Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Driven To Drink In Kosovo

I never do this, but these crazy-Kosovar drivers left me no choice:  I’ve just ordered a glass of wine to calm myself down.  It’s only been a few hours since my arrival in Kosovo, and my nerves are completely shot to hell on account of almost being run down twice by reckless drivers in a two-hour time span.

The day started out well enough.  I got up in time for my 5:00 a.m. taxi to the bus station in Ohrid, hugged G. goodbye, and boarded my return bus to Skopje, Macedonia (3 hours), from where I would transfer to a bus bound for Pristina, Kosovo (2 ½ hours).  The first bus ride was a smooth one, and I just assumed the next one would go the same way.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

In fact—thinking back to the second bus ride—I can’t remember a time during the entire ride when the bus driver actually had both hands on the wheel.  Most times he was occupied with smoking or fumbling with his cell phone.  At one point, he actually took both hands off the wheel—on a blind mountain corner filled with oncoming traffic—and replaced the tiny SIM card in his phone while drifting across the white line in the middle.   He then set about programming numbers or texting—I couldn’t really tell which from where I was sitting.  But whatever it was, it left me terrified.

The bus was on this guy's ass for a good kilometer.

At one point the driver put the cell phone away, and then set about systematically overtaking cars in front of us, though he clearly had neither the motor power nor the time to do so.  He would drive in the opposite lane when it was apparent he couldn’t make it around the car in front without crashing into oncoming cars.  Several times, at the last second, he would come close to crashing and would then slow and get behind the vehicle in front of us once again.  At one particular close call I yelled “Oh my God!”  He turned and said something to me in a chastising tone, like I was putting him in danger with my excited utterance.  The nerve of this guy, I thought.  

And, I wasn't alone in my thinking.  At one point I turned and looked behind me to see that even the locals were white as sheets and shaking their heads.

We did arrive in Pristina without major incident (or accident), but I was beyond frazzled, which probably caused me to forget to look for a “How’s My Driving?” sticker on the back of the bus, as I had intended.  I gathered my belongings and started making the long walk across town to my guesthouse, also having forgotten, for the moment, the warning I had received previously concerning the so-called crazy drivers of Kosovo.  Back then Kosovo seemed so far in the distance; I guess it just slipped my mind.

It didn’t take long, though, to be reminded.  The mostly-uphill walk from the bus station took about an hour with my heavy pack.  Along the way I was walking in a somewhat-narrow alleyway bookmarked by eight-foot stone walls when I heard a loud engine barreling down on me from somewhere behind.  I turned to see a wide truck trying to squeeze through the narrow passage, coming right for me.  I attempted to back against the wall, but my pack prevented me from aligning myself closer with it.  And would you believe this f’ing truck just kept coming?  It passed literally within an inch of my chest.  I screamed when it passed, and saw the people on the other side of the road look at me like an overreacting drama queen.  Like, what’s her problem?

Soon I found the guesthouse and checked in.  Of course the wireless internet was down on account of the manager’s failure to pay the bill, so I would have to go into town again if I wanted to finish my last post concerning Macedonia, queued up for today.  I needed to hit the bank in the city center anyway, so I packed my laptop and set off.

On the way I noticed sidewalks jammed with cars parked haphazardly.  It appeared like there had been some emergency that caused the drivers just to stop and run away from their cars.  The blocked sidewalks forced pedestrians to walk mostly on the street near the curb where—of course—cars would whiz by at top speeds, nearly hitting the people trying to pass.


Somewhere along the way I found a clear sidewalk and began walking down it.  I looked away for a second at something across the street and, when I turned my eyes back to the path in front of me, I saw a black VW driving down the sidewalk; again, coming straight for me like a scene out of Death Race 2000.  I literally had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.  As I did this, I spontaneously screamed out “What the f*@k?!?” (I know:  way to represent; but it couldn’t be helped.)  I heard the driver repeat it out of his window, mockingly.  

What in the hell is wrong with these people? I wondered, as I pressed on to the center.

Pristina traffic.
Now, I don’t know if Kosovars have similar rules-of-the-road as found in other parts of the world, but if they do, they scarcely follow them.  Shortly after I was almost run down by the VW, I witnessed a pick-up truck make a left-hand U-turn from the right lane in busy traffic.  I lost count of the number of cars I saw flipping bitches (that's slang for illegal U-turns), often times using the sidewalk as a third lane in order to do so.  These are just some examples of the madness that prevails on the streets of Pristina.  And from what I’ve witnessed thus far, I think it's fair to conclude that some of these crazy drivers will just lay you flat without a second thought.  So I guess the lesson here is:  if you ever happen to find yourself walking through the streets of Pristina, Kosovo, as I did this afternoon, it would behoove you to get and stay out of the way of any moving vehicle, regardless of whether you're walking down a sidewalk or anywhere else where you naturally might think you'd have the right-of-way.  

This may be part of the problem.
Eventually I reached the center of town in one piece and, just as I was feeling a little more calm, something else happened.  I found an ATM and was standing in front of it when the sky suddenly turned dark and a big gust of wind—akin to a tornado, or so I thought—swept past us.  At the same time a vehicle with a screeching siren was careening down the boulevard opposite me.  Given my mindset, I just assumed the end of the world was coming right here in Kosovo.  I turned to the person next to me and asked, dramatically, “What’s happening?” like a scene out of another movie—this time Poltergeist.  The guy said, calmly, “It’s just some wind.”  Soon the car with the siren was out of earshot and the wind died down.  

Now I did feel a bit like a drama queen, and silly.  But still, I had encountered real danger throughout the day and, I thought:  I need a drink. 

All the other patrons are in the other room smoking.
Fortunately the story ends better than it began.  I found a nice café with wireless internet on Nene Tereza (Albanian for Mother Teresa) Boulevard.  It’s a walking street on which no cars are allowed, thankfully.  I’m enjoying some delicious Kosovar Chardonnay from the StoneCastle winery, and also an extremely fresh chef’s salad with yummy bits of prosciutto and local cheese. 

As soon as I post this, I’ll start back to the guesthouse.  I’m planning on taking a taxi, and can’t even imagine what that’s going to be like.  But I’m thinking it’s better than walking back in the dark wearing dark brown pants and a black jacket.   I’d never make it home alive.

I’ll post my last Macedonia dispatch tomorrow, and that way you’ll know someone didn't score points on me on my way home.  (And if you don't get that particular reference, Google Death Race 2000 and you will.)  And now, a few more photos:

Scene from Nene Tereza Blvd:  sharing cotton candy
with brother.  Mother Teresa would be proud.

Famous Kosovars on side of culture museum.

Skinny jeans are everywhere.
Maybe this explains the bad driving.