Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saranda Part I: Security Comes Cheap in Vlore, but Mind the Highway Rabbits

As a teacher, I'm beginning to realize that as much as I loved school vacations as a student, I appreciate them so much more now that I'm on the other side of the equation. Thanks to Mother Teresa Day, we had a three day weekend in which to hike and fall in love with Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.  The very next weekend, we had four days off for Eid al-Adha. This time, the credit goes to the Muslims instead of the Catholics, and on top of it, we were given piles of meat upon our return to school.
Scott and I, enjoying the perks of being an overseas teacher. 

But that's jumping ahead, so let's get back to the story at hand.

We (Bobby and I plus Tiara and Scott) planned a trip down south to Saranda. Less than an hour from Greece, it's known for the best beaches in the country, and the B.C. ruins of Butrint National Park. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to get there due to road conditions, so a normal weekend couldn't hack it. We were also holding out some hope that the Ionian sea would still be welcoming at the beginning of fall, and we didn't want to miss our window. All of these considerations sealed the deal for Saranda. After our trip to Macedonia we were armed with confidence that we could drive in Albania and not die or get lost, so we rented the same car (Tiara was ecstatic, I'm sure, that her box of tissues from the weekend before was waiting for her just where she'd left it) and headed off after work on Wednesday.

One annoyance of planning a road trip in Albania is that you never know when to trust Google Maps when it comes to time, and sometimes, you cannot even trust it when it comes to where there may or may not be roads. Albania is building new roads and renovating old ones at a rapid pace, so this is understandable. I'd like to note that in the Google maps directions to Vlore, it actually lists things like "pass by *insert landmark* on your right" or "turn right at *insert landmark* after 1 kilometer", which I have never seen before in their driving directions.

Since we didn't want to drive after dark and we couldn't count on most of the internet estimates we decided to stop in Vlore for the night before heading on to Saranda Thursday morning. The road from Tirana to Vlore is (mostly) brand new and well constructed, after an initial rough patch right outside of Tirana that was gravelly and void of any signs as to where one should drive if one was desiring to stay in what is commonly referred to as "a lane." Once we hit the new blacktop it was smooth sailing. Don't let the modernity fool you, though- as we zipped along at a pace that was more than likely over the speed limit, we all shrieked in fear as a man, wedged between the columns of a bridge, zealously shook an enormous rabbit in our windshield. While I gave him points for sheer shock value in marketing, it was hard for me to imagine such an approach working. Who, when driving down the highway, sees the flailing hindquarter of a rabbit almost kick the windshield and thinks "That looks like a most delicious dinner option"? We also pondered whether or not the rabbit would be sold alive or dead, and determined it would probably be dead. On the way back we saw the same man in the same spot, so I guess his tactics are working.

Rabbit hindquarters turned out to be the most excitement of the drive, and we pulled into Vlore only about two hours after we left Tirana*. We found our hotel fairly easily thanks to the GPS, but what resulted afterward was a little circuitous. We knocked on the door and found an old man who seemed to be working there, and then waited on the sidewalk while two more men joined the party, hemming and hawing among themselves, gesturing to us. They made us move our car closer, and then closer again. One called the person with whom Tiara had actually made the reservation, so that Tiara could speak to him in English over the phone and then he could translate directions in Albanian. The "hotel" was a school that looked abandoned, and we were to stay in the dorm rooms. Once prices had been worked out- a mere 1,000 leke a person- we followed the old man up the stairs. He was friendly and helpful as he showed us around the room, gesturing to blankets and towels and acting out how we were to use them, and demonstrating how to use each key and in what door.

Then he launched into his sales pitch. Cobbling together what little Albanian we have gathered over the last two months, we worked out that he was talking about our car, parking, security, and 500 leke. We promptly paid him and he left. At this point, the payment was more to be left alone than to be assured of any vigilant watch over our rental car. Points are given to the hotel for being cheap and spotless, having clean sheets and comfortable beds, and providing us with electricity and water that were not interrupted. The balcony was crammed with old school desks, the advertised free internet did not exist, and we were lucky to have brought an emergency toilet paper roll, but for a "let's stop here to break up a drive before we continue on to the main event" kind of place, those things don't warrant annoyance. I'd stay there again for sure, but I won't even bother sharing the name because I've forgotten it.

Vlore welcomes you

Since Vlore was a pit stop we didn't look into anything to do there, so we can hopefully be forgiven for thinking it was a less than desirable vacation spot. The town was kind of dumpy, dingy, and industrial, with all the hassles of Tirana but none of the conveniences or cosmopolitan capital feel. We set off to look for dinner after an internet search yielded approximately 3 results, all of which garnered reviews that could be summed up with an apathetic "meh" accompanied by a shoulder shrug. Usually walking through a city endears me to it more than driving through it, but in this case I just disliked Vlore even more. We walked down the main boulevard, lined with palm trees and celebratory Albanian flags, but in the off season it looked like a carnival whose patrons had left. I expected to see Templeton scurrying through, singing about smorgasbords. The water seemed to be "that way" so we headed out for an evening beach walk, but when we got there the boulevard disintegrated into shoddily done concrete work, dirt, and general construction before rambling on and finally dead ending into a concrete embankment. Beyond the embankment was the port, in all its rotten egg smelling hazy air glory. I'm sure the beaches everyone raves about were further on down the shore, but I have to say, after experiencing a beach near the port of Durres I was glad we were heading many hours further south the next morning.

We gave up on interesting and/or good food options and settled for Kolonat, which is a rip-off, aesthetically speaking, of McDonald's. See for yourself:

You remind me of something...

I just can't...quite...put my finger on it

Kolonat was, somehow, even worse than the fast food chain which it references. We finished off the night with some cake, coffee, and ice cream. Don't mind Scott's face, he was actually quite happy. We were just talking about some of our more terrible difficult students, and the classroom idiosyncrasies that make them so frustrating unique.
You mean to tell me I might have to teach his brother??
The night ended with a stop at the grocery store to stock up on food for the next day. In Japan, my go to convenience snack was onigiri (rice triangles filled with pickled vegetables, or tuna, or some other type of fish, wrapped in nori) or cold soba noodles. Here in Albania, my go to convenience food is a can of tuna and a sack of bake rolls. But really, doesn't this man's face just make you think "I'm hungry, and the only thing that can satisfy that hunger is a can of your tuna"?

Don't you want me, baby? Don't you want me, oh, ohohoh?

At this point we had given up on even trying to go out in Vlore, mostly since it seemed like  derelict ghost town filled with sports gambling and cafes, but also because we wanted to hit the road at daybreak to have as much time in Saranda as possible. When we got back to our hotel there was some paperwork that the strange old man wanted us to do, but no matter how many times I told him my name, pointed to it in my passport, and spelled it he kept asking for it over and over. Finally he thrust a pen in my hand and I wrote it for him. He nodded, asked us what time we were heading out in the morning, and then pointed back and forth at our car and his proud, puffed up chest to communicate that no harm would befall our vehicle under his watch.

What I'm about to admit to you is kind of pathetic, but we were in bed by 8:00. Now, look- I will take full responsibility for not even trying to make it with Vlore because I was too interested in her more interesting and attractive sister down south. Vlore is an important city in Albanian history, because that's where the Declaration of Independence was signed. After the signing, a flag was raised from a second floor balcony, now known as Independence Balcony. That being said, everything else I said above in my description of Vlore is just the truth. I'm sure it's more interesting and festive in the summer, but in October it just felt abandoned.

Before the sun rose the next day we were up and at it, packing bags and having breakfast picnics on the tile floor.

Peanut butter and banana sandwiches, tuna and bake rolls, a huge jug of communal water. We're living the dream, folks. 

Let's go to Saranda!
We had one last encounter with our old man protector, and then we set off in the direction of the mountains.

*Google was right on this money with this time estimate.


  1. those tissues were highly convenient. Also, I love your description of the rabbit being thrown at the car.

  2. Once we all got sick those tissues got more play than a Spice Girls record in '98.