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.
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.
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.