Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On the Road in Albania - Bring out the Fried Goat Entrails!

Staring across the sparkling waters of lovely Lake Ohrid to the mysterious mountains on the Albanian shore, blood feuds and Kalashnikov rifle barrels were the upper-most images I held in my mind. The country has long had a reputation for being on the brink of beyond, a black hole on the map of Europe that is little-known except for the strong whiff of negative stereotypes. It certainly didn't help that we'd heard all the horror stories from the local Macedonians back in Ohrid. No buses or trains ran over this part of the border; the only way in was to walk, carrying your bags with you. The border point sits on a beautiful mountainous stretch of coastline along the side of the lake that is shared by the Albanians and Macedonians; old bunker emplacements from the days of dictator Enver Hoxha were visible among the trees clinging to the hilltops on the Albanian side. A quick stamp in the passport and we were in, no chaos of surging crowds or fast-talking fake goods hawkers like I'd expected at such a border post. We were casually approached by one ageing taxi driver who was parked just past the border gate; he tossed aside his cigarette, cracked a smile full of yellow teeth and addressed us in Albanian at a rapid clip. He offered to take us to the nearest village, or if we were willing, all the way to the capital, Tirana. A friendly Finnish couple who had also just crossed the border agreed to share the taxi fare straight to Tirana with me. The motor-mouth driver offered to take us there for about five Euros each, which seemed remarkable given that it was a four hour trip. His car was a rusty old Mercedes, a common sight on the country's roads; supposedly the import of stolen cars from Germany was a major part of the economy back in the 90's. We agreed to the deal, holding up our fingers to show him the amount we were willing to pay. He loaded our bags into the back, we got all four doors tightly closed, and we were off like a jet airplane heading down the runway. With the gas pedal mashed to the floor and dangling a cigarette out the window, our new friend Alek talked away at us in a steady stream of Albanian for much of the trip, it didn't seem to bother him that we couldn't respond with more than shiny smiles. When he eventually tired of trying to make us understand his views on global politics, he called someone up on his mobile phone so he could carry on with a more receptive listener. He kept stabbing his cigarette like a pointer to show us passing points of interest, like hundreds of spherical concrete bunkers embedded into a hillside, bony skeletons left in the desert. There were amazing numbers of them, sometimes hundreds grouped together in complex geometric patterns across the dry, rolling hillsides. They were envisioned by Hoxha as the first line of defence for the isolationist nation if it were ever to come under attack. Every able-bodied male was given a Kalashnikov and was expected to jump bravely into his assigned bunker when the time came. This has led to the rather alarming statistic that nowadays every third person in the country owns a Kalashnikov; it has also presented a problem for modern Albanians who have bunkers present on their land - they are almost impossible to destroy, and are now considered a general nuisance. Some of the larger ones have been converted into homes, but most sit marooned and forgotten as eyesores in every corner of the country, from flat farm fields to craggy mountain passes. Alek was particularly keen to show off the giant grey steelworks in the soot-covered city of Elbasan, as it turned out to be his hometown. We got out at the side of the road on a barren hilltop above the steelmills for photos and a breath of something like air. Most of the trip involved climbing up one side of a mountain, and then descending down onto the plains on the other side. Alek had a habit of overtaking scrap metal-filled trucks and horsecarts full of hay on blind corners at high speed; he seemed to know what he was doing, so we only shouted out at him when certain death seemed particularly imminent. We arrived in Tirana in good time, entering the city through the outer districts of thrown together makeshift houses, most with a tin roof, fibre-board wooden walls, and a dirt floor. Apparently the city's population has tripled since the end of socialist times (to 700 000) and illegal housing developments have mushroomed around the capital. The roads were sometimes more akin to obstacle courses, and Alek spent as much time driving on the sandy shoulders as in the lanes. When we reached the city centre, the buildings were of a more permanent nature, but the roads remained much the same. He took us right through the main square of the city, a huge plaza with a giant Albanian flag flying and a triumphant statue of Skanderbeg, the national hero who led a revolt against Turkish invaders. A huge socialist-realist painting depicting the proud 2000-year history of the Albanian people stood out on the front of a museum. We couldn't find our hostel at first, since there are basically no street signs or house numbers in Albania (apparently they were all ripped down and sold as scrap metal in the crisis days of the 1990's). The central square and the main boulevard in Tirana were the only places with signs in place that we could see; the boulevard is named George W. Bush boulevard, named in his honour after he visited the city in 2007; Kosovar Albanians have a soft spot for Americans as well, there were large building-sized pictures of Bill Clinton there to remember his help in ending the conflict against the Serbs in 1999. Eventually we found the hostel with the help of a guidebook map and the local knowledge of Alek, who somehow knew all the names of the dusty streets even without any visible signs. We got out and saluted Alek and paid him our fare, with a good tip. He gave a spirited wave with his mobile clamped to his ear and drove off on the return journey to his home in Elbasan. We wondered how often he made this sort of trip with foreign travellers, and if it could be a daily event in the summer season for him, this trip half-way across the country and back again.

The following afternoon, having mastered the Albanian phrase for "I want to go to..." in the Tirana bus terminal, I found myself in the small town of Kruja, perched on a mountain north of Tirana (it was the castle stronghold of the hero Skanderbeg in his fight against the Turkish hordes). I wanted to spend the afternoon walking the beaches in Durres, and needed to go by Furgon, the local word for a minibus. Driving down the mountainside in a fully-packed Furgon, holding on to the seat for stability, I got into a sign-language conversation with one of the passengers sitting next to me. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Albania, and many people would try to communicate with me, usually without using any spoken language (Italian is the one foreign language most Albanians learn, due to the huge numbers who go to work in Italy). He was a blurry-eyed security-guard who sometimes protected the Albanian president, he was doing his best to tell me. I didn't believe him at first, he seemed to be making drunken boasts, so he took out his security badge for the Albanian parliament to show me. It had a boyish image of him next to a picture of the parliament in Tirana. Then from his belt he pulled out a gun (!) and proceeded to aim it out the window of the minibus in full-on James Bond style, for my viewing benefit. He then shoved it recklessly back into his belt loop, and went on to tell me about his cousin in Toronto like nothing had happened. I was rather relieved when he vigorously shook my hand and got out in the next village; the last I saw of the Albanian 007 he was headed for the local pub, in search of a martini I suppose.

On my last evening in Tirana, I wanted to try some traditional Albanian food, as few restaurants offered it. Heading out into the streets with the Finnish couple, we followed the directions we'd been given by the hostel folks until we stumbled over it down a side-lane. In the low-lit restaurant we sat on padded benches slung around a large round table. Our waiter, who turned out to be the owner and one of the country's most celebrated film directors, spoke to us in Italian as he hoped we might understand him better. He didn't bother us with the menus, but promised to bring a proper Albanian feast. He brought a steady stream of hard-to-identify dishes to our table. The highlights of the meal (and I wasn't informed of exactly what we had eaten until it was too late) included boiled sheep's heart (rather rubbery, I didn't like it), and roasted goat intestines on a skewer (which I did like actually, until I heard what they were). We left feeling that we had properly experienced Albanian cuisine, certainly not a meal I would like to have every night, but a wonderful change from the ordinary!

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