East European Experiments


Leaving Home, Returning
Art of Losing Things
Ladi's Story
Media Vultures

Albania map

About this project
Vlora Tourism Information
I. Leaving Home, Returning Home

It was 9:00 AM Friday morning, and all the luggage was lined neatly in the driveway of the Peace Corps compound. The outside doors were still shut, although we could hear the usual hustle and bustle of Albanians going about their business. As long as one overlooked the automatics firing incessantly into the air, the day seemed no different from any other. We had waited in the compound all night; the afternoon before, we were to take a charter flight, but the airport was no longer safe. Very little of the capital city seemed safe anymore. The office of the opposition newspaper a block away had been burned a week before. A five-minute walk away, surrounded by gyrating floodlights, was the headquarters of VEFA, the largest pyramid scheme rumored to go under soon. We heard gunfire all night, much of it coming from Qemal Stafa, the street we were on. Qemal Stafa was a small narrow street overflowing with activity. I'm a continent away, but I can still visualize this narrow street always overflowing with activity.

Often I couldn't tell the difference between the noise of bullets firing and housewives beating their carpets on the stairwell.  

By necessity I walked on it at least three times a day whenever I was in Tirana. Inevitably I would run into a person I knew: a volunteer, a relative of my host family or a missionary I'd met the day before. I developed film at one of the shops, gotten sick from sausages at another shop, bought a bike from one of the sidewalk vendors, drank at one or two of the bars, passed by vendors selling trinkets, schoolbooks and pornographic cards. A friend of my host family sold shoes one block down from the Peace Corps office; at another kiosk a beautiful young girl sold byrek meat pies for 50 cents. Next to Peace Corps, a family used their back door as a makeshift storefront. A woman in her fifties sat next to stacks of Cheetos and candy bars, calling "Nje Pepsi" to her daughter behind the curtain inside. Because of the pedestrian traffic, furniture on the sidewalks, horses, cars and bicycles, I usually had to change the side of the street I walked on several times. 50 yards away stood the VEFA supermarket that had been blown up by the mafia. 100 yards away in the other direction stood another building which had also been blown up in the past year--I forget the reason why.

Although common sense told us not to wander away from the sheltered parts of the compound, we did so anyway out of restlessness. Except for a few times when the gunfire seemed terrifyingly close, the noise seemed like nothing more than firecrackers. Often I couldn't tell the difference between the noise of bullets firing and housewives beating their carpets on the stairwell. During the evening the bullets dominated the night sounds, but by morning, the carpetbeaters had recaptured their advantage over Kalashnikovs in the furious battle of sounds.

PCV's playing the guitar
As automatic weapons fire constantly around the Peace Corps compound and stray bullets land haphazardly on Scrabble games, volunteers kill time by playing the guitar  

A few shells landed on the grounds and occasionally on the table where volunteers played cards, but for the most part we tried not to think about the danger. Every few minutes we could hear the sounds of helicopters in the sky, a noise unusual enough that families in nearby apartments stood on their balconies pointing at the sky.

Once the signal was given, the outer doors were opened, and we hustled into our buses with the one bag we were allowed. The embassy compound was 4 or 5 miles away and a fairly direct ride. I took out my camera intending to take one or two last pictures before I left this country for good. Who knew how long it would be before I returned? We were loaded in five minutes and turned to Elbasan Road. I scanned the streets trying to detect some sign of change in the people. But really there no little change. Sure, one man on a bicycle hauled a Kalishnikov on his shoulder, and people were walking at a faster pace than usual, but the surface appearances was reassuring. I was about to take a picture, but didn't have the heart (or the shamelessness) to do so. Would people outside the bus see me? Would they know that this was the last time I could be seeing Tirana? To take a picture was to declare one's detachment from the conflicts. It was to admit that your attitude toward the place was really no better than of a tourist.

We arrived at the embassy compound in five minutes where we were met by a jeep full of young marines. Although ten or so marines were digging trenches, it was really impossible to guard the people outside from crazy snipers. Thank god, the rrugash hadn't decided that the Americans were to blame.

The four tables were set up near a basketball goal. Most of the marines were younger than we were, but we let them do their job, marveling at the accents and the signs of Americana in their behavior. They did the processing with lightning speed. Sure, we had cards to fill out and rubber bands to attach, but before long the choppers came and we were running up the helicopter ramp, fastening seat beats and donning earphones as the helicopter ascended. By this time, I had lost all shame about taking pictures and was clicking away.

rain forest
View of the peaceful Albanian countryside, as seen from the hatch of a US military helicopter.  

Amazingly, the back hatch remained open throughout the entire 30 minute trip. I sat at the very back, and although I felt in no danger of falling out, I had to wonder what aspect of gravitational force ensured that we would not do so. Although the helicopters had literally come out of the sky and yanked the Americans away from the turmoil, it was still possible to see what you were leaving through the back hatch, the stunning countryside, the terraced hills, the occasional signs of life below us, the life we once led and could never return to. This was Albania, running away underneath us. So much for fond farewells, I remember thinking with a sigh. The political conflict seemed so unreal from the air. Nothing about the fields and trees and simple houses hinted at a deeper, more insidious political disease. Even under the throes of communism, the landscape must have looked calm, even peaceful, from thousands of feet in the air. Only a few were lucky enough to reach such a vantage point.

Soon we were over water, and in ten minutes the naval airship came within view. As soon as we scurried out, the helicopter darted away. A group took pictures as we went down a ramp into the ship interior. Marines sat beside us, waiting to catch the next helicopter, while the line moved quickly through the narrowing walls into the bowels of the ship. At the bottom of the ramp was an amazing sight: rows of tables and chairs lined the large auditorium. At each table waited a worker with paperwork to do. On the other side was a snack bar full of pastries and hot cocoa. Hot cocoa!! Marines with clipboards directed me to the first station where I had to show a passport. Next table was a station where I had to give medical information. Next table I had to give information about any Americans stranded in Albania.. Next table gave me a short rundown of the ship and emergency procedures . Everything went like clockwork. Every single action was regulated according to a rigorous protocol that had been practiced many times already. Just standing in the wrong line prompted a young marine to tap you on the shoulder and correct you. We had gone from extreme to the other: from a state that had tried (unsuccessfully) to control every action to a artificial underground world ruled by a benevolent regimentation. For once we were safe and somebody was in charge. We welcomed the regimentation and were awed by how quickly it was working. Next we were escorted by groups (no more than 10!) to the mess hall, where an assembly line cafeteria fed us fishsticks, hamburgers, salads, rolls, dessert and drinks. The seats were small and undoubtedly designed to maximize the amount of people who could fit in the room at the same time (never doubt military efficiency!) All the time we kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you, this is wonderful. An American volunteer sat at my table beside his newly married Albanian wife with a plate of food. It was her first taste of America, and she seemed determined to like it.

Next Section: The Art of Losing Things