Saturday, 10 July 2010

But Really We Loved This Country

Disturbed dreams. Woke up in a spacious room with intricately patterned tiles on the floor. The décor is sparse but tasteful, a table and two chairs, a double bed, large windows on two adjacent walls. The closed shutters provide shelter from the constant sun and harsh light. The windows of course are wide open. In the cooler shade a pleasant breeze transports the sounds of the outside world into the room. A donkey bray, a cockerel welcoming the day, kids splashing in the small pool.

Dreams must be symptomatic of an agitated mind. The entrance into Albania was a step into a different world. The change had been fairly gradual until now, edging day by day towards the unfamiliar. First a change of currency, then subtle shifts in flavours and landscapes, then the loss of a common language. Physiognomy also gradually changed. People got darker, their smiles more frequent and gappier. But when we reached Tuzi a more drastic change was evident. This Montenegrin border town, with a dusty market at the crossroads, was chaotic, loud and foreign.

The border crossing between Montenegro and Albania is on the northernmost tip of Skadarsko Jezero (Skadar Lake). “Do you know anything about this area?” we had asked at the tourist office in Tivat pointing at the lake on a map. The answer was a blank stare; the lady did not know anything about it. It turns out that this is the biggest National Park and Nature Reserve in Montenegro, with many species of endemic flora and fauna. Unfortunately the Albanian side is not held in such high regard. In fact there was a joint Croatian/Albanian project, now luckily defunct, to build a nuclear power plant on its shores.

The road towards Albania got progressively worse. Just after a hairpin bend we found a couple of potholes so huge one could have lost a truck inside them. The border itself was busy, with a long cue of trucks parked in the road. The drivers were kind enough to let us through and the border police friendly enough to let us out of the last and into the new country. Goodbye Montenegro, Hello Albania!

Well, hello wild wild west actually, as this is what it felt like crossing over. The first thing we met was one of the many battered up old Mercs found all over Albania. This one had not one, but three, three seater sofas piled on top of its roof. And of course to maximise width as well as encumbrance these were tied across the roof. The precariously balanced load was larger than the car itself.

The road itself, a main national artery which connects Montenegro with Shkodar, the third largest city in Albania, practically stopped the minute we entered the country. The cracks in the tarmac got wider and wider till there was only cracks and not much tarmac left, just high clouds of dust behind the speeding rustbuckets. Admittedly there was another road being constructed next to it, but differently from how they would do it anywhere else, here they were not building it in segments but all at once. With the obvious result of maximum disruption for the longest of time over the entire distance. Where there is some tarmac left, this is a patchwork of holes and bad repairs, with the occasional gloopy ridge where the constant passage of trucks and extreme heat has melted the poor quality surface. These are not really to be considered roads as much as boneshakers.

A few abandoned gas stations also contribute to the frontier-land feeling of this place. Old watering holes for gleaming steel chariots, now inhabited only by stray dogs and ghosts. The metal panels of the station warp and ping with an eerie creak in the heat. Behind the dusty station rounded mountains of reddish earth, sharp rock and scraggy bushes.

The most obvious tragedy to catch the eye of a visitor to this country is the rubbish strewn across the landscape. Coming from a sanitized nation we are not used to see our waste all around us. System of disposal are in place to neatly contain and remove from our sight all of the containers, useless packaging and refuse we constantly produce and discard. To preserve our sense of order we even divide our rubbish into neat and differentiated little piles. Of course, most will end up in a great big pile on the land or openly burnt to the sky, but this land and this sky are hidden some place else. Here instead it all happens right under your nose, and your nose is what notices it the most, even before your eyes.

Approaching a town one is welcome by the smell of burning plastic and rot. Then long piles of rubbish appear to the sides of the road, some still smouldering, most just left. Jars, cans, bags, bottles, vegetable matter, lots of nondescript remains and for some strange reason lots of tattered blue plastic sheets mark the beginning of an inhabited centre. Often a dog is rummaging through the wasteland. Sometimes the appeal of a bicycle is too much to resist and they give in to the chase, more often than not they are just too hungry or too ill to care.

Ennio Morricone's music might as well be crackling out of some old tannoy, I am certainly hearing it inside of me. So we roll into the dusty town.

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