Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Final Frontier?

I don't know if anyone else feels this when you have visitors from home coming to see you 'in situ' abroad, but we always feel pathetically grateful that anyone is actually coming to see 'our life' here & willing to make the effort. Especially when one lives somewhere that is not in the 'Top Ten Tourist Hot Spots'. Most of our friends have families so a visit is not really feasible, so our 3 visitors here apart from my In-Laws, have been a single & a couple.

We also always feel very anxious that our visitors have a good time, whilst knowing the spanners our adoptive country is likely to throw in the works on that front. You just hope that the 'interesting' factor outweighs the 'hassle & hardship' quotient.

It's funny though how the country you often moan about, find frustrating, infuriating, & exhausting, you suddenly feel quite protective of, & want your friends, at least on some level, to like. After all it is your home for now. You also feel a little proud, in some ways, that you can now operate (more or less) in this new alien land, have picked up the gauntlet of driving in the mad traffic, speak a smattering of the language, know some locals & just get on with life here. It's taken a while, so I think the pride is justified.

It also makes you realise the things you have got used to that seem normal now, the fierce strength of the coffee, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, the cars shooting out of side roads without looking, pedestrians leaping the central barrier of the dual carriageway & darting across your path with seconds to spare, the Roma weaving between stationary traffic to beg, with babies in arms, the constant barking of dogs at night, the dust & pollution.

Some things though, like the selfishness of drivers, the rubbish everywhere, the constant noise of construction, & the power cuts, are all too familiar, but they still irritate.

So it was, that I bought flowers for the house to try & brighten up our 'MDF' apartment. It's airy & bright & we love it now for its location, but when we look at it through Western eyes, we realise it's pretty shabby & basic.

I tried to make really nice meals & did lots of baking to alleviate the fact that e.g breakfast cereals & choice of bread would be very limited & not very healthy, as would variety of foods compared to 'home'. We are used to this now, but our visitors wouldn't be. My husband cracked open South African wine he had been saving up for 'an occasion', as we knew local wine would not pass muster (with us or anyone). I am sure this mattered more to us than our guests, but you still want to make as much effort as possible to make them comfortable. And it's such a novelty having visitors from home. Perhaps I'm being too 'Western' & should remember that the world over, elsewhere, people know that hospitality is all about sharing what you have & making people welcome.

When our friends arrived at the airport, our children were tumbling over each other in their eagerness to point out local bits of their lives to our guests; the zoo, the local pool, the place they bike, roller blade etc. They point out the dam, the small funfair, the local shop, the park, the new street puppies. I realise, of course, that when they go back to England none of their aunts, uncles, my parents, or their cousins know what their home is like, nor do any of their friends. Only my In-Laws have been, so the children never have the opportunity to show friends or family around their home. That must be quite strange so no wonder they seemed proud of their home & eager to share it at last with familiar friends.

Despite all our preparations, we were somewhat frustrated to feel in the end, we had given our friends more of a Frontier Holiday than a sophisticated city break. Not that they were expecting that, but still lots of things happened we would have preferred not to. These friends have faithfully visited us in both our postings & on both occasions have been guinea pigs for trips we hadn't previously done, & on which we had accidents, car breakdowns, detours, long hours in the car, & extreme weather & very poor roads. Suffice to say, they had PLENTY to write about in their diaries each night...

To start with the weather, "the best thing about Albania", as we were told so often when we arrived, had been wall to wall blue skies, no rain & 30' since we returned in August. The day after our friends arrived, the temperature dropped 10 degrees & clouded over & it poured with rain. So much so that we had to light our wood burner (for the 1st time in 5 months) to dry out the clothes after a walk in the park.

We had decided to do a road trip into the northern mountainous area of Albania, complete with a ferry trip up a very long narrow lake. "One of the world's greatstest boat trips" our Bradt guide said. 1st stop for the night though, was former communist dictator, Enver Hoxha's, hunting lodge, bulilt by Mussolinis' son-in-law. It was certainly atmospheric, completely derelict & looted except for 4 rooms & a restaurant which had been done up. You could just imagine the communist elite plotting their enemies' downfall there. However it was dank, gloomy & very cold.

We woke very early the next morning to drive to the ferry, only to discover we had a puncture (made by a huge nail.). By the time we had fixed it we had missed the ONE ferry a day , so we had to drive over the mounatins, which took 7 hrs, with stops, & via a town called
Puke, much to my son's delight. That at least kept us going with jokes for a while. "Are we going to Puke now?"/"So this is what Puke's like"/ "I don't want to eat my lunch in Puke" etc. One of my husband's colleagues is even getting married in Puke. 9 yr old is planning on sending a photo to the Beano, of himself beneath the sign.

The accommodation was very basic as we expected, but also, because it's really only foreign tourists who go there, (& very few of them even), it's quite expensive. Hopefully the scenery & seeing a very ancient subsistence way of life made up for it. These were 2 of the places we stayed. The right hand one was in the mountains, the left hand one in a mountain town, we weren't even sure it was a hotel, it looked so run down & there was no sign.

Valbona is part of a national park. The problem with National parks here is that there are no wardens, no parks offices, no way-marked paths; actually no paths really, no mobile phone signals, no maps, so it's very difficult to actually access anything in them.

The journey back was as cramped as before, 6 of us in a 5 seater 4x4, & the road was being made, so was mostly bumpy dirt track. In one place there were JCBs swinging around on the road, dumping rocks into the river, clearing boulders etc. A man with a whistle was directing them, though he seemed oblivious to the fact that they couldn't possibly hear him. He whistled authoritatively, then waved us on. My husband decided to wait to make sure the JCB had heard. He hadn't & swung around, & would have knocked our car sideways if we had gone. We waited till we made eye contact with him then inched nervously past. There were three all independently doing their own thing, digger arms swinging alarmingly, (certainly independently of Whistle Man)

Further on we met a guy in a mini bus who waved us down. We weren't sure why until about a minute later when there was a loud explosion which ricocheted round the gorge walls followed by billows of smoke. This was followed by about 7 more explosions. They were dynamiting the road ahead. Again no barriers, no signs, no warnings, just a guy ahead, who seemed vaguely connected with the Dynamite Team. But then he wandered off. Still, the minibus driver seemed to know something about it, & when it had finished. Or maybe he was just waiting for a long pause. Again, slightly apprehensively, we drove forward.

The ferry trip was very good. It was an ancient car ferry which ploughs down the river once a day crammed with cars & lorries. The passenger ferry, an old coach welded to a barge, stops off at various places along the lake to drop off bags of grain to remote & isolated communities living in the mountains.
This is me reversing our car onto the ferry, & 2ndly a view of the vehicles on the car deck. They leave the ramp down on the journey, the last car, a 4x4 on the right, only got on with its back wheels still up on the ramp.

Having got up at 5.30a.m to catch this ferry, we were rather peckish, but not altogether surprised, to find the 'cafe-bar' on board sold raki (local alcoholic brew), cigarettes & crisps. This seemed to keep the majority male passengers very happy, but didn't appeal much to a 5 yr old, 9 yr old & 4 Brits. It was then I discovered (by hovering around) that the small, wide & formidable woman serving at the kiosk also had bread under the counter. She was selling it in thick slices, & seemed most put out at my request for a whole loaf, but she grudgingly permitted me to buy a half. This disappeared all too quickly with a jar of jam we had rolling around in our boot, so I wimpishly sent my husband up to get the second half from Madame Formidable. In the space of 3 minutes, however, it had gone up in price by 100%. Communism really is dead in Albania, long live capitalism......... My husband, evidently because of some obscure principle, which didn't taking into account ravenous children, refused to pay the inflated price, so half a loaf between 6 of us it was.

We made it back to Tirana & rounded off the holiday with a power cut all the following day, meaning no one could shower. We waved our friends off to Italy, who I am sure,were secretly relieved to be having 3 days R&R in Rome to catch up on sleep, showers, good Italian food, & a decent bed for the night, safe in the knowledge that, as we will be here for at least another 2 or 3 years, they won't have to do another Final Frontier Holiday for a while to another obscure corner of the world we have lighted upon.


nappy valley girl said...

I'll bet they loved it and it will be one of their most memorable holidays ever. I'm sure they won't have come expecting five star luxury, and it sounds as if they got an unforgettable taste of Albania. The national park looks stunning (even if it had no paths...).

Mwa said...

That national park looks amazing. I remember being pathetically grateful for visitors from home when we were living in Scotland, and then again when I was living in England. And I wasn't even that far away. I hope you manage to persuade some more people to visit.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

They won't forget it. The other holidays will all merge into one, the Albania one will stick out. This is what we tell ourselves when people come here - although I think Albania is even more of the no roads, random people, ex communist yuck than here. That is saying something!

Iota said...

I'll come and visit, so long as you promise I can go to Puke.

Rather apt post for me, as daughter was demonstrating the verb first thing this morning, but is now better and asking to go on the Barbie website.

Nobby and Me said...

Wow. That's one holiday I would certainly remember! Thanks for sharing!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Back again, just read your comments on my and Iota's blog. Ah the JR - fond memories. I had a retained placenta too. Probably had the same consultant trying to get it out. I thought the JR was great though, heard such nightmares about London hospitals.

When we both get back to Oxford from the wild Balkan east, we should go to the Jericho Cafe for cake and 6th floor at the JR comparisons!

A Modern Mother said...

A name like Puke would make my daughters laugh as well!

Pig in the Kitchen said...

ok so it wasn't 5 star and there were various, er, hitches, but the scenery looks astounding. And think how they will dine out on their stories. You did a fab job of tour guiding. Love the JCB's and the dynamite!