Strange days

This day was, easily, the most remarkable day on my trip. At 6:30am, I was still in Ohrid. A mere 14 hours later, at 8:30pm, I was in Bari. It wasn’t an easy day, although interesting, Albania being the most remarkable of places.

I got up at the 5am. Not easy, since the night before I stayed up till 1am, talking to Jan and Annitsa, after the concert of the previous evening. Shortly after waking up, I realized I heard voices. Considering I finally had gone insane, I eventually recognized the voices of my two housemates but also heard a girl’s voice. The three spoke a mix of English and Macedonian. Later I learned the girl was American. Where she picked up Macedonian, however, I don’t know.

The bus to Sveti Naum, just on the border with Albania, was supposed to leave at 6:30am. That early, the supermarket at the bus station was still closed, but a cafeteria and a bakery, were already open. I stocked up on food for the day and waited for the bus to arrive.

By the time the bus showed up, some bathing die-hards had already gathered, to get to the nicest spot on the lake. Most of the people boarding the bus though, were workers, chatting expressively on the bus ride, or taking a little nap before finally having to start work.

The bus only stopped at camping sites, but only at the last stop did people actually get in. Mostly kids, they apparently had spent a holiday on the lake, close to Albania. Some minutes after the last camping site, the bus stopped at the border post. Almost 90 minutes after getting on the bus, I walked through the Macedonian border crossing. Of the 5 people that got off with me, only one also crossed the border. The others seemed to go to work at the crossing itself.

Between the Macedonian and Albanian border crossings, some 500 meters of no-mans land exists. With a beautiful view on the lake, you are coaxed to not stop anywhere by the numerous signs along the road. However, the man that also crossed the border at the same time as I did, did stop to take a piss.

At the Albanian side, I had to wait half an hour before I could cross. I was told they were in the middle of a shift change, and I was told to wait. Some time after I arrived, a big and very old Mercedes, with heavy hatted border patrol people arrived, after which the change of guard was laboriously executed. Some time after that, I could finally give in my passport for the check up.

When waiting, I had plenty of time to examine the basin that was dug in the road, on the incoming track from Macedonia. I had seen a similar basin on the Macedonian side, for cars coming from Albania. It took me some time and a chat to understand what it was actually used for: to disinfect the undersides of cars, coming from (and going to) Macedonia.

A trip

Although I had to wait for the guards to switch, getting into Albania wasn’t all that hard. The border guards were friendly, possibly since they had only arrived minutes ago, and I was on my way again in only minutes.

Getting out of Albania was more of a hassle. For one, I had to choose between a transit visa and a regular visa. The transit visa didn’t cost all that much, but allowed me only to stay in Albania for a maximum of 24 hours. The regular visa allowed me to stay much longer, but would cost me about $40. However, if I would use the transit visa and overstay my visit, I was going to pay 5 times the price of the regular visa when exiting the country. Considering Albania, although probably very exciting, was not going to be the most relaxing place to stay, I opted for the transit visa. The race was on!

A big gray taxi, a Mercedes was waiting at the border. I got a ride into town, to Pogradec. Already, the streets were of the poorest quality.

Getting closer

So there was no public transport going from Pogradec to Tirana, although private taxis operated throughout the whole country. The problem was just finding the right place to leave from, to get to the right place to go to.

I was directed, by one of the girls at a bank where I changed money, to where most of the private taxis heading for Tirana passed by on their way to leave town. She also told me that I should pay no more than 500 Leke, some $3.

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Before finally arriving at the scene, after asking some 3 policemen, I had already gathered something of a following. People wanting to talk to me, where I came from, what my destination was, where I had come up with the absurd idea of traveling through Albania, etc. One of the policemen actually hung out with me for some time, trying to get me into vouching for him, so that he could travel to the Netherlands. I had no choice to agree, since my tactic of supposedly not understanding him was finally undermined by some 5 men at the ‘taxi stop’, directing traffic, trying to translate what the policemen was saying. After waiting for some 30 minutes, I was happy to pay the proposed 500 Leke to get to Tirana.

When I got in the van, together with the 6 people already in there, I had no idea the trip would take a staggering four hours along the worst roads imaginable. Afterwards, I understood why the trip was relatively expensive; The driver deserved the money for avoiding oncoming traffic, holes in the road the size of small lakes and ravines on either side of the, what was called a, highway.

We stopped halfway for a snack. All the way, the scenery had been staggering. The first part, alongside Lake Ohrid was beautiful. Slowly, we climbed higher and higher, allowing for an evermore beautiful view of the lake. Afterwards, we dove into the inland, high mountain peaks and deep ravines on either side of the road. But with car wrecks everywhere, unfinished houses topping the scenery off. And, even more strange, the occasional Italian carabinieri.

So we stopped for a snack. At a roadside diner, that seemed to have been built within 24 hours, people were downing Bavaria beer by the bucketload, either enjoying a bowl of rice or a plate of spaghetti. Our group had a Turkish coffee (that is, we all had a Turkish coffee), except for the driver, who also had a marvelous bowl of spaghetti. I got intrigued by the waiters. Not so much by their apparent unfriendliness, as by their ability to make all the garbage disappear. On one big heap right next to the diner.

Tirana

You have to visualize the road we were traveling on. Barely two lanes, one in each direction, zig-zagging along the mountain sides. Holes that could fit a cow and crazy drivers trying to hit the cows that hadn’t fallen into one of the holes. Most of the roads where under construction or partially blocked because they should have been under construction.

One of the men in the van spoke a little bit of English, trying to teach me Sqip (Albanian) at the same time. He didn’t really succeed, since his way of teaching me Sqip was saying one word in his language after me having said a sentence in English. Then I had to guess which word he had translated. When we finally arrived in Tirana and drove passed the office selling boat tickets to Italy, I tried to make it clear I wanted to get out, to actually obtain a boat ticket. Nodding understandably, they drove me to the train station instead. I got my self a train ticket to Durres and walked back to get a boat ticket.

Not one, but three people at this office spoke English. What was more, every night a boat left from Durres to Bari, in Italy, arriving the next morning. That is, every night except Friday nights. Today was Friday. Alternatives where a hydrofoil leaving at 5pm or boats leaving the next day. And to make things more complicated a ticket costs about $80, but the 5pm hydrofoil had its prices cut to a mere $38. I had no real choice but to take the 5pm one. It was already 2pm. I had to be at the boat landing one hour early. So I had one whole hour to check out the city of Tirana before going to Durres.

I mentioned at the ticket office I had gotten myself a train ticket to Durres. I was immediately told I should get a bus. Much better and faster. It should take only an hour. It is less then 40km from Tirana to Durres. It took 75 minutes.

Tirana is a true mess. The city really, really stinks. The Lonely Planet describes Tirana’s main square and the surrounding area as being a romantic area to stroll through for hours. Maybe in winter it can be, but in summer it smells, its dirty and its ugly. No one seemed to realize that it might be worthwhile to throw garbage, not out on the streets, but in garbage bins. Then again, I didn’t see any garbage bins anywhere in Albania.

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Driving rules, as on the roads coming in to Tirana, don’t seem to exist. Traffic driving everywhere, every car making a big noise and the occasional car stopping in the middle of the road to offer me a place to stay (my backpack gave me away), the roads being completely wrecked, the pavement only partially available. The city really seemed to be fashioned out of shades of gray. Meanwhile, the stream flowing through the city is colored dark brown and people openly piss and shit in it. On the main square, in front of the national bank, scores of men were waiting, carrying hands full of Albanian money.

Further

When I walked back, in the direction of the train station, towards the taxi-stop, several vans were passing. One, empty except for a man and a woman in the front seats and the kid hanging out the side window caught my attention. Not in the least because the kid was hanging out of the window, shouting out its destination VERY loudly.

I was the first to get on (the three people seemed to be family) and the taxi drove round the city to try and pick up more people going to Durres. The kid constantly shouting from the side window and people, waiting really everywhere until the right van with the right destination would come along to pick them up. These vans do not operate on any schedule. They just drive, or not, and that’s it. Considering that, a 50km trip could easily turn into a day trip. On the other hand, this is one good example where deregulation of public transport really has meant heaven for private enterprise.

The scenery, when driving from Tirana to Durres, was even more interesting then when driving to Tirana. The area looked like a scenery straight out of Mad Max. It was pure chaos. At some point we stopped for two passengers to take a piss. We stopped close to a little shed, in front of which three men were playing cards. Next to the shed two cars were lined up, being sold.

The younger man that got out, went to the back of the cars to take a leak. The other, a man maybe in his 60s, leaned against one of the cars and started pissing, against the car! Piss dripping from the back of the car, one of the card players soon noticed the dripping, got mad and wanted to kick some ass. The younger man, finished early, quickly came in-between and, for several minutes, it seemed that they were about to kill each other. Only after the driver started commenting on the situation did the card player finally back down, but only after raising a smile at the driver.

In Durres, I had quite a hard time to get to the right ship. I (being the last passenger in the taxi) was dropped off infront of the train station. A girl working for a travel agency in the station building directed me to the docks. Walking through abandoned warehouses, empty railroad tracks and muddy waters, I arrived at a big hole in the fence, surrounding the docks. The hole was guarded by three soldiers, pointing their guns at me. Strangely enough, others were happily walking past them. I wasn’t allowed in, and it was clear that this was the docks area.

Only when I told one of the guards, Marko, I was Dutch, did they loosen up. Marko knew a Dutch journalist and wanted to tell me all about him. “Sit down, sit down, you have plenty of time!” He gave me the name of the other Dutch guy he knew, whom I should tell I met Marko, from Puka in Albania. Meanwhile, I had to talk with him. It took quite some convincing to have him not take my Lonely Planet and finally, after offering a packet of Camels, was it reasonably allright for me to continue. Marko pointed me in the right direction. The boat was to leave in 50 minutes. I had to arrive an hour before departure.

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Getting closer to the landing area, it became clear I had taken the unconventional entrance. Hordes of people were trying to get into the docks area through the main entrance, coaxing guards and border patrols to accept their luggage for a safe crossing (and a huge profit, probably). I walked towards three other soldiers with dark and very big sun glasses and asked where my ship might be moored. Their immediate reaction: “This ship not here, you have to go back in that direction, maybe 30 minutes walk.” I kindly noted that this wasn’t probably the case. As a result, I received a private armed escort around the landing area. The soldier, at each new ship, making it clear that my ship REALLY wasn’t one of the boats available. After ten minutes we finally found it. It was delayed.

Another world

Meeting the Italian captain of the ship marked my entrance into Western Europe. One of the pursers asked me if I wanted any girls when arriving in Bari and the final sign I really had crossed the border was the $1.75 price tag for a can of cola.

We were only three passengers on the hydrofoil. Apparently, on weekends, the ship was packed, as Albanians working in Italy would come home for the weekend and leave again to work in Italy. However, since I had quite an eventful trip over the past days, being only with two other passengers wasn’t all that bad.

Normally, the Adriatic see is very quiet, it being almost closed off to the ‘outside’, open seas. Today, however, it was terrible. Additionally, a hydrofoil needs relative quiet waters to do it’s thing well. Now, with the waves making a disturbance, the hydrofoil was being played with by the sea. Already after some 15 minutes at sea, the other two passengers had gotten themselves small paper bags to vomit in, which they did regularly. At first, I found it a lot of fun, going on deck and later, when on deck it really became too bad to be outside, sitting on the side of the ship, looking outside at the ever moving horizon. An hour later or so, I was close to puking.

The crew happily kept on drinking, laughing, watching TV and eating. The two other passengers were lying on the ground, occasionally trying to vomit, I was curled up on a couple of seats in the middle of the ship, the best place to be when on a moving bus or boat, when being seasick.

Normally, I can stomach a lot. Now however, I even went to the toilet to try and vomit, twice. Both times nothing happened, and I got back to my seat to enjoy more of the roller coaster ride. I was immensely happy when, finally, after being more than two hours late, we arrived at the port of Bari.

My phone had stopped working when entering Macedonia. Both in Romania and Bulgaria I had had coverage so occasionally I first phoned home to prove my continued existence. Only later did I learn this cost me $3. Per minute. I checked my phone on arrival in Bari and noticed my mum had tried to call me. About 25 times. Occasionally leaving a message, the first saying ‘I just called to say hi…’, the last being ‘Please call, I’m starting to get worried…’. I figured it made sense to give her a call. The lost son had arrived ‘home’ again.

The right trousers

When waiting for the 12:18am train from Bari to Rome, a change of tracks was announced through the speakers. I asked one of the people waiting for the same train if he spoke any English. Luckily he did. He didn’t speak any Italian though, so he too hadn’t understood the announcement.

The guy turned out to be working for a Bangladesh firm, trying to sell jeans to wholesalers in Europe. We turned out to share the same cabin (with air condition!) on the train. The couches were very inviting, but only one stop later did two German backpackers enter the cabin, which meant no sleep for any of us.

I talked for some time with the guy from Bangladesh and helped him out a bit to understand where he should go next and how he should travel. It was his first time