It is good to be in the mountains. Here, the wind whistles as ones footsteps beat out the rhythm. Above the tree line, one sees – and is seen – for kilometers in all directions. There is a calm here that one finds only where man’s corrupting hand has not yet groped.
I am guiding a group of four US “tourists.” They call me “Borka,” and believe that I was once a member of the Yugoslavian forestry service, now an unemployed alcoholic seeking a few dollars to trade for vodka. I dutifully smoke unfiltered Russian cigarettes that cause them to cough and lead the way through the mountains of Albania.
HQ wanted me to take these “tourists” over the mountains of Macendonia into Abania. I did not know what they sought, nor do I know why HQ has assigned me to take them to their destination. An odd mission. They are obviously part of some sort of military force. They are pleasant enough chaps. They make crude jokes occasionally at my expense that I pretend to not fully understand. I tend to the fire and listen to snippets of what they say to each other. They keep their guard up. They do not fully trust me, and I respect them for it.
Last morning I stumbled upon one of them cleaning a disassembled rifle. His eyes narrowed and a low growled came from his throat as I approached. “You are wanting to hunting? Mountain sheep I show you. Many.”
He nodded, never taking his eyes off of me.
I lit a cigarette and came closer. “Nice gun.” A sniper rifle. Hunters indeed.
It was an FRF2. A French rifle.
“I hunting many times. Many mountain sheep here. I show you.” Then I walked away cursing the fact that I did not bring a weapon other than a Swiss Army Knife.
But it is easy enough to obtain weapons in Albania.
I begged them to let me buy more vodka in the next village we passed. “Bill,” the one whose rifle I had seen, accompanied me. Descending from the mountains, I led him over some loose shale. I wheeled suddenly around pointed behind him and shouted, “There!”
He twisted to look, lost his footing and his ankle bent awkwardly beneath him. He did not cry out, and for a minute I was worried his ankle avoided injury.
Wide eyed I helped him to his feet. “You have seen mountain sheep?”
He glared back but a flicker of pain crossed his face when he attempted to stand on his ankle. He grabbed my shoulder so hard it hurt and he seemed happy to have inflicted this trivial pain upon me. “Help me back to the others.”
I glanced towards the village. “No Vodka?” He only tightened his grip on my shoulder.
There was a heated but hushed discussion when we returned to the others. I am to continue on with Alan and Henry, while Bill and Gene wait here for us to return. They are upset that they are no longer together, but they are determined to press on. They asked me how much longer until we get to Kukes. They were happy with my estimate of two days.
Now I know where, and that they have a schedule to keep. But what appointment they hope to keep still eludes me.
I will remain vigilant.
There are some beautiful sand dunes near Klaipėda should you need some respite.