Friday, November 21, 2014

No better time to Puke than once you Gheg

Will and I had planned to get up early on our last morning in Prizren, go for a run, and be on a bus for Albania by 10:00, 11:00 at the latest.

But the best-laid plans gang aft aglee.  The night before ended up lasting until 8:00 am—the infamous Mr. G also owns a bar, where the bartender, a curly-haired Albanian, plied us with free drinks all night. Needless to say, we weren’t going anywhere before noon.

We woke up at 2:30 pm and looked at each other, hair wild, eyes hung over, pillow creases in our cheeks. “I think we need to get out of Kosovo,” Will said. “Or we might just never leave.”

And so we forced ourselves into motion, packing up and finding a shared taxi that would go across the border and drop us in the town of Kukës.  From there, we planned to hitch to Peshkopi, where we would meet up with a PCV named Ansley and travel with her to her post of Pukë.

We asked the driver which direction for the road to Peshkopi, and he, busy roaring into his mobile in angry Shqip (the Albanian name for Albanian), waved us impatiently in the direction in question—or so we thought.  In fact he was merely waving us away, as 20 minutes of fruitless wandering later told us.

We were retracing our steps when a tall guy carrying a bag of groceries stopped us to ask, in American English, if we needed help.  Another passerby said something; our friend turned and responded in fluent Shqip before turning back to give us directions.  I smiled.  There is really only one kind of American who lives in random, out-of-the-way towns in places like northern Albania and speaks local languages, so I was fairly confident of the answer when I asked, “Are you by any chance a Peace Corps volunteer?”

He was. Marty, an English teacher, has been in Kukës for seven months.  We fell into PCV shop talk as he walked us towards the highway, which was when things started to get weird.

A car with half a pair of working headlights slowed as it passed us, and the driver called out to our group, offering us a ride to Peshkopi.

“Free?” Marty clarified. “No money?”

“Po, po,” the man agreed, hoisting our bags into the trunk.

I climbed in the back seat and the driver shut the door, leaning against it as he turned to Will, held out his hand, and demanded, “30 euro.”

Marty frowned and began arguing, and I reached for the handle to get out, sensing that this wouldn’t be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.  The door didn’t open from the inside.  I rapped on the window, starting to feel panicked, and Will opened it; the driver turned to block my exit, demanding money the whole time.  Marty tried to soothe him and mitigate the situation as Will and I got our bags back out of the trunk and walked away quickly.

The driver latched onto Marty, who very calmly pulled himself away and walked after us.  The driver followed, shouting the whole way, for a good city block, abandoning his car with doors open and keys in the ignition.  Finally he ran back, got into the car, and began following alongside us at a slow crawl, alternately wheedling and berating out the window.

Marty frowned. “I don’t like this. Here, let’s turn.” We ducked down a side street, only to find when we reached the next intersection that the driver had anticipated us.  His car was blocking the exit to the road, his one headlight glaring.

This was starting to get out of persistent-taxi-driver territory, and into persistent-organ-harvester land. Seriously creeped out, we began a circuitous route back into the center of town, turning frequently down alleys and side lanes.  Every so often the one-eyed car would find us, and we’d turn back or between buildings. 

“I’m not sure you’re making it to Peshkopi tonight,” Marty said finally, as we reached the well-lit and populated main street.  “You’re welcome to stay in my apartment tonight, and I’ll put you on a minibus for Pukë tomorrow morning.”

Extremely grateful that Marty had gone to buy groceries when he did, we opted to spend the night.  We went out for dinner and beers with Marty and his postmate Erich, a community development volunteer from Philly.  They were funny, articulate, and interesting, and we swapped war stories and complained about the challenges of working as a PCV (specific cultural tics differ, but some things are the same all over).

The next morning, after a bracing run around the Kukës lake and towards the base of a mountain range (did I mention how beautiful of a volunteer post Kukës is? It’s beautiful), we visited Erich’s workplace.  We were both impressed by how organized and motivated his host institution and counterparts were (he may read and disagree, but as in all things Peace Corps, it’s relative. Also, every volunteer’s service is different, did you know that?)

As though we were unaccompanied minors travelling through Gatwick with tags around our necks, Marty packed us safely onto the 1:00 minibus, or faragon, with Pukë on the windshield (told you, the jokes never get old).  We thanked Marty for saving our kidneys from the black market and set off on a beautiful 3-hour trip.  The road snaked back and forth by way of wide lateral switchbacks that made forward progress through the mountains slow at best, but afforded gorgeous views of valleys, rivers, and tiny, distant waterfalls.

Ain't Albania beautiful?

Tuesday Ansley, our lovely and accommodating PCV host, headed to work at the hospital. Will and I unsuccessfully tried to do laundry (synopsis: we flooded Ansley’s hallway and ended up trying to manually induce spin cycle before taking our sopping wet clothes to wring out by hand on the balcony.  We’ve been in Africa too long) then headed out for a hike.  Pukë is higher in the mountains than we had yet been, and the morning was overcast and grey.  We bundled heavily; the weather made the Communist-era concrete block architecture seem particularly appropriate. 

Those Soviet blocks, one must admit, are much prettier when painted with a pastel palette.

We hiked for about an hour under a constant drizzle, mostly through a well-maintained pine forest, before the sky opened up and a relentless downpour began.  We headed back towards town, but were quickly drenched through. 

A bearded and kindly shopkeeper took pity on us and drove us to a rural hani, or traditional Albanian guesthouse, with a restaurant.  The large wooded room, lined with bottles of wine and hung with strings of peppers and garlic, was about half full.  The diners were mostly groups of older men gathered around raki, wine, and food: plates of salad, sheep’s-milk cheese, grilled meat, sausages, cakes soaked in honey syrup.  We took the table closest to the stone fireplace and stripped our outer layers off, shivering violently.

We successfully ordered a bottle of wine, and not-so-successfully a late lunch; our Shqip was just as non-existent as the sharp-nosed waiter’s English.  We thought we had asked for Greek salad (olives, feta), white bean stew, and grilled meat.  What we got, 30 minutes and half a bottle of wine later, was a plate of Romaine lettuce, chicken noodle soup, and a tureen of roasted chestnuts.  Zero points for cross-cultural communication.

As we were finishing our strange meal, fingers blackened from shelling the fire-roasted and ashy nuts, a thunderstorm settled over the hani.  The power flickered and then went decidedly out.  This turned out to be a good thing, as the waiter’s equally sharp-nosed brother loaded logs onto the fire, stoking it into the kind of roaring blaze appropriate to the circumstances.  Will and I took advantage of the dark to spread our wet clothes out on the hearth, where they steamed dramatically.  Figuring we weren’t going anywhere for the duration of the storm, we ordered another bottle of wine and settled in to watch the lightning, in what was feeling increasingly like the smoky mead-hall in Beowulf, before Grendal’s son attacks.

A man who must have been at least 102 years old came shuffling in out of the raging elements.  He was evidently well-known; the pointy-faced brothers leapt to seat him by the fire, and men got up from their tables to come over a greet him, some pulling up seats and listening attentively as he grumbled and growled.

“He’s probably telling war stories,” Will whispered. “From when he helped kick out the Ottomans.” I collapsed into giggles.  If there was anyone who was likely to remember the Great War over the much more recent conflict, it was this man, the Original Albanian.

Eventually the rain let up, and the younger of the sibling waiters offered to give us a ride back into town.  We made our way to Ansley’s apartment, where we draped our still-wet clothes by a space heater and made dinner.  Ansley was a wonderful host, and we had a great evening, before heading out the next day on a faragon for Montenegro.

Told you.

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