27 February 2007

Albania: An Alien Land

Outside night falls on the streets of Kalambaka, Greece, a town in the northern highlands of this country. I arrived here yesterday after a brief, but eye opening stay in the developing country of Albania. It was a wild and sometimes anxious ride to this point, but every minute was worth it. I will cover Albania in one post, and my stay in Greece up to now in another.

As soon as I stepped of the boat in Vlora, Albania I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore, or anyother region in the developed world. Chrildern beggars and fare hungry taxi drivers greeted me outside of customs. The appeareance of the city reminded me of the images I had seen of Bosnia and Serbia. The city looked like it had been abandoned for years and only reinhabitated recently. Through the kindness of strangers I found my way to a bus stop.

The public transportation system in Albania consists mainly of buses, which mostly head to the capital city of Tirana. Bus stations are usually nothing more than the side of the road. There are no posted schedules or information on the routes. If one wants to catch the bus he must flag it down as it passes, or hopes a current rider will get off at the stop.

A woman who spoke a little Italian brought me from this bus stop to another 'intercity' station; it was nothing more than a large parking lot of the street. We had to ride a local bus to reach this station and she even paid for my fare since I did not yet have any Albanian currency. At the new station we learned that no buses served my desired destination, Gjirokastar. However, she found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to the city. While I felt the driver was ripping me off with the price of 60 euros (especially considering this was the same price as the ferry ticket from Italy), I couldn't beat the convience of this offer. I accepted.

I wanted to thank the woman in a special way, but all I could manage was grazie repeated over and over.

I buckeled up in the cabbie's car from the seventies and we began the three hour ride to Gjirokastar. The driver was 56 year old man with graying hair and a worn face. His name was Vladmir.

Vladmir spoke only three phrases in English: "How are you?" Where are you going?" and "Do you want to go together with my taxi?"

Communication was not as large a problem as you might think. Vladmir had spent a year of his life in Italy and could speak simple Italian. Fortuanately, my previous two weeks in that country bestowed me with a little Italian as well. With a bit of that language, broken English, and sign lanugage we could communicate on a basic level.

During the ride Vladmir would teach me words in Albanian and I would quickly write the phonetic prounciation down in a small notebook. When the conversation would die, he would surprisingly quiz me on the vocabulary. If I answered correctly he would always shout out "Bravo, Nick!" By the end of trip I had learned a good deal of words, but most described the sceneary seen along the route, like the words for mountain, valley, river, and lake. Therefore, not all that practical for everyday communication.

Along the way the country of Albania presented itself to me, in all its glory and despair. The physical landscape was outstanding. Towering snow-capped mountains gave way to vast arid river valleys. It reminded me somewhat of Rocky front ranges in southern Colorado. Sadly, garbage and litter existed in such amounts which I could not have previously imagined. Entire hillsides and creek beds were blue and white with layers of plastic bags and other debris. If not for this distraction, the landscape could easily have been breath-taking. We passed numerous donkey-drawn carts and other donkeys carrying riders. The 'highway' was at times no more than a rocky dirt road, don't even ask about signs or painted lanes. Apparently driving exists in an aracharic state in the country. Most drivers would fly by us on the twisting road, but Vladmir, thankfully, remained at a safe speed. Beggars and people selling simple goods lined the way. Freshly skinned-sheep hung from wooden beams at roadside butchers. Hundreds of concrete bunkers dotted the countryside, remants from Albania's communistic past and its dictator's grand scheme of defense against foreign invasion.

I also saw signs of change brought on by the Westernization of the country. There were many new buildings under construction, and the government was busy upgrading sections of the highway and other pieces of infrastructure. The country is changing for the better, albeit slowly.

Upon arrival in Gjirokastar I hired another taxi to take me to a hotel, which was closed. The English speaking driver took me to best guesthouse in town and nicely arranged my stay with the caretaker.

One Albanian leke approxiamently equals US$ 100. This fact, combined with the country's inflation meant that in Albania I could live like a king.

The small city of around 90,000 sprawls over a steep mountain slope overlooking a wide valley. The historic center is 'known' for its traditional houses with gray slate roofs, which blend together and into the mountain slope when viewed from the old castle which overlooks most of the town. My first impression of the town were negative. Described as medieval I expected something akin to Rothenberg ob der Tauber, but more reminders of Bosnian images greeted me. As in the countryside, litter lined the streets and drainage ditches. Supermarkets were nothing but 100 square foot rooms lined with shelves full of a wide away of items.

At first the town seemed to lack order, but as I learned to look past the somewhat superficial quality of cleanliness I realized it existed like communities in the developed world, with the same worries and desires. Adults went to work during the day, and childern went to school. At night people relaxed in cafes and bars. Streets in the historic center had been recently paved with new cobblestones and lined with historic looking lamps. The city, like the country, is obviously trying to improve, but only so much can be done with such little money.

The main tourist attraction in town, if you can call it that, is the castle. It was built by King Zog and used by the Nazis and the Communists as a prison and torture center. Today one can walk among the crumbling walls for a entrance fee of 200 leke, or $1.60. An odd assortment of artillery guns line the main dark main hall, and an unusually placed rusting hull of a U.S. Airforce plane rests on one of the outer walls. How the plane came to the castle I haven't a clue. There were no information signs or guard walls along the top of the cliff-like walls.

After the castle I roamed the streets of the historic center. At some point the sound of the Imam's voice sounded over the loudspeaker on the minaret of the town's mosque. The Albanian nation predominately adheres to Islam. This call to prayer reminded me that this was indeed a land the likes of which I had never experienced.

I soon met Chimi. This aged and wrinkled-skinned man saw me on the streets and began speaking to me in broken English. He introduced himself to me and invited me to coffee. I hesitated at first, but accepted his invitation when I saw that we would not be alone in the small cafe. I eventually realized he was a friendly old man who wanted nothing more than a chance to share his country with a foreigner and practice his English. When he laughed he revealed his almost toothless grin as his eyes squited and his head nodded up and down. We watched a soccer match between Chelsea and Arsenal on the cafe's television. Apparently British soccer is popular in Albaina.

Later in the night Chimi surprisingly visited me at the guesthouse (he said he was friends with the manager, Drago) and asked for an English book. I had none, but I remembered that how excited he was when I told him I was from Memphis and he talked about his appreciation of Elvis music. I presented him with an Elvis postcard, one of many such Memphis themed postcards I brought along for exactly such reasons. He seemed more excited about the prospect of a new book, but gladly accepted the small gift.

That night I dinned at the finest restaruant in town, which overlooked the city from a hilltop higher than the castle's. Luckily, my young waiter spoke some English. The tip, small change to me, must have made his night.

The next morning, Monday, I woke up and took a taxi to the border with Greece. This driver was less friendly and more suicidal. He returned my request to slow down with a couple shakes of the head. Perhaps a no, or perhaps a yes. Many Albanians still follow the old tradition of shaking the head for yes, and nodding for no, the opposite of to which what Westerners do. In either event, our speed seemed to remain unchanged, but I arrived at the border safe and sound.

My most significant observation from Albania was that even though the people live in quite different conditions than us in the more fortunate parts of the world, their lives are similar. People are fundamentally similar around the world, rather we live in poverty or abundance we still care about the well-being of our selves and our loved ones. We all seek happiness. For Americans that may require vacations to exotic locales, and for Albanians simply watching a British soccer match will suffice. In a way I already knew of this common connection within humanity, but my experience in Albania allowed me to see it first hand. It was a experience I will never forget.

Nonetheless, when I walked across the border into Greece and back into the developed world a greater peace of mind returned to me. I never would have guessed that painted lane dividers on the road would be so pleasing to my eyes.


DaddyO said...

Nicholas, your experience with Chimi reminded me of a busniess trip to Japan. I was on a train (evening) headed back to my hotel. I noticed an elderly looking gentleman kept looking at me. I smile and gave him a head nod. He did the same. About 30 mins into the train ride, he caught my eye one time and in perfect english said "Good Evening". I reponded by saying "Konban Wa" Japanese for good evening. He smile and said something to the lady sitting next to him, who I assumed was his wife. They both looked at me and smiled. And for that brief second, we had connected. I know it made me feel good, and could tell he felt the same. So I said all this to say, I agree with your observation, that people, no matter the background nationally, ethnic make up. All desire the same things. That's why I enjoy traveling so much, as you do too, to see the humanity interactions with people you come in conctact with. Have fun in Greece.

Nick O. said...

Nice to know you feel the same way.