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From Albania (Shkodër, Tiranë, Vuno, Vlorë, Berat, Bajram Curri) and Kosovo (Drakovica, Priština)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Albania (Shkodër, Tiranë, Vuno, Vlora, Berat, Bajram Curri) and Kosovo (Drakovica, Priština)

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Shqipëria, uncommonly known in the English-speaking world as Albania. Indeed to the West, Albania may be the forgotten country of the Balkan peninsula, the convenient, unrecognizable culprit in the DeNiro film Wag the Dog and in the Simpson's episode where Bart goes to France. Its language and history are unlike those of its neighbors: Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece. Albania is an isolated country, former Ottoman land, come independent, come communist, come republic. But its ascent into Western political systems began much later than those of the former Eastern bloc.

Little is known about this country among Western travelers, and the few accounts of it that exist in guidebooks are largely inaccurate, written most likely by an author who spent one night in Tiranë on his way to Greece. I do not profess to know much, but I do know that Lonely Planet has led us astray at least once. The border crossing fee, claims the book, is 10€. But the true fee is one-tenth of this. Bus drivers, aware of this misconception, charge ten unless the passenger haggles. My two Kiwi friends and I, with too much faith in this book, accepted the price without contest. Then again, no fares are published and most services have variable fares that are determined at the time of transaction based on the facial expression of the client, I imagine. When interviewing other travelers, we learned of the various prices people had paid for the same bus ride.

Initially, I had trouble deciding whom to believe. There are undoubtedly, as in all places, crooked men who are after your money, but there are mostly innocent, kind-hearted locals who only want to help. When a man takes me by the arm to show me the way, I do not know if he will charge me for the directions or hug me goodbye when we reach our destination.

We arrived in Tiranë by bus on the morning after our early departure from Montenegro. We checked into the highly recommended Tiranë Backpackers' Hostel.

I walked to the Iranian embassy down the street from the hostel to try my luck at a visa. I am considering a journey to Iran, having come all this way, if the logistics work out. In the embassy, I spoke with a few diplomats who handed me some forms to fill out. My status as an American citizen with Iranian parents did not work to my advantage. I spoke with the ambassador himself who did not show sympathy for my request, suggesting that I apply for a passport when I return to New York. I asked him to send the response to Athens, where I may end up in several days. The ambassador did, however, provide me with something that has proved to be indispensable: a Farsi-English-Albanian (Persisht-Anglisth-Shqip) phrasebook.

The Tiranë Backpackers' Hostel is the only known hostel in Albania. It is located in a colorful building on a major street within walking distance to conveniences. Edvin, its gregarious and kind owner, has been an enormous aid in our stay in Albania. On the twenty-fifth day (May 15), my two Kiwi friends and I braved the streets of the Albanian capital. Cars do not stop for pedestrians and street crossings are rare. We learned, in time, the Albanian way, how to leverage adrenaline to dart across opposing lanes of traffic. We had a delicious dinner at Oda, a traditional Albanian restaurant: a whole chicken, roasted lamb, tavë (any of a variety of meat dishes roasted in a pot), and more.

The next morning (twenty-sixth day, May 16), we met a Canadian traveler named Kiri, whom we adopted into our group, now consisting of four. Together, we decided that we would go to the southern Albanian town of Vuno the next day where Edvin said that his friends were building a hostel. He said that if we could lend a hand, we could stay for free. However, Edvin did not have much concept of how developed the facilities were and we somehow missed the fact that they had only started work on a shell of a building four days earlier. In short, there was no hostel. The two friends responsible for the project, Ilir and Celeste, were living in a small room in a crumbling building without running water or a toilet. On the twenty-seventh day (May 17), we boarded a bus to Vuno and arrived in the early afternoon. The bus let us off in the "center" of "town" on the dirt road that runs along the western coast of Albania. The locals on the bus were dumbfounded, certain that we had made a mistake. The town of Vuno, we learned, has about thirty inhabited houses. Whenever a fellow passenger asked us where we were headed, he would stare with incredulity at our response.

To quote Erin on our arrival in Vuno, "It wasn't a bus stop so much as it was that the bus stopped." I have a picture of us just as we disembarked. A man was sitting at the central cafe/market. He saw the four of us with our backpacks and immediately said "Ilir!"

Of course, in a town of only some one-hundred-odd people, the local dude at the cafe would certainly know what business these four foreigners would have. Albania does not see much tourism; we joked that the entire country had heard about our arrival.

The old man called Ilir with his phone. Ilir then walked up to the center of the village and escorted us to the project. Ilir is a kind, shaggy young Albanian man who looks like our lord and savior Jesus Christ. His girlfriend, Celeste, is a tall, pale, rugged Dutch woman with resolve and tact. The two of them lent us their car to make the long and treacherous journey down to the beach town on the Ionian Sea. There, four of us lounged around until I grew restless. Returning to Vuno was not an option, since there was only one car and the distance was not tractable for an unfamiliar visitor by foot.

I decided to try my luck at the small outdoor eatery some meters away. I asked for food, but they claimed to be out, even though hordes of vacationing Albanian families continued to arrive and be served. I ended up next to an old man and his glass of Raki, a grape-based Albanian spirit. I tried to communicate with him using my phrasebook. He ordered me a Raki and a plate of cheese. We tried to speak for a while. A truck driver at the table next to us spoke Italian and translated for us. Eventually, the old man ordered us another round. I offered the locals some chocolate. We spoke for some time longer as I felt my faculties recede into that comfortable lackadaisical state. I was shocked, however, when the old man ordered me to pay 200 lekës for the second plate of cheese that I did not even want! What's more, he then ordered me to leave a 100-lekë tip for a total of what amounts to 2.5€. Though this was not much, I became concerned that the man was trying to trap me into more. I understood roughly that he owned the restaurant. If I had been in a stronger state of mind, I may have expressed some sort of disgust, but at the time I simply complied and then forcefully departed, stumbling back to our post on the beach where the other three were baking aimlessly in the Albanian sun. This incident, combined with getting swindled twice before after entering the country, left me with an unsettling insecurity and a bad impression, which was to change as I soon learned that this was simply bad luck and not typical.

About an hour later, the buzz had worked its way off and I drove us back to the town. For dinner, I finished the sandwiches that I had packed from Tiranë. We had a coffee later in the evening and played cards with an obscene deck that Kiri had brought from the famous nonstop party hostel, Pink Palace, of Corfu Island where decadent travelers participate in spring-break (woo!) like debauchery while pretending that they are spending their own money, and not their parents', getting totally shit-faced when they could do it for one-tenth of the price in the damp halls of frat houses.

Who turned up during our card game but the drunken old man from the beach. He forcefully seated himself at our table and insisted on playing cards with us. The girls left while they could, but the old man grabbed me by the arm when I tried to split. He then started dealing cards and demanding a one-euro bet to play a game that Philip and I did not even know.

I was enraged. He ordered a round of raki and said something in Albanian. A man next to me, fluent in Italian, translated for me: the old man was demanding that I pay! I declared to the bar tender, "Jo raki!" ("No raki") and asked the Italian speaker to determine how much we owed. The bar tender was sympathetic and moved with alacrity. I covered the tab and he produced my change. We departed despite the persistent old drunk who pulled at us.

The four of us slept in the "living room" segment of the flat that Ilir and Celeste stayed in. Ilir instructed us onto which regions of the yard we could deposit our bodily waste, insisting that we do spread out our work so that no one location should develop into a massive shit pile.

The next morning, Ilir walked us to the town center where the bus stops. There, the bar tender, kind man that he was, apologized to us for the events of the previous evening. We caught a bus to the coastal town of Vlorë where we would transfer to another bus to the historical Albanian town of Berat.

On the way to Vlorë, the bus stopped at a remote hilltop restaurant where the crew and passengers ate their lunch. I met a young Albanian woman who had studied and was living in the States. She was returning to visit her family. She treated me to a delicious Albanian meal, but I lost track of her and our conversation fell short. On the bus, I sat next to another girl who was studying English at Vlorë. On that ride, both she and the person behind me vomited from motion sickness on this bus as it bumped and rolled along the "road" that links the coastal towns.

In Vlorë, we encountered further problems. We could not find the bus for Berat. I asked an Albanian man who spoke Italian, whom I had met on the bus, to point us in the direction of the station. Instead of pointing, he escorted us for what amounted to be nearly a kilometer, all the while lamenting the massive unemployment in Albania. We walked for so long and in such remote areas that my three friends became worried. I, too, began to doubt this man, but in the end, his intentions were pure and his help was much appreciated.

We arrived in Berat, exhausted and dirty. Lonely Planet guided us to an inexpensive hotel where we booked a four-bed room. That night, we walked to the castle atop the hill in search of a bar, but the unlighted path was uninviting. We were convinced that even at ten in the evening, everything was closed. But we managed to follow the faint light to a small shack where two old men were drinking raki. We ordered a round, then another, and another. And before we knew it, we were Albanian all over. The girls went wild and we staged a photo shoot with the old men. In time, one of them will post the photos so that you can appreciate the true extent of our experience. Perhaps some of the more compromising ones will not make it to the web.

The next morning, we departed Berat for Tiranë, where we spent the night. There, we persuaded a lone German traveler to join us for our next portion. The next morning, now five people, we awoke to catch a five-AM bus to a small port whence departs a ferry to the Albanian village of Bajram Curri, only accessible by a waterway that passes through a picturesque network of fjord-like mountains. From Bajram Curri, we took another bus to Drakovica in Kosovo, the disputed UN protectorate that declared independence from Serbia in February of this year. On the bus to Drakovica, we met Behar, a Kosovar man recently graduated from an American university. He was on his way to Priština (Albanian: Prishtinë) where he was to begin his job in the Kosovar parliament.

We enjoyed a delicious meal in Drakovica apropos of Behar's suggestion. Then we took a bus to Priština, the capital, where we checked into the only accommodations in the city, a budget guest house run by a professor. The next evening, we met Behar for dinner and met, independently, a young bar owner who treated us to drinks in his recently opened cafe. The next morning, the thirty-third day (May 23), we departed Kosovo for Belgrade, Serbia. The US Department of State advises against crossing the Kosovar-Serbian border, so I took a bus via Skopje, Macedonia to enter Serbia. I finish this email in Belgrade.

Because I have been moving frequently and been busy, I have not had much time to develop worthy accounts of the events in the recent days. I would like to describe the strange military presence in Kosovo and to share my impressions of this troubled part of the world, but time does not permit. I will recount these details in person when I return. What I can say is that this segment in Albania and Kosovo has been by far the most interesting part of my journey. My correspondence with the people and culture has been pleasant and satisfying, while admittedly most of my trip has been spent to the tune of mystical Albanian music on decrepit Soviet buses bouncing along dirt trails and unparalleled, undiscovered views of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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