THE MENTOR – Cardigan sweater and glasses, endless supply of coffee and biscuits. Because every adventure needs a nice old lady to send you on your way.
“It’s no problem,” the B&B proprietor told me in her thick Albanian accent. “Buses for Tirana leave every hour.”
I stirred the sludge at the bottom of my Turkish coffee, sitting on its saucer and lace doily. I was suspicious.
“And where is the bus stop?” It was kind of a trick question.
“At the end of the road, by the café between the two petrol stations.”
I nodded. This wasn’t going to be a bus at all.
I smiled, sucked down the rest of my coffee, thanked the B&B owner, grabbed my bag, and headed down the hill.
On a map, Gjirokaster is only 230km from Tirana. In any other European country, you’d walk to the train station at the center of town, sip an espresso while you waited for your train, hand a grumpy conductor your ticket, and gently rock your way back to the capital in a couple of hours. Or maybe you’d go to a bus station, slightly outside of town, and sit on a bench at a numbered stall, waiting for an air-conditioned vehicle to whisk you back.
But this is Albania. And it’s not just the abandoned bunkers and minaret towers that make the country so utterly unlike the rest of Eastern or Western Europe. It’s the only European country without a functional rail system. And the buses don’t do a rousing job of making up for it. Fifty years of dictatorship and a civil war left infrastructure woefully dilapidated. Roads have begun to be repaired, but the things that ride on them have yet to improve. I’ve only ridden on older buses in Laos.
Most of the time you don’t even get a bus. Far more frequent are the minibuses — DIY operations that hinge on a complex system of cell phones, touts, and people’s seemingly endless capacity for discomfort.
The rule of thumb is: the more convenient the departure time, and the more vague the “station,” the more likely your “bus” will be a minibus. Which means you’re more likely to be sandwiched between babies, luggage, groceries, houseplants, men stooped in the hatchback, and the cigarette smoke curling off your driver’s thick fingers. You’ll go faster, hit the potholes harder, and your fare will be slightly higher. And there’s a better chance they’ll play heavy metal instead of Turkish pop.
I walked to the end of the road. I looked both ways, searching for the café between the petrol stations.
The roadside was lined with cafés and petrol stations.
I saw a few people standing around, in the gravel space between buildings, with big sacks and bored expressions. I walked up to them. “Tirana?” I asked, pointing at the road.
They nodded glumly. I’d found the bus station.
THE FIXER – Threshold guardian, logistical ninja of Albanian transit. Beat-up sneakers and a bomber jacket. Uses cell phone instead of ninja stars.
A man approached me. He had broken teeth and a wrinkle-carved face. “Tirana?” he asked.
He pulled out an old gray cell phone and yelled into it. He looked back at me, motioned for me to sit.
I looked around. There was nothing to sit on but stray dogs and piles of smoldering trash. I smiled and shrugged.
Rather than signs and ticket counters (which don’t exist), fixers are your best indication that you’ve found the place where buses stop. They work in the bigger cities and towns, where there’s likely to be numerous passengers to coordinate.
Fixers are always male, always rough looking — not dangerous, but battered — and always walking with the semi-frantic burden of a bookie. Their job is to manage passengers, get them on the right bus or minibus, call drivers to see where they are, and otherwise fit folks into vehicles like a human Tetris game.
Without them, us foreigners would be screwed.
The fixer could tell I was foreign — by my height, my features, my jeans made of real denim — so he kept a special eye on me. When a minibus rattled up to us, a stout, weathered man hung out of the open door and shouted, “Tirana!”
“Tirana!” the fixer bellowed in response, then pointed at me, picked up my bag and shoved me in the door.
I glanced up. Stoic faces. There was an open seat, towards the back. There was also an obstacle course: an aisle filled with luggage, produce, a couple houseplants — roots tied up in plastic bags — and a small, squatting child.
The minibus began to move.
THE TOUT – Big man with bigger ego. Faded green sweater and graying hair. This minivan is his dominion.
I lurched forward. There were no handrails, but I was tall enough to steady myself by smashing my palm against the roof.
The stout man behind me, standing in the stairwell, began to shout at the passengers. He pointed at me: “Tourista! Tourista!” which, by the way the passengers began to move baggage and clear a little footpath for me, I could only take to mean: “This foreign girl doesn’t know what she’s doing, help her out!”
This was the tout, the man who collects fares and lords over passengers. They are, of course, not specific to Albania. But on Albanian transit, they have a few special functions, such as announcing our destination to people standing idly along the roadside, and intermittently yelling into a cell phone, presumably at the fixers scattered along our route.
I collapsed into the open seat. I looked for a place for my bag; finding none, I put it in front of my seat and folded my legs on top of it. I surveyed the scene.
SUPPORTING CAST – An anti-Greek-Chorus, offering no dramatic commentary but good people watching.
There were a few old women, heads covered in white scarves. Behind me was a guy who looked like he’d wandered off the set of Wayne’s World — long scraggly hair, Anthrax shirt, torn jeans, beaten leather fanny pack. He anxiously fingered a rolled cigarette.
I stole a glance at the young men beside me. They wore fake denim and pleather bomber jackets; they had boy-band facial hair and long, beautiful eyelashes. They draped limbs around each other carelessly, comfortably, in a way that by Western standards would immediately identify them as gay. But I knew open homosexuality was scorned in Albania’s semi-Muslim culture. I watched, fascinated, out of the corner of my eye.
A young mother sat a few rows ahead of me. On her lap she balanced a placidly blinking baby; at her feet, a small boy curled up on a piece of luggage and closed his eyes. She placed her hand on his back.
We hit a pothole. I flew in the air and slammed back in my seat, wincing. The small boy barely stirred.
The road we were on wasn’t much of a road — more of a glorified donkey cart trail — and we twisted and chattered along, out of the city and into the countryside. Mules and donkeys trotted beside us; boney white cows chewed in green fields; shacks chugging little spindles of smoke sat in the shadow of a huge mountain range. Through the smudged minibus window, it was beautiful.
Every couple minutes, we’d pass someone on the side of the road. If they stood, squinting at us with a bag at their feet, we slowed down. Without totally stopping, the tout would crank open the passenger door, yell “Tirana!” and the people would either shake their heads or scurry to shove into the bus.
Each time new passengers sardined aboard, it was the tout’s chance to shine. He’d point, yell, motion, insist people move this way and that. He seemed to really relish it, seemed to have been born for the job. There was something Italian in the exaggerated way he motioned, cried out, stuck stubby fingers in the air and waved.
His main job, I decided, was to argue with people. Contentious topics appeared to be: fares; opening and closing of air vents; music selection; where luggage could be stowed; whether or not the small boy could continue sleeping in the aisle. (The mom won out on this one.)
THE DRIVER – Face obscured, our fate in his thick hands. Kind of like the Wizard of Oz, or the evil dude in Inspector Gadget.
I tried to peer at the driver. All I could really see was the back of his shaved head, a scalp as dented and scarred as the road we traveled. He seemed to spend more time looking out the window, talking on the phone, BS-ing with the tout, and flicking off other drivers than he did watching the road.
Oh, and searching for raw flesh.
In a small village about an hour into the journey, we careened to a neck-jerking stop. I looked around; there were no potential passengers. The minibus shook as driver’s door opened and slammed shut.
I looked out, curiously. Driver and tout walked, bellies first, towards a shack. In the open-air window hung two freshly skinned lamb carcasses. They entered.
Were we really on a meat stop? I watched them peruse the slim selection.
Yes, I determined.
THE BUTCHER – Smock and a machete. A shapeshifter? shadow? trickster? Or just a rural Albanian selling some meat.
A man in a blood-stained smock appeared. Discussion ensued. I watched their movements as the driver and tout assumed their roles — the tout gesturing, arguing, negotiating; the driver watching on silently, grumbling small words here and there.
Passengers shifted and sighed.
The man in the smock opened a cooler and pulled out a huge slab of pink meat. Whap! Whap! Even through the minibus window, I could hear him hacking.
More pointing and arguing on the part of the tout. While he and the butcher went at it, the driver strolled over to the hanging carcasses. He touched one with his bare fingers. He reached, grabbed a piece of flesh, and yanked.
“Oh God!” I let out.
I watched him toss the flesh into his mouth and chew.
Two slammed doors and they climbed back onto the minibus. The tout placed a plastic bag bulging with raw meat in the narrow luggage rack.
We trundled on. The young men beside me lay sprawled and entwined; the baby blinked.
THE PIT STOP – Anti-oasis, rest stop extraordinaire, with chickens and a squat toilet and a TV blaring football.
Two hours and a rotating cast of passengers later, we lumbered into a roadside restaurant. The Wayne’s World extra was the first to leap up, lighting his cigarette while still in the aisle. The rest of us filed off groggily.
I hit up the squat toilet, stretched my calves, sat at a table and ordered a coffee.
The driver and tout didn’t need to order; they must have stopped here regularly because trays of food began coming out of the kitchen — bread and soup and steaming piles of meat.
The tout shouted and gestured at the bartender across the room. He nodded and brought over a carafe of raki — an Albanian, moonshine version of grappa. I watched the driver and tout down a glass.
The clock struck 11am. I sighed.
The rest of the ride was uneventful. Hard rock played out of the tinny stereo speakers; the young men beside me slept and I never determined what their deal was. We hit an especially hard turn, and the plastic bag of meat flew off the luggage rack and whapped the small boy in the aisle in the face. He didn’t sleep anymore after that.
THE DESTINATION – Bright lights, big traffic. Tirana, you’ve never looked so good.
Three hours later, we began to snarl into traffic. The minibus emptied as people heaved off, loved ones waiting on windy sidewalks. “Papa!” the small boy exclaimed as he leapt into a man’s arms.
We arrived in a gravel lot. It was nondescript, had no identifying signs — just a bunch of parked minibuses and sniffing dogs. We stopped.
The tout looked back at me. “Tirana,” he announced. He said it loudly, though I was the last passenger on the bus.
I nodded. I actually knew this “station,” had arrived here before.
The tout made a motion, smaller and slower than the ones he’d performed all journey. He raised an open palm, moved it through the air, his eyes following. I took it to mean, “You know where you’re going, foreign girl?”
I smiled, nodded, as if to say, “I’m not new at this.”
I said thank you in Albanian. The tout nodded brusquely, picked up his bag of meat, and walked off the minibus.