Earlier, I began to quote from my new book, Hey Boomers, Dust Off Your Backpacks, the story of my border crossing into Albania, a country which Lonely Planet warns us not to enter. Here’s more from page 118:
“Okay, now back to the story of how I got here and of my fifteen hours in Albania. After saying goodbye to the last official, I returned to the car with my three thugs, who had rearranged themselves so that I could sit in front. Two men now held down the shifting rear seat. I was “not allowed” to fasten my seatbelt, as was also the case in Goran’s taxi, earlier. It’s obviously a terrible insult to their driving ability, and possibly, to their very manhood, and every time I pulled on the strap or even looked as if I were thinking about it, a finger would be shaken: “Ah, ah!”
What the heck? I’m in Albania now. Do as they do. I sure didn’t intend to antagonize these guys. But, ohmigosh, what dangerous driving, on what awful roads. At one spot, two old car tires had been propped up in a pothole to warn drivers away and prevent them from falling in and getting hung up… We did breakneck things as I admired the many shrines of flower-bedecked crosses and memorials to all those loved ones who had lost their lives doing just what we were doing now, though perhaps they had had a drop or two to tip the scales. One of their cars was still upside down and rusted out in someone’s yard…
We filled up with gas and a little farther along, we pulled into a fenced yard surrounding an auto repair business. “Uh oh! Do we already have car trouble or is this where I get done in? Why are we stopping?” Then, two harmless-looking teenage youth began to haul on a white fabric bag, half-filled with something sand-like. It might have been dirt, but I don’t think so. Then, a larger, similar bag was yanked, with some difficulty, from the other side. Both had been wedged on either side of the engine block. “Oh, okay. They aren’t banditos any more. Only smugglers. I feel better.”
La tee da. I didn’t say a word. Nosireee. We all just ignored that transaction and the hood was slammed shut and we were on our way again… Hey, it could have been beach sand for all I knew. But, if not, this would explain the tight features, the nervousness at the border and the refusal to exchange names. I’m not one to upset the delicate fabric of a country’s economic structure. Well am I familiar with the desperate subsistence smuggling done for mere survival in a Communist, or a post-Communist country.”
As it happened, the driver was true to his promise to take me to the bus in Shkoder and we pulled up to the side-street stop just as the Tirana bus was loading. I was the last passenger left in the Mercedes as the two cronies had hopped out along the way. So much for my Albanian bandit story.”
The moral of this story for me, now, is that we often leap to conclusions about the danger that we are in. Because things may appear strange to us, we can, and do, imagine all sorts of dire and unhappy endings – which, in real time, never existed at all. Those men were simply doing as they had been asked for a fair price. Not once did they give any indication that they would fulfill the Lonely Planet’s general warnings about banditos at the northern border of their country.
I’m also not blaming myself for having those thoughts, but I am mighty glad that I did not have a hissy-fit at the border trying to save myself from an outcome which existed only in my head.
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.]