Floating Villages

Musings from a crowded ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea.

By / December 2011

Tariq Kadare spits. There it is, every two or three minutes: Tariq Kadare’s saliva on the floor. I don’t know Tariq, not really. I know Tariq’s name because it is scrawled across his bag. I am aware of Tariq’s bag because it is sitting on his bunk. Tariq’s bunk is familiar to me because it is in Tariq’s cabin, and I am more intimately acquainted with Tariq’s drab, compact cabin than I would like to be because Tariq Kadare and I, for this one night, have been assigned the same quarters.

We are two of the 1,100 passengers, 240 vehicles, and countless chickens and swine aboard the Traghetto Conero, an aging ferry sailing from Italy to Albania across the Adriatic Sea. A long ride looms ahead. I should sleep, but there’s the whole matter of Tariq and his spitting. I am thinking that Ishmael, in those awkward opening pages of Moby Dick, didn’t have it so bad. For all his burliness, Queequeg, the fictional whale hunter’s bunkmate, did not spit on the floor, not even once.

It is well past midnight when I decide to wander out. The lounge on the ship’s upper deck is teeming, smoky, loud. The passengers are almost exclusively Albanian, the vast majority returning home from visiting relatives in Italy, where more than 600,000 Albanians reside. From what I gather, a fair number of the men on board are drivers. They stuffed their trucks with food, car parts, cosmetics, and the aforementioned livestock before steering onto the ferry. The drive north through Italy and then south through the Balkans takes four days. A ferry ride will have them to their destination by morning.

At $65 a head, cabins aboard the ferry are too costly for most Albanians, so many set up small camps in the lounge. The sea breeze is chilly but soothing. I settle in to watch what I can only describe as a floating carnival. The encampments expand, collide, and conflate as complete strangers swap food, gossip, and entertainment—looking for ways to pass the time. Near my chair, a husband and father of three young children offers an elderly couple a blanket. In exchange, the couple hand the man bread and hard-boiled eggs, which he adds to his spread of sausage and apples.

The new friends, now a party of six, share a late, impromptu supper together. If only for one boat ride, these passengers form a makeshift village. They are bound by their shared Albanian language, by their temporary rootlessness, by the stars above them and the sea below.

I find myself watching the truck drivers, these masters of solitary transit now enjoying the company of strangers with similar stripes. At the restaurant counter at the far end of the lounge, they stock up on greasy meat and hard bread, fuel for a night of convo and cards. They congregate at tables, bottles of liquor scattered around them. Panning the scene from the railing, I spot my roommate, Tariq. He is at the register, grappling with the cashier about something, perhaps the price of his meal.

He stares straight at me. I can tell he recognizes me from our cabin. After brusquely forking over money from his pocket, he walks my way and pauses by my chair, sizing me up. “Where are you headed?” he asks in Italian. “Tirana, and then south,” I say without elaborating. “I’m from the south, from Berat,” he says, “Bad roads, be careful.”

This is our only interaction, but I continue to watch Tariq as he eats and plays a hand of cards. Leaning away from the table, he spits on the floor. But he is not the only one. The truck drivers around him follow suit, turning the boards beneath them into a slick of saliva. I think of baseball players spitting chew into the dust of dugouts, how certain mannerisms come with the territory.

Even so, I am suddenly pleased with my circumstances. After all, I have a cabin and a bed for the night. I won’t have to sleep in the spit on the floor.

At 1 a.m. rain begins to lash the lounge windows. The ship begins to pitch between the waves. There is a clamor in the back of the room. Five English backpackers enter the lounge with soppy sleeping bags, cursing the weather and the crowded lounge. There is no response when they ask the squatters to make space. The backpackers are not part of this village. They don’t speak the language or understand the culture. In all honesty, they don’t appear to want to. Shut out, they settle behind a stack of chairs, beyond the city limits, to air out their belongings.

I am not a citizen of this village either.

I head back to the cabin. My bunk rests against a round window. I watch and listen to the rain and feel myself start to nod off, much easier than before. I think of the backpackers and the sleepless night that awaits them. In a ferry on the Adriatic in the rain one could do worse than sharing a room with a spitter. Yes, one could do much, much worse.


Chris Watts is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.