If you want to read more about Mykel's adventures in Albania, The US South-- or life in General-- check out Mykel's Diary For a look at the weird, the scary and the funny in real life, check out Mykel's Article's and Propositions.
An Irregular Column
for MRR 319, December 2009
by Mykel Board
If you want to make God laugh,tell him your plans. --Junot Diaz
Albanians do not eat. I don't understand it yet, but I've been in this country for two weeks now. Maybe I'll have it figured out by the time I leave.
Yeah Albania. Country of Mother Theresa and John Belushi. A land where the people are not quite like either one of those.
I write this part of the column sitting in Saranda, in a $20 a night hotel. It's 6AM. I went to bed at eight last night with a headache like I've never had before. A grinding split from my nose to the back of my neck. Three lines. One down the middle of my head. One on each side, where a part would be, if had I enough hair to part. It was like a double migraine. So severe I wanted to puke. I would've if I'd eaten anything.
Every town in this country has dozens of outdoor cafés. In each of them, tables full of men (mostly men), drink coffee from tiny cups. In the evening, they drink beer or raki-- a kind of grape vodka. They don't eat. There are restaurants, pizza parlors and places with FAST FOOD signs on them, in English. No one eats in them. They just drink coffee.
It's weird, but only one of the many mysteries of this country, the least visited place in Europe. But this column will not be a mystery, it will be a tale. A true tale, written fittingly in the month of Halloween.
The tale starts in Vlora, a city about 100 miles up the coast from here. I wanted to come here directly from Vlora, but by the time I woke up, all the buses to Saranda had left. My only choice was to go to Himara, about half-way. That bus doesn't leave from the regular bus station, but one a bit out of town. I can get there by taxi. No problem.
(My guidebook lists S'ka problem! as Albanian for “No problem.” It also has this note: Often turns out to mean there is a problem.)
The bus leaves at 1PM. It's now 9 o'clock.
“Is there anything I can do at the bus station for some hours?” I ask the hotel concierge.
She nods. “There is nothing there,” she says.
(Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: Albanians nod when they mean no, and shake their heads to mean yes.)
The concierge makes a plan for me: take a walk, return to the hotel and eat lunch in the hotel restaurant at 11. Then, after lunch, take a taxi to the bus terminal. I'll be there in plenty of time.
Maybe that's why I don't see people eat. They have lunch at 11AM. Maybe dinner at 4 o'clock. Who expects people to be eating at those times?
Nope, that's not it either.
I walk along the beach for a little bit and sit to watch a bulldozer push the plastic garbage around. I go to the post office and mail some postcards.
At 11, I return to the hotel and go to the restaurant. It's empty, though the door is open. A heavy-set woman mops the floor.
Une dua te ha ditchka. (I want to eat something.) I say. She tsks once and motions for me to sit down. I'm the only one in the place.
I ask for the menu. She brings it to me and stands over me while I decide what to eat. It's my first meal of the day. The menu has beefsteak, fish a la hoity toidy, pizza, pasta. Not exactly breakfast. I order a salad and a mineral water.
“Vetem salata?” (Only a salad?) asks the waitress, clearly meaning You disturbed me, made me open the kitchen and neglect my cleaning duties for a salad? What's wrong with you?
“Vetem salata.” I reply.
It turns out that the salad is enough. It's weird, but on this trip I have less of an appetite than I do in New York. I drink more beer here, but eat a lot less. I wonder if I'm going to lose weight.
My stomach is strange, as it always is when traveling. It suddenly clenches, in extreme pain. A rush to the bathroom cleans me out, and I'm good for the rest of the day. After my salad, come the clenches.
I have a long bus trip ahead. So after I pay the bill, I'll clean myself out, and be ready for the ride to Himara.
I stand to signal that I'm finished. The waitress comes to me, collects my money and through the open restaurant door walks a burly guy wearing a black and white knit sweater. He walks right up to me.
“Taxi bussi Himara,” he says grabbing my bags. “We go.”
So, me, my stomachache and I are off to the bus station. It's just a space on the side of a street out of town. It's barely big enough for one bus. I get in the only bus there.
The driver takes my backpack out of the bus and puts it someplace I can't see. I'm the only passenger, but not for long. People arrive about 15 minutes before the scheduled leaving time. Lots of people.
One of the first is an older guy. About my height, he wears a typical Albanian tan straw hat. He has a worn-but-clean tweed jacket, and black slacks. His eyes are deep-set, and half closed, like they've seen too much. He sits in an empty seat, the one behind mine.
He taps me on the shoulder and I turn to face him. His eyes are watery-- not sad watery-- but sick watery. One of them doesn't look exactly in the same direction as the other. He says something to me in Albanian.
“Une nuk flac sqip,” I say. (I don't speak Albanian.)
He shrugs, then motions for me to come and sit next to him. I do. It's not long before I begin to fear that is a mistake.
The bus leaves about a half hour past schedule.
With very few words, THE GUY speaks to me: some Italian, some Greek, some Albanian... but mostly sign language... like he's done it hundreds of times before.
He asks me where I'm from: New York.
Where I'm going: Himara.
Where I'm staying in Himara. (He puts his hands together and tilts his head on them. Then closes his eyes meaning “place you sleep.”) I don't know, I shrug.
You (he points to me). Sleep (the sleeping gesture again.) My place. He points to himself, makes a little house-like triangle with his fingers, and then the sleeping gesture again.
I know. I know. I must be crazy to say yes. But I'm sick of hotels, and Albania is supposed to be safe and small-town people are always friendlier than city people, right? I shake my head in agreement.
There's not much more to say as we ride along. Once he taps me on the shoulder and makes a straight ahead motion, then up and down, as if he's explaining the torturous mountain road ahead.
I say koptoj (I understand). But maybe I don't.
During the next hour or so, I look at him every once in awhile. I'm trying for human contact. A smile or something. There is nothing. He looks straight ahead, eyes half closed as in worry, or very serious thought. Sometimes he looks at his knees. His forehead furls. I begin to feel uneasy.
After about two hours of silence, the bus pulls into the Albanian equivalent of a highway rest-stop.
It's a small mountain restaurant called: BEGO
The bus empties. Most everybody goes inside to eat. A few have a smoke first, then join those of us inside. THE GUY stays outside. He walks around. He does not smoke. He just walks, looking at the ground most of the time. Sometimes he does something with his hands, but I can't see what it is.
I eat a simple rice dish and have some water. As I finish, THE GUY walks in and sits at my table.
Juu doni te ha ditchka? (“You want to eat something?”) I ask.
He smiles weakly, shrugs and leaves again. A few minutes later, I leave, take some pictures of the restaurant, then get back in the bus. THE GUY looks at me without smiling and pats the seat next to him.
We take off, going up and down mountainsides, hairpin turns. The way buses in the mountains always do.
I look at THE GUY and smile. He doesn't smile. He looks at his hands. In them now are rosary beads. He's running them through his fingers. Squinting in something between worry and sorrow. NOW, I understand. I begin to read his thoughts.
Forgive me mother Mary for what I am about to do. I know it is evil and against your ways, but I must. I have no choice. This is my life. You know me, mother Mary. I know it is wrong to take a life. To inflict so much pain, spill so much blood. But I must. You know that, mother Mary, don't you? I pray for forgiveness.
The beads run through his fingers, one after the other, until they run out at the cross. Then, he starts again.
The bus stops to pick up some school children. They look somehow off. Especially the boys. High foreheads and small jaws. And they're quiet. Ages that from six to ten... and quiet. It's spooky. Like Children of the Damned. They don't stay on the bus very long.
We pass a road sign. 5km to Himara. Somehow, that's a relief, even though I don't know what I'm in for once we get there.
When we reach Himara, most passengers get off. We do not.
An old woman, wearing all black, with a black babushka, gets on the bus. THE GUY excuses himself and talks to her. She glances at me, a sad look on her face. Then, he shoos me to the window and sits down on the aisle seat, blocking my exit.
The bus closes its doors and heads out of the city.
THE GUY taps me on the shoulder and points to the woman. Then to a ring on his finger. I guess that means she's his wife. They sure don't act very friendly. Maybe she doesn't approve of what he feels he has to do. I look at her. She does not look at me.
For the next quarter hour, he's back to his rosaries.
In the middle of a hill, the bus doors open and the women gets out. The only two people left are THE GUY and me. A little further, the bus stops. The end of the line. THE GUY gets out. Me too, retrieving my pack from the back.
Then we walk. Through a little opening in the wall. Down a long street. Through a tunnel, twisting and turning following a gravel path, through a ditch. Turn here. There's a staircase, probably built by the Romans, or the ancient Greeks. They'll never find the body in a place like this.
Will I be slowly tortured in the basement? Tied to a cross like Jesus? Helpless. THE GUY wraps his rosary around my balls and asks mother Mary for forgiveness before he bites them off. Will it be quick? Have a seat. I'll be right back. POW! Between the eyes. Will he drug me? Then do things to my unconscious body before slitting my throat, severing my head, and boiling it for dinner?
Finally, we end up at a building that overlooks the sea, sheer cliffs to the rocks below. THE GUY brings me to a room that has glass doors and enters from a balcony-- like a motel. The room has two beds, a small unplugged refrigerator, a sink, cabinets, and a bathroom. It's almost like a hotel room.
THE GUY takes a plastic table and a couple chairs from MY ROOM. He motions for me to sit down. Then he walks away. While he's gone, I run my eyes over the tile floor and plaster walls, looking for bloodstains, stray pieces of flesh. There's a dark spot. Some discoloration along the wall. I wonder who that was.
He returns with some coffee, some strange looking fruit, and a bottle of water. I see by the plastic ring that the bottle has been opened, and then refilled. I'm sure it's drugged. I don't drink from that bottle.
The coffee is delicious,though. Turkish style, made by boiling water, and coffee grounds together and pouring the mixture into a cup. After you drink it, it leaves a thick black sludge on the bottom of the cup. Heavily sugared, it's the best.
It's hard to find real Turkish coffee in New York. The first time I had it was in the former Yugoslavia, with a friend whose mother read coffee grounds like old gypsies read tea leaves. I wish she could read my future now.
“Kafé Turke?” I ask.
He nods, “Kafé Grek! No Turke!”
Yowsah, some rivalries die hard.
Then he asks if I'm married, do I have kids. All the things that will tell him how much the world will miss me when I'm gone. He's relieved when I say I have neither.
He asks how long I'm planing to stay. An encouraging sign. If he were going to kill me, why would he care?
I tell him two nights.
He shakes his head. I realize it's a trick. Something to make me feel more at ease.
Then he asks me if I want a shower, Douche, he uses the Italian/French word.
Uh oh, here it comes. Get me naked and the fun can begin.
“Yo, falaminderet” (No thank you) I say, shivering to show it's too cold to bathe.
Actually, it's unbelievably cold. In Italy, and the first two days in Albania, it was summer. When I got to Vlora I bought a bathing suit, a $30 Armani-- the only one they had left-- for the beaches in the south. Then came the rain and since then, cold. Now, it feels barely above freezing. My Inspector Gadget hat and coat are not enough to keep the chill out, especially at night.
It's about 9PM. THE GUY wishes me good night and I open the glass doors and enter the room. I try not to think about what will happen later. I try not to think about how none of it makes sense in any other way than MURDER.
If he was just being generous, why didn't he take me inside and introduce me to his wife? Why didn't he offer me a little family? Why the lack of smiles? The questions about who will miss me?
Inside. the little room is so cold that I wrap myself in the only blanket and sit with the computer, typing this, photo-shopping my travel pictures, playing spider solitaire, planning as if there were going to be a tomorrow.
It's then I notice that the glass doors to the room-- the only entrance and the only escape-- lock from the outside. Only the outside. What kind of place is this? What hotel has rooms that only lock from the outside? What house?
About 9:30, I go to sleep, fully clothed, wrapped tightly in that blanket. Outside, a dog barks incessantly. But it's not the dog that keeps me awake. I'm freezing. I wonder how much of the shaking is from the actual cold, and how much is from fear. I shake like the flu chills. Shake like there's no tomorrow. Shake waiting for the sound of bursting into the room with guns or machetes. Or worse, the sound of a key turning in the lock outside.
ENDNOTES: [Subscribers to this column can receive live links and a chance to discuss the content with Mykel. Subscribe with an email to: email@example.com. You can check out my travel blog with pictures at mykelsdiary.bogspot.com. My Albanian pictures are parked in Picasa. You can get to them from the picture link on my website www.mykelboard.com]
--> Squirreling away the ACORNs dept: The US government has blocked funding for ACORN, a voter registration and poverty assistance group. Why? A pair of conservatives dressed up like a whore and pimp asked them for help. After being rejected a couple of times, one person in ACORN gave them advice. Can you imagine?
Meanwhile, the U.S. still buys from Haliburton, Dick Cheny's company, that received $80 million in government funds for electricity in Iraq. That wiring electrocuted several U.S. soldiers. The US also still pays Blackwater, the company that murdered Iraqui civilians... and has some members on trial for murder. Which is worse, murder or whoring? You know which Obama has chosen.
→ Virtual death/really dead dept: The Nation reports that, in China, courts gave Qui Chengwei a suspended death sentence for fatally stabbing someone over a piece of property that didn't even exist. Qui and his victim, Zhu Caoyuan, were players in the Chinese game Legend of Mir II.
Qui and a friend had jointly won a valuable Dragon Sabre by battling through a tough quest. The pair lent it to Zhu who, instead of returning it, sold it via an online auction, kept the money (about $900) and ran. Chinese police don't recognize virtual property as real goods, so technically there was no theft. There was, however, murder.
Nerd crime shows a lot about capitalism in general. By creating the NEED for something-- even if it doesn't exist-- you get people to buy it. And cheat and kill for it.
It also bodes well for the future. Maybe those on-line gamer types will just take care of themselves. A world without Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Isn't that a dream come true?
→ Whoops dept: The Investor's Business Daily wrote about the evils of a national health plan: People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K. where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Hawking actually lives in England and said, “I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the National Health Service. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.”
→ Not a sick joke dept: the Times-News of Hendersonville, North Caroline reports that state officials have advised visitors to their county fair to wash their hands BEFORE entering the fair. They are afraid that humans might spread swine flu to the swine.