Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Albania is bizarre. There is no other way to describe it. As soon as you cross into this country, you are in a different world. Sure the buildings and the people look the same, but it has a different feeling. It seems like Mexico, at least the movie version of Mexico, in the way people aren't really doing anything. There are people everywhere, not doing anything, and they are all driving Mercedes. All the men are wearing dress pants with their sport coats that don't fit at all. But they all seemed dress for the occassion. There are no major roads, but on the raods that everyone takes there are constant horse drawn carriages or person drawn carriages. Generally the roads are the asphalt between the pot holes. It was just unlike any of the other countries we went to. Even as bombed out as Belgrade was, it was so much more modern than Albania. Well on to the story of our time there.

We made it through Montenegrin customs and then through Albania's as well. Albania charges a 10 euro fee to get in. As soon as we showed up with our big packs, all the cabbies eyes flashed with dollar signs. One particularly ambitious cabbie skadaddled his tubby stomach down the hill customs and had the border guard deliver us a message that he was willing to drive us to the closest big town. Now we weren't to be pursuaded and brushed by him looking for the so-called minibuses that were supposed to be at the border. Basically all these minibuses are entail men driving their big vans around the country to agreed to destinations. We found the perfect man and all of us piled into his van to drive down to Skodor (spelling changes of towns are common).

I should also mention that Albanians have odd body motions. They shake their heads up and down for no and back and forth for yes. You have no idea how important this idiosyncracy is. Even when there is a complete language barrier, in most countries you can use your head to communicate. Well in Albania this only gets you in trouble. Also the word for yes is po and the word for no is jo. I know confusing right. Well after a hard encounter with that first driver, we tried as hard as we could not to shake our heads in transactions. Also most prices were demonstrated by use of hands or showing bills of what they wanted.

This man in his nice big red van was our introduction to Albania. As I described earlier, the countryside is surreal. We made it to Skodor, paid the man in Euro and then looked for the bus to Tirana. Albania is a bit crazy in that it has no organized transportation. Buses operate by showing up at a certain place everyday with a driver and they depart when the bus is full. The bus is full when the aisle is full of people sitting on plastic seats. What a great country. Through all of this we still made it through fine without difficulty, so the system works I guess.

It was about a two hour drive from Skodor to Tirana. Andrew looked up the State Department's warning for Albania later that night and found out that US diplomats are not allowed to travel in Skodor without an armed escort. Good thing we're not diplomats. Along the way, we saw lots of these concrete bunkers unique to Albania. Albania had a crazy dictator in charge for years that claimed he was communist but alienated himself from all the other communist affiliated countries in the world over time. Afriad of invasion, he had these bunkers built all over the countryside. Designed for each Albanian to defend himself, there were 700,000 in the country. The dictator had the engineer build one and stand underneath it while they blasted it with a tank. The designer lived. Now they are an eyesore all over the country because they are very hard to dismantle. Our Lonely Planet Guidebook said that now they serve as the number one place for Albanians to lose their virginity.

We got into Tirana safely at the so-called "bus station." Again it was just a random street side where most of the buses to Tirana stopped. We asked our bus driver to show us where we were on the map, but he was useless. Instead we started walking in what we thought was the right direction. A group of junior high aged kids stopped us and pointed us in the right direction which was the way we happened to be heading. We journeyed through the city, which you can see in the pictures, until we arrived at one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in. These two younger guys run it and one happened to acquire a puppy in the last week. That did Meredith in. When you arrive at the place, there is a sign that says pull on the string. That's right, the door bell is a string that runs into this big house and rings a bell inside. Thinking the gate was locked, we waited, but we would find out later that they don't really lock their doors in Albania. We were across the street from the US Embassy so we weren't really worried. This structure couldn't be missed because it was basically a modern day, impenetrable fortress.

After settling in, Andrew went to find an internet cafe to register for classes. His time for registerring just happened to coincide with arriving in Albania. (Little did I know, I would be registerring for classes from the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania).

Off to explore the city we tried to go into a mosque. We were informed that it was time for prayer and that later would be better. The guy that explained this then went on to lecture us about what a terrible rap Islam has and how we should convert. 33,000 people in the US converted to Islam after 9/11, I guess we should be some of them. Well anyway deterred by that we went and got some delicious pasta and pizza for barely anything. The city is insanely cheap. Then me and two other guys on the program walked to some of the worst parts of town and found a nice local bar. The nicest guy was running the place and apologized for not talking to us because he was making a new railing for the front steps (in front of us). We about made him cry when we gave him a $1 tip for 3 $1 beers. Then we were walking back to the hostel when we spotted the sky tower which is a bar 13 stories above Tirana with a rotating sitting area. This we didn't know until our packages were sitting on the balcony and rotating away from us. I had apple pie that cost $2.50 on top of Albania. My friend Kenrich spotted a ferris wheel from the top of the tower that we really wanted to see. So after seeking it out, we arrived just in time for it to close down.

That was pretty much the end of the night. We headed back to the hostel, got some advice on how to get out of Albania and then hit the sack.

Of course I made everyone get up early, so the next day, Thursday we woke up around 6 am hoping to catch a minibus around 7. Out of the hostel by 6:45 we only had to walk two blocks to catch the minibus, aka hitchhiking, to the Macedonian border. We found a guy with just enough room for the six of us agreeing to take the bus to this town called Pogradec. The guy at our hostel said just walk from here to the border, so we’re like whatever.

The bus ride down was once again beautiful though the mountains of Albania aren’t quite as nice as the sea coast in Croatia or the mountains of Bosnia. Of course there were random stops at cafes, but we made it to Pogradec fine. Then the guy said he would drive us to the border for an additional dollar averting an hour walk. This turned out to be a good call b/c there was absolutely no transportation on the Macedonian side of the border.

The border crossing was once again epic, most notable because of a sign with the happiest family pretending to shoot each other and demonstrating that guns are not to be brought into Macedonia – good idea. This was only made better by Kenric actually taking out his camera and filming the signs. This border crossing was also next to a lake, and this one Macedonia had successfully used for tourism. Also on the Albanian side there were a few taxis and guys just generally hanging out but absolutely no one was crossing the border. We were kind of wondering what we had got ourselves into. Well this ends the Albanian part of the tour just Macedonia and Serbia to finish it off.

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