Monday, May 9, 2011

Flashback To Vietnam On The Barf-Bag Bus To Berat

I am now one more horrendous bus ride closer to home.  I hope you will read this post—because I spent the whole morning writing it—but maybe you shouldn’t if you’re currently eating your lunch.

Yesterday, I caught a bus from Tirana to a town called Berat, also known as the Museum City, in central Albania.  I had been told, unequivocally, that Berat is an Albanian must-see, with two-thousand years’ worth of old-world character, and a well-deserved designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  I also heard, relevant to my world, that Berat has a backpackers’ place that is fit for a king.

I boarded the bus headed for Berat and got a seat in the front row on the right side, which, I think, is the best place on a bus for a person who suffers from motion-sickness, like I do.  Unfortunately, right before we pulled out, a young guy who didn’t smell so fresh asked to take the window seat next to me.  This prompted me to move to the second-best place on the bus, on the right side just behind the back door.  There you’re not cramped in with someone directly in front of you, and you also get a nice breeze every now and then when the bus stops to let passengers on and off.

I put on my motion-sickness acupressure wristbands—which I’ve sworn by for years—and settled into what I thought was going to be a smooth two-and-a-half hour ride down to Berat.  About thirty minutes passed, and everything was going great as we made our way out of Tirana.  But then, all of a sudden, we started to hit some windy, potholed roads and began to careen all over the highway.  Apparently, the bus had no shock absorbers, and it also felt as if the top of the bus was loose from the chassis as we shifted and bounced along the treacherous path.  Quickly, the bus-driver-assistant-fare-collector guy began distributing small, blue plastic bags to the passengers—obviously for the purpose of catching tossed cookies.

Nooooooooooooooooo! I screamed in my head, flashing back to a scene from Vietnam that I won’t forget to the end of my days.

I was on a mini-bus headed from Dalat to Buon Me Thuot, a village in Vietnam’s central highlands.  We were in a small but packed minibus and I had the worst seat in the house—squeezed in with three other people in the very back, bench-row seat.  My backpack was shoved halfway under the bench in the far corner.

We started to wind up the mountain road to Bon Me Thuot and—just like on the Berat bus—soon the driver started passing back little plastic bags to the passengers; these ones bright green.  The next thing I knew, everyone (and I mean everyone) on the bus was upchucking, including the girl to the right of me.  It was all I could do to keep myself from getting sick in the middle of this spontaneous barf-fest, considering it was hot inside the van and the air circulating was heavy with sick-stench.

And that’s not even the worst part of the story.  When I was finally let out of the minibus—to my great, albeit short-lived, relief—I then pulled my backpack out from under the seat and—to my complete disgust and horror—saw that it was covered in vomit. 

I can’t remember a time when I felt more sick to my stomach.  But what could I do?  I wiped it down with wet wipes on hand, and spent the rest of the evening in my depressing guesthouse room doing the best I could to disinfect the bag with steaming hot water and REI Campsuds.  I later read that the Vietnamese—particularly women, who are used to riding open-air on bicycles and motorbikes—can scarcely handle riding inside a moving vehicle.  It apparently makes them sick, without fail.  If only I had known.

View of Vietnam from inside the Buon Me Thuot mini-bus.

View of Albania from inside the Berat bus.

Here’s the kicker—and I can’t believe I’m admitting this publicly.  The entire reason I went to that little Vietnamese village in the first place was so I could find and drink something called “cat poo” coffee.  Yes, you read that right:  that’s “poo,” as in, “poo.”

Now hear me out on this.  I am a coffee fiend and, as such, I got completely taken in by an article that I’d read in an Australian-based magazine regarding the so-called best-tasting coffee in the world, called “cat poo” coffee.  In short, there is an animal called the civet cat—which is actually more akin to a ferret or weasel; indigenous to Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines—that likes to feast on coffee berries.

One day—and I don’t know who or why—someone picked the berries out of the civet cat’s poo and lightly roasted them to discover that coffee beans first digested and then excreted by civet cats makes the most delicious cup o' Joe.  At the time, this cat-poo coffee was selling in northern Australian cafes for upwards of $50 per cup.  I wasn’t headed to northern Australia, but I was going to Vietnam, where some of these so-called civet cats live.  After some research, I discovered that the Vietnamese town of Buon Me Thuot supposedly had this coffee for sale.  I made plans to go there.

Long story short, I traipsed all over Buon Me Thout in 100-degree, 100-percent humidity weather searching for cat-poo coffee among people who spoke no English.  Imagine the foreign charades that took place over this one:  meow, squat, pick, drink.  And here’s the rub:  I never did find any.  So I took that horrible bus ride for nothing.

Here, in Berat, the story has a better ending.  I am happy to report that no one needed to use one of the little blue bags on the bus ride down, though, to my great anticipatory alarm, one little kid looked as if he were about to come close.  We made it to Berat in one piece and, just as I had heard, it is a gem of a town.  This hostel where I’m staying for $14.30 a night, including breakfast, is like a mansion, as reported.  

View from hostel balcony.

Right now it’s raining, so I’ve been inside all day writing, among other things, about throw up and cat-poo coffee.  But, as soon as the rain stops, I intend to go out and explore.  This evening, weather permitting, I am going out to watch what is called “The Giro.”  Each night, between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m., the local townspeople get all gussied up and walk up and down the main boulevard to extend greetings to each other.  This is also how young people find dates, how older people catch up with friends, and how news generally gets passed around.  We should do stuff like that, don't you think?