Our first morning in Albania, and it was all drama before breakfast.
The headline read:
Riots seem to happen wherever we go, so we were quite calm about it. However, Axel and Mina, the young Dutch couple we’d met the day before as we had a cheeky afternoon beer, bemoaned the fact that they had to drive into the capital, Tirana.
“My parents are coming today,” Axel said. “I have to collect them at the airport.”
They had run out of data and couldn’t check the situation, so we donated our superfluous SIM card – the 20GB one sold to us by the insurance man before we realised the same price would buy us unlimited SIM at the phone shop! They were reluctant to take it, but we told them,
“You might as well have it. We don’t want anything for it – we can’t use two SIM cards and the other one’s unlimited!”
Before breakfast – and before lunch (it took that long!) – we’d executed a daring sand sea rescue.
As we brought the dogs back from the beach after their morning constitutional, a well-dressed lady holding the hand of a small child approached me with eyes downcast. She almost whispered,
“Can you help us? My husband has got our car stuck.”
I glanced across the beach to see a blue Mercedes Vito van nose up in soft sand. Clearly, the driver had revved hard to get out, which had well and truly dug him in. In the morning heat, which had already topped thirty-degrees, the short and slightly rotund owner had removed his shirt, and was perspiring profusely as he shovelled like a navvy, throwing up plumes of sand. He got ten out of ten for effort. Unfortunately, the net effect seemed only to dig the vehicle in deeper.
I couldn’t resist the lady’s sad eyes. With her little boy, she’d clearly spotted salvation in the form of our 6-wheel ‘go anywhere’ truck with its big, knobbly tyres, and had waited patiently for us to crawl out of bed. I shouted to my husband,
“Can you get the sand ladders?”
Mark looked over towards the sweating man and his sinking van and rapidly assessed the situation.
“They’ll be no good,” he determined. “I’ll drive through there and pull him out.”
From the camper next door, Axel quickly detected the frisson of excitement, and came out to help.
“I guess you can take that truck anywhere!” he said to me. He looked truly shocked when I replied,
“Not really. She weighs sixteen tonnes, and we’ve already had her stuck in a muddy field in Gloucestershire. She has a ten-litre engine and her specification says she can climb a sixty-degree slope, but without traction, she can’t go up the slightest incline.”
I squinted over at ‘there’. It was a scrubby area of undulating sand behind the restaurant. Coarse tufts of grass grew on low hummocks, with large ‘bunkers’ of soft sand in between. I voiced my concerns to Mark.
“I don’t want us to get stuck too. No one will be able to pull us out…”
Mark shot me his slightly manic but determined ‘it-will-be-fine-you-worry-too-much-woman’ grin.
“It’s a good, safe place to test the truck’s capabilities,” he announced. He was itching to give it a go.
Like jockeys walking the Grand National course, we checked out the bunker-and-hummock area. Silently, I loosed a sigh of relief when Mark declared it unuitable on the grounds we’d probably get stuck, and if we attached ropes to the Mercedes, from that angle, we would drag it hard against the walls of its self-made crater. A track led on to the beach on the far side of the stricken van, so he decided to reverse down that.
We’d learned very early on that it’s impossible to communicate over the roar of the engine when directing The Beast. We invested in walkie talkies following a terrifying incident where a grumpy mate hassled us to move in his yard and, in a rush to comply, I got myself trapped between The Beast and the wall Mark was cosying up to, with a large trailer preventing my escape to the rear. I was in a blind spot and Mark couldn’t hear me screaming, “Stop. STOP!”, so he nearly reversed over me. Later, I overheard our mate say,
“She was really scared. You could hear it in her voice.”
No sh** Sherlock.
It was a lesson for both of us. I have never been trained as a banksman, but that day I learned everything I needed to know about keeping clear of dead spots when a large vehicle is manoeuvring!
I guided Mark backwards down the track. “There’s a bank to your left, avoid that… Come a bit to the right, there’s a soft patch. You’re just coming onto the… Sh**.”
The second it hit the beach, the truck sank.
“That’s us bogged down as well, over,” I said, in as sanguine a tone as I could muster.
Mark hopped out of the cab and was surprisingly chipper. He was now satisfied that The Beast’s capabilities had been fully tested.
“Ah well, at least we know!”
Yes, I thought. Now we’ve had our ‘go anywhere truck’ stuck in soft sand as well as in soft mud.
The lady with the little boy looked stricken and begged me for forgiveness.
“I am so sorry!”
Salvation had disintigrated before her eyes and now two vehicles were stuck. I thought she might burst into tears at any moment, so I struggled to stay positive.
“It’s fine. I’m sure we’ll get out with the sand ladders.”
At least our previous stranding had taught us to keep recovery equipment accessible. Last time, they were buried and we’d had to empty everything out the back of the truck. As Mark untied them from the chassis, he said,
“I didn’t drive too far on to the beach because I thought that might happen. And I didn’t rev, so we’re not dug in.”
Axel and Vito Man placed sand ladders in front of each drive wheel and moved them each time Mark edged forward, a metre at a time, until he reached the track and terra firma. Then, they deployed them successfully to free our friend’s van.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are few things more irritating to a man than a wife in ‘told you so’ mode, so I didn’t say a word.
You’d think this was the end of the episode, wouldn’t you? But you’re not factoring in the testosterone factor of boys and their toys.
Mark and Axel told Vito Man to drive forward slowly on to firmer sand, but he hopped straight back behind his wheel, gunned his engine, and attempted a rapid swerve in reverse to reach a nearby piece of hard standing. Instantly, his wheels dug in again. Without a word, Axel strode off in disgust and I caught the eye of Vito Man’s wife. She looked defeated. I knew this wasn’t the first time.
Much later, once we’d freed him again, the beach bar owner, Lido, thanked us for rescuing them.
“I didn’t come and help because I told him not to drive on there, but he went and did it anyway!”
When we finally got him out, Vito Man, still wearing his irrepressible grin, invited us over to the beach bar for a drink. Although it was 12:01, we still felt it was a tad early, particularly since we’d not yet eaten breakfast. We settled for a lemon soda and discovered that that Vito Man and his wife ran an import business from China, selling tights and pants. What a great business idea! Everyone needs tights and pants! They were very sweet. Their son spoke fluent English and translated our conversation to various members of their extended family, who had by now joined them for lunch.
Vito Man showed us photos of his Toyota Land Cruiser on his phone. He admitted,
“I thought I’d see how well the van would cope on the beach.”
His logic reminded me of comedy Professor Denzil Dexter conducting one of his screwball experiments.
“We took an ordinary Mercedes van and asked ourselves, ‘will it perform as well as a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser on soft sand?’ We tried it and discovered the answer. ‘No!’”
What a surprise!
A bit like a sixteen-tonne truck. Who could have predicted that?
We invited the family to view the interior of our home on wheels. I watched conflict unfold all over Vito Man’s face. Some people don’t look inside because they’re shy, or they feel they’re invading our privacy. “It’s your place,” they say. “We wouldn’t want to intrude.”
He declined for an entirely different reason. Too much temptation.
“It’s my dream,” he said. “But in 15 years time… If I come and look now, I will have to buy one!”
I might have detected a flicker of relief on his wife’s face.
That evening, Lido’s mum, Ayesha, cooked fresh grilled fish. We got a whole bass, a bream and a sardine each. The delicious hand cut chips, a rarity in these days of frozen convenience foods, were seasoned with salt and rosemary. We coiffed a giraffe (we always call carafes giraffes!) of chilled local white wine as we watched the sun setting over the sea. Lido taught us the Albanian for ‘Cheers’ – Gazua, which I could only remember by thinking of ‘Gazebo’.
As I looked across the deserted beach, inflamed by the sunset into a vivid phantasma of food colouring E101, I complained to Mark.
“That’s just ruined it for me. A moment ago, the sun was centred perfectly between those two beach umbrellas. Now it’s moved slightly to the right.”
“That’s definitely spoiled it,” he agreed. “And from where I am sitting, the sun is even more off centre.”
An asymmetric sunset in paradise. Albania has a lot to answer for.
I apologise that, because I was so caught up in the saga and attempts not to enrage my husband, I don’t have any photos of our daring sand sea rescue. Another truth universally acknowledged is that a man in possession of a good sand ladder is not in need of a wife waving around a camera.