Albania: Never Too Old to Learn New Tricks!
By Jayne Dear
After four months of backpacking around the Balkans, traveling by ancient trams, battered buses, and antiquated trains, I arrived in Albania. Here the transport system made the rest of the Balkans look state of the art.
This was when I bumped into a 33-year-old digital nomad from Turkey. Over coffee, late morning, Betul suggested we go to the Blue Eye, a famous gushing spring. “I don’t think that’s possible, Betul,” I said. It’d take all day just to get there by bus! Take it from me!”
“We’ll hitchhike,” she said.
Never Hitched Before
The reasons why I’ve never hitchhiked before are complex and varied. My Mum always gave the impression I’d be raped and murdered and it had definitely dropped out of fashion around the time I entered adulthood in Western Europe.
Thirty minutes later, I was stood beside the road with my thumb out. I had my Mum’s words ringing in my ears and I could only imagine my adult children’s wails of horror and embarrassment but Betul was a pro and it wasn’t more than ten minutes and we were on our way.
We were dropped at the dirt road leading down to the Blue Eye and here we got a lift from a young German couple in a 4×4 hire car. When Betul asked if we could have a lift back, they readily agreed and I offered to buy everyone a drink, an offer they took me up on when we’d all marveled at the amazing Blue Eye.
Betul, however, wasn’t happy and refused to let me buy her a drink. I got the distinct impression she thought I’d broken one of the rules on the Hitch Hikers’ Code of Conduct!
Six rides later in various forms of transport that were in various states of repair, we were back at base in picture-perfect Ksamil which is in the far south and a cross between a Greek island and the Caribbean.
Here we relived one of the most memorable days I’d had on this planet in my 58 years. Betul was a delightfully engaging character and we enjoyed juicy cherries given to us by one of our rides and a carafe of red wine.
A few days later, we headed off on a long trip to Gjirokaster which has UNESCO World Heritage status owing to its historic Ottoman old town. We walked a few minutes to the main road and just past the bus stop to give ourselves more of a chance of finding a lift. A few cars that passed pointed down with their forefinger.
This meant, ‘I’m only going locally’. I was quickly learning the sign language of hitchhiking. Within five minutes, a man in his sixties pulled over. We used google maps to determine that he was going to Sarandë, a large and pleasant coastal town further up the coast.
We were being eyed by an elderly lady at the bus stop and as we were getting into the car, she hopped in too! Betul called her a cheeky beggar but I couldn’t help but admire her enterprise.
We found ourselves in a lay-by with a fruit stall. Never wishing to miss an opportunity, Betul went to speak to a man in a car waiting for his wife who was at the fruit stall to see if he was going in our direction.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t but he jumped out of the car and took charge of getting us a lift. This proved to be counter-productive! I know he was trying to help but everyone passing probably thought he was part of the package and just drove on.
I was willing his wife to finish buying her artichokes and low and behold, as soon as he departed, we were picked up by a white van man with a very large crack in the windscreen.
I assume they may not have an annual motor vehicle test in Albania or, if they do, they just bung them a few Lek to get a certificate.
I know for a fact that this is how the driving test works. When I expressed surprise that everyone in Albania seemed to pass their driving test the first time (it took me four goes!), an Albanian said, “Yer, you just slip the instructor some cash.”
A Fancy Car
When white van man dropped us at a petrol station, we were picked up by a suave man in a fancy car. He was one of the Albanian jet set; young men with rich parents who had bought them a hotel or travel business to run. As we wound our way up over a dramatic mountain pass he told us that he was on his way to an English lesson near the Greek border.
“I’m an English teacher!” I told him. His eyes lit up and we spent the next 30 minutes warming up for his lesson before he want out of his way to find us a safe place to hitchhike north.
Our next lift was dodgy! Not in a sexual harassment sort of way but in a dangerous driving sort of way! The two young men didn’t speak any English.
The driver, if that is the correct term, spent more time texting and organizing his playlist than he did looking at the road.
Loud Albanian rock music boomed out disco style and Betul recorded the scene for posterity and sent it to me. I had visions of it being presented in the coroner’s court to support a verdict of ‘Death by Dangerous Driving’ but luckily it was only ten minutes before they were dropping us at Gjirokaster.
Potential Dangers of Hitchhiking
On the journey back, we had a few issues. I was pleased to see that, like me, Betul had a keen antenna for potentially dangerous situations. She is not a woman to be messed with! We made a good team in a Cagney and Lacey sort of way!
A car with three men in it drew up. One was elderly but the other two would have been more than a match for Betul and I. They were going to Sarandë. Great! We got in. “How much do you want to pay?” asked the driver.
“No!” said Betul. “Hitchhiking! No money!” The driver didn’t understand and got some notes out to show us. “Right,” said Betul, sounding exasperated. “We’re getting out!”
I followed Betul out of the car and so did the driver. “Sorry!” he said, “We go!”
“No!” said Betul, firmly. “Go away and leave us alone!” I was glad we were at a busy junction because the man refused to give up.
I sighed a deep sigh of relief when we were given a lift by an elderly couple who were Albanian gypsies. I admired her colourful headscarf to take my mind off the confrontation but Betul kept looking behind us and reported that the men were following us. Unfortunately, the Albanian gypsy couple were only going a few kilometers. As we got out of their car, thanking them and waving them off, the men drew up in their car. The driver got out.
“We go!” he said, looking hopeful. Something about his face suggested he just wanted to make a quick buck and that he wasn’t about to leave us tied, bound and gagged after doing unthinkable things to us at the top of the mountain pass. After all, the average wage in Albania is 300 Euros per month and he probably had a family to feed.
In the U.K. a slap up meal for four would cost you close to that in a posh restaurant. In addition, I later found out that Albanians often get lifts from strangers and give money to cover petrol so what he was doing was nothing unusual.
He hadn’t, however, bargained on Betul who by now had turned into a vicious Rottweiler. “If you don’t get back in your car and drive off now, I’m going to report you to the police she said, fixing him with a steely glare and pointing at the police who had very conveniently set up shop with a speed gun only 100 meters further up the road. This did the trick. He got back in his car and drove off.
Having had our fair share of drama for one day, it was pleasing to have a nice cozy married couple take us to Sarandë.
Our hitchhiking from our base in Ksamil was the prelude to a whole new adventure. Over the next few weeks we joined up with Turkish friends of Betul and crisscrossed Albania, reaching places that no self-respecting bus would venture. Albania is stunningly beautiful.
It has mountains, lakes, and a coastline on speed. Most people would struggle to place it on a map because it remained closed off to the world until the nineties when the communist regime collapsed. I lost count of how many concrete bunkers we passed, installed by the famous communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was neurotic about being attacked and built them every few kilometers.
They were never needed and have now become a weird icon of Albania. In addition, it is at the crossroads of a smorgasbord of empires from the Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Take your pick! Today, the scars of a dark period of their history run deep. Hitchhiking was the perfect way to expose the wounds of this tragedy, made more poignant by the warmth and generosity of the people we met. We were frequently invited for coffee and snacks and when we tried to insist on paying, we were waved away.
A story of mass migration, particularly in the late nineties during what is known as the civil war, soon emerged. Many spoke good English and could share with me experiences of life in the east end of London, often doing several jobs and sending money back to family in Albania.
I heard tales of legal and illegal migration. Boats on the way to Italy had been intercepted by border patrols and returned to Albania. I was assured that it was still possible to get into the U.K. in the back of a truck if you knew the right people but it was very expensive.
One man kept me entertained on a long journey with tales of cigarette smuggling. “I was young and stupid,” he told me. “I didn’t realize the risks.” He visibly shuddered as he mentioned the long prison sentence he would have faced if he’d been caught. “I was paid £5,000 to take a boat from a beach in England to Ireland. Cartons of cigarettes were loaded onto the boat from the back of a lorry and we returned.”
“Did you ever meet the Mr. Big?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “I just got a bag of cash which I spent on beer and clothes in Piccadilly Circus.” He was nineteen at the time and thirty years later he considered himself a reformed man. He proudly told me about his wife and children and how they are self-sufficient.
“We’ve got a goat that provides milk and we slaughter its offspring for meat. We grow all our own fruit and vegetables.” He showed me photos of his roses but it was with a tone of sadness that he recounted how he still has to work abroad to support his family back in Albania.
Eri’s story of a double life was more common than not. I frequently found myself conversing in German and my basic Italian because the driver had spent significant time there.
Eri may have given up his life of crime but I heard other shady stories about the criminal activities of the Albanian Mafia who I was told all came from the Albanian town of Kukës. In fact, if a report on British radio was anything to go by, most of this town’s Mafia was in a British jail, having been banged up for drug trafficking, gun-running and people smuggling!
The few women that gave us lifts stood out. Eva was on her way to get a boat back to Italy where she was a cleaner and waitress. Irena was a pastry chef who took us to her bakery to show it off and selected some delicious cakes for us to try.
I was constantly amazed at how the rides would put themselves out. They’d stop and hastily shove mops, clothes, fresh produce and even family members into the back to make room for us. In addition, they would often go out of their way to drop us where we were going or find us the best place to get our next lift.
On one day, Betul and I hitchhiked the length of the country from south to north. Now Albania turned out to be smaller than I had imagined but this was still a marathon that involved a record thirteen lifts. It was both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.
It was on this mammoth trip that I realized that Betul had a serious hitchhiking disability, she got carsick easily. As we wound our way over the steep and winding Llogara Pass, I was admiring the spectacular views from the front seat until I became aware that Betul was curled up on the back seat going green at the gills. Fatos, our delightful young driver, was really worried about her and stopped at a viewpoint kiosk to buy her water and snacks. It was very touching but Betul just wanted to be left alone to suffer in silence.
It was often hard to get a lift in a town or city center as people usually weren’t going far. Betul did a great line in dramatic gestures which included waving, blowing kisses, begging and even jumping into the middle of the road on occasion to make it hard for them not to stop.
I, on the other hand, employed the hitchhiking fairy, cousin of the parking fairy who I use when I can’t get a parking spot near Christmas. Works every time! Take it from me!
Now, I can’t be sure on this occasion whether it was Betul’s dramatics or my fairy but we soon had a plum lift out of town to the perfect spot for getting a longer distance lift north!
As the hours ticked by and it got dark, I had to grit my teeth to keep going. Betul flagged down a young couple from Kosovo. “Are you going to kidnap us?” he asked. This was the prologue to him entertaining us with non-stop jokes and gags. As Kosovars, they speak Albanian and pretty much feel like the same nationality.
The Kosovo War in the late nineties led to much loss of life. The young couple had tales to tell of family members who had lost their lives during the conflict and emigration abroad, stories that we heard from other Kosovo Albanians we met.
Heading South Again
When Betul and I headed south again it was with Emel who is also Turkish. Giovanni was going all the way to Dhermi, a coastal town with an attractive old town above where the locals speak a variant of Ancient Greek. Huge mountains sweep dramatically
Once in Dhërmi, Emel plonked herself on the beach and refused to move until she joined us each evening for dinner at a pleasant seafront restaurant. Betul and I, however, did a few trips along the coast that would have been near impossible to achieve by bus. One day we went to trendy but very remote Gjipe Beach.
Like “The Beach”
It was like something out of Leonardo Di Caprio’s film ‘The Beach’. It was full of beautiful people. Everyone but me was young, tall, slim, bikini-clad and model-like! We left them all on the beach and went gorge walking through a spectacular gorge of the same name. After about an hour of walking, it narrowed and involved pulling ourselves up ropes in order to scale rocks the size of a bungalow.
Just as we got to this point, having not seen anyone else, two young Ukrainian men caught us up. I told them to go first, not wanting to hold them up but they took one look at the challenge and turned back! Say no more!
Our second trip was further south to Livadi Beach. We got a lift with an elderly man in his seventies who thought he was a formula one driver. He drove at 90mph and took every bend, and there were many, on the other side of the road. As I clung to the side of the car, praying I’d get out alive, I reasoned that he’d lived to a grand old age without dying in a fatal crash so I would hopefully survive and I did, albeit with higher blood pressure and a few more grey hairs.
Betul fell out of the back seat looking as if she was about to vomit and groaned loudly, clearly having given up the will to live.
Our lift down to the beach was with two young men looking for work at the bars and the restaurants. They promised to take us back and the one that came to the beach to collect us steered me into the front seat so he could sit in the back with Betul. Before long he was asking Betul if she had a boyfriend and whether they could stay at our place. Betul rapidly turned Emel into a man and said there wouldn’t be space. We got them to drop us off well away from our accommodation!
Goodbye to Betul
After Dhërmi, I had to say a sad goodbye to Betul who had been my hitchhiking guru and soul mate for three weeks. She had made me feel thirty years younger and been fantastic company.
I had every faith we would find ourselves, thumbs out beside a road somewhere in the future as she faded from view in the back window of the lift that Emel and I took south to spectacular Përmet.
I now had the confidence to hitchhike alone. When Emel also returned home, I was beside the road hitchhiking as if it was second nature.
Long gone was the, “What the hell am I doing?” feeling and I joked with my husband who considers going into a charity shop in an English market town risk-taking that we could hitchhike on our planned trip along the Silk Road!
Here Comes Uron
On my first long solo journey to Berat, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage Ottoman town, I was picked up by Uron. He was typical of an Albanian who lives abroad. I had to admire him. He had been an officer in the Albanian army and then used these skills to become a bodyguard which involved him working in some pretty dodgy places around the world.
He then moved to Austria where he built up a business doing facility management and car valeting. He was now on one of his annual trips back to Albania and it was clear that he brought an air of arrogance with him. His flashy German car was tank-like. I don’t know the first thing about cars or care about them, to be quite frank. So long as they’ve got four wheels and an engine and get you from A to B that’s good enough for me.
It was clear, however, that Uron who was, after all, doing me a huge favor was very proud of his car so I expressed interest! “Take a photo,” he said as he pointed to the dashboard which looked like the deck of the Star Ship Enterprise.
I uttered lots of ‘oh wow’s and ‘that’s amazing! The car had “I’m much richer than you, fellow Albanians” written all over it! It was very common to see cars with foreign plates, bought with money earned abroad. I even saw two hummers with Albanian plates. They certainly didn’t buy those with a salary of 300 Euros a month!
In addition, Uron was building a house for his mother in the family village. This was another badge of honor for an Albanian Abroad. We stopped at the stonemasons and although I couldn’t understand the Albanian language conversation, I could understand the swagger of Uron’s tone and body language. Let’s face it, in Austria he’s probably just an ordinary man on the street but when he’s in Albania he’s ‘The Big Man’ and ‘Lord of the Manor’.
Uron said he much preferred living in Austria and was very negative about Albania. Knowing both countries reasonably well, I felt this was rather disingenuous. Okay, Austria is a richer country but money isn’t everything and I bet they don’t pick up hitchhikers and treat them to drinks and a meal out!
A Well-Traveled Family
My final lift all the way to Tirana, proved to be one of my most memorable. I was picked up by a family of four who turned out to be a metaphor for progress made in Albania over a generation. The small car was being driven by 24-year-old Fatjon who was an area manager for KFC.
His younger sister, Desada was a 22-year-old languages graduate who spoke 5 languages. They both spoke fluent English and were well-traveled. Desada also worked in management for KFC and her brother was her boss but this was clearly not an issue.
Their parents were my age and whilst they gave me lots of warm smiles, they spoke no English. Neither of them had a driving license and as they had never worked abroad, they had never traveled.
They were very typical of their generation in Albania. It made me reflect on how different my life would have been if I had been born in Albania rather than in Western Europe. We stopped at a famous restaurant that only served byrek, the famous Albanian dish made of filo pastry and filled with spinach and cheese, and dhallë, a salty yogurt drink.
They, of course, refused to let me pay the bill. As if this wasn’t enough, they gave me a tour of Tirana, bought me ice cream at the best ice cream parlor in town, and dropped me right to the door of my accommodation!
The Albanians I met were keen for me to promote their country to the outside world, fearing for its reputation. This I was more than happy to do; keen to shout from the rooftops about the warm, wonderful, funny, and generous Albanians! Thank you, Albania and in the words of Arnie, “I’ll be back!”
Jayne Dear is a freelance writer from the UK.
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