Much to my surprise, getting out of Albania was rather trouble-free. I managed to board the bus mildly conscious for a five-in-the-morning departure for Korçe. Having arrived a few minutes early and aware that Albanians share the same concept of punctuality as the rest of their Mediterranean neighbors (which is zero), I darted off for an espresso only to be told to get right back on the bus immediately. The driver saw no other passengers this steamy morning and decided it was time to go. We were out of Berat before 4:50. Go figure.
The bus to Korçe takes a circuitous route, in an almost 180-kilometer clockwise crescent. According to maps, there exists a road that covers that distance in more or less ninety kilometers. But when I inquired why no bus traveled the apparently shorter route, drivers, café owners, and pedestrians simply shuddered when the topic surfaced. It is a route so remote and poorly maintained that not even the heartiest of Albanians dare to try it. Convinced of its perilous reputation, I was comforted with the more beaten path for a change. Three hours of rugged mountain and impoverished scenery later, I was unceremoniously dumped in Perrenjas and left in a plume of noxious fumes as the bus sped towards towns far more appealing. Perrenjas, upon initial inspection, allures with all the charm of U.S. Army recruiting center. In fact, it reminded me of Poptún, Guatemala (and this is no compliment, mind you), as it is an eyesore of a place to refuel, and then be off. It took very little time for the taxi drivers and other predators that creep around the dusty main drag of bars, and vacant corner shops to encircle me for my business. In spite of my dislike for them, Perrenjas was indeed the drop off point for anyone leaving Albania for Macedonia. A taxi was the only way to the border.
Of my final images of Albania prior to the toll booth-like crossing, only a ten-kilometer taxi drive were of rugged and barren mountains I took in the valley in which Perrenjas was nestled. Behind me hid Lake Ohrid, yet another massive body of water Albania shares with a neighbor. But, it was my last chance to marvel at two of the thousands of the now-neglected military cement bunkers that litter Albania’s landscape. Installed during the isolationist communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, these tiny domed defense capsules with only a narrow slit through which to see were designed for the citizenry to arm itself and repel any invading forces, real or imaginary. But who? Better yet, why? It was Hoxha’s delusional contention that Albania was always under threat, as it had been throughout its history. Yet, during the twentieth century, and with only the most rudimentary technological development and no industry or economy of which to speak, just who posed a threat? Yugoslavia? Greece? The Smurfs?
The bunkers’ positions are concentrated at international frontiers, in the outskirts of major cities, or tucked into the foothills that first appear when leaving coastal areas. Their sheer number all over Albania is so inconceivable that it makes one wonder where the country would be if it had pooled this same effort into roads, water treatment, and education. Perhaps Albania could be on the same plane with its other Balkan roommates, or even higher.
In Struga, Macedonia, hours before I thought likely, I have been awarded with splendid, if ever-so-slightly hazy, views of a glossy Lake Ohrid. During a ninety-minute layover at a bus station infested with flies at about 3 per square inch and the ugliest women I have seen since I cannot even say, I managed to change over the rest of my Albanian currency with a taxi driver at very favorable rate of exchange….for him. The banks will not touch the notes even though Struga borders Albania and much commerce flows back and forth. Banks want to see dollars, euro, and very little else. It is ironic for Macedonians to shun the lekë as they do because their own dinars, oddly enough, carry the same, if not less value outside of Macedonia as Monopoly money.
I could not have been happier with my very picturesque journey to Skopje until arriving in Tetovo, where we had a fifteen-minute stopover. I disregarded the significant changeover in passengers when the driver took to the highway on what I thought would be Skopje. But, the bus was curiously headed south. With no highway just south of Tetovo for Skopje, I could not understand what shortcuts the driver had in mind. Twenty minutes passed and I could no longer resist the temptation to approach the driver for an explanation.
“We are going to Skpoje, right?”
“No! No! This bus…Ohrid.” This driver, like most in the Balkans, has a natural ability to look directly at me, flail his hands in the air while operating a bus full of forty passengers at 100 km/h, all at the same time. We indeed were headed back from whence we came hours before. I panicked. If I had not already shed my sense of adventure for a beeline back to Ukraine, I would have found this whole episode amusing. I went on the attack.
“No. The sign said Skopje. We go to Skopje.” And there it still was, as he had not changed it yet, right on the windshield: CTPUΓΑ - CKOΠJE (Struga - Skopje). Apparently, passengers had to switch at Tetovo for another bus, which was announced in perfect, well-articulated Macedonian, but never to me or the other foreigners, especially when our tickets were punched. No instructions, nothing. If you can’t understand, your fault. Welcome to Macedonia.
The driver told me to sit down and a woman from the rear of the coach came up to interpret, or perhaps prevent me from knocking the driver unconscious as I was ready to clock him one. I pointed to the sign many more times, now screaming. This did nothing to ingratiate myself with the driver or help out my own cause, but I did not care. I held it up over my head for all the passengers to see. I had their undivided attention. They were very entertained by the show.
The driver continued to ignore me and still headed south. I took the sign and circled it around his head and then placed it in the windshield, only partially obstructing his view. Then I shoved it towards the side of his face. “Heelllooo? See? SSSSKKKKOOOOPPPPJJJJEEE. Can you say, SSSSKKKOOOPPPJJJEEE, you idiot?” As luck would have it, a local couple was also diverted from the capital for the same lack of information and came forward. They told me to go back to me seat. I did, as I had worn out my welcome except for the two-dozen or so passengers that patted me on the back in my support and on my behalf, as I squeezed my way back to my seat.
The other couple that replaced me went at the driver with the same tenacity, but in the local vernacular. This prompted him to finally pull over, flag down a bus from the opposite lanes indeed bound for Skopje at a tollbooth, and remove our baggage from the lower compartment. I stayed away from him and was rather shocked that he did not drop or kick my backpack at all because I really had gone overboard with him earlier. Then, we (there were seven of us in total, including a three-year-old boy) had to dash across and dodge eight lanes of traffic to catch the Istanbul - Skopje bus, which wanted us to pay a minor fare for their generosity. We referred them to the Jugotrans office at the Skopje bus station if they wanted any compensation for a mistake that was not ours, rather Jugotrans’. No matter in the end: The deluxe coach we hitched a ride with to Skopje, in spite of the frosty air-conditioning, deposited us in an empty lot nowhere near any station…train, bus, or otherwise. Apparently, that is where they do their business. Then I went ballistic. The other six were treated to one of my few, but classic verbal tirades about what I thought of their country. That’s what it comes to when I get that mad. All of Macedonia is at fault, even the embryos. Since their English vocabulary did not include my flowery usage of profanity, many did not grasp my full meaning until I screamed something to the effect that Albania was far better place than Macedonia.
If you ever want to insult folks from Macedonia, tell them they sit below Albania on the evolutionary scale. Right then and there, I lost the cooperation I had earned, found a taxi, a sped off to the train station.
Skopje’s train station can only be described as hellacious. Dumpy and forlorn, it is nothing but a series of dark corners that double as urinals through which you are directed to get information or tickets at windows that are closed or occupied by the scariest of characters whose job it is to make sure you, like them, are as unhappy as possible. This place is so gross that it probably hasn’t been touched by a mop since Tito died. The tracks run above the three-story building and once you have reached them, returning down to the street is a less than an attractive option. I coped with my time in Skopje, about seven hours until the evening train, by keeping to myself in the adjacent and modern bus station and renting a chilly and refreshing room at a hostel for a nap and shower. I finally went out to eat. Ignored for the better part of an hour, a war of attrition ensued. I left a tip in Albanian coins. Back at the station, an hour before departure, I met a young guy from Barcelona with whom I later shared a couchette compartment along with a German who had been through Kosovo. We were a jovial three, and they helped pass the time and the night, all the way to Belgrade.
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