The furgon (minibus) I would ride was an old, battered, orange Mercedes. The roads up to the villages aren’t passable by regular cars; the only vehicles that can make it up there are 4x4s. I climbed in and joined the crowd in the minibus and we set off bouncing along and made a few stops along the way to pick up more passengers.
It reminded me of the minibuses in Georgia (marshrutkas), but slightly less organized. There wasn’t even a sign in the window saying where we were going, people just know it’s the minibus to Thethi and know to stand on the street with your luggage and flag it down. In Georgia the city marshrutkaswould be packed to the gills, but if you were going long distance they were Dodge Sprinter vans and there was usually a maximum capacity. On the way to Thethi, however, we kept cramming them in. If they were on the road waiting for the minibus, they would be getting in regardless of how full we already were because there was only one per day. By the time we were off and running we had twelve adults, three small children, two babies, everyone’s bags and about ten sacks of cement in the minibus.
At little bit into the journey, at about 8:30am, one of the old men in front of me opened a little plastic water bottle, took a swig, and offered it to those of us in the back seat. I had briefly thought that it was water but as I raised it to my lips I remembered that I was in the Balkans. I took a swig and felt the familiar burn of plum rakia. The bottle made the rounds of the minibus, and again a few hours later.
The road was good for a while but then we reached the “cursed mountains” as the locals call them and started heading uphill. The roads here were basically rock paths with the occasional boulder or two. We wound our way up and through the forest, having occasional difficulties whenever there was another car coming the other way.
We took a few stops along the way when we would come to a little gathering of buildings. Every few hours or so we would come across a little roadside cafe. We’d pile out of the minibus like clowns getting out of a miniature car, and the men would go in and drink rakia. One man on the bus spoke English so he was interested where I was from and where I was going. He was going up to Thethi just for the evening and coming back to Shkoder the next day. As we were sitting in one of these cafes, some donkeys walked up the road, passing us. One old man said something, the other guy translated it. You see donkeys? They’re doing a parade for you!
After about five hours in the furgonwe reached the little village of Thethi. We passed campgrounds, a school and then made it to the center, where there is a renovated church in a field. An old man was waiting for me, asked my name, and we set off for his place. We established that he did not speak English but where we were heading there would be someone to assist in communication.
Arrival to Thethi
We walked to this man’s little store where I spoke with 14 year old Samuel, who spoke English and was wearing a cycling jersey he got in Shkoder, where he lives most of the year. I said that I would be staying one night and heading to Valbone the next day. Some German backpackers who were camping outside of the store assured me that I would be in good hands. The man and his wife led me out of the store, around the large family garden and into a compound of a house, cooking shed, outhouse and a stable for their animals. The running water was a hose outside where there was a little sink and a bar of soap.
Samuel accompanied us to the house for communication purposes. I don’t believe he was a member of the family, but he was working around the house for most of the afternoon. They may give him some of the money they earn from tourists for easing communication. At the house I met the family’s son and daughter and they gave me lunch, coffee and rakia.
After my lunch the son accompanied me on a walk up a path through a field or two, up a few more stony paths, to a little swimming hole. It was a small, shallow pool formed by water running down the mountain. There are a number of waterfalls and little swimming holes within a short hike of Thethi and this was where the local boys were hanging out that day. The two German backpackers I had met earlier were there, as were about six of the local boys, most of whom were about twelve years old, perched on the rocks surrounding the little pool. One of the boys spoke decent English. They were up there for most of the afternoon, diving dangerously into the shallow water, throwing rocks at each other, playing with the German’s pocket knife and smoking cigarettes.
I asked the Germans about getting to Valbone and when the minibus left. They told met there were no roads to Valbone, there was only a path, so there is no minibus. From Thethi you can only walk over the mountain pass to Valbone on the other side. If you have cash to spare you can hire a donkey or horse from a family for about twenty or thirty euro to carry your backpack. They told me that with a heavy backpack it was about a seven or eight hour hike. To the top of the pass you climbed about 1,000m, and descending to Valbone you go down about 700m. I figured it would be an early morning and a long day for me.
After a while the son and I headed back down to the house and I set out to walk about the town of Thethi to take some pictures. I walked and saw the school. Samuel, when I told him that I was an English teacher, wondered why I hadn’t come to Thethi to teach in the summer because there is a summer camp here. This was surprising news for me, I’d have to check that out later. There was also a tourist information center where I asked for information about getting to Valbone the next day. One of the most surprising things for me up here was that considering how remote the area is there actually is a fair amount of tourism. (Samuel told me that Thethi has about 100 families in summer and 10 families stay all winter as well.) Most of the tourism is Albanians on holiday (and the Albanian diaspora is huge, so foreign Albanians with money on holiday), but there were still a few non-Albanians up there.
I eventually walked back down to the house, where Samuel had been sitting for hours in the cooking shed, spinning a fox-like animal on a spit in the fire. Nobody could tell me exactly what the animal was, but it was for a special dinner. Other guests had appeared at the house, apparently distant family of the Thethi family who lived in Italy. I believe it was two brothers, a wife (Italian) and two young girls, maybe four or five years old. My hosts, the mother and father, had been in the store for most of the afternoon, serving the locals cokes and cigarettes. The daughter had been peeling, chopping and arranging vegetables for the big meal.
I couldn’t help but fall under the spell of the charms of the innkeeper’s daughter (for story purposes I believe innkeeper’s daughter has the best ring to it) and my mind began to wander, imagining getting into all sorts of trouble. Any of these thoughts, however, immediately led to thoughts of the consequences of such an encounter. I could see myself hurriedly lacing my boots and hoisting my bag, sprinting down a mountain road in the middle of the night, closely followed by either a shotgun wielding father or a mob equipped with torches and pitch forks. In an area on travel advisory lists due to blood feud murders, I figured I should probably not allow myself to become too enchanted. But then again I didn’t have to be run out of the village, I could decide to stay longer, and, under the spell of the innkeeper’s daughter, begin teaching the villagers English and be welcomed to the village as one of their own, get married and no one would ever hear from me again except for a strange postcard saying that I had decided to stay in the village and become village Sven. But I figured that these were probably all not very good ideas, so despite however enchanted I was I needed to keep my wits about me and make sure to leave for Valbone the next day without getting into trouble.
When the fox-like animal on the spit was finally cooked we headed to the field in front of the store where a few tables had been set. The Germans and a few other backpackers were sitting at a few tables closer to the store, but since I was staying in the house the family invited me to sit with them at the big table with the Italian/Albanian family. The mother and daughter served the father, son and guests, but were mostly absent from the dinner until everyone had finished, and then sat down. Like the day before in Shkoder, everything on the table was produced in the family compound. The only things not homemade were the beers from the store and the wine from another place elsewhere in the village.
I had no idea what anyone was talking about at the table and felt quite awkward. I wondered if I had made a mistake and should have sat with the backpackers at the other table where I could have been involved with the conversation. After the meal had died down I joined the other table to see what was going on with the backpackers. I was immediately glad that I had not had dinner with them and regretted my decision to join them. I was back in the hostel world of hearing the same stories of the same places.
So I sat for a little while at the backpacker’s table, not communicating with them either. I wasn’t interested in their stories and had no desire to share any of my stories. Gazing up at the stars was much more worth my time. It had gotten dark, however, and the family was off to bed, so I excused myself from the backpackers and walked with the family down the path to the house. When the night falls on villages up in the Dinaric Alps in Northern Albania where there’s little electricity, it is truly dark and the stars are amazing. The daughter brought the adult men, one by one, a bucket of water for them to wash their feet. I shared a room with one of the Italian/Albanian brothers and one of the little girls, them on the big bed and myself on a mattress on a fold-out frame. The other half of the Italian/Albanian family was in the other room on this floor and all of the hosts were on the floor above.
From my time being ill a few weeks before, however, I had not rid myself of a cough. It didn’t bother me during the day, but when I tried to sleep I couldn’t shake it. For the past few weeks I’d been waking up in the middle of the night, wheezing uncontrollably until I managed to sleep again. Up in the mountains where there’s not much to do and little electricity, people rise with the sun and go to bed when it’s dark, so everyone was in bed around 10pm. I awoke around 2am, wheezing away and fully awake. I was certain that with my coughing I was not only keeping myself awake, but also the people in my room, probably the rest of the house, and maybe even some other families in the village. There would probably be rumours spreading around the village the next day about the American coughing all night.
I was fully awake so I didn’t know what to do. Were I anywhere else I would have walked around somewhere, sat in another room and had some wine, read a little bit in my book, anything to occupy my mind for half an hour or so until I could sleep again. But the whole family was in the house and any step would have made the floorboards creak, everyone was probably awake because of me, and I had no flashlight so I didn’t seem to have any options.
I opened the little window and leaned out a bit to look at the stars. Had I had a flashlight I would have loved to go out to the field to just gaze at the sky. After a few minutes of this, however, my fold-out bed frame collapsed. I had had too much weight on the wrong part of the bed from leaning out of the window. So now after coughing my lungs out in the dead quiet house, my bed had come crashing down to the floor. I hurriedly put it back together and got under the blanket and pretended to be asleep, and saw the mother come into the room and make it to my bed. She pointed to the window and said No, No! Then she put her hands under her head and said Sleep, Sleep! Okay, okay. Tamam, tamam. I had been scolded for stargazing in my sleeplessness and couldn’t explain my insomnia and that I’d been coughing my lungs out for two weeks, that I wanted to go take a walk but couldn’t do that because then the whole house wouldn’t sleep either. I eventually fell into fitful sleep full of bizarre dreams.
The mother woke me up at 6:15. It was time to get up. The Italians were out the door and it was morning so I needed to have my breakfast and go as well. I had a hurried breakfast of eggs, bread, home-made fig jam and coffee, and headed to the store where I could pay for my room and board. This took a while, though, as the father was busy giving men in the store glasses of rakia. I paid and thanked my hosts, said goodbye to the backpackers and set out on the trail for Valbone.