July 20, 2008

Progradec, Albania

Saying goodbye to my new family and friends in Greece wasn’t easy, but the dropping Dollar and rising Euro had me fantasizing about my purchasing power with the more affordable Albanian Leke, and so, in the blazing summer heat, I boarded a bus at 2:00 p.m headed for Progradec, a small Balkan town on the banks of Lake Ochrid about 13 hours North of Athens. Now, if you did the math from the sentence above, then you would know that I arrived in Progradec at 3:00 in the morning. What the math won’t tell you is that I arrived at 3:00 in the morning on a dirt road with not a taxi in sight or any people on the streets. Just me, a few stray dogs, and some distant music – Welcome to Albania!
Luckily, I heard someone call to me from a balcony and realized there was a small “hotel” sign attached to the building. The voices belonged to two off-duty soldiers who were vacationing on the lake for the weekend and were rather confused and/or amused when they saw a bus stop and a girl with a pack get off and just stand there not quite sure of which direction to move toward. There was a considerable language barrier but, when one of them came down to retrieve me and tell me that I was “tardy”, I understood that to mean – “we are taking you off the streets at this hour.” And when it looked as though my only option was spending the night in a room with two Albanian soldiers, the McGyver in me came out and I made sure to talk really, really loud, waking some other guests and finally the hotel owner, where I was led to my own private room with my own private key where all I could do was practice my new Greek by excitedly exclaiming “Bravo!”
Lake Ohrid straddles two countries – Albania to the West and The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia to the East and has a peaceful, super-local vibe that attracts many weekenders from Tirana and absolutely none, except me, from New York. I arrived on a Sunday and after I walked down the dirt road I was dropped off on, I was able to see how Albanians spend their leisure time; old men in derby hats play dominos in large groups on benches in the park, families with small children rest and play under umbrellas near the water, teenagers smoke cigarettes next to parked cars playing music and adults eat the location specific fish of the lake, Koran (very tasty), and drink beer at small restaurants for hours. I chanced upon three nice guys from Tirana doing just that, eating and lounging, and we decided after my obvious isolation at the neighboring table to join forces and spend the rest of the day together. The Albanian hospitality was in full swing and I had instantly gained three new “bodyguards” who adopted me, since they were all related, as their token sister and made sure that anything I wanted or needed was taken care of – and I didn’t want or need for much; just some simple conversation, a view of the mountains, new friendships, and, well, perhaps a beer.
Leaving Progradec for Tirana on the minibus with one of my new friends in tow, watching as the small town faded into farmland on winding mountain roads, I thought about how much I am starting to trust the unknown. The fact that I could arrive in a small Albanian town at 3 a.m with no reservations and 48 hours later be on my way to being hand delivered in safety to the next destination is a measure of the amount of human kindness that still exists on all corners of the earth.

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