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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