The speedometer gently ticks past 150km/hr. Outside the world screams by in a mess of blue skies, towering green mountains and yellow insect guts splattered across the windshield. Santi is asleep in the front seat, dimly aware that we’ve left the dusty dirt roads of Tirana’s outskirts behind and are flying down the wide Albanian highways.
The road snakes between sheer cliff faces and yawning valleys, oftentimes four lanes wide though we’ve hardly seen another car. The needle edges above 200km/hr. The engine whines in protest, drowning out the strains of Despacito over the radio. Fucking Despacito. You can travel the world, but you will never escape Despacito. There are lost tribes in the Amazon throwing spears at planes whilst singing Despacito.
Through the haze of my Daddy Yankee-induced rage, the Albania-Kosovo border crossing pulls into view on the horizon.
Prior to our move, the two of us had only ever lived on islands. Apart from the irony that neither of us can swim well, it also meant we’d never crossed a country border by road. One of the biggest appeals of driving through the Balkans was the chance to experience a land crossing in a place that still took them (at least a little bit) seriously. Adding to the thrill is that, in all honesty, we’re a dodgy looking pair. A brown Australian witha highly suspicious nose. A Sri Lankan national with a slew of papers/cards/stamps trying desperately to justify her legality in Europe. Allegedly married but with different surnames and no wedding rings. We’ve raised more than a few eyebrows at immigration, so this time we made sure we had our stories straight. I even went so far as to sprinkle chip crumbs across my face and lap, to give off the impression of an affable everyman just going about his day to day, thank you very much.
The moment of our first crossing arrived, near Lake Ohrid between Macedonia and Albania. We pulled up to the boom gate, and locked eyes with the officer. The tension was palpable, our excitement barely concealed. I stretched out my trembling hand and parted the pages of our passports.
“It’s our first time”, I whispered, chip crumbs falling to the ground.
But he didn’t care. He was only there for one thing. We were just another mark on his logbook. Like so many other first times, it was over in about 30 seconds. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel a little disappointed as he
rebuttoned his pants raised the gate and let us pass.
After the non-event that was our crossing into Albania, we pulled up to the Albania-Kosovo border with quiet indifference. I handed our documents to the officer sitting in the booth with a yawn, and turned back to chat with Santi.
“Step out of ze car!” a rough voice demanded.
A surly officer is directing our vehicle into a deserted concrete hanger off the main highway. He’s wearing dark glasses, a crisp officers hat and black serial killer gloves. A second officer circles at the rear of the car, occasionally crouching as we drive into the squat, grey building. A deep, wide rectangular cavity looms in the centre of the hanger like an empty grave. I inch the car toward the edge and stop. The officer gestures for me to move forward. I shake my head. Impatient, he yells something at me.
“He wants you to keep going”, Santi translates, suddenly fluent.
“That’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“Iz good!” the officer yells with a thick Balkan accent, before muttering something which makes the other officer laugh.
Slowly, painfully, I creep the car toward the grave, bracing for the inevitable moment the tires slip and we plunge six feet into the earth. The officer tries simultaneously to both reassure me and glare at my Western cowardice, until finally we’re balanced precariously either side of the abyss. As we step out of the car, we watch the officer slowly remove his hat, loosen his tie and take off his right glove. I assume this is when the beatings will begin.
The second officer has already taken our luggage and strewn the contents across a small wooden table. He sifts through the assortment of clothing and makeup. He holds up pair of my Calvin Kleins and shouts something to his partner, prompting laughter from them both. I try to laugh along but they immediately fall silent and glare at me. Their search has uncovered a cylindrical black case stashed at the base of our suitcase. Despite looking comically suspicious, all it contains is our tripod, as Santi and I rush to explain.
“It’s just a tripod. For our camera. TRIPOD”, Santi begins.
“You know, like cut me off at the knees and call me…”, I offer, possibly overcompensating for the Calvin Klein incident.
We’re met with bemused expressions, as the second officer explains “Yes, we have seen tripods before.”
Ultimately it proves to be the tipping point as the officers, clearly fed up with our antics, send us on our way. We even manage to extract a smile from them as we gingerly reverse the car back over the grave. Back on the highway and looking forward to the unique sights and sounds of Kosovo, we switch on the radio in time to catch the start of the next song.