Albania is like the Pakistan of Europe
I dare to say that poorer countries are closer to normality, closer to not extinguish our Earth, because they don’t have the means yet.
No wonder I like Albania immediately!
Entering Albania brings us at the top of a hill, we push the peddles of our bicycles a bit more and then have a long, long downhill. I notice a funny style of accommodation on this speedy downhill. I can’t stop and look as I speed down with 61 kilometers an hour. But I don’t see any hotel sign so I guess it’s a rundown hotel. All I think is ‘now, that is original. It is like an underground bunker, surrounded by nature.’
A bunker. A bunker it is! In the Hoxha regime, led by Enver Hoxha, 700.000 bunkers were built. All the money went into this paranoid protection of possible external invasion.
The 40-year period of Hoxha’s rule was characterized by the elimination of the opposition, abundant use of the death penalty or long imprisonment for his political opponents. Furthermore, removals of their families from their homes to remote villages that were strictly controlled by police and the secret police. He destroyed his associates who threatened his own power. Economically, during his period, Albania became industrialized and saw rapid economic growth, as well as exceptional progress in the areas of education and health. He focused on rebuilding the country which was left in ruins after World War II, building Albania’s first railway line, eliminating adult illiteracy and leading Albania towards becoming agriculturally self-sufficient.
During the nearly forty-year leadership of Enver Hoxha of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, over 700,000 bunkers were build in the country, one for every four inhabitants, an average of 24 bunkers for every square kilometer of the country. We see a restaurant built around a bunker, another has a tattoo shop made from it. We are handed 4 huge pomegranates and the man who hand them over in his remarkable small shop explains that the bunker in front of it was to shoot people ‘phieuw phieuw, kaput’.
Hoxha’s programme of ‘bunkerisation’ resulted in the construction of bunkers in every corner of Albania, from mountain passes to city streets. They had little military value and were never used for their intended purpose during the years of Communist rule (1945–1990). The cost of constructing them was a drain on Albania’s resources, diverting them away from more pressing needs, such as dealing with the country’s housing shortage and poor roads.
The bunkers were abandoned following the collapse of communism in 1990. Most are now neglected, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafés, storehouses and shelters for animals or the homeless. A few briefly saw use in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
Up to today Albania might suffer from all that. People are poor and the country seems a reflection of this. People work the fields by hand, use donkeys and mules. Transport by minibus is popular, yet many people walk. That is, if they haven’t a small foldable bicycle, often rusty. Albania is much about living a simple life, whether by choice or not. A life fueled by biological sources and honest man-power.
There aren’t many cars, and the cars which are on the road are treated like precious diamant. Washed daily in the lavazh, outdoor car wash powered by a hose connected by the nearby river.
Why did I say Albania is like the Pakistan of Europe?
A town like Elbassane, for me, is being flung back to Pakistan, because of the smells, the sights, the atmosphere. I have lived about a year in a tucked away valley in Pakistan, one of the reasons for that was the simplicity and purity. That what is standard in European countries has not yet become normal in Pakistan or Albania, so it brings less pressure and makes life less busy with superficialities.
Here in Albania is it disorderly, unfinished, much use of plastic. Infrastructure is not that good and shops often sell little. Car tires and car accessories is a big business, a car a sign of wealth.
There is the smell of wood fire. There are tatters of Roma music. There is a haze over the country, in the same way Pakistan has it. There are the vegetable sellers, along the highway. People have corn cobs on a fire between intersections of highway, for you to enjoy. Shops selling hideous white wedding dresses, as in Pakistan. Some women wear white two piece sets of clothing, almost like a salwar kameez. Hair is intertwined in long black shiny luscious braids. Surroundings are a general mess, a beautiful mismatch of unfinished buildings, whatever color of paint available. Cities are an independent mob of cars, mopeds, foldable bicycles, horse-drawn carts, minibuses, motorbikes and pedestrians.
‘Albania is good but we just don’t know how to use it’
That it can be called the Pakistan of Europa shows itself in more ways. We stop to admire the goat with 5 children and are invited to stay the night. By a child. No need to ask her mother first. On my own I would gladly have accepted the offer, but together we rather camp.
It is obvious that the nature we are in was heavily used under communistic regime. There is a railway track running parallel to the road, we could camp in a tunnel if we’d liked. Mining villages appear, with the usual concrete blocks of housing. The mountains look barren as if too many goats has wandered on it.
It keeps surprising me that entering another country, especially in Europe, have us in such a different situation. I start asking myself the question, again, why people in poorer countries are so bounteous towards the traveler? Is it because a little over half of the Albanian population is Muslim? It could well be that.
‘Albania bruto? Albania bueno?’
A question regular asked, by a man on a donkey cart, a daughter helping her mom in a shop, or a son who runs another family shop, half empty. It is asked in Italian, as people feel strong ties with Italy. Sons and daughters work oversees, which is often Italy, having left a dad on a donkey cart and a mom in black stockings behind. When we try to find food in a poorly stocked shop a young guy talks to us. He blames everything on the leaders of the country, also the things happening, or rather, not happening now. His mother makes funny faces as she blurs out ‘Albania not good’. Her mother, a granny coming to check us out, is an old-looking lady of 70 years of age. She has lost her husband in the Hoxha regime when she gave birth to a girl who is now a woman who is dying to win the USA lottery (a lottery where people buy tickets so they get a change to leave Albania and try to make it in USA). We like Albania, we do see an enormous arrear with the surrounding countries, except Romania perhaps. Perhaps it is not so much a lag as more a slower development compared with fast-moving Europe.
We decide to cycle slow so we don’t rush out of the country. We came in via the west side of Lake Ohrid, following the river towards Elbasanne. This means we have about half of Albanian land to cross.
Cycling here is seeing notable things, such as garlic hanging on a building, teddy bears dangling too. Is it a protector for the building?
On to Durres.
‘Watch out in Albania, traffic is very dangerous. People are not used to bicyclers.’ Not true!
Cycling through quiet villages surrounded by nature, we are avoiding the main road E762. This is in a bad condition with trucks whizzing fast. Traffic never passes me by too close though. Cars arch wide around me, busses seem to know I am delicate user of the road. Of course, I knew the Greek who told me to be careful was just another example of prejudiced fear about something he is worried about himself. I can state that Albania is one of the safer countries to cycle in.
Things are different in Albania. Just like ice cream chests contains unpacked chicken legs, road-sides have uncovered sewer pits. We think this is the inducement for avoiding where we cycle.
I am screamed at by a few too enthusiastic kids. ‘Fuck your mother’ they wish me, their tiny child bodies trying to block the road before they’d run off. My first reaction is as always, to throw a stone and to turn and chase them. But I refrain from doing so, it would cost me too much energy.
The city we are approaching is dark, many buildings are empty, yet more high-rise apartments are being built. It’s Lezhe.
Sky turns dark. Clouds have been hanging low and are filled with rain. We’d received some rain in the nighttime and are now heading to Lezhe where we get a room. How luxurious is cycling in Europe?
When we unmount the panniers from the bicycles a few children gather to watch. The tall coarse man who runs the hotel shoves them away with one executive sound. And for once I really like this kind of dominant behavior. I don’t feel for entertaining children, nor am I in the mood for their innocent curiosity.
“Cappuccino? With coffee?”
Lezhe is darker than the countryside, it’s built up with high-rise flats and no natural light is able to shine between them. Further investigation shows that shops turn of their lights in order to save electricity. Albania does it not for environmental conscious reason though. The next morning when we are in search for breakfast we seem to fail: the patisserie is empty, except for people drinking dark coffee in a dark café, another café-bar has no coffee at all, as it hasn’t got a generator. Now we know, we need to follow the sound of generators; and have a pizza with diesel fumes. We do have a cappuccino with coffee though!
Rain is quite disastrous for people who operate a car. Mud is now sticking to it and that has to be removed. A car must be shiny at all times in Albania. Cheers for lavazh! It’s busier than ever on a rainy day at the car wash. I had my bicycle washed done the same way.
Albania, as far as I know, has no recognizable own kitchen. As may be the case in many former communistic countries. Back in the days where everything was cared for, there was probably just staple food. I doubt whether there were pizzeria’s, if at all restaurants. Now there are, but it’s an effort to find one which is open. Of course we succeed; later on we find cooks who smoke a good old cigarette when they prepare food. Maybe it enhances the taste as it does with food cooked over a wood fire…
‘Pizza? No pizza. Pizza finished today’
Durres is a touristy town along the shore of the Adriatic sea. To get there we cycle trough deserted streets, I could give a lengthy clown act on a roundabout, if I wanted to. Hundreds of fancy apartments stands empty, hundreds of neglected less fancy apartments left to rot. Shops, businesses and restaurants are closed. Beaches are empty. There is silence. Later a cricket joins in. A dog too. Sheep hoard to the shore to lick on salty stones. A shepherd appears. Men fish, throwing enormous nets in the ocean, a cigarette hanging on their lips, his son making dives on the flat still surface of the ocean. He checks us out to make sure we see him.
A bizarre tourist town
Durres seems to be unfinished, built without a proper plan. There is no life, it feels like a ghost town where perhaps in the future, when the sun is out, tourists flock to. Then, as by magic, we turn into one of the hundred alleys between high-rise flats and are in the heart of the Albanian tourist scene. There where Albanian youth comes together to do things on loud synthetic music beats. I decide this is a good place to give my bicycle a cleaning.
‘Some people give our country a bad name,’ says Xhuljano.
He meant the Roma but he doesn’t say it. For me, Albania never had a bad name. Only a desirable sound. And as for Roma, I cannot grasp why they are such a subordinated group in society. It is so hard to comprehend why this group is completely cut off. Roma seem to be able to do only one job. That of cleaning, collecting rags, dirt, plastic and thrown away furniture. Only the Roma seem to have patent on a certain vehicle; a match between a car and a motorbike, stripped from anything unnecessary. It has a handlebar on a long frame and a loud motor. Roma collect plastic in huge synthetic bags, conveniently propped up in the basket of a motorized cargo bicycle.
When we cycle out of town, we pass a big Roma camp. It has a sad look through my eyes, maybe because it is a rainy day. Positioned right opposite a high school, I wonder if there’s anyone objecting, whether to change their situation. People living in a slum. People spend their lives in haphazardly built brick lodgings with a corrugated roof. Couches stand out of alignment in front of some shelters, one or more of the legs broken. The coating is wet and dirty, like the whole camp is wet, dirty, muddy and cold. Here, at this spot, is no difference with an India slum.
I feel a curiosity to go in camps like those, and spend a year writing a case study, resulting in a book. There are good books, I’ve got a sample on Kindle, yet no time to read it. Sigh… a cyclists life.
‘We baptized her Bessy’
We cycle further on, to Shkoder, pass many funeral businesses, shops selling a meager food assortment together with used refrigerators, old washing machines and car parts. When we leave the road for tracks through the hills we hear a yelping sound. It turns out to be a tiny puppy all by itself. The puppy has a swarm of flies around her and a white crust on her back. It’s a layer of fly eggs, cozily gathering together, forming a hard shell as if a mini shield.
We are upset! What to do now? Leave her here? Take her with us? Bring her somewhere?
First we sprinkle her whole upper body with citronella so the flies will disappear. Then we apply plenty of iodine on the larvae covered wound and dress it with a cotton compress hold in place by a stretchable bandage.
And then? This puppy fits right in one hand. What are we going to do with it? A passerby with a horse, a sheep and a dog doesn’t want it. I decided I’ll give it a try at the first row of houses at the beginning of the track.
‘Nobody else will take her, give her to me. I will care for her,’ says the young adolescent girl to whom I plead and beg. And I hand her over Bessy. The family has two other dogs already and this, it seems to me, is a good sign.
People are handing us gifts. Like they do in many other Islamic countries. It keeps surprising me. Albania is a poor country, people have not much income yet they give. Besides an extra salad, or fruit, we’ll receive soft drinks and energy drinks, something I dislike, and so Tom drinks all, with some aversion. Yet better than the olives, which taste real sour in Albania.
We sleep at a beach, where a couple arrives with their entourage to finish the wedding shoot for today. Roses are thrown in the air, a camera clicks away and the couple takes on poses as unnatural as the woman her make-up.
We sleep at shepherd’s pastures where we dab through the mud to get there. Next morning a shepherd’s sitting under an umbrella, neatly dressed in a sport jacket. He comes over and tries to ask for money in an array of hand moves.
Quite some people look less healthy, living a hard life. We cross through a landfill where pigs run free, that is, if they are not stuck in a black sticky treacle. People pick dirt by hand, on a mountain of waste. Dwellings of people here are made out of crap, plastic and waste material. A vicious dog runs after me, resulting in instantly reaching a high-speed in the highest gear and my lover helps me out by screaming HARD at it. He would have bitten me! At once I’ve lost all the energy of the remaining afternoon.
Do we celebrate the fact that Albania is a cheap country? We did not come here because it is a cheap country. Cheap it is for us. But we actually do celebrate the fact that it is a poor country, although many 3 floor, extensive mansions are being built, in a state of unfinished project or only partly in use, people do use horse and cart, donkeys, and weeding hay by hand into a high pile. Many people don’t have a car, and walk a lot, which I think is only normal. People have extensive vegetable gardens at their house and supermarkets are often a joke. People guard guinea fowl. People are enthusiastic too, greeting us. I like being in a country which is simple. So, yes, I celebrate being in a poor country.
Sometimes I feel a fool, when I make photos of people on a horse cart, without having interact beforehand. How will those people feel, that I make fun of them? In reality I celebrate them, because I have a big dislike against cars since I lead a life on a bicycle.
School going youth walks along the highway back home and I have to swirl around them, onto the road. It is a relieve to see all sorts of people dressed in what they think is fine, or sufficient, or unimportant. Although there is no interracial mixture (who’s going to aim for a better future in Albania?), there is a lot of abundance in sheen fabrics, the Roma always win.
Cars are often a Mercedes, all seats occupied, which is in my mind a sign of good taste, and smartness. The shepherds in Mauretania drove Mercedes’ too, they banged it right into the desert.
Just before we leave Albania a chubby child on a brand new scooter asking for 20 pound must be a product of a father who interact with foreigners feeling pity. The child is a copy of his undoubtedly overconfident testosterone filled father and I am happy our real last interaction with Albania are 6 clean pink pigs passing the railway track. Off we are, to Montenegro…