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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Maiden Voyage

Destination: Tepelene, city of Ali Pasha
Distance: 32 KM x 2= 64 km round trip
Time: 3.5 hours
Terrain: semi-mountainous, patchy road

Last weekend I took my first long ride on the bike!

First, the scene:
A few dozen volunteers --mostly those in the group that recently arrived, as virtually all of the G11ers have left the country-- gathered just outside of Gjirokaster for a critical mass tubing excursion down the river.

Chris has been organizing tubing trips since last summer, usually starting at the bridge in Kardhiq (head of tributary and near an air-pump station) and getting out where the river collides with waters from Permet. They assure me the water is fine, but I have my doubts. I know for a fact the hospitals dump their waste into the rivers, and the idea of swimming with aborted fetuses and syringes makes my skin crawl... Not to mention the garbage from every village and town upstream...
But the others are brave!

While the group embarked on their floating adventure, I slipped into my new jersey and padded shorts, then packed my klean kanteen, a camera, towel, and spare clothes into my side pannier. Mp3 player? Check. Helmet? Check.

Totally legit with helmet and all!

Ahhh… freedom! The experience of biking versus riding in a bus or car is absolutely incomparable. I was able to stop and explore many times-- near an old bridge I always notice, in a village with a pretty church, at the fish tank stand with the lonely seller... Without the restrictions of glass windows the view of Albania’s landscape is even more majestic.

Sa bukur!

Fresh fish anyone? Raised right here in the mountains!

There were some mediocre hills to climb, which weren’t so hard, however, it was midday so the on-coming winds were mighty strong. Even on the downhill I was forced to pedal. Near Tepelene is a place called Ujё Fhtotё (Cold Water)—one of many roadside springs in Albania—where people sell snacks, local honey, and mountain tea in the shade next to a few restaurants and cafes. I happened to meet people from one of the dozens of “I Love Çamёria” buses also stopped. From Elbasan, a lady explained to me, on their way with hundreds of others for a Cham festival in Sarandё.

At Ujё Ftohtё, where people stop for fresh spring water and to buy mountain tea and honey

Chams are an ethnic group from Chameria (Çamёria), in the northern Greek Epirus region, who were expelled to Albania after WWII. They have their own unique clothing and music, and are fairly active in minority rights activism around here. Family origin still runs deep.

Dozens of Cham buses decked out with banners passed me on their way to the festival

So, after filling my canteen with fresh water, I finished the last hill up to the city of Tepelene to wait for the tubing crew, resting again in the cool shade overlooking the valley.

View of the valley below from Tepelene's castle

Somehow I beat them—the tired, worn out, and sun burnt group meandered up towards our friend Alana’s house where we then had a bbq party in her front garden. Not only is her garden beautifully manicured (by her adoptive gjyshja), but her house sits on a street inside the city’s ancient castle walls. How cool is that?

Some of the survivors!

Alana's front yard/ garden is shume e bukur~~

With tubes doubling as chairs, we feasted on grilled summer vegetables and chicken, potato salad, watermelon, and Albanian spice cake. Before the vodka-spiked watermelon made the rounds, I set off for my journey home to Gjirokastёr. The trip back was so much easier, as the wind came from behind me, and it was cooler out. Chris and a small group caught a ride back to town, passing by me with cheers, and only one dog came chasing after me from the fields. All in all—success!

Relaxing on the tubes while food is cooking

My ecstatic anticipation for our upcoming bike journey is good compensation for having to leave Albania. :)

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