I’d like to introduce you to a man. Unfortunately I don’t know his name as I missed the memo on how to say ‘what is your name’ in Albanian (sorry, my bad) so I’ve just always referred to him as Bunker Man.
It’s overly simplistic, I know, and might even be classed as rude. That hasn’t been my intention. It’s just nice and straightforward, just like this dialogue between Jerry and George in Seinfeld:
George: What’s a bubble boy?
Jerry: He’s a boy who lives in a bubble!
Replace ‘bubble’ with ‘bunker’ and ‘boy’ with ‘man’, and you might understand my way of thinking. In short, my mind is made up of a combination of Bridget Jones and Seinfeld references. It can be quite tiring, explaining myself all the time.
But I’m getting sidetracked, my apologies.
In my last post, I briefly mentioned the fact that there’s a whole lot of bunkers which are littered across the Albanian landscape. They sprung up in the 1960s, the height of Albania’s communist days, due to the isolationist policies of its leader, Enver Hoxha.
I hadn’t heard of Hoxha before I visited Albania, and this is coming from someone who’s studied twentieth century history and international relations. It wasn’t like this guy was a hanger on in terms of the big communist leaders like Stalin, Mao and Tito; nah, this guy had his own style. He declared Albania to be the world’s first atheist state. He banned all forms of private transportation (except for his own cronies, of course). He declared any woman who had more than eight children a ‘national hero’. And he became absolutely paranoid.
Slowly but surely, Hoxha ended relations with all the country’s former communist allies; the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and China. He picked fights with just about everyone else, and cut off all communication with NATO countries. All the while, he was convinced that Albania was on the cusp of being invaded. By whom, he didn’t know, just… someone.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that those fears were completely unjustified. Nobody gave a crap about Albania. I doubt Johnson and Nixon could have even pointed the country out on a map. But nobody told Hoxha, so in the late 1960s, he began a bunker building project that would gobble up an astounding eighty per cent of the national budget. In the end, he built at least 750,000 of them; mostly along the borders and coastline, but some even in downtown Tirana. There were enough to house every Albanian family.
The thing was, they were never used. In fact, the Albanians knew this at the time. They’d use them for hide-and-seek, public toilets, or even as ‘zero star’ hotels for young couples. After communism fell and everyone was busy trying to forget the last half-century, the Albanians were left with a big, ugly reminder of the Hoxha-era at literally every turn.
As such, most of the bunkers are still around today and us tourists generally find them absolutely fascinating. Most are completely abandoned, sitting in the countryside like crash-landed UFOs. I’d take my group to one just after the border, and they’d poke around, climb all over it, get pricked by thistles and generally have a great time. However, there was only one thing wrong with this, and it was all about timing. The bunker was only minutes after the border, and I hadn’t properly explained anything about the country by that stage. We’d jump off at some bunker after me giving a rushed description of it, and then getting into the details about Hoxha later. It just didn’t work that well, so one day my driver and I decided to pick a different bunker. Hey, we had plenty to choose from.
Sure enough, we spied one from the road about twenty minutes later, which was perfect timing. We all hopped off the bus, wandered through an empty paddock, and found… a man greeting us.
Of my three years of guiding tours, this was the biggest shock of my life. I had never even considered the possibility of someone living there, and immediately I questioned the wisdom of me marching forty foreigners into what was clearly somebody’s home. I had no idea how the man would react, let alone the passengers. My mind zipped through about eighty different scenarios in about 1.5 seconds.
I crossed my fingers. ‘Mirëdita,’ I called as I approached, still from about twenty metres away. The man was waving, his toothless grin clearly visible. ‘Mirëdita!’ he exclaimed, before continuing in rapid-fire Albanian.
I bit my lip. All I knew in Albanian was mirëdita and faleminderit; ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. This was going to need some improvisation.
‘Mirëdita!’ I said again. ‘Hello! Australians! Tourists!’ I grinned, gesturing at my intrigued charges. ‘Your home!’ I continued, pointing to the bunker.
The man laughed, and shook his head (which means yes in Albania). He said something, which I assumed meant ‘come’ and opened his makeshift front door.
Everyone stood rooted to their spots, as if stunned. I smiled and tried to look more confident than I felt. ‘Go on,’ I encouraged them.
The boys were first. They were always going to be, and followed the man inside. As I crossed over his front door, I realised that this was my first experience of true poverty. I’d seen it from afar other times; catching the bus between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, exploring a Burmese village in Thailand and even seeing images of indigenous poverty at home in Australia. I consider myself a bleeding heart lefty, but I’ve lived a life, and travelled a life, of middle-class comfort.
We walked around his house and small garden almost totally in silence. Every so often somebody would ask me if they could take a photo, so I eventually held up a camera to the man and he smiled and shook his head. The only real sound was the man, who hardly stopped talking. He pointed out his bed, his stove, and laughed as he touched the walls and pointed to his tiny pane-less window. It was sparse, but incredibly tidy. You could tell he was immensely proud of his home.
As I waited for the man to complete his upteenth tour of the bunker (everyone eventually found the courage to go inside) I realised that we should probably give him something. I spread the word around, and people rushed back to the bus to grab their wallets. I wasn’t expecting much; Aussies don’t really tip on principle and getting them to realise its importance in some parts had always been one of my biggest challenges out in the Balkans. I certainly didn’t expect the wad of cash, the bags of apples, the boxes of museli bars and the containers of Pringles. People just couldn’t stop giving – they were grabbing all the travel food they could find – and I was in danger of tearing up.
Just before saying goodbye, I handed over the stash. ‘Faleminderit,’ I said perhaps a dozen times. The man wouldn’t accept at first, but eventually did. Let’s just say that he joined me in having a tear or two.
As the bus started up again, and we waved the man goodbye, the whole group was abuzz. They’d seen something, somewhere, someone, that not many people on Earth had experienced before. It wasn’t posing in front of the Eiffel Tower or riding on a gondola in Venice, but it was something that they’d remember about their trip forever.
Postscript: I visited the Bunker Man on one more occasion. This time he greeted us with homebrew rakia, plenty of smiles and even a new word; ‘Australian’. He even took a cheeky liking to a 60-something female passenger (who was travelling with her husband). I often wonder how he is going, especially during Albania’s harsh winter. He’s a tough old man, and I would love to sit down and chat about his life one day. Every Albanian has quite the story to tell.
This week I’m connecting with some other travel blogs through #SundayTraveler. Click the below link for some other great stories through chasingthedonkey.com.