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Helping the Mafia launder their money

I failed corruption 1 but I'm taking the test again

When I owned one, people delighted in telling me the joke : “What’s the difference between a Range Rover and a Hedgehog?” Answer : The hedgehog has the pricks on the outside”. In Albania that’s no joke. They constantly bully everyone, take up more than half the road, never give way and park anywhere. From our hotel window one busy Saturday evening we watched one stop in the traffic flow (double parked), the driver switched on the hazard flashers and walked into a bar to watch the football match. It caused havoc for 2 hours. Large late model Mercedes are almost as bad. The one significant difference is they drive very slowly so everyone can see who has a big black car Puny Fiats and VWs are probably wise giving them a wide berth as when the police arrive at the accident we all know whose wallet will win the argument over blame. I clipped mirrors with one, no damage to us, but our turbo worked really hard for the next 10 minutes. (Interestingly, its estimated that 1/3 of all cars in Albania are Mercs of some age and condition – most of which have been stolen at least twice in their life.)

From the same hotel window throughout the night we watched scruffy men on motorized handcarts rummage through all the rubbish bins – some were checked 5 or 6 times. These resourceful chaps are involved in the recycling industry. There was an eureka moment when I realized that by not paying unemployment benefit, all sorts of ‘green industries flourish’. Our ‘guvmint’ and local bodies are wasting our tax’s paying for tasks that can be undertaken for commercial gain by people who want to work and earn. Much of the rubbish was sold for processing and some of it turned up in the market the following day.
Another example. Along the roadsides we see men with scythes trimming the grass edges. No rates paid, polluting, noisy, weedeaters. A little way behind them is a woman with a handcart picking up the grass. When done, they take it home to their suburban cow which provides for them and probably immediate neighbours. There is no end to things people will do and services they will provide if they are not hand fed to watch TV on their latest tablet.

There are two dominating retail industries in Albania.
The first will be no surprise – mobile phone and social media providers. They are everywhere and the rates are astonishing low. Albania only has 2.9 million people so the argument that its economy of scale doesn’t wash.
The other and most notable business is fuel service stations. There are literally thousands of fuel pumps, mostly privately owned and usually in large new premises. It’s obviously a competitive industry open to anyone who can find a space and buy wholesale fuel. There are often 5 or more around a major intersection and even many kms out of town standing all alone will be a new ‘state of the art’ fuel retailer – with one sleeping employee. The consistent thing about them all is very few customers. There are simply not yet enough cars to warrant the supply. One theory is that it’s a Mafia money laundering scheme. If so, we are providing our share of their success. I suggested to Flypaper that we keep all fuel receipts to assist with the pleadings should we meet the guy whose Mercedes we touched.
The average annual wage is US$12,000 – so everything has to be cheap to exist. Tourists understandably pay a little more for their special services … good (4 star) hotel rooms are about half the price of NZ, fuel is similar to home. Restaurant meals are astonishingly cheap. 2 large courses, a litre of local wine plus free bread & water is typically $25-$30 in a nice restaurant … for 2 people! Helpful, professional service in spite of language difficulties is normal. I guess that happens when one is unsure if the next customer could cut of their ears for having a thumb in the soup.
Another astonishingly popular business in larger cities is Wedding Dress shops. They are everywhere – possibly dozens in the same street. All but the very wealthy hire their dress for the day. Flypaper made a female observation … “At least it will fit 2nd or 3rd time around.”

Throughout the country one constantly see’s mushroom shaped concrete bunkers.
There were over 700,000 of them built during megalomaniac Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship to protect the country from an invasion that never happened and was never likely to happen. Each one cost similar to a small home and were constantly manned by 2 solders who knew that, in the event of an invasion, they would certainly be among the first to be annihilated. Even Flypaper realized that all an invader had to do was sneak around the back through a forest or gully and backhand lob a cracker through the gun slit. In fact, according to one guide who sat inside during national service, if someone hammered on the door they would have died of fright. The country was also covered in bomb shelters, often huge caverns hewn into mountains – never more than 15 minutes from populous places. The regular practice sessions were used to create fear and brainwash the luckless inhabitants. Remember, this only ceased in 1990.

In 2000 the mayor of Tirana. Edi Rama, who was a house painter turned politician, decreed that the capital city would be painted in bright colours. They remain so today. He was widely criticized for this bizarre decision rather than funding much needed infrastructure. For example electricity and water shortages continue to be a problem. The counter argument was, water and electricity are important, but so are the psychological effects of color and nature. This isn’t so far removed from the crazy egotistic schemes dreamt up by our local body ‘orthoritees’ using rated funds that are much needed elsewhere. A museum or a sports centre aren’t as important as flood protection or water supply.

Distances between towns in Albania are not great- but it takes quite a long time. Main highways (the new ones) are speed limited to 80kph to give the ever watchful police their income opportunity. Town limits are 40kph and many opportunities exist to impose strange limits here and there. Country roads are also 80kph but due to the poor condition the averages speed may be as low as 30kmh and best pace seldom above 50. They are in the main, atrocious and certainly contribute to the road toll. Given the slow speeds I entertain myself by recognizing the shape of the potholes. There are lots that look like Australia. I stopped to consider in detail one that looked a lot like a silhouette of Flypaper wielding the vacuum cleaner – but she disagreed saying it was more like me killing a few weeds on the side of the road after sampling Albanian beer for lunch. Obviously ‘pot hole art’ is an individual thing.

A large percentage of the structures in Albania are, like Greece, partially completed grand homes and large commercial buildings that will never be inhabited. These concrete shells proliferate all over the country – in towns, in the rural areas and particularly around seaside resorts. They were victims of the pyramid schemes, the 2008 world financial crisis and the ongoing problems surrounding the financial status of the Mediterranean countries. There are also some, particularly in desirable locations such as seashores that are condemned illegal buildings started with a promise by a would-be politician to legitimize the property if elected. To be elected he required funding – what a surprise. In some towns the ‘orthoritees’ have pulled some of the foundations out resulting in the building having an alarming list. Notwithstanding, it’s estimated that possibly more than 20% of all building are in fact illegally built. Some are really grand multi-million dollar apartments. It’s also possible most of the ‘architects’ were principally trained as concrete mixer operators.

Our guide in Tirana was a lovely lady. Highly intelligent and, in spite of her Grandfather dying in jail, (he was foolish enough to disagree with the ‘guvmint’) her father spending many years in jail (suspected of being a dissident) and her journalist husband spending a while in jail for not being quite pro guvmint enough, she had great hopes for the future of the country she loves. She was very socialist and envied socialist New Zealand (What ??? How did she get that idea?) She bought her 8 year old daughter with her for the day with us. I guess she though 9 hours exposure to a couple of Kiwi socialists would be good for the girl. Young ‘Aba’ was astonishing. She is a top student, spoke English, French and 3 other languages fluently, was an accomplished pianist and dancer … and the loveliest young lady one would ever meet. Being pretty with an extrovert and confident personality won’t hurt her chances either. If ‘Aba’ is the future of socialist Albania, all is well.

While strolling through a leafy track towards a decayed ancient temple in an historic site, I was thinking about the fate of the virgins that lived here back in the day, (as you do) when suddenly my musing was interrupted by Flypaper shrieking and leaping about like she was on fire. My self-preservation instinct immediately kicked in and I turned to run, knowing she would put up a good fight giving me a chance to escape. Fortunately, just before the adrenalin was wasted on extreme physical activity, I caught sight of the problem. She had almost stepped on a snake and the poor terrified thing was wriggling as fast as possible towards sanctuary. I’m sure it was scared witless – I was.

Posted by Wheelspin 10:07 Archived in Albania Tagged shops wedding socialist tirana dress stolen rama adrenalin edi enver hoxha merceedes maurice o'reilly

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