Four ways to get around Albania

img_6045

1) Tie on the boots, Fatos

Andrés and I walked into Albania. A driver, lacking proper papers to cross the border, left us with the Macedonian immigration agent after receiving half of our agreed payment. It was a sleepy Sunday, and few cars passed us as we rolled our bags along the countryless mountain road high above shining Lake Ohrid. In Albania, the agents looked at our passports but we received no stamps. It’s as though we were never there.

2) Share a taxi, Megi

The morning we left Pogradec for Albania’s capital Tiranë, we packed our bags and planned on waiting in the grape-strewn garden until 10:30, when we would walk to the bus station. I was stuffing my hairbrush into an outer pocket when Luli, our host, bustled into the room. “You go now! Taxi outside. Ready? You. Go. Now!” He grabbed my heavy suitcase and rolled it outside, past Amy the matted dog and the neat rows of potted flowers. In the street a dusty car was parked next to the public spring. A small old man in faded black sat in the back, and a blond teenager sat in the front seat with her iPhone. Flora and Luli kissed us goodbye and we were off, the hot wind blowing on my neck and the old man wedged into the middle seat, his hot panted leg digging into my own. Whenever we passed the crumbling ruins of factories and train tracks, he would poke me and say, gravely, “comunismi.”

3) Rent a car, Bujar

August is high season in Albania. In every city, the hotels double booked us and we tried again and again to find lodging that would stick. We finally found a hotel down south, on the Ionian Sea and across the border from Greece, but how to get there? Every car in the city had already been rented…but no: our Tiranë host (who had also double booked the room we were planing on sleeping in, and gave us the living room couch instead) knew a guy who knew a guy. We drove out of town on Wednesday morning in a dusty blue Ford Focus, no gas, no AC and no rear mirror. I hoped that the evil eye/ horseshoe talisman hanging from where the mirror used to be would protect us.

4) Travel in style, Bardhyl

Our dusty blue Ford did the trick: we saw it all, and after two 5-hour longhauls and a few day trips, we had the car back in Tiranë, gasless and parked against the same shady wall we found it on. It was time to move on. A gleaming white vehicle with Montenegro plates waited for us, ready to bring us to our next destination. With Momo the driver’s expertise, the 2-hour wait at the Albania/Montenegro border didn’t seem that bad. He expertly handled the winding decent into Kotor along a 200 year road, dropping us off with another patiently waiting host.

image-4

Lake Ohrid and other splendors

9C2DEB8F-07DC-47F2-A6CE-6FF2855AE015
Sunset in Pogradec

We’ve been traveling through the Balkans for 5 days now: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. We’ve seen the grandiose arquitecture of Sofia, a 150 year-old capital built upon the ruins of a 5th century Roman metropolis. In Macedonia, the slim miranets of mosques point up blue and white from the clusters of red brick houses. We arrived two days ago to Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. This lake is ancient, maybe 5 million years old, and it lays over the borders of Macedonia and Albania with the calm confidence of age.

We have been scrambling to communicate, but there’s little hope for us: The alphabet of Bulgaria’s Slavic language is slightly different from that of Macedonia, where they use a “j” and pronounce their country Makedonia, with a hard /k/. Albania’s language is not Slavic: in fact, it is unique in the European languages, and linguists think it evolved from an old Balkan language. This is all to say that my abilities to carry on a conversation so far have been pretty minimal, especially among the older population. I resort to miming: eating air barbarically with my hands and tickling the same air when I turn it into a keyboard to show I want to do some work. Smiling is culturally relative, and I’m realizing how language is fundamental to good manners: we have learned the words for “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and greetings. Fala mendireet. Me fal. Tuña tieta. These are the phrases I’m working on now, in Albania. Soon, in Croatia, we’ll switch back to blogadaria and its friend izvenitye.

05342BC5-04E7-4647-B931-A7075FBC5F00
The walk along Lake Ohrid is full of entertainment

Learning the words is a small hurdle to jump for the privialage of being here, near this beautiful body of water and the communities that have been established on its shores. We ate trout last night in Pogradec, while the entire city came out for its nightly 8:00 pm walk. Babies and their parents, young woman in heels, men wearing brand name t-shirts and elderly women in dark dresses and kerchiefs all walked slowly down the lake’s sidewalk, socializing in the most easy and natural of ways. We merged with the crowds to walk back to our room, where I fell easily to sleep under well preserved 90210 sheets.

99765C93-6261-4F01-A30E-984D84120135.jpeg
The view from our room over Lake Ohrid on the Macedonian side.