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Dispatches : Biking

Post-Communist Paradise in Albania

The Osum River flows out of Albania’s Korcha highlands and hooks north to sluice through a 16-mile-long gorge called the Osum Canyon, one of Europe’s most spectacular whitewater runs. A steady rain has riled the river into a Class III fury that’s now hurtling us through a particularly beautiful section. Mineral-stained walls rise up on either side like the arms of a 300-foot-high slingshot. Waterfalls blast over the cliffs in broad, silvery horsetails. There isn’t a road in sight, just a few brandywine orchards and the occasional forgotten machine-gun nest.

It’s a chilly, slightly wet May morning, and I’m sitting in a raft full of Albanian guys. They’re all down from Tirana, the capital, for their first whitewater trip, a daylong jaunt operated by Outdoor Albania, one of the few outfitters trying to sell the notion that this former Stalinist state can become an adventure hub. Our strokes are mismatched, and we keep clanging our paddles, but we’re having a blast digging through holes and bouncing over wave trains. Then the river flattens and we spin lazily in the current.

“Where you from?” asks the guy in front, a muscular security guard named Endri Xhafka.

“Oregon,” I say. “USA.”

“Albanians love USA!” interjects a bigger guy beside him, an aspiring raft guide named Alban Vila.

“Do Americans know Albania?” Xhafka asks.

“We are in Wag the Dog!” Vila adds.

“And Taken,” Xhafka says.

The Simpsons, too,” I offer. I’m about to mention the Belushi brothers, whose Albanian father grew up in the Korcha highlands, but just then our lead guide, Gent Mati, a lean 37-year-old with meaty forearms, interrupts us.

Para!” he shouts. It means “forward,” but I take it to mean “dig like hell.” “Paraparapara!”

We para poorly and drift portside into a dogleg wall. In a flash, we’re pinned between the canyon and the current.

“High side! High side!” Mati shouts. We all attempt to scramble up the raft’s tipping edge, but the river is too strong. Within seconds the boat flips onto its side and I’m cartwheeling into the water along with everyone else. Icy rivulets rake through my wetsuit. I pop up in a blast of adrenaline. One of our guys has gone missing.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Overboard in the Osum."}%}

“Andi! Andi!” people shout in a panic.

Then, chaos: the second boat in our three-raft flotilla hits the wall and turtles in the exact same spot. The Osum becomes a burst of blue paddles and flushed heads in bright orange helmets. A drybag breaks loose and floats by with $7,000 in camera gear inside. I backstroke toward the one upright raft, where Zafir Shumanov, a 33-year-old guide from Macedonia, hauls me in. We’re safely within an eddy, but with ten people now in the one upright raft, the extra weight threatens to push us back into the current. “We are too heavy!” Shumanov yells, but there’s nowhere else to go. Everyone else is screaming, too.

“Andi! Andi!”

For a few awful moments, nobody answers that call.

Suddenly, Andi Qyqja, a 26-year-old former professional soccer goalie, pops up from an undercut wall.

“Holy shit!” I stammer when he gets close. “Are you OK?”

“Oof,” he says, eyes rolling in their sockets. He’s thrashed but alive and well, which, come to think of it, is a lot like Albania itself.

Positioned between Greece and the shards of Yugoslavia on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is slowly recovering from some very rough decades. For much of the 20th century, the nation, which is predominantly Muslim, wheezed under the jackboots of a Marxist dictator named Enver Hoxha, who forged Albania into one of history’s most extreme Communist states. During his 40-year rule, following World War II, Hoxha (pronounced ho-jah) grew so severe in his ideology that he cut his country off from the rest of the world. No one could enter or leave. To deter both invasions and revolts, Hoxha built some 700,000 machine-gun nests around a nation smaller than Maryland. Wearing shorts in town could get you questioned for being bourgeois.


Hoxha died in 1985, Communism collapsed, and by 1992 a fledgling democracy took root as a noisy world of Pepsi, Fiats, and polyester tracksuits rushed in. Hope sprung briefly as people accumulated new wealth, but Albania’s experiment with capitalism soon went horrifically awry. New private Albanian investment companies started promising outrageous interest rates on deposits—triple your money in three months!—and roughly two-thirds of the population dumped upwards of $1.2 billion into what amounted to pyramid schemes. In January 1997, two of the bigger ones collapsed, and riots broke out all over the country when Albanians realized how badly they’d been duped. The economy ground to a near halt, inflation soared to 40 percent, and production slowed to a trickle. Police and soldiers deserted their posts, mobs stormed armories, and a million weapons ended up on the streets. The president, Sali Berisha, resigned. More than 2,000 people died in the anarchy before the UN dispatched international troops to restore order.

Albania is a different place these days. More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has helped to rebuild institutions, train the workforce, and improve infrastructure. A new Socialist government rode that renaissance wave into office last summer; the prime minister, an artist named Edi Rama, has vowed to find ways to boost Albania’s prospects. Tourism will certainly be one of the tools as the country looks to mimic the success of neighbors like Montenegro and Croatia. About 2.7 million foreign visitors came to Albania in 2012, nearly three times as many as in 2007.

“All these countries in southeastern Europe have enormous potential,” said Kirsi Hyvaerinen, a Finnish consultant who worked with tourism groups to create a new 120-mile-long trail, the Peaks of the Balkans, that links Montenegro with Kosovo and Albania. “Albania is where things get really interesting. If there is a place where you can experience a stream of hundreds of years all at once—the ancient, the traditional, the young, the modern—it’s here.”

Actually, that’s an understatement. The place is made for adventure. You can hike under the 9,000-foot spires of the Bjeshket e Namuna, a mountain range with Yosemite-style big walls. There are 13 national parks, 300 natural monuments, and dozens of antiquity sites like Kruja, Apollonia, and Butrint, a fourth-century port city and Unesco World Heritage site. The coast is a filigree of pale blue bays and amber cliffs with serpentine lanes for cycling. You can sea-kayak to etchings left by Roman sailors or raft through canyons like the Osum. Imagine a country of three million liberal, smoking, dancing, drinking, gregarious Muslims who like Americans—a lot.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Ruins of Apollonia, one of dozens of antiquity sits in Albania."}%}

I’ve come here three times in the past eight months because I’m kind of obsessed. On my first trip, I trekked through the mountainous north of Theth National Park and then went south to the Drino Valley to hike in the footsteps of Lord Byron, who traveled here in 1809. I meandered through forgotten ruins, slept in stone guesthouses, and helped a friendly old widow pick pomegranates. I came away a believer. For my money, Albania is the most gorgeous, overlooked, and fascinating place in Europe, a country where the pressure of tourism has yet to can its soul. (I confess to being maybe overly enthusiastic; I’ve even appeared on an Albanian talk show to tout the country’s potential.) This time, I wanted to play in the water and organized a ten-day trip along the southern coast and then inland toward the Vjosa and Osum drainages with Mati, an avid paddler and the owner of Outdoor Albania.

A few days before our rafting adventure, we met in Tirana, an Atlanta-size city with bright yellow buildings, leafy boulevards, and a street named after George W. Bush. Young working professionals hustled past slick restaurants wearing designer shoes that clicked on the pavement, exuding confidence and promise. Still, nearly everyone I talked to, young and old alike, would rather be in Italy, Greece, or New York to find better schools, more work, and doctors who don’t solicit bribes. One owner of a successful Tirana hotel, Fatmir Shabani, told me, “If I could, I wouldn’t leave tomorrow. I’d leave today.”

A light rain fell as I headed to an outdoor café where Mati waited under a large canvas umbrella. His dog, Vicky, sat quietly beneath the table. I told Mati about my previous Albanian adventures and why I was back so soon. He laughed.

“You have a romantic view of Albania, don’t you?” he said. “You know, some German students tried to come up with an adventure-tourism slogan for us. One of them was ‘Albania: where the only dictators left are guides.’ ”

With that, we went to shoo some chickens out of his sea kayaks.

From Tirana, we rolled in Mati’s Land Cruiser about 150 miles south through the Ceraunian Mountains to a coastal village called Qeparo. The humped peaks of Corfu lingered in the distance; white limestone cliffs braced against the sea. Mati eased the kayaks into the water, and we went for a leisurely paddle over spiny black urchins and past an entrance to one of Hoxha’s secret submarine bases. Mati’s father, Ilir, spent the Cold War working on those subs.

“When he got out of the military, he was really the first to start bringing adventure tourists to Albania,” Mati said. “They’d hike and ride bikes all along this coast.”

Water gave Mati purpose. In 1994, at 17, he met some Italian kayakers who taught him how to paddle. He chased whitewater down Andean creeks and African rivers and studied law and public policy in Poland and Brussels, but returned home to Albania where, in 2003, he met a tall Dutch woman named Laura. The couple had two kids and purchased a big apartment in Tirana. Together they started Outdoor Albania to take people into the country’s once forbidden pockets.

“Originally, I wanted to bring Albania closer to the European Union,” Mati said. “Now it’s the opposite. I want to bring the world to Albania and change the perceptions of my country through tourism.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Gent Mati, the author's 37-year-old lead guide."}%}

We paddled back to our hotel in Qeparo, a ten-room, whitewashed inn called Riviera, where we sat on a beachfront patio. As we sipped our beers, some skinny beach cats wandered up, and we fed them bites of our sardines. A chain-smoking, one-eyed, one-armed fisherman named Foro Leka ran the place. According to local rumor, he lost his arm and eye years ago in a dynamite accident. He poured us shots of free homemade brandy and thanked us repeatedly for visiting but kept his distance.

The next day, we drove south toward the beaches of Saranda, starting not far from where Roman warships landed during Caesar’s Civil War, more than 2,000 years ago. The landing site was gorgeous—pale sand against the shiny Ionian Sea—but Saranda was not. Noisy beachside discos and poorly planned condos had consumed the views; trash heaps choked the ravines. We headed a few miles east to the municipality of Mesopotam and stopped at a park with a sinkhole that gurgled with the birth of a pure blue river. The guard slipped our entrance-fee money into his pocket, where, Mati assured me, it would stay.

So there are warts. Unscrupulous officials pave the roads of districts that vote for them and leave the others to rot. Organized crime, pollution, and corruption are serious threats. And yet there’s so much beauty: tropical green water, friendly madder-roofed villages, valleys plucked from the Alps. If Albanians could eat the views, they’d all weigh 300 pounds.

Early that evening, we pushed on to Permet, a town of about 12,000 people near the Greek border, on the edge of Fir of Hotova National Park. We grabbed rooms at a rustic stone inn called Coli’s and headed out for a 20-minute mountain-bike ride to some hot springs under an old Ottoman bridge. We could almost smell the sulphur when the rain hit hard and sent us scrambling for shelter.

“All this water will actually be great for the Osum,” Mati beamed.

He's right. It's certainly the most dramatic rafting day trip I’ve ever done. Once Andi emerges from the water, we right the upset boats and collect the flotsam. I return to my own raft, and we float another five miles with ease. We swim under waterfalls and marvel at the canyon, which collapses so tightly around us at one point that it becomes exactly the width of our raft.

We make it to the take-out in Chorovoda, a small town where the canyon ends, just as the rain really hits. While the group from Tirana settles the bill with Mati, I grab a seat at a café next to Zafir Shumanov, the Macedonian expat, who moved here to start a music label and date Mati’s sister, Besa. That romance didn’t end well, but Shumanov found another reason to stay: fish. He tells me he’s spent six years—his entire time in Albania—combing the country for the best places to catch Ohrid trout, carp, and perch. “It’s a sickness,” he says.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Carp fishing near the Skanderbeg Mountains."}%}

Eager to catch a little of this sickness, I make a plan to go fishing with him near Tirana a few days later. On my last full day in Albania, Shumanov plucks me from the capital’s predawn light, and we rush out of the city in his Fiat, spinning rods rattling in the back. We slip past lifeless apartments and a lone horse grazing in a roundabout. Thin strips of fog cling to the scalloped parapets of the Skanderbeg Mountains to the northeast. Forty-five minutes later, Shumanov opens a gate off a winding road, and before us lies Shkopet Lake.

“Blue! Blue! Blue!” he says, eyes wild behind scraggly bangs. “And full of very big craps!”

“Craps?” I ask.

“Carps,” he says. “In Macedonian you say krap. Forgive me my English.”

Shumanov gets to work balancing four rods on Y-shaped holders and cracks a can of corn for bait. It’s not exactly Norman Maclean material, but what a fine spot this is. Hiking trails lead toward a distant summit, and sheep graze under lime trees on the banks. A month after I leave, Shumanov turns this plot into a fishing retreat with a restaurant serving savory carp soup. As we sit on the shore, waiting, it occurs to me that patience and slow, smart development may be the ticket for this place. That’s a hard thing to ask of a society that’s been caged up for decades. Today the average worker earns about $350 a month. Yet the alternatives are clear. The last thing Albania needs is to dam its rivers or entomb another view in concrete.

Hours go by at the lake and no one gets the kraps. Instead we drink more brandy and try to catch one of the sheep with Shumanov’s fishing net, which is really hard to do. I’m about to give up and go hiking when a rod suddenly springs to life. Shumanov leaps from his seat.

“It is starting!” he says, and that’s enough to give a man hope.

Read More

Endurance Training at 40 and Up

Endurance training isn’t just for the under 40 crowd. In fact, a European study has found that for men, endurance exercise is beneficial to the heart regardless of when they first began training.

“The heart is a muscle,” says David Matelot, who presented the study at the EuroPRevent congress 2014. "If you train it, it becomes bigger and stronger, so the pump can be more efficient.” It’s likely that the right ventricles were bigger as well, but they are harder to measure.

Though starting training after 40 has positive effects, Matelot still recommends that people start much earlier—in childhood, if possible. “There are others benefits of endurance training than cardiac parameters,” he says. “Indeed, endurance training is also beneficial for bone density, for muscle mass, for oxidative stress… And these benefits of endurance training are known to be better if training have been started early in life.”

It’s also key to keep training once you’ve started. The benefits from exercise can dwindle quickly in the inactive. But, he says, it’s “never too late to change your way of life and to get more physically active.”

The Study Methods

Researchers studied 40 men between the ages of 55 and 70 who had no cardiovascular risk factors, assessing when they first began training and the level of exercise—specifically cycling and running—they performed.

Of the 40, ten had never exercised more than two hours a week; the remaining 30 had exercised for at least seven hours, beginning either before age 30, or after age 40. The group that started younger had been training for an average of 39 years; the older group 18.

Participants went through maximal exercise testing, echocardiography at rest and during sub-maximal exercise, and heart rate analysis.

Researchers found that resting heart rate was similar for the exercisers, but much more rapid in the non-exercisers. The more active group also had bigger left ventricles and atria, and the same results in their cardiac echocardiography tests.

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Killing a Cyclist—and Then Suing the Family

No one ever wins in conflicts between cars and bicycles, but a recent story from such an incident in Ontario ranks as one the most senseless and ugliest altercations of its kind.

On October 28, 2012, around 1:30 a.m., 17-year-old Brandon Majewski and his two 16-year-old friends, Richard McLean and Jake Roberts, were riding their bikes on a rural, two-lane road on the northern outskirts of Toronto. That's when a car, driven by Sharlene Simon, 42, struck them from behind. Majewski died from his injuries at a local hospital several hours after the accident, while McLean suffered multiple broken bones, including his pelvis, and spent extensive time recovering.

Six months after the accident, Brandon’s older brother, Devon, died at his family’s home from an overdose. The family says the 23-year-old didn’t intend to kill himself, but simply succumbed to a potent mix of drugs and alcohol that he was using to dull the pain of losing his brother. In the aftermath, the Majewski family sued Simon for $900,000 to cover the expenses of putting their child to rest. And the McLeans filed another suit against her for an additional $1.4 million to recoup Richard’s medical costs.

Now, Simon has countersued Majewski’s estate, as well as the other two boys, for $1.35 million in compensation for the difficulties the incident caused her. According to a story in the Innisfil Journal, Simon’s claim states that the children “did not apply their brakes properly,” and that “they were incompetent bicyclists.” In the suit, Simon says that the accident has caused her “psychological suffering, including depression, anxiety, irritability, and post-traumatic stress.”

Perhaps this will sound cruel, but it hardly seems unreasonable that Simon should endure a little “stress and suffering.” Majewski’s family might—might!—be able to offer Simon absolution and closure, but they certainly shouldn’t be required to pay her a portion of the $1.35 million. After all, she was driving 55 in a 50-mph zone, and she’s the one who struck the cyclists, so her proficiency is as much in question as the teens’.

I'm sure it's heartbreaking for Simon to contend with what she's done, and the countersuit is likely about self-preservation in the face of the financial realities. But the fact remains, Simon killed someone, and by hiding behind a lawsuit she's shrugging off accountability and refusing to face the human reality of her actions, which is behavior that's more despicable than the accident itself. 

{%{"quote":"If you’re a driver, before you get aggressive with cyclists, consider how you’d feel if you caused someone to die."}%}

Other details of the story don’t reflect well on Simon, either, including the fact that she left the scene of the crime. Apparently, Simon’s husband, Jules, an off-duty police officer, was following his wife in a second car at the time of the accident, and after checking on the scene he escorted his wife home—before the police had arrived. And while officials say that alcohol isn’t suspected in the crash, because Simon wasn’t at the site, no breathalyzer was given, so there’s no evidence to exonerate her either. 

That said, Simon isn't the only one to blame. What were three teenagers doing riding their bikes down a dark country lane at 1:30 a.m. in the first place? A Toronto Sun story says the boys had gone out for hot dogs, and it quotes Majewski’s father, Derek, acknowledging that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I know they should not have been out there that late,” his father said. “But they are good kids.”

Good or not, the teens shouldn’t have been riding on a wet road in the middle of the night. According to Simon, the trio was also riding three abreast, wearing dark clothing and no helmets, and none had bike lights to warn oncoming traffic of their presence. The bikes were equipped with reflectors, but of course that’s horribly insufficient for riding on a dark motorway with cars traveling up to 50 miles per hour. All of which is to say, the cyclists, as well as their parents who allowed them out, bear some responsibility for the accident.

These sorts of incidents tend to get painted in black and white, and opinion usually divides along predictable lines, with cyclists maintaining that they don’t get fair treatment on the roads and motorists insisting that bikes don’t belong on the roads at all. But most situations are messier and more complicated than that, especially this one. 

Motorists must realize that cyclists have a right to be on the roads, and we all have to figure out ways to coexist. I see so many drivers get angry at cyclists, cutting them off, gunning their engines around them, slamming on their brakes as if to try and cause them to crash. Last weekend while out riding on the roads around Santa Cruz, the group I was with had two separate vehicles throw empty soda cans at us.

It always makes me wonder: Do drivers really want to kill cyclists? Because riders are vulnerable and exposed on the roads, and causing one of us to crash could very well result in a death. So if you’re a driver, before you get aggressive with cyclists, consider how you’d feel—how you would live for the rest of your life—if you caused someone to die.

{%{"quote":"Motorists must realize that cyclists have a right to be on the roads, and we all have to figure out ways to coexist."}%}

Likewise, we cyclists must realize that with the right to be on the road comes responsibility. I see so many riders fail to stop at intersections, pass cars on the right, and act as traffic menaces. But by ignoring the rules of the road, we cyclists confuse drivers, incite their anger and scorn, and sometimes even precipitate accidents.

We must be proactive about our right to ride, and that includes making ourselves as visible as possible, adhering to all traffic regulations, and, basically, riding defensively. We are vulnerable and, like it or not, collisions or altercations are likely going to be worse for us as cyclists than for drivers. 

Brandon Majewski’s death is a tragedy. I feel sorry for his devastated family and friends, and I hope they find peace. But I also pity Sharlene Simon, who, as the mother to three children herself, surely never intended to hit those boys, much less kill one. And I have to believe that Simon is countersuing out of anger and hurt and even financial self-preservation. That wouldn’t make it right or any less repugnant, but it would at least make it comprehensible.

I still believe that no one wins in conflicts between cars and bicycles, but perhaps a tiny bit of good can come from this awful story. The next time you’re out on the road, whether you’re a driver or a cyclist, think of Brandon and Sharlene. Obey the traffic laws. Move deliberately and with caution. And most importantly, have some empathy for your fellow human beings.

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