Silk Road 5


mi ruta de la seda » 2010 » May

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2010

05.31

When an Albanian greets you feel his strong hand of thick fingers shaking your hand. In other places maybe you leave and nobody has shaken your hand. In Albania every day someone comes to say hello, someone wants to say “hi”, “how are you” or just being sure you don’t need any help. This is why I leave the country knowing what an Albanian shake of the hand feels like.

That extreme hospitality may come from the Kanun, an ancient set of rules on how to behave that in ancient time placed a lot of importance on guests. Because Albania is an ancient race, fairly remote, coming from the Illyrians, maybe they were the first Europeans. That’s how their language is, remote as it’s mountains. It surprises that we are similar to them, even by our standards it could be said that they are backwards, but that’s a good thing and a bad thing. We don’t have that hospitality, we have become more advanced, independent, we share less and we are more egoistical, when somebody talks to us we think they want something.

In one of those furgons I learned that if you have a hiccup it means that someone is thinking of you.

Jeff, an English guy I met near Theth was cooking outside at night on his burner while camping that night, someone from the village saw him and invited him to come to his place to sleep. In Spain if they see you they’ll try to get you out of there or just call police directly.

 

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It’s a country that still suffers absurdly from the Enver Hoxha regime but also there are many differences, the X5, Cayannes and even Ferraris that you see in the cities are a big contrast to the countryside where the fields are ploughed with horses. During communist times people were not allowed to buy a car so now they drive even to go for bread similar to 18 year olds who have just got their licence.

Enver Hoxha left the country in a weird state. Imagine that any of you or the people you know would have the power and the craziness to dump on a country your restlessness, fears, admirations and frustrations. But that’s what happens to a country under a dictatorship. The personality of a person envelopes the country and the reaction of the people to the imposition!

Capitalism arrived with extreme force. In 1997 the financial system collapsed with pyramid investment like Madoff in the US or in Spain with Forum Filatélico or as in Ireland with Seanie Fitzpatrick and Anglo Irish Bank! Maybe the west could have learned a lesson from the Albanian crisis if we had paid attention.

But capitalism has brought some good things as well, people that visited Albania a few years ago remember the noise of generators in the afternoons, that doesn’t exist any more or the cyber cafés where all the screens now have Facebook, wouldn’t work. Somewhere has to be the 500 million users of the site.

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The market in Korca was great, you can buy a lot of cassettes…. Also nearby here a man was lighting up charcoal with a hair drier.

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A rural society but who isn’t surprised by the countryside people in your own country? However young girls dress like Lady Gaga and the men like men in Spain, a jacket maybe a tie, maybe a jumper, but for sure the collar and cuffs worn out.

 

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A really unique place to play. In Roman times Albania was highly important as it’s the closest place to the Italic peninsula. From Durres was the “Via Egnatia”, a merchant route direct to Thessaloniki and Istanbul, first grand stop of the silk.

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Some “dress code” in the mosque. However the Becktaism is a variant of Islam that is quite relaxed, it is a similar style to Christianity as practiced in western countries. It’s widely practiced in Albania. On the other hand, in some traditional places they still have arranged marriages. [Correction provided by Erion Elmasllari that have found the blog. The sighn says “Do not kiss the stone. God does not permit adoration of stones and walls” ]

“Do not kiss the stone.
God does not permit adoration of stones and walls”

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Promise, the last Theth picture.

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Edi Rama, the one who painted the buildings, lost the last elections and now he’s protesting in the middle of the city claiming a re-count of the votes is required. Part of the way to democracy, the right to protest.

 

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This is what an Othodox cathedral looks like.

 

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It is very surprising how safe the country is.

Something amazingly surprising is that they say “yes” like Indians do, moving the head similar to when we say no but in a wobilly way. It’s very confusing. I heard it once called the “the 8”.  Ana and me have been practicing, but we are horrible doing it.

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A less important handicap, the roads are so abrupt that even with a full windscreen the blue bags that the sick people request would keep flying through the bus.

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A very popular cheese from the north. Other traditional dishes are liver, heart, tongue. In my memory will remain that salad of spicy beans. There are a lot of Mediterranean products, melon and ham are eaten.

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The great thing of sleeping in a 3 Euro place is the price, the bad is that you sleep in a room in such a state.

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I like communist statues; dynamic, warriorish, impressive. The stain in the lens is now clean.

Those who ask me for a suggestion on where to go! Until now the most interesting I’ve found is Bosnia Herzegovina and Albania as they are the places that are going to change more and seeing how they are now is extremely interesting.

This maybe a dangerous recommendation, not everybody should come here. One must come with no pretensions, the travelers’ that come here are not demanding. The light may go, water can stop running or the bus may never run, and in the end this is good. If we get what we have at home the country changes and it would stop being interesting. Please if you come take this into account.

I´m finally been able to leave Albania, I loved it, I was trapped but now I’m in Greece seeing things that are surprising me, but before telling you about Greece I have to post a video of something very special I did with Ana on our last day.

Soon more about the trip.

Fernando

2010

05.26

This part of the trip starts with a luxurious companion! My sister Ana! Travelling with people is not easy, if you go on a tour and the bus takes you to every place, it’s OK, otherwise making the 100 daily decisions and having everybody happy is rare. I have only 4 people I can travel 100% fine with, people I’d go to the end of the world with, so having Ana here is just amazing.

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Ana having a Burek, a pastry filled up with cheese, spinach, meat.. they are everywhere in the Balkans, in each country  a bit different, the ones in Albania are very delicate mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

We started in Tirana, Ana arrived to the Mother Theresa of Calcutta airport who was not christened Theresa and was not from Calcutta! The city with is chaos, it’s very pleasant and it has a few things to see in the city and the Blloku neighbourhood has lot’s of cosy cafes, varied restaurants, ultra modern bars and Ibiza style discos.

As a note Blloku was restricted during communist years, it was only the elite were granted access, where Enver used to live.

Outside of the centre there are many streets without a name, about 70%. This is quite a big problem for progress, how do you send a fine, a notification from court, the annual school report, information campaigns, catalogues that are sent from companies to retailers and another 1000 other things, not being able to get or send post is a pain in the ass. Fortunately now they are working on it, however if you go to Tirana ensure you bring a printed map of where your hotel is.

Downtown a lot of English is spoken, there are a lot of companies that are beginning to consider Albania as a potential market, Italy are doing a modern style invasion with their products but also there are a lot of NGOs, one night I met by coincidence one of the only four Spanish guys that are working in the city, I met him in a bar with a soccer table, something very Spanish.

Tirana is a city that is evolving fast but still has a long way to go. It has to be the power house for a country with 16% unemployment and according to the statistics there is 25% living below the poverty line, however Tirana and Albania as a whole is not Ethiopia and everywhere you can find whatever commodity you need. Even in Tirana you also see skyscrapers being built, colourful Smart cars and teenagers with braces in their smiles and also there are some beggars on the street.

 

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Skanderbeg square as it’s being totally renovated. Skanderbeg is still today the national hero, in the 15th century he defeated thousands of Turks not once but three times having a smaller army than them. They still talk about him with respect and admiration.

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Communist mural in Skanderbeg Square. Look at the woman in the middle!!

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Inside Ethem Beg mosque. The guy hovering the carpet went out of my view so I couldn’t photograph him. As a communist country athiesm was very much promoted, there was even an athiest museum highlighting the advantages of having no religion. Albania even declared itself athiest officially, the only country that has ever done it.

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UFO university… what was the founder thinking of!

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This kind of building was an designed Enver Hoxha’s daughter in law. Even it’s called the piramid it has the shape of the eagle as in the flag but this can only be seen from the air.

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On the way to the south a stop to eat, the best part of the meal, this kind of stew done in the oven with greens and cheese.

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Men playing domino, in any park, anywhere you find them like that for hours.

We arrived to Durres, a recommended spot in all the guide books, a place where we left horrified. It’s the typical coastal city, disorganized, concrete architecture, dirty beaches and over polluted sea. It might be interesting if you just want to sunbath not looking at the water and the going area with tons of bars to drink as much as you can, otherwise not. We don’t recommend it.

We went further to the south, to Dhërmit .

When leaving communism, Albania was like a kid in a candy shop, there were new options open to it and they were not sure which to do first, so they did a little of everything which led to some initial confusion. Urban development is an example, especially since it’s using all the money from the more than a million emigrants to build houses in a very disorganized way. The coast has been particularly hurt and it’s something that long term they’ll regret. We also had to run away from Vlora as it´s a place with horrible architecture.

But we knew there were pretty beaches and with Dhërmit we were right. It’s low season so the beach was for us and for the two German bikers that were 2km away. Isolation and a beach. We stayed in a little hotel overlooking the blue sea eating fresh fish caught by the owner. Absolutelly stunning that mouth melting octopus we had, the softest ever.

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Here more to the south, near Saranda. Our last base to explore the southern coast just before getting into Greece, where the Adriatic sea joins the Ionian fighting to see which is more beautiful.

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The clear blue water was screaming at us to come and dive.

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Horses resting.

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A walk in the pebble beach, the ones I like without getting sand dirty.

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More to the South you do have sand beaches and here you can swim to the Island.

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For a baby.

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Other detail.

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I want a fireplace like this!

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The last stop was Gjrokastra, the second UNESCO heritage city in Albania. A very hilly city. A fomous writer once wrote that you could touch the top of a mosque on one street while walking on another!

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Butrint and Apolonian have ruins from several centuries, I¨m not going to get into the detail, but the best thing of it is walking near them alone.

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The blue eye. A spring that releases 8 cubic meters of water per second. Restricted to the normal people during communist years.

With this I finish my trip to Albania. I am organising some of my notes and I´ll be back soon.

Fernando

2010

05.21

The video is about two things that are Albanian surprises, one in the entire country and the other in the capital, check out the video for more.

http://www.vimeo.com/11921375

If the download goes slow, disable HD, it should download faster.
The music is from CCCP, the song is called Big Dinamo, it is the only one I could think with a communist feelin in my CD collection.

The bunker thing in Albania is something that I had read but this didn’t gave me any idea of the scale of this phenomenon. When I saw the first one I felt lucky to see one! Wow, they are real and I’ve seen one, how cool! When I saw 4 or 5 I said… maybe I can see 50 during my trip. I’m going to count them up! When I had seen 37 I decided that counting the bunkers would drive me crazy so I decided to do the video instead.

Enver Hoxha is probably the most paranoid, delirious, illogical and stupid “dictator”(I haven’t seen this word used in anything I’ve read about him) ever and Albania had the bad luck of having him for 40 years until IT finally died in 1985.

Before leaving you this friday I want to show you some pictures of a train trip.

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 Train is very cheap 136 lekes is a Euro for four hours in the train. It´s also very slow.

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 A present I had in the train, some onions. I was offered some raki, here the raki is everywhere.

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Some decoration.
 
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Looks like tirana buildings colours.
  
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 Rusty color in the sunset.
 
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Train doesn´t connect with other counts, during Enver´s times people coudnt leave the country. As a curiosity in Yugoslavia people was free to leave the country if they wish.
 
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 Going south to the blue waters of the coast.

I have a blister in my left small foot finger, the perfect excuse to rest for two days.

Will post something else about Albania soon.

Fernando

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2010

05.20

I’m happy today! It’s not that other days i’m not happy, but i’m especially happy now. I’ve found a company to kayak with in Iran! And that has made me happy because Iran has wierd landscapes, mars-like landscapes that I want to see from the kayak.

Continuing with the post of the day… After watching Theth’s video my friend Victor asked me if I had felt like Heidi’s hidden brother. Leaving Theth wasn’t easy, I felt like staying and at the same time I wanted to go and see other things, go to the south, see the coast and do that bus trip over the mountains the book promised was so beautiful. A few days later I regreted, I should have stayed longer. It’s possibly the most genuine place I’ve ever been in my life, an authentic place with simple people and clean looks, a place where the kindness, the simplicity and the hospitality of the people shudder. A genuine place, that there are less every time.

Even though we normally prefer to see and visit new places, I want to to go back to Theth sometime, something of me has been left in Theth and I’ve liked it.

But coming back can be a difficult enterprise as I’ll have to come back soon or it will have “developed”. the roads would become asphalt and instead of minibuses,  buses will come with tourists that will go to inhale pure air and expire stress. An that expired stress will remain there.

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Isn’t it a creative way to block a broken window?

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These girls are part of one of the families that live in the valley all year. The parents are blonde as well. I was invited to a raki and practiced some Albanian with the father reading the guide book, what a complicated language! During the second world war the Nazis considered Albanians as kind of an Aryan race because of their looks.

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For the Grandads in the area, living up to 100 years is not strange. Still far for this one.

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Little local beans. It´s funny, in the supposedly advanced world people buy organic food at an extra cost while here organic is the normal thing. By the way who gave that name of “organic”?

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The house I was in.

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It´s kind of an oven, under the rounded metal thing the rice is cooking, on top the charcoal. In order to maintain the charcoal on top there’s a ring to hold them.

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Going to the south this is what I eat, spicy sausages from the east part of the country.

There is a project, the Balkan Peace Park that wants to protect this mountain area plus the continuing area in Kosovo and Montenegro as well, it would be great if it works because as it’s not a globalized place, the habits have not changed much and nearly all they use are local products, the plastic that dirties everything in the country is nearly non-existent here, a happiness for the eyes.

There was a family of photographers, the Marubi that took pictures of this area in at the end of 19 century and the beginning of the 20th century. Check some of the pictures here.

After Theth I went to Berat, an ottoman city, it was recently included in the endless UNESCO list.

We stayed in a traditional ottoman house, you don’t have many opportunities for this! It was the best accommodation option in town and cost 30 euro with eggs for breakfast.

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The diriver and it´s car, it may soon become a classic.

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When you get into a taxi and the driver offers you raki you hesitate if remaining in the taxi is a good idea but, why not, trying a home made raki?

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I kayaked the Osumi canyon, a very easy river but beautiful. I joined a rafting trip from the company Outdoor Albania.

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The houses under the castle.

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Buying cigaretts.

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The river I paddled goes by the village.

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There’s a hostel in Berat where the English owners have  produced flavored raki, the lemon one is similar to limocello.

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The countriside is more organized and developed than what I expected.

By now I’m skipping Tirana, the capital and engine of the country has not been in the blog yet. I’ve loved it, but wont tell you about it until the next video.

Ah, My friend Aitor has uploaded his Montenegro pictures, if you liked my pictures sure you’ll like his more, he’s a better photographer than me. Here you have them.

See you soon

Fernando

2010

05.17

I don´t want to tell you anything about Theth until you see the images.

http://www.vimeo.com/11798877

If it loads slow you can swith HD off.

The main song is from the French band Air, form their debut album Moon Safari that in general is a bit tasteless. At the beginning of the video there are a few seconds of Björk “Hidden place”.

See you soon.

Fernando

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2010

05.13

When the alarm clock rings at 5.30 am you feel like leaving the trip for the next day , but being lazy can´t exist when travelling, the best thing is not to think, stand up and get ready to leave.

After the two hour bus ride I arrived at the ferry. A ferry not for tourists but for the locals to move around. Everybody seemed to try to get in and out at the same time while the rain, that had not stopped all morning, was making them wet. I jump onto the ferry and while avoiding sacks, bags and kids I find my window with views.  I didn´t ask for the seventh time what time was the ferry returning.

When I paid the guy that seemed to control all is when he informed that I was sleeping in Fireza that night, he took it for granted as when giving the multiplying board results. I asked and it was confirmed, there was no ferry back.

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I had money to eat and sleep so it was not that bad staying, the only thing is that I had no idea how Fireza was, my immediate future was uncertain.

The boss invited me to go to the upper compartment where he was giving orders to the captain and chatting with his friends while having a feast eating raw sausages and Jonnie Walker, they offered me both things and for not rejecting their hospitability I had some Jonnie Walker from the bottle, but at 10am It doesn’t go down very well. In Albania people drink home made raki, the local alcohol so the whisky is quite extraordinary, these were the wealthy people of the village. Two women were talking non stop in a corner, Albanians talk a lot.

I don’t know how many people grabbed my cheeks to say hello on the way, I was just trying to simile while my face was being moved with hospitality.

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In the 66km the boat was making a few stops in places where you couldn´t see anything, just a man with a donkey waiting for family and goods.

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When it stopped raining I went for a walk. A man called me from a bar to invite me for some coffee and raki with his friends, they didn’t talk any English or Italian, nor me any Albanian but we were communicating with a mix of words, some made up. They didn’t wanted to let me go, we talked about our work, the raki, Albania, Spain… and many other things. The most talkative one(in the picture his friend), was Muslim , the other ones to make the easy joke were saying “Bin Laden”, he was saying that Albanian Muslims are not like that. I think they also introduced me to the mayor.

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The valley school, one of the very few good Enver Hoxam legacies, 98% of the people are schooled.

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“Hello, how are you?” They love coming up to you to see if you reply back.

I haven’t see any foreigner in a few days, in Fireza I’m the only foreigner.

Next day in the port, waiting for the ferry a man came to me, he was the owner of the port and had a great english so we talked for a while until the ferry departed 30 minutes late.

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On the way back I got straight into the VIP area with the captain and his friends, there was the Jonnie Walker left over, not too much, they offered me some but at 7 a.m… I don´t feel like it even if I´ve been partying all night.

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Leaving the gorge.

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Very little rain today.

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They come  to say hello and with some conversation if language permits.

I came back to Shkodra with the feeling of having been much further than what the map said and wanting more so I went to Theth, the most remote valley in Albania. The video is nearly ready and I hope to have it for tomorrow.

See you soon.

Fernando

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