Sweeping bluffs and barren foothills border Lake Koman’s julep-hued waters. All is hushed across this wind-scarred basin. An occasional solitary homestead peeks from the depths of a protected inlet, but there are no roads, telephone wires or visible electric poles connecting these places to the outside world.
I am the only Western female amid forty-some passengers on the Koman ferry this morning. My fellow travelers sneak timid glances, and I only wish I knew Albanian to understand what they were saying behind their cupped hands. I’m sure it is polite banter as everyone here has been warm and hospitable. Language barriers aside, they offer cigarettes, cookies, gum and beer. I accept the gum but decline the rest, and though they are confused that I didn’t join the chain smoking session, they respond with nicotine-stained smiles and twinkling eyes. Spending a few hours on the Lake Koman ferry in Northern Albania is indeed delightfully isolated and packed with nuggets of rugged personality and stimuli. These are the moments that I just love about traveling.
Albania today: Albania is not a big draw for backpackers – at least not yet. This gorgeous little hunk of land suffered through nearly 40 years of Communist rule under the isolationist dictator Enver Hoxha, an atheist who forced the closure of all religious buildings and banned worship of any kind. After his death in 1985, the country experienced a shift toward extreme capitalism in which marijuana plantations sprung up around the country and thousands of Albanians fled to Italy. Fact: there are more Albanians living outside of Albania than inside.
I am here to uncover the secrets that Albania is waiting to show to the world. I have to admit that, upon mentioning that I intended to travel to Albania, most people in the States either said: A) Where is that? or B) Isn’t that where the kidnappers in the movie Taken were from?
Arrival in Albania: My adventure began in Shkodër, the largest city in Northern Albania. I boarded a bus in Kotor, Montenegro, with two sweet Israeli boys. We traded snacks and book lists on the bus and soon found out that we were heading to the same hostel in Shkodër. After crossing the border into Albania, we immediately left behind the broad, honey-hued, clean vistas and traveled right into the heart of Albania.
The road was semi-paved and bordered by ramshackle homesteads with mullars, or haystacks, yards of sage-tinted prairie grass and outhouses for livestock. Trash was everywhere; floating in milky rivers and scattered across goldenrod fields. It was instantly evident that this was a poorer country than neighboring Montenegro. Yet, I was still overjoyed to begin a new country – albeit a country that was extending its hopeful hands and asking for patience while it was learning its place in the world.
Following our minibus ride across the border, we arrived into bustling Shkodër. The three of us were picked up at the bus stop by a local taxi driver who drove us outside of town to Florian’s Guesthouse. (I use the term “bus stop” lightly for there are no bus stops in Albania as I was soon to find out.) Florian’s hold a special status along the path for those that do venture into Albania’s territory. Praises of Florian’s and his renowned complimentary dinner – and homemade bread – were written down on scraps of paper and scribbled into book margins. Though the dorm bed’s were tightly packed, the blankets a bit threadbare and moth eaten and the shared bathroom in need of some warmer water, all of our basic needs were met and it was a wonderful overnight stay. After dinner, Florian filled up our wine glasses and sat us down to explain how to properly “do” Albania.The special ingredient about Albania was that none of us really knew where to go or how to get anywhere – guidebooks were fragmented and the Internet’s information was skimpy. There were no trains and there was no bus schedule, at least not one that was written down. Many locals know the fluctuating schedule which included such departure points like “in front of second pine tree by the fork in the road” or “near the curb next to my cousin’s grocery store.” Luckily, Florian was full of information. Knowing that we were eager to sail on the famous Lake Koman, he sketched out a plan and called to reserve space for us on the morning’s transport to the ferry terminal.
Accompanied by the Israeli boys, I was picked up outside of the hostel’s gates at 6:00 a.m. The neighborhood’s roosters were just beginning to crow when our minibus, or furgons as they are called in Albania, pulled to a furious stop at our feet. Our driver scurried to throw our bags in the trunk, shooed us inside and rushed off in a cloud of debris. We wound our way through the still-dark streets of Shkodër while our burly driver slipped around sharp curbs and jerked hasty u-turns into backyards, driveways and alleys to pick up more passengers. He referred to no written list, smart phone google map or notepad, and, amusingly, he greeted the other passengers with kisses on the cheek and hearty claps on the back. Soon our furgon was bursting with baskets of chickens, three hiker and their camping gear, 1/5 of the Albanian soccer team, a dozen burlap bags of potatoes and onions, twenty cases of bottled Pepsi and a pink donkey piñata.
After some initial hesitation and tittering, the other passengers were eager for conversation. Only one guy spoke English and he translated for the others. They wanted to know what we were doing in Albania, where we intended to travel, what we did back home and, of course, if I was married…and why wasn’t I married? One of the four soccer team members called his uncle who had a daughter living in the U.K to tell him that an American girl was sitting next to me. And his uncle who did not speak a lick of English wanted to talk to me on the phone. Then, through a series of phone exchanges, I wound up with his the uncle’s sister’s phone number and address in case I visited Tirana, Albania, at some point in my trip. He assured me that I was certain to be taken care and treated like a daughter.
We arrived at the ferry terminal about an hour before its departure. In a weird twist of roles, one of the three hikers pulled out a wad of ferry tickets and sold us our ticket. Though slightly peculiar, it was legitimate, and our ferry captain accepted the boat passes and showed us where to stow our backpacks.
We lounged on the dock to observe the manic – but ostensibly organized – loading of the other passengers and their stuff.
All sorts of stuff; goats and their bleating kids; a complete bedroom set with a dresser, television and wardrobe; dozens upon dozens of burlap bags loaded with vegetables, fruits, roots, rocks, as well as a few uncomfortable pigs; bicycles, luggage; boxes secured with twine; and the pink donkey piñata were secured on the back of the ferry.
Koman Lake was created in the 1970’s. Two dams, one near the village of Koman and another near Fierzë where built to create hydro electric power, and the 19 miles of valley between the two dams were flooded, thus isolating the villages and homesteads stretching through the valley. These people now rely on using the once-daily ferry as their sole means of transportation, communication and to stock up on provisions when traveling to the bib city.
The ferry pulled away from the dock at 10 a.m., and we immediately stepped outside the cabin to watch the jaw-dropping scenery unfold before us.
Soon, our surroundings favored a Norwegian fjord. Colossal mountains towered in the distance, and sheer limestone cliffs framed our narrow passageway. Our wake broke the placid waters and eagles soared from one tree-lined hilltop to the next. It was truly a mesmerizing landscape.
Many of the locals stood outside, smoking and joking. They all seemed to know one another. The captain stepped outside of his wheelhouse every fifteen minutes for a cigarette and a 10-year-old boy took over the steering. The women stayed inside where the engine’s warmth provided a nest of coziness – or possibly to avoid the men. Every so often, the boat veered to rest on a finger of land. A jovial passenger either hopped on or hopped off. Sometimes there were several generations of family waiting with a pack of donkeys to help carry the heavy bags of potatoes, a television or tightly bound boxes. The goats and their kids were transferred safely to dry land.
I imagine that, once on land, these passengers had quite a hike ahead of them as were no immediate houses or villages as far as I could see. And some of them were carrying things like rubber piping, tires and televisions! I was later told that there is a large network of paths and mule tracks that allows communication and transportation between the valley’s communities. Halfway through the journey, we landed on the bank to let off the three hikers. They jumped off with their day packs and cigarettes and cheerfully waved as we departed. I showed a bit of concern that they were not dressed warmly enough and didn’t seem to have provisions to last them for the week’s camping excursion. Through a rather confusing Albanian-Spanish-Italian conversation, I learned that these men were military and “could handle themselves,” of course.
Several hours later, the ferry pulled into the dock at Fierzë and we set about finding our transportation to Valbona. Florian was to have called a lodge for us to stay for the night; however, he didn’t seem concerned with how we could find transportation to get up the mountain. There didn’t seem to be any public furgons, and though we thought of hitchhiking, nobody was going further than Bajram Curri. No worries though – our kind captain pulled out his cell-phone and called his cousin who was also a taxi driver, and we were on our way shortly. It was about a twenty-minute drive up the mountain through villages where pigs roamed free, herds of sheep crowded the path, and streams of clear, turquoise mountain water flowed nearby.
Our driver delivered us on the doorstep of our the Rilindja lodge, but not without getting Florian’s phone number from the lodge’s owner, Catherine, and calling Florian to assure him that we were safe and sound on the other side of the Lake. He (the driver) then gave us his cell number if we needed anything while in Valbona and his brother’s cell phone number, who also happened to be an immigration officer, in case we had trouble crossing the border. If kindness and hospitality were a marketable resource, Albania would be rich.