A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Balkans

When it comes to traveling in Albania, it’s wise to abandon all preconceived notions about safety, reliability, and punctuality. Getting from pikë A to pikë B here can be stressful from a foreign perspective, but it’s actually pretty simple. You just have to–as with all things in the Peace Corps–be flexible, and then you’ll succeed.

Credit for this photo goes to my "life mate," Xhilli <3

A lovely red furgon. (Credit: Jill)

I do the majority of my traveling on furgons and buses. Furgons are nice and fast (unless you get a driver that goes too fast, which can be terrifying), but they are often uncomfortable. Buses are cheaper and roomier, but much slower. So if I’m traveling for business, I usually choose a furgon because it gets me there on time, but if I’m on vacation, I’m fine with a bus. However, there are certain circumstances where neither of these choices are available. Public transportation is scarce after sundown, and unless it’s summer, the daylight runs out quickly. And some places in Albania are just so rural that there aren’t a lot of vehicles going to and from the destination you need, even in broad daylight. In other instances, you might find yourself stranded on a highway because your furgon breaks down, or the driver has chosen to stop at a roadside village to visit his cousin, leaving you in search of another ride. Bottom line: Traveling can be unpredictable, and you never know what you’re in for when you climb into an Albanian vehicle.

Sometimes the only viable option is hitchhiking. If you are an American like I am, the word “hitchhiking” is immediately associated with the words “axe murderer,” “kidnapping,” and “Ted Bundy.” I’ve been a kid in the 90’s before, I got all the lessons about not taking candy from strangers and seen the Dateline episodes about molesters and all that. But try giving me those lectures when I have a week’s worth of gear strapped to my back and I’m alone under the setting sun on a dusty Balkan highway. In that situation, I really just want to get home, or to the office, or to the beach to see my friends. The longer I wait for a passing bus or furgon, the less likely it is that I will find one. And with the setting sun, more and more Albanians stop their cars to ask me what I’m doing, not because they intend to prey on the stranded, lonely American girl, but because there is a stranded, lonely American girl on the side of the freeway and she looks like she needs help.

Let me be clear: hitchhiking is VERY NORMAL here. Not only meth heads and escaped convicts do it, everyone does. It’s how people get around if they don’t have a car or if their son just totaled theirs. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve been in a pinch, mostly with another person or in groups. And if I am in a situation where I have to hitchhike alone, I always choose a car that has more than one person inside, preferably a family, because I feel a little safer that way. And no, I have not been murdered or chopped into tiny pieces or sold to some sheik on a yacht, I’ve actually had some pretty cool experiences. Here are a few of them:

Dan (Volunteer in Berat), Jill, and me on the famous Berat bridge after our first hitchhiking adventure!

Dan, Jill, and I on the famous Berat bridge after our first hitchhiking adventure (You can tell I got a little sun in Ksamil the day before)

1. Sarandë to ???, June 2013:

My sitemate Jill and I spent the 4th of July in Ksamil, a beautiful beach town near the Greek border, and were making our way up to Berat, a city in central Albania, to visit our friend Dan. We took a quick bus up to Sarande, Albania’s sprawling Ionian Sea resort town, and spent the afternoon searching for something going north. We were hoping to find a furgon or bus direct to Berat or at least to something close by, but were disappointed. Finally, a furgon driver who spoke limited English approached us and asked, “Where you are going?” We told him our destination, and he explained, in broken English, that he could take us in that direction but he’d have to drop us off at some point because he was continuing on to Vlorë. Jill and I both shrugged; we were discouraged and exhausted, and as long as we were able to get closer to our destination than we were now, we couldn’t complain.

The driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, some turnoff at an abandoned cafe next to the highway. We stood awkwardly clutching our packs, watching cars whizz by. Neither of us had ever hitched before. After about two minutes, a nice man stopped his car and asked us where we were traveling to. His destination was Tirana, but agreed to take us all the way in to Lushnjë where we could find a ride to Berat. We shared a pleasant, safe ride with him as he asked us curious, friendly questions in Shqip and we responded as best as we could. After helping us get our bags out of the trunk, I pulled out a 200-lekë bill and handed it to him as payment. He gave me a strange look, but thanked me anyway. That’s how I learned Lesson #1 of Hitchhiking: Don’t pay the driver unless he asks for money.

Albanians are the kindest people I’ve ever met. I know that everyone says that about every country they’ve been to, but that’s actually the truth in my case. They consider it an honor to have a guest, to give what they have to help others, and to be hospitable. Generosity is at the core of their culture. They LOVE buying you coffees and cooking you meals and giving you rides, even if they don’t know you. Albanians will jump at the chance to help, especially if you’re a visitor.

So when I paid that man for our ride, I could tell I might’ve insulted him in the smallest way. The same way my Albanian co-workers and friends scoff at me when I try to pay for coffees, the same way if I do manage to pay for them, they get legitimately upset. They see it as their duty to be gracious hosts, and they do not expect or even want compensation. And even though it’s hard for me to comprehend, seeing as I come from an eye-for-an-eye capitalist egalitarian culture, I’ve gotten used to letting them do things for me if it’s what makes them happy.

Me with one of the local goats, Zogu, in Milot (R.I.P.)

Me with one of the local goats, Zogu, in Milot (R.I.P. little guy, I’m sure you made a delicious dinner)

2. Tirana to Fushë-Milot, September 2013:

I was on my way to the northern town of Milot to stay with my friend Miranda. After taking a furgon from Kavajë to Tirana, I waited in the main square for a furgon going to Rreshen, Rubik, or Kukës–other northern destinations that would take me directly through Milot. However, after a half hour, I could find nothing, so I chose a furgon going to Shkodër due to laziness and impatience. I knew that because the driver would continue north instead of east, he’d have to drop me off at the unazë–the big ol’ roundabout that everyone going north from Tirana has to roll through–and I’d have to find a 5-minute ride into Milot from there.

As I had predicted, the Shkodër driver dropped me off at the circle. I strapped my backpack on. Not 5 seconds had passed when a black Audi (Albanians sure do love their luxury cars) screeched to a halt in front of me, and a man wearing sunglasses asked, “Cila gjuha flet ti?” (“Which language do you speak?” Although I can sometimes pass for Albanian, when I’m wearing a North Face backpack, I always look like a helpless tourist.) “English,” I responded. Then, the entire front seat of men erupted in English greetings: “Hello! Do you need help? Get in the car!” I told the men that I was trying to get to Milot, just five minutes down the road. They said it was no problem, so I got in.

AND THEN I WAS TAKEN.

Just kidding.

I found out that the guys–brothers named Besnik and Butrint–were from Kosovo, and they were on their way home from Tirana. “You should come with us to Kosovo!” they said. “We’ll have fun!” I politely declined. They peppered me with questions about America, about what I was doing in Albania, about when I was going to visit them in Kosovo. Mind you, this all took place in the span of twenty minutes, during what should have been a five-minute drive. The Kosovars stopped at a shop on the side of the road, and we sat for a while as they forced a chocolate ice cream bar and a water bottle into my hand. “Eat it! It’s yours!” Whenever I stopped eating, they would encourage me to eat more, as is the Albanian way.

After another polite refusal of their offer to take me to Kosovo, I asked the brothers to drop me off on the highway next to the sign for Milot. Besnik insisted on pulling off the highway, driving me in to town, and waiting until I reached the steps of Miranda’s apartment before they left me, “because I am…how you say?…a gentleman.” Before I exited the car, Butrint passed me his business card. “If you ever want to come to Kosovo, or if you ever need anything while you’re in Albania, just call me,” he said. I smiled and thanked him, knowing I wouldn’t use the card, but I appreciated the gesture anyway. Lesson #2 of Hitchhiking: Albanians just want you to have a good time. Instead of fighting it, let them treat you to things you want, but be firm with things you don’t.

Luke and I in Durrës

Luke and I in Durrës

#3: Plepa to Kavajë, last weekend:

Luke, a Volunteer from a very rural site in the far north, came down to Kavajë for some city time on the weekend. Since it’s typical to run out of things to do in Kavajë after one day, Jill and I took him to the port city of Durrës on Saturday. However, I had gotten way too used to the late furgon schedules common during the summer, so Luke and I found ourselves at the bus/furgon station without a ride that evening. This is when I learned Lesson #3 of Hitchhiking: Don’t lose your cool. It’ll work out. Luckily, we concocted a plan pretty quickly. We agreed to take a Durrës city bus to Plepa, a resort town to the south, and then hitch a ride back to Kavajë.

The city bus rattled to the edge of town, where we hopped out at a dark roundabout. The first car we saw, a black BMW SUV, came speeding toward us, and Luke stuck out his arm to hail it. The driver immediately pressed on the brakes and rolled his window down. He had a brief conversation with Luke, who asked if he could take us to Kavajë, and the driver agreed, signaling for us to get in. It was that easy.

We talked in mangled Shqip with the driver, named Juli, during the fifteen-minute drive to Kavajë. We learned that he was a property manager in Durrës, that his company built flats and then rented them to people during the summer. He had dreams to go to America and make big money there.

Juli, upon hearing that I lived in Kavajë alone (a single girl living by herself is unheard of in Albania), said to me in a serious voice, “If you ever have any problems in Kavajë, you call me.” He then made sure that I had taken down his phone number correctly, and stressed again that if I EVER had any trouble I was to call him right away. He asked where he should drop us off, then as we said goodnight, he turned around and drove back the other way. It was then that I realized that Juli didn’t live in Kavajë, and he wasn’t actually headed there in the first place, he had gone out of his way just to help us out before he returned to Durrës. This is the kind of stuff Albanians will do for you when you need it.

On each of these occasions, a person I didn’t know helped me out when I needed it. The only part of these stories that would’ve alarmed the Pre-Peace Corps American Me is the “person I didn’t know” part. But everyone I’ve met and grown to love in Albania started off as someone I didn’t know, then became a friend. That’s what I love about this country, is that people will take care of you, they will stick their necks out for you if you need help. When I return to America, I hope that I will come back a little more Albanian and have the courage to help people who need it.

7 responses to “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Balkans

  1. Wow, Kat. I love the writing style. I went through the same thing while I was traveling. I hitched multiple rides, but my first one was nerve-wracking! I was thinking the same things as you.
    I can’t wait to read your next post.
    ❤ Molly

  2. Wow, Kat. I love your writing style. I went through the same thing as you when I was traveling. I hitched rides, but my first time was nerve-wracking! I thought about all the same things as you.
    I look forward to your next post.
    -Molly

  3. This post is exhilarating, so funny, and horribly frightening all at the same time! You sound good Mish! Love your writing…..Now GET IN THE CAR!!!!!

  4. Kate ,,, me pelqen qe e ke kuptuar drejt deshiren e shqiptareve per te ndihmuar kur ke nevoje ,,, fatkeqesisht kjo eshte me e dukshme ne mardhenien e tyre me te huajt ….me njeri tjetrin sillen sh shpesh njelloj sic sillen dhe amerikanet ,,,, por ki kujdes kur hypen ne makinat e njerezve te panjohur ,,, jo gjithmone qellimet e shofereve te tyre jane dashamirese ….

  5. I have so many stories with furgons that I don’t know where to begin. I used to travel twice each week and almost every time there would be something to tell once the trip was over. 🙂 However, I think you should hitchhike only for furgons. I’m a grown male and I don’t like taking the risk of hitchiking and jumping in cars of strangers. It’s a smart move that you chose cars with families inside, but I think you should stick to furgons. Even with furgons, try looking if they have a yellow plate, which means they’re licensed as a taxi and that’s what they do all day, or see if they have a sign written with the destination. You never know.

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