Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Day 263 – Flags, fake cafes and confused drivers. (Albania)

Our Couch Surfing situation in Tirana was excellent: Scott and Cortney, ex-pats from Canada and USA respectively, hosted us between them in their neighbouring apartments. Scott’s boyfriend Robert was a week into his three month stay, and Cortney’s German housemate Malwine had Ada to visit during our stay aswell, so all in all we had a wide selection of hosts, all of whom were fantastic.

As such, exploring Tirana was far more of a joy than it otherwise would have been, in fact we greatly enjoyed our time there. We were shocked by how evident the poverty was, even inside the city, which is surprisingly unusual. In most countries we’ve been through, even the horrifically poor ones, the cities haven’t represented that at all, certainly not the capital. Whether artificially as is the case in Central Asia, or naturally as is the case in China, residents of cities in most of the world at least appear to dwell well above the poverty line.

You can say a lot of things about Albanians, but you can’t say they’re not proud of their flag. The black two headed eagle on a vibrant red background was literally flying everywhere. A huge one looked over the main square, almost every building proudly housed at least one and each lamp post was adorned with red and black ribbons and a coat of arms. A lot of countries are very proud of their flag and love to fly it at every opportunity, but I would say Albania has one of the stronger cases of flag-itis.

As mentioned in the previous blog (Day 261 – A snow-coveredborder crossing, and an abundance of stolen vehicles) there are a lot of stolen foreign cars on the Albanian roads. Hand in hand with this, Albanians are also shocking drivers.  Cars were banned in Albania until twenty years ago, so not only do they have the same situation as a lot of poor countries where owning a car is such an important status symbol that families who can barely afford food will go into a lifetime of debt in order to own a car, but there’s the added idea of it being a modern novelty, a sign of freedom.

The roads in Albania were peculiar. Driving from Ohrid, Macedonia to Tirana we started on a very narrow, but surprisingly good quality mountain pass, which as we reached the flat became a brand new motorway. The road was unfinished, and seemed to have been left that way for some time, but bizarrely cars were still driving over it. Because there was no signage or road markings though, it was acceptable to drive on whichever part of the road took your fancy, regardless of your direction of travel. To add to the oddity of this haphazardly used brand new motorway, it was also unmade in places, just in random sections where the road hadn’t yet been surfaced when they decided to abandon the job. As we hit the outskirts of town, this road which wasn’t on any of our maps, came to an abrupt end at a large pile of rubbish – as in a landfill had just been dumped on top of the road. From there all the cars were crossing over the dual-carriage way to squeeze into an unmade side-street which happened to join up with a gap in the crash barrier. This was one of the most severe bottle necks that any of us have experienced, and this was our introduction to Tiranian driving.

 It’s hard to make a definitive verdict of who are the worst drivers we’ve come across, but Albanians would definitely be up there. Laotians were shocking, but that was more a result of how lazy they were, not bothering themselves with tasks such as looking in one’s mirror or checking the road before pulling out. Tehran is probably the most insane traffic we’ve been in, but the drivers all seemed very competent – just cocky and reckless. They were squeezing through gaps smaller than their vehicles and manoeuvring around obstacles as if it’s an every day event – which it is. Phnom Penh in Cambodia was another city which was very intense to drive in. This was a mixture of the typical South East Asian lack of spatial awareness, high population density and shocking roads.

Tirana is quite a small city and there aren’t a lot of spectacular sites to visit. We planned on looking for a Ukrainian embassy whilst wandering around town, but of course no address or directions matched up, so Ben went into a bank to see if they had any idea. The staff couldn’t help in the slightest, but a young Albanian man sitting down presumably discussing finances with a couple who were presumably his parents, stood up and addressed Ben in a broad Northern English accent,

“Oi mate, Ukrainian embassy ay?”

“Yes, yes I am looking for the Ukrainian embassy.”

He turned back to his parents and spoke animatedly in Albanian with them for a couple of minutes before ushering Ben outside.

“You wan’ a taxi, aw ya walkin’? Right, ya go down the stree’ yeah? Turn righ’ at the end?...” and gave us fantastically specific directions to the embassy complex, which we got to and discovered didn’t contain anything to do with Ukraine.

We wondered whether this was an Albanian man who’s been living in England for years, and was just home for a family visit. Or more cynically, is he one of these infamous car runners?

When we stopped for lunch in a small town on our way to Tirana the day we arrived, we found that the majority of “cafes” in fact only sold drinks. This was something we were frustrated to experience again in Tirana, and didn’t really find an explanation for. Is there some financial or cultural reason for this phenomenon? Or is it simply that they start off with good intentions, print menus and install signs, and then realise that it’s much easier just to sell soft drinks and tea than run a kitchen?

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