Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

Katherine Antoniak

April 29th, 2017

AlbaniaTravel Writing Award

Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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About the Author

Katherine Antoniak

I am a freelance writer from Seattle, Washington, with a degree in anthropology from the University of Washington. I have an extensive background in health and athletics. I'm a competitive mixed martial arts fighter, a painter, and an avid traveler. I recently completed a solo backpacking trip through the Balkans.