Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Travel Writing Is Difficult (Especially in Albania)

I committed to updating this blog from halfway across the earth and so far I have failed at it. I have many excuses which I can't get into because time is running out on my 1 euro an hour Internet allotment (excuse number one: limited time).

So far the trip has been great. Israel was a jam packed week full of fun and friends. I could write much about our time there but I think I'll pass; its been too long since we've been there and many things have happened since that clutter the memory. I will start at Greece, because that is where Western Civilization began, as well as, coincidentally, our trip.

To me Greece trod awkwardly between developed Western Europe and the less developed Eastern half. It is an EU country, which can explain much of its developed air, but it also has a long, conflict riddled history that can explain why it is rough around the edges. It has fully exploited tourist traps, with fairly unfriendly attendants and high prices to boot, but also offers rustic towns untouched by culturally greedy tourists. Athens is an especially shocking mix of the two worlds of prosperity and recalcitrance. The streets are clogged to the breaking point, and the sky is a repulsive brown that brings the act of breathing to full consciousness. The interesting tourist spots, especially the acropolis, are far too crowded. Tourists stream up the side of the mountain to have a glimpse of the ancient monuments, but through all the mass of humanity the sense of wonder that I feel such monuments should command was lost.

We left Athens for Delphi, a more remote location, hoping that we might be able to escape to ancient ruins on a more human scale. Our camping experience at Delphi was quite nice, and our long walks to town through the semi-arid Grecian country side were enjoyable, but I still had the feeling that every experience was being created and conditioned for us tourists. So we left Athens and Delphi for the northern island of Corfu. The trip was long, but luckily we found a deal where we paid 55 euro for an overnight bus trip and one night at the famous (or infamous) Pink Palace Hostel, which included breakfast and dinner. We were greeted on our arrival at 7 in the morning with a shot of pink ouzo, a traditional Grecian spirit.

Corfu turned out to be quite nice though. The beaches were beautiful and we took full advantage of them. Both Al and I still felt a need to escape the manufactured landscapes of touristdom for the "true Greece" so we decided to take a hike. We set our sights on a tall mountain that towered over our hostel, and after several hours of navigating our way up windy country roads and through quaint towns we reached our goal; with no water. The weather was almost unbearably hot and I began to get nervous about our situation, but luckily we came across what appeared to be an abandoned hotel on top of the mountain which had a working faucet with running water.

Back at our hostel we ate dinner and met an Australian that was exactly like our friend Wade Orbelian - and they shared the same astrological sign too - and prepared for our early morning departure from Corfu to the seaside port of Saranda in Albania.

I knew that I liked Albania the moment we stepped off our small boat. For a week I had been used to feeling like a grudgingly welcomed tourist. All that changed in Albania. Immediately I got the sense that the people were excited to meet and talk to us, to help if we needed help. We walked with three other English speaking refuges from the Pink Palace to find an elusive tourist office supposedly located on the first floor of the city hall. Without street names and few English speakers the task is nearly impossible. So instead we called a hostel that one of our new travel buddies, Tim from Melbourne, Australia, had already booked. The Irish proprietor of the place was very accommodating, picking us up near where we were lost and taking us to her recently opened hostel.

After setting our bags aside Al, I and our two fellow travelers, Delia from Long Island and Tessa from Arizona, decided to travel to the ancient ruined city of Butrint, a half-hour from Saranda by bus.

Virgil claimed that Butrint was founded by refuges from Troy. This may or may not be true. What is known about the place is that it was inhabited by Greeks, Romans, Peasants and Venetians for over 2000 years. The place was completely antithetical to the tourist spots we had visited in Greece. Few tourists were present, it was hidden within a labyrinth of thick trees and foliage, and the ruins were remarkably intact. We wandered through the well labeled site for a few hours before heading back to Saranda to watch Eurocup football at a beach-front restaurant - the only way to watch soccer.

Our second day in Albania we alloted for a day trip to Gjirokaster, the birthplace of both Albania's most famous writer, Ismail Kadare, and its infamous communist dictator, Enver Hoxha. The old city's defining characteristic is the roofs of its houses, which are constructed with what appeared to be gray slate, giving the town a distinctly ominous look. Above the city sits a 14th century citadel completely open for exploration, though many dark recesses require some sort of light source in order to explore thoroughly. Me, Al and our new traveling buddy Tim (Tessa and Delia had to return back to Greece) climbed all around this stone monstrosity, down rickety wooden ladders, leaving time to stop by a hidden bar where we managed to somewhat communicate with the affable bartender.

One thing that must be mentioned is the state of transportation in Albania. Rail is basically non-existent so the main source of transportation is by bus, scooter, or Mercedes-Benz. The first two are straight forward, the last, not so much. We learned shortly after being in Albania that in the chaos of the 90's there was a full scale vehicle theft racket being run out of Albania which brought thousands of Benz's from Western Europe to the everyday-man of Albania.

If you can't get your hands on a Benz then you must settle for a bus or a forgon - small minibus - that can take you anywhere across the country, at a very slow pace. Due to the state of the roads in Albania, moving 40 km takes around 2 1/2, making every trip a long trip. Our drive from Saranda to Berat took around 6 1/2 hours, a long time on a 70's era bus with limited A/C. We made it though, arriving exhausted at Hotel Mangalemi, which turned out to be a great hotel. For around $16 a night we got a great room and a very nice breakfast. The food was traditional and delicious; though we made sure to stay away from more exotic meat varieties which included heart, brain, and spleen. The owner, Tomi, had purchased the building immediately after the fall of communism, beginning with a restaurant before expanding to include accommodations. It was clear from the way he and his family ran the place that entrepreneurial spirit and good taste were not all lost in the dreadful years of communism.

From Berat we traveled to Tirana, the capital of Albania. The south of the country where we had arrived is sparsely populated next to the north. It mostly consists of farmland. Driving on the decrepit road from Berat we began to see what lived-in Albania is like. Like in the south, small, often incomplete concrete buildings are scattered along the roadside, though in the north they are more densely packed in. Often the bottom floors feature a "Bar/Kafe" which serve various coffee drinks and alcohol. The top floors are where people live, their laundry strung across the side of the building often accompanied by a doll or stuffed animal dangling from a window - we think these strange dolls might be there to scare of birds, but we don't know. Across the country, seemingly randomly placed, are thousands of small (but sometimes large) domed concrete bunkers, holdovers from a period when the communist government was scared of a possible invasion and commanded the creation of this bizarre patchwork of defensive hideouts.

Aside from the "Bar/Kafe's" and bunkers, the roadsides are often littered with trash. Only in a few cities have we noticed any effort to clean up litter. Berat was mostly clean, and Tirana seems to have a methodical street cleaning operation going, employing older women with very long brooms. It seems though that in general there is a fairly indifferent attitude to the heaps of trash laying about Albania; something that will probably need to change if Albanians want to attract more than the intrepid tourist.

We arrived in Tirana at 3 PM. So far from what I can tell, Tirana is as strange as our guidebook says it is. We drove through the city - in a taxi we hired to find our hostel - along a wide street flanking a cemented river basin, its banks landscaped with grass. The tall housing complexes that loomed over us on our drive were all brightly colored with geometric patterns and shapes. After checking in at our hostel and trying to stay cool till nightfall, me, Al, Tim and two other Bay Area people we met at our hostel decided to go out and see what the nightlife in Tirana is all about. We walked to the section of town that was once reserved exclusively for communist party members, down streets with street lights planted in the ground as opposed to above our heads. These lights, which were reminiscent of swimming pool lights, had a classy look but were totally ineffectual at doing what they ought to: keep the streets lit. Instead they mainly brightened the bumpers of parked cars.

We searched the dark streets for a trendy bar, of which there were many. It was shocking how chic the bars were, and how sparsely peopled they were as well. A few had scattered groups of men, possibly with a woman or two but mostly without. We finally settled on a bar with a large projection screen placed in the street showing "The Mask of Zorro" with Albanian subtitles. We had a round of beers and stayed long enough to witness a power failure.

This morning I awoke to the loudest traffic noise I have ever heard. It comes in waves: it will be peaceful and quiet before traffic horns crescendo.

Today we will go visit the sights and I will report back hopefully sooner than later, depending on the availability of Internet.

From Tirana,

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