Last year, I spent a bit of time in Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia. While I was in Montenegro, I had thought about going to Albania because I was so close, but I had to return to the UK. The seed was firmly planted, though.
Early this year, I went to Northern Greece and, even though I was closer to the Bulgarian border rather than Albania, being that close reminded me that I hadn’t been. Then, while sitting on the National Express coach from Stansted, having just arrived back in the UK from Greece, I decided to look through the Helpx website to see if there was anything of interest in Albania. I was looking to do some work in exchange for board and lodgings. While browsing the website, I came across a guesthouse owner in Shkoder who was looking for some help. It appeared to be work that was computer-based. Because of my blogging and previous admin experience, I immediately sent a message. Well, there’s no time like the present. To my surprise, I received a reply straight back.
We continued to exchange messages. The owner of the guesthouse was looking for someone to begin as soon as possible. I had some commitments, so I arranged to go over to Albania a month later. This was great. I would not only get to visit Albania, but I would also have the experience of living and working there, albeit for a short period of time. Flights to Tirana were pretty expensive, so I looked at flights to Podgorica in Montenegro and managed to get a really good deal on flights. Podgorica isn’t far from Shkoder, but getting from one city to the next turned out to be a bit of a journey.
I left for the airport at 04.15 and didn’t arrive at the guesthouse until 18.00. When I arrived in the city, someone got on the bus and called my name. It wasn’t the owner of the guesthouse, but a taxi driver the guesthouse owner uses. He drove me and an American couple to the guesthouse. When I arrived, the owner wasn’t there, but one of his sisters greeted us. She established that I was the helper and the others were the guests and sent us off in different directions. For me, the first 24 hours were the most difficult. One reason was because I wasn’t sure what my role was. As a traveller, I knew what my role was, but that evening in particular, I had no clue as to my role as someone who was there to do admin work. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was and with no guidance from anyone, I decided to do what I would normally do and that was to mingle and chat to the guests. It was really interesting talking to them about their first time in Albania.
The next morning, rather than planning what I was going to see and do, I got up early and did some work on my blog before meeting up with my boss. I had to meet him in the city centre, so I filled my backpack with all my equipment – netbook, camera and so on – ready for my first day of work. His father, who couldn’t speak any English, gestured for me to come. What I didn’t think too much about was how we were going to get there. I assumed I was going to be taken by car. Well, I had all my equipment with me. Then, the old man pointed to a bicycle and said something in Albanian. I thought to myself, ‘No, he can’t be serious, surely!’ Then, he emerged with another bike. Yes, we were going into the centre of Shkoder by bicycle. Two British girls who had been staying at the guesthouse had pre-warned me the previous evening about the state of bikes and cycling in the centre of the city. The thing is, I had no other option. So, with that, I mounted the bike and set off after the old man.
As it turned out, we were down a very long road that was in terrible condition. The road surface was extremely uneven and there were lots of very deep potholes. Oh, did I mention the speed bumps that are difficult to spot until you are about to cycle over one? That wasn’t the half of it, though. There were so many other obstacles along the way: Animals to dodge, mainly cows and horses; other cyclists who either cycle at you or cycle straight across your path; car and van drivers who pull out in front of you without looking or indicating, they just stop anywhere they feel like, whenever they feel like it, and double and triple park on the main roads. This was, by far, my biggest bicycle challenge to date.
During the journey, I concentrated on the road ahead and everything that was in front of me. I didn’t take any notice of the route I was taking. When we got to the first major junction – a roundabout – it was pandemonium. There was no way I was going across the roads on my bike. It looked like chaos and not the organised type. It actually reminded me of when I was in Asia and some of the manic roads with crazy drivers. Walking across those roads was bad enough. I had only ever cycled in quieter places in Asia such as Hoi An, Vietnam, and Tha Ton, Thailand. I wouldn’t have minded so much if I cycled a lot normally, but I don’t. It was as though all my recent experiences on a bike in Newcastle and North Wales were leading to this moment. I remember saying that I wanted to go on a cycling holiday after cycling in Newcastle. I had this romantic notion of cycling through flat countryside with spectacular views. The reality was so far removed from that. On the up side, any cycling trip after this would be a piece of cake.
Thankfully, however old and battered the bike was, the brakes worked. It took a bit of time to get used to steering it, though. It was a bit like one of those shopping trolleys that steers in the opposite direction to the way you want to go. Do you know the ones I mean? Nonetheless, after a while on the bike, I got used to it. Well, I didn’t actually have much choice. I had to get used to it. I also had to get used to being on my guard and prepared for anything because you just never know what’s going to happen next.
When I thought things were going fine, the old man managed to lose me. It was as if he was actually trying. I was a little way behind him after getting off at a junction and walking across with the bike. When I caught up with him, he had gotten off his bike and was walking across the road. I thought we must have arrived, so I got off, took my bag, and hoped and prayed I would get across the road safely. It was really busy and, when I did finally make it across the road, there were people everywhere. I lost sight of the old man. Great, I’d lost him in a city I didn’t know. Thankfully, after a couple of panicky minutes, I spotted him crossing back over the road and getting on his bike. I managed to get back across the road and, as I was getting ready to set off again, he started on his way, leaving me to watch where he was headed. There were so many cyclists, but I thought I saw where he went. I followed, turning right at the next junction. After cycling for a while, I didn’t come across him. I was sure he would have waited for me, so I decided that I must have gone the wrong way. I retraced my steps and sent a text message to my boss. Thank goodness for mobile phones, even though it was going to be costly with my UK sim card. I received a text asking me to go to the theatre. Having only just arrived the evening before, I had no idea where that was. I showed the text message to the people in the furniture shop where I was waiting. They couldn’t speak English, but they pointed in the direction I was to go in and explained in Albania. I followed the road around until I came to a tall structure and turned right. I texted my boss when I had arrived and he came and met me on his bike. I followed him, getting off to cross the road, and then followed him the rest of the way to his new hostel.
He had to rush off. He was leaving me in this crazy city centre to take photos of his new hostel for the various booking sites. Before he left, I asked him to tell me how to get back. He didn’t have a map, unfortunately. When I was as satisfied as I could be, he left. After doing what had been asked of me, I left to head back to the guesthouse. Oh, yes, I had to do that journey again, this time alone. I stopped to buy some water at one of the shops. The shopkeepers were really nice. One elderly gent, who couldn’t speak English, tried to guess where I was from. He mentioned so many nationalities but, funnily enough, not English. From what I could understand, he was a Chelsea supporter. I bought my goods and bid them farewell before getting back on the bike.
I had been told to go straight, so I did. At one point, I was sure I was going the wrong way. I hadn’t taken any notice on my way there and, as there weren’t any road signs, I couldn’t even text to say where I was and I couldn’t speak Albanian. I went all the way back to the junction where the road had two possibilities for going straight on. I sent a text to my boss to say that I was lost and gave the road name I was on. I also asked for the address because I didn’t have it with me. I showed the address to someone in the coffee shop I was standing outside of. He confirmed that it was the road I had been on. I mustn’t have gone far enough. With that, I got back on my bike and kept going. Boy, was I glad when I finally caught sight of the guesthouse. My first 24 hours in Shkoder had been like some kind of test. Put Teresa on a bike in the middle of a city she doesn’t know without a map and see if she can find her way around. Well, I passed because I did get back… eventually!
It was a learning experience and probably one of the most challenging 24 hours I’ve ever had, having just arrived in a new country. I certainly got to know part of the city pretty quickly. Although I was scared out of my wits on the first day, it’s amazing how quickly you can adjust to new surroundings and environments. I much preferred living just outside the centre with a family rather than in the centre of the city in a hostel or hotel because it gave me a completely different insight into the city. If I had stayed, as most people probably do, in the pedestrianised areas of the city it’s much calmer and recently renovated from the looks of things.
Did I get back on the bike and cycle into the city centre again? Yes, although, when I could, I walked it. The family thought I was crazy because they all cycle around the city. I just felt safer on two legs rather than two wheels.
Have your say
What has been the most challenging 24 hours you’ve had in a new country?