Change the setting and the commonplace becomes wondrous. --Mykel Board
It's about here that I should make an obvious but important comment. When traveling, the best stories are the worst experiences in real life. If you almost died, it's exciting. If you sat down and watched some old guys play dominoes, it is not. So even though the second scene is more enjoyable that the first, the first is better to write about.
So it is with Albania. People here are not filled with avarice, or hostility. They are, in fact, friendly. In Vlora, I sat on a bus next to an elderly man with a cough. I was new in the country then, and did not realize that since, everybody here smokes, everybody here has a cough. Then, I was worried. I'm gonna get sick. Swine flu. I'm sure of it
When we pull into town, I'm anxious to get away from him. I also need to find my hotel, booked by the chatty and attractive concierge of the Nais Hotel.
When I leave the bus, I say the name of the hotel Pavareso several times, hoping someone will be able to direct me. Someone does. The old man from the bus. Not only does he direct me, but he gets on the city bus with me, pays my fare, and turns me over to an attractive young woman (he has to get off earlier), who takes me within pointing distance of the hotel.
That's the kind of people Albanians are.
In a restaurant, or on the street, people will call you over for a chat. They'll ask you where you're from, if you're married. What religion you are. (I finally found out how to say JEW in Albanian, Izraelit.) How long you've been in Albania and more. They're curious people, and enjoy your company.
Yesterday, I went from Gjirokastra to Berati. I caught the 7 o'clock (AM) bus. At 6:30 I'm at the bus station-- not the station, exactly, but the holding pen for the buses where they rest overnight.
On the glass doors of one building entrance, it says, Agjensi. There's also a sign that says, Gjirosatra-Ateni.
I figure that's the ticket agency. Strange, because the buses I've taken so far have no tickets. You just get on the bus, tell the conductor the name of the town you're going to, and he makes up a price. Unlike scam-the-tourist rest of the world, the price seems to be the same no matter where you're from.
Inside the agjensi, a bunch of men drink coffee at a bunch of tables.
“Autobussi Berati ërstë ku?” I ask.
“Yo yo yo,” comes the answer.
What is this, the Bronx?
Actually, it means: no no no.
One of the guys drinking coffee makes a motion to follow him. (Very close to the Japanese motion for come here... palm pointed downward, fingers together in an open-close wave.)
“Italiano?” he asks me.
“American,” I say.
“Bene, bene,” he says.
“Non Berati këtu,” he further tells me. “Lushnja, Lushnja, Berati. Ju koptoni?”
“Koptoj,” I tell him meaning I understand. Though I only think I understand: Here to Lushnja. Then change buses to Berati.
We walk around the corner to another café, where even more men drink even more coffee.
Lushnja? Lushshna? the guy asks each of the men. One of them shakes his head to show he's going there.
My caretaker explains that I'm an American and I only speak a little Albanian and can he make sure I get on the right bus. He shakes his head yes, and my caretakers says good-bye walks out.
The new guy (who turns out to be the bus driver), motions for me to sit down, drink some coffee and he'll return at 7 o'clock.
“Yeah right,” I think.
At 7 o'clock, he's back.
He waves me to follow him, picking up one of my bags. I do and sure enough, there's a bus with TIRANA on the front. It's the right direction. Lushnja is on the way.
I watch relatively unworried as he puts my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. So far, buses have been the only crowded thing on this trip. Otherwise, it's been only me. Buses are full, at least when they start off. They may empty out toward the end of the line.
Not this one.
There is the bus driver, the conductor, one shaved-headed guy who talks continually with the driver and may or may not be a paying customer... and me.
A few times during the trip someone gets on and soon gets off again, but for the most part, it's just us.
The most interesting museum is the Onifuro (I'm not sure if I'm spelling the name right) Museum. It's got mostly icon art, but it's named after the most famous Albanian painter. He even has a color named after him: Onifuro Red.
I'm not allowed to take pictures in the museum, which means I have to turn the flash off and do it very quietly. Everything is dark and blury but you can see the red at least
In order to understand what I like best about these icons, you have to come with me back in time, and half-way around the world.
We land in Cuzco, Peru. Cuzco is famous as the stopping off point on the way to Machupichu. It's also famous as being one of the highest cities in the world (I got altitude sickness there. It was like the flu!) Finally, it's famous because the locals, especially the K'chua Indians, eat guinea pig. It's called cuy.
There is a church in Cuzco that has a large renaissance-looking painting of Christ at the last supper. At first, it looks like a run-of-the-mill last supper. JC and the Disciples. But a closer look shows you that on Jesus' plate is... you guessed it... roasted guinea pig.
In my previous reports about Albania, I've made comments about the large foreheads the local people have. Massive Frankenstein-like bridges that probably indicate some kind of uber-intellegence. (For some reason, younger people seem to have smaller foreheads than their elders.)
I imagine this is a very old trait. So if you look at the paintings here... especially the iconic apostles, you might be able to guess what you'll find. Yep, apostles with huge foreheads!
Almost as interesting are a series of icons that make Jesus look black.
Some: Arab/North African black, some Negro-black. One of my favorites looks like my pal Bryan from Trinidad.
After the museum, I take a walk up to the castle. It's another vertical trek, not quite as bad as Girokastra. About half-way up, I come across a wall, about nipple high. Flat on top, perfect for a rest and view of the city. Already resting there, is a middle-aged guy with a very big forehead.
He pats the place next to him, motioning for me to sit down. I do.
“Italiano?” he asks.
“American,” I say.
Then he starts talking about the castle, the hillside, the history of the area. He's speaking a weird mix of Albanian, Italian and English. I can understand about ten percent. Then he jumps down from the wall, and motions for me to follow him. He takes me inside. We pass a small café that seems to be part of the castle, like the one in the last castle. Hmm, a good place to stop for a cup-- or a glass-- of something.
“Here is a wall,” he says pointing to a wall.
Then he points to hole in the ground, surrounded by concrete. “Cistern,” he says.
There are concrete steps (railingless as are most staircases in Albania). They lead down to nothing, just three steps down and a drop, 30 feet? more?. At the bottom of the drop, faintly visible in the limited light, is brackish water. All around me is the loud buzzing of insects who know their lunch has just arrived.
“You go first,” I gallantly suggest. “I want to take your picture.”
In a short time, we leave the cistern.
Un dua të shkoj café. (I want to go to the café) I tell the guy, as the first few drops of rain splash against my hat.
“Wait,” he says, “go café soon. Just little more.”
He has me follow him to a hill on the side of the castle. He point to what looks like a giant TV broadcast antenna.
“That is the TV broadcast antenna,” he says.
Then, there is the well, the prison, and the door.
“Now we go to a café. Very traditional. Old kind,” he says.
“I want to eat in the castle café,” I tell him.
“It's not open,” he says. “Not open.”
He takes me there to prove he's telling the truth. It is, in fact, closed.
“Now,” he says, “can you give me some money?”
Resigned to the scam, and knowing he probably needs 200Lek more than I do, I give him 200. Delighted, he takes me to a tiny cafe. There are three tables. At one, two guys play dominos. At the other, a single guy sits drinking Raki, Albanian vodka.
At the other table is me.
The bartender, who looks very ownerlike, asks me what I want. I order a coffee, and sit by myself at the table, for a bit.
I watch the guys playing dominoes, and every time I think I have the game figured out, they do something (like putting a FIVE against a FOUR) that totally baffles me.
Un duo te koptoj dominos. (I want to understand dominoes.) I say to the older of the domino players. He looks like a Turkish pasha.
He pulls an empty chair from my table and puts it next to his table. Then he motions for me to sit down.
He asks me where I'm from, how I like Albania, the usual. He's friendly. He does not ask me for money.
I order a raki for myself and ask him if he wants one. He says no.
Then I figure he must be Muslim and regret asking. But he takes it in stride. The rest of the afternoon is just peaceful drinking and watching dominoes. Thoroughly enjoyable to do, not so thrilling to read about.
Now, I sit at a restaurant near the main square in Berati. I'm waiting for my dinner to arrive. I've ordered something I don't know what it is, but is cheap. I read my guidebook while waiting. My chin rests in my hand. I'm careful not to put too much pressure. I might loosen the temporary cement that holds my $600 gold inlay onto the tooth beneath it.
My cheek itches. I move to scratch it, and feel a raised bump, like a tiny scab. I pick at it and it comes off under my fingernail. It's red, but not bleeding. It's too small to see if it's just a mini-scab, or if it's some tiny insect, red with my own blood, just picked from my skin.
Carefully, I set it on a page in my notebook. Exactly at the center of a crosshatch. I'll give it some time. If it moves, I'll know it's alive, and not some kind of effluvia that my body throws onto the skin every once in awhile. It should be easy to see if it moves. It only has to reach a line on either side.
After a minute... two minutes... it's in the same place I put it. Safe! I think.
Flash ahead: I write this in my hotel room in Berati. It's 10PM. I did nothing touristy today. I wrote a bit, called (and got through!) to Andi in Tirana. I went to my local internet café. (They know me by now.) I uploaded Albania 13 to my Blog, and Facebooked a bit. I even checked my long neglected MySpace pages.
(I rarely use MySpace because of its censorship. I can't post a link to my blogspot-blog and I can't link to anything using TinyURL. It “fails the spam filter,” they say. Yeah, right.)
Tomorrow, I get up and leave for Tirana, the city that Masuda felt dai-kirai (I hate it), and the one that Dave, the British tourist mimed a slit throat over. I've got about a dozen days left in this vacation, only about half in Albania.
Then, I return to the dreaded Italy, before returning to the even more dreaded New York to go back to work to pay for this trip.
Downstairs at the hotel, the concierge tells me his name is Lula, the same name as my favorite South American political leader. He's a kindly old gent who tells me his son lives in Queens and works at JFK airport. He can't remember his son's address or phone number, but he gives me his own phone number and I promise to call him and retrieve it. I'll contact his son when I get to New York, tell him I saw his dad, and he's fine.
He promises to walk me to the bus tomorrow, to make sure I get on the right bus to Tirana. I'll be safe if I come with him, he says.
“Sure,” I say.
STOP! If you want to shake me and say, Mykel, stop it. You should have learned your lesson, then you don't get it. The Albanians are nice. They're friendly. They're good people. But just like everywhere. There are monsters.
The next day, Lula does walk me to the bus station and puts me on the right bus. The bus leaves Berati and passes more than a hundred of the 70,000 bunkers that are everywhere in Albania. They're a ubiquitous reminder of the bunker-mentality of the past. You can buy bunker mugs, bunker ashtrays. They're a national symbol. I wish I could see one up close.
Ah well, tomorrow TIRANA! Maybe I'll see one there.