The World’s Cream On Homer’s Table….A Cycle

Mattijs and Mariah as they headed off into the mountains

Thursday, 22 September

My last post was about fly fishing yesterday, and I let go of the fact that I haven’t been able to land a Speckled Trout. I returned from the river in good spirits in despite having a good-sized trout on the fly only to have it snap the hook off and return to its life’s journey, and so instructing me to revert to mine. Standing at the agreed-upon spot for my ride back to Thethi, I watched as truck after truck went by to resupply the asphalt team laying a new road beyond me, down the valley. I was dropped off 4 hours earlier by Besmir, and we agreed that he would stop here to get me around 3 o’clock to take me back to Thethi. Thethi is the name of the actual settlement here in Theth National Park. To call it a town or village would be complete misnomers. There are 2 or 3 actual retaurants, and 1 grocery-type store. The rest of it is a crowd of bujtinas populating elbowing each other for guests. In a few years it will look like Aspen, or any other US mountain town. There is a rough gravel track, bearing little resemblance to a road yet, and only slight drainage when it rains.

While I was waiting for more than an hour, the road manager of the asphalt company approached me and in broken-English explained that no traffic would be coming through until much later. He asked if I was going to Thethi and I nodded, he asked if I wouldn’t mind riding up in one of the massive, four-axle dump trucks, and I shrugged and said yes. I offered him some money and he scowled, I apologized for the disrespect as this is how the Albanians are. They will help if they can, or they will find someone who will. The next truck would be mine. The breeze had increased to fluttering my coat and nearly pushing my hat off my head. I knew that it would be a long walk back to Bujtina Polia, at 12/13km (7/8miles), and it was mostly a grinding ascent. After hopping from rock to rock along the river, and scaling the steep banks, I was well shot physically.

Jimmy pulled up and I clambored up into the cab, with him taking first my fly rod, then my daypack. Again, I asked with no disrespect if I could offer him something for the ride… maybe beer/coffee money, but he refused. His English was very good and after introductions we began to talk about truck driving. I told him that I drove a Mack truck in and out of Chicago and the surrounding area for 33 years and he was in awe. I was in awe of his skill with our Mercedes behemoth. The road was sheer drop-off and barely wide enough for him to expertly navigate. We did the “Brother handshake” as he wished me well. I then began my walk from Thethi up to my bujtina, about a 4k (2.5miles). Looking up and around, I marvelled at the continiously-changing scenery, as the gusty weather was driving clouds in front of the sun and over the peaks, giving the feel of a time-lapse film as I stumbled up and down the rocky track.

The patio, the dogs, and our staff always welcome me as if I had lived here forever. I am always swaddled in their warm embraced, never feeling like a stranger, and offered something to eat or drink upon my return. As I came around the corner onto the patio, I met Geoff, a guide from the UK, and we began chatting. He was an affable man and we got on well as we discussed mountains, travel, people, and our past exploits. Geoff was co-leading a group that was well-peppered with folks from all professions and heritage. Later on when we were assembling in the dining room, I went to the little side table that I occupied most often. The staff and I call it “the little boy’s table”; it has become a running joke among us. The groups that come through here are, for the most part, very insular and exclusive. Every now and then, I will be invited to “the big boy’s table” and join whomever I had connected with earlier, or if there was more space due to smaller groups. The night before, I was invited to join Mattijs and Mariah, a grand couple from the Netherlands. It is not usual for me to be asked to join at the big tables, but every now and then, I am able to sit with “the cream of the world” as I have them. This was definitely the case with Mattijs and Mariah, and tonight with Geoff and his group.

Mattijs and Mariah were among the nicest couple of people I’ve met yet. They are from the Netherlands and really enjoying themselves here in the Balkans. Our conversations were spirited and open, with neither of us having to hold back. I will miss them. Meeting people like them really helps me to get through my odyssey. Later on, after talking to Geoff, he and his lady Ingrid plucked me from the “little boy’s table” and into their group. We pushed chairs down and I squeezed into the group. I was amazed at the life-stories of my table-mates. Geoff and Ingrid, among a couple others, have been leading these “meet-up” groups and hiking/trekking/walking through various parts of the world. I realized a bit of a common thread that runs through most of our lives here. We are on some sort of journey; to replenish, to seek, and to shake off the dust of our lives. The length and breadth of careers among us is varied and vast. Retirees and people actively still working, trying to reset their compasses as it were, and the opportunities to meet people you may not in everyday life. Mattjis spoke of many places near them to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I was surprised, as I am not that familiar with the Netherlands to know how much open space they have at their disposal. My group from the UK was the same in their touting of the innumerable sites to get out and enjoy a walk or more. As I sat and listened to some speak about their travels and travails, it was a modern Homer’s tale of broken-pledges, mis-directed hopes, and sirens and monsters.

The group from the UK. Geoff is on my left, Graham, my right, and the two Steves beyond him. In red is Reg, born and rasied in Baltimore, now living in the UK…they were a true joy to be with.

I also met Paul and Pip from the UK, and they were nothing short of endearing and sweet. They regaled me with stories of their travels all over the world. After doing Antarctica in 2023, they will have been on every continent on the planet. At our table, I was positioned between Ingrid and Steve, across from Geoff and Reg. Reg was born and rasied in Maryland, spent most of his life around the US as an exec, and retired to the UK. Reg is one of many US expats I have met here in Albania, and our reasons for living in Europe are nearly identical. As a solo traveler, it is an immense joy to be welcomed into a group, and to have intelligent conversation about anything and everything. Eleanor Roosevelt is commonly known to have said, “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; and small minds discuss other people”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I have always tried to adhere to this principle. Here, in meeting the cream of the world, we rarely go any lower that the “events” portion of Mrs. Roosevelt’s adage. Being grateful for this experience never eludes me, and I give thanks in a constant manner, both inward and outward. After talking to the staff, they all agreed that the UK group (Geoff’s group), were one of the best groups to come through since June. I think it’s pretty high praise, considering the amount of people I have witnessed come through the door. I will see Geoff and Ingrid in the future. Geoff has actually swung me on SE Asia; A place I was certain to avoid because of the heat and sun. Thank you Geoff!

I have been reading Homer’s Odyssey, I think it is only fitting, and I have been through some of Odysseus’ trials. I am not sure if I can claim ownership of the Trojan horse, nor have I shoved a stake in the eye of the Cyclops, but I can fully grasp the loneliness, and the sporadic good fortune mixed with confronting people and events that test my resolve. I will omit my lost weekend with the Norwegian goddess a week removed from now. Let’s just say it involved a trip all the way down to Tirana, two pairs of socks, and a lost bank card… we will leave it there.

Monday 25, September

As of this moment, on Monday morning, I am in the dining hall watching a group load up to head off into a pouring rain. It has turned cooler, and fall will be fleeting as the rain we had dusted the remote peaks with snow. The rule is if it rains down here, it is snowing up there. I leave here a week from tomorrow, 4 October, and I will truly miss everyone here. The next post will entirely cover the staff, Pavlin and Vlora, and my inclusion in this place.

The South end of the gorge from the open floodplain, looking back North up the Shala River into Thethi.

In the end, it has been a wonder-filled trip here to Theth. From stepping onto the bus at Nivy in Bratislava, to Belgrade, the train to Bar Montenegro, and my transportation to this Shangra-la has been nothing short of an Odyssey that continues yet to Tirana next week. The people I have met have been , for the most part, long on kindness and warmth. I am a European now. I have reset my standards of living and desire more than the US could ever offer…better quality of food, less work, less pay, more “being present” in life, and the lives around you. I will post from Tirana, once I have settled into my apartment in Blok. Thank you for following me. Please take care of yourselves, and take car of each other.

An Odyssey Still Unfolding

Theth Valley, Albania

I am on the move again. I made a mistake when I re-entered the EU and now must exit for another 90 days. The upshot is that I will be welcomed with open arms in Albania. The downshots are a few, but I will focus on what is positive, In short, I didn’t check in with the local police upon my entry into Slovakia, whereupon I would be given a sort of id number to help with tracking my visa application. This would explain why, even with some high-powered help, I was not able to secure a residency visa. No problem with me. This is a typical “live and learn” moment. If I don’t remain teachable, this whole European retiement plan of mine will sink quicker than the Spanish Armada..

After mulling over my travel options, I decided to go it on the ground. The airfare is astronomical right now because of the season. Money aside, I decided to make an “adventure” out of this chapter in my odyssey. I am taking an overnight bus to Belgrade Serbia. I may linger in Belgrade for a day or two and get a look at some of the history and culture. After talking to my good friend Elton who runs (I will shamelessly plug this connection), I/we decided to do a few different twists on old model. I will take a train from Belgrade to Bar Montenegro. Bar is on the Adriatic Sea portion of their coast. From Bar, I will take a minibus to Shkoder. Shkoder is on the shore of Lake Shkodra, the largest lake in Southern Europe. Shkoder is also the gateway to Theth National Park, and Bujtina Polia. I will stay with my dear friend Pavlin for at least a month. I ultimately want to fly fish the Theth River (Lumi i Thethit). If you can recall, I was here in May to scout the river to fly fish. Any mention of the fishing will be featured in future posts from Bujtina Polia (bujtina {boo-teena} is Albanian for inn or hotel).

Not being a big fan of heat of the Adriatic, it will be a trial for me to stay in Bar for more than a day or two. Elton swears that I will love the train trip from Belgrade to Bar. The train wends a path through the Southern Alps of the Balkans. From Belgrade I will leave the Danube Plain and go directly into the mountains. Each of the nations call it their own, i.e., “Albanian Alps, Montenegrin Alps…etc. I will spend as much time as I can getting into some sort of shape, as I have a somewhat sedentary existence here in Bratislava. Aside from my morning walks along the Danube and through the Old Town, I sit plenty while reading and doing research on my papers. An evening walk to meet friends for dinner is hardly a “workout”.

I will leave here on 2 September, from the bus station which is hardly a ten minute walk from apartment. I decided on the overnight bus trip after researching the train trip; there are too many transfers in the middle of the night. So, I will leave here at 22:00 (10pm) and arrive in Belgrade at 7am. It will give me plenty of time to look for a hotel and scope out where the train station will be in relation to it all. Then I will get at a look at what Belgrade has to offer. The Sava river runs into the Danube in Belgrade. The Sava is known for great fly fishing, but I would be surprised if it happens in proximity to the city. From Belgrade on Saturday 3 September, until Bar (when – I’m not looking that far ahead), it will anyone”s guess how it will all work out.

I’m excited at the prospect of the uncertainty of how this trip will go. Even if I decided to fly to Tirana and get a hotel room, and know what is next,…etc. It would no less different than my last trip to Albania. The biggest difference will to take only my backpack, and my bookbag. I learned from the last trip that I didn’t need to drag a 25kg (55lb) duffel bag of items that I barely used. Also, the most glaring difference will be that I will not be “locked in” to an Airbnb stay for a period that would tie me to any one locale. I know that my internal compass always points to mountains, and recalling that my stay in Theth was too short, I will be anxious to wet a line day after day, and get in a few day hikes in the surrounding mountains.

So, dear friends, this will be my last missive until early September. I don’t write as though I have been entirely committed to a post a week, but aside from dinner/coffee with good friends, there is little to post. Hopefully this next portion of my odyssey will reveal a pearl or two. My focus will be on not only informing you of my whereabouts, but also to broadcast to others the bounty of Albania. From its glaciers to its bustling cities, I would like nothing more than the potential of this beautiful little nation laid bare for the world to see.

After some time in Theth, I will consult with Elton to see more of the unseen. He is an excellent source; I mean – hey – it’s his passion. He is one of my favorite humans on the planet. It seems he lives to solve problems and he makes it look easy. In the end, I will finish my trip in Tirana, and hopefully getting a chance to spend more time with a man I consider a “true Brother”. I really like the energy in the Albanian capital, and look forward to my visit with some friends that I made from my last stay.

I am ever grateful for those of you who take the time to read my posts. Also. I am eternally in your debt for any comments you might feel to offer. I will continue to humbly seek peace and solace for each and everyone of you in my morning askance. Until next itme, please, take good care yourselves and each other.

Rebirth and The Alpine Continuum

Rilindja is Albanian for rebirth. Alfred chose the name wisely; I came alive again. For all of the situations and events that occured in Durres, it seemed like I was biding my time. Sure, the history of that area was great, but without some means of my own transport, I was a prisoner to the Sun and sand. From Tuesday afternoon, until Friday at 13:00 (1pm) when I parted with Alfred, my whole sense of self became re-oriented toward those mountains.

As we wound down to Fierze to meet the ferry at Lake Koman, Alfred and I talked of many things. I would like to turn around and come back here (and Theth) in July/August. I have plans to meet dear friends from the US elsewhere in Europa. I told Alfred how thankful and fortunate I felt for meeting him, and in turn having Alda and Elton take care of this trip. If I haven’t mentioned Albanian Trip, I will now. The story behind the origins and the end product of this trip is the result of the great work that Alda and Elton do at Albanian Trip. This happened because “god’s hand” is involved here. I was actually looking around to see how difficult it would be to go fly fishing here in Albania. I found Rilindja and was so impressed with its nearness to the Valbon (right across the road) and I emailed them to see what their rates were. I recieved an email from Elton, and we began a dialogue. Although it is named in my tags at the bottom of my blogs, google/search for Albanian Trip, let them know what you have in mind, and you will be taken care of very well. I’m going to end this paragraph with their accolades; They were chosen as a Conde’ Nast Travel Specialist for the 2nd year in a row. I am very fortunate to call Elton and Alda my friends. I will refer to them and their endeavor going forward.

It was with a heavy heart that I said farewell to Alfred…calling him “Albert” was running joke. The ferry was nearly full as we headed out of Fierze for the 4+ hour trek to Diga e Komanit. It was a liquid spectacle riddled with little side channels, and a sky framed by stone and greened inclines.

I sat in the shade and reflected on my short time in Dragobi and Valbona National Park. I went to see how this near-wild river could be fly fished, knowing full well that even nymphing was out of the question. Alfred and I tried going down after them in the roaring cataracts racing down the canyon. I tried to lay flys gently on top of them in the few pools we were graced with and only recieved a polite nibble in return. Alfred was “blessed” with 3 caught overall. Call it a “home team advantage”. The Valbon was not ready yet and Alfred was still determined to show me a good time. The unforgiving terrain wrenched my knee and did some “Balkan Voodoo” on my hip, but we did the best we could. I recalled the cool,crisp sheets in Hotel Rezidenca, and the breeze slipping through my window on the back of the muffled river roar…. and the coffee, always the coffee! I close my eyes and I see Maja Jezerce above me (top photo on this page), and the way the sunrise made the snow shimmer on the shoulder of the limestone redoubt.

Sitting in the shade of the upper deck, I tried to commit every vantage point to memory, and along with the sights, sounds, and smells to retain as much as possible. Here I was at the halfway point to this trip that Elton and Alda painstakingly put together, and so far it was nonpareil. I turned my attention to the watery rampart we were chugging through. I let my eyes linger on all of it. I watched as we motored past small fishing camps where the landscape allowed. Further down the sides would widen and spread out to reveal tilted fields with cows, sheep, goats, and a horse here and there. The grazing stock moved on the abrupt green carpet like humans walking a level surface.

We docked at Diga e Komanit and I met Kristian. A young Albanian with a quick smile and a can-do attitude, he was Pavlin’s driver. We began our trip down to Shkoder to meet Pavlin. At this point in my retelling I must reveal my attitude toward the road from the dock to Shkoder. It amounted to an over-wide goat path. There were potholes and gullies that would scare away the boldest Chicago drivers. Kristian held his frustration in and waited for his oppotuntities to pass. We descended, at times behind a gaggle of campers, and some very high-end Mercedes that had to creep in most places. The striking part of the roads in the highlands here in Albania is that they are just wide enough for their cars to pass slowly. I really enjoy the engaging talks I have with the young here. The young Albanians are excited about their future and happy to speak to someone fron the US; Kristian was no exception. Kristian’s English was very good; he would speak in halting rhythms only when he searched for the proper word or term. I asked if he had English in school, and he replied with a sly smile that he learned from watching “American movies”…especially action movies. That began a short row of he and I doing impressions of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris.

We rolled along out into the open valley toward Shkoder to meet Pavlin. Driving through little hamlets where the sway of time has left these people nearly untouched. The “ancient” is still here in the countrysides. This rock-ridden land slowy unfolds to the newer and more modern houses, and then we were in Shkoder. This is a bustling town on the shores of the largest lake in Southern Europe. Lake Shkodra ( or Shkoder in Albanian), and this city has a flavor entirely all of its own. Krisian navigated the crowded streets like a New York cab driver and swung around to park right in front of a man with with Ray Bans and the most imposing beard I have seen since David Brown from Rock Island Public House. Pavlin Polia was my host, and soon to be a kindred soul. We stopped at a patisserie to get some sweets to take to Bujtina Polia in Theth.

We swung by a place to drop Kristian, and of course, a short cup of coffee. Kristian was adept at coffee as well; he served Pavlin and I and pulled up a chair to join in our chat. Again, the pace of life here is on another plane. Pavlin and I got back in the 4-wheel drive Toyota cruiser and began the drive up to Theth Valley. We talked about everything on the spectrum. Stopping at a little market, I picked oranges the size of 12-inch softballs, and Pavlin took some yogurt and a few items. The climb up and over to Theth is not for the weak-hearted, especially with Pavlin at the wheel. We swung around hairpin curves, and through the stones that had tumbled, fallen, and came to rest right in the road. When I say “road”, I’m being very generous. This surface was paved as recently as 2 years (or so) ago, and it is verily wide enough for the European cars, let alone the mini-buses and campers that use it. Pavlin knows every turn, every meter, and I was never ill-at-ease.

We crested the mountain, with snow laying here and there, and stopped at a point to talk to a journalist that Pavlin knew. Here I must point out that we never just drove by people that he knew. There was always time to stop and chat…always. Pavlin is as affable as any man I have ever known. He carries himself with a quiet resolve, an behind what appears to a facade of strong bearing, he is as warm and inviting as they come. Now heading down the sharp incline into Theth Valley, I could see the town spread out along the Theth River. Nearing it, I was struck by its resemblance to the tiny mountain towns in Montana. As we wound through the village, there were so many waving, we bounced and careened to Bujtina Polia – Pavlin’s place. “Bujtina” means inn, or hotel.

I will end this post here in order to get a better photo of Bujtina Polia. For some reason my photos will not download to this site. I will have to ask Pavlin for a photo. I promise that rest of my journey will be as full of recollections as the past posts. I am in Tirana now and anxious to convey my experience here. I am always in deep appreciation for you that are reading and giving me feedback. I will post again very soon. Until then, please take of yourselves, and each other.