Rain and weird workdays were making things a bit merzitshem last week. Self-induced coop-ing up with what I find to be important secondary, third-onary, side-long projects.. Friday, I was not in the mindset for a possibly exhaustive hike that I didn’t look into the details about clearly beforehand. Wavering on things is an annoying trait I’ve picked up in Albania, but with some cunning, refreshment,and pressure from friends; I was re-set on the route to attending an occasion I had promised to attend.
“Hell Hike” is what Stella named it. She wasn’t expecting hell though, with the plan to take a furgon in the morning from Kelcyre, where we’d stay the night before, to most of the way up a mountain climb on a rocky road in the direction of Lekdush, reached by taking the road up and out of Tepelena. The trip destination was Kuc, from there to Borsh. Simply stated, it was a hike to the seaside from inner Albania. If this sounds familiar, bravo on being in the know, two years ago I wrote about a similar trip, from Zhulat, behind Gjirokaster to Kuç. I’ve described that one though as maybe the most challenging physical activity I’ve ever done.
What’s equally remarkable about this trip, I thought about while pushing through the burn of uphill and the goat-like squabble downhill, is the overlap many of us have had in doing trips together previously. About a year ago, we all embarked on a trip down an old, communist road from Kelcyre to Çorovode, what has been referred to as our Marathon Hike, as it ended up being about the equal distance of such.
For this, I was quite sick, a fever earlier in the week and a lasting, hacking cough. Most of the entire first day was climbing and climbing, landing eventually for our overnight in a quaint village where we imbibed at a one-room hut bar. The triumphant end came as we met the canyon of Çorovode, after seemingly miles of all mud road.
Many of our group had also participated in the grand Valbona to Thethi hike in August 2012 together, which is a popular tourist activity. For this trip we left early from Shkodra, to take a ferry from Koman to Fierz. With about 15 Americans packed onto a little boat, we basked in the sunshine as we rolled gently through the river framed with sharp, vertically reaching cliffs. Staying in Bajram Curri, I was able to get a brief first-hand view of a Peace Corps experience, that while so similar to mine is also very different. Geography wise, it is the exact opposite from me, having been located in the most Southern Peace Corps site, a beach, tourist village in the southwest, versus a rural, Albanian alps, northwestern town. A joyful trip up and over through the pass with the group led us to settle in the very remote, tourist-driven village of Thethi. There we camped, hiked to a waterfall, enjoyed the local pub, supported the celebration for the end of the summer season English program and enjoyed a large dinner at a local family’s home.
Hell Hike began, as I said, as a group furgon ride and a hard push up the rest of the route up the mountain. Then, to most of the groups’ surprise, we met paved road. One volunteer, with a combination bag, actually was able to roll his bag for a good part of the way, earning the appropriate nickname ‘Hot Wheels’. Rolling along we encountered our first river, where with such heightened spirits, four people decided to plunge from the bridge into the freezing cold mountain water. We found a village, Lekdush that made for a handy lunch spot, and a viewing of a couple of WW2 communist-installed war memorials. We were very high in the mountains. Looking out across, the top peeks covered in snow seemed within reach. When we had been on the incline, looking down the world seemed to plunge down, down further and further went the grassy foots of the mountains. The most remarkable experience of the trip for me was still to come, as we passed through another village, Progonat.
Here, some pre-teens with enough spunk approached us to chat. I walked along with one boy, and learned much of the population, the local monuments and their lives- going to school here, learning English, etc. O shqip, two years after my first trip into this lesser-encountered area, I had moved from the position of newbie following the experienced extendee volunteer, (Chris C.) to become this extendee volunteer that led chats with the locals.
Progonat is filled with old, white stone homes, small ramshackle sheds for backyard, free-range chickens, goats and sheep. In the city center, there is an old main building and a square with a grandtree, with it’s white, bare branches a skeleton umbrella over stone picnic benches. Next to the center, is a football field and the deteriating, moldy school for the area. Some volunteers joined in with playing some Frisbee, quickly joined by the local children. Heading out on the road again, our head organizer, Stella, tossed them her Frisbee, reminding them to read the name written on it. Our appearance and this act of giving, we expected, lit some of the night’s conversation in the homes here.
Continuing along the paved road, we encountered a communist monument that alone could have ‘made’ the whole trip, for me. Columns shooting into the sky, perched upon a ledge, with a 360 panorama of gorgeous snowy mountains and rolling hillsides. Roughly, maybe 25-30 feet tall, there was no placard, I saw, to tell us of what this monument celebrated.
A little further down the road we found a sign for Kuc with another Lapidar, a quick break and we were off. We knew we needed to have the river bed that meets the village, within site before we camped out that evening. Others behind were seeking the best route, and I balanced along a form of a water irrigation system perched on the mountainside, and just kind of plunged ahead and shimmied down a rocky crevice, with my fellow G14er Emily, to reach a magnificent view of the sun just about ready to set on our first day of the trip. Just a little further we could see two green hill areas perfect for camping out, and just in time. Tents were all set-up, fire built and food settled into with ample sharing.
The next day was probably less of the big deal to me, knowing the rest of the way would be the river bed, this is where the last part of our trip when I went on the route from Zhulat, two years before, met our path. Knowing that river crossings were going to be constant, I went once in barefoot and then just said forget it, shoes and all. By dreke/lunch we were in Kuç, 2 pm, which was actually quite a bit of uphill climb back into the village. The last time I had been there we hitch hiked in the back of a truck of a secret service guy who was in town for a democratic candidate’s speech, from the bottom of the hill. A slower climb gave me time to take in the structures, and the small yards they kept of produce and chickens. We had some issues with us suddenly being the tourists there. Overcharging on a bill and disputes with drivers for prices, shortly followed by us experiencing from a distance the beginning of a traditional funeral with the wailing plangent leading the group down the hill and likely the whole community following in a solemn black mass.
Jimmied a furgon finally and we head to the coast, landed in Borsh, waited a bit, walked a bit.. ran into someone I know, of course, it’s Albania. Jumped a bus and ended in Himare to stay with a friend for two nights of big grilled dinners, beaching, skinny dipping for the first time, a majestic climb into “old Himare” and cooking a birthday feast. An overall impressive weekend, the most lasting memories found in the glorious views and the spirit of camaraderie with a group of intelligent, adventurous, strong American Peace Corps Volunteers.