Sunday, December 28, 2008

It's Not Just Me

I keep in touch with many travellers in Albania, and they all have something good to say about the country. OK, they also have some not-so-good things to say. To pretend otherwise would be less than truthful. The latest story that touched me is here. Enjoy!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Highways of Death

It's that time of year again. Temperatures drop, shops are decorated, and the nation's attention will once again be drawn to one thing: highway fatalities. The holiday season last year was marred by a spike in accidents and deaths on Albania's roads. This happens in the U.S. too and I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same in many other countries. Holiday travel, alcohol, and bad weather can combine to create a darker Christmas tradition anywhere in the world. Here in Albania, as with everything else, things are a little different.

The first factor is the state of the roads. No, they're not in such disrepair that they are deadly. On the contrary, the rise in fatalities becomes most noticeable just after a new section of road opens up. The routine goes something like this:
  1. The PM announces a road improvement project.

  2. Five years later the roadwork is completed.

  3. Just prior to the next election, the PM (usually not the one who initiated the project) holds a ribbon cutting ceremony to show his/her governments efforts toward development.

  4. Within three months, the new section of road is proclaimed a "Highway of Death" by the media as the carnage begins.

  5. The next stretch of road opens up and the cycle repeats.
The first iteration of this cycle happened on the Tirana-Durres "autostrade." It took nearly 7 years to build the first seven kilometers from the city limits almost to the airport turn-off. As a superhighway, it lacked a few finishing touches. Limited access, for one. The road was not fenced and drivers entered where they liked. Pedestrians had unlimited crossing points. U-turns were possible just about anywhere. In reality, it wasn't a super-highway, just a 4-lane country road. But you could drive real fast!

Progress came and eventually the road became truly divided. Concrete barriers solved the U-turn problem, but created difficulty for pedestrians and their livestock. With no overpasses or underpasses, the only way to get across was a 25-meter dash with a wall-vaulting halfway across. Easy if you're a 20-year-old lavazh worker. Not so easy if you're a 60-year-old villager with a cow.

While the government answered this need by slowly building pedestrian overpass bridges, the local made the wall-vault portion easier by piling rocks at each side of the barrier in the fast lanes! Each time I headed for the airport, I quivered in anticipation of what kind of lunacy I would witness. The road never failed to exceed my expectations. Once it was four farmers trying valiantly to boost a reluctant heifer over the Jersey barriers while angry drives whizzed by on each side, honking like crazy. Another time it was an old lady coaxing her cow over the pedestrian overpass whose spindly steel superstructure trembled with each bovine step. The cow didn't seem keen on the idea despite the determined motivational lecture being administered with a stick by the old crone in black!

This stretch of road was the first I ever heard termed "Highway of Death" in the newspaper. It seems the villagers who crossed it had grown used to crossing the old, potholed excuse for a highway which the autostrade replaced. Since the new road went in, they had not recalibrated their time/speed/distance estimators to deal with the increased traffic speed. The result was predictable. Dead pedestrians, wrecked cars, lurid headlines, and calls for action. This attention soon faded away, either because the press got bored or Darwin's laws culled out those who couldn't survive in this new traffic environment.

Fortunately for the press, the autostrade from Durres to Rrogozhine was inaugurated and soon won the coveted "H.O.D." title. This heavily-travelled two-lane road passes through more rural, isolated country than the Tirana-Durres road and soon racked up fatalilties among villagers who had only ever had to dodge cars travelling 1/8 of the new speed limit. Again the calls for traffic calming measures came and again the government did ... nothing. The locals then took things into their hands.

Americans call them speed bumps. The Brits call them "sleeping policmen." Albanians call them "dead policemen", presumably to avoid confusion with actual sleeping policemen. Regardless what you call them, these little humps of tarmac are very effective at slowing traffic. These villagers, obviously not professional highway engineers, took them to a new level. They made them about 40cm tall, from concrete, in the middle of the night. Come the morning rush hour and the police found themselves responding to accidents on the H.O.D. not involving squished pedestrians, but a $60,000 Mercedes with it's undercarrige destroyed by a 80mph collision with a miniature bunker laid across the road.

Time passed and the "slow pedestrian" gene got weeded out of the Kavaja gene pool. Accidents rates fell, and a new H.O.D. opened, one which reigns to this day. It's the stretch from Fushe Kruje to Lezhe. This one was perfectly situated to claim the title with arrow straight stretches of two-lane blacktop cutting across farmland dotted with villages and farms. The road had been started in the late 1990's, but was delayed for many reasons. This delay gave the locals a chance to get used to using the road sections as they were completed. A few entrepreneurs even managed to build their business directly on the side of the road before traffic started flowing. Today, the road is busy, crowded, and narrow in places where junkyards, gas stations, or pork butchers' kiosks stand inches from the traffic lanes.

But it's not just unwary villagers who die on these roads. Just a few days ago this road was the site of a two-car head-on collision that left two people dead. The press claimed the H.O.D. was the cause while the police blamed the pile-up on excessive speed, bad weather, and lack of lighting. Anyone who drives this road knows the real reason. It's the unique relationship between Albanians, their cars, and history.

It's only been 17 years since private citizens were allowed to drive and own cars here. Given the liberty to do so, Albanians went car crazy. Driving became a status symbol which they adopted with the same passion they have for football and the same lack of attention they pay to rules in general. Driver training was minimal or non-existent. In 1993, ten bucks got you a valid license regardless of driving skill. The stage was set. Lot's of inexperienced drivers, a passionate love for cars, construction of better (read: faster) roads, and more cars on the road. Stir these ingredients into the macho Mediterranean culture and, voila, chaos.

They think they are great drivers. They yield to no one. They drive drunk, or distracted, or both. They die in large numbers. Tragically, it's usually after a celebration when the odds catch up with them. Even more tragic, they take people with them. Families, pedestrians, children. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year and hoping to see signs of improvement over previous years.

And I'm staying off the roads.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Highway

I love to travel to the remote corners of Albania and have done my fair share of complaining about the quality of the roads. By far the trip that brings out the whiner in me more than any other has been the trip to Kukes. I've done that slog seven times now. Yes, I'm counting. The first time was in 2000 during winter. The trip took 12.5 hours to cover 250 kilometers. This despite being driven by a midly insane Albanian in a vehicle with a huge engine and diplomatic plates! The road was bad as we left Tirana and things went downhill from there.

The last time I went to Kukes, things were looking up. The total trip time was down to 6 hours even though I was driving a badly overloaded Chevy Suburban. The modern highway from Tirana to Milot had been opened by then which accounted for most of the reduction in travel time. The rest of the road was still a twisty, bumpy mess but had been improved somewhat. I swore I would never think of going up there again. Until now.

The new 4-lane highway which is causing so much uproar in political circles is getting close to completion. Say what you will about it being a white elephant project draining badly needed funds from other sectors. That's true, but I can't wait until it's done just for the sheer pleasure on making it up to Kukes without getting carsick. This video, released by Bechtel/Enka gives a little glimpse into the project and the area it passes through. I can hardly wait. Anyone up for an August road trip to Shistavec?

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must confess these are not my pictures. I grabbed them off of "". I was just going to link to this forum, but it was full of "my tunnel is bigger than yours" flame wars between Greeks, Albanians, Croats, and Serbs.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A New Sensation

The good thing about life is it's so unpredictable. You never know when something good is going to come along. Or something bad. So little of what happens to you is under your control. No matter how much you plan and work toward an outcome, there's really no guarantee you'll get what you want. Most of the time we don't even realize how small things add up to something truly terrible, or supremely sublime.

For the last year or so I have been reading (and re-reading)"The Great War For Civilization" by Robert Fisk. Fisk is a newspaper correspondent currently working for the Independent in the UK. The book is an epic chronicle of his observations during a long career in reporting on war and its aftermath in the Middle East. I don't agree with all his political views or overall philosophy, but I was impressed with his in-depth research and historical perspective.

Among other things, the book discusses the impact of Western actions during and after WWI and how they contributed to the Armenian Genocide under the dying Ottoman Empire. The subject matter seemed relevant as I now living in a country which was part of the Ottoman Empire. I also live close by the former home of Enver Hoxha who was named in honor of Enver Pasha, one of the Young Turks most responsible for the Armenian Genocide.

Six degrees, Kevin. Only six degrees.

On Sunday, Christiane Amanpour hosted the CNN International special event "Scream Bloody Murder." Another dose of genocide reporting on Armenia, Germany, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Lest you think I am some sort of mass murder fetishist, I must confess I only watched because of Christiane. I first saw her reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall and was fascinated by her exotic looks. Later I came to admire her intelligence and journalistic integrity as much as the bottomless pools of her eyes and the cling of her sweater. Anyway, it was an excellent, if depressing, documentary.

Monday morning I was up early taking a friend out to the airport. Cold morning, still dark, head full of sleep and no shot of coffee yet to focus my mind. Heavy fog hung over the fields along the new airport access road, particularly soupy in the vale of the Tirana River. My mind was full of dark thoughts courtesy of Fisk and Christiane.

Yeah, the Turks had been here. The Germans too. No doubt these fields have seen their share of blood spilt. Greeks and Romans. Illyrians. Serb, Venetian, Italian. Each era sends a new wave of blood, setting the stage for the next atrocity. The misty acres around me brought to mind Fisk's reference to Carl Sandburg's poem Grass:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass;
I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
On the CD player INXS provided the perfect soundtrack to my pessimistic mood:
The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us the devil inside
Here come the world
With the look in its eye
Future uncertain but certainly slight
Look at the faces
Listen to the bells
Its hard to believe we need a place called hell
After a quick turnaround at the airport I headed back to town in the same frame of mind, contemplating man's ceaseless cruelty to his fellow man. Blood feuds, internments, firing squads...
But as I crossed the fields, things looked different. The sky in the east was lightening and the misty fields seemed less funereal. The impending dawn changed the mood from death and mourning to one of anticipation. No matter what terrible secrets the grass concealed, it's dewy lushness also held the promise of life. The mist no longer a shroud, but the cottony wrapping of a brand new day.
Just as the sun peeked over the crest of Mount Dajti, flooding the flats with sharp clear light, INXS added their voice:
Sleep baby sleep
Now that the night is over
And the sun comes like a god
Into our room
All perfect light and promises
That quickly life changes. I dropped the windows and let the cold wind blast my head clear. Cranked the volume up and sucked in lungfuls of crisp morning air. Mssrs. Farris and Hutchence wailed on about "a new sensation" while I reveled in my new frame of mind. Tirana glowed fresh in the morning light. Quiet, lying motionless in a brief calm before the day's business begins. I parked and dashed into the local bakery for a fresh-from-the-oven loaf of bread. I ate it as I ambled down the sidewalk, senses awash in bread smell, chilly air, and all the anticipation of what may come next.