You Wouldn't Remember Anything Else
In Vlore last week, with an English bloke from Birmingham named Stuart, I made it my goal to hitchhike.
Vlore is a crowded line of sunburned concrete buildings on a flat plain between mountain and sea, whose welcome sign states earnestly: "Vlore, because you'd forget anything else." Anxious to leave, to find a real beach, and to attempt the humble art of hitchhiking, we marched an hour out of town along the coast on the only highway south, and we held out our thumbs, which to the hospitable and generous Albanians, coming from two obvious Westerners, is a beacon of need. The third car to see this, a red Jeep, stopped and drove us under a ridge and around a cove to Orikum, from whence we trekked away from the coast and across an empty plain towards a line of mountains. A car stopped and offered the last two spots on the back seat to Stuart, me, and our backpacks, for an oppressive ten minute ride, at the end of which the mountains were a lot taller and Sarande still a long way away.
We revised our destination from this distant goal to Dhërmi, about halfway between Vlore and Serande on the Albanian coast, which on the map looked no more than fifteen miles away. "We'll be there by nightfall," said Stuart. Unfortunately the Llogara Pass, which on the map is nothing but a cluster of letters, is in reality a topographical obstacle course, threaded by a road, which on said map looks straight, that winds and climbs and falls on a roller coaster maze, and in many places collapses from the two lanes of potholed pavement to dirt and chaff.
After walking a mile or so, a laden oil tanker rumbled to a stop before our thumbs, and we climbed up into the cab with Fatmir of Fier. Together we drove up into the pass and watched the panoramic mountains and pristine forests pass by through windows sealed shut, roasting in the heat that this mechanical malfunction produced. Fatmir spoke only a few words of English, but on his cell phone he called his son, a student in Vlore, to talk to us. For the last stage of the trip we sat in silence as Fatmir coasted down the switchbacks on a forty degree hillside a kilometer high, crowded with derelict bunkers and a military base that had a guard painted on the wall, down into the valley of Dhërmi and the Drymades beaches.
We started this long, strange trip from Berati, a Turk town enclosed in similarly vertiginous geography. Stuart and I were both staying at the backpacker's hostel there, along with two Australians and a Californian whom I had met before in Tirana. Albanian tourism is a small and close-knit affair. The hostel opened only a few years before, part of a budding tourist sector in this country, and had yet to appear in any of the guidebooks which are a traveler's Bible. The locals just call it Scotty's, since Scotty, a Brit from Newcastle, is the sole proprietor of the currently-being-renovated building.
Scott conscripted some local labor to help build a bamboo fence around the practical plot of lemon and fig trees and grape vines that his hostel, like most Albanian houses, has for a backyard. The worker was an old Butrintian, a relative of the Albanian who supplied the bamboo, and finished only half the fence after a day of work, despite a vow to get done the whole thing. Scott responded by giving the man 500 lek less than the agreed on wage. This drove the venerable worker into a berserk furor against Scott's unconventional management, and the long-winded tirade included, amongst other protestations, a complaint that Scott had failed to furnish him with raki. The offended party then refused to take any of the reduced money, a term which Scott readily accepted and was summarily withdrawn from the bargaining table. The Butrintian then took his reduced salary and left to complain to Scott's neighbor, who called the hostel later.
Business works differently in Albania. Lowering a payment is a grand offense. This custom, which Scott supposes is a legacy of socialism, contributes to an uncompetitive, unsustainable, and plain lazy work ethic. The Albanians take on a contract, do a shit job of it, and accept their guaranteed payment without any regard for reputation or future opportunity.
Anyway since Stuart the Englander and I were going to Serande on the same Thursday, we went together to the bus station, and there being no buses to Serande until 2 — and understand that there are no posted schedules in Albania, where bad roads, constant construction, and the aforementioned work ethic mean buses rarely show up on time; the station manager in Berat had to write down 14:00 on a slip of paper for us stupid Westerners — we boarded the bus to Vlore on the sea, from whence we came to Dhërmi.
The tourist season was about to start in Dhërmi, a small and rapidly-developing coastal resort. Rapidly developing here means there are ugly concrete towers everywhere, empty amplifiers for the ubiquitous grumble of jackhammers and drills and industrial awakening, but Dhërmi was quite modest in its construction, having only a small, steep strip of beach to develop. Being so early in the season, it was really only the seasonal and service workers there, doing some vacationing of their own while they prepared for the summer throngs. Stuart and I found a nearly empty beachside hotel, bargained down the price to 1000 lek, and went to get cheap grilled fish.
On Albanian food: It's always fresh, because they don't import anything and have no such marvels as supermarkets. This limits selection — seafood to the coast, produce to the season — and enforces on Albanians a pragmatic and practical diet based around what is available. When I was there this meant unripened figs, lime green and sour and disgusting, but in summer months buckets of fresh-picked cherries and grapes and citrus fruits descend on the cities, all cheap and delicious for having never been frozen and thawed by Walmart. So this mullet fish I ate was really good.
The next day we walked around on the pebble beach and the porous ruins of rocky formations, and then climbed back up the hill to the highway, perched above the town. We had to walk a ways across the cliff and through a sunny town where donkies rested in the rubble between the concrete layers of half-finished buildings, until a truck heeded our distress. "Holy shit dude," I exclaimed. "It's Fatmir." It was indeed our friend Fatmir of Fier, driving the same route as the day before, who was inexplicably ecstatic to see us climb into his cab again. He could only drive us a few kilometers, he explained in hand signs, after which we would have to get out.
Body language is not as universal as humans might think. The Albanians, as you may have heard, do shake their head for Yes and nod for No, but the shaking of the head is more of a rocking from side to side, and the nod is a violent upward motion accompanied by a clicking of the tongue. For Food, instead of pointing a single finger toward an open maw, they drive their flattened hand straight into their mouth. On the road we saw many drivers who could not accept us into their cars, but nevertheless felt generous enough to not just look away; they shrugged and pointed down, and the latter of these gestures eluded our translation.
Fatmir's much more complicated transmission also remained indecipherable, almost up to the time when Fatmir stopped his tanker truck and pointed at the door. He drove off on a dirt road to somewhere, but we still had a ways to go. Mountains obstructed the road almost all the way to Serande, so even an hour broiling in Fatmir's mechanically sealed cab had not carried us far on the map. The hour being late, we worried that we might have to betray the hitchhiking spirit which had so recently invested us, and catch the night bus on its way down the coast.
Luckily, another trucker pulled over for us. He took us a few miles, then got out with us, and, leaving his truck, hailed an air-conditioned tourist bus and shuffled us aboard. Stuart and I sat in the back next to someone's abandoned gear. The owner soon returned and sat down, then offered me a water bottle, which I refused politely, pointing to my own. The man waved his bottle and said a few words I didn't catch, and then said, "Scotch."
I asked, "Raki?"
He said, "Raki," and this time when he offered the bottle I took it and drank some of the foul homemade brandy inside. Stuart pulled out a similarly inconspicuous water bottle full of Turkish ouzo, and pretty soon these were circling our tiny backseat cabal.
The Albanian, whom Hemingway would describe as already tight, taught math at a secondary school in Tirana. The bus was full of his coworkers, most of them drunk but not quite so much as our friend. One of the gang, a young woman, yelled over the loud speaker, which also blared some 90s hip hop and Albanian ranchero. The bus stopped a little after sunset and let us all out for a break of coffee and cigarettes. Mr. Math offered us cigarettes and since his mode of offering was to put the cigarette in your mouth I saw no way of refusing, but Stuart said no since he had just quit, which Mr. Math seemed to understand. We went inside and sat down at a table with Mr. Math and a gym teacher. We ordered espressos, and the math teacher ordered us raki, then paid for it all with a grin.
Up into the bus we went, and away into the mountains, and after Mr. Math's raki was gone and the Turkish stuff half consumed, a teacher of electronics began to yell at us from the aisle. The gym teacher, who spoke English, said, "Your ouzo smells very bad. You must put it away." Whether this man was a teatoller or simply, like most Albanians, hated Greece we never knew.
It was dark when we arrived in Serande, and Stuart and I got a room at the same unnamed hotel — unless you count "Hotel" written in chalk on the water tank as a name — as the drunken instructors, which was just up fro the port on the city's crescent bay. Far more than being under development, Seande was in the throes of a constructive revolution. Unfinished and gaily painted concrete slabs sprouted from the hills like fungii, amid growing piles of trash. The guidebook said that the locals had recently stopped dumping untreated sewage directly into the sea, but that the water was probably still too filthy to swim in. On our way back to the hotel from a small sandwich shop, we ran into Mr. Math, who was leaning against a railway on the sidewalk. He grinned when he saw us, and his dilated eyes shone with wild energy. We said Hi, and he responded by siezing my arm and leading me down the street toward the city, saying, "Disco!" I escaped from the vice of Mr. Math's determined embrace, and two other teachers came out from somewhere just as he was going for Stuart.
They asked us where we were from, and did not react at all when Stuart said England but were overcome with affection when I told them my home was America. "Bush, Bush!" they cried in adulation as they raised their thumbs toward the heavens. George W. Bush, much despised in his own country, is a hero among the Albanians, for he affirmed their respectability with a personal visit and supported the independence of ethnically-Albanian Kosovo from the evil Serb. When it came to the current president, the teachers glowered comically and gave him two thumbs down. "Obama!" They spat the word. "Obama negro! Kapoot!" (Albanians, in addition to being unexpectedly magnanimous, are extraordinary racists.) They explained that they were looking for a disco, and we followed them until they ducked into the nearest bar full of old men.
The next day we bargained for a football at a market and walked around. Stuart tapped a box of cigarettes with his foot, wondering if providence would grant him some. Later we observed a peculiar Albanian tradition that I call Walking Time, which I have defined through observation and conjecture. It generally occurs between 6 and 9 in the evening. Everyone in town and from the surrounding area puts on their best reproductions of American name brand clothes and heads to the boardwalk, where they find an unmarked pedestrian circuit. They walk down the main streets and circle back on the parallels, stopping every once in a while to sit and watch the other walkers, or to chat with someone they know. A few people stop for coffee or beer in the cafés, but this is generally a penniless social function; most of the people you see in cafés or restaraunts or bars are the owners, who suck down the stock while waiting for customers. The girls travel in flocks, overseen by a grandmother chaperone who interviews any would-be suitors before they approach the young ladies, and who ensures that they are home by 9. The young and old men stay out later, but are generally home by 10. Without money there is nothing to do, except Walking Time.
It was Saturday, and we ate dinner at the hotel. Nobody spoke English and there weren't any menus, so our order was: fish, salata, pasta. What we ended up with was a rustic feast: A huge grilled fish each, head intact, on a plate with spinach; a pile of cold and flaccid french fries doused in olive oil and oregano; a mean salad of tomatoes and cucumber and cheese; a plate of overdone mussels; a loaf of bread; and a plate of olives. It is said that you can go to any rural house in Albania and point at one of the chickens that pester the yard, and for €10 receive a home-cooked meal. I don't know if they would even charge you for it. Albanians have a reflexive culture of hospitality that defies their means.
A cruise ship came in that night, and the next day disgorged a boatload of pale-faced tourists in Khakis and Ray Bans who gawked at poverty, bought a tiny coffee, and left to sit by the pool. We watched them get lost from a beer tent near soem old ruins in the center of the town, and we were sitting in there when Stuart commented on an incredible handlebar mustache. I looked up and saw a red-faced man in his 50's, in a grey sweater, sweatpants, and sandals, with a wicked handlebar mustache and a pile of grey hair over a long, lined face, who was talking with some of the Missouri tourists in a loud, wet, sandy voice, and I knew it was Bob the Drunken Irishman, whom I had heard legends of in Tirana and Berat.
After dark, when we started looking for him, I remembered some other things about him -- that he frequented a bar called Princes -- so we went there and asked the bartender. All the staff started saying "Bobe" and "Bobby," and one said, "Irish," and they pointed down the street. We followed the road to a strip club, which had a sign that said Lolita next to a neon 80s vixen. I was sure Bobby was inside, but before we went to check he came walking down the adjacent street and went into a bakery. Our hastily developed plan was to stand in front of the bakery and hope Bob started talking to us on his way out, but he just walked on by with his hot dog so we had to follow him. We trailed him for a few blocks before I thought of something to say. Then I ran up to him and said, "Hey are you Bob? I met your friend Joel in Tirana."
Joel the Australian had first told me about Bob, and Bob brightened at the mention of him, and even more at the thought of getting beer. "Buy us a beer and I'll tell you anything you want to know," he said.
Bob led the way to a basement bar and sat down at a table. "Full of criminals, but good people. Oh for fuck's sake, what the fuck is going on?" He started yelling in Albanian about the location of our beer, then had trouble remembering where his eight kids were. His Tom Waits growl carried a fierce Welsh accent, for although his parents were Irish he was a Drunken Welshman through and through. He had on the same sweater and sweatpants as earlier, and wore a red rubber band on one arm and a shattered watch on the other, which had no hands to mark the time. He offered us cigarettes, which Stuart and I refused in turn, and I noticed his three fingers were stained yellow, and his mustache burned black over the lips. Bob always had a blue plastic bag full of documents, and he set this down on the table and pulled out his Albanian deportation notice, which he said he intended to frame.
The Welshman told us stories of a million things, of criminals and women and deals gone sour, of beating up private investigators and spiting California corporations, and then the bartender kicked us out -- "Have good sex!" shouted Bob -- and we went to the beer tent. The buses were unloaded gangs of women from Durres and some other coastal cities, but we just sat with Bob. We got some Albanian draft beers and Bob again offered cigarettes. This time Stuart said, "I'll have a fag," later adding, "I didn't want to buy him all that beer for nothing."
The next morning we got up after 10 and headed toward the bus station. Bob had invited us to have coffee with him at sunrise in some café behind the port authority, where the waitress had her tits hanging out or something, but we missed that. We ran into Bob anyway. He was walking down the street with a sweating bottle of beer in his hand.
"Boys!" he said. "Come over here. The bus? Nah, that doesn't leave till 11:30. Plenty of time. Hey Bajram! Tom, Amerikanse. Stuart, Englaise." Bob started yelling in Bajram's face about a club he had shown us the night before. "They wanted five-hundred lek for a bottle of beer! Five-hundred lek! I offered 300 lek but the owner's cousin was there and he said no. He doesn't know anything about fucking business. He buys those beers for a hundred lek. If he sold them to us for three-hundred lek, that's two-hundred lek profit. But he wouldn't, so he gets zero lek. Bajram knows how to do business. He worked in Corfu for four months, and his misses speaks seven languages. He speaks five. He sells these beers for a hundred-and-fifty lek, but he sells them to me for a hundred, since he knows I'll drink fifteen of them in a day."
Bob went on and on about this, and about how he intended to punch someone in the face, and about some hotel we should go to where there were a lot of hot girls, and about this bar he designed and how on Monday mornings the hot high school girls go there, and he's kind of a father figure to them because he's nicer than their dads and wears sandals, and finally it got close enough to when the bus departed to politely excuse ourselves.
Stuart and I decided that Bob is what happens when you travel too much. Both of us had encountered strangely haughty long-term travelers before, caught up in the preponderance of their glamorous privilege. Stuart heard from some Ukrainians of a Lonely Planet writer who, when asked, said, "I'm originally from England, but really I'm from my backpack." Travel can be added to Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll — which Bob yelled in Albanian — as an activity which, in excess, can turn you into an asshole.
After leaving Bob we got on a minibus crammed full of Albanians that sped off south on a winding one lane road, and only one time had to slam on the breaks to avoid careening into a bus coming the opposite direction. It stopped at the peninsular ruins of Butrint, which bears the monuments of every major Mediterranean empire: a Greek theater, Hellenistic gates, Roman walls, a Turkish palace, and a Venetian fort, all on top of Illyrian ruins. The Albanians, who like to utilize their archaeological remnants, had opened a bar on the Acropolis, and a nice hotel in an old mansion outside.
On Monday we took the bus to Ksimil, where there are pristine beaches, and rented a yellow pedalboat, which we sailed out to explore each of the three islands. We helped two sunburned Albanians, who had picked up two baby seagulls and a shirtfull of eggs, retrieve their dolphin-shaped pedalboat on the third island, rammed another Albanian pedalboat off the coast, and hunted some animal on the second island. Nautical adventures complete, we took the bus back to Serande, where I got the best pizza I've ever had from a Halall restaurant.
This same day I felt a restless greed which is unique to this trip, but which has fettered my cognition before, in Paris and Germany and Budapest. It is a pathological need to move, to ramble on, to venture somewhere unknown; a traveler's addiction that defies apprehension and the comfort of familiarity, which brought Bob to Albania and carried me across the water on a streamlined ferry to Corfu and an ancient and indomitable nation called Hellas.