The bus to Pristina, Kosovo was sold out. It was Good Friday after all, so people had time off work. It made sense. Still, I hadn’t been expecting it. It had already taken two hours to get to Podgorica from Kotor and thirty minutes to get to the front of the ticket counter line. The whole country seemed to be fleeing. I thought about what to do. Josh had told me earlier there was nothing going on in Podgorica—his hostel had been totally empty. “No reason to go unless you want to check it off the list.” I didn’t. Staying here seemed like defeat. A waste of a day. The next bus to Pristina wouldn’t be leaving until 9:00pm tomorrow. I thought about my predicament for a second, and then told the woman. “One, Kotor,” I said.
The hostel at Kotor had been a welcome change from my lonely stay in Sarajevo. Don’t get me wrong, Sarajevo is an incredible city, but I had made a critical error. Since hostel rooms were so cheap, I had decided to splurge for the twenty euro private. But in Bosnia, private rooms are bedrooms that locals rent out of their apartments. Instead of hanging out in a common room with other travelers, I had stayed with “Lady Hana,” a sweet middle-aged woman who gave me Turkish coffee and burek. After learning I was American, she regaled me with stories from the war, making hand gestures for bombs exploding. America dobro, she said after our first conversation with an intense thumbs up. A cool experience, sure, but for hour after hour after hour, I barely had any human interaction.
After spectacular views on the bus ride and walking through beautiful Old Town Kotor, I craved human contact. The town next to a lake and modeled after Venice, was nestled between two mountains. This place was too beautiful to enjoy alone.
I got settled at the hostel. Almost immediately, everything changed—my trip turned around. First, I met Josh, a twenty-one year old from Guernsey, and we hit it off. Then I met Lana, an American woman, trying to write a book about traveling. There was an Irish couple—affable, quick-witted Declan and his rational, calm wife Karen. The youngest of us was twenty-one, the oldest had just turned forty. We bonded quickly and became a family, sharing travel and personal stories, having drinks and meals. While you always meet people in a hostel, this family feeling is rare, and it had been sad to say goodbye.
So back at Podgorica, once again I hopped on the bus for the two-hour journey to Kotor. Once I got out off, walking back towards Old Town, I bumped into the hostel worker I had been flirting with the past day. She burst out laughing. She had been trying to get me to stay one more night. “It’s impossible,” I had said.
I made it back to the hostel, up into the registration building where I talked to the worker, a Serb, who emphatically told me it wasn’t America’s job to be world police. He was getting worked up, accent getting thicker. I agreed with him, the way I had read you were supposed to. After all, what’s the point in getting in a fistfight over ethnic cleansing.
After I was booked up, I went outside, down the back stairs, then up the other flight to reach the second building, where I knew everyone would be. When I walked in, they all burst out laughing. After the laughter died, Declan looked at me earnestly and told me, “Ned, I know this sounds weird, but I’m not surprised to see you again.” That was kismet enough for me. I had decided. I turned to Josh. He was leaving for Albania the next day. Earlier, he had told everyone he was nervous to do it alone. It wasn’t going to be easy getting there, and the buses weren’t running normally because of the holidays. He’d probably have to hitchhike. “Hey Josh, I’m going to Albania with you.”
Our last night together at the Montenegro Hostel Kotor was a jolly occasion, full of jokes and stories, even better than the night before. I had gotten a little too comfortable and started telling stories about my grandfather, Old Goat, and things got, as Josh said, “raucous.” It felt like one of those special occasions—like my college graduation dinner where everyone was irreverent, laughing hysterically. One of those nights that stays with you, one of those nights you wish you could remember everything that was said.
But Josh and I had a trek ahead of us. The next morning we had to take a bus to the closest town to the Albanian border and hope there was a bus. The difference between the architecture of Budva and Kotor versus the rest of the country is night and day. This was still the Balkans, after all. The ride was bumpy, and I knew I had food poisoning. An unwashed Roma woman sat next to me with a full shopping bag. I tried to settle my nausea. This was bad. But, of course, my upset stomach was just The Fear talking, not the octopus salad I had accidentally ordered at the casino restaurant the day before. Some part of me was rational, so I took a Xanax, and The Fear went away.
We had missed the only bus to Albania though. As we were preparing our plans to hitchhike, a mustached man followed us out, and asked if I spoke German. He was a taxi driver, willing to take us to Shkodër, Albania for twenty-five Euro. Josh was on a budget; he had been traveling around for months and still had months to go. We got him down to fifteen. “Wir sind arme Studenten,” I had pleaded.
He smiled and said, “Ok! Ok!” throwing his arm in the air.
It was a long drive, and our driver acted as a tour guide pointing out the cement bunkers on the side of the road. “Very strong,” he said.
We got to the border. He told us about a ten euro “tax” we needed to pay the guards. It seemed too convenient, being the amount we had whittled him down from, but it hadn’t been my first bribe in the Balkans. That had happened on the Bosnian border, where the bus driver had collected euros from all the passengers. “What is this?” I had asked the woman next to me, a sweet old Bosnian pushing sixty.
“I hate this, but if we don’t pay, they’ll make us wait for at least eight hours.”
“Oh, ok, no problem.”
“No, no, no. I will pay for you.”
“It’s no problem. Please, let me pay.”
“No. I will pay.”
Once we made it inside Albania, I started looking at the shacks, and I felt uncomfortable. This was far less developed than Bosnia, then the least developed country I had been to. The occasional small shack lined the infertile mountain road. We got closer to Shkodër, where we thought we’d have to spend the night. At a bridge, the taxi driver slowed down, and with his windows down, some Roma kids chased after us, putting their arms through the window where I was, trying to grab anything they could off me. The driver kept his slow pace. He looked amused.
A few minuted later, he dropped us off at a hotel on a dusty, busy road. This patch of Shkodër looked rough,* and I was nervous. I hadn’t researched Albania at all. Where were we? Far off the beaten path was all I knew. The driver asked for his twenty-five euros. Josh was angry, and the driver got indignant. From a business standpoint Josh was in the right, but I told the driver we would pay. “Twelve euros a person would be a pretty good deal for an eighty minute ride back home,” I told Josh. He agreed.
Albania has privately owned buses, called furgons, and no bus stations. They park outside certain notable places, locations changing every so often. We were lucky. The furgons were across the street. They were supposed to be off to Tirana by now—it was already 3:30—but furgons don’t leave before they’re full, and it must’ve been a slow day. There were two spots left. More luck. We had no money left, explained it to the drivers, but they spoke no English. We sat down anyway. The furgon reeked, but I was happy to have transport. We heard chirping and behind us was a cardboard box full of baby chickens.
An hour later, the box was delivered to a man standing on the side of the highway. Furgons act as the postage service of Albania too. My nervousness hadn’t left, and I fantasized never leaving the safety of the bus. I’d go to Macedonia tomorrow, I decided. Luckily, Josh was good company, and we talked the whole way, getting my mind off things.
An hour or so after the chicken delivery, we arrived at the drop off point and everyone except Josh and me left. Josh left to get money, and I was left as collateral. The driver wasn’t too pleased about this, but we tried to communicate. He asked where I had been in the Balkans, and I told him once I had figured out what he was asking. “Montenegro,” he said, holding his hand up high. He moved it lower, “Bosnia.” He moved his hand even lower. “Albania.”
He drove us as close as he could to the hostel. He stopped us from going with a grinning taxi driver, knowing he’d rip us off. Albanians are very hospitable. Still, we had no idea where we were. Josh asked a man on the street if he spoke English. He didn’t, so the man found a young guy on the street who gave us directions to Tirana Backpackers, apologizing for his good bad English.
It was here I’d experience my second hostel family. It was here I’d meet Martin and rapidly form one of my most important friendships. It was here I’d realize I was in an incredible city with an incredible atmosphere, still undiscovered.
*A simple google search will show you Shkodër is actually a beautiful city.