A Page From My Book – Albania
October 11, 2008 by rtwsenior
In September, 2005, midway through my journey around the world, I entered Northern Albania from Montenegro. I had arrived in Podgorica the night before, thinking that I could just hop on a bus traveling to the next country, but a taxi driver who intercepted me at the bus station informed me that there was no such thing. He and an English-speaking friend convinced me to take his taxi to the border in the morning and to walk across in daylight. This proved to be very good advice and I hired him to drive me to a pension for the night as well.
“2:40 p.m., September 15, 2005 – Ohhhh boy. Albania is a new entity entirely. Big challenge. It’s way different from the rest of Eastern Europe. Probably much like the Soviet countries would have been for us without our team of youth translators along to buffer us from the basic realities. And why not? This has been a Communist country until just recently. It is so Third World that a lone Westerner is really completely lost, mostly because the familiar infrastructure just doesn’t exist here.
Goran let me out of the taxi within sight of the border control buildings but I had to walk the final half block. He seemed afraid. There is simply no relationship between the two countries. So, I walked across my second border. First, my passport had to be stamped by the Montenegran authorities, and then I had to walk over to the Albanian Entry Station and pay their ten Euro fee. The uniformed Albanian official asked me where I was going and I blithely said that I would catch the bus to Tirana, the capital, and he blithely informed me that there was no bus running from the border. The first bus could be caught thirty miles away in Shkoder. Whoops. A little bit of an information glitch between the two countries.
Lonely Planet was no help, as they simply advised no traveling at all in Northern Albania which is where I was now. Banditos. I was here because the French Foreign Legion man on the train told me the banditos had stopped being dangerous, or something like that. Hmmmmm. Anyway, the official waved over the next car passing through and told him to take me to town and to put me on the bus.
I completely believe, to this day, that this luck-of-the-draw car was full of said banditos. Three very skuzzy men, unshaven, with long greasy hair, driving an ancient very, very, very beat-up, caramel-colored Mercedes, pulled over and agreed to take me for ten dollars. While we were trying to set a price, a nice-looking, well-dressed man came up to translate for us. He said “Wouldn’t you rather ride with me?” and waved towards his fancy Mercedes with his family inside. My backpack was already in the first man’s trunk so I didn’t want to make waves and get it out. But soon, I regretted missing that opportunity when we were in front of the Albanian Customs Office and my driver waved me into his car and motioned me to sit quietly. It didn’t help that his seat was not securely fastened down and slid about when I sat down on it.
It also didn’t help that he became very nervous and completely unfriendly. It seemed to me that he was not intending for me to enter the office to get my passport processed. By now, I had reached my bandito conclusion. So, I slipped past him and went to speak to the professor in the car behind us, saying that I would rather ride with him after all… Alas, it was too late, as the first man was already going to have to pay a percentage of my fee to the border station officer.
Okay. I sat back down on the detached, sliding around, back seat, comforting myself with the idea that the border police on both sides of the line knew that an American was riding with them and anyway, what dastardly deed could they do at ten o’clock in the morning, for goodness sake? Steal what I had on me, is what, if they were banditos.
They sure looked tough. One had greasy long hair and very few teeth. He was probably in his forties… I was so glad I hadn’t tried this border-crossing business last night as I had originally planned. I do remember thinking, while apparently captured in this unstable back seat, that this was as good a day to die as any. It was sunny and warm and even a little bit lovely. I would simply go with the flow.”
[Buy the book to learn what happens next…. or tune in for my next posting when the story continues.]