Monday, January 30


It's been a long week.

After leaving Transylvania, I caught a night train to Moldova, between Romania and Ukraine.

It's officially the poorest country in Europe, but that's mostly because much of the economy is illegal. They're much more developed there than Albania, for instance.

Moldova is known mostly as a route for people smugglers, meaning trafficking girls that have been abducted and forced into prostitution. Most of the tourists that go there have less than pure motives. Laws there are lax at best, and easy to get around. Corruption is everywhere, and even if the police catch a foreigner doing something illegal, they'll usually just hassle him till he gives them some cash.

I spent most of my time there in the capital, Chisinau. I stayed with Irina, a nice girl that works in a travel agency. We had a great time talking, and she showed me around town quite a bit.

The poverty in the country is pretty easy to see. One thing that was striking was walking around the outdoor markets, and seeing the old ladies standing at their booths, despite the horrible weather. The temperature was around 17 degrees below zero.

Most of Moldovans associate themselves with Romania, and speak the same language. However, there is a significant Russian speaking minority, and many have clustered along the border with Ukraine, in a region called Transnistria. Thanks to military aid from the Russians, they fought [and won] a war with the Moldovan army for succession in the early 1990's. Yet ever since that time, Russia has been the only country to recognize their independent status.

Although it's quite long, parts of Transnistria are only 15km wide, and every problem in Moldova is hugely magnified there. It's completely lawless, and completely poverty stricken. Still, I wanted to see it. I'd heard stories that they have people acting like border control as you cross into it from the rest of Moldova. They even have their own currency.

I caught a bus to Tiraspol, the capital of the region. Everything went fine till we got to the border. The thugs calling themselves border guards charge everyone 7 Moldovan Lei (50 cents) entry. They moved quite quickly through all of the locals, but things didn't go so smoothly for me...

As soon as they saw my passport, they pulled me off the bus and shut me in a little room. The one person in their outfit that spoke a bit of English came in, and told me that I was trying to smuggle drugs. Keep in mind the lunacy of someone coming from a first world country to smuggle drugs into the biggest shithole in Europe. I didn't have any bags with me, but he demanded that I empty everything out of my pockets. He then reached inside each of them and pulled them all inside out. Next, he went through everything that I had, including pulling apart my dirty Kleenexes. Since I didn't have much on me to search, he ran out of things to do, and had to let me go. He was obviously hoping for a bribe, and I imagine that if you're carrying baggage, he spends so much time dissecting it that people cave in and give him money.

When I went back out to where the bus was, it had already left. If I had left any bags in it, they would have been long gone. Keeping in mind the temperature, I was fast losing any enthusiasm that I had left for going any further. I decided to take the first bus that came along, regardless of it's direction. That bus happened to be going back to Chisinau.

After leaving Moldova, my next stop was Odessa, a port city in the south of Ukraine. I arrived in the middle of the worst cold snap in 80 years. -22 degrees. As well, the wind was stronger than anything that I have felt at such a cold temperature. It was almost enough to knock me over. While going from a taxi to the ferry terminal, I accidentally left a small part of my nose exposed. Within a minute, it was completely frozen. I couldn't feel it for ten minutes after I got inside.

I went to the counter to buy a ticket for the ship leaving on Monday to Istanbul [I had checked the schedule on their official site on the internet], but was told that it was cancelled. The next ferry going to Istanbul wasn't until Saturday. A very long time to wait in a city that's too cold to walk around and explore. And my visa for Moldova was only good for one entry, meaning that even if I wanted to go back there to get to Romania, I would have to go to Kiev to get a new visa. And Kiev is 12 hours from Odessa by train.

The woman working at the counter was not helpful at all. After some yelling, she told me about a ship going to Bulgaria that left the next day from Illichevski, a village a bit south of Odessa. Although it was a freight ship, they took a few passengers as well. She had no idea where exactly the port was, though.

So I took a bus to Illichevski, and from there asked a cab driver if he knew where the ship left from. He said that he didn't, but would ask around the port once we got there. Luckily they charge a flat rate for destinations, and don't work on a meter. After half an hour we finally found it.

As I was boarding the ship, they mentioned something about a possible delay, as the elevator for loading freight was being fixed. But it shouldn't take more than two hours. But the two hours came and went, and still the ship didn't budge. When I asked them how much longer it would be, they again said two hours. After which, still no sign of departure. Now they were saying that we couldn't leave until the next morning.

To add to things, the other passenger, who was sharing my cabin, was quite possibly the most bitter person that I've ever met. A middle-aged Brit, he had been living in various countries in Eastern Europe for the last several years, looking for a place to 'drop anchor', as he said. But every country that he tried turned sour for him after a few years. He had just lived in Bulgaria, and was now moving to Ukraine. The reason was because he couldn't take the corruption in Bulgaria anymore. The irony of moving to Ukraine to escape it seemed to elude him. He was only on this ship to go pick up his dog in Varna, on the coast of Bulgaria, where the ship was going to dock. He absolutely hated Bulgaria, and decided to tell me about every bad thing that had happened to him during the last three years. He kept talking, and talking. And talking. And then he talked some more. If I ignored him, it didn't make any difference. Even if I pulled out a book and faced the wall, he didn't notice in the least. And the passenger cabin was the only warm place on the ship.

After the morning came and went, with no sign of us leaving, I asked to get off. They told me that I couldn't. Customs had already stamped my passport saying that I had left Ukraine, and until I had a stamp showing that I had arrived in another country, I couldn't come back to Ukraine. So İ was a prisoner.

After 47.5 hours of delay, the ship finally set sail. Incidentally, the Black Sea is well named. At least in the north. The water is completely black. Though as you go south, it turns into more of a lime green.

Upon arriving in Varna, we had to wait for the customs officers to finish their tea and biscuits. After which, they finally put themselves out enough to check our passports [it took them an hour and a half to get comfortable enough to do it], and we were finally able to set foot on land again. From there, I took a bus six hours to Sofia [which is in the wrong direction, but trains and buses going to Istanbul leave from there], and managed to arrive 15 minutes after the night train had already left. So instead of getting a bed on a train, I got a cramped seat on a Turkish night bus, complete with old man hacking and wheezing just behind me. I didn't expect him to survive the trip. Also, when we passed the Duty Free shops between borders, the driver took advantage of the opportunity to open up a bunch of secret panels under each of the seats, and load them with contraband alcohol. On and on...

A full five days after leaving Moldova, I finally arrived in Istanbul. The sad part of this is that a train from Odessa to Kiev to Bucharest [thus avoiding Moldova] would have only taken four.

Istanbul is a huge city, by far the largest that I have ever been to. It's population is around 17 million. I've only been here for a day, and so haven't had a chance to properly digest it yet.

A brief comment about the elections in Canada... At least the Conservatives didn't get a majority. In fact, it may even work out for the best. Martin resigned as leader of the Liberals, which makes me very happy. And the Conservatives probably won't last long, as forming any coalitions would mean having to betray their base. So they either become moderate, or their government falls before too long. My biggest concern right now is who will win the leadership of the Liberals. Some of the front runners are even worse than their predecessor...

Sunday, January 15


[I've been in Europe for a year now. It's hard to believe. Time really flies.]

Ivo, one of my good friends from Montreal, was born in Sofia. Most of his family still lives there, and so he suggested that I look up some of his cousins while I was in town. I managed to contract three: Rali, Dodo, and Darina. All were very nice, and showed me some of the nicer parts of town that are easier to miss, as well as explaining the history of many areas and monuments.

After spending four days more in Sofia than had I originally planned, I decided to take a bus to Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

The woman who was working at the bus station was in a pissy mood, and sold me the ticket as fast as she could. She scribbled something under destination that was completely illegible, and she didn't even tell me which platform to go to until I asked. The driver of the bus that was waiting there nodded when I said Bucharest, and so I hopped on and away we went.

The drive to Bucharest was said to be six hours, and after five I started to wonder why we hadn't passed customs, and why all the signs were still written in Cyrillic. It was pretty clear that I was going in the wrong direction.

When we got to the end of the line, I got off and checked the bus station to see where I was. It seems that to Bulgarians, Burgas sounds a lot like Bucharest. Because that's where I ended up. 400 km. in the wrong direction, on the Bulgarian sea side. The worst part was that it was already dark, and I of course had to wear my bags. I may as well have had a big neon 'TOURIST' sign over my head.

First came the cab drivers. Bulgarian taxi drivers are notorious for ripping off foreigners, and they didn't waste any time jumping me. About three of them came running, all acting like my best friend. It didn't matter how many times I told them that I didn't want a cab. They all followed, no matter which way I turned. Each one trying to shout out over the others. After five minutes, I nearly screamed myself into a fit. They mumbled something about me being crazy and let me be.

That was a cake walk compared to what came next. The cab drivers must have hidden me from view, because as soon as they left, something much worse moved in. The hookers. And as persistent as the cabbies were, they were in a league of their own.

One was particularly bad, and followed me even after the others had given up. She kept growling 'SEEEXXX' at me, followed by grabbing at my crouch. No matter how many times I smacked her hand away and shoved her back, she just kept coming. In the end it took a massive 'FUCK OFF' [which I screamed so loudly that my voice almost gave out] to make her do just that. She spat a big wad at me as she leaving. Luckily she missed.

As if all of this wasn't enough to sour my opinion of Burgas, all of the hotels had special tourist prices. And I don't mean a discount. They charge about twice the price you'd pay in Paris. It was much cheaper just to take a night train back to Sofia and start over.

So after that lovely sidetrack, I arrived the next morning, back where I started. Minus 18 hours of my life and 25 euros to boot. As one might imagine, I wasn't in the best of spirits. I went back to the information desk, and asked quite plainly for a schedule to Bucharest, ROMANIA. Yet the only answer that they would give me was 'I don't know.'

'Do you know where I can find out?'

'Across the parking lot maybe.'

Once I went across the parking lot, another person in a little booth.

'Do you know how I can get to Bucharest, Romania?'


'Do you know WHERE I might find out?'

'Across the parking lot.'

This of course was the same place that I had started from. After playing this little game a few more times, back and forth, I finally lost it. Although I didn't scream. Instead I just glared at the bitch. And told her, in a tone that I'm sure was as nasty as I felt, that I wasn't going to move until she told me how to get to Romania.

Apparently I witnessed a miracle, some sort of divine enlightenment. Because somehow the answers came to her. It was best to take a bus to Russe, a town on the Bulgarian side of the border, and transfer to a mini-bus to get into Romania. Why she just didn't say that in the first place, I have no idea. They make a conscious effort to be as useless as possible.

After another seven hours, and a few more hitches that I won't bother to go into, I finally arrived in Bucharest. The distance between the two cities is 400 km.

Bucharest turned out to be a bit boring, and very grey. Most of the classic architecture was destroyed by the communist dictator, who ruled the country until 1989. Still, I met some very nice people while I was there, and heard some interesting stories. The most memorable, and disturbing, was about the wild dogs that used to roam the streets a few years ago. Most were set on the street by owners that could no longer afford to feed them after communism ended, or are the descendants of dogs that were. And there were thousands of them.

What brought the situation to a head was when their numbers got so high that they started to form massive packs, sometimes as large as 60 or 70. And sometimes, when there wasn't enough food in the garbage, they would start to hunt. Mostly for cats or pigeons, but over time they got progressively bolder. Finally, bodies started to be discovered in the alleys. Human bodies. That had been eaten.

The dogs were finally rounded up, and destroyed. Although animal rights activists voiced their discontent, I find it hard to object when people are getting eaten on their way home at night.

After a few days in Bucharest, I started to get bored, and so headed off into Transylvania. Just in time to pass the 13th, a Friday. It's strange, but it isn't creepy here at all. Even Dracula's castle, which was in fact that of a cruel [but not blood-drinking] prince, was rather cheerful. It was almost entirely white, not gothic at all. The only gothy part of it was the merchants outside. They were selling 'Prince of Darkness' t-shirts, among other tacky things.

The three towns that I've visited, Brasov, Sibiu, and Alba Iulia, are all very pretty. Perhaps the most surprising thing that I've found here, outside of the lack of gloom, is that the Gypsies have a king. And an emperor. And they both live in Sibiu. It seems that after the Gypsies stopped being so transient [roughly 60 years ago], one of the more influential ones decided that he was in fact royalty. Though I'm not sure how much clout he has. And not to be outdone, one of his rivals decided that, although he didn't believe the Gypsies should have a king, he himself should be considered emperor.

Though I didn't see where the emperor lives, the 'Royal Palace' was a bit of a disappointment. It looked more like a typical middle class house in the 'burbs. Complete with over-sized satellite dish. Still, I suppose it's definite luxury compared to how most of the Gypsies live. That being in shanty-towns, to put it nicely.

As I read the news from Canada, it seems that Stephen Harper is a changed man. A moderate. All in the space of three or four months, which is how long it's been since he's gone on one of his hard-liner rants. It now looks as though the [Regressive] Conservatives are heading for a majority government. Four years of them having free rein to do with the country as they please. Maybe I'll stay in Europe permanently.

Tuesday, January 3

The Dogs of War

[What's written here was meant to be included with 'Oh, Mercy', but in the end it was turning into a book, so I decided to cut it in half. I'm not sure how useful it is to read that one first, but there will be a few comparisons to Albania, so perhaps it might be best to start there.]

After spending Christmas day trying to escape Albania, I arrived in Pristina [Kosovo] early Monday morning. Guide books [and popular opinion in Serbia] is that it's a very dangerous place, but all of this is exaggerated. At least for Westerners.

The province is technically still part of Serbia, but all of the administration is handled either by the Kosovars or the U.N. Still, there are peace keeping soldiers all over the place. And they come from just about any nation that you could name, including African countries that are quite possibly worse off than Kosovo itself.

Kosovo is populated almost exclusively by 'Ethnic' Albanians. The term seems a little odd to me. But the point is that they can trace their ancestry back to Albania, even though they don't even speak the same language anymore. It's something along the lines of the German spoken in Germany versus that of Switzerland.

Despite the ethnic ties to Albania, Kosovo is much more organized. This could be because of the presence of the U.N., but I think it's more a leftover of the much greater efficiency of the ex-Yugoslavia. Although Yugoslavia was also run by a dictator [Tito], he was much more intelligent than the nut-case who was running Albania. Yugoslavia became one of the most prosperous communist countries in history, with comparatively little poverty. It stayed that way until Tito's death in 1980. Things slowly started to unravel, and ethnic tensions started to rise. In the end, Milosevic decided that might made right, and the whole thing went up in flames.

Most of the Serbs that had lived in Kosovo for generations were driven out by reprisals committed by the Ethnic Albanians after the Serb troops had withdrawn. This was an embarrassment for N.A.T.O., as ethnic cleansing was one of the main reasons that they intervened in the first place. At that time, though, it was the Serbs that were trying to drive the Albanians out of the province, mostly towards Albania, but in some cases to Macedonia or Montenegro.

The Serbs that remain generally live in enclaves, which are like glorified prisons. They can't go anywhere without being followed by either Albanian Kosovars or N.A.T.O. forces. Yet they're too proud to leave. One starts to wonder when pride becomes more of a liability. It's hard to imagine what would possess someone to subject their family to living in such conditions. The closest comparable situation that I can think of are the 'settlers' in the occupied territories in Israel, but there, the heavy artillery is on their side.

I had the contact of a very nice guy from Pristina, Tim. He offered to let me stay at his place, along with his brother and two sisters. Especially in Kosovo, it's rare that a family has less than four or five children. They all live in a two bedroom apartment, but the girls offered to sleep in the same bed so that I could take one of theirs. Again with the amazing Balkan hospitality.

Tim told me stories of the horrible abuses his family was put through during the war. They were forcibly evicted by the occupying Serb forces, and his father narrowly escaped being killed, which would have happened had they left a day later. Being a doctor, he was accused of aiding the enemy forces by the Serbs, for having cared for injured soldiers of the K[osovo].L[iberation].A[rmy].

It's hard to understand exactly what happened leading up to the war in the first place. The argument of the Serbs is that the K.L.A. was a terrorist organization [they had planted several bombs prior to the outbreak of the fighting, killing several Serbs], and they took appropriate actions to stop them. At the very least, these actions were far too extreme, about as logical as trying to swat a fly with a sledge hammer. But this was a typical strategy of Milosevic. The Serbs don't want to let go of Kosovo as a province [despite having no jurisdiction over the area since 1999], since they consider it to have always been Serb territory. In the popular Serb opinion, a small number of Albanians immigrated to the area centuries ago, and slowly out bred the Serbs, eventually becoming the majority. They also consider it to be a center of Serb culture, yet tragically, most of the churches and other buildings of cultural significance were all destroyed during the fighting.

The Ethnic Albanians say the opposite, that they have been a majority for many centuries, but at times most of their population was driven out, reducing their numbers to a minority. Hence they consider themselves to have the natural claim to Kosovo. Unfortunately, everything that I've read says that it's not really possible to know which side is right.

The two ethnicities have never gotten along, with one of the only quiet times being the more prosperous years under Tito. Still, Kosovo was always the poorest province of Yugoslavia, and by a wide margin. The average revenue in Kosovo was only about one quarter that of Yugoslavia as a whole. The vast majority of Ethnic Albanians will settle for nothing less of full independence, which includes the northern strip which is still mostly populated by Ethnic Serbs. I'm told that that region is the richest in natural resources, and the Ethnic Albanians see it as a key to advancing the Kosovo economy. Yet because of the demographics, Serbia has an especially strong claim to being able to hold onto it.

Negotiations about the status of Kosovo are set to begin this month, and will hopefully conclude by the end of the year. The problem is that unless a compromise can be reached, there is a very real chance that fighting might break out again, yet probably on a smaller scale. Serbia may even try to send in troops once more. Although this is hopefully just a hollow threat [For the sake of all parties involved], the Serbian government being willing to make the threat is very sad. As though the Serbian people haven't suffered enough, the government may be willing to subject it's citizens to yet more sanctions and hardships. And it will be over something that is of comparatively little value.

The biggest question in this whole saga is whether N.A.T.O. was justified in intervening. The mainstream Western media gave an almost unanimous yes, in some cases calling it the first 'good' war [there's a sickening phrase] since World War 2. It was said that N.A.T.O. was stopping a genocide. Yet, after the conflict was over, there weren't nearly enough dead found to justify the term. The war in Bosnia resulted in over 20 times as many dead. There is no doubt that parts of the Serbian military were committing horribly acts of brutality, similar to what happened in Bosnia. Killing innocent people to intimidate others, as well as setting up rape camps. Yet the worst atrocities started after the N.A.T.O. bombing began.

Although it would be nice if politicians were always honest, and if N.A.T.O. really did intervene on a purely humanitarian basis, there are many other arguments given that seem quite plausible. One that the American tacticians themselves gave was that Macedonia was being flooded with refugees, which was a major strain on the economy. Should Macedonia have been sufficiently destabilized, not only by the economy, but also by the large minority of Ethnic Albanians that had been in Macedonia for generations, the country may have collapsed. Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria could all make claims on Macedonian territory, and might have been drawn into the conflict themselves in one way or another. Turkey also piped up about defending their former subjects [as well as fellow Muslims]. This was starting to sound very similar to how World War 1 began. Milosevic was constantly trying to talk Russia into intervening on his behalf. Although it was almost unthinkable that the war would have gone global, it might have grown to encompass the entire region.

There's no question at all that how the intervention was handled was retarded. Most of the people that suffered in Serbia from the bombing were [as always] civilians. N.A.T.O. destroyed, among other things, the Beograd television station, the Yugoslavian Chinese embassy, and many bridges over the Danube River, which runs through Novi Sad and Beograd. They killed many civilians while they were at it. The destruction of these bridges caused havoc for the residents. The Americans could have easily targeted Milosevic himself, instead of dumping more problems on the innocent.

Equally disgusting was the strategy of the K.L.A. [or at least the hard-liners there-in]. They've said that, since they couldn't hope to match the Serbs on a military footing, there plan for independence was instead just to provoke the Serb government to the point where they would start to pound Kosovo. This would in turn bring in the Americans, who would drive out the Serbs, thus giving Kosovo the independence that it wanted. If this really was their strategy, the disregard for civilians here is sickening. What's also sad is how things turned out almost exactly as they wanted.


Moving on to a lighter note, after leaving Kosovo, I caught a bus to Macedonia. Macedonia is one of the few countries in Europe that I needed a visa for. They were also a part of Yugoslavia, and were the only province to have obtained independence peacefully. This was in large part due to timing, as they declared independence when the Yugoslav army was already completely tied up in Croatia and Bosnia.

The capital, Skopje, was a typical big city, somewhat grey. I also visited a town called Ohrid, in the south, which was very pretty. There was a small monastery next to a lake, called St. John's, which had an appeal that's hard to describe. Sitting in front of the monastery and watching the sun set over the lake was a nice way to end a day.

After leaving Macedonia, I went to Bulgaria, arriving in Sofia just in time to celebrate the New Year. I spent the night with a Bulgarian couple, Cvetelin and Sonia, drinking wine and chatting at their apartment. I've been staying with Milena, who was raised in a smaller town in central Bulgaria before moving to the U.S. for a few years. Now she's living in Sofia in order to figure out if she wants to move back to Bulgaria. Just as with the other people that I have stayed with, it's been a great time.


I've written enough about these last two weeks to fill ten entries, but in the end, it's been quite nice to get all of this off my chest. It's been a fascinating learning experience.

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.