If you suffer from motion sickness, are a stickler for the law or have a problem with being gawked at — do not attempt the Albanian bus system.
I had been totally over-confident about this. I was well-travelled, having worked as a tour guide in Europe for two years, and I knew how to bus myself around. I had worked on boats in both Croatia and Greece, so I knew how to deal with seasickness. I had also mastered the art of “faux patience”, having calmly told passengers the location of the toilet over 1582 times, usually in the space of one night, even though I wanted to vomit on their shoes if they asked me once more.
To get to, around and out of Albania, there are two simple options: bus or taxi. Bus, the obvious choice for the backpacker, is, quite simply, a unique experience. No one sits up the back, the closer to the front the better, and the locals get pushy. At first I assumed it was because people knew the local driver and wanted to have a chin-wag. I quickly cottoned on that they were in fact chasing air. The driver was the only person with an operable, open window. Forget the snowflake sticker on the side advertising air-conditioning. This was just something the company was aspiring to. Possibly in 2024.
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Post-communist Albania, the birthplace of dear Mother Teresa and anti-rust paint, is the most intense country I have ever visited. My home-grown Romanian friend, Vlad, had originally suggested the trip. We both had a week to kill and he was born and bred deep in the east, so he knew the ropes. Aged 14, Vlad had successfully bribed his science teacher at high school with the promise of an excellent bottle of whiskey if he passed him on his exam. Vlad “passed” the exam and his teacher went home for a tipple, from a bottle which Vlad had purchased himself from the bottle store next to his school. I was safe with him.
Our week long adventure involved travelling from Split, Croatia through to Bosnia, across the border to Montenegro then a hop, skip and jump before arriving in Albania. Vlad made it as far as the seaside of Budva, Montenegro before being called back to replace a sick guide. Who would protect me from exploitation now? Vlad had done an excellent job of reprimanding a cheeky bartender who served me a €50 bottle of wine when I’d only asked for the €15 one.
I had been warned about Albania. Two Europeans I had met a week ago said it was dangerous and they considered it a no-go zone. They said the only people stupid enough to visit were Australians and Americans because they hadn’t been informed.
Little did I know that travelling by bus actually serves as a social institution, and I was certainly not alone. The bus was packed to the racks. We make regular, jolted slow-downs (never coming to a complete stop) to deliver string-wrapped post parcels, drop off boxed lunches to the road workers and allow dusty school kids to run up and kick the wheels of the bus. Not because they’re aggressive, but because it’s something to do. People stared at me constantly. Not rudely, just because they know I’m not one of them.
The Albanians may be one of the poorest nations in Europe, but bloody hell they know how to multi-task. Just take the co-pilot driver for instance. He smoked, talked on his mobile phone and shifting the gearbox for the current driver, who was doing much the same as his sidekick. These guys seemed to have no concern over their jobs, despite employment in the country sitting at 40%. Their extra-curricular activities mean that as passengers, we (meaning just me) are constantly recoiling as the bus races through the tight country roads, half expecting to be hit by the trees passing by. Never mind the three men hanging out the door, vying for space. Balls of absolute steel.
For the first time in my travels I felt like I was getting myself into trouble. And it felt amazing. Nothing is safe, organised or dependable. A mule sporting bright pink pom-poms attached to its bridle pulls young, weather-hardened workers down country roads, with old car interiors serving as makeshift seats. I want to yell “STOP! STOP! I need a photo. No one will ever believe me that I saw this!”
No one on the bus is listening to music, I assume because they don’t have iPhones. When crossing the border into Albania, the passport stamp hasn’t changed date for three days, and no one gave a shit. Not to mention the universal head-shake laws of “yes” and “no” are totally reversed.
My earlier ignorance of these laws had prohibited me from paying for my ride.
“Do you take euros?” I had asked the bus driver.
Head shake up and down. A nod.
“Great. Here is 20,” I said, as I handed him the money.
Head shake up and down. No reaching for the money.
“Euro, no. Lek lek. Albanian money. Now!” he replied impatiently, looking at the line over my shoulder.
“But you just said you take Euros,” I retort.
“LEK only or no bus. Move.”
I certainly didn’t have lek. I didn’t even know that was the currency. We were still in Montenegro, which uses the euro. How exactly was I supposed to get lek right now? I flashed him my wallet which had only euros.
“OK, you pay me in Tirana.”
Hours later we arrived into the chaotic capital, driving past line after line of street vendors selling their wares. The city still showcased the scars of its volatile past governance with dilapidated, multicoloured apartment blocks clogging the streets. Albanians call their country Shqipëria, which since 1992 has switched from a tightly controlled communist regime to a free market free-for-all.
Recently, the population has totally exploded as exiles, once forced from their lands, can now freely move to the city. Neighbouring country Kosovo also used the country as an escape route in the spring of 1999 when nearly half a million refugees crossed over into Albania, desperate to leave behind the Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign. What was once a massive strain on resources has turned into a positive as massive amounts of aid money poured into the country, decreasing inflation to single digits.
It was now my turn to fork out some money for the driver and his wingman who were holding my luggage hostage on the side of a busy main street. All other passengers were unloaded and gone, the bus engine was still running and I had just bought new undies yesterday. I hope they didn’t knick my backpack.
:One minute, one minute!” I gestured, running to an ATM about 100 metres away.
Card in. Pin accepted. Amount selected. Error. Card out.
I could see another ATM close by. It had one of those high-tech security doors where you need to swipe your card for access. I ran.
Repeat process. Declined again. Shit.
In my anxious quest for money, I hadn’t noticed the little crowd I seemed to have pulled. Two legless beggars had hobbled over to the area, stationing themselves firmly on the other side of the glass security door. They began to bang on the door, wailing, getting louder and louder, hands outreached for my money.
By this point I was beginning to totally stress out. I was in a foreign country, I had no money and I could see my bag capturers irritably looking around for me. They were going to leave any minute.
How the hell was I supposed to get past these beggars? I couldn’t just barge them over. They were already legless for Christ’s sake. I made haste for the door, eyeing them warningly, braced and ready to push through.
Within seconds a baton was reigning down over the backs of my followers as a bulky policeman, who must have seen my predicament, came to my rescue. He pulled them from the door allowing me to pass, following me close behind as I stalked back towards the bus. Did he want money too? Are you supposed to pay the police if they help you out?
Hands in the air trying to minimise the language barrier, I tried to explain my situation to the driver. I figured something was better than nothing, and pushed €20 towards him again. He snatched it off me, whipped a dismissing hand at me, kicked my bag over and left. Great, just great.
The policeman had stood firm for the duration of this exchange. He wanted a handout too. I was pissed off. This would never happen at home. I quickly reasoned that as a single, young and foreign female, I wouldn’t be too good at putting up a fight. I’d seen Taken. I shoved a €20 note in his direction.
He looked confused.
“I don’t want your money. I was just making sure you were OK!” he said in perfect English, shaking his head at me.
“Keep watch of your bag or it won’t be there soon,” he chuckled, walking away.
“And stay away from my legless friends over there or you will have no bag and no Euros”.
I was mortified. How embarrassing. I had no clue what I was doing or how to read these people. Was I really that stupid Aussie that ignored warnings? Was I ignorant? I had been bitten, swallowed whole and spat up again in the space of three mere minutes.
I plopped myself down into the gutter, right next to the donkey poo, just where I belonged.