I’m not being very productive these days not because I don’t want to, but I’m still waiting for a chance to discuss my potential travel products with Nancy. Hopefully next week I’m gonna get this done. Anyways I tried to occupy myself with something serious to do, so I finish translating the Butrint Brochure, and start reading on Via Egnatia. Last week we had a group meeting and Auron divided us into two groups, one on Sasani and one on Via Egnatia, which obviously is a more interesting project to work on. I get to learn about Julius Caesar’s Civil War and the Roman Republic. I never realize that Durrachium(modern day Durres, north of Tirana in 30mins,on the Ionian Sea) was such an important port city to the Romans until I read the book! I should have googled it before I headed to Durres.
Last week I visited Pogradec because Eni(also a intern from UM)’s family is from there. Therefore she invited us there for a real village experience. Of course we gladly accepted her invitation and was all very excited to be there—because of Lake Ohrid! One of the largest fresh water lake on the border of Eastern Albania and Macedonia.
We arrived in Pogradec(strangely it resembles my old home town too!) by furgon on Friday evening.Lake Ohrid is so vast that it really looks like a sea.(To some extent it smells like sea too.) We had Koran(a typical fish in this area) at a nice restaurant and it was pretty good. The night ended with a old communist era Albanian movie filmed in Tushemist, the village in Pogradec where Eni grew up. I feel very unreal when I saw scenery that the film has depicted are still around in the village. Without doubt, today’s Tushemist is nicer and newer.
Visa issue prevents me from crossing border, so I planned my own trip to Korca on Saturday. The night before I left I was kinda worried because I have never traveled by myself before. It’s usually with someone, either family or friends. Plus this time I’m in a completely different countries with no knowledge of its language(not many people know English either). Safety is another concern too. I was hoping that someone could come for help, but later on realized I had to do this on my own. I asked Hanneleen how she overcame her fear to travel by herself. “Not until I start doing it” was her reply.
My heart was racing fast until I was sent on the bus from Pogradec to Korca.(A feeling of liberation embraces me) It was a maximum an hour drive so it wouldn’t take that long. My plan was to visit Korca for a day and then came back to Pogradec in the late afternoon. Bus drive put me in the front so that I was guaranteed the best view:) One of the most impressive thing about the passengers was when I asked “Anglisht”(English?) (My intention was just to say Hi and ask for some travel info) they really tried hard to ask around if anyone knew English, and for every single passenger who got on board they pass along this question until someone said “Po”(Yes). I wasn’t planning on looking for their help(because of the huge language barrier, they didn’t really help me out that much, I have to admit) but their hospitality amazed me.
I spent at least 20 minutes to tell the taxi driver that I wanted to go to Voskopoje(which is a village nearby Korca that has many old churches, back in the 18th/19th century it was one of the cultural/religious center in the Balkan region). I don’t know much Albanian, and he doesn’t understand English at all. We basically communicated with gestures, numbers, and sometimes my google translation(when I have internet connect on my phone). He doesn’t know how to use my smart phone either so every time when I showed him google translation he just replied to me in Albanian(God knows why he assumed that I understood him!) I (or we) definitely struggled, but eventually we reached to an agreement that he would drive me to Voskopoje, take me around to the churches, and then coming back to Korca. It was great that I got a “guide”, and I was not alone anymore.
Voskopoje is indeed a village, quite literally. People raise livestock here and they seem to commute by horses and donkeys. The scenery of the wild mountains was so beautiful that it made me breathless. For every single step I took, my feet sunk into those flowers, and I smelt the grass as I trampled. Surrounded by astonishing nature, I felt an enormous amount of wildness and freedom.
There are a lot of churches here, according to the travel info 22 remained today. I’ve only got to six, Shen Kolli(Nicholas), Shen Mehilli(Archangel and Michael),Shen Harallambi(ruined already), Shen Illia(Elias), Shen Maria(Mary), and Shen Athanasi. Among them the most impressive church was Shen Kolli. It doesn’t look very impressive from exterior(it’s rather plain I think), but when I got in, I was awed. All the walls and ceilings are covered with old orthodox fresco(later on I knew those fresco were painted by two masters in 18th century) The iconostasis and the chandelier are partly covered with gold and silver with complicated design. This church is over 300 years old! What a hidden gem!
According to the travel info most churches in Voskopoje are closed and only the villagers have the keys. I was very glad that I was with my taxi driver Maksim (I finally got to know his name by pointing to a sentence on my Albanian common phrase book). Even though he is not very familiar with Voskopoje, he tried his best to take me around, like asking an old lady to open the church door for me(that’s why I get to see the interior of Shen Kolli), taking photos of me, and even calling his daughter for the sake of English translation! For whichever church I wanted to see, he led me the way to. As a 56-year-old father, it was very surprising that he walked with me all the way through the hills(we even climbed through a barbed wire!) I couldn’t describe how grateful I felt to him.
People might have wondered how we communicated. Well, all the words I used during the conversation were Mire(good), Shumire(very good), faleminderit(thank you), fantastik, mal(mountain), kisha(churches) and fotografoj(photograph) with gestures and numbers. Usually he would point to the place we were heading and asked me Mire? and I replied Po/Shumire. My expression is pretty much limited, and we might have not necessarily understood each other, but I can tell that we both had a great time here in Voskopoje.
After I successfully got back to Korca at two, I felt like I’ve completed one of the best trips of my life on my own and I feel so accomplished. Since I was so tired, thirsty and hungry that I wandered around the city center looking for place to chill. I stood out quite easily when I was walking on the street even with sunglasses. Some people could even tell where I’m from, but on the other hand, whenever I stop(which seems lost to the locals), people will always try to reach out to me, ask me if I need help, and try their best to show directions. With their friendliness, my trip was happy, safe and sound.