Scarecrows and Teddy Bears
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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We don't know all this, of course, while we are chatting to Sam and Oliver. It dawns on me at the time that, to my shame as the son of a geography professor, I don't have the foggiest idea where Albania is, nor any cities or places of interest in it. In fact, I only know two things about Albania. The first is that they are involved in this Kosovo dispute, but I don't know the details. Someone else can sort that out. The second is that, around the start of the twentieth century, international cricketer and world long jump record holder CB Fry was, bizarrely, offered the throne of Albania. The fact that he turned down the offer always made me think that there must be something odd about the place.
Initial signs, from the time we head across the border and into the Albanian countryside, are that the impression I gleaned from CB Fry might have some basis. The people look a bit peculiar, such as the guy on the bus who looks like Mel Gibson circa Lethal Weapon, massive mullet and all, crossed with Sylvester Stallone at the end of a Rocky movie once he's had the his face punched two hundred times. That's fine, every country has their Mel Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon-lookalike.
The landscape is dotted with thousands and thousands of small military bunkers. They range in size from that of an upturned beer garden umbrella to that of a two storey house. Like crash-landed UFOs they sit quietly, in people's backyards, on farms, between shops; a strange, almost decorative addition to the environment.
The bus winds slowly up and down the mountains of rural Albania. There are a huge number of partially-built houses. I would guess that as many as one in three buildings are in a state of unfinished construction, as though the builders all up and left for two weeks at Lake Ohrid ("Pack your bags, Mel - it's on the banks of Europe's deepest lake!") having built half a house, and never came back. This is not all that unusual for this part of the world; Eastern Europe is full of empty shells, as if they got them half ready in anticipation of a housing boom that never came, or came and went too quickly. The strange thing about the Albanian half-built houses is that they are all adorned with either a scarecrow or a teddy bear that has been impaled on a protruding metal rod or lynched by the neck to hang limply from the roof. This macabre cultural idiosyncrasy is apparently intended to bring good luck to the home. If and when it ever becomes inhabited.
Another trivia question: Who is the only Albanian you've heard of?
Answer: Mother Teresa. They even named the country's largest airport after here.
Bonus fact: She was actually born in Macedonia. That's the Republic of Macedonia, not Greek Macedonia, for any hair-splitters out there.
Tirana, the capital, doesn't look to be much of anything when we get let out at one of the bus stations. It isn't really even a bus station, just a random dirty parking lot that contains some buses. Tirana doesn't even have a central bus station, juts a few of these odd little pick-up and drop-off spots. As you can imagine, this makes things like buying tickets and finding out schedules rather difficult, not to mention knowing where your bus will leave from.
Jane befriends four fellow Slovaks who have a guidebook to Albania, something we are lacking. They confidently stride off in the direction of the recommended hotel and we follow. Somewhere along Tirana's main street, I realise we don't have any Albanian money. Maybe they don't even use money here and prefer the traditional barter system:
"How much is the room?"
"That will be three goats, or two weeks' labour, or your second born child. Male only if you want an en suite bathroom."
Fortunately a Western Union bureau de change comes into view. The Slovaks wait outside and consult their guidebook while Jane and I go inside. The 12,907 Macedonian dinars we have left over equates to about 323 Canadian dollars. The man behind the plexiglass window, a squat, short-necked man with an Elvis-like lip, changes our money into Albanian leks, prints out a tiny receipt and pushes it all back to our side of the window. The Slovaks are waiting so we quickly make sure that the amount in our hands equals the amount printed on the receipt and catch up with them.
We settle into the hotel, thankfully payable in cash but twice the price indicated in the Slovak guidebook, then head out for dinner. At around nine o'clock, I sit on the saggy hotel bed and take another look at our money.
"Nineteen thousand three hundred and sixty leks," I announce to no one. "That doesn't seem right."
Jane's ears prick up. "What do you mean?"
"Well, I thought the exchange rate was more like two Albanian whatsits to one Macedonian thingee. This guy has given us one point five whatsits." I punch a few numbers into the calculator. "That's a difference of . . . six thousand four hundred and fifty-four lek. That's . . . eighty dollars!"
"Are you sure?"
"Right, let's go kick his arse."
We march back out into the quiet streets of Tirana clutching our little receipt and ready for a fight. The exchange guy is entitled to a commission, that's how these places work, but eighty bucks on a three hundred and twenty dollar transaction? No way.
Between our hotel and the Western Union office, we happen to pass the Albanian Police Headquarters, an imposing square edifice with several stony-faced policemen standing around outside. Jane walks up to one of them and asks if he speaks English. He doesn't, and neither do any of his colleagues. Fortunately, a couple of English-speaking young men passing by overhear our inquiries and come to help. We explain the situation to the young guys who translate into Albanian.
"He will call someone," says one of the English speakers. We thank him for their help and they continue on their way. After a few minutes, another policeman comes rushing over. He speaks a little English so we explain again, brandishing our postage stamp-sized receipt. He nods intently and confers with the first policeman, who also nods intently. A moment later, four more policemen walk briskly towards us, one hand on their guns. The assembled law-men discuss our predicament with much nodding and several of them make calls on their cell phones. Suddenly, three police cars come tearing around the corner, sirens wailing. We figure that there must be some serious emergency in Tirana and that the group of policemen will be called away to deal with it. Instead, the cars screech to a halt right in front of us and another seven or eight police officers burst out, like circus clowns out of a Mini. We feel like we are on one of those reality shows, like "Cops" and that someone is going to demand we "reach for the sky". The highest-ranking officer speaks some English and we explain our exchange dilemma once more.
"This is very serious," he declares, while we try to keep a straight face. "These officers will drive you to the exchange office and we will fix the situation immediately."
We climb into the back of one of the squad cars and race off onto the main road, siren blaring. The other two cars follow closely behind. Traffic veers to the side of the road and pedestrians dash for cover as we race through the streets. The police cars speed through red lights and take sharp corners like rally drivers, then stop abruptly outside the exchange office. Passers-by stop and look at the commotion, forming a small crowd. The security guard from the building that houses the exchange office, is an older gentleman who was no doubt settling in for a quiet night with his feet up. He leaps to attention when the parade of police officers begins outside. Once all the cars in the chasing pack have arrived and everyone has emptied out onto the footpath, there must be about a dozen cops milling around, including a young lady officer who speaks English. We explain our situation once more to her and she also nods seriously. The collective investigative skills of the Tirana police force determine that the Western Union office is in fact closed for the evening.
"That's okay, we'll come back tomorrow," we offer.
As it turns out, in the cold light of day, we don't really have much of a case. The Western Union office's published rate is indeed 1.5 leks per dinar. So, although we ended up paying a twenty-five percent commission and effectively losing eighty dollars, we don't have any legal legs to stand on. We just have to chalk it up to experience. Nonetheless, it was almost worth it to see the Tirana police force in full flight.