A true story about incompetent UN peacekeepers, ethnic cleansing, gypsy bathrooms, pill box bunkers, crazy Albanian cops, A Kosovo Liberation Army training camp, lost taxi drivers, infected vaginas, Eastern European mafia, and Kosovo bumper car rides.
The initial plan for my 2004 spring vacation was to spend a month living in a beach hut in rural Jamaica, and a month traveling around Cuba. Before the three day confirmation deadline, I called Delta to reconfirm my flight and was told that they had cancelled my ticket! Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security had read my emails and strong armed Delta to keep me away from Castro. In truth, it had been my mistake, missing a flight 3 weeks earlier that had been bought with the same Jamaica ticket. Delta kindly informed me that if I still wanted to go to Jamaica they could rebook me for an additional thousand US dollars. “And how would you like to pay for that Mr. Ferris, Visa card?” I told them to “**** off”, poured a stiff gin and tonic and tried to think what to do next. I had been in Maine for three weeks because of my passport renewal, and I desperately needed to leave on a trip for my sanity. Within an hour I had found a cheap ticket to Amsterdam on the internet. Two days later, my mother drove me to the airport. We stopped at a bookstore for the latest Lonely Planet Europe, and Mom drove as I planned a circle route through Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Fast forward three weeks-
My trip had been nice and leisurely through Eastern Europe. I had spent my time enjoying all the standard tourist stuff, castles, cafes and museums. During the first three weeks of the trip I had passed through Amsterdam, Budapest, Bulgaria, and Istanbul by bus and train. I had small adventures here and there, but easy going all the way. I was now hanging out at Lake Orhid, up in the mountains of Macedonia with John, another American traveler who I had met on the bus. The Lake Orhid region of Macedonia was picture book beautiful, a region long tucked away from Ottoman Turk rule, where traditional orthodox monasteries and local culture had thrived all those hundreds of years ago. John and I had hiked out to a little lake side village and found a small guesthouse perched over the water. Every thing was so damn nice but a little boring. Across the lake the mountains of Albania beckoned, and tempted as we were, John was missing his girlfriend and was anxious to head back to his flat in Budapest. That left me contemplating heading off to Albania alone, but my better judgment won over my desire to attempt traveling through one of Europe’s poorest and most dangerous countries.
Having decided to skip Albania (little did I know that later in my trip I would get there), John and I decided to work our way up to Kosovo, Serbia before splitting on our own ways. To get to Kosovo we grabbed a bus to Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. I have nothing nice to write about Skopje, a true shit hole. Two hours later on another bus we found ourselves winding up a mountain road to the UN administered border post of Kosovo. Snaking out from each side of the border post was a line of trucks several miles long, apparently waiting for inspection. Were they being searched for guns, drugs, or people smuggling? Sitting there due to UN inefficiency is my bet. Our bus drove past the line of trucks. Some German UN guy looked at our passports and we drove into the UN protectorate of Kosovo with no problems. From this point onward, the journey would no longer be a cute little standard tourist vacation.
We arrived in the town of Prizren, Kosovo and were amazed by the vibrancy of the café scene, and the beauty of the old town. John and I split a 25 dollar hotel room in the town center. Taking a look out of the window I saw the awesome 1999 war damage done to a small village settled immediately above the old town. Big Woops! John was quick to tell me that village was not destroyed 5 years ago, but less than 60 days ago in the March 17, 2004 Prizren Riots. About 20 Serbs were killed in what is sadly another ongoing version of ethnic cleansing. Shit, I guess I missed that one on the news. I had a good excuse by being isolated out on the ship in Papua New Guinea, but the rest of the world seemed to have missed it also. The incident was barely reported, and the reporting done was half ass at best. CNN embarrassed itself by getting the story wrong and had to issue an apology.
March 17, 2004 damage to Serbian village. Prizren, Kosovo
At this point in the story I just want to state that I don’t want to be seen as taking sides regarding the tragic history of the Balkans. As hard as that is to do, I only want to write about what I saw, felt, and what I was told as I traveled through this area. In 2003 I had done some reading on the Balkans. If I would have known that I would travel there a year later I would have studied much, much more. I was prepared only to the point of being able to know the different countries of the former Yugoslavia, their religious backgrounds, who fought who in the 90’s, and who the western media portrayed as the good guys, and as the bad guys. On my departure from Belgrade one month later I was deeply troubled and confused at how little I really understood the history, and the passions of this troubled region. Also surprising and a bit troubling was how my attitude, perceptions, and stereotypes evolved as I made friends with people from both sides of the conflict. Quickly after arriving in Prizren I became aware of how ill prepared I was to safely travel in the Balkans. However ready John and I were for an on site crash course, our ignorance almost got us in big trouble.
On the first night John and I went out for dinner and a few drinks in the old town. The Kosovar Albanians are secular Muslims, so getting a beer here would be no problem. We had been out for an hour or two and had started to notice a lot of strange looks directed our way. We were finishing our drinks at one sidewalk bar and considering heading back to the hotel when Yak, one of the guys from the next table, asked us where we were from. “The States” we answered and they then demanded to see our passports to verify. They seemed satisfied for the time but John and I felt that something strange was going on. A few minuets later one of the guys leaned over and suggested that if we did not want to get killed tonight that John should zip up his jacket so no one would see the t-shirt he was wearing. John was wearing a shirt with the Macedonian flag, and Macedonia written in Cyrillic on the front. The guys at he next table had made a bet between themselves that we were either Macedonians with the biggest sets of balls around, or very, very stupid internationals. We convinced them we had intended no offence, and yes indeed that we would like to stay alive this night. We were planning our escape when they bought us a round of beers, invited us to their table, and asked us what the hell we were doing here in Prizren. It took several nights of drinking beer with these guys before they would really believe our explanation that we were just innocent tourists on a leisurely tour through the region. As many times as we explained ourselves, we continued to get the old wink, wink, nod, nod, and a “What are you really doing here in Prizren?” A large amount of intelligence agents, NGOs, peacekeepers, journalists, and trouble makers pass through Kosovo, but apparently not to many Lonely Planet backpackers.
March 17, 2004 damage to Serbian village. Prizren, Kosovo
That first night’s discussions were guarded and suspicious, but as the drinks flowed they became increasingly friendly. We bought several bottles of wine and asked the group what was wrong with John’s T-shirt. From my prior studies of the region I had been aware that although very poor, Macedonia had been one of the luckier former republics of old Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death, Macedonia was allowed to peacefully break free and form its own country. I was not aware of any prior ethnic fighting and therefore had not anticipated a problem with John’s Macedonia T-shirt. But, of course, in the Balkans hatreds run deep and issues are complicated. The problem with the T-shirt was the Cyrillic writing. Cyrillic writing comes from the orthodox Christian faith, and the Serbs are orthodox Christian. The Serbs had tried to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of all Kosovar Albanians. Part of the cleansing had included imposing the Cyrillic alphabet throughout the region. The Kosovar Albanians are now doing a little bit of ethnic cleansing themselves. Wearing a Cyrillic T-shit in Kosovo these days will create big trouble. We were glad for the advice, and John told the group that he would pack the shirt away for the rest of the trip. John also told them that although it had been extremely stupid, he was glad that he had worn the shirt because it was the reason why we had made new friends this night. Yak and his friends all agreed.
Yak and his friends were intensely interested in learning about the outside world from the viewpoint of two guys who were in the region out of pure curiosity. They had long ago learned not to trust the UN, various government officials, and NGOs who commonly passed through. Of course John and I wanted to learn everything we could about Kosovo. In the beginning, our new friends would deflect our questions by saying that they were too complicated, or too personal, but soon their opinions flowed forth. These men were all very intelligent, and given the region, surprisingly open minded. They just wanted peace for the region. None of them had family killed in the conflicts, so they didn’t hold the intense grudges, and desire for revenge that refuges from the countryside had taken with them to Prizren. We were told that the March 17 riots and killings were performed by frustrated and displaced villagers new to Prizren. They did not approve of the riots but they did agree and sympathize with the frustration that created the atmosphere that sparked the conflict. UN peace keepers have been stationed in Kosovo for 5 years, yet not much has changed for the better. Unemployment remains at a staggering 70%, and the debate for independence is ignored. The people of Kosovo regard the UN as an impotent and corrupt foreign force that supports the stagnant status quo with a hope that the world will turn a blind eye on Kosovo. It seems that this was proved on March 17th when the peace keepers withdrew from the conflict, hid at their base, and only after the murders, looting, and destruction, emerged with an even worse local image. John and I saw numerous Serbian orthodox churches that had been destroyed during the riots. They had not been protected during the conflict. I’m not smart enough to know what the solution should be for this region, but I know that the problems here will not magically disappear anytime soon.
Turkish peacekeepers in Prizren, Kosovo
With a complete lack of standard tourist activates in Prizren, John and I passed three days consuming beer with Yak and the guys, eating delicious Turkish food, sipping coffee, reading books in the main square, hiking up to the old fortress and hanging out with poetry-writing high school boys, going on self guided scenic tours of burned out and pillaged Serbian churches, shopping for strange and bizarre souvenirs, and snapping pictures of the friendly (and obviously bored) German peacekeeper at the fortified UN building. With a travel schedule to keep, John and I parted ways at the bus station. We promised to meet a few weeks later in Budapest. I departed Kosovo with a sad heart. I was deeply enchanted by the troubled town of Prizren and I left with a strong desire to visit again some day. The fates would have me return only 10 days later.
I boarded the bus bound for the coast of Montenegro, and settled in for the long ride. I was surprised to see a guitar carrying backpacker also climb aboard and grab a seat. Apparently John and I were not the only backpackers in Kosovo during the last few days. This guitar guy looked a little strange to me (just a feeling I had), so I avoided eye contact and hoped I wouldn’t have to introduce myself. The bus departed and headed towards the mountains. Montenegro is a republic inside Serbia whose independence aspirations have been put on hold. The republic is comprised of rugged mountains that stretch from the Kosovo border to the Adriatic Sea. A multitude of signs warning about landmines along the UN administered Kosovo/Montenegro border are a sobering and depressing reminder of the past ethnic wars in this region. I departed Kosovo as I had entered, with no passport stamp, and a contemptuous glace by a bored German UN peacekeeper. Later that afternoon we had an eight hour unscheduled stop at a small mountain village. This was no extended piss break, but a halt due to a bus going off a mountain cliff ahead of us. Not very reassuring! Disasters of that type are supposed to occur in India, or China, not Europe. I finally talked with the American guitar dude, he was indeed a little strange, but I didn’t mind as long as he didn’t want to travel along with me once I got to the Adriatic. We were quickly surrounded by all the village children. The weird guitar guy amused them with some songs, and I hung out and drank beer. One child gave us a karate demonstration, and at one point all the kids broke out in a chant of “Serbia, Serbia, Serbia”, fist raised to the sky and all. Witnessing this display of nationalism by the youth of Montenegro was a bit frightening considering that I had just arrived from Kosovo. After nightfall the road was cleared and we again resumed our journey.
We arrived in the town of Podgorica at around midnight. This was not the town I was supposed to go to, but it was as far as I was going to get that night. The bus station had just closed and there were no connections to the Adriatic Sea until the morning. I checked the guide book for any reasonable hotels and was dismayed to find that it was suggested that the town of Podgorica be avoided if possible. As a foreigner there would be no cheap beds available. The price of hotel rooms in town was jacked up to 150 Euro to rip off UN staff and NGO workers. The dodgy taxi cab drivers were quick to point out that the guide book was accurate. After prolonged bargaining, one driver offered to take me to a cheap hotel on the coast for 30 dollars. I felt that 30 bucks split between the weird guitar dude and I seemed like a good deal, but guitar dude wanted nothing to do with it. He declared that he would sleep on the street. We only had to wait 6 hours for the first bus, and it was a warm night so I decided to stick it out also. The taxi drivers were utterly amazed and said we were insane.
I had a feeling that sleeping on the street would be dangerous. Our luggage would be an easy target for theft, and we were in a country that was not renowned for friendly or helpful police. We found a store, bought some beer and snacks, and scouted around for a good spot. The spot we picked was a type of shrubbery garden, adjacent to the bus station bathroom area. It was as good a spot as any, so we hunkered down and got several hours of shut eye. I was freezing when I woke up at 5:00 AM. Guitar dude and I gathered our luggage and moved into the now open bus station. I was promptly met inside by two officers of Montenegro’s friendly police force. I had to pull out my passport, open my bags and explain myself. They were playing the good cop, bad cop routine with me. The bad cop called me an American terrorist and told me my iPod was a bomb. Convinced that I was surely being set up for a bribe, I was delighted to be rescued out of this situation by the weird American guitar dude. Neither the police, nor guitar dude had noticed each other in the bus station. To the delight of an attentive group of crazy homeless guys, guitar dude decided to play a song and do a silly dance. It was pandemonium as the homeless men decided to join along. The police quickly forgot about me and rushed over to put a stop to this ridiculous spectacle. I saw my chance and dragged my stuff over to the ticket counter, paid my fare, and hid myself on the bus. Guitar dude never did follow.
With this Podgorcica adventure behind me, I was now off to Croatia. My plans for a trip to the Dalmatian Islands, and the Adriatic coast of Croatia had been in various phases of ongoing development for several years. Realization of my dream of spending several weeks exploring Croatia was finally within a few days reach, but first I wanted to check out the Montenegrin town of Kotor. The consequences from my two day visit to this splendid Adriatic Sea side town would shatter my Croatian dreams. Of course I have no regrets. I had learned long ago that in order to have the most amazing travel experiences I must always leave my travel itinerary flexible and amendable to sudden changes. My travel philosophy is to never regret any choice to leave the planned route. I also believe that a written out travel schedule is more useful if used as an emergency piece of toilet paper. An example of this philosophy was soon to happen when I went to Kotor. At a Kotor internet café I met Matt, a fellow traveler who I had briefly met earlier in Budapest. Matt, his friend Jordan, and I later met and discussed out travel plans over coffee. Jordan and Matt had been considering a trip into Albania. Jordan wanted to go, but Matt was against the idea. In a single moment I decided to travel with them. I had no regrets submitting the vote that tipped the scales in favor of Albania, and thus abandoning my Croatia dream.
*A little background on Matt and Jordan
Jordan: From Michigan. Currently a law student at the University of Michigan. Fluent in German, Hebrew, and conversational Serbian. A former English teacher in Belgrade, Serbia. Prior work experience in “tactical training concepts”. Well traveled. His mother believes he works for the CIA (I have my doubts, but I believe that he wants to). Currently working on a third world travel guide, likes to steal UN warning signs, and is reported to enjoy scandalous behavior in public parks. Since this trip Jordan Harbinger has gone on to become a radio and media personality, co-founder of The Art of Charm, and my travel partner for our trip 2011 trip to North Korea.
Matt: From a yuppie town north of Los Angeles. Currently studying European history in St. Petersburg, Russia. A basketball coach and real estate tycoon. Believes it proper when a girl at a bar asks a guy what type of car he drives before the conversation is allowed to advance. The only guy I met who owns a watch of the same value as my own. Well read, and well traveled in greater Europe, but cautiously discovering the third world. Has a bum knee, two huge and overloaded travel bags, carries a big pillow, has a terrible toilet phobia, and a sweet tooth that does not quit.
I had just arrived in Kotor, and was relieved that our planned trip into Albania would start two days later. I was exhausted from the Montenegro bus fiasco, and Kotor was a beautiful town that deserved a little exploring. Lonely Planet describes Kotor as the big secret of the Adriatic. For once I must wholeheartedly agree with them. Kotor is amazing! It lies at base of the only true fjord in southern Europe. Surrounded by high mountains, the location is stunning. An impressive old fortress snakes along the ridges of the mountains behind the old walled city. After a climb to the top you will be rewarded with stunning views. I was becoming increasingly happy with my choice not to go to Croatia. Jordan and Matt had just been there and reported that while it is a beautiful destination, Croatia has already become a tourist magnet. Kotor was just as beautiful as anyplace in Croatia, yet still undiscovered. Kotor has it all, an impressive walled medieval town, a vibrant café scene, absolutely no crowds, and an authentic and relaxed Adriatic lifestyle.
There is no public transport to Albania (not a good sign) so we had to go to Podgorca and arrange a taxi. When we arrived at the Podgorica bus station we did some bargaining for the taxi and grabbed a fast lunch. Matt ran off to use the bathroom (the same one that I had slept outside of, only a few days earlier). It seemed that the use of the facilities cost about 50 US cents. A little drama started when the gypsy attendant refused to give Matt change. There was a tray of change plainly in view and Matt was pissed. He finally decided that if he had to pay extra, he should get more than just the two small squares of toilet paper she doled out. She refused and Matt finally accepted his defeat. This was my first day of traveling with Matt and I had yet to learn of his bathroom phobia. Jordan was ordered to give a report on the shitter conditions. “No seat, only a hole, buddy”. “****” rang out though the bus station, Matt stomped up to the gypsy attendant, slammed down the T.P., grabbed his dollar back, and told the woman that “your toilet sucks!” Jordan and I had a good laugh over this while Matt left on an expedition to look for a sitter toilet.
Our Taxi was a 20 dollar, 45 min ride to the Albanian border. We crossed the border with little hassle and got another taxi to take us to Shkoder, the first major town, about 1 hour away. The U.S Department of State mentions Shkoder and gives some of the following warnings and advice on its consular information sheet:
“Armed crime is common in Shkoder and frequent in other towns in northern and northwestern Albania” “Throughout the country, street crime is fairly common, and occurs particularly at night” “The U.S. Government maintains security procedures regarding the travel of U.S. Government employees to areas north and east of Shkoder (with the exception of cities along the national road) and to the southern town of Lazarat, with such travel restricted to secure vehicles with escort” “many of the goods and services taken for granted in other European countries are not yet available” “ In most cases, police assistance and protection is limited” “organized criminal gangs continue to operate in all regions and corruption is pervasive”
To get to Shkoder we had to drive through bandit infested countryside. This is an especially dangerous region due to massive opium production, and subsequent crime and disorder. We experienced no trouble, and by late afternoon we had arrived safe and sound in Shkoder. We checked into an old communist era hotel (a derelict dump of an establishment), showered up, and went out to take a look around. The town was a dump, but it did not seem all that dangerous. Matt was interested in checking out a nearby castle so we hired a taxi and drove out to the one and only tourist attraction. The citadel was a massive structure, and we were probably the only tourists to visit that entire week. Our Taxi driver and the gate keeper jumped on a chance to scam us by creating mass confusion over creating change for the 50 cent entrance fee. They made a fuss and tried to get 5 dollars out of me. I became pissed, refused to go in and took a seat on the rocks outside the gate. As I meditated, Matt and Jordan looked around the castle, and our driver fled the castle in defeat. We were abandoned in the rain 3 miles outside the most dangerous city in Albania. Luckily we walked back to the hotel without incident. During the walk we saw numerous street kids dumpster diving, viewed the cities impressively pathetic communist era monuments, noticed that the city was having a power blackout, dodged the terribly chaotic traffic, and stopped for cake and coffee to satisfy Matt’s sweet tooth. Matt was new to third world travel and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by it all. Jordan and I savored the chaos and disorder.
We also noticed that the city had once been protected by numerous concrete pill box bunkers. In fact, they were everywhere; 150,000 interconnected bunkers laid in disrepair across a country the size of Connecticut. Albania had been aligned with China during the cold war. Their propaganda had insisted that America was the great enemy, but when Nixon and Mao teamed up for a little triangle diplomacy in the 70’s, the Albanian communist party had a problem. Their big brother was now hand in hand with the great enemy. The lies had to be maintained. The people of Albania were now told that they no longer had any friends in the world, and because they comprised the perfect society, an invasion by all the jealous nations was imminent. The rapes, pillaging and plundering would be horrific, and only a bunker defense could hold the capitalist hordes at bay. Like all other great communist disasters, the Albanian communist party spent massive amounts of money on a worthless project to support their propaganda lies. The bunker systems were extensive, complex and expensive. We were told that the cost for one bunker alone equaled the cost required to build one house. Imagine.
A pill box bunker in Shkoder, Albania
That night Matt led us to a local hole in the wall restaurant. We ordered dinner with the help of the owner’s wife translating over a cell phone. Dinner was cooked over a small flame in an open hearth. We were skeptical at first, but dinner turned out excellent. We found the food in Albania amazing, a masterful combination of the olive/wine Mediterranean influence, and the wheat/beer continental European influence. The next morning we had an easy bus trip to the bustling port city of Durres. Lonely Planet had listed only one bed & breakfast in our desired price range, and despite shoddy directions, we were determined to find it. Due to Matt’s bum knee, two huge bags, and special pillow (sorry Matt, your not going get off easy for all that crap), we decided to hire a taxi to the B & B. Our prior Albanian cab experience in Shkoder should have convinced us of our folly, but we tried to bargain with the cabbies anyway. Getting the best deal we could, we hopped in a cab and proceeded to head off in the entirely wrong direction. Being a navigator, I noticed first, but I keep my mouth shut. I always enjoy a good adventure and I was a bit curious to where this one might lead us. Along the ride we got a good tour of the Durres beach resorts. The hotels here resembled what in my mind Beirut must have had looked like in the 80’s. A disaster area, yet there had not been any fighting here to my knowledge. Finally Jordan and Matt caught on to our misdirection. Despite our protests the cabby continued to drive for several more miles. We wondered if he was trying to take us to where he thought we should go, if this was a setup, or that he just had no clue. We concluded that this guy was just clueless.
After making the driver finally stop for directions, we got the cab turned around, and drove back toward the city again. Our driver stopped back where we started, grabbed Jordan (our group linguist), and tried to get some help with the directions at a small ferry boat ticket agency. As Matt and I were waiting at the cab and talking about the situation, a group of cops approached the cab and started yelling at us in Italian. They were acting extremely aggressive, so I started to calculate how much this bribe would cost. Matt was probably thinking how handy his pillow was going to be in an Albanian prison. All we could do was point to the travel agency and tell them in English that our driver was over there. Suddenly the cops broke out in wide smiles, asked us if we were American, shook our hands and proclaimed us best friends. They asked us if we were having any trouble. Knowing a stroke of luck when it comes, I told them our cabbie was trying to rip us off and giving us all kinds of hassle. Sure it was stretching the truth, but in the end we would probably avoid any uncomfortable hassles about paying for the taxi driver’s 7 mile mistake. Our driver’s face turned three shades of red before going pale as the cops focused their rage on him. After a few minutes we all came to an understanding and after shaking hands, we once again started on our way to the elusive B & B.
After driving what in the end would have taken us 10 minutes to walk, and almost running over a group of school kids at a crosswalk, we arrived where the B & B was reported to be. There were no signs posted, and after knocking at random doors we finally found the correct place, only to discover that the owner was out for the afternoon. OK, time to drop the bags, take a piss, and get directions to the owner’s work from the Italian guest. The Italian reported that the owner was “working at a clinic only a few minutes down the road”, but this is Albania, and at this point we should have known better. After having no luck at the first clinic we found, we were offered help by an English speaking high school girl. This nice girl led us around to every damn clinic she could think of in central Durres. We finally had luck after about an hour of searching, finding the B & B owner working as a gynecologist at a small clinic located down a small alleyway. She was amazed that we found her, and we were happy to finally have the keys and to head back for a rest. Back at the B & B I had a shower, watched some news on BBC, and took a nap. Jordan and Matt took off for a little sight seeing.
There was not too much to do in Durres. For two days we drank beer, talked with some 19 year old Mormon missionaries, played pool, and relaxed. We checked out of the B & B and were planning our bus trip up to the capital, Tirana, when our B & B owner offered us a ride. She had work in Tirana and it would be no inconvenience to give us a lift, but first she had to go to her gynecology clinic for an hour, and would be back to pick us up. As she left she told us that she always gets pictures of her guests and that she had left her digital camera on the table for us to grab a group shot at our convenience. No problem, we had two of the new British guests take a snapshot as requested. Jordan and I were talking with the two Brits, giving them the low down on what to do in Durres when suddenly Matt started hitting Jordan on the shoulder. Matt’s eyes were wide open and he was speechless. The digital camera was passed to Jordan and his reaction was practically the same. I was still talking with the Brits when I started to be slapped on the shoulder by Jordan, and was handed the camera. At this point Matt and Jordan were rolling with laughter and I joined them after looking at the displayed picture. Matt swears he had only tried to zoom in on our group picture, but both Jordan and I knew he was just as interested as we were to check out pictures of past guests. But what popped up on the screen to our surprise was a zoomed in, close up shot of someone’s shaved, red, swollen, and possibly infected vagina. I guess that is what we get for snooping around on a gynecologist’s digital memory stick. The British guests were dying to know what the fuss was about but we wouldn’t show them. During our wait for our ride we had fun speculating if it was the owner’s pussy or one of her patients. We thought it was funnier if it had been hers. When she did finally come to pick us up for the ride she asked us if we had “got the picture”, biting our lips we said “Oh, we sure did”.
The drive into the Capital, Tirana, was literally quite colorful. What looked to us to be a sick joke was actually the current government’s attempted scheme to give the decrepit city a facelift. All the houses along the main avenues leading into the city had been painted a nauseating psychedelic patchwork of clashing colors. We checked into a B & B and rushed out to explore the surreal city. Matt ran off to the National museum and Jordan and I scouted the local bar and club scene. Close by we found a place called the “Day pub, Night club”. It was only four in the afternoon, but the Day pub, Night club was packed with people dancing. The dancers were bit young, high school age, so Jordan asked the bartender if the crowd would be better later tonight. The bartender told us to come back around 11:00 pm. We decided to come back later and check it out. We met up with Matt and spent the afternoon exploring the neighborhoods and checking out the streets with the strange paint jobs. By walking one street in any direction off the main avenue we would end up in city slums. The slums were what Jordan and I was most interested in checking out. It would take more than just a splash of paint to fix these places up. After satisfying our interests, Matt led us back to the cake and coffee shops, and later we returned to the B & B for some rest before our big night out.
Colorful Tirana, Albania
The B & B owner was a strange old man. Despite his humble house, he maintained a pimped out wet bar. He would lavish attention on us, make sure we had no problems, and then proceed to lock us out of the house every time we left to explore the city. He nicknamed Jordan “the President”. I wanted to be called Generalissimo, but the name never stuck. We were interested in the cities famed mafia and kept our eyes open for obvious criminal elements. We noticed and thought it strange, that there were no lights lit at the Tirana Hotel. The Tirana Hotel was ten stores high and located at Tirana’s main square. There looked to be no guests staying there, but we believed that the rooms must surely be in use. Were they filled with guns being smuggled to Kosovo, bales of heroin and cocaine, or perhaps girls in transit to Western Europe form the Ukraine? Our suspicions that the hotel was a mafia front were increased when we noticed that the only car parked at the arrival door was a white stretch limo with New Jersey license plates.
McMariott – fast food in Tirana, Albania
After a few beers to get us ready for a night of dancing, we walked back down to the Day pub, Night club. The bartender there had earlier invited us to come back, so we foresaw no problems as we walked up to the bouncer. The bouncer was talking with another man at the door and barring its entrance. We tried to enter but had no luck. The bouncer just fixed us a blank look and held his position, blocking the doorway. It finally dawned on me that the bouncer had no intention of letting us in. He had claimed that he did not understanding English, but that was bullshit. He finally asked us in perfect English what the hell we wanted, “Do you want girls?” The doorman’s buddy gave us a big smile and pointed to a shady establishment across the street. I got very nervous and told Jordan that we should get the hell out of there. Jordan agreed and we fled down the road, leaving Matt still attempting to gain entrance. Matt yelled to us, claiming that “We just have to talk to him and we will get in”. Trusting my instincts and relying on my past traveling experience, I strongly disagreed. It seemed that compared to being mugged, or perhaps worse, getting denied entrance to a club would be an easy defeat to accept.
Walking back with nothing to do, we decided to visit the Tirana Hotel and try to confirm our mafia suspicions. We decided to go in and ask for directions for a good bar or club. We felt safe in this enterprise, it was a hotel after all, and we were playing the part of the lost tourist. We also figured what better place to get good advice on the club scene than from the local mafia guys. We strolled up to the entrance and before we even reached the door, two big guys in suits barged out. They demanded to know what we wanted, not the friendliest greeting one would expect from hotel staff. We asked if they knew of any good clubs and we were directed towards a certain street. It seemed everything about this hotel confirmed my suspicion that it was a mafia front, but locals later told us that it was just a normal hotel currently under remodeling. Who knows? We looked for clubs down the suggested street. The street turned into a dark and dangerous alleyway, so we decided to cut our losses for the night and go back for some sleep. Upon returning to the B & B we entered the gate, but found the house locked. Banging on the door we woke up the bewildered owner. Standing in his boxer shorts he let us in, claiming to Jordan, “Mr. President, I am so sorry but I thought you were sleeping already” It was the perfect ending to what had been a bizarre day.
The rest of our stay in Tirana was relatively uneventful. We continued to search for elusive night clubs, went on several day trips to surrounding villages, and met for drinks with some lawyers that we had previously met in Durres. Our lawyer friends gave us a tour of the city and told us insightful history about Albania’s crazy past and present problems. We went for drinks at a revolving restaurant on top of Tirana’s tallest building. From the restaurant we had a great view of the city and old communist party’s neighborhood, “The Block”. During the communist times, The Block was located near the city center. It was an exclusive area of gardens, parks, palatial houses, and mansions. The block was completely guarded by armed troops that were ordered to bar entrance to any curious proletariat. Funny, I had believed communist revolutions occurred to reform such behavior.
Propaganda in Tirana
Matt, Jordan and I departed Albania by night bus to Kosovo. I was delighted to return to Prizren, visit with Yak and the boys, and play guide for Matt and Jordan. The bus ride would take us through bandit infested territory, but as before when we entered Albania, we encountered no trouble. There was a T.V, and VCR, and to our delight, the bus attendant played Any Given Sunday, an Oliver Stone film about American football starring, Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz. We were enjoying the film but were a bit annoyed at the remote control censoring being done to protect the sensibilities of some of the older passengers. Every time there was locker room nudity (which was often) the bus attendant would turn off the film and fast forward. The film finally got pulled from the VCR when we got to the scene where a guy does a line off cocaine of some chick’s tits at a post game party. With the movie pulled (shit, it was just getting good), it was time for sleep. We awoke at the UN administered border post just before dawn. From my past experience at the Kosovo border, I expected the usual cursory glance of the passport, and a quick and contemptuous face check, but this morning I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a gruff and cranky guard, we had a cute German peacekeeper check our documents. Jordan talked to her in German and was able to get us a UN stamp in our passports. She told us “Why not, no one back home would have believed that you boys had been to Kosovo anyway”.
After a short rest at the hotel in Prizren, I took Matt and Jordan out to visit Yak at his work. He was amazed to see me again, and we drank coffee and told stories. We stayed in Prizren for two nights, Matt and Jordan checking stuff out, and I visiting and drinking beer with old friends. One afternoon we went shopping for military patches at a small seamstress shop. The lady had a display full of various patches for the local UN peacekeepers and Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers. Jordan and I were like kids in a candy store. The lady seemed a little confused. She probably does not get many tourists buying souvenir military patches at her store. Matt made a mistake that was almost as bad as Johns wearing the Cyrillic t-shirt. Searching through the patches, he asked the lady “if she had any Serbian patches in stock”. She gave us a very strange and confused look, and Jordan and I gave Matt a stern lecture about the huge mistake he had just made. I had come too far to get myself in trouble at this point in the trip. We apologized liberally, paid for our patches, and got the hell out of there.
The only thing that remained of interest to visit in Prizren was the UN/German administered military base. After a hike to the town outskirts, we arrived at the base perimeter. Unsurprisingly there was little to see other than razor wire fencing and an unfriendly entry post guard. To my delight there was a local carnival style bumper car arena set up in a close by field. It reminded me of the South Park joke where the two gun crazy hunters (Ned & Jimbo I believe) reminisce about the log ride and amusement parks they enjoyed in Da Nang, during their tour in the Vietnam War. The bumper cars were the same set up as you would find at any local red neck county fair. In my opinion, the 25 cent charge for five minutes of bumper carnage was the best deal in Kosovo. As I expected the local kids gave us no mercy, it was a blast! Matt T-boned a small girl’s car, sending the car reeling. After our time was up this small girl ran up to Matt, and with a clenched fist pointed to his chest, proceeded to give him a brutal lecture on bumper car etiquette. Matt had hurt his bum knee during the collision with the girl and perhaps she told him he got what he deserved. It was a hilarious scene, and I was ready for a few more rounds of carnage, but Matt’s bum knee was hurting and we decided to head back to the hotel.
On our last planned day in Kosovo we went on a day trip into a mountain gorge near the town of Pec. We checked out of our hotel in Prizren, lugged our bags with us on the bus, and stashed them at a restaurant upon arrival in Pec. The town of Pec was located at the foot of the mountains near the Montenegro border. I went looking for a driver to take us up the mountain road and ravine. I picked an old grandfatherly like man to drive us. He only spoke German, so with Jordan’s help we settled on a price and left for the mountains. We got permission to proceed up the ravine from some Argentinean peacekeepers that were guarding a rather sensitive military check point close to a functioning Serbian monastery. Our driver was thrilled to be driving us on a scenic tour. He would repeatedly declare us his “American Friends”. We had often encountered such appreciative behavior by the locals of Kosovo during our visit. It was NATO, led by US General Wes Clark, who finally proceeded with the 1999 air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic. The bombing of Serbian positions in Kosovo, and the government and military buildings of Belgrade, was in response to the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns in Kosovo. The Kosovar Albanians genuinely believed that the UN had abandoned them, and it was Bill Clinton who finally stood in their defense. Our driver proudly declared Bill Clinton as the “father of Kosovo”. In Prizren, I was told that “Kosovo would like to be the 57 th State of America”. When I pointed out that currently we had only 50 states, I was told that Kosovo was willing to wait their turn. During my trip I saw an “Uncle Sam” fast food restaurant, numerous Bill Clinton street signs, and even a hotel with a large statue of the Statue of Liberty on its roof. At an internet café Matt and Jordan were amazed to have their bill paid, and to be proclaimed as “American heroes” by a group of star struck high school girls. With today’s political world climate, such American popularity was greatly surprising and pleasantly refreshing to find, especially considering that we were in a predominantly Muslim region.
Pec speed limit
Bill Clinton Street
The trip into Pec’s mountain gorge had been described to us as a Kosovo “must do”. The mountain cliffs and raging river were certainly beautiful. There were several waterfalls along the route that emerged out of holes located on the sides of shear cliffs. At the road’s end, Jordan and I explored a path, only to discover a couple making love. After the embarrassing discovery in the woods we had our driver take us back to Pec. Along the way I had Jordan ask our driver if he could take us to a shop where they sold Kosovo Liberation Army T-shirts. I had seen one on display in a shop window earlier, but I could not exactly remember where. The KLA was the local Freedom Fighters who had harassed the Serbians with classic guerrilla tactics during the 1999 fighting. As with the same situation in Vietnam with the Vietminh of the 50’s, and the Vietcong of the 60’s, the towns of Kosovo had belonged to the Serbians during the day, and to the KLA at night. At the time I did not know much about the KLA, but I thought a KLA t-shirt would be a kick-ass souvenir.
We arrived not at the t-shirt shop, but at a KLA military training base. These guys were suppose to have been disarmed and disbanded in 1999, but the guard with the AK-47 looked to be very armed to me. We all sat still in our seats as our driver talked to the guard. He came back to tell us that perhaps we could go in their base but first we had to meet with the commandant. With a wide eyed look, Jordan told me that “no one gets into KLA bases, not the UN, NATO, NGOs, journalists, no one!” Jordan and Matt had planned to meet up with some people in Macedonia that night, but Jordan decided that this opportunity was worth canceling his prior commitments. I did not have a travel plan yet, I was going to hop the next bus to God knows where, so I was game, but Matt was looking a little pale. Perhaps this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Matt had, up to this time in his life, been more comfortable traveling around countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Jordan and I had certainly pushed him to the edge of his third world tolerance on this trip. But ever the historian, Matt suddenly brightened up when we learned that if granted access we could check out the base museum.
Trying to understand the Kosovo Liberation Army and their history is very confusing. Everyone has a different opinion of who they are and what they stand for. Depending on who you ask, the KLA are terrorists, freedom fighters, mafia, or a combination of all three. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, A hypocritical United States Government has in the past both supported (CREATED?) the KLA (during the Balkans war), and condemned the KLA (presently as Osama bin Laden affiliated terrorists). The history and facts surrounding the KLA are confusing and contradictory at best. There is a lot of stuff out on the web. I don’t know how much of it is true, and much of it seems to be conspiracy theory based.
We drove out to the commandant’s compound in a motorcade of 4×4 Land Cruisers. As we waited for our entry permission we were met by several men in uniform who asked us security questions. We handed over our passports and claimed that we were students. With security satisfied that we were not journalists, the commandant finally made his appearance. He was a hulk of a man who pulled us off balance with gigantic handshakes. The motorcade again departed for the military base and we gained access. We were allowed an interpreter but no cameras. The base had been previously occupied by the Serbians before we had smart bombed and destroyed it. Sections were still in ruin, while other parts were new construction. We were shown the training facilities and led to the KLA museum. The museum contained mostly photos of war dead from the past conflict. Along with our driver, the commandant, and several other soldiers, we respectfully viewed all the pictures. As is the case with war, the photos were all of young men. Most were out in the woods wearing camouflage and holding various guns, mortars and artillery. Many were younger than me. It was a very sobering experience.
Meeting with Kosovo Liberation Army KLA
We were allowed group pictures in the courtyard before our departure. It was now evening, so we decided to go back to Prizren. I met with Yak for one last time and told him our KLA story. He thought we were crazy and asked if all American tourists behaved like us. I told him probably not, and said my goodbyes. The next day Matt and Jordan left on their own ways. They had a 3 day teacher’s conference to attend in Macedonia. I looked at the bus schedule and decided to leave for Sarajevo, Bosnia. The rest of my vacation was pleasant. I finished my trip by traveling through Bosnia, visiting Jordan in Belgrade, and keeping my promise to visit John in Budapest. Bosnia was amazing. Bosnian history has also been just as tragic, but unlike Kosovo, there is hope for long term stability as delicate peace is being maintained. Sarajevo had always had a mixed religious population that miraculously got along. Reminders of the1984 Olympics are still common, and people will be quick to point out that only in Jerusalem, and in Sarajevo can you find a Catholic church, Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and a Orthodox church standing within 150m of each other. The greatest example of Sarajevo’s pluralism was that Milosevic felt he needed to set siege to the city in the early 90’s to make it an example to the rest of former Yugoslavia. The precedence of a peaceful, and mixed religious heritage surviving in the region was too dangerous to Milosevic’s regime. The city of Sarajevo never fell. Perhaps I will write more about my travel there on another day. Till then I need to spend some time planning my next trip, fall 2004, Colombia!