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On the road in Albania


Albania, 1996


First there was the German development specialist who befriended us during our three hour wait to clear customs in Durres. And then there was Bruna, a twenty-year old Albanian woman working as a secretary at the American agricultural assistance program. And then our host Greg - all with the same advice: go south. "And what about the roads?" we had asked Bruna. "Can we manage in our Volkswagen Polo?" "Oh right," she said. "The roads. That's the one problem here in Albania."


Two days later, we headed out to the beach south of Durres with Greg, his wife Johanna, and their two precocious pre-teenage daughters. Where the road from Tirana met the coast road, a huge market in stolen vehicles operated openly. There were hundreds of late-model Mercedes, Audis, and BMWs, as well as less prestigious brands of cars and trucks. A few miles further south, we parked our cars in a grove of pines and spread our blankets out on the sand. The beach was dotted with dozens of mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers erected by the long-time dictator Enver Hoxha to protect Albania against invasion from the enemy hordes whose invasion he had expected - for more than forty years - to arrive at his shores at any moment. The water was warm and calm and only an occasional bit of sewage floated by.


Late in the afternoon, Greg and Johanna and the girls headed back to Tirana, and Toby and I continued down the coast. The first hour or so was along the flat coastal plain, gradually curving inland. We entered Fier, a medium-sized city, a little after six. It was a town of concrete block buildings, wide, practically treeless boulevards, potholes, and donkey carts - a fine example of post-communist desolation - and then, suddenly, we found ourselves on a tree-lined street, adjacent to a shady park, amidst a crowd of pedestrians. And face to face with a policeman holding a sort of paddle with a large red dot at its end. He was signaling us in no uncertain terms to stop. He pointed to a road sign, which forbade automobile traffic between the hours of 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm, and urged us fairly firmly to retreat. It was not an unreasonable request, but two attempted detours around the center of Fier only brought us back to the forbidden zone, and also back in contact with a uniformed law enforcement officer. He requested, politely but a bit impatiently, to see our "documenti", but seemed to relax a bit on viewing the embossed golden eagle set against the blue of a passport of the United States of America. We tried to communicate our good intentions and our dilemma -how to get through Fier and continue on our way to Vlore. He shrugged his shoulders and, looking himself at a bit of a loss, waved us through.


The remainder of the drive to Vlore was uneventful, and we pulled in around 7:00 or 7:30. We'd been told that there were two hotels in the harbor area - the big white one, which was on the expensive side, and a new wooden one, which might be a bit more reasonable. It was easy to identify them both, but when we pulled up to the wooden one, a foreign-looking family of four seemed to be negotiating for one or more rooms, and for a moment I speculated irrationally on the possibility that we had just missed out on the last available hotel rooms in Vlore.


The family, clustered around the door of the reception office, was headed by the biggest man I'd seen since we'd arrived in Albania, and also one of the very few I'd seen wearing a suit. After a few minutes, the group followed an employee up the stairs. In some combination of languages with elements of English, Italian, Spanish, French and Albanian, we then tried to inquire after a room for ourselves. After a few semi-articulate exchanges, the clerk said "occupado." Thinking we'd better hurry over to the big white hotel, we retreated to the car, but just as we were pulling out of our parking spot, the foreign-looking family reappeared, exited the grounds on the far side of the lot, got into a large, late-model midnight blue Audi, and drove away.

We went back into the reception office, and finally, after a few more exchanges, the clerk said, "Come." He took us upstairs and showed us a pleasant room in the back with a double bed and a bathroom and told us it would be forty dollars. I was so relieved by this apparent change of luck that I decided to completely ignore the fact that the room was on a balcony accessible from the main hallway that made it easy prey for any thief who got it into his head to force open our window and rifle through our possessions. We went back downstairs to check in, but then the clerk let out a groan. "Twenty three - occupado." He scanned down the page with his finger, and tapped another line. "OK. Come," he said, and then grumbled under his breath, "I am bar man, not hotel."


We went back upstairs and looked at Room 21 - a room on the front with two single beds, looking out on the bay, again with a balcony. This one was a little less vulnerable since the balcony was on the front, and although one of the beds had not been made, the view was great. Toby stayed upstairs waiting for the clerk to return with clean sheets to make the bed, while I went down to bring up our bags from the car. By the time I'd finished unloading the car, the clerk/bar man had made the bed, in a manner of speaking, with a bit of assistance from Toby. I went downstairs to check in and counted out 4000 lek, the equivalent of $40. But the clerk pointed to a 500 lek note and said "Four more these."


"But I thought it was 4000," I said.


"No six thousand. $30 dollar you. $30 dollar your wife. Two persons." Which meant - or at least suggested - that the other one would have cost us 80 dollars. In my confusion I gave him 1000 more. He counted it and said, "No. One thousand." Then I counted it, arrived at 5000, and it was just dawning on me that I was in fact still a thousand short and that I needed to fish out two more five hundred lek notes, when the clerk suddenly changed his mind and decided the five thousand was enough. "Over there," he said, pointing to the white hotel across the waterfront, "Seventy dollars."


That evening's dinner was another comedy of errors. We'd heard favorable reports on grilled shrimp, and thought that shrimp, along with salad and a bottle of Italian white wine, was just the way to end the day. The terrace of the big white hotel, right at the water's edge, seemed the most likely candidate for a good meal, but it turned out that shrimp was not on the menu, so we ordered a bottle of white wine and two plates of "insalata mista". Two items ordered resulted in three misinterpretations by the waiter despite the best of intentions, and the discovery that in Albania, or at least on the terrace of the big white hotel in Vlore, an "insalata mista" is a plate of salami, mortadella, and cheese.

The next morning, we set out for Sa

randa, some 150 kilometers south of Vlore. Following Greg's recommendation, we stopped for coffee ten minutes south of the city, just beyond a short tunnel, at a picturesque cafe, perched on a bluff above a little bay. There were a few rocks at the water's edge, and the water was an inviting shade of turquoise, lazily lapping at the shore. It was tempting, but we decided to postpone sensual pleasure until we'd covered a bit of territory.


Once back on the road, we followed the shore for another ten kilometers or so and then cut inland and began climbing, first in long sweeping curves, slicing through the terraced groves of olive trees, and then as we continued to climb, in shorter and sharper switchbacks, rising through a rugged valley, more than once just managing to avoid one of those late-model German sedans cheating toward the inside on a blind hairpin turn. At the top - a mere thousand meters above sea level but feeling for all the world as if it were three times as high, the road flattened out, the air felt cool, and the sun-bleached landscape of rocks and olive groves gave way to the cool greens of a pine forest.


We emerged from the forest, driving along a barren, rocky stretch of mountainside, and there, where the road was at its most desolate, presented our credentials to a pair of officials at a police checkpoint that could only have been established to punish insubordinate personnel. Once beyond the checkpoint, we cut between two barren peaks, another thousand meters above us, rounded a bend, and then the entire coastline for 75 or a 100 kilometers was visible before us. Directly below us, a long stretch of white, completely empty beach sparkled in the sun. The mountains and hills loomed blue gray in the further distance, and far out there on the horizon was a grayish blur that by best guess figured to be the Greek resort island of Corfu.


And then began the descent. The way up had been treacherous at times, but for the most part, the pavement was in reasonable condition and wide enough to accommodate two vehicles, just as long as they both adhered to the widely respected convention that each stay to the right. But now, frequently, the usable pavement was just three meters wide, and this fragile roadway hung on a narrow ledge, 500 meters above the base of a nearly vertical cliff, with the mountain rising directly from the road on the other side. Each time we were forced to pull onto the crumbling, suspect shoulder to allow a car or truck to pass or to avoid a pothole large enough to swallow the car, Toby, who had once survived the trauma of plunging over a thirty foot embankment on a road in Mexico, repeated "I hate this," through clenched teeth.


For nearly half an hour, we zigged and zagged ever downward on the side of the mountain, eventually arriving at the village of Dhermi, a place of white- washed stucco houses strung along the road and up and down the hillside, probably little changed from 60 years ago, except for the occasional rusted carcass of a vehicle. A peasant couple and a boy of about ten signaled their desire for a ride, so we stopped, adjusted our load to make room for them, and headed down towards the water. "America!" they repeated several times in wonder when we told them where we came from. They too were planning a day at the beach, so they directed us towards Dhermi's beachside hotel, recently refurbished by an Italian company. It had undoubtedly served as a holiday retreat for high-ranking party officials in the days before the communists had fallen from grace. Now it was a rather incongruous but welcome taste of the West - polished and white and looking for all the world like it ought to be 100 miles further west, on the Italian side of the Adriatic Sea, that is. Needing to unwind, I ordered a Moretti beer.


At the table next to ours, a stunningly beautiful young woman sat alone, drinking a soft drink. After exchanging greetings and then a few pleasantries, we invited her to shift her chair and join us at our table. She told us that she was working as an interpreter for a German water resources project and was in Dhermi for the weekend with a friend. Her English was colored by a soft accent, but otherwise, it was nearly flawless. She also knew French and Italian, and was working on German. She asked us how we were enjoying our stay in Albania. "It's very interesting for me to see a country undergoing change like this," I said. "And the people here have all been very friendly - of course they like to talk to us since we are visitors. But for you - it must be very exciting to live in a country that is changing so much. How does it feel?"


"Well," she said. "Of course it is quite nice - you can do whatever you like now, and before - in my parents time, then you couldn't do anything. And then everybody had to be the same. Everybody had the same hair, the same clothes, talked the same, and you were supposed to think the same too. But really, even I don't remember so well. I was a schoolgirl." Just then, a handsome, blonde, square-jawed, blue-eyed hunk came up to the table. "This is my friend," she said, with just the slightest hint of embarrassment. "Hello," he said, and I was pretty certain I could discern a German accent even in a brief greeting. Indeed, he was a German water resources engineer on his first overseas development project. He was posted in the north, sometimes he was lonely, the work was difficult, the bureaucracy was a nightmare, and anyway, for several months during the winter, it was impossible to work, but he was enjoying it all the same. Looking at his companion, I thought I could appreciate why.


He claimed to be the first westerner in Albania to have his vehicle stolen and then subsequently recovered by the police. Repainted and altered in various other ways, but still basically intact. It had taken a week or two to track it down, and then two months to have the authorities release it back into his hands. The conversation was pleasant, so we ordered another round of drinks, and could have continued talking for some time, but we knew that the remaining 70 odd kilometers to Saranda were quite slow, and we were still hoping to lay on an idyllic stretch of beach somewhere along the way. The Dhermi beach looked a little too tame and populated for us, so we bid our drinking partners good-bye and went back to the car, which turned out to be all but blocked in by another of those large late-model German cars. After ten minutes of precision maneuvers, I managed to extricate it, and we were off.


Within ten or fifteen minutes, I realized that ordering a second beer had been a serious miscalculation. I had assumed, looking at the map, that negotiating the pass between Vlore and Dhermi was the most difficult part of the drive. But I was already regretting my self-indulgence as we began climbing again. We snaked our way up and through terraced groves of olive trees and here and there an occasional hamlet, curling along the edges of steep precipices and bending around hairpin turns, dodging potholes and late model German automobiles, overtaking rickety trucks and buses, overtaken by the odd Mercedes or Audi heading south, and engaged in several exercises in cross cultural cooperation at points along the cliffside where only one vehicle at a time could safely negotiate the shattered remains of a roadway. We descended a bit, in switchbacks and long downward curves, and I thought about lunch. And then we rose again. And then descended again. I wasn't sure if I ought to believe it, but eventually, we arrived in Himara, a small seaside town. There were several bars and restaurants strung along the roadside, just above a beach, so we pulled off and managed, with only minor stumbles, to order shrimp. Admittedly they were fried rather than grilled, but tasty nonetheless. I played it safe and ordered a tonic.


An hour later, we were back on the road withToby behind the wheel. If driving the treacherous road was nerve-wracking, then sitting in the passenger seat was nerve-wracking raised to the power of stomach-churning fear. It was not that Toby drove badly - though I wouldn't have minded if she'd taken more of those downhill curves in second gear instead of third (her Ford Explorer back in California selected the gears for her) and if she'd hit the brakes on the curves even if that was not how they told you to do it in driving school. Most of the time, I'm pretty sure, she had the car under control. But as long as it wasn't under my control, I just couldn't be certain that she saw what I saw and anticipated what I was anticipating - not to mention how close she seemed to be getting to the edge. All irrational thoughts, no doubt. But I can't say that I regretted it when her left leg, unaccustomed to the rigors of constantly clutching, started to give out and she turned the controls back over to me.


I guess it was up and down twice more between Himara and our next meeting with the coast, at a village called Borsh. Coming around a bend, we saw a long stretch of white beach, practically deserted, and a scattering of bunkers, playfully decorated with bright flowers and other whimsical designs. This was the spot we'd been waiting for, and we turned off onto a short unpaved road that led us out to a beach of what turned out to be coarse white gravel. At the north end, a cold stream flowing down from the mountain behind us emptied into the sea. It had deposited a little mound of sand, so we walked up the beach, crossed the stream and stretched ourselves out on the sand in the warmth of that magical Mediterranean sun.

The water was warm and unbelievably calm, owing to its location in a sort of cranny of the Mediterranean's Strait of Otranto, sheltered by the Albanian coast on the north and east and the Ionian Islands on the south. A few youngsters were jumping and diving off of a little platform a hundred meters or so away, below the rocks past the end of the beach. A couple of cars were parked where the dirt road melted into a low dune. Perhaps three or four parties were spread over several hundred meters of beach front at the north end of the beach, and further south, here and there a beach umbrella marked a bit of occupied ground.


The kids angled from their little platform across a little bay, diving in and out of the water like a school of dolphins. A little while later, they approached us - it wasn't clear if they had come to check us out or if they were intending to return to the platform they had recently vacated. But when we greeted them, they were only too happy to talk to us. "Where do you come from?" said one. "What is your name," said another. Giggles all around. We answered them slowly and asked them their names. There was a Klodiana and a Sofia, and three or four others who either didn't know English or were far too shy and insecure to try it out on us. Strangely Klodiana was a confident talker, but uncertain about what we meant when we talked to her. And Sofia seemed to understand us easily, but she was embarrassed to speak.


Still, we could carry on a surprisingly coherent four cornered conversation. Since Toby is a teacher, she was able to engage the girls easily, promising to have her students send them letters when she returned to the States, and asking them which American musicians they liked - Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston all scored well with Klodiana, Sofia and their friends.


We talked to them for ten or fifteen minutes, and then they moved on, only to be replaced by another group of curious teenagers, and then later, their parents, aunts and uncles. "We may be simple, but we still have our traditions," said one of the men, by way, it seemed, of an apology for the poverty of his country. We stretched out our respite on the beach as long as we could, but late in the afternoon, we could delay our departure no longer if we wanted to be sure to get to Saranda while it was still light and be certain to find ourselves a hotel room.


It was a scant forty kilometers, but the vertical ups and downs could well have added another six or eight kilometers to the total distance. Toby kept promising that each summit would be the last, but each time we descended into a valley, there was no way out but to climb again. On around the third descent, I pulled over to let a Mercedes pass us, and as the car pulled even with us, the driver - a dead ringer for John Belushi, American's one, albeit deceased Albanian-American hero - leaned towards the open window, with a Belushi-like sneer on his face. "Don't be afraid," he shouted, and left us in the dust. I don't think I'd realized how scared I'd been for the better part of the last half hour until he called my attention to it.


We laughed long and hard, crawled up and over another ridge or two, and finally arrived at the Hotel Butrinti in the early evening. It was a blocky, seven-story building across the road from the bay; our Lonely Planet guide suggested that it was "reasonable value," and after the exhausting drive, we weren't inclined to search further. The middle-aged desk clerk oozed politeness and flashed a smile punctuated by a couple of gold teeth. He spoke a clear, careful, British-inflected English that could only have been acquired in the service of the Party - as a government informer, for example. He offered us a room on the fourth floor. "But there is a problem," he said apologetically. "You see, the lift is not working, so you will have to take the stairs."


We settled in, and walked out on the balcony. Below us, the street was crowded with locals and Albanian tourists, parading along the promenade. Out across the bay, some 14 or 15 kilometers away, Corfu now loomed large and barren, except for a few dim spots of light where the land and the sea met. Lonely Planet assured us that the one reliable attraction of Saranda was a view of the sun setting behind Corfu, but as the sky turned a brilliant red, the sun dipped toward the horizon quite a ways to the north, behind Saranda's modest harbor.


We joined the strollers on the promenade - a steady stream of tidy families, strutting young men and demure young women, giggly flirtatious teenagers, lovers walking arm in arm, old men standing and smoking - all dressed in their best and (except for the old men) moving at a measured speed several clicks slower than a normal walking pace. There was a tiny amusement park near the end, and a little fishing harbor, and above the promenade, a couple of restaurants and bars.


We chose the most inviting of these places and asked for fish, and a few minutes later, two whole fish were presented to us for our inspection and selection. We had no clue as to what they were, and I believe we committed something of a faux pas when we asked for one of each. But they obliged us and not so long after that, we were enjoying a very fine dinner of exquisitely prepared, very fresh fish - one of which turned out to be a bonito tuna, accompanied by a soft Greek wine.


There was no difficulty in falling asleep that night, but just before dawn, I awoke. I walked out on the balcony to look across the bay, and there, just off the northern tip of Corfu, the full moon, glowing soft and pale and red, was sinking into the sea.




West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.


China 2010: An annotated album


Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.



Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 


Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 

A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow

Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 

Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition



Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 


The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993 

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods


Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha


Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 



The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga

Buffalo News, 1996


On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride


A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 


End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls



Yes, I do have a job, sort of. Free-lance writing, journalism, editing, translation. If it's English words you're looking for, I can help you out. Click here for more information. It pays the rent.



Katvanger — dubious blues, twisted roots, counterfeit country & western, improbable jazz, and more ...


plus Jim Wake & Sleepwalker (1994-2014) — blues with a twist, rock and roll with a hop and a skip, country and western with tongue in cheek, quasi-tango, pseudo-Caribbean, proto-klezmer, etc.



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