A while ago I put together a story on my trip to Albania for the website BootsnAll.com. It was published today! Read it!
A while ago I put together a story on my trip to Albania for the website BootsnAll.com. It was published today! Read it!
I finally unpacked most of my things into my new apartment and found the chargers to my cameras. Here is a little video of the Blue Eye in Albania, one of the most exquisite little corners of the world.
When I found out I was going to be living in a relatively boring town surrounded by lots of other NOT boring places in southern Spain for nine months, I decided it would be a good idea to buy a backpack so I could get the hell out of my town on the weekends and explore.
I had a small daypack that I had used during other short-term travel (A North Face pack similar to the Recon), but I wanted the possibility of doing some more intense travel and that baby just wasn’t going to cut it. So I logged onto REI and started shopping.
I am a picky shopper, especially when it comes to spending loads of hard-earned money on something as boring as a backpack, so I did my research. I wanted something that could get me through a month-long trip or a two-day trip. I wanted something that would fit into the overhead compartment of a Ryanair plane, I wanted something with lots of convenient little pockets, and most of all I wanted something that would be comfortable. I have a weak, finicky back, and backpacks usually are not something I look forward to putting on, so being light and ergonomic and having some form of a supportive frame were all requirements this bag would have to meet. And I wanted all of this for less than $200.
My research led me to a fancy new superlight pack by Osprey; the Exos. The Exos is like a feather. It also has a lot of cool features like easily accessible trekking pole loops, a sleeve for up to three liters of hydration, and a bunch of other stuff that I will probably never use. Half of the cool gizmos and gadgets on this thing actually almost scared me away at first. I was planning on daytripping through Andalucía, not trekking through the snowy Himalayas. I didn’t need poles or hydration systems, I needed a place to put my laptop, a couple shirts and my camera in a way that wouldn’t give me a backache. And I found it!
After a one-on-one session with an unfortunate REI employee who was subjected to intense questioning and a try-on session that involved maybe dozens of backpacks filled with dozens and DOZENS of beanbag weights, I was hooked on the Exos. It was super light, and the suspension system kept the pack off my back without keeping it too far off my back so I never felt like I was falling backwards. The straps didn’t cut into me anywhere, the frame hugged my body, and the capacity of the 46 liter model was plenty big to last me for just about any length European backpacking trip without tempting me to pack too much (though there is a larger model Exos out there if you need that extra capacity). The 46 liter pack was $179, and it was quite possibly the best $179 I have ever spent. My boyfriend settled for the slightly more heavy-duty, slightly bigger, slightly less-pricey Atmos (the green pack in the pictures) which I will touch on as well.
I backpacked through Spain for a month in September 2009, then lived out of the backpack every Mon-Thurs from October until March of the same year. In December I took a winter trip to Poland and the Czech Republic with the thing, and most recently in June I spent 10 days backpacking in Albania and two in Italy. Throughout the year I took a bunch of side trips to places all around Spain, by plane, train, and bus. The backpack has been thoroughly tested, and I am happy to say that it is amazing.
First of all it is light. This is great. If you are going away for a day or two, you don’t even feel like you have anything on your back, and the bag compacts down enough that I would even consider using it as a daypack if I didn’t have another bag available, which I don’t. If you are going away longer, the lightness can be essential in situations like hiking down a cliff in the dark to camp on an Albanian beach or when you are being ordered by an Italian airport security officer to repack your bag to get it under the ridiculously strict 10 kilo Ryanair hand-luggage restriction. On the downside, the pack is only so light because everything on it is a little smaller, a little thinner, or a little more hollow than a normal pack. At first I was worried about tossing it around or checking it on a flight where it might get banged up, but after a few months I realized that it was tough enough to take some bumping about. The only thing that really bothers me about the lightness is the waist belt. The belt itself is very thin compared to the Atmos or other similar packs, which means it can cut into you a bit if the bag is particularly heavy. The clips also sometimes pop out or get loose due to the fact that they just don’t have the bulk of a normal bag. This bothered me a bit but it was worth it because the rest of the pack was so great, though I could imagine it being a little more bothersome if you are doing more serious trekking.
Otherwise, the pockets and straps and everything are wonderful. You can fit so much stuff into that 46 liter pouch that you could easily travel for months. Even when carrying a sleeping bag, a tent, my DSLR, and clothes for two weeks in there, we were still able to get the bags through Ryanair as carry-ons without a problem. The soft stretchy pouch in the front is great for shoes, wet clothes, or anything you might want at hand, provided that there are no sharp edges involved. I have a few little cuts in the stretchy front pouch material from things as soft as a book, so be careful before putting anything with corners or points in there. The front pouch below the stretchy pocket has zipper access running down the left side of the pack and is great and huge, though not always 100% easy to get your hand into when the main compartment is filled, partly because it is so large and smaller items can get lost in the folds of the pocket. I rarely left loose items in there, instead grouping them into zipper bags to make them easier to pull out. Having a shallower zipper pocket in the front area might have been nice, and the Atmos does separate that front section into two smaller pockets which sometimes made me a little jealous. The water bottle holders on the sides are roomy and easy to access while wearing the pack, and there is enough netting and straps that you can easily keep lots of things in there besides a water bottle without worrying about anything falling out. The compression straps on the side, though thin, are excellent at compacting everything down to a manageable size. The mesh pockets on the waistbelt are big enough to hold things like small change, chapstick, a digital camera, passport, etc, which was always convenient while walking longer distances or at the airport. The cell phone holder on the shoulder strap came in handy often, and the removable pouch on the top of the bag was in constant use and smooshes down nicely when empty, though I often found myself wishing it was waterproof to provide some coverage for the rest of the pack.
The shoulder straps in general could be a little thicker and more padded, but honestly if you are going to be carrying so much weight that the straps are causing you pain, an ultra-light bag probably isn’t a good choice for you.
And lastly, the colors are a super cool grey and burnt orange which I swear had nothing to do with me picking it….
So the jist of this all is that the Exos is an excellent pack for backpacking, if by “backpacking” you mean through Europe or something similar. I assume that it will be just as good out in the woods or wilderness or whatever, but I can certainly give it an A+ for the budget traveler set, if you can recommend a $179 pack and still be using the word “budget.” It easily transitioned from walking the streets of Milan into camping in Albania and it looked good doing it!
And if the Exos is just too light or delicate or whatever for you, the Atmos offers basically everything that the Exos does, but is a little heavier (emphasis on little), a little more sturdy, and a little cheaper–an excellent alternative. For my boyfriend, the Atmos just felt better on his back, and he decided that ultimately comfort was worth an extra pound or so of weight, and it was a great choice for him. Either way, both packs have proved to be well worth the investment. I highly recommend doing a fitting at REI or a similar store where you can try on the different sizes, talk to a salesperson, and even add lots of weights to make sure nothing pokes you in the wrong places, which is definitely something you want to look into before purchasing the pack, loading it up with 30lbs of (absolutely necessary) supplies and hitting the road.
We only stopped in Himara out of necessity. We were in Dhermi, loving it, when we realized that we were going to run out of cash and there was no ATM in sight. Nobody accepted any kind of card either, so we had to decide whether to leave Dhermi earlier than expected and move on, or head out in hopes of finding an ATM quickly, then coming back to enjoy the beach (and amazing woodfired pizza). We chose option #2.
We hiked out of Dhermi at about 8am, up the winding, nicely paved street from the beach to the main road. From there we hiked another 20 minutes or so until we reached a fierce bend in the road right at the entrance to old Dhermi. There was a little hotel being built and a cafe, shaded by trees, and we decided to stop there and have a coffee and wait for a furgon to go by. There was also a great natural spring that came out of the ground right behind the cafe, so in addition to the shade of the trees we had the sound of rushing water, as well as a little fountain that had been built where people could fill up their water bottles. Furgons heading north would stop at the fountain and people would get out, fill their bottles, and wash up in the fountain that ran along the side of the road. After about 15 minutes we caught a southbound bus and hopped on.
Himara is closer than what they tell you in Dhermi. Maybe 25 minutes in a furgon. 35 max. When we got there we asked a woman in a market about a bank and she pointed us towards the beach. On the road that runs along the water there are at least four banks with ATMS, so ignore whatever the people in Dhermi or the guidebooks tell you. You CAN get cash in Himara and it’s a heck of a lot easier and cheaper and shorter than heading back to Vlora.
And the view wasn’t bad! We were in a rush to get back to Dhermi, which we eventually did by taxi for 2,000 lek or so, but the beach in Himara itself was rather nice. Especially a little to the south of the town, there was some really clear beautiful water. I noticed that almost 100% percent of the time the beaches directly to the south of the towns were the nicest. That was certainly true in Vlora and Himara, and driving down the coast I saw the pattern continue. Generally the in-town beaches weren’t the best, Dhermi being the exception since it wasn’t really a town at all.
I think this salad cost about two euros. We ate it on a bar that overlooked one of the most spectacular beaches I have ever seen.
Albanian fruits and vegetables were mostly organic, but not in the trendy tree-hugging healthy way that we have organic produce in California. Most people in Albania are just too poor to afford pesticides. The flavors of these vegetables were incredible. We made a Greek salad with the exact same ingredients two nights ago here in California and it just fell flat compared to the super super flavorful tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, and home made feta we had in Albania.
While most of the photos I have of Albania are of pretty beaches, weird bugs, and delicious food, there were other slightly less pleasant things about the country that we noticed during our visit.
Albania isn’t rich. There is a lot of nice coastline that developers are quickly taking advantage of and Tirana is suspiciously full of lots of very nice cars, but the moment you step out of the airport it is evident that you’re not in France or Spain or even Croatia anymore. Things are dirty, wires are hanging everywhere, nobody wears helmets on their motorcycles….it’s different than anywhere else I’ve been in Europe. Not even McDonald’s has penetrated into this weird, wonderful little country yet, and the total lack of any familiar stores, restaurants, or markets gives it an even more decidedly foreign feel.
A lot of this comes from the fact that the country was basically in a Communist-dictatorship choke hold until the death of its paranoid leader Enver Hoxha in 1985. That’s the guy that put up the 700,000 concrete bunkers that dot the countryside, just in case of any attacks from the U.S. or England or any of our other buddies during the post-war era when communist Albania was closely allied with the Soviet Union. Until 1990, Albanians couldn’t leave the country or drive cars, and pretty much no one was allowed to come in, so they were almost completely cut off from the rest of the world and even within their own country weren’t very mobile. The fact that no one in the entire country was driving before the 90s (and many started way later than that) is extremely evident in the severe lack of infrastructure in the transportation department and absolutely freaking crazy cliff-hanging, winding, twisting, unpaved, donkey and goat-filled roads that more than once caused me to say a little prayer on our way down the coast. Great views, though.
Anyways, Albania’s history is a mess. There was a history section in the Bradt guidebook I bought in Madrid (which I guess I recommend, though I was not totally thrilled by it) and it took me like 50 attempts to get through it because it was basically 25 pages of…”this guy ruled for like 5 years, then he got killed and other people came in, then this group took over, then they were sacked by these guys blah blah blah….” The people never get a break. They even had a king at one point named ZOG. He was shot in Parliament in 1923, supposedly survived at least 55 assassination attempts, even shooting back at one gunman with a pistol he always carried (making him the only modern head of state to engage in uh, battle? with an assassin), went into forced exile in 1924, lived in the Ritz in London for a while, hung out in Egypt, bought a house in New York, and finally died in France in 1961. He was evidently a pretty good leader, eliminating things like serfdom and animal cruelty and getting Albania going as a nation in a way that hadn’t really been seen before, but I feel like his time as kind/president/prime minister (oh yes, he was all three), really provides a snapshot of the kind of turmoil that poor Albania has found itself in more than once during the last couple centuries.
Anyways, more recently than Zog (who despite the decidedly ancient sounding moniker was actually a pretty recent leader), Albania was recovering from its repressive dictator Hoxha. In 1992 they elected in their first non-Communist government, but it turned out to not be such a smooth transition. A big crisis hit in 1997 when the country’s economy, which was basically built on Ponzi schemes, failed, taking out the savings of about 2/3 of Albanians. The people went crazy. They rioted for months throughout the country, staged forceful takeovers of pretty much all of the big cities in Albania that we visited and overthrew the military. They hijacked navy boats and tried to escape to Italy, they grabbed an estimated 650,000 weapons from the government, and they basically burned the mother down. I think I probably would have been angry, too.
Seriously everything at that point was state owned or at least closely associated with the government in the public’s eye since they were so freshly out of Communism, so they burned a lot of stuff, including hotels which were mainly simple family affairs built by the communists that catered either to workers or party members. And I swear some of those charred buildings are still hanging around Albania’s resort-ier areas, like the one in the picture, in Dhermi. It’s hard to say because there are a million other reasons that so many shells of buildings could have been left about, especially considering that it’s been 13 years since the riots, but every time I passed one of those super socialist realism style buildings with all its windows missing and black burn marks all over it (and there are a lot of them), I couldn’t help but think that it was some abandoned relic from this country’s serious bummer of a history. Now it could be something entirely different, like the post-apocalyptic, post-war, post-earthquake-looking town of Ksamili, but that is for another post.
Anyways, the riots ended after about 8 months in August of 1997 when the UN sent in an international protection force led by the Italians. But honestly Albania still has its problems. The perilous roads and the city of Ksamili I will get into later, but they even have blood feuds. Like, Romeo and Juliet, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” type blood feuds. In 2008 the New York Times reported that 10,000 people had been victim to the feuds since 1991, when the ban on them went out with the communists. Evidently it’s more common in the very isolated north, which is probably why so many people told us to stay the hell away from there unless we had an experienced Albanian guide. They are the kind of social problems that I can not even begin to fathom, but also the things that made Albania so incredibly interesting. Despite them all I already want to go back, and when I do I am totally getting a guide and going north.
When we got to the Blue Eye (Syri i kaltër in Albanian, though I have to admit that I am not 100% sure how to pronounce that), there were all these AMAZING bugs flying around, everything was green and lush and the water flowing out of the Eye was the most spectacular shade of blue I have ever seen in nature. I wasn’t a huge fan of Avatar, but I had to admit that I felt like I was exploring Pandora while we were there. And I loved it!
I will add more photos of this incredible spot later and go into much greater detail explaining what it is and why it is so wonderful, but for now here is a photo of one of the adorable bugs that live there, some kind of dragonfly-butterfly guy. I was sitting on some tree roots that were hanging over the impossibly blue water and I honestly just stuck out my hand, dreaming of a Pocahontas-esque, “Colors of the Wind” moment becoming one with nature when it ACTUALLY LANDED ON MY HAND!!! Dream. Come. True.
Directions to Secret Beach: Take a bus from Dhermi to Himara, get off at the faded sign for Jal Beach. Keep an eye out for stray goats. Hike one hour towards the beach through olive orchards, past the little white church. Hitchhike the remaining mile or two. Take a break to have a Korça and some fresh fish on the beach. Continue hiking down the dirt road that looks like it leads nowhere. Walk until you can’t hear people or dogs, until you can’t see any more trash or chickens. After about 20 minutes, you will pass a white pebble beach and one big olive tree. Keep going. If you’ve hit the shady old olive orchards you’ve gone too far. Look for a freshly dug ditch on the right. Hike along it until it turns into a narrow old footpath. Keep going until you reach the cliff. Climb down, pitch tent, build fire, go for a swim, repeat.
*update! Some awesome Flickr user named Edi 9/11 commented on this photo on my Flickr page with a GREAT map of Albania that shows exactly where this spot is for anyone who is interested in visiting this beach (called Aquarium) or any other parts of Albania! http://wikimapia.org/#lat=40.1129851&lon=19.7114897&z=16&l=0&m=b