Hey, I know it has been a while since I wrote a story. My daughter got married. I don’t really need to say anymore, except we had a great time with family and friends on the beach in Mexico, but now I’m back, and ready to give you another description story. This story will be a description of a remote village in the northern mountains of Albania. It is probably safe to say that not many people from outside of Albania have had the opportunity to experience or observe this life style. So here goes.
Since there was no co-pilot on this flight, I sat in the front seat of the helicopter next to the pilot. I stared down between my feet through the canopy at the steep ravines and terraced mountain sides as we passed over small villages perched precariously on the slopes. The pilot threaded his craft through a canyon with steep cliffs on either side. Dark, deep blue clouds provided the backdrop for the white, cottony, orographic clouds—I actually looked up the word orographic… it’s fun to learn new words—that hung heavily, obscuring the high peaks, promising a storm to come.
The Balkan Alps are rugged, and very much like the Rocky Mountains that I am used to. River beds that run wild with water during spring snow melt, now in August, cut through the ravines as streams lined with broad beaches of river rock. Villages occasionally dot the mountain slopes. From the air it takes little time to connect them, but on foot no doubt it would take the good part of a day or more. I am suddenly struck by the fact that there are no roads. Narrow trails cut along the terrain by centuries of sheep and goat traffic vein out from the villages into the vast, sparsely inhabited wilderness.
We clear a ridge and drop quickly into a valley rimmed by tall peaks on every side. My stomach hops into my throat, and I wonder if I only thought of crying out in surprise, or if I actually did cry out. I give a side-long glance at the pilot who has the faintest turn of his lips in an amused smile—I did cry out.
We pass low over a village looking for a safe place to land. A river cuts through terraced corn fields outlined by trees. Over the river is an old wooden foot bridge that even from the air looks ancient. Stone houses with terra cotta tile roofs rise from patches of level ground that pock the narrow valley of undulating foot hills. As we approach lower we can see curious villagers emptying from the stone houses and fields finding pathways to parallel our traverse. The pilot finds an open meadow just on the outskirts of the village. He lands the helicopter with the tail rotor jutting out over a deep gully formed by an out cropping of rock—careful to insure that no one can accidentally walk into the blades.
For safety sake our team has been drilled to take less than two minutes to off-load ourselves and all of our equipment. Within a minute the helicopter is rising back into the sky, and we are left completely surrounded and pressed in on by surprised, and confused, but seemingly friendly Albanians. My first thought as I look to my two Albanian team mates is, “What have I gotten myself into?” For the first time in my life, I feel truly alone. Thousands of miles from home with team mates that I had met only hours before, I feel vulnerable. This is where I have to trust God that I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I am supposed to be doing.
Time has had little effect on this very remote village perched high in the Balkan Alps. There is no electricity. No running water. No roads, and almost no contact with the outside world. The people live in the same stone houses that their ancestors built literally hundreds of years ago. All that is different is the occasional new mud packed, tree branch constructed roofs over-tiled with terra cotta, and more recent rough cut wooden plank floors that have been replaced as needed. The approach to each house is shaded by grapevines bulging with ripening fruit hanging from trellises stretched over courtyards planted with other fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers. A mangy white furred dog is stretched out on its side at the base of the porch stairs, too lazy or indifferent to realize that a chicken has just scampered across its haunches on its mad scurry from the porch to the back of the house.
To the side of the house is a conical shaped stack of hay piled around a central pole. A neckless of stones bound together by a handmade wire mesh encircles the pinnacle of the cone—its weight forcing the hay lower done the pole as the animals eat from the bottom. The buzz of a billion flies—OK, maybe only a million—fills the air as they swarm and flit from rotting fruit carcasses strewn along the ground, and piles of dung deposited by sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, donkeys, small Albanian horses, cows, and humans. A rain barrel stands sentinel to the side of the front porch steps with a skim of gnats and flies buoyant on the surface of the water.
A breeze gently flaps the lace curtain tacked over the opening of the front door. The door is very short by American standards and I have to duck through after removing my shoes and leaving them on the front porch with everyone else’s. The door is made of rough planks painted dark green, and stands ajar, wedged between the floor and the jam. I am led by my host through another door to the right. It too, I must duck through. There is no furniture in the room save for an unfinished round wooden table propped up against one of the walls. My host, a seemingly old weathered man who may really only be in his fifties, cordially bids me to sit on a sheep skin rug next to the fireplace which is also used as a kitchen. This is a place of honor, and my host sits next to me hip to hip and takes my hand in his looking earnestly for a sign from me that I am comfortable in his home, and that I am enjoying his hospitality. I begin to realize that the personal space that I am used to in America is not going to be observed here in Albania. Touching and closeness are simply expressions of acceptance, and having felt so alone just moments before, I begin to appreciate the old man’s gesture.
The room darkens as the heavy rain clouds finally crest the summit of the mountain that is this man’s backyard. We sit and talk in the shadows as my Albanian team mate conveys the language between us. Soon the man’s wife appears carrying a tray with a bowl of Turkish Delight and demitasses of Turkish coffee for everyone sitting along the wall on sheep skin rugs. The coffee is so thick it must be chewed rather than sipped. A heavy sludge of coffee grounds coats my teeth with every lift of the small cup to my lips. I am told that the village rarely gets visitors, let alone foreigners. I am the first American they have ever seen. I am suddenly overwhelmed by a deep sense of obligation. The loneliness has vanished, and I have an unmistakable feeling of purpose. I am in this country, in this village, and in this man’s home for a reason.
Next week I will continue the story. God Bless You until next time!