Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Safe From Osama In Tirana

I hate to make the recent development with Osama bin Laden all about me, but really I can’t help it.  I’m nothing if not self-centered.

Yesterday I got up in the morning not looking forward to the day ahead.  The reason is, it’s a real pain-in-the-A getting to Albania from Montenegro.  It takes three separate buses, with one longish layover in Ulcinj on the southern part of the Montenegrin coast.   From door to door, the journey took about nine hours, even though it’s only 133 kilometers, or 83 miles, between the two cities. 

I was banking on finding a café in Ulcinj with wireless access so I could use my laptop to look up the directions to my hostel in Tirana, but no luck.  Finally, I stumbled onto an internet café and paid the .50 € to use one of their computers for an hour.  The home page was set to msn.com, and that’s when I saw the headline about Osama Bin Laden.  I gasped and exclaimed Oh my God! reflexively, and loud. This prompted the only other two guys in the place to turn from their video game to see what my problem was.

“Osama bin Laden is dead—did you hear this?”  I blurted to them, both teenagers.  One of them said, with a conspiratorial tone, “That’s what they say.”  Like:  maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not.  Either way, neither of them seemed to care much.  They turned back to their big screen and continued frenetically pressing their buttons.

But I cared.  I thought, Really? This had to happen now while I’m out here all by myself?  It’s been almost ten years since the serious hunt for bin Laden’s been on; could we not have waited another 26 days until I was safely back on American soil?  I know it's not about me, and it's a big victory.  But still, I'm out here, people!

I know many Americans are dancing in the streets, but I won't be.  No, I'll be keeping my head down and my mouth shut, at least until I see what kind of shitstorm-backlash-reprisal this might cause in other parts of the world.  This is what I was thinking as I surfed around the net—CNN and whatnot—and saw that the revenge speculation had already begun in earnest.  Americans, they said, should be on high alert for the time being.  F-ing great, I thought, as I walked back to the bus station, bound for Albania.

Now, before I go on, I want to make something clear up front.  I wasn't worried about being in Albania just because it’s about eighty-percent Muslim.  I’ve traveled solo through many predominantly-Muslim places—from Turkey to the Middle East to eastern Europe and east Africa—and, without exception, I have always been welcomed with extraordinary hospitality, warmth and kindness.  I know from experience that things are cool.  In my mind, I feel it's a shame that al Qaeda has given Islam and its followers an undeserved bad rap.

That being said, I also believe—as an American traveling alone—one can never be too careful.  Yesterday I Googled “al Qaeda Albania” out of curiosity, and got a little concerned.  Among the stories was one from an NBC News-affiliate.  It said that law enforcement had broken up al Qaeda cells in several countries; Albania was among them.  It didn’t say when this occurred.  Another report, albeit a more unofficial-looking one, claimed that in 2005 a new Islamic organization called “Jihad al Jadid,” a cell of Al Qaeda, had recently appeared in Albania.

Crap! I thought.  Without thinking more, I asked my hostel host whether I would be in any danger in Albania on account of the U.S. killing Osama bin Laden.  I saw the look on her face and immediately felt embarrassed.  The fact is, terrorist plots have been hatched, thwarted, and sometimes carried out in many non-predominantly-Muslim places, including Germany, Spain, France, England and, of course, America—to name just a few.  Would I have asked the same question if I were sitting in predominantly-Christian Italy, where al Qaeda has also been present?  With grace, my host told me I had nothing to worry about in Albania.  Tirana is totally safe for Americans.

In fact, on the bus ride into Albania yesterday, I spotted an American flag attached to a telephone post, waving in the wind.  I remembered that Albanians are generally pro-American—or so I’ve heard and had already experienced back in Pogradec on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid.  In Kosovo--made up of mostly ethnic Albanians who are Muslim--the love for America was off the charts.

I thought of this as I sat in a café earlier today, writing.  An older man at the next table was studying something, but every so often I would notice out of the corner of my eye that he would turn and glance at me.  One time he caught my eye directly and asked, “Where you from?”  Without hesitation I told him:  “America.”  He nodded and offered a big smile, and I gave him a big smile back.  Later, on my walk back to the hostel, I spotted several pro-American symbols, including a windshield cover with the American flag and the Statue of the Liberty emblazoned across it.

Could I end up in the hands of a rogue terrorist sleeper-cell during my travels through Albania?  Perhaps.  But I’m not going to let that stop me from enjoying myself in one of the few places in Europe where a pro-America lovefest is going down.  Sorry, terrorists, this is just too good to miss.