We are returning to Fonseca’s Bury me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, though today’s passage focuses on Albania:
“A taxi from Bulgaria to Albania: twelve hot hours across the memory of Yugoslavia. Like all border posts, the frontier near Struga in Macedonia is chaotic and dull, littered with a ragged population of shufflers, pushers, and peddlers, indolent and insolent, waiting for rejection and a long-familiar journey in the wrong direction. Approaching the border we found a convoy of massive, eighteen-wheel rigs (Italian, Swiss, German, Hungarian,) which had been kept waiting for five days. …
With ostentatious indifference to the queue, and to the customhouse’s throbbing Turkish disco music, a half-dozen officials leaned against the wall and gazed dreamily out on a semibucolic, iron-red vista salted with small unshepherded goats. … Humanitarian aid is the number one import of Europe’s poorest nation. It is all donated gear, but nothing is free in Albania; everything coming in will be sold and resold several times, starting at the border.
We had all seen the pictures of Albanians festooning boats bound for Italy. Marcel even knew some of them. But no one in the queue, aside from Marcel, knew what to expect inside this country that no one was allowed to leave. So far, all we were confident of was that it was as hard for outsiders to get into Albania as it was for natives to get out. …
EvX: Although I am well aware that Albania is one of Europe’s poorest countries, I have no clear memory of Albanian-festooned ships, so I went in search of that story:
There, 40m off shore, La Vlora bobbed up and down and its cargo — 20,000 Albanians — squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder into every available inch of space.
They filled the cabins and hung from the sides of the giant ship. It was “torture”, but it was better than home, where the whole country was imploding. …
Things were changing in Albania in 1991 and not for the better.
Elections left the communist-backed Labour Party of Albania in power but a coalition government was soon formed and decades of communism gave way to a new outlook.
With change came social unrest. Mr Kokthi said Albania imploded.
“Everything was shut down, the whole country. The economy collapsed, factories were closing, there was nothing to do there. We couldn’t see a future there.”
Mass departures from Adriatic ports followed and huge crowds gathered to board overcrowded ships. …
When the ship docked, it was absolute chaos.
“People were jumping from the ship and using ropes to get off. Police were everywhere but they weren’t ready for us. There was no way they were ready for so many people,” Mr Kokthi said. …
Almost 20,000 people were transported from the port to an empty stadium. There, they waited to be processed, but they would eventually all be returned to Albania.
Returning to Fonseca’s account:
“Inside Albania, keeping a lookout for our ride, we walked for a while along the shore of the vast turquoise lake Ohrid. There are no plastic spoons, no Coke cans, no scraps, no billboards, no beckonings of any kind. But immediately one felt that Albania was more than a tourist-free oasis between the ex-paradises of Greece and southern Italy. Or less. What you can’t imagine before you get there is the emptiness. The land is so bad that even the trees come on one at a time, surrounded by more space than their spindliness can support. The particular beauty of Albania seems always to depend on isolation.”
EvX: From the photos on Lake Ohrid’s Wikipedia page, it looks like Albania has gotten more crowded (and grown more trees) since Fonseca’s visit. Still, it is a lovely lake.
This photo claims to show a reconstruction of Bronze Age stilt houses, which look an awful lot like modern stilt houses, except with thatched roofs. Looks like the kind of place tourists/wedding parties would love to rent out. According to Wikipedia:
Lake Ohrid … straddles the mountainous border between southwestern Macedonia and eastern Albania. It is one of Europe‘s deepest and oldest lakes, preserving a unique aquatic ecosystem that is of worldwide importance, with more than 200 endemic species. …
The lake is otherwise densely surrounded by settlements in the form of villages and resorts in both basin countries. …
Lake Ohrid is the deepest lake of the Balkans, with a maximum depth of 288 m (940 ft) and a mean depth of 155 m (508 ft). It covers an area of 358 km² (138 sq mi), containing an estimated 55.4 km³ of water. It is 30.4 km long by 14.8 km wide at its maximum extent with a shoreline length of 87.53 km, shared between Macedonia (56.02 km) and Albania (31.51 km). Of the total surface area, 248 km2 belongs to Republic of Macedonia and 110 km2 belongs to Albania.
I admit that Albania is not a country I normally think much about. It suffers the curse of being poor, small, and unfortunate, mostly due to its communist history. It has some lovely mountains/lakes/rivers/forests, though, judging by the photos on Wikipedia.
When a place is simultaneously this pretty and this poor, it makes me think that there must be some as-yet-unrealized opportunity waiting there for someone.