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Travel stories - Losing travel virginity or the first trip, Albania 2008

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

His hand resting gently on my shoulder felt strangely natural even though I had no idea who he was. Completely exhausted and drained from the whole day's driving, I was sitting in the dust in front of the only open gas station, out of probably a hundred of them that we had passed in the last few hours. Albania is a country of fuel pumps that work until 6 p.m., incredibly large empty restaurants served by sixteen-year-olds who barely speak their own language, and huge furniture stores whose glass windows look like barbie houses. I realized that easily in this half day since we crossed their bizarre border on the way from Montenegro.

I aimlessly tapped with my finger on the latest map I managed to get, printed in 1998, as if it would tell me which route to choose. Both had the same thin line, both crossed over a lot of brown that marks the mountains and both were centimeters away from the big lake that was our final destination. The only thing I really knew was that one of them was indicates the road in terrible condition, with lots of bad gravel sections, and that the other signifieswas a relatively decent narrow road where even third gear could be used occasionally.

His fingers squeezed my shoulder a little as he leaned down to reach for the map and pull it from the ground beneath my feet. At the same time, he whispered something, I guess apologizing to me, and then, still with a kind of humble smile on his young face, he took a few steps to the nearest table. Confused, I followed him with my eyes, still feeling the strange comfort of his friendly touch. I guess Mia sent him to help me, I thought, watching his intense study of the lines that were currently unclear to me. Or more likely Tomo, our best friend who traveled with us , if he has fully recovered from his panic attack on the mountain.

Apparently I wasn't weak enough because my face automatically spread into a smile when I remembered him curled up in the position of an inconsolable child already exhausted from crying. I still have in my head the sound of his heavy breathing from the back seat which he produced reminiscent of a thirsty animal using up its last reserves of saliva. Mia turned all the way around, and I cautiously looked at him in the rearview mirror, making sure we didn't land down the precipice under the unfenced road. He was staring at his knees, squinting like a broken traffic light, pale as a Christmas tablecloth.

"Can we stop?" he whispered quietly, still not raising his head. I immediately started all four blinkers and pulled over to the curb, making sure that another vehicle could pass us.

"Are you sick?", my wife asked him, opening the door for him to go to the free side.

"No", he just said, trying to crawl out the other door.

"So what's the problem?", I didn't understand.

"Do we really have to go down this road? Are there any straighter, lower ones?", he finally looked at us. His eyes were full of prayer and despair.

"Fuck it, Tomo, this is Albania, and it's known not only for bakery products and rustic bunkers, but also for a bunch of mountains that somehow have to be passed, and as far as I know, this is currently the only option that leads us to Ohrid. What's wrong with you?", I asked him a little impatiently.

"I have a problem with heights," he stammered, making sure his eyes didn't wander to his right towards the precipice .

"But you're in the car. We're driving. How can you be afraid of that?"

"We are close to the edge."

"I know, we have to stick to the right side, it is a very narrow road" I grinned.

"How far do we have to go to the next town behind this hill?", he crouched leaning on the bodywork, his knees almost touching his chin and he breathed more and more slowly, slowly calming down.

„ I have no idea, 30, 35 kilometers", I guessed.

"30", he repeated slowly. Could I walk until there and you can wait for me in that city?", he asked dead serious.

"What, until Wednesday?", I burst into an extremely inappropriate laugh worthy of a class bully. I remembered that with shame in the current position while lying on the ground in front of the Albanian gas station

I looked towards the young man with the gentle palm and saw that two others had joined him and now the three of them were studying the map of the Balkans. They were talking louder and louder, so that soon three more passers-by stopped and spontaneously joined the discussion, completely surrounding the small round table. Almost lying down, with both elbows on wet ground, I watched them passionately discuss which path was best for strangers from another country. I watched them, extremely tired, barely capable of being surprised by so much interest on their part. The category "selflessly help a stranger" died out long ago in the country I come from.

I got up to at least sit down, on the way looking for Mia and Tomo who entered the bar and I leaned against the car looking more like an insect than a human. The six couldn't agree and started to make more serious noises, now sounding a bit like they were arguing. Although , it was the Albanian language, so maybe they were actually talking about three-seaters and armchairs and which shades best match the bright red walls. I was already considering the impossible option of mustering the strength to stand up and tell them that it doesn't matter which way we go, that surely all the ways are good, when the seventh guy appeared. This one was a little older than the others, maybe fifty years old, with an old-fashioned mustache on a thin, dark-skinned face. Dressed in a light shirt and dark, tight trousers tucked into high boots of bright white leather, so white as if they had never been worn. He was a appearance to remember.

He also stopped at the table to see what it was all about. He leaned in slightly as the others moved apart in sync to make room for him as soon as he showed interest. Everyone just watched and remained silent while he studied the map for about five or six seconds and then silently uttered only one word in judgment. "Elbasan", which meant a town on the way of one of those two roads. At the same moment, as in a trained choir, the six of them started repeating after him like a mantra; "Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan....sounding like students who want to cheer up an authoritative professor, suddenly absolutely sure what the right answer to the question is. The guy in the white boots just turned around, as untouchable as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and without looking at anyone, entered the brightly lit space of the bar, disappearing like an apostle after the effective last sentence. The men split up, and the young man carefully folded the map and put it in my open car. He bent down again, again gently placed his palm on my shoulder and said only one word; "Elbasan." I nodded gratefully to him, sure that we were on the right track. Whatever track it may be.

Gubljenje nevinosti ili prvo putovanje, davne 2008

Njegov dlan nježno položen na moje rame činio se čudno prirodan iako uopće nisam znao tko je on. Potpuno iscrpljen i ispražnjen od cjelodnevne vožnje sjedio sam u prašini ispred jedine otvorene benzinske od njih valjda stotinu koje smo prošli u zadnjih nekoliko sati. Albanija je zemlja pumpi za gorivo koje rade maksimalno do 18h, nestvarno velikih praznih restorana u kojima poslužuju šesnaestogodišnjaci koji jedva da govore i svoj jezik te ogromnih dućana za prodaju namještaja čiji stakleni izlozi izgledaju poput divovskih kuća za barbike, shvatio sam u ovih pola dana otkad smo prošli njihovu bizarnu granicu putem iz Crne Gore. Prstom sam besciljno tapkao najnoviju kartu koju sam uspio nabaviti, štampanu 1998, kao da će mi sama reći koji put da izaberem. Oba su imali jednako tanku liniju, oba su prelazila preko puno smeđeg što označava planine i oba su po centimetrima bila jednako udaljena od velikog jezera koje nam je bila finalna destinacija. Jedino što sam stvarno znao, bilo je da je jedna od njih u katastrofalnom stanju, s puno loših makadamskih dijelova, a da je druga relativno pristojna uska cesta u kojoj se povremeno može koristiti čak i treća brzina.

Prsti su mu malo stisnuli moje rame dok se naginjao prema dolje da dohvati kartu i izvuče je sa zemlje ispod mojih stopala. Pritom je nešto prošaptao, valjda se ispričavajući, a onda je, još uvijek s nekim poniznim smiješkom na mladom licu, napravio par koraka do najbližeg stola da je raširi na njemu. Zbunjeno sam ga pratio s poda još uvijek osjećajući neobičnu utjehu njegovog prijateljskog dodira. Valjda ga je Mia poslala da mi pomogne, pomislio sam gledajući njegovo intenzivno proučavanje meni trenutačno nejasnih linija. Ili vjerojatnije društveni Tomo, ako se do kraja oporavio od napadaja panike na planini.

Očito nisam bio dovoljno nemoćan jer mi se lice automatski raširilo u smiješak kad sam ga se sjetio onako sklupčanog u pozi neutješnog djeteta već premorenog od plakanja. Još mi je u glavi zvuk njegovog teškog disanja sa zadnjeg sica koji je producirao podsjećajući na žednu životinju koja troši zadnje rezerve sline. Mia se okrenula, a ja sam ga oprezno šacnuo u retrovizoru pazeći da ne sletimo niz provaliju ispod neograđene ceste. Gledao je u svoja koljena žmirkajući k’o pokvareni semafor, blijed poput božićnog stolnjaka. “Možemo li stati”, tiho je protisnuo i dalje ne dižući glavu. Odmah sam upalio sva četiri i zaustavio uz rub pazeći da neko drugo vozilo može proći pored nas. “Zlo ti je?”, pitala ga je moja supruga otvarajući mu vrata da može izaći na slobodnu stranu. “Ne”, samo je protisnuo pokušavajući puzeći izaći na druga vrata. “Pa u čemu je problem?”, ništa mi nije bilo jasno. “Jel baš moramo ići ovom cestom? Nema neka ravnija, niža?”, napokon nas je pogledao. “A jebiga Tomo, ovo je Albanija i ona ti je osim po pekarskim proizvodima te rustikalnim bunkerima, poznata i po gomili planina koje se nekako mora proći, i koliko ja znam, ovo je trenutačno jedina opcija koja nas vodi prema Ohridu. A što ti je?” “Imam problem s visinama”, promucao je pazeći da mu pogled ne odluta prema desnoj strani.

“Ali u autu si. Vozimo se. Kako te toga može biti strah?” “Blizu smo ruba.” “Znam, moramo se držati desne strane”, nacerio sam se. “Koliko otprilike imamo do idućeg grada iza ovog brda?”, ščućurio se naslonjen na karoseriju, koljenima si skoro dodirujući bradu i sve sporije disao polako se smirujući. “Fakat nemam pojma, 30, 35 kilometara”, nagađao sam. “30”, ponovio je zamišljeno. A jel’ bih ja mogao hodati do tamo pa da me vi pričekate?”, pitao je mrtav ozbiljan. “Kaj, do srijede?”, prasnuo sam u krajnje nekorektan smijeh dostojan razrednog bulija, posramljeno sam pomislio sada u položaju podnog otirača ispred pumpe.

Pogledao sam prema mladiću s nježnim dlanom i vidio da su mu se pridružila još dvojica i sad su utroje proučavali kartu Balkana. Pričali su sve glasnije tako da su uskoro još trojica prolaznika zastala i spontano se uključila raspravi potpuno okružujući maleni okrugli stol. Gotovo ležeći, s oba lakta na prašnjavom podu, gledao sam ih kako strastveno diskutiraju koji je put najbolji za neznance iz druge zemlje, silno umoran, jedva sposoban i za čuđenje tolikom interesu s njihove strane. Kategorija "nesebično pomozi strancu" davno je izumrla u zemlji iz koje dolazim. Pridigao sam se da bar sjednem, usput tražeći pogledom Miju i Tomu koji su ušli u lokal i naslonio se na auto više ličeći na kukca nego na čovjeka. Šestorka se nije mogla usuglasiti i počeli su ozbiljnije galamiti, sad pomalo zvučeći kao da se svađaju. Makar, u pitanju je bio albanski jezik, pa su ustvari možda pričali o trosjedima i naslonjačima te koje nijanse najbolje odgovaraju kričavo crvenim zidovima. Već sam razmatrao nemoguću opciju skupljanja snage da ustanem i da im kažem kako nema veze kojim putem idemo, da su sigurno svi putevi dobri, kad se pojavio i sedmi. Malo stariji, možda pedesetak, s demode brkovima na mršavom, tamnoputom licu. Odjeven u svjetlu košulju i tamne, uske hlače zataknute u visoke čizme od blistavo bijele kože, kao da nikad nisu nošene. I on je zastao kod stola da pogleda o čemu se radi. Lagano se nagnuo jer su se ostali sinkronizirano razmakli da mu naprave prostora čim je pokazao interes. Svi su samo gledali i šutjeli dok je on nekih pet, šest sekundi proučavao kartu i onda presuđujući tiho izgovorio samo jednu riječ. “Elbasan”, što je označavalo grad na putu jedne od te dvije ceste. Isti tren, kao u utreniranom pjevačkom zboru, njih šestorica su poput mantre krenuli ponavljati za njim; “Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan, Elbasan....zvučeći poput učenika koji žele razveseliti autoritativnog profesora, odjednom apsolutno sigurni koji je pravi odgovor na postavljeno pitanje. Tip u bijelim čizmama se samo okrenuo, nedodirljiv poput pmf-ovca na ekonomiji i ne gledajući nikoga ušao u jarko osvjetljeni prostor lokala, nestajući poput apostola nakon efektne zadnje rečenice. Raja se razišla, a mladić je pažljivo sklopio kartu i stavio je u moj otvoreni auto. Opet se sagnuo, opet je nježno položio dlan na moje rame i rekao samo jednu riječ; “Elbasan.” Zahvalno sam mu kimnuo, siguran da smo na pravom putu.

Koji god on bio.

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