Thursday, 8 November 2007

STEPH Muriljani to Tirane 05/11/07

Only 1109 kms to Istambul! (sic)

Imagine that! 45 days on the road and only 1109 kms to go. We were mighty happy to see that sign when we crossed the (makeshift!) bridge into Shkodra.

We wake early this morning, having slept on the floor of the kaffe bar in which we spent the evening last night. Funny how things go - when we walked in, having crossed the border a few kms back up the road, I knew I wasn't going out again into that cold night.

Even so, we had our eye on a partly constructed cement house up the road if the bar didn't have rooms. It didn't and we didn't need to. Just as he was closing the bar owner offered us the floor for the night, happily leaving us with the keys on the inside of the door as he went on his way.

Albania, we love you.

We were woken not by the returning bar owner, as expected, but by praises to Allah booming into the pitch dark from the loud speakers in a distant paddock.

This put us on our way by six, walking into the coming daylight for an hour or so before the sun rose. About 20kms shy of the border yesterday, when we were still in Montenegro, the land had started to open out. By the time we were in Albania our world was a broad expanse of flatlands, wide and still.

It's wonderful watching morning come to new places, the light slowly revealing an unknown world and people rising to meet their day. We walked past fields, green and brown; past the church a hundred metres up the road from the mosque; past fields of rubble and rubbish; through villages with new kaffe bars hamming it up with wasted tinny shops where women, too young to look that old, stand behind counters with scales that rightfully belong in a museum.

Men riding donkey carts, rattling with a clutch of silver milk cans, clip-clop by. Men on time-warp bicycles sail by. And everybody waves. The women shyly. The men with a great g'day mate roar. And there are chickens everywhere.

We are in a world neither of us knew existed in current time and space, not in 21st century Europe. As we get closer to Shkodra, the poverty is relentless. I have seen such places on television and I've driven through them on buses once, perhaps twice in my life. Never have I walked the dust and shaken the hands and met the smiles of those who live in the dirt. Until now.

I have walked through Europe many times over the past 10 years. Peasant cultures co-exist with the modern world from one end to the other. Albania is different. For a start, their peasant culture is exceedingly friendly. Wonderful, innocent, everything people said about Thai and Balinese people 40 years ago, before we put them to work and exhausted their domestic and sexual goodwill (oops, there I go getting political and telling stories). The rural and urban fringe Albanians are welcoming and wonderful, no two ways about it.

Nearly every car that passed us yesterday, on both sides of the border into Albania, stopped to offer us a lift. One man even waggled Ben's card out the door at us, determined to give the pilgrim a ride.

The other surprising difference between Albania's peasant culture and the rest of Europe, through my limited first-impression eyes, is that in Albania it is the rural dwellers who have the best of it. It is they who have decent housing, with new ice creamcake palaces popping up over the landscape. Here it is the city folk and the urban fringe who seem to be doing it tough, who are the ones left behind.

As we draw closer to Shkodra the poverty concertinas, tumbling in on itself. We were both extremely thankful we walked the outskirts of Shkodra in the bright light of a Monday morning, rather than weekend darkness . . . it's not for nothing that the city has just been released from a US list of most dangerous cities - that's according to a couch surfing buddy of Ben's.

Shkodra was a trip, no doubt about it. AND we felt safe; we were safe. And very pleased it was Monday morning.

And now it's time for me to take a train. Last night, over backgammon, the need to rest wins out over my need to walk. Also, it will give Ben a chance to roll on into the night as he pleases, walking to his own steady rhythm as the night-cold closes in around him.

In Shkodra, we head for the Grand Europa hotel, figuring it'd be a good place to get our bearings. I do not have my son's talent for asking questions of non-native English speakers. I ask the woman behind the tourism agency counter where the train is. After a FABULOUS lunch in the restaurant we get a taxi to the station - it's locked up, bars on every window and door. We get there and the taxi driver announces 'no train'. Clearly, the question for the woman in the tourism agency was 'are there trains running?'.

I catch a bus. Before I leave I ask the wonderfully helpful women at reception for the name of a hotel in Tirane. They shrug and say 'Rogner'.

I arrive in Tirane just as it is getting dark. A woman on the bus takes my arm and leads me to another bus. We sit together. She is showing me where the hotel is. Another woman gets on. She practices her English. After I agree the Albania is very beautiful, she tells me it was a
Christian country dominated by bad Turks for 500 years. She tells me she is Moslem and adds 'modern Moslem'. She hijacks me from my other guiding angel, who happily relinquishes her charge. We get off the bus into the darkness. She grips my arm and walks me straight across six lanes of traffic saying, to the cars:

you must stop, we have far away traveler visiting, she is our guest, you must stop.

They don't, but they do slow down enough for us to cross.

I find my bed. Warm white sheets. King bed. Fresh food. Bubbleland.

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