Traveling in the Balkans is a daunting task. But as a PCV in Albania I thought, how hard can it really be? I mean, I live in the Balkans and this is my life; I’m no tourist. Little did I know, the only reason I can successfully get myself around Albania is because I speak the language. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted and totally forget when they become second nature.
So for the last 8 days I was traveling around Serbia and Bosnia. By bus and train might I add. When I couldn’t buy tickets or reserve seats online I wasn’t surprised. Same deal in Albania, no problem. Two furgons and a bus later we showed up at the train station, bought our tickets 2 minutes before it left. Wiping the sweat off our brows, we sighed in relief and settled into our seats for the 9 hour ride ahead of us. But then we pulled into the next station and, I kid you not, about 200 more people got on the train. Yup, they sell more tickets than there are seats. For an overnight train. And it turns out that if you live there you can go to the station ahead of time and reserve a seat in person. Pure panic began to set in as we realized we’d have to stand the entire way to Belgrade.
Thankfully our desperation caught the attention of an English speaking local who finagled the system and got us beds in the sleeping car for an extra 10 euros. Crisis #1 of the trip averted.
After an amazing 3 days in Belgrade we ventured off for Sarajevo. Compared to Serbia, Bosnia is way more like Albania than I thought it would be. Serbia has street signs and buses with schedules and maps of the city and English speakers everywhere. It’s a tourists dream. Bosnia on the other hand has no of those things (hence the comparison to Albania). For the first time in my PC service I began to understand just how frustrating poor tourists must feel when they enter Albania for the first time.
Let this small example give you a glimpse into what I’m talking about. We wanted to take a day trip to the city of Mostar (absolutely beautiful, check out the pictures below). So we hoped on the city bus headed in the direction of the bus/train station. I went up to the driver and in piece-meal English with hands flying trying to make symbols I attempted to as if the bus was going to the big station. He nodded in agreement and signaled with his hand that it was down the road. After 10 minutes of weaving around town I was starting to get worried. No sign of the station. So I asked again, “bus station?” He motioned for me to sit down and relax and again signaled with his hand that it was farther down the road. But when I sat down, the man next to me shook his head. “No bus, no bus. Mostar. Taxi!” He was saying. Then he went into a long rant in Bosnian with big arm motions that I couldn’t understand in the slightest. “Taxi? No bus Mostar?” I asked him again. He nods and repeats “No bus. Taxi!” But I’m no fool, I’m not about to pay a taxi when I know that there are many buses to Mostar if only I can get to the bus stations. So I look at the girl next to me (she was about 14 which means she must have an English teacher somewhere and speak at least basic English.). “English?” I asked her. She said yes and attempted to translate what he was saying but it still wasn’t making any sense.
At this point we had attracted the attention of the entire bus and everyone was swarming around us motioning behind us with their hands and screaming things in Bosnian (because saying it louder is going to make me understand better of course). Almost in tears I sat back down and shrugged my shoulders showing them I didn’t understand. Low and behold, some lady from the back of the bus gets up and walks over and in perfect English says “Okay, to end the confusion, get off the bus get a taxi to the station and you’ll find the buses to Mostar there.” I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to slap her for waiting so long or hug her for finally helping me out.
One taxi ride later we got to the bus station only to realize that we’d just missed the bus to Mostar. We waited 2 hours to catch the next one and thankfully ended up in Mostar later that day. Only to be stranded there the next morning because there are no buses down to Albania or anywhere near. Why? Oh yea, that pesky little more that happened a few years ago ruined all relations in the region. Should have figured.
I swear, I almost kissed the first person I saw speaking Albanian when we crossed the border. Finally home and in a place where things make sense (never thought I’d say that!). My advice to all you travelers out there, find a local who speaks English and don’t let go. Oh and build an extra 48 hours into your schedule just in case. You’ll need it.
But since I’m writing this happily from my home in Shkoder you can rest assured, I made it home 16 hours, 10 stops, and 3 buses later. Traveling in the Balkans is far from easy. Especially if you don’t speak the language. There are no schedules. There is limited to no information online. Things to operate the way they would in the rest of the world. And you have no way to figure it out. So suck it up and go with the flow and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a long one. Thank god for the kind people who continue to help you in their native language regardless of how much you are understanding. They mean so well and they want so much to help you. They may be poor and backwards and lacking basic infrastructure, but the people of the Balkans define the word hospitality.
“It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”