The 1.30pm bus to Albania leaves right on time…….at 1.15pm.
Confused? It gets worse.
A week later I am stranded when the daily bus from Vlore to Sarande never leaves at all.
The same day I stumble across a second bus which nobody knows exists, leaves from a bus stop that isn’t really there and is only a minute or two behind schedule……not that there is one.
Welcome to life on the buses Albania style.
For forty one years the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha had total control of his country and absolutely no control of his senses. He turned Albania into a nightmare state, isolated, fearful and paranoid.
It’s currently the third poorest country in Europe. It was routinely at the bottom until the break up of the Soviet Union created pauper states. Moldova now has the “honour”.
Albania’s buses epitomise the country’s mess. There are no published timetables, no bus stations, many of the buses or minibuses, known as furgons, are ancient and the roads are regularly rough as all hell.
On the plus side they are dirt cheap, kind of work when you understand the “system” and travel through some mesmerizing scenery, admittedly sometimes at a pace slightly slower than an asthmatic donkey with a limp.
I’d used buses in Bosnia and Montenegro and both worked fine. But the Albanian bus taking me into the country began the slide into chaos. At the Montenegro terminal there was a printed timetable and even a TV screen, both confirmed the bus was scheduled for 1.30.
However, my ticket stated 1.15. I checked with an inspector. He looked and he shrugged.
The bus did actually pull out at about 1.15. We reversed ten metres until a passenger screamed that the luggage door was wide open.
We started again but after two revolutions of the wheels there’s a yelp. Somebody was on the wrong bus.
Third time lucky? Sadly not. Before the driver can start moving again another passenger asks to get off to go to the toilet. We inch back to where we started.
As Mr Bladder returns four flushed Scandinavian backpackers scramble on board cursing and mumbling something about a 1.30 scheduled departure time. We give sympathetic shrugs.
Finally at 1.27 we pull out, 12 minutes late or three minutes early. I really haven’t got a clue which.
The bus is ancient. Steam powered, I think. Its windscreen is a spiderweb of cracks.
As it chugs through the hillsides the ravines to either side increase in severity. Two weeks earlier 18 tourists were killed nearby when their bus careered off the road and crashed 40 metres down a hill. The government pledged road safety as a national priority. Somebody forgot to tell our driver.
Twenty minutes into the journey his mobile rings.
“Please don’t,” I say to myself.
“Let it ring, ignore it. Pleaseeee.”
My prayers go unanswered, the phone doesn’t. He picks up and drives with one hand on the wheel. For gear changes he has the phone in his left hand, the gear stick in the right and he balances his left elbow on the wheel to steer. This is Albania’s version of hands free.
On severe bends his safety training finally kicks in. He jams the mobile between his hunched up shoulder and his ear freeing the left hand to guide us.
Albania’s buses and furgons park on various streets in the towns and cities. The locals mostly know where they are. Tourists don’t.
They have approximate departure times but only leave when full or overflowing. This can be an hour or two behind “schedule”.
My most spectacular furgon trip was through the Llogara Pass. The old minibus wheezed and spluttered up over 1000 spectacular metres. From the top the Albanian Riviera looked poetic, all dreamy blue sea at the foot of a vertical mountain.
However, the poetry died with the descent. The narrow road down twists and clings to the mountain and constantly doubles back on itself. Safety barriers are almost entirely absent. Last year 13 people were killed and two dozen were injured when their bus crashed down a cliff further along this road. The region has more than its fair share of these accidents. It’s not difficult to see why.
Our driver fights like a bull rider as the battered old furgon bucks and kicks underneath him. The brakes go into overdrive. There is squealing and what sounds like air brakes but it may actually have been bowel movements from the increasingly nervous passengers.
I begin silently praying to the gods of every mainstream religion.
A few turns take us close to the precipice and I broaden my prayers to include every nutcase, lunatic fringe religion on the planet, just in case they know something I don’t
We finally make it safely down and stop for a break and a clean up.
I begin to wonder if my prayers were a factor in our safe arrival. If so which religion or cult did the trick? I hope it’s not the bizarre “Prince Philip Movement”, whose members seriously believe the queen’s husband is a divine being.
I quickly dismiss the idea. I suspect there’s more chance of an Albanian bus leaving on time than Phil the Greek being a god.
**Main picture courtesy of Bairo