The first rest stop in Albania

29 June 2011

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Getting into Albania involved a rather deserted border crossing and a few chats with various interested border guards about the year of the bus and its stamina—not for official purposes, but just to appease the curiosity of the officials who were marveling over the relic that was crossing their border.

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For the first 20 kilometers, we just enjoyed the green mountains and the big open sky that we found on the other side of the border. We drove through a wide valley where there were shepherds on the sides of hills and some kind of mining operation was happening along a beautiful river that paralleled the two lane road.

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We were headed to Butrint, a UNESCO sight that we knew was close to the Greek border, but we couldn’t find road signs or any indication that we were on the right track. We had no map or directions so we drove looking for a gas station where we might find someone to ask. Aside from a cluster of small buildings along side the road ten kilometers in, we didn’t see any signs of people or commerce along the way.

The little gas station just over the line in Shalles that we finally found 20 km from the border had a small café attached where a group of men were sitting and drinking coffee. We pulled up to the pump to fill up and hopped out of the bus to ask for directions to Butrint. There were a few nice old faces among the coffee drinkers and we thought we also might be able to find people willing to sit for a picture.

In general, the Greeks had been shy and sometimes unwilling to pose for a black and white photograph. We didn’t know what to expect culturally from Albania people regarding the camera. Would they be suspicious of our intentions or deep in a new found love of technology (like the Turks!) that they didn’t see the point of using such an archaic contraption for something that could be done with a shiny point and shoot?

The man who answered our first question of “Does anyone speak English?” was Greek, visiting an Albanian friend across the border. His eyes shined when he saw the camera and in careful words, he explained to his friend (In Greek) what we were doing. His friend in turn translated into Albanian for the rest of the members of the group that we were traveling from Afghanistan to France and taking portraits of people along the way.

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The waitress standing just within earshot, bent her head in our direction to listen. She was in her early 40’s and while Aurel stood continuing to explain our trip, Molly went over to ask if she might want her picture taken as well. She was shy, but once she understood the over sized hand gestures, she humbly revealed a little spark of interest in the idea.

We bustled around looking for a shaded spot to set up the photo session, while the men laughed among themselves—clearly joking and marveling at what strange foreigners we were, traveling in a dinosaur taking pictures with an obsolete and cumbersome contraption for no apparent reason.

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But everyone wanted a picture just the same and sitting in front of the camera with a concentrated and careful posture, they were serious about their respect for the medium. No one more so than the waitress who after posing for a photograph, brought out her pregnant sister and her nephew, and then her 80 year old grandmother. The afternoon slipped by. The men leaned back in their chairs and enjoyed the last of their conversations before getting into their cars and heading down the road.

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We sipped coffees and drank complimentary sodas through straws learning that the waitress was the owner of the café and that her family owned this little rest stop along the road by miming and gesturing and using snippets of many languages. The woman had run the café for two years, and her brother in law ran the gas station. We were struck by her pose and pride in her work and their life. We took portraits of the whole family, hiding from the sun in the only shady area behind the back of the building where they were living. We got an intimate glimpse of their lives, using the spaces that the café and gas station patrons didn’t see and benefitting from the intimacy that arises when communication is slow and deliberate and takes energy and focused intention from both sides of the cultural divide. We stayed 3 hours, taking pictures, laughing, and getting to know them. When we asked if they had an email address to which we could send the finished pictures, they smiled and shook their heads.

“Posta?” Molly asked. The café owner shook her head again. “Mail, post—letter?” Molly persisted with gestures, thinking she hadn’t understood. “No Posta,” the woman replied. It took a few more tries to actually believe what she was telling us. There was no address or mail delivery in Shalles.

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In the same country - Albania