topics: bus ride through Albania, border crossing, "pillbox" bunkers, first impressions of Albania, History (modern); jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: March 31, 1998

Food of the Day: Tex-Mex

Sometimes when you travel, a break from the unfamiliar is a welcome change. Well, today, we enjoyed such a change of pace... in a very unfamiliar place.

Having suffered most of the day with almost no food, when we arrived in Tirana, we were starving. You see, in Ioannina, it had been too early to purchase anything, and in Albania we never had a chance to change any money. So we really were famished when we got off the bus. Gazi, one of our Persons of the Day, sensing this and wishing to make us feel at home in his city, welcomed us to one of Tirana's well-known "ethnic" restaurants, called Stefan's Center. Owned and managed by American missionaries, it offers a full menu of typical "American" food. We were thrilled. A full display of Tex-Mex yummies filled first the table and then our bellies and quelled the beast within.

Person of the Day: Kostas Sourloukas and Gazi Haxhia

We honor two people today with heart-felt thanks for the effort they put into helping us get where we had to go and with only a minimum of confusion. The two men in question who flank our day - one a Greek who was with us when we awoke in the morning, the other an Albanian who helped make an easy end to the day - went out of their way for us and are two more on our increasingly long list of Mediterranean honor roll citizens proving that the world is full of the right kind of people.

First there was Kostas Sourloukas, the proprietor of the Sourloukas Tavern in central Konitsa. click to view a photograph (Kostas is third from the right in the pink shirt.) An energetic and smiling personality, he always warmly ushered us into his eating establishment which is where we took our first and last meals, as well as many in between, during our time in Konitsa. He also always took very good care of us, helping us order food and enjoy some of the cuisine that has become so familiar to us. But we are not singling Kostas out only because he does his job well and with such enthusiasm, we are also thanking him for having gone way above and well beyond the call of duty when he volunteered to drive us to Ioannina starting at 5 o' clock in the morning.

With the Mayor's help the evening before, we had been able to secure four seats on the direct bus to Tirana leaving Ioannina at 7 a.m. The question was: how would we get to Ioannina? We had been discussing this at Kostas' restaurant when he came up with the solution: he would drive us, our bikes and all our stuff there, beginning at 5:30 in the morning. We were stunned at the magnanimity of the offer and readily took him up on it.

So, sure enough, at 5:00 a.m., Kostas appeared at our guesthouse. Unfortunately his truck had a flat tire, so he came to tell us that there would be a brief delay as he tried to find another truck. Well, we don't know where he went or whom he woke up, but 20 minutes later he was parked in the driveway with a vehicle. We quickly loaded everything up, piled into the cab just big enough for us all, and sped into the morning darkness. We arrived in Ioannina with plenty of time to spare and sincerely thanked Kostas for putting the final glowing touches on a portrait of Greece and Konitsa that we will remember forever.

Our second Person of the Day, Gazi Haxhia, picked us up off the same bus on which Kostas had placed us. After the 10-hour odyssey through southern Albania, we were glad to get off the bus, but we were also apprehensive. When in a new city and country, and faced with a new culture and language, we are always eager to find local help in the beginning. Plus, Albania has been through tough times lately (see Rider Notes), and we were all a little nervous about our arrival. Our media-heightened fears had left us expecting anything and we were a little too tired to want to have to deal with that.

Fortunately, from Konitsa Ethan had succeeded in getting through to Gazi, the friend of some friends all of whom went to the same graduate school as Ethan. Gazi assured us that the bus across the south was safe and that, upon arrival in Tirana, he would be glad to help us figure things out. And he was as good as his word. When we got to Tirana and made a quick telephone call to him, Gazi came pedaling through the Tirana streets and led us first to a place where we could spend the night, and second to a fine restaurant where we were treated to some excellent Tex-Mex cuisine.

Gazi, currently very absorbed in the work of his family business as the Albanian representative for General Motors and Opel (among others), was also more than ready to help us understand some of the recent history of his country and some of the trials and tribulations it faces today. For having taken the time (out of a busy schedule) to get us in shape for our Albanian adventure, for having been the all-important first smiling contact in a new land, and for having done the leg-work that got our feet on the ground, we thank Gazi and are sorry that our schedules did not give us more time together.

Place of the Day: Greek-Albanian border

We were expecting the worst at the Greek-Albanian border. Fortunately though, faced only with the inevitable border delays, we found the process a smooth one.

Borders areas are revealing places. As locations where cultures and history collide, they can be tough to navigate and even quite disturbing. On a sometimes-tense border like the one shared by Greece and Albania, the latter was certainly true.

After our bus arrived at the border and took its place in a long line of waiting vehicles delayed on the Greek side (and the surly bus driver collected the passports and delivered them to the Greek authorities), we could wander around the area. A relatively new facility, the border station was nevertheless almost completely shut down, with all indoor areas off-limits and not a single public toilet for the needy. Makeshift food and goodies stands lined the traffic corridor and many, many beggars plied their way through the packs of milling, waiting, smoking travelers. There was only one duty free shop, which was a major attraction. And the people? Well, it appeared that almost everyone crossing the border was Albanian or driving a car with Albanian plates. We were certainly the only non-Albanians on our bus (with the exception of the bus driver). One striking note: during our time at the Greek border, no more than ten cars crossed in the other direction.

Once we had inched our way forward and through the Greek customs check, the bus crawled up a steep slope of gravel and confusion. Either there is no real road between the Greek and Albanian border stations or the road is currently being built. Whatever the case, this no-man's-land between the two countries was a tangle of parcel-toting people, and cars and buses driving willy-nilly in an effort to follow some invisible-to-us circumscribed path. At the top of the rise, the bus paused in yet another line of cars.

This waiting area was nothing like the Greek one. Although here too there is a new structure being built, it was no more than a shell standing sentinel over a mess of empty rundown buildings and rubble. There were no shops, no banks, and no signs of anything but building and decay. Perhaps the decay is as a result of the building underway, but perhaps it was just the nature of the Albanian border. Given what we saw once we were across the border, we are inclined to think it was the latter.

When the bus door opened, the other passengers (who were certainly more in the know than we were) piled off and darted away in the direction of a ramshackle cement structure with a window off and around a corner. We followed. Pushing and shoving like everyone else, we finally got to the window and slipped our passports under the nose of the slow-moving immigration officer. He gave them a once-over and then passed them along to a woman waiting alongside. Silently, slowly, and without asking any questions, she filled out forms in duplicate for all four of us. (Meanwhile the bus had passed through whatever check the Albanians made, which was probably not very careful.) Then she gave everything back to the window officer who, without even looking up, stamped our passports and tossed them back to us.

And that was that. We were in Albania.

Back on the bus, we drove through more confusion and rubble. On one occasion, it appeared that we drove through a hastily made hole in what had once been a cement barrier. Maybe that is actually what it was, since once upon a time all Albanian borders were essentially sealed. Whatever the case, the difference between Greece and Albania was striking. And the road ahead would be even more so.

Tech Fact of the Day: pillbox bunkers

Some of the first things that the BikeAbouters noticed upon crossing the border into Albania (see the Place of the Day) are the thousands and thousands of "pillbox" bunkers that seem to be anywhere and everywhere.

Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Albanians were forced to take a serious look at their defensive capabilities. Having split with the Soviet Union in 1960 over then Soviet Premier Khrushchev's desire to build a nuclear submarine base in Vlora (an important Albanian port), Albania's sole supporter was China - a long, long, long way away. Accordingly, Albania left the Warsaw Pact (Czechoslovakia's membership hadn't exactly helped it much, had it?) and started a movement towards a self-reliant defense policy.

One of the things the new policy called for were the building and strategic placement of thousands upon thousands of small "pillbox" bunkers. click to view a photograph Estimates are that between 700,00 and 750,000 were built and deployed throughout Albania. While it seems like these bunkers are everywhere click to view a photograph, they were primarily located on all borders (with both other countries and with the sea) and on all approaches to all towns (i.e. everywhere). Some people also believe that their profusion was a tactic used by the Communist government to make the people feel like attack from the outside was always more immanent than it truly was.

A "pillbox" bunker is a mushroom-shaped structure made of hardened concrete (sometimes capped with a steel reinforcement) with a narrow gun slit in the side. Some of them are quite big, built to accommodate larger artillery guns, but most are just large enough to hold one or two soldiers. Communication between pillboxes was made possible via buried connecting tunnels (again made of cement).

Today these bunkers are still visible everywhere, occupying a great deal of agricultural land, or stuck in the middle of expanding cities. They serve more as de facto monuments to a failed political system than as defensive structures. (Sadly, the cement and steel required for the construction of one pillbox is estimated to be the equivalent of what is needed for two rooms and a kitchen in building. Think of what might have been done with the resources.) Designed to be difficult to destroy during wartime, these pillboxes are proving difficult to destroy in peacetime as well. We even saw one house that had incorporated a pillbox into the design of the house. When we asked why, it was explained to us that it was cheaper to build around the pillbox than to have it removed.

Group Dispatch, March 31
picture of Ethan

The day began bright and early. Well, not really so bright, since the sun had not yet risen, but it certainly was early. 5 a.m. to be precise. Kostas Sourloukas (one of our Persons of the Day) had been as good as his excellent word and was prepared to take all four of us and our gear to Ioannina for the 7 a.m. bus to Tirana, Albania. Despite a slight delay at the start, we arrived with more than enough time to be confused and bewildered and not worry too much about it.

At 6:45 a.m., a ticket agent appeared and, knowing to expect us and all our stuff, helped us squish everything into the limited remaining baggage space, much to the great annoyance of the bus driver who remained surly and sour for the whole day. The ticket agent also seemed to relish making our presence widely known, especially to everyone on the bus. Before we could stop him, he announced to everyone that room had to be made for the four Americans and then proceeded to kick the people sitting in the front four seats to the back of the very full bus. We were not pleased about this, nor, really, was anyone else. We don't know exactly what the others were saying (they were speaking in either Albanian or Greek), but they were saying it loud, laughing somewhat derisively, and the word "Amerikani" or "Amerikanski" seemed to be repeated again and again. Oh well, so much for a low profile.

Once we were underway, though, the people on the bus settled down and the ride through familiar scenery was uneventful. But the BikeAbouters were not completely settled. We were all still a little on edge about the road ahead. Who knew what it would be like? Who knew if the trip through southern Albania - so recently in turmoil - would go off without a hitch?

For anyone who did not know or might have forgotten, in early 1997, a great many people in Albania suffered the loss of lots of money when a national holding company called Vafa - later revealed to be a pyramid scheme - collapsed. A pyramid scheme is built when a person or a few people lead a venture by selling stock in it (for a small profit) and encouraging those to whom they sell to do the same (for the same small profit incentive). Of course, every time a person (to whom stock is sold) sells stock to another, a slight profit goes to all those "above" him or her in the pyramid.

The problem stems from the fact that, in a true pyramid scheme, there is no venture other than the sale of stock. In other words, there is no real company to speak of, nor is there any real profit-making practice to support the sale of stock. The only way people in the pyramid can make any profit is by selling more stock. If anyone ever decides to trade the stock back for cash, the frailty of the scheme is revealed. In most cases, as in Albania with Vafa, the company declares immediate bankruptcy and everyone (except the person or people at the top) loses everything.

This happened on a massive scale in Albania. And it was the proverbial final straw that pushed people to vent their frustrations against the government (some of whose officials were involved in the pyramid scheme), against unrealized political promises, against high unemployment and slow economic growth, and against overwhelming pessimism and social insecurity.

Beginning in the south, armed gangs assaulted, overwhelmed and then raided army camps, police stations, and government offices. Stolen weapons were distributed widely to everyone, and organized municipal or government forces were essentially powerless to stop anyone from doing anything - looting, hoarding, terrorizing... The country spiraled into chaos, some foreign nationals were airlifted out, and European embassies were besieged as were departing boats headed to Europe. It was mayhem. And it ended only a few months ago. It threatened the stability of this small country working so hard to overcome the hardship of 47 years of harshly restrictive Communist economics. The poorest country in Europe had been consumed by a new crisis.

Now, only a few months since a new government was elected, armed gangs have for the most part ceased to roam openly through cities, and national authorities have established a modicum of control through which they hope to attempt to follow up on some of their social and economic promises. People are regaining some sense of security too. Still, crime is a serious problem (especially outside of the cities), poverty is rampant, and confidence in the government's ability to deliver is very, very low.

Is it any wonder then that we were nervous about our trip? We had initially hoped to travel by bike the whole distance, but only with the cooperation of an Albanian organization in a position to provide an armed escort and logistical support. Without this - and the email news we had been waiting for but never received - we were unwilling to proceed as planned. So, with only the reassurance we got from Gazi, a friend of a friend and one of our Persons of the Day, we swallowed our fears and boarded the bus to Tirana. We were happy to be able to go to Albania at all, but still regretted missing a cycle through the south.

Soon enough, we faced our fears. The bus arrived at the Greek/Albanian border and within a few hours we were in Albania. For more about the border, see the Place of the Day.

In Albania, three things immediately struck us: the roads, the nature and the famous "pillbox" bunkers.

First, the road conditions could not have been worse. Really. In more than 10 years of bike touring - including travel through some hard-hit countries - Ethan has never seen roads like he saw in Albania. Very narrow - barely two cars wide - shoulderless and often raised, and riddled with poorly repaired or just plainly ignored potholes, the roads of Albania were of such poor quality that traffic was sometimes brought to a practical standstill. Again, really.

Every vehicle would shift down to its lowest gears and crawl over sections of road. Even at those low speeds, everything was sent rattling and shaking. Enough of that and any car won't last too long. That certainly explained the constant breakdowns and stalls of other cars blocking whole lanes of traffic. And that might even explain the countless car wrecks stripped of anything salvageable and left to rust by the side of the road. Yes, there were bus-eating potholes that our driver was constantly on the alert for. From our front seats, we saw (and felt) every single one.

The second thing we could not ignore was the natural beauty of the area, very similar in many ways to the Greek Epiros region we just left, but different nevertheless. Flanked on both sides by high rocky mountains, in the beginning, our road ran through the middle of a wide and flat valley. Sounds like Konitsa, right? Well in many ways it was like the area around Konitsa... except that there were barely any trees in Albania. The whole valley seemed to have been deforested. But it was still very, very beautiful.

The last first impression was of the "pillbox" bunkers we had heard were littered throughout the countryside. Well, what we had heard was true. They were everywhere. Hundreds of them... thousands of them... all set in rows reaching across the valley, up the hillsides, in the middle of towns and villages... Today, though, there are many that have been dug up, overturned, or partially destroyed. For more about these unique Albanian structures, see the Tech Fact if the Day.

The rest of the ride was basically more of the same: terrible roads, gorgeous landscapes, and lots of bunkers. However, while the roads were mind-bogglingly bad the whole way to Tirana, the landscape certainly changed. The sparsely treed wide valleys gave way to thinly treed narrow valleys and then finally to a wide, flat, coastal plain.

With the change in terrain came a change in people. In the wide valleys, we saw many villagers working the fertile fields or congregating by the road. We were also relieved not to see anyone carrying a gun, but plenty of cafés and small restaurants with people in them, thus dispelling any fear that there was no food readily available to travelers. In the narrow-valleyed areas, there seemed to be fewer people on or along the road; but there were plenty of signs of life, including a large area dotted with oil derricks (only a few of which were working) and suffering the effects of severe environmental neglect as a result of the oil drilling. By the time we reached the coastal plain though, there were plenty of people, especially in the cities we paused in when we dropped off a passenger. We didn't see much of these urban centers, but what we did see revealed many shops, active commerce, lots of kids going to and from school... basically Life! We saw people moving around freely and just living their lives.

The only truly alarming part of the ride began when we left the wide valley and moved into an area of windy roads coiling through narrow valleys. A few kilometers in, the driver stopped and picked up a man with a gun. And not just any gun, but a well-worn Kalashnikov. The driver appeared to know the man so there was no call for alarm... other than that he was there. Apparently he was an armed escort for that section of road that we can only assume was considered unsafe. Whatever he was, he cocked his gun before stepping aboard, and then took a fold-out seat in front of us and next to the driver. He proceeded to chat with the driver for two or more hours about when and where to stop for a food and bathroom break. There seemed to be a "feeling" he had about an appropriate place. What his feeling was and what exactly was appropriate was hard to tell since the bus just kept on rolling and rolling until the passengers started complaining. We finally pulled off at what the bus driver kept muttering was a "Mafia Café."

A quick word about the dynamic on the bus. Our nasty driver was Greek; the passengers were almost all Albanian. As you have heard from us, there is no love lost between Greeks and Albanians. Our mobile cultural laboratory was certainly microcosmic proof of this. The driver bickered constantly with passengers, berating them for not getting off the bus at the places where he stopped the bus, yelling at them when asked for things he did not feel they deserved (like a break).

Suffice it to say that it was a long bus ride.

When we finally got to Tirana and pulled into the bus station, we reassembled the bikes and called Gazi and waited for his arrival. Very appropriately, he appeared on his bicycle, gave us our first Albanian "Welcome" click to hear an audio clip and then led us through the streets of Tirana click to view a photograph to a place he had found for us to stay. But he had some afternoon responsibilities, so he rushed off with the promise that he would return and take us to a good place for dinner.

We showered and rested and soon enough he was back.

Our first order of business, with Gazi's help, was to change money. Gazi told us what our options were, and we chose the one that almost everyone does when arriving in Tirana: the official unofficial money changers that stand around near the central square. Operating like non-bank exchange offices, these men offer an alternative to banks (which are hard to find, difficult to navigate, and very time consuming).

Then it was off to dinner at Stefan's Corner where we reveled in a feast of some surprise Tex-Mex food (see Food of the Day for more about this).

Over dinner Gazi learned about BikeAbout and our adventure so far. He also told us about himself and about life in Albania. We got a quick review of the last 8 years of political upheaval, from the student demonstrations in 1990 leading to the permitted creation of opposition parties, through the to the present day. We were told about the 1991 persecutions at the hands of the waning Communist regime led by Ramiz Alia, and then the desperate exodus to Europe, as well as the political triumph of the Socialist Party (actually no more than the revamped Communist party) in the country's first "real" elections. But the right to vote was not enough to please the people, especially when economic and social conditions barely changed. As a result, 1991 saw many strikes, more people fleeing to Europe, high unemployment and inflation, and shortages of food. It was no surprise that new elections in March 1992 finally brought an end to 47 years of Communism when the Democratic Party took a majority of seats in the new Albanian Parliament and Sali Berisha was made President.

What was surprising is that, given the desperate times, when the Democrats could not, on short notice, deliver against some of their promises, the Socialists regained some lost stature in the municipal elections. By 1993, though, the Democrats had arrested many of the new and old leaders of the Socialist party. Elections in May 1996 kept the Democrats in power, but this all fell apart when the pyramid scheme - as well as its close ties to many important political figures - was revealed. Hotly contested elections early in the summer of 1997 brought the Socialists back into the majority with Fatos Nano in the leadership. Today, many people feel that support for the Socialist government is quickly dwindling and that there will be new elections again in the Fall.

With this information under our belts, we felt ready to tackle the rest of our time in Albania. We were put in the right mood and left at ease. What lay ahead depended entirely on what we could figure out with the friends from whom we had been awaiting news. Tomorrow we would be able to go by their offices and work out the details.

Back at the hotel, no one tried to work. We were just too tired.

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