Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Near Death Experiences On the Albanian Riviera

This morning I woke up and my right arm and shoulder were really sore. My legs get sore all the time still, from climbing up one castle or another, but my arms are rarely getting a work out these days. It took me a few groggy minutes to put it together.

Oh yeah, that's right. My arm is sore from HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE on the bus yesterday.

It was hands down the scariest bus ride of my life. In fact, it was the scariest thing that has happened to me in a long time. As a New Year's resolution this year, I gave up fear. I've been doing a pretty good job, if I do say so myself, but yesterday had me literally shaking in my Chacos.

I woke up, got myself all packed in my fancy splurge hotel in Vlore and made my way towards the "bus station," or rather the busy street where buses stop at specific and random places. After wandering around in the heat and asking a few people I found the place where my bus was supposed to pass by. I sat on a bench munching on some snacks and drinking gatorade (in an effort to not almost pass out from dehydration like on the last bus ride!) and then my bus zoomed by twenty minutes early. I threw up my hand to stop them, grabbed my bag and hopped on.

The "helper" guy on the bus threw my bag in the back and I crammed my way into the packed bus. It was not one of the 12 seater buses, nor a charter bus style one, but something in the middle. Either way, it was standing room only, which seemed a bit extreme because I knew the ride was going to be at least 2 hours. Then out of nowhere, the guy who took my bag produced a plastic stool. Speaking in gestures we went back and forth, you sit. No, you sit. No, you!

Eventually I sat.

But then I looked to my right. We were driving with the door open. After suffocating my way from Berat to Vlore by bus, I will admit that the air felt great. I didn't really mind until we took a turn and the little plastic stool turned over. JODER.

I'm pretty sure the people around me--the guy sitting backwards between the driver and the passenger seat directly in front of me, and the "helper" guy who was standing next to me--saw the fear in my eyes. The guy in front of me motioned like, look, don't worry, I'll put my leg like this so you don't fall out.

Kthanks. I'll just pretend that might actually do something to save me.

Then, in what was more helpful but also slightly more invasive, the "helper" guy braced himself on the arm of the seat next to me, and essentially braced me in as well. At first I was thankful, but then I started to suspect it was just his clever way of putting his arm around me for the duration of the trip. I gripped the arm rest of the seat to my left, tried to give myself space between the "helper guy" (futile) and held on for dear life.

The drive was beautiful. Breathtaking (in more than one way). I had great views of the mountains and the turquoise Ionian water, because yeah, the door was open. Coming down the other south side of the mountain pass we took hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Somehow they weren't even switchbacks though. They were more like knot turns that almost spiraled down the mountain. There were almost no guardrails, and no seat belts on board. I took some kind of odd comfort in knowing that even if I was sitting in a seat and not on a plastic stool next to an open door I would still die if we went over the cliff.

Anyway, things got more awkward at the break at the top of the mountain. I decided to get a macchiato to fortify myself for the rest of the trip (some rakija probably would have been a better choice!). The waiter brought it over and said that the "helper" guy had paid for it.

Um, no, no, no, no.

I tried to pay anyway but the driver was honking for us to get back on the bus and the helper guy was putting the money back in my hand. I begrudgingly said faleminderit and found my way back to my stool.

As much as I was not loving that guy, you know what? He wasn't the "helper" (the guy who fetches the bags, takes money, etc. for the driver) after all. He said goodbye and got off a good 30 minutes before my stop. And when he was gone...my gosh did the hole of the open door look huge.

I was gripping the handrail of the seat next to me like my life depended on it...because it did.

And when I finally got myself to Himare, I got off that bus shaking. Whew. I felt a bit like I did after involuntarily jumping off a cliff in Costa Rica--I needed to lie down for a bit.

5 steps later, and still shaking, out of nowhere a bee stung me. WHAT?! I thought those things only stung you if they were provoked. Nope. I walked by a trash can that had some bees and then BAM. One dive bombed my foot. The only way I can make sense of it is that bees must be able to smell fear.

I've never been stung by a bee so I was surprised at how much it hurt. My foot started to swell and I started to panic. I know a lot of people are allergic to bee stings and I'm fairly allergic to mosquito bites so, not in the soundest of mind, I started imagining my throat closing.

Then I told myself to calm down. I whipped out the Benadryl stick I carry in my purse, smeared that stuff all over my foot, looked around to see if anyone was giving me sympathizing looks (nope) and set off to find myself a hotel.

The town wasn't what I was expecting (thanks for nothing Frugal Traveler) and the places I thought I might stay at didn't appear. I pretty much took the first offer I got--which ended up being a hotel hanging right over the edge of the water. I talked her down to €20 a night, had her bring me a fan and moved right in.

That's where my sob story ends. The water here is as beautiful as anything in Greece. The Albanians are consistently some of the nicest people I've ever met. I had fresh seafood for lunch at an outdoor restaurant right over the beach. It's way cooler here than in Vlore, Berat or Tirana. Everything is cheap. I have my own balcony 20 feet from the crystal clear water.

Maybe it's one of those "new appreciation of life" kind of things after the near death experiences, but I'm frankly amazed at it all.

Sunset in Vlore--the magic ingredient to sunsets this beautiful? Humidity. 

One of the few pictures I dared to take while on the bus. This chair leaned back over the open door. I was sitting on my stool in the aisle beside/under it where the stairs led to more than a "me sized" hole 

My balcony

My lunch

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