Thursday, 15 October 2009

Albania: Bread, Salt and Heart

Albania is one of those countries that, sadly, has a gained a bad reputation; from where, I don’t know. I cycled across the border with an open mind and the reception was quite unexpected – it blew me away. A beautiful place made more exceptional by its humblingly hospitable people.

Beautiful Chaos

Often when I’d mention I was visiting Albania, the response from folks at home was ‘…really?’, as though I was inviting trouble.

Cycling over the border at Hanii-Hotit it was immediately apparent Albania was a different prospect to the other countries I’ve pedalled through. The road was potholed and worn, strewn with litter, and the only other traffic was a large unaccompanied family of pigs casually trotting home.

After a carefully concealed night’s kip, Andy and I headed for the northern city of Shkoder. Speed was low, discomfort high; in spite of that the instant warmth of the Albanians made the journey a real treat. Virtually everyone we waved at responded with a big smile. Grouchy old faces would light up, buried hands, rise high and with them a unique sense of welcome I’d not previously been afforded.

Shkoder presents a beautiful chaos: on the street people congregate in clusters, while others loiter with some unknown intent; a large wooden pallet pierces the pavement as though dropped carelessly from heavens; indiscernible shouts ring out; a man walks a bear on a leash, as indifferently as though it were a dog; people touch and trade; rules of the road are abolished, instead a mêlée ensues: cars, horns, pedestrians, lorries and scooters pfutting with the weight of generations on their back. The highway code is: biggest is best. Being on the road was to be blithely flirting with mortality. Yet despite the chaos, as though governed by some divine force, people survive, the city thrives – this is what is so beautiful about this place - it is truly alive.

Humbling Hospitality

The road to Tirana was lined with small farms, so with nowhere secluded to camp I asked a local farmer if we could pitch on his land. His reaction was customarily welcoming and we were soon joined by the whole family – the grandparents, the neighbours and friends. Before long we were at the centre of a jolly and enquiring circle of warm and generous local folk.

It was an unforgettable night, so welcomed we were and lavished with all they could offer… which was quite a lot as it turned out; huge traditional dinner, home-made wine and clear spirits; ominously served from a plastic grenade by the amusingly delirious granddad. Soon another common language revealed itself; the Champions League. They love it, we love it – conversation on this point became feverishly easily. Football is the one language spoken the world over.

The morning arrived; heads were a little hazy, not assisted by more beer and wine at breakfast, along with a sizable mutton broth. Luckily Tirana wasn’t too far away.

Library Books

Tirana was another city bustling with life. We checked into a superb hostel and simultaneously met a Dutch couple; Niek and Sanne who’d been cycling round Europe. They were bonkers; we got on like a house on fire.

Niek & Sanne has also raised some cash to help with a worthy project on their travels. A fortuitous run of events led is all to visit an orphanage run by Bethany Christian Services. We were welcomed by Cathy and Bob, two dedicated missionaries who showed us around; we were instantly compelled to help.

The kids didn’t have anywhere to read or even books in Albanian that the nurses could themselves read to them. On seeing the room we hatched a plan to paint and decorate it, make it comfortable and buy a load of books to help found the new ‘library’.

The following day we bought the paint, prepped the room and with Andy’s help set to it. After a coat or two the room was looking so much happier and we too; almost delirious… we can blame in on the fumes. We then lucked in, finding an incredible kids book store which had loads of fantastically illustrated and suitably sturdy kids books in Albanian.

The following day we finished with a flourish; decorating the walls with bright stickers and posters, adorning the room with some new soft furnishings and of course delivering the books. It was a delight to see the kids faces when the walked in, the older kids were napping but I’m sure it will be a real treat for them too.

Two days and £400 later, we were very chuffed with ourselves & had left a legacy with will last. It felt great to finally put some of the funds raised for the Better Life Cycle to good use – for which I want to thank all those who have donated – hope it feels good to see where your money is going.

Lesson: It doesn’t take a lot of kindness to make a big difference.

Andy and I set off late to make a start on the road to Elbasan and the border with Macedonia. Two hours later we’d climbed another mountain greeted by another spectacular sunset. Another kind chap called Hasan let us sleep on the floor of his restaurant, just as well, camping on a mountain can be tricky.

The following morning we were greeted by a stunning dawn and a welcome descent to the city. If a dawn can make an industrial city look this good you have to marvel, because up close it was pretty unsightly.

Waves and smiles lined our route to the border, up one more gruelling climb and on to the picturesque Lake Ohrid – a fitting finale to the unexpected treat Albania had proved to be.

‘Bread, salt and heart’ is a phrase in Albania for what all people have in their home – from this experience it couldn’t be more true.

Lesson: Don’t let unfounded opinion sway your thoughts, if you want to learn about somewhere or something speak to the people with first hand experience.

With the repression of the communist state now a memory, tourists are starting to return and the Albanian people seem overjoyed to welcome them. Like anywhere Albania’s not without its problems – corruption in particular is an everyday issue for many – however if you give it a moment the country and the people will quickly charm you.

I have a strong wish to return and I hope you might now be more inclined to pay it a visit too.