Not to Do Good
bittersweet week in Albania
At the Albanian border they made us dismount the bus to check our passports
and give us our visas to enter. My traveling companion, a mousy English
girl named Alex and myself, a tall blond Californian, were unusual passengers
on this trip. I feared that due to our nationalities, we would be charged
a fee for our visa.
But, after a few cigarette butts were scattered on the floor around me,
we were given permission to cross. I imagine it was the letter from our
NGO stating our mission was work-related that got us through without any
hassles or arbitrarily implemented foreigner fees that were applied according
to the wealth of our countries. I was joining Balkan
Sunflowers, on a project to help poor Albanian children.
We were clear,
on our way to Tirana, an 8-hour bus ride. As we climbed back on the bus
and the same silent faces greeted us; they did not seem pleased to be
going wherever they were headed. I had a nervous stomach that since my
stay in the Balkans, had grown increasingly more viscous.
I thought about
what the head of my NGO had said before my departure, this was no holiday.
The Mafia pretty much ran Albania and there were bad stories that ranged
from petty theft to murder.
The was a huge market for kidnapped girls
sold into slavery, but according to some unspoken code, foreigners were
usually left alone. Still, this did not reassure me. We started down a
winding mountainous road that barely seemed wide enough for the bus.
looked out my window to be greeted by a steep drop hundreds of feet down.
My nerves were crying out for a beer, luckily I had foreseen this and
came prepared with a six pack of Pivo. Alex and I began to drink greedily.
It worked for a while until I saw the driver was partaking in the same
hours of winding roads freckled with round igloo-shaped bomb shelters,
installed all over the countryside by a the xenophobic leader, Hoxha.
The road leveled out. We started to let people off in small villages where
vengeance murder between tribes was an accepted aspect of their modern
society. We passed small cafes were men drank beer and played cards on
the side of the road.
The road turned to dirt and the ride became very
bumpy, and since we were sitting in the back we were thrown about like
popcorn kernels. It was a long stretch of land and most of the half-built
houses bore the flag of Albania, a black, two-headed eagle centered on
a red field.
Some houses had lynched dolls or scarecrows hanging from windows, apparently
this was to keep away bad spirits from the newly built homes. The whole
scene seemed threatening and quite a contrast to the beautiful countryside.
After hours of bouncing about we finally arrived at the Adriatic, the
sea that separates these people from gaining a livelihood. The water was
crystal clear and hotels scattered along the coast. I did not imagine
many occidental tourists wandered to these parts--a shame because it was
just as beautiful as some of the beaches in Greece.
in Tirana later that evening to be greeted by the head of our Albanian
NGO. His name was Rob, an ageless man I already knew from his visits in
Macedonia. He was trying to get me to work with him on his projects in
the slums surrounding Tirana. His background is vague, but he was a freedom
fighter in South America at one point in his life, and now lived a very
non-violent life dedicated to helping the Albanian people. He was never
without his suede cowboy hat, onto which he pinned memorabilia from all
parts of the world.
Later, back in Macedonia, after one night of drinking he let me wear the
hat, but when I woke up in the morning it was gone, most likely stolen
by one of the village kids. It's something I still feel bad about today.
He greeted us with his peaceful, confident manner that suggested he could
walk straight through a hurricane, which is figuratively, what we did
There are no rules in Albania, and that also applies to driving.
No streetlights or crosswalks. He marched straight into a stampede of
Mercedes Benz (one out of every three cars is a Mercedes, a big business
with the Mafia) without even looking left or right. Amazingly, the cars
slowed to let us pass. I followed in his wake hoping to absorb some of
his unworldly power. "You just have to stare them down, then they
stop," he said. Amazingly it worked.
We made it
unscathed to the apartment, and my body was literally itching for a shower.
I scraped a nail along my skin revealing a white streak in a layer of
dust. But, we were greeted by bad news; the water was not running, a regular
occurrence, so if we wanted to bath we could take a prostitute sponge
bath with bottled water, only washing the important body parts.
exhausted but we decided to get a drink. We went to a local bar that catered
to NGO workers and stayed open past eleven. On the streets of Tirana not
many people wander out past this hour. But, I was with Rob, who carried
a large knife and felt some sense of safety, even as we watched the Mafia
steal a Mercedes in front of us. That night I fell asleep to the random
sounds of gunshots.
day we decided to visit the projects our organization had set up. A few
local Albanian volunteers came over and we hired a van to take us to the
slums called Bathore. The ride there was the closest to death I think
I have been, but everyone else did not seem to mind as we barely missed
pedestrians or other speeding vehicles. They chatted amongst each other
seemingly oblivious to impending death. We pulled into a muddy slum where
hundreds of children gathered around our vehicle.
As soon as we exited
a child pulled out a knife to threaten us, apparently just a joke. Rob
grabbed him by the shirt and spattered out words in Albanian that made
the kid retreat like a wounded animal. The children ran without shoes
screaming excitingly at our presence. I was used to this from my projects
in Macedonia, but there were only five of us and more than 100 children.
After the knife, I was becoming quite nervous.
conditions were deplorable, like most of the slums where we had projects.
Skinny animals wearily watching us, houses made out of any material they
could find, tires, old car doors, no running water and the heart-wrenching
sight of malnourished kids.
Next, we were greeted by the Mafia and the
mayor of the town, who sat outside drinking shots of the local alcohol
all day long. Rob did not like them, knowing they ran child prostitution
rings, but had to establish a rapport over the last months to be able
to carry out the projects. The men eyed me; Rob shook his head and we
left them behind to play with the kids. He said they asked if they could
buy me, but he said I would cost too much.
Our activities here seemed futile, we tried to organize masses of screaming
kids who grabbed repeatedly at my breasts until Rob would threaten them.
They ran around in disorder as we tried to put on a puppet show. Some
became very touchy with me, but one young teenage boy stood at my side
telling the others to back off.
It was utter chaos. Seeing such despair
I wondered what positive influence we could possibly make here. Fights
broke out and we decided to leave; it was too much for so few volunteers.
We went back to the van and the mayor personally invited me to dinner.
I was sick looking at these men who had no value for the human life, these
men who sold children into prostitution.
Rob had told me he wanted to
make a documentary, but would most likely be killed for it. Alex and I
scrambled into the van and Rob followed shutting the door behind us. I
was relieved, but it was a fleeting emotion as the men surrounded our
They all carried weapons and for some reason, today, they had a problem
with the driver and they did not want us to leave. I saw the empty drunk
eyes of the man fighting with our driver, I imagined being kidnapped,
sold into prostitution. Sickening fear began to rise into my throat and
my surroundings became like a movie happening around me. It was not real.
Finally, we saw an opening in the circle of men, and we gunned it, speeding
down the muddy road. As soon as we had reached a safe distance, conversation
amongst the locals commenced as normal. It was just another day to them.
Find unique Albania hotels and interesting tours in Albania.
Schulz currently teaches English in Paris, and is moving back to the
States to pursue her Masters in Social Work.
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