13th March 2017
My alarm woke me shortly before six. I got out of my lower bunk bed, and looked out the bedroom window. The sun hadn’t fully risen over the horizon. I took a quick, uncomfortable shower, with water that hadn’t yet heated up for the morning, grabbed my bag I’d packed last night, and left the apartment. I walked through the deserted streets to the spot the bus had dropped me two day ago. Tomi had told me there’d be a bus across the southern border into Greece, leaving at six-thirty. I was hoping he was right. The buses in Albania tend to work on flexible, ever-changing schedules. There are rarely timetables online. You have to just turn up to the station and read the whiteboard to find the options. There was a possibility the bus to Greece wasn’t running today, in which case I’d be left standing in the streets with my backpack for hours, waiting for the shops and hostels to reopen.
The bus was running, and left exactly on time. We drove through steep, winding, mountain passes for an hour, before settling onto a highway running through a flat valley, which took us the whole way to the border. The driver went around collecting passports from all the passengers, and handed them to the Albanian border control for inspection. We drove on a few hundred metres, past a duty-free shopping centre, to the Greek border control. We parked beside a row of tables. The driver made an announcement in Albanian (or perhaps Greek), and the passengers disembarked, took their bags from the luggage compartment, and opened them on the tables, ready for searching.
A week ago, in Tirana, I’d been sitting in the smoking area of my hostel with a beer, chatting with two Scottish students on a week-long holiday to Albania. They were passing around a joint, talking about how much they enjoyed the country’s edgy, informal atmosphere. After it was smoked, we got up to go back inside, out of the light rain.
“Here,” one of them said, handing me another. “This is our last one. We won’t want it tonight, and we fly out early tomorrow. I don’t want to chance taking it on the plane. You take it.”
I thanked them, put it in the front pocket of my bag, and, since I rarely smoke, forgot all about it, until last night as I was getting my luggage ready for the trip to Greece. I stumbled across it as I was checking if my spare GoPro battery still had charge. I threw it in the bin in the hostel (a waste, yes, but there wasn’t anyone about for me to give it to, and I didn’t want to bring it across a controlled border, no matter how well hidden).
The Greek border control officer worked his way along the table, looking inside each suitcase and duffel bag, opening smaller sections and squeezing bundles of clothes to check for hidden objects. He wasn’t being particularly thorough. Just before he reached mine, an elderly Albanian man began talking to me. I couldn’t understand his words, but got the meaning: he was looking for help taking his heavy bag off the table. I lifted it, and carried it to the bus’s luggage compartment. By the time I turned around, the officer had moved on. I wasn’t sure if he’d looked in that front pocket or not.
The roads immediately improved as we drove into Greece. The highway became wider, smoother, and instead of driving around around steep mountain slopes, we could take tunnels through them. The villages we passed were prettier. The large, concrete apartment blocks I’d seen over the past week became fewer, and farther between.
Thanks to the gentler roads, I slept most of the way to the city of Ioanninon, and then most of the way to Thessaloniki on my next bus. By the time I arrived in the large depot on the outskirts of the city, I had spent almost all of the past twelve hours sitting. I ignored the local bus, deciding I’d prefer to walk the five kilometers into the city centre. Of course, I began to regret this decision after about two, with my heavy backpack making my shoulders ache.
Thessaloniki was busy with cars, pedestrians, and roadworks. As I neared the centre, my pace slowed to a crawl, thanks to my lack of agility in walking through crowds with my luggage. Despite how lively the streets were, my hostel, Rent Rooms, was quiet. The place could hold dozens, but was only hosting a few. I was sharing my eight-bed with two fellow guests; one of whom was asleep in bed, the other nowhere to be seen. Tired after my long day of travel, I took an early night.