The Challenge, Conundrum and (particularly pointy horns of the) Dilemma facing JourneytoValbona
NB: You are about to read the following brief statement of our ethical and philosophical crisis (which led to us letting our website shut down for most of 2022), because I’ve spent great chunks of the past month TORTURING myself with trying to write it out – volumes and screeds have been written (I mean, by ME) in the attempt to get to the bottom of the problem, in order to explain it succinctly. Brevity is not simple. (At least, not for me). Anyhow, having defined the problem, we offer certain solutions, but welcome your ‘feedback’ as well.
Okay. Here’s the problem.
Tourism is destructive.
(Ha! How’s that for brief?)
One of the biggest sources of destruction is that tourism as it has evolved here, so far, focusses on driving as many people as possible, for the least cost as possible, to each location as it become identified as “interesting.”
Thus the tiny, delicate and formerly pristine Shala River mini-delta, which used to be a haven of birdlife and an oasis of quiet natural beauty, now hosts something like 300 people a day – up to several thousand on a weekend. These people create trash, which is burned in situ, often flooding the whole place with really horrible smokes and smells – even while the thousands are eating lunch – as well as a sort of least common denominator of service: There are hastily constructed tikki bars blaring loud music, shovelling out consumption opportunities, processing people as fast as they can, and – this is perhaps the saddest thing of all – considering themselves successful for doing so.
And why is this a problem?
Here’s the thing. We think that visiting this area is important – potentially crucially important – for two reasons: 1) It offers the opportunity for local people to improve their economic prospects – which is desperately important. With 79% ‘unemployment’ (defined as cash-earning activities), but a government which is enthusiastically converting to the most egregious forms of rampant capitalist behavior, it’s more important than ever that local people get their hands on some money. In post-communist Albania you can no longer get decent medical care, education, or access to justice (among other things) unless you have disposable income. But why should foreign tourists care about that? At the same time 2) in a deeply troubled world, I believe that this region has old wisdom and a peculiar beauty and grace in manner of living which can provide much needed new ideas and experiences to people who want to visit. I mean: Tropoja is like Shangri-La. It is a different place, and can quite possibly change how you view reality. I know that sounds extreme, but it is also true. I’m the living proof. After 11 days here back in 2009, I upped sticks and moved here. And I’ve never regretted it. Life is better, often stranger, but always more magical here. I think.
Until now, Tropoja (which includes Valbona) has offered travellers the chance to experience unspoiled nature – the like of which I for one didn’t believe existed in Europe anymore, until I came and saw it. It also gave access to a culture and way of living which defies capitalist assumptions. I mean, people are generous and hospitable here – sometimes to an insane degree – because it is considered an honor, to be hospitable. And honor matters here. Where I come from, honor is an expendable luxury. For people here, for centuries honor was all that stood between them and chaos. It matters.
If I were going to wax philosophical (and maybe I am?) I might ask you to consider what honor means to you? How far would you go, in your everyday life, to act honorably? How often does your home culture ask you to consider honor as an important, or even ‘prioritized’ concept? And how often are your actions shaped by the question of honor?
Here in the North of Albania, we say Thank You by saying “Turitnera.” This is an abbreviation of Tu Rrit Ndera – or “Your honor rises (increases).” The response is “Qofshe me Nder.” Blessings with honor. In other words, the need for honor is drummed into a Tropojan’s head constantly, all day, by the commonest words that come out of their mouths.
And what does this have to do with tourism?
Well, one source of honor is “to protect the treasures of nature, as we found them, for the generations to come.” Here in Tropoja, we still believe – or did – that we should be caretakers. That while we pass through, we have no right to leave a trail of destruction behind us, that we have no right to gobble up the treasures of the present day, for our own personal benefit. That is a bedrock belief of the traditional culture.
It seems to me that that is NOT a bedrock belief of the cultures from which monied tourists are now descending on Albania. My own home country of the United States taught me that the more I could consume, the more successful and justified I was in a sense of self-worth.
And I guess that is what is most disturbing about modern Albania, and tourism as it is being developed. This sense – of honor and sustainability – is being lost. I suppose it was easier to maintain, back when the opportunities for destruction were fewer, but modern Tourism is converting poor and desperate Albanians to a generation of gobblers. So not only is nature being destroyed by the burden of mass tourism, so is traditional culture.
Does that mean you shouldn’t come? Does it mean that we shouldn’t help you?
Well no. Because there is still much beauty, and much beautiful difference here. But – and this is what we have been trying to face up to, over the last year – you won’t find it in common, publicized places.
So this is where, before we help you, we would ask you to consider: What do YOU want, from coming here?
Do you want to dip into cheap luxury which you couldn’t afford at home? Then, with all respect, no – I think you don’t need our help. You can find what you want on booking.com, in the already compromised places.
Do you want to leave home, find all the luxuries you expect from home, but simply enjoy a different view, a different backdrop? Then no. The luxuries of – let’s say Switzerland – are not the luxuries of Tropoja. You cannot, and should not, expect us to be Switzerland – you don’t need us.
Do you want to find yourself surrounded by familiar people – as in a hostel or hotel, where everyone else is from somewhere else, and you can talk comfortably with each other about your experience of the strange, constantly reinforcing that the strange hasn’t really touched you? Do you want to share tips about trip advisor? Do you expect to find that the locals are still quaint or strange, or funny and charming – but they aren’t YOU? Again, you don’t need us.
Do you expect to pass through people’s lives, without being touched by them, or without touching them, beyond the (least possible) cash you hand them? Then absolutely not, we have nothing to offer you. We do not believe in spiritual sanitation.
Or – are you what we’ve started calling a ‘traveller’ – as opposed to a tourist. Would you like to dive down into an experience that is different from anything you’ve ever known? Do you long to encounter the strange, the ancient, the different? Are you willing to put up with things that perhaps shake your sense of certainty, that are possibly uncomfortable? Are you prepared to be comforted by the unexpected?
Or, if all that sounds threatening, do you want to recapture the sense of wonder and curiosity you had as a child, when everything was new, and nothing was certain? Do you want to walk where you never thought you could, with nothing to convince you that you can, except evidence that others have, before you?
Would you like to be like Heidi, finding comfort in the strangely luxurious simplicity of her curmudgeonly grandfather’s life? Do you want to slow down, look up, and understand nature in a way you’ve never been able to, because you simply couldn’t GET to it? Look on a goat with love? Do you want to milk a cow, and make cheese from the milk, and then make byrek and then EAT it? Rich thick butter dripping over your fingers as you sit by a fire at night? Have you ever – like Beatrix Potter – had a conversation with a goose? These things are possible. (I know, I talk to geese every day. And boy, are they bossy. But it’s quite clear what they’re saying.) Would you like to see the stars, fresh and bright and strewn across the sky, as no one has for years, and fall asleep – still trying to stay awake – under their cool and distant beauty?
Is your idea of a good time, to find yourself in a distant mountain hut, being welcomed by a family with very few teeth, and less furniture, who are determined to feed you and seem infinitely fascinated by you? Except that – just when you think you’ve realized that these people are some sort of throwback savages – you manage to understand that the daughter of the house is bizarrely determined to study microbiology in London?
Are you comfortable with silence? Have you ever had the chance to be? Do you want to wake up in the morning, to push aside the door, and look out on a quietness and view you had no idea still existed? Do you want to wake up in Eden?
Well THAT we can help you with. And very glad too, as well.
We only ask a few things.
Consider paying your hosts for the value of your experience, not the value of your consumption. The chances are that these people will be asking very little – quite possibly nothing. Almost certainly nothing compared to what the experience would cost elsewhere. But if you don’t value them, it won’t be long before they devalue themselves.
Be open to creating relationships. If, as we are willing to gamble, you have life changing experiences, be open to creating the kinds of friendships with your hosts (human or other) that can change lives. Money isn’t everything. Friendship and love are.
Remember that your hosts are welcoming you into their homes from a sense of honor. Their pride is based on making you as comfortable as they can, giving you whatever they can. Be appreciative. Don’t judge. Learn the humble art of gratitude. Understand that what you are given is what there is to give. It doesn’t matter what you expected. Consider learning to be similarly generous.
Come back. After half a century of isolation, Albania – the original, the quixotic, the beautiful – the unspoiled – is being ensnared in the coils of the modern world. She is innocent and unprepared. She needs friends, who love her for what she is, what she has, and what she offers. She needs love and encouragement to remain herself. And we need her. To remind us of who we have been, and to encourage us in who we could be, who we might become. A better, more natural, more honorable, possibly less demanding, but certainly happier, people.