Qeparo, Albania, find that on a map! Coldsore day 8
It's time to begin the terror tale. Though it's not over yet. But life also is a terror tale. After it's over, it can only be written by someone else.
This tale starts in Vlora. The concierge at the hotel told me that all the buses from Vlora to Saranda had left. My only choice was to go to Himara, about half-way. That bus doesn't leave from the regular bus station, but one a bit out of town. I can get there by taxi. No problem.
(My guidebook lists S'ka problem! as Albanian for “No problem.” It also has this note: Often turns out to mean there is a problem.)
The bus leaves at 1PM. It's now 9 o'clock.
“Is there anything I can do at the bus station for some hours?” I ask the concierge.
She nods. “There is nothing there,” she says.
She makes a plan for me. The plan is to take a walk, return to the hotel and eat lunch in the hotel restaurant at 11. Then, after lunch, take a taxi to the bus terminal. I'll be there in plenty of time.
Maybe that's why I don't see people eat. They have lunch at 11AM. Maybe dinner at 4. Who expects people to be eating at that time? But nope, that's not it either.
I walk along the beach for a little bit and sit to watch a bulldozer push the plastic garbage around. I go to the post office and mail some postcards. Do other people still send postcards? Well, they still make 'em, so I guess so.
At 11, I return to the hotel and go to the restaurant. It's empty, though the door is open. A heavy-set woman mops the floor.
Une dua te ha ditchka. (I want to eat something.) I say. She tsks once and motions for me to sit down. I'm the only one in the place.
I ask for the menu. She brings it to me and stands over me while I decide what I want to eat. It's my first meal of the day. The menu has beefsteak, fish a la hoity toidy, pizza, pasta. I order a salad and a mineral water.
“Vetem salada?” (Only a salad?) asks the waitress, clearly meaning You disturbed me, made me open the kitchen and neglect my cleaning duties for a salad? What's wrong with you?”
“Vetem salada.” I reply.
It turns out that the salad is enough. It's weird, but on this trip I have less of an appetite than I do in New York. I drink more beer here, but eat a lot less. I wonder if I'm going to lose weight. The food is so salty, I expect I'll gain blood pressure.
My stomach is strange, as it always is when traveling. It suddenly clenches, in extreme pain. A rush to the bathroom clears me out, and I'm good for the rest of the day. After my salad, come the clenches.
I have a long bus ride ahead. So after I pay the bill, I'll clean myself out, and be ready for the long ride to Himara.
I stand to signal that I'm finished. The waitress come to me, collects my money and through the open restaurant door walks a burly guy wearing a black and white knit sweater. He walks right up to me.
“Taxi bussi Himara,” he says grabbing my bags. “We go.”
So, me, my stomach ache and I are off to the bus station, It's just a space in the street out of town, barely big enough for a bus or two. I get in one that says HIMARA on the front.
The driver takes my backpack out of the bus and puts it someplace I can't see. I'm the only passenger in the bus, but not for long. People arrive about 15 minutes before the schedule leaving time.
One of the first of the new arrivals is an older guy. About my height, he wears a typical Albanian tan straw hat. He has a worn-but-clean tweed jacket, and black slacks. His eyes are deep-set, and half closed, like they've seen too much. He sits in an empty seat, the one behind mine. He taps me on the shoulder and I turn to face him. I can see that his eyes are watery-- not sad watery, but sick watery. And one doesn't look exactly in the same direction as the other. He says something to me in Albanian.
“Une nuk flac sqip,” I say.
He shrugs, then motions for me to come and sit next to him. I do. It's not long before I begin to fear that is a mistake.
The bus leaves about a half hour past schedule.
With very few words, THE GUY speaks to me: some Italian, some Greek, some Albanian... but mostly with sign language... like he's done it hundreds of times before.
He asks me where I'm from. New York.
Where I'm going Himara.
Where I'm staying in Himara. (He puts his hands together and tilts his head on them. Then closes his eyes meaning “place you sleep.” I don't know, I shrug.
You (he points to me). Sleep (the sleeping gesture again.) My place. He points to himself, makes a little house-like triangle with his fingers, and then the sleeping gesture again.
I know. I know. But I'm sick of hotels, and Albania is supposed to be safe and small-town people are always friendlier than city people, right? I shake my head in agreement.
There's not much more to say as we ride along. Once he taps me on the shoulder and makes a straight ahead motion, then up and down, as if he's explaining the torturous mountain road ahead. I say koptoj (I understand). But maybe I don't.
During the next hour or so, I look at him every once in awhile. I'm trying for human contact. A smile or something. There is nothing. He looks straight ahead, eyes half closed as in worry, or very serious thought. Sometimes he looks at his knees. His forehead furls. I begin to feel uneasy.
After about two hours of silence, the bus pulls into the Albanian equivalent of a highway rest-stop.
It's a small mountain restaurant called: BEGO
The bus empties. Most everybody goes inside to eat. A few have a smoke first, then join those of us inside. THE GUY stays outside. He walks around. He does not smoke. He just walks, looking at the ground most of the time. I eat a simple rice dish and have some water. Just as I'm finishing, THE GUY walks in and sits at my table. Juu doni te ha ditchka? (“You want to eat something?”) I ask. He smiles weakly, shrugs and leaves again. A few minutes later, I leave and take some pictures around the restaurant, then get back in the bus. THE GUY looks at me without smiling and pats the seat next to him.
We take off, going up and down mountainsides, hairpin turns, just like buses in the mountains always go.
I look at THE GUY and smile. He doesn't smile. He looks at his hands. In them now are rosary beads. He's running them through his fingers. Squinting in something between worry and sorrow. I begin to read his thoughts.
Forgive me mother Mary for what I am about to do. I know it is evil and against your ways, but I must. I have no choice. This is my life. You know me, mother Mary. I know it is wrong to take a life. To inflict so much pain, spill so much blood. But I must. You know that, mother Mary, don't you? I pray for forgiveness.
The beads run through his fingers, one after the other, until they run out at the cross. Then, he starts again.
The bus stops to pick up some school children. They look somehow off. Especially the boys. High foreheads and small jaws. And they're quiet. Ages that from six to ten... and quiet. It's spooky. Like Children of the Damned. They don't stay on the bus very long.
We pass a roadsign. 5km to Himara. Somehow that's a relief.
When we reach what looks like Himara, most passengers get off. We do not.
An old woman, wearing all black, with a black babushka gets on the bus. THE GUY excuses himself and talks to her. She glances at me, a sad look on her face. Then, he shoos me to the window and sits down on the outside, blocking my exit.
The bus closes its doors and heads out of the city.
THE GUY taps me on the shoulder and points to the woman. Then to a ring on his finger. I guess that means she's his wife. They sure didn't act very friendly. Maybe she doesn't approve of what he feels he has to do.
For the next quarter hour, he's back to his rosaries.
In the middle of a hill, the bus doors open and the women gets out. The only two people left are THE GUY and me. A little while further, the bus stops. The end of the line. THE GUY gets out. I do too, retrieving my pack from the back.
Then we walk, through a little opening in the wall. Down a long street. Through a tunnel twisting and turning, to a gravel path, through a ditch. Turn here, there's a staircase, probably built by the Romans, or the ancient Greeks. They'll never find the body in a place like this.
Will I be slowly tortured in the basement? Tied to a cross like Jesus? Helpless, THE GUY wraps his rosary around my balls and asks mother Mary for forgiveness before he bites them off. Will it be quick? Have a seat, I'll be right back. POW! Between the eyes. Will he drug me, then do things to my unconscious body before slitting my throat, severing my head, and boiling it for dinner?
Finally, we end up at a building that overlooks the sea, sheer cliffs to the rocks below. THE GUY brings me to a room that has glass doors and enters from a balcony-- like a motel. The room has two beds, a small unplugged refrigerator, a sink, cabinets, and a bathroom.
THE GUY takes a plastic table and a couple chairs from MY ROOM. He motions for me to sit down. Then he walks away. While he's gone I run my eyes over the tile floor and plaster walls, looking for bloodstains, stray pieces of flesh. There's a dark spot. Some discoloration along the wall. I wonder who that was.
Then, he comes back with some coffee, some strange looking fruit, and a bottle of water. I see by the plastic ring that the bottle has previously been opened, then refilled. I guess that's what's drugged. I don't drink from it.
The coffee is delicious. Turkish style, made by boiling water and coffee grounds together and pouring the mixture into a cup. After you drink it, it leaves a thick black sludge on the bottom of the cup. Heavily sugared, it's the best.
It's hard to find in New York. The first time I had it was in the former Yugoslavia, with a friend whose mother read coffee grounds like old gypsies read tea leaves. I wish I could read my future now.
“Kafé Turke?” I ask.
He nods, “Kafé Grek! No Turke!”
Yowsah some rivalries die hard.
Then he asks if I'm married, do I have kids. All the things that will tell him how much the world will miss me when I'm gone. I guess he's relieved when I say I have neither.
He asks how long I'm planing to stay. An encouraging sign. If he were going to kill me, why would he care? I tell him two nights.
He shakes his head. I realize it's a trick. Something to make me feel more at ease.
Then he asks me if I want a shower, Duche, he uses the Italian/French word.
“Uh oh,” I think. “Here it comes. Get me naked and the fun can begin.”
“Yo, falaminderet” (No thank you) I say, shivering to show it's too cold to bathe.
Actually, it's unbelievably cold. In Italy, and the first two days in Durres were summer. When I got to Vlora a bought a bathing suit, a $30 Armani-- the only one they had left. It was hot. I planned to do the beaches in the south. Then came the rain and since then, cold. Now, it feels barely above freezing. My Inspector Gadget hat and coat are not enough to keep out the cold.
THE GUY wishes me good night and I open the glass doors and enter the room. I try not to think about what will happen later that night. I try not to think about how none of it makes sense in any other way than MURDER.
If he was just being generous, why didn't he take me inside and introduce me to his wife? Why didn't he offer me a little family? Why the lack of smiles? The questions about who will miss me?
Inside the little room things are so cold that I wrap myself in the only blanket in the place and sit with the computer, typing this, photoshopping my pictures, playing spider solitaire, planning as if there were going to be a tomorrow.
It's then that I notice that the glass doors to the room-- the only entrance and the only escape-- lock from the outside. Only the outside. What kind of place is this? What hotel has rooms that only lock from the outside? What house?
At about 9:30, I go to sleep, fully clothed, wrapped tightly in that blanket. Outside a dog barks incessantly. But it's not the dog that keeps me awake. I'm still freezing. I wonder how much of the shaking is from the actual cold, and how much is from fear. I shake like the flu chills. Shake like there's no tomorrow... waiting for the sound of the bursting into the room with guns or machetes. Or worse, the sound of a key turning in the lock outside.