Week 14 - Dubrovnik to Vlorë, 548km; total 6,117km (new family tour record)
As parents, one quality you hope most for your kids to develop is resilience - that intangible ability to bounce back from failure and overcome life’s inevitable adversities. We have no idea what we did - if anything - but Sitka’s resilience is, in the truest sense of the word, amazing.
Over his first twelve years, our 70-pound wonder has broken his wrist, his thumb and his nose. He’s fallen off a dock into a Muskoka lake, and off a boardwalk into a marsh in the Cascades. So far on our Europe Epic, he’s fallen down a flight of stairs, almost lost an eye to a tree branch, got stung by a jellyfish, and wiped out on his bike enough times that he once tearfully asked us, “Why do I keep hurting myself?”
This week, whisking carefree along the backroads of Albania while discussing currency speculation and how inflation works with his Dad, Sitka glimpsed a three-foot-long whipsnake slithering madly all over the asphalt after Ed’s pass-by woke it from its sunning slumber. He swerved back and forth to avoid the indecisive serpent - more worried about running it over than getting bit - then into Ed’s panniers, losing control and (like we’ve recited his whole biking life) erring away from traffic, ending up in a crumpled heap on the shoulder with Joce and Heron colliding behind him. It was a pretty intense crash - enough to make Ed’s heart skip several beats until he could drop his own bike and run back to be sure his little guy was okay.
But it is seemingly impossible to shake the sunshine out of that kid. As he always does, he popped up, dressed the wound (a few sweet-looking scrapes on his ankle was luckily all he suffered this time), wiped the tears and resumed his merry enjoyment of every bit of life - inquisitive, considerate and game for anything.
In this way, Albanians are Sitka’s kind of people.
For over twelve centuries, this peanut-shaped bit of land on the Ionian Sea north of Greece, east of the high heel of Italy’s boot, and otherwise surrounded by the volatile former Yugoslavian nations has been conquered and dominated by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and other historical bullies. Shortly after they finally asserted independence from 400 years under Ottoman thumb, the Italian Fascists moved in, then the German Nazis until the Communists took over. For 50 years a tyrannical, paranoid dictator burned bridges with the West, then the Soviets and then China - leaving Albanians a deeply islolated and repressed people.
Today, after thirty years of variously corrupt, vaguely democratic governments, it’s believed that more Albanians have migrated away for better opportunities than the number who’ve stayed. But in our brief week cycling north to south along the beautiful, beach-lined coast and inland through the agricultural heartland of corn, grapes and olives, we’ve met some of the most resilient, optimistic and above all sincere people on the planet.
In Shkodër, Ed met Bujari while wandering the side streets far from the touristy old town seeking spare tubes for Sitka’s balding tires. The local bike mechanic and his son were adjusting brakes and replacing cables for the neighbourhood kids outside a ramshackle shop.
“Oh, I have these sizes,” the bearded old man assured Ed. “I will go home and be back in ten minutes.”
Off he rode, and sure enough returned with the exact right tubes, insisting to be paid the measly locals’ rate and no more.
“But you biked all the way home to get these for me. It’s so generous.”
“Then you go to Google and make a good review.”
We talked for a quarter-hour about bikes and the Yukon and Albania - and of course he got the best review ever.
And the Albanians were just getting started with us. For the past five days, we’ve been honked at, and waved at (quite often while hanging precariously out of the vehicles that had just honked), and high-fived, and cheered on, and boisterously “Hello”ed near constantly by people who seemed purely thrilled to see us. It’s well beyond the friendly greetings in more northern Europe, and feels somehow different than the typical swarms of kids keen to meet foreigners in poorer places. It seems to be a genuine curiosity about visitors, and an interest in getting to know us.
“Where are you from?” is always the first question - from old men, middle-aged women, teen boys and little girls alike.
“Ah, Canada.” A knowing nod. “A beautiful country. Like Albania.”
In Kamëz, the conversation with a posse of pre-teens on bikes lasted quite a while as our new friends absorbed every ounce of information about us, our trip, and our home.
“You Canadians are good people,” the rotund young ringleader concluded with a gravitas decades beyond his age, then cycled away.
Of course, all of this is happening in English. Our heads still spinning from trying to master the very basics of Croatian, we got all mixed up with the entirely distinct Albanian language. It didn’t help that we went from Bok for Hello to Përsëndetje, and from Hvala for Thank You to Faleminderit. It took the whole week to get the pronunciations right, and even when we thought we’d nailed it, our new friends were still laughing at us.
“Oh it isn’t laughing,” a few reassured us. “We’re just very happy that you’re trying.”
Indeed, we would generally get contented smiles even from those older Albanians with whom we interacted more like a silent movie (it’s only younger generations learning English after the end of communist isolationism). At one point, Ed couldn’t find eggs in a grocery store, so he had to flap his wings and cluck at the cashier to communicate his needs. Fortunately, Ed’s chicken dance is world-class, so we ate well the next morning.
For all our interactions, however, it’s beyond clear that Albanians love little Sitka - who has proven his resilience and tolerance as his poor cheeks have been prodded and squished and smooched by countless grandparents who could just eat him up.
“I don’t like it. But I don’t mind it,” he explained as we told him he has every right to say No Thank You. “It’s just how they do things here.”
And how they do things here seem to be looking up. On a superb tour of an expansive underground nuclear bunker built by the paranoid communist leader (there was one built for every 11 citizens), our enthusiastic tour guide Lirinë - Albanian for “Freedom” - painted a grim picture of the recent past and even the challenging present. “In communism, everyone has a job but there was never enough food. Now there is plenty of food on the shelves but no jobs so most of us can’t afford it.
“But we’re Albanians. We keep moving forward.”
Over our week we saw some signs of a brighter future fueled by resilient forward motion. Crumbling old concrete-box houses are being replaced or spruced up with vivid paint jobs and stonework facades. Small entrepreneurs are everywhere - selling produce and homemade olive oil from their car trunks, and especially in beach towns like Durres, Vlorë and Himarë that are blooming with modest, charming hotels and restaurants with thoughtful touches, enthusiastic service and ample, lovingly prepared meals. Impressively, after 50 years of bans on religion, we found mosques and churches side by side, and a mural in the town square of Kavajë - with rainbows and clouds - reads Së bashku do ia dalim: “Together we will succeed.”
“Religions are not our problem,” said Lirinë. “It’s the politics that hold us back.”
The most noticeable aspect of past and future to a family on four bikes is the prevalence of other cyclists on the roads with us - almost all from the older generations for whom car ownership was illegal up to the 1990s. Men and women in all states of fitness pedal about in their dress shirts and slacks, blouses and dresses. Elderly couples ride side by side bantering away like Albanian Ma and Pa Costanza.
Thirty years on, however, the roads and driving infrastructure are still in rudimentary shape. Gaping holes are found along the sides and middle of the street, making cycling amongst the chaotic traffic quite the sport. There are hardly any lanes or stoplights, even at major intersections. We found a few rare bike lanes in city cores, but the outskirts of the capital Tiranë, for example - industrial, patchy and shoulderless - are stressful, hellish riding.
Yet we somehow felt entirely safe biking in Albania, snake incidents aside. On highways, frantic town intersections and country roads barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, we discovered a general trait that will surely serve our Albanian friends well as they navigate an uncertain future: for all the chaos, order was found in patience and courtesy. These aren’t words usually descriptive of drivers anywhere, but here the (overwhelmingly young) motorists wave others through first, slow and halt for pedestrians anywhere, and almost unerringly wait until their path is clear.
There’s a lot of starting and stopping, and nudging forward to communicate intent. Cars stop suddenly and park, crooked, in the middle of busy streets and highways, in ways that would drive North American drivers to road rage. But those who come along behind calmly wait and veer around the inconvenient blockage. Even the honking is near-universally good-natured: letting other drivers (and cycling families) know they’re coming, and then an extra honk as they pass to wave hello.
Albanians clearly love their cars. The first word we learned on the road was lavazh - indicating another of hundreds of car washes in a country apparently now obsessed with keeping their cars clean. And you should see how slowly they ride over ubiquitous speed bumps (most fashioned from used six-inch-thick mariners’ rope.
For a people under constant oppression and higher-up control for time immemorial, Albanians are strikingly go-with-the-flow. Sincere. Thoughtful. Genuine. Game for anything. This country will be a must-visit destination like Croatia very soon, and its people will be the drivers.
After all they’ve been through, their resilience is inspiring. Just like a 12-year-old we know with the ankle he mangled trying not to bike over a snake.
Prologue (Artfully at the end): Montenegro
Before we became entranced by Albania, we cycled a couple days up, up, over and across the spectacular mountain-scape (it’s a word now) of Montenegro. The name suitably describes the mammoth karst heaps covered in deep green oak forest that dominate the region, forcing cyclists to wind steeply up and down countless switchbacks numerous times a day, through idyllic valleys with tiny centuries-old hamlets and along the mountainsides far above vast gorgeous bays and lakes. It’s a sweaty, excruciating, magnificent and endlessly rewarding biking.
A harrowing highway ride out of Dubrovnik brought us to the border of this quirky country that was the last to sever from Serbia and set the post-Yugoslavia map of today. Soon we ferried across at Lepetane to the Bay of Kotor, the seeming cottage country of the Balkans surrounded by soaring mountains on all sides leading to the delightfully preserved medieval town of Kotor. Next day our map showed almost three kilometres of elevation gain and three back down - the climbs and descents were dizzying in the intense mid-June sun, until a flat tire (our second in as many days after just one in three months) derailed our progress.
It happened in just the right spot, however, as we had just passed an oasis among the barren mountains - a little shack serving cold drinks at shady tables where a family could rest while Dad switched out tire tubes. We had our first glimpse of Albanian-Montenegrin generosity when the elderly woman behind the counter of the small shack brought a heaping pile of sweet dough balls and jam, signalling without words that they were gifts for the boys who had clearly worked so hard to make it this far in the rugged terrain. That night we slept in a small apartment built into the side of a cave in Podgorica.
We also met a dozen Americans at another snack hut haven in the Montenegrin mountains - aged 70 to 82 on their annual bike touring expedition, and the first (!) with electric bikes. One of the elder riders casually recounted having heat stroke the day before. “I just lied down and waited for the van,” he shrugged as if it were just any other day for a fellow his age - leaving Joce and Ed freshly inspired to keep pedaling well beyond our Bike-Touring-With-Kids days.