A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Wheelspin

Don’t pee into the wind or shop for a thong

Counselling Flypaper

sunny 34 °C

I was never a fan of counselling. It seems to be a modern scam taking advantage of those who have an unfortunate experience. Pay some money to a caring ear and feel gratified by sharing the memory. That was until I performed a counselling role – for free I might add – for Flypaper. She organised for us to spend a day in a speedboat zipping around the Adriatic Sea from Split (Croatia) to the nearby Islands seeing some caves and pretty spectacular scenery. All was fine until disembarking at Hvar. Understand, this is a small speedboat just above sea level and Hvar was 40cm higher. She leapt ashore with surprising agility for a mature woman in new designer casual wear, but forgot to ask her left foot to follow the example of the rest of her …. Ummmm …. ‘mass’ is not the word to be using here …. Ummm ….. collective other parts. She accomplished what, in acrobatic diving terms, would be a ‘belly flop’ – right on top of the backpack I had fortunately thrown ashore mere seconds earlier. My first thought was, “OMG – what has been squashed in that backpack”? Although I am not understanding of Croatian, the boatman’s cry, which probably said, “#@&*^@ - I haven’t paid my public liability insurance”, made me hesitate to speak at all. Between us we helped her to her feet and strapped the pack onto her back. She was fine until, in a secluded café the drama came flooding back. Fortunately I was on hand to provide what I believe was excellent counselling. This mostly consisted in listening a bit them pointing out all the positive things. Stuff like, less than 20 people witnessed the event, the boatman was grateful not to be sued, the ancient jetty was undamaged, the contents of the pack were all Ok, my embarrassment was minor (especially as she could still carry the pack) and she bruised the already injured foot so there was no additional disability. The shot of Grappa in the coffee was probably unnecessary and would have saved 5 Kuna (I call it 5 rats). This counselling stuff is pretty easy. Maybe there is something in it after all.

One day it rained a little and the streets were covered in foam. I’ve seen this a few times before but when Flypaper asked why, I told her it was because the local women didn’t feel the need to rinse out the laundry when it will be hung out in the rain. She understands and accepts this laundry stuff – but I felt we should know the real reason. Turns out that on Chip Seal surfaces, the oils leach out in summer heat allowing oxygen and dirt to be mixed by the traffic creating a foamy look which is slippery. Disappointing eh. I think the laundry explanation is better.

Our Balkans agent was responsible for fine-tuning the program planned by Flypaper and booked us into a local hotel each night. Most of the accommodation has had the usual problems, plumbing & electrical inadequacies, air conditioners that don’t work, paper thin walls, squeaky beds next door and recycled linen. One however, added a very poor class of clientele – other than ourselves. I’m not sure if it was also a halfway house for recently released habitual criminals or a well promoted destination for idiots. (Perhaps they have their own magazine or web site.) Certainly after joining them for breakfast I concluded there is an argument for many people to be sterilized before they breed more like themselves. It should have happened to the parents of some of our fellow guests. My next unkind thought was to pay a local graffiti artist (of which there were many) to repaint the sign to indicate it was a Sanatorium.

In spite of the commentary above, Flypaper usually gets the last laugh. I am the victim of cruel manipulation. It is conceivable I need counselling. In past years Flypaper has had the audacity to comment I was developing a ‘weight’ problem between my motorsport commitments. This is all very well – but it’s not something that should be mentioned in company or to ‘online’ travel agents. It has the tendency to make me sulk and remember the ‘good ol’ days’ when one could eat and sleep without converting the calories into leaden lard. I’ve started suspecting it’s the result of genetic engineering of our food. Even a diet of celery and carrots causes my belt to tighten. I digress. Flypaper decided that she needed a cruise of the Southern Dalmatian Islands and I needed either liposuction or extreme exercise. The medical procedure was put aside for another time when, with the help of the blasted internet, she discovered a boat with 16 cabins that facilitated Island cycling tours for sadistic Germans.

The result has been an 8 day program of my rising with the sun and puffing through ancient villages on pretty islands to a new port where she waited on the boat …full of appreciation of the local wines and an understanding of the wild herbs used in the indigenous cuisine. Throughout this exercise I was smothered in suncream that has now been recognized to be carcinogenic while wearing a bright shirt that I’m sure makes me a target for badly maintained diesel minicars. If I had life insurance I would be certain this was an attempt by Flypaper to cash in on it. My cycling companions revel in comments about ‘vertical metres’ and ‘incline percentage’ while slugging back litres of water wobbling on carbon fibre 64 speed bicycles with variable rate suspension and massaging seats. In deference to my age I have been allowed to have a ‘machine’ with electrical assistance. This is a sadistic device that requires a degree in electronic engineering and the ability to interpret combinations of flashing lights on a small screen while concentrating on delicate variations of pedal pressure. All this remember, while wearing a bright shirt. On more than one occasion I have inadvertently switched off the ‘energy assistance’ while struggling up hills behind a couple of heavily perspiring Lycra clad Frauen.

The ‘fabulous’ beaches in the Dalmatian Islands are so stony that I found it almost impossible to walk from the pathway to the waters edge. The solution I decided was a pair of rubber ‘flip flops’. These are also known by other names around the world – jandles, pluggers, Japanese riding boots (as seen in really old pictures of Samurai), slaps, step-ins, etc. Shopping is not my forte but as Flypaper was elsewhere making important discoveries about the various icecream flavours on offer everywhere, I decided to take the plunge and enter a shop that was full of crazy women flashing cards and wads of ‘rats’ around. I broke out in a sweat and almost fled. However, as it was very hot, the urge to swim was great so I hyperventilated for a bit and proceeded to the shoe department. I was just about to ask for some ‘thongs’ when I suddenly saw a customer who was wearing a ‘thong’ of a very different nature. I not only became tongue tied but realized that, should I suffer a heart attack, its unlikely I would be ‘medivaced’ to a hospital in time to resume even a future life in ‘care’ facilities. With great internal fortitude I made a grab at some basic black rubber flip-flops, proffered a handful of ‘rats’ to the shop attendant (who took most of them) and fled. They will forever be a treasured memory of my retail daring.

The water temperature in the Adriatic during summer is about 23*C. Much cooler than me when I exited the shop. It was relief to concentrate on basic survival as I bobbed around between the tourists who were calling for their friends to take holiday snaps recording their bravery on Facebook. There are 17 species of Shark in the Adriatic Sea. None have yet had the urge to taste a tourist but it could happen. (Remember the first guy to milk a cow? Who would have thought to pull those dangly bits and put the discharge on their muesli?) After a couple of minutes I calmed down enough to check I had changed into correct swim-wear, removed my watch and, in essence, ‘done it right’ without marital supervision. The water is astonishingly clear. I was told this is the result of the plankton being subject to all sort of influences that don’t allow the growth of weed that produces whatever causes cloudiness in the water. I started to research this but the opening statement on the subject say’s ‘ … its due to the unique geomorphologic specifications’. Well, yes, I’m sure. This does need further research as it could be something quite different and more easily understood. For example, there are no whales in the Adriatic. No whales mean no whale dung – which I feel sure would cause significant cloudiness.

The boats moored in every picturesque harbour are, in the main, fabulous. I’m referring to those obviously owned by wealthy people who visit to display their affluence. This is in stark contrast to the local vessels that have been relegated to secondary moorings away from the thousands of tourist traps. These fiscal exchanges exist, not primarily to feed the visitors, but to provide a much easier lifestyle for the local families who have abandoned their subsistent living inland in favour of bars, café’s, souvenir shops, chandlery businesses, restaurants and ‘pizza dispensaries’. I don’t begrudge them. The islands are basically mounds of fractured rocks thrust up from the sea. Over the centuries countless generations have moved some of these rocks into fences to contain their sheep and goats, the creation of basic habitation – or just great mounds to provide tillable land for basic crops and olive trees. Life has been tough here for a very long time. I am however, unsure if ‘progress’ is better.

A highlight of our voyage, which almost justified the pain endured, was our on board ‘steward’. His name is ‘Goldie. Almost certainly a name coined by a previous guest who considered him a precious commodity on the boat. He in his mid-40’s, slim, elegantly dressed and has a large nose. This nose presides over a huge smile and the most helpful demeanour. He also has abnormally long arms that accentuate his voluble Croatian speech which is interspersed with English and German phrases. They are also helpful in reaching across tables and delivering platters of wonderful food through the saloon windows. Goldie is also the barrister and barman. He runs and rules a small alcove in the saloon that produces excellent product with such enthusiasm that I felt inclined to provide him with a substantial ‘tip’ on completion of our voyage. This, believe me, is the ultimate compliment.

Our last day in the Balkans was a stressful drive from Split (Croatia) to Tirana (Albania) to return the rental car and catch the late night flight to the UK. The drive should take 7 hours but in fact takes 12 … due to traffic congestion caused by tourists on the coast, slow speed limits, 7 boarder crossings and poor roads. In each of the 3 countries we meet a person that personified the Balkans.
In Croatia it was the middle aged guy that arrived at dawn to take me to our car storage on his motorbike. With apparent kindness and consideration he bought me a beaten up crash helmet. However, when I put it on it was much too large. His comment, “One size fits all”. When I tried to fasten the chin strap I discovered the clip was broken. Comment, “Unnecessary”. As a result it fell off when we became airborne over the first speed-bump. It hung securely on the handlebars for the rest of the terrifying journey while I pondered if it was possible to strap my backpack on my head.
In Montenegro around midday, Flypaper spied signage at a café that seduced us to stop for Coffee & Cake. It was an opportunity to be rid of our remaining local currency. We parked and ordered - then tallied up the required funds. Opps – we only had enough for the coffee - at the same moment I realized we needed indigenous funds to exit the carpark. Flypaper frantically cancelled the cake while I ran to the carpark to escape within the 10 minute free grace period. There must have been only seconds to spare but I made it and parked illegally in the street feeling very pleased. Back at the table I discovered the waitress had felt sorry for these poor old people and convinced her boss to provide us free chocolate cake. It was a lovely gesture and, being chocolate, I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about being the recipient of charity.
In Albania we stopped at a traffic light adjacent to a well weathered man who had chosen that day to cut his high hedge from a step ladder. He also chose that moment to relieve his bladder but didn’t feel the need to dismount and preserve his modesty. He checked the wind direction, correctly chose downwind towards the line of traffic and proceeded to relieve the pressure. As we passed Flypaper gave him a ‘royal’ wave – which he was unable acknowledge because he was concentrating on getting his fly-buttons in the correct sequence.

Posted by Wheelspin 01:46 Archived in Croatia Tagged islands adriatic bicycle croatia thong split dalmation electric flip counselling flop flypaper maurice o'reilly Comments (0)

You can buy stuff with a rat

Its a big price to pay for drowning a pedestrian

storm 23 °C

The journey from Kosovo to Montenegro was excellent. Our GPS seduced me 0nto a high mountain minor road through a heavily forested National Park. Narrow and twisty - a superb Rally Road with almost no traffic. It descended into valleys that have been inhabited for a few thousand years and where the men cut the hay with scythes and the women rake it up with old wooden rakes and use wooden pitchforks to throw it up into a haystack. Now that’s a sight to be seen. Tourism for chauvinists – it’s underdeveloped. Some of those sturdy girls could heave a load of hay over 5 metres high. What an asset to have in the family. I’ll bet the local farmer boys are lusting after them. The journey to the capital Podgorcia was completed with a 70km drive down through a spectacular gorge that dropped over 2,500 metres. Cliffs over 1,000 metres on both side of the car – up and down. I could hear Flypaper taking deep breaths and saw her peep out over the window sill a few times. You’ll never find her in the line for a bungee jump.

Montenegro is known for its high mountains that are bitterly cold in winter and its 120 beaches stretching over 73kms that are popular in summer. This is the Riviera of the Balkans. Wall to wall bikini’s and a few guys running around not knowing where to look – especially if they are with their wives. Some of the healthiest young ladies in the world can be found here absorbing the suns rays here and thus combating global warming. Being blessed with excellent peripheral vision and reflector sunglasses I am able to bring you this information with complete assurance its true.

At the northern end of the country is Kotor - a medieval town in a stunning natural setting. A very secluded harbour surrounded by 1500 metre cliffs that fall straight into the deepest fiord-like harbour in the Adriatic. It’s full of Italian Super-yachts and the filthy rich – often sitting in traffic jams. It’s a bit like Monaco, a bit like Queenstown and a lot like a pickpocket – your money will disappear in no time. Look it up on Google. I felt very relieved to escape – even if it was only through the border to the next most popular tourist trap – Dubrovnik in Croatia.

We’ll be returning to Croatia next week for some time but I’ll share a few bits of information our quick visit uncovered. Their currency, the Kuna, was named after a small rodent (like a ferret). I’m informed that the current New Zealand $ could consider a change to a similar descriptive value. The Kuna is divided into 100 lipa - which is the name for the local Lime tree. All this happened before the ‘green’ political parties of the world evolved. Can I suggest that the Croatians may have been ahead of the game.

An amazing Croatian inventor named Slavoljub Penkala was also ahead of the game. He virtually evolved from the feather quill and pencil to invent the ball point pen in 1906 and the fountain pen in 1907. (Yes – that is the right chronology) One record suggests he did use a hollow feather for his prototype. (Note : a couple of other countries also claim Slavoljub as theirs – but he was working in Zagreb at the time and changed his name to reflect his adopted country.)

Dubrovnik is proof positive that travellers should never return to anywhere they have been previously – it will never be a good reunion. This is principally because the early travellers made the locals realize that a good income could be made by packing as many suckers into the place as possible, housing them in huge cheap resorts, plying them with cheap grog, cheap souvenirs’ and ever expanding this formula each year. In 1975 Dubrovnik was a stunning medieval fortress with a little tourism in humble surroundings outside the old city walls. Notwithstanding that was my first big OE and I loved most of it, Dubrovnik was especially good. Today it’s the pits. If you don’t believe me – go there and suffer yourself.

Hot Chocolate in the Balkans is possibly the best in the world. I first tried it because it was the only recognizable drink on the menu - Čokolada. It’s effectively a large bar of chocolate melted in a cup. I understand they stole the recipe from the Italians and perfected it. The test : its good if a spoon will stand up in it. I test it most days … although I may miss out tomorrow due to the inability to keep the smile off my face when I inadvertadly drowned a lady pedestrian.

Our escape from Dubrovnik up the mountains to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina was accomplished in a spectacular storm. The lightening was stunning and caused Flypaper to comment that being struck by lightening would probably make the hour spent washing her hair earlier a complete waste of time. The thunder was all around and quite overpowered my digestive process bought on by an ambitious breakfast. I think it was the bacon in competition with the pancake. The torrential rain and lack of effective drainage for the whole journey was like driving up a river for 5 hours. I could have made it on a jetski. While surfing through a town we passed a well dressed but foolish lady on her way to work. She was mincing along under her umbrella completely unaware that she was being approached by bow wave of magnificent proportions spraying 3 metres high and 6 meters wide. My chuckle as I watched the aftermath in the rear view mirror was a mistake. I’ll have to do penance before the day is over.

Recalling regular Sarajevo television coverage during the 1984 Winter Olympics and again during the 1992/95 Bosnian War, we wished to see for ourselves what it was now like. The ‘Siege of Sarajevo’ was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The city was assaulted by tanks, artillery and small arms. Nearly 14,000 people were killed. All structures of political, cultural and humanitarian occupation were destroyed. The shelling destroyed over 10,000 apartments and damaged 100,000 others. The large martyrs’ cemeteries are particularly poignant places.

Today, virtually all structures that remained standing have been repaired. Many still carry the scars – pockmarked by bullet holes and identified by obvious repairs. The whole of the destroyed central city has been rebuilt with architecturally magnificent buildings. Especially the ‘guvmint’ buildings. I’m told these buildings have renewed the pride of the nation. The fact that the politicians’ now have ‘state of the art’ luxury workplaces is an incidental benefit. Yeah right.

A chance discussion with an Irish law academic over dinner (I know that sounds unlikely) reminded us that the incident which triggered World War 1 occurred in Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting at a time of tension. It’s a bizarre story worth reading. A bunch of young guys were given the task of assassinating him. The first 2 guys both failed to act. The 3rd guy threw a bomb that bounced off the hood and exploded under the following vehicle. 3 more conspirators failed to act. The security team changed the cavalcade route but forgot to tell the drivers. Astonishingly they stopped at ‘Latin’ bridge right beside a remaining 18 year old assassin who was trudging home all despondent. He stepped forward and shot the Archduke and his wife. By coincidence the assassination site was only a block away from our hotel so we were able to check it out. The stone bridge remains exactly as it did in the day. I’m delighted to report that no international incident emanated from our stop in the same place although Flypaper wouldn’t let me stay long looking for opportunities.

We were tickled to see a restaurant waiter wearing a strange short necktie. After seeing a few more we discovered that the necktie was invented in Croatia in the 17th Century. Some may think, as a result, this country has a lot to answer for. However, I would remind you that before that, much of the ‘civilized’ world was wearing the Spanish ruffle. I, for one, do not look comfortable in a ruffle.

Posted by Wheelspin 08:48 Tagged chocolate world adriatic hot warming croatia serbia franz war 1 dubrovnik montenegro bosnia herzegovina global sarajevo kuna bosnian ferdinand archduke podgorcia necktie maurice o'reilly Comments (0)

One day there may be a Kosovian called Maurice

The plumbing is usually a challenge

sunny 36 °C

Some countries remain foremost in mind for a long time. Macedonia will be one of those for me. The reason … my underpants caught fire. Fortunately I was not wearing them at the time but it was close enough for my liking. Flypaper has this strange habit of laundering the ‘smalls’ each night. It’s strange because before leaving home she packs enough changes for a month. It’s a waste of breath explaining over and over that she could get a bulk deal from the hotel laundry once a month and save a lot of daily trouble. I think it’s a psychological security thing. However, using heated towel rails, heaters and hair dryers to hasten the task is not psychological – it’s tending on suicidal because, underwear today, the whole damn hotel tomorrow. You should join me in worrying. I’ve started checking the fire escapes.

Flypaper also urges me daily to tell you about the plumbing. I tell her there is no way to explain 3rd world plumbing except to say it differs from our expectations. Take today – an indigenous hotel in a place called Prizren that proudly displays 3 stars and a tell-tail discoloured patch where the other one fell off. The room is more adequate than usual … except soon after arrival the bathroom floor was flooded. I called reception who dispatched a maintenance man to tell me this had never occurred before so it must be my fault. This is normal. Our communications are in an English variant that has 36 letters in its alphabet and ones tongue attached to ones arms. I suggested he turn on the shower to see what happens. He does and is astonished when the water on the floor rises to alarming levels threatening the adjacent threadbare carpet. Using a light generated by the latest smartphone he discovers the problem and 20 minutes later announces it is fixed. I’m delighted and suggest he takes the opportunity to test the hand basin. Reluctantly he does and, surprise, the water again flows towards the door. He’s getting better and fix’s that in about 4 minutes. While praising him for his maintenance skills I reached over and flushed the toilet – and watched his facial expression as the gurgling heralded a new flood of near biblical proportions. I considered ‘we’ had found the principal problem. The smartphone discovered the pan was loose on the wall. Actually, Flypaper had also discovered that when she created the first flood. She said, ‘The toilet wriggles around”. That is difficult to explain in Kosoglish. This maintenance procedure used up all our towel allocation and caused an internal fracas that will likely involve senior management and even accountants. My 2nd call to reception did result in new towels. I later called reception again asking for a couple of glasses to assist taking our medication (Flypaper decided to open the bottle of cognac to settle her nerves). The receptionist answered the phone, “What do you need now?” Perhaps you will now understand why I’m reluctant to report on plumbing. It uses a lot of words.

After a slow bumpy drive from Albania we arrived in Macedonia. Most think Macedonia is an ancient civilization that spawned Alexander The Great, conquered most of the then known world and subsequently disappeared. This is true, but a few years back an ambitious group of people convinced Yugoslavia, that they were not ‘slavs’ and they would behave well if given independence. They did this in a very nice way in 1991.

Since then the small country of 2.1 million people have behaved very well and have benefited from politician’s who were far less corrupt than others in the region (but still quite ego driven.). The result is a nice country with good infrastructure, a near invisible police force and an economy that is less troubled than its neighbours. You should visit Macedonia soon – before westernization destroys its charm. We were impressed with clean clear lakes and rivers (and the assurance that the public water supply was safe to drink. It proved to be so.) They have a sustainable forestry policy, no visible rubbish anywhere and farm trout to repopulate the rivers and Lake Ohrid. They are really annoyed that the released trout don’t stay on the Macedonian side because the Albanians on the other side happily catch and eat them without even expressing thanks.

In Ohrid for we had a guide who suggested we call him Chris because his real name was made up of 11 consonants which included a couple of X’s and a triangle. Chris was 52, has a younger wife who is a teacher and a son who is at a troublesome age. Of course, I was able to advise him how to deal with both. He believes that, if he hadn’t spent so long in the army when younger, he would be much richer now and may be able to retire soon. He was pleasant company, a good negotiator when we decided to take a boat ride on the lake - and always ready to assist any other struggling tourists – who gained the benefit of Chris’s help and our funding of his time. He walked us through the fish farm, construction sights, through private property and lots of places that reminded me that once we could do similar things until of anti-fun police made rules against all that sort of stuff.

A couple of days later in Skopje we enjoyed the company of a beautiful young lady guide who, astonishingly, gave similar answers to many of our questions as Chris. I suspect we received good information. Both were fiercely Macedonian and both have high hopes for the future. Our young lady was called Maja. Of great interest was her story about her great grandfather who sadly had the family farm taken away during communism. They have all the documents going back to ancient times proving their ownership but have so far failed to succeed in having it returned. I suspect the principal reason is that the ‘farm’ is now near central Skopje and is worth a fortune. Many others are in similar sad situations. Their only hope is that Macedonia joins the EEC and they can appeal to a higher authority.

Maja shared a couple of unusual titbits – Legally produced Macedonian Opium is the best in the world – this was the first country in the world to have full access to wireless broadband – in spite of Albania’s claim, Mother Teresa was born in Skopje (to Albanian parents) – the Macedonian flag was recognized as the 2nd best design in the world – the country has its own 4,000 year old ‘Stonehenge’.

We last passed through Skopje in 1975. It’s changed since then. Now it’s a city of over 1 million and has most of the problems of all other fast growing metropolitan centres. (When will ‘guvmints’ realize that the answer lies in simple decentralization?) Maja pointed out lots of huge new guvmint buildings, dozens of huge statues depicting notable historic Macedonians and wistfully wished all this wasted money had been spent more wisely. She had observed that the tourists didn’t come to see any of this monstrous ‘new’ stuff but loved the old ‘Stone Bridge’ and other historic places or natural features. Same the world over.

Both Chris & Maja were happy that we could use our own ‘air conditioned’ car – so were we. The temperature during our stay in Macedonia has been 35-37 *C with high humidity. Because 3 people in a car can move pretty quickly we were able to drive out of the city to cooler lakes, limestone caves and 13th century churches. To be honest, once one has been in a couple of old churches and monasteries the other 10,000 have looked very similar. These days the ancient religious edifices’ serve a purpose of alternate salvation – the saving of the economy by providing places for tourists to purchase tickets.

Our next destination was Kosovo. All previous study and knowledge of the war during 1998/9 had prepared us for a basket case. Don’t cry for Kosovo. It may have lost the battle but it’s won the war. The total country is rebuilt with enormous new building in modern architectural splendor. House are new, businesses are new, highways are new – and everything looks astonishingly prosperous – and growing more so by the day. It’s almost unbelievable and both Flypaper and I are asking where the funding has come from? We are also sure that any refugees who fled the country will now be very annoyed they didn’t hang about. Likewise those owners of the (few) buildings that weren’t badly damaged enough to rebuild, will be seriously miffed.

I suspect a sign of prosperity overlooked by other observers is the presentation of the beggars. It the capital city, Prishtina, the beggars are very stylish. We were impressed by a lady begging at a major intersection wearing smart casual clothes and carrying a large branded handbag. Had she arrived at our home collecting for the Labour party we would have been totally taken in. My first inclination was to suggest to Flypaper that she exchange ensembles – but it was a busy street and we were on a timeline. So I gave her one of the airline ‘business class’ bag that contain cosmetics and other feminine essentials.

Having crossed hundreds of borders during the past 40 years we consider ourselves border ‘connoisseurs’. We can pick a good or bad one within minutes. We judge the Balkan borders experienced to date to be very good for countries that have endured problems with their neighbours and remain a bit paranoid. Kosovo did receive a demerit point when the immigration guy in our lane closed down for a few minutes and strolled off to buy a new packet of cigarettes. However, he redeemed himself by being jovial and demonstrative of his Kosoglish. Perhaps the nicotine shot arrived just in time. When asked by customs if we have anything to declare I sometimes (depending on the demeanour of the enquirer) say, “At our age we are not a threat to your country”. (Little do they know that this very Blog could undermine the security of the nation through disclosure of vital little known information.)

Kosovo is another small country of 2.2 million people. It’s landlocked and has few natural resources. It does have limestone clay and coal – and as a result, unlimited cement. Huge open mines and cement factories are all over the landscape. As we entered the country we passed the biggest cement factory we have ever seen – bigger even than one in Russia. Interestingly, every retail business sells cement. Petrol stations, takeaway food shops, garden ornament manufactures, furniture shops, car sales – all had pallets of bagged cement ready for us to take home and build a really ugly concrete monstrosity.

Flypaper made a grave error of judgment by leaving Macedonia with about 10 Euros worth of Denar– their currency which is not exchangeable in Kosovo. I stressed for a couple of kilometres then decided we may be able to convince a car washer to take the currency. We found one with no customers and, with the help of a neighbouring car salesman put the proposition. A deal was struck. We know our offer was about twice the going rate for a wash and also knew the guy thought we were gullible suckers. (That’s how all the best deals are done). He did an excellent job and I handed over the cash with the comment, “You can visit Skopje and spend this money”. He replied, “Yes, I may go there and look for a wife”. We expect to be invited to the nuptials and hope the firstborn is named Maurice.

Posted by Wheelspin 10:02 Archived in Kosovo Tagged lake fire ohrid skopje macedonia crossings kosovo boarder problems plumbing prizren pristina beggars underware prishtine maurice o'reilly Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

Even the minced meat is corrupt

Another sticky situation

sunny 31 °C

I’m in a sticky situation with Flypaper again. As we recently waited in Gatwick airport I picked up magazine that informed me the Albanian Mafia - known as the Mafia Shqiptare – were causing particular concern throughout Europe, the US and numerous other crime sensitive parts of the world. It seems they have become the most brutal of all gangs and are even feared by traditional rivals. This was particularly interesting as we were waiting to board a plane for, of all places, Albania. The same article recommended not eating minced meat in some places as it was recently proved some ‘losers’ have become ‘beef substitute’. No meatballs or patties for the next 3 weeks. Pity, I understand some of the Albanian burger recipes are very tasty. Perhaps this explains why there are more Albanians living outside their country than within and why there is negative population growth.

Possibly the most famous Albanian in history is Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (you may know her as Mother Terasa) although one of the ‘Blues Brothers’ (John Belushi) had an Albanian father and is better known. Of greater significance and most encouraging is the fact that this country is one of only 3 European nations that has no McDonalds restaurants. Perhaps they have no reliable meat patty supplier. Albania has never won an Olympic medal and a few years ago the residents of Shkoodra demonstrated their propensity to be difficult by refusing to pay a ‘Traffic Light Tax’ on the grounds their city had no traffic lights. Another example of their attitude is the incident when King Zod who ruled between 1928 and 1939 became the only modern national leader to return fire during an assassination attempt. Tetchy eh.
However, of most concern was finding out that, like a surprising number of other countries, nodding ones head means no, shaking means yes. The article about the Mafia made we concerned this was more important than usual.

The capital Tirana, is demonstrable proof that a 2 lane road can also be 4 lane if drivers simply decide that is so. I am encouraged in many ‘emerging’ countries around the world that traffic congestion is manageable without any expense or interference from the transport ‘orthoritys’. The principle used is to mind your own business and drive where you can see a gap that continues the direction you wish to proceed. If you fill someone else’s gap then they are required to make another decision and visa versa. Its simple and it works 99.9% of the time. That’s pretty good odds. A visitor can extend those odds by driving really slowly and suffering horn abuse. Personally, I find that both intolerable and unacceptable. According to the Albanian Ministry of Health (sounds like a dodgy entity to me), traffic accidents are one of the leading causes of death. ‘One of the causes’? So is old age and winking at the Mafia Bosses girlfriend. They go on to say accident victims are the main users of hospital emergency services and are a developing problem – currently 3.5% higher than other Eastern and Central European countries. Big deal. I’d like to see them compared to China and Egypt. My observation last Saturday evening was that its unfair to blame cars for the problem. Football and Raki have a significant part to play. Cars are tool used to strengthen the gene pool.

Prior to 1991 only 600 cars existed in Albania – all were used by Party officials. The available roads were also few and poor. Donkey carts didn’t need much in the way of tar sealed surface and no-one travelled more than a couple of kilometers. Today, only 24 years later, the country is overrun with cars, trucks and buses. Most are imported second hand from Europe. A significant percentage were acquired in Europe without payment and its thought that the German and French Insurance companies are the largest ‘sponsors’ of the Albanian automotive industry. The growing number of new car sales is lease financed by banks. (Albanians are borrowing like crazy) There are a few new highways but most roads remain challenging and shouldn’t be chanced after dark. In the cities most of the manhole covers and drainage grates have been stolen leaving gaping holes that would swallow a motorcycle and rip the wheel off anything larger.

The police force is one of the largest per head of population in the world. They stand in pairs on almost every intersection in larger cities and the most ambitious ones can be seen marching around alone looking for new opportunities to supplement their income. I understand the ‘retainer’ paid by the ‘guvmint’ is very low but the average police income is very high. I’ve yet to experience this tax system here but am sure it will happen.

You may be thinking, “That’s corruption”. You are right, but that’s the example set by the politicians’ so everyone has a go. Discussion with our guides regarding the political scene makes my head hurt. The ‘guvmint’ is called a Parliamentary
Democracy. Some commentators refer to it as an ‘emerging democracy’. Its obvious that all MP’s buy their votes. This is a worldwide phenomena in western ‘civilized’ countries too – but here its more blatant. In addition to all the silly election promises that actually stymie good government, the Albanian poli’s throw parties buy gifts, pave streets, build illegal structures, pay off officials - all from their own pockets. The ‘investment’ is worth it. That could part explain why there are 63 political parties in Albania. (Population 2.8 million) It’s a very profitable business.

During the mid 90’s family Albanians suffered the loss of US$1.2 billion through 26 Pyramid Schemes. They were ‘Ponzi schemes. The first was started by a guy who was the economic advisor to the Prime Minister. His scheme involved the construction of a huge hotel which became known as ‘Hajdin’s hole’. After he fled to Switzerland with many millions the local council filled in the hole and turned the area into a park – which was quickly taken over by the local prostitutes who made him their ‘defacto patron in exile’ of their collective. Things went downhill from there.
Some of the pramid ‘businesses’ had no bank accounts and accepted only cash. People sold their houses to invest. One was established by a gypsy woman who had worked in a shoe factory, others were the initiative of 3 former State Security Executives. One of these guys eventually fled the country in a US military helicopter. It all ended in 1997 by an uprising by the population which descended into civil disorder in which 2,000 people were killed and the ‘guvmint’ toppled. It’s a fascinating story. The results of this tragedy based on greed and corruption can still be seen all over the country and there remains an abiding sense of desperation among some communities that are trying to rebuild their lives and lost fortunes. Stealing manhole covers is one way of doing it, intimidation and creative taxation are a couple more.

Posted by Wheelspin 09:45 Archived in Albania Tagged king self balkans drive mother tirana albania pyramid corruption mafia schemes flypaper terasa zod shqiptare coruption maurice o'reilly Comments (0)

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