July 7, 2014 by theloneblonde
Disclaimer: This post will not actually tell you how to get from Albania to Macedonia
It would be easy they said! I was going to get on a direct bus from Tirana, the capitol of Albania, to head the Skopje, the capitol of Macedonia. On a map it looks fairly simple, if you ask google maps it would tell you to go directly up the national highway head to Kosovo which would take you about two hours, drive through Kosovo, another hour, until you hit the Macedonian border and then in around 35 minutes you would be smack dab in the center of Skopje, total drive time depending on traffic, the border and depending on how fast you wanted to drive around 4 to 5 hours.
Working in partnership with an awesome NGO out of the Balkans for the past two weeks, working to run two conferences for the students who will depart to the United States, they made all of my travel plans for me. So far it had been going great. To Moldova, we flew Turkish airlines where they wined and dined us with hummus and ginger lemonade. Then to Serbia we flew again, worried that we only had a twenty minute connection in Vienna we were so impressed with the service of Austrian Airlines who offered to drive us directly to the gate, though we walked and had time to spare! So it was time for me to travel to Macedonia and this time without my trusty travel partner in crime and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, this time I was going alone. Now I normally travel alone and I have made plenty of bus trips overnight, or long distance, and a bus to another country that was just next-door would be a breeze!
I have given a lot of travelers through Albania advice on how to get to Macedonia because that is most commonly their next travel destination. I have always thought it would be easy! Just get over the border in Qofte Thane, or cross from Kosovo, and you would be greeted with nice roads and reliable public transportation. Well that was a little optimistic. With my organization booking me on a direct bus to Skopje, I thought I was getting the easy way out, I would not have to walk across the border and I could make it directly to Skopje in just a few hours and I would not have to switch buses, taking at most 7 hours, which is just an hour more then going from my city to the capitol. Well after 11 hours of travel, 5 various modes of transportation, and several hours at the border and a bunch of criminals, boy was I ever wrong.
Now, as I said I was under the impression that I could take one bus, and it was direct. A friend of mine who I have the pleasure of working with did this last year and he mentioned that he took a van, and that route was normally in a small furgon like van. So I arrived early to the travel agency, with a bus ticket for 1900 hours. Knowing Albania I knew it would be late, because the sign on the door said that they had buses to Skopje daily at 1930 (I learned this to not be true, it is not daily, they only go daily to the border and they don’t guarantee your passage to on to Skopje). So after interrogating the travel agency they promised me the bus would arrive shortly.
Shortly became 1900-1930, and finally rolling up around 1945, a younger guy with a funny accent, a clear caffeine addiction and a strong resemblance to the American rapper Macklemore and myself got into the van and headed out. My first thought was this would be great, a brand new van, a driver with a seat belt on, I had the entire back seat to myself, I would be able to sleep and everything! Well not five minutes later we picked up 5 Albanian chuns (chun=Albanian word for guy, when used in English normally implies they are like a “punk” or a “bro”), who loaded in their luggage starting yelling about how excited they were to head to Paris. They all tried to cram into the middle of the van together, where there was only three spaces, because none of them wanted to sit by me. I thought this was great, however the driver told them that the police had even been pulling people over so they were to get in the back and put on a seat belt. This was the first time I had EVER heard anyone be requested to put on a seat belt and I was pretty shocked, as were the chuns. They had probably never been requested this in their life and they honestly did not even know what to do. A few of them had to help the guy next to him figure it out. I sat their laughing to myself and their confusion because I knew what they were saying, mostly “bro, help me out, I don’t get this!” and they had yet to realize that I speak Albanian.
So there I was 7 guys (5 chuns, a driver, and Macklemore look alike) and myself, headed to what I thought was Macedonia. Having asked the travel agency which route they take previously, the woman at the office was unsure and she said that it was up to the driver, thanks for being helpful travel agency. Having passed all the signs for Kosovo, it was pretty clear that we were not taking the highway, and this probably was going to be a long trip.
The driver told us we were headed to Durres to get some more people, however he told the boys that they would have to transfer buses, but he did not tell this to me. So we make it to Durres, which I would like to point out is 1 hour or more in the wrong direction of Macedonia, we have now headed due West towards the sea and towards the exact opposite direction of Macedonia which is North East of Tirana. The chuns made friends with the driver as they mentioned their flight to Paris was 24 hours after their arrival and they would have a day in Skopje, and they driver proclaims that he would be in Skopje tomorrow night so he will give them a call for coffee. This was my first indication that this guy was not taking me to Skopje. We arrive in Durres at their twin travel agency, having been resting my eyes I wake up to find my things in another bus and the driver telling me to MOOOO, I think he was trying to say move. Getting up and getting on to the next bus, I quickly ask the driver if this would take me to Skopje, and he was taken aback at the fact that I spoke Albanian, and he said no this would get me as far as Elbesen for sure, but he was not positive after that. Well that sounds promising, NOT, Elbesen is the next city over, at least this time we would be headed East, but just east, not north.
With low expectations, we made it through Elbesen, and then through the next towns and arrive at the border. The bus was terribly uncomfortable and the seats had to have been stolen from an old british public bus because it had the same fabric as all the old Manchester buses when I was there. They also had a bunch of handles. Right before the border they started asking for our passports, and the chuns turned around and started trying to act out the word for passport, I turned to them in Albanian and asked them if they wanted my passport and if they needed it to register for the border. Now, for the past 4 hours they had been on a bus talking about their trip to Paris and had brought me up several times in conversation, I knew exactly what they were talking about, however they had not realized I knew Albanian. At that moment, all five of them stood up and loudly proclaimed in unison SHE SPEAKS ALBANIAN! And then began a game of twenty questions about my Albanian language skills and if I could get them green cards to the USA.
Right before the border at a 2200 stop for coffee, the chuns had invited me for coffee. I normally, all right, I always turn down coffee with boys my age because they often have one thing on their mind… my hand in marriage, and I was really not up for it this evening. Turning down their promise of coffee and drinks they finally bought me water, and continued the inquisition. However finally taking off towards the border we make it there around 2315. It was a usual border stop, the bus driver got out and gave all the passports to the guard, who got on the bus checked the bus and matched our faces to a passport and walked off with the big stack of passports. It was pretty clear which one was mine as it was the only one that was blue. As our passports had been taken away guards come in and check everyone’s bags and the holdings on the bus, pretty routine. Then they start calling names, and people start getting off the bus. In the mean time I had watched two buses zoom through the checkpoint with no issues in under 10 minutes, we had now been there maybe 20. I figured we were the randomly selected ones, not much different from the airport.
One by one passports were being passed back as simultaneously the chuns were being called off the bus, each of them claiming to go out for a smoking break, but then all of them being called in the customs office by a very large Albanian man with an even larger gun. One by one each of them was gone. Next thing I knew they were all standing against a wall at attention, hands behind their back the works, which is rare as generally it they are outside it is hard to pull the cigarettes off their faces. None of them were smoking; they looked like they were clearly in trouble. For around an hour they would go in and out of the customs office one at a time, then one of them would run across the border traffic swearing and grabbing his things. The first one grabbed a sweater the next one grabbed his bag, and the customs officials were tearing them apart.
Now over an hour and a half in clearly something was up, weather they had illegal papers or they were criminals, it was pretty clear the chuns who were the only ones going directly to Skopje would not be crossing the border tonight. After giving up on reading my book, because of the dim light, I watched them as they tried to negotiate with the customs agent. I watched the customs agent at first gently caress his gun to his side and as they got louder he would grab it, then finally he was just talking and flailing his gun in the air in their general direction. I think that sent a pretty clear signal these chuns were going nowhere. They grabbed their things got off the bus and after about two and a half hours we left them sitting in the grass on the Albanian side. Crossing over to the Macedonian side, I still had the Macklemore look alike, and I tried to ask him what was the deal with the chuns and why we left them behind, he had no answer and said they they were bad. So that was that, bad boys left in the dust, we spent another 40 minutes on the Macedonian side where the bus driver had to fill out paperwork about what just happened and confirm that none of them tried to stowaway.
Driving along, the driver then came up to me and the Macklemore look alike asking where we were going. I was under the impression that this bus was going to Skopje, because I was booked on a direct bus to Skopje, but I think that was a little much to assume. So I tell them I want to go to the bus station in Skopje, because that is where the agency told me I was going. The driver looked at me funny and then started speaking in Macedonian with Macklemore, who translated to me in Albanian that we would need to switch busses when we made a little further in. Convinced that I would be riding a donkey the rest of the way, we made it to a gas station at around 2am, in which there was another bus waiting for us. Once again I was kicked off a bus and transferred to another bus, and I kept asking to go to Skopje. By this time we were far enough into Macedonia that not everyone around me spoke Albanian. Macklmore tried to translate to confirm, and it sounded hopeful.
However it was clearly time for a coffee, and Macklemore dragged me into the gas station told me to sit down and have coffee, because it was necessary because I was too worried about the travel, and I needed an espresso at 2am, clearly. Settling on the fact that I could drink tea instead, he told me not to be so worried because the bus was not going anywhere without us as we were the only travelers. Macklemore shot down two espressos and came out of the store with four bottles of coke, and an ice tea for myself, we found our way on to the new bus, an even bigger one, where we were one of 6 people, 2 being Macklemore and I, two teenage girls headed to the next city, and the bus drivers friend. Once on the bus the driver told him that we were another 3 hours from Skopje and we needed to make some stops first, and chances are we would be arriving around 5am to the bus station (our original ETA was 3am).
It got a little blurry for a while as I drifted in and out of sleep, I remember passing a lot of furniture stores. Honestly I could have been in Bulgaria for all I knew, I did not recognize the language, no one was around, and nothing was familiar. We pulled to a hault around 3:30, where Macklemore awoke me, and told me that he was leaving and that I should enjoy Macedonia. Uh-oh as he was my connection, because the drivers only spoke Macedonian, I was shit out of luck as I was now the only traveler on this bus which may or may not be headed to Skopje. So I say good-bye to Mackelmore then the driver stops for gas, however he found someone who spoke Albanian and had him translate to me, that in a few miles we were going to stop and the bus was not going to continue because I was the only traveler and they did not want to go all the way into Skopje. All I could think was, so where is my donkey, I will make it there.
We get back into the bus, and about 10km down the road we stop just on the side of the highway and he ask me to get off. He tells me in very broken Albanian that, I should not be afraid (um uh WHAT), and that his colleague (don’t worry he works with me) was coming to get me. He then repeated that I should not worry. Up pulls a truck, like a work truck that would drive around moving supplies for construction projects, with a few orange cones in the back the driver pops my stuff in the truck bed opens the door to the truck and tells me to get in. Its about 4am, I am the only one, and I am being told to get into a guys truck, and I have no idea where I am! The only thing I could even think about doing was laugh, seriously how in the world did I get myself into this mess. So I got in and really hoped that this guy was not going to drive me any deeper into Eastern Europe then I already was to sell my organs on the black market. I was trying to remember if I had packed my pocketknife in my purse, as this situation was beyond sketch at this point.
However, turns out the guy spoke Albanian, and he drove me right to where I needed to be and even gave me a little historical tour of the place, before dropping me off at the bus station. He insisted that I learn German, because his daughter was my age and finishing a degree in German language it is by far more beautiful then English. Not until I arrived at the bus station and he jumped out of the truck did I realize that I towered over him and he had a raised pedal to drive the truck. So there I was having been driven to Skopje by a truck driving midget.
Arriving at the bus station, the midget wished me the best of luck and waited five minutes before departing. A driver was to come and get me from the office here in Skopje, making him my 5th mode of transportation to get from point a to point b. At this point, I just wanted to sleep I could not tell you where I was, I had no idea where I was going. It was around 5:30 when we made it to the hotel, the sun was up and the birds were out. The lady at the front desk asked if I wanted breakfast, I tried to respond in Albanian and she looked at me funny. Then told me that breakfast was available until 10am. I walked up to my room, turned the A/C on high and slept right until 9:30 when I decided to go get breakfast. To my surprise the waiter at breakfast doubles as a DJ, and I was having breakfast in the fist pump lounge. Since I have arrived apparently this hotel and conference center really like their techno. –Eastern Europe Out.