Words and Pictures by Amelia Kennedy
I tried using a sponge, but the sponge didn’t work, so then I grabbed a knife, but the knife didn’t work either, and that’s how I ended up scraping five years of accumulated grime out of the shower with my fingernails. It was thick and gray and gooey—like the mucus of someone who spent all day breathing charcoal. I dug my nails repeatedly into the gap between glass shower wall and tile floor, but no matter how much slime I managed to remove, there was always more, expanding into an infinite sticky reservoir. Meanwhile, there were enough bleach fumes to…well to be honest, I don’t know exactly what bleach fumes do to a person, but I suppose I’ll find out in about thirty years.
Welcome to the glamorous world of hostel work.
And let me be clear: best job ever. When I first arrived in Saranda, Albania, I had no idea about the free-range cows, the taste of raki, or the rules of backgammon. I didn’t know that fokë meant seal and bukëmeant bread. To be quite honest, I was also pretty clueless about making beds and breakfasts, the job I’d signed on for. But you learn by doing, and failing, and trying again, right? And getting to know this corner of Albania was worth the effort.
Saranda is a coastal town in the very south of the country, on the Albanian Riviera. Across the water you can see the Greek island Corfu. About twenty kilometers away lie the impressive ruins of Butrint, which was inhabited from prehistoric times up to the 19th century. The sprawling complex contains ancient Greek, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman ruins, and is now home to numerous turtles.
Albania’s more recent history also lives on in its landscape, which is still dotted with countless concrete bunkers commissioned by dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 to 1985.
A fervent isolationist, Hoxha ordered over 750,000 bunkers built to guard against potential attacks from outside. No attacks ever came. Today, Albania is no longer cut off from the rest of the world, but because removing the bunkers would be prohibitively expensive, most of them remain.
Pro-American sentiment in Albania is readily apparent if you just look around. There are a number of historical reasons for this. After WWI, American President Woodrow Wilson supported Albanian autonomy, opposing plans to divide its territory among neighboring countries.
During the 1990s, Bill Clinton was involved in NATO intervention on behalf of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Visit Albania’s capital city Tirana and you’ll find a statue of Woodrow Wilson and a street named after George W. Bush. Visit Pristina, Kosovo, and you’ll find Bill Clinton Boulevard. In Saranda, American flags occasionally decorate Albanian houses. I even saw an American flag screwdriver in the window of a hardware store.
Apartment buildings in Saranda generally all look alike, and to me they resembled a mix between egg cartons and wedding cakes. From time to time, you’ll see a lopsided, abandoned building with a wall knocked in.
This is apparently what happens when you build without a permit: the government finds out, and they send a demolition crew. All over town, pedestrians share sidewalks with cows and dogs who forage for food in the dumpsters. Local graffiti proclaims things like “I ❤ my friends 4-ever!!!” and “I love my sister!” And of course, you’re watched almost everywhere you go by at least one dordolec. These are the dolls perched on houses and fences, not so different from scarecrows or cathedral gargoyles. They watch over families and their property, ranging in appearance from cute to downright eerie.
Albania must be one of the best places on earth to hitch a ride; I can’t remember ever waiting longer than twenty minutes. Once I even had an injured bird with me. A friend and I found him stuck in tar.
We pried him up from the sidewalk, named him Freddy, and hid him in a towel as we stood roadside, waiting for a ride. A well-dressed man in an expensive car stopped to pick us up. He probably wondered why we kept making feeble chirping sounds, but he was polite enough not to ask. Freddy made it to the hostel, where he got his own room and was probably the first ever avian guest.
So what’s it like behind the scenes at a popular hostel?
At first, I had to Google things like “how to mop a floor” and “why are there still streaks on the mirror?!” But after about a month, I had finally achieved basic competence. I got into a daily habit of cooking, cleaning, making beds, working reception, and answering questions about the bus schedules. Time off meant heading to the beach or for a walk in the hills above town, punctuated once or twice a week by a daytrip further afield.
Meanwhile, the bar owner down the street kept us all plied with raki, insisting, “It prevents sickness! There is so much alcohol that it kills all the bacteria in your mouth. A shot for breakfast every day.” I doubt that this is medically accurate advice. But nonetheless, a liter bottle of the stuff was always within reach. Occasionally, guests bought some by accident, mistaking it for water. After an unexpectedly fiery gulp, they’d donate it to the hostel staff.
Restaurants in Saranda are excellent, offering delicious stuffed peppers, cheese-filled byrek, and some of the freshest seafood in the world, for a fraction of the prices in Western Europe or the United States. Riding buses all over the region led to a series of brief but interesting conversations.
One man I met had taught himself flawless English from reading an exhaustive list of British and American classics. When I asked what he did for a living, he replied, “Well…I suppose you could call it the opposite of the ‘white market.’” Most daily errands could be accomplished on foot though, at the corner market, where I slowly learned how to request bread, coffee, and vegetables in Albanian. The neighbors always waved. The fall weather was ideal, and visiting in the off-season meant that many sites were deserted. It was a regular, pleasant lifestyle. Stay anywhere long enough, and you’ll eventually slip into a routine.
Routine or not, the revolving door of guests kept things interesting. There were the two Scandinavians, allegedly on the run from the law and by all appearances quite happy about it, repeating “Amazing” in unison to everything they saw, from Butrint to the hostel bunk beds. One of them got a nasty shock from an electrical wire downtown, and that was amazing too.
Some guests played the ukulele, taught us to juggle, and sang karaoke. A lot of people said at check-in they’d stay one night, maybe two, but then some sort of strange inertia took hold. I couldn’t blame them since I was the same. I had agreed to a six-week staff position, and there I still was, ten weeks later.
Perhaps the most memorable guest of all was a backpacker in his mid-eighties, a retired journalist traveling solo and staying in hostels. He loved the “total freedom” of seeing the world on his own terms and embraced every new experience, even the bad ones, showing a remarkable tolerance for discomfort and inconvenience. I think he genuinely enjoyed cramped bus rides, missed trains, and 4 a.m. taxis.
I kept his words in mind the next afternoon, when I had the new experience of dismantling, cleaning, and reassembling the exhaust hood over the kitchen stove.
Information on traveling in southern Albania:
Currency is the Albanian lek (as of 2017, $1 USD is about 129 lek). Smaller shops don’t always take credit cards or have change for large bills, so try to keep a healthy supply of 200- and 500-lek bills.
The official language is Albanian, and it’s helpful to learn a few basics before visiting, such as faleminderit (thank you), po (yes), jo (no), and më falni (excuse me).
There are plentiful options for accommodation in Saranda, and in general, prices are very affordable. A hostel dorm costs around $10-15 per night, while a private double room in an apartment or hotel runs around $20-30. More upscale accommodation can be had for well under $100 (and often under $50). Likewise, an inexpensive restaurant meal might cost $5-10, depending on how much you order.
One of the most popular places to watch the sunset is Lekursi (Lëkurësi) Castle, up on a hill overlooking the town. You can reach it by taxi or on foot along a scenic road. Another good walk is the hike up to the Forty Saints Monastery. The 6th-century Byzantine ruins are named for forty Christians martyred under Roman rule. Views are similar to those from Lekursi, but Forty Saints attracts fewer people and is very peaceful (if a bit hard to find).