I never expected to end up in Albania, but once I did, and tasted the delicious burek and coffee, met wonderful people and experienced the untapped beauty, I had a difficult time leaving.
Albania was under the tight grip of communism for nearly 50 years. Enver Hoxha ruled the country with an iron fist as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule Albania declared itself the first atheist state and destroyed many religious artifacts. Communist rule collapsed in 1991 and the country has been rapidly opened itself up to the world since.
Now it is a land of opportunity, just starting to crank it into high gear. You can sense an eagerness to embrace western culture. Unfortunately corruption runs rampant and the average salary is hovering around $300 a month. This does make the country cheap for travelers who can take advantage of the wealth of natural beauty and history. The best part is that you can do it without running into any other tourists. Lets go on a journey back to the days when coffee and tobacco ruled and family was the only law. Visit now before its too late.
I started my Albanian adventure in Shkodër. A city in the north overlooked by an impressive medieval castle built by Venetians, and crisscrossed by wide communist-era boulevards.
We woke up at the crack of dawn and drove deep into the Albanian Alps to Lake Koman. At the small dock we watched as ferries and boats were loaded up with people, goods and cars.
We hopped on a boat and headed out as spectacularly green cliffs plunged into the water all around us. After a short ride we rented kayaks and explored on our own.
We arrived at a farm after a hour or so. There were chickens and donkeys, grapes and fruit trees. We were welcomed in (for a small fee) and served a tasty fish lunch.
On the outskirts of the Skoder I stumbled upon a Roma community (behind the fisherman).
Some lived in pretty standard houses, while others like this family, lived in huts amongst mounds scraps and junk.
A Roma girl inspects me from her families encampment filled with things they had collected.
After a few days in the north I settled into Tirana, the capital of Albania. I was lucky enough to find a great couchsurfing host.
Albania, like the rest of the Balkan countries, is small. My host had a car so we decided to drive to the coast about an hour from Tirana.
The Byzantine Forum (Macellum) is in the center of the coastal city of Durrës. Greedy and corrupt politicians have sanctioned big, ugly developments next to and on top of ancient ruins across the city.
Constructing houses and other developments is a great way to launder money.
Albania was under communist control from 1946-1992. The country is home to lots of communist era statues and military bunkers.
We arrived at the Cape and were greeted with a beach all to ourselves and clear blue water.
Not a bad place to spend a few days relaxing.
After the Cape we headed south to Beat.
Overlooking Berat, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, from the old citadel. One of the most refreshing aspects of the country is that there is the tourist infrastructure.
Back on the valley as the sun set.
The old city of Berat.
No rules apply to the Albanian streets and roads.
After Berat we drove for a while longer into Osum Canyon
A shephard grazes his sheep along the main highway into Tirana.
Albania is littered with ugly incomplete buildings. This is the most glaring example in downtown Tirana.
A young boy practices football in the little play area in the center of my block of apartment buildings.
The central market after the rain stops.
People smoke a lot of cigarettes across the Balkans and Albania is no exception. There is a tobacco section in the market where you can buy half kilos straight from the farm for cheap..
The driving in Albania is insane. Seems like there are no rules, or lines on the street
Coffee plays an important part in everyday life in Albania. This young woman enjoys an expresso during a warm summer afternoon.
We met a friendly Limeña while watching the 49ers game at an American sports bar in Lima’s upscale neighborhood of Miraflores. After chatting for a while, Yirka invited us over to her house on the weekend for a traditional Peruvian lunch. So on Saturday morning we met at her house in the outskirts of Lima and headed off to the local market to buy ingredients for Papa a la Huancaína, while grandma prepared the cuy (guinea pig).
We started off by buying Queso fresco, yellow pepper for the Huancaína sauce and lots of potatoes, of course, followed by onions, tomatoes, and avocados for the salad. Produce in Lima is always extremely fresh and delicious, grown on small family farms in the highlands or in the jungle. There were many jungle fruits that neither of us had ever tried before. The friendly fruit vender let us sample a grenadine (a delicious, sweet passionfruit), a dragon fruit and a juicy golden pineapple.
After a quick juice break, we took a detour to the shamanistic section of the market. There are lots of weird things for sale in this part, including dried llama fetuses, dead frogs and snakes, hallucinogenic cacti and piles of coca leaves. The llama fetuses are buried under the foundations of many Peruvian houses as a sacred offering to the goddess Pachamama.
We arrived back at the house and Yirka began preparing the Huancaína sauce and cooking the potatoes. Although the dishes name is derived from Huancayo, a city in the Peruvian highlands, it has become a staple throughout the country.
The cuy, a traditional food of Peruvian Andean people, was in the oven. Grandma had prepared it simply with a stuffing of various Andean herbs and put it in the oven for about six hours. There isn’t much meat on their tiny bones, and their giant buck teeth are a bit off putting, but they are pretty tasty.
After thoroughly enjoying lunch we spent the rest of the afternoon playing the pan pipes and ping pong with her family.
Growing up in downtown San Francisco surrounded by tourists, hobos and crackheads gave Nick a unique perspective on inner city living. His diverse upbringing conditioned him for a globetrotting life of urban adventure. After traveling extensively through South Asia, he kicked it with Maasai warriors during a four month stay in Tanzania, majored in Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College and recently spent seven months backpacking around South America making documentaries.
There is one moment that stands out when I conjure up images of my gap year journey through South Asia. During my five month trip I lounged on empty Sri Lankan beaches, cruised the crowded streets of Dhaka in colorful rickshaws, and conquered the Thar Desert by camel, yet it was the crooked alleyways of Varanasi that left the most vivid and lasting impression.
It was hottest time of the year because monsoon season was just around the corner. The pungent 120 degree air was thick with humidity, spices and smoke. Gusts of fiery wind did nothing to cool my scorched face. Walker and I found our way to the Ganpati Guest House located deep within the labyrinthine Old City near the banks of the River Ganges. From the rooftop terrace you could see smoke billowing up from the Burning Ghat and hear the clamor from the Main Ghat a bit further up river. The debilitating midday heat made it impossible to do anything other than spent hours on the terrace sipping bhang lassis, an age old Sadhu yogurt drink infused with weed, chatting with grizzled backpackers, and taking in beating heart of the Hindu universe from above.
Almost inevitably, every time I left the hostel I would get lost in the maze of ancient alleyways enveloping my hostel. Initially, I was overwhelmed, hot, and claustrophobic, however after a few days passed I began looking forward to getting lost. I realized that in the serpentine passages of the Old City, strewn with trash, cracked clay chai cups and the occasional dead animal, I could avoid the onslaught of beggars and touts who were more persistent and annoying than anywhere else in India. These alleyways were home to impossibly small silk, ivory, brass and gold shops. Many of the storefronts were simply small windows in thousand year old homes; in my favorite such window was a chai shop I often stumbled upon.
When I close my eyes I can immediately transport myself to the wooden chai shop bench. In my hand is a warm cup of delicious, sweet chai. I would sit for hours simply watching Raj, the chaiwala, mix and pour chai while life unfolded in the alleyway. Every so often the relative calm would be broken by stampeding water buffalo heading toward the Ganges for their cooling afternoon bath. As I finished my first cup of chai, I was not ready to leave just yet, so I tossed my biodegradable clay cup and asked Raj for another.
The buffalo were followed by a more solemn procession headed in the direction of the Burning Ghat. A group of elderly men shuffled past with a body draped in colorful silk, billowing beautifully in the breeze resting on their shoulder. The silent procession soon faded back into the maze. As more time passed, and more sweat dripped, I zoned out to the lonesome movements of Holy cows and Sadhus until the buffalo returned triumphantly.
While observing life ebb and flow in the unrelenting chaos I imagined myself being transported back in time. Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and it feels like it. It occurred to me that I could have sipped chai in this very same alleyway thousands of years ago and my experience would have been very nearly the same. I wondered how many cups of chai had been drunk in this very spot and how many pilgrims had passed by to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters of Ganges.
Varanasi is a enchanting city, but it is not for the faint of heart. If you can handle the dirt, smells, and chaos, then go lose yourself in the ancient alleyways of Varanasi and you’ll discover a strikingly beautiful amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim faith, man and animal, and above all life and death.