(Watch your speed! Trucks: 85 kilometers; Tanks: 55 kilometers)It’s dark and chilly when we leave the hotel. Outdoor eating doesn’t seem to be seasonal here and so we take a seat under an awning, dine on marginally good food and warm up with a shot each of rakia, “a drink that tastes like a fine cognac at its best – and embalming fluid at its worst” a BBC writer once described. We’ve experienced both varieties, and we get lucky tonight. Afterward, we navigate throngs of people while booming nightclub music on our left is juxtaposed with the deafening call to prayer from a mosque on our right. The next day we pedal 20+ kilometers out of town, pass the old Serbian Quarter and climb into the Sharr Mountains, where the crisp air hints at autumn's arrival. We run head-on into a shepherd herding sheep, pass a replica of The White House (complete with the United States coat of arms), eat pizza and French fries from a fancy mountain resort and spend our last night in the country wild camping on the outskirts of the national park. It rains hard and I'm kept awake with visions of landmines dancing in my head. Justin reassures me that our tent is too close to the national park (and the road for that matter) to worry. The next day, within the first few kilometers of pedaling to the Macedonia border, we pass a makeshift camp called The Halo Trust. Later research would inform us it is "the world's oldest and largest humanitarian landmine clearance organization."
The clouds are heavy, gray and moving fast, but I can’t stay in the small room we rented in Bajram Curri any longer. The sewer gas wafting from the bathroom drain is overwhelming, there’s mouse poop on the bed and the aggressive 16-year-old kid running the “hotel” is getting on my nerves. We pack up our panniers and an all-too-recent toilet-hugging session reminds me to filter the water before filling up our bottles this time around. I do and then bring the last bag and filter system down to Justin who’s guarding our bikes. We look up at the sky, which flickers and roars, and then look at each other. “I don’t care,” I say and swing a leg over my bike. A kilometer later, the sky opens and a deluge of water rains down, triggering the immediate flooding of northern Albania’s barely paved back roads. We climb a café au lait-colored river carrying trash, animal feces and bits of asphalt all the way to Kosovo, an impoverished country that declared independence in 2008. At the border crossing, we stop under the overhang to rest our legs. Once again, we’ve found ourselves soaking wet at the summit of a notable climb, too cold to start the long descent. The officers invite us inside to warm up. We gratefully wait out the rain, staying for an hour (or maybe two?). Only the rain doesn’t let up. We venture back out into the storm and pass newly-constructed homes that look like they belong in southern California and mountains that remind me of our northern New Hampshire home. Twenty or so kilometers later, we reach Gjakove, which experienced severe physical damage and lost 75% of its population (due to expulsion) during the Kosovo War. At an intersection, we stop in search of the old part of town. Multiple people approach offering in English to help us. Every time we pause to look at the phone, actually, we’re guided with verbal directions to our destination. Which is wonderful because our digital map doesn’t do well in the rain. We pay for a room, collapse into bed and spend the night drying out and overeating snacks from the first “real” food store we’ve come across in the past three countries. When the rain eventually slows to a mist, we walk Gjakove’s old town, which twinkles and thumps with pop music. “Can you believe we’re here?” Justin asks me when we duck into a bar. Nope. We spend the rest of the night people watching from an outdoor table for two. Men greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, their handshakes linger and conversations are emphasized with body contact. I can count how many women walk by on one hand. The next day, after a few people we meet tell us Kosovo’s second largest city is a must-see, we delay our departure and make our way south through the country instead of looping back into Albania. It’s 40 kilometers of farmland to Prizren, and we’re lucky enough to pass through when the fields are busy with activity. Kilometer after kilometer, peppers are hand harvested, hauled out by tractors and horse-drawn carts, and hawked on the side of the road.