“You’re traveling and having new experiences, so this is a new experience”, he said. “I don’t think I want to have this experience again”, I replied. Hungry, tired, alone, energy-less and penniless, I arrived in the small village of Valbona, Albania. The day before I biked 100 km (60 miles) from Tirana to Shkodër, surprisingly fun but I reached my biking limits. I barely slept that night in Shkodër in the furnace disguised as a dorm room, and I woke early to catch a van. After an Albanian massage, (like the Costa Rican kind), a beautiful boat ride, and another two vans, I arrived at a guesthouse. Looking about as bad as I felt, I tried not to fall apart in the first 10 minutes after explaining that I had no money, no food, and yes do you have room tonight.
I didn’t have a plan B, I just knew I hated it there. I was too tired to enjoy the scenery and everything that was against me (hunger pains, exhausted legs, hot weather) had beaten me down. There was no bank, no food market in town, no bus station, heck no town at all. I was stuck between a mountain and a tight spot. I stumbled into the yard, famished and a hot mess. I had only a few hundred lek, a couple euros, and no reservation. They were full, the guesthouse owner explained, but there was a spare bed in the attic. Then he said the magic words, “would you like something to eat”. After a few solid meals and some rest, the mountains were beautiful again and the stars were the brightest that I have seen this trip.
Part of my anxiety was born from embarrassment: I could pay, I insisted to the guesthouse owner a few times, but I didn’t have access to my money. I had hoped to find a bank or some accommodation that accepted cards. Instead I found a kind soul who gave a poor traveler a warm bed, a few great meals, and friendly conversation. In thinking how to repay the kindness I tried to explain how I could send him money, through some technical gadget like Paypal or a bank transfer. But I realized (and he told me) that he didn’t want money at that point. I figured that the best way to assuage my discomfort and embarrassment would be to pay it forward. Might be something small, like sharing an umbrella or helping a backpacker find their hostel, but as I know it can mean the world to them.
I woke early in the morning to hit the trail, accepted a packed lunch and caught a ride to the trailhead. I sweat like crazy as I climbed up to the pass but thankfully there is water streaming out of every inch of Albania so I could refill. I asked the owner about the abundance of water, he said that it was all spring water. Yet the electricity would go out a few times a week because the local government unfortunately didn’t harness the water supply for electricity. I popped out of the park in good spirits, proud I survived the 5 hour hike. With perfect timing a van headed to Shkodër pulled up with a group of Peace Corps volunteers. We rode the Albanian rollercoaster out of the valley and I shared my burek pastry with them, paying forward what had been shared with me. Back in Shkodër I caught a shared taxi back to Tirana, where most of my stuff was, and I slept like the dead in clean clothes.