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august 19, 2004 -> smuggled into albania

“Come back tomorrow.  Immigration is closed!” shouted the Greek officer. 

We were in shock.  Our boat was leaving in five minutes.  We had done a day-trip from the Albanian coast to the Greek island of Corfu.  All of our bags were in Albania.  We had to get on that boat.  I tried some emergency diplomacy, but was getting nowhere.   We decided to sneak on, slipping past immigration officials who were busy arguing with an Albanian lady.  The captain of our boat walked past us and smiled – he saw what we had done, but didn't care.  We had bought a round-trip ticket from Albania to Corfu, and he was going to ensure that we made it “home.”  The situation was so absurd that we started laughing: three Americans smuggling themselves into Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe! 

Albania is tiny, dry and mountainous.  Isolated by geography, surrounded by fractious neighbors, and overlooked by most of the world, Albanians are proud, introverted and suspicious of outsiders.  This siege mentality has also strengthened and protected Albania's native culture: it is one of the few countries in Europe were the “national dress” is still worn by many of its citizens.  About three-quarters of Albanians are Muslims, a consequence of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule.  I first became interested in Albania when I read Robert Carver's “The Accursed Mountains,” a fascinating first-hand account of the author's travels through much of Albania.  He described a strange land, where revenge killings were common, but complex rules of hospitality bound its citizens.  The place intrigued me – an anachronistic pocket of the 3rd world in Europe.  

We had taken a long, overnight bus ride from Athens to Albania's capital, Tirana.  A large number of Albanians have found work in Greece, where they are almost universally distrusted.  (Most Greeks will tell you that the influx of Albanian workers led to a big increase in crime.  We were constantly advised to be on guard in Albania.  No one could understand why we would want to go there.)  We were meeting my friend Barry, who had flown in from Austria and would be traveling with us for the next few weeks.  As soon as we crossed the border into Albania, infrastructure all but disappeared.  One-lane, deeply-rutted roads wound down steep hillsides.  The roadside ditches were filled with trash.  The ablution facilities at rest stops were filthy ‘long-drop' outhouses.  I felt like we were in Africa again. 

The Albanian capital, Tirana, is far from impressive at first sight.  Barry had already spent a full day exploring the place, and was brimming with humorous observations.  As Barry said, “it looks like the place is slowly being buried in dust.”  It was his first time in a Muslim country; he gleefully sang along with the muezzins as they called the faithful to prayer over scratchy public address systems.  Skenderbeg Square, a typical Soviet-influenced plaza, was even more derelict than Mongolia's Sukhbataar Square.  A sad collection of amusement rides sat in front of the National Historic Museum, its impressive “socialist realism” mosaic of heroic farmers and soldiers a burst of color on an otherwise drab, dusty expanse. 

But Tirana flowered at night, when darkness hid the dust and ugly buildings.  Police set up roadblocks, and the main street south of Skenderbeg Square filled with people of all ages enjoying a very Mediterranean evening stroll.  Fashionable restaurants and coffee bars filled with young people sipping iced mochas and smoking cigarettes.  Very few people were drinking beer or wine.  Groups of teenage boys sat and ogled beautiful teenage girls, who were dressed in their best outfits.  It was hard to imagine that we were still in Albania.  On the previous night, Barry had met a couple of guys from the U.S. Air Force, who told Barry about a strict protocol.  “If you see a group of five girls walking with one guy, you can't even say hello to the girls without first getting permission from the guy,” they complained. 

Enver Hoxha ruled Albania from 1945 until his death in 1985.  He rejected overtures to join Tito's Yugoslavia, instead choosing a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.  Later, he split with the USSR (which wanted to build a submarine base on the Albanian coast), and turned to Beijing for communist role-models.  Finally, he opted for his own special brand of authoritarianism, and closed Albania to foreigners.  He had numerous impersonators, many of whom were shot in confused assassination attempts.  At the height of his paranoia, he built thousands of grey, concrete bunkers or “pillboxes” across the country in order to protect Albania from foreign incursions.  Long after his death, the pillboxes remain; we saw hundreds of them on our bus ride from Tirana to the coastal “resort” town of Saranda.  No one has the money or energy to tear them down, so there they squat, in long lines across fields, mountainsides and the coast. 

We met Andrei at the bus station in Saranda.  He promised us a good, clean place with nice views, “very close.”  He found a taxi driver and urged us inside.  We were getting a little nervous as the taxi climbed a horrible road several blocks from the shore.  What a wonderful surprise when we arrived: incredible views of Saranda, the sea, and distant Corfu!  Over the next few days, we would spend many hours conversing on the terrace, drinking the very light, but quite excellent Tirana beer.  Andrei's family was incredibly hospitable: they offered us tasty Albania burek (a kind of cheese-stuffed pastry), did our laundry for a minimal fee, and sat and talked with us in the evenings, giving us great insights into contemporary Albania. 

We toured the impressive Greek ruins at nearby Butrint, where a visiting Kosovar said “Bravo!” when he found out that we were Americans.  Not used to this kind of praise, we asked him to explain.  “In Kosovo, America is like… a god.  The EU is whores.  They say one thing and doing another.  Only America does something.”  He was referring to the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia, aimed at stopping the “cleansing” of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.  The flood of Kosovar refugees into northern Albania to flee the Serb campaign in 1998-1999 was yet another blow for Albania's struggling economy. 

At least 75% of Saranda's buildings were unfinished.  It was impossible to tell if you were looking at a “boom” or a “bust” in real estate.  Andrei explained that it had to do with the 1997 collapse of a massive pyramid scheme.  The “bank” offered incredibly high rates of interest to depositors: e.g. put in $1000, get back $2000 in a couple of months.  Dumbstruck by their short-term gains, individuals reinvested their earnings and poured more and more of their personal savings into the “bank.”  Andrei's sister had been waiting in a long queue in Tirana, waiting to withdraw her money.  She watched in horror as enormous security guards emerged from the “bank” and began throwing large sacks into the back of an armored car.  They drove away with most of Albania's personal savings.