Chapter One: The Adventure Begins
“Guess what, dad; I volunteered you today at the office.”
“You volunteered me? What did I do to deserve such good luck.”
“You are always complaining that you’re bored, that you have nothing to do. The major is taking a group of people over to Albania to do some humanitarian work. So, I volunteered you to help out.”
“Where’s Albania and what will I be doing?”
“Oh, you’ll be doing things like carpentry, plumbing, wiring, that sort of thing.”
“I know nothing about that and remember I’m retired.”
“Well, you can always hand out tools or supervise. You’ve become good at that in your retirement.”
“I have a comedian for a son. When are we leaving?
“The Major said week after next. Really, dad, he needs help. Many people have dropped out for one reason or another. I would go but I have office duties that can’t be postponed. You’ll be going by ferryboat.”
From which port?”
“From Bari on the East Coast of Italy.”
“On the East Coast”
“There must be something wrong with this house. I keep hearing echoes.”
This scintillating conversation took place between my son and myself in his villa about twenty miles north of Naples, Italy, in the middle of June, 1992 where I was spending an extended vacation following my retirement. My wonderful son had just offered up my name to the Major as previously noted who had organized his project following the much publicized adoption activities in Romania when Italian and American nationals rescued many orphans. The hastily organized system worked well until the lawyers and bureaucrats in Romania established political and legal roadblocks. Subsequently, would-be adopters were now looking to Albania, about one hundred miles east across the Adriatic Sea. Hence the idea about the humanitarian work.
All of the “volunteers” met in the Major’s home one night where he outlined the plans for the expedition. In a previous visit to the orphanages and the hospital he and his wife had seen for themselves the appalling living conditions and vowed to do something to alleviate them in some way. So, they planned accordingly. Besides the money they both collected, the Major applied his remarkable talents as a “scrounger” to find discarded surplus items such as electric stoves, washing machines, a large refrigerator and steel pipes. It was a tremendous effort on his part. With the money he bought copper piping, tools, plumbing hardware, water heaters and showerheads. We rented an Italian van to carry all those “goodies” across the “pond.” One of the ladies took her own van for our personal belongings.
Albania is not an American household name. The size of Delaware, perhaps, it is squeezed between Yugoslavia to the north and Greece to the south to which runs the only road. To the east are Kosovo and Macedonia, two areas very much in the news today. The latter country is the birthplace of Mother Teresa, the saint of Calcutta. In 1989, after the death of Dictator Enver Hoxha (pronouced Hodza with a hiss) and subsequent weakened communist control, the Albanians regained independence after a forty year imprisonment. For all those years no one could leave or enter without official permission, seldom given unless he/she was a member of the party. That humane person imposed that regimen in order to keep his brand of Marxism free of corrupting western influences.
Personal freedom, free press, free speech, free religious choice was non existent. Anything anathema to the party was banned. Atheism was declared the official government doctrine of the state, the only country to ever do so. Because of this forced isolation, the country’s economic, intellectual and social life stagnated. The money system was worthless on the international market. Most damaging to the people’s welfare was the Kafkaesque approach to social management that reduced them to the level of chattels, serfs and animals devoid of hope, impoverished both in spirit and body, unsustained by the regenerating powers of religion and new ideas. What was truly grotesque and horrifying was that he truly believed his own agitprop. So he imprisoned a whole nation to prove his point: Great Man! Great Patriot!
When the GREAT ONE proved himself to be mortal, and the party lost its grip on the nation being replaced by an interim government, the Albanians celebrated by going on an exodus to Greece and Italy where they failed to exercise proper restraint. As a result many of them were rounded up and shipped back home; restrictions were then put in place on exit visas to neighboring countries. A new prison had been exchanged for the old one and in some ways was more cruel and inhumane. I found the people mired in despair, defeatism and discouragement. Many felt they were no better off than before.
Picture if you will a country devoid of bookstores, libraries, video stores, shopping malls, department stores, class restaurants, movie and drama theatres, discos, appliance and furniture stores, up-to-date office buildings, traffic jams, modern busses and trains, hotels, fast food places, pizza parlors, all the thousand and one things which we, in the western world, take for granted. This, then, was the situation we faced when we arrived one bright Sunday morning in late June.
We had left Naples the day before, crossed the Apennines and reached Ban in late afternoon where we purchased tickets for the trip across the Adriatic Sea. The ferryboat was a gigantic ark measuring anywhere from 700 to 1000 feet long. Through the large jaws moved vans, semis, small trucks, cars and people in a procession that stretched through the embarkation area.
We were settled into our cabins by 8:00 p.m. They were small airless boxes, but were more comfortable than the steel deck plates. The cafeteria food was surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We viewed our fine supper as a good omen. The next morning the “real” adventure began. At 7:00 am we lined up outside the cafeteria to reclaim our passports and pay a ten dollar fee for a visa. The port’s name was Durazzo, a dusty and chaotic place (many Albanian city names were Italianized after Mussolini’s conquest in 1939).
I was completely flabbergasted by what I saw.
Rusty, used-up, burned-out, decrepit and antediluvian port machinery such as loading cranes and large winches clogged the dock area; mysterious, atrophied equipment from obscure sources defying rational explanations for its usage either jammed the jetties, thus negating proper utilization of those facilities or were scattered about the yards in a tumbled, tangled clutter. Coal burning donkey engines shuffled, huffed and puffed, sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing cargo carriers, sometimes just wheezing about in a haphazard manner. Damaged, deteriorated warehouses and assorted buildings, many without roofs and windows were aligned to one side of the harbor and adjoining streets like dead party functionaries. Next to the dock area could be seen charred, antiquated, superannuated, pillaged railroad engines, rail equipment and coaches, busses, trucks, farm machinery (I have no idea what it was doing there either). The whole mise-en-scêne would have gladdened the hearts of the Road Warrior and the Terminator; it was a mute testimony to inefficient, incompetent and incontestably insane political and economic systems.
Exiting the ark, large trucks carrying everything from used cars to assorted supplies from various worlds charitable organizations deployed, maneuvered, navigated, squeezed, elbowed each other in a frantic and sometimes comical effort to be first in line to leave the port, passed on by sharp eyed Albanian customs police aided by Italian Coast Guardsmen. Most passengers were Albanian nationals. They left the boat carrying suitcases, traveling bags, bundles and packages of every size and description, boxes of electronic components such as television sets, stereos, recorders bought in Italy. Happy friends and relatives jammed the arrival area, all gesticulating and talking at once. It was quite a show.
Meanwhile our expedition had assembled its two vans and personnel in a quiet area away from the tumult and confusion. The fun began when the Major met his Albanian interpreter, Bennie, and both of them proceeded, with much arm waving, pidgin Italian, dialectic English, all interspersed with American military idioms to make some kind of deal with the port masters, both the Italians and the Albanians. The problem was that we had to go south with some equipment and north with the rest of the supplies. To complicate matters the Italian van had to be returned that same day to Naples.
Eventually, the Major reached an agreement with everyone. The goods going south were loaded aboard an Italian army truck that was part of a convoy. The remainder was placed in a van and locked up in a secure military compound in the harbor area. At this point I must explain the Italian military presence. It was there to secure and deliver supplies from international relief organizations and the generous Italian people. The Albanian government, then in the throes of structuring a new economic system, simply did not have the vehicular infrastructure to do the job. So, the efficient Italian army assisted by its own Coast Guard ran Operation Pelicano (Pelican).
The Major had prudently secured a document from his Italian commander that clinched the deal. It would not be the last time that the Italian military was to come to our help. With the assistance of a friendly army captain, we left the port. I still chuckle at the Albanian policeman’s pithy remark: “cold war kaput. Raus with you” (or something to that effect). We did exactly that with alacrity. After a wonderful, almost epicurean meal at the Italian mess, we headed south to the city of Vlora.
The whole coastline is one long stretch of unspoiled, clean beaches. To the west of the road facing the sea were hundreds of small mushroom shaped concrete pillboxes that were built to accommodate a few persons or to house a small platoon. Those, explained our guide with a straight face, were built to protect the people from a western invasion. During our stay we were to see thousands of such protectors all over the country. It is useless for me to comment further on the mentality of power mad tyrants who squander precious capital on such worthless and unproductive projects instead of furthering the citizens’ welfare. I saw the definitive application on a giant scale, of the old, old doctrine used by despots to maintain their hold upon the governed: distract their attention from their miseries by raising the specter of foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs. As a result of those scare tactics, proved time and time again, the people rally to the government’s defense. We do not seem to learn much from history.
Incidentally, just in case American readers take comfort in smugness, may I remind them to look back on forty years of international crises as the civilian and military leaders, helped along by CIA charts and self-serving Congressmen, explained in dramatic fashion how a certain “unfriendly” country was always out producing America in every weapon category which, of course, placed us at a disadvantage in the coming Armageddon. What really stumped me was how this was possible after the expenditure of trillions of dollars on our part in a cold war against a country that could not even feed its own people. Strangely, those crises always occurred at times of budget reduction debates. Needless to say the politicians always found money for extra spending. However, in my opinion, that money could have been spent more effectively for commercial product development or for social projects beneficial to everyone. As I said before, scare tactics work every time.
On each side of the road for mile upon mile, poignant and heartrending, was evidence of the people’s grim determination to survive. All the trees had been cut down. Our guide was self-consciously vague about the reasons for that. We did not push the issue. But we all knew that it had been done for firewood or for building materials. We passed many deserted factories and warehouses. It took me a long time to realize that the distressing lack of capital was the main factor in keeping the workers away from their work and nothing else. The small villages through which we passed were uniformly drab, dreary and doleful, offensive to the eye, as if they had all been built from one master plan drawn up by sadistic, neurotic, sociopath planners bereft of any sense of human feelings and compassion. I wondered if those architects ever lived there. The inhabitants milled about the town squares talking, smoking, wheeling and dealing for goods and services. There was very little vehicular traffic, but many bicycles, horse drawn carts and even horse back riders. I did not see many smiling faces. What was there to smile about?
Paralleling the road was the strangest aqueduct that I had ever seen. It was a three-sided concrete box affair about two feet wide supported by cement posts. The strange conduit snaked over hills and valleys not more than ten feet above the ground. It was badly in need of repair; it leaked like a sieve. The water flow was gravity controlled in many areas. At intervals pumping stations, some functioning properly, some intermittently helped the flow of water. That accounted for the sporadic service in the cities where the inhabitants could only count on a few hours of service per day. Since it came from mountain sources, the water was uncontaminated. In my estimation it rivaled Rome’s water both in purity and freshness.
We reached our destination in mid afternoon and checked in with the Italian military to retrieve our supplies.