I kept going down the hill and eventually the boy on the horse caught up with me and passed me. He said his house was just a little bit further down and I told him I’d see him there. This village was not Valbone, but Rogam, the tiny village that you come across just before coming to Valbone, another hour’s hike further down the hill. Rogam is a village of about six families, all of whom go to different cities during the winter because the area is pretty much uninhabitable for much of the year. Valbone has about twenty families, all of whom are hard and seasoned and stay the entire year.
The Kulla: Traditional Alabanian homes of the north
I was happy to set down my pack and take off my boots. I sat and relaxed and became acquainted with Ardit (17), the boy on the horse, Dennis (19), his cousin, and Aurela (12), Ardit’s sister. Ardit and Aurela live most of the year in Tirana but they spend their summers in Rogam. Their parents live in Tirana and work during the summer, so they’re up here with Dennis’ family. Dennis is from Shkoder but spends his summers in the village with the rest of his family. There’s not much work to be had in Shkoder, so the family’s income is from the tourists they host in Rogam during the summer. I can’t imagine that’s enough money, so maybe, like many Albanian families, relatives from abroad send money home as well.
Aurela and Dennis
Dennis’ mother and another older woman were working around the house and one of them brought me some lunch. Bread, beans, cucumber, tomato, potatoes, sausage, beer. After lunch they gave me a glass of their homemade rakia. Ardit and Dennis show tourists around Valbone, so they asked if I wanted to walk to the waterfall. It sounded like a good thing to do so we set out.
The waterfall is about a fifteen minute hike through the woods (you really need to have a local guide to help you find it.) As we were walking up, we heard gunshots up in the hills. Dennis looked at me and gestured, thumb to his mouth, pinky back and tipping his hand back. Ah, the men of the village must be drinking rakia in the woods, I guessed. We kept hearing more gunshots and they were getting closer, so Dennis whistled loudly every few minutes to let whoever was up there that people were walking up so please don’t shoot us.
We eventually saw 5 people: a barebacked guy of about thirty with his girlfriend, two fairly rotund men, and a haggard man in tattered, filthy trousers and rubber sandals who looked like he’d been drinking rakia all day, every day, for many years. They had two AK-47s between them and they were taking turns firing at trees. We greeted them, shook hands all around, and continued walking uphill to the waterfall. It was only a trickle, not very impressive, I guess because it had been a very dry summer. I took my shirt off and stood under the trickle of water – bone chilling, but very necessary as I was quite grimy from the hike.
Walking back down we saw the AK-47 crew again. They’d walked up the hill to sit in the sun for a while until we came back down from the waterfall. The boys spoke to them for a while, and when I heard them talking about me, I said no, that I wasn’t French, I was American. The chief drunk in the tattered trousers and rubber sandals, said no problem, no problem. I said falaminderit(thank you), and then as he was taking a swig from his plastic bottle of rakia, I thought I’d impress them all by using even more Albanian, and said gezuar! Cheers! To this he responded by pulling a beer from his little satchel and giving it to me. As Ardit, Dennis and I walked back I sipped my beer as the gunshots continued behind us.
Back at the house Dennis and Ardit ran off somewhere, so I sat and scribbled some notes in my journal and got talking to Aurela. The adults in the family had no English at all, Dennis and Ardit could understand a few words, but Aurela could speak enough English to understand and communicate. She has been learning English in school for the past two years and can also speak some Spanish. I had been curious about some Albanian words that sounded like Turkish words I knew, so I was asking Aurela if they were the same in Albanian as they were in Turkish. Everyone had been very interested in my little point and shoot camera, looking at all of my photos, and as I scribbled notes in my journal Aurela went running around the compound taking photos and showing them to me: her cow, various trees, signs, etc.
I really enjoyed talking to Aurela because, unlike other people in villages I’d talked to, she was eager and open to communicate with me. Maybe it’s something to do with age. The other people in villages I’d talked to, especially the men, were hesitant to communicate with me. Part of it is the language barrier, but part of it also is the fact that I am a guest in their home, taking pictures and documenting for them what is very normal life. There’s naturally a level of distance and, I think, hesitation to become too close with this alien. But this was not the case when I talked to Aurela; she seemed so eager to try to use her English, to tell me about her cow and to tell me about why she likes Tirana more than village life. Her enthusiasm in communicating with me made me feel more welcome with this family than other places I’d been in Albania and it really made my time in Rogam special.
Everyone seemed to be engaged in some sort of work and I wasn’t doing anything, so I wondered what I could do to help. Aurela had climbed the nearest fruit tree and Dennis’ mother was spreading a tarp below it. I grabbed one corner of the tarp, the mother the other, and Aurela up in the tree jumped from branch to branch, shaking them, the fruit falling in the tarp or rolling down the hill. I asked Aurela what kind of fruit this was – plums, for rakia!
I spent the rest of the afternoon gathering up the rakia plums off of the ground in little bins. Aurela instructed me which ones were good to put in the bins and which ones were too rotten. When the bins were full we loaded them into huge drums that had tarps covering the inside. Apparently once the bins are full they wait about two months or so and then the rakia is ready. I counted about five of these huge drums around the compound. After gathering up all the good ones we set about gathering all the rotten or stomped ones and throwing these into a pile out on the path outside the fence.
I asked Aurela what she would be doing tomorrow. After some confusion about going to Bajram Curri and no, that’s what I would do tomorrow, I wondered what she would be doing. Today, pick plums for rakia. Tomorrow? More plums! It seems the entire family, excluding the men, of course, is engaged in the process of making the rakia that the men drink all day. I don’t think that Albanian men read “The Little Red Hen” as children.
Eventually it started to get dark so it was time to gather the animals. Aurela and Ardit gathered the cows and then the bull and led them to the stable, and then it was time to go get the horse. We covered the horse’s back with an old, ratty jacket and I rode the horse in. We spent some time riding the horse and taking photos before putting the horse away and heading back to the house.
By this time the men of the family had returned from wherever they had spent their day. One was Dennis’ father, and the other I’m not sure his relation to the family. They sat in the gathering room of the house drinking rakia. The house had a television and a satellite, but there’s no signal so it doesn’t work. Not that there’s enough electricity for it to work anyway, as the lone lightbulb kept changing from dim to less dim, every five minutes.
Ardit brought them, one by one, a bucket of warm water to wash their feet. I was next. After this I sat in the room where I would sleep and had my dinner with Ardit. The men were in the other room, while Aurela and the two women brought the food around and took the dishes away. I’m not sure when they ate, because it was dark by the time we finished the meal, and when it’s dark in the village this means that it’s time to sleep. One of the mothers and Aurela fetched me blankets and made my bed so and all of the men were heading upstairs so it was bedtime.
It had been an eventful day and I’d experienced a lot. My time in the village and with this family had affected me deeply and I was scribbling furiously in my journal long after the family had gone to bed. But with Florian’s, the family in Thethi and now Rogam, I’d had three days of village food. Up on the mountain earlier in the day I had felt my insides rumbling in disapproval. As I was writing down the events of the day, however, I began to wonder if I’d make it until morning before I would need to relieve my insides of the ever increasing pressure. After a few surges I decided that no, the situation needed to be handled with haste.
It wasn’t so simple to deal with the situation, however. The toilet is a wooden shed out back with a hole in the boards, with some leaves scattered about the shed for toilet paper. It was also pitch black out and I would have to step over a little fence and walk ten meters down a little path in the dark in order to reach the outhouse.
Everyone in the family had gone to bed and I could hear snores from upstairs. Thankfully I was on the ground floor and thus would not disturb everyone with going down the stairs. I would need to find myself some way of lighting the path to the outhouse. One of the mothers upstairs had a flashlight but there was no way of me procuring this flashlight. I searched my room for solutions. There was an oil lamp hanging on the wall. I’d never used one, but figured I could work it out. Took off the glass cover, turned the wick until I could light it with a lighter, put the glass lid back on, turned the wick down until it was at a manageable height, and I was in business.
I hobbled outside carefully, careful to make as little noise as possible and trying to not disturb my already fragile insides. I hopped over the fence and, squinting in the light cast by the oil lamp, managed to find my way to the toilet shed. I set the oil lamp down and tried to position myself over the hole in the boards, but in so doing, stepped on a board wrong which upset the oil lamp. The glass lid rolled off and rolled around. My first concern was that the lamp would spill gas on the outhouse and light it on fire, making my situation much worse. I first righted the lamp. My next concern was that the glass lid would roll in the hole in the boards, which I would then have to retrieve. It’s probably an old family heirloom or something so I couldn’t have it breaking or disappearing into the depths of the outhouse. So I grabbed it quickly and set it upright to stop it rolling, but I scorched my fingers in the process. Using my hoodie I was able to place it back on the lamp.
Fingers burned, but the lamp back in place and the outhouse lighted again, I could set my feet a little more carefully on the boards this time around and relieve myself, thanking god or the powers that be that I was able to make it in time. I stayed until I figured I’d be safe to hold out until morning and tried to use the leaves scattered about the place, which is quite difficult when the leaves are small and your fingers are burnt. Jeans up, gingerly picked up the lamp and hobbled back to the house to find my hand sanitizer. I put the oil lamp back on the wall but when I put it out I unrolled the wick too far and it fell in the gas.
As uncomfortable and miserable as the whole scene was, I knew it was a funny story, so I sat to scribble it all down in my journal. And just as I reached the end, wave two hit me and I knew that I wouldn’t make it until morning. I had screwed up the oil lamp though, so I wasn’t going to be able to use that to light my way. I found a lighter and decided to try to use that, which is difficult with burned fingers. Once again I moved with great care but also with great haste to the outhouse. I made it there and back again, lucky that I’d left a few leaves on my previous visit.
I really wasn’t feeling very well. My stomach was in knots and I was feverish. I figured it was probably time to stop scribbling notes to myself and try to sleep since I had to be up at 5:30am to hike down to Valbone. My room had no airflow and I had heavy blankets so it was a hot, stifling room. I fell into delirious slumber, waking often due to feverish hallucinations and intestinal trouble. After a few surges I knew once again that I’d have to make another trip outside, but this time didn’t have time to locate the lighter. Probably wouldn’t make it to the outhouse. The shock of the fresh air hit me hard after the stifling room and I thought I was either going to vomit or pass out in a matter of seconds, so I found the most out of the way corner I could in a short time for wave three to pass.
I debated staying another night with the family as I really didn’t want to travel while I was ill again. I’d had enough of that at the start of my trip. I also would really love to be able to spend another day with the family. But I knew that if I stayed I wouldn’t get better. I would have been given the same food and would have been subject to village remedies which probably would have prolonged whatever bug I had. As much as I would have loved to stay for another day, I needed to be by myself in order to be able to recover.
So after a few hours of feverish, nightmarish slumber Dennis woke me at 5:30 for the hike down to Valbone, where I could get on the 7am furgon to Bajram Curri, the largest city in the Tropoje region.