Advantages Unspoilt territories, friendly locals, beautiful beaches, cheap property
Disadvantages Roads devoid of traffic lights, English not spoken
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
The year was 2003, the month was February (then April), and I was chasing after a lost love whose immigration papers had expired long after his welcome here in England. He had told me he was Greek, because, claimed he, most people he met frowned upon the fact that he was Albanian if he told them so. I certainly frowned when he came clean about his background, but merely because he'd lied to me.
Call it a moment of temporary insanity, call it a twist in my sobriety, call it a moment when there was a full solar and lunar eclipse all at once, but whatever it was, I was certainly very determined to swim after my little fish to the ends of the earth to ease the pangs of my yearning heart. His handsome face still comes to mind, the loving eyes, the gentle kisses we shared, the long hours of conversational babble only those in love would tolerate, and this was despite him being unable to speak sufficient English to save his life.
So I packed my bags, booked a ticket and set off from London, Heathrow after having found that only one website called Lonely Planet, probably for obvious reasons, contained some useful information regarding Bed and Breakfasts in Albania. I had written this down furiously, carefully stuck it inside my trouser pocket for safety and set off on my quest to find Edmond.
Budapest airport looked vast, white and cold, and foreign eyes peered at me from various angles as I made my way towards the nearest scrolling tv screen for information. As the Hungarian plane to Tirana Airport settled comfortably among the fleecy white clouds, I noticed, not without a slight feeling of dismay, that the meal one normally gets inflight, had been reduced to a very meagre Ham sandwich, literally spread with a bit of mayonnaise so as not to draw attention to its scant dryness along with some bottled plain water, and within an hour of leaving, more or less, the plane taxied to a halt at the smallest of airports my eyes had ever laid on.
Papers were checked, bags were collected, no fuss, no frills, in fact, the one advantage of it all was that it took mere minutes to go through customs.
Edmond was waiting on the other side, his clothes and hair covered in a thin layer of brown dust which seemed to cover just about anyone and everything within its jurisdiction. He stood waiting with his cousin, and when he saw me, a smile broke out on his face, the force of which made even the sun's aura appear diminished.
We stayed at a hotel called the Kalaja hotel, where no one spoke English and the best room had problems with the adjoining toilet's flushing. No food was served but we made up for that by chancing upon Tirana's own version of Macdonalds right next to the city zoo. It had been the cheapest hotel I could find, this was at 25 euro's per night.
The city teemed with life well after dark, the streets were hustling and bustling with cars zooming up and down along roads that were being repaved. The roads had been busted during bombings and revolting against the then communist regime led by Hoxhaj, a tyrant who had literally imprisoned its citizens by preventing anyone from leaving or entering the country, all this lasted till 1994, when the world saw Albania on t.v broadcasts live for the first time. Albania is quite literally now, the way Spain was about 10-15 years ago, a "country on the mend".
One of the things which never failed to amaze me , was the droves of people who crossed the busy streets in the absence of traffic lights, and holding Edmond's hand everytime we crossed, I closed my eyes and started saying my prayers. It all seemed so chaotic, whenever a bunch of people wanted to cross, cars stopped in the middle of the road to make way for them. This was the most dangerous thing I'd ever done in my entire life, but I survived to tell the tale.
Tirana itself was alive with the frenzy of modern life, when only years before (according to Edmond) there had been scant little cars about. Modern buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants were all over, even the police seemed more rigorous in their enforcement of traffic law. Even though I never got to see any of the beautiful beaches (of which I have postcards) I did get to see the zoo. We were told of a man-sized gorilla who had terrorized everyone by escaping (a few years before our visit) and all we got to see were tigers, lions, some llama and geese. Though very few people actually speak English, and there is only one atm in the entire country (perhaps its different by now), my experience was a pleasant and safe one. I did not encournter any forms of violence or crime at all, and unlike South Africa, where I'm from, it is perfectly customary for people to go for evening walks along the main boulevards and avenues for a warm, summer evening stroll.
Did you know that the only airport in the entire country, called Nene Theresa airport, had been sponsored by none other than the late Mother Theresa, whose parents had been Albanian. Though it is widely believed among citizens of other countries that most Albanians are corrupt, I guess Mother Theresa gave them a lot of food for thought, she certainly gave the same to many in Calcutta.
Although some may find it odd that the only country where people shake their head when they mean "yes" and nod when they mean "no" is Albania, I found my experience to be a heartwarming one, and might just decide to invest there while it is still unspoilt in its natural charm.
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