So much for those lily-livered promises of being attentive to our blog. This post has been slow in the making but we look like we may have managed to squeeze our time in Albania in to the following: so here goes….
What did we know about Albania before arrival? Barely anything. We had even (we confess) struggled to name the countries it borders. But here we were, entering the flats of the north. The flats, ho ho, not quite. There is indeed a strip of broad valley that runs from Shkoder (curiously cycle-central) in the north to Tirana in the middle but do not be misled. Albania is seriously mountainous. The Albanian Alps lay just off to the east and looked dark and imposing, disappearing into the hazy heat-soaked clouds. Undoubtedly, if such peaks were located in central (old) Europe, there would be drooling and a pride of place in the pantheon of alpine greats and the permanent members (Switzerland, Austria, France etc) would have no credible quibble at Albania being part of the club…. but this is not a fashionable part of the world. Decades of strict communism and the iron hand of the paranoid dictator Hoxha have meant that there has been limited exposure for Albania to the rest of the world.
This is a new democracy (it ‘celebrates’ 20 years this year) and, from the residents we spoke to, democratic life very much remains in its nascent stages, yet there is a strong sense that acquiescence to despotic rule will not be a fact of Albanian political life. Indeed, during demonstrations in Tirana in January this year four demonstrators were shot by security forces in the heart of the capital, in fact spitting distance from the “buzzy” (we in fact loath Lonely Planet vocabulary) area where we stayed with our super-kind host, Allison.
While there is much to be heartened by, Albania remains impoverished and corruption is endemic (a core complaint of protesters) and very much forms a daily part of life here, from the 8 year-old schoolboy who must bribe his teacher to pass exams, to the super-educated elite working within international organisations who simply want a job that their skills and sacrifice clearly merit.
We entered Albania with some preconceptions (prejudices) and momentarily one of them was re-enforced when the bottle of coca-cola (our rocket-fuel) that was lashed to the back of Sam’s bike was brazenly swiped (mid-traffic) by a 10 year-old child. Cheeky blighter.
Our initial feelings about Albania, however, with its beautiful countryside depressingly smeared with rubbish tips at regular intervals, softened with each passing hour. The overriding response to us was one of friendly curiosity and warmth, not to mention the league-topping Albanian drivers who remain unsurpassed among the countries we have passed through for their courteous and considerate driving.
But this blog is titled “At the Carwash yeah…”, and you may be puzzled so far. Well, the reference is this: For a country adorned with roadside crap, boy, do the Albanians love to have shiny spanking new cars. We ain’t talking your Ford Mondeo. This is the land where the latest high-end (and we mean seriously high-end) Mercedes, BMWs, Audi, Porsche and the rest of that gang of star motors come to die and live. For a country with a GDP per capita of around $7,400 per year, a number of questions spring to mind…anyway, ours is not to question why even if the minds of criminal defence lawyers whirr at the thought of such a motorised treasure trove.
And maintaining your prized motor in such sparkling shape? Well that of course requires, in a dusty country, a lot of LAVAZH (Car-washes). In fact, millions. We would be surprised if a sizeable chunk of the national workforce did not have at least some link to the business and what appears to be a national pass-time.
Life in Tirana provided us with a moment to re-acquaint ourselves with some groovy 70’s tunes at one of the even groovier central bars. (They have even converted Old Hoxha’s former fancy down-town residence into a moody House-music bar/club uber-venue. Our days in Tirana were a pleasurable regenerative time before we were once more back on our metal camels and once more eastward. To the cooler (and altitudinuous) climes of the Albanian/Macedonia borderlands….
Check out the Albania pics here.