Elizabeth Gowing recounts her journey to the North of Albania, in Kukës where flowers are collected, medicinal plants which are reflected in the beauty creams of international companies. For BBC Travel she recounts conversations with some of the women working at the top of the mountains, escorts, requests and a visit to the house of one of them: ‘There is a terrible saying from the Kanun of the traditional rules of Albania: “a woman is a booty for be used well ”. But here, women with their headscarves and long black braids were the ones who made good use of their belongings. ‘
By Elizabeth Gowing
While Albanian wild plants are sought after internationally, the industry offers great economic opportunities and independence for women like Donika Musaj in Kukës.
It was a hasty start to my morning trip, and meanwhile I was looking for some sunscreen. I got on the bus, I was leaving the Albanian city of Kukës and I was warned that it would be a two hour journey with ‘turbulence’. The bus was crowded. The passengers had clean skin and excellent bone structure, which I am used to seeing in the men and women of the mountainous regions of northern Albania, but their luggage surprised me.
There is a terrible saying from the Kanun of the traditional rules of Albania: “woman is a booty to be used well”. But here, women with their headscarves and long black braids were the ones who made good use of their belongings. Next to me, a woman had a bag of fresh white bread, just out of the oven. In front of her was the woman I heard debating with the driver about putting on a large sheet with bounces and flowers, some of which had filled the floor of the bus.
Fortunately and to my curiosity, I met the woman who introduced me as Naim’s Wife. She was a plant expert and the lady of the sheet who was returning home from Kukes. He told me that the plants were already in demand without stalks and that he would give the latter to the sheep when he returned home.
The plants he had collected were medicinal and are part of a large international market. He showed me the yellow flower known as the flower of the finger, as once it was taken in the hands it gathered like the fingers of the hand. One euro per kilogram was.
Another had collected hawthorn flowers. I was learning more in the meantime, even about the village. All the flowers that these collectors collected, eventually left the mountains and went down to Kukës to be sold for export. The village known as Çaj is typical for most of Albania, it is 77% mountainous and benefits from a Mediterranean climate and soil with no chemical pollution.
All these factors make the collected Albanian wild plants especially internationally demanded. The industry offers great economic opportunities for the women who were on my bus, although their harvest must meet international standards such as not have too much unusable material – like stalks.
When I arrived at the house of the Donika Musaj family, Bujtina Musaj, I hoped I could say hello with the signature “mountain tea”, a soothing drink, yellow as a light bulb, made from the iron plant, Sideritis syriaca. Instead I was served a darker tisane, made from dried blueberries. “We collected 100 kg of blueberries last year,” Musaj said as he drank the antioxidant juice with pleasure.
This family and those represented on the bus were just some of the more than 100,000 Albanian families involved in the cultivation or harvesting of medicinal and aromatic plants. Nationwide, this is roughly one in every seven homes associated with the sector, which generates up to $ 28 million in exports. Between 2018 and 2019.
“Come and see,” said Musaj and took me upstairs to show me the latest contribution to that large tonnage of plants. Its upper balcony looked like a meadow. He had made a rug of wax that dries in the warm summer air. She had tied them and there was no danger of them falling.
From Kukes, through intermediaries and exporters, their plants went to companies abroad that are hungry for a good quality of; primula veris ;. Used as toners, serums and eye masks with epithets like “shine” and “skin perfection”, “shine” or “anti-aging”, but the products we see in our beauty magazines depend on the drying process on these balconies Albanian. I thought about the cream I put on this morning and wondered how many hours it took to make it.
As I traveled further north in Albania, along the way I found another group of women with fresh complexions pulling their leaves. They said they had traveled from a nearby village called Gruemirë – the name translates as “Good Woman”. They were working with helium and I asked if I could take a picture of them.
“Yes, but please make me look beautiful,” said one of them with a smile. Was I forced to do it? In fact he had the beauty secret in his hand.