Because my internship with the National Coastal Agency of Albania involves combining environmental conservation with tourism, I have the best excuse to leave the office – I have to see what exactly it is I’m promoting and protecting, after all. As such, I have gotten the opportunity to leave the city behind and get on the trail every weekend for the past month, sometimes for 3 or 4 days at a time. At least half of the time, however, I have traveled solo on these excursions with limited knowledge of Albanian and no knowledge of what to expect. I’ve been hiking through Albania’s Accursed Mountains in the remote locations of Theth and Valbona. I’ve been crammed into the sweaty backseat of a Land Rover Defender with a coworker and three young children to traverse southern Albania’s rugged and mountainous coastline. I have shared equal parts relaxation and deep conversation with a consultant for the agency over sandy beaches in Durres. Yet, despite the seeming diversity of these experiences and locations, I have discovered one great, unifying theme: no matter where you go in the world, you will always find people with kind hearts and open arms.
My very first week at my internship in Albania, my boss cancelled a trip to the south last-minute, and suddenly I had a weekend free. I scrambled to find an excursion to the mountains so that I could finally experience in real life the pictures of Albanian landscapes that I had been drooling over for the last two months. To my delight, I found a last-minute spot on a trip to Theth, Albania in the Albanian Alps, nine hours before it left. Naturally, I reserved a spot and left early the next morning without looking back.
I was going solo on this excursion – or so I thought. The tour group was operated by and for Albanians, and so I struggled to understand the guide, who spoke little to no English. However, a girl sitting behind me knew English pretty well, and helped translate. Soon, she and her friend welcomed me to sit with them for coffee stops along the way. When we got to Theth, they let me stay with them in a guesthouse room, even though they had specifically requested to stay in a room with just the two of them. As time went on, more and more of the Albanians on the trip became interested in me, welcoming me to their traditional Albanian feasts and teaching me how Albanians eat, dance, and explore. At a scenic overlook point on the way to Theth, an Albanian woman (who spoke no English) even grabbed me, hugged me, and smiled, posing for a picture her husband was taking!
I overall ended up spending most of my time with three Albanians: one who is ethnically Albanian but has lived in Greece her whole life, and her boyfriend and his sister, who currently live in Albania. They all had excellent English-speaking skills and let me explore and hike with them, even talking to each other in English so that I could understand. Here I was, a complete outsider, being welcomed in by the Albanians as one of their own. I danced to lively, raucous Albanian music in a tiny bus aisle on top of mountains and around a campfire in the night; I hiked along cliffs to see the bluest, coldest water I’ve ever seen; and I witnessed what is true Albanian hospitality. You can bet that I was all smiles most of my time there.
The next weekend, my boss decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip with his family down to the south, and they invited me along. This area is central to a proposal I’m helping the agency develop for a touristic route, and so it was vital I see the area for myself (I told you, I have the best excuses to leave the office). I have gradually learned that Albanians have a tendency to go on impromptu trips with few details planned, and stay longer than originally anticipated. This trip was no exception. When I was told to literally be prepared for staying in either a hotel or a tent that weekend, I stuffed what I could into a 36 liter backpack and loaded into the back of his Land Rover Defender. Though there were many breathtaking sights on this trip as well, this weekend mostly involved understanding more about myself. I learned a few important things that long weekend:
- Almost every square inch of Albania is beautiful in its own special way.
- With Albanians, two-day trips will turn into three-day trips, and three-day trips will turn into four-day trips. Anticipate this.
- Fully expect to sleep in a comfortable hotel bed one night, and on top of rocks in a tent with no sleeping bag or pillow the next. It’s okay; the rocks will (probably) make you stronger.
- Yes, children can make you want to tear your hair out with their yelling, screaming, and bickering, but they can also be welcome company, especially to a solo traveler. They can also be wise beyond their years, showing courage, determination, and hope.
- Going with the flow is the name of the game. Making flexibility your top priority is the best way to travel – you’ll be so much happier, and others will find you more enjoyable to be around.
- Along the same line, being happy with the little things is so incredibly liberating. Although there were many moments on this trip during which I was less than comfortable, when I came to the point where I was automatically taking inventory of what I did have – air to breathe, water to drink, a full stomach – I was overcome by peace, both with myself and my surroundings.
- My boss may or may not have a secret agenda for letting Albania lead me to self-realization. I don’t know yet; will check in later to confirm.
It is through the hospitality of this unique Albanian American family that I could learn all of these things. I bathed in the ancient hot springs of Permet that have been used since antiquity to cure various ailments, I witnessed both sunrise and sunset in the dramatic river valleys of Gjirokaster, and I slept on a private beach on the Albanian Riviera. Full of ups and downs, this was certainly a journey of self-exploration and discovery, all thanks again to the kindness of people I have met along the way, and the flexibility that their experiences have taught me.
As mentioned above, most of the work I have been doing with the agency involves a proposal for a route in southern Albania which would connect coastal and mountainous tourism. Though my boss contributes when he finds the time, this proposal has been spearheaded by a consultant for the agency, Entela Pinguli. Entela directs her own environmental NGO in Tirana, but also works as a consultant to negotiate with donors and stakeholders for other agencies with vested interests in environmental conservation, like the National Coastal Agency. She is someone who really gets down to business, so I have actually done most of my internship work with her. She and I clicked right away when we met for the first time, and in typical Albanian fashion, she invited me to her parents’ beach house in Durres for – wait for it – a two-day weekend that turned into four. How could I say no?
Going to Durres was not only a wonderful experience because of the beautiful sunsets and sandy beaches, but also from the raw amount of history and culture that I learned about Albania from talking to Entela’s various relatives. Whoever it was, I would speak with them in English if I could; otherwise, we would find other ways to communicate. Sometimes Entela would be around to translate, but if she wasn’t, I would ask them to speak in Italian and/or play charades with me until maybe I understood. Because of the great Italian influence in Albania, many Albanians speak Italian, and because I know Spanish, I can understand a large amount of Italian. These interactions were some of the most genuine because they revealed above all else, we don’t always need words to communicate. Sometimes smiles, laughs, hugs, and wagging your finger can say it all.
Despite however well or poorly I could converse with all of these people, every single one welcomed me with smiles and open arms. They were eager to learn about the U.S., my lifestyle there, and my future plans, and in return they shared so much about their families and the country’s communist past that I felt like I could write a textbook. The information was so intriguing and so rich that it filled me with another tremendous sensation which only comes from having others share such an incredibly alive and hot-blooded history: I experienced a feeling of true understanding. Seeking others different from myself in the pursuit of understanding is one of the biggest reasons I love to travel. I think the world gets a little bit better (and a little bit smaller) every time we sit down together, no matter our differences, and share our lives with one another for the sake of generosity and understanding. This is peace in its rawest, purest, most tender form. I relaxed among sandy beaches, seafoam, sunsets, and stars; I shared plentiful meals with families who made me feel like I truly belonged; and I explored the rugged coast with good company and a sense of adventure. These experiences I owe to the tremendous sense of understanding Entela and her family gave to me, the most unexpectedly satisfying gift from Albania thus far.
After going to the beach for the past two weekends, it was time to return to the mountains. Besides Theth, Valbona Valley National Park is the other major destination for hikers and nature lovers in northern Albania. I had such a good experience with the tour company to Theth that I hooked onto another one of their trips, this time to Valbona. Again, I was going solo on the excursion – or so I thought. Before we even left Tirana, I found that of the three vans departing, an Albanian American family of four from Florida and the mother’s brother and his daughter and son were all in my van. They all spoke fluent Albanian and either fluent, American English or fluent English as a second language. At our first rest stop for coffee (if you haven’t noticed already, Albanians love their coffee and will always stop for it before stopping for food or a restroom), they invited me to sit with them at their table and immediately took me in as a part of the family. They let me stay with them in one of the guest houses in Valbona and welcomed me to eat with them at meals, hike with them in the mountains, share wine with them at dinner, dance with them at night, and they translated any Albanian for me – even though I was a complete stranger.
Through these people, I learned of the true generosity of others. I was offered a sip of raki (a traditional clear brandy made from grapes that is very popular in Albania, especially among men) in my van at 9 am; I crossed the Albanian border twice and wandered the charming cobblestone streets of Prizren, one of the oldest towns in Kosovo; I used a Turkish (squatting) toilet for the first time; I hiked in the towering mountains of Valbona to see a waterfall nestled into the peaks, bathed in a powdery orange and pink sunset; and I rode on a ferry for three hours through the teal waters of Komani Lake, “The Grand Canyon of Albania,” one of only two ways to access Valbona. My heart was full from experiencing such generosity from both nature and the Albanian people alike.
At our last dinner together on the way back to Tirana, they ordered dinner for the whole family and allowed me to eat with them, and once again I offered to pay for my share. I knew this would be tricky, because Albanians’ generosity is a double-edged sword: it is so kind of them to offer to pay for coffee and food at any time, but if you try to pay for even a portion of it, they won’t have it. You can frequently see Albanians arguing fiercely over who will pay the bill, and most often the one who wins is the one who can shove their Lekë (Albanian currency) in the waiter’s hand the fastest. Once again, they shook their head and told me it was their pleasure to pay for the meal. Instead, the father of the family told me that one day when I’m traveling and I happen upon a lonely, lost college student, to be generous and take care of them, and the world will be balanced again. I look forward to paying it forward one day, and I will never forget the promise I made to do so.
We all may come from different places. We may have different ancestry, families, and backgrounds; different educations; different life experiences and even different political views. But despite all of this, people here have shown me that we can transcend all of these potential differences and spread love and kindness to families, friends, and strangers alike. Amidst a world seemingly filled with constant violence and hate, Albanians have given me hope that love does, in fact, always win.