7/5/11 - 7/6/11
An awkward silence fell over the group, consisting of myself, my bus driver, and the Albanian customs guard. The burly, militant Albanian looked at the driver, then at me, then at the 20 euro bill that I was clenching in my right fist. After an agonizing few seconds the bus driver yanked the 20 out of my hand, and sternly handed it over to the customs agent. A few more seconds passed, this time with the bus driver muttering a few words in Albanian, and then suddenly the tension broke as the guard retreated into his dark office, the tinted windows forcing my imagination to ramble on about what sort of misconduct was taking place inside. A minute later the guard reappeared, the gilded eagle of my passport nonchalantly in his hand. He handed it to me with a look of consternation, and with that I reboarded my bus, greeted by a healthy round of ironic applause from the 40 or so Albanians aboard. I exhaled deeply and sunk back into my cramped seat, and with that my neighbor turned to me and stated with a wry smile, “Welcome to Albania.”
We had boarded the bus in Istanbul 14 hours prior, and the blinking clock in the front of the bus was moving slower and slower. I was listening to the Counting Crows song “Raining in Baltimore,” in which there is a line “It’s 4:30 a.m on a Tuesday, it doesn’t get much worse than this.” It was, in fact, almost 4:30 very early morning Tuesday on the bus, and I can confidently say that Adam Duritz probably was in a position far more comfortable than myself when he wrote that line. As we approached the upcoming border, I felt a sense of relief that soon we wouldn’t need to stop the bus anymore, and I could get some much needed sleep. That is, of course, if the old lady in front of me stopped being entertained by the novelty of her seat being able to recline all the way into my crotch. Indecision reigned supreme over her journey, and every 20 minutes she would ungracefully switch between fully reclined and straight up, insatiable in her hunger for new seat angles.
As we had done when we crossed the Turkey-Greece border a handful of meaningless hours back, we all put our passports into a non-descript cardboard box, and then the bus driver presented them to the customs agents. The guards disappeared for a few minutes, haphazardly skimmed through a few particularly questionable bags, then returned the box of passports so that we could be on our way. Easy as that.
About 10 minutes after departing the border, the young bus assistant began to hand out the passports one by one. With each female he encountered, a wily grin spread across his face, and some friendly flirtatious banter ensued. After 20 minutes or so of this, he began to dole out yet another round of knockoff coke products, indicating that he was done handing out passports. Mine was not yet in my possession. Awesome.
After pointing out the void in my bag where my passport should reside, his face froze, and he began to frantically search under all of the seats in the bus. As his fruitless search continued, my mind wandered to a thought I had had as we rolled into the customs lane. My passport was almost full, with a mere 2 pages left unstamped, and I was patting myself on the back for my accomplishment of practically filling my government issued travel journal. Now it looked as though I may fall two pages short of reaching my perceived achievement. Pride goeth before the fall, I suppose.
The assistant exchanged a few words with the driver, and with that we turned around and retraced our tracks back towards the border. The people on the bus were less than pleased with this development, and as the assistant explained the circumstances to them, one by one they would take a peak over their shoulder in my general direction. I was left to fidget in my currently cramped seat, the elderly woman to my front deciding that the ride back to the border was best experienced fully reclined. Thoughts raced through my head about the prospects of obtaining a new passport in Albania. Needless to say, I was in a rather sticky situation.
As the rounds of applause faded, the other bus goers trickled over to offer up their indignation with the customs agents. They wanted to assure me that Albanians are amongst the most hospitable in the world, but that unfortunately the first taste needs to be with the guards. After a few hearty whacks on the back, and various offerings of chocolate based snacks and nuts, everyone returned back to their respective seats. Meanwhile, my once gushing adrenaline had slowed to a mere trickle, and the lady in front of me seemingly celebratorily snapped her seat back into the upright position. I took this cue to I put my headphones back in, take one final loving look at my wandering passport, and then close my eyes for what would thankfully be an uneventful final leg of the journey. Another day, another experience, and as always, everything turns out just fine. Welcome to Albania.