Friday, May 13, 2011

A Saranda Solicitation In the Home Stretch

I have reason to believe that today, in Saranda, I was taken for a hooker.  It happened a few hours ago, and I’m still not quite sure what to think about it.  Here’s the story:

This morning I left Berat on a mini-bus headed for Saranda, a coastal town on the Ionian Sea, just north of the Albanian-Greek border.  It was yet another one of those long, butt-clenching rides that had me thinking, once again, about the grim reaper.  I began to count the dozens of grave markers that dot the highway—particularly where the mountain passes were most treacherous—and stopped counting somewhere north of twenty.  I could plainly see:  lots of people had died on this road.

I remember hearing once that most vehicle accidents happen when you’re closer to home.  Now I was wondering whether that same theory extends to lengthy trips abroad.  With two weeks to go, I’m in that zone—the home stretch, so to speak.  I just want to cross the finish line unscathed.

A fellow passenger, the driver, and driver's assistant.
The passenger's smokes.  Something's gonna get us.
I was distracted from my morbid thoughts by a fellow passenger.   He was an older man of about 65.  We picked him up about twenty kilometers before we reached town and he took a seat directly behind me.  I could hear him near my right ear mumbling stuff in Albanian.  I thought he was talking to himself, and just ignored it.

We arrived in Saranda, I retrieved my backpack from the back hatch, shook hands goodbye with the driver’s assistant, and began to follow the directions to my hostel.  I spotted the older man from the seat behind me and saw that he was now walking about five paces ahead.

And then I noticed something strange.  The man was holding a wad of Albanian money in the open palm of his left hand, which he kept hanging behind his back, pressed against his left butt cheek.  The outer bill was green—the 1000 Albanian Leke bill—no small change so far as Albanians are concerned.  I kept walking behind, confused as to why this man was being so careless with his money.  Why doesn’t he put it in his pocket? I wondered.

Then, I noticed, every few seconds, the man would turn his head all the way to the left, just enough to see, out of the corner of his eye, if I were still walking behind.  And something else:  while holding the money securely with his thumb, the man would wiggle the other four fingers below the money, as if to draw my attention to it. 

It worked.  He had my attention.  And after some time, it occurred to me:  this man is trying to offer me that money.

But for what?  Usually people are trying to get their hands on my foreign-tourist dollars.  Why in the world would this guy be trying to give me his money?  Whatever the reason, both the man and the situation were creeping me out.  I didn’t want to be walking behind him anymore.

I quickly crossed the street between head-turns and finger-wiggles and hid behind a van parked at the curb.  I watched the man through the side window and windshield turn all the way and look around, perhaps noticing that I was gone.  He kept walking.  After a few seconds I emerged and continued walking on the opposite sidewalk.  He stopped, sat on the stone steps of a business, and waited for me to pass.  When I did, he got up and began keeping pace with me across the street.

This happened three times.  I would stop and pretend to look at something, he would stop and wait, and when I would proceed, he’d begin walking again.  I knew this was not my imagination:  the man was definitely on my trail. 

But why?

I didn’t want him to follow me to the hostel, so I stood at the next intersection, and just waited, thinking of what to do next.  He, in turn, walked into an adjacent alley in my line of sight, and stood staring at me.  I could still see the money in his hand, which was now at his side, open in his palm facing toward me.  I saw him glance at me, down at the money, and back at me.

Now I was completely annoyed.  I wasn’t too worried about danger:  the man was five-foot-nothing and more than twenty years my senior; I was pretty sure I could take him in a struggle.  But still, I was unnerved and upset.  I had just survived a six-hour, death-defying bus ride, and I was more than eager to find my hostel and drop my heavy pack.  I wanted this weirdo off my tail ASAP.

Quickly I changed directions and began walking down the street away from my hostel.  I thought about asking for help and impulsively ducked into a small convenience store.  I found a young guy behind the counter, and this is the conversation that followed:

--Do you speak English?
--A little.
--There is a man following me, and it’s making me uncomfortable.
--Who is this man?
--I don’t know.  He’s a short, older guy in a black jacket.  He followed me from the bus.  And I’m not sure why, but he keeps flashing money at me.

The kid shot me a curious, almost incredulous look, but nonetheless came around the counter toward the door.  We peeked outside together, and saw the man coming up on the sidewalk toward us.  “There he is,” I said, taking a step back. 

We stood side in silence and watched as the man passed by the doorway.  He saw us looking at him and kept walking.  Soon he was out of sight.  “Maybe he’s drunk,” the kid speculated.  “Maybe,” I said, and thanked him.  The tattle-tale-stare-down seemed to work.  I walked to my hostel, unmolested, and apparently follower-free.

I checked in and told the young girl working in the hostel my story about the creepy man.  She hadn’t before heard of a money-flash such as this one, but wasn’t surprised in other respects.  “Albanian men think foreign woman are loose,” she explained. 

Loose is one thing, I thought, but for sale?  I went to the bathroom and lingered before the mirror for a moment, looking to see if there was anything in my appearance that spelled  “prostitute.”  At the time I was wearing:  a plain pair of sort-of saggy brown pants; a plain brown long-sleeved shirt; Merrell trail sneakers; a lavender, Western-style bandana around my neck; glasses; no make up; and a lazy, 8:00 a.m.-bus-ride ponytail.  None of it said:  “make me an offer.”  At least in my opinion.

And here’s the most ridiculous thing.  I can’t help but wonder how much the guy had in his hand in total.   I think I saw at least 2000 Leke, which converts to about twenty bucks, but was there more in the wad?  And if so, how much more?  Not that it matters, but I suppose I am curious as to the going rate for a loose, foreign woman in these parts.  More specifically, I wonder how many Albanian Leke that man thought I was worth?  I guess I'll never know.

On a related topic, I really love the affection the Albanians and others in the Balkans show  each other.  There’s a lot of hugging, kissing, and hand-holding going on here, and not just between sweethearts, but also between friends of the same gender, both young and old.  I find it very sweet.  

So be prepared:  after all this time in the Balkans, I’m probably going to kiss both of your cheeks hello and goodbye when I see you.  I might want to casually hold hands too, so I hope that doesn't make you feel uncomfortable.

Saranda at dusk.

[Note:  this post was written on May 12.]