14 People in a Furgon...Pse Jo?
Traveling throughout Albania is treacherous, inefficient, unpredictable, and always an adventure. Over the past two years the roads in Albania have become much much better, however there is still much room for improvement. In addition to the inadequate roads, traffic laws are not well enforced, nor are they followed by many drivers. Speeding, constant passing on two-lane roads at inopportune times, no wearing of seat belts, and over crowding of vehicles is quite common.
The majority of the population uses public transportation, which includes taxis, buses, and furgons (vans), to move around the country. While buses are on schedules and can usually be relied upon, furgons are a much faster and easier way to travel. The way furgon travel works is that there are usually furgons waiting for passengers at their designated spots. Once the entire van is full, then the furgon will leave. This is where traveling by furgon gets to be frustrating. Because drivers will not leave until their vans are completely full, it is not uncommon for one sit and wait for hours before the furgon is full and ready to leave. Passengers are really at the mercy of the drivers. What's great about traveling by furgon is that they are much faster than buses. I live six hours from Tirana, the capital, and any time I can find a furgon I jump right on it because A. we don't have furgons in Himare and B. I am always ready to speed up the traveling process.
Most furgons are old, rickety, and frequently don't always start on cue, but on the plus side the drivers try to squish as many passengers as they possible can for each trip they take, (the more passengers the more money they make) so no one has any personal space. This is particularly invigorating during the hot summer months when people are the smelliest. Due to the lack of personal space and the fact that us Americans are pretty much all celebrities here in Albania, I am always meeting my new "best friend."
Recently I was traveling to the mountain village of Erseke in the front seat of a furgon along side the driver and one other man. Upon learning that I know Shqip (Albanian) the driver and the man sitting next to me did not stop asking me questions. At first it was the usual questions, 'why are you here?', 'how long have you been here?', 'where is your mother and father?', 'are you married?', etc. However, once we crossed over into the 'old pals' zone it went from 'normal' to just plain odd. My furgon driver whips out a couple of Golden Eagle energy drinks (Which if you haven't ever tasted one, don't even bother trying it out. They are horrible!) and offers them to the few passengers in the front of the van. Then, not too long after the energy drink episode the driver begins to offer me the opportunity to drive the rest of the way to Erseke. Keep in mind that we are on a narrow, curvy, mountain road in an old, manual transmission van full of about 12 other Albanians. Obviously I declined the offer, but this man was not taking no for an answer. Finally I just had to bite the bullet and say, 'I don't know how to drive." This was clearly a mistake when he proceeded to tell me that he would teach me right then and there.
Traveling within Albania is super frustrating at times, but overall it is a pretty neat experience. You get to see all parts of the country, explore new pilaf stops, and meet some great characters. I have definitely learned a lot about the Albanian language and culture on the many 'trips' I have taken over these past two years.