In Praise of the Furgon

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Photo stolen from Tend to Travel - click on the pic to see more

Combi: mini-bus (Macedonia)
Furgon: mini-bus (Albania)

I don’t know what it is about the act of traveling that seems so interesting, but in Macedonia, and in Albania, it’s always what I find myself wanting to talk about. When I was living in Debar my interest in travel had something to do, I think, with the level of trust I had in my combi drivers; I could count the number of drivers on one hand, I often decided what time to leave Debar based on what driver I felt like going with (at 7am the friendliest driver, at 10.30 the one who would drop me right in front of the Peace Corps office), and I got to wave to them as I walked around town. When one of the men who’d driven a combi for my first year began working at the school as a phys ed teacher, you should have seen our faces: “Hey, remember me? I used to drive you to Skopje?!” “Of course I do!”

I’m still surprised by the level of affection I felt for my combi drivers, and for combis in general. I was a little upset when I moved to site and realized I wouldn’t be riding on buses (they seemed to signal civilization for me – a big population), but over two years that shifted until I felt uncomfortable on buses, like I couldn’t lean over the driver’s shoulder and ask a question or tell him to drop me off at a specific street. Living in Tirana, now, there’s no chance that I’m going to have any relationship with my furgon drivers – there are way too many of them for that – but I’m feeling the same sort of affection for this goofy and inefficient system of transport.

When I head to Elbasan, which I’ve been doing about once a week, I walk over to a street near the Conad supermarket (the good Italian store; or the expensive Italian store) where a line of furgons sit. Most of the drivers stand outside yelling, “Elbasani! Elbasani!” to try and attract riders, and when they get one they latch on and guide them to their furgon. One time a driver signaled for me to get in a different driver’s furgon, but there’s generally no cooperation among the drivers; they’re trying to fill up their furgon (eight or nine seats) as fast as they can, which means that you often end up with three or four furgons each with a few passengers. Sometimes when the furgon is near full the driver will hop in and drive around the block tooting his horn, attempting to attract more passengers…only to pull back up to the line of furgons and see three passengers being helped into an empty furgon. I want to say that furgon drivers need a union, but they need protection from themselves more than anyone else – someone who can get them to fill up one furgon at a time and work in an orderly system that won’t leave passengers sitting in the furgon for forty minutes before leaving town, or attempting to scramble out, unseen, to go to a furgon with a driver who’s done a better job of advertising.

The pleasures of the furgon ride are similar to the pleasures of a combi ride out of Debar: the driver handing plastic bags back for people to vomit into, pulling to the side of the road for formal vomit breaks, me staring out the window trying not to sympathy vomit, listening to Albanian pop music (the regional equivalent to turbofolk, though frankly more bearable), and trying to avoid hitting livestock grazing along the road.

When I was preparing to move to Tirana the sight of the furgon “schedule” terrified me. Every furgon leaves from a different place, and the list of street names is incomprehensible to someone who isn’t familiar with Tirana; but the idea of looking at license plates to determine where a furgon is headed, and walking up and down a line of furgons to find the one with the most passengers, now feels both manageable and somehow correct. I’m not about to claim that the four-hour ride (at roughly twenty miles an hour) from Maqellarë to Tirana is a barrel of laughs, but there is something comforting about stumbling off a furgon with your fellow naseuated passengers, digging through your purse to find correct change to pay for the ride. It feels a lot like stumbling off the combi in Debar, next to the statue of fat Skenderbeg, like a piece of home in the big city.

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