My first test in Albania was the toilets. The overnight bus from Athens had crossed the border an hour ago and the driver decided to stop at a mountain inn for refreshments. Sixty minutes of heavily potholed roads had left me in need of bathroom and I dragged myself off the bus to find the facilities. It was freezing cold outside, a shock to the system after the warmth of Greece and the Middle East.
I found the toilets easily enough, the problem was the choice. There were two doors; one marked “burra” and one marked “gra”. But which was I – a burra or a gra? There was no symbol to go with the words that might have helped. Burra sounded a bit like boy or brother but I had no faith in such transliteration of the Albanian language.
I knew full well the trap the unwary fall into in Ireland when confronted with the anagrammatically upsetting “mná” (women) and the feminine sounding “fir” (men). So I stealthily opened the door marked “burra” and peered inside. The lights were off and there were no, ahem, distinguishing features inside. I hesitated further only to finally have blushes spared as a man from the bus behind me marched confidently through the “burra” door. Aha, I’m a burra, bro!
I certainly needed the toilet. We were still some hours away from Tirana. Albania may be a small country but the multitude of mountains and the poor quality of the roads make for slow travel. The six-lane (I initially typed this as six-land, clearly affected by travel) motorways that took us north from Athens are a distant dream, though dreaming was a rare commodity as I did not get much sleep in the 14 hour trip.
It had been a long day. This particular day actually started at 2.30am two countries and two days ago. My flight out of Tel Aviv was at 7am but I knew I needed to allow three hours to get through tight Israeli security. Wanting to save a cab fare, I walked 40 minutes to get the train to the airport; hence the 2.30am alarm start. I stayed the night in a Tel Aviv hostel and there wasn’t much sleep beforehand anyway as my mostly Israeli roommates were in a mood for conversation until midnight.
I got about two and half hours sleep and got up again. I had done the walk earlier so I knew where I was going but this time it was with wheelie luggage. Today was the day I regretted not going the backpack. The pain was forgotten at the train station and the search there was light by Israeli standards. A sleek train got me to Ben Gurion on time.
I got through the fine tooth comb checks of Israeli airport security with stoic and bleary-eyed indifference and reading before we finally boarded the flight. We landed in Athens two hours later where the immigration policeman barely glanced at my passport. He would never get a job at Ben Gurion.
In Athens I knew from previous experience where to seek out the Albanian bus lines. And so for €35, I was booked onto the bus to Tirana leaving at 6pm. I busied myself with a day of ancient Athenian antiquities before we finally got underway. I was the only non-Albanian on the bus. The other passengers quickly got through passport control at the border into Shqipëria (what the locals prefer to call Albania). I was held up with paperwork but was finally given a visa for the princely sum of €1 (it had been reduced from €10 at the start of 2008, presumably to encourage more tourism).
The bus finally got into Tirana at what I thought was 8am. Except, it turned out to be 7am. Only later did I find out we moved into Central European Time when we crossed the border. I wanted to stay at the recently opened Tirana Backpackers Hostel which had gotten some good reviews on the internet. I didn’t have a map of Tirana but I had an address “85 Rruga Elbasanit” (Rruga means street in Albanian) and the knowledge that it was reasonably central. So when the bus finally reached Tirana, I went up to the bus driver and said “Rruga Elbasanit?” in my most inquisitive voice. He made a grunty hand signal that amounted to “straight ahead, then veer left”.
I asked several more people along the way. All bar one kept me going in the same direction (the odd man out must have misheard me as he tried to send me back in the direction of the bus). I walked through Tirana’s main square, named for its 15th century nationalistic hero Skanderbeg (and whose statue prominently adorns the square) before finally veering left as promised. It didn’t help that Tirana didn’t seem to bother with signs for street names or street numbers. But I kept faith in the pointing and my constant questioning refrain of Rruga Elbasanit. I kept rolling those first two r's whether I was supposed to or not) and kept asking. Sure enough after about my tenth or 12th victim, I was in Rruga Elbasanit. Before too long I found the hostel at number 85. There I was greeted by a friendly bearded Swiss gentleman named Pedro who made me feel quite at home. I had a feeling I was going to like Tirana.