As soon as we came into Albania we got sick.
We stayed in a tiny fairy cabin, just big enough to house a double bed, hidden in a miniature woodland, on an elaborate campsite. We had to stay there for five nights while all the food and energy we tried to absorb into our tired bodies was ejected several times a day.
During the days of reading and sleeping and trying to keep our insides inside, we decided to travel the entire coastal length of Albania.
We had heard that the northern coast left a lot to be desired but that the southern coast was wild and spectacular.
So rather than head into the northern mountains and work our way down, we thought we would try to hug the coast for the whole length and see the country transform around us.
The first change we noticed between Montenegro and Albania was how friendly everyone was. By the end of the first few days our arms and cheeks ached with how much smiling and waving we were doing. People seemed genuinely thrilled that two such obvious tourists, travelling by cumbersome bicycle, were in their part of the country.
In one tiny village we stopped at the only shop to get a cold drink and an old man passed by. He shook us both eagerly by the hand and then hurriedly disappeared. He reappeared a few minutes later holding a bowl and two spoons. He had brought us a kind of sweet porridge from home and wanted us to eat it. It was very bizarre but so kind!
Another big difference was the feeling of being transported to an earlier time when people lived in a much simpler way and still used horse and cart.
Often we would pass carts carrying huge loads of just a singular variety of vegetable. We passed an old man with what looked like a bulging, orange, spiny monster in the back. The colour was so radiant it took me a while to work out what it was.
It turned out to be the most carrots I’d ever seen.
Roads Getting Rough
Another big change was the quality of the roads. There quickly appeared to be three categories of road in flat, northern Albania. Good quality tarmac on the fast, busy roads with the majority of the traffic. Potholed, crumbling, gravel roads that went on forever in endless straight lines, connecting small towns to one another. And our least favourite; lumpy tracks made of large rocks that tractors and anyone brave enough could try to navigate.
The change in road quality meant we had to start choosing our routes wisely. But this was far easier said than done as from a map or our navigation device you cannot always determine road quality. The size of the road is the main clue and even that can be deceiving. We realised that even the most promising of roads in Albania could abruptly stop and continue as an unpaved dirt track.
We spent a few frustrating days in the north pushing our bikes over what seemed like an endless stretch of undulating, rocky ground. Sometimes when the road suddenly dissolved and became unrideable, we learnt to quit while we were ahead and admit it was too ridiculous. Sometimes turning around and going back on yourself is the last thing you want to do but could save you hours, if not days, of struggle.
True to common myth, the northern coast from Durëss to Valorë had been betrayed and slain by tourism. The natural coastline looked demolished and hidden underneath human architecture and ironically the industry that sought to capitalise upon its beauty had eaten it hungrily.
But from Valorë onwards the beauty began.
Let The Beauty Begin
From Valorë, to Sarandë in the very south, the coastline took on a whole knew guise. Quite suddenly the urban tourist sprawl disappeared and the views of mountains and sea began to emerge as incredibly beautiful.
The gradients of the roads also shifted with the morphing aesthetic. The coastal mountain road became steadily steeper until sometimes it was laughably vertical. We were told later that some gradients along it were over 25%. Which, if you can’t quite picture that, feels like trying to bench press a mini, frozen in the upward thrust, for most of the day.
However this seriously tiring shift in gradient didn’t seem to dampen our spirits. The road was very quiet and very few cars passed us. We felt like lone explorers of this wild and uncharted land. For the first time on the trip we felt totally in our element. The joy of this made us fall madly and deeply in love with our surroundings.
Tiny picturesque villages perched on the cliffs above the bright turquoise expanse of ocean. The colour of the sea like nothing I had ever seen before. Different bands and hues of blue. It was completely breathtaking.
The severe inclines made us stop frequently for short rests and every time we would study how the scenery had somehow become more outstanding.
Out of Season
Being October, it was also very out of tourist season when we travelled along the central-to-southern Albanian coastline.
When we did come into contact with other people, they looked very surprised to see us. It was a real novelty to turn up to a place created for tourists and being the only ones there. Most shops and hotels were closed or closing for the year. This made buying food tricky but we managed.
At one point we arrived at a long beach strewn with iconic thatch umbrella shades. Behind the beach were a string of hotels, all closed for winter season. There was no one around and as we were cycling along I spotted a single shower on the beach. We had been wild camping for days. I felt sticky and gross. I decided to shrug off my Britishness along with my clothes and had a gorgeous, shameless shower on the beach. Luckily no crowds suddenly appeared. It was blissful to be so alone in this beautiful place.
Unfortunately it’s never all naked showers on the beach.
Before beginning the trip, I had not spent a great deal of time imagining what I would find most difficult on the road. When I had considered it, I had assumed it would be something physical, like aches and pains, fear of trucks or getting completely lost in the wilderness. Something I didn’t think about much was the treatment of animals.
Albania was the first country where it really hit me – hard.
We were at a street market in the north and I was being hugely overcharged for some bananas. I was wondering whether to haggle with the cheeky vendor but I was distracted by a noise and just handed him the money.
I could hear what sounded like a strangled baby cry of distress. I turned around to try to locate the noise but couldn’t work it out for a few minutes. I couldn’t see a baby where the sound was coming from. I looked around. Where was it coming from?
A man was stood in the road carrying a heavy looking white bag, the kind you might put potatoes in. Then I saw where the noise was coming from. I could see the form of a crumpled young pig, the squashed side of its head and snout and its small trotters pressed uncomfortably against the tight fabric. It was screaming and screaming. Hanging there in the bag, unable to move.
The man holding the bag with the pig inside of it looked completely unfazed by the situation. It had been chucked in a bag and was obviously terrified and unable to move or free itself. I just stood and stared in amazement and horror at this scene. I couldn’t quite believe it. The noise made my skin crawl – the man looked completely oblivious like he was carrying a bag of vegetables and not a living, screaming creature. I found the whole thing very disturbing and had to get out of there as quickly as possible. We left the market before we had all the things we needed.
Later that same day, we saw a boy of about ten years old, riding alone on a wooden cart strapped to a donkey – he had a stick and he was beating and beating the donkey. Every few seconds another bash would come down on the donkeys back.
As we cycled past I looked at the donkey – I’d never seen a more broken animal. Hair worn off in patches all over its back – eyes down at the road – thin and tired and beaten. It couldn’t have run any faster no matter how hard the boy hit him. The boy had stopped hitting the donkey just as we cycled past, knowing he was being observed, so I didn’t have the chance to tell him to stop. I felt this rage boiling up inside me. How dare humans treat animals like this. How dare we take such cruel advantage of these gentle creatures.
We have seen so many dogs in tiny cages, left to live out their days alone – just there to bark. Or tied up by short lengths of rope or chain to a wall or a steak in the ground. Out in the sun with no water near by, no shade, no company. Such a miserable existence for a pack animal.
We’ve seen so many dogs and cats by the side of the road, dead and bloated with fur pealed back and flies and insects eating at sunburnt flesh. We’ve seen young children throwing rocks at timid, stray dogs, which I can only assume is learnt behaviour.
One evening a kind man let us camp in his field and his two sweet little dogs were interested in us as we were setting up the tent and cooking dinner. We tried to stroke them but they were quite afraid of us. I gave them each a small piece of bread and they gradually learnt we could be trusted and let us stroke them. The smaller one was still skittish and scared of us if we made any quick movements.
When our food was nearly ready the farmer came over to say goodnight and seeing that the dogs were still near us he shouted at them and then kicked one of them away. Now I could see why the dogs had been so timid with us. We said ‘no no we don’t mind them – we like dogs!’ He just said they were stupid. I wonder why people have animals at all if they will treat them so badly.
He asked us to come up to the house in the morning for coffee. He had a wonderful family who welcomed us in and gave us everything for showers and breakfast and coffee even though we had already eaten. They were nursing a sick woman in an adjacent room to the kitchen. These were such kind and caring people. How could people be so kind to other humans and so brutal to other creatures?
There is a disconnect somewhere. A drawing down of a shutter. An opportunity to release frustration and aggression on a living thing that can’t speak up or retaliate. A strange, crooked reasoning.
We’ve seen cows tangled in the ropes that tether them to a small section of field or in huddled together in concrete enclosures, knee deep in their own excrement. Some cows are left to roam around but with their neck tied to their front leg with a very short piece of rope, making them walk in a painful, uncomfortable limp. It must be to ensure they cannot travel far but seems a very stupid, cruel way of managing that.
I was reading an incredible book while in Albania, which spoke of this subject I was so disturbed by. The book was, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Yuval Noah Harari explains that as we transformed from being hunter gatherers at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, we began to see that animals could be more useful to us if they could be domesticated, dominated and exploited. He writes,
‘Today the world contains about a billion cattle and more than 25 billion chickens. […] The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries. […] In order to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient fraught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed. Farmers developed techniques such as locking animals inside pens and cages, bridling them with harnesses and leashes, training them with whips and cattle prods, and mutilating them. […] The lives of some domesticated animals could be quite good. Sheep raised for wool, pet dogs and cats […] enjoyed comfortable conditions. Shepherds and farmers throughout history showed affection for their animals and have taken great care of them, just as slaveholders felt affection and concern for their slaves.’
The realisation of widespread, brutal treatment of owned animals around the world was devastating. I often sat on the side of the road and wept in Albania for all the animals that we use and abuse for our own desires. If we want something and we can get it from an animal we will and it doesn’t matter how we get it. The animal can’t answer back. It’s often too gentle or broken to even fight back. We beat it until it does what we want and when it can’t or won’t give anymore, we dispose of it. This has been our history with animals for thousands of years.
It dawned on me that these were not just animals involved in the meat and dairy industry. These were just domesticated animals. Any that could be tamed and bridled and forced to work for us or just there for our own amusement. It was like a frosted layer had been peeled away from my eyes and suddenly I saw it everywhere in plain sight. We treat animals like slaves.
I had no idea I would be quite so enraged and appalled by how humans treat other feeling creatures on our planet. I was so naïve and so sheltered from this kind of abuse in England as the general maltreatment of animals goes on behind closed doors. I assumed it was only cruel people who were cruel to animals. Whereas in Albania it was just the way of life and it was out, for all to see, all the time.
I made a pact with myself on the curb that I would show every bit of kindness I possibly could to every creature I came across. It felt like a stupid pact. However, it’s main objective was so that I didn’t feel so hopeless about our own species.
Waking Up To A Visitor
That opportunity came about very quickly.
We were camping on a beautiful, long, dune protected beach, called Borsh beach. It was very out of season when we were there so it wasn’t a problem to camp in front of the dunes. It was a perfect spot. I remember waking up, not long after dawn, to the gentle sound of a bell jingling outside the tent. In my sleepy daze I was puzzled. I unzipped the door to find right outside, a beautiful, grey horse with a bell around its neck. It practically said good-morning! His nose stretched down towards me. He gave me a tentative sniff and sussed me out. For a while I just sat there in happy, enraptured silence. The horse sniffed around and nibbled at bits of grass that had poked their way through the sand.
Then I remembered Haydn. I whispered and nudged him wake. He opened one eye and then suddenly both and sat straight up. His face still crumpled from sleep but lit up in delight.
I realised I could put my pact into practice immediately and scrabbled around for some carrots.
I slowly moved out of the tent and when he realised I was friendly, he ate the chunks of carrot from my hand.
It was the first small step but it felt wonderful.
Shock of Plastic Pollution
A far less magical awakening in Albania was to the waste.
The entire country seems to struggle with waste management. Bins stood overflowing and litter was strewn almost everywhere you could imagine.
One night wild camping on a beach we had an encounter with a sweet old fisherman. He made a fire for us to sit by and seemed very friendly. We woke in the morning to find he had left all his plastic waste behind exactly where he had been sitting the night before. Plastic cups, tubs for bait, several plastic bottles, cutlery. All just left there like he had vanished into thin air.
We walked down the length of this small but popular beach. We found unquantifiable amounts of plastic waste. Our jaws dropped. We were in a National Park, a supposedly protected area! It was very upsetting to so evidently our human effect on the natural environment and our complete disregard for maintaining and respecting the natural world. We seem incapable of seeing the impact we have upon the earth until it is too late and our damaging mark is done. Why is this? Now, more than ever in the history of humankind our seeming advancements in technology, throw-away culture and carelessness with waste, form a toxic combination for the natural world.
The human population is now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use.
Seeing the Albanian coast in all its wild, raw beauty and seeing the scale of the plastic pollution that infected its shores nationally, from north to south, was a very sobering observation for me.
More than 8million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. The problem is global and we are all responsible.
Even if a plastic bag doesn’t end up in a dolphin or turtles oesophagus it will begin degrading in the ocean and the tiny particles that result are altering the delicate environmental balance of the oceans. Aquatic life digest these particles which can cause great harm internally.
Every minute that a disposable plastic cup is made – it will be here on planet earth to see the next 500 years of our human history unfold. I hope it witnesses a realisation and a drastic reduction in plastic use, but that is up to us, today.
The only solution is to stop using plastic wherever possible in our daily lives, no matter how much we want to kid ourselves that it will be recycled. There is a strong chance that it won’t.
It might just end up washing up on the shore of a beautiful Albanian beach.
Despite the sadness of animal cruelty and the shocking scale of plastic pollution, Albania had been our favourite country of the trip to cycle so far. The friendliness of the people and the scruffy, anything-goes attitude was a welcome change from the familiar, orderly European feel.
Albania had dissolved layers of my naïveté about the world and turned me from a silly cycling tourist into a cycling Animal-Eco-Warrior!