When I peeled back the layers I found a beautiful resilience inside. This is how I know I will always thrive.” – Lori Schaefer
Inspired by the peaceful view of Kotor Bay next to the mountain range from afar, I am writing my (most) recent crossing border, the most terrifying (not to mention the most expensive journey) I ever had in the Balkans area. I arrived in Tivat, Montenegro last night at past 8pm after traveling for almost 2 hours from the border of Albania and Montenegro passing through Ulcinj – Bar – Budva – Kotor then Tivat. Along the journey, I was falling asleep. I couldn’t upkeep the conversation with Merli, the taxi driver who drove me from the Montenegro border up to Tivat. I was shaken from the unanticipated “drama filled” day –
That made me really scared.
For the very first time.
Traveling around the Balkans.
I left Hostel Propaganda in Tirana half-past 9am yesterday. I took the taxi to the bus station that costs me 500 Lek (3.6 Euros) for 8 minutes ride. I managed to catch the 10am bus to Shkodër, the northwest city of Albania. The place where I have to find another ride to cross the border of Montenegro. The bus ticket is 300 Lek (2.17 Euros). The travel time was 2 hours. The bus assistant woke me up with little English. “Miss, it’s finished. It’s Shkodër. Finished.” I opened my eyes realizing I was the only passenger in the bus. Everyone’s gone. For a moment, I thought I was back home.
The bus assistant helped me to unload my luggage (a hand carry cabin luggage and a small backpack). A group of old people approached me offering a taxi to the border for 10 euros, to Ulcinj for 20 euros etc. For a time being, I was slightly disoriented because of the new city I am in. The scenery at the roundabout looked very Asian. The chaos. The mixture of cars with lots of people cycling from here and there. People who never cared whether it’s a red or green man in the traffic light. The group of old folks/ taxi drivers were persistent offering me the take the taxi to go to the border insisting that there are no buses to go there. Later, I would learn there are actually 2 buses schedule that travels from Shkodër, one at 9am the other at 4pm. I insist to take the bus. I was asking for the bus station or any Tourist Information centre in the city.
Unsolicited Help from a Stranger
In the midst of haggling and discussion, there was a man who approached us, with big built physique and tattoos everywhere including on his face. He speaks excellent English and asked if there is any problem and how he can help. He started to talk to the driver. And then told me if I really like to take a bus he will gladly help me. He asked if it was my first time in Albania, in Shkodër specifically. Since I learned about the bus schedule timing, I thought I have time to see the city. I asked him, John – the guy introduced himself as John, an Orthodox (saying he believed in God but don’t go to church often) and has lived in London for 9 years as an Asylum seeker but has no luck to get a paper. I would understand later why. I told him I want to see the Mes Bridge that crosses the Kir River. It was build during the Ottoman empire in the 18th century. He said he lived next to it. He happily offered to drive me to Mes Village and show me the place.
Mes Bridge. Mes Village. Turned out to be tremendously MesSY Day!
I met his friend who happened to be the one driving his BMW car. I was surprised why someone who is capable of driving would have someone around him driving around. I felt safer though at least we were 3 in the car. As soon as we reached the place, I was excited to walk past the stone bridge and took photo of that picturesque part of Shkodër.
As soon as I get into the car, John said it would be his pleasure if I accept his invitation to try some traditional Albanian food. Which I happily said yes. (I did not had the luck, on my last night in Tirana). It was Sunday and most restaurants were closed. We were served with salad, fresh potato fries, cold yogurt, cheese and meat (lungs meat of a young cow).
The meat tastes like liver so I did not really eat that part. John insisted to order another one, grilled meat. They had wine as their drink. I took tea. Later, I had a half glass of wine due to John’s friend insistence. They drink really fast. Just like drinking water.
They kept ordering, until they had consumed a total of 6 bottles of red wine. John’s friend got drunk. While John started to get tipsy. I started to feel uncomfortable. I told him I want to go back to the city centre to take my bus. It’s about 3pm already. But he said he will send me to the border. He phoned one of his friend to drive us to the border as his friend who was with us was already drunk. His drunk friend left to pick up one of his friend. It was already 4pm and his friend has not got back. I was a little alarmed, I don’t want to travel in the evening as I am not sure what to expect once I cross the border. John started to act strangely. He was flirting a lot – telling how he liked me, how he liked Asian. A lot. He started to talk about marriage, having kids, saying he has 2-room apartment and running a bar cafe whom he would re-open soon. He showed a photo of his family. Emphasizing his father, an ex-military officer who served a high rank position during the communist time. He keeps talking nonchalantly. And all the succeeding revelations shocked me and I started to feel really scared. He just got out from the prison. His family bailed him 22,00 Euros to be able to temporary get out of prison. Illegal possession of firearms and other crimes I did not fully understand. He was once into prison while still living in London – for drug trafficking. He continued talking being a member of the gang where they kidnapped some prominent personas. I excused myself telling I will go to the rest room (toilet). I approached the counter and asked if anyone speaks English. I want to get a taxi to send me to the city centre right away. The problem was his drunk friend has not yet returned and my luggage was at the back of John’s car. At about 5pm. His drunk friend with another friend returned to the restaurant. BUT I made a decision not to go with them. I don’t feel safe at all. Blessing in disguise there was some problem with the engine of his car. They try to fix and still didn’t work.
I was looking for all means of possibility to leave the place and just head to Montenegro right away. In between he was calling me and he wanted me to stay inside the car. He became touchy. I protested it. He told me I was disrespecting him. I told him he was so drunk and it felt like he was not the same person I had talked to before he offered help. Thank God one of his friend came who was supposed to drive us to the border could speak English. I asked for his help. Telling Nafo (John’s friend) that I don’t feel safe with his friend. He is a crazy mad man. I just want to take taxi and commute back to the city centre but he said sorry that he cannot help me. I went inside the restaurant.
While John nonstop beeping the car and calling my name to get inside his car. There was about 16 people inside the restaurant. All men. I approached each table asking for help. But everyone’s was just looking at me. No one dares to talk. Nor help. I felt helpless and my voice went harsh. I’ve seen the terrifying looks of the people in the restaurant. How the hell I ended up being with a notoriously dangerous man who just got out of prison. It’s not about discriminating people but I was not wise enough to read between the lines. I was again guilty of trusting people too easily.
John call another friend of him saying if his car won’t run we will use the car of his friend. Emphasizing that it was also BMW.
After some minutes his friend came, his name was Samir. John was proud to introduce himself his friend saying he’s a Muslim while he’s referring to himself as Christian and they are really good friends. He said we will use his car to drive me to the border. But that will be only the 2 of us. At some point he was holding me fiercely not wanting me to go anywhere. He kept saying that I can postponed going to Montengro and stay in Shkodër for some days. That we will drive up to the top of the mountain before we head to the border. While John kept checking what’s wrong with his car. He peed into his car engine. Disgusting! I approached Samir asked him if he speaks English and said yes. I told him I badly need his help. I just want to get out of that mess and leave the place right away. Then Samir and Nafo got into his car. I went inside as well. John asked me to get out the car, convincing me to believe that Samir refuses to drive me to the border.
Samir and John were talking in Albanian. John succeeded to get in the car as well. We were sitting at the back. Samir drove the car and we left the restaurant past half 5pm. After we crossed the Kir River, there was road that diverge one to the city centre the next one to the highway on the way the border. Samir talked to John in Albanian language and managed to make John got out of the car buy raising his voice. Almost shouted. John go out. Asking me to leave the car too and get my luggage at the back of the car. Telling me that Samir was not willing to drive me to the border. Instead I close the car door immediately and Samir drove as fast as he can. John kept calling both Samir and Nafo’s mobile phones maybe for more than 10 times. Samir became furious when his wife called him telling that John broke the glass of their hardware shop. The trouble continued. Samir told me that I finally got out of trouble. Thank God! But the crazy man started to trouble him! He decided not to call police right away and decided to confront him later.
Albania – Montenegro Border
In about 30 minutes we reached the border. I asked Samir how much I owed him. He did not let me pay him even a single bucks. He said he voluntarily helped me. At the time he arrived the restaurant he sensed the trouble. I was in a big mess.
John, according to Samir, is one of the most notoriously dangerous man living in Shkoder – always getting what he wants and do whatever pleases him. Samir gently advice me not to travel alone next time in the Balkans especially that I am woman because there are many people around like John (I learned his name actually is, Erjon Shrkeli).
On our way to the border, Samir and Nafo asked if I want to have dinner we can stop by at one of the restaurant. I said no thanks the fact that they drove me to the border, I arrived safe, I was able to fled from one of the most dangerous persona in Shkodër is more than enough for me. I convey my deepest gratitude to them for saving my life from the hand of a dangerous criminal. I walked by foot crossing the border of Albania to Montenegro. They stayed for a while. They waited for me to finish my passport check with the Immigration Police before they leave. I waved my hand and thank them again.
The Costliest Balkans Border Crossing
The border is one building. It is side by side. After checking my passport by the Albanian Immigration Police he handed my passport next to the window where the Montenegrin Officer chopped it after.
The next saga started when there are no buses or any mode of transportation except taxi to send me to my place of destination. The taxi driver approached me asking for a price of 70 Euros to send me to Tivat. I raised my voice. Saying, seriously, 70 Euros!!!! I talked to the Montenegrin police with my irritable voice and sound of desperation. Telling the police how my day went to almost like a nightmare.
I throught of trying to ask people if I can ride their car. If there are people who will go to Tivat. The Police Officer told me that maybe up to Ulcinj. I have to spend the evening there then I can catch the bus at 7am to Tivat. But I have my hostel booked already and I am just determined to reach the place of my destination and take refuge after the whole day drama-filled chaos.
I am not really keen to pay 70 Euros because that is way too much for a Balkan standard. I even insisted that I can fly from country to another for just 25 Euros! I haggled once and remain silent. Until we meet at 50 Euros. Afterward, I apologized to Merli for my hyper reaction because of what just took place for the day.
12.22pm. Hostel Anton. Mazina Bb. Tivat, Montenegro. 23022016.
I swear this is the most terrifying crossing border I ever had within the Balkans area. Shall it not to Samir and Nafo who served as my living guardian Angels, I don’t know where will I be found now.