Introduction to Albania

Trip Start Aug 31, 2007
Trip End Apr 19, 2008

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Albania. It sounds mysterious, somehow. What does anyone really know about Albania? People have told me I shouldn't come here. The Croats on the train from Thessaloniki told me blood curdling stories and insisted I e-mail them when I've left safely. Even my mother wasn't sure I should visit, I assume based on some Communist impression of the country, which I'm too young to have picked up. A man at my Macedonian bus stop this morning was the last to try to dissuade me. "They're Muslims, you know," he says, his eyes communicating just as much meaning as his words. Yes, thank you. "You should go to Bulgaria." I explain I've already been. He is at a loss for other arguments. I would be worried, of course, but I think a certain amount of ethnic pride goes into everything the people of south eastern Europe say. The Romanians spent two weeks warning me about the Bulgarians. The Greeks can't stand the Macedonians, and the Macedonians, not to generalize too much, look down on anyone but themselves. I haven't even made it to Bosnia-Herzegovina or Serbia yet, but already it's not difficult to see how war broke out in this region in the 90s.

The border between Macedonia and Albania is my first walking border. Many people are mystified by the idea of walking across a border, but really, it's quite common. A bus drops two women and me at the Macedonian check point, where we are stamped out of that country. We then walk probably 700m to the Albanian check point, whence we negotiate a taxi to Pogradeci, the nearest town. I manage to find a mini-van headed for Tirana, the capital, but it's not leaving any time soon. They leave when full and at the moment, I'm the only one waiting. I sit down to read up on Albania.

A Brief History of Communism and Capitalism in Albania:

During Soviet times, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, one of the founding members of the Albanian Communist Party. In 1948, he severed connections with the Yugoslav communists, saying their brand of communism wasn't pure enough. He then became chummy with Moscow, but Hoxha, a hardcore Stalinist, broke with the Soviets in 1961, after refusing Khrushchev's demands for a submarine base in coastal Vlora and refuting many of the new Russia's communist ideals. The country reoriented itself with the People's Republic of China, undergoing its own brutal cultural revolution in 1966 an 1967. However, after Mao's death in 1976, Hoxha declared Chinese communism too revisionist as well and chose to go it alone. Life under Hoxha wasn't easy. One could be sentenced to ten years in the chrome mines for merely listening to foreign radio broadcasts. It didn't take long for the farmers to become disenchanted with collectivization, either, and food shortages were common, Albania having effectively isolated itself from any allies.

In 1985, Hoxha died and in the following years, his crumbling system fell apart completely. In June, 1990, 4500 people took refuge in western embassies across Tirana, eventually gaining refugee status in Italy, and as the first free elections approached in 1992, another 20,000 fled the country's crashing economy. Even today, it is estimated that a million Albanians are working abroad, out of a country of 3.5 million.

As in many eastern European countries, Albania's road to capitalism was a bumpy one. A huge smuggling racket evolved, bringing stolen Mercedes into the country from western Europe, and even today, I noticed a surprisingly high percentage (20-30%) of Mercs on Tirana's roads. Odd for Albania's population, 30% of whom live in poverty, no? Additionally, a decent number of collective farms became marijuana plantations in the new age. In 1996, pyramid investment schemes began to collapse as well, causing 70& of Albanians to lose their savings. However, benefits are arriving as wages have doubled since 1998 and the economy has stabilized.

End of Brief History

Driving through Albania, I am forced to wonder how this country feeds itself. Three-quarters of the land is hills and mountains, and these aren't verdant, green, fertile hills, but rather rocky, sharp, cliff bearing hills. Hoxha terraced a lot of them (leading to massive erosion problems) but I still don't see where they grow their food.

No matter, the mini-van is finally off, charging along the mountain ringed shores of Lake Ohrid, after half an hour of waiting and another half hour wandering town trying to round up people wanting to go to Tirana. As we climb into the mountains, I meet my fellow travellers: a husband, wife, and baby, and five teenagers with an affinity for Green Day, headed to the capital for a weekend of partying. We swing along windy mountain roads, past numerous gravestones, looking down at sheer drops and gorgeous scenery while singing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "American Idiot." Conveniently, I have told them I'm Canadian.

At the nice Tirana Backpacker's Hostel, the power is out. "We'll do check-in later," the man explains. I have heard of this problem, and that the power cuts can be scheduled or random. During my first five hours in town, I experience three outages, or perhaps it would better described as two periods when there is actually power. The outages each last between thirty minutes and an hour, and walking down the street, I see most businesses have generators chained outside to combat this problem. The more expensive restaurants and cafes have large, industrial-size machines, measuring up to six feet in length, while the smaller, hole-in-the wall groceries and bakeries simply do business in the dark.

It is raining in Tirana. I have been plagued since rain since I left Bucharest nearly three weeks ago. It seems I can't go two days without it, so I'm working on dealing with it. I walk along the irrefutably brown Lana River and up to the main square. They may not have power (in the absence of traffic lights, policemen with piercing whistles are doing a very respectable job of directing) but the sidewalks are in excellent repair and my feet stay dry. In the main square is a statue of national hero Skanderbeg and on the edge, another beautiful mosque.

These being the main sights I had wanted to see in Tirana and my having seen them in fifteen minutes, I decide to take a stroll to the bus station and try to absorb more of the city's atmosphere. The street fronts are filled with shops selling shoes and clothes and lots of little fast food joints selling hamburgers, hot dogs, and souvlaki. Looking up, I notice the multi-coloured building fronts above the stores. The current mayor, in an urban-renewal effort, has had most of the city's apartment blocks painted any number of bright colours. It's kind of cool. However, by now I am quite wet and head back to the hostel to dry off.

Tirana's Prague Factor:
Well, Tirana is no Prague. Nice enough city, but nothing old and the river smells. 18%.
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