Albania: Day 1
How do I love thee…let me count the ways… as Elizabeth Barrett Browning would say after an afternoon like the one I had. After snappily and easily with a nod and a smile, crossing the border into Albania I spent the next few hours completely mesmerized. Traveling down the highway from Kosovo towards the capital of Albania in my Toyota Corolla with the wind blowing threw my hair, my GoPro hanging out the window and my ears popping relentlessly as I climbed in elevation and descended throughout the day.
The mountains and lakes of Albania during a beautiful 70 degree Autumn day will leave you speechless or even draw a tear or two. It did for me. The green, red and orange of the Albanian mountains and later at sunset the blue sky painted with brushes of yellow and hot pink as the sun set when pulling into Tirana is a lovely reminder that you are always in the presence of God.
Driving through the Balkans is how I suggest you tour this area given the ease of it and the number of countries that are covered not only by your one SIM card (that way you always have data and phone service) but your car insurance covers all these countries too (you can even go to Montenegro and Greece – both of which I have already visited but you will need to pay a surcharge for insurance in Montenegro at the border I believe) but, most importantly, I recommend you tour the Balkans by car because you can stop in the lovely villages/towns and have a gastronomical fiesta or, like I did today, stop for various photo ops. The legendary location I found was just on the other side of the Kosovo border about 10-20 km on the Albanian side and it was the stillest lake water I had ever laid eyes on and tucked not so discreetly in between the prodigious mountains. You could see the reflection of those mountains, the clouds and the little white houses with red rooftops reflected in the lake. It made me think of the myth of Narcissus because the water was so still. It must have been that lake he peered into.
Now the driving part can have its risks just like all things we do and I feel compelled to share those with you as well. I finally arrived in Tirana – the capital of Albania – at night and learned a few very valuable lessons about driving here that should be noted – one of which is very serious.
The first and not so serious one is you must go with the flow. Driving in the capital of Albania is like dancing the two-step on a very busy country western dance floor in the great state of Texas where some of those Cowboys can glide you through the traffic and some of them…well…not so much. It reminded me a lot of driving the motorbike in Thailand and crossing the streets in India…you just find a space and you go and do so brazenly and with utter confidence. I actually would say that I preferred the stick shift and the little hatchback for this chaotic dance as the stick shift kept me alert at all times and I got to do a little vroom vroom in and out of the tiny little spaces I could fit into with my little vroom vroom rental car. The confidence part was rather easy after I realized that I have been driving since 1990 which means that I have been driving at least a year longer than anyone in this country! This is because, I learned, that under the 45 year communist reign of Hoxha the Albanians weren’t allowed to drive unless they were granted special permission. Hard to believe but true so I would say – I’m a pro compared to these “teenage” drivers.
Secondly I learned, THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I CAN TEACH YOU, and I hope this once you are alarmed by what I tell you next so that you will hear me. I was abruptly reminded to always lock our car doors while on the road. I was at a red light in bumper to bumper traffic in downtown Tirana Albania with absolutely nowhere to go forward, backward, left or right as a result of the aforementioned traffic, when a man approached my vehicle, pulled open the driver’s side car door and forcefully and painfully grabbed my hand and tried to yank me from my vehicle. It didn’t appear that he wanted the car although I think he initially approached me for money. He saw me through the windshield and the creepiest of smiles crept across his face which told me it was most definitely me he wanted and, in that single solitary moment when all your worst nightmares flash before your eyes, you must not react with fear, or my common fallback which is kindness, but with anger and lots of it. I yelled at him loudly and sternly in an effort to assert that I wasn’t powerless and pulled my hand and arm back into the car in an effort to show my strength and so I could slam the door on his arm not mine and the moment the traffic began to move I gunned that little car half hanging out of it with the door swinging wide open until he had to let go of me or be dragged. I was reminded of sage advice I once heard and that is, despite what Liam Neeson might say, never let anyone take you no matter what because the likelihood is that whatever they are going to do with you is much worse than getting hurt at the scene of the incident or even death. So lock your doors folks and roll up your windows. And, finally, consider keeping a weapon with you. I’m not suggesting, just because I’m a Texas girl, that it be a gun but the only weapon I had near me was the GoPro stick which I would have used if I had needed to (and have carried like a weapon when I walked the streets of all these countries regardless of where I am) but tomorrow I will purchase a better one in town to keep on the seat next to me…perhaps a large knife.
Now, having said all this, and I was hesitant to share given my goal of encouraging travel abroad – even solo – it is imperative that you remember that this kind of thing can happen anywhere in the world, including on the street you live on in in your seemingly safe little neighborhood in the suburb nestled in some quiet town in the western world, and is neither a reflection on Albanians, the safeness of traveling in this country or your ability to travel alone. These are the same precautions you should take anywhere and was admittedly a failure on my part to act wisely. It is not my fault this happened but God did remind me today of my need to remain cautious and be prepared for the worst no matter I am. He also reminded me that I too have boundaries and am and should protect them.
That’s all for now. From Albania with love and lessons.