Many of my favorite experiences from living in and traveling around Albania are those random, wonderful cultural exchanges that teach me more about the nuances of where I am. Albanian culture itself lends itself to these types of experiences – overwhelmingly Albanians are willing to invite you as a complete stranger into their home or tell you their entire life story when they meet you on the road. On hikes through tiny villages I’ve been invited in for coffee, and on the road I’ve been given rides from a series of Albanians.
Starting out on a journey to a friend’s house across the country, I often just want to put my headphones in and sleep my way there on the bus. But sometimes, when the weather’s good and I’m up for a bit more of an adventure (and talking in Albanian the whole way), hitchhiking can be a wonderful alternative.
Since I’ve been in Albania, I’ve had the chance to hitchhike around the country quite a bit. And, for the most part, I always end the day getting where I’m going more quickly…. with a great story. Hitchhiking is something uncommon for Albanians, so it sets me apart as a “huaj” / foreigner. But when they realize I can speak Shqip, the conversations begin. I feel more comfortable with the situation being able to communicate with my ride, and a little less like a free-loader because we usually talk for the entire ride.
I have ridden with police inspectors in fancy SUVs going to a friend’s wedding, families leaving for vacation, Albanians returning to Greece for work, father and son returning home after a funeral and many more. All of the my hosts has their own view of Albanian and American politics, and I’ve learned much about different areas of the country, practiced my Shqip skills and, in some cases, made great contacts for future travel and work. I’ve even ridden with people who know what Peace Corps is and have worked with a former volunteer (this is such a small country). Sometimes we stop for coffee or a meal at a place I would never have been able to try otherwise, and once I was even taken to and invited into a ride’s home (this would be concerning in the US, but is normal here). Most people are genuinely worried about me and want to help me out the best that they can.
My infrequent hitchhiking adventures have given me a new perspective on the lessons learned from traveling. It’s wonderful to be able to communicate with a cross-section of the population, and I think it is most enjoyable because I know the language. Sometimes you get in with someone who has a bit of an agenda they want to push with an “American,” but most of the time we both learn more about each other’s culture and home while getting where we want to go. While I don’t plan on picking up hitchhikers in the US, I hope I can return the hospitality I’ve been shown on the roads of Albania in some form one day.
****Just for the record: Peace Corps Albania does not condone hitch-hiking as a mode of transportation and, in general, I do not hitchhike alone.