Her son was first home after we got up (and after the donkey tethered up the path a little way). He showed me his US English coursework book and tried out some rudimentary questions on me.
I was given the chopped fried boiled spaghetti for breakfast – along with fried green peppers with home made cottage cheese spooned into the copious amounts of oil in the frying pan. I ate a small amount of everything to show willing, and thank goodness my immune system is strong. Besmika finished off the spaghetti I couldn’t eat.
Meantime, Besmika’s husband arrived home and also tried to persuade me to stay. “Nooo”, I says, I have a lot of uphill to conquer today –and the shade is disappearing rather quickly!
Just up the road from Bismike’s – up the hill and around the corner, I’m waved over by a café owner who gives me a free coffee. He has been to London twice in his life, paying £7,000 each time for the privilege. He was trying to make some money, but without a work visa, so was living with several other guys in one room and earning about £45 a day for hard graft. I said it didn’t sound like a pleasant holiday – and he agreed – but he said that if he employed a waiter in his café he would pay him the equivalent of £50 a month – that’s how poor wages are here. I reflect that it’s no wonder Besmike was pleased to have my 1,200lek. We discuss my work – and when I tell him I was a midwife, he said my skills would come in handy as his wife is expecting her first baby any time now. They’ve only been married a year. It sounded like she would be staying at home for the birth – but that she worked in a hospital so wasn’t worried. I may have got that wrong! I wished him and his wife good luck and moved on.
I slog on, only managing around 10miles of the uphill, what with the usual snoozing under a bush to avoid the midday sun.
I also stop to have an icecream and drink sat in a graveyard and looking over a stupendous view of the valley. While I’m sat there, a young man called Albert comes over to say hello. He points at one of the graves and says “That’s my grandfather” – it turns out I’m looking down on his family’s farm. It’s a big house and prosperous looking place with orchards and fields. Albert tells me they have 10 cows, chickens, a donkey and a dog. He offers to replenish my water, for which I’m very grateful – and waves goodbye as I set off once more. I took his photograph – and he approved when I showed it him.
Several miles later, as I am slogging up the last bit of hill and looking forward to a glorious downhill run, ‘Andy’ stops in his car and offers a lift - he is from Richmond upon Thames, or rather, he’s another local ex-pat come home for the holidays. Never one to miss the opportunity to meet yet another local I accept.
I have several options – including being dropped off at the highest point and then going on from there. This is the one I favour. But Andy has decided this is NOT the best option (so why mention it then, I think) – because there are no towns for at least 30miles (which doesn’t bother me) – he thinks that I should stay in the 4* hotel owned by his friend – and that it will not cost me more than €20. This seems a reasonable deal so this is what we go for. I look a little wistfully out of the window as we whizz downhill through stunning mountain scenery – it would have been a good one!
Hotel Gjoka is most certainly the lowest point of the valley I have to traverse: it’s also opposite a hydroelectric power station (I can see why Catherine at Rilindja, Valbona is fighting to stop them happening in that beautiful valley). It’s grandiose in the same way I imagine a Nevada Hotel might be with a fountain outside carpeted marble stairs and a pillared doorway. It’s a HUGE contrast to Besmike’s house and home! We sit down with several men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee outside the hotel: the one with the biggest belly is the owner.
After a brief negotiation, it is agreed I can stay the night for €10, which is fine by me and I can wash some laundry in the shower.
Andy does his best to translate the conversation – but he is meeting with friends he has not seen for years, he says. He is showing off a little – like a small boy - he is twitchy, foot tapping, chain smoking with the next cigarette in his fingers before the old one is extinguished. He is flashing around a purse full of £50notes. The other men are leaning back in their chairs pushing their bellies out - so much posturing.
At one point they discuss Albanian women – they say I look remarkably fit and well compared to an Albanian woman of similar age, who would be on the verge of dying. I say an Albanian woman of my age would have probably had 10 children and a life of hard graft. Andy agrees that Albanian women are underestimated and keep the cogs turning, but that British women are different. I disagree – any perceived difference is only a lack in opportunity and education. They drift off into conversation I can’t follow, but I get slightly paranoid that they are saying what they would do if their wives wanted to go off travelling around the world leaving their needs unattended to! In fact, my imagination went overboard and I decided the hotel was a front, a money laundering operation for a gun smuggling operation, as all the men looked vaguely gangsterish. Once you’ve gone down this path in your head, it’s difficult to reset normality.
I get shown a room that is up on the fourth floor – for all its vastness, the hotel lacked a lift. My room was also vast – but seemed slightly unfinished. There was a huge wardrobe with no hangers in and a TV remote but no TV with wires hanging out the wall – so a work in progress I suspect. There was an ensuite bathroom and a balcony, two single beds pushed against the walls and an overhead light but no bedside light. The trusty puff lamp that Keith gave me way back when comes in handy yet again.
I washed just about every item of clothing I have with me, soaking the bathroom while I’m at it. I have a little washing line that ties across the balcony perfectly. Sleep well after all that.