22 April 2012

The Beautiful Lake Komani Ferry

On a grey, cold early morning in Tirana, we boarded a minibus headed north for Lake Komani. A man got on a few minutes later with three sacks of corn and a shotgun. Hours later, in the tiny cabin of the Dragoba, he took the gun out of its case and began passing it around. His friends and neighbors admired it and someone told a joke. Outside, high cliffs passed by in the mist. This was one of the strangest and most beautiful boat rides one can imagine.
There are two ferries that ply the long, sinuous waters of Lake Komani. The more commonly-run boat is a conventional, small car ferry. The Dragoba, which we took, is an old bus with a hull welded around it. The seats were threadbare, the doors clanged open unexpectedly. A deep, slow, diesel note grumbled from the engine. Two young men were in charge - they looked as though they might be brothers. The captain piloted the boat quietly, surrounded by a chatty group of friends. The first mate collected money and made people laugh – he wore red pants, a fuchsia shirt and pink sweater. Both were lithe and tall, with ready smiles and the friendly nature of Albanian mountain men.
Lake Komani is a dammed lake, running some forty kilometers through the heart of the Dinaric alps. It’s not the easiest way to get to the northern towns, but is definitely the most scenic and the best route that doesn’t lead through Kosovo.
Our “furgon” (minibus, marshrutka) took us up to the top of the dam, some hour away from the nearest town, and dropped us off at the south-western landing. Here - on a patch of cement at the end of a tunnel, surrounded on all sides by cliff and water – there was barely enough room for a few vehicles, a bar, some waiting people and two forlorn cows. The buses were unloaded (our furgon, aside from the corn and firearm, had carried bags of fertilizer, some hardware supplies and sacks that looked to contain cured meat) and men stood smoking. The lake was vividly green.
When the ferry came, it didn’t seem that it could possibly be big enough for us all, but it turns out it was only about two-thirds full. Bags, boxes and sacks were piled against the gunwales (and the cows were left on land) Everyone aboard knew everyone else, they were all neighbors. One old woman held court in the middle of the rows of seats. Wearing a white kerchief over her hair, she spent time talking and laughing with all the young people on board; they took turns visiting with her, receiving kisses on the cheek and pats on the head.
As desolate as the lake seems, its shores are actually inhabited by a few hardy families. Clinging to the cliff-like sides of the mountains are tiny farms, not much more than hovels with a few square feet of plowed earth and a handful of goats. These people, almost totally cut off from the world around them, rely on boats to get anywhere and on the ferry to bring them any supplies or mail. The passengers aboard the Dragoba were mostly going home – we made a lot of stops at tiny landings, not much more than a few rocks, so that people could jump ashore or collect packages. One woman was met at the bottom of a waterfall by her son (who was about five or six). Together they scampered up a trail that looked impossibly steep – the two of them moved like mountain goats, jumping from foothold to foothold. They must have lived quite high up, we couldn’t see where their house was.
The forty kilometers take about three hours to navigate. The ship goes slowly, the way is twisting and narrow. Mountains like these offer little. They’re not more than walls. A way through was made by the river, and all the dam has done is widen this path a little. We moved as though down a hallway, taking turns when they came. The vistas were ever-changing and tightly focused. Shore was never further than a few hundred yards on either side. The others on board had seen it before and barely looked out the window.
A few times, some fishing boat or other would pull up alongside. One young man motored alongside us for about half an hour, communicating with the pilot and his brother with hand signals. Before he turned his boat off into a cove, the first mate tossed him an energy drink from their cooler.
These two men raced to a small landing so that they could get on board. After tying their little aluminum craft to a bush, they lifted the outboard motor onto deck and swung up after it. Our pink-clad crewmember greeted them with hugs and questions. They shared a lunch together in the back row of bus-seats.
By the time we got to the end, the sky had lightened a little. It had rained for some time on the trip, but it had cleared again. The remaining passengers took their things from the deck and said their goodbyes. It was a perfect voyage, the kind of traveling that makes you forget about the destination, casting the time between place as the leading experience. We got off gladly but would have taken the trip again if given the chance – when we left the north the boat wasn’t running. It had rained too much, the water was too high.
A woman we met in Tirana, Zhujeta, had told us that there were once two boats, but that one of them had “sanked.” Luckily, it seems that both are operational and floating.

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