Two kookaburras are onboard a rickety bus to Albania, beaks deep in novels and legs longing to stretch. When we drive through tunnels, the book folk narrow their eyes and sigh whilst the kindle holders carry on.
In Shkodër, we enter a church with rainbow candy windows, passing sickly stray dogs scratching and shaking on street corners. Inappropriate me struggles to stifle laughter at an ancient church-goer aboard a mobility scooter. Instead of reversing out, he bumps into the pews with an echoey screech and a staccato “ooh”.
Our hostel has orange and yellow bedsheets and a cat called One-Eyed Willie. The floaty girl at reception organises our overnight trip to Theth, and the following morning we collect our egg and tomato sandwiches and climb aboard a sunny orange shuttle bus. Cows are blocking the road and horse-drawn utes pass us on their daily commute. Staircases to nowhere extend from hollow, half-finished houses. It’s an unconventional, mismatched amalgam of pastel colour palettes, farm animals and shops full of organised rubbish.
We make unexpected pit stops for coffee, snacks and a large bag of flour that’s heaved into the back next to the hiking packs. The flour is dropped off at a restaurant where we stop for a bathroom break and a construction worker asks if I’m German.
“No, Australian,” I say.
“Ahh, Austria!“ he replies enthusiastically, to which I resign to giving an equally enthusiastic thumbs up and jazzy nod of the head.
By the time we reach the top, the sleepy mountain range is wide awake. Melba and I decide that in respect to Theth, here forth the word ‘Yes’ will be superseded by ‘Yeth.’ We choose a six-hour hike to the Blue Eye, drop our overnight gear at the guest house and begin our walk after a delectable glass of fresh plum juice.
The loud Americans a few steps ahead of us share their laminated map and give us confused instructions towards the waterfall. We’re guided by cow bells, piggy smells and spotty intuition. There’s shared suffering in puffing up the hills, dwarfed by toblerone peaks that cast shadows on dry meadows and artery streams. I dunk my head in the river because it’s fricken hot hot hot and my whole body won’t fit.
Melba’s scaring me with talk of ticks and leeches and Lyme disease and malaria mosquitoes. We hear no voices, only our hurried footsteps ploughing the crunchy trail and is it too quiet? Chasing the sun home, we decide that two or more instances of verbalized doubt mean we’ve taken a wrong turn. But Goonies never say die! A caterpillar crawl across bronze pipes leads us back to civilized fields and the warm wooden lodges. With flailing lactic limbs, we exude loud sighs of relief.
When we return, the Albanian guests are playing badminton and gathering around a campfire. We indulge in a hearty dinner of whole trout with potatoes (vegetable soup for me), soft local cheese, salad and pumpkin pancake pie washed down with a compulsory shot of eye-watering rakija. The handsome German couple at our table are eager to join the dancing circle of linked hands and quick steps. We pick at the leftovers of our meal and politely decline the smiles and gestures followed by feigned sorrow.
Tripping over feet and with a bout of rakija-inspired confidence, I’m thrust into the middle and forced to embarrass everyone with my western dance moves. The Albanian flag is pumping up and down at the front of the conga line, held with pride by the jolliest of them all. I attempt the traditional dancing and fancy footwork and experiment with some krumping.
One of the most peaceful sleeps is interrupted by a sunrise alarm that leads me to an underwhelming sky but an ache of pride for making it out of bed. Thank you to Jason for the beautiful meme. I’m feeling independent so Melba and I take some time alone and meet for the mid-morning shuttle. Off we head along another painful rocky road that’s missing marshmallows.
“You want coffee?” The driver asks the eight of us.
“No thank you,” I say. The rest of the passengers shake their heads and scan each other’s faces.
“Ok. We stop,” says the driver, and enjoys not only an espresso but a full seated meal before we continue the journey.
We lose our way to Tirana, and a lady on the street guides us a few hundred metres to the bus stop. We thank her whole-heartedly and she says it’s nothing, even though her bus is seconds from departing. In Sydney you’d probably receive a gruff grunt and “ah, I dunno I’m a tourist too.” In summary, Albanians are the best.
We take turns trundling Melba’s broken suitcase through humid air and loud car horns in the direction of a bed and breakfast in Albania’s capital. Never thought I’d be one to advocate hostels in place of private rooms but here we are. Ratty eight-bed dorm, sign me up! It’s not that I enjoy being grotty so much as I like forgetting that I have to be clean.
Fraza e ditës: Are we lost? No…
Kënga e vendit: Valle Kosovare - Shpat Kasapi
Zdravo and welcome to episode 6, wherein another protagonist enters the tale. So begins a rapid realisation that I’m not the only person with needs. On the plus side, I don’t have to talk to myself anymore. Wild.
An Oktoberfest veteran, Melba has a life-threatening bruise on her shin. We amble along the foggy Zadar coast considering her imminent demise, past a lone fisherman in overalls who converses with an army officer. There are musical steps nearby that breathe eerie, hollow tones from the sea. It’s a pale white day and there’s not so much to say so we take shelter at a landmark recommended by google maps. It’s an absolute treasure of a fountain filled with riches.
We arrive in Dubrovnik to a strange woman who takes naps in her kitchen and slaps our cheeks and pulls on our clothes. She interrupts her ironing to welcome us with a big hug under grape vines. It’s a small house with three bedrooms and a patio complete with a vinyl tablecloth, plastic chairs and no wifi. That night I dream of leeches and a lady with just enough teeth to chew that snarls and cackles, crouched next to my bed. A martial jolt returns me to the room but it’s still dark and empty except for a sleeping Melba and our pieces of luggage.
We stroll to the Old City in the morning and lose ourselves in ancient walls overrun with masses of tourists and stray cats. Game of Thrones means very little to me—my stubborn blasphemy renders the lauded alleyways just as alleyways if not for all the souvenir shops.
On our way down to a stone beach I spin a rhyme (word):
It takes a lot of practice
to pull pears off a cactus,
Desperate demand for sand
but there are only bland rocks and stinky socks;
no clocks here.
I chase fish around the classroom through a foggy borrowed scuba mask. The quivering mass of silver explodes as I torpedo through towards a small, deep grotto. I’m practicing equalizing my ears with each descent and Anonymous Boy is proud.
We swim again in the evening, where both of us stumble through home-baked poems and feast on the nectarine sun coating the silky blanket of sea with its mildness. I wonder which greedy eyes are next to receive the sunset.
Back at the house, things take a catastrophic turn when we switch the oven on, our sweet huggable host metamorphosing with a macabre flourish. She yells and thrusts her hands up and retreats teary-eyed to the terrace. We’re frozen and blank, standing above a large pile of cubed zucchini. We attempt to fix our hideous mistake with google translate and an apology, but to no avail. I’m spinning circles and expressing my alarm via eyelids that open wider and wider. We pack a picnic for the jetty and duck past her shuffling slippered feet.
Our last goodbye is a 5:30am door-peeping fiasco featuring an argument with one currency and two dialects. We shuffle out with the leftover zucchini in our day packs, and I fall victim to clasping reluctant hands towards the painting of Jesus Christ on her wall.
Fraza dana: Hvala
Pjesma mjesta: Hey Jude - The Beatles (this song followed us around like a mosquito in a humid bedroom)
I could stare at this ocean for hours with a Kellogg‘s mug of camomile. My stiff hair and hairy legs are caked in salt and propped up on the railing. A huge ship docks overnight, offloading Maersk containers and rudely obscuring the mountains. My four days in Rijeka are bejewelled with 3am crepes, 6am swims in diamond water and a 22 dollar bedroom view that rivals the tacky travel posters pasted on airport walls.
I’m nicknamed “animal” by the host who talks only about sex and insists his blood is 10% alcohol. He’s a strange man who seems to never sleep and wears his torso and a pair of too-tight blue boardshorts. “Sexy”, as he’s called, is eager to show us a photo displaying the bare buttocks of last weekend’s guests. Every night he offers a nudie swim but prudie me says ooh…dear no.
A long stroll leads me past a traditional fruit market and towards a Croatian woman leaning out of her window, destroying an apple with a paring knife. With every chew she drops chunks onto the pavement and spills frothy juice out of her wrinkled mouth. Narrowed eyes follow me carefully and suddenly I’m victim to a loud rant and a furious hand that points over my shoulder. I reach another dead end and shamefully tiptoe back the same route, copping another yell and frantic thrust of the apple.
There are two German boys at the hostel who’ve cycled through the Balkans. The pesky one won’t stop saying “she’ll be right mate” after I tell him I’m Australian. To my horror and disgust, the phrase has now embedded itself in my vocabulary.
At dinner time I’m finally able to cook veg chilli for someone other than myself and it’s surprisingly edible. I’m gifted with a bottle of wine from the English guy and with a pop of the cork, Sexy is asking for a glass. An impromptu Android photoshoot features me and the wine bottle and you’ll never see it.
My first Jägermeister experience commences at an underground tunnel bar and I can assure you it won’t be repeated. Within an hour we’re sprawled in different parts of the city in various states of inebriation. Our loaf of discussion crumbles and miraculously we stumble back to the hostel for a nude dip and one of Sexy’s crepes. But shit!! The German boy has passed out and missed out on the doughy jam-slathered circles of greatness. In a mad stupor, I drag one upstairs and force feed it to him by blocking his nose so his mouth opens. Without waking, he swats my hand away and the plate hits me square in the forehead as I tumble over and probably wake up the seven other guests. What can I say? Crepe time is important. No man gets left behind.
My hangover is shooed with eggy toast, an icy plunge and some unwarranted selfies of puffy eyes and upturned noses. Stone skimming quickly morphs to rock throwing and our high school shot put skills are truly put to the test. The Swedish girl and I play beached whales and morph into land monsters that emerge and stumble onto stones that line the shore.
A plump white-moustachioed man is bitten by his angry dog and his scolding hand hovers as they stare each other down. The dog won’t stop yapping, the waves are calm and lapping against the ground but the old man is bleeding and using his shirt to stop it seeping.
We say an English goodbye to the Germans on bikes and the motorcycle-bound Englishman. The Swedish nugget of joy joins me for another swim in layers of turquoise water. Hot and cold pockets force fog vibrations to swirl above remains of Roman columns and pieces of plastic. We’re joined by two Croatian men with beach ball bellies and toothbrush moustaches who plop in with their crocs on. We embark on a pumpkin curry-flavoured mission to Lidl and head back to the hostel.
I don disposable gloves and enact the worst hair salon service I can muster. A older Croatian guest examines the cardboard L’Oreal box and tells us he doesn’t think blue is a good idea. I force a laugh and slap his hand away from the sunflower princess who will soon be sporting mermaid locks.
It’s a valiant effort and judging by the satisfaction of my first client, maybe there’s a hairdressing future for me. She braids the little hair I have left since my life-altering chop last July and we play never have I ever with two German girls who share their chips with us. Our zany host flips us a last crepe in the morning and we part ways to Zadar and Zagreb with zero zebras onboard.
Fraza dana: She’ll be right, mate
Pjesma mjesta: Dog stole my earphones back in Florence (not a song, but a cold hard fact)