Published: May 28th 2008August 12th 2005
This is the city on a GOOD day...
No buses run to Albania. In fact, when inquiring at the eyesore of a bus station in Pogdirica, Montenegro’s flat and characterless capital, I received the same reaction for going to Albania as I did for Moldova while in Odessa: “Why do you want to go there?” I took a look around and resisted the retort that Pogdirica was no gem, either. If Montenegro is to separate from Serbia (and we have seen how well the Serbs take it when that happens) Pogdirica will need a serious facelift to be taken seriously as a European capital.
Unlike the thick line that indicates the route on local road maps, the twenty-eight kilometer taxi ride from the bus station started on a two-lane highway that soon enough was no more than a gravel path into the mountains. It constantly forked and there were no signposts. One time we veered left, the next time to the right. I never would have found my way. I had actually considering thumbing it to the border to avoid the steep fare. Fifteen minutes into the ride, I was grateful to be paying the twenty-euro fare. It would have been sheer stupidity of me to go it alone.
Where is the bus station again?
The border between Montenegro and Albania resembles no more than a far-flung outpost on the still untouched shores of Lake Scutari, arguably the last undeveloped lake of its enormity in Europe. Immediately after entering Albania and reluctantly paying the ten-euro “entry fee” to the customs officer, I saw nowhere to change money, no facilities of any sort, and no shops but for a few very lonely cafés. Taxi drivers accosted me for the ride to Shkodër, and one in particular would not leave me alone. The lack of Albanian currency proved no matter: they like euro and love dollars. Negotiations were fruitful. I told the driver who hounded me bye-bye, and off I was in a 1972 Mercedes Benz, one of many more I was to encounter.
It took but an instant to realize that time in Albania stopped decades ago. For as difficult as conditions are in Bosnia and even Montenegro, five minutes into Albania and you are back in the Stone Age. We passed dozens of horse-drawn carts full of produce, scrap metal, and peasants through decaying shantytowns whose only road is of either dirt or mud, depending on the weather. Women whose faces were lined like
But no one pays attention...
isobars on a weather map carted and sometimes dragged copious plastic bags of clothes to the buggies. If lucky, tractors would stop by and collect them. As I looked east, the most menacing mountains hidden in a hazy silhouette stared down at me as if to say, Don’t even think of coming up here alone. I heeded their warning. A few distant hamlets lined the lake. The power lines were down, and so were my spirits. I had not come across scenes like this since Guatemala. Upon reflecting, Albania was far more shocking and depressing because this was Europe. I knew Albania was a step down, but this was far worse than I ever imagined.
The northern city of Shkodër only intensified what I experienced from the border. It is a city with no traffic lights, crumbling rectangular apartments, and stray goats on the sidewalks. Horns blare and traffic spins around the disorderly center roundabout. Crossing it is a leap of faith. People do not look, but dart around the monstrous trucks and motorized bicycles. There were no signs, no way to make sense of anything. The driver dropped me off alongside the roundabout and motioned where buses left for Tirana. I was sure to be on the next one, I reasoned. He sped off and there I was, in an atrocity of a city and all I really wanted was to get out of Albania. My introduction to Shqipëria could not have been more demoralizing.
I managed to find a bank machine, and withdraw 15,000 lekë, about $150 USD. A woman with a young girl in hand helped me to decode the Albanian instructions. I found a group of men taking refuge in the shade by the roundabout. I needed to find a bus to Tirana. I interrupted them and they stared at my drenched face and oversized backpack. I must have been from Jupiter as far as they were concerned.
“Bus? Tirana?” The tone of my voice was that of desperation and personal desolation. The four of them processed my request and this sparked a vibrant and unintelligible argument among them. As their voices and facial expressions grew more passionate, their hands started flailing in the air. Then they pointed in what I thought to be in every direction. I was being ignored. Yet, I paid close attention to the exchange and decided this was no different than asking directions in Queens. There were simply debating on whether it would be better to take the Holland Tunnel or the George Washington Bridge to get to Giants Stadium. They came to some consensus and the eldest clutched my stained collar and for five blocks dragged me through Shkodër. He never said a word. We made turns and took short cuts into putrid alleyways. He never let go of my collar. As we surfaced from behind a dumpster back onto a main street, there it was: a shiny white coach with a sign on the windshield…Tiranë. He ripped my pack right off my pack, tossed it into the bay below and lifted me aboard, practically by grabbing the seat of my shorts. I said Faleminderit, thanks, and he was gone. I never saw him again. From the time he locked onto my collar, I do not remember my feet ever touching the ground.
With thirty minutes before departure and hungry I searched for a bite to eat. Luck would have it as I flipped through postcards of Shkodër at a kiosk (They actually have postcards of this place. Can you believe it?), a family from Turin was also doing the same. I heard the Italian and latched onto them instantaneously. Even more fortunate, the mother was from Shkodër and directed me to a sandwich shop hidden in some cranny of the city I would never venture into alone. She ordered me two sandwiches of cheese and some meat that shall remain nameless. I grabbed a Coke from the cooler. We conversed for a while and all I recall is how much she liked Shkodër and what a pleasant place it was, how wonderful it was to be home. I nodded and although I am fluent in Italian, the words she uttered had about the same amount of sense if she had spoken to me in Arabic by the looks of my surroundings.