“Guy’s wake up, the cops are here” Stef said the next morning while preparing dinner. Moments later he followed it up by “Never mind, I think he just forgot where the new police station is located”. After our hot meal, we stepped on our bikes, went around the corner and unexpectedly found the Albanian border. After observing this new land in a shared silence we received suspicious looks from old men in suits standing roadside and people driving makeshift vehicles. When we stopped at the nearest gas station to resupply our water and gas (for our fuel-stove), the attendant emerged from his car and insisted on handling the pump himself. After asking if we could pay with card, he invited us in his ‘office’; a room with a small table, a chair and a locker. Because, what more should a gas station have than gas?
Reflecting on the luxury we used to live in, we are starting to accept and enjoy the simplicity further from home. We realized the attendant was probably sitting in his car because there he had radio, in his office he did not. We also learned the makeshift vehicles – we call them ‘trikes’ – are common and a very useful transportation method for cabbages, goats and other agricultural products. While Albanian motorists drive recklessly, they tend to their cars meticulously as vehicles represent one’s status. You can not drive 3 kilometers without passing a ‘lavazzah’, a place to give your wheels a good cleanin’, buy spare parts and upgrades. For a decent bike shop on the other hand, you must go all the way to Tirane.
It took some time to appreciate Albanian culture, but the suspicious looks quickly turned into overenthusiastic waving and people shouting at us to catch our attention. The more we started interacting with the local population, the more this country started growing on us. Whenever we stopped, people approached us with their best English. Usually this resulted in a sign language conversation, not wanting to sell anything but out of genuine interest. Instead of pointing you in the right direction, people will walk you all the way to where they think you have to be. This was particularly funny when we found ourselves in Tirane in a street full of bike shops with a local taking us from door to door, explaining what kind of new tire we needed. He also shared our delight when we found a shop that could help us. Having received so much love and joy from the locals, Oli felt he had to reciprocate in some way. Here he parted with his slingshot and bag of marbles by giving it to a city kid, who accepted it with gleaming eyes.
During our months of research we became unsure what to think of Albania. Most information on the internet pointed out that it was a rather unsafe country and one should be ‘cautious when traveling through’. Our second night we were about to set up camp behind an abandoned building, but even then a local by the name of Arlin approached us and said “Don’t sleep here, at night no good people. They take your stuff”. Instead he suggested to sleep around the corner, at his uncle’s place. Here we were received with Turkish coffee and Rakia. Since there was a language barrier, we took out Mr. Flavour Saver and played some tunes which Besim, the uncle, greatly appreciated. To our surprise, we were also woken up with freshly cooked rice and eggs, coffee… and Rakia. To top it all off they sent us off with a lunchbox of grapes, pomegranates, mystery fruit… and, of course, a big bottle of Rakia. Albania was definitely a good choice, as long as you stay out of sight during the night.