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As promised, our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives a Mercedes in Albania) to the lot where mini-buses were waiting for passengers to drive to Pogradeci. The cost for the almost four-hour trip was $14 each. We started on a reasonably good road but suddenly the driver made a U-turn and drove back to where we started and ended up on a rocky unpaved track through some construction area that seemed to go on forever. We never found out what the detour was for.

Once we got back on a paved road, the trip was uneventful, if hot, until we climbed up several mountain ranges — and for the queasy, it was harrowing, since the road was narrow and the cliffs steep and potentially deadly. We stopped more than halfway (after 2 hours) at a “café” where the owner tried to stiff us 10 Euro for two pieces of cheese and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6) which according to us included a hefty tip.

We thought we would stay at the Lunhidas Hotel, a “tourist centre” with a swimming pool. We noticed the lake was crystal clear, but it was too far from the centre of town, and we always stay in the centre of town. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip bordering the lake (Lake Orhid). We like the looks of the hotel, named Enkelana, and especially the price ($34 CDN with breakfast) for a modern room with a balcony overlooking the lake, TV and a bathroom. The bed however could use a few less metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.60 CDN) for an hour. The odour of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore. We paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy lads in a neighbouring paddle boat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. A conversation ensued and continued after the two lads boosted Irwin onto the boat. Irwin’s current physical condition, being what it is, (chess, jazz, wine, pizza) made it impossible to do it on his own.

After inviting the lads for coffee on the boardwalk, the English-speaking one told us a bit about Albanian youth and his own difficult circumstances. He is the son of poor farmers from this area and is completing a compulsory year in the army, which he hates. He won’t go to Afghanistan or Iraq because the $10,000 for six months service is insufficient compensation for having to kill and risk being killed. He complained that the senior officers won’t even talk to him and the class system in the army prevents him from getting recognition and training. He told us that the university system here is corrupt and that one can buy grades for money. He has no hope of going to university because of lack of funds, even though he is bright and articulate. The boys are embarrassed by the condition of the lake and told us that when the dictator Enver Hoxha lived here in the summers, polluters risked severe punishment. Our lad would like to get out of Albania but he has no marketable skills.

We stayed at our hotel for dinner where we were the only couple on the second floor overlooking the lake and it was charming. We chatted for a few minutes with the daughter of the waitress, a graduate in psychology who can’t find a job in her field because “Albanians don’t recognize the need for psychologists yet.”

Irwin ordered steak with garnishes and we shared three or four salads, a fish soup, a glass of Macedonian wine, and Fanta — the bill coming to $23. We strolled on the main street, bought a small watermelon and ate it in our hotel room, keeping the balcony door open all night for the breeze.

The music continued well into the night, taken over sometime in the early morning by the howling of dogs, followed by the call of the Muezzin, summoning the faithful to morning prayer.

So far today (Sunday), we've sat outside here on the terrace — with a “borrowed” Internet password (top secret) that the waiters will not divulge but will gladly punch in — reading and soaking up the breeze by the lake, and gone out to buy cookies for two withered ladies sitting on the street across from the hotel and a stash of croissants for the gypsy children who beg at our table intermittently.

Tomorrow we plan to take a minibus to the Macedonian side of the lake and make our way from there to Skopje.

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