My toes curl around, clinging to a small plank of wood barely wide or long enough to fit both my feet jutting out over the bright blue water bubbling below me. Moments before, I had climbed over the fenced side of the viewing platform to stand, legs quivering and heart racing on the unprotected side. I was the last of my group to muster the courage to step out over the electric blue water; the last to jump into southern Albanian’s greatest wonder: Syri i Kalter, the Blue Eye.
The Blue Eye, a water spring, is named for its shape: a wide almond, dark blue in the center where the water bubbles up from more than 50 meters below and filtering out into lighter shades of aquamarine and turquoise. Around the outside, a variety of foliage – greens, fruits, and flowers – offer a semblance of eyelashes.
My group of ten, all of us teachers at an international school, had road-tripped to Saranda, Albania, to cherish the last weekend of guaranteed beach weather before the harsh winter of the Balkans began its assault.
The Blue Eye is a rough 25-kilometer drive from the resort town of Saranda. The road is thin and twisting, littered with rocks and potholes. Twice, we had to skid to a stop and pull way off the road to avoid a head-on collision with a bus coach. Tefik, our hired driver, seemed unfamiliar with stop signs, speed limits, and staying on one side of the center line; he did, however, seem accustomed to smiling at other drivers with a wide, nearly toothless grin and waving with his plump hand, already dangling out of the window with a lit cigarette.
My head banged into the top of the van as we nailed a pothole dead on. Unequipped with seatbelts or air conditioning, the van did not offer a refuge of comfort on our 20-minute ride. So I relied on Tefik’s enthusiasm and an unspoken assurance that all would be OK, all hazardous evidence to the contrary.
We turned abruptly onto a road labeled “Tourist Attraction,” and the van hobbled its way onto a dirt driveway and into a parking lot outside a large open tourist center and restaurant. Several other groups, including families, were also headed to the spring. Tefik pointed deeper into the woods, and we followed him along a blue stream, a waterway so bright it could have been mistaken for the sky. The story goes that during the days of Enver Hoxha’s totalitarian communist rule, the eye was open only to political leaders. Apparently there are several legends about how the Blue Eye was so beautifully preserved, but this story of unjust privilege was the only one Tefik related to us in his limited English as we walked carefully avoiding tangled roots of giant oak trees.
Botanically speaking, the Blue Eye is a green paradise, lush with both underwater and dry vegetation. Butterflies dot the air, landing on the cherry and fir trees, and mating dragonflies pass pine branches and hazelnut leaves. We made our way slowly, stopping to point out the foliage and beauty we came across. If I had known the terror awaiting me, I might have walked even more slowly — or perhaps altogether backwards.
Our idyllic adoration was interrupted by a scream as our friend Kristin threw herself off of the viewing platform, hitting the water with a splash, followed by another scream as she came up, flailing and gasping for breath. She looked a bit like a wet cat trying to swim to shore. Not to be shown up by a girl, Drew, another 30-something American, climbed up the 7-foot ladder to the diving perch and dove head-first into the spring. His splash was almost nonexistent but one look at his face when he emerged revealed the bite of 10-degree water. “Fuck, that’s cold,” he said, mostly to himself, as he struggled to gain full footing against the strong current.
One by one, my friends took their turns, jumping, screaming, flailing, gasping, and diving into the freezing water. And then, suddenly, I was the only one left, the only one unable to summon the bravery to hurtle myself from safe and level ground into an icy bath far below. So I climbed the ladder, the shaking in my legs becoming more apparent with every rung. I reached the platform, climbed out onto the plank and waited, but my legs wouldn’t move. I had witnessed my nine friends safely perform the same jump just minutes before. But I was stuck; my fear adhering me as sure as a bug on a fly strip.
“Come on! Jump!” yelled a small boy, probably no more than 5 years old.
“Fine!” I yelled back at the kid, my voice high with fear. I gave a final glance at the rocks just below me and above the spring, hoping my shaky legs would find the strength to push me over them. I threw myself from the plank, falling fast and furiously into the freezing water. I paused for a second under water and realized that I wasn’t dead, nor mangled across the side of the cliff. And then I swam, kicking and clawing against the current, my feet slipping and sliding over the rocks at the bottom of the stream.
“Ahh!” I yell as I finally found my footing and stood in the knee deep water. My little cheerleader yells something at me, this time in Albanian, with a smile. I reach out my hand to give him a high-five as I head to the shore. “So this is Albania?” I say to Tefik, smiling.
“It is. Yes,” he says gesturing with pride at the scene I just walked out of.