A Travellerspoint blog

Albanian Economics 101, the “I have You By the Balls” theory

sunny 35 °C
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by djrkidd 04:37 Archived in Albania Comments (4)

Topless At The Top.

sunny 30 °C
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I wondered why the handles on the seat were broken. I was about to find out, the driver fought with the wheel of a rather dilapidated 70's bus and turned off the perfectly good main road, and followed the river into the Mountains in the pouring rain.

This single lane road wound its way up into the lush green Bosnian mountains following an electric blue river a few hundred metres vertically below us. This road turned from a single car width of tarmac into what would be best described as a farm track. The only thing stopping us from plummeting over the edge was the occasional rusted length of guard rail and the ability of the driver to smoke cigarettes, chat with his mates and tune the radio while occasionally concentrating on the job at hand. Every so often we would pass a sign with a picture of falling rocks. These had been used for target practice with a good few bullet holes in them. By the looks of the football size rocks lying on the road, they had not just been put up by some roading contractor to prevent them from having compensation being bought against them. As we passed over a narrow wooden bridge I held my breath as the driver concentrated long enough to avoid the rather large hole that had rotted through the bridge which dropped away to nothing below.

Once I got used to the fact that my life was no longer in my hands I just sat there and marvelled at the spectacular views, lush forest, powerful rivers and snow capped mountains only to be interrupted by the occasional stopping and letting down passengers in what could only be the dictionary definition of the middle of nowhere.

After a quick passport check at an out of the way boarder post we crossed in to Montenegro and slowly worked our way down to the stifling hot planes of Podegrocia. The capital city was in stark contrast to the bus trip, dirty, polluted and bustling with 20 year old mercs.

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Kotor is nestled inside the shear cliff of a fjord, two hours from the capital. Its a beautifully kept old town and is over looked by an impressive fort sitting 260m above, precariously perched on the mountain side. I was a little put off when I arrived at the bus station not to be met by my usual bickering crowd of ladies waving room brochures. However after wandering through town doing my best “lost back packer routine” I was adopted by a lovely elderly couple who once again showed fantastic hospitality and sent me off in the direction of the fort on the hill.

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So with a blazing hot Balkan sun I started making my way up the 1300 odd steps that follow the town walls to the fort itself. Of course trying to preserve my limited tee shirt supply and put off the inevitable washing for another couple of days I took my shirt off. After a good 30min climb I reached the fort gates and could hear voices coming from within, not wanting to offend I though it best to put my top back on and walked up the final stairs only to be met front on by a topless girl soaking up the sun with her boyfriend...... some days you just can't win aye.
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After snapping a few photos of the view.... (no…. the panoramic view Levi!) I climbed down the opposite side of the wall as I was told that this side was a bit of an adventure, by the bloke on the gate. It must have been “take the piss out of the Kiwi” day again, as adventure was a slight over statement, more like a mission, as I fought my way down the steep bluffs through waist deep grasses, blackberry and stinging nettles to return to Kotor for a very well earned beer.

Posted by djrkidd 05:16 Archived in Montenegro Comments (0)

Hospitality Plus.......


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So off the bus and surrounded by a crowd of screaming ladies, I know I know, I should be used to it ,but these ones were all over the age of 50 and segregating me from safety better that lions on the Savannah. After negotiations I was bundled off by the English speaking Matron to an old dear of about 75 whose only words in English are “super” and “no problem”. Now having done this travel gig for 3 years warning bells normally ring when someone wants money and the only repetitive sentence they can say is “no problem no problem”. However this old dear had a secrete word in her arsenal, and after shaking my hand with sticky fingers, from the bag of empty bottles she was carrying later, explaining them as all Kuna (local Croatian currency) she dropped the bomb … Raki Raki. So like a moth to a flame this Kiwi was dragged off to this lady’s apartment. This turned out to be a cosy little place that she rents out with 4 beds, a bath room and TV. I kid you not, she sleeps on the terrace under a tarp, with a camping stove.

So like most Kiwis I don't give a dam where I lay my head as long as it follows my golden rule....... It must be cheap! This place fitted in with this rule like a glove and the passport details were handed over while she poured her and me a good stiff shot of this stuff before mentioned Raki. “Cheers” she smiles, and knocks it back like water with that little twinkle in her eye that you get with wisdom. Dave on the other hand still recovering from the night before did everything he could not to spit this........ well ....paint stripper across the living room floor for fear of it removing the varnish.

After the payment was made and insisting that I wear a pair of slippers instead of my jandals around the house (Yes she won that battle of wits too and found a pair big enough for my hoofs) she insisted that one more shot was had in a tone that made me feel like a child that had just been caught drawing on the walls.

Now lets talk about hospitality plus, she placed a big bowl of biscuits on the coffee table then ran off to come back waving a loaf of bread and, what I thought was jam, under my nose. “Yes please” I said politely (dam you mother for installing me with 24 years of good manners!!) to the bread, and she also put out a plate with two of the softest floury apples you have ever seen. Now did I mention I am severely hung over after goodbye drinks with my Swedish mates? As I pull the lid off the “jam” I find to my horror that it is actually pork (I think) paste with big lumps of fat floating about. I sat there giggling at some thing Elisabeth had said one night at a bar in Rimini "Life is like a pair of flip flops you never know what your going to get on your feet", how true. Right! deep breath! I slowly dig in under her watchful eye, only to have her come bounding in smiling with a handful of spring onions to accompany my pig paste.
I watched the news in Croatian and struggled through a whole loaf of bread and paste while being carefully supervised by my new best friend. Who knew you could eat the entire spring onion bulb, stalk and all. I have chewed an entire pack of gum and still have a bad taste in my mouth …. got to love travelling hey.

Posted by djrkidd 13:44 Archived in Croatia Comments (2)

The Road To Sarajevo

semi-overcast 20 °C
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I was starting to doubt my decision as I exchanged nervous smiles with two Canadians on my bus. We pulled up to the check point and a guards with an AK47 come on the bus screaming and dragged us all off, searching us and our luggage before stamping my passport and frog marching me to the waiting bus on the other side of the razor wire fence.

The first things you notice are bullet holes in the wall of every building and that one in 10 houses are actually habitable. Many check points later, and avoiding smoking wrecks of cars and UN armoured patrols, we reached the capital only to run for the cover of the bus station as we were rocked by a nearby explosion and watched wide eyed with ears ringing at the familiar dance of bright red tracer rounds cracked overhead flying in all directions as they deflect off anything hard they hit.

Well maybe over a decade ago this would have rung true but for now it’s just a good yarn. Bullet holes in every building you pass maybe, but long gone are the UN, now replaced by an unarmed and low profile EUFOR. The country is rebuilt and instead of a city filled with people fearing for their lives I stumbled across a city full of upbeat smiling people enjoying life in bustling pedestrian main street filled with the usual cafe culture of any other capital that springs to mind. So thanks to everyone that showed fear for my safety but you are still living the BBC news reports of the mid 90's.

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Before we know it, the owner of our hostel had Liam, Even and I in a taxi heading to the outskirts of the city to see the Tunnel museum. This was the site where, quite literally, under the nose of the UN, the people dug an 800m long tunnel under the UN held airport which connected the people of Sarajevo with the rest of the Bosnia free territory. This becomes a vital supply link for the city running in food, weapons and allowing escape. They even ran electricity and phone cables through as well as a fuel pipeline.

The city itself is just like the news reports I remember, well ,minus the war. It is a city full of high rise apartments with trams trundling along and surrounded by hills that seem to collect fog like a back packer collects bed bugs. As you walk around there are still plenty of reminders of the troubles there was, as I said, there are bullet holes in every building as well as the occasional building gutted by the shelling that took place. Also as prominent reminders, there is what they call “the Sarajevo Rose”, this consists of red cement being poured into the holes left behind by the shells on pavements around the city.

The old city is a maze of cobbled streets and single story wooden shops selling the usual tourist wears, though for a couple of Euro, you can pick up some of the tastiest Bosnian dishes out. This is mainly BBQ style, with tasty meats and a huge helping of delicious veggies.

After a short but very humbling stay I awoke at 6am and made my way through the heavy rain and mist to catch the tram across town to a bus station in the middle of nowhere and hopped on a dilapidated blue bus from the 1970's and headed through the mountains to Montenegro.

Posted by djrkidd 02:24 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (1)

Living the sweet life, in small town Italy

3 Sweds and a Kiwi having a bit of R and R.

sunny 30 °C
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As A Kiwi I like things easy! So I was pleased to see the girls crashed out on their back packs waiting for me as the train pulled into the station in Bologna only 20 minutes late. It was a long trip from Naples, mainly because I was still fuming like Mt Vesuvius over the visa sager and the fact that I knew I was going to be staying at a scum of the earth HI Hostel. This had been re-enforced by an email earlier from Ulrika " Just so you know the book says your hostel is crap". I was met by hugs and smiles from the Swedish trio and even a couple of bottles of vino.

Much to my amusement the girls who had arrived a few hours before me had spent their morning walking around trying to find accommodation and had not come up trumps. All four of us waited for the once hourly bus out to the middle of nowhere, so as to stay at this hostel that was literally in the middle of a field. After Naples it was refreshing to have some fresh air and watch the pheasants strutting about the place. Ironically fresh air was what I needed most between having a room mate that smoked weed in our dorm and another guy that had the worst toe jam on the planet ... I am talking make you gag stuff here.

Not much happened here at Bologna, a few churches and a tower that is on a lean, man it took the Italians a couple of goes to learn about consolidation thats for sure. After two days it was back on the train to Rimini and for one of the best Hostels to date go to the Sunflower. The train trip was spent dodging strange guys showing us readings in English they had written down from god knows where and races along the platform when the train stopped from one carriage door and back again before the train left. Yeah don't know what I would have done if I got left behind okay.

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Rimini was cool, basically kicked back on the beach and finally got rid of that London tan… yah! Our hostel had a bar with a happy hour that had started at the whim of the Argentinean manager.

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Now traveling with three girls has the benefits of any guy trying to chat them up in that he also has to ply you with the same free drinks. Before I knew it shots where going left right and center followed by cheap beers, Elisabeth was off to bed and Rayen, Ulrika and myself were piled into the hostel tour van with this crazy South American that went by the name of Martini. He took us to a night club in town of course via the sister hostel first for more shots. A very fun night was had even if we lost our room key that had a 20 dollar deposit on it.

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After four days of Kiwi roasting on the beach the team was off to Venice to wander around the maze of streets and canals. My main aim was to get a train to Slovenia and then on to Split to meet up with the girls again. When I got to the ticket office I was given the great news that the only train arrived at 2am in Ljubljana. That will have to do I said and was pretty happy when Ulrika offered me her sleeping mat she called Mr T as it made her back pack look like a "T" when she had it strapped on top. With that it was goodbye to the girls and on the night train to sleep in the train station.

Posted by djrkidd 11:09 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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