Saturday, January 04, 2014

Journeys in Albania

That is the subtitle of a fascinating book called "The Accursed Mountains" by British journalist Robert Carver. It tells the story of his travels through this little-known country in 1996. shortly after the end of Communism.

Even in Communist times Albania was an outlier--isolated by high mountains, ruled by a dictator named Enver Hoxha, and allied with China rather than Russia. According to Carver, things did not improve with the arrival of democracy.

He tells some harrowing tales of the people he met and places he visited in a country where robbery, rape and murder were common, and where the major ambition of most people was to emigrate, preferably ot the U.S. In general, his experiences get more difficult as he moves through the country from south to north.

The north is the less developed part of Albania, a land where wolves roam freely and the main occupation in the mountains is sheepherding. Still, he encountered many smiling, hospitable people who went out of their way to help him. Albania has a strict and ancient code of hospitality that imposes great burdens on anyone who takes a guest into his home.

 Only being accompanied by an Al;banian makes a foreigner relatively safe in certain parts of the country, because if one Albanian kills another Albanian, a blood feud between the families is likely to result. Lone foreigners may be fair game.

Carver's book is beautifully written, but it did not make me anxious to visit Albania. Shortly after Carver left, in the spring of 1997, the country descended into absolute chaos.

I know someone who served with the Peace Corps in northern Albania fairly recently, and wonder what her view would be of this book. I checked for information on the safety of travel to Albania now, and found very different opinions. One post, written by an Albanian, said it is still very unsafe, but many people disagreed.

Even if you have no interest in visiting Albania, though, this is certainly a book that makes for good armchair travel.