Pogradec, Albania

I’ve travelled a lot, often as a solo female, and I’ve seen a lot. I lived in a refugee camp for six months with barely any electricity, no running water and surrounded by people I could barely communicate with. I’ve lived in countries where I can’t speak the language and where the locals are less than friendly to outsiders, and I’ve witnessed extreme poverty and sweatshops. I’ve felt vulnerable on plenty of occasions, albeit it usually because of my own preconceptions rather than for any tangible reason.

But crossing the border from Macedonia to Albania on Lake Ohrid, I am ashamed to say I was completely out of my comfort zone and I found the visit really difficult.

Interestingly, I read this blog before we crossed the border, and the experience was, in many ways, exactly what Nate experienced in 2013, and I think I’d unconsciously prepared myself even for the prospect of finding a dead dog on the beach as Nate did in 2013!

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We crossed the border, in the same beautiful scenery as Macedonia, and pulled up by a “beach” (read: imported sand), and we were hit by an absolutely awful stench. I’m not even sure what it was, but if someone had told me there was a dead dog 5 metres away that would have fit with the smell.

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We crossed the road and went into this ‘nature reserve’ which boasted natural springs, similar to the ones we had seen about 1k before in Sv Naum. The water, though, wasn’t as clear. Even 100m or so from the springs it was cloudy and had bottles and cigarette butts floating in it. For some reason we also didn’t seem to have the option of getting to the springs themselves, but I’m fairly sure water bottles don’t miraculously materialise from underneath the ground.

The first people we walked past were all homeless, all begging us for money. We hadn’t seen a cash point, and had only a few useless Macedonian Denar – no help there. And the deprivation was obvious. So many people. We wandered around a bit, past a group of Albanian teenagers who were possibly on some kind of school trip that seemed to involve smoking on the bridge and taking selfies, and a coachload of European tourists, some from Britain, and then we carried on to Pogradec. There was nothing there and we couldn’t buy lunch without any money. And the smell was still there.

Before we got there, though, we came across this and had to pull over. It looked so out of place, completely deserted. It was only May, maybe that was why. The water is still a bit cold, but it was high 20s (C) outside.

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What I missed when I took this second picture is the man leading how cow down to the lake to have a drink.

We wandered back to the car and wandered past a young couple holding hands. Nothing strange there, other than the stares we got. And I mean real stares. Really, really hostile. Nat laughed and I pointed out that he was carrying an SLR. Probably worth more than the annual wages of that couple. That’s if there were even jobs for them in this deserted place. After all it was the middle of the week and the middle of the day.

Oh, and the smell was still there. Maybe this was why?

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But is that really enough grime to make a smell as bad as that?

So we carried on to Pogradec, aiming to find a cash machine if one exists there, or a bureau de change / bank if not. We drove through half-built houses with people clearly living in them, with cows in the garden and chickens roaming. Not particularly surprising, but a big difference from the Macedonian side of the border.

Once we reached the main part of the town, we slowed down, and everywhere we looked we were stared at. Hard. And hostile again. It was striking that so, so many young men were standing around, leaning against buildings, doing nothing. but wasting away the day. I’ve just looked up the Albanian unemployment rate, and it’s the 6th highest in Europe, at 18%, but youth unemployment is up at 28%.

There wasn’t a cash machine at all (that we saw – not entirely surprisingly), and we did drive past a bureau de change. Neither of us really felt like getting out of the car, there, though, and walking around, especially into a bureau de change with a couple of £20 notes holding flashy cameras. All we needed was the £4 ish that lunch would cost. I’m disappointed in myself for not getting out, though, because that’s how prejudice and misunderstanding starts. Not coming into contact with others or engaging in conversation only fuels that.

Driving through Pogradec,  we then came across the same flow of water into the river that Nate came across. We didn’t get out to inspect whether or not it was raw sewage, but the brown colour gave it away. The lake apparently isn’t too dirty, but something undeniably smelt. Bad.

We carried on driving through the town, which didn’t take long, and got out onto the road around the lake. Such beautiful views! We thought we might find somewhere to stop and have lunch, somewhere that took cards, and we probably did drive past one or two places. But what we mainly drove past were half built houses, disused industrial sites, farmed fields, and men selling fish by the side of the half-built roads. There was rubbish all over the sides of the roads, and people again trying to flag us down for whatever reason.

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What struck me, though, is that the lake is beautiful. It’s Macedonia’s biggest tourist destination. It’s got mountains, a lake warm enough to swim in in the summer, a beautiful old town, and beautiful scenery. Albania’s side has all of that as well, but no one was enjoying it. When you look at a map, though, maybe it’s simply because Albania has a long stretch on the Med, which presumably is a much more popular tourist destination, not that I’ve been there. For Macedonia, a land locked country, this lake is possibly their equivalent to the Med.

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I mainly just felt sad. Sad at the rates of unemployment in such a beautiful part of a country. Sad at the smell, at the grime in the lake, and for the numerous homeless people. Sad that Albania is seen as the dangerous option for refugees fleeing into Europe. Sad I didn’t feel comfortable to get out of the car, but disappointed in myself for jumping to conclusions about how I might have been treated if I had done so.

I’d like to go back to Albania. Not to Pogradec, but to Tirana, and to the riviera, to meet all of these friendly locals I’ve heard about. Because the one big difference between our experience and Nate’s experience four years earlier is that he spoke to so many people and we were simply stared at.

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