Catching the Furgon
by Mabel Loh
It is 43 degrees Celsius and my head is throbbing under the relentless midday sun. Singapore’s humidity is incomparable to the scorching heat of an Albanian summer. Wiping rivulets of sweat from my forehead, I crane my neck to take a closer look at the furgon approaching from a distance, hoping fervently that it will have an ‘Elbasan’ sign plastered on its windscreen. Tough luck — it is yet another minibus travelling to Fier. The furgon pulls to a stop in front of me, raising a small cloud of dust, and the driver tilts his head questioningly. With my huge duffle bag and distinctly Asian features, I am clearly a tourist waiting to catch a ride out of town. I shake my head at the bus driver to indicate that I am not taking his ride, and immediately realize my mistake, waving him off with a smile instead. In Albanian, a ‘yes’ or po is equivalent to a shake of the head. ‘No’ or jo, (pronounced as ‘yo’), is indicated by a nod.
As the furgon speeds off, I quell my welling frustration. It has been two hours since I first stood along Bulevard Republika, a road that cuts through the heart of Berat, a UNESCO World Heritage site located on the east of Albania. Part of its attraction lies in its Ottoman architecture, which is prevalent in the old quarters. Houses with whitewashed walls, tiled roofs and multiple windows set along each wall line the sides of a craggy hill, giving this “town of a thousand windows” its name. Berat Castle sits at the top, an ancient fortress that displays the battle scars of conflicts between the Greeks, Romans and Turks. A steep climb up cobbled roads leads one to a breathtaking view of lush rolling hills and undulating rivers that sparkle mischievously far into the distance. Pure, unadulterated nature and raw beauty assault the senses, characteristic of the landscape throughout the Balkans.
Known by the rest of the world as conflict-ridden, and a former communist country until the 1990s, Albania is not on the list of popular tourist destinations. It is purportedly the most dangerous and remotest part of Europe; a Luxembourgish friend of mine even called it the “North Korea of Europe”, which reveals a lot about popular (mis)perceptions of Albania (and North Korea as well, for that matter). This country is a part of the Balkans, a region that can be loosely defined as the former Yugoslavia which was broken up by a series of conflicts in the 1990s. In 1999, hundreds and thousands of Kosovars fled to Albania as a result of Serbian ethnic-cleansing efforts. On my previous trip to the Balkans, I spoke to a man who recounted his childhood memories of war. Soldiers from opposing forces would intercept buses much like the one we were travelling on and turn their guns on civilians. I was naturally horrified and felt a deep surge of sympathy intermingled with shame and guilt at being a privileged, spoilt brat who has been safely cocooned in Singapore her entire life.
Despite being plagued by a violent past, locals still receive foreigners with friendly curiosity and generosity, showing no residues of their tumultuous history. Perhaps I should add a caveat here; as a Singaporean, I play no part in the wars between the different ethnicities, and can travel around safely with no qualms.
I am travelling to Ohrid, Macedonia, just across the Albanian border. Initially intending to get there before dusk, I had even started out early for fear of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no options for accommodation. The latter seems more probable now. Crossing the border is a confusing and time-consuming process, since there are no public buses, no fixed timetables, and no scheduled stops. Private bus operators only offer services to Elbasan, a small border town where travellers can catch another furgon, take a taxi or hitchhike into Macedonia. Such is the spontaneity and randomness of travelling in Albania, a stark contrast to the scheduled regularities of quotidian life. Though some might find such freedom intimidating, I, on the other hand, find it exhilarating and liberating. I was free from the tedium of life, of unfulfilled obligations and expectations, having only to answer to my selfish whims and fancies.
The men sitting in the café right across the road enjoying their cups of coffee and cigarettes stare at me with blatant curiousity as I keep an eye out for my furgon. In Albania, tourists are a novel sight, especially outside of the country’s capital, Tirana. Even though Berat is considered a tourist hotspot, I hardly met other tourists outside of my hostel. As a woman travelling solo through the Balkans, I was considered a rarity. As a lone Singaporean female traversing the Balkans, I was a unicorn gallivanting across rainbow plains.
Being in this region has made me acutely aware of my ethnicity. Being of Chinese-descent, I am used to blending into the droves of Asian tourists who descend on tourist destinations by the bus loads… except in Albania, evidently. Once, while shopping in supermarket, I was even approached for a photograph by a group of young, giggly boys. It was huge surprise to me, but needless to say I acquiesced to their request, much to my own bemusement. While travelling through Albania, I had not met anyone who looked remotely Chinese, Japanese or Korean, which was a rather surreal experience. This is partly tongue-in-cheek because locals often approach and play a game of “Name Your Nationality”, in which they provide me with only three options, always “China, Japan or Korea [?]”. When I mention Singapore, I usually receive astounded responses, and they inform me that I am the first Singaporean that they have met. Though I have spoken to other Europeans who have absolutely no clue where Singapore is, people in the Balkans surprisingly know of us, but mostly only of our prosperity and economic success. A shame, since we have so much more to offer.
Frankly, I do not enjoy standing out like a sore thumb, and having multiple pairs of eyes tracking my every move. Yet, being in Albania expands on my definition of travelling. I am exposed to a completely foreign territory with no idealized notions of the country, no pre-conceived stereotypes of locals, and zero expectations. Illusions of familiarity are stripped off, and there is no way for me to establish a sense of comfort and security. I am left to my own devices, and I revel in this.
Minutes tick by, and there is still no furgon in sight. I am almost at my wits end, knowing that I must be waiting at the wrong spot. As I contemplate my fate and wish for divine intervention, an elderly man with ash-grey hair on a bicycle pulls to a stop right in front of me.
“Where are you going?” His kindly, weathered face asks.
I tell him, and he points in a general direction down the street, informing me that I will have to walk towards the bus terminal. I thank him profusely and begin searching for it, stopping to buy an ice-cold drink and catch some rest in the shade away from the angry glare of the sun.
As I stand by the side of the road, despondent and lost, and considering if I should stay another night instead of risk being stranded, a car stops by the side of the road. The driver rolls down his window, asking if I need assistance. I explain my confusion, and he offers to send me to the bus terminal, informing me that it is quite a distance away. After a few seconds of consideration, I declare his trustworthiness and clamber into his vehicle. I turn to him and exchange greetings, sneakily evaluating him in the process. He is in his thirties, with a cheerful and chirpy countenance that immediately put me at ease.
The advice provided by my guidebook pops into my head — “Hitchiking holds small risks, but potentially huge danger.” Thank you for your wisdom, Lonely Planet. As he drives off, I can almost hear the horrified shouts of my family and friends all the way from Singapore, vehemently warning me again such an act of stupidity. I reason with myself: Trust your instincts. He seems friendly and nice enough. Against my will, my mind begins conjuring images of my dismembered body plastered all over the headlines news. I arrest my wandering thoughts and mentally slap myself into sobriety. Hitchhiking is a common way of travelling through the region. Locals often utter “Why not?” in response to my queries, and this phrase seeps into my mind, slowly filling up the dark crevices with its confident assertion. So here I am, taking a “small risk” thousands of miles away from Singapore, hitchhiking in a random stranger’s vehicle thinking yes, why not? I suppress a hysterical laugh.
While I was in Tirana a few days ago, I had approached a group of teenage girls for directions and one of them asked if I was travelling alone. I told her I was, and she gaped at me in horror. “Alone, alone?” I remember laughing at her exaggerated expression while replying yes. She proceeded to warn me of the dangers of travelling without a companion, and praised me for my courage while seemingly insinuating my foolhardiness. She reminded me of people back home.
My sanity was always questioned by others who heard about my travel plans. I had chosen the cheapest flight out of Paris while planning for my Easter trip, having found out that train tickets around France were exorbitantly priced when bought at the last minute. “Skopje, Macedonia” popped up on the search engine; I bought a ticket and never looked back.
When I first told my friends and family about my decision to visit the Balkans, I received confused stares and multiple questions — “Where is that? Is it safe?” Dramatic reminders of my mortality came next: “But what if you die?” As they furrowed their brows, stared at me intensely, and tried to compel me to give up on my ridiculous endeavour, I would merely grin and retort, “Life is too short for regrets. YOLO!” Though my seemingly thoughtless and flippant responses produced much shock and fear, a life without adventure and excitement is hardly worth living, don’t you think?
In the car, I exchange a few words with my new friend who speaks only a smattering of English. There are no negative vibes emanating from him (my intuition is a valuable asset that seldom fails me — or so I would like to believe), and I shove the warning voices of my friends and family to the back of my mind. As we drive past a man leading a cart-pulling donkey, I remark with wonder and curiosity at the sight. Within seconds, the car screeches to a stop, and he tells me that this is a perfect photo opportunity. He rushes off to stop the donkey’s owner, who is more than willing to pass me the reins as he smiles at our excited demeanour. I am stunned speechless by his enthusiasm.
As I stand next to the donkey, grinning widely for the camera, I marvel at the kind spirit of locals. My mind flashes back to an incident I had in Vietnam while backpacking with a couple of friends two years ago. A local coconut seller had invited us to take photos with his baskets of coconut, but then demanded 10 USD for each coconut, an extortionate amount for local produce. I recently came across a photograph of the exact same Vietnamese man posing with other tourists, smiling at his windfall which could probably buy him a motorbike. Tourist scams by locals desperate to earn some income are common in many countries, but not in Albania.
We return to the car and continue on our journey, and I almost cry tears of joy as we pull into the terminal. It has been four hours since I first stood by the side of Bulevard Republika, and I was finally where I needed to be, safe and sound. Before alighting from the car, I hand him a keychain from Singapore I had intended to pass on as a souvenir. His surprised and ecstatic expression has since been firmly etched in my mind. I was used to travelling in cities where offers of help are more often than not attached with a cost price. However, most Albanians I have met readily offer a hand, even going out of their way to render assistance without demand for any form of payment. With a final wave, he drives out of the station.
Locals often ask about my purpose of being in Albania, and I tell them that I am exploring the beauty of the region. “But there is nothing to see here!” they protest, staring at me incredulously. This mirrors most of the remarks of people I have spoken to who prefer the road well-travelled.
Yet, in a part of Europe almost forgotten by the rest of the world, I have discovered a place largely untainted by the intervening arm of modernity and self-centered individualism. Though these conclusions might be merely idealistic notions of a passing tourist, Albania holds a special kind of beauty that strikes at the very heart of the soul (or my soul at least). This might seem like pure nonsense, but I feel a strong desire to return to Albania, a desire that I cannot adequately articulate, limited by the constraints of language. The German word fernweh comes closest; a word that has no equivalent in English. Perhaps the tugging at my heartstrings is indeed a ‘longing for far-off places’, an inexplicable, seemingly irrational desire that runs dichotomous to homesickness. Perhaps both concepts have overlapping meanings, since home is where the heart is…
As I step on the bus to Elbasan, locals stare at me with wide-eyed wonder. I am the only tourist, and a woman ushers me to a seat, chattering excitedly to me. Thus begins another opportunity for cultural exchange and self-discovery, one out of many others. Simply because why not?
Mabel Loh studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore, and also holds a self-declared minor in the Balkans. She will be visiting Serbia, Bosnia and Albania for fieldwork this summer. Her interests include solo backpacking, weightlifting and flailing in large bodies of water in pathetic mimicry of swimming. This is her first attempt at travel writing.