We had incredible, warm, luscious, (there aren’t adjectives enough to describe how good this was) soup with warm homemade bread, vegetables, cheese, and heavy yoghurt (which I loved, Katie was neutral about and Agustín hated). ***Before dinner I made friends with the older girl ~ we used the notebook app on my phone to draw*** As I ate the older girl walked up to me and started making motions with her arms ~ I emulated her and she started to laugh. Soon we were performing an odd kind of yoga. This lasted pretty much throughout dinner and at the end we were fast friends. I gave her one of my twine bracelets and her younger sister one as well. She wanted to wear them.
When we finally left the table after eating heartily and being nearly too full to walk, we met Daniel. He is a younger man, younger than myself, and speaks fluent English. We learned how much we were to pay for dinner and the tent spot, paid, then I had to say goodbye to my new friend. The little girl wouldn’t let go of my hand even when the woman in black tried to pull her away. I gave her another bracelet and she held onto that instead. Friendship is so easy for children ~ I think love should be this way.
Katie and I had to share one sleeping pad. This was accomplished by setting our trekking bags on either side of the pad so we wouldn’t roll off (sleeping pads keep you warm at night since the cold of the earth won’t seep into your skin). This was a bit hard and we didn’t perfect it until we had camped for the third night (later in this story).
The next morning we departed and began walking toward Theth, the village we knew was approximately 6 hours of trekking ahead of us. Our path took us up a steep incline. We wound around the woods and over gravel and grass and through meadows. We weren’t the only ones on the path; we often saw groups of travelers, mostly with guides and horses or mules to carry their packs.
We stopped at a wooden shack partway up the mountain with a sign shouting “CAFE BAR” and tantalizing smells of coffee. We shrugged off our packs and found a bench upon which to sit, sweaty and out of breath. Katie and I ordered Nescafe (“It’s better for mountain hiking, more energy!” said the man running the cafe) and Agustín got Turkish coffee (“Look, this is how it’s made! Over the stove.” said Agustín in answer to my curiosity). It was quickly evident that the man running the cafe was kind, and when travelers slowly left his cafe he had time to chat with us. We asked him about how he lived up here ~ he lived with his family but they’d leave during the winter. They ran the cafe during the tourist season. They had sodas and a kind of local quiche with herbs and cheese, and coffee (of course). Two young children ran around, laughing, and smiled at us.
Soon we left and continued on our way. The trees melted away as we gained altitude until we were on a snake-like path with sparse boulders and endless wildflowers. Agustín led us but was struggling under the weight of his 2 packs while Katie and I were doing alright with our packs ~ we had left much of our things at the hostel, knowing we’d return, while Agustín had everything he was traveling with.
At last we reached the pass. The wind was strong and chilling but the sun was bright and the mountains stood tall. It felt like, at that height, having walked that far, we were accepted by the moutains and the flowers and the rocks. They recognized us as we recognized them.
We left our packs in some bushes and walked farther up onto a frighteningly narrow promontory where we had a 360 degree view of the Balkans. We stood and saw the world.
Walking down was slow and steady. We stopped first in a meadow to eat apples, oranges, and cheese with soft bread, then again in the forest with sloping, tall trees to paint the colors of the landscape.
At the end of our trek Agustín stopped and told us, “I can tell you are tired because you do not say ‘WHOA, This is so beautiful!’ all of the time.” Katie and I were exhausted ~ my thighs were shaking and I felt utterly spent. Agustín’s comment woke me up, though, and I again realized the gravity of the beauty surrounding us. As we walked into Theth, the village at the end of our trek, I was struck by awe. A beautiful village in a very small valley with full, green mountains shadowed by enormous rock mountains and sunlight reaching in arcs along the edges.
We didn’t know where to camp, but a young man walked out of a guesthouse to speak with us. His name was Francesko and he offered us a camping spot for 5 Euros a night ~ we could also use their toilets and hot showers. Could we get bread and cheese from him, we asked… yes of course. If we couldn’t pay that was fine, he had food for us. After some discussion we decided to stay with him.
After leaving our packs at the farmhouse near the guesthouse he asked if we’d like to get beers with him. Agustín said YES and we went with the two Swedish women we’d met back in Valbone (they emerged from Daniel’s guesthouse when we were havng dinner ~ Evelina said “hi” to us and Agustín replied, “what the hell?!” It was hard to expect her to emerge from the farmhouse when we’d seen nothing of the pair before. It turned out they’d been napping after hiking during the day, and the family had lent them a room to sleep in. We chatted comfortably over dinner that night with her and her friend Sara). Francesko sat with us as we ordered Tirana beers and talked about what we do back home, what we were doing in Albania… it was wonderful.
Quickly the evening became chilly, though, and we left for our tents. We asked Francesko if we could buy bread, cheese, tomatos, and cucumbers from him and he acquiesced ~ Katie and I found kittens to play with while we waited. As the food was brought out a woman walked up to us. She asked if she could sit with us and then subsequently left to speak with a tour guide. We began to eat and soon she returned, bearing a bottle of Merlot. Her husband, whom we had quickly met earlier, joined us. They were from Germany and traveling in a refurbished old car and camper, and each night found travelers to sit and chat with. The woman happily found glasses for all of us, poured us wine, and made a toast.
We talked for a while about our lives, learning that the couple had met back when Germany was separated into the east and west. He was from west Germany and she from the east ~ they’d met in an unlikely circumstance and fallen in love.
***I forgot to write about another incredible couple we met in Valbone a we walked to a waterfall ~ we met Filipa and Peter on the path and they decided to walk with us. Agustín and Peter walked ahead and chatted while Filipa walked with me and Katie and told us stories of her family. They were stories of love.
In the morning we woke up relatively late and expected to leave that day on a minibus back to Shkoder but we ended up deciding to stay another day ~ when would we be back in this beautiful place? Life is too full of beautiful places to count on returning. Agustín decided to share with us his yerba mate tea, which he saved only for special occasions. He went to the house and asked for hot water, and prepared a gourd carved into a cup supported by ornate wire. He filled the gourd-cup with tea leaves and inserted a metal straw which would filter out the leaves as we drank. When the hot water came, he poured only on one side of the leaves. He drank his cup, then refilled the cup and passed it to me. We spent the next half-hour or so passing the cup and refilling the tea, with Katie and later Agustín perched in my hammock (a Christmas gift from David, my other half) which I’d hung between two trees near our tents. The German woman came to say good morning and tried some. As we drank we read from a guidebook Katie had borrowed from the hostel about northern Albanian culture (as I write this I’m reading aloud ~ Katie wants me to add that she did indeed return the book). When the tea was finished, we walked toward the center of the village.
I met a lovely cow and pig whom I greeted and I spent time scratching the cow’s face. I called her Rose. She and I definitely became friends.
We made our way toward the village center and found the “Blood Tower,” where men used to hide when there were vengeance cycles (if one man did another wrong from a different family he would be killed, and then his family would kill a man from the other… etc) the Blood Tower was a remnant of that time. I asked Francesko later on if this still occurred and he said no, yet the guidebook said that this has moved into the cities. I’d need to do more research to know for sure… to learn more.
We walked back to Francesko’s home to tell him we’d be staying so that he could tell the bus driver. We got more bread, cheese, tomatos and cucumber and chowed down by our tents. We met a group of young German travelers who had set up camp next to us and became friends. We decided to all walk toward the waterfall together.
We walked slowly and I chatted with different people from the group. I was delighted by how genuinely wonderful our conversations were ~ about plants, and home, and the mountains and farming… we reached the waterfall in no time. Katie, Agustín and I had brought our swimsuits and quickly jumped into the glacial pool around the falls before our bodies cooled down from the hike. The water was almost unbearably cold and when I dove under I could feel my body freeze its normal functions. I gasped and hopped and slipped toward the warm, sunlit rocks beyond the falls. I watched and laughed as the Germans got in and everyone peer-pressured one guy to get in (he good-naturedly tried repeatedly but it was too cold!) We stayed there for a while, listening to the water and letting the sun rest on our skin.
On the way back I befriended a young dog. He was playing near the cow, Rose, and the pig, and I petted him. When I tried to walk away he followed. Ten minutes later, a young man on the path called to him and tried to grab him ~ I defended the dog, trying to tell him that he was sweet, and the guy said, “He’s my dog!” I laughed and tried to call the dog over, but the guy told me, “Bring him tomorrow at 9 am to the church.” I was a bit surprised ~ had I just casually rented a dog until the next morning? I agreed and we parted.
When we got back to the camp, the dog started chasing the chickens. We were all exhausted but Agustín noted how the dog might actually harm one of the chickens, so I played with the dog until he’d follow me pack onto the path toward the guy I’d met. When we got to the next guesthouse, though, the dog started actually chasing their chickens. “DANGEROUS!” a woman called to me, repeatedly, as I chased the dog in my bathing suit around their yard and the dog chased the chickens. A couple was eating lunch nearby and watched, their faces showing slight alarm. “I’m sorry,” I called, and they shrugged. Finally I just picked the dog up and carried him toward the path. He was fuzzy and light, and he looked a bit ruffled but content for the moment to ride in my arms.
A few minutes of walking later, I saw Francesko at a cafe. He burst into laughter when he saw me and came to join me. I explained the situation and he laughed harder, saying he knew who the dog belonged to. We walked together to bring the hapless dog to the guy I’d met.
When we finally returned to Francesko’s home (dogless) I was pretty tired. I asked Francesko where we could get food ~ not just veges, cheese, and bread ~ and he recommended a place just a few minutes’ walk away. Agustín, Katie and I went there and got the most wonderful arrangement of stuffed peppers, yoghurt (of course), fried potatoes, salad… it was like being reborn to the world of dinner.
After dinner Francesko asked us if we’d like to go to a bar with him. We were exhausted but he talked us into it by saying there was a “surprise” at the bar. He explained that it would be baby bears and I became worried ~ had they been taken from the forest and were being raised as tourist bait?? Regardless, we would go with Francesko and see.
Francesko and his friend drove us in a small van into the forest. We bumped on the mountain road for perhaps 15 minutes until we reached a new guesthouse. Upon getting out, we met a rugged man who asked us, “So, you want to see the bears?”
He walked us to a nearby pen ~ quite large and open ~ and called “Tommy, Jerry!” He opened a door and put down a ladder.
The next thing I knew, two incredibly fluffy cubs were in my lap. They tackled me and Katie and reached for our hands with their mouths, sucking our fingers for lack of milk. I was struck dumb by them. I was in love and in joy and couldn’t believe there were actual young bears trying to get milk out of my fingers.
The man brought us bottles of milk and we fed the cubs. After eating, he brought them back to the ladder and they went back through the gate (somewhat unhappily) and we walked with Francesko, his friend, and this man up into the bar. We talked for a while and asked for stories about the man’s life, our conversation accompanied by beer and oiled cucumber (“It’s good with beer,” the man said).
Exhaustion hit perhaps an hour later we were quiet until Francesko’s friend returned from picking up tourists ~ we rode back to our tents around midnight. We thanked Francesko, who had bought our drinks, and I told him how much it meant to meet the bears. We all went to our beds (or sleeping pad) and slept.
The next mornig Agustín, Katie and I decided to again go to the cafe for breakfast. Francesko came with us and decided we would have bread, honey, cheese, fig jam, and butter ~ it was the most delicious breakfast I think I’ve ever had. Afterward Agus, Katie and I went across the river to the ruins of an old Communist bilding and sat to read, paint, and journal.
We spent our time in this way until a jeep came to pick us up around 2 pm. We were squished in the jeep, with 9 people in total fitting in the car, and spent the next hour holding onto the seats to avoid bumping our heads on the cieling as the jeep’s wheels dealt with the mountain road. Two young boys were seated next to me and Katie in the back and they spoke in Albanian to each other and the driver, glancing at us and laughing ~ Katie and I laughed as we realized they were making fun of us. We started trying to speak with them and began to teach each other the other’s language until I had to look forward or vomit from motion-sickness.
We reached Shkoder in only a few hours. Agustine, Katie and I walked toward the hostel we’d stayed in before (the amazing one) and were again given rooms. It felt like home.
We sat downstairs and drank tea until we noticed Ani, the young woman who is the daughter of Alma, the owner, leaving in a rush. “Where are you going?” Katie asked. “To a farm!” Ryan, a Workawayer at the hostel, said. “Want to come?” We had to hurry to grab our shoes and then jumped into the van. Alma was driving, and we had to scoot around Ziggy the dog to find a place to kneel among the gardening tools and a box of watermelon. “Oh! Friends!” Alma said and laughed as she pulled away.
We drove only a few minutes and stopped on a dirt road surrounded by growing things. We jumped out and Ryan explained that he’d fill a tarp bag with water and bring it to us ~ he’d fill our buckets with the water and we’d water the plants.
Alma walked with us, showing us plant-by-plant where to pour water. “No, pour here~” she’d point. It was quiet, peaceful work as the sun set in the mountains on the horizon. “After I do this,” she explained, “I return to the hostel so happy. People ask me why I look so happy. I tell them it is the plants.”
She and Ryan showed us how to pull up onions and lettuce as Ani and her friend, a young man, wandered off to pick figs. They brought us back the ripe fruit and we ate them. There is a joy in having dirt on your hands and in your fingers and eating fruit from a plant you can see and feel and smell. Ziggy padded happily around us, weaving between plants. We watched the sun set.
The next day, we left Albania. I spent the morning before we left drinking tea and then walked, alone, with an earbud in one ear, to a market not far from the hostel (“Just 10 minutes ~ just walk past the two roundabouts then take the second left,” said Ryan). I made my way through the stalls of the market and bought fruit I couldn’t identify ~ when I went to purchase a pear from one fruit-seller, she refused to take my money, smiling and pushing my wallet away.
I was welcomed by so many people in Albania. I was trusted and given time and advice and stories and food and a place to put my tent.