Tag Archives: Albania

There were these four times I sort of remember with guns pointed at me

Sometimes a question comes out of thin air, no context, no cause.

Yesterday someone asked me: “Has anyone ever pointed a gun at you?”

I have no idea how that got into their mind.

And nor, I am told, do they.

I am a fairly placid person but the strange thing is, yes.

Four times.

But not this century.


Albanian soldier, 1979

The first time was in 1979 when I was wandering in a wood on a hillside just outside Titograd (now Podgorica) in what was then Yugoslavia (now Montenegro). Or it might have been just outside Durrës in Albania.

The strange thing is I now can’t remember which country it was in.

I was just wandering through the wood – somewhere – when I heard a sharp CRCK-CRCK. It was the sound of a rifle being cocked; the sound, as I understand it, of the bullet going into the chamber.

I looked up, startled, and there was a young soldier sitting up on the branch of a tree by the trunk. He was equally startled, looking down, pointing the barrel of the rifle at me.

We stared at each other for maybe half a second, maybe a full second, then I continued walking and he continued to look at me as I passed.

I think maybe he had been dozing, half asleep in the tree, and he woke up, startled, when he heard me below. I have no idea why he was up in a tree.

Understated posters in Bible-intimidated Leningrad in 1985

The next time was at the airport in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1985. I had a beard at the time and someone surmised later that they thought I might be religious – the Orthodox Church and all that. The guy was just officious, I guess, trying to show he was enthusiastic in his duty of protecting the USSR against outside anti-Soviet Western pollution.

The officer had two obviously junior men in hats with him. They took their handguns out and vaguely waved them at me to shoo me into a back office. The Soviets never cared much about their PR image with tourists, but I never saw border guardy people waving guns around any other time. I think maybe they had watched too many American movies.

The officer got me to open my suitcase and, with pretty limited English, just kept asking me: “Books? Books? You have books?” All I could imagine afterwards was that he thought I was smuggling in Bibles to destroy Lenin’s Socialist Paradise.

Syrian checkpoint by a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beirut, 1993

The next time was in 1993 when I was in Beirut and the Syrian Army was still present there with roadblocks and sandbagged gun positions at intersections.

Some (again young and officious) soldiers took exception to me taking photographs on the coast and, with their AK47s and no English language, shepherded me into a building where a rather laid-back Syrian Intelligence officer was brought in – it seemed rather unwillingly – to ask me questions. ‘Interrogate’ seems too excessive a word to use.

He seemed to be unconvinced I was a major threat to Syrian military rule, soon realised I was not an Israeli spy and started chatting about the time he had spent in the United States, the frequency of Israeli jets flying over Southern Lebanon and the perceived though unlikely threat of an Israeli seaborne attack on Beirut.

With polite apologies, he confiscated the two rolls of film in my two cameras and I was left trying to remember if there were shots of Hezbollah flags and the Airport Road on them and/or what else.

I was mildly worried because, on that trip to Beirut, I had tried to get into Syria to see Palmyra and had been refused entry – it seemed because my passport said I was a writer. I had previously got into Albania in 1979 and North Korea in 1986 with “writer” so I was not quite sure why the Syrians had taken so agin it.

He had a bit of an attitude …

The fourth time I had a gun pointed at me was in South London round 1998 or 1999.

He said it was a joke, but I think it was more that he had a bit of an attitude problem and an inferiority complex.

What have I learned?

Always be aware what is in the trees in Balkan woods and forests.

South London can potentially be as dangerous as Beirut… but not really.

And I still can’t remember which actual bloody country that bloke in the tree was in.

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Dangerous holidays in quirky places

The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.

About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.

“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.

I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.

“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.

“Ah,” I replied.

I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.

Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).

Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.

Now that’s my kinda ruler!

You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.

Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.

Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.

I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.

People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.

Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.

I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.

I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.

I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.

At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.

Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed,  “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.

On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.

A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”

Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.

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Anti-Semitic Royalist fans of ‘the C word’ and Baby Spice in chocolate

My blog seems to have almost doubled the number of hits it gets in the last few days. I guess that’s what comes of writing about the words “fuck” and “cunt”.

It’s a great thing – the Google search engine.

I used to have photographs on my website. One was what I thought was an interesting picture of the interior of a mid-1980s school room under Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. (I have since got a life.) Imagine my surprise at the number of people who found my photos page because of their Google searches for “Albanian schoolboys”.

Who is reading my blog now?

Some of the search engine phrases put in by people who found my blog by accident yesterday were:

– john fleming east belfast

– is kate middleton jew

– how to act manic

– racism addressed on tv

– swearing / c word

From this, I can only assume my readers include:

– a sectarian stalker and/or hit man

– an anti Semite with Royalist tendencies

– a stand up comic and/or depressive with manic/depressive aspirations

– a racist media academic

– a BBC Radio 4 presenter

And who is to say that is a bad collection of people?

But I have added “rampant meerkats” and “Baby Spice in chocolate” to the tags of this blog entry to get a better class of reader.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

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