The story of my trip to Albania
We flew out from Heathrow London at 4.15pm, laden down with four heavy suitcases and four rucksacks. We had organised a wheelchair to make life easier and I had a scary trip down the long slope,With Fiona hanging on trying to steer it and not let go. We arrived at Rome at 7.45pm. I was taken through by a member of security staff. Fiona and Rob had to push through with the crowd of people waiting to go through passport control. No one informed us of this and it was a scary few moments. But I survived it and was pleased to be reunited with my travelling companions.
We didn't have long, just enough time to grab a baguette and go to the toilet. We then boarded the plane at ten to ten for the final part of our trip to Albania. We were able to try out some of our newly learnt Albanian phrases on a lady travelling home. She understood most of it with just a few corrections. We met some lovely hostesses who gave us drinks and biscuits, they were very kind and gave us some extra biscuits.
We flew into Albania and were met by a taxi driver after we got through customs. He wasn't the man the hotel had sent, although he had an official badge.
When Rob asked him which hotel we were going to he did not know. Luckily our taxi driver was there with a printed sheet with our details and the name of our hotel. He was very friendly, however his driving was something to be believed. There seemed no rules for the road, full headlights and no road markings. At one point we became aware of large frogs in the road, which to Fiona and Rob's horror the taxi driver had no compassion for and sent them flying under his wheels . It then began to rain heavily, it poured down. This seemed immaterial to the taxi driver who continued at the same impressive speed he started at. At one point we careered onto a gravel track. We were convinced we had come off the road and were going to crash. However this was all part of the journey to the hotel.
John the owner of the hotel, rang through to our taxi driver to see if we wanted food when we arrived. Having only eaten a cheese sandwhich and a baguette at Rome, Rob and Fiona were starving so welcomed the offer I was passed being hungry, but didn't want to offend the owner, so accepted his kind offer. We received a warm welcome from staff at the hotel and sat down to a lovely meal at 1.15am. The meal consisted of home cooked bread, stuffed cabbage leaves, aubergines, filo pastry and the main course of whale steaks. I tried it but was not sure about it and left Rob the daunting task of clearing the plate so as not to cause offence. Fiona the vegetarian was delighted with the selection of vegetables on offer.
We finally retired to bed at 2 am, to our lovely clean, warm rooms. After a lovely night sleep I awoke the next day at twenty to ten. After showering and dressing, we had a late breakfast of home made fig jams, apple marmalade, bread, omelettes, goats cheese, tomatoes, melon and mountain tea. Over the fire there was a piglet being spit roasted for someone to have for their dinner later, not a pretty sight especially for Fiona.
After breakfast we asked at reception about exchanging sterling into Albanian currency Lek, however larger places prefer Dollars and Euros. We were advised to go to an exchange as we would get a better rate. After paying our bill we went for a walk. The pavements were very uneven and difficult to walk on. The roads were even worse,with lots of large pot holes along their surface. When using a zebra crossing we believed we could cross safely, but zebra crossings in Albania are certainly different from the ones in the uk. Cars don't stop to let you go they just carry on speeding by and sounding their horns, oblivious to anyone's safety. We survived. We just about made it to the market place when the rain came. It was full on tropical rain, the kind that really soaks you. We sheltered under a marquee until it eased a little, then we found the bank hoping to exchange money. However, it was closed. We walked back through rivers of rain water pouring down the street , trying to avoid pot holes and trenches which were uncovered, and feeling the rain soak through our coats into our clothes.
On our return to the hotel, we returned to our rooms changed into dry clothes, then we went into the restaurant to warm up. There was an Albanian band playing, a keyboard player and a female and male singer who sang traditional songs about Albania. As we sat and listened in front of the fire we drank red Albanian wine, very relaxing. It was tempting to stay there, even though we knew we had to leave when the band finished. Fiona and I went back to our rooms and we caught up on our notes. Two hours later after catching up on texting and phone calls we made our way back to the restaurant, feeling hungry and adventurous.
After going through the menu I ordered vegetable soup and spaghetti with lemon, basil and butter. It was simple but delicious. We washed our food down with Albanian red wine. Then feeling very adventurous, we all had wild cherry and blackberry brandy, a local brew made by the proprietor of the hotel. He talked to us about how he made it and it was only afterwards that we realised how very alcoholic it was. After making it back to our rooms, I went into Fiona and Rob's room and we chatted about all sorts of things until we felt tired.
After a good nights sleep I woke at five past nine. Showered, dressed and got myself organised. Fiona came round and took me down to breakfast, another simple affair with fresh, local produce, delicious. After breakfast I stayed and caught up on texting and phone calls whilst Fiona and Rob went to find the exchange to change some Sterling into Euros. They returned unsuccessful. They had ended up queuing to pay rent for their accommodation, they realised it was the first of the month and they were not in a bank after all!
On their return, we came down to the restaurant and had a cup of mountain tea. Bertie our wonderful taxi driver came for us at 1.00 pm. We took a ride to Rozafa Castle. Bertie managed to drive up a very narrow, steep, winding track to the Castle, negotiating incredible corners and gateways. When we got to the top Rob and Fiona could see all of the city of Sckroder.Fiona described the views and said they were amazing! and I can believe it. Ten miles north was Montenegro. We could hear gun shots and Mosques calling to prayer over the mountains. I sat on a castle wall and Fiona took videos of me talking about our trip. Bertie drove us back down the precarious mountain track, in a protesting Mercedes. We were then driven to an incredible old bridge called Mesi Bridge, it was beautiful. Whilst we were driving we passed horse and carts. Sheep and goats were being herded past and a farmer walked his cow. It was very rural indeed.
Bertie drove us back to the hotel after we had taken lots of photographs. We went into the restaurant and had drinks and chatted to the lovely waiters who looked after us so well. They found out more information for us about the Mesi bridge on their phones. We decided to go back to Fiona and Rob's room to pack up the presents for our trip the next day and Rob blew up the footballs and rugby balls. Whilst Fiona and I worked out what presents went into what suitcase, Rob gamely pumped up the balls with a foot pump. All of a sudden there was an explosion and a shout from Rob. A ball had been over inflated and exploded, with the leather cutting into Rob's arm. So the next few minutes were spent giving him first aid for an impressive burn, cuts and blood blisters.
After we had finished packing we made our way back to our favourite spot by the fire in the restaurant and had Albanian red wine and toasted our adventure saying "guzar", Albanian for cheers. For our meal I was presented with the biggest plate of chicken with cream and wild mushrooms, with more wine. I have never eaten as much chicken in my life. The hot Albanian herb bread cooked over the fire was delicious.
We spent a lovely evening chatting, telling stories and joking around and of course drinking more wine. At the end of the night we decided to try another Albanian drink, Blackberry Raki. Wow it was strong so we sipped it slowly and made our way to our rooms ready for our busy day the next day.
I awoke at 6.30am feeling very excited. I got up, showered and dressed and we were the first ones down to breakfast for a change. Breakfast as always was delicious. I was able to enjoy more mountain tea and Fiona and Rob went to collect all the heavy suitcases. We then waited for the World Vision staff to arrive. It was a great feeling of excitement and a little bit of apprehension. When they did arrive, we loaded the car and drove to the World Vision office.
We were shown around and introduced to staff. After filling in child protection forms a member of staff informed us that Olsi and his family were on their way. We made our way through to the team leaders office to await their arrival.
I will never forget how I felt when Olsi and his family walked into the room. Olsi gave me a huge hug. He didn't have to say anything, his hug said it all. I was having trouble hearing everything that was being said as everyone seemed to be talking at once. It was overwhelming for us all. Olsi took control and became my guide, leading me carefully by the hand and never once left my side.
We then went downstairs to the cars waiting below. I sat with Olsi in the front and he held my hand all the way to the school. When we arrived we were met by the head teacher who showed us into the classroom where there were eight students waiting for us. They were part of the school council. They introduced me and the students came up one by one to introduce themselves and shake my hand. They were encouraged to ask me questions and our interpreter then interpreted for me. I found this experience very helpful and useful as a deafblind adult. We were there for about half an hour and we gave them sweets, footballs and rugby balls, they were very grateful and pleased Although little Fabio was feeling a little under the weather, he still managed to claim one of the football for himself!
From there we drove to the bank to withdraw Lek, Albanian currency. We travelled to a restaurant where I was finally able to give Olsi and his dad their presents. Unfortunately Olsi's mum Suela and little brother Fabio had to return home as Fabio was not well. We gave their presents along with Klea's Olsi's sister to Olsi. It was such a lovely surprise when Olsi presented me with a present and helped me to unwrap it. He was continually smiling. Olsi's gift to me was a beautiful picture in a frame of Albanian flowers with traditional Albanian colours. The picture is now hanging on the wall halfway up my stairs so people can see it as they come up the stairs in my flat.After a lovely meal we had to say goodbye to Pelem, Olsi's dad and Olsi. This was very sad. Olsi gave me a long hug goodbye and I hope to meet him again someday. I know he will turn into a real gentleman.
We then travelled to the Children's Culture Centre. It was a challenging walk as they were doing road works. We had to make our way threw thick rubble and mud, uneven pavements, and past open trenches. No health and safety there! It was worth the walk though. We met twelve young people who told us about their initiatives, what they had already achieved and what they wanted to achieve. Their latest project is fundraising to set up a cinema so they can help teach the community about other countries and cultures. Eljona and her colleague interpreted for me again when I was answering the young people's questions, and this was very helpful. These young people are the future of Albania and we want to help support them in their projects. After saying goodbye we returned to the car and made our way to Tirana airport. The world vision staff thanked us for coming and helping to make a difference. We felt very appreciated when they thanked us and expressed the desire to see us again someday.
It has been an amazing adventure, challenging at times, but unforgettable. It has inspired me to continue my charity work and I will always have fond memories of the people I have met during our short but special stay in Albania.