Arriving in Durres, the shock of where we really had landed hit immediately as we were escorted by Elvin and some other Macedonians through the small throng of gypsy beggars. Years and years of poverty, wretched existence and the forced begging by the adults was written all over the children’s face and firmly fixed in their desperate gazes.
Smudges of dirt on their cheeks or caked into their fingernails, the worn out rags they called clothes that hung on their bodies still clings in my memory. Why does it hit so hard? This is nothing new, at least not from my time in deep Mexico or Uganda. But at this moment, recalling their pleading eyes, and our first encounter with the country we would call home, it still is seared in our memories. I would have to say that in other countries you just expect it, but rolling in from London and Rome to this right in the bossom of Europe, it hits you, whether you expect it or not. Had we just flown in it we would have rolled out of the airport in Tirana seen the beaten, unfinished and multiple communist buildings that fill the background of every street in Tirana and totally been like, okay, so this is what I expected.
The straight up begging, pawing and desperate fawning of the children just kicked us in the stomach. Rolling out of the customs hanger, nothing more than a small makeshift hanger with a three little glass booths, we were lead out into the street. Taxi drivers fought for our fare, and we needed a fare with all of our junk in tow. Elvin helped set it up with a taxi driver who was lucky and timed his fare price just right as the others looked on with great dejection. The chance of them picking up another fare would have to wait for another few hours till the next ferry rolled up. A woman with a child followed us as did some children, petting us and being ushered away by the Macedonians. Seeing the situation I decided the best idea was to pay this guy a flat fare that would easily be more than he would make maybe all day to take us to the three places we needed to get situated: Hotel, bank and internet, in that order. Ten euros secured us a very happy driver and bank rolled us with a killer hotel on the edge of town right on the popular side of the beach. We had arrived out of luxurious tourist rich cities into the tourism starved city of Durres, or any city in Albania for that matter. We got a room for only 25 euros a night, for both of us. Three nights of rest and recuperation at a price that would not bust our wallets, which were running quite thin already made the experience so sweet. After that we located the bank, but it was closed and then headed to our last stop, a perfect little internet café, soon to be our temporary home away from the hotel.
So we were set up and ready to go. To say we fell in love with Albania or clinged to it with a great embrace of belonging might be a bit of an understatement. Though obviously foreigners and strangers amongst them, we felt a kinship with this place already. Time flew by and yet it is that kind of time where it seems you’ve been there for weeks, but it goes by so quick. Our first night there we went for a walk down the beach and boardwalk, packed full of Albanians doing their usual walkabout, a traditional stroll after dinner that is popular with the locals, especially on the weekend.
The people of Albania are very fit, very lean and many are dark skinned, but in the envious tanned way Americans love. They love to look good and everyone seems to have designer jeans or t-shirts, that later we would learn they had obtained mainly in gypsy markets, and gypsy’s got these from relief agencies or stole them. But like I said we learned this later, so at that time we thought- man people here are not doing too bad. That the fact that more than ¾ths of the cars we saw were BMW, Mercedes or Toyota, again later to learn most of these had been obtained illegally or through an illegal agency (aka. Stolen.) We enjoyed our three days in Durres immensely. I don’t know what it was about the place that we just clicked with so much- maybe it was the anticipation to get there, or that we were home, or maybe it was just the freedom to get away from a bit of a rough go in Rome.
Either way we really made a great time of it in Durres. We ate at the hotel’s great little restaurant or headed down the boardwalk to get a meal or a coffee and watch people mill about. We wondered if everyone on the boardwalk was Albanian- so many seemed like they were Italian or even German or American. Our routine was wake up, read, chill, head to the internet about a mile away and then come back- grab a snack, walk around some more, chill at our hotel, watch a movie or just chill by the beach and then grab dinner, then finish with a nice walk around at night.
On the second of June, our contact from Elbasan, a man named Zefian Nikola met us at our hotel. He brought a friend with him and we grabbed lunch before heading out to Tirana. Tirana is about an hours drive from Durres and getting out of Durres to see the rest of Albania we were surprised to see the buildings start to decay from their state that they had been in Durres. Most of them are incomplete works, and when the owners have more money they pay to finish another part, so it is built section by section.
We arrived in Tirana where we met Zef’s wife, Edita and their two children. Zef then dropped us off at a Christian owned location to stay (it was actually like a fort that use to be the Vietnamese Embassy.) It was on this night that I encountered a serious eye infection that left me stuck in my room for 40 hours- horrible. So painful and I was almost totally blind and extremely sensitive to all light so I had to block the windows the whole time. Needless to say I initially did not have a good impression of Tirana- way too congested for me and just so dirty and dank to my senses. I longed to rather be in a small rural town than in this busy hectic city.