For bounty cheers not his delay, nor there will weary stranger halt. --Lord Byron
Saranda (Coldsore day 11,12 almost disappeared, just an off-color red spot)
I write this at one in the afternoon, lying in bed in my hotel room in Saranda. It's my third day in this town, the only Albanian city I've spent more than 2 nights in. It's not because I like it so much (though it is my favorite city so far), but rather is it uneasiness that keeps me here-- and water.
I feel vaguely sick, and vaguely exhausted. My eyes close even as I type these words. My jaw aches... and that will only get worse. I have a chance to nap, but I feel like I'm missing something if I don't get out and enjoy the few hours of warmth.
FLASHBACK: My escape from Qeparo is relatively easy. After getting on the bus, I just ride. No one speaks to me. No one offers me accommodation. Nothing good, nothing bad. A stop here and there to pick-up or discharge, but we arrived in Saranda with ease. I find a guide-book recommended hotel, and am paying 15€ a night. Less than half than what Co-ocho extorted... Naw, no more about THAT GUY. Let sleeping evil men lie.
[Note: brushing away a bee reminds me to write that there are bees everywhere here. Not just in the countryside, but everywhere around the city. I haven't been stung yet. So, it's good to see them.
In America, they're dying out. Victims of too much insecticide and too much overbuilding. They try to overbuild here, but it doesn't work. They've made a resort, but nobody stays in it. In summer, I guess it's crowded... but not enough to kill the bees.]
After adjusting to the hotel room, I take a walk in town. I need to find a sweater for the cold that has taken over the country. I'm headed to the local tourist information center which has the unfortunate Albanian acronym of ZIT.
Walking around, I see that this town, like others in Albania, is built on the ruins of an older city that was built on the ruins of a still older city, built on the ruins... (imagine the imagination imagining itself-- William Gass) At the corner, near the ruins of a Basilica, built on the ruins of a synagogue, is a bus stop. Waiting at that bus stop is the Japanese girl I helped in Durres... so many days ago. She has her nose buried in a Japanese guidebook.
“Masuda-san!” I call.
She doesn't answer.
“Masuda-san,” I call again.
I guess she's trained herself to block out any sounds from the outside. She certainly doesn't expect anyone to know her or call her name.
Me? I jump at anything that vaguely sounds like Mykel. I'm always expecting to meet a friend or have to quickly run.
I cross the street and walk up to her. She's startled, but then happy to see me. I remember that she speaks no English.
Suddenly, I'm faced with speaking entirely in Japanese. Not only is my Japanese bad to start with, but because my brain switched to Albanian, it's even more of a struggle to remember. But we do manage to communicate.
She tells me she's going to Butrint. It's an ancient city, not far from here. She asks if I want to come along. Company! An Asian female who I can (almost) talk to! I jump on the chance like an old Albanian jumps on an ignorant tourist.
On the bus, she tells me that she's just come from Gjirokastra in the mountains. It's a beautiful city, but even colder than here. I explain that's my next stop. Then on to Tirana.
She makes a face.
“Tirana-wa suki ja nai desuka?” (Don't you like Tirana?) I ask her.
“Tirana-wa dai-kirai,” (I HATE Tirana) she says.
I ask her why, and she explains. I don't understand most of it. Something about getting hit in the back of the head.
Butrint is a U.N. identified World Heritage Site. The shape of the town and amazing ruin layout reminds me of Machupichu, although the architecture is thousands of miles and thousands of years different. Being a WHS means they get money from outside. It also means they can charge an outrageous (for Albania), 500 lek to get in.
(In case you haven't figured it out, one lek equals about one yen equals about one U.S. cent.)
Masuda is bothered by the flies and mosquitoes. She walks through the site waving a handkerchief in front of her face. The flies don't bother me, and the mosquitoes seem to like her more than they like me.
During our walk through the ruins, we stop and take lots of pictures. The ruins date from Greek, pre-Roman times (we are withing spitting distance of Greece), through Roman, through Byzantine, and everything in between. I wish I knew more European history. I could put all this in perspective.
We both take lots of pictures, mainly of each other, with each other's camera. In other words, she takes pictures of me with my camera. I take pictures of her with her camera. I use the self-timer to get one of us together. In an ancient stadium, of course. Everywhere, there are ancient stadia.
As we leave Butrint we run into some British tourists. I recognize them as English-speaking because they carry the same guidebook I do.
Dave and Marge have rented a car in Tirana and driven it this whole way.
“The driver can't look at the scenery,” says Dave. “Just keep an eye on the road.”
“Isn't it just terrifying?” I say, thinking about buses passing each other on the no lane highways.
“It sure is,” he says.
“By the way,” I say, “I haven't been to Tirana yet. What did you think of it.”
He grimaces, and using his thumb, makes the sign of slitting his own throat.
“That good, huh?” I say. “Masuda here agrees with you.”
I translate for her and she nods vigorously.
After returning to Saranda from Butrint, we have dinner at a restaurant Masuda found yesterday. Between us we have a small dish of salad, a bowl of bean soup, and a plate of Pilaf. The latter is just a small pile of white rice with a tablespoon of meatsauce. It's enough.
After dinner: Soshite ima? (And now?) I say, hoping my voice does not betray a wink.
“Umi-wa mimashitaka?” (Have you seen the beach?) she asks.
The rest I'll just translate. It was too much of a struggle the first time.
“No, I haven't,” I answer.
“You should go to the shore,” she says. “I'm going to my hotel. Sayonara.”
We split up. I go for a walk along the beach, have a cup of coffee by myself. Drink a beer by myself. And come back to the hotel, by myself.
I see her very briefly the next day. I had planned on climbing the highest mountain in Saranda to see the castle at the top. On the way, we pass each other. I tell her my plans. She looks at the mountain and says, “Good luck!” in English. That's the last time I see her.
I never make it up the mountaintop. I try. I follow some paths that lead upwards, but they deadend. I retrace my steps and try again. By the third time, I'm so tired, I give up.
The only adventure of the next day is breakfast. It's about 10AM, and I'm out looking for breakfast. Maybe because this is a seaside resort town, people do seem to occasionally eat here. Probably only tourists.
First, I sit outside in a small cafe near the beach. Inside, someone is already drinking coffee. Maybe they have food. I'll ask. I sit down. And wait. And wait some more. I feel like a colored guy trying to get service at a southern sodashop circa 1962.
Ending my private sit-in, I walk across the street to a nicer café, built on a wharf curving out into the sea. The waiter comes up to me.
Un dua te ha ditchka. (I want to eat something.) I say.
“You can't eat here,” he says in English. “You can eat over there.” He points to a pizza restaurant on shore.”
I thank him and head to the restaurant. On the menu are 20 different kinds of pizza and one entry OMELET. That would be the perfect breakfast: just an omelet. Just too perfect. I know it's on the menu, but there's no way in hell they're going to have a real omelet. It's for show. I'm sure.
When the waiter comes I point to OMELET on the menu.
“Nuk kemi.” (We don't have it.) he says. What a surprise!
I order an O SOLO MIO pizza instead. It is to pizza, what a breakfast burrito is to a burrito.
In other words, It is a pizza, but instead of mozzarella, and tomato sauce, it has ham, sausage, cheddar cheese and eggs. A pizza McMuffin. It is really bad. Maybe the worst pizza I've had in my life, though Polish pizza in 1980 comes pretty damn close.
I can't get the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the day. It's one of those tastes.
I go to the Internet café to do a bit of posting and couch-surfing. My computer is agonizingly slow and I've been feeling a headache coming on all day. Now it pounds as I wait for the screen to redraw.
The headache is almost like a migraine, but in three strips. They all start at the bridge of my nose. One goes straight down the middle of my head. The two others travel back on the sides where a part would be, if I had enough hair to part. I feel nauseous, and completely exhausted.
It's the swine flu! I know it.
I pay the internet guy and stagger out of the I-café. I just hope I can make it back without collapsing in the street.
Back at the hotel, I collapse in bed. It's 7:30. I awaken at 11PM, without the headache.
I've still got the taste of breakfast pizza running between my molars. I take out my trusty toothbrush (to be discarded after this trip... coldsores, you know), and Tom's of Maine travel size, and scrub away. Then in a fit of dental responsibility, I floss for the first time this trip... and dislodge a gold inlay on my last molar.
That inlay cost $600 in New York. I did bring emergency dental repair glue. I know what happens. But I've used it before and the stuff only lasts two or three days. What if I swallow the inlay? I'm gonna have to strain my shit. Maybe make impromptu enema, squirt up one of those plastic bottles of water. Shit in the shower, with a window screen over the drain.
Right now, I paste in the gold. I use too much cement and it's too high on my jaw. It makes me bite at an angle. It's gonna give me a another headache, I'm sure.
Besides, I'm a nighttime tooth-grinder. I may even dislodge it at night! I could choke on it. Die! I sleep fitfully.
At six AM, I awaken to the Muslim call to morning prayers. I like these 3 or 4 daily calls to prayers. They're eery melodies, but somehow calming. A great change from the honking and dog barking on the street. As I type this, the 7:30, evening, call is coming over the speakers on the minaret of the local mosque. (I wonder what they did before loud speakers.)
This morning though, in addition to the prayer call is thunder. Big bangs of it. I see lightning flash against the curtain. I count the seconds. One... two... three... four... five... six... seven... eight... nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Then the thunder. Twelve miles away. That could be Greece. I don't know. In any case, it's weird for there to be thunderstorms so early. They should be in the afternoon or evening. I fall back to sleep.
Again lightning wakes me up. It seems like it's been several hours. Thunderstorms don't last several hours. I fall back asleep.
It's nine o'clock and the thunder, lightening and rain continue. Not a normal pitter of rain. But a deluge. A downpour. A torrent. I look out the window. The sky is black. It's raining so hard it sounds like someone has turned a firehose on the hotel.
I walk downstairs. Go into the bar-café.
Without asking, the pretty blonde waitress brings me a double espresso. I am not the only one in the café. At another table sit two men. One speaks loudly into his cellphone. The other jokes with the waitress, then turns to me and makes a NICE BOD shape with his hands. The waitress plays insulted.
He asks me if I'm Italian. “Yo, American” I tell him.
Then he points to his friend on the phone. “America,” he says in English, “Chicago, Boston. You where?”
“New York,” I tell him.
Then he looks outside and says, “Shi!” which I figure means RAIN, and which sounds enough like the Mongolian word “shess” which means “piss,” for me to remember.
(Ironically, the word drink in Albanian is pi, pronounced pee.)
“Madh shi!” (big rain) I say.
I look out the window again. The streets are flooded. So flooded, in fact, that although the hotel is on a hill, water is running the other way. I mean the lower streets are so full of water that it's forced back, running uphill. This is not a river. It is whitewater rapids. And it shows no sign of letting up.
Do I take the bus to Gjirokastra as I had planned? If I do, the way will certainly be treacherous. I won't be able to see THE BLUE EYE, a famous Albanian landmark, and I'll have to wait some time in the rain for the next bus.
On the other hand, if I stay another day and it doesn't stop raining. I'll never be able to leave. How much space in The New York Times will they give to a fatal Albanian flood? Probably won't make it to page 10. It's not like the Thai tsunami, where TV stations grabbed American survivors right and left. Whose even gonna know there was an American in the flood?
I picture myself in my hotel, climbing up to higher and higher floors as the flood rises around me. Even if the rain stops, I won't have food or water. I'll parish here, $600 tooth or not.
I decide to risk the flood and stay in town one more day. I sit in my hotel room and watch the water on the street rise up past the curb.
more on mykel at www.mykelboard.com