|Moving goods the traditional way|
During a break in the weather on a recent weekend, we decided to get out and explore. After consulting with Google Maps, Glenn selected a route that essentially took us through a valley and behind the mountains directly to the west of Tirana. We have been looking at these mountains from our balconies since we arrived here but had never ventured into them. Driving out of Tirana we quickly (as in mileage, not time) left the urban sprawl behind us and soon found ourselves in what is now the suburbs, but a few short years ago would have been considered the country. In their attempt to expand and modernize, new roads are being constructed everywhere throughout Albania and we found ourselves on one of them. All of the road had yet to be paved but the portion that had been graded was wide and as smooth as gravel could be. (Because there are so few roads in this country, roads are used as they are built; rather than keeping a road closed until it is complete, traffic shares the same space with construction equipment, farm animals, donkey carts, and pedestrians). Quickly all of this ended and we found ourselves "detouring" along a narrow muddy outcropping with the raging river below us. Then driving through a partially completed concrete tunnel, we were thrown back in time.
|The tunnel that transported us back in time; this was the last Mercedes we saw on our trip|
Emerging from the tunnel we found ourselves on a very narrow rutted "road" that meandered along a dry stream bed and through occasional settlements of clusters of three or four stone houses. Each settlement had at least one Albanian style outdoor cafe with old men sitting in chairs around a decrepit table. More often than not there was also a mosque. Dogs and children roamed freely and at each location everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we bounced on by. Rickety electrical poles dotted the roadside but close inspection revealed the lack of wires connecting them. Other than an occasional furgon, we were the only vehicle on the road.
|Going for a|
We were still on a road but the road was getting narrower and narrower with each passing kilometer. Sometimes we couldn't even see where the road was so we made our way by feel --- and by what looked like the safest route. We drove between waterfalls and sheer cliffs, through rapidly running streams, over boulders, and around fresh landslides. At this point we weren't even seeing any furgons and couldn't tell when the last time another vehicle had come through the area. We would bounce along, for what felt like hours but was more likely minutes, through rocky hills before entering into small enclaves of a few houses and barns surrounded by small fields. Traditionally dressed peasants were tending their spring crops but all work came to a stop as they stared at us as we passed. Some electrical poles now had wiring but most didn't. As evidenced by the young boys who took pictures of our passing vehicle, cell phones were readily available so there must have been some form of electricity. This scene was repeated over and over and felt both surreal and as though our mere presence was imposing on a way of life.
Our ability to take this short trip back in time is yet another one of the things I love about Albania. Where else can you see such contrasts of modern and ancient in a natural state in one day? Unlike the living history museums showcasing traditional life that are found in so many countries, this Albanian living history museum is the real thing. Those aren't paid docents working the fields; rather generations of family members are farming and working the soil in order to feed themselves the way they have from hundreds of years. Of course it is the geographic inaccessibility of the country's landscape that has preserved this traditional pocket of Albania. With a new road being laid nearby, I wonder how much longer this way of life will continue to exist. As is evidenced by the sprawl of Tirana, once it is gone, it is gone forever.