My travelling companion was convinced that we were going to be killed. I was sure that he was wrong, but his tense body language now had me questioning myself. Worse still, I had put both of us in this situation. There was also no way for us to discuss our predicament discreetly in the confined company of our "captors".
The morning had started off as carefree as one could hope for a holiday. We'd taken a taxi to the Montenegrin border with Albania. The border seemed pretty unfortified, as my friend Matt and I walked down a modest road surrounded by green fields to the Montenegrin immigration booth.
The immigration booth wasn't much more than a cramped open-air box. It did however have a small television. We could hear French Open tennis as we handed over our passports, so we swiftly moved around to the side door to watch a few points. The three immigration officials seemed unperturbed, tacit acknowledgement that checking a few passports is a pretty good trade-off for being able to watch tennis on the job.
Stamped out of Montenegro, we continued down this no-man's land strip to Albania, to an even more modest immigration cubicle. I completed the formalities first, before Matt approached the desk.
Looking for a Ride
There's not much around, save a few cars passing in either direction. We're hoping to get to the capital Tirana today, but the bus leaves from Shkodër, some 15kms from the border. I ask around to try and resolve the more immediate transport problem.
Three guys have pulled up in a smart new European four-wheel drive, and advise that they're happy to take my friend and me to Shkodër. Grateful, I'm loading Matt's bag into the car when he returns. Far from being appreciative for my resourcefulness, Matt's annoyed that he hasn't been consulted. I fail to identify the reason for his concern, but we get in and fly off down the road.
The juxtaposition of our advanced motor vehicle and the donkey drawn sulkies that it continues to pass along the shared road is striking. It's the first hint that there's plenty to learn about the status quo in Albania.
Our three co-passengers speak varying levels of English. Let's call these guys Zamir, Rinor and Arber, not to protect their identities, but because I've unfortunately forgotten their names (I found these Albanian names at http://www.20000-names.com/male_albanian_names.htm). I'm calling one guy Rinor (meaning: adolescent, youth) as he looks the youngest. Another guy I'm naming Arber (meaning: Italo-Albanian). He wouldn't look out of place in "The Godfather". The Albanian mafia is of world renown, but I have to remember that this is how ordinary people look in this part of the world.
The driver is the most fluent in English, and the most talkative. I'm therefore dubbing him Zamir, which means "good voice". Zamir explains that the three of them are from Kosovo, though they are ethnic Albanian. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, less than four months before my arrival in Albania. Kosovo's declaration enraged some minority Kosovo Serbs, resulting in unrest. It's so long after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but a NATO lead peacekeeping force (Kosovo Force - KFOR) remains in Kosovo.
I'm curious to know about Zamir's perspective on the situation. "This is politics" he proffers dismissively. It's more profound than I initially realise. Leaders have territorial ambitions, borders change, but eventually the people have to get on with their lives. I don't want to be dismissive of the horrific ethnic cleansing that occurred in the war, but the passive and uninvolved have to learn how to get on with their lives, irrespective of where the sometimes arbitrary lines of global borders are placed. While this might be no easy task for the displaced many, the group in our presence seems to be able to move around freely enough.
We discover that our guides are travelling all the way to Tirana today and are happy to take us with them. I graciously accept, before glancing Matt's way into an evil death stare. I'm not sure what the issue is.
Albania's National Hero
Zamir explains that we can't come to Albania without learning something of the history and culture. He therefore takes us to Lezhë, to see the cathedral ruins where the national hero Skanderbeg (1405-1468) is buried. Skanderbeg and his troops held off the mighty Ottoman Empire for decades, with many successful battles against his better equipped opponents. I'm impressed that these guys are taking the time to invest in our Albanian education.
Zamir explains that we are going to stop off at a lake for lunch, in the nearby Kune-Vain-Tale Reserve. I couldn't have wished up such a pleasant introduction to the country, but as I glance at Matt again, he continues to look uneasy. "Can we just go straight to Tirana?" he asks. It's a long drive without lunch, and an unreasonable request. "What is the problem?" Zamir inquires. "Maybe this is not normal in your country, but here, this is how we treat our guests". I'm touched by our hosts' warmth, but it's doing nothing to diminish Matt's serious look of foreboding. He looks at me as if I've been unreasonable in accepting this hospitality.
I've done a fair bit of travel in my time, and there have been many circumstances where I've had to make a decision on whether to accept proposals from locals or not. While one doesn't like to judge out of hand, when faced with two differing options, one often has to make a quick assessment as to whether the proposal is made out of genuine kindness or genuine ulterior motives. I've been ripped off many times, but learnt from the experiences, and those instances are now much fewer and further between. I think I'm a reasonable judge of character for the experience.
Most people also don't have a bloodlust. It's far more common for someone to take advantage for monetary reward. Neatly dressed guys in brand new luxury vehicles somehow don't fit my picture of those that would abduct backpackers for financial gain.
We turn off the sealed road onto a rutted dirt road, towards the nature reserve. We are hemmed in by bush on both sides. Matt's uneasiness is making me uneasy. Are we really being taken to a remote location to be shot or worse, with our bodies unceremoniously discarded?
Continue Reading: Part 2 of 3 link below