Scott may have been first to the South Pole, and Cook to the North (Peary was such a Poop) . . . . But CATHERINE was the first to stand on Our New Stairs. Well, half of them anyhow. Those of you who know us will remember the Old Stairs. One of my favorite memories from last year was of the overheard conversation of two hikers : ”We just walked from Thethi to Valbona, but the scariest thing I saw today was THESE STAIRS.” To be fair, they were fairly normal Alpine stairs, but they did take some getting used to. You will note here in the background that it started to snow today. Nutty. Stay tuned for the slide show, as we tear the front off the hotel to build a luxurious New Room. Oh. Alfred wants me to say that actually He and Brahim (our wonderful genius builder) were the first. But can they prove it? Hah.
Archive for the ‘From Catherine’ Category
This is Alfred’s Mother Sose, spinning Lesh (wool). I would just like to take this moment to officially express my gratitude and love, in case I haven’t been clear about it before. People here in Valbona are amazing. I arrived as a visitor one summer and simply refused to go away. Their response? They have taken me in, given me a home and a family, as far as I can tell, with no hesitation or doubts. Their generosity and kindness is without bounds.
“Faleminderit Shume!” to the people who write to say kind things about what I’m doing here – but (ooh, I’m getting teary) I just wanted to say that for me, the heroes are the People of Valbona. Uh oh. I have to stop or I will cry!
Okay – I swear to Zot i madh – really there are lots and lots of wonderful long boring peaceful days, when nothing at all happens and I just bake bread and read books and go for walks. But I haven’t mastered the art of taking good pictures of that yet! It’s this stuff that I for some weird reason find really funny . . . . or do I mean amusing? We were off to Kosovo yesterday to run some errands, and on the far side of Bajram Curri, nearing the Kosovar border, we were rounding a bend when Alfred said with a tone of mild disgust “The road’s blocked.” Huh? I looked up from my (endless) knitting “What do you mean the . . . . Oh.” See that bit of raw hillside to the right? That part just broke loose and . . . fell into the road. What I think is funny is how my American brain just can’t really process it. While Alfred turned the car to go the long way ’round, I kept staring at the rocks thinking – there MUST be a way around it. But, as you can see from the photo, nope. I should add that I’ve yet to hear of anyone being hurt by this sort of thing. I mean, anything like recently. It’s just more as if the mountains were playing some bizarre game with us. Last year we ran into our friend Alfred Metalia who was driving around with a small boulder in the back of his truck. Turns out it had fallen off the mountain, missing his car by only a few meters. So: He got out of his car to take a look at it, stood over it thinking, and then (presumably figuring it had his name on it) picked it up and put it in the back of his truck. For all I know, he’s still driving around with it. Come to think of it, I think I should stop telling these stories . . . . stay tuned tomorrow for something less like gargantuan cat and mouse.
Here is a picture I took on February 8th, in Tirana. A man died here during the January 21st Protests. Two days after his death, this corner was heaped with flowers. Almost three weeks later I saw this. Here’s something I wrote after Alfred and I were at the Protests . . . . . http://onlinejournal.com/artman/publish/article_6858.shtml
We are entering our fourth week with no electricity, which makes me realize how fast I adapt to things – oh, I don’t mean that as a self-congratulation – more like I get much too comfortable too quickly. It’s pitch dark at 4:30 pm, at which point Alfred and I take to opposite ends of the sofa in the kitchen (getting tangled up somewhere in the middle) under a big blanket and he goes quietly to sleep while I read, knit or shush the mouse (Alfred is NOT as sentimental as I am about animals, and I suspect he would take a dim view of the fact that the mouse seems to have made off with two big baskets of chestnuts which I suspect he’s squirrelling – mousing? – away inside the sofa, judging from the busy noises he was making underneath me last night . . . ) ANYHOW. It’s been raining constantly all month, which means that another chunk of road fell into the river two nights ago. People from Dragobi dug a sort of route through with shovels, so we made it back to Bajram Curri today but to do so we had to cross a bridge with only a thin thread of road (pretty much exactly one car-width wide) leading onto it – the rest has fallen down a precipice and into the river on either side leaving a rather thought-provoking tangle of what looks like water pipe or something hanging in space which seems to be all that’s holding up the bridge on the Valbona side. It’s noticably worse than it was a week ago which makes me suspect that we may not be crossing it again soon . . . Alfred’s gone off to Kosovo to buy 500 kilos of flour as he says “just in case.” It seems to me like 500 kilos of flour might be just what’s needed to knock the rest of the bridge into the river, but then I’m sure he knows better about these sorts of things . . . . Stay tuned for more exciting news of our stone-age adventures when the power eventually comes back. I’m reading up on microhydropower systems at the moment, so if worst comes to worst we might be able to hook a sort of pinwheel up to the car’s alternator and shove the whole thing under the old water mill . . . .
Bajram Curri, after whom the town is named, was a Kosovar who played some sort of large role (of which I am admittedly ignorant) in wresting Albania from the Ottomans. Unfortunately (fatkeqsisht), being Kosovar he was interested in reuniting Kosovo with Albania, which somehow brought him into conflict with King Zog. In 1925, he famously took refuge from Zog’s pursuing forces in the Shpella e Dragobise, the Cave of Dragobi, where he died on March 29th from gunshot wounds. The Official Line is that he killed himself, rather than face being captured. The understood truth is that Zog had him killed. The fact of the Cave has never been in question.
A path to the cave is marked on standard maps, as well as showing up on the Albanian Geo-political Base Map that somehow found its way into my GPS. Alfred included the standard trail without a hesitation in our list of possible local walks. The people of Valbona refer to it cheerfully – knowingly, even. It is to be found, if it is to be found at all, on the lower slopes of Mount Pecmarres, my beloved bete noire.
Today I have returned from my fourth (failed?) attempt to find this damn cave.
I should begin by explaining that this repeated expedition is one I indulge in when odd hours of liberty appear from my responsibilities at Rilindja. It takes about half an hour from the hotel to cross a little wooden footbridge and meander along the river, past a few hidden stands of willows growing in bright white pockets of Valbona River sand up to a hillside bursting with wild strawberries in early summer, raspberries in late July and Thona bushes in autumn. Along the way one strolls past an abandoned farmstead and a grassy bank with three melancholic little graves layed out with neolithic splendor in precise rings of small white stones. No one has told me the story of these graves yet. It took Alfred two trips to admit they even were graves.
According to my maps, the GPS and local advice, the path to the Shpella is parallel to this walk, just a little uphill and quite clear. The first time I set out to find it I got tired of walking along the river looking for a side path that never appeared, and just bashed away uphill through the young (therefore tangled, impenetrible and irritating) beech forest, trying to connect with the footpath that Alfred had clearly marked on his chart of local walks. This was the day I got stuck on top of Pecmarres and spent the night sitting up wedged between the trunk of a tree and a cliff face with my feet dangling in space while I waited for the sun to rise. That is not the subject of this narrative (ahem). The next time I set off, I decided not to follow Alfred’s map, encouraged by the fact that the same path to the Shpella was clearly marked on the Albanian Geo-political Base Map (aforementioned) on the GPS. I don’t really like the GPS, but this is the sort of thing that makes me feel hopeful about it. After crawling over and under, and being poked by, quite a lot of a different section of young (and therefore tangled, impenetrible and irritating) beech forest, I did not find anything even faintly resembling the path that the GPS assured me I was on. I did find a lovely bit of mouldy forest floor absolutely crawling with enormous stag beetles which I spent a very nice 45 minutes playing with. I then set off to climb up a steep bit of forest and was just hanging from one sturdy young beech tree when I heard a weird sort of snuffling banging noise coming along the path (I mean route) I’d just myself traversed. Clinging to my chosen limb, I watched the bushes and trees and bush-like-trees quiver and shake. I listened to and thought about the weird snuffling sort-of-slurping noise I heard. Definitely not a wolf, I thought. Wolves are more subtle. And probaby not a bear, as a bear would be big and therefore visible. I thought about doing something sensible like climbing a tree, thought about Jaberwockies, and then climbed back down to follow whatever it was that was following me. In fact, this is not as silly as it sounds, I don’t think. Anything making that much noise couldn’t seriously be stalking me. I assumed it was just something as noisy as me, out for a bush-rattling afternoon stroll. I stalked hopefully after it. I got a bit turned around in the bushes, and the noises stopped. I never did manage to glimpse it. Consultation with Alfred and some other knowing elders lead to the conclusion that in must have been in fact a Wild Boar. That explains the (most un-wolf-like) snuffling noise. Not surprisingly, that was enough of the so-called Path to the Cave for me, for that day. I went off to pick strawberries instead. When I got back to Rilindja, I told Naim that there was no path to the cave (the depressing idea that there might in fact be no cave not having yet occurred to me). No, he said, probably not. What?! Well no one’s gone there for years and years, he said. It’s probably grown over. Phooey.
My next attempt consisted of walking parallel to the overgrown trail, looking for hopeful spots, like small streams, to cross up to it. I made a lot of notes and waypoints in the much-maligned GPS. There were however an awful lot of strawberries ripening just then, as well as some truly staggering crops of bright metallic-green beetles sunning themselves on something called Rrushqeni (Dog-grapes) here that I think are what British people call elderberries, and I contented myself with planning expeditions for another day. Alfred, looking at my map of where I’d been that day, helpfully (if somewhat contemptuously) informed me that the cave was just a little bit up the ridge from where I’d just been.
Hence the expedition of today. Today, will me nill me, I was going to find the damned cave. I would not be waylayed by beetles bugs or berries. I would not take up my vorpal blade. I would just circle around in the woods by the line of trees on the ridge where Alfred assured me the cave most certainly was. And so I set off. From the strawberry fields I simply turned up hill, and climbed up the ridge and into the forest. Well, simply . . . . this included something less than an hour of dragging myself through clinging and unwilling vines of sullen raspberries, then a scramble through a steep bit of the forest, mercifully free of underbrush, but weirdly silent and carpeted everywhere with thick, bright green moss. It is the sort of place where you don’t really want to make any noise. Not a sound. A twig snapping sounds like an insult. The GPS assured me that the cave had to be on this side of the ridge, and so I wove back and forth, convincing myself (mostly) that the outcrop of rock I discovered had to be the only possible one. I started making my way in a circle around it, discovering a wealth of strange crevasses and odd corners including one that, when photographed, disclosed a strange blue cloud hovering in the air that certainly wasn’t there when I peered in for myself. Trick of the light, of course. Of course.
Solemn green hush. That’s what I found. And a myriad of strange rock hidey-holes, that I couldn’t imagine anyone taking refuge in, in winter but even less, if they did, could I imagine anyone ever finding them. In the end I did what I always do, and grew impatient, and climbed up the rock (thinking as usual: I probably shouldn’t be doing this . . .) to emerge into bright sunshine and a gorgeous view of the valley and the road to Cerem. I ate my lunch, and wiggled my feet at the view. On the way down, I found signs of a bear. You know . . . . signs! Poop, and moss I certainly hadn’t torn. And then, when I was finishing my circuit just for the stubborn hell of it, I think I maybe found the cave. I’m not sure why I think it was – is? An extra quality of stillness, of sadness? A slightly less unbelievable quality? It’s not a cave, really – not like a Flintstone cave. More a particularly deep shelf with some extra shafts that you could just about imagine wriggling down into backwards. Of course I have no idea if it was or not.
I turned to work my way back down to the friendly fields of berries. It would be dark soon and people would start worrying. The woods were still perfectly silent, as I suppose they have been for a long time, and will be for a while yet.
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