Day 146 – Riders on the Storm
Lungs of the South
The click-clack of our horse’s hooves is the soundtrack to our days. We passed through the Fir of Hotovë-Dangelli National Park, known as the “Lungs of the South,” due to the density of fir trees inside the park. The road is suitable for 4x4s but we didn’t see even one vehicle for two days. Occasionally we heard a shepherd yelling, but only once did we see the human associated with this noise; he was perched on the peaks of a mountain far above, a blurry form of black suit, holding a black umbrella watching over his flock. The villages we pass through rarely have cafes, and do not have markets. The residents are almost entirely self-sufficient, making their own bread, growing and raising their own food. The terrain is an anomaly: it is harsh, rocky and desert-like, but there are many blocks of dense pine forests, dotting the mountainsides. In these areas, water is plentiful but little grass grows.
At the edge of the park is the village of Frasher. From here hail the three Frasher brother, famous for their role in liberating Albania from the Ottoman Empire. At the center of town is their home, now a derelict museum. Today less than thirty families remain, the rest of the houses stand crumbling as they are swallowed up by the brush.
The morning we left Frasher we were accompanied by a shepherd named Thomas. We had accidentally set up camp on his hay field the night before, which he explained in the nicest way possible, seemingly sorry that his hay field was imposing on our campsite and not the other way around. We moved camp and eventually joined him for dinner. In his home while his wife prepared the meal, we were shown his photo collection which consisted of about eighty weathered photographs of him and his family. As the years dragged on the general state of the town in the background withered, and when he choked up at a photo of his grandmother, long dead, we choked up too.
Griva led our herd up the mountain path leaving the village. Since we began her stride has become powerful and forward; she has accepted the role of the leader within our herd. We follow Thomas and his flock towards a giant wall of rock. As we approached, we saw that the wall had a split about thirty meters wide, where a river and the road snaked through. Behind the wall was a beautiful green plateau, where Thomas intended to water and graze his sheep. We filled up our bottles with the cool crisp water and shook his hand, crossing the mountaintop into a new range of valleys and mountains. Unfolding before us was a landscape of stark contrast to the grey hillsides of Hotovë; everything was leafy green and tall elm forests blanketed the land as far as we could see.
Hours later we rode into the town of Çlirim, a thunderstorm rolling in behind us. No sooner had we attached the horses under some leafy trees did the deluge begin. Fat drops of rain thumped on the tin roof of the town’s café where we took refuge. The sky fell out, and for a half hour we all huddled under our respective shelters, watching the water rush past, creeping higher and threatening to invade the café.
Eventually the rain let up and the café owner’s wife appeared with a meal for us. Bread, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh butter, all homemade or homegrown.
“There is no store or restaurant here anymore. This is for you.”
Thanking her and scarfing it down, we turned our attention to finding somewhere to set up the horses and make camp for the night. Outside the sky had cleared, with a dewy sunset over the reservoir and the pine forest that bordered town. The weather was fine for leaving the horses out to graze but the ground wasn’t great for making camp.
Twenty minutes later, with the horses cooled out and comfy in a grassy field, we scouted around for somewhere to camp within view of the horses. Unfortunately, we’d given the horses the best swath of land. Just next door stood the abandoned school, dry but in a deep state of disrepair. A villager saw us snooping around and excitedly pulled us to the police station. He unlocked the door and showed us where we could settle in. The building was out of use as well, but in better shape than the school. He helped us move all our gear inside and bid us good night. Too tired to really appreciate the gesture, we crawled into our sleeping bags and slept.
Not long after a truck rumbled past the building, its weight so heavy the building shook. This woke me up enough that I decided to go out and check the horses.
Outside the door stood a crowd of twenty-five people, presumably the entire village. As I walked into the street, a woman rushed to me, grabbing me by the hand and in perfect French began to ask all kind of questions about our trip.
“What brought you to Albania? Do you like it? We are a poor people but we do our best. The man should not have put you in the empty building, you must come sleep in my home. What do you need? What can we give you?”
In the midst of this huge outpouring of hospitality, she also managed to explain that the truck that woke us up was actually AN EARTHQUAKE! Naturally, this caught my attention – why wasn’t it the first thing said?! This is why the whole town was in the street at eleven pm: protocol.
“Should we be worried?”
“Oh no, no, just protocol. You both must be very tired, don’t worry. You can sleep. But before you sleep – I am so ashamed you’re sleeping in this empty building, you will be more comfortable in my home, please come.”
“No, it’s ok! We’re already settled in and sleeping, please, don’t worry. We’re thankful to be inside!”
“No this is not enough. You will come for breakfast tomorrow.”
Still a bit concerned about the earthquakes, I accepted and excused myself for the evening. The rest of the night I dreamed of rumbling trucks and people talking in the streets.
In the morning, we were ushered up to Vjollca’s neighbor’s home, where an enormous breakfast awaited us. We were expected to eat all of it – plates of fruit, cheese, eggs, sausages, fresh bread and jam, coffee and glasses of raki. Our hosts for charming, funny, kind and attentive. We were already sad to leave such a welcoming place when Vjollca said something that we will never forget and speaks to how deeply Albanians care for their guests:
“Ashley, you must forgive us for being tired this morning. There were more tremors last night and everyone was outside from 2 am until sunrise.”
“What?! Why didn’t you wake us?”
“We could never! You were very tired and needed to sleep. We sat close to you, so we could have woken you if we had to.”
They had sat vigil outside the police station through the wee hours of the morning while we slept through the tremors, and then, since they were up, had prepared a breakfast feast for us to enjoy.
As we travel through Albania, we are daily awestruck by the stunning countryside and the pristine state of the natural environment. But we are also daily awestruck by stories like this one, where the people open their hearts and their homes without hesitation to welcome us.