While planning our journey many months ago, Albania rose to the top of our list of countries to visit. Like the other Balkan countries, Albania was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly 400 years and has a strong Muslim heritage to show for it. After occupations by the Greeks, Serbians, French, Italians, and Austrian-Hungarian empires, Albania became communist after WWII. From 1941 until 1985, Enver Hoxha served as the country’s communist leader. After short lived partnerships with the USSR and China, Albania chose a unilateral approach to diplomacy effectively sealing off its borders from the outside world and implementing a self-reliance defense methodology. There were over 700,000 concrete igloo military bunkers built during Hoxha’s reign, many that still exist today.
Since Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the adopting of free market capitalism in the 1990’s, Albania has seen a renaissance in its economy and foreign direct investment (FDI). Over the past few years, Albania has quietly become an up and coming tourist destination without the hoards of tourists occupying every square inch of sand like Croatia and Montenegro.
Today villages, if one can refer to them as such, comprise dirt roads and crumbling homes. Unemployed men gather at cafes to pass the time drinking, toasting our journey and raising a glass as we pedaled by at 8AM. Ancient women shuffle down the roads, dressed in traditional peasant clothing, heading to gather food for the day. Organic produce sellers line the prime real estate, including corners and entry points, beckoning to passersby.
Street dogs roam like savages, in search of food, scaling the five foot high dumpsters in one swift leap to rummage for scraps. The mewls of tiny kittens, only days old, echo from within the walls of abandoned buildings. We paused regularly to allow passage of a shepherd and his flock of sheep, as well as chickens darting across the road. Men and women still dress like peasants and use horse and carriage to transport supplies and goods.
We entered Albania with deep curiosity and a bit of trepidation, knowing so little about what we might encounter. As I write this several weeks after our visit, I still cannot find the right word to describe our experience in Albania. Perhaps the best word is: unsettling.
Return of Shoulders and Bumpy Roads
Prior to 1991, Albania banned private ownership of cars. Only 600 or so cars existed in the country, all driven by government officials. With the fall of communism came the flood of cars, and inevitably the construction of a highway system.
Much to our glee, these new wide roads incorporated lovely, wide shoulders. The moment we entered from Montenegro, it was like we had a six-foot bike lane, all to ourselves. We once again felt safe to ride, without fear of becoming roadkill.
The first city we entered, Shköder was the bike capital of Albania. Since many Albanians still use bicycles (or livestock and carriage) to transport themselves, Shköder was the first since Italy where cycling into and away from the city felt comfortable, as we rode among fellow cyclists.
As busy highways aren’t exactly our preferred road of choice, we ventured on the untouched backroads, traveling over mini mountain ranges over which the cars found so much trouble traversing that we handily passed them. We ventured along dirt roads hugging the mountains that simply ended, forcing us to backtrack several kilometers. Some roads were technically paved, with splotches of asphalt buried among the rocks and dirt. It was like someone had taken a giant cookie scoop and dumped pavement pancakes to be baked by the sun.
Trash and Environment
If Sweden has run out of trash, I know a place where they can find plenty more. There is no lack of trash in Albania. We saw mounds of it in piles alongside the one or two dumpsters allocated to each town. We encountered the putrid smell of burning trash on a daily basis, as individuals simply burned their waste. We noticed trash piled in a giant patch on beaches, in just the exact spot where the tide would quietly sweep it away during the evening tide, Albania’s contribution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We found trash in uncovered grates in cities, a makeshift rubbish bin in the middle of a sidewalk. Green and brown glass glimmered everywhere, warning of unsafe walking grounds for Sora’s bare paws or vulnerable bike tires. Even untouched gorges in the mountains could not escape the mounds of trash, for we spotted the landslide of trash on the banks of a beautiful river while contemplating whether we had located a nice spot to scatter our dog Maxwell’s ashes.
We had read horror stories about the terrible drivers and after eking our way through Croatia and Bosnia, we feared the worst was yet to come. Much to our delight, however, the drivers actually seemed to value our lives. Though they blazed past, regularly used poor judgement, and passed us with oncoming traffic, they were courteous.
Drivers offered plenty of spaced and honked to inform us of their presence. They even pumped their fists and cheered us on as we climbed a massive mountain pass towards Macedonia.
While I appreciated the beeps, I’m not entirely certain Albanians understood that outside of the vehicle, honks sound quite loud and startling when heard by the naked ear.
It seems that each day, we experienced some highly unpleasant encounter with local village kids. A few samples:
As we pulled over to snack on Vitalia crackers, a brand of Macedonian hippie food products, we noticed some young chaps who decided to practice their English with us. Phrases included: Hello! Where you from? and Fuck bitch, fuck bitch. We chose to ignore them.
Still munching on our last bites of cracker as we pedaled our way out of town and past these boys so eager to show off their language skills, one fella decided to throw a bunch of rocks in my direction. Fortunately for me, his aim matched his English language skills.
Not even a minute after surviving my stoning, another young kid came right up to my bike and asked “where you from?” Still recovering from the first group of young boys, I mumbled “U.S.” and as the words left my mouth, the kid smacked me on the bum as I rode past. Since Dave rode in front, I suppose the kid thought it appropriate behavior.
Had I the wherewithal to process what had just happened in the moment, I would have returned the gesture with a swift donkey kick to the groin. Heehaw, motherfucker.
The following day, while walking our bikes across a street to purchase groceries, some more young boys tried to impress me with their English. “You. Are. So. Sexy.” They said in too perfect English, each word its own sentence.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are fewer things sexier than a woman sporting diaper-butt bike shorts, a sweaty salt-stained bike jersey, and skin so grimy from dust I could scrape off dirt with my fingernail, but the compliment just seemed a bit unsolicited.
Another day, one young lad bolted out of the woods as Dave rode past, sprinting after him for about a half mile. I watched as the determined kid chased Dave, wondering what he was after. When he finally ceded, my gut filled with dread as I cycled slowly towards the kid. I was slow and an easy target, whatever he was after, he could certainly get from me.
As I rode past, he smiled, reached out his hands and showed me the universal symbol for money. “Leke?” He asked. The Albanian currency. I continued pedaling and ignored him but must admit, his dedication to earning a few bucks impressed me.
After these instances, I unfairly began to lump all children into a category of obnoxious urchins I went out of my way to avoid. From then on, I made sure Dave cycled within inches of me anytime we cycled through a small town or near a group of kids. I would offer an exaggerated wide berth when approaching, often pedaling into the opposite lane.
Had we not visited Albania on bicycles with a dog trailer, we would have ventured to places like Dhërmi, Sarandë, or Farma Sortira near the Greek border. I felt a bit sad throughout much of our visit to Albania, on account of the environmental damage, starving animals, and people without work, yet I also saw a snippets of individual towns, or even streets, trying to rise above the corrupt government – collecting money to pay for a trash collector or beach comber and testing entrepreneurial businesses. I hold hope that Albania can rise above the decades of dictatorship, corruption, and suppression and continue its trajectory towards stability.