It’s Throwback Thursday. This is a letter from November, 1993. I edited out the middle of the letter, where I talk about our time in Vlora, for reasons of length. But I remember we went swimming in the Adriatic Sea on the last day in October. The return bus trip was on Halloween night and there was a full orange moon. At least that’s what my memory tells me.
November, 6, 1993
Albania is where old buses go to end their careers. Tirana city buses display the liveries of Brussels, Geneva, Leon, Milan, Bari, Dubrovnik, Prague and Sofia. It says lots about Albanian mass transit when they take cast off Eastern European buses. Anila says in future years tourists will flock to Albania because it’s a living bus museum. The tourism ministry will take over mass transit and Western European tourists will pay to ride into nostalgia on Albanian buses.
The buses have some of the old advertisements from their cities and new advertisements cut from magazines which the driver thinks will look nice on his bus. There are some pages of nude women from Italian magazines. Anila asks “Is it usual to have pornography on your buses? I think it is sort of a freedom… for men.”
Last weekend Anila decided that we should see Vlora where her family is from. She and her husband Romeo were our guides. Several companies are licensed to travel a route and they run sort of a schedule. You go to a square where busses leave, find one with the name of your destination and get on. It leaves either at a fixed time or, more likely, when full. In return for a franchise the bus pays a passenger tax. They pay it in advance and are supplied vouchers to give passengers. When you buy a 160 lek ticket you are supposed to get four 40 lek vouchers. When the police stop the bus, and they will, they ask passengers to produce the vouchers. If you don’t have one the conductor gets a fine for tax evasion. The 5 of us should have been given 20 vouchers but, of course, we were only given 11. The conductor evaded taxes on nearly half the fare. Since the police only ask to see a voucher and don’t ask us how far we’re going, tax evasion is easy. The police also check to make sure there are no standees – not so much for the safety of the passengers but as an opportunity for a bribe.
The bus to Vlora was an old Italian one. The ride was fun, especially at dusk when farmers bring in their cows, geese, chickens and other livestock. Many farmers live in apartment blocks in the middle of their formerly collective farms. It’s strange to see apartment blocks rising in the middle of nowhere and stranger to see livestock driven into these blocks.
Just after sundown the bus ran out of gas. It should have left Vlora that morning with enough for the round trip, but the driver said that the operator of the government gas monopoly shorted him. Most of the passengers hitched to Vlora. There were 5 of us, we couldn’t fit in any one car and we don’t want to split up. The driver said not to worry, another bus would be by in half an hour. Forty Five minutes later a former Czech bus picked us up. As we got on the driver told us to hurry because he was running low on gas. He ran out on the hill going into Vlora right near the “Welcome to Vlora” flag monument, so he poured a little more into the tank from a spare can. We made it to the top of the hill and coasted into town. When gravity and inertia ended, so did the ride. We walked the last 10 minutes.
The bus back to Tirana had, in a past life, been used for a touring country music band. It was painted red white and blue with stars, stripes, and the name “Mirka Hoffmana.” There was other stuff written in, I think, Slovenian. But the words “Country Music” were in English. It had an orange shag carpeted dashboard. There were the inevitable pin-ups and a nude Barbi Doll hanging from the rear view mirror. (Note, as I edit this in 2014 I decided to Google Mirka Hoffman and Novi Zelenaci (http://www.zelenaci.cz/). I find it is a Czech Band, “Mirka Hoffman and the New Suckers” started in 1974 and are still going. The band’s website, in Google translation, bills it as a “tribal band.” And to think, I rode on their bus.)
It was a happy bus. The conductor was guardian of the cassette player, and we had music all he way home. A panel of judges consisting of the driver, conductor and a passenger played tapes passed forward by passengers. Paula Abdul got the most airplay, with Ace of Bass and Dire Straits putting in respectable performances. Metallica probably would have had a longer run but the cassette machine ate the tape. Albanian folk music only got a short hearing, as did an old tape of Fabian, “I’m a Tiger.” True to its calling as the Country Music Bus, Chet Atkins got a song and a half before Paula Abdul made it back on the charts.
Every seat on the bus was full. In Fieri we picked up an entire wedding party going to Durres. The party continued in the bus with dancing in the isles and bottles of raki in green knock off “Mountain Dew” bottles passed around for everyone (including the driver, I fear). I wondered about the no standee rule. But when we were stopped in a police roadblock I looked and NO ONE WAS STANDING. Everyone was absorbed into the rows, smiling and waiving pink vouchers. I don’t know how they did it. But the police left the bus. Everyone exhaled, reshuffled and resumed dancing in the isles. At the next roadblock the same thing happened. NO ONE WAS STANDING. Everyone was still smiling and waving vouchers. Then someone passed the cop the green bottle.