Thursday, October 10, 2013

Just Another 100 KM

A day on your bike can be so amusing! Sometimes it feels like a lifetime has passed and in reality it has only been 100km.  I’m not even talking about the fact that your legs start feeling tired, I’m referring to all the different little experiences that take place on the road in the course of the day while you pedal.

This morning I woke up to peace and quiet, in Albania’s 4th largest city, Shkroder.  It had stormed all through the night, but there was no sound of dripping rain drops outside when I woke, just roosters crowing.  After updating my website, posting some pictures, and catching up on email, I was off on my bike at 10 am headed down to Tirana, Albania’s capital.  Google maps said it was 95 km to the QSI International school and I could see the road was pretty flat, so I thought I had plenty of time with a later morning departure. 

Within 2 minutes of pedaling and trying to leave the city, I saw two tour cyclists ahead of me.  I pedaled up beside them to introduce myself and both parties were shocked  by the encounter in this “off-the-beaten-track town we had to pull over to do a full interrogation.  Matt and Kate, Aussies, had been doing a loop of Europe for the last 3.5 months.  They gave me some travel tips for Albania and Istanbul, and I shared some suggestions about Montenegro, Spain, and France.  In all we only chatted for maybe 10 minutes, but it felt like we were old friends, who were having a coffee and catching up after not seeing each other for a long time!  It is so fun to meet other tour cyclists on the road, there’s this automatic understanding of one another and you just know exactly what kind of information to share. Plus you’re bound for a good laugh! It’s been unusual for me to encounter so many cyclists recently.  They are the second couple in two days that I have seen, both in or on the border of Albania, not necessarily the most cycled country in Europe by any means!

I started pedaling “for real” at 10:30, confident I still had plenty of time for my route and so I was convinced I could try the alternate parallel road to the main highway that looked pretty decent.  I found it easily and the road surface was decent, so I continued on my way to Tirana.

Ever since I crossed the border into Albania, I’ve had nothing but friendly encounters with people on the road.  Cars honk at me continually, but it is definitely a friendly honk as they also wave frantically and smile.  Motos and cyclists also wave and kids on the street reach out to give me a high five.  It is an incredibly warm and welcoming country.  I was easily entertained on this small road, observing all the different types of transportation on the road from motorcycles with front and back carriers, bicycles piled high with goods to deliver, and horse drawn carriages. The roads are heavily used by all different types of “vehicles.”  I stopped at a small intersection, to take a picture of an old man on a quad pulling up to a gas station, and also a horse drawn carriage.  I saw three men playing cards outside a little shop and they insist I take a picture with them.  It was there on that street corner that I followed the sign for Tirana, and didn’t think twice, trusting the road sign.  Five kilometers down the road, a man on a motorcycle came up next to me and started speaking Italian.  We chat for a bit, thankfully my “Italian” is still pretty fresh in my mind, and he tries to tell me something about the road.  I thought I made out the fact that this isn’t the main road and so I told him that I purposely wanted the “piccola strada”.  Who would have thought I’d use my limited Italian vocabulary in Albania?!?!

Another five kilometers down the road, I realize that the man on the moto was trying to tell me the road surface was horrible, because what was before just a few potholes here in there, turned into to be a road covered in potholes. In fact, I don’t think you could actually call the surface a road!  I was bumping along so much I couldn’t even hear myself think clearly!  I finally stopped to look at my map, only to find out that at the junction where I had been a happy tourist taking photos, I had indeed made a wrong turn following the Tirana sign.  I remember thinking at the junction that I should look at my map back, but I said to myself, “Melissa, trust the road signs, you don’t have to look at the map every 2 km!”  Well, I really should have consulted the map because I had chosen a tiny little road that ran parallel to the alternate route I wanted, and parallel to the main route.  The good news was that it eventually made its way back to the main road, the bad news, I couldn’t tell how far it went on until the junction because towns weren’t labeled on the actual road, nor distances on the map! 

The road in this photo was still "good", I didn't take a picture of all the potholes unfortunately!

To stay positive, I thought I was pretty lucky to have no traffic and it looked like I had escaped a major storm off in the distance.  Although there were no cars, this was a popular route for the local farmers, sheep and cow herders, kids, and motorcyclists. They all welcomed me as I road by with a smile on their face I’m sure they were thinking what on earth was I doing on this road!!!  At this point I was still pretty happy-go-lucky convincing myself this little detour was the perfect opportunity to see true rural Albania.  However, I was starting to wonder about the condition of the road and the state of my bike.  If I pedaled faster than 8 kilometers an hour, I vibrated so much from all the potholes I couldn’t keep balanced.  I unclipped just in case I did fall.  Just then, it started to rain, or should I say pour, and all the potholes filled up with so much water I couldn’t tell, which were shallow holes, and which were deep.  The road became one big mud puddle and all this came splashing up on me and my bike.  Getting wet was the least of my worries, as I was too busy trying to avoid all the potholes.

At this moment, a question came to mind from a student at my last school visit, “Ms. Melissa, how do you stay motivated when you encounter a challenge on your trip?”  Great questions, I had thought, I really didn’t know how to answer because the biggest challenge I had up until then was pedaling up a big hill that lasted longer than expected. I had told them that I always tried to keep things in perspective, knowing that I could be a lot worse off and to remember that no situation is forever, it is just one day in an entire year experience.  So what did I do? In that very moment when I was completely soaked and vibrating like crazy on my bike, I had to remind myself, that things could be worse.  I talked it through out loud,….. It could be 10 degrees colder like it was in Bosnia, I could get really unlucky and do damage to my bike, this road could go on and on without any possibility of meeting up with the main road, and I could be climbing up a huge hill with all these potholes in the rain.  All those other options were way worse than what I was encountering at the moment. 

My own strategy worked because all of a sudden, the rain felt refreshing and it was actually cleaning me and washing my bike, the pot holes became an obstacle course, and all of a sudden a boy walking towards me assured me that the road ended in about 5 kilometers. I believed him because he could see I was desperate to get off the road and he pointed to his bright fluorescent vest implying he worked on repairing the roads (poor guy, he’s got his work cut out for him for life).   

Sure enough the road met the main highway, and without thinking twice, it was the only way for me to go.  I was now 2,5 hours into my route and had only gone 30 km and I hadn’t climbed more than 30 meters in elevation.  I was pressed for time to arrive in Tirana and before dark!  Despite the looks of this massive road on the map, the main “toll road” in Albania, isn’t actually a real toll road because you don’t have to pay.  There is a caution sign as you enter stating that you may find people walking, cycling, or traveling by carriage and the shoulder of the road is as wide as another lane, which made me feel safer, although the fact that there were a handful of graves alongside the road was a bit disheartening.

I made 60 km my goal for stopping for lunch, but I soon realized, my pickings were slim for a market or restaurant, since there were no real towns on this highway, only roadside bars and restaurant, typical truck stops, basically.  I chose what I thought looked like a decent restaurant with a few locals sitting outside with giant plates of pasta, I ordered a huge salad because I’d been craving veggies for awhile. I have I really ‘bureked” myself out in the last 3 countries! I did have a beautiful and delicious salad, but I knew I got ripped off because it was twice as expensive as my seafood dinner the previous night and the waiter charged me in euros, or at least wanted me to pay in euros.   I couldn’t be bothered with trying to bargain, I didn’t have the energy, nor the vocabulary!  I set back out on the road, optimistic I would make my destination by dark.  The road was flat even though I had a slight head wind but there weren’t any complications navigating the road. If all went well, I could pedal the 45 km left in about 2 hours, arriving well before dark. The weather had improved dramatically, and it was now sunny and hot!  For the first time since northern Croatia, I had to use my sunscreen, what a delightful treat!

Previously in the day, it had caught my eye that there were “Lavazh” signs everywhere on the side of the road.  Albanian is a totally different language than any Slovak-based language, in fact, they say it is similar to Basque in that it really has no relation or roots to any other language in the world!  But to me, lavazh sound like wash, and with all car garages and power hoses, it seemed that Albania is the country of car washes, like Bosnia had been with the “vulcanizers”.  As I got within close proximity to the city, I decided to it would be smart to stop at a car wash and see if they would wash off my bike.  I was a bit embarrassed to roll up to a school visit with a bike that look like it had been bathed in mud!

With a million car washes to choose from, I happened to pull up to Demir, who gladly washed my bike and spoke perfect English.  He had lived in London for 6 years and was excited to practice his English with me, although just yesterday two German cyclists had stopped to also wash their bikes!  I was excited to get my bike completely washed, including panniers and all.  In fact I even ran the power hose over my legs and shoes to clean up a bit as well!  He wouldn’t let me leave without giving me a nice cold ice tea and his phone number, go figure!  He wanted to invite me to watch the Albania vs. Switzerland soccer match the following day. Seriously there must be over 100 car washes on your way into Tirana and I happened to stop at the one who spoke English, washed my bike for free, and gave me a drink, what a treat!

Now if I would have done my research I would have realized that Tirana is a city of about a million people plus the surrounding area.  With the lack of road infrastructure, riding in to the center was pretty much like suicide!  I don’t know how I managed, but I had studied the google maps itinerary in such depth that I had a picture in my mind and I was able to navigate the city without taking one wrong turn, nor getting hit!  I was extremely impressed with myself and was about to take out my phone one last time to check when I saw the teachers waving at me from the school in the distance.  I had made it, clean, refreshed, detour and all, and in one piece to QSI Tirana, and there was still plenty of light! 

It was only 100 km, or a 105 km today, but sometimes it feels like weeks have passed all in the course of 6 hours pedaling on the road!

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