Greetings from Albania! I came here to do two days worth of work, but decided to extend that into a lengthier holiday. Thus, I am addressing you from the capital city of Tirana. I believed I’d be home on Friday, but due to an e-ticket reading snafu, I will actually retake DC by storm on Thursday.
This is not my first experience traveling in Eastern Europe. In fact, I have spent a collective several years covering plenty of ground in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia and Moldova. I love this part of the world. It is crammed with dramatic histories, vibrant cultures, compelling vestiges of nation-building, carbohydrate-based dishes, cheap booze and oodles of adventures.
Despite my fangirl-level glee over returning to my favorite region after a year-and-a-half absence, I have also had to, once again, face my greatest fear. I had almost forgotten about it until the familiar panic set in, washing over the whole of me.
I haven’t been to many places in Western Europe, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the countries there are roughly ten feet apart, and brilliantly interconnected by highly-efficient monorails designed in 2050 and installed by time machines between capital cities. Eastern Europe is slightly different. Anyone who has traveled extensively in the further corners of the continent has probably endured an epic bus ride or ten. They’ve probably rolled through hours of cornfields, wheat fields, and sunflower fields while covering ground inhabited by no one in particular. They’ve covered sprawling broken roads that may connect towns, but between landmarks may not even have a name. Most riders have probably scratched their heads in confusion when drivers pull over, hop off of the bus, administer a hearty smack to some piece of metal hanging off the back, and continue driving with no explanation. And every passenger, I’m sure, has broken a sweat simply sitting on the seats. In short, a bus passenger in Eastern Europe is the little umbrella in a cocktail of body heat, lengthy travel times, sparse landscapes and techno music. I’m used to it, and the experience isn’t completely devoid of charm. So, upon arriving to the Tirana bus station for a three-hour bus trip to Berat, why did I feel like I was choking on an agony and anxiety sandwich???
Because my greatest fear in Eastern Europe isn’t the unfamiliarity, or theft, or scams, or anything like that – my fiercest fear of all – the one that has freaked me out at night and forced me to draw up hypothetical worst-case-scenarios to deal with it if it ever happens – is the threat of getting diarrhea on a long-distance bus.
Now, you might think I am exaggerating. Maybe, right before you studied abroad, your parents decided to educate and terrify you by enforcing a family viewing of Midnight Express. Or, maybe your dad is like mine and basically just relayed the plot to you by himself, thus ensuring the most efficient possible transmission of his intended editorial message. The message, of course, being this: “things are very spooky abroad in countries that are not France, and if you don’t behave yourself, you will be trapped forever in a terrifying prison.” So, maybe you are skeptical that my greatest fear isn’t something closer akin to that. But if you are skeptical, then I sort of doubt you’ve ever been on an Eastern European bus ride.
Here’s the thing. These rides take hours. The buses don’t have bathrooms. The cuisine in these parts can be very tasty, but rather digestivally dicey. And there are times in these countries – indeed, moments within every single one of them – when I have been suddenly arrested by a sensation deep in my gut. As if I swallowed a vibrator whole, and it is ripping its way violently through my innards. And when that happens, the victim has no choice but to act. Luckily, it has historically happened primarily indoors. Restaurants. Private homes. But I just can’t shake the fear that my blessings are running out, and that one of these days, a moment of intestinal emergency and a moment traveling the endless sprawl of rural Eastern Europe will disastrously intersect. And if that point of intersection should ever impose itself, I will have myself a doozey of a problem.
Under the circumstances, a person would have a few choices. One would be to ask the driver to stop, and sure, he’d probably do it. You could deboard the bus, but then what??? Recall for a moment that, in this scenario, you are in the middle of an unfamiliar grass field in Eastern Europe, and there is a busfull of people staring at you (whose language you may or may not speak.) “Couldn’t you just, you know, go behind a bush?” a naive reader might be wondering, No, naive reader. Most of these rural stretches of land look like the surface of the moon. You didn’t write this script. You don’t get to twist the plot to end up in a heavily wooded area. You don’t get to call a set designer and ask him to build a bush or two. You are on your own, homes. And, in the worst-case scenario, you are the only thing the eye can see besides the bus and the 40-odd pairs of eyes inside of it, all staring directly at the foreigner scoping out a proper spot to do unspeakable things to the countryside landscape. Not a great option.
So, option two – you still unboard the bus, but then you tell the driver to drive away. As in, you pretend like this is your actual destination. Say something like, “oh, this is good, I’ll just get off here.” As if there is someone who will be meeting you, and that something about this stretch of cornfield discerns itself visually from the previous 10 miles of cornfield. All nonchalant-like. But you feel anything but nonchalant – because, sure, you privately exonerated yourself from doom without the indignity of an audience, but now you are completely alone in a humanless abyss, and you have no way of knowing when you’ll be able to flag down another bus. And perhaps it is dark, or cold. AND PERHAPS THERE ARE WOLVES.
So, maybe we’d all resort to option three, which would be pre-travel prevention. Indeed, my sheer panic before Eastern European bus stations could well be caused by delusions spurred by clinical dehydration – I try to drink and eat very little before I board. My insides are probably so dried out and shriveled before a long ride that I could easily be embalmed. This helps, but it isn’t foolproof – and so we are left with one final option. It is the literal ‘hail mary’ move of unlucky rumbling bellies on buses the world over – desperate, focused prayer to whichever god will listen. In a situation like this, it is probably best to hedge your bets by channeling deities behind the one(s) you actually worship. Seriously, send out pleas to whichever one is out there accepting messages, and vow to convert to whatever religion it is in charge of in exchange for warding off the tummy troubles if only until the next rest stop.
Believe me, it will be worth it.