Catching up on this item from December:

Eaten up by the east: embarrassed in Albania (Dec. 5, 2012)

A former tour guide, Carla Pratt figured it took a lot to rattle her when travelling. But a simple bus trip in Albania was enough to make her question all her travel skills.

If you suffer from motion sickness, are a stickler for the law or have a problem with being gawked at — do not attempt the Albanian bus system.

I had been totally over-confident about this. I was well-travelled, having worked as a tour guide in Europe for two years, and I knew how to bus myself around. I had worked on boats in both Croatia and Greece, so I knew how to deal with seasickness….

To get to, around and out of Albania, there are two simple options: bus or taxi. Bus, the obvious choice for the backpacker, is, quite simply, a unique experience. No one sits up the back, the closer to the front the better, and the locals get pushy…The driver was the only person with an operable, open window. Forget the snowflake sticker on the side advertising air-conditioning. This was just something the company was aspiring to. Possibly in 2024.

Post-communist Albania, the birthplace of dear Mother Teresa and anti-rust paint, is the most intense country I have ever visited…

I had been warned about Albania. Two Europeans I had met a week ago said it was dangerous and they considered it a no-go zone. They said the only people stupid enough to visit were Australians and Americans because they hadn’t been informed.

For the first time in my travels I felt like I was getting myself into trouble. And it felt amazing. Nothing is safe, organised or dependable. A mule sporting bright pink pom-poms attached to its bridle pulls young, weather-hardened workers down country roads, with old car interiors serving as makeshift seats…

No one on the bus is listening to music, I assume because they don’t have iPhones. When crossing the border into Albania, the passport stamp hasn’t changed date for three days, and no one gave a shit. Not to mention the universal head-shake laws of “yes” and “no” are totally reversed.

Hours later we arrived into the chaotic capital, driving past line after line of street vendors selling their wares. The city still showcased the scars of its volatile past governance with dilapidated, multicoloured apartment blocks clogging the streets. Albanians call their country Shqipëria, which since 1992 has switched from a tightly controlled communist regime to a free market free-for-all.

It was now my turn to fork out some money for the driver and his wingman who were holding my luggage hostage on the side of a busy main street…One minute, one minute!” I gestured, running to an ATM about 100 metres away.

Card in. Pin accepted. Amount selected. Error. Card out.

I could see another ATM close by…Repeat process. Declined again. Shit.

In my anxious quest for money, I hadn’t noticed the little crowd I seemed to have pulled. Two legless beggars had hobbled over to the area, stationing themselves firmly on the other side of the glass security door. They began to bang on the door, wailing, getting louder and louder, hands outreached for my money.

By this point I was beginning to totally stress out. I was in a foreign country, I had no money and I could see my bag capturers irritably looking around for me. They were going to leave any minute.

How the hell was I supposed to get past these beggars? I couldn’t just barge them over. They were already legless for Christ’s sake. I made haste for the door, eyeing them warningly, braced and ready to push through.

Within seconds a baton was reigning down over the backs of my followers as a bulky policeman, who must have seen my predicament, came to my rescue. He pulled them from the door allowing me to pass, following me close behind as I stalked back towards the bus…

Hands in the air trying to minimise the language barrier, I tried to explain my situation to the driver. I figured something was better than nothing, and pushed €20 towards him again. He snatched it off me, whipped a dismissing hand at me, kicked my bag over and left. Great, just great.

The policeman had stood firm for the duration of this exchange. He wanted a handout too. I was pissed off. This would never happen at home. I quickly reasoned that as a single, young and foreign female, I wouldn’t be too good at putting up a fight. I’d seen Taken. I shoved a €20 note in his direction.

He looked confused.

“I don’t want your money. I was just making sure you were OK!” he said in perfect English, shaking his head at me.

“Keep watch of your bag or it won’t be there soon,” he chuckled, walking away.

I was mortified. How embarrassing. I had no clue what I was doing or how to read these people. Was I really that stupid Aussie that ignored warnings? Was I ignorant? I had been bitten, swallowed whole and spat up again in the space of three mere minutes.

I plopped myself down into the gutter, right next to the donkey poo, just where I belonged.