Narrow, winding road with sticky and uneven asphalt, somewhere in the mountains in the south of Albania. Scorching heat, no wind, no shade. Silence interrupted by the noise of insects’ wings, my own breath and my footfalls. Large backpack on my back, smaller “bellybag” in the front. Sweat dropping from my forehead. I have no idea where I will end up in 30 minutes from now on. I have never been so happy.
Sounds like a nightmare? Let me tell you how I got there and reveal what happens when you’re so far away from your comfort zone.
I wake up and the first thing I see from my window (mind you, I don’t even need to get out of bed) is the panorama of Gjirokastër in shy, dim, morning light. I watch the sun walking up the sky for a few minutes and fall asleep again.
I wake up again feeling like a goddess – full of energy, with fresh mind and ready to experience some more of Albanian adventures. After getting ready and eating my breakfast, I leave the hostel with an intention of going to Sarande with a stop in Syri i Kaltër, better known as the Blue Eye, an insanely crystal-clear and deep Bistricë river spring.
I am sitting in a run-down reddish city bus going from the top to the bottom of Gjirokastër. One of the passengers, an elderly men in a panama hat, sun-washed shirt and classic canvas trousers, is using sign language mixed with Albanian and scraps of English to explain where I need to get off to reach the bus “station”. My face must be saying that I don’t understand because the man just goes all the way by bus until there’s my stop and shows me the way.
9:45, bus “station” in Gjirokastër
I am approaching the mini-bus with a big sign “Sarandë”. The driver is already preparing for the drive, there are some people sitting on the bus already. I ask about the price of the ticket and explain that I am not going to Sarandë, but to Syri i Kaltër – it’s 2/3 of the whole route. The driver says it’s 300 leks. I ask again, how much is the ticket to Syri i Kaltër? He, more agitated, repeats the same. Some other men, who were sitting on the bus stop, are approaching us.
Beware, I am in the “let’s start the haggling game” mood.
It’s not that I don’t have enough money. It’s the fact that I won’t let him think that he can cheat me, because I’m a foreigner and a woman and get away with that.
I have all the time, I’m not in hurry and have nothing against hitch-hiking, should haggling go awry. In fact, I feel insanely excited, like an actress on a stage – which is not far from reality. After few minutes of our heated discussion, half of the street surrounds us to watch the word and ambition fight between the local Albanian 30-something man and a foreign blonde.
9:55, bus “station” in Gjirokastër
10 minutes later and we are still haggling. The man doesn’t want to let me pay for the Gjirokastër – Syri i Kaltër stretch, but insists on paying for the Gjirokastër – Sarande stretch.
I am stubbornly refusing.
The driver calls for a younger boy who speaks some English. Maybe this would help.
-I want to go to Syri i Kaltër. I know where it is. I know it is before Sarandë. I will pay for going to Syri i Kaltër, NOT Sarandë.
– He wants you to pay for the whole tickets.
-Why should I pay for the whole ticket if I get off in Syri i Kaltër?
– Because in Albania, you have to pay for the whole ticket.
-This is pointless. How much is from Tirana to Gjirokastër?
– 600 leks.
-How much is from Tirana to Sarandë?
-See? You don’t pay for the whole route in Albania. I won’t pay 300.
Here the driver, who was listening to our discussion, takes out his wallet and car keys and hands them to me.
-If you are so clever, take the keys and drive my car! – he shouts.
At this point, I am so amused by the whole experience that I start laughing loud and take the car keys from him. Apparently, he changes his mind, as he starts chasing me to take it back.
The young guy joins us again, mind you, we are all surrounded by some 16 people by now, and sas something in Albanian. The driver shouts back and quickly marches away.
-You will pay 200 and he will take you.
Why did I even bother to haggle over 100 leks?
-I was in a mood for some active interaction with the locals. ;-b
-I was totally relaxed and, in fact, in need of some adventure.
-Although at some point I was literally surrounded by people I didn’t know, I still felt safe.
-Gjirokastër is a touristic place which affects the mindset of locals. I won’t let them think that I’m a stupid American tourist not knowing the reality, easy to rip off. It’s not that I am prejudiced against Americans, but they sometimes really act naive and stupid.
And come on. Paying for a ticket to a place I am not going to, is outward cheating.
I get on the bus. It starts filling up. There is no space left to sit, so next people who come, sit on their own foldable chairs. Seat belts? What is that?
The initially even road starts climbing at impossible angles. We need to get from one valley into another one, though mountains. The views are truly breathtaking.
12:30, somewhere near the Blue Eye
You can’t miss Syri i Kaltër. A big, old sign tells you where to go to find this amazing place. I get off the bus, take my bags and slowly start walking on a little road. After approximately … 30 seconds, a big camper van stops and a young girl waves at me.
-Do you need a ride to the Blue Eye?
Of course I do!
I jump on the van belonging to a young couple from Munich. We talk all the way (not that long, only 3 kilometers) until, with some difficulties, the van is parked.
We say goodbye to each other and I go to see the river spring.
The Blue Eye is crowded. There are mostly tourists from Italy and Germany. I leave my bags under a tree near a little stand with souvenirs and ask a young girl to have an eye on my belongings.
The colours of water are indeed impressive. Deep, saturated blues and greens intermingle. The water is crystal-clear. Although it’s over 50 meters deep, I can see each little stone lying at the bottom of the river.
After some 40 minutes of taking pictures and relaxing in pleasant shade, I feel it’s time to go.
I don’t know of any buses going to Sarandë from here. I have no idea whether I will wait long in this heat, hitch-hike, catch a bus or walk. Nothing.
I walk on the road mentioned at the very top of this post and feel the happiest person ever. Everything is just going the way I like. I won my little ambition battle with the driver, I got a lift to the Blue Eye, although I hadn’t expected anything like this. I took this awesome shot which I know will impress not only my boyfriend and my friends, but just anyone (see last picture in this post). I am literally enjoying every single step I take, despite the heat, despite heavy bags.
Have I ever been so far from my comfort zone and so satisfied with just everything that surrounds me? I don’t think so. I feel like a super-heroine: here I am, somewhere in Albania, safe and sound and kicking. All the concerns I had before setting off are so far away I can’t believe I had them.
How could I possibly assume I would get lost? My sense of orientation and intuition have become so sharp and alert that even if I wanted, I can’t get lost.
I was afraid of having to carry my bags when the weather is hot. Here I am doing this and guess what? I sweat like crazy, but my body has all the strength I need. I’m not tired.
I was anxious that I would swear silently that I made wrong decisions and ended up in wrong places. And there the biggest surprise. My mind is clear, thoughts precise and spirit high and I trust my guts. Dam it, I make the right decisions!
Although I have no plan, I am certain that I’ll do well and it makes me happy.
I reach the main road to Sarandë and a car stops. Three Albanian guys inside offer a ride. Literally two seconds later I spot a bus going to Sarandë and wave. The bus stops. I make a quick calculation: a car with three Albanians versus a bus? I get on the bus, take off my bag, sit down and smile like crazy.
Impossible is nothing.