We get in the car, waving, hugs and goodbyes from Nusret’s sister and wife and I get driven to meet Ensar and just Jenny, one of the twin sisters – the one who is studying languages so will translate for everyone. We all have Byrek for breakfast – Byrek being a filo pie – meat or cheese. Then I am officially handed over to Ensar and Jenny, with Nusret wiping his brow with relief, I suspect.
Ensar takes me to the Kukes border – 20km or so from the town of Kukes itself. We go with a wee detour to the oldest mosque in the area – it doesn’t LOOK old- it’s been refurbished, apparently – with old gravestones higgledy-piggledy. Jenny tells me that Ensar is a keen cyclist and cycles everywhere. Ensar is very proud of his heritage – and gives me a t shirt with ‘Gora’ and a map of the district of the same name on it. He wants me to take a photograph of me wearing it in Australia – or some equally far flung place and put it on Facebook for him to see. I also get given a little bag with metal clips (essential bicycle maintenance apparently) and Rowenna’s chain gets a squirt. Oh, and don’t forget some duct tape – anything else? No, honestly. This, along with 4 pairs of hand knit socks, is more than enough!
They don’t have passports so they leave me at the border – which is good few miles down the road from Krusheve and a long way for me. I wave goodbye, and this time have no problem crossing the border.
I ride to Kukes on a major road. Three young lads make my heart leap into my mouth when they brave the dual carriageway to come and investigate me. I see their mother emerge and yell at them after a few minutes, but they take absolutely no notice and it’s evidently something they do often.
Kukes is a large town on a lake and I stop for a meal (milky soup with meatballs) while I check to see whether it’s worth staying around – there are only two hotels and they’re expensive, and there doesn’t seem to be much else. So I press on into the hills.
I knew I’d have to climb eventually, but initially it seemed to be a long straight road, past a small airport and past farms. After 5 miles it started to climb. I met a woman who was interested in talking to me – but we didn’t have a language in common. She asked me if I needed somewhere to stay (which is unusual from a woman – they normally shy away from me). I decided it was a little early so I shook my head and went on. I continued on until I arrived at a village called Bicaj – and stopped for an icecream from the local store (‘Bravo’ is a good brand). Lo and behold, there was the same woman, this time leading a young donkey by his headcollar and a rope (that was evidently where she was going earlier- to collect him). He was making a right racket – braying loudly– and then he rolled in the dust with all four legs waving. I went across the road to say hello and stroke the donkey on his nose. She made it clear again that she would be very happy if I stayed, so this time I said yes, why the devil not (let’s be honest - it was the donkey that finally persuaded me!).
I followed her and her donkey down a steep but fairly short muddy, rocky path to a primitive Albanian smallholding – grapevines growing all over the roof and a garden frame. Transpires that Besmike (for that was her name – pronounced Bez-meeka) is alone at night as her husband and son both work nights – probably why she was happy to have company AND had the liberty to invite me. The donkey was left tied to the fence near the entrance gate – that’s where he spent the night. He was given a handful of hay for his supper. I went out to the loo in the night, and he was lying on the floor asleep.
The house consisted of 5 rooms and an outside loo and cowshed. First room that Besmike showed me – she unpadlocked the door – was a room with a ‘posh’ three piece suite in and a carpet on the cement floor with a wee woodburning stove in the corner. This was obviously the room kept for ‘best’ as we soon moved out of there, once it was clear I wasn’t ‘posh’ and into the other building next door and repadlocked the door. The other building had a kitchen – of sorts – ie, an ancient rusting fridge, two ring stove on the floor, a washing machine and an old glass fronted cupboard like my Gran used to have in her kitchen. Again, there was a carpet to cover the bare cement floor. There were three doorways off this room – two led to store rooms – full of suitcases and animal feed. The last one led to the room where all the living took place – there were two sofas on opposite sides – with foam matresses flung on top made up as beds with blankets. In between was another enamelled, slightly larger wood burning stove. In the corner was an old fashioned TV and a carpet on the cement floor.
There were flies everywhere.
Outside – was a well stocked garden/orchard with pomegranates, plums, apples, tomatoes, squashes, cucumber, corn and grapes growing. There were at least three large haystacks round the back of the house, past the outside squat loo on the left and a cow shed with two small boy calves tied up in to the right. They were cute, but I asked if they were for the chop and she nodded. (That’s an easy sign to do!).
There was a tap with running water outside and numerous plastic buckets around for sinks – this was the bathroom. Welcome to rural Albania – and I was really pleased to have this insight into how the vast majority of country folk live (and probably did in England and Wales when my grandmother was growing up).
Around 6.00pm we went out to fetch two cows home to be milked (but I didn’t know this, of course) and to get a watermelon for dessert. She took me along and told everyone she met (several families) ALL about me and my trip. There was much shaking of hands and shaking of heads in disbelief and staring at the spectacle that was before them. I think Besmike was thoroughly enjoying the attention. One of the older women we met was knitting – clearly with handspun single, very rough yarn again, and the back of a jumper was taking shape – rib just finished and patterned body about two rows in. She knit the same way as the Albanian Faridja had – with yarn tensioned around her neck - but her 2.25mm needles were straight, not hooked at the end.
Besmike found her two cows near the top of the path eating the hedge next to the village shop and with a little encouragement from a twig they trotted on home. I had been given a glass of warmish, creamy milk when I arrived – unpasteurised I had no doubt. I exchanged my glass for the less creamy glassful she had – to which she looked surprised but not at all unhappy about. The cows were milked again at around 8pm.
Meanwhile, the tomato sauce for supper had been simmering on the two ring stove – onions, tomatoes and herbs straight from the garden. I thought we were going to have spaghetti – but I really didn’t fancy spaghetti broken into small pieces, fried then boiled – for this is how Besmike likes to cook it. I shook my head.
She spread a tablecloth on the floor between the two ‘beds’and we ate our bread, sauce (which was really tasty), some kind of fried batter cake – like latke – very greasy so I only had half, and huge amounts of watermelon.
I gave Besmike 1,200lek (about £6.50)– with which she seemed very pleased. I don’t think she probably has much disposable income of her own. After supper, we looked at some photographs – she seemed bemused that I didn’t have internet – and phoned her son up to find out why (he is learning English) – I had to explain I can only use the available hotspots.
Besmike made up one of the sofas with clean sheets and we had a bed each.