A blurry thumbs up from the gleeful groom!It’s our first of many Albanian weddings, on what just so happens to be our fourth wedding anniversary. The mayhem is overwhelming and so we begin the 24-kilometer climb out of town and into Albania’s Accursed Mountains. Rain falls and we pass wild pigs... wild blackberries... and wild…people. Really. Deep into the mountains (a.k.a. in the middle of nowhere), we come across elderly men in suits and ties the same color as their natural surroundings sitting on the side of the road. We feast on locally-made food, swim in the indoor pool and even hike to a cave with one of the employees at Natyral Razma Resort. We are booked for two nights, but Justin gets sick and can’t leave the bed on the day we’re set to leave, so we stay an extra night. With Justin still feeling slightly ill, we leave Razma and pedal 30 or so kilometers to a hotel in Shkodër, where a wedding reception is in full swing. Traditional music thumps on the first floor and the smell of pig, which is being roasted in the back alley, wafts through our open window. Justin’s health improves as mine starts to deteriorate and I’m sick the whole night and into the following day. We must be drinking contaminated tap water, we conclude, and switch to bottled. From Shkodër, we pedal pass horse-drawn carts, donkeys hauling heavy loads, women harvesting mountain tea, and numerous free-roaming animals until we reach a ferry that will take us to Fierza. After making landfall, we ride to Barjam Curri, and then on towards Valbona, a beautifully unspoiled area in the heart of Albania’s Accursed Mountains. It's not in the plans, but after bumping into two bike tourers who tell us how welcoming Kosovo is to tourists, especially Americans, we put it on the map and pedal to the border for a day trip.
It’s not quite sunrise yet but I’m awake as the first cars pass our tent, pitched at dusk the night before and shielded from the road by just a few trees. I squeeze my eyes shut and will myself to sleep, at least until the sun illuminates our life’s possessions, which have been whittled down to fit inside our three-pound-seven-ounce nylon home. It’s no use. I don’t know of a single person who has been to the country in Southeastern Europe we are about to roll into—or anyone who even desires to visit for that matter. It’s the first country that is more than “foreign.” It’s utterly unknown. And I’m terrified. Picturesque photos and tales of wonderful experiences from fellow bike tourers are what push me out of the tent, onto my bike and toward Albania. Before we entered the country, we were warned that the roads would be bad. In actuality, the main road we are riding along has nary a pothole and is one of the first we’ve come across with an actual shoulder. We pull into a gas station attempting to find out where we can exchange money and buy food. Several minutes, lots of charades and three attendants later, we are told there is a bank in Koplic. We ride 10 kilometers to the town center and are immediately thrust into organized chaos. As cars speed by, we notice an equal amount of right- and left-hand drive vehicles. We withdraw 5,500 Albanian Lekë ($50 USD) and turn to look for a market, but are sidetracked by a passing train of cars embellished with red and white tulle, honking incessantly. The “conductor” gives Justin a thumbs up and passengers from the middle cars fling candy out of windows. I pull my camera out of my handlebar bag and just as I press the shutter, firecrackers—or are they gunshots?—jolt me to hyper-consciousness.