Since my last post, I have traveled from Beit Jala, Palestine to Ksamil, Albania (picking up Luke in Athens, where we celebrated his birthday). This post is about how we managed to find ourselves here, in beautiful Albania.
I traveled by bus from Beit Jala to Tel Aviv, connecting in Jerusalem. The checkpoint between Beit Jala and Jerusalem seemed to be the most heavily manned checkpoint I encountered. Moreso, even, than notorious Qalandiya, between Ramallah and Jerusalem which was fairly easy. But then again, I may not have gotten the full treatment since I was an international there.
At the checkpoint from Beit Jala, four soldiers boarded the bus, which we did not have to disembark. Two guarded the front and rear doors (holding pretty large weapons), another positioned himself at the back of the bus, close to where I was sitting, and one checked passengers’ documents. The soldier in the back was the biggest physically and carried several weapons. Though he was not in uniform (a bulletproof vest covered a t-shirt, and he was wearing jeans), he seemed to have some authority over the others.
The soldier checking the documents was the youngest of the four (probably in his early 20s), and as he approached my seat, I took out my golden ticket, my American passport. He studied the photo page and my Israeli entry stamp. Though many travelers enter Israel through Jordan, as I had done, I’m sure the stamp arouses some sort of suspicion. Although there is nothing wrong—legally or otherwise—with entering at that crossing, and Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty in place since 1994, the fact of having been in Jordan and the West Bank does raise questions (that are sometimes, but not always, legitimate).
After the soldier examined my passport, we made eye contact, and stared at each other for at least five seconds. This can feel like an eternity when you’re at the mercy of a twenty-something, armed-to-the-teeth representative of the occupying power who may or may not be in a good mood that day. He seemed to asking, through his stare, “What the hell are you doing on this bus with these people?” Whatever he was thinking, I came away with the distinct impression that my presence there was not welcomed. Still, I was confident that there was nothing he could do since my passport was valid, and, I don’t like to play this card often, but I’m an American damnit! So I returned the eye contact until he handed the passport back. He checked the few remaining passengers, whose documents were all in order, and got off the bus with the rest of the contingent. We were on our way.
After arriving in Jerusalem, I had to take the light rail to the Central Bus Station. Jerusalem’s light rail is an incredibly efficient, inexpensive way to see the city. I had taken it to Yad Vashem earlier in my trip. There is an amazing mix of people on the tram—Jews and Muslims of varying orthodoxy, lots of Africans (who I suspected were mainly Ethiopians and Eritreans), Christian pilgrims, and tourists from all over the world. At the light rail station, I made change for a Japanese woman who needed coins for the ticket machine. She then asked if my name was Takiyoshi or something equally Japanese. I didn’t think I looked Japanese—Thai, maybe, but not Japanese (not really). I was confused for a moment and then she pointed to the tattoo on the back of my leg, that eighteen year old act of, not rebellion, but independence? The tattoo was supposed to have said “wisdom” in Mandarin (which someone from China did verify for me), but if it can also be mistaken for a Japanese surname, I had better not wear shorts when/if I go to Japan. Anyway, the incident was a bit embarrassing, and that is where my conversation with the nice Japanese woman came to an end.
I connected at the bus station, after being allowed to skip the security check at the entrance to the station for my transfer to Tel Aviv. It took just over an hour, but I was asleep for most of it. I arrived in Tel Aviv and was met by a security guard, who, judging by his appearance and conduct (not to offend any readers) was more of a mall cop. He asked me to open my backpack and carry on, and quickly but not thoroughly at all checked my luggage. If I was hiding anything, I would have done so in the middle of all my dirty laundry, which he didn’t even get to. He looked at the top layer and told me to close them again. (Maybe the small cloud of dust and the smell that comes with two weeks wearing the same clothes in 100+ degree heat deterred him.) He then checked my passport and made a cursory swipe of my body with a metal detector, which went off, and allowed me through.
I hired a taxi to take me to the hotel and am convinced that I was once again had by the taxi driver. Despite convincing him to use the meter, the fare was exorbitant. I think he switched it to the night rate, which is 50% higher than the day rate…
Regardless, after the four hour trip from Bethlehem (which would have been about two hours without checkpoints and transfers), I was happy to be able to take a long, hot shower. After being limited to short, usually cold showers in Palestine, this was a treat. At camp, we were use to turning the shower off as we lathered and turning it back on to rinse. I have been to other countries that lacked this luxury, but never for an extended period of time—maybe five days, at most.
Tel Aviv wasn’t as first rate as I thought. The part of the city I was in, on Allenby Street, close to the beach, had a gritty vibe to it. I like the gritty, urban feel, but it’s just not what I expected from Tel Aviv. In my neighborhood, shops named “Amsterdam” and “Happy Times” were everywhere, selling “legal highs” and various paraphernalia (no, I did not partake), and there was at least one very obvious sex shop nearby.
To be fair, I didn’t explore much, and I’m sure the city had much more to offer. Jaffa was beautiful, but I only spent five minutes there. At that point, I was just excited to see Luke and was ready for phase two of my trip. The bulk of my time in Tel Aviv was spent in my hotel room, emailing photos of Palestine to myself, as I had heard this could cause problems if you’re singled out for questioning when departing Ben Gurion. With very slow wifi, this took the better part of a day.
My departure from Ben Gurion was, thankfully, uneventful. The only cause for concern among the numerous security officials who handled my departure were the two kefiyahs I had purchased in Hebron. Luckily, these were multi-colored and not in the standard Arafat pattern, so I passed them off as tablecloths. They called a supervisor over to ask me a few more questions about this “contraband,” which I answered satisfactorily, and let me pass through, with my kefiyahs.
From Tel Aviv, I flew to Athens. Luke met me a few hours later at the hotel, an we started on our Greek adventure. The Athenians were very warm and gracious. They were “too proud,” one local told us, to let their dire economic situation come through. Indeed, you would not have thought the country may need to exit the Eurozone just by visiting (unless you ran into one of the mass protests, which we didn’t).
After a few days in Athens, we flew to Corfu, the only Greek island on our itinerary. Our first day left us with a bad impression of the Corfiots, as they’re called. Unhelpful, unwilling to assist, generally unpleasant… but maybe they had too many run-ins with self-entitled cruise ship passengers or sunburnt Northern Europeans who come in on budget airlines for a weekend. On our second day there, we met much friendlier people, and our opinion of the island changed.
The ferry departure from Corfu to Saranda, Albania was hectic and disorganized, but then again, we were dealing with the Greek government, so our expectations were not set too high. Since we were leaving the Schengen zone, we had to pass through Greek customs at the international departure terminal. We arrived at noon, an hour ahead of our scheduled departure, and earlier than when we were advised to be there for our 1 pm departure. The terminal, really just a room (a very warm room) lacked any signage or staff, so we waited with the few other passengers traveling to Albania and waited and waited… nothing. We were trapped.
Finally, a door opened and passengers disembarking from the ferry that just came from Saranda started to emerge. At about one o’clock, when we were scheduled to leave and the last few arriving passengers passed through, Luke walked into the customs room and was stopped by a guard. (This was the first contact we had with any port official.) He asked about our ferry, and another man came out and informed us, and the other six or so passengers, that the one o’clock had been cancelled due to mechanical failure. I think it was because the ship didn’t have enough passengers… The next ferry was at 6:30 pm, and we were told to exchange our tickets and wait.
We took the opportunity to spend a few more hours in Corfu Town and walked with all of our luggage back into the town center. No point in getting angry… these things happen (probably frequently here). We found a restaurant and had a cold beer and lunch. It was one of the best meals of the trip, and not because we were hot and tired from our walk back into the town. The food was amazing. When we finished, the staff very nicely let us store our luggage at the restaurant while we wandered around.
At 5:30, we took a taxi back to the port and the warm room. This time, it was packed… hoards of people stood around the door to the customs hall, standing in the way of the arriving passengers who were using the same door to enter Greece that we were using to exit it. I’m sure there was a process, however inefficient and unintelligible.
At 6:30, again when we were scheduled to depart, the door opened again, and they started letting us pass… one man served as customs and checked and stamped the passports of the hundred or so passengers. Security on the Greek side was nonexistent (and it was certainly lacking on the Albanian side). But, finally, we boarded the ferry and made it to Albania.
In Saranda, the customs official stamped our passports without question. We hired a taxi and headed south to Ksamil, a beautiful small town about 20 km from the Greek border. We can see Corfu from our beachside hotel. Ksamil is very popular with Albanians—the beaches are packed with families on school holiday, as well as with a few intermittent pairs of tourists.
You can sense that the country is in the middle of a great transition. Newly built roads suddenly give way to dirt paths. Houses and hotels stand not yet finished—those that are completed are beautiful. There is a burgeoning tourist industry, that I’m sure will only grow over the next decade. The coast is beautiful and unspoiled. Places like Butrint offer ruins (Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman… as these things go) more expansive than many other in Europe. Let’s just hope Mr. Trump doesn’t discover this area anytime soon…
The Albanians seem to enjoy their newfound relative prosperity. After forty or fifty years of brutal dictatorship, there are probably many reasons to be happy. They are very warm (at least those who we’ve met), and, despite the logistical challenges—lack of ATMs that take American cards, poor transportation, and a seemingly inseparable language barrier—the people have made this an easy place to be.
Tomorrow, we are traveling to the capital, Tirana, for a short tour of northern Albania. As with anywhere, actually being here makes you realize how much more there is to see, especially in a place as unfamiliar to most as Albania.
But after 33 days and 6,781 miles, I do need to do some laundry soon. And then I can hit the road again…
Pictures soon… wifi is too slow (but then again, we’re in Albania!).