Monday, September 21, 2009

Albania and the North

Practically from the moment we first met, Entela has been saying, "We have to go to Thethi." Finally, after a year, we went to Thethi. Breathtaking.

Thethi is a small settlement, I hesitate even using the word village, set back in the northern mountains of Albania. We arrived Friday night, only able to see the guest house in front of us and the dramatic shining stars. Roza, the patroness of the guest house we stayed in, had mountain tea with mountain honey, a hot soup and fresh bread ready for us once we settled in. Moments after we arrived our friend Gjergj and his girl friend showed up! Albania=small. They ended up staying in a guest house up the road, but came back for a visit the following night.

Now for the slightly embarrassing, and not so fun part of the trip. I woke up extremely early feeling very sick. I hoped that it was just from the zig-zagging roads the night before. Nope. It was the stomach flu. After an hour, nothing was left in my body. Roza heard me and got me a lime soda. She's an angel. I hopped into the shower and then back into bed. Three hours later, I was well enough to drink some tea and eat a biscuit. I probably wasn't well enough to go on a hike, but I don't like to miss out on things. It's one of my tragic flaws.

It did feel great being outside in the cool, clean mountain air. We walked by the little red school house. A teacher from Shkoder comes to teach there, when she feels like it. Children up to eighth grade go there, when they feel like it. Our guide, Juette, told us that the roads are so blocked in the winter, that most of the people in Thethi move to Shkoder or simply stay inside. It made me think of the pioneer life.
After about 45 minutes of hiking, I couldn't go on. Utter exhaustion had set in. I found a rock, close to a mountain home. Juetta and Entela both offered to knock on the door to see if I could stay inside, but I wanted to stay outside. Tracey loaned me her pocket notebook and a pen so I was quite content (although I was feeling a bit sorry for myself).
This picture, I took after sketching the scene to the best of my abilities (which are not good). I thought the tree roots were so interesting, and I loved the fence in the background. Besides sketching, I attempted poetry. One poem was a reflection on solitude, the other was a conversation between a river and ocean and the last was to simply poke fun at myself (Tracey gave me the opening line). To truly appreciate this poem, I suppose you might need some background information. When speaking of Thethi, we tend to lisp.:
"I once took a trip to Thethi
I'm afraid that it got quite methy.
My friends said, 'Wait here,'
I did so with cheer
But sat thinking, "Boy, I'm a thithy."

While waiting for my friends to return, I had visitors. The man who owned the house was out working and spoke a little English. He told his 13 year old nephew that there was an American out on the road. The boy came over for a chat. His English was quite good. He told me that he lives and studies in Shkoder and he's working on English so he can join his uncle in London. Like many Albanian youngsters, he loves football and is in training. I saw him the next day too and then found out his name, Mikel. Once Mikel was called back to work, two hikers from the Czech Republic happened by. They were friendly, but were trying to get to Valbona before nightfall. With eight more hours of hiking, they were on a tight schedule. I really wanted them to stay longer because I'm currently on a Prague kick and wanted to hear all about the city from two good looking men. (Who can blame me?)
We finally returned to the guest house to be greeted by a German, Gerald, and Tracey's Spanish friend from soccer (ok, I'm trying to be good... I mean football), Lande. We relaxed under plum trees in the front yard enjoying tea and coffee. I don't remember who said it, but it was a moment of paradise on earth.
We set out on an afternoon hike to the "Northern Blue Eye." Juette assured us that it was a flat, easy hike. (She just didn't mention how long it would be.) We actually found a map of the area! The German NGOs are trying to promote tourism in Thethi.
It started to rain about 40 minutes into the hike. We were pretty well equipped to handle it, so we pressed on. This was standing on a bridge over the river and gorge. Sarah didn't trust the bridge with all of us on it (she's a wise soul), but still managed to look adorable in the picture!
It's a fuzzy, rainy picture, but you can see the drop to the river.
The Northern Blue Eye obviously gets its name from the crystal clear water. It was worth the nearly 3 hour walk.
There was one waterfall that cascaded down into the Blue Eye pool. If you look closely, it's rather like three waterfalls in one.

I won't say much about the walk back, except that we had to hike out of the canyon at a break-neck speed, because our guide was calling us slow and we were racing the sun. That triggered a very grumpy reaction, particularly from me. Thank goodness that about an hour and a half into the walk home, a VW van came. Before Tracey could say, "Please give us a ride," the driver had offered us one straight to Roza's. (Apparently, everyone knows Roza).
Once back at Roza's, we gathered around the fire that Roza's younger brother, Alfred, made for us in Entela and my room. We also whipped out the wine that we had brought with us. Roza fed us, by then I was actually hungry, a yummy bean soup, the homemade bread, roast beef and the best grilled vegetables.
The next morning brought a new day, thankfully! I was in a much better mood after a semi good night's sleep. The morning was beautiful and we prepared for a hike to another waterfall.
The northerners, at least in Thethi, are often Catholic. I don't believe that they are a practicing group of Catholics. Even though it was Sunday, the church was completely vacant and locked up. It's not the original church (the original was destroyed, I'm assuming during Communism), but the German NGO built this one to blend into the surrounding old stone buildings.
We walked through corn fields and wheat fields. I was fascinated by this squash that seemed to have grown up to the fence. The locals were incredibly friendly and each invited us to their house for coffee. Sadly, time wouldn't permit those visits. I'm really surprised that the farmers were not angry at the group of foreigners crossing through their fields.
We stopped to take a look inside the Blood Feud Tower. It's one of the few left in Albania. Work is underway to turn this into an ethnographic museum. The tower was three stories high; the top most room used for sleeping, the middle for living, and the lowest for food storage. There were small windows and slight openings for weapons. Males, from the families involved with blood feuds, would retreat to these towers (or stay inside their own homes) until peace was negotiated with the offended family (usually the offend family had had a family member killed by the other). Very Romeo and Juliette, if you ask me! (Actually, there is a blood feud house in Tirana, on the banks of the Lana River).
Entela lead us up to this part of the waterfall, since she knew the trail. We scrambled over rocks and across mountains streams. It was so peaceful and ravishingly beautiful. The four of us girls recreated our ice skating poses for a picture worthy moment.
Here we are posing with our newest friend, Lande.

We took the higher trail and shortcut, back to Roza's. Tracey started singing Sound of Music, which is always the perfect song for mountain hiking, so of course I joined in. There was a laughing brook that did in fact, trip and fall over stones on its way. Then the laughing brook gave way to a silent stream and eventually the stream led us back to the river.
Juette told us that this was once used as an old mill. I think it looks like the Seven Dwarfs' house, personally.
We stopped to gather fresh, late summer black berries from along side the trail. Boy, they were tasty! I didn't attempt to pick berries the day before, so I was extremely glad to be feeling well and partake of nature's bounty.
And this is our guest house, which greeted us after the morning hike. We packed up, changed, said our fond farewells to Roza (who was headed back to Shkoder for her weekly job at the castle) and walked to the local "bar."
The bar is actually a collection of tables in little huts. We had an outdoor table under a beautiful shady tree. I had a Coke, though I could have had some raki. Ick. The picture below shows the ingeniously traditional method of refrigeration. That mountain water is cold, cold, cold!

We made it back to Tirana after a nearly six hour trip. But, it was worth the trip and, indeed, I would tell anyone, "You have to go to Thethi!"

Monday, September 7, 2009

The River That Became a Lake

Once upon a time eight friends loaded up in two vehicles and drove an hour and a half northeast of their home. One SUV took the modern road through the airport, the other through the outskirts of Tirana where they saw daily Saturday life in action. The two met again on the road to Shkodra and turned east. On and on they drove on a nice paved road, past new bridges, along a clear river. Nearing the end of the drive, the paved road became a bumpy road that went under blown out tunnels. The eight friends reached their destination knowing they were in for another Albania adventure.

So began our kayaking day on Lake Mati. This lake is part of a river that was dammed and is now used for hydroelectric power. Once again, Tracey organized this outing with Outdoor Albania, the same organization that we used for river rafting. I can't say enough good things about them. They are a very organized organization and had this trip down to a science. Gent, the owner and our guide for the day, had the kayaks off both roofs in a jiffy. We were ready in our spray skirts and life jackets in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

Sarah, as seen below, was outfitted in a light weight river kayak, which responded to any movement whatsoever. Gent asked for volunteers to take the two double kayaks. Travis and Amy took one and Violeta and I took the other. Violeta and I found it difficult, at first, navigating our bulky craft, though we quickly became a team. With the wind at our back, we were able to stay in the middle of the group and enjoy the company of our friends.

At one point Violeta and I challenged our friend Florian (not Florian from school, a different Florian) to a race. He graciously gave us a head start and then quickly overtook us. I stupidly challenged him to a rematch for the way back. At that point I didn't realize that we would be head straight into the wind. Needless to say, we lost that race too. Florian had no trouble rubbing it in.
It was a rather windy trip back up the lake. We used all of our strength to stay up with the group. Disaster nearly struck when Violeta and I found ourselves in the middle of a wind tunnel with no way out. We managed to steer ourselves parallel to the wind and get out of it. Travis and Amy were near by, which was comforting to me.

We stopped at a beach for watermelon and to watch the horses and donkeys playing. There were several footbridges high over the water that villagers and their animals use to cross the river (since there are no roads to their homes). Gent said that there are usually a few deaths per winter on bridges like these. Tracey took a picture of a man leading two donkeys across. We were standing open mouthed watching as Gent said, "You might have never seen two donkeys crossing a river, but I can guarantee that that man driving the donkeys has never seen girls in bikinis." It's a different world.

We also stopped at a small, clean cove where we swam to our hearts' content. I've never swam in such clear, warm lake water. I'm still more of an ocean girl, but I really, really enjoyed this lake. Amy said, "You know Holly, no one ever visited Albania before '92. It's like we're seeing an untouched part of the world." Well said. Almost every weekend, we find something new to love about Albania.
We returned to shore and had a fish and pasta lunch surrounded by honking geese and quacking ducks. Tracey and Sarah had the brilliant idea of taking a shot of rakki to ward off any crazy bacteria. That is brutal stuff, but I felt well- cleansed after swallowing only half a shot.

The timing of this trip couldn't have been better. Sunday morning brought thunderstorms and rain and Sunday night an earthquake (I heard that it was 5.4 with the epicenter toward Macedonia). This morning (Monday) we have experienced a step toward the cooler temperatures that autumn brings. Even though summer is waning, I can't wait for the fall!