Jan 4, 2015

Warmth in the Mountains

This morning, I set out from Librazhd in high spirits. The road was wet, but I was able to keep my poncho stowed within reach for an hour before I needed to pull it on. It was a cold day,and it alternated between drizzle and light rain for five hours. Thankfully there was no wind. Rain, wind, or cold: I can handle any two of those three with equanimity. 

Once again, I simply followed the course of the road. If I ever return to Albania in the warmer and dryer months, I would like to do some serious hiking. ‎For now, though, I'm more interested in the safest, driest, and most direct route. Today, that was the road.

Tomorrow I may finally leave the road and follow the trail. The reason for this change is two-fold. First, the forecast is clear and sunny and with an afternoon high reaching just above the freezing mark. That means any mud I may encounter should be solid ground. (And there are no streams to ford!) Second, following the road will add several kilometres because of all the switchbacks. By following the trail up a small valley and intersecting the road on the ridge, I will be able to cut my travel time by at least an hour.

There wasn't much traffic on the road today, especially first thing in the morning. When I did encounter vehicles, I'd mo‎ve from the paved surface onto the shoulder. This made walking more difficult, as I had to dodge both puddles and ice patches.

By midafternoon, I was walking on the shoulder more than on the clear road, so when I saw a few seats where a young man was washing a car, I headed over, took off my pack, and sat down. (It had stopped raining an hour or so earlier.) We struck up a conversation, which was tricky since he doesn't speak English. One convenient thing about travelling the way I am is ‎that people generally ask the same things, so once I've learned to recognise those questions I can tell them I'm from Canada, I'm walking to (insert the day's destination here), this morning I started in (insert yesterday's destination here), and yes, I'd love a coffee. Thank you!

On hearing the last response,  the young man shouted up to someone in the building a few metres up the slope and pointed me towards the entrance. I opened the door of the glass walled café and saw a man not much older than myself sitting at a table near a central wood burning stove, and two girls hovering nearby. The older of the two brought me a coffee and a glass of water, and we began "the conversation" again. This time, however, I had a translator. Actually, both the girls speak English, having studied it in school, but it was the younger of the two who was doing all the work.

It was nice to sit near the warmth of the stove, but even nicer to sit in the warmth of this family's easy and generous hospitality. I really didn't want to leave as soon as I did, but the hours of daylight are still very short and I still had some distance to cover. Another common question I've encountered in Albania is, "Do you have Facebook?" I wrote down my username, and also my homepage URL. I hope this wonderful family gets to see their photo!

My layering system is working well for keeping me warm and not drenched while walking for hours in the rain, but given enough time, the moisture does penetrate to my inner layer. This is merino wool, which is marvellous for maintaining its insulating qualities even while wet. (Cotton, on the other hand, can lead to exposure even while fully clothed.) 

When I arrived in Prrenjas, I paused in the central square to take my bearings. I knew that there were two hotels on the far end of town on the shore of an artificial lake, but I thought perhaps there was something a little more central. ‎While I was standing there, a man approached and struck up a conversation with me. We rapidly exhausted my knowledge of Albanian, yet sitting at a table on the sidewalk drinking with him and his friends, it didn't seem to matter. His younger brother speaks far more Greek than I do, and a smattering of Italian and English, so I wasn't a complete lump. The evening call to prayer rose from the nearby minaret, and I realised my body was no longer generating heat.

The sun set. By this time, my new-found friend had told me, "No hotel! Mi casa."‎ I was flattered, but wasn't sure how much longer we'd stay sitting there. By now, I was getting cold. There was a sudden flurry of goodbyes and shaking of hands, and then we headed towards his car. His two sons had come to collect him and the merchandise he was selling on a stand on the sidewalk. There was a brief but rather heated exchange and then we started off. The windows fogged up almost immediately, so it was an interesting ride.

Although we went the long way around the block, Ruzhdi ended up taking me to the hotel 500 metres away from where we met. He introduced me to the proprietor and saw that I was settled in. It took an intervention by the hotelier (who speaks English) to persuade him that, while I was grateful for the offer, I really did not want to be driven to Struga tomorrow morning. He will be coming by to meet me for coffee, so I should send this off now, say my prayers, and get an early night.

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