After travelling around the Balkans by ancient trams, battered buses and antiquated trains, I arrived in Albania. Here the transport system made the rest of the Balkans look state of the art. This was when I bumped in to a 33 year old digital nomad from Turkey. Over coffee, late morning, Betul suggested we go to the Blue Eye, a famous gushing spring. What I thought was, “You’ve got to be kidding! Typical Millennial!” and what I said was, “I don’t think that’s possible, Betul. It’d take all day just to get there by bus! Take it from me!”
“We’ll hitch hike,” she said.
The reasons why I’ve never hitch hiked before are complex and varied. My Mum always gave the impression I’d be raped and murdered and it had definitely dropped out of fashion around the time I entered adulthood in Western Europe. In recent years, I’ve mainly travelled with my husband and children. We once all squeezed the five of us into a rickshaw in Thailand but hitch hiking would probably not have been practical.
Thirty minutes later, I was stood beside the road with my thumb out. I had my Mum’s words ringing in my ears and I could only imagine my adult children’s wails of horror and embarrassment but Betul was a pro and it wasn’t more than ten minutes and we were on our way. We were dropped at the dirt road leading down to the Blue Eye and here we got a lift from a young German couple in a 4x4 hire car. When Betul asked if we could have a lift when they returned to Sarande, they readily agreed and I offered to buy everyone a drink, an offer they took me up on when we’d all marvelled at the amazing Blue Eye. Betul clearly wasn’t happy and refused to let me buy her a drink. I got the distinct impression she thought I’d broken one of the rules on the Hitch Hikers’ Code of Conduct!
Six rides later in various forms of transport that were in various states of repair, we were back at base in picture perfect Ksamil which is in the far south and a cross between a Greek island the Caribbean. Here we relived one of the most memorable days I’d had on this planet in my 58 years. Betul was a delightfully engaging character and we enjoyed juicy cherries given to us by one of our rides and a carafe of red wine.
A few days later, we headed off on a longer trip to Gjirokaster which has UNESCO World Heritage Status owing to its historic Ottoman old town. We walked a few minutes to the main road and just past the bus stop to give ourselves more of a chance of finding a lift. A few cars that passed pointed down with their forefinger. This meant, ‘I’m only going locally’. I was quickly learning the sign language of hitch hiking. Within five minutes, a man in his sixties pulled over. We used google maps to determine that he was going to Sarande, a large and pleasant town further up the coast. We were being eyed by an elderly lady at the bus stop and as we were getting into the car, she hopped in too! Betul called her a cheeky beggar but I couldn’t help but admire her enterprise. In the end, she proved to be very useful because neither she nor the driver spoke any English but she phoned her daughter who could translate and we were dropped in the perfect spot to get a lift east.
We found ourselves in a lay-by with a fruit stall. Never wishing to miss an opportunity, Betul went to speak to a man in a car waiting for his wife who was at the fruit stall to see if he was going in our direction. Unfortunately, he wasn’t but he jumped our of the car and took charge of getting us a lift. This proved to be counter productive! I know he was trying to help but everyone passing probably thought he was part of the package and just drove on. I was willing his wife to finish buying her artichokes and low and behold, as soon as he departed, we were picked up by a white van man with a very large crack in the windscreen. I assume they may not have an annual motor vehicle test in Albania or, if they do, they just bung them a few Lek to get a certificate. I know for a fact that this is how the driving test works. When I expressed surprise that everyone in Albania seemed to pass their driving test first time (it took me four goes!), Albanian friend Anton said, “Yer, you just bung the instructor 50 Euros.” They don’t, incidentally, use the euro in Albania but it is often the language of currency.
When white van man dropped us at a petrol station, we were picked up by a suave man in a fancy car. He was one of the Albanian jet set; young men with rich parents who had bought them a hotel or travel business to run. As we wound our way up over a dramatic mountain pass he told us that he was on his way to an English lesson near the Greek border! “I’m an English teacher!” I told him. His eyes lit up and we spent the next 30 minutes warming up for his lesson before he want out of his way to find us a safe place to hitch hike north.
Our next lift was dodgy! Not in a sexual harassment sort of way but in a dangerous driving sort of way! The two young men didn’t speak any English. The driver, if that is the correct term, spent more time texting and organising his play list than he did looking at the road. Loud Albanian rock music boomed out disco style and Betul recorded the scene for posterity and sent it to me. I had visions of it being presented in the coroner’s court to support a verdict of ‘Death by Dangerous Driving’ but luckily it was only ten minutes before they were dropping us at Gjirokaster.
We got a lift up a steep hill to the castle for spectacular views of the old town, Gjere Mountain range and Drino River which lazily winds its way through an enormous valley. Our guidebook recommended the walk to the Ali Pasha bridge but it was still several kilometres up a steep hill so we hitched to the top of the road and made our way along a narrow path towards the ancient Ottoman Bridge. Two young boys helped us find the way and we gave them money for ice cream. We know they spent it on ice cream and not drugs because on the way back, we noticed two ice cream wrappers discarded on the ground where we had met them. One of my few complaints about Albania was litter!
We met a shepherd on the path and a large dead snake. Betul was not happy about proceeding. I reassured her that as I’d lived in Australia for a year, I was practically an expert on snakes and that we had nothing to worry about so long as we kept to the path. I explained that although they are deaf and blind, they pick up vibrations and will normally run a mile when they feel the vibrations of a human. I did see a live one shoot across the path about five minutes later but decided to keep this news flash to myself.
Once at the bridge, Betul discovered large clumps of oregano. It just looked like a weed to me but she spent the next thirty minutes picking it. “I’ll dry it and bag it up when we get back,” she told me. “I pick it all the time when I’m home in Turkey. Our local lamb tastes of oregano because the sheep eat it.” She soon recruited me to pick it but I was diverted by fresh mint which I gathered by the bag full for fresh mint tea.
We only half heartedly hitch hiked on the way back down the hill and ended up walking, a skill I’d forgotten I had since the advert of hitch hiking. We stopped in a taverna style restaurant for some local dishes on the way down. I was discovering that one big advantage of hitch hiking over using public transport was that you weren’t tied to a timetable and could relax, knowing that once back beside the road you could stick your thumb out and would soon be good to go.
On the journey back, we had a few issues. I was pleased to see that Betul had a keen antenna for potentially dangerous situations. She’d already recounted stories of dealing with drivers drinking alcohol and smoking dope before she’d met me and how she’d demanded they either stop immediately or they’d have to drop her back beside the road. In both cases, they desisted immediately. Betul is not a woman to be messed with! In my professional life, I’d filled in many a Health and Safety form about what you’d do it a child on a school trip grazed a knee so I think we made a good team in a Cagney and Lacey sort of way!
A car with three men in it drew up. One was elderly but the other two would have been more than a match for Betul and I. They were going to Sarande. Great! We got in. “How much do you want to pay?” asked the driver.
“No!” said Betul. “Hitch hiking! No money!” The driver didn’t understand and got some notes out to show us. “Right,” said Betul, sounding exasperated. “We’re getting out!”
I followed Betul out of the car and so did the driver. “Sorry!” he said, “We go!”
“No!” said Betul, firmly. “Go away and leave us alone!” I was glad we were at a busy junction because the man refused to give up.
I sighed a deep sigh of relief when we were given a lift by an elderly couple who were Albanian gypsies. I admired her colourful headscarf to take my mind off the confrontation but Betul kept looking behind us and reported that the men were following us. Unfortunately, the Albanian gypsy couple were only going 5 kilometres and the dropped us at the junction of the road leading to their village. As we got out of the car, thanking them and waving them off, the men drew up in their car. The driver got out. “We go!” he said, looking hopeful. Something about his face suggested he just wanted to make a quick buck and that he wasn’t about to leave us tied, bound and gagged after doing unthinkable things to us at the top of the mountain pass. After all, the average wage in Albania is 300 Euros per month and he probably had a family to feed. In the U.K. a slap up meal for four would cost you close to that in a posh restaurant. In addition, I later found out that Albanians often get lifts from strangers and give money to cover petrol so what he was doing was nothing unusual.
He hadn’t, however, bargained on Betul who by now had turned in to a vicious Rottweiler. “If you don’t get back in your car and drive off now, I’m going to report you to the police she said, fixing him with a steely glare and pointing at the police who had very conveniently set up shop with a speed gun only 100 meters further up the road. This did the trick. He got back in his car and drove off.
Having had our fair share of drama for one day, it was pleasing to have a nice cozy married couple whose daughter lived in Paris take us to Sarande. He’d worked in shipping and she was my doppelgänger because she was an Albanian language and literature teacher. Same job, just in different language.
Our lift back to Ksamil involved a heated rant from our driver in pigeon English. Betul sat in the back with David, his 10 year old son and I got the full force of his anger in the front. He had a long list of pet hates which included the Greeks, the Slavs, the Orthodox religion, the Russians, the French, the British and Tony Blair. Now many Brits hate our former Prime Minister but I never got to the bottom of why he was so unpopular with this Albanian man. Did he blame him for the Iraq war too? When Corfu came in to view as we came over the brow of a hill, that got his bile going even more. “It should be fucking Albanian,” he said, “not Greek! And I blame the British for that.” Now for all of you Tony Blair haters, I can safely say, it had nothing to do with Tony as it was clearly something related to the break down of the Ottoman Empire, about thirty years before he was even born. Poor little David had to help his dad translate some of his rant in to English. It never ceased to amaze me how well young Albanian children spoke English. It later became clear that their cartoons are in English as well as Russian and Turkish so they are well on their way to being multilingual before they are out of nappies. I felt rather jealous as I’ve been trying to learn other languages without much success for years!
Once back in Ksamil, we met fellow hitch hikers, Czerak and Paulina. Not only had they hitched all the way from their native Poland, they’d met on a hitch hiking trip from Poland to Singapore. Talk about show off! It made my celebration of what I had previously considered to be two long hitch hiking trips look piddling! They were a male and female plutonic couple of hitch hiking convenience and over red wine, vodka and crisps on the hotel roof terrace, I quizzed them on the best countries for hitch hiking and the ups and downs that they’d experienced. They said the Balkans is one of the best places to hitch hike but the Middle East and Central Asia are even better because not only do you get a lift there but they often offer you bed and board as well.
Our hitch hiking from our base in Ksamil was the prelude to a whole new adventure. Over the next few weeks we joined up with Turkish friends of Betul and criss crossed Albania, reaching places that no self respecting bus would venture. Albania is stunningly beautiful. It has mountains, lakes and a rocky coastline on speed. Most people would struggle to place it on a map because it remained closed off to the world until the nineties when the communist regime collapsed. I lost count of how many concrete bunkers we passed, installed by the famous communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was neurotic about being attacked and built them every few kilometres. They were never needed and have now become a weird icon of Albania. In addition, it is at the crossroads of a smorgasbord of empires from the Greeks and Romans to the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Take your pick! Today, the scars of a dark period of their history run deep. Hitch hiking was the perfect way to expose the wounds of this tragedy, made more poignant by the warmth and generosity of the people we met. We were frequently invited for coffee and snacks and when we tried to insist on paying, we were waved away.
A story of mass migration, particularly in the late nineties during what is known as the civil war, soon emerged. Many spoke good English and could share with me experiences of life in the east end of London, often doing several jobs and sending money back to family in Albania. I heard tales of legal and illegal migration. Boats on the way to Italy had been intercepted by border patrols and returned to Albania. I was assured that it was still possible to get in to the U.K. in the back of a lorry if you knew the right people but it was very expensive. Edi picked us up on our way north to Shkoder, an interesting town in a stunning location on the shores of the lake of the same name. He described how he’d been imprisoned in the Netherlands for being an illegal immigrant and then deported.
One man kept me entertained on a long journey with tales of cigarette smuggling. “I was young and stupid,” he told me. “I didn’t realise the risks.” He visibly shuddered as he mentioned the long prison sentence he would have faced if he’d been caught. “I was paid £5,000 to take a boat from a beach in England to Ireland. Cartons of cigarettes were loaded on to the boat from the back of a lorry and we returned.”
“Did you ever meet the Mr Big?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “I just got a bag of cash which I spent on beer and clothes in Piccadilly Circus.” He was nineteen at the time and thirty years later he considered himself a reformed man. He proudly told me about his wife and children and how they are self sufficient. “We’ve got a goat that provides milk and we slaughter its offspring for meat. We grow all our own fruit and vegetables.” He showed me photos of his roses but it was with a tone of sadness that he recounted how he still has to work abroad to support his family back in Albania.
Eri’s story of a double life was more common than not. I frequently found myself conversing in German and my basic Italian because the driver had spent significant time there.
Eri may have given up his life of crime but I heard other shady stories about the criminal activities of the Albanian Mafia who I was told all came from the Albanian town of Kukes. In fact, if a report on British radio was anything to go by, most of this town’s Mafia was in a British jail, having been banged up for drug trafficking, gun running and people smuggling!
The few women that gave us lifts stood out. Eva was on her way to get a boat back to Italy where she was a cleaner and waitress. Eva 2 was a baker who took us to her bakery to show it off and selected some delicious cakes for us to try.
I was constantly amazed at how the rides would put themselves out. They’d stop and hastily shove mops, clothes, fresh produce and even family members into the back. In addition, they would often go out of their way to drop us where we were going or find us the best place for us to get our next lift.
One elderly man gave us a ride up a dramatic valley to a historic Ottoman bridge and gorge near Permet. He spoke no English and our Albania constituted about 10 words. Despite this, we managed to communicate just fine. We could convey where we hailed from and our thoughts on his beautiful country. Once at the car park he was met by his bemused wife and extended family. I could only imagine what they thought when he turned up with two foreign women but they seemed to take it all in their stride.
On one day, Betul and I hitch hiked the length of the country from south to north. Now Albania turned out to be smaller than I had imagined but this was still a marathon that involved a record thirteen lifts. It was both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.
It was on this mammoth trip that I realised that Betul had a serious hitch hiking disability. She suffered from car sickness. My oldest daughter, Kathryn, suffers from car sickness so I do have an understanding of this unpleasant affliction. We always had to make sure she had a bag available and the sight of her chucking up in it was very distressing. When we were in New Zealand in a hire car, she didn’t make it to the bag in time so that had added implications as we didn’t want to pay the extortionate cleaning costs. We met up with my brother in law who lives there. We’d obviously relayed this story to him because when our little kids asked, “Can we come in your car Uncle Martin?” he just replied “NO!” very abruptly. An addendum to this story is that he rarely saw his only nieces and nephew so surely he could have overlooked the small chance of his car being spray painted with vomit! Miserable git! New Zealand is welcome to him!
As we wound our way over the steep and winding LlogaraPass, I was admiring the spectacular views from the front seat until I became aware that Betul was curled up on the back seat going green at the gills. Fatos, our delightful young driver was really worried about her and stopped at a view point kiosk to buy her water and snacks. It was very touching but Betul just wanted to be left alone to suffer in silence. It is always important to engage with your host driver. I loved doing this because it gave me so many fascinating stories to write about and it gave Betul, Emel and the others a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride, or not on this occasion in the case of poor Betul.
One lift that stood out on our journey north was Tony who was heading for Tirana International Airport. When a car stopped we always began with a smile, a pershendetje (which means hello in Albanian) and “Do you speak English?”. It made life easier if they did speak English but if they didn’t then we always had our good friends google maps and google translate to fall back on!
“Yes!” replied Tony, confidently, “I’m an Air Traffic Controller.”
“Well thank goodness for that,” I joked. “There would be a few crashes if you didn’t!” As air travel is my public transport of choice, I jumped at the chance to get an insider view of this little known but crucial profession. I’ve chatted to air crew and ground staff on many occasions but I only ever remember talking to one of the guys in the tower and that was when I was on holiday at the age of fifteen so it’s a few years since I got an update! I say guys because it remains one of those professions that is just about exclusively male. Mind you, when you think about the skills needed, such as attention to detail and intense concentration, that’s rather surprising. I’m just saying, guys!
Tony and I chatted about all the high profile incidents that must have been a nightmare for the air traffic controllers on duty. There was the Air Malaysian flight that took off, went in the wrong direction and was never seen again; the German Wings pilot who committed suicide by flying the plane in to a mountainside, and taking 149 passengers and crew to their deaths; the Air France flight that crashed over the Atlantic; the Air Malaysian flight (you have to feel sorry for this airline!) that was shot down by rebels over Ukraine. The list goes on! Most topical was the Ryan Air flight diverted to Minsk only a week earlier so the authorities could nab a dissident who thought he was flying from Greece to Lithuania but soon found himself languishing in a Belarus jail!
I asked Tony the million dollar question, “What would you do if a plane got hijacked on your watch?”
“We can call on nato bases in Italy and Greece,” he told me, “but I can’t say too much about this!”
“Oh, come on, Tony! Spill the beans!” I thought, “Do I look like a Russian spy?” He was, however, tight lipped as he’d obviously signed the official secrets act and no one would put it past the Russians not to have spies hitch hiking around Albania!
Luckily, most days for Tony are uneventful. He said most of his work involves planes flying over Albania from America or Western Europe and going to Greece, Israel and Singapore or vice versa. He did, however, say that the closure of Syrian air space had made his job more difficult.
When Tony dropped us off, I gave him my flight details for my return flight to London in a few weeks and asked him to ensure my plane got priority. He assured me Wizz Air Flight W6 2641 to London Luton would get the V.I.P. treatment and true to his word we took off on the dot with me waving at Tony in the tower from seat 29a!
On our long journey north we had lunch in Durrës, a resort and port town then set off again. It was often hard to get a lift in a town or city centre as people usually weren’t going far. Betul did a great line in dramatic gestures which included waving, blowing kisses, begging and even jumping into the middle of the road on occasion to make it hard for them not to stop. I, on the other hand, employed the hitch hiking fairy, cousin of the parking fairy who I use when I can’t get a parking spot near Christmas! Works every time! Take it from me! Now, I can’t be sure whether it was Betul’s dramatics or my fairy but we soon had a plum lift out of town to the perfect spot for getting a longer distance lift north!
As the hours ticked by and it got dark, I had to grit my teeth to keep going. We got a short lift from three young guys who were gearing up for a night out. I was still gathering up my bags once they dropped us off when Betul flagged down a young couple from Kosovo. “Are you going to kidnap us?” he asked. This was the prologue to him entertaining us with non-stop jokes and gags. As Kosovars, they speak Albanian and pretty much feel like the same nationality but Kosovo is not recognised as a separate country by the United Nations and it is advisable not to refer to Kosovo as a separate country in Serbia where it is a really hot topic. In fact, if you travel through Kosovo and get a stamp in your passport and then try to enter Serbia, it will be a big fat, “No! Buggar off!” The Kosovo War in the late nineties led to much loss of life. The young couple had tales to tell of family members who had lost their lives during the conflict and emigration abroad, stories that we heard from other Kosovo Albanians we met.
When Betul and I headed south again it was with Emel who is also Turkish. On this journey, we tackled the Llogara Pass from the other side. It is lush and green with magnificent trees on its northern slopes but dry and arid on the southern side. According to our lifts, they were building a tunnel through the mountain. I was glad we could enjoy the splendours of the pass but it would have been infinitely better for Betul who was suffering from car sickness again, if the tunnel had been finished. Giovanni was going all the way to Dhermi, a coastal town with an attractive old town above where the locals speak a variant of Ancient Greek. Huge mountains sweep dramatically down to the sea. We had decided to stay there for five nights so it was a useful lift to have. Giovanni explained that his real name was Xhevahir but that Albanians often change their name in order to fit in abroad. He’d worked all over Europe as a delivery driver and mechanic. He had an Italian passport but hated the European Union. It got very tense when he suddenly said, “The Turks are racist!” Now in view of the fact that there were two Turks in the back seat, this was far from diplomatic. He wheeled off a long list of other countries that were racist, including the Belgians, the French and the Dutch. “What about the British?” I asked, fully expecting him to add me and my fellow countrymen and women to the list but no.
“The British aren’t racist!” he replied. His English wasn’t great so I suspect there was some ‘lost in translation’ if I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt but Betul was seething in the back seat. He was lucky she was trying to control her car sickness because if not I think she would have reached over and throttled him!
Next, he moved on to the Moroccans. He’d never been to Morocco and only met Moroccans abroad but it was enough to condemn a whole nation! Betul now became very angry. “I’ve got many Moroccan friends and they’re not racist!” she told him with considerable venom in her voice. I decided not to mention that I’d had a torrid time in Morocco with the locals when Richard and I had inter-railed there in 1987. I’d inter-railed with girlfriends on several occasions but the word on the street was that women couldn’t go alone to Morocco because you’d get pestered too much. As soon as Richard came on the scene, I planned a trip that included Morocco. It was a disaster because before he met me he’d only been on a five day trip to Belgium with his university, known in the U.K., very unfairly I might add, as the most boring country in the world! It was a horrific culture shock for him and he still groans when the trip is mentioned. We got lost in the maze of the Kasbah and started to get hounded by aggressive men who wanted to be our guide. In the end, we were forced to pick a guide just so he would keep the others at bay. ‘The others’ were not happy and one kicked me hard on my ankle. We told our guide we would not be doing any shopping so he wouldn’t get his commission until he dealt with ‘the others’. He directed us into a café and sent some heavies out to deal with ‘the others’. We never saw them again. Our guide, who was a Berber in a long white robe, was more than happy with his commission and then helped us find our way out as I think we would still have been there now. We both appreciated that we met very few ordinary Moroccans. One man on a train advised us not to lend our Walkman to the young woman who had asked to borrow it. We had no intention of letting her anywhere near it but we felt touched by his genuine concern for us. I have always planned to return to Morocco to give the country another chance and see the spectacular Atlas Mountains but I think I will have to go with my daughter who wants to see Morocco because her dad would have to be bound, gagged, blind folded and chucked in the back of a van in order to get him back to Morocco.
“Change the subject!” hissed Emel from the back seat, aware that Betul was about to commit murder or, at the very least, we would be dumped beside the road on this dangerous pass which would not be a desirable place to hitch hike.
“Do you know any good restaurants in Dhermi?” I asked which proved to be far less controversial!
Once in Dhermi, Emel plonked herself on the beach and refused to move until she joined us each evening for dinner at a pleasant seafront restaurant. Betul and I, however, did a few trips along the coast that would have been near impossible to achieve by bus. One day we went to trendy but very remote Gjipe Beach. It was like something out of Leonardo Di Caprio’s film ‘The Beach’. It was full of beautiful people. Everyone but me was young, tall, slim, bikini clad and model like! We left them all on the beach and went gorge walking through a spectacular gorge of the same name. After about an hour of walking, it narrowed and involved pulling ourselves up ropes in order to scale rocks the size of a bungalow. Just as we got to this point, having not seen anyone else, two young Ukrainian men caught us up. I told them to go first, not wanting to hold them up but they took one look at the challenge and turned back! Say no more!
Our second trip was further south to Livadi Beach. We got a lift with an elderly man in his seventies who thought he was a formula one driver. He drove at 90mph and took every bend, and there were many, on the other side of the road. As I clung to the side of the car, praying I’d get out alive, I reasoned that he’d lived to a grand old age without dying in a fatal crash so I would hopefully survive and I did albeit with higher blood pressure and a few more grey hairs. Betul fell out of the back seat looking as if she was about to vomit and groaned loudly as if she’d given up the will to live.
Our lift down to the beach was with two young men looking for work at the bars and the restaurants. They said they’d be returning in about an hour and so would give us a lift back. We had a drink at a beach café and when I went to the toilet, I locked the door but struggled to open it. I rang Betul who sent help in the form of a man with a broom who poked it through the back window and manoeuvred the lock up on one end and down on the other end. How you are supposed know this was a mystery to me. You clearly needed a PhD in engineering to operate the lock and the speed with which they responded to my crisis, suggested I was not the first person to have been suck in their loo! Ever thought about just changing the bloody lock guys?
After an hour and a half, the two young men were back to pick us up. The one that came to the beach to collect us steered me in to the front seat so he could sit in the back with Betul. Before long he was asking Betul if she had a boyfriend and whether they could stay at our place. Betul rapidly turned Emel into a man and said there wouldn’t be space. We got them to drop us off well away from our accommodation! On another occasion, we were picked up by a police officer in uniform and with his gun in its holster. He tried to put his arm round Betul as she went to take a car selfie and I feared she was about to attack a police officer as she, quite rightly, repelled his advances in no uncertain terms. When I hitch hiked alone, I was worried I may have reduced my chances of a lift without the young and attractive Betul to hitch with but in the end, I didn’t need to worry!
After Dhermi, I had to say a sad goodbye to Betul who had been my hitch hiking guru and soul mate for three weeks. She had made me feel thirty years younger and been fantastic company. I had every faith we would find ourselves, thumbs up beside a road somewhere in the future as she faded from view in the back window of the lift that Emel and I took south.
Several years before, Helen, my youngest daughter who had already flown the nest to start university, expressed concern that I was giving up work and going off to travel the world. She was worried that I would no longer be able to be her P.A. I reassured her that, thanks to modern technology, I could probably continue to fulfil this role from anywhere in the world. When we stopped to get a coffee, bought as usual by our host driver, I got WiFi and downloaded an important essay she wanted me to proof read. For the next hour, I waded my way through glacial deposits and fluvial flows as I also made small talk with out lovely kind driver and took in the views of Albania’s all star coastline. At the next stop, I found a café and connected to WiFi so I could discuss the essay using FaceTime with Helen before we got our next lift west towards the mountains. I rest my case, Helen!
It wasn’t long before I had the confidence to hitch hike alone and when all the Turks had returned home, I was beside the road hitch hiking as if it was second nature. Long gone was the, “What the hell am I doing?” feeling and I joked with my husband who considers going into a charity shop in an English market town risk taking that we could hitch hike on our planned trip along the Silk Road!
On my first long solo journey, I was picked up by Uron Memeti and his nephew, Rezi. I had looked on the map and decided it would be about 100 kilometres to Berat, a beautiful UNESCO world heritage Ottoman town. In actual fact, it was nearly 200 kilometres because the direct road is dirt track and winding so may be more direct but takes longer than the modern highway. Uron was typical of an Albanian who lives abroad. I had to admire him. He had been an officer in the Albanian army and then used these skills to become a body guard which involved him working in some pretty dodgy places around the world. He then moved to Austria where he built up a business doing facility management and car valeting. He was now on one of his annual trips back to Albania and it was clear that he brought an air of arrogance with him. His flashy German car was tank like. I don’t know the first thing about cars or care about them, to be quite frank. So long as they’ve got four wheels and an engine and get you from A to B that’s good enough for me. It was clear, however, that Uron who was, after all, doing me a huge favour was very proud of his car so I expressed interest! “Take a photo of the dash board,” he said as he pointed to what looked like the deck of the Star Ship Enterprise. I uttered lots of ‘oh wow’s and ‘that’s amazing’! The car had “I’m much richer than you, fellow Albanians” written all over it! It was very common to see cars with foreign plates, bought with money earned abroad. I even saw two hummers with Albanian plates. They certainly didn’t buy those with a salary of 300 Euros a month!
In addition, Uron was building a house for his mother in the family village where we dropped his nephew, Rezi. This was another badge of honour for an Albanian Abroad. We stopped at the stone masons and although I couldn’t understand the Albanian language conversation, I could understand the swagger of Uron’s tone and body language. Let’s face it, in Austria, he is probably just an ordinary man on the street but when he’s in Albania he’s ‘The Big Man’ and ‘Lord of the Manor’. Uron said he much preferred living in Austria and was very negative about Albania. Knowing both countries reasonably well, I felt this was rather disingenuous. Okay, Austria is a richer country but money isn’t everything and I bet they don’t pick up hitch hikers and treat them to drinks and a meal out!
When Uron dropped me just north of Berat, I got a lift with an elderly couple who only took me a few kilometres but insisted on taking me for coffee in their village. My final lift was with a white van man driver named Mozi. Like the elderly couple, he spoke no English but managed to convey to me that he had just returned from Greece. At one point, he stopped in a town and I handed the six cartons of cigarettes in the footwell to a young man who was picking up for his mother. Had I just become an accessory to the second cigarette smuggler of the trip?! Mozi took me right to the heart of Berat’s old town and insisted on buying me coffee at a cafe over looking the city of a thousand windows.
My final journey was from Berat to Tirana, the capital of Albania which I considered to be worth a few days of exploration before I flew out of its airport back to London. I got a short lift from the marketing manager of a local vineyard. Albania has a burgeoning wine industry. It certainly has the weather for it and I had tasted the house wine of a many a small time grower and been impressed. I declined Edison’s offer to do some wine tasting but when I found his vineyard’s wine on sale at the airport I bought a bottle. It was 25 Euros! Rather more than I normally spend on wine. I sent Edison a message to say that although he had told me they don’t export to Britain, they do now!
Next Karine gave me a lift and he spoke good English because he’d worked in the U.K. but he wasn’t going far. My final lift all the way to Tirana, proved to be one of my most memorable. I was picked up by a family of four who turned out to be a metaphor for progress made in Albania over a generation. The small car was being driven by 24 year old Fatjon who was an area manager for KFC. His younger sister, Desada was a 22 year old languages graduate who spoke 5 languages. They both spoke fluent English and were well travelled. Desada also worked in management for KFC and her brother was her boss but this was clearly not an issue. Their parents were my age and whilst they gave me lots of warm smiles, they spoke no English. Neither of them had a driving licence and as they had never worked abroad, they had never travelled. Reshat is a barber and Aferdita cares for her father. It was very common for elderly parents to live with their children in Albania. Her wonderful kids said their mother was a great cook. I asked them to tell both their parents that they could be very proud of their children. They were very typical of their generation in Albania. It made me reflect how different my life would have been if I had been born in Albania rather than Western Europe. When we stopped at a famous restaurant that only served beyrek, the famous Albanian dish made of filo pastry and filled with spinach and cheese, and dhalle, a salty yogurt drink they, of course, refused to let me pay the bill. As if this wasn’t enough, they gave me a tour of Tirana, bought me ice cream at the best ice cream parlour in town and dropped me right to the door of my accommodation!
The Albanians I met were keen for me to promote their country to the outside world, fearing for its reputation. This I was more than happy to do, keen to shout from the roof tops about the warm, wonderful, funny and generous Albanians! Thank you, Albania and in the words of Arnie, “I’ll be back!”