Nick Johns-Wickberg writes: My fingers wrap tighter around the Jesus bar as I see the taxi’s speedometer break 80km/h. He’s moved over to the left hand side of the road, because the decrepit car in front of us isn’t capable of breaking the 30km/h speed limit, and, despite the oncoming truck, he’s decided to stay left to avoid the potholes.
He keeps his line, daring the truck to pull over, but neither vehicle is prepared to concede the smooth side of the road in this insane game of chicken. We’re within spitting distance when, at the last minute, my man swerves right, narrowly avoiding the truck, various farm animals, and a group of local children, all of whom look completely unfazed. I release a little bit of breath, and possibly a tear, but, alas, my terror is not over yet.
Looming is a hole in the road: not just a pothole, but one of the city’s thousands of uncovered manholes, which are wide, deep, and have surely consumed the occasional drunk tourist over the years. I start to point and scream, imagining the James Bond-esque flips the taxi will perform if our wheel gets stuck , but still we remain directly in line with the hole. Certain I’m about to die, I let out a high and unmanly shriek, but by some miracle of taxi driving we avoid the hole and rattle on safely. The driver turns to me with a big grin. “Is okay,” he says, eyes now completely off the road. “I see!” Welcome to Albania …
After escaping the taxi with only psychological injuries, my travel buddy Josh and I have been waiting for over an hour at the bus stop, which is really just a street market with a few minivans pulled over to one side. We were afraid of getting bored, but then two old men started fighting over a chicken. While they were fighting the chicken escaped, so we all spent 15 minutes looking for it in the veggie shop. Then the grocer sold us two carrots, which was apparently quite an event, and demanded attention from all the local passers-by. Two men dragged a highly resistant cow down the road, and a cop swung by the shop to pick up his daily bribe.
At a certain point I asked someone when the bus to Theth would arrive, at which he laughed heartily, said “minute!” and shrugged. So the two of us have just stood here, watching local life cartwheel by, until, just as we’ve given up hope, everyone around us starts shouting “Theth!” and pointing to an ancient yellow minibus that has magically appeared across the road.
At this stage I should point out that Albania doesn’t really have bus stops. More to the point, it doesn’t really have buses. As another traveller put it, “you just wait at the roundabout until some guy comes past in his van, and then you get in and hope he drops you off at the right place.” After making sure the driver says “Theth” and reciprocates our thumbs-up at least twice, we cautiously get into the back seat of the nearly empty vehicle.
Our companions are the driver, a young guy who is possibly his son, a man whose contribution to the experience is strapping two doors to the roof of the van, and an old man who looks exactly like Dobby from Harry Potter. Dobby has the most expressive face I’ve ever seen, and when I start blasting tunes from my ‘music box’ (portable iPod speakers), his amazement is clear from a series of incredible facial gymnastics.
While Dobby dances along happily to Miami Horror, the scenery out the window shifts from the grungy buildings of Shkodra to a kind of agricultural nothingness, and then hills begin to sprout out in the distance. Before long we’re in the lap of a spectacular mountain range, with a view of the perilous road ahead. The bus pulls over, and we all take a 15 minute break at a lively pub for our 9.30am shot of rakija (bus driver included), because no man would dare face the Albanian mountains sober. Then Door-man unloads his doors, the bus driver staggers back to the wheel, and we venture onward.
It’s very difficult to describe an Albanian mountain road to someone who comes from a country where ‘bitumen’ is a widely understood word. I think the attitude seems to be: find the flattest way up the hill, knock down most of the trees, and we have ourselves a road! Our particular track is surely only accessible by 4WD, but somehow the old communist minivan creaks and rattles its way up the mountain, stopping only for the driver to say hello to his friends (everyone).
The vibrations reach massage-chair levels, at times making me feel physically violated, but we finally make it to a summit of sorts, where we’re greeted with the kind of spectacular views that you really have to earn. We celebrate with a primal man-moment: I revel in the splendour of the craggy mountains around me while my glorious stream cascades down below. Dobby’s happy just to piss on the wheel of the bus…
Then, the descent. Theth is in sight, and our Albanian public transport adventure nearly over, but there are still obstacles to overcome. We’ve started to notice ice on the side of the roads, each of us meeting this revelation with a different reaction: Josh with wonder, the young guy with fear, Dobby with glazed indifference, and the bus driver with unbridled excitement. As we turn the corner to see a 10-metre stretch of road completely covered with ice, the driver cranks up the Albanian dance music, shouts “OOMPAH,” lets go of the wheel, and pumps his fists as we slide, with inexplicable control, over the glassy patch.
It’s with a mixture of sadness and extreme relief that we get out of the van at Theth, a small cluster of houses in a mountain-rimmed bowl. I try to ask Dobby how much the fare should be, using the words ‘Shkodra,’ ‘Theth,’ a series of quite good bus driver impersonations and the notes in my wallet, but he just looks at me with a crevassed face and a toothless grin. Then I remember that body language is different in Albania — they nod their head and say ‘yo’ to indicate no — so with a sigh I pull out a generous wad of leke and hand it over.
The locals have already crowded around the bus, eager to see what presents (and tourists) the driver will deliver for the day. Of course, the only one who speaks English is an uneducated 11 year-old boy, who has accordingly become the manager of the local guesthouse, but somehow this is the kind of occurrence that stops being surprising once you’ve spent more than a day in Albania.
With a mutual expression that can only be shared between two sane people stuck in a nuthouse, Josh and I follow the little boy down the hill while our travelling friends get back in the bus, waving and shouting “ciao Australia!” as they splutter on down the road to whatever mad destination awaits them …