Walk Toward the Water

Ditched by his guide, writer Chris Watts takes a rollicking trip down the bombsheltered coast of Albania.

By / July 2012

1.

The summer sun was setting fast as we boarded our ferry at Pier 14 in the southern Italian town of Bari. The ship, a hulking mass, was called the Conero. It groaned against the dock as if in dread of the nine-hour journey across the Adriatic Sea to the coast of Albania. I was traveling with Thomas, the son of my parents’ dearest friends back in the States. Thomas had been searching for an interesting diversion for his summer break from college, so my wife and I invited him to come stay with us in Italy. As a grand finale to his European adventure, I’d invited him to spend a week tooling around Albania with me.

We found a spot against a rail on the crowded deck and watched Italy slide away into the murky dusk. As the last of the sea wall slipped from view, a tired looking man in a brown suit sidled up next to me. We exchanged pleasantries in Italian. “Why are you going to Albania?” he asked. “To visit friends,” I replied, which was sort of true.

Thomas and I were meeting up with Genci, an English teacher whom I had met during a very brief trip to Tirana, Albania’s capital city, the previous August. Genci was a fidgety young man, compact and angular, in the Slavic way. He was exceptionally friendly, with a quick smile that revealed surprisingly sharp teeth. He had thrilled to the rare opportunity to practice his English on a native speaker. We had passed a day together walking the streets of the capital, after which he had insisted that I call on him the next time I came to Albania so that he could show me more of his homeland.

By morning, our ship had made the coast at Durres, and 640 groggy passengers, mostly Albanians, clamored ashore. There, among a crush of drivers and hawkers and rusting boxcars, sitting empty on unused tracks, I spotted Genci, waving and smiling and rushing our way.

“So glad you come! I am deeply pleased by you!” he shouted, over the din. He often spoke this way, in superlatives. There was no middle ground with Genci, everything was either wonderful or terrible. He took us by the arm and led us quickly to a waiting taxi, which sped off toward Tirana, an hour trip through dry rolling hills parched by the sun.

Genci, whom we called “Genc” for short, was a fabulous tour guide, always pointing out interesting things and providing useful information: “There is number one sink factory!” “This is road for new airport!” “They always growing beans in these fields!” He did, however, have the tendency to jump distractedly from one subject to another. “My cousin lives in that village on the hill!” he said. “Which one Genc,” I replied. “I see three villages?” He waved dismissively. “Oh, over there. Here is new hospital!”

Genci instantly amused Thomas. As we entered Tirana, we came to a colossal, chaotic, unpaved traffic circle. It was in terrible disarray. All around, rebar protruded from the ground, causing cars to dodge and weave in order to avoid being impaled on the sharp metal. The fact that such a major intersection was in this state of entropy seemed absurd to me. I asked Genci about it.

“Oh yes,” Genci said. “The new government shut down all projects of previous government. When the rains came, an old man fell in that hole and drowned!” he exclaimed, pointing out the largest pothole I had ever seen, right in the middle of the circle. “Three days before anyone knew he was there.”

Thomas, who up to this point had seemed nonchalant and at home, was floored. “What! A man drowned in a pothole?” he shouted incredulously. “Yes, yes,” said Genci. “Here is best book shop in city, some English books, too!”

We quickly learned that once Genci passed on a piece of information, we were unlikely to get further details. I began to make notes to myself of things that I would need to look up later. Thomas sat back and chuckled. We spent the next two days exploring Tirana, Albania’s dusty, concrete capital. There was a huge central square flanked by massive, intimidating government buildings, a seemingly universal layout in these former Communist strongholds. Near the center of the city, I spotted a large, squatty cement pyramid.

“Hey Genc, what is that place?” I asked. “Oh!” he said, “That was Hoxha’s mausoleum. But now no one likes him, so they use it for meetings and parties.”

Enver Hoxha (Hoe-sha) was the megalomaniacal dictator of Albania throughout most of its Communist history. A key force in the liberation of the country from the Italians, he took over the government in 1944, and declared Albania the world’s first “true Marxist-Leninist state.” He eliminated political challengers and spent the next 41 years carving and shaping Albania with a hammer and a sickle. Famously paranoid, he cast off one ally after another, breaking off relations with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and eventually, China.

By the 1960’s, Albania had become, arguably, the world’s most isolated country. Hoxha forced his countrymen to refer to him as “Brother Hoxha.” He had made it his mission to convince the Albanian people that they were one big, self-sufficient family, and that he was their beloved and ingenious head.

A great admirer of China’s Cultural Revolution, he launched a similar campaign in Albania in the late 60’s. At one point, up to a third of the country’s population was interred at forced labor camps. After his death in 1985, and the end of the Cold War a few years later, Albania was left to stagger along, a broken shell of a country, with a ruined economy and virtually no infrastructure. It was often described as the only third-world country in Europe.

 

2.

Albania’s hardscrabble past was apparent all over Tirana, a city caught in that transitional place between Iron Curtain gloom and consumerist Western excess. Chic new cafes and bars cast their neon glow onto dry, abandoned fountains and monstrous proletarian statues of muscley laborers and revolutionary heroes. Guards outside of shiny new banks were engaged in a constant struggle to drive off crowds of impoverished Gypsies seeking to set up camp on their marble steps.

Tirana had the feel of a city trying desperately to shake off the tattered rags of a shameful past and wrap itself in the glitzy duds of modern Europe. Understandably, Genci spent most of our time in the city pointing out the new while avoiding the old.

Yearning for a better view of the “real” Albania, I was excited to hop on a bus and begin our long trip down the length of the country. The plan was to head south, toward the Greek border, hitting the major towns along the way, and then to make our way north along the coast until we landed back in Durres and caught a ship to Italy.

The bus was a battered brown and yellow rattletrap with orange curtains just like the ones that used to hang in my Aunt Virginia’s living room. It was not air-conditioned and most people spent the ride chain-smoking their way across the dusty plains.

As we made our way out of the city, I noticed that Tirana seemed to be fringed with unfinished apartment buildings, which no one was making any effort to complete. “Hey Genci,” I said. “Why are all these buildings just sitting here like this?”

“Yes, yes,” he responded, “everyone runs out of money and stops working. Terrible, terrible.” They were everywhere, abandoned concrete skeletons, mocking the new dream of prosperity, and serving as a constant reminder that money and investment were still in very short supply.

The day passed. We made slow progress over the rolling landscape toward the middle of the country, leaving behind one small brown town after another. Genci tried to tell us their names but the Albanian language is guttural and Genci often sounded as if he was trying to dislodge from his throat a bug that had flown in through the open window of the bus.

Virtually every hilltop along our drive was crowned with a small white dome. Each had a hole in one side, but was otherwise featureless, like a tiny observatory, waiting for a telescope to arrive. Thomas asked Genci about them.

“Oh yes,” he said, rolling his eyes. “The bunkers. Hoxha said that every family should have one. People were supposed to put guns and supplies inside, so that when the Americans or Russians invaded Albania could defend itself.” He looked at the floor and shook his head. “Foolish, foolish,” he said. “Hoxha always was certain that the Americans or Russians would attack any moment.”

I later read that Hoxha had installed more than 750,000 of these pillbox bunkers across Albania, and demanded that every man, woman, and child be trained in the use of firearms, to help ward off the coming invasion. “What’s in them now?” Thomas asked. “Nothing… or something,” Genci replied, “but no guns.”

“I see,” said Thomas, looking as if he were about to ask for clarification, before thinking better of it. Finally, around three in the afternoon, our bus rambled into the city of Berat, a lovely town, stretched out along the Osum River, in the shadow of Mount Tomorr. Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by the Greeks as Antipatra in 314 BC.

The center of town is all stone, tile, and wood, an architectural masterpiece surrounded by ubiquitous shabby apartment blocks and unfinished structures, with their rebar, like unkempt hair, sticking out from the top.

“I am born in this city,” Genci announced. He seemed giddy to be back in his hometown. He offered us fragments of information about every building we passed. “My brother still has apartment here,” he declared jubilantly. “We can sleep in it tonight. No cost for us!”

We spent the afternoon exploring the winding lanes of central Berat, chewing on greasy mutton, and later, climbing an absurdly steep hill up to the town’s medieval fortress, which had been reduced to piles of rock but afforded incredible views of the city and the river valley below.

As the shadows lengthened and the sun slipped behind the ridge, we had dinner by the river (more mutton), and then headed for Genci’s brother’s apartment. It was in a grimy building on the south side of town. One dangling light bulb illuminated the stairwell. I had been in places like this before and felt a familiar pang of anxiety. Thomas looked nervous, his eyes darting back and forth as he hurried to keep up.

We reached the fourth floor and Genci halted in front of a metal door with the number 15 scrawled in black magic marker. Upon entering, I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of mildew and dust. There were only four working light bulbs, but by their glow, it was plain to see that this place had not been touched in a very long time.

“I thought your brother lived here,” I said, wandering from room to room. “No, no,” replied Genci. “He is living in Tirana for last five years. He does not use this flat.”

“You don’t say,” mumbled Thomas. I had never seen him so ill at ease. There was hardly any furniture. In fact, the place was virtually empty, with the exception of the bathroom, where we were met with the bizarre sight of dozens and dozens of combs and toothbrushes dangling from a board attached to the wall. “Hey Genc,” I called. “What are all these combs and toothbrushes for?”

“Hair,” he responded simply, “and teeth.”

 

3.

At first light, we rose, stacked our mattresses and blankets in the corner, and prepared to depart. As we wandered the streets near the river that morning, heading in the general direction of the main bus lot, I was struck by a strange realization that had previously eluded me. All around, there was an undeniable lack of activity. The streets were filled with big, swarthy men, leaning on walls, eating oranges in the sun. Some engaged in quiet conversation, while others simply stared at the street, spitting seeds onto the stone sidewalk. “Genci,” I said, “what is the main source of income in this town?”

“Oh, many people go abroad for work,” he replied. Thinking that he had misunderstood me, I rephrased, “No, no, here in Berat. Where does most of the money come from?”

“Yes,” he said, “many people go abroad and send money back. That is number one income. No jobs here for the people, very bad economy.” The current population of Albania is around three million, however it is estimated that another three and a half million Albanians live outside the country, meaning that there are more Albanians outside than in. Many people simply depended on a check in the mail from relatives in England, Germany, or Italy to keep them going.

It was almost eleven in the morning before our bus jolted out of the lot, leaving clouds of black smoke in the wake. This bus was older and slower than the one from the day before, but the people seemed better natured, laughing and occasionally singing together. Genci said that it was because they were “country people.”

We continued chugging south along the Osum river valley, which forms a wide plain between two mountain ridges. After about an hour, Thomas pointed out that even though the ground was completely flat, the bus was continually rocking from side to side as it careened around curves. He was right. I looked behind us, and could see the road snaking it’s way through the valley.

“Genci, why is the road curvy when the ground is flat?” Thomas asked. “It doesn’t look like we’re going around anything, there’s nothing out there.”

“It’s true, it’s true!” Genci replied. “There are no straight roads in Albania. Hoxha did not want the Americans or Russians to use our roads to land their invasion planes. So he made them all with many curves.” He gave an embarrassed grin, showing us his sharp teeth, and then looked away.

Thomas and I watched the bus depart in silence. We were dumbstruck. Genci was our guide and our translator and the only person we knew in the entire country. In the middle of the afternoon, we stopped at a sort of outdoor restaurant, just where the road began to leave the valley and climb into the Pindus Mountains. We were in farmland. There was no town nearby. Everyone got out, stretched, and milled around.

Genci headed off to buy some mutton, and Thomas went to find a restroom, which left me temporarily alone. Up the steep embankment above me was one of the leftover bunkers. I glanced around to make sure no one was watching, and then began to scramble up the hill. It was all loose pebbles and dirt and I created a small avalanche. But in moments I had summited the slope and found myself face to face with the dark doorway of the bunker. The sun was too bright to see much, so I stepped inside.

It was, essentially, a small, dark, foul-smelling shed. Along the walls there were some sheets of metal, old pots, buckets of nails, and a few pieces of rusting farm equipment. Then, to my horror, in the back of the bunker, I spotted an old man.

He was squatting by the wall, using the restroom. He stared straight at me. Neither of us said a word. We regarded each other for a moment, and then I fled, darting back down the hillside, kicking up a cloud of dust and rocks as I went. I ran straight into Thomas, who asked me where I’d been. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Let’s just eat and go.”

That afternoon, the bus climbed into the hills. We passed several small towns, all of them filled with unfinished buildings. The sheer number of deserted construction sites in Albania was astounding. It seemed that the job of a significant number of workers in the country was to abandon construction sites halfway through, but not before installing copious amounts of rebar. Surely, I thought, this was the most tetanus-prone country on earth.

Later, with the westering sun scalding our right cheeks, we approached the small, historic city of Gjirokaster, which was dominated by a hilltop castle. Equally antiquated, but decidedly cozier than Berat, Gjirokaster looked as though it had been pulled from a storybook, and then left to decay. Many of its traditional stone buildings were boarded up, and some of the old houses were collapsing. There didn’t seem to be enough resources for upkeep, but the town, stacked tightly on a terraced hill, had an undeniably charming feel.

This was the birthplace of Enver Hoxha. His house had once been a museum, where thousands of loyal Albanians made pilgrimages every year. Now, however, the homestead had all but been forgotten. We would have walked right past it, if Genci had not drawn our attention to it. Genci wanted to get a bite to eat and then climb to the castle to watch the sunset. That sounded good to Thomas, who was always hungry. “What can we get here?” he asked. “Mutton,” Genci said, with a satisfied smile.

As the sun began to sink, we climbed up to the 18th-century castle, which once had stood guard over the valley. The castle is now an open-air museum. It also harbors the wreckage of an American spy plane, which the Albanians downed on this mountain in 1957. Tales of the heroism that thwarted the imperialist intentions of the Americans became exaggerated over the years. In some circles, Hoxha himself was credited with shooting the jet out of the air. For years, the aircraft was proudly displayed. Now schoolchildren climb up and down its fuselage as if on a jungle gym.

From an outcrop of the castle wall, we watched the sun setting behind a ridge of high peaks, while Genci pointed out major landmarks. He talked about how the mountain slopes used to be forested and how that all changed in the mid-1990’s, when Albania’s economy teetered. The mass defaulting of banks led to a fuel crisis, and during the harsh winters that followed, virtually every tree in Albania was cut down and burned to keep families from freezing to death.

“Now,” said Genci, “you cannot find any trees in Albania more than ten or twelve years old.” It was even difficult, he said, to find wooden furniture that pre-dated the fuel crisis.

We lodged that night in a large, sterile looking hotel that had been built by the Chinese in the 1960s. The next morning, we caught an early bus and continued south. We wanted to make the seaside town of Sarande before ten. There we could catch a bus that would take us back north, along the coast, and eventually to our boat in Durres.

 

4.

It was only a two hour-ride to Sarande, which is situated at Albania’s uttermost tip, near the Greek border. We rolled into the lot just after 9:30, retrieved our backpacks, and began inquiring about our bus, which was nowhere in sight. It had left a half hour before we arrived, the ticket man said. The next one, he told us, would leave the following morning. This meant we would need to stay an extra night in Sarande.

No big deal, I thought. Sarande seemed like a pleasant enough town. Genci, however, was distraught. He had pressing engagements back in Tirana, and the delay was going to be problematic. We grabbed our packs and plopped down at a nearby cafe for a late breakfast. It was warm and sunny. Thomas and I chatted lightly. Genci seemed very distracted.

When we finished eating, and rounded the corner back to the bus lot, we saw another bus sitting there, preparing to head out. Genci asked the driver where the bus was headed. The bus was headed back to Tirana, not to Durres, where Thomas and I needed to go. “Oh well,” I said, “we better find a place to stay.”

“Yes, yes,” replied Genci, frowning, but he didn’t move. After a moment, he said, “Chris, Thomas, are you happy here?” I figured he was asking for our general impressions of his home country. “Yes, of course, very happy,” I replied. “Excellent,” he said. “I take this bus to Tirana. Goodbye.”

Genci hopped onto the bus, which was already moving, and just like that, he was off.

Thomas and I watched the bus depart in silence. We were dumbstruck. Genci was our guide and our translator and the only person we knew in the entire country. Yet the more I thought about his departure, the more the shock wore off. What we had witnessed was in perfect keeping with Genci’s personality, the all or nothing mentality, the predilection for jumping from one thing to another. Whatever the case, Genci clearly had tremendous faith in our ability to fend for ourselves. Perhaps, up until this point, we’d relied on Genci too much. Perhaps we’d deprived ourselves of the hard-won satisfaction that comes from losing one’s way only to find it again.

“Well, we know that this city is on the ocean,” I said to Thomas, breaking the silence. “Let’s start walking downhill, and maybe we’ll eventually hit it. Most hotels are probably near the water.” Thomas shrugged noncommittally, “Alright.”

As we descended the sloped streets of Sarande, past a man who was roasting a sheep’s head over an open flame, we began to catch glimpses of the sparkling Adriatic between the buildings. There were, in fact, several hotels along the seafront. Then I spotted something more intriguing. At the docks there was a sign listing departure times for ferries bound for Greece. One was scheduled to leave in an hour.

“Thomas,” I said. “What do you think about Greece?”

“Why, are you going to abandon me there?” he asked.

“No, no, but it looks like it’s only a thirty minute boat ride to Corfu from here, and I’m sure that we can get a ship back to Italy from Corfu, in a day or two.”

“So you’re asking me if I am willing to give up a twelve hour Albanian bus ride tomorrow, and go to Greece instead?” he replied.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly what I’m asking.”

“Let’s go,” he said, smiling broadly. “I hear the Greeks do great things with mutton.”

 

Chris Watts is a regular contributor for EthnoTraveler.

 

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