In many ways it was good to be leaving behind Montenegro. Sure, it had some beautiful nature, but our next stop, Albania, felt like a real jump into the wild. Albania, has a reputation as a strange and distinctly un-European land, despite its location, and we were both keen to find out more about it.
The hitchhike from the dreary Montenegrin capital of Podgorica started brightly enough as two young gentlemen took us to the town of Tuzi, a short distance from the Montenegro-Albania border. Despite being in Montenegro, the place was awash with Albanian flags and as we passed through the edges of the town in search of a good hitchhiking spot, we walked past a Gypsy market where they were selling all manner of (probably stolen) goods. Batteries, remote controls, clothes, parts of televisions, motors, candlestick holders, you name it, it was there. Without doubt it was a very strange market as people lay their wares out on the dusty floor, trying to sell broken electronics and single shoes, and it’s hard to believe that anybody actually bought or sold anything.
From there we were picked up by a Macedonian man, whose car had the unfortunate habit of cutting out every 30 m but seemed to recover after a couple of pit stops and much swearing. He took us to the border where we were joined by a couple of French girls who were also hitchhiking to Albania. Seeing as our driver wasn’t going to Tirana, at the border we went in search of truck drivers who would be travelling directly to the capital. After spying out a few number plates we found a Polish truck and Ania went to do some charming in her native tongue.
Whilst our Polish driver was waiting for all his documents to be processed, we sat in his cabin drinking coffee prepared on his portable stove, eating tinned ham and tomatoes. I swear that it is impossible for Polish people to leave the house without carrying all the provisions needed to face a hurricane or even the apocalypse! After a couple of hours we were ready to go, but not before an illuminating insight into the land we were just about to enter.
As the truck pulled away a policeman stood in front of the vehicle. We then heard him shout to the driver in a language we assumed was Serbian.
‘Дај ми пет евра’ (Daj mi pet evra, Give me 5 euros)
‘Nie mam pieniędzy. Tylko PLASTIK KARTA. PLASTIK KARTA’ (I don’t have any money, only a credit card), our driver roared back in Polish.
‘Дај ми кафе.’ (Daj mi kafe, Give me coffee), the policeman responded and things were getting a little surreal.
‘Nie mam kawy’ (I don’t have any coffee).
‘Документи!’ (Dokumenti!), and the policeman took the drivers documents and walked around the back of the truck.
Our driver climbed out of the truck, reappeared in under a minute and explained that this was a regular occurrence in Albania and that he had had to pay the policeman a Euro before he was allowed to pass on his way.
A further 10 minutes down the road and another Policeman stopped to wave down the truck.
‘документи добро?’ (Documenti Dobro?, Are your documents OK?) he asked with a twinkle in his eye.
This kind of shakedown was obviously a regular thing in Albania. It amazed us that these policemen woke up in the morning and went to work with the expressed aim of weasling money out of foreign truck drivers. At the border the whole thing was a very organised farce as the truck drivers had to pay bribes for the visa stamp, weighing the truck and verifying of the documents as everybody took their bite of the apple. Absolutely ludicrous! Having negotiated the corrupt officials we arrived in Tirana and even managed to blag a further hitchhike with a private bus who dropped us in the very centre of the town. Result!
Tirana, is the capital and biggest city of Albania and, to be fair, isn’t the most beautiful of places, however, it did have something, an atmosphere that wasn’t wholly unpleasant. It was far more western than we had anticipated, with the usual array of brand name Western stores and a plethora of Italian fast food restaurants. The legacy of the communist system is still evident in the monumental nature of official buildings with the seemingly obligatory adorning images of idealised men and women.
While we were there we witnessed a protest outside one of the government buildings. After seeing babies being shaken at a line of policeman we asked a television reporter what was happening. He told us that they were members of the Gypsy community and they were protesting about housing. We saw many very real examples of the lack of housing as more than once we witnessed people shitting in the streets and river for want of a better place to go. And although I wouldn’t want to make any rash statements seeing as I know very little about the topic, it’s fair to say that it was shocking to us that they were demanding housing whilst rejecting the social obligations that others must conform to. Perhaps this is a cynical view but the constant attention of Gypsy children is a fact of life in this part of the world, and we did wonder where the fathers were while the woman and children begged.
For some reason the word Albanian has always evoked a level of disrespect that I cannot find the origin for. In the countries surrounding Albania, there is a degree of hostility that I would guess has its root in the fact that the language, culture and religion are distinctly different and the historical paths diverged to such a degree that one cannot really include Albania as part of the ‘Balkan culture’. Many times people would suck in a deep breath when we said that we were planning to visit. But even in the few days we had spent in the country we realised that the assumptions were wholly incorrect. Albanians are welcoming, friendly, jovial with as much of a European outlook as us, with similar fears and aspirations. We wish we had more time to visit and we would definitely return after such a friendly welcome, plus hitchhiking is so easy, which is always a huge advantage for us.
written by: Jon
Follow our 2 month hitch-hiking trip across the north of Italy and the Balkan Peninsula:‘The Balkan Peninsula by Thumb 2013′. It’s happening now!
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