After spending four nights in Kotor, Montenegro, I had decided it was time to move on. While the tiny village had a personality all its own, I knew if I wanted to see more countries in the time I had left, I’d need to get going.
During my stay I had befriended a Canadian girl who was bunking in my same Hostel. We ended up doing a paid tour of Montenegro and I quickly knew she was one of my people. Outgoing, kind, no one in the room wasn’t her friend, she fit the Canadian stereotype quite perfectly.
She was also going to head south toward Albania, but had decided she wanted to stay a night over in Shkoder as there was a castle there she heard was worth checking out. With no plans and somewhat tired of traveling solo, we decided we’d travel together, then head to Tirana the following day.
We caught our bus at 10am, and prepped for our nearly six hour ride. On the way to the bus, an Aussie friend Canada had known was headed the same direction and the three of us climbed the bus together.
At the second stop our bus made in Budva, another Aussie who had been on our paid tour two days before climbed aboard. She had ventured out to Budva for the night and was also headed to Shkoder. Such a small little world. The four of us girls, each traveling solo but crossing paths, sat in the back of the bus like middle school, sharing stories of the sexual escapades and lost watches that went missing from a night of skinny dipping before. I, unfortunately, wasn’t a contributor to these entertaining convos as I was tucked in bed at a ripe 9pm promptly after dinner, but I enjoyed the stories and listened with intrigue, and a bit of envy.
We arrived in Shkoder at three in the afternoon. The bus pulled to the side of the road and kicked us out. It didn’t seem like a bus station we’d usually expect, but the three of us got off as directed, as the other Aussie was going to continue straight through to Tirana. We grabbed our bags and GPS’ed our hostel and started walking.
From almost the minute we stepped foot in the city, something seemed a bit different. Many, many people were staring, perhaps just a bit longer than the usual time you’d expect. We must look like tourists, is all I could come up with.
After unloading our bags at the Hostel and asking the front desk about the castle, we decided we’d make the 45 minute walk to the castle. Out through the town, a couple of turns, and a few more stops to pet the many, many stray dogs that roam the city, we were lost.
I had been banking on their excellent navigation skills, as we all know I have none. Not only is my moral compass broken, but so is my internal. Aussie said she’d pop into the store and ask the owner where we were on the map. Canada and I stayed standing on the street.
Aussie came back and was repeating what the store owner had told her, when a very beautiful girl, in her mid-20’s, dressed to the 9’s with a face out of a MAC makeup ad, showed up out of no where.
“Do you need help?” she asked.
“Oh, uh, I don’t think so. We were just trying to figure out the best way to walk to the castle, but I think we got it.”
“Oh, you can’t walk!” She told us. “It’s over an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Very very far outside of town. You should take a taxi.”
“A taxi? Hour and a half? Our hostel told us 35-40 minutes?” We were so confused.
“No no. It’s much much farther.” I showed her the map on my phone and asked if that was the castle she was talking about. Surely we weren’t talking of the same one.
“Yes that is it but it is not 40 minutes. It’s hour and a half walk. You should take a taxi. I can get you one. Just follow me.”
Hesitant, and confused, the girls and I looked at each other.
“I don’t think we want to take a taxi. It’s hard with the language and we were planning to walk.”
“No no. You mustn’t walk” she pushed it. “You can also take a bus there. The bus goes directly to the castle.”
We paused again. Looking at each other confused and trying to figure this girl out. She was very nice, but something was so weird. Why was she so against walking? Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of any form of caloric burn, but this girl looks like she runs marathons in her free time.
Everyone is Europe is always such a pusher for walking. “Oh sure!” They always tell me. “The Eiffel Tower is just down the street and to the left!.” Failing to mention “just down the street” is a 15k with a couple rope climbs in between. But this girl, she really wanted us to take vehicular transport.
In our continued hesitation and indecisiveness, we told her “oh thank you. But the bus is hard to navigate since they don’t often speak English and we were thinking we’d walk.”
“No no” she pushes again. “You can come with me. I am going there now.”
“Wait..” I chimed in. “Uh.. you’re going to the Castle?”
“Right.. now? On the bus?” Now I was utterly confused.
“Yes, I am going there right now. Just come with me I will show you.”
Now my mother would tell you that my people-reader is broken and I get in too many cars and trust people way too much. That I see the world through rose-colored glasses and perhaps I’m wreckless with my own safety. So imagine my surprise when I felt for the first time, this stinging sickness in my gut. Thoughts started registering.
What in the fuck. How have we had this entire 7 minute conversation on the street about getting to the castle and only now does she mention that she is also going there? Why would a local be going there anyway?
Something wasn’t right and the girls and I knew it, all exchanged by momentary glances to each other.
“Oh thank you,” I told her, “but we actually just got here and don’t have any Albanian money yet.”
“Oh no problem! I will pay for you. All of you. Just come with me,” she offered.
Well, this is my moment, I thought. The one my mom has been prepping me for since I was 5 years old. Including, but not exclusively, to right before this trip when I was leaving.
“You can’t go travel alone, Tash,” she told me one day in the kitchen.
“Sure I can. Why not? People do it all the time.”
“Yeah. But you’re a girl. And a blonde hair, blue-”
I cut her off. “-Blue eyed, American girl that would go for a lot of money in the sex-trafficking. That’s what you were going to say, weren’t you? Cause that’s what you’ve told me since Kindercare.”
“Yes! I just worry for you. You’re so pretty and you don’t realize it and people would pay good money..”
“Mom,” I tried to console her. “I promise you if I were kidnapped the buyer would return me in no time on the premise of ‘used goods’. I’ll be home before you know it. Promise.”
She was less than amused and as usual, only one of us was laughing at my jokes at the kitchen table.
So this moment, this moment of gut-sick feelings and an unexplained “get the fuck out of here”, I knew this was my moment to shine. My mom would be so proud of me, I silently congratulated myself.
“Oh no, we couldn’t accept that. You can’t pay for 3 of us. Why would you do that?” I asked.
“Oh it’s no problem. Tickets are cheap and it’s just what we Albanians do” she assured us.
You Albanians also kidnap people from your gangs, according to Taken. (My one and only movie reference you’ll ever see me make, by the way. Not an avid movie watcher, but a friend text me after the event asking ‘isn’t that where Taken was based out of?.. I looked it up. It was an Albanian gang. This wraps up my Hollywood knowledge- credit should actually go to Ian for this tho. Thanks for watching out, bud.)
At that point we wrapped up and said it was too much work and we were going to go back to our hostel. She got a phone call while talking to us and we ran (against my preferred method of movement) the fuck out of there.
I was so proud of myself for avoiding what was a bad situation. Whether it was going to be a robbery or kidnapping, I don’t know. I just DO know, with certainty, it was something bad. My mother never gave me the kudos I deserved, in fact, I was waiting for a surprise delivery basket of “Congrats for not getting trafficked”, but it’s been a few weeks and I’m still basket-less. Rude, Mom. Rude.
I did, however, get a kudos from one of my best friend Steph who stated “this may be the first time in history you’ve ever turned down a ride from a stranger.” She’s not wrong. And, thank you. My gut isn’t broken!
The day hadn’t been weird enough so we decided to wander to get food while it was still light out, us all agreeing that we would be staying in after dark, and also forcing Aussie to come with us tomorrow and that she would not be traveling solo. She agreed without complaint.
We walked the Main Street to an ATM and the girls were getting out cash as I stood against a building. I admired a beautiful mosque across the street. A man in a wheelchair started rolling my way, yelling at me in Albanian, but not in a mean way, I don’t think, just loudly. I smiled and looked away, not quite sure what was going on.
He took off a ring from his finger (in America what would be the wedding ring finger) and was pushing it towards me, as some sort of offering. Confused, I shook my head saying “no thanks.”
He continued yelling and trying to give me this ring. The girls were confused but laughing, saying “I think he’s trying to propose.”
At that time, that man took his two index fingers and started rubbing them against each other. Then pointing to me. Then him. Then fingers rubbing.
“What the fuck is going on you guys? I think he wants more than marriage. Also, should someone tell him that’s not how it’s done?” I asked.
When I’m extremely uncomfortable, I have found I laugh. Like really really really laugh. It’s not to be rude, and generally someone in a wheelchair I would never even laugh in the direction of, i’d worry they’d think I’d in anyway be laughing at them. I’m not. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t. But between the girl just prior situation and now this, I had apparently hit my peak. The girls and I were laughing, confused and stressed out, and walked away.
We grabbed some outside tables at a restaurant and sat down. Canada had now started calling our friend “Wheelie”, informing us he was coming back again and to be prepared. He continued to do this the entire length of dinner. He proved harmless, we were just really confused as to what he wanted, exactly.
Dinner was mostly successful, but the final twist of weirdness was saved for the end of our meal. A kid about 10 or 12 years old approached us outside, holding a scale. He then said something we didn’t understand and we told him we only speak English. He then pulled out some coins from his pocket, then pointed to his scale.
“Uh.. does he want us to buy the scale?” One of us asked.
“Or.. I think he wants us to pay him to weigh ourself?”
“Well, that’s the last fucking thing I want to do after demolishing dinner. What is going on here?!”
We all looked at each other, confused, and then again…laughing. Our waiter came out about that time and said something to the boy, and he left.
To this day I don’t know if he wanted us to purchase the scale, or find out how much we weigh. Neither, at this point, would surprise me. I still think about him, though.
On our walk back to the hostel, I remembered we needed to buy water. We had read you can’t drink the tap in Shkoder and with all the things going on, I wasn’t really ready to risk getting sick and having to stay any longer. Aussie and I ventured the street to find the supermarket.
Not seeing any clear signs, I found a man outside a shop and walked in a small, 30 foot by 30 foot space. I quickly realized this was not a store. It was his home.
There was a bed through the right of the door, and refrigerator against the wall on the right, and a small, 1970s tv sitting on a nightstand in front of a recliner.
“Oh, sorry.” I told him as I went to turn around, although he seemed completely unphased by my entering his home.
I pointed to my water and started to head for the door. He stopped me, went to his fridge, and under his homemade meals on the top shelf, were lots of 1 liter water bottles on the bottom. He grabbed one and handed it to me.
Hmm. I thought I’d try my luck. I made the gesture of smoking, wondering if he had cigarettes, too. After the day we had, nothing sounded better than nicotine.
He reached under his small tv, pulled aside a little curtain, and showed me a stock of random cigarette boxes he’d collected. I pointed to one and he handed it to me. The calculator he kept on his nightstand rang me up at 352. I paid the man and walked out of his home. I felt a little rude not bringing a welcoming gift, and decided should I come back to be more polite and bring a gift for having me in his home.
“Well, that was weird.” I told Aussie.
“Yep.” She agreed.
And with that, we walked back to our Hostel to hide for then night until morning came and we could try to see the castle again. We did successfully make it there the next day, with the accompaniment of a stray dog the entire time.
Aussie hung out with us in our room since she got put in a different one. “Does your toilet drop water out the back?” For those of you that have traveled Europe, you’d know that no two toilets are the same and where you flush, push the handle, sometimes even sit, can be a mystery.
“Meh, no. I don’t know. Maybe ours pushes water out the back and I didn’t notice.” I said. Not thinking much if it. Still, kinda weird to notice. And then she sent me a video from her room with “does yours do this?”
And I have never laughed that hard in my entire life.
We all caught the bus late afternoon then next day to head to Tirana, in hopes a second chance was what Albania needed. And we all swore we’d never, ever return to Shkoder.