I’ve started my trip of southern Albania in Pogradec, a relaxed city located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, bordering Macedonia. The city was a favorite hangout for Albania’s ex-king Zog, as well as communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When coming down the Thane pass, one notices the village of Lin, situated on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. I ended up spending a few days in this quiet fishing village. Wandering down the narrow lanes felt like stepping into the past. Old women sat in doorways to escape the afternoon sun, quietly chatting or knitting. Children roamed the streets playing football, while the distant drone of fishing boat motors mixed with the ringing of a church bell.
It was here that I first met Mihal Gjora, riding his donkey Marko, on his way to a plot of land outside Lin. I asked if I could take his photo and he laughed in a hearty way that I would become accustomed to during my time with him. Shy at first, he was surprised I could speak Albanian and invited me to come with him to feed his animals. We walked the trash littered lakeside, greeting farmers working in their fields and talking about life in America. America is like the promised land here, a place of opportunity, wealth, freedom to be who you want, and progress. I sometimes feel as if I see more American flags flying here than back home.
I thought about these things as we walked a shepherd’s path through the hills, the warm spring breeze filled with cherry tree blossoms. Mihal’s plot of land is on a small hill overlooking the lake and village. Mihal opened the gate and his two dogs went wild. They adore their master, and want to absolutely maul me. Once Mihal chained up the dogs he tended to Marko and his other animals. Out of a door came a parade of chickens, rabbits and a cat. Mihal seemed to delight in caring for his creatures, smiling and laughing in his characteristic way.
He made us some coffee and we quietly sat looking at the lake and mountains beyond. I told him that for me this seemed like such a peaceful, simple existence and asked if he liked his life here. He was silent for a few moments, then let out a sigh. “Niko, Albania is beautiful, we are good people here, we care for each other. But here, there is little work, no money. My wife has no job, my son has nothing to do, and there is a lot of corruption. Sometimes I don’t catch fish, or I don’t sell any. What can we do?”
Mihal is a fisherman, mechanic and electrician. He bears a striking resemblance to the late actor Steve McQueen, with a kind boyish face that hides a hardness lurking underneath. There were moments of silence between us, when Mihal would stare into the distance, and I could see the weight of his hard life borne out in the lines of his face. It’s a weight I cannot even begin to understand. On our walk back he realized he had lost his phone somewhere along the lake, so we searched in vain through trash and reeds. Adding to his troubles, when we returned to town he was told an elderly relative had died. I told him I was sorry, but he still kept a smile on his face and laughed when I thanked him for spending time with me.
When I went back to Pogradec that night I found my backup cellphone sitting unused in my pack, and pretty much instantly made up my mind to return and give it to Mihal. So the next day I biked back to Lin, and as if by fate, found Mihal in the town square having just finished with his aunt’s funeral. When I told him I returned to give him a phone, he grinned as if a little embarrassed. Albanians often seem so willing to give and share, but often refuse me when I offer to return a favor. Mihal took me to his house to meet his family and share a coffee. He shares the same playfulness and lightness of being with his family that I saw with his animals. After awhile, he announced we would go to his boat and return to his plot of land to feed Marko and the others. So off we went, stopping on the way to fetch sardines for the cat and help fix another fisherman’s broken motor. Back at Mihal’s plot there was the same cacophony of rabbits, chickens, the cat, and dogs trying to devour me. Sitting in a field with Marko, Mihal got another one of his serious looks, but then smiled. “Niko, here and here (pointing left and right) this is mine. It’s not much, but it’s ok.”
I smiled at this, wishing that I heard it more often. Mihal and the village of Lin, to me, embody what is special about this country. Life is hard here for most people who are just trying to get by, who aren’t willing to become corrupt politicians. There really is no work, and little money. I sometimes feel guilty for how I am able to enjoy the beauty of this place, how much I smile here. Mihal and his family have little, but they also have something that I feel has largely been lost in a lot of developed countries. This kindness, warmth, connection with animals, nature and one’s neighbors seems to disappear even when you visit some of the neighboring countries here. It’s been given up for high-rise hotels, huge tour groups, and the drone of construction next to historical sites. The corruption is still there though. I know this will come here too, and maybe Mihal’s children and grandchildren will be spared the thousand-yard stare of a life of abject poverty and hardship. Yet, I also hope someone will stop along the way to remember the peace and kindness they grew up with, and continue to pass it along.