Mimi Johnson has seen the world and lived to tell the tale. In ‘Riding in Cars With Albanian Boys’ she blesses us with her worldwide wisdom and memories of life pre-iso.
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As we enter our umpteenth week of self-isolation and physical-distancing measures begin to tighten across the country (a little late in my opinion, but gold star for trying ScoMo), the reality of a world-wide travel ban starts to sink in. Along with every other privileged uni student this week I kissed goodbye to my plans of a thotty, white-girl, European summer and reluctantly cancelled my upcoming trip to Yacht Week Croatia. The thought of being stuck in the outer suburbs of Brisbane indefinitely was almost as depressing as me crying after being let go from a job I never liked. Thanks a lot Covid, you bitch. Now the extent of my travel plans consist of a weekly trip to the grocery store, which has sadly become the highlight of my week and my only motivation to put pants on. As I drive through the quiet streets I notice the only people left on the roads are hoons and p-platers who think they’re above the social-distancing law. Their lack of respect for road rules and desire to drag race me at the lights stirred up fond memories of my trip to Albania and I spent the rest of my day reminiscing.
Growing up in Australia my parents told me to never get into a car with a stranger. Most kids my age were taught the same basic rules regarding cars and the road. You know the ones; don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know, don’t drink and drive, don’t speed, wear your seatbelt, don’t text and drive, don’t spill that Macca’s McFlurry down the back seat, et cetera et cetera. With these road rules cemented in my mind, my first week in Albania was a shock to the system.
I’d met up with a friend to travel around the country for a month, neither of us were great at planning things in advance so we arrived in Tirana airport with just an oversized backpack and not much else. As we made our way around the capital city it became apparent that perhaps Albanian kids were not taught these same set of road rules, or any at all.
Under communist control until 1992, Albanians were a little late to the automotive game. It might be that cars are still a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon there or likely that there’s just not enough education on safe driving. Either way, Albania has the third highest death toll rate for road accidents in Europe and I can’t say I’m surprised. We stayed in Tirana and met a couple of local guys over drinks in town. We chatted and giggled, and they invited us for a drive to the lake on the outskirts of the city. We knew nothing about these guys (except that they were tanned, European, and exotic) so naturally we all squeezed into their 2002 Mitsubishi Lancer and headed to a remote location. Sorry Mum.
There were not enough seatbelts to go around but luckily for us that was not an issue as Albanians don’t feel the need to use them. I certainly did. Every rule I’d been taught as a kid was thrown out the window, along with a couple of empty beer cans. As we sped out of town I felt a queeinsess come over me and stuck my head out the window. I admired the pretty flowers along the roadside until it dawned on me that they were memorials for people who’d died in collisions. I stuck my head back in and wound the window up.
Surprisingly we survived our first ride with Albanian boys, making it back to town alive and in record time (speed limits and traffic lights mean little to locals). With our first experience with Albanian drivers fresh in our minds we decided to take the bus to our next destination. We boarded the bus alongside a bunch of pushy Albanian women, several of them clutching bundled up dead poultry from the morning markets. The driver chatted into his Nokia flip phone with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other, managing to narrowly miss stray goats and large pot holes here and there as we clunked along the dirt roads. As the seats all filled up, people packed into the aisle like sardines and we found ourselves squatting on the floor.
Whether from the heat or the sweet smell of freshly killed poultry hanging in the air, a woman towards the front of the bus collapsed and fell into the girl next to her. As if it was a daily occurrence the passengers surrounding her swiftly raised her legs and fanned her face, bringing her back to consciousness. We arrived at our new destination and exited the bus a little too hastily after that. Personal space is not an option on Albanian buses and I really wonder how the country will come to terms with the idea of social-distancing.
As we hitchhiked and bused our way along the Adriatic coastline, our parents concerned voices were pushed to the back of our minds. We became more and more accustomed to the Albanian way of life and literally let the locals take the wheel. During our month in Albania we’d travelled over 300km, making our way up to Lake Ohrid and the Macedonian border. We had paid less for transport in four weeks than you’d pay for one double shot iced almond latte in a Melbourne cafe.
Like any Australian, I’d had my hesitations about hitchhiking before Albania – hello? Wolf Creek. However, I’d come to realise that not every friendly man with a moustache offering a lift was going to take you back to his shed and murder you (although, one man did swear he had connections to the Albanian Mafia). All in all, hitchhiking was definitely the best way to get around the country and I know one thing for certain, riding in buses with Albanian women is not nearly as cool as riding in cars with Albanian boys.
So if you’re like me and the only way you cope with self-isolation is to plan future European trips and post #TBT bikini pics, I offer you a few words of advice. Albanians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and the beaches are like that scene from Mamma Mia! where they sing Lay All Your Love On Me – you know the one. If you’re planning a trip to the Adriatic Sea (once international travel isn’t a criminal offence and we’re allowed to touch each other again) I would recommend visiting Albania. I’d also recommend travel insurance, and I’d definitely recommend riding in cars with Albanian boys.
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@mimiijohnson is a bootscootin’ travel babe from Brisbane. She enjoys conquering the world, eating weird vegetables, and making freaky cocktails in her kitchen. Mim has loads more travel stories up her sleeve that we hope to share with you soon.