This is Thethi (pronounce with English th) in the Albanian Alpes and it could easily be one of the most secluded places I’ve ever been to. No restaurants, no shops, not even to buy souvenirs or postcards, and … NO TRAFFIC …
How come? Infrastructure! This is a bridge!
How do you get to a place like that?
Once you have made your booking at a B&B-agriturism-homestay you get contacted (e-mailed, whatsapped) by someone who lets you know that he might be about the only person who can take you to Thethi from the town of Shkoder (for the unalbanian price of 40 €), he has got a four-wheel-drive whereas normal cabs either won’t go there at all or will charge more than twice as much (plus you might have to pay for a broken axle). Whatever the price, you better believe it and make a reservation.
The driver is punctual at the meeting point in Shkoder, except then he asks you, could we give a lift to a friend of his? Now, as a traveller in a “struggling” country you can’t be tight, you gotta be generous. Okay, we go and get his friend, who says he wants to take his son, too, but they need some time to get ready. Okay fine, we’re on holiday, we are not in a hurry, we want to get to know the people … The driver invites us to a coffee. We start chatting: he has two little daughters, his wife, he tells us, speaks Italian much better than him. She needs it for her work, telemarketing. Cool, I think and then it dawns on me, is she one of those persons that phone us at any time of day to sell whatever … with us trying very hard not to shut her up too rudely? … The guy says, her job is not nice because the people she calls don’t like that and yell at her and offend her … She works 4 hours a day and earns 100€ a month. The downside of capitalism, I comment but our driver says, in capitalism, if you don’t like it you quit, under Enver Hoxha’s communism you had to do the job you were told to.
We go and pick up the other passenger and his son, we get to know the family, the women stay home. It turns out another two passenger friends are coming along ,too. It’s getting crowded. In town we stop a couple of times to pick up some tomatoes and other veggies, two bottles with … water … Sure, I think, you can’t travel without water. We leave the town two hours late. In the mountains the road becomes a narrow, untarred, rough lane, rocks on one side, precipice on the other. After having lost so much time waiting in Shkoder, now the driver doesn’t lose a second. I concentrate on the view.
Somewhere we stop and get loaded onto another 4-wheel-drive. Different car, different driver, no explanation in a language that we understand. Off we go, and … stop again, the boy runs back to the other car, they have forgotten their bottles. “Oh your water,” I say in my naivety. Everybody laughs. They open one of the bottles and make me smell it. It’s Raki and they start drinking (maybe to forget the precipice on one side and the rocks on the other). The driver doesn’t drink, he is busy on his cell phone, conscientiously keeping one hand on the steering wheel (thank God). Seatbelts aren’t working. Does the word “unrelaxed” exist? I start chatting with the boy who studies English and German at school. For the moment he prefers English.
One of my fears materializes when a car comes from the opposite direction. To make it clear that he won’t yield our driver accelerates a little and comes to a halt only half an inch away from the other vehicle. Both drivers start shouting at each other. The rule would be, the other car, coming uphill, should recede. Never mind the rules, they shout, with their heads bent forward like gamecocks, our driver turns the engine off.
Me: “Oh take it easy, calm down” in Italian. The raki drinking guy behind me whose Italian seems to be improving after a couple of gulps, laughs: “Don’t worry, they are colleagues.”
Our driver, to show he has no intention to solve the issue, takes a pack of cigarettes, gets off the car, the other driver, too, they go back up the road where we have come from. They won’t fight, I think, the road is far too narrow for that. In the end it’s our driver who gives in (I mean, is that so difficult to be a wise man instead of being a fool?)
Later, when we pass by a burnt down house, the boy tells me that the family that lived there had quarrelled with another family who then decided to torch their foes’ house and even their car in the city (Shkoder) and finally the family who lost the battle had to leave the area. “Woow,” I think, having read about feuds and blood feuds and never believing they could still be in practice. No problems for tourists as long as they keep clear of quarrels between locals.
We get to our destination.
This is the place where you get: best breakfast, best lunch, best dinner. Best byrek (a pie stuffed with veggies and feta cheese), chicken drumsticks so big you think they were not just free-range they were athletes. All topped off with fresh onions, tomatoes, tzatziki and always oven-fresh bread. The landlady, never to be seen without her babushka head-kerchief, is boss. She does the cooking, housekeeping, accounting. Her husband comes in from the fields in the evening, sticks his pitchfork into a flowerbed and disappears. She speaks Albanian and employs two students from Durres who speak the other languages. The girl has learnt Italian just by watching tv from her childhood days onwards (good news for foreign language teachers!). Just chatting we tell her how much we paid for the trip to Thethi. She tells the landlady, an animated discussion follows, they phone someone and the argument continues (heating up even) on the phone. In the end we are informed that on our way back we are going to pay 20€. That’s ok.
There is a certificate hanging on the dining room wall, it says our landlady’s name and the only other words I understand are “United Nations and Women Empowerment”. They have done a pretty good job here.
Magic Thethi: lonesome walks
Who the h.ll is this lonesome traveler? The Italian again? (I suppose you are all familiar with “Where the hell is Matt?” No? see YouTube)
On those lonesome hikes you’ll meet bears, wolves and lynx, I thought, but no! These are goats, of the kind that at a certain hour they just gather together and go home (tame, domestic, unexciting), nicely camouflaged among the rocks.
And of course, where would mankind be without …
… rubble dumped in the wild! On the right: hundreds of goat skins (no hiding place for the poor beasts!), back left: pillbox peeping out from the rocks, back right: the Italian tourist (probably musing about what the heck could have caused the invasion paranoia of Albania’s one time leader).
On our way back I have the occasion to take pictures along the road.
Not an omen:
This is a slope, not a precipice
The travelers are: an Albanian-Kosovarian from Switzerland who speaks Albanian (and English and almost all the Swiss languages, on the picture talking to the driver) and his Swiss girlfriend (white trousers) who speaks German among many other languages, a young couple from Novosibirsk (next to the vehicle), their English is very good and the girl understands German, too (I’m so happy these kids can travel nowadays like everybody else), an Italian who understands a couple of languages except Albanian, an Albanian driver (striped t-shirt) who understands and speaks Albanian and my humble self who gets a bit mixed up talking to all of them except for the Albanian-only speaking driver …
Where the h.ll is the Italian?
The Swiss lady tells me that the Germans (GIZ German Society for International Cooperation) are constructing the road to Thethi now. That’s a good idea, development comes with better infrastructure and …
… of course, Germans don’t like bad roads.