Getting to know Albania

Berat, Albania

We had finished our drinks on the top floor of Hotel Tomari when Dorjan and Nevila spoke quickly in Albanian. “It is late,” Nevila explained.

We’d watched the sun set over Berat, the City of a Thousand Windows. It wasn’t quite 7.30pm, but Nevila needed to get home. She didn’t have to leave because she had an early start the next day or somewhere to be. Nevila is a woman and this is a small city in Albania. She shouldn’t be seen out after dark.

Nevila didn’t need us to walk her home. It is not unsafe for her be out at night alone. But Berat is a relatively small city, with a population of about 70,000. A lot of people know each other and if Nevila is spotted out late, particularly with a man, her family will be fielding questions about their daughter’s character. Her parents are particularly understanding so Nevila stayed with us longer than a lot of other women might have.

We walked along Boulevard Republika, which is closed to cars in the evening. One side was lined with cafes and men. They weren’t rowdy, as you might expect in an all-male environment in Australia or the UK. They sat outside the cafes, drinking coffee or rakia, sometimes playing dominoes. The street was full of people, but Nevila and I were often the only women in sight.

I met Nevila through CouchSurfing. She doesn’t host surfers, but meets with them for coffee or to show them the town. We hit it off. She’s a wonderfully intelligent and ambitious young woman who dreams of seeing the world. She is a lot like I was at 20.

But how different her life is.

If I was ever told to be home before dark, it would have had nothing to do with protecting my reputation. It would have been because I was probably 15. By the time I was Nevila’s age I was living out of home. And no, not with a husband.

Mes Bridge, Shkodra, Albania

I‘d been prepared for Albania to be unlike anywhere I’d visited in a long time, but as I made my way through Serbia and Montenegro I began to wonder what could be so different across the border. A lot.

Travelling in Albania is eye opening.

It’s educational.

Humbling.

Great fun.

Safe.

Above all, it’s surprising.

But it’s not an easy place to travel. When it comes to getting around the country, booking a hotel and finding somewhere to eat that has an English menu, well that’s all straightforward. What I found most challenging was how much Albania made me think.

Over coffee at that roof-top bar Nevila told me how much she’d love to travel. She was so interested in seeing what’s out there, but, in a very matter-of-a-fact manner, admitted it’s unlikely she’ll get to see much at all. Travel is out of reach for most Albanians. Coming from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where having the money and freedom to travel is pretty much a given, it’s very hard to understand what growing up with those limitations would be like.

There are nuances of Albanian culture that make travelling here fascinating. In Elbasan (a more modern city than Berat) a sign reading ‘te shoqeruar’ can be seen on tables outside some cafes, indicating there must be at least one woman in the group – an attempt to counter the male prevalence at most cafes. Small kiosks sell single cigarettes, which one woman said helped her smoke less; although she made frequent stops at the kiosk and seemed very friendly with the vendors. Look closely at some houses and you’ll spot teddy bears hung up to ward off evil spirits. And young couples, avoiding showing affection in public or letting their secret relationships risk exposure, instead seek privacy in parks, even just to hold hands.

The country, like many, is full of quirks, but visiting Albania can also be a confronting experience.

Saranda, Albania

Albania’s appearance shocked me. It isn’t as overwhelming as landing in Asia for the first time, but after living and travelling in Western Europe and the United Kingdom for a year, I was amazed a country so geographically close could be so different.  Even the changes I witnessed over the two-hour bus ride from Ulcinj, Montenegro to Shkodra were significant. Standing in Saranda, in a country where the average monthly age is €350, I could see Corfu, in Greece, where the average wage is more than triple.

The roads are terrible; often gravel and full of pot holes. The cars, mostly Mercedes, drive all over trying to avoid the ditches. A ride in a furgon can be as scary as it is entertaining. After rain, some roads are little more than muddy tracks. Many buildings, in both cities and rural areas, are decrepit. While a lot of houses were nicer than I expected, some are concrete skeletons. Most houses have gardens, although fruit trees and vegetables take precedent over flowers.

I’ve mentioned the rubbish problem in Shkodra, but it isn’t just that city. Rubbish is dumped anywhere and everywhere and not at all conspicuously. On my first night in Albania I saw a man guide his donkey and cart to the edge of a river bank and tip a load of rubbish out – metres from an 18th-century bridge. Often there are small fires on the side of the road, lit in attempts to “dispose” of the waste.  I found myself becoming very conscious of what rubbish I was creating, aware of where it would end up. It’s less noticeable in smaller cities, but that’s because there’s less people. Theth was the only place I visited where any effort was made to keep the area clean.

In Elbasan workers digging up one of the main roads in the city uncovered ruins buried underground. If they had been found in a less public location, it’s likely they would have been covered up and construction would have continued as planned. But in the middle of the city it was hard to ignore the discovery. Except the government didn’t have the money to do anything about it so the roadworks stopped and the ruins were left exposed – and filled with rubbish.

When I noticed the rubbish I initially took it as a reflection of how Albanians valued their country – assuming they didn’t care enough to keep it clean. But as with most of the assumptions I made about this part of the world, I was wrong. The Albanians are incredibly proud of their country. The rubbish issue is mostly about money. It costs money to take rubbish to public landfills.

Elbasan, Albania

The average tourist will revel in the low prices. Private rooms at a guesthouse for €10. Meals for €3. Day-long bus rides for €2. By anyone’s standards, Albania is cheap. It has to be. Most of the country is poor. Incredibly so.

Albania isn’t the poorest country I’ve visited, but the lack of money was something I thought about a lot while I was there.  Most tourists will escape the reality of poverty in Albania. It certainly isn’t as ‘in your face’ as I’ve seen in countries such as China or Vietnam. But as a CouchSurfer I was a guest in people’s homes. I couldn’t help but be aware of their situation. Staying with locals also gave me an insight I might otherwise have missed. When I remarked on the lack of beggars I was told people rarely beg for money because they know no one has any to spare. Any beggars I did see were near tourist attractions, which is where my host suggested they would be. He said the poorest people were probably playing dominoes at a cafe or in the park. They had nothing to else to do.

One of my hosts was a doctor who earned about $300 a month on which he supported his family. After paying the bills, there was never much left. He was supported through university by his brother, who snuck across the border into Greece to find work and send money back home. Both his brothers now live in Tirana, the only place they could get jobs. They rarely came home and can’t afford to contribute any money to looking after their parents.

The family had a huge garden. Most of the vegetables were grown for food and any excess sold to supplement the family’s income. My host lost his father as a child and his mother had to remarry. There was no way she could raise a family alone. Usually I would have given my host and his family a gift to show my appreciation, but instead I offered to buy some groceries and told my host to pick out anything they needed. He grabbed oil, rice, canned food. Nothing extravagant. No treats just because someone else was buying.

Despite how obviously poor the family was the house was lovely and I was treated wonderfully. I ate every meal in their kitchen and was always given a larger serving. Anything I, or anyone else, couldn’t finish was packed up and put back in the fridge.

On a walk through the town my host picked up some grilled corn from a street vendor. No money was exchanged; my host said he would sort it out tomorrow. He told me every shopkeeper would have a notebook to keep track of what customers owe. Not having enough money is a way of life here.

Ksamil, Albania

Over and over again I was reminded how lucky I am. Because that’s all it really is. It was pure luck that I was born in Australia to parents who could afford to take care of me, instead of me working to take care of them. Or that I grew up in a place where women are treated (mostly) equally to men. Luck that I not only had the means and freedom to travel, but was encouraged to do so. Luck that if I chose to work as a doctor, I’d earn more than $300 a month.

A tourist could easily not see this side of Albania. By staying in the right hotels and eating at the right restaurants you could leave the country unaware of how most of its people live. However, as you travel around it’s hard to escape; but then why would you try to? This is Albania – raw and unedited.

The rubbish, the traffic and the abandoned buildings are superficial. They don’t speak to the warm hearts and big personalities of the Albanian people. Many of these people are so poor, but so incredibly generous. I was welcomed almost everywhere I went.  A stranger on a furgon insisted on paying my fare. Taxi drivers went out of their way to make sure I found the bus stop I needed. People all over the country opened up their homes to me, expecting nothing in return.

Albania is touted as one of Europe’s next hot spots. A budget traveller’s paradise. Its beach towns and club scene are appealing, as is the chance to travel somewhere ‘a little off the beaten path’. But it would be a shame if that’s all tourists came here for.  Albania is a surprising and fascinating place to travel and worth taking the time to get to know.

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