22 April 2012

Up in the Albanian Highlands


We'd been warned there would be snow. When we arrived in Valbonë, we thought for sure that the ground was covered in it. White spread out before us. But as the furgon drove over to the door of our homestay, its tires created a sound more akin to a crescendoing bag of Jiffy Pop than the squeak and crunch of snow. These white stones cover a good deal of Valbonë valley, brought down from the mountains by the river after which it is all named.  In 48 hours, these river stones would find themselves in a familiar place, back beneath the rush of water.  Two days of heavy downpour carved a labyrinth of puddles and streams so large you'd think they were always there.
In fact, we woke up to find that our homestay had earned a protective moat overnight.  It had taken us 11 hours to reach Valbonë, via three furgons and one amazing ferry, and now a rain-river threatened to keep us from exploring it.  The only choice was to throw the biggest stones we could find into some shallow sections in an attempt to create a footbridge.  After too many kerplunked under the surface of the deepening water, we figured we were stuck.  But our host mother came to our rescue with a pair of galoshes. Embarrassingly, I wound up sending one of the boots down the river in a failed attempt to throw them back across to her, and she jumped in to catch it. Our feet were kept dry, but she was now drenched up to the calves. I reddened, she laughed. In Valbonë, leaving your house to find that a body of water now stands in the way of leaving your property is simply comedic.  
These are the mountains of Albania, where isolation is a part of life. Merlin and I joke that nearing two full years of travel, we aren't satisfied unless we've been to the most remote part of each country. In Georgia, that took us to Mestia. In Azerbaijan, extraordinary Xinaliq. Albania's north is full of villages that fit the bill and Valbonë, along with Theth, have become destinations for travelers who like going off(off-off) the beaten track. Summertime brings hikers from around the world and daytrippers from neighboring Kosovo. Teenagers who live in the nearby hub of Bajram Curri most of the year to attend high school - commuting every day isn't really an option - come home. They work as waiters and hiking guides for their family's business - half the houses become "hotel familiars" with restaurants and rooms for rent.
We weren't the first visitors of the year for our host family, but it is still well before their on season.  They are hoping to complete a new floor on their house, with wraparound balcony, before the tourist crowd begins to stream in.  Full all last summer, they are in need of new rooms.  Valbonë in the summer must be a far cry from the sleepy, rain-soaked place we found. Where, for two full hours of walking along the main road, we didn't see a single car.  This has been the poorest and most isolated region in Albania throughout most of its history and while tourism is beginning to help things a little, life remains mostly the same.  There weren't any cars parked alongside houses and for a month every winter, people are still completely confined to their houses because of the snow. Valbonë is a recognized National Park, which keeps it blissfully free from the litter that plagues most of Albania.  It really feels more like a protected stretch of nature than a cohesive village, with no discernible center, minimarket, post, etc.  The big, pink schoolhouse stands alone, aside from a trio of leftover bunkers half submerged into a hill. In a lot of ways, the Bajram Curri-Valbonë furgon acts as the nucleus of the town. Twice a day, the van makes its way across town. Down to Bajram Curri at 7am, back up at 3pm sharp. In the hours between, the driver runs the village's errands, armed with shopping lists and a handful of things that need to be returned or repaired. We were delivered to our host family along with a quarter chicken and tomatoes.
When we could rouse ourselves from the warm comfort of our room, we explored Valbonë under borrowed umbrellas. Unable to take full advantage of the hiking trails, we simply walked. The newly built museum and tourist center is currently empty and we weren't exactly sure what we would stumble across. As wet as it was, most people stayed in. It was just us and the constant sound of rushing water- from the heavy grey clouds above, from the waterfalls that ran down the mountains on all sides, from the impossibly blue Valbona river at our feet. Just when we thought the bell-wearing mare who leaped past and this salamander that sauntered by would be the only life we'd see, a siren call of chimney smoke brought us into a "hotel familiar/restaurant/bar." Inside, a pair of young men were waiting out the rain with a game of cards and a table of eight were enjoying a marathon lunch. Salads, yogurt with spicy pepper mixed in, fried potatoes, soup and a casserole of macaroni and lamb. When there was a lull in the delivery of courses, they passed around a traditional çifteli and each took a turn plucking at and strumming its strings.
Of course, we also had a family to come home to. And the warmth of the fires they built for us. The matriarch, whose galosh I'd sent a'floating, could light a fire with such ease that I swear she was telekinetic. The patriarch installed this wood stove right in our room, making it look downright tiny as he carried it in. He was a statuesque man with a low, smoker's voice that rattled and boomed. His broad, handsome face was sectioned off in three equal parts like an unfolded letter by one long, thick eyebrow and a long, thick mustache. He reminded me of the heroes' busts set up all around Tirana.
In front of the house sat these picturesque remains of the house he grew up in. With its doorway framing the gorgeous Dinaric Alps it seemed to smile over the ever-growing new home like the portrait of an ancestor hung above a mantle. In the barn next to it, we were shown the goats, who tumbled out of their holding pen, climbing on top of each other to exit like it was the L train at rush hour. Usually, they were up on the steep hill behind their house with the young son of the household. He and his mom screamed conversations we couldn't understand, in parent-child tones that sounded all too familiar. Some things are the same the world over.

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