Ever had to decide whether a stranger is generous, or trying to take advantage, while travelling? I had to in Albania, and my travelling companion was convinced we were going to be killed.
There's no way for me to speak to Matt inconspicuously, but if he's right about our fate, he's not doing much to deal with the problem. As if on cue, a text message from Australia appears on Matt's phone. I wonder why he doesn't reply with at least some giveaway details on our location, lest our families need to search for our bodies in the near future. He could at least take a friendly snap of me (sitting in the middle), and at least one of the proposed "murderers", right next to me. But he doesn't.
I still think Matt's got it all wrong, but his inaction is doing nothing to alter the situation, so I take things into my own hands. We reach a boom gate, where the driver needs to speak to the attendant before being let through. I stretch my neck out like a turtle past Matt and push my face up close to the glass. I might look stupid, but I want to make sure the attendant has seen me, in case things turn out for the worse.
We reach the restaurant, a serene outdoor setting amongst the trees, next to the lake.
There's still no evidence to my mind that our hosts have sinister motives, but Matt's body language is affecting my state of ease. Four amazing courses of food come out. The most memorable is roast chicken and a huge dish of flatbread, washed down with white wine. I like these guys, but I can't fully unwind. Matt's not touching the alcohol. I have some, but temper my consumption. If I'm running for my life in the bush, I don't want my judgement to be blurred, or to die in a haze.
I try to be as cordial with our hosts as possible, despite feeling awkward with Matt, who isn't saying much. We finish our splendid lunch. We've been taken in by these guys, but still don't have any of the local money, the Albanian Lek. I let the bill payer know that I have some foreign currency, but he is not bothered, and refuses payment.
As we leave the restaurant, I manage to grab a quick word with Matt. He can't rationalise the (ongoing) fear, but counter-intuitively agrees to get back in the car with me. We return down the same dirt road. Zamir shares a joke with the reserve's beam gate entrance attendant. As we drive on, he has a good laugh as he explains to us that he's been let through without paying the entrance fee, after telling the guard that he's escorting two official dignitaries from Australia. Two dignitaries in casual shirts and shorts no less.
We return to the main road, our lives still well intact, and continue on to Tirana without incident. We've made good time, and decide to keep pushing south to Vlorë, as the deadline for our departing flight from Athens looms.
Zamir is well informed and well connected. He knows from where and when the bus leaves, and takes us to the spot. He even seems to know the driver. I'm wondering whether Matt thinks this is a nationwide network that we'll never escape from!
We have 30 minutes until the bus leaves, so I ask where the nearest bank is. Zamir points me in the direction. I start heading off when he calls me back. A brief discussion in Albanian between Zamir and the bus driver ensues. Zamir gets out a wad of Albanian Lek, sifts through a few notes and then hands these over to the bus driver. He instructs Matt and me to get on. I thank the group for their amazing hospitality. I am soon to learn that this warmth and generosity is commonplace in Albania.
It's been an interesting day, and the conversations enjoyable and enlightening. I feel like I want to exchange details to keep in touch, but there's that one percent of Matt's concern that stops me from doing so.
Matt and I get on the bus, which we believe is public, but without anyone else on it, also feels like a tailored service. We're sitting at the back, out of earshot of the driver, and have a couple of hours to deconstruct what just happened today. We wave to our kind hosts for the day, and as they disappear from sight, Matt lets me know that maybe his fears were irrational, but that he feels relieved to be out of that car. We laugh and unwind, enjoying the countryside as the bus meanders south towards Vlorë.
As the sun begins to set, we gaze out at the rolling green countryside. It's dotted with half completed houses, evidenced by the shoots of reinforcing steel bars that sprout out like bunches of flowers from the roofs / floors below. Other houses are missing more obvious basics, such as walls. Many Albanians have left the country for better work opportunities. Overseas earnings are periodically sent home to fund staged housing construction. Over time, another section or floor is added or completed, as and when the owner/financer has funds to do so.
Dash for Cash
We arrive in Vlorë. It's dark. Incredibly, we've traversed two thirds of the country without any Albanian lek in our collective pockets. I am concerned that without cash we could be sleeping on the street tonight. I rush around town looking for an ATM. Fortunately I find a Bureau de Change five minutes before closing, and surprisingly they accept the Aussie dollars in my wallet.
For the first time I feel alone. We've had our hands held thus far, and now need to work out how to deal with this country on our own. We find a hotel. Our first day in Albania has really piqued my interest in what this country's all about. I'm hungry to find out more. I'm also just very hungry. We order some tasty Albanian type kebabs then retire to plan the next day.
We take an early southbound bus towards Sarandë. The bus is packed, with plenty of passengers having to stand. We wind up into the hills. There's a decided lack of fencing. It's refreshing to see this untamed beauty. "What have we done to the earth?" sang Jim Morrison. We've "tied her with fences and dragged her down". It does allow the donkeys to roam freely though, with the driver having to occasionally deal with this hazard.
The bus ascends onto some winding edge-of-mountain ledges. A huge fog clouds our vision. In parts there are only foot high concrete blocks and the driver's skill between us and the valley below. Matt and I have been separated and he is standing down at the driver's end of the bus. He tells me later that he had asked the driver if any buses had gone over the ledge. The bus driver advised of "none in ten years". I'm not sure what happened eleven years ago. After his paranoia of the prior day, Matt seems to have become a little more cheery in his ponderings about death.
Beaches and Bunkers
We get off at Dhërmi, on reports of a nice beach there. We're still on a ledge and have a decent walk with big backpacks down the hill to the ocean. I take a break to look at one of the concrete bunkers along the way. Enver Hoxha, the dictator of Albania, ruled for almost 40 years during Communist times. He became increasingly paranoid of an attack from various outside sources (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, USA) and set about building a reputed 700,000 concrete bunkers during his reign.
According to Lonely Planet, the bunker engineer was made to back up his claim that the bunkers could withstand tank fire, by standing inside while this shelling took place. He survived, so Hoxha deployed huge resources to roll out these domed structured across the whole country. To this day they still scatter the countryside, and can be seen almost everywhere you go.
The beach is gorgeous and it surprises me that on this beautiful summer's day, it's almost uninhabited. Although I haven't been, I imagine beaches just across the Adriatic in Italy would be comparable to this, though reportedly much more crowded and sometimes with entry fees to boot. I often wonder why people want to go where everyone else is going on holiday, to be crammed in with the hordes. I feel privileged to have this unique experience almost to myself today. It may be that people want development and infrastructure, but I normally prefer rustic to tourist trap, if that is the trade-off.
Continue Reading: Part 3 of 3 link below
Lunch Language Difficulties
After a relaxing swim, we plonk ourselves in the beachside restaurant's ocean facing seats for some lunch. The menu's in Albanian and the proprietor doesn't seem to speak any English. I start studying the Albanian language section of my guidebook, looking for common words between it, and the menu. There don't seem to be any.
Two local guys walk past who thankfully speak some English. I ask them what the words are for different meats, all the while applying my new knowledge to the menu items. I find a number of dishes that are probably "safe" to order, and after 20 minutes of careful research and planning, call back the waiter. As choice after subsequent choice are rejected, I finally discover that only the top couple of items on the menu are available. I take a shot and pick one. What eventually arrives is some meat and accompanying vegetables. Not spectacular, but not bad either, but certainly a huge amount of work to fill the belly! I'm puzzled as to why a full A4 page of (largely unavailable) menu items was necessary, but through random coincidence an explanation will soon reveal itself.
After lunch we face a walk in the hot sun up the steep and winding hill, back to the main road. We offer money to a local guy who is happy to drive us up in his truck.
We reach the top, only to discover that while it is only early afternoon, all the buses have gone for the day. I've probably answered my prior question about holiday destinations. Everyone goes to beaches in Italy because there are probably still buses after lunchtime. Come to think of it, ordering in a restaurant is probably easier too.
There are a few guys sitting around doing a whole lot of not much, perching on the ledge where the steep Dhërmi access road meets the cliff-side Vlorë to Sarandë road, the men's backs to the sublime blue sky and sparkling water of the Adriatic Sea behind them. While I wait for any sort of transport to go past, I take a few pictures of the men and the surrounds, noting that intense stares are far more popular than smiles in Albanian photos. While I don't know the reason, it does nothing to refute my long held suspicion that living through Communism wipes the smiles off people's faces.
A police car soon pulls up. Emboldened by our successes so far in getting assistance, I immediately corner the policeman and ask how we can get to Sarandë. He asks me to hold on a minute before going over to doing not much intense stare guys to question them about something. Enquiries completed, he offers us a lift. He's only going as far as Himarë, but is happy to take us there. We ask questions about how to get to Greece, where we think we need to be by tomorrow.
We pull in to Himarë Police station. We thank the police, but they are not done with us yet. "You want to know about getting to Greece?" "Yes", I reply. The policeman hands us over to his friend Maximus. I already like the guy, just based on his name. "Go with him. He will help you" offers the policeman. With that we are passed on, and the cycle of Albanian hospitality continues.
Maximus says we should get a coffee, and takes us down to a picturesque spot on the beach. Like our three hosts a day prior, Maximus wants to give us an insight into his country. Albanians seem to be a proud, but not boastful people. Actually many of the people in Himarë are of Greek ethnicity with both Albanian and Greek spoken locally. I think Maximus said he was a government councillor, and we get talking on the half built houses that I've seen everywhere, and the illegally built houses on the coast here. He says there are building rules, but it's very difficult to get people to follow them, with people building where they like.
He's an engaging and likeable character (don't be fooled by his version of the Albanian intense stare!), and we get caught up in the conversation of all things Albania. "Now. You want to go to Greece?" he abruptly enquires. It's almost a shock when he jolts me out of my daydreaming admiration of his country. I'm disappointed that I'm not giving Albania more time in this schedule, which it is definitely worthy of. There's so much more to know. It's Europe, but it's so different. Maximus knows all the different transport routes, times and options. It reinforces the fact that I'm sorry to be leaving. It has only been two days. We wish him well, and are on our way.
We head out for dinner that evening, surprised and amused to see the exact same menu that we had seen at lunchtime. One printed A4 standard issue menu. I wonder whether there's one "businessman" with a computer, printer, and this menu, supplying the whole country! I guess the restaurateurs buy one general menu, and then decide which of the items they want, or have the ability, to cook! After the complications at lunchtime, seeing this menu again is all too much, and we walk straight out and find a place with an English menu.
Albanian Bar and Football Culture
Dinner completed, it doesn't take long to discover out next curiosity - Albanian bar culture. The European Football Championship (Euro 2008) is on, and the local men are fully engaged. Just the men though. There's almost no sign of women in the bars. I presume that they're at home.
Albania has failed to qualify for the 2008 finals but the locals are particularly animated, irrespective. The first thing one needs to do when entering the bar is to pick a side - literally. Rows of chairs are split by a middle aisle, and the patron sits on either the left or right side, depending on which team he wants to support.
Large bets seem to be taking place on tonight's fixture of Italy versus the Netherlands. The owner of the bar has bet on Italy, but the left/right seating ratios prove that the majority of the crowd are supporting the Netherlands. While European football has global appeal, tonight's captivation and reactions to every goal makes me wonder just how much of their financial futures these young Albanian men have staked on the game. The owner shows his humour but increasing displeasure through his emotively wild body language, as Italy concedes goal after goal, eventually losing 3-0. This is our last night in Albania. It's been a whirlwind couple of days, but more than enough time to make a distinct impression. I vow to return.
The following morning we get on a direct bus to Athens. I use my remaining lek to stock up on pastries at the border. It's a good thing. The long distance bus to Athens makes a meal stop at an outpost in the north of Greece. I order a shish kebab, chips and a coke. I'm stunned when it comes to 17 Euro. Whether it's bus company / roadhouse kickbacks or not it doesn't matter. I feel like a trapped tourist sucker again, and taken for granted. I miss Albania already.