Saturday, October 21, 2006


Still not sure what to think of Albania. People thought we were strange when we said we were going and it has definately had a terrible reputation for a long time. The reputation of danger and instability is unjustified I think because there was no extra feelings of threat than anywhere else we've been (which is to say none at all, the world isn't that bad folks). Having said that, I don't know that I would actually recommend Albania to anyone either. A lot of people living there (or visiting long term) have described it as a truck-stop on the way to somewhere better. I'd have to agree. The people are nice but there is very little to see or do that would actually attact anyone specifically to the country.
Albania is still very poor, very chaotic, very dirty and reminded me more of Asia (the Indian subcontinent) than anywhere else we've been since Afghanistan. I'm not saying that area is bad, but just that Albania doesn't have the culture or the sites to go along with the chaos and make it more tolerable. Without that, it is pretty uninspiring.
I think the driving here is the rudest and most haphazard I've seen. There are no rules, and despite the traffic police in the middle of all the major intersections directing traffic, people still do whatever they want. It's like all the motorbikes in Vietnam or the tuk-tuks in India all going in every direction at once, except here it's done in 20 year old Mercedes (which everyone has or aspires to have). They're just too big to be funny and it looks too cluttered and inefficient. Albania has also seen a massive construction boom in the last 2-3 years so the roads are getting better (or are all being worked on at once, creating massive traffic nightmares) and there are more buildings going up than currently exist in some places. I don't know who is supposed to buy them either as nobody has any money and they are all sitting empty. You'd think we were in China again. Litter is a huge problem and while Albania has tons of beach potential, they are totally covered in garbage. The train network is very limited and every local will try to convince you not to use the horrible, slow system, but either it has improved recently too or they are just anti-train out here. We took it all the time and I'd rather be on the train with shattered windows (but that is really the only problem) going 30-40km/h for 5 hours than on a bus for 3 hrs driving like a maniac to get to the same place. Nothing is all that far away anyway.
i still think the most interesting things in the country are the newly painted buildings in Tirana. They are very bright and every colour combination imaginable. It's like someone (the mayor) is trying to create rainbowville. It's a lot nicer and more cheerful than Sofia and Bucharest with their depressing gray blocks even though the buildings are the same. The other interesting curiosity is all the large number of little mushroom-like defense bunkers scattered all over the country. Hoxha (the communist leader until 1985) saw the country not incorporate itself into Yugoslavia after WW2 (as originally planned), leave relations with the USSR and back out of the Warsaw Pact. Left to defend itself and allied with China, it became very isolated and built tons of these little bunkers everywhere. Some 700,000 remain today as they are too hard to destroy for people to bother. Communism collapsed in 1992 here but it remains poor and ignored as it pretty much has for it's entire history.
Everyone I've talked to here about Kosovo here is quick to point out that Albania and Kosovo are two different places with very different problems but that historically Kosovo was a large portion of the Albanian territory. Although Albania is listed as a majority muslim country, religion here is not taken very seriously and I was quite surprised to see how little influence it has in people's lives. Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia are much more religiously oriented. Italian is the main second language in the country because of strong historic ties to Italy which is just across the water and quite easy to get to by ferry.
Albania and Moldova are definately at the bottom of the European pile in terms of development and a future but honestly, even that is a lot better and more comfortable than most Asian countries. Albania is dirtiest but Moldova is the poorest with the worst infrastructure and will probably remain that way for a long time as Albania is starting to show signs of improvement. I think we actually screwed up a little in Albania because from what we've heard, the nicest areas are supposedly farther south than we went. We only got as far south as Vlora and stuck mainly to the coast. As it is difficult to get to the few sights there are to see, you really need someone on the inside to show you the country. The interior is also supposed to be nice and looked much cleaner and quite pretty on our drive to Macedonia, where we are now.


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