There are many things that have impressed me over the years about Albania. The culture and hospitality I have already mentioned in previous stories, but another aspect of Albanian society that I have always been intrigued with is their pragmatism in matters of responsibility and liability. For the most part they have this mentality that they take responsibility for their own actions. They are not always looking for someone to blame if they do something wrong. For example, if there is road construction and a big hole has been dug the average Albanian will simply avoid falling into it. Their mentality is, if you are stupid enough to fall into the hole, then it is your own fault. Unfortunately in my society the person who falls into the hole will all too often look to blame the person who dug it. The average Albanian wouldn’t even think about blaming someone else for spilling hot food on themselves. But in my society sometimes we are afraid to admit that we are nincompoops, and if we happen to have an episode in which we behave like nincompoops, then it has to be, obviously, someone else’s fault. Now I know there are many cases in which someone causes harm to another, but I am not talking about those times. I’m talking about someone walking toward and falling into a hole in the ground because they were too busy talking on their cell phones, and then wanting to blame someone else for it. Albania can sometimes be fairly haphazard in regard to public safety, but the rule of thumb is, Watch where you are going! Know that there is danger out there. Listen, and watch for signs of trouble. And if you don’t, the consequences are on your own head.
My story this week, however, is not about bashing Americans who don’t watch where they are going and praising Albanians who do, but once again it is about my own nincompoopness in not listening to the warning of an Albanian friend and finding myself in trouble. I was on a Jesus Film Team—see previous posts—around the coastal area of southwestern Albania. At this time our base camp was in the coastal city of Vlora, and our villages were scattered north between Vlora and another city called Fier. Our villages this year were actually more like small towns. They were much more urban than villages I had been in during previous Jesus Film projects. There was more hustle and bustle. More distractions, and more noise.
The first night I was in the base camp and every night I was in the base camp subsequent to that, I was kept awake by a large, very loud barking dog just outside my window. He pretty much barked all night, every night, but I couldn’t really blame the dog as it was a full moon. I never did sleep well while I was in the base camp that year. In years past I always looked forward to getting out into the remote villages where the pace was slower and the atmosphere was quieter, but like I said this particular year the villages were more urban and so I didn’t sleep well out in them either. By the time our team had gone into all three villages showing the Jesus Film, and then returned to our base camp after four days, I was exhausted. When I got back to my dorm all I wanted to do was take a nap.
Of course nothing really works out like you plan, and one of the first axioms of mission work is, you must be flexible. My opportunity for flexibility came right after I had eaten lunch, and I was on my way to my bunk for a nap. My good Albanian friends Avni and Maklen had just pulled into our compound with their campus team leaders who were part of a training conference in the same area, and they had stopped in to say hello. I hadn’t seen them yet that year so the reunion with them and other friends on their team was a wonderful time. Avni informed me that their afternoon was free from the conference, and that they were all going to the beach, and they invited me to go with them.
I hadn’t had a shower in several days, and so I was hot and stinky, and even though I was very tired I didn’t want to pass up the chance to go for my first swim in the Ionian Sea. So ignoring my fatigue I grabbed my trunks, and we all piled into the Land Rover Defender and headed to the beach.
Albania’s shores sweep into the Aegean Sea to the north and the Ionian Sea to the south. Some beaches are sandy, which is the kind I prefer due to my tender footedness, and others are rocky. The beach in Vlora is of the later. We drove south of the city and came to small rocky beach that had large rock formations jutting up from the surf. Now on any American beach there would have been red flags flying that day warning people not to get into the water due to the enormous waves that were crashing into the rock formations and onto the beach at this time of month. But as I stated in the first paragraph the Albanian mentality is that you should see the enormous waves crashing onto the beach and have sense enough not to get into the water without having to be told not to.
All my Albanian friends flipped off their shoes and ran into the surf in their bare feet, completely unbothered by the rocks. I kept my Rebook sandals firmly fastened and joined them. The best way to describe the action of the waves is violent. One of the Albanian girls who was from Vlora said that she and her friends often swam out to a large flat rock formation that lay about one hundred and fifty meters out, and they would climb on top of it and dive off. I asked if they did that even when the waves were so high, and she said that it was not a problem, or sk’a problem. I looked at the waves and the distance to the rock and thought that it not only looked do-able, but also fun. I was a strong swimmer, in fact I used to be a lake life guard when I was young, and in my way of thinking if this little girl could do it, then so could I, and when would I ever get another chance to swim out to a rock formation and dive off into the Ionian sea?
Now this is where the heavy weight of my sheer nincompoopedness began to come into play. My friend Maklen calmly and without feeling the need to coax a grown man to use his head, told me that I shouldn’t go. I ignored her. I joined the Albanian college student who had already swam passed the first wave break, and the two of us slowly and deliberately swam for the rock formation. When we got closer we could see from our new perspective that the violence of the waves against that rock was too great, and there would be no way to safely climb up on top of it without being dashed to pieces.
So we began our swim back to the beach. The swells undulated and tossed us, and the undertow caught our feet and dragged us backward. Several times the swell was so deep that I lost sight of the beach, but I knew that although I was getting extremely tired I couldn’t give up. Do you remember that movie with Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise where Burt changes his mind and decides that he doesn’t want to commit suicide by drowning himself in the ocean, so he turns back and laboriously swims to the beach making promises to God all along the way. At first when he thinks he is going to drown he promises God everything, but the closer he gets to the beach his promises become more and more superficial. Well, my promises to God didn’t become more and more superficial, but I definitely was pleading for my life.
By the time we reached the beach, I literally crawled out on my hands and knees and collapsed over onto my back snorting snot and coughing and spewing water like a ship wrecked castaway. When I finally regained a little strength I rolled over onto my stomach to see Maklen sunning herself on her beach towel near the embankment opposite me, and looking curiously at me. She with matter-of-fact calmness said, “A couple of times I lost sight of you out there.” I said, “I almost drowned!” Her reply was simple. “I told you not to go out there!” Her implication was clear. Had I drowned I would have had no one to blame but myself. Ahh!… See how simple that is?