Albania is a place of great interest – developing, coming into Democracy out of Communism, struggling with corruption and dealing with many of its own fleeing for a better life in the North while Syrian immigrants knock at its doors to the South.
These are some travel observations:
As we enter Albania we are greeted by an old man in a wheelchair vigorously begging for money as we drive by in our plastic RV bubble. This is a country recently released from the vestiges of nearly 50 years of Communism and then thrust into trouble with its neighbors – I wonder if it was the fight for independence that caused him to be wheelchair bound or because of more recent fights within the Balkans. Undoubtedly, he lived through the war that caused the border crossing between Albania and Montenegro to be governed by a machine gun garrison.
Just past the border gates, a woman -likely Roma Gypsy – stands along the road in a silver sparkly skirt across from a gold domed Mosque. Albania is a country of Christians and Muslims, but under Communist rule, they were forced to be athiest. Religious property was confiscated, religious leaders were tried, tortured and executed. This gypsy is one of only a handful of women we will see while in Albania.
The roads are narrow and rough through the center of the country, but construction is everywhere – signs of rebirth. Along the roadside are huge piles of rubble from buildings long forgotten, ditches of mud from recent rains and piles of garbage. In between the roadside garbage are sparkling modern gas stations – at least one every 800 meters. The first thing bought after the fall of Communism was a Mercedes. Not only was gas in high demand, but it turns out, gas stations are one of the many mastermind ways of laundering money (from drug sales, human trafficking and prostitution) in this new Capitalism. Albanians are famous for earning money through illicit means, and rumor has it, these gas station owners don’t use the same requirements for weight and measurement as in the U.S., so are making a bit more profit than they should.
Behind the rubble and garbage are scraggly groves of pomegranate and oranges unaffected by war or the turmoil of men. Albania is a very depressed place, yet symbols of hope – a white clay dove adorns the highest part of the house – the chimney, and a chrome horseshoe is attached to the front grille of an old Mercedes still driving after all these years. Between piles of rubble, cement and rebar dominate the landscape signaling that economic development is underway.
Roadways are the meeting place for commerce. Albania, like Latin America, supports the commonsensical idea that tire companies should take up residence along the roads next to grandma’s selling bags of oranges, and the guy with plastic buckets, flip flops and soda. Cars dart in a out of traffic to reach their stopping places alongside shacks and shanties set up for the sale of goods. The backdrop to all these shanties and cement storefronts is a wild and rugged mountain range whose view is obstructed with a crazy array of rusty dilapidated power lines that seem to stream over the country’s surface like a spider web.
In addition to commerce, roadways bear witness to recent strife within the Balkans and Greece as bunkers and gun garrisons mark the places where others were watched and perhaps not welcome. Why these have yet to be bulldozed is yet to be seen. Is there still trouble? Based on the intense searches at the borders going into and out of the country, my guess is that indeed, there is still trouble.
Passing through farmland in the outskirts of the capital city, Tirana, we see gentleman farmers in suit coats walking with their cows, shooing a flock of turkeys with a stick and driving their horse-drawn cart down the highway. In Albania the job of shepherd is not obsolete by evidence of men tending dusty beige flocks of sheep in the nooks and crannies of the roadsides and fields. Corn stalks are stacked together in pyramids to dry the old-fashioned way, and hay is moved to piles by lean men with pitchforks later to be moved by cart to a large pile saved for winter and covered with a plastic tarp. Sugar cane grows wild along the roadsides and between fields where there is more moisture.
The inland landscape of this Adriatic area has changed. While there are still fields of grape wines and olive groves, gone are the arborvitae spires and instead we see scraggly poplars, and other brushy growth. Occasionally we see a big cottonwood or white birch.
Most ironic and strange is that here many of the buildings are made with a clay hollow block just like that of our pig barn in Maiden Rock – a rare site in Wisconsin leaves me wondering how this product ended up on our farm homesteaded by a family from Sweden?
South of Tirana on the way to Vlore, the scraggle gives way to a lush agricultural area with terraced olive, orange and pomegranate groves, and fields where John Deere can find his way. Flocks of sheep and goats are herded between the rectangular shaped fields. This is a place where there is evidence of older generations – olive trees with huge gnarly trunks and fruit too high to pick prove this country wasn’t only born within the last 15 years. This is one of the primary areas where the Communist government first took control of land belonging to large landholders and redistributed it to the peasants. Then in the 50s-60s the government again took the land in order to establish huge tracts of collective or state farms leaving the people landless. After the collapse of Communism in 1991, this land is back in the hands of farmers. It seems that many of the plots are smaller than 10 acres.
Arriving in the coastal town of Vlore the scene changes again. This town is full of sparkling new high rises that face the ocean and streets yet to be built – mud and holes make up the roads that Google Maps calls highways. Here we see fewer shanty market stalls on the roadsides and more upscale markets and cafes with men in suits coats and fedoras playing chess. Vlore appears to have money and is on the verge of making a great seaside town. Their beachfront: beach and boardwalk is a mess of backhoes and bulldozers building a walk path that will surely be lined with cafes and beach umbrellas in a few years, but right now is a mess of mud, rubble and trash. Despite the mess, people of Vlore must be optimistic because men are playing chess at little makeshift tables on the beach next to piles of rubble and mud, and a few couples walk along this gnarly construction site perhaps listening to the surf and imagining what it will one day be. Like other parts of Albania, nearly every square foot of this country is under construction. I have never seen such high volume growth and development. Right now this is a rough place to visit, but I imagine in 10 or 15 years it might be something spectacular.
Along the way we see bits and pieces of Ancient Albania – castles, walls and a few crumbling remnants of small stone-arch bridges crossing the River Vijose. Ceasar battled near the modern town of Durres in what was then, Epidamnos and later called Dyracchium by the Romans. Here and there we see a few old houses made of white washed brick with hand-hewed stone slate-like roofs. Most of the buildings appear no older than 30 years. It’s as if all vestiges of Communism were bulldozed leaving huge mounds of rubble over the surface of the country. A bit of ramshackle Communist era housing seems to be the only thing left. Men who still wear Fedoras and three piece suits remind a casual visitor that this place has longevity…but it is a mess.