The stern looking driver with mirrored shades nervously chewed on gum while he threw our luggage into the hold. It was late afternoon in a dusty Pristina, and the prospect of traveling to the Albanian coast and seeing the land of the eagles filled me and Fjorda with excitement. We’d had just enough time to pick up qebapa (kebab, shockingly cooked by a boy who couldn’t have been older than 12) and some drinks and snacks for the journey.
As the coasch drove south towards the border the towns and villages we passed through were immensely beautified by the fierce pink light of dusk. People were going about their daily business oblivious to the fact an English girl was whizzing by trying to soak in every last detail of places I’d probably never visit again. I had memorized a map of the region and knew more or less the route we’d have to take to get to Durres. The distance between Pristina and Durres was relatively close on the map, but at that time there was no direct motorway. A journey that would take a couple of hours stretched long into the night and would finish the next day.
We passed through Ferizaj, then Prizren. I wished to return one day to explore these beautiful towns with their antique stone bridges. The more we drove, the higher we climbed giving us spectacular views of the towns and villages cradled by the mountains.
By nightfall we’d reached the border. The coach crawled leaving Kosovo, and halted to a total stop at the Albanian border. Passports were passed forward for inspection by a guard who paced up and down examining the passengers with a degree of cynicism. He stopped at me, holding my passport open, looking at me, looking at the British passport then looking at both of us. He exchanged some words with Fjorda, my travelling companion from Pristina, who turned to ask for twenty Euros.
‘Twenty Euros?! For what?!!’
‘Some kind of Tax’ she said under her breath, trying to lower the tone.
‘Tax? Bribe more like!’ I replied begrudgingly handing over the cash.
As soon as the coach passed the border everything changed dramatically. The Martian landscape illuminated by the headlights alone looked red and jagged against the jet black sky. We were still high up, I could tell because the air was cool and damp. The window began to drip with claggy condensation. There was nothingness, only eerie silence ringing in our ears. No comfort of a road sign or a light in the distance. The VHS had frozen its final frame and turned itself off. The passengers were tense. Or was that just us? They probably made the journey every year migrating south in the height of summer – Durres is a renound holiday destination for Kosovans many of whom own holiday apartments or small business there. Onwards we went climbing higher still. I couldn’t quite make out what the road looked like ahead of us, I didn’t see any marks or barriers only an uneven road edge when the bus veered gingerly around the bends.
Our first coach stop was a make shift café where we had the chance to stretch our legs and use the facilities. A waiter hurriedly rushed around bringing plates to tables which had been prepared awaiting the next coach arrival bringing weary travelers. It had been some hours since we’d polished off the qebapa so we gratefully obliged. In the dim light from the strings of lanterns, I fixed my eyes on what would change my eating habits for life; a flat patty of meat resting on a bed of wilted salad. After a tiny mouthful and closer inspection I threw down my cutlery and abandoned the meat. Green certainly wasn’t a colour of meat I had ever seen before so I abandoned it after just one greedy bite.
The next coach stop was a shack somewhere near a town we’d just driven through called Puke. Puke! How ironic considering what was to later follow. A pain deep in the pit of my stomach was worsening and whatever was causing it needed to come out. Assuming it was just the ever winding mountain roads which slung us from side to side, I disappeared around the corner to try to vomit unsuccessfully. As people started to reboard the coach I hurried back noticing the meaty smell which hung in the stagnant coach air.
In the next leg of that journey the scraping pain worsened. It would gnaw in violent waves as we were swung from side to side careering round the mountain bends dangerously close to the edge. On each bend the headlights showcased a memorial from some poor motorist who had fallen to their death on those periless roads. The coach, probably a 1970s German model, maneuvered around each bend taking us inches away from a sheer drop into a bottomless pit. Upward we climbed still, so high up that the harvest moon was on the horizon. Around us pitch black, only in the distance the tail lights of another coach appearing and disappearing behind the bends at least reassuring us there was some other form of human life out there.
I knew it was coming. I could feel my arms and cheeks tingling with panic as my skin became clammy and pallid. Fjorda knew it too, she was looking at me with concern as I groaned uncomfortably clenching my stomach. She had sick bags at the ready. I couldn’t contain it anymore, there was something so rotten inside my body waiting to be expelled. After the first few times of violently vomiting, I assumed whatever it was causing them pain had been expelled. Little did I know it was jus the beginning of a horrific ordeal. The sickness would continue to come in waves with a creeping sensation starting from my arms and ending with a purge. Thoroughly humiliated at first, I soon let go of any sense of shame and dignity as Fjorda brought my sick bags to the front of the coach to throw them out the door onto the side of the road.
In between bouts of vomiting, I sat paraylised with fear. If this sickness wasn’t going to kill me, the roads surely would. Gathering confidence with each bend, the driver’s face remained emotionless in the rearview mirror still wearing shades and nervously chewing gum. I figured that if he didn’t look scared, we would be OK. I fixed my concentration onto this man, who held our lives in his hands, praying to just survive. But the sickness continued, bag after bag until there was nothing left to come out. The uncontrollable retching continued, violently sending my body into spasm until I was producing bitter bile a little at a time. I tried to do what little I could to save myself and tried to sip water but even that came straight back up, I’d been sick now for what seemed like hours with no relief.
I was in a total state of delirium with poison screaming through my veins accompanied by the soundtrack of the same three hypnotic songs of twinkling qifteli and wailing vocals playing on repeat. Maybe it was Motrat Mustafa, I’d heard them before back in London. Sinan Hoxha came as some kind of relief in my delirium when the Motrat Mustafa cassette tape chewed up and came to an end.
Terror kicked my instinct into survival mode. Whatever strength I had in my state of weakness, I knew I had to keep conscious. Passing out was not an option, if I passed out I believed I would die so I kept conscious by thinking of my family and how I couldn’t let them down by passing away in this sorry circumstance. I repeated the Lord’s Prayer again and again to keep my mind focused on something specific, though ultimately it came out uneven and garbled as if speaking in tongues while I continued my exorcism.
After what seemed like a desperate eternity I was moved to a seat at the front of the coach.
The sun was starting to rise as I continued retching violently. I was green. And worse, with every wave of nausea I was desperately trying not to soil myself as my body fought to push out the poison. I had already endured enough humiliation and somehow, with the help of God I can only assume, I managed not to let that happen.
As the new day dawned, the mountains came alive. The stereo had given up all together at some point during the night and we all sat silently assessing our alien surroundings. We were an insignificant spec amidst a backdrop of jagged and baron peaks. We had been soaring high in those mountains like Eagles, surviving dangerously on the edge.
No civilization visible created a new sense of despair.
‘How long until we get there? I can’t hold on anymore’ I asked a painfully helpless Fjorda. My bile was bright green and red. Blood. My stomach was on fire. I had been ill now for almost ten hours with no relief. I was beyond desperate at this point, I had to get off and get to some kind of refuge! At least the new daylight was a welcome comfort.
‘Soon’ the driver replied, adding ‘I have seen some things in my life, but I have never seen someone suffer so much’
When the coach pulled into Durres I thanked God I was still alive. I was helped off the coach to face a horrifying welcome of dirty outstretched hands of gypsies asking us for money: I projectile vomited the few sips of water I had just managed to swallow. I needed a bed and a toilet, I didn’t care how much it cost or where it was, rest was the only think on my mind. On the opposite side of the road was Hotel Romana, we managed to cross the road avoiding the strings of horn pounding wedding parties waving red hankies out of car windows. I was placed on a sofa while Fjorda asked for a room. They were full but Fjorda’s desperate pleas gesturing at a very ill-looking foreign woman paid off as the hotel receptionists expression turned to concern.
‘Non ti preoccupare’ said a middle-aged man from the other side of the desk – they’d been told I was Italian and visiting Albania for the first time. And with those words Don’t Worry I knew all would be ok. They’d gone to make up a room for us and told us to wait about ten minutes. Opposite the sofa was a glass paneled wall with waiters behind it busily setting up a dinning room for I could only imagine would be a wedding party. The walls were mounted with tapestries and sets of ram’s horns. I could see a WC sign beyond that and set off making my way holding onto the wall for support. Meat. A strong waft hit me from beyond the dinning room. I tried to make it to the toilet in time holding onto my mouth with both hands but it was too late I was already violently projectile vomiting through my fingers much to the disgust of the hotel staff.
Finally, I collapsed into a bed. I don’t remember anything until I was woken up in what seemed like an earthquake. The walls were vibrating as amplifiers boomed synthesizers and wailing vocals at full volume. Smudged shoe prints and an array of squashed mosquitoes adorned the ceiling. I half sat up, to see Fjorda sitting on the balcony which overlooked the hotel courtyard, watching the live music and dancing just outside our window. On the foot of the bed lay a big plastic bag of various types of medicine resembling pastel coloured candy. Fjorda had ventured out to a chemist while I lay asleep. She began to explain that I needed to take this pink pill and that green powder. Infact, she hadn’t really understood the instructions well because there was a huge language barrier, although she and the chemist were both Albanian by ethnicity, Fjorda spoke Kosovan and the chemist Albanian from Albania, they are totally different dialects. On the table opposite was a carton of peach juice and a packet of biscuits. Able to manage only a tiny sip of juice, I passed out again and woke up some time later, who knows how I managed to sleep as the room continued to vibrate.
I joined Fjorda on the balcony and was welcomed by the humid sea air. There was a mixture of people dancing to the music which continued late into the early hours. Children ran in and out of the joined hands of dancers, groups of beer drinking youths, the men all wearing white jeans and shirts, and older ladies with shawls around their shoulders. Although far to weak to join them, I couldn’t wait to get to know this city.