24.05.2007 - 27.05.2007 35 °C
Warning bells were ringing the second I couldn't see Tirana on the bus timetable and minutes later it was confirmed by that sick feeling in your stomach as the words “there are no buses to Albania"! rolled out of the ticket booth girl’s lips.
You know the feeling, I mean the one when you realize you are a million miles from home all by yourself in a foreign country and all your best laid plans are falling apart around you and no one gives a shit.
Sitting on my back pack in the corner of the bus station in Podgorica, Ipod turned up full (Music is the best therapy some very wise traveller had once taught me) working out the logistics of getting to a border 50km away in the middle of the mountains with no public transport. This was when a guy approached me and offered to drive me to the border for 25 Euro. Of course I tried to get him to drop the price to which he bluntly replied "do you see anyone else offering you a lift?”
"Do you have the saying, up shit creek without a paddle here?" I asked.
"You want a ride or not" he blink at me with a look of confusion on his face.
Before I knew it my back pack was in the back of his pride and joy ,1987 Mercedes, and we were racing along long straights surround by kilometres of vine yards on either side of the road. My man gave me comprehensive instructions on Albania: don't eat off the street, don't wander around at night and don't take photos at the border. However the key tit bit was that I had to somehow get from the border to the town of Shkodra, something that had not been mention in the negotiations at the bus station.
Sweat was running down my back as I walked passed the line of trucks and approached the smiling but slightly puzzled border guard. Without even checking my photo he gave my passport a stamp and then demanded 10 euro for the privilege of entering Albania, I did think about pointing out the fact that he had already given me the visa but after eyeing up his side arm and the remoteness of where I was, I thought better of it as I crossed the border and found myself thinking I had made it to Asia already, as I dodged potholes, broken down cars, donkeys and rubbish thrown everywhere.
As I walked down the road that followed the shores of Lake Shkodra trying to thumb a ride, I was kicking myself for not stocking up on more water as buildings in the distance blurred and did a little dance in the heat wave emitting out of the potholed road stretching out in front of me. It wasn't long before another Mercedes driver pulled over and offered me a lift to Shkorda. "10 Euros" he demanded!
"Come on man, how about a student discount" I ask quickly becoming demoralized by my euros being sucked into this Balkan vacuum.
Ha Ha, he laughed "look where you are" he waved with his hand, "you don't want to spend a night out here my friend".
So with both drivers adding up about the safety at night along this highway, and believe it or not, self preservation is quite high on my priorities, I gave in and slumped in the back seat enjoying the air-conditioned comfort as we flew down potholed roads, blindly overtaking any slower moving road user while leaning on the horn every three seconds.
We rattled down the unsealed main street of Shkorda until we pulled up beside a clapped out mini van which I was told to go sit in after being given a coffee flavoured sweet for the road from my driver.
An hour later the wagon was full enough to depart and once again I found myself holding my breath as we carried out the standard driving techniques of Albania, this time as the driver drummed away to some hard house CD which comes to be the norm on this form of transport.
Finally we reached Tirana and I was deposited on the side of the road at some busy roundabout on the out skirts of town. I asked a guy that was on the bus with me to show me where I was on my map and then asked him how to get to my hostel.
"Ah just jump in the taxi with me I am going that way myself" he said with a beaming smile. After waiting for me to change some money, we drove across town making the usual small talk. I just thought he was trying to scam a free taxi ride but didn't really care as I was grateful for the help.
Upon arrival my new mate, Arnu, paid the taxi driver and then proceeded to ask around five different shops as to where my hostel was. After walking me to the door and refusing payment for the taxi he wished me a good stay and wandered off on his way. The best thing was that over the next few days this was the kind of help I received on so many occasions everywhere I went. Under a country that at first glance is frantic and worn, there are amazing genuine friendly people that show hospitality like nowhere else I have been.