It is logistically difficult to leave Tirana, Albania. The traffic is fast and erratic, people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what really is, and the Albanian government hasn’t gotten around to constructing a central bus station yet. Buses leave from various points around the city. Location of these departure points depends on where the bus is headed. There isn’t any published bus schedule that you can go and pick up and hold in your hands. You have to ask someone: which is where the problem of people telling you what you want to hear instead of what is true comes in. Albanians, in my experience, are a very helpful people. They want you to have a good time in their country. They want to appear westernized and hip and cool. They’ll tell you, sure, the bus to Montenegro leaves from right here every day at 10:00. That might not be true but it sounds good and reasonable. I had taken to asking about 6 to 10 people the same question then pooling the results and going with the common one. There are a few things posted online by people who have traveled a lot in the region that are surprisingly accurate. They provide a very good outline from which to work. The catch is that things like bus departure points change often in Albania, sometimes by just a few blocks but that’s enough to play havoc with any travel plan you may have. The most reliable tactic is to get in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the bus that goes to X, X being wherever it is you want to go. Taxis aren’t at all hard to find in Tirana; there seem to be stands every few blocks especially near the city center. Sometimes the drivers are a little more difficult to track down, though.
It was about 9:00 on a Sunday morning and the sun had been up for hours. I found a taxi parked neatly in a taxi stand with its front passenger door open but no actual driver. A local saw me standing in front of it with my suitcase and held up a finger in the universal ‘wait a minute’ gesture. He hurried into a little bodega and emerged a few minutes later with another man. The man strode quickly over to me, popped my suitcase into the trunk, and opened the back door for me to get in. He had a greying neatly trimmed mustache and short salt and pepper hair. He was dressed nicely in a dark blue sweater, a collared blue and white shirt and dark pants. I noticed that his black shoes were recently polished and his eyes had a sparkle to them. His English was excellent too.
“My name is Nderim.,” he said
“I’m Maeve. And thank you!” I said, “I need to go to the bus that will take me to Macedonia.”
“Yes, thank you. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes, yes. Three euros.”
I nodded. We pulled into traffic.
“Do you know what time the bus leaves?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Nderim, “It leaves at 10:00. In 30 minutes.”
I nodded again. Great. That coincided with the other information I had gathered.
“But,” he said, “If you like, I can take you all the way to the border for 50 euros.”
He nodded and looked at me through the rear view mirror a small smile on his face.
“Sure!” I said, “Why not? That sound’s great.”
His smile transformed into an all out grin. “I just need to make a call,” he said excitedly. I nodded, a bit amused by his palatable joy.
I settled into the back seat of the cab, as we turned right, heading east out of the city. I thought back to all the warnings and cautionary tales I had heard in my life: so many of them stressing the importance of never ever getting into cars with strangers. I’m pretty certain none of them ever said it was a good idea to take an Albanian taxi driver up on his offer to drive you to the border. I rolled this over in my mind. The hairs on the back of me neck were definitely not standing up, nothing was screaming ‘Danger!’ Is this how it begins, though? The beginning of the end, the act that will mark my demise? I could see my friend Sharon in my mind smack in the middle of a dissertation on the dangers of travelling alone as a woman. I hadn’t been listening all that closely at the time and now could only really recall her pursed lips and wide horrified eyes as she described some horrible thing that might happen to me. Sharon hardly ever traveled and most especially never by herself. The world frightened her in ways I couldn’t understand. She believed most people were out to get you, that everyone had a hidden agenda. I just thought most people were doing the best they could. I thought, just as Anne Frank did that, most people, really were good at heart. I couldn’t imagine living my life any other way. I thought about how poor, sweet Sharon would be aghast to know that I was in the back of a taxi leaving the city limits and speeding towards the Albanian countryside. I felt a little sorry for her.
We were now in a more rundown area of Tirana. There were lots of little shacks with tires piled up in front of them and a few gas stations and garages. Vehicles in various states of disrepair were parked in any available spot be it sidewalk, parking lot, or the side of the road. Nderim pulled up to a small garage and asked the guy who poked his head out from around a car a question. The guy answered and Nderim waved a thank you and we pulled back into the traffic.
“Wrong place.” he said to me “Just need to make one stop. Don’t worry.” I shrugged. I wasn’t worried.
We pulled up in front of another shack. Towers of wheels and tires were piled all around a thin man who sat on the floor in the center. There was an air compressor next to him and wrenches scattered around. He came out to the sidewalk to confer with Nderim. They came to an agreement and the thin man rolled a tire out for consideration. Nderim poked his head inside the cab, “Just need a new tire. Don’t worry.” I smiled and nodded, strangely fascinated by the whole process. I wasn’t worried. Nderim stayed outside while the thin tire man worked. He jacked up the car (with me in it) and swapped out the back left tire for a new one. After giving the thin tire man a few bills, Nderim got back into the cab with a smile. “Ok,” he said, “All good.” We continued on our way through the outskirts of the city. The buildings and shacks were becoming less frequent. The sun was high up above the sparse landscape.
It was an achingly beautiful fall day, one of those days that seemed like a direct gift from someone or someplace holy; if that was something you believed in. I did believe in a version of that. It was tangled up with my belief of the power of earth and wind and sea and the sacredness of nature. I couldn’t imagine anything going wrong on a day such as this. The colors of Albania surprised me. They were so much more vibrant than I thought they would be, than I had been led to believe. Most of the descriptions I had read about it emphasized its poverty and bleakness. It was poor, that was obvious but there was also an intense, defiant, infectious optimism that was present in its brightly painted buildings and public sculpture, and in it’s people. Albanians had emerged gasping for air from its oppressive communist past. They were working hard to build up their cities, to entice foreigners to come and visit even though most of the locals were completely flabbergasted when they did. On the day I visited the Museum of Natural History, a young man in a black velvet coat approached me. He wanted to give me a tour of his city. I declined, saying that I much preferred to simply wander about on my own. “Ok, ok,” he said, “but I have to ask you why you have come here? To Albania?”
“Because,” I said, “I wanted to see it before you got a Starbucks.”
‘A Star What?” he said.
Nderim was on the phone again. His voice rose excitedly and I wondered if he was speaking to his wife, telling her that some crazy American girl was paying him 50 euros to drive her to the border. “Maeve,” he said, “We’re going to stop and meet up with my son. He has a better car to drive. Ok?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. About 15 minutes later, we pulled into a dirt parking lot in front of a wood structure with a porch. There was a sign hanging from the porch that said ‘cafe’. We parked next to a silver sedan that a young man was leaning against. “My son, Zef.” Nderim said proudly. I got out as Zef was already moving my bag from the trunk of the taxi to his own car. He shook my hand with a charming smile. “Nice to meet you. You’re American?” I nodded. He looked to be in his early twenties. His hair was short and he wore a blue polo shirt and grey sweatpants. His handshake was firm and his eyes were playful. I liked him immediately. Nderim came back from the store with a white plastic bag. He pulled out a chocolate croissant and a Coca-Cola and handed them to me. The three of us got into Zef’s silver sedan and we were off, headed once again toward the Macedonian border. It was noon now and I was grateful for the croissant, as my stomach had started to rumble.
“What kind of music do you want to listen to?” Zef asked, “Albanian or American?”
“I’m fine with either,” I said. Zef turned the dial until it landed on some American pop station playing Taylor Swift. In keeping with the perfect day theme, both his and Nderim’s heads started bobbing in time with the beat. This made me uncontrollably happy. I gazed out the window, my head bobbing along as well. There was a lot of empty land out there, lots of dirt stretching toward some distant mountains. Trees jutted up here and there sometimes in clumps of twos or threes but mostly just one. Every 15-20 kilometers we would pass through a collection of about 7 or 8 buildings that I assumed were what constituted a town. There was usually a gas station and something made of brick that said ‘Café’. Often there was also a market and a structure or two that seemed to be vacant. They all looked very much the same as they slid past the windows of the car.
“Are you good?” Zef asked, “Hungry? Are you hot? You can open the window if you want”
“I’m good,” I said. Zef smiled at me through the rear view mirror.
“Do you have an iPhone?”
“Um, yes. Why?”
“How much? How much do they cost in America?”
“They’re expensive. 500 dollars or so.”
He nodded. That answer seemed to satisfy him and I wondered why this was a question he felt compelled to ask me. I knew from wandering around Tirana that there was a great interest in the newest and latest electronics evidenced by the plethora of cellphone stores. There seemed to be a Vodaphone store on every corner, sort of like the ridiculous presence of Starbucks stores in New York City. I had no idea how much an iPhone cost in Albania and decided I should look that up later.
“Are you married?” Zef suddenly asked. I laughed at the shift from electronics to marital status.
“Yes.” I said, even though I wasn’t. I knew from experience that it was just easier to say yes. So many questions would follow a ‘no’ answer and it was virtually impossible to adequately explain the ‘no’ in this part of the world.
“No,” I said, “No, children.”
“But you want them?”
I smiled and again went with the easy, though untrue answer. “Sure.”
I knew that it would be very difficult for these two men to understand why I wouldn’t want children. To them, family was everything. It was why Nderim got up every day and put on his best shoes and drove his cab all over the city. It was also why he had offered to take me all the way to the border. And it was why Zef was here now keeping his father company for the three and half hour drive. Children had just never entered into the equation of what my life was going to be. I had never intended to have them; which was an even harder position to defend than either ‘time got away from me’ or ‘I haven’t meant the right person yet TO have children with’ ones. I had decided long ago that my nurturing energies would be focused on protecting and caring as best I could for this planet of ours. I wasn’t sure how good of a job I was doing but I had remained steadfast in my intentions. Which is more than can be said about a lot of people.
“Where do you live in America?” Zef asked from the front seat.
“What? Oh, New York City.”
“New York City! I want to go there so much. To Times Square and the lights. I’ve seen pictures and videos on YouTube. The city that never sleeps. I want to see the Yankees play. Do you like the Yankees?”
Zef fell silent, thinking, I supposed, about New York City and the lights and the Yankees. It was afternoon now and the sun was starting its daily descent to meet the horizon. We passed through a few more small groups of buildings.
Zef and his father exchanged words in Albanian and we pulled off the road in front of a single low brick structure with one gas pump. Zef steered the car to the back and we parked. There was a second white brick building behind the first and Zef motioned for me to come in. The room we entered was big and sparsely occupied. There was a counter bar in one corner with a man in black pants and shirt and a white apron behind it. Three tables with chairs were positioned a few feet form it in front of one of the windows. On the opposite wall was a door marked ‘Toilet’. The rest of the room was empty. Nderim ordered from the man.
“Do you want something?” he asked me.
“Sure.” I said, “Whatever you’re having.”
Two plates of steamed rice topped with cheese arrived a few minutes later. Though simple, it was some of the best rice I had ever had. When the bill came, I tried to give money to pay but Nderim emphatically refused. I was touched by his generosity. I hadn’t realized that my fifty euros included food too. Both Nderim and Zef seemed to want to take care of me, perhaps because I was a woman on her own far from home. I know I never would have stopped at such a tiny remote place had I been by myself and I was grateful for the chance to see this part of Albania, and the chance to spend time with some genuinely nice people.
“We’re almost there!” Zef said as we got back into the car. As we pulled back out onto the highway, an INXS song came on the radio. Zef turned it up and suddenly we were all singing ‘Suicide Blond’ at the top of our lungs as we sped down the highway. The landscape slid quickly by the open window as we continued our eastward journey to the border. Finally there was a sign indicating that we were, indeed, very close and Zef slowed the car down.
“Where are you going in Macedonia?” Zderim asked.
“Ohrid.” I said. Ohrid was only 40 kilometers or so from the border.
“We would like to go all the way with you but we don’t have the papers.” Nderim said, “We’ll get you someone to take you though.”
“Oh, ok. Yes, thank you.” I said.
We pulled into a parking lot next to about 8 or 9 other taxis. Up ahead was the border crossing. A long line of 18-wheeler trucks stretched for quite a ways in both directions from the checkpoint. There were 6 windows with guards for each direction and a low brick building with glass double doors in the middle. We all got out of the car and Nderim went and talked with the group of drivers hanging around their cabs.
“Ok,” he said as he motioned to one of them “He’ll take you to Ohrid for 10 Euros.”
“Great!” I said. Zef moved my bag from the back of his car to the waiting taxi.
The three of us then stood awkwardly in a small semi circle for a few seconds until I pulled out my phone and asked to take their photo. They agreed.
“Thank you so much,” I said. I wrote my email address on a piece of scrap paper for Zef. “Please, if you get to New York City, let me know. I’ll buy you dinner.”
He beamed and put the paper into his wallet.
“Be safe,” Nderim said, “Be safe.”
“I will.” I hugged him and then Zef. I was going to miss them both.
I climbed into the waiting cab and it joined the line of cars cued to go through the checkpoint. At the guard shack, a jolly smiling guard asked me where I was going and where I had been. She stamped my passport and wished me well. I turned around to look out the back window as we moved forward. Nderim and Zef were still standing there, waving. I waved back, watching them until they disappeared from view.