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Vagamonde: Chasing Euphoria and Getting Hit by Reality
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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Meet the Balkans: Albania

At 23:00 we start our crossing of the Adriatic. The No Smoking rules that we are accustomed to are not applicable here. The whole ship is hot boxed with tobacco smoke. Aside from that, the heat is on full and the whole ship smells like gas. We lay out our mattresses and get a few hours of sleep. In the middle of the night, I get a coughing fit that lasts a good two hours. I find ferry rides interesting. There is always a multitude of services that are never open. Like an onboard swimming pool. They're always empty. Or, in the case of our boat, a discotheque. Again, closed... thank god.

We roll into Durres. People are curious but very nice. Several people offer their help. Someone even prints us a map of the city. But, as in every country, the under 25 males are a bit of a nuisance. Mouthing off broken English phrases in a mocking manner. One of them even says "What's up my nigga!" as we walk past him. I'm guessing he heard that in a rap song. Other than that, Durres is quite nice with interesting historical sites.

Looking at the map, we opt for a road that looks less busy. At the beginning, this road takes us through some industrial areas. The road conditions are worse than in Quebec (if you can believe that). Huge pot holes on the roads and open man holes in city streets. There is an incredible amount of garbage on the side of the road, but there is a car wash every kilometre. Cars seem to be the only things that are kept clean. Shiny new BMWs and Mercedes paint the automobile landscape. These cars are always driven by young men. Some of them really young. Not sure where they're getting their money from, but I don't really want to know. Maybe they have rich parents.

Michèle comments: Besides the Beamers and Mercedes, there were a ton of "furgons" on the road - mini vans that shuttle people from town to town. Often, we'd pass a furgon pulled over to the side of the road for the passengers to have a smoke break. On one occasion, I saw one stop to let a young boy out of the van. I thought he had to pee, but no, he got out carrying a blue plastic bag filled with garbage, which he then threw in the ditch. Then back in the van and off it went. But there is hope: Benoit said that France in the 70s was garbage-strewn and had too many drivers with dangerous driving habits. So Albania just has a bit of catching up to do.

Aside from the litter, you can see the remnants of the communist era. Like small bunkers that look like oversized pressure cookers. There are tens of thousands of them scattered all over Albania. They were built under the orders of Enver Hoxha, the Supreme Comrade, to push back an eventual invasion from less worthy communists.

A some point during the ride, we pass by a huge abandoned factory. Grey and crumbling, with enormous smoke stacks. There is a sinister, apocalyptic feel to the place. I can only imagine this factory running full tilt during the harsh communist rule.

The days' ride ends when we get to a town called Milot. The machismo is there to greet us. One guy asks Michèle if she smokes pot while a young kid shows us a Kalashnikov clip. Not the best welcoming party but that's about to change. We have to find a place for the night, so we start asking around. Within minutes, we have a crowd around us. In the crowd is a young woman who speaks English. After a few bouts of translation, a man offers us an empty apartment for the night. When we get there he says to bring up our bikes right away and to not open the door to anyone during the night. By this point I'm starting to overload with culture shock again. I need sensory deprivation. Luckily we have an empty apartment for the night.

Michèle comments: I had a strange uneasiness since we arrived in Albania. Not sure why, but it was there. The young woman in Milot helped put an end to it. She accompanied us to the bakery and various food shops in the village. As we walked along, perhaps sensing my uneasiness, she said, "Don't be afraid here. We really like visitors from other countries." We only spent something like an hour with her, yet it was enough time to be deeply touched by her kindness. When saying goodbye and thanks, my eyes were all misty with tears!

I end up sleeping really well despite the guy telling us not to open the door to strangers that might be knocking in the middle of the night. Besnik is his name and he just did us a huge favour. In the morning, he gives us a wake up call at 7:00. We thought we agreed on 9:00 but that's OK. Beggars can't be choosers. Half asleep we pack up our stuff and hit the local coffee shop. Michèle and I have two coffees while Besnik polishes off two rakis. We try our best with the few Albanian words we have but the conversation is kept simple.

Michèle comments: Something that has been throwing us for a loop in Albania is the head shake side to side for yes. We stopped to ask for directions, pointing to a village on our map where we thought we might be. The guy said "Po, po" shaking his head side to side, which we interpreted as a no. "Po" does sound like no, after all. We continued on, confused about our location. It was only later that we remembered the different head shake thing and that "Po" means Yes.

We say goodbye and start riding towards a town called Burrel. On the map, the road looks secondary but the traffic remains heavy. The road is so beaten up that you could call it a dirt road. The scenery gets much nicer though. It's mountainous, so we just look up to avoid looking at the garbage. Albanians are very surprised to see people travelling on bikes. It feels like we are the first tourists they've ever seen. Every five minutes we wave to someone. As always, kids take extra patience. As we pass by them, they all say the same thing: "Hello", "How are you", "Fuck you"... probably another rap song influence.

Michèle comments: While in Burrel, we found out that a Swiss couple cycling their way to China had stopped there two weeks before us. It felt reassuring that we were not the only people touring through Albania by bicycle in March. We just wished that they were slower or that we were faster so that we could have met.

As mentioned before, the driving is really bad. At every kilometre, there is a memorial of somebody who lost their life. Not too reassuring. We are being extremely vigilant by pulling over when we hear a vehicle approaching. At some point during the ride out of Burrel, a truck comes into our lane and heads straight for us. The driver honks and swerves at the last second to avoid us. As he passes, he waves and laughs as though it was a big joke.

Really pissed off, we roll into the next town and head to a coffee shop. But the kindness of the people quickly dampens the incident. The owner refuses to charge us for the two coffees. This small gesture gives us a boost in morale and we end up having a ride that makes it in the top ten. Ending at the Macedonian border.

All of our photos from Albania are here.


  1. C'est bon cette fois je suis le premier ^_^

    Ouais ca a l'air un peu rock'n roll comme coin !!


  2. Seb c'est bien! Oui, c'est un pays intéressant. Mais bon, on n'a pas vu grandes choses en 5 jours.

  3. Way to go! If you get to Bulgaria, write. I can help out there.

  4. Hi Boyan, Great to hear from you. We probably will go through Bulgaria. We will write you directly.

  5. Merci pour les photos. c'est cool de voyager ainsi, de vous suivre, ça inspire. Daria

  6. Daria: Salut! J'espere que tout se deroule bien avec ton programme d'Art Therapy. Merci de rester a l'ecoute.

  7. Burrel is a great place. thats where i used to live but now in the UK