Saturday, November 28, 2015

The heart of Albania(ns)

Foreigners are treated like royalty here.
As I wandered the streets of Shkodër, I caught sight of a window overflowing with bikes. Insider the man didn't speak English or German and thus the game of charades began. Figuring out I wanted an inner tube was the first obstacle - not bad - but selecting the right one was something else. We struggled, pointing at various bikes, failing miserably to understand eachother. So he brought me next door to the pharmacist, who adopted the role as translator and soon I paid the 300Lek (about 2€) and was all set.
I wandered on to a cafe where I ordered a piece of cake. The place was empty so the man and I tried to engage in conversation: English? No.. Italiano? No... Deutsch? No such luck! So he pulled up google translate. Later, he refused to let me pay, motioning that it was on him.
At the grocery store, as I search for the (nonexistent) produce section, a couple employees speak in Albanian before they realize I'm clueless. Then she says "you look very beautiful," to me in my blue rain jacket, next to women dressed to the 9's.
The Albanians have a saying that literally translates to "it's raining ropes." Well that's exactly what it was doing as I rode towards Tiranë. Within 10 minutes my pants had transformed into a wetsuit. I stop in at a cafe to contact my couchsurfing host. They don't have internet but the man gives me a personal hotspot. I order a tea and chat with three men, one who's English is better than mine. When I tell them I'm travelling by bike to Greece, there's a course of 'Bravo!'. My tea is on him as he asks if there's any other way they can help.
Back on the road, kids are filing out of overflowing vans that are their school buses. Everyone I pass gives me a huge smile and there's a course of Hello! Hi! Ciao! from every group.
I'm approaching the outskirts of the capital now and the national flag is popping up everywhere. There are more armed authorities. Somehow the vibe feels very right-wing nationalistic.
In the centre now, I'm cruising around, weaving through pedestrians and vehicles when I notice I'm being filmed. And then a woman stops me and asks if she can ask me a question. I hesitate but decide sure, why not. I'm told to wait here a moment as she runs to her van to get a microphone. And suddenly I'm being interviewed - or rather, strategically asked (to prove a point) - whether the fact that the pedestrians walk on the bike lane, makes it hard to navigate Tiranë's streets. She waits until I'm riding away to ask where I'm from, presumably so that she gets a classic look over the shoulder as I say 'Canada!'. You'd think it was staged.
I know the address of my meeting place with Alexandra, but the lack of street name signs is making it very difficult. I ask a girl if she knows where 'Izzy living Cafe' is. After a moment she says she doesn't, but that she has some time and would walk with me to find it. A half hour later, after she's asked about 10 people, we find the bar. Her reply to my Thankyou is 'Of course! What are you supposed to do when you're in a foreign country and can't speak the language?!' As if it was a given. I ask her if she wants to stay for a drink and only then do I learn she has a meeting and I realize that I've probably caused her to be late.
Tiranë is a wonderful city with a funky, cozy cafe on every corner. Alexandra is from Australia and moved to Albania on an overnight decision when she was offered a teaching job. It's interesting listening to her experience as a local foreigner. The next day, I meet Nina from Argentina who has been travelling for 2 years now. Although she's been to Italy, she skipped over Rome because she believes while sights are beautiful, it's the people that make a place truly special. She inspired me to worry less about where I am and more the connections and friendships you create there.

Thanks to Nina for the photos!

On my way to Durrës a couple days later, it's raining again and I take shelter under a gas station. A man approaches me and soon he's telling me about his own cycling trip from Italy when he was 20. He asks if I need any water or want to come inside but I'm not far out. I thank him and ride on.
In the city, I'm on the hunt for DurrësHostel and ask some young girls. She quickly covers me with her umbrella and then laughs, saying hostels are hard to find around here, but that a hotel costs 10€ a night. Then they want to know where I'm from and how I got here and whether I'm all alone... they're smiling and laughing, finding it all quite fascinating! When I eventually find the hostel, I'm greeted by the owner and introduced to everyone in the room. There's people jamming on the guitars and a delicious communal dinner. If you ever end up in Durrës, be sure to stay here!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

First corners of Albania

As with any other country, I was a little nervous as I approached the border crossing. Everything that I'd come to understand about Mobtenegro would be wiped away once I crossed the line; a clean slate of unknown culture.
But Albania had that added reputation of being "the poorest European country" and I'd heard and read about the potholed roads, the vicious Shepard dogs that chase cyclists, and the crazy drivers that only sit behind the wheel after a shot of rakija...
A hundred meters before the border I pulled over to put some extra air in my tires (basically the only maintenance I've had to do so far...) (please knock on wood now). As I tried to screw off the cap, the valve came with and suddenly I was standing there with a completely flat front tire. Panic!! 100m from the Albanian border, really?! It turned out to be a very simple fix but I vowed to go buy a few spare inner tubes before leaving Shkoder. (This should give you an idea of how prepared I am...) I then pulled out my red rain cover and wrapped it around my bags. Finally, I grabbed a few rocks, praying the loud barking in the distance would not mean I had to use them...
And then I rolled up to a long line of cars and started waiting. Moments later a man in line gestured to me and pointed to a passage way to the left - I could cruise past all these cars! And 5 minutes later I rolled by a group of men in uniform armed with a rather large gun... Hello Albania!!
Vespas! Everyone is riding rusty, vintage Vespas in every single direction. Often there's tools or groceries hanging off the side and if there's a helmet in the picture, it's most definitely not on their head. Flashback to those elementary school days where you were much too good at riding your bike to need that thing... But just in case the police saw you, you were prepared.
Also, bikes! Bikes everywhere - Yay! 'Green travel, how great!' I think. Later I learn that this is not a choice - the expense of purchasing and running a car would be a huge percentage of an average Albanian salary. This is also why "stealing cars is a national sport in Albania," Florian, the hostel owner says with a laugh.
Next thought: Do Albanians not have daughters? Men crowd the streets in packs but there seems to be a significant lack of females. I'm getting lots of stares and 'Ciao ciao!'s.  I obviously stand out as a tourist. People question why in the world I would want to come to Albania. For them, a bright future means getting out of Albania for school or work.
I then notice a couple men standing on the side of the road, poking at something on the ground with a metal rod. As I approach them, I notice their concerned expressions, and then the rather large snake curled around the rod.
Entering Shkodër now, the scene is getting increasingly busy and bustling. Lots of 'Lavazh' (car washes); people selling veggies, live chickens, clothes - all displayed in heaped piles on the sidewalk; a blacksmith shop - whose workshop is also the sidewalk. I subconsciously turn on my hyper-attention, riding more aggressively, but can't help to notice the relaxed way the locals navigate the streets. Traffic moves in an organized, chaotic mess. Cars are parked in the middle of the right lane, pedestrians cross at any point, cyclists and Vespa drivers go where they please - including the middle of the lane, going in the opposite direction. Lots of horns. No accidents.
I pull over to check my map and feel like an alien, noticing all the curious eyes. I've figured out my route and am trying to move back into traffic when I learn the key to this system: you must always keep moving.


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