Thursday, July 05, 2007

Our Marvelous Albania Mission Adventure Part III - Culture Shock!

Taking in the city of Tirana that first night made me wonder if what I was feeling wasn't so far from what a newborn feels when he opens his eyes and sees his new surroundings for the first time. As tired as I was from travelling, I could feel the biggest adrenalin rush kicking in. My eyes must have been as big as saucers as I examined my new surroundings....street signs in Shquip, shopping centers and buildings very different from home, new trees, mountains, streets, cars, exits, and TRAFFIC quite different from what we have been accustomed to here in the US. My mind was filled with curiousity, amazement, anticipation, and a bit of anxiety at the scenery that was anything but familiar to all I had known my entire life. I remember how exciting it was when we saw the Coca-Cola factory and the welcome signs to President Bush as history was made in Albania (by the first visit of a US president whom they love VERY much).

As the bus transported us the place where we would be staying (a place that I had never seen before), I couldn't even begin to absorb all of the obvious cultural differences that were becoming apparent to me. The biggest shock was the interesting means of getting from one place to another.

The Albanian government is in a reformation process. They have only been a democratic nation since the 90's. Prior to the reformation, they were under communist rule. The streets were merely a means of military mobilization and only a handful of government officials owned vehicles. So, the streets are not marked well and the drivers are VERY inexperienced at organized driving! (Surprisingly enough, I witnessed NO accidents during my entire stay in Tirana.)

There was a mixture of gasping, screaming, and laughing going on for much of our traveling time in the city. At times we thought we were going to die. At times we thought we might be witnessing a pedestrian being flattened beneath us. At times we just laughed in sheer disbelief.

The first real eye-opener occured as we were driving down the alley to our new quarters. We learned that first night that the best plan was to park the bus on the main strip and walk to the Christian center! Let me explain...

It seems that there are a few unspoken rules that every driver in Albania must understand. We learned the first of those rules upon arrival at the Christian center.

Rule #1:
There are no one way streets. If the traffic is going one way down the alley, and a driver wants to go the other way, you play chicken. The submissive vehicle will back out or there will be a serious traffic jam that will require the lollipop of authority (a policeman who has a stick to direct traffic with).

So, there we are...twenty tired missionaries, four members of our host family, and one great, humble, merciful, Albanian bus driver who attempts to get us as close to "home" as possible. As we squeeze our tour bus down the narrow alley, and approach the door to the gate of our new "home", we find that we have a bit of a problem.....

Traffic has entered from the other direction and wants us to move out of the way. How did we do that? We, THE BIG GIANT TOUR BUS, submit to the iiiiiitty biiiiiitty BULLY sedan as he "encourages" us to get out of his way. Several other vehicles begin to line up behind him as we graciously squeeezzzeee BACKWARDS down the VERY NARROW alley way!

Making a very wise decision, the driver as well as our host, determine the best plan to be letting us all unload two weeks worth of luggage and gifts from twenty missionaries, and carry it all down the alley through the courtyard of the center around the main building to our living quarters in the back! That was quite the experience.

It was nice to have our first taste of Albanian food when our hosts ordered pizza for us as we were about to settle in for the night. Shortly after scarfing down several huge, delicious pizzas (that were deemed better than American pizzas by my son the pizza pro), we began to have our next cultural and bathrooms!

The streets are very dusty in Tirana so the custom is to provide "house shoes" for guests who come into your home. Shoes are taken off at the door and are replaced by the house shoes. The shoes are basically rubber sandals. As we brought out things into our rooms, Cindy pointed out that each of us had house shoes and lots of bottled water under our beds (water is not safe to drink in Albania and we had to swap house shoes with each other in order to find a pair that fit the closest).

Next, Cindy showed us our "bathing quarters". There was one restroom for every two rooms. Since there were two of us in each room, that meant that the restroom was shared by four of us. Each restroom was different but they all (with the exception of Wayne and Lisa's "honeymoon suite") doubled as showers. That's right. There was the sink, toilet, mirror, and the curtain, no shower door. The shower hung on the wall in the tiled bathroom and the bathroom was also the shower stall! Did I mention that all the bathroom doors were textured glass? Needess to say, it was a unanimous decision amongst the four women sharing this particular "shower", to go on a search for garbage bags and duck tape!

It's time to get something to eat so I'm going to call it a night for blogging. Stay tuned for Day 1 in Tirana and more rules on accessing the streets of Albania by vehicle or by foot. Oh, by the way, there are NO CARS in Albania. Car is the equivalent of a very bad American four letter word. They drive vehicles or automobiles. Say the word car to an Albanian and you might find yourself in a bit of trouble! Also, you may find yourself in a bit of a pickle if you ask somebody to let you take their picture. We have been told that picture in Shquip (the language of Albania) is a very derogatory term decribing a man's private parts! So,if you ever visit Albania, take photos, not pictures!

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