Travelling on the kindness of strangers

Dog in belgrade
Dog in belgrade

Everyone loves kindness, especially stray dogs!! (Photo is from Belgrade)

The roads in Shkodër, Albania were as chaotic as any Hanoi boulevard. We arrived long after dark on a Saturday night, and the streets were packed with cars, bicycles, pedestrians and dogs. A lady pushing a baby buggy nonchalantly strolled through a roundabout as SUVs and kids on motorbikes zig-zagged around her; people stopped their cars unceremoniously in the middle of the road to chat with the drivers of other vehicles; cyclists weaved through traffic while chatting on their mobiles. It was messy.

We were trying to find our hostel for the night. The address listed online wouldn’t come up on Google Maps, so instead we were heading to the GPS coordinates that had been provided when we booked. Everywhere was either dark, narrow, crowded or confusing.

We managed somehow to find the right location, but the only signs of life came from a small cafe at the foot of an apartment block. Mook asked some dudes sitting outside the cafe about a hostel, and we got some confusing instructions from a guy with an American accent straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. “Turn left right there, and then head about 400 yards (yards?) until you hit a traffic light, then turn left again. Around there is a university. There’ll be some students and you should ask one of them.” Uh, ok.

I figured we should give this hostel a ring and ask them where the hell they’re located, so I went inside a nearby “sports cafe” to ask if I could borrow their phone. It was small and pretty empty inside–just a few simple tables, a bar, and a flatscreen TV showing a local football match. The walls were green and everything was lit by dim fluorescent lighting.

There were two younger bartenders and one older guy loitering around. No one spoke any English but they realised our conundrum immediately. One of the bartenders, a guy of slender build with gelled hair and a wedding ring, took out his mobile and dialled the hostel’s number. He shook his head to signal that the number didn’t work, and my heart sank for a minute thinking we’d been scammed and the place didn’t even really exist. He checked the number again and realised he’d made a mistake, and on his second try it rang. But there was no answer. It’s ok, he waved, leave it to me–I’ll try again in a minute.

The entire time Albanian words are flying around the room between the two bartenders and the older dude, who I guess wanted to help too. Mook came in looking confused, still in his board shorts from our earlier swim in Montenegro. While I was explaining the situation, the shorter bartender must have gotten through, because the older guy starts motioning that we should get in our car. The bartender grabbed his manbag and followed us out, and we figured out that he was going to lead us to the hostel. We hopped in and he started directing, taking phone calls in the meantime.

We weaved up and down dark, crowded streets, going in what seemed like circles. But when the bartender told Mook to park the car, we were in a very different place, with old buildings and cobblestone streets. “Is the hostel here?” we asked, and he pointed up and down the street to tell us, “Yeah, somewhere here.”

We thanked him for his help but he wouldn’t leave us by ourselves without ensuring we found the place. The bartender received another call and walked us down to an intersection where we were met by a short, slightly pudgy guy with a dark tan and a neatly-trimmed gladiator chinstrap. He introduced himself as Kamil, and said he was from the hostel. We turned to thank the bartender and offered to drive him back to the sports bar, but he refused everything except our handshakes of gratitude, then disappeared into the darkness. What a nice guy–we were so lucky!!

Kamil wasn’t Albanian, and at first I thought the hostel had sent another guest to come get us. But he explained that he was a friend of the owner, and had come to help get the new hostel off its feet in exchange for free accommodation. Fair enough.

It was late and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we headed out for food. Kamil invited himself along. As we walked we made small talk about our situations and travelling. Kamil indicated that he’s a scholar of sorts, had been doing some sort of “saga journey”, usually ends meet with IT work, and was sort of between jobs at the moment. He kept talking about how he had no money. “I only have about 8€ to my name, so I like Albanian because you can go out and get some fantastic food for almost nothing.”

We ended up at a kebab shop. Kamil ordered the house special (a kebab) so Mook ordered one too. We both pulled beers out of the fridge and Mook looked at Kamil suggestively.

“Nah man, I really have to watch my spending…”

Mook shrugged. “That’s ok, I can get this for you,” he said, indicating the beer.

“Ok then, that’s cool.”

Kebabs were served, beers were drank. Slightly tedious conversation was suffered through. We got up to settle the bill and leave, and I handed the kebab shop guy a large note in order to get some change back. Kamil had his back turned, and I took it for granted that he would give me the money for his kebab afterwards. “Ok, ready to go,” I chirped loudly, hoping he’d at least go through the motions of trying to pay for his meal. But nothing, not even a “thank you”. He was probably thinking, “Nice people–I’m lucky!!”

Having run out of conversation topics, along the dark streets back to the hostel we chatted about travelling again. “The thing I really hate is when people think you’re a walking ATM, only seeing dollar signs,” Kamil said flatly. “Just because I’m from a western country doesn’t mean I’m rich.”

“Yeah,” Mook and I rolled our eyes, “We know exactly that feeling.”

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