It’s hard to believe that I have been here for almost a year. In this time one of the things I’ve had ample opportunity to learn that most things that may seem “normal” or “non-extreme” elsewhere definitely classify as “adventure” in Albania.
A few days ago I tested this theory at Albania’s only ski area in Dardhe (near Korçe). Alan, a third-year volunteer in Korçe, organized a trip for 12 of us to go and ski for the day. What this means in Peace Corps speak is that Alan called his friend who happens to be the owner/manager/chef/ski-tow-rope-operator/ski-fitter and general do-it-all at his mom and pop ski area and arranged for him to carry us all in the back of his van along with the day’s supplies when he went with his family to open the mountain in the morning. We piled in early and made our way up a hill devoid of snow, only to quickly discover at the top that yes, indeed there was snow to ski on and yes, it was blocking our way forward in the van. But, the ever-smiling manager also happened to be very good with a shovel and, with the help of some strong friends pushing the back of the van we were across an ice patch and on our way.
At the top we were in the clouds, which meant that the ski area seemed both mysterious and larger than it actually is. The first thing that Mr. manager did was to set the mood by turning on outdoor speakers blaring Albanian traditional music for us to enjoy while skiing. Then, we walked into the one-room “lodge” and found amazing neon polyester ski gear circa 1985 lying out on all the chairs around the wood stoves. YES! Good thing I left my ski pants in the US – I got to ski all day in a hot pink onesie donated by some ski area in Switzerland along with all the haphazard pairs of boots and skis we used.
After getting my skis on, the tow ropes (yes, ropes – with no hand holds) weren’t on yet so I set out into the fog walking up one of the two runs to see where it led. Unfortunately, if it hadn’t been foggy, I would have realized that the run was approximately 50 yards long. But, for some reason this wasn’t disappointing at all and suddenly we were 12 American kids in a snow wonderland playground just skiing around falling all over the place and laughing and getting used to the slushy snow and the fact that most of us haven’t touched skis in at least a year.
Pretty soon the tow ropes on both the 50 yard flat run and the adjoining 100 yard steeper run turned on and we realized that the fact that they had been off was a blessing in disguise. For the rest of the day they would be the bane of our existence. When have you been skiing and your arms are the sorest part of you at the end of the day? We held on (you just hold on to the rope and basically lift yourself up the hill) with determination and watched each other eat it halfway up time after time. I think the best part of the day was watching everyone else attempt the rope pull. After a while some Albanians joined us up on the slopes and they were even more entertaining to watch. Some even tried to take photographs of their friends while skiing and while on the rope tow: shouting, “Për Facebook!!”
All in all, after a few good runs, some exploration in the surrounding woods, some excellent snowball fight mayhem with good friends and a great mug of mulled wine around a wood stove it proved to be a wonderful day. We were even served our lunch by the owner’s son – balancing soup bowls on a tray while still wearing his ski boots. It was great to see so many Albanians there enjoying themselves, as I feel it’s something that they don’t have the opportunity to do….and active activities haven’t really caught on in full force here like they have in the US.
It’s a relatively new enterprise and a great little mountain with a lot of potential – for gear, for lifts, for expansion. I almost wish I lived in Korçe and had better relations with a ski mountain back in the states to facilitate a partnership of sorts. Definitely a place to recommend to future volunteers….not those looking for good quality skiing, but those seeking an exhausting and exhilarating day full of adventure and “Albaniana.”
Crazy photos to come…!