Rainy Exit from Shkretë

In the fall of 1996, Darrell Smith and I went into Shkretë to collect water samples up above the village and see if we could identify the water source emanating from that high an elevation. On the way in, we took the new road that had been cut in the mountain. It took a route at a lower elevation than the original access road. The old road reached over one thousand meters and tended to freeze early in the winter becoming impassable and blocking vehicular access for several months.

The year before, we had a road engineer from America come to assess the feasibility of putting a lower road into the village. We hiked across a couple of lower possibilities, but the conclusion of the engineer was that no matter which way we went, there was an unavoidable section of button shale laying at its greatest angle of repose. The goal was to create a stable, year-round access road that would enhance the standard of living in the village of Shkretë. That section of shale would likely never stabilize so the conclusion was not to undertake the project. Another organization decided to attempt road project, but had run into some complications about midway through. They implemented the project until the road was cut, but could not continue. Access was accomplished, but the finishing touches that would have stabilized the road bed were left undone.

The lumber company that was operating on that mountain was temporarily paying someone with a bull dozier to keep the route clear. We were happy the lumber enterprise was taking some ownership in maintaining the road. They were the ones to profit nicely from a better entry road. While we wanted to help Shkretë, we did not want mission money to provide that for-profit company free and easy access to further clear-cut the forest. It had rained during the weekend before and we had been in the village two days ago on Monday, which was a nice dry day and the road was muddy, but passable. Tuesday was overcast, but no rain. We decided to go again on Wednesday, a beautiful, dry day with blue skies and wispy clouds. We were grateful that we didn’t have to climb around on the mountain looking for the springs in the rain.

We took the new road when we had the choice. We commented on how nice the new route into the village was, but there were several places that still needed some work. Some of the hairpin curves in the folds of the mountain were obviously going to cause trouble unless something was done to stabilize the roadbed in a rain and reroute the runoff coming down from above. It had rained a couple of days before and the trouble spots were obvious and already rutted from runoff. We had to get out and remove large stones in one place that had fallen onto the road. Another place needed widening and building up after we almost slid off the roadbed in the ankle-deep mud.

It was a comfortable temperature that autumn morning and after an hour and a half driving from Kruja where we rendezvoused, we were at the top of the village where we would start our climb.

We headed up the mountain and got as far up as we thought we could go and still get down on schedule. After two hours on the mountain, we had not made it to the source, but we had our water samples so Darrell and I headed back down. Finally, from an outcropping of rock, we were able to see the Land Rover and identify the best route back down. From that spot, it would take us about another hour to get to the vehicle. As we got closer to the bottom, we could see someone was with Deni at the vehicle, but we couldn’t see who it was. It is impossible to sneak into the village because of where the road comes relative to the village, so I wasn’t surprised when Naim, the village nurse’s son, met us at the car when we got there. He had wanted us to visit on Monday when we were here, but it was impossible that day. Our compromise was to promise to visit on Wednesday after we finished collecting samples. I had almost forgotten we had promised so I was glad for his reminder. It would have been quite an insult to have come to the village and not gone to visit.

Deni was waiting patiently at the Land Rover when we returned. Of course, Deni is always waiting patiently. He has been driving for the Baptist Center since the early days and his quiet, respectful style of living as well as driving has made him a valued member of staff. Deni claims to be Muslim, but is slowly softening to the Good News.

Happiness would not be a way I would describe Deni’s feelings when I told him we needed to go down into the village. The last two kilometers of the road into the village are especially brutal. His response was, “Down into the village?” in a soft non-argumentative tone, almost a sigh. I knew he wasn’t excited about the idea, but his next word was an equally subdued and resigned almost breathy, “Okay.”

Half of the road down into the village of Shkretë bears no resemblance to a road. A river bed, maybe. Deni’s thirty years’ experience driving lorries in the mountains always shines out when he gets into difficult places. I’d seen it before and I’d been on this particular road with him many times before. He was every bit the match for the huge boulders and difficult transitions as we climbed down the steep grade into the village to the school in the center. The house of the village nurse was the next house down the hill from the school and was the very last place that could be reached by motor vehicle.

Naim was twenty-one and his wife was nineteen. They have two children and live in the house with his parents and his younger brother. He and his wife and children were the only people I came across in the village that had tried to leave. They went illegally to Greece and after being caught and deported twice, they returned home. The family had been making some improvements on the house, to include a new picket fence made of oak wood scrap from his dad’s carpentry business. The father makes everything from chairs and tables to buckets, barrels and huge wooden vats for fermenting fruit for wine and raki.

As the Land Rover edged past the school down toward their house, the father and brother were uprooting one section of the new fence so the vehicle could get in. That kind of hospitality is not uncommon and this wasn’t the first time someone had gone way out of their way for us. I still felt self-conscious that our visit caused them to go to that trouble. Unfortunately, there was no other place to leave the vehicle without posting a guard. That would mean Deni. The villagers would offer, but he would never accept since that was his job and thus, his responsibility. We never mentioned the moving of the fence because we knew the man of the house would have it no other way than putting the car inside. We just complimented his craftsmanship and headed toward the house.

Once before in this very yard, someone had stolen a camera out of the locked Land Rover. I made a scene about it and a couple of days later the camera showed up. In spite of the trauma of the stolen camera of a special visitor that was trying to do something to help the village, it was good for them to smoke it out and return it. Needless to say, the owner of the house, Naim’s father wasn’t interested in that happening again because in the end, the zoti e shtepisë, the head of the house, took responsibility for the safety and well being of visitors. Since that time, he’s unceremoniously kept someone watching the vehicles when we’ve been up in the village. After greeting the father in the yard, we headed toward the house where the mother Xheveria (Xh is pronounced like the “J” in Jeff) and the daughter-in-law were waiting in the door to greet us. While we greeted them on the front stoop, the father hurried back around so he could be standing by the door when we passed to give the customary welcome.

“Mirë se vini,” he said, using the standard greeting, “It’s good you came.”
“Mire se ju gjetëm,” we replied, “It’s good we found you well.”

He gave us that same greeting in the yard, at the door and then again inside as a toast after the initial drinks were poured and the ceremonial cigarettes had been offered. Raki is most often used as the first drink. Shkretë’s claim to fame is that their raki is made from what is called “thanë”, pronounced “thon”. Thanë translates “tree fruit”, but is the berry of a specific species of dogwood tree common to Europe.

I’ve visited often enough in this house that the dirt floors and crude furnishings no longer shock me. The sitting places double as beds. Those plus the table and chairs were certainly made by the father. They were straight-lined and basic, but sturdy and functional. The beds are stuffed with sheep fur and covered by thick material handmade on a loom of some kind with sheepskins thrown on top for warmth.

A half-grown chicken ducked under the closed door to check for breadcrumbs, but was discouraged by the unfamiliar bodies in the room. A quick about-face and out she went through the space by which she entered, back into the other room where the animals were kept. No one seemed to notice.

Everyone was unusually happy acting and positive. From the small barrel they used for a playpen, the baby was smiling and watching all the activity. I thought we were finally beginning to see signs of improvement in their attitudes. We were served a warm meal with meat. All but a couple of the meals we had ever eaten in the village had been cold and without meat. To have warm and meat on the same day, a non-special feast day was cause to rejoice. We were happy for them. The conversation was one of encouragement and the fellowship was very nice.

Sitting there soaking up the moment, I thought about the last time, and only other time, I had been so encouraged. A few months before, we were eating lunch at the mayor’s house. As I think about it, that was a hot meal, too. That day, we were served yellow tomatoes along with the meal. We were elated.

Granted, yellow tomatoes are strange things to get excited about, but in this village, trying something new is a big deal. We had given them the seeds for them to try along with some varieties we knew they would like. We hoped they would plant them and perhaps try them. They not only planted them and tried them they really liked them. The mayor’s wife excitedly sliced them up in front of us so we could savor the moment as the mayor watched our response. I smiled to myself at that moment that grown men could get such a thrill from a yellow tomato.

Lunch done, the father and sons moved the fence again, we said our good-byes and expressed our thanks and started our drive back out of the village. It had gone three o’clock and we knew we’d be pushing dark by the time we got back to Kruja. One more water sample on the way out and we were basically done. That sample was on the road out so it would require only two minutes at most.

As we chugged in low gear away from the school in the village, we noticed that our beautiful day had begun to deteriorate. A thunderstorm was moving in from the south. Weather from the south always means rain in those mountains.

Finishing the last sample, the rain began to fall, slowly at first. We hopped in the car feeling we were almost home. It had been a good and productive day, two major tasks completed, the water samples and what turned out to be our last visit to the village of Shkretë.

About eight kilometers (five miles) of new road lay in front of us before we got to the older, more stable road. The rain quickly began to beat down harder and harder as the thunder and lightning moved closer. I was sitting up front with Deni so I could see what was happening too well. The Land Rover was walking through the deep muddy spots beautifully and at that moment, we would have been glad to do a Land Rover commercial. It gave us a more secure feeling to be in such a vehicle in these conditions. Deni, like a master surgeon, put all his years of experience to work as he carved our way through the mud and rocks and falling water as we made our way toward home.

About the time we began to get smug, we turned a corner and met a forty-foot tree lying in the road. It was mostly parallel to the road, but didn’t leave room to pass. The rain was pouring down by this time. We quickly began to fear that the lower sections were quickly deteriorating and we’d better get there as soon as possible. First, we must deal with this tree.

The lightning was hitting somewhere pretty close judging by the delay from flash to boom. We couldn’t tell how close or exactly which direction, but we could not just sit still. Naim had ridden with us so he could go to his uncle’s house in a neighboring village. Fortunately, the four of us were barely able to roll the tree far enough aside to get by. Three might not have been able. However, the adrenaline was running high. Of course, handling a wet pine tree in a thunderstorm standing in a foot of muddy slush will do that for you.

We dropped Naim and kept on track. Two difficult spots remained and then we could breathe easier. The dangerous places were where the runoff water ran down the road lengthwise and met large quantities of water focused on to the road from above. That new road, which was basically the quality of a newly graded forestry access road, was being ravaged by incredible amounts of water coming at it from all angles.

Half dozen places were like driving on a ledge of a waterfall. Water was crashing down on the left from above, running across the road under the Land Rover and then falling into space on the right. Not knowing how stable the new roadbed would be when it became saturated, made the five hundred foot drop-off to the right seem imposing, to say the least.

Vision wasn’t very good in the driving rain. The wipers were working as hard as they could. My job was to keep the windshield from fogging up inside. Not much was said the whole way out. We were praying hard and wiping windows. Deni was focused and calm the whole time which helped us keep calm as well.

During the worst of it, I was thinking this would make a great scene in an Indiana Jones movie and wished someone could have gotten it on film. The lightning, thunder and race against darkness added that next dimension of excitement to this adventure. Two more rough spots and we would be down to the muddy slippery sections lower on the mountain. We dreaded those on the way in, but they seemed desirable at that point.

The last two bad spots were hairpin turns. The first of the places was preceded by a long descent that had water running along the road until it got closer into the curve where the water from above swept that stream off the mountain. This curve had water coming down it on dry days so it was fairly stable. The main problem was the three foot pile of gravel and rocks that had begun to build up in the middle of the turn. That accumulation was playing tricks with the water and making it difficult to determine the side of the road. Deni hugged as far as he could to the mountainside so we could slowly crawl through the rushing water without getting too close to the outside.

That one passed, we started on down the Slope to the last bad spot. This was another hairpin turn but it was in an area of button shale. Wet shale rates low on the list of desirable driving surfaces. Water ran down the road toward the curve and met water coming off the mountain above, like the last curve. Being a softer material, and with darkness beginning to be a factor, Deni slowed to a crawl and hugged the mountain side as much as he felt he could without miring up. As we were coming into the curve, I looked across the way to the other side of the curve. It seemed like a horseshoe-shaped waterfall. As I inspected the edge of the road ahead, I saw part of the road slough off in the rush of water and disappear into the darkness. I was praying that section wasn’t already saturated and getting ready to fall away. In that shale, our weight would be a factor. We’d know in a minute.

As Deni moved slowly, but steadily into the curve, the car had much better traction than we had feared. The road seemed fairly stable as we transversed the eight inch deep waters rushing sideways across the road and down the mountain. Thank the Lord, it was not as boggy and slippery as we had suspected.

Deni got a smile on his face when we had passed the last rough spot. Praise the Lord. We felt like the Lord had helped us get out of there just in time. The road could not have stood that volume of water for very much longer. About a month later, we saw Naim. He said the road had not been passable since that afternoon. Chances are good it won’t be passable again until spring.

The rest of the drive into Kruja was for the most part routine. We felt as if we had experienced something phenomenal, safely. Back at the main road of the commune, we had thirty more minutes to Kruja. Arriving after dark, the thunderstorm continued to flash and bang around us. When we got back to the Milner’s house where I had left my van, I was trying to call Debbie on the radio, but everyone had radios off due to the lightning. From Kruja, we could see the storm flashing around Lezha and knew we’d have to wait.

“Well, I’ll start toward home and call her on the way,“ I told Deni and Darrell as I started the van and headed out.

Almost immediately upon pulling out, the van coughed and bucked and lost power. Deni and Darrell were behind me so they stopped to see what was happening. The van would still run, just slowly and without power. I hoped it would straighten out by the time we got to Fushë-Kruja about twenty minutes away. That is where we would part ways, me going north to Lezha and them south to Tirana. We’d make a decision there. I kept trying to find someone on the radio without success.

By the time we got to Fushë-Kruja, the van wasn’t any better and I was afraid to head off into the dark alone with the van acting up. The most logical thing to do was to go on into Tirana and spend the night and get the vehicle repaired the next day. That wasn’t a problem except Debbie needed to know so she wouldn’t worry.

John and Joanna Milner in Kruja were usually our relays for information back and forth from Tirana to Lezha. Many times they had helped out. Tonight, their radio was off due to the storm. Debbie’s was off as well.

The best option was to go on to Tirana since I had an escort and continue to try to get word to Debbie. By the time we got to Tirana, the storm had moved off some and I was able to make contact with the Milners who in turn made contact with Debbie. All that done, we unwound with a cup of coffee and fell asleep exhausted, but satisfied with our adventure and happy God was with us.

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