It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was 2.30 PM at Butrint and the man said that the Greek border was only 20 kilometres away. Am I man or mouse? Within a couple of hours I rather wished that I had decided that I was a mouse. Those 20 kilometres were 20 Greek/Albanian kilometres. In other words 30 kilometres. It was 40 degrees. My rucksack seems to weigh a tonne and bites into my shoulders. And having peered down the road to check that it was flat, I discovered after a bend at 5 kilometres (i.e. just out of eyeshot from the start) that it was uphill all the way. Oh, as a bonus for the last 10 kilometres the road turned into a gravel track. But the real problem is that my trousers are falling down.
If have two pairs of shorts with me. My swimming trunks and a pair of Irish rugby shorts, old friends for the past 10 years as I have played the odd game for Clontarf veterans and occasionally gone to the gym. But, having lost a few more pounds, they are quite literally falling off. Every few hundred yards I have to break my stride and hitch them up again. It is not that they are any more ripped, smelly or dirty than the other clothes I have with me. In fact they have no rips but do smell like an Orang-Utan’s arse ( today is clothes wash day for my entire wardrobe) it is just that my old friend is of no use to me at all, in fact he is holding me back. And so tomorrow I must invest in new shorts and an old friend joins some clapped out walking boots in the waste bins of Southern Europe. My load lightens by the day.
At least I was fully garbed in Irish clothing. Given how my rucksack eats into my shoulders I wore a short-sleeved Ulster shirt on top with the proud sponsor’s name – Bank of Ireland across my chest and a red hand on my heart. It protects my shoulders a bit more than a T-shirt. Thus I followed the David Horgan of Petrel Resources (PET) rule of making it clear to everyone that you are Irish.
Mr Horgan spends a lot of time in Iraq where he always wears an Ireland soccer shirt. His thinking is that when an Islamofascist killer sees Horgan as he seeks another Westerner to kidnap and behead he will at once recognise that David, as an Irishman, is also a victim of years of colonial oppression by the wicked British and thus pass on by. I am not so sure that they have such a sophisticated take on Western European history 1300 – 1948 in downtown Baghdad or that the syllabus in the local schools includes passages on “to hell or Connaught,” Captain Boycott or the Easter Uprising but so far it has worked for Horgan. Long may he travel safely. I tend to adopt the same principle when flying, wearing a London Irish shirt or baseball jacket. I hope that if hijackers take over our plane they will execute the obvious Brits first, leaving those of us with British passports but who are dressed like a fellow “victim of Imperialism” more time to be rescued.
And lo and behold the Horgan way has other benefits. At 20 kilometres ( i.e. 10 kilometres from the finish of my 20 kilometre trek) a car pulled up and a man shouts out “from Ireland?” Heck, no-one in Albania speaks English so they do not know that my accent is more Oxford than Offaly. Yes, I said, lying openly. The man’s best friend was Irish and so he insisted on giving me a lift. I was afraid that I did not know his best friend but I explained that Ireland was a big country. Sadly, I discovered after a few minutes, that the lift was to last only 800 yards as he then had to go in another direction but that was one hill less to climb.
At last I reached the border. A lot of thinking time on the way. A few articles planned. I saw a terrapin swimming in a ditch. The last time I saw a terrapin in the wild was in the Regent’s canal Hackney. I think, like many in Hackney, it was a first or second generation migrant. This was a native. I ate blackberries along the way. They looked like blackberries and tasted like blackberries but could, I suppose, be a slow acting Albanian poisonous berry which just looks like an English blackberry in which case this may well be my last blog post. Albanians, who are now all rich enough to have cars, looked at me as if I was mad. Only the very old or very poor would walk along the roads here these days. I thought of German soldiers marching along these roads with heavy rucksacks 70 years ago ( I wonder if their rucksacks were as painful as mine?) and hummed Blitzkrieg Bop to myself. Six hours of hell but I had made it.
As you may remember, on arrival in Albania I withdraw what seemed a reasonable amount from a cashpoint machine but this turned out to be 6 weeks wages for the Average Albanian. Despite my best efforts, the place was so cheap and I am so cheap, that I still have most of it left. I had rather hoped to find a hotel just before the border where I could spend more but there was none. In a desperate last roll of the dice I paid an Albanian taxi driver to take from the border to the nearest hotel in Greece in the port town of Igoumenitsa. Er, only 6000 Lekke gone. I still have enough for 3 weeks as an average Albanian. In the old days I reckon I could have palmed it off on Gordon Brown in return for some of Britain’s gold but what to do today?
As I tried to find some Euro to pay for my supper last night the waitresses saw my wad of Albanian notes and screamed Lekke and laughed. I remind you that Albania has less debt (In relation to GDP ) than almost any other European country and its ratio is improving. It has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe (okay not a tough contest to win) and that this is Greece which is, er…. completely bust. What will be worth more in a year’s time I wonder – a wad of Albanian Lekke or a wad of Greek denominated Euro? He who laughs last, etc, etc.
And now Ethiopia overtakes Australia in the Olympics medals table ( I have always been a big fan of Ethiopian food and shall raise a glass tonight to the staff at Lalibella in Kentish Town as we celebrate this great news – for slightly different reasons), I shall continue a day’s rest while I wash my clothes and let my limbs recover. Then I shall resume the trek to Zitsa at the crack of dawn.