Monday, January 2

Oh, Mercy

After leaving Novi Sad, I took a night train to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.

Montenegro is a beautiful region, very mountainous. I stayed with Ivan, someone that I met through A very nice guy, he showed me all around town.

Podgorica has more gypsies than anywhere else that I had been to up to that point. Apparently most of them came from Kosovo during the war several years ago, and decided to stay even after it was over. One of the things that struck me the most about them is how fast their children mature. They wander around by themselves from about the age of 3, and are usually smoking a cigarette while they're at it. They already have all of their techniques down for hitting people up for cash, hanging on to your sleeve, sounding like they're about to die. They give amazing performances. About the only thing they study besides how to ham it up is how to sing and perform, and despite the chain smoking, when they break into a song and dance number, it really is a good show.

For an afternoon excursion, I went to one of the famous monasteries in the area, Ostrog. It's built into the side of a cliff, and is a place of pilgrimage for members of the Eastern Orthodox. The strangest part was that they've kept the body of one of their saints there for the last couple of centuries, covered only by a red blanket. People go to it and pray, before kissing the cloth. Not being able to communicate with anyone (no one spoke English), I didn't know what it was. I was just about to peek under the cloth when it struck me what was probably under

As well, I went to a small town called Kotor, which is probably the best kept secret in the entire region. On the bay, it's surrounded by mountains, and has very well preserved architecture, as well as the ruins of a castle in the mountains just above it. Every bit as nice as Split or Dubrovnik, it's almost completely unknown to tourists, and usually only gets tourists from the area. Granted, there aren't any beaches in the immediate area, but I've heard that there are some that are just a short drive away.

My destination after Montenegro started to cause difficulties even before I left. I wanted to go to Albania, which borders on the south of Montenegro. There was a nice road that went from Podgorica to Shkoder, a city in the north of the country. Yet for some reason, buses didn't service it, and the only advice that I could get from the guy who worked in the bus station was to take a taxi. It's about 100 km, and you have to switch cabs at the border, so there's no way of telling how much it will be. Luckily Ivan offered to go talk to the guy himself, and [apparently since he wasn't a tourist] he got a bit more co-operation. To get to Shkoder, the nearest city in Albania, you have to take a bus to a village in the southwest corner of Montenegro, then transfer to a second bus to take you across the border. The guy had no idea how often the second bus runs, if it even still ran at all.

Since this sounded like a better option than getting taken for a ride by a taxi driver [in more ways than one, being a tourist], I gave it a shot. The driver of the first bus turned out to be very nice, and asked around in the village, Ulcinj, till he found someone who knew where the second bus went from [it wasn't from the bus station]. Luckily I only had to wait for three hours, as having gotten there in the late morning, it could have easily been over night.

The second bus went through a glorified dirt trail, taking two hours to cover fifty kilometers. And there was no question that I was going into another country. The roadside was lined with shacks, and chickens and cows roamed freely. It seemed to get worse the farther we got from the border, culminating in the city of Shkoder itself. This town is the biggest shit hole that I have ever seen. I only spent three hours there before I finally found a way out. There was poverty everywhere, every building that I saw looked like crap, if not like it was going to fall over outright. People were driving horse driven carriages around town. But these aren't your quaint Victorian models. They looked like they had been strung together from odds and ends collected at the local dump. The roads were a complete disaster, the driver of the bus had to zig zag to avoid full blown pits. There were more deformed people than I could believe, which I would assume was due to malnutrition when they were children. The driver of the bus that brought me there didn't know where the bus to Tirana [the capital] went from, and had to ask around to find out. There aren't any bus stations, or bus companies, in the country. Joe Blow just buys a bus, decides on a route to drive, puts a little sign in his window, and tries to drag as many people as possible into the bus before he goes. It took him half an hour to find out where the bus left from, during which time I sat by the road side in a mild daze. After all, this country is in EUROPE, for crying out loud. How do they manage to be so poor when all of their neighbors are very much industrialized?

In the end, he told me that he would drive me to where the other bus left from. This seemed nice enough. Except that he hit me up for two euros after he dropped me off. Keep in mind that this is half a day's wage in this country. In the end, I was too out of it to care if he was taking advantage of me.

The bus to Tirana was going from a flea market, if you can call it that. They were selling things that most garbage men wouldn't want to pick up. The exception here was the produce. All freshly grown from the local gardens. And to be fair, some of the clothes were fine. But on other stands, it really did look like absolute garbage.

As soon as the bus to Tirana took off, one of the kids sitting next to me started to turn a slight shade of blue. His father asked the driver something, and he handed him a plastic bag. The kid proceeded to hurl up into it for the entire trip, which lasted about three hours. Having the roads in such a hopeless state made for mad traffic congestion outside of Tirana, despite the city only having a population of around 250,000.

Although the people seemed to be a bit better off in Tirana than Shkoder, it wasn't a massive improvement. Most of the sidewalks were again non-existent, and what was left of the pavement had become more like little stones in the mud, that you could hop along on, to avoid getting mud all over your pants. As much as possible, anyway.

Even in a city of such a size, you could still see people riding the same sort of horse-driven carriages downtown. Or just riding along on donkeys. Or walking their sheep or cow down the main street. The absolute winner was a guy walking his pet bear. Yes. A bear. On a leash. It looked very intelligent, very alert. But still, seeing as how it didn't even have a muzzle on, this was bizarre, even for Albania. Yet the most bizarre part of it all was that the locals didn't bat an eye in the least. Just business as usual.

I took a day trip to Durres, a port town an hour west of Tirana. This city should be just as nice as those in Croatia, and I suspect that it used to be. You see, like most tourist destinations, it has a different name in every language. Durazzo in Italian, Dyrrhachium in Latin. Yet because of the incredibly fucked up politics of the last century, it's been completely forgotten. Now, the sea has been so polluted that the water is completely brown, complete with floatables on top. Although there has been a small effort to build a tourist-friendly area a few minutes walk from the port. Still, the water is so dirty, that I can't picture it flying at all.

Another thing that I found odd, and sad, was the state of housing in the city. Even worse than Tirana, I walked through kilometer after kilometer of some sort of abandoned housing project. Abandoned in the sense of being unfinished. That didn't stop people from living there. What I mean by this is that someone had apparently decided to build about 500 houses at the same time. But after they had finished the frames [and sometimes the ceilings], they just stopped. So there were no walls, just skeletons. It's been like this for some time, as what was there was already showing signs of wear and tear. Yet people still lived there. As well, there was a perverse sort of patriotism. Most of these 'houses' proudly flew the Albanian flag, sometimes tattered, but waving in the wind non-the-less.

The biggest problem in Albania by far was the complete lack of organization. Any sort of co-operation is so rare as to be strange. Ukraine was also very poor, though nothing like this. Still, in Ukraine there was a vibrancy, as though change was coming. The people looked to the future with hope and anticipation. In Albania, I couldn't feel anything but a jaded pessimism, where no one expected anything to improve. Everyone just wanted to get ahead for the day at hand, at the expense of anyone else who might be in the way.

Even getting out of the country was difficult. I was looking for a bus to Pristina [capital of Kosovo] or Skopje [capital of Macedonia]. This didn't seem like it should be difficult, as there were four or five travel agents per block. Again, though, I failed to take into account for the complete lack of any organization. Each travel agent ran their own bus, which would usually go once a week, and to only one destination. For example, to Athens, every Tuesday. So when I would ask them a question, they would go into a big monologue, trying to convince me why I should go to Athens on Tuesday. After I finally succeeded in convincing them that I wasn't interested, and would ask them if they knew of anyone going to Pristina, they would just shrug no. Did they know of anyone that might know? Same no. Again and again.

In the end, I finally found the 'Pristina Spot', where several people ran buses to Pristina. They went once a day, at 6pm. The problem is that I couldn't figure out if they went to Kosovo directly, as they didn't speak English, and the roads are so archaic that a small fall of snow is enough to close them. Trying to get a road report for anywhere at all is impossible. So I bargained with the guy until he gave me a fair price, got on the bus, and hoped for the best. In the end we made it through, but it took 14 hours to cover 300 km.

I realize that most of what I said here has been very negative, but it's not just my opinion. I talked at length with two Albanians, one that lives in France but was back visiting his parents, and another that had just gotten back from Stockholm, of which blew his mind. Stockholm would have to be the polar opposite to Albania. Most Albanians haven't travelled at all, and think that the rest of the world is somewhat similar to their own country. They were definitely dealt a hard hand for the last hundred years, having been under the iron fist of one of the biggest nut cases in recent history, the dictator Enver Hoxha. This lasted from the mid 1940s to the mid 1980s. This guy effectively closed the borders to the country completely, feeling that the entire world was out to get him. A communist hard-liner, the only person he respected was Stalin. Feeling that Khrushchev made far too many reforms after he took over from Stalin, he severed all ties with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Similarly, China became far too free for his tastes in the 1970s, and got the same treatment. And Tito in Yugoslavia was on his shit list from day one.

Still, this horrible past can't be considered an excuse to keep things in such a complete mess. In the end, the people are only screwing themselves over.

All of this has covered about 5 days, and although there's still a lot left to say, mostly about Kosovo, I'm starting to go bug eyed from looking at the monitor. So I'm going to break this up into two parts, and post the second in the next day or two.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


true enough, 2 euros probably was a lion's share of daily wages for an albanian, but i guess you--like i--can afford it. if we want to travel in developing regions--and albania is certainly not the only developing european nation that exists--we should expect that people will hope we can give them some monetary support--2 euros, half a cup of coffee a few countries away, eh. but i have been in your weary shoes. i lived in a neglected area of ukraine some years ago and i wasted my first six months neurotically worrying about if i was being taken advantage of or not by locals. in the end, you have to be at peace with where you are in the world--it took me awhile to figure that out. looking back it's amazing how infrequently i was hit up for an amount by locals that would barely fill my cup of coffee. enjoy your travels. i'm headed to the balkans from turkey in just a few days. glad i found your blogsite before heading out. it prepares me. you are a good writer so thanks for sharing your impressions.

3:23 p.m.  
Blogger ian said...

first, thanks for the kind words.

the relative amount in western terms has crossed my mind before. but it's not so much the amount that bothers me, as much as the principle. i absolutely hate people trying to put things over on me, taking advantage. i've tipped more than that amount every time that i've had good service in a restaurant, precisly because i realize what it will mean to the server. but when someone comes up to me and treats me like i'm stupid, just because i'm not from the area, i really get pissed off. and i've found that if you don't demand respect from the people in some of these areas, they will keep pushing and pushing until you start to lose enough to make a real difference. sometimes i even fake being angry, and start yelling, just to get that respect. and it usually works, too.

if you read this, fill me in a bit on your travels.

1:52 p.m.  

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