Keeping Us On Our Toes

We made it to Greece and have been camping on the beach near the Northern port town of Igoumenitsa. The weather has been great and we decided to hunker down and enjoy it after a few long days of driving.

When I was younger, my friends and I would sometimes wait until one of our other friends would go into a port-a-potty (or biff/y) then begin to rock the thing while they were in it. Good for a few laughs, and the joke was returned on me more than once.

We were all were all quietly reading last night when the camper began to significantly rock back and forth. My first thought was that Max was wildly thrashing in his berth, but he wasn’t when I looked up at him. My second thought went to the Biff experiences of youth, and that some pranksters had somehow snuck up on camper and began severely rocking it. I jumped up, yelled “hey,” and went outside to look. Sarah grabbed a knife out of the drawer and tried giving it to me in case the pranksters were going to try to rock me as well. I didn’t accept suggested weapon and walked around the camper wearing only boxers and a t-shirt –  didn’t see anyone.

It must have been a freak wind burst, but that hunch just didn’t sit right, and I’m not a paranormal believer. When I laid back down and tried to settle into reading again, it occurred to me that it just might have been an earthquake. I looked online and sure enough a 5.2 scale quake shook a town about 30 kilometers away. Kinda funny once these Midwesterners not accustomed to earthquakes figured out what had just gone down!

It’s probably a good thing that things like earthquake tremors are keeping us on our toes. Aside from some language miscommunications, camper issues, and some internal family conflicts, the trip has seemed pretty normal until we hit Montenegro and Albania.

Throughout much of this trip-do-date, my takeaway is that the European countries we’ve visited have been much more like the US or Canada than I had expected. My mind is wired to thinking in percentages and it feels like 80% (give or take a few percentage points) of what we’ve seen is familiar and makes sense to the world schema I’ve gotten comfortable with in the US. Don’t get me wrong, the remaining 20% still keeps us asking lots of questions and going deeper in better understanding the differences, but it’s been relatively very easy to operate here without having to modify our take on the world much.

I suppose I wouldn’t have been caught off guard had I better understood that Montenegro (to a lesser degree) and Albania (much greater degree) were going to look, feel, and act much different than the rest of Europe. Had I positioned my mind that the countries were going to would bend my mind the way Honduras did in my early Peace Corps’ days, I would have been less awestruck by the differences, but I wasn’t, and like last night’s earthquake, I was caught off-guard.

Sarah’s previous post hit on many aspects of Albania, but I wanted to embellish some thoughts from the cockpit of the camper. Through most of Montenegro and Albania, Max was riding shotgun with me and Sarah rode in back. Throughout this trip, the shotgun rider has been important. With the unfamiliarity of road signs, landscapes, other obstacles, and the practicalities of directions and vehicle knobs, I’ve been thankful to have Max or Sarah co-pilot the rig over the 5,000 kilometers traveled to-date. I easily would have taken out more than one animal or individual if an extra set of eyes wasn’t on the road. On this particular leg of the trip, Max’s duties as co-pilot also included constant banter with me on “WTF” commentary on what we were seeing. Observations included:

  • Gas stations at least every kilometer for the first 150 kilometers in Albania. In most cases they were twin stations (identical ones on either side of the road, not divided highway, just a regular two-lane road where exit ramps aren’t required). These gas stations were often constructed as gas stations + super stops, which included a 3- to 4-story structure that was also a hotel, a car wash, a bar, a coffee shop, a service station, a restaurant, and a convenience store. For those of you who are from the Twin Cities, think Bobby & Steve’s stations on steroids. I’m of the belief that businesses (or individuals for that matter) can be extremely proficient at one thing, possibly a couple more, before quality suffers on all fronts. The quantity vs. quality factor surfaces in a big way. In their defense, we didn’t stop to eat at one of these places, but can only imagine something would have suffered. For as many of these new super structures that dotted the road, there were just as many that looked to be abandoned and no longer in service. As Sarah noted in her blog, we later have learned that there is quite a bit of organized crime in Albania and much of the money laundering takes place in the financing and construction of these super stations.
  • Speed limit sign posting. Somewhere in Albania, there is a huge warehouse of speed limit signs with no windows or lighting. Road workers unfortunately enter and grab the first signs they feel, load them into their vehicle and set out for the day of work mounting the signs of various speeds at 100 meter intervals for the entire length of the country. This chaos theory of sign placement provides me and the camper with Formula 1 race car circuit training as we navigate through a speed limit obstacle course that follows a sequence something like this: 80 km/h – 30 km/h – 110 km/h – 20 km/h – 80 km/h all within a short stretch of just a few hundred meters. This could be comical if it were just for a short stretch of the highway, but it continued for hundreds of kilometers, and to top it off, there were often cops with radar guns on the side of the road pulling people over. Talk about a set-up for failure.
  • Free-for-all driving. I know most of us have had those travel experiences – even stateside – where driving seemed like a free-for-all as cars pass and squeeze in between oncoming vehicles. Previous travels have made me pretty accustomed to the chaos of it all. Northern Albania is right there on the list. I suppose what makes it stand out for me is that everything else in Europe has felt hyper-orderly.
  • Highway, city-street, and sidewalk AIO’s (All-In-One’s). Similar to the gas super-station, things can often serve one purpose better than another, but seldom serve all purposes perfectly. This is also the case for the Albanian highway system. There is one major road in Northern Albania that runs south along the Western part of the country. It is a two-lane road that is also the main artery street of tens – if not – of towns that feel like they are an extension of each other in a long-string of gas stations, houses, markets, road side stalls, and other stuff. Not only is it the highway using the recommended patchwork of speed signs (mentioned above), but it also is the city street where cars stop at any point to have a conversation or purchase something from a vendor. Additionally, it serves as the sidewalk, bike path, and animal herding corridor for much of Northern Albania. Throw in hundreds of potholes the size of our voluminous camper van, and it became a party in the making.
  • The refugee crisis is real. We have been pretty sheltered by the crisis impacting this part of Europe – primarily due to our inability to speak the local languages, but language wasn’t needed to feel the tight security at that Albanian border and the heavy military presence for the first 50 kilometers into Greece. At one point about 5 kilometers into Greece, I saw several figures dart across the road a few hundred meters ahead of me on a fairly desolate part of the country. At first I thought they were animals – like deer darting across the road – only as they slowed to get over the railing did I see they were human. As we made our way to that point in the road, I could make out a few heads peering at me from behind brush waiting for us to pass. As I’ve had conversations with locals, everyone here seems to be very concerned about immigration, the impact on their country, and on Europe. Ironically, they see the US as far more progressive on this front.

While I may come across as belly-aching or making fun of Albania, I really enjoyed being caught off-center and realizing around the next bend in the road I would be surprised by something I never would have expected to see. Good stuff! And while I know our future travels will take us into more tame Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France in the next month, I’m truly looking forward to more-spirited/surprising travel situations in SE Asia and South/Latin America.

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4 thoughts on “Keeping Us On Our Toes

  1. Jeff and Sarah, thank you so much for your enlightening and entertaining discourse on life on the road. I am learning so much about the world through your experiences. Albania really seems interesting and a little scary. It sounds like you were lucky to make it through that country without getting arrested or fined. Looking forward to the next leg of your adventure.

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    1. Hi Martha! We are having a great time – Albania was scary – I don’t think the police were interested in us and our marshmallow on a Fiat frame! They have friends to make and keep in the world right now. I think we were lucky to get out of Albania without smashing into something! Our first night – after many hours of driving, the campsite manager brought us two beers – she knew it was hell to get there! We’d never received gifts upon check-in until Albania!

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  2. So you are traveling east and then turning west from Greece back to Italy, France, and Spain and/or Portugal? The Albania segment will not be the only startling place, I’m sure. The middle eastern states will probably appear quite culturally different from western Europe. Now this is the segment of your journey that I’d like to join. Great commentary from all of your party.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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    1. Hi Auntie Rachel,

      We are basically traveling Europe counterclockwise – Here’s where we have been: Germany, Netherlands, Germany again, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Austria again, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegavenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and now Greece.

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