Sunday, February 22, 2015


"When you travel, remember that foreign countries are not designed to make you feel comfortable. They are designed to make their own people feel comfortable."
Clifton Fadiman (1904-1999), American writer.

Zitsa, Greece, February 20, 2015

We feel very sorry for our thief. We usually leave the bikes parked in the main square, surrounded by people. But at nine o´clock on a freezing morning, nobody walks the streets of Cetinje. No one but the clever character who opens the bag on the handlebars of a loaded bicycle probably hoping to find something valuable.  He has just seconds to perform the maneuver before someone sees him, but things look good: he grabs a pair of sunglasses cases and under them is a flask with rakja. He thinks today is his lucky day, he will get some good money selling the sunglasses and will celebrate with a drink. What the poor thief does not yet know is that one of the cases is empty because Gabi prefers to put his glasses in his pocket so later he can lose or squash them. What he also doesn´t know is that the other case contains patches and glue for punctures and that the flask was a gift that we have already enjoyed. When we return from a visit to the Orthodox monastery and evaluate our losses we only regret the loss of the gift (it takes us two weeks to realize that we are missing the cases). The Berbers say that if anybody takes something that is not theirs one shouldn`t blame the thief, but the former owner for not having been more responsible with his possessions.

Enjoying Winter!!

It has started to rain and will not stop for the next fortnight. Marko puts us up in Podgorica, which saves us a couple of days of heavy rain, but no one will save us from that hail storms that accompany us as we ride through the hills along the southern shore of Lake Skadarsko. One day we are lucky to find a small shelter for shepherds, within which we have to play tetris to fit inside all our saddlebags, bicycles, tent (which is bigger than the shelter) and then leave room to cook and  move around.

Nice clouds over our heads.

The road is harder than we thought, but Erin awaits us in Vau Dejes (near Shkoder, Albania) in two days, so psyched we leave the shelter to ride more than 90 kilometers in the storm.

Skadarsko Lake, Crna Gora.

We cross the border between Montenegro and Albania and also change continent, century, culture and mentality. Although today is Sunday, everything is open. An Albanian cannot afford to close his small business one day a week. We have not found local currency or a cashier all day. We find that there are no supermarkets in Albania, and he who has an idea, has a business. This country is an example of how illegality does not mean crime, and even may prevent it. We fear that when Albania finally joins the European Union, the whole string of laws that might make sense in the mostly protestant and rational Europe, will force the closure of local businesses. Where now there is a lawless business, tomorrow someone will be asking for money; where there is poverty today, tomorrow there will be misery.

Last moutains of Monte Negro.
We overtake several donkeys and just as many Mercedes overtake us. Respect is mutual, the road belongs to everyone, drivers are more than used to anything sharing the road with them. Suddenly, we feel millions of eyes on us and thousands of voices cheer us on, asking us where we come from, where we`re going, who we are and what we are doing, in English, Albanian, Italian, Greek and even in Mandarin if necessary. We have the impression that the houses are empty and that, despite the bad weather, everyone is in the street. Children riding on the shoulder bump our hands, laugh, and join us on their bicycles. The man who shares the back of a van with a cow greets us as he grabs the tail of the animal to avoid falling with the curve. Women on motorcycle taxis hook at us and shouting unintelligible words as they ride away. The gentleman who is going down the hill with the engine of his Mercedes turned off to save fuel  has time to greet us and wish us a nice day. It is as fun as well as tiresome.

Welcome to Albania!

We arrive o Dejes Vau just before dusk, with lightning defining the horizon over the dam built by the Chinese during the time when Albania was defined as Maoist. Erin has told us we will recognize his house as it is the only one with an American flag, but we travel all (four) village streets without finding it. We stop at a gas station, which also waves a US flag, and a man yells at us from the window of his Mercedes asking if we need help. He wants to treat us to a coffee but we have to decline the invitation because it's getting dark and if we do not find the house, we will have a problem. He tells us that he has just returned from England after living in London for five years, so he does not know the new inhabitants of his village, but he offers to call Erin, saving us a lot of money. As we are traveling without an internet connection it has been impossible to get the message warning us that he won`t arrive to Vau Dejes until the following afternoon. The man with the Mercedes says he knows a cheap hotel and tries to make some kind of deal with us. We try to explain that we are traveling on a shoestring budget and avoid paying for accommodation unless absolutely necessary. He makes us show him the money we have and agrees to pay himself what we lack. Half convinced,  more because of the darkness and the threat of a storm than the offer, he tells us to follow him. But at one point we follow the wrong Mercedes and end up in a parking lot with another series of Albanians anxious to help us. We leave as fast as we can from there, lightning flashes over our heads and we have no choice but to camp under the bridge which is on the edge of town, two feet from the body of a dog under a fierce hailstorm. After hearing the news of the dreadful floods that are ravaging southern Albania that will be the last time we camp by a river for a while.

More roosters than Albanians.

The next day we still have to make time until Erin arrives, so we decide to continue getting wet and go visit the city of Shkoder, a journey which is summarized in semi-sunken roads by a landslide, two hours in a bar waiting for things to get better, arrive to town, eat a cheese burek and return to Vau Dejes absolutely soaked. It takes a couple of hours to cross the town, pass the petrol station, where some chickens are pecking at the wheels of a limousine. We return to the main street and a goat is eating the hedge of a hairdresser`s. Someone shouts at us from a car, asking if we need something, we tell them that we are looking for an American, and he takes us to his house. This time, Erin opens the door to the dirtiest and wettest cyclists he has ever hosted.

Again we rest from so many days of rain, which we use to rethink the route, avoiding as much as possible both the floods and the extreme cold and overcrowded plains rivera. A university student from the city of Elbasan, south of Tirana, has invited us to spend a night with his family, so we decide to take the most direct and least dangerous route, ignoring the advice of the family. The first day it is impossible to find a free place to camp, without a thousand eyes around, so we choose the lesser evil to try to camp. While we are eating a tangerine the owner of the land on which we want to spend the night comes and tells us in his best Italian that he will come in a couple of hours to open the door of his storehouse. We can sleep inside and have our bikes safe, and the next morning he will come back to free us from our confinement.  In spite of being grateful, the thought of spending the night locked up doesn`t please me too much and gradually I start feeling very anxious. The darkness is upon us and the man is delayed but for the last half an hour we have a couple of kids with us, worried about where we will spend the night. They do not understand when we try to explain that the owner will open up the storehouse, and end up going to their houses to ask the family if they would welcome two foreigners in need of shelter. Within minutes, Alger guides us through the darkness to his house, protecting us from the stray dogs armed with stones and sticks. The streets and roads in Albania are plagued with life, both human and animal, but the many stray dogs have never been a problem for us. More dangerous are the watchdogs, just as noisy as the shepherd dogs, but when they protect their owner`s house, the owner is not usually we nearby to stop it. However, the dogs know the meaning of the gesture of picking up a stone or a stick, so there`s no need to go all the way with them.

Alger, in the middle.

And thus we end up in one of the poorest houses Albania. They call the whole family to come and meet us. And suddenly we find ourselves sitting around the fire surrounded by twenty people. Most of them do not speak English, but the children learn it at school, as Leda tells us. She is a modern Albanian woman trapped in a traditional environment. She is 19 years old but is still not married and has no intention to do so soon. His dream is to study foreign languages, go to college, travel and build her own future. However, her family is very poor, and cannot afford to pay for her studies. Currently she is working in a shoe factory, waiting, longing, for an opportunity that will change her life.

-          When you get to Spain, will you forget us?

My dear Leda, I could not. Nor you nor your family, but maybe I should say  your family in feminine. In traditional Albanian society men and women live in different areas and spaces. They eat in a different room and at another hour than the men of the house. Marjeta, for example, has taken care of all the housework since she was thirteen, while her parents are away. They treat us like a member of the family. I have the honor of dining with the men of the house, but only Gabi can taste the homemade rakj. When Leda leaves, we only have the option of comunicating in Shqip (in Albanian), but we overcome the language barrier thanks to a dictionary of images we bought in Spain and  thought we would never use. The next day we use the same dictionary for an impromptu lesson with the kids at home. The older sister tells us that they are too poor to go to school.

The pleasure of camping in a mud field.

We continue along the plains of northern Albania, where it seems impossible to find a place to camp. The persistent rains have caused floods everywhere, so we just drag our bikes through the mud. A futile effort. This time we do not even have time to finish a tangerine when a middle- aged woman comes down the hill with mud up to her knees. Thanks to body language and our basic Albanian we understand that it breaks her heart to think we're going to sleep in that place, threatened by a river about to overflow. It should be pointed out right now that there are regions of the world, not necessarily remote, where universal sign language apparently does not work. In these lands they have the habit of moving their heads from side to side to say yes, and up and down to say no, which often hinders communication. Out of nowhere, another man appears behind the woman. At first we think that it is her husband, but it`s just someone who just happens to be passing by. The woman  has convinced him to give us shelter. So this is the way we meet Mark and Drane, our Albanian family for the day. Again, communication is a challenge, but these people make things very easy. They enjoy helping, offering their homemade jam, cheese from  their own goats, and freshly laid eggs from their chickens. Mark tells us about his five children, only one of which lives in Albania. The lucky ones manage to find an opportunity in Italy or England, but in many cases it means not returning to Albania and losing physical contact with their families for years. Despite this situation, the character of the Albanians is cheerful, open and generous as the "more developed" Europe cannot even begin to imagine.

The highway, shared by cars, bikers and pedestrians.

The capital city of Albania is not just another European capital. We go down a street of supposedly five lanes, but in practice seven and a half, flanked by Mercedes and donkeys. Small shops and businesses of all kinds are crowded into endless bazaars, with as many dogs as people all over the streets, and everything seems to work perfectly in a system where there is no law to respect. However, we are not very interested in urban life so we cross the city as fast as we can.
We don`t mean to be ungrateful, but sometimes some privacy can be nice, but the clouds are so heavy that they almost reach the road. On our way we find a stretch of highway under construction, with well trodden ground, we think it`s perfect to put up our tent. We chose the flattest place possible and hidden, and as we finish putting the last stake in the ground, the clouds release their burden. Gabi tries in vain to keep the water from coursing around the tent to prevent flooding, but within minutes we are surrounded by mud. Two stray dogs wander around the tent in the middle of the storm and a car goes up and down the road under construction all night. This time we got to camp, even though deep down we would not have any minded being adopted by an Albanian family again.

With Indrit, in Elbasan.

We ignored the advice of people who, well-meaning, advised us to take the tunnel on the highway linking Tirana with Elbasan, which runs inside the mountain for kilometres. Who would want to take a shortcut when can enjoy the umpteenth hailstorm and pleasure of riding down a mountain with such dense fog that it looked like cotton candy It`s like a zombie movie, shadows of different elements appear and disappear around us, within a radius of four meters: a herd of goats, groups of walkers and we do not know where they are going or where they are coming from, or stray dogs and howling wolves as a backdrop. We go down the valley safe and sound, jumping from pothole to pothole all the way to the center of Elbasan. This Albania seems different. As we ride south the frequency of greetings is reduced, the feeling of poverty dims and the cars drive faster (probably because the road permits it). We had heard that if Tirana was located just a few kilometers further north, the country would probably be divided into two already due to the differences between the two regions. Luckily, the shepherds are equally kind in all parts of Albania.
In Elbasan we have to make an important decision, it is the first time we are exposed to real danger. The weather is supposed to improve, but the rains and thaw have flooded the region through which we had planned to go. The news talks about victims and some roads are closed. In Albania there are not many roads, and of those that exist,  the percentage of paved ones is not too high, so we don't have many options. We are in February, in winter, and the temperatures in the interior are lower since the rain has stopped, so we cannot afford to take a secondary road without knowing if it will be open. We opt for the mountain, even if that means sleeping once again for a week below zero, following a road to Lake Ohrid, and from there to the border with Greece parallel to the Grams mountains.

Frozen days.

We have completed nine months of our journey and to celebrate everything starts to collapse. The kickstands break so now we use bamboo sticks. One day one of the sticks slides and breaks one of the bike spokes, which we repair as "temporary" solution with duct tape. The glue we bought in Croatia to seal the seams cracks so once again we have leaks. We're running out of brake pads and here it is impossible to find spare parts. The tent rod that we had managed to repair sanding it breaks, and we make an emergency repair with an aluminum tube and duct tape. One of our bottle holders breaks, but nothing that a little tape cannot fix. Another day we start with a chain link caught in the rear derailleur, Gabi tries to straighten it with pliers, but this time it does not work. Luckily we took another set of chains to rotate them every thousand kilometres and extend the life of both the chain and gears. The nights are incredibly cold and frost freezes us in our spring sleeping bags. There is a well- known trick in the world of winter camping which involves heating water, put it in a metal can or bottle wrapped in a sock and placing it at the foot of the sleeping bag. We would love to use it, but our water drums either lose water or are cracked. Could contemplating the most beautiful starry sky in Europe compensate in some way?

At least is sunny!
when you take a goat path...

We begin to see snow and ice on both sides of the road, the thickness increases as we ascend. The Albanian plateau of around one thousand meters, leaves some moments of respite that we use for camping. We follow a goat path and decide to set up our palace next to a lake, overlooking the snowy mountains. All of the shepherds in the area stop to ask what the hell we are doing there in this cold weather, and one of them is particularly concern. We understand that there is a better place to set up the tent a little further down, that the mountain wind blows very hard at night, but we decide to stay  where we are after seeing that the ground is quite waterlogged.  Luckily we took photos at sunset, because we will not see the sun rise in the same place. We have been sleeping for one hour when we are awakened by a man shouting:
-¡Mister! Monsieur! Mister!

It was a nice place for sleep 1 hour.

It turns out that the shepherd went to find his cousin, who has lived in Belgium all his life and speaks languages, to be an interpreter. Through him we find out that it is dangerous to camp on these slopes in because it is wolf territory, that just yesterday it attacked one of the shepherd`s sheep. He explains in perfect French what his cousin really wanted was to tell us to go to his house to sleep but I had not understood, so now he has renewed the offer. Without any doubts we take down the tent and collect all our gear as quickly as possible in the middle of the night (the only thing that we forget is a stuffed whale that Gabi found in Kotor) and return by the same goat path that we had taken only a few hours before. Drilon helps us understand (and love) a little more Albania, and his aunt makes sure that we will never have cold feet again giving me five pairs of  handwoven socks, occupying half a saddlebag.

Drilon family.

We leave the city of Korcë, the capital of the region, and enter an almost uninhabited area of Albania. In one hundred kilometres we go through five towns, and only in the last one can we can spend the last leks that we have. We leave the plateau and return to the highest mountains, a little more relaxed on the southern side where there is hardly any ice in the middle of the day. Guidebooks underline the fact that Albania is full of bunkers, but what hits us is the existence of hundreds of thousands of "washing facilities" for cars. They consist of a concrete surface and a single hose connected to a faucet. Albanians love Mercedes, but only if they are clean, and with these roads keeping them in good condition is a full time job. The problem with the washing facilities is that in order to prevent the pipes from freezing in winter they leave the water running throughout the day, with the hose nozzle pointing towards the road. Until a clumsy cyclist makes the wrong decision and follows the track of the road, oblivious to the thick layer of ice. The fall is brutal and leaves me stunned on the ground for a moment. Luckily it was going up the mountain and not down, but when we go to the coffee shop of  the establishment that had left the hose running and I take off my glove, my right hand has doubled in size and is completely purple. We fear the worst, I can barely move and the pain is so intense that it brings tears to my eyes. We think there is something broken, but we can not do anything. No taxis or buses use this road, we have only come across a couple of cars all day, so we cannot hitchhike like other times. Even if we call the insurance company we have no way of going to the doctor. For a moment we consider the possibility of Gabi pushing both bikes while I walk, but we are still a hundred kilometres from our destination, including crossing a border.

Snow and more snow in the road.
Our first dreams over the snow.

We rest for an hour and inflammation is greatly reduced. The pain persists, but: sometimes there is no easy solution and the only way out is to grit your teeth and continue. And that's just what we do. I ride the bike as well as I can and when I have to drag it through the mud or on steep descents, Gabi does the dirty work. In the last village before changing countries we ask for the way to Greece and a woman tells us to take the old main road, which is eight kilometers downhill instead of 16. We ask several times if the road is in good condition and she tells us it is, that it is an hour to cross the border. We take the paved road to the edge of town where ... there are more stones. We only see passing groups of donkeys and four-wheel drive jeeps until it starts to get dark we are unaware of what lay behind the words of the woman who said "the road is good, it is five miles... one hour". Perhaps by donkey. Just to cross a pool of quicksand it takes us three quarters of an hour and in the end we have to camp right on the edge of the alleged road. It will take until mid-morning the next day to drag our bikes to reach the border.

It is suposed to be a road...

Luckily, on the border I can rest for almost another hour. There is a problem with our identity cards. Our beloved Spanish identity cards have two different numbers, one is the number of identity, and the other is the number of the card and that is what each of the five policemen who take turns attempts to use until they ask us directly. When that glitch is fixed, we cross the bridge that separates us from Greece. It is getting closer to the time to rest my battered hand and park the bike for a while.
There is a saying in Albanian, avash-avash, that illustrates well the Albanians' attitude towards life. It literally means “slowly, slowly”. Take it slow, and little by little reach your destination. It's the best way to make the most of a trip through Albania, and the only one for me.

Avash, avash.

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