Sunday, December 13, 2009
Fast forward a few years and I'm in Tirana trying to stay up with the growing numbers of foreign travellers who visit this country. Google Blogs gives a hit on a pair of cyclists who are in Dubrovnik trying to assess the possibility of biking through Albania on their way from Portugal to Jordan. Yeah, I know. Long ride.
Anyway, I drop a comment on their blog and encourage them to come on down. A few days later, I'm sitting in a restaurant chatting with Heba Aly and Richard as they enjoy the experience of coming to Albania. Well, I think they were enjoying it. You'll have to keep up with their blogging to see how they feel. I hope to hear good things from them as they experience the ride over Qafe Llogara in December.
The title of this post? It comes from a former co-worker who once enlightened me on the facts of meeting celebrities in LA. He divided referred to a fleeting contact with a famous person as "a brush." As in "a brush with fame." There are two kinds: direct brushes where you meet a celebrity, and the indirect brush where you meet someone associated with a famous person. Like meeting Cher's stylist or Tiger Woods' marriage counselor.... What? Too soon?
Anyway, I had a direct brush with Heba Aly. I hope she invites me to her Pulitzer Prize ceremony. If she survives Llogara!
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Hence the title of this entry.
Remember? Burt Reynolds? Deliverance? Trying to get directions from the hillbillies? I often feel his pain when I try to get directions here in Albania. Even with my ability to communicate in Albanian, I end up being led like a kurban lamb through the narrow maze of streets. Albanians just can not give directions.
I suspect many factors have combined to create this effect. The first is the tribal nature of the people. In the tightly-knit isolated communities of ancient Albania, everyone knew everyone who was within travelling distance. No need to describe how to get to Uncle Genci's house because anyone who needed to go there had already been taken there once for a wedding, birth, death, birthday, engagement, or holiday celebration. The only directions needed were, "Go to Uncle Genci's house". Second, this clannish-ness and isolation made any travellers immediately suspect. If they asked for directions, it might not be wise to be too precise. Who knows what this travelling foreigner has in mind? Much safer to say a lot and tell nothing. On top of this insularity, the Communist regime spread a creamy frosting of paranoia and secrecy. Accurate maps were state secrets. If you need to go somewhere, the party will send a driver. No need for you to clutter your mind with accurate directions.
So today a simple question such as' "How do I get to the Post Office?" will be answered with:
"I'll take your letter for you." (This avoids the need to give directions and provides an opportunity to display hospitality. Bonus!)
"Come with me. I'll take you." (Ditto)
"Don't make yourself tired. Get a cab." (Shows concern for your tiredness and allows you to impress with your wealth.)
"Post Office? Don't send things through the post. They're all thieves and cheaters. The lines are so long because the workers are lazy. Oh, god! The Post Office? I tried to pay my phone bill last week and I waited for two hours in line and my knees were killing me... you know how bad my knees are?... Anyway, I wait two hours and this idiot behind the counter tries to tell me ...". Ad infinitum.
If you can pin someone down and insist they provide directions, you run up against linguistics and urban planning. An American will tell you to go two blocks north, left on Main Street, and then 200 yards along to the Post Office on the right. This simple procedure will fail here because Albanians don't think in terms of cardinal directions. They grew up without detailed maps. Speaking about north,south, east, or west gets you a "stunned mullet" look.
Tirana's layout also makes the term "block" useless. No regular grid pattern here, thank you very much. A block is the distance between two streets, but what counts as a street? Do alleyways wide enough for a donkey but not a car count? Street names? Forget it. They've been renamed more times than Prince! In a single lifetime a street will have changed from it's original name based on what town it led to, to an Italian name, to the name of a partisan, to Kruschev Street, then to an Albanian Communist's name after the split with the Soviets, then to it's original name, and then finally to Rruga Xhorxh Bushi in a fit of subservience to the only sitting U.S. President to ever visit Albania. Street names don't mean shit. So what do you get?
First, they will establish a mutually understood landmark near your destination. "Do you know the theater/museum/shoe factory?" Of course you will say "No" because you don't recall ever seeing any of those structures in this part of town despite ten years of wandering around Tirana. This is because they are referring to what the building used to be under Communism.
For example, "te eksposita Shqiperia sot" refers to the building that used to house the Albania Today exposition. It's a warehouse/gas station now. "Te pesembidhjete katesh" literally translates to "to the fifteen-story (building)" which everyone knows is the Tirana International Hotel because it was the only building over ten floors in the country for a very long time. Now it's one of fifty. Likewise, "te xhamlliku" translates as "to the place of glass" meaning a building which was notable for it's modern all-glass facade .... in 1972! Today there's no glass at Xhamlliku but a hundred other modern buildings sport glass facades. Guess which building they still call Xhamlliku? The ultimate insider's landmark is "te qimi" which refers to building which once housed a restaurant. Was the restaurant called Qimi? No, the name of the restaurant is forgotten, but what lingers is the memory of the woolen upholstery on the seats which were long and hairy. Te qimi means "to the hair".
Once the landmark is clarified and agreed, directions are given from there and language fails. Commonly used directions are:
me poshte - lower down
me lart - higher up
me tutje - more this way
matane - more on that side
me afer - closer
me larg - farther
A rough translation of the ensuing directions goes like this:
"How do I get to the Post Office?"
"Go to the hair."
"Near the madrassa?"
"Yes. Then continue higher up."
"Up the hill?"
"No, it's flat. Continue 'up' away from the center of town about ten minutes."
"What do I know? Ten minutes... on the bus."
"All the way to the porcelain factory?"
"No, more this way."
"Pass the chimney but don't pass the police station."
"Which side of the road is it on?"
"Next to the bakery."
"Do you want me to take your letter for you?"
Monday, November 2, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Sunday, June 21, 2009
His prologue sets you up nicely to understand the whys and wherefores of his trip. His narrative of travel in Albania is tied neatly into one of the dominant features of his ride, the switchbacks of Qafe Llogara. His first entry leads from an unlucky breakfast of pace in Saranda to the base of the pass before starting up. As he starts up the pass, he weaves his tale of travel in with the hardships of riding up that incredibly steep incline. While tackling switchback #2, he describes the travails of getting himself and his bike into Tirana. Laboring up switchback #3 gives him time to describe the experience of Albanian hospitality in Korca and the surrounding environs.
The bad news is we have to wait for more of his fantastic writing. The good news is Llogara has five huge switchbacks so we can anticipate two more helpings of his unique insight into life here in Albania.
Te lumte, John!
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Wait, it works in Albanian, "Ose Shqiptare, ose hic fare!"
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
So can you guess where I went?
Hey .... This isn't Zurich!
Thursday, May 7, 2009
The more the merrier!
Monday, April 27, 2009
To confirm my impressions, The Guardian newspaper has published its #1 backpacker destination for 2009 and the winner is ... (may I have the envelope, please?) ... Albania! The article is well written and gives some hint of the increased level of interest in holidays here due to the combination of daily flights from London and the financial crisis making travellers look closer to home for exotic holiday destinations. I only have a few quibbles with the author.
First, he refers to the beach at Dhermi as "Drymades" which is the Greek name for the village. This could make it tough for a traveller to find the place as all the maps and road signs list it by the Albanian name, naturally. Second, he raves about buying a mojito for "only" 3 pounds Sterling. For that you could get 2 liters of fantastic red wine or more raki than you can possibly drink. You want cheap mojitos? Go to Cuba.
Now that the secret is out, I expect it will be harder to find a deserted stretch of beach this year. Oh well, I'll just have to look a little harder. I can hardly wait!
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The little trees lining these stretches of street were planted in February and are just starting to green. It will be years before they come close to fulfilling their potential, but it's a wonderful beginning.
One day every street in Tirana will be as lush and shade-dappled as this one with an overhead view like the one below.
For these things I like Edi. I also like the good folks at Raiffiesen Bank, BKT, Tirana Bank, and many others who are co-sponsoring this effort. They are taking the small steps necessary to lift the quality of life for everyone who lives (and breathes) in Tirana. They may not have been raised on Dr. Seuss like I was, but they must understand the sentiments of the last lines of the "The Lorax:"
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word... "UNLESS."
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess.
"But now," says the Once-ler, "Now that you're here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Evidently, so does the modern road from Wales to Kamchatka. I had the great pleasure of making the acquaintance of Walter Colebatch and his fellow adventurers, Marcin and Jon, as they passed through Albania on the first stage of the Sibirsky Extreme Challenge. They are at the beginning of a ten-month effort to ride to the northern-most and eastern-most point of Asia ever attained on two wheels. To warm up for the effort, they plotted a route through 20 countries in 15 days. Albania was country number 11. The three of them are great guys with boundless appetite for adventure.
They were extremely impressed by Albania and Tirana. It helped that they stayed overnight when the government was throwing its big "Whoo-hoo-we-just-got-into-NATO-take-that-Enver-Hoxha" party. The streets were mobbed. UB-40 was playing in the square. And hordes of enthusiastic NATO cheerleaders were racing around, hanging out the windows of their cars waving Albanian and NATO flags. I played it off like a normal Sunday night in Tirana, which, now that I think of it, wasn't far off!
If you like bikes, travel, adventure, and an unshaven Polish biker just hop over to their blog and follow them on the journey of a lifetime. If you're in the Albanian tourism industry, pay attention. It's people like this who will be the fastest growing segment of the Western tourism market. Albania still has the cachet of being unexplored country full of adventure. As the physical infrastructure improvements bring the title of this post closer to reality, I sure hope the entrepreneurs here will entice a few more thrill seekers like Walter and his compadres.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Albania has all the ingredients necessary for life-threatening landslides. To call the terrain mountainous is a slight understatement. From the air, the country looks like it was crumpled up and tossed aside by the forces of nature. The geology of the area also contributes to the landslide risks. Sedimentary layers of varying materials, some volcanic deposits, and silt buildups are inherently unstable. Factor in the human elements of deforestation, neglect of infrastructure maintenance, and shoddy construction and the recipe for disaster is nearly complete. Just add rain.
Add rain we did. As I write, we enter the fifth month in a row where we've had more rainy days than not. Great for the trees and flower. Not so great for soil stability. Full reservoirs have a way of pointing out weakness in the dams that hold them back. Near Kryevidh local authorities rushed to drain a lake that was threatening to collapse the earthen dam that held it back. Today there was word of another reservoir under threat because of a "karstic sinkhole" developing below the dam. I don't know the difference between a karstic or non-karstic sinkhole, but I have seen pictures of sinkholes swallowing neighborhoods in Florida so I know it ain't good.
Those dams have held so far. Hillsides are another story. The most serious was a landslide at Synej near Kavaje. At last count, eight houses were destroyed or uninhabitable due to the movement of the earth. Looking at the video, you can see how all of the factors for landsliding are present. No ground cover, construction in obviously unstable terrain, loose soil, and buckets of rain. The same story is being played out across the country. Trebinje, near Pogradec, has seen the "reactivation" of a previous landslide that now threatens to destroy some homes. The mountain passes of Qafe Mali and Qafe Shllak have each been repeatedly blocked as mud and rocks cascade over the roadway.
Can we make the rain stop now? Please.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
The government had to call out the heavy equipment to clear this road.
Farther north, Kolin in Shkoder reported snow on the ground in this northern city which is nearly at sea level. I shudder at the though of what driving conditions were like. Oh, wait! Who needs to imagine when, through the magic of YouTube, you can experience the insanity of Albanian driving in the snow first-hand. It's guys like this who don't have the sense to stay home that lead to things like the 200-car traffic jam on Qafe Mali between Kukes and Puke last week. Four buses with women and children ended up spending two nights stranded in the snow. Over 100 other cars were trapped on the remote Qafe Buall pass when the front-end loader sent to clear the pass ran out of gas in the middle of the road. Classic!
Friday, March 6, 2009
That day has come. This blog post entitled "Albania's 1996 Ponzi scheme frenzy: So, what's America's excuse? is an interesting look back at what happened here and how the Western Capitalist World "tut-tutted" at the naivete of Albanians. Who's laughing now?
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
As I travel around I alway assess each new trip with a motorcyclists' eye. The road from Vlora to Sarande is twisty enough to keep you on your toes. The mountains between Gjirokaster and Permet have great off-road potential. Imagine the thrill of riding to Theth ... Oh wait! Someone else has done it. Damn!
An adventurous Czech company has organized a tour which includes Albania and I have to find out about it through a Google Search? Bummer. Check out part one and part two of their adventure. Even if you aren't a biker, you'll love the pictures of Northern Albania.
I really need to get to work on setting this up before I;m too old to heave a leg over a bike and head off into the hills!
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Friday, January 23, 2009
Albanians are a little closer to the source. The threats to their lives and existence aren't all that far in the past. Plus they have a huge number of cultural sources which contributed to their arsenal of superstitious rituals. I suppose if I lived in a land that was continually invaded by neighboring powers; attacked by pirates; ruled by despots; plundered by empires; subject to flooding, earthquakes, wildfires, landslides; and burdened with a traditon of revenge killing, I would hoard and employ every talisman possible.
Any visitor to Albania will be familiar with the dordolec. The term roughly translates to "scarecrow" and is used to ward off the evil eye. The phenomenon is so common it gave rise to a scholarly tract by Kirstin Petersen-Bidoshi. Kolin in Shkoder has an excellent entry in his blog about this practice. I was prodded to add my two cents to the discussion when I saw the latest version of this totem.
At first I thought I was witnessing the aftermath of a suicide. Hanging by the neck from the third floor balcony of a newly built villa near student city was a young girl. Dressed in red, shoes still on, a string of fake pearls dangling below the cord that bit into her neck. Her hands missing, replaced by three-inch screws .... wait a minute! Thats a mannequin! Evidently the concept of outdoing your neighbor even extends to protecting your new house from the covetous gaze of passers by.
The theory behind the practice is based on the belief that the gaze of certain people has the power to curse an object. Some people believe the power is only resident in certain classes of people. The Roma, are often suspected of having this power. Blue-eyed people are also more likely to be credited with the ability to curse with their gaze. Others believe the power comes from the intention of the person looking. If they look with envy or jealousy, those emotions are the source of the curse. Hence the dorodolec. If the eyes of the onlooker are distracted to the talisman, the curse is misdirected and the object being protected is spared the inevitable misfortune.
The Egyptians held similar beliefs. Also the Greeks, Romans, Hindu's, and nearly every Mediterranean culture. They each countered the threat in different ways. Turks use the nazar, a symbol resembling an eye. You see it on boats, airplanes, and on charms worn around the neck. Vehicles also sport the modern version of the nazar in the form of a compact disc dangling from the rear view mirror. It's shimmering presence quickly draws your eye, saving the car from the curse of your envy. Afghan and Pakistani "jingle trucks" are the apotheosis of this practice. Covered in all manner of garish, sparkly doodads, they afford little chance for you to covet the truck since you can hardly recognized its form under all the junk!
Yes, the dordolec is alive and well in Albania. I've seen Mickey Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and all four of the Teletubbies dangling from the top of houses. I must admit I think the Teletubbies deserve it. "Where's your hat now, Dipsy?" The talisman isn't limited to dolls. Garlic is often used as are horse shoes. It's all part of the constant battle against misfortune which crops up again and again in daily life here.
You hear it in the loving babble of grandparents who coo "O te keqen!" at every child. It's short for "Te marrsha te keqen" which loosley translates to "May I take the evil." It's a compliment that implies the child is so innocent and beautiful that the adult wishes to suffer all misfortune in the child's place.
Other verbal talismans include "Larg qoft!" which you hear in relation to expressed fears about illness or misfortune: "I'm worried little Flutura might catch cold at school."
"Larg qoft!" ("May it stay far away!")
The first time I tried to use this phrase I said "Larg qofte" meaning "distant meatballs!"
Marshallah is also very common as it is the only really safe way to compliment a child without the risk of calling misfortune on the child. Spitting evidently helps too. I suppose a child covered in spittle is less likely to draw an envious gaze and susequent curse. OK, they don't really spit. The practice has evolved from expectoration to just making a vocalized noise reminiscent of spitting. It sounds like "pu-pu-pu-pu-pu" and is used in conjunction with marshallah and te keqen.
There's a lot of superstitions that I am only just learning about. For instance, if you inadvertantly point a knife at someone, you must quickly tap the point of the knife three times on the ground. As strange as this seems, it pales in comparison with the latest custom I stumbled on.
While talking with co-workers about these practices, two females whispered something between themselves, giggled, and looked away. Of course I had to ask what was up. It took a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get them to speak up. Evidently, the only sure-fire protection from evil is for a woman to briefly touch herself. Yes, there! It can done through the clothing, but to ensure the strongest protection the touch must be skin-to-skin.
I was skeptical at first, but the all-knowing Wikipedia convinced me it could be a very ancient practice. The power of the "evil eye" was thought to bring a curse of withering in ancient times. The evil eye could bring drought, shrivelling, dessication, and infertility. To protect male children, an amulet shaped like a phallus was tied around their neck. Further protection was provided by a female presence. Proximity to the source of reproduction and fertility countered the dessicating effects of the curse. To this day, Albanian women invoke the mystic power of their reproductive organs in defense of themselves and their loved ones.
Distant meatballs, indeed.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Maybe it's just a case of "the more you have, the more you need!" Seriously, Tirana was lit up like never before this year. A lot more of the shops and homes got into the act with beautiful displays as some very garish lights. Gezuar Vitin i Ri!
Monday, January 5, 2009
Oh, the traffic was bad enough this year. The head of the border police, Pellumb Nako, reported over 100,000 vehicles had crossed into Albania for the New Year holiday. That seems like a lot, but the streets of Tirana were teeming with Greek and Italian license-plated cars and I'm sure the situation was the same in all the major cities of Albania. Despite this deluge, there were relatively few reported traffic accidents. The weather was also very bad for driving, with up to a meter of snow in the mountains.
There were some crashes, including a few fatalities, mostly on the Highways of Death listed below. One unusual accident did grab my attention. Seems a late-night reveler got a little frisky with the throttle in the rain while heading down the boulevard next to the Lana river and went off the road. I imagine the internal dialogue went something like this:
"I can probably go just a little faster here..... Ooops, starting to slide left, better hit the brakes! Damn, where'd that curb come from. This is gonna suck! OK, a rollover. Not too bad. Car skidding along the grass on its roof .... Oh crap! Not the river, not the river. Get ready to roll again. What? Upside down IN the river. OK, it's not so bad. It's not too deep.... But it's the Lana!"
No doubt this driver headed home quickly for a long, hot shower. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of strolling along the Lana, let me illuminate you. The river serves as informal sewer for a good part of Tirana and is populated only by the elusive "Lana Brown Trout," if you get my meaning.