Poor in Albania


When I said Hvar was pleasant, Korcula was remarkable. Dubrovnik was a bigger Korcula, and Montenegro was a revelation!

On the bus towards Kotor we saw the deepest fjord in southern Europe. It was a shame we didn’t have more time in the country but we weren’t expecting to be going through there anyway so anything we saw was a bonus. And I can

safely say that I would definitely be happy to go back, perhaps even more than Croatia. We weren’t completely sure what to expect, the limit of my knowledge was Google earth, lonely planet, and Casino Royale. In many ways it was actually reminiscent of Morocco. The not so developed infrastructure, the beautiful landscapes, and the prices. Seriously, where else could you get a very professional haircut for only five euro? I think I was in desperate need of that, it was almost therapeutic.

The difference between Montenegro and Morocco was that nobody hassled you here. So you could actually relax. And there seemed to be a buzz of enthusiasm in the air. I guess now that they’re in the EU and use the euro it’s onwards and upwards from here. There’s so much development going on I think in five years it’ll be even more beautiful although maybe not as cheap.

It’s quite Muslim in the south although the people on the street look pretty liberal. We were in a net café when all of a sudden the call to prayer went up from the nearest minaret. Very unexpected.

After countless buses we ended up staying with a taxi driver who offered us a room while we were waiting at another bus station in Ulcinj on the Albanian border. Still very enterprising though, he was a taxi driver who hosted paying guests in his house, and he offered to drive us over the border to the next town in Albania about thirty km away. We took him up on this so he sorted out all the paperwork and drove us there all for seven euro each.

Another German guy staying at his house was also going that way. I must admit it felt pretty dodgy, a Montenegrin driving us over the out of the way border to Albania in his old Mercedes, two kiwis and a German wondering what the very communist looking border police are thinking. It was all an adventure that’s for sure.

Beggars and huge piles of rubbish confronted us as soon as we got to the outskirts of Skodra. Not a good start. It didn’t help that the taxi driver gave one of them some money and the rest swamped us. Our luggage and wallets still intact we caught a mini bus straight to Tirana, wanting to get the heck out of this town.

Tirana was very different and restored our confidence in the country. I must admit I was quite optimistic about Albania before I came. Tirana was quite chilled and had clearly been a communist city, the symmetrical party houses, big wide military parade streets, and apartment blocks. It was quite well laid out except for the bus system which was insanely chaotic. People were friendly and stopped on the street to help us if they spoke English. I think we were the only tourists in the whole country, especially with backpacks and we got a lot of stares. I think about six people stopped and asked us if we needed help and we got seven different directions to the bus going to Saranda (one guy had two opinions and couldn’t make his mind up).

Eventually we sought help from a taxi driver and asked the fare. We negotiated pretty hard, but not by Moroccan standards. We got it for 200 leke ($4) for both and he said “unbelievable, that’s the cheapest price I’ve ever charged”. We thought “whatever” but then along the way a guy who was going about half the distance paid 500 leke! Weird. And then we read in the guidebook a taxi costs around 500 leke. Oops. I guess the driver took us because he felt sorry for us or wanted to practice his English even though we absolutely nailed the price right down. Oh well, he was nice enough.

During the ride we were chatting about the country and he said “us Albanians are very poor, but we are not poor up here” pointing to his head. I hope he’s right; his country has a lot of potential. I don’t know what Albi the racist dragon was on about.

A few more things Albania has lots of: Mercedes, half built houses, military bunkers, and carwashes. Yes carwashes, maybe to wash all the Mercedes? It seems anyone who has a garage outside their unfinished house has converted it into a carwash. So you can drive your Mercedes there and then wait safely in the bunker while it’s being washed. Very opportunistic.

They’re not really geared up for tourists quite yet though which is a good and bad thing. Good in that they’re not trying to squeeze as much money out of travellers at every opportunity, but bad in that transport and information in general is hard to follow. Seriously, in Tirana there were about ten different places that buses can leave from depending on the time of day and destination. Maybe that’s why even the locals were confused.

We eventually found our way to Saranda which is a beach town near Greece. Even when we arrived quite tired at 11.30pm we still ‘negotiated’ a good rate for a hotel. Moroccan habits die hard. What a beautiful city, warm water, awesome weather, nice beach, relaxed atmosphere, and cheap prices. Except for the fact we left ourselves a little short on leke and arrived on the weekend so we couldn’t get any more. Great, so here we are in Europe’s poorest country, with the cheapest prices, in a really nice place where it would have been good to live it up and we’re literally counting pennies to see if we can afford an ice cream.

Perfect, poor in Albania.