Life During Wartime--The Balkans, 1994
Pages from the Journal: Serbia, Macedonia, Albania
Thursday October 27, 1994
Podgorica, Yugoslavia (or maybe Titograd, Montenegro or Titograd, Yugoslavia or…)
This is turning into an all-time journey. The border scene was surreal.
It's 7:30pm here in Podgorica. First it was Podgorica, then during Tito's time it was Titograd (Tito City) and now it is Podgorica again, though in Cyrillic. "Montenegro" means "Black Mountain".
I woke up at 6:15am to get a start on the day from Vlore. A long walk to the bus station and no one has a clue when buses go anywhere--you just show up and find out--I lucked out and caught a Tirana bus just as it was pulling out. The towns it passes through, Fier, Lushnje, and Kavaje, are all real pits, though again the land between was quite nice. Not a bad trip, except for crying babies, people clutching plastic bags while considering puking and the many stops. There are all kinds of policeman standing next to the road, but I can't see them doing anything nor anyone respecting them. In Tirana someone went out of their way to walk me the 30 minutes or so to another bus terminal to catch a Shkoder bus. Amazing. Again, I got on it right as it was pulling out--more luck. This bus was full and less comfortable but no big deal. Three hours to go about 100km north!
By the way, on the first bus from Vlore, I heard about 5 minutes from the soundtrack to "Hair" on cassette, the only music I've heard at all on a bus.
Shkoder is exceptionally ugly, but it's on a lake and near majestic white snow mountains. It's the end of the line. There exists train tracks north but it's only used sometimes for freight. It's 33km north to the border.
I learned there's no bus service north after I followed everyone's directions to keep walking to the edge of town to catch this nonexistent bus. A man in a suit I approached, reasoning that better dressed people speak other languages--but look at me!--and through some Italian I learned a van acts like a bus to a place 23km north. He took me there and insisted on paying the fare for me. He announced to the driver that I was an American, and I was instantly befriended by a creepy guy who left his seat to sit next to me. He spoke very little English despite his claim that he spent two months in Las Vegas. "Weekend girlfriend," he explained. Oh.
It was about 3pm and I was moving closer to the border and I asked him about it. He looked at his watch. "Oh no!" I thought. "It's not a 24 hour border, plus, darkness comes at about 5:30pm. What would I do if I couldn’t get through? He said he thought it might still be open, though one month ago the border was closed altogether. I was in a state of duress. If I couldn't go through the border I'd have to go all the way back to Durres or Macedonia or something nightmarish in the extreme. That would surpass all previous levels of suffering.
Creepy invited me to stay with him and his friends that night, though by his admission it was a bad place with no light or water. It was a kind offer, but in my newfound paranoia I wondered if he was going to sabotage my attempts to get to the border so he could be my host. He knew my urgency but still wanted to sit and have a drink. I politely refused, but I needed his help to move on. He said there was only one taxi in town. If he was findable and he'd take me, it would probably cost $5 or so. The search seemed futile when we first set out amidst garbage, mud and muck--and that was downtown.
--I'm sitting at a cafe here in Podgorica writing this. A cop has befriended me. He pointed to the fat, old waitress with a tooth missing and bad hair-dye and said, "Yugoslavian women…good!" begging for a reply. I said, "Good hamburger!"--
I was only 10km to the border, maybe 30 km to Podgorica and there has to be a night train to Belgrade. If only I could get through. Something I had tried to blot out of my mind was that this is the sole border crossing between Albania and Yugoslavia (excepting Kosovo) and I had yet to see one car with Yugoslav plates in Albania.
Creepy and I are walking and a car with four guys in it says hello to Creepy while driving past. Creepy stopped them, explained my presence and the surprised driver asks, "You're American?" I was invited into the back seat, two uniformed policeman scooting over to make room for me. Creepy! My Main Man! Way to go!
They were four cops. The driver, the youngest, was the chief of police here in Sorrowville, or whatever the town was. I found it hard to believe and kind of prodded him on it, but when we got out later he smiled and flashed a big, shiny handgun, a kind like I hadn’t seen in Albania. He let me take a photo of him but I forgot to ask him to brandish his weapon for me.
The fourth policeman was a lunatic, whooping it up when he heard I was Californian. The driver was a little embarrassed at having to translate his questions. He went off about how I must have come to Albania for the women. To get the point across, the cop sitting next to me silently did the charades of internationally-recognized hand and finger gestures.
Albania for the women. Right. Ever the diplomat, I said something to change the subject. The driver finally said of the lunatic cop, "My friend here. He is homo." It took a few seconds for the last word to sink in and then he gave a cartoonish, "NOOO!"
For the last 10km on the drive around the lake we passed no cars. The border post was in a quiet, peaceful, beautiful setting, big mountains as backdrop. The Albanians at immigration were half-heartedly going through procedures like dogs roused from a deep sleep. They neglected my exit card. They obviously had little to do--ever.
The surreal part was beginning. A car pulls up and drops off a man in a nice suit. I immediately recognize the eagle on his blue passport. "You're an American!” What are the chances of meeting another American at this remote border? Incredible. He was from New York, though a short time later, his speech and arrogance would have said the same.
The Montenegrin side ahead looked empty. How were we going to get to Podgorica? It was so quiet here. No horns, no machines, only the water and gray/white mountains and this border crossing. NY and I present our passports to the guards; he's already making small talk with them in Serbian, his native language. All is going well, it feels, and then the pitch of the conversation rises a notch. NY's face changes expression.
"He says we can't go through."
"We don't have papers saying we didn't contract cholera."
Bonzai! I have a cholera vaccination certificate! I got a shot in Pecs for free, though I never thought it would save me like this. I produced my certificate. Perceptible, disparaging comments about Hungary were made, but they let me in. NY was in trouble.
I wanted NY to come through if only to share the problem of getting to Podgorica. Darkness was hinting. We didn't know what to do. NY was pleading his case to the guards inside. I hung out outside, not sure of my next move. After a while a guard came out to tell me that my "colleague" was coming through after all ("His aunt comes from the same village as my cousin," NY later explained.)
NY emerges from the office whereupon I congratulate him and suddenly two more Americans have shown up. Four Americans here at this remote border! They were independent reporters, whatever that means. They took the boat from Italy and wanted to go to Podgorica, but they were being rejected because of the cholera. I was silent. I could have gotten NY involved, but I thought first. These reporters were faced with the horrible alternatives I mentioned, but they put up very little of a fight with the guard in the office. I went in to see if NY was having luck contacting relatives to pick us up. I watched the tepid Battle Royale of Two Americans vs. One Border Guard and there in the corner of the room I noticed a hardcore porno video running on the TV! The Americans are feebly protesting, the guard won't hear any of it, and between them are the subtitled moans of a couple going at it.
Another guard comes to shoo us all out. The Americans are defeated. Upon retreat one asks me, "Have you seen any other cars go through?" while the other takes stock of me and begins, "Can I ask...what are you doing here?"
I say with a smile, "Tourist!" and they look at me with disbelief and bemusement before turning and walking away.
The border was actually closed today, I learned, but somehow we made it through. A half hour or so later, NY's relatives came and I got a free, very lucky ride here. NY's aunt was crying when she saw him. It was emotional for her. I wasn't asking and he wasn't telling.
Eleven hours after leaving Vlore, I arrive here in Podgorica just in time to wait 4 1/2 hours to take this 11 hour, 700 km train to Subotica. So far, so lucky! New York! Creepy! Chief of Police!
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