I’m just waking up at 3 am, back at Freddy’s Hostel in Tirana. In an hour I have to get up to meet Eri and catch the minibus up to Bajrum Curri and then on to Valbona.
You would think that after 24 hours of traveling, involving four airports, no sleep for 24 hours before that, and the news that all of my luggage including the carry on bag I was convinced to check was left behind in Munich (“the plane was too heavy, so 45 bags were left behind”) I might be in a disgruntled state, but no such thing.
Over Albania, the plane descended, breaking through the clouds just in time to catch the last glimpse of the Adriatic, then flying south over the coastline before turning east to land in Tirana. Having just left Munich, where the magical plane window view showed neat flat fields interspersed with appealingly small red-roofed towns stretching away as far as I could see, I was pleased to notice how much even more beautiful Albania looks to me, seen from above – precise green mountains, rivers winding through, a strange pea green lake weirdly the shape of a spreadeagled man, the spreading plains along the coast. It must be subjective, but whereas the views from the windows of other planes usually tend to make me uncomfortably aware of how unfamiliar the earth really is – the scale is wrong, Is the world really so flat? Do the sparkling chains of nighttime human lights really looks so much like some sort of strange (if beautiful) incrustation that looks vaguely itchy? – Albania looks to me much more like a fairy tale land full of all the good and beautiful things that you would put into a fairy tale kingdom if you were going to make it up – the shape of the land is varied, there is too much to look at and all of it beautiful (though since you can see at least one mining operation and an electrical plant, this must be subjective, and highly, at that!), and it does look like you could float down and set off adventuring immediately, which in our case, of course, we do.
Already, on the plane, Albania is around me. I have noticed several times now an interesting phenomenon. There is of course a much remarked sameness about airports worldwide, but there is also a sameness about travelers. We all maintain, to great extent, a uniform blankness. A sort of shared pretense that no one else is in the building with us. We push through masses of people with our eyes focused on some vague horizon, and once we sit down at the gate to wait, we politely ignore each others’ existence. We close our eyes (if we are me) and pretend to go to sleep. But every time I arrive at a gate and wait for a flight to Tirana, this is wonderfully different. I rush up to the gate at Munich, my previous flight having been delayed. Some four other groups of travelers are sitting around an otherwise suspiciously abandoned gate. There is no helpful monitor with flight information, no uniformed hostess. I look at two old men and raise my eyebrows. They, naturally, are looking at me (I exist!). They look back, shrug, smile reassuringly and wave me towards a seat. We sit. It isn’t that people are pushy or interfering, it’s just that there’s no attempt to pretend that each other doesn’t exist. Of course, a last minute announcement tells us we’re at the wrong gate (all of us!), so we immediately jump up in a mass, stare at each other, reassure each other that what the lady said was “19” and in my baby Albania I say “I am going. I say “WAIT!”” and one of the men laughs and gestures I should rush off, so I do. Once on the plane, we late arrivals are thrown into the half-empty back, and we’re off. And it’s just like being on a minibus. Chatter and banter are thrown around the back of the plane, Albanians are peering over seat backs, laughing and teasing each other. I lean back and shut my eyes, happy, and smile at the pair sitting across the aisle next to me. A young man with a big rhinestone earring has been seated next to a craggy-faced old man, who immediately begins to find out where the boy is from, what languages he can speak, teases him gently and looks across at me and grins. I grin back and he nods happily, and I go to sleep. When the stewardess eventually shakes me awake which I respond to with a jolted “OhSorry!” there’s a burst of laughter around the back of the plane, and when I look at them all and laugh too, there is much delight. “She’s laughing!” one old man points out delighted, and nods approvingly “I’m funny, no? Good!” he says.
The airport at Tirana is an airy glass box, small but lofty, and we all file in under an enormous yellow banner which reads “Welcome to the Land of the Eagles!” I am happy, even though I eventually discover (which I’ve fatalistically expected all the way from New York) that all of my bags, all of them, everything!, have been left in the airport in Munich. I have what I stand up in, a surveyor’s wheel, a large roll of drafting paper, and a totebag with two laptops in it, a first edition copy of The Peaks of Shala, and whatever else I happen to have in my pockets. After a long wait in a little office with two harassed officials, it’s my turn to approach the desk. The little bald man whose shoulders are hunched up to his ears protectively peers at me with the same sort of mildly panicky animosity with which a corned cat might look at you. I smile, shrug. Hope lights in his eyes. I tell him my problem, and that I am leaving at five am to go on to Tropoja, so I how can I come back for the bags. I give him my best “I am very brave but a little helpless and what ever will become of me?” look, still smiling. He sits a little taller. “Then we will deliver them to you in Tropoja” he says firmly. I smile gratefully and crouch down next to his desk, to watch what he types in the computer. “What is the address?” he begins. “Oh,” I say, and look apologetic, “Well, there isn’t really one. It’s about 23 kilometers down the road from Bajrum Curri to Valbona, a little hotel called Rilindja.” His fingers pause over the keyboard, he looks down at me crouched next to him, peering up hopefully. He nods and solemnly types “Hotel Rilindja, Rruga nga Bajrum Curri ne Valbona” I am chirping along as he types, delighted that my knowledge of Albania prepositions covers this (Hotel, road from B.C. to Valbona). “And the telephone?” he asks. My face falls again “Well, there is one, but you may have to call for days and days before you get through . . .” Again the pause, and then he manfully types in Alfred’s phone number from my cell phone. Somehow, in spite of the ridiculousness of all this (the man is in fact promising to have someone drive 8 hours through largely impassable, snowbound and precipitous dirt roads to an unfindable and uncontactable destination, on New Years Eve, and only I know there’s actually no one AT the hotel, which means I will have to light a fire in the fireplace in the kitchen and sit there until someone shows up, or I suppose leave a note on the door instructing the driver to drive on to the Dunishe farmhouses further down the road, along an unmarked dirt turnoff), I do believe my bags will arrive (eventually?) . . . it’s Albania, where the more ridiculous something seems, the more plausible, somehow, and where humor is what makes things work. In short, I’ve come home again!
I must go shower now. Yesterday evening Eri and I walked to the minibus station to book seats on whatever furgon to Bajrum Curri we could find. Ironically enough, the bus which pulled in turned out to be driven by the exact same man who drove me to Bajrum Curri the very first time I traveled, and we recognized each other with delight and much warm handshaking, and exclaiming on my side about the coincidence. He’s coming Freddy’s to pick us up, so I have to be ready. More soon!