Albania from the skies – paragliding

Friday, 06.11.2015

“The best part about paragliding is the next day,” said Zielony while we waited for the weather conditions to improve. “The rush of adrenaline is low. The images of the world rewind in your head while you are safely on the ground.” It was only the day after when we appreciated the charm and wilderness of the Albanian mountains.

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On the road

The trip to Albania was the second part of our paragliding training. After we completed the basics a year before, full of hopes and a rusty knowledge, we set forth on the journey, on the brink of fear, adrenaline and panic. It began with a 30-hour drive to Albania in a Ford Transit. The itinerary planned the drive for 20 hours, but because of the flood in Bosnia and Herzegovina we couldn’t cross any bridges on the Croatia-Bosnia border.

“The bridges are severed. You won’t be able to drive across the country.” The customs officer said.

“What do we do?” Łukasz, our instructor said.

“Let’s take a detour through Croatia,” said Wiciu, our boss.

We headed to my beloved Croatia and made up on the road 600 kilometers.

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My beloved Croatia

As a teenager, I spent every summer in Croatia. I knew the country by heart. I visited Croatia only in the summer, so the prospect of seeing it in May thrilled me.

The Neretva Valley emerged in full bloom. The teeming flora left me in the awe. Cornflowers and red weeds dominated the green-blanketed landscape. The lush green contrasting with the menacing blackness of the stormy clouds filled me with exhilaration. In May, the stands along the road bent of oranges lying on the counter, contrary to the regular summer fruit: peaches and watermelons. My favorite place, the city of Dubrovnik, as usual, the hosted gigantic cruise ships. The spell of the mysterious Mediterranean city was as strong as ever. In Montenegro, I dipped my feet in the sea for the first time in the season. So relieving. We wined and dined in a restaurant on a beach to sooth our exhaustion.

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Albania, why are you so different?

My first impression of Albania comprised blue rainwater containers above the houses, construction sites everywhere and poor conditions on the roads.

After so many hours spent in a bus, all we needed was another hole in the road, another crack in the asphalt, another unimaginable obstacle we had to pass by. But somehow, we managed. Finally, we arrived in Vlora, the second biggest city in Albania.

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At first glance, our apartment looked good. The equipment looked brand new; foil covered some of the pieces of furniture and appliances. It was, allegedly, a great place. It turned out the conditions of the apartment were deplorable on closer inspection. The boiler above the toilet barely stuck onto the wall; the rail on the balcony was barely fastened; there was no lighting on the stairs, and the window jambs had such big holes we were able to put fingers inside them. Additionally, the windows overlooked the slums full of garbage and swill. But the best award went to… our local shop – with no electricity nor door. You could only enter it by the balcony windows. It startled me how different life’s attitudes are between people, even within the range of one continent. Unbelievable. I thought of the conditions as extravaganza which added a piquant touch to our trip. But we came there to paraglide, not to visit spas.

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The proper flight

The next day we went straight to our takeoff and landing. Our main instructor designated a public beach in the city center as our landing spot. Its conditions were dubious – piles of rubbish and seaweed and a ghastly odor of decaying meat lingering in the air. But what we could do about it? Not caring too much, we headed up the mountains. On the road, we passed tiny Albanian villages with burdened mules taking the loading up, and cows and goats grazing on and by the road. Up the hill, the shepherds took their herds on the plain and empty meadows. Nature’s grandeur struck me. The feeling lasted until I put the harness on for the first time in over a year.

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A year ago at the Bielsko-Biala airport during our paragliding basic training, we practiced the move of taking off and landing. To say the least, the weather was not good: the rain showered on us mixed with strong and unpredictable gusts of wind. Nonetheless, we wanted to give it a try. For a person of my slight build, the wing can easily pull up on its own with no piloting. I didn’t know about it, so I flew – unprepared and horrified, 2 meters above the ground. Those were unforgettable moments. With this in mind, I had to put on the paraglider and fly down the 700 meter-high mountain. The harness was a cobweb of strings, each of the uttermost importance. A belt, a walkie-talkie, and a helmet came along the gear. The moment I put it on I panicked. I panicked so much I wasn’t sure if I would do it.

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The views from the above were magnificent. Supposedly. A shift of perspective supposedly should change my life. A personal battle between fright and panic took place just above the calm sea caressing the beach underneath.

I panicked so much I ignored the instructions from the walkie-talkie attached to my harness. I was deaf. “Should I turn left or right? Right? I can’t hear you Łukasz (our instructor), say it again, God dammit, I wasn’t supposed to fly above the buildings. Shit. Take me down, take me down now, take this stupid thing off me.”

After a few terrifying moments, I approached the landing area… one, two, three, ground. Phew… a sound of relief went out from my chest. Finally home, finally safe. I wondered if the other participants were shit-scared of heights (or paragliding).  But we had one thing in common – we had the balls to do it.  And as Zielony said, the next day when I was at home lying belly-up on the couch, I felt elated. I did it. On my own!

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Maybe a different place?

The next day we changed the location and added a bit of sightseeing. We picked Llogara National Park. The park is often a spot for international paragliding competitions, so why not? The place was 50 kilometers away from Vlora. In Poland, the drive would take 30 minutes, but in Albania, the time doubled. Thanks to Łukasz, we were safe and sound – he knew when to expect an obstacle on the road like a cow munching the grass.

The winding road stretched with its curvy turns and vistas. Turn by turn, we went up the mountain to reach the ridge and saw one of the most spectacular views. We stood still, taken aback by the surroundings, including the wilderness of the snowcapped Dinaric Alps descending steeply to the beach. Looking straight ahead we saw the contours the isle of Corfu. Looking down, a narrow road led to the beach. It was all steep, raw, wild, uninhibited.

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As for beginners, so the beach was the best landing space. This one, although in a romantic spot, had dubious charm spotted with concrete shelters – the memorabilia from communist times. The then-dictator Hodża, paranoid about an attack from an unknown invader, set up the dome shelters along the coast of Albania. Now they echoed the recent past. When we finished exploring the area, we got back on the road. This time, the altitude change reached about 1400 meters.

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Let’s reach for the top

The summit looked impressive when we looked at it from the beach. Now we had to scale it. But it wasn’t as easy as ABC. Here, we hit a steep, narrow, gravel path. A rush of adrenaline went through my veins. I closed my eyes, clutched Szymon’s hand, and waited to get to the top. Halfway through the way we stopped. We couldn’t go any further because the suspension wouldn’t have endured it. My heart pounded, and my hands got sweaty. That was enough of adrenaline. So I gave paragliding a pass this time. But the other participants had to walk their paragliders (each weighing around 20 kilograms) on their backs up the one-kilometer path. Gee horses!

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I got a nice walk among the violets, chamomiles, and other field flowers. The sweet scent floated in the air. I breathed it in and out. Underneath us, the clouds built up and above us the snowcapped summits crowned over us. All was empty. We were alone.

At the top the conditions looked good – the gentle wind invited us to fly.  Zielony was the first volunteer. In no time, up he went to the sky. He showed off a bit, doing wing-overs from time to time. The weather seemed stable. After a few moments, paragliding transformed into ‘parawaiting’ for better conditions. After four hours and frozen noses (the temperature was about 10 degrees) we gave up. Although none of us flew, the views were worth the trouble.

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Boring paragliding

Every day of the training looked the same: going up the mountain, takeoff, flight, landing, going up, going down. It was monotonous, but we charged our batteries. After months spent in the office, nature soothed our senses.