How to Leave Tirana, Albania in Style
Leaving Tirana, Albania is difficult. Traffic is fast and erratic, people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, and there is no central bus station and no published schedule. Buses leave from various points around the city. You have to ask someone: which is where the problem of people telling you what you want to hear instead of what is true comes in.
Albanians are extremely helpful. They’ll tell you, sure, the bus to Montenegro leaves from right here every day at 10:00. That might not be true but it sounds reasonable. I found that asking at least four people the same question and pooling the results was a good bet.
I recalled all of the cautionary tales I had heard in my life: so many of them stressing the importance of never getting into cars with strangers.
The catch is that things like bus departure points change often in Albania, sometimes by just a few blocks but that’s enough to play havoc with any travel plan you may have. The most reliable tactic is to get in a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the bus that goes to wherever it is you want to go. Taxis aren’t hard to find in Tirana; there are many stands around the city.
At 9:00AM, one Sunday morning, I found a taxi parked neatly in a stand. A man greeted me in perfect English. “I’m Nderim,” he said.
“Maeve,” I said. “I need the bus to Macedonia. Do you know where that is?”
“Yes. Three euros.”
I nodded. “Do you know what time the bus leaves?”
“Yes,” said Nderim, “At 10:00. In 30 minutes. But, if you like, I can take you all the way to the border for 50 euros.”
“Sure!” I said, “Why not?”
His grinned. “I just need to make a call.”
I settled into the back seat as we turned right, heading east out of the city. In fact, I recalled all of the cautionary tales I had heard in my life: so many of them stressing the importance of never getting into cars with strangers. I’m pretty certain none of them ever said it was a good idea to take an Albanian taxi driver up on his offer to drive you to the border.
How to Leave Tirana, Albania in Style.
In my mind, I could hear my friend Sharon in the middle of a dissertation on the dangers of travelling alone as a woman. I hadn’t been listening all that closely at the time and now could only really recall her wide horrified eyes as she described some horrible thing that might happen to me.
Sharon hardly ever traveled and never by herself. The world frightened her in ways I couldn’t understand. She believed most people were out to get her, that everyone had a hidden agenda. I just thought people were doing the best they could and were mostly good at heart. I couldn’t imagine living my life any other way.
We were now in an area with lots of little shacks with tires piled up in front of them. Vehicles in various states of disrepair were parked on the sidewalk. We pulled up in front of one of the shacks. A thin man came out to the sidewalk.
“Just need a new tire. Don’t worry,” Nderim said to me. I nodded, strangely fascinated by the whole process. I wasn’t worried.
Nderim stayed outside while the thin tire man worked. He jacked up the car (with me in it) and swapped out the back left tire for a new one. After giving the tire man a few bills, Nderim got back into the cab.
Okay,” he said, “All good.”
“Okay,” he said, “All good.” We continued on our way.
It was a beautiful bright fall day. The colors of Albania surprised me. They were so much more vibrant than I had been led to believe. Most of the descriptions I had read about Albania emphasized its poverty and bleakness. It was poorer than the west, but there was also an intense, defiant, infectious optimism that showed in its brightly painted buildings, public sculpture, and its people.
On the day I visited the Museum of Natural History, a young man approached me. He wanted to give me a tour of his city. I declined, saying that I much preferred to simply wander about on my own.
“Okay,” he said, “but I have to ask you why you have come here? To Albania?”
“Because,” I said, “I wanted to see it before you got a Starbucks.”
“A Star What?” he said.
Nderim was on the phone again.
“Maeve,” he said when he hung up, “We’re going to meet my son. He has a better car to drive. Okay?”
We’re going to meet my son. He has a better car to drive. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a dirt parking lot of a small wood house with a sign that said ‘cafe.’ A young man leaned against a silver sedan. “My son, Zef.” Nderim said proudly. Zef shook my hand with a charming smile.
“Nice to meet you. You’re American?” I nodded. His handshake was firm and his eyes were playful. I liked him immediately. The three of us got into Zef’s silver sedan and we were off, headed once again toward the Macedonian border.
“Where do you live in America?” Zef asked.
“New York City.”
“New York City! I want to go there so much. To Times Square and the lights. I’ve seen pictures and videos on YouTube. The city that never sleeps. I want to see the Yankees play. Do you like the Yankees?” Zef then launched into a gleeful description of everything he wanted to do in New York City.
As we neared the end of our journey, we pulled off in front of a low white brick building. Inside, there was a counter with a man in a white apron behind it. Three tables with chairs were scattered about. On the opposite wall was a door marked ‘Toilet.’ The rest of the room was empty. Nderim ordered from the man.
“Do you want something?” he asked me.
Do you want something?”
“Sure.” I said, “Whatever you’re having.”
Two plates of steamed rice topped with cheese arrived a few minutes later. When the bill came, I tried to give money to pay but Nderim emphatically refused. I was touched by his generosity. I hadn’t realized that my 50 euros included food too.
“Where are you going in Macedonia?” Nderim asked when we were back on the road.
“Ohrid,” I said. Ohrid was only 40 kilometers or so from the border.
“We would like to go all the way with you but we don’t have the papers.” Nderim said,
“We’ll get you someone to take you though.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.” I said.
About 30 minutes later, we pulled into a lot next to about 8 or 9 taxis. Up ahead was the border crossing. A long line of 18-wheeler trucks stretched for miles in both directions from the checkpoint. We all got out of the car and Nderim went and talked with the group of men hanging around their cabs.
How to Leave Tirana, Albania in Style
“Okay,” he said as he motioned to one of them “He’ll take you to Ohrid for 10 Euros.”
“Great!” I said. Zef moved my bag from the back of his car to the waiting taxi.
“Thank you so much,” I said. I wrote my email address on a piece of scrap paper for Zef. “Please, if you get to New York City, let me know. I’ll buy you dinner.”
He beamed and put the paper into his wallet.
“Be safe,” Nderim said, “Be safe.”
“I will.” I hugged him and then Zef.
I climbed into the waiting cab and it joined the line of cars cued to go through the checkpoint. In fact, I turned around to look out the back window as we moved forward. Nderim and Zef were still standing there, waving. I waved back, watching them until they disappeared from view.