The Bunker Man of Albania

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.

bunker man The Bunker Man of Albania

 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!

George: Boy.

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.

sunday traveler small white The Bunker Man of Albania

27 Responses to The Bunker Man of Albania

  1. Twistie Toes February 9, 2014 at 12:36 PM #

    What a lovely story Caitlyn. That’s what’s called seeing the real world.

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 10:57 AM #

      It sure was :) I don’t think anyone’s going to forget about it for a while.

  2. Darci February 9, 2014 at 2:53 PM #

    Wow. This is absolutely amazing.

  3. Samantha @mytanfeet February 9, 2014 at 7:23 PM #

    Now that is why we travel the world! To have experiences like this you never would have otherwise. What a lovely story and great memory. Hope he stays warm during the cold winters and it’s too bad you couldn’t converse with him more, would have loved to hear his backstory.
    Samantha @mytanfeet recently posted..Meet Sofie from Wonderful WanderingsMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 10:59 AM #

      Thanks Samantha. I agree, I wish I could have heard his background story – how he came to be living in the bunker and how he fared during the communist years. Those are the times when the language barrier is frustrating, and it’s my fault for not knowing his language!

  4. Sammi February 9, 2014 at 8:22 PM #

    Oh. Caitlyn.

    This is my favourite post ever. We visited the caves in Granada, where the Senegalese live and that was a whole other experience. Totally not what I was expecting, so I can relate to how you feel about it. And so beautiful about what your group did for him. :)
    Sammi recently posted..Getting to Grips with GranadaMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 11:01 AM #

      Thanks Sammi. It’s those unexpected experiences that stay with you, don’t they?

  5. Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy February 9, 2014 at 11:56 PM #

    I really loved this. These are the kind of experiences I want to travel for. The photos in front of the Eiffel Tower and so on are nice, but this is so much better. Thanks so much for linking up to the #SundayTraveler! :)
    Ashley @ A Southern Gypsy recently posted..Follow your Heart through TravelMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 11:03 AM #

      Thanks Ashley! These are the unique experiences that you totally aren’t expecting.

  6. Jess February 10, 2014 at 11:38 AM #

    That guy sounds so cool!

    There’s a man way up north in the Yukon who lives in a cave. I’ve never met him myself, but everyone in town knows about him – they all act like it’s perfectly normal that a member of the community happens to live in a cave. I think I’d rather have a bunker!
    Jess recently posted..Valentine’s Day in the USAMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 1:20 PM #

      Wow! I think I’d rather have a house, if I could choose from all of the options :P

  7. Agri February 10, 2014 at 1:07 PM #

    Hi Caitlyn, me again, very interesting story, I had no idea people actually made use of these useless things. The bunkers are quite a hideous/fascinating spectacle and yes Hoxha was afraid of his own shadow, but then again Albania got independence in 1912, after 500 years of occupation, got invaded two years later, then in 1939 by the Italians, and in 1949 by the Greeks. I guess the guy wanted the country on a lockdown once and for all, and in the process forgot he held his people captive. And that’s why I have a never ending desire to travel. God Bless Canadian Passports!
    Agri recently posted..Weekly Photo Challenge: SelfieMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 10, 2014 at 1:21 PM #

      Thanks Agri. When you put it like that, you can sort of understand a bit of Hoxha’s thinking. That’s a big problem with us these days, we see Europe as quite safe and stable but that is totally a new thing – for thousands of years borders changed virtually daily. And yep, I’m pretty happy with my Australian passport too :)

  8. Chamisa February 10, 2014 at 9:55 PM #

    Fascinating! What a unique experience, and I love the spontaneous generosity that you encouraged.
    Chamisa recently posted..The Absolute Best Thing Our Family Did in Paris.. This Time AroundMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 11, 2014 at 11:19 AM #

      Thanks Chamisa. It certainly surprised me too!

  9. frankaboutcroatia February 11, 2014 at 8:49 AM #

    Truly great and entertaining post! Hoxha was completly nuts. 750.000 bunkers?! What an amazing story of an Albanian man living in a bunker. And what I like is his ability to adapt quickly. On your second visit he was already better organized for the visitors (having a bottle of grappa!).
    frankaboutcroatia recently posted..Valentine’s Day Rant – #SundayTravelerMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 11, 2014 at 11:20 AM #

      Oh yes, then I had to give everyone a talk about how it was rude in Albania to ever refuse a drink!

  10. Catherine February 11, 2014 at 10:44 AM #

    Such a great story, he sounds like a lovely man!
    Catherine recently posted..24 Things I’ve Learnt In 24 YearsMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 11, 2014 at 11:21 AM #

      You’re right, he was smiling from the start and was just happy for a bit of company I think :)

  11. Travis February 11, 2014 at 11:28 PM #

    Amazing story Caitlyn. These are the moments that I love reading about! Albania is one of the only countries we didn’t make it to in that region, but I figure we will get back there some time!
    Travis recently posted..Belfast Visitor’s Guide – What to See and DoMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 13, 2014 at 10:38 AM #

      Thanks Travis! It’s definitely worth a look :)

  12. Bianca @itsallbee February 13, 2014 at 1:49 PM #

    Wow! Such a beautiful post. Its this part of traveling that I enjoy so much. That connection with local people and not just passing through a camera in hand.
    Bianca @itsallbee recently posted..Cologne’s Love Locks BridgeMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 11:28 AM #

      Thanks Bianca! You’re right, it’s one of the highlights of travelling :)

  13. Adelina @ PackMeTo February 14, 2014 at 12:15 AM #

    Wow! I wonder what he was thinking when you first rolled up with 40 tourist behind you. Must have been quite a shock, but how amazing that he went along with it and welcomed you all.
    Adelina @ PackMeTo recently posted..Winning the Battle Against Jet LagMy Profile

    • Caitlyn February 16, 2014 at 11:35 AM #

      I know! I have no idea how I would have reacted had the situation been reversed.

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