Whoops wrong Barcelona

I left Cinque Terre with a feeling of peace ~ I’d spent the day and a half I had there mostly in the sea, swimming between rocks with Katie. I was sad to leave Katie, but I felt ready and excited to begin research in Spain.

My first train was to a station only 7 minutes away, then I caught another to Rome. On this train I sat next to Maria, who befriended me through offering me dried cheese chips. I think she did so because I finished my John Irving book and teared up… when I got to the part in Salam Neighbor where a Syrian woman recounts her son’s death, I really cried and Maria went ahead and handed me the entire box of cheese chips.

When we reached Rome, Maria completely took me under her wing. She tried to help me find the train to Barcelona but both of us were confused that there wasn’t a train to Spain. “International terminal…” she said, and asked a conductor. He pointed us toward a train (not in the international terminal, it turned out) which had a different name on it ~ I thought to myself that perhaps Barcelona was just one of the stops on the way to this ending point. Maria left me with a kind, “Good luck!”

I walked onto the train and quickly found my cabin. I’d booked a sleeper car for only women, and I hopped up onto my top bunk. I heard a man shouting outside, and after a few minutes of this I got down to check out what was happening. I looked around but couldn’t see anyone. An older Italian couple were standing outside the cabin to my right, and the man motioned to his head. “He is not healthy,” he said. We started talking and it turned out that the woman, who spoke no English but some French so I could understand a bit, had family in Alabama. I told them my family is from the same state and he said, “Small world!” The more I meet people on my travels, the more evident the truth of this becomes.

The couple, like Maria, decided they would be responsible for my safety. They made sure I was alright and kept checking in on me throughout the journey. When a woman and her young son entered my cabin, the man made sure we were able to communicate. I immediately liked the woman, whose name I thought I heard to be Sicilia ~ regardless, when she said Sicilia I said Sara. Her son’s name was Lorenzo. We talked for a while, although it was hard to communicate with our language barrier, then we all went to sleep.

I woke up to the train stopped before a blue, sparkling ocean. The woman explained to me that our train was to get on a ferry ~ why a ferry, I thought to myself, to get to Barcelona? I decided to trust the process. We took turns watching each other’s belongings and going out onto the ferry for coffee. When we returned to the cabin, we chatted amiably over the drinks as the train exited the ferry and continued on its way.

Just a few minutes away from our destination, the woman showed me a photo of her favorite place on Earth, which looked to be an island. I wasn’t sure where it was, since neither of us spoke much of the other’s language. It looked beautiful ~ I was sure I’d seen it before. It looked like that island off the coast of Italy.

The woman pointed out the different towns she’d been to. She showed me a music group in one town and told me that she’d message me on Facebook so we could go together! Then, she pointed to one of the towns and said “Barcelona.” My heart stopped. The world slowed. My brain froze.

What I realized in the subsequent 10 seconds: the woman’s name wasn’t Sicilia. We were headed to Sicilia, which I realized with a sense of doom was the Italian name for Sicily. I wasn’t 20 minutes away from Barcelona, Spain, I was 11 hours further from my intended destination than I had been before, in Cinque Terre.

I took a breath, stood up, and walked to the windows of the train. Outside the ocean stretched wide and welcoming. I saw an enormous castle pass quickly and asked the woman ~ Lena (which I learned when we became Facebook friends ~ about it and she said it’s a great place to get beers.

Okay. Ocean, castles, beers. I’d be alright.

I left Lena and Lorenzo (Lorenzo, with his mischievous grin, said “bye!” probably 30 times as I was leaving the train, following me as I walked out the cabin and to the door) and entered Barcellona, Sicily. It was hot and I was carrying all of my traveling things, but I felt invigorated. Adrenaline definitely helped. I walked through the train station and outside. I could just walk into the mountains, I thought to myself, perhaps ask people how to get to that mountain! I had a tent, after all. But wait, I have to get to the Spanish Barcelona. I needed to figure out a plan.

I had asked Lena, as casually as I could manage, if there was an airport in Sicily. She showed me on Google the name of the airport ~ it was in Catania. I checked the machine for a ticket to Catania ~ a train was leaving in 4 minutes!! I hurriedly bought the ticket, a bit disappointed I wouldn’t see more of this beautiful Sicilian town but alright with sacrificing in order to be within reach of the airport. I needed to begin my research and meet Dr. Newcomb, my professor.

I sprinted to the tracks as soon as my tickets printed and breathlessly asked the people there which platform I should be on. The other one! I was told, and I ran underneath the track to the other side. Is this the right side?! I asked a group of older Italian men. They grabbed my tickets and looked at them, each leaning in to see. They spoke in rapid Italian to each other, then handed one of my tickets to a young man nearby, who immediately snatched it and sprinted away. Aw, shoot, I though. There goes that plan. “Stamp!” One older man said, and I realized I’d stamped the wrong ticket (you have to stamp them at the station you’re leaving, and I’d stamped the one for my 2nd train).

The young man returned quickly, out of breath, and handed me my ticket. The train would be 15 minutes late so he needn’t have hurried, but I was thankful regardless. The men chatted amongst themselves as we waited for the train, and I watched dozens of small birds swooping in the sky, to sometimes fly underneath the ceiling of the station. I realized that there were bubbles in the concrete ceiling which were actually nests, and that these birds were feeding their babies! I watched for a while, in awe.

The men made certain I got on the train and found my seat. I had only a short ride before having to board my next train.

A couple of minutes into the ride, two young women walked on. One of them was supposed to sit on the other side of the aisle from me but a group of men were in those seats ~ I let the woman who had that seat sit in mine, because I had the window and was about to leave anyway. We struck up a conversation which quickly surprised me with its comfortability ~ it was incredibly pleasant to simply sit and chat. Justina, one of the women, had been living in Catania and working and she gave me advice for my time there ~ in return, I passed on my John Irving novel with advice for traveling in Albania written in the front cover.

My next train was over 2 hours, and I read until I passed out in the seat.

I have to be brief because I should board my plane to the Spanish Barcelona soon ~ I’m in the airport in Cologne, Germany. To quickly sum up my experience in Catania:

I walked around all day with my trekking bag and backpack. I found museums, and rooftops, and a fish market and coffee. I meant to buy a ticket out that night but by the time I got wifi, the ticket was sold out. I found a wonderful hostel and met incredible people. I walked to the beach (only half an hour away), watched the sun touch the water, then walked back. I had wine on the hostel’s rooftop bar with women in my hostel room. We chatted for hours, and I realized yet again how much meaning life has in connections with people.

When I woke up to catch the bus for my flight this morning, one woman I met, Tia Maria, was also awake. As I rushed out, coffee in hand, she gave me a bag of peaches she’d bought for me from a market in Catania. “Best of luck,” she said. Kindness is everything.

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Walking, plants, people I’ll always remember… Albania.

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.

The mountains arced all around us. Wildflowers flowed gently in the breeze (perhaps a product of the nearby stream) and the sun was hot but tempered with fleeting clouds.

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.

Back to that night in Theth: We eventually said goodbye to the German couple and wished each other it was quite cold but we made our trekking back – sleeping pad set-up and passed out.

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.

Albania: Tirana and Shkoder

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.

***I need to write more quickly, we have to wake up at 5:45 tomorrow morning to catch a bus, then ferry, then bus into the national parks in northern Albania***

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.

 

Trekking in Norway

We ended up back in Stavanger with so many ideas whirling around our conversations. We didn’t know where to go ~ should we have planned this before going to Norway? No… we wouldn’t have known what to do. It’s far better for our kind of travel to ask people. Also, we like the last-minuteness of our path. 
Somehow we ended up choosing Trondheim. We bought a train ticket and wandered around until around 10 pm, when we found our train and boarded a bit early. We were at a table and had the whole thing to ourselves. We settled in for the overnight journey. It wasn’t comfortable for sleeping but it was warm. 
At 7 am we stopped in Oslo. We’d made it so our ticket allowed us 6 hours to explore the city before boarding for the rest of the trip. We found a coffeeahop and grabbed a cup. 
We walked around, just winding our way through the city. We found tire swings ​and sat on them until a little girl came up with her mom. I don’t know how long she’d been waiting on the swings before I noticed… but her mom laughed when we apologized. We walked toward the harbor. 

I don’t want to write much more just now~ we’re in a train to Åndalsnes and the ride is beyond incredible. Instead, I’ll add photos and caption them. 

We walked around Oslo and found a flower market. 

We walked around the harbor, and found the Nobel Peace Museum. It had an exhibit about Syrian refugees that was very powerful.

We camped in Trondheim with Bjørn who we met on Couchsurfing. He was setting up camp here as well. 

Bjørn set up my Eno super high in the trees and so Anna and I decided we must sleep in it. But it didn’t get dark until midnight and was light again at 2:30 am and very, very cold so we resorted to our tent.

We explored Trondheim the next day, walking around the river and the houses and shops. 

After this, we got a train to Åndalsnes, a mountain town Anna had found on the internet. The train ride was gorgeous ~ a young woman and man offered to switch seats with us because they were on the side of the train with the best views. 

Once we got there we met Seth, a guy from London who also needed to find a camping spot.

We walked up toward the mountain ~ we’d heard there was a good hiking path into the forest. Hiking with our trekking bags was challenging and we only made it 200 meters or so before we started looking for flat ground (with as few enormous slugs as possible). 

We stayed up late chatting about differences in English and America idioms, then he went to his tent and we passed out. 

In the morning we decided to do the hike up the mountain we’d heard of and leave our tent for collection later. I didn’t have much dry clothing, so I wore my quick-dry shorts. Both Anna’s and my raincoats were pretty much soaked through already, but they were all we had. 

The hike was an hour or more up the mountain, past the tree line, to a rocky crest where we found a shelter. We met a Norwegian guy there who offered us chocolate ~ soon his entire crew crowded into the shelter. There were 7 of us in a tiny space sharing food. They all had legitimate rain clothing on while we were obviously freezing. It was awesome. We had to leave quickly before we became truly cold, and when we stepped out, the view from the moutaintop was beyond description. 

Photos do not do it any justice. We were at the height of snow-striped peaks and the wind whipped rain into our faces, but it was unquestionably worth it.

10 days in Ecuador

My first impression of Ecuador was the greenness of everything. Green was like a liquid filling the world, I breathed green, I smelled and tasted it. The animals living in the forest lived it and moved through its depths, full of vibrancy.

I only spent 10 days total in the country. The first few days my group traveled into the cloud forest, high in the Andes. dscn1067

The first few days were spent hiking, identifying different birds and talking to the local guides about conservation.

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Conservation, according to Richard (the owner of the lodge we stayed at), is improving in the cloud forest of Ecuador. In the past, the government supported clear-cutting the forest to make space for cash crops or cattle farming. Now, people are using tourism as a route to protect the forest ~ buy some land, build a lodge, and invite tourists. The land, meanwhile, is allowed to remain for the most part in its natural state.

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We spent a fair amount of time around the hummingbird feeders, where dozens of the tiny birds buzzed and fluttered constantly. They’d alight on your hand if you held out a red cup of sugar-water ~ red, because they are attracted to that color. This explains the rouge of flowers pollinated by hummingbirds.

We drove back to Quito then flew to Coca, a town created directly because of the oil industry in Ecuador. From Coca we took a small motorized canoe to the Manatee, the boat we’d spend the next few days on. We were now in the Amazon basin, on the Napo river. The temperature was hot and the air humid, and the world opened up to the bluest sky.

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We left the Manatee each day on the canoes, spending hours upon hours exploring the edges of the river, winding through the rainforest. We met a few of the local Kichwa people, who are now heavily involved in tourism and often find jobs with oil industry in the Amazon basin.

One of our guides, Raul, explained the situation with local indigenous groups. Most are “uncontacted,” he said. These groups are protected by the government and are to remain uncontacted and given enough land for this to be possible. Thus oil companies are barred from encroaching on these lands, although from what I understood the oil companies themselves are responsible for determining which lands these are. The Kichwa people were uncontacted before oil industry entered Ecuador ~ many of their communities on the banks of the river were formed in order to work in the industry. Raul explained that the oil companies are often the source of income for Kichwa people ~ it is that, or tourism ~ but this income would’ve been unnecessary except for the original contact by the oil companies.

There is so much more I would like to experience, to ask and to learn, to understand Ecuador. This is just a small window of insight, but if anything it has given me a basic understanding of the competing goals of capitalism and conservationism. Also, it has simply given me an opportunity to see a lovely part of the earth.