What the Heck is the Point of this Website?
The JourneytoValbona.com which you are now reading (!) is the second iteration of a website which started in 2009, when Alfred Selimaj, looking up from a bowl of cheese and butter soup at his mother’s kitchen table, said to me “I think we need a website.” Without looking up I said “probably!” (Sose, his mother, made really good cheese soup.) “Can you do that?” “Yup.” By which I really meant that I could go home and bully my god-son into building one, and then fill it up with a lot of text which, having had only 11 days experience of the place, I was not really terribly qualified to write.
Over the next 8 years, as l continued to learn more and more about Valbona and Tropoja and Albania (though sadly not much about website design), I cheerfully slapped another page onto the site pretty much every time I thought of something. I did NOT spend a lot of time going back and re-editing older content. The site grew. And sprawled. And twisted back on itself. It became frankly a wee bit too “organic.” Even I couldn’t find things on it. People used to write to me and say “I read somewhere on the site . . .” and I would have to answer “Really? I wrote that?” Ugh!
At the same time, it was always just a labor of love. From the beginning, Alfred said “It should be for all Valbona, not just my businesses.” So although it started out from Quku i Valbones, it always contained aspects of do-gooding, and spreading business around. Not of course in any terribly organized way. In 2010 I received 10 emails. That was exciting! In 2015 I got suspicious of the amount of time it was taking me to answer emails every day (including questions like “What is the fastest way to get from Athens to Podgorica?” – as if I would know?!), so I added up the emails for that year (I never delete anything, on the “you-never-know” principle). I think I got to roughly 10,000, though what with gmail’s “conversation threads” it’s a bit hard to be exact. In 2017 my friend Emmanuel Malaj (best IT person in Northern Albania – easily) did some sort of analytics-thingie, and announced that the website was receiving 12,000 hits per month. Eeee! No wonder I was finding it hard to keep up with all the correspondence it generated!
At the same time, I was realizing that it was time to grow up and get my own home. Many people over the years got the impression that the hotel(s) in Valbona belonged to me. But in fact I had been just cheerfully “helping out” for 7 years, and Alfred very sweetly fed and housed me. But how on earth would I support myself? And – a more interesting question – if I wasn’t devoting myself to Alfred’s businesses 24/7, what WOULD I do with myself? The answer is probably a bit obvious. Devote myself to all of the 29 other guesthouses in Valbona as well, and while I’m at it, why stop there? There’s all of Tropoja to look after, really, if you think about it fairly.
At which point, even I can see that it isn’t really practical to answer some exponential increase on 12,000 emails every month for free. Nor, I expect, would anyone else expect it of me. Er, do you?
Or, put another, slightly less flippant way: Valbona Valley is a very special place. Tropoja, the district in which it’s located is equally magical, and at this point even more challenged. The people here are wonderful, and today, in 2018, they are struggling not only with the historic challenges of living in one of the poorest and harshest – if beautiful – environments in Europe, but with the added challenges of unchecked threats from quick-profit development schemes made possible by the very small improvements in infrastructure which have not yet benefitted the average person very much, but which have successfully stripped away their protective isolation.
The way I see it, the only hope for the area – and even I can see that it’s a faint hope – is a modest but rapid increase in the economic well-being of the people. If they can advance enough to feel that they – that we – have choices, before too much is destroyed, if in one quick generation they are able to see the future before they’ve forgotten the past, then they can and will protect this place.
And the solution to that is tourism.
This is why the new mission of JourneytoValbona, along with the small but often-respected non-profit we somehow managed to spawn along the way, “TOKA: The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps,” is to find new and sustainable ways to help every person in Tropoja to benefit modestly from Tourism. And yes, this is a much more ambitious project than just making one successful business. But then again, there’s only 20,000 people here – it can’t be that hard.
And this is where you come in. We are so happy you are interested in visiting. Please use this website as best you need to. You ought to be able to find all the information you need, to plan the kind of trip you’d like to have. We’ve made no attempt to limit your access, or coerce you into using our paid services (like that booking.com thing, where you can’t figure out how to contact the guesthouse yourself – I hate that!). The most important thing for us is that you come and stay. Get to know the place and the people. You might be the rare exception, but after 10 years here, I can tell you that most people fall in love with the place, as well they might. And once that tie is forged? Anything can happen.
For now, it’s still me (and the angelic Emmanuel who built this whole site for FREE) running it all, but if it works, it will obviously quickly become too much for one person to deal with, at which point if the site can realize a modest profit, it can then employ one, or even a few!, of the lovely young people who struggle to get an education here, and then can’t find a job. So, if you like to use any of our paid services, or even just make a donation, I thought you ought to know where it’s going.
And THAT, in its own higglity-pigglity way, is what this website is trying to do.
(Thank you for listening!)
Or to, put it another way, when I first moved here, one of the first books I happened to read was “Lost Horizon” by John Hilton. Having discovered my own Shangri-la, I found the words of the High Lama, when explaining why they kept so hidden, oddly apropos:
“We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.”
Well, we’ve lost the chance for Neglect. So now we’re gunning for Mercy.