I've been thinking about this again this past week as Glenn and I travelled through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (albeit ever so briefly) and Croatia as we made our way from Tirana to Zagreb, Croatia.
The narrow and bumpy (yet mostly paved) road that takes you north from Shkoder to the Ulcinj border with Montenegro is typical of Albania. Its poorly maintained surface takes you through arid fields, past crumbling or half built houses (it can be difficult to determine which direction the building is moving), and over trash filled streams. Traffic- in the form of bicycles, horse drawn carts, rusty furgons, and the ubiquitous Mercedes- turns the barely single lane road into a multi-lane thoroughfare. An abrupt turn in the road dumps you into the Albania-Montenegro border crossing that is the first joint customs crossing in the Balkans. The minute you cross the border into Montenegro you are met with freshly paved roads with not a bit of stray trash in sight. (When we crossed the border in December the road was dirt in preparation for its being widened but even then, it was the road surface smooth, but guardrails lined the sides of the road keeping stray animals off the pavement while keeping the cars on it.
Similar conditions exist in the southern part of the country when crossing out of Albania into Greece at Kakavia. North of the border in Albania the hills are lined with concrete bunkers facing south towards Greece. While the roadway is significantly wider in the south than it is in the north, the surface conditions remain rough and the roadsides are filled with trash. The first time we crossed the border it was dark outside and even without the assistance of streetlights (they essentially don't exist in Albania and when the do, more often than not, they don't work) we could see the dismal conditions on our side of the border. Immediately upon entering Greece we noticed a difference that went far beyond the language on the roadway signage. The multi-lane road was well marked and well lit. Not a piece of trash was in sight either. Once again, it truly felt like we had entered into another world.
We've also entered and exited Albania via ferry. On more than one occasion we've taken the overnight ferry from Durres, Albania to Bari, Italy. Whereas the port and ferry terminal on the Italian side of the Adriatic are well maintained and organized, the port in Durres is a haphazard mess filled with questionably maintained cars with more passengers than seats, poorly maintained road surfaces, begging Roma, and Port Authority police who merely shrug when cars speed by them creating their own driving lanes. Returning to Durres from Italy is even more interesting. Cars barrel off the ferry towards the customs booths with complete disregard for anything that might be in their way. Instead of lines, drivers charge forward jockeying for lead positions. It is chaotic, overwhelming, and confusing. In every sense the experience is what I have come to expect in Albania.
Albania's sole international airport, although small, is new and well maintained. The experience of taxiing towards the terminal is like that of any airport. What is different, however, is the mad rush that ensues as the plane slows to a stop and everyone charges off of it only to be loaded onto the waiting shuttle bus that actually takes passengers to the terminal. People seem to be afraid that the shuttle will leave without them. Upon arriving at the terminal everyone pushes and shoves their way into the customs line with complete disregard for signage indicating who should be in what line. On more than one occasion I've been physically hit by someone as they barge ahead of me in the line designated for holders of diplomatic passports. (Even if the perpetrators of these assaults were truly diplomats, this behavior is far from diplomatic). Outside of the airport, conditions are like those in so much of the rest of the country. Roadways are lined with car washes, coffee bars, and trash; sheep herds obstruct traffic existing the airport, and on more than one occasion while exiting the paid parking lot I've been cut off by another driver using my paid parking fare as their means of escape.
I find that the differences between Albania and other countries all the more noticable when I am returning to Albania from abroad. I know that even during my brief periods away I am spoiled by orderly driving (yes, even in Italy) where traffic laws are obeyed, roadways that are kept clean, and streets that are well maintained. I know I enjoy the more organized lines that form at customs booths in Germany, Austria, and Turkey where people wait their rightful turn to receive the stamp in their passport. Only in Albania have I been greeted with such disorderly and deteriorating conditions. Inevitably I return to Albania both longing for the more civilized world I have left behind and frustrated by the conditions that greet me.
All of this makes me sad. I want to take pride in the country I currently call home. I want my visitors to feel welcomed and I want them to see the wild beauty that does exist here. I want them to be able to look beyond the poor infrastructure, the dangerous drivers, and the litter filled roadways that set Albania apart from all of her neighbors. If people stay in the country long enough, perhaps they too will get to know the warm people and experience the natural beauty that fills so much of the country. I know I spend the first couple of weeks after I have returned here feeling sad and frustrated by the conditions around me. Eventually I am able to look past this and feel better about my surroundings. But the cycle perpetuates itself as soon I'm off again on another adventure and with that comes both the excitement of being away and the let down of my return. Maybe sometime within the next 18 months I will be excited upon my return to Albania. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my time out of country and work harder to enjoy my return home.