Greetings From Tirana, Albania (10-14 Sept 2017)
The bus ride to Tirana was a peaceful beautiful ride through the mountains, watching the sun shine down on the vast green fields and rocky landscapes. Leaving Ohrid and catching this bus was a bit sketchy at first. Men in plain clothes, who were apparently bus drivers and loading staff at the bus station, asked people where they were going and directed them to the according bus. Three men directed myself and an American to an unmarked and quite worn out white van which was going to be our ride to outside of town where we would catch the real bus. I knew this beforehand but I don’t think the American did as he was quite uneasy the entire time. The whole thing made me a bit uneasy and on guard as well but I’m glad I knew of this set up beforehand or I probably would have asked many questions and not been OK with it, just like the American.
After we switched to the main bus it was a scenic ride the rest of the way, in fact it was one of the most beautiful treks I’ve been on. Driving a bus through the mountains, especially an old beat up one, doesn’t sound too amazing but when you’re cresting the mountain ranges and see the sun shining down on the countryside it’s by far the best rides I’ve had. It’s even completely worth the scare of driving along a narrow road we could roll off down the mountain side with one bad turn just to see the view. The bus station in Tirana was only 10 minutes away from the hostel I was staying at so that was a bonus of not having to deal with taxis or transit there. In fact the whole time in Tirana I was able to walk around the city, although I hear there are some great sights to see outside the city limits.
As I was staying pretty central to Tirana all the big sights to see were quite close and easy to get to. I don’t remember if there was a walking tour or not but the path I created on Google maps to see everything could easy had been a 2 hour walking tour that covers the whole city.
I passed a park with the strangest park equipment, spray painted domes raised just enough above the ground for kids to jump off of and crawl under. I was very perplexed by these so I took a closer look. It was just as I had thought, they weren’t park play toys at all, they were painted up concrete pill boxes from the wars of years past, maybe at far back as WWII. This playground was covered with kids and families having fun on a sunny day used to be a battlefield, filled with armies killing each other. Crazy to think of that.
There’s also Skanderbeg Square, which is Tirana’s main square surrounded by museums. There was a huge party there at night during my stay, but I was way too tired after training and went to bed instead of checking it out, party animal I am.
There’s a huge parade square in front the Tirana Polytechnic University named after Saint Mother Theresa, after all her life’s work to the area. I’ve read several articles about this from different stand points as it’s quite the controversial subject. No matter where you stand on her sainthood or work it’s easy to see the place has quickly caught up in the medical and technological fields in recent years.
Tirana MMA Center
The only BJJ gym that came up in Tirana was the Tirana MMA Center. There is another gym outside of town that I never saw anyone in the Globetrotter network review and I can’t remember if they just never replied to me or if I wasn’t able to make it out to class logistically but the Tirana MMA Center was the only gym I visited. I contacted the gym through e-mail to make sure I was welcome and once I made it into to town I figured out when in the schedule I could attend a class. While walking to class I was wondering how training there would be, talking to most people while traveling there’s always some sort of stereotype of Albanians being hardcore brutes. Then again I’ve heard the same thing for Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and pretty much all of eastern Europe and western Asia. As the saying goes, hard times forge hard men. In reality the gym was pretty welcoming and although I didn’t talk much with most the people no one seemed to have a grudge with having visitors at their gym.
The gym is easy enough to find off a main road, once you pass the front desk it opens up into a big square matted area with the changing rooms on the left. I changed and got on the mats to stretch and introduce myself to a few people around me. There was a general shyness, I’m guessing due to language barrier. There was an American visiting at the same time I and feel bad for completely forgetting his story, but we did talk about traveling before class. I also introduced myself to the coach, a brown belt, thinking he was the guy I was talking to online, as it happens the head instructor, a black belt, was who I talked to but he was running late. I didn’t talk with the head instructor much when he did show up other than welcoming me and wishing me to have a good time training at his gym. The brown belt ran us through a thorough warm up and I had to sit a few exercises out. It was quite the fitness class before training and I was still dealing with congested sinuses. That and my fitness sucks.
There was a Judo black belt at the gym as well and class started with working different Judo throws from takedown attempts for BJJ. As these throws and takedowns were a bit different for me I had several questions, mostly about leg or arm placement as I always seem to be landing on one of my limbs. In true classical Judo form the Judo black belt didn’t seem to understand my questions for moving the limbs out of the way or maybe placing them differently while the BJJ instructor understood and agreed I could get the same result. It’s no insult to the Judo instructor but I find a lot of classically trained Judo players only train each throw for the one grip or body placement with very little variation meanwhile the very thing that has propelled BJJ to succeed is the openness to variation and modification so that everyone can make the technique work. Then again it could be just that these movements were new to me and I was moving very clunky and stepping over myself. With more training perhaps I could get used to them and work these techniques just as the Judo instructor showed.
The students were quite keen for rolling when it became time, I remember having a few rolls, one with the American, and I forget who else, I think it was a higher belt (I really should have kept notes on this to give you better stories, something I’m doing now actually.) and I mostly just tried to survive the matches. One younger guy, a fellow blue belt I think I remember, who was quite athletic and energetic wanted to roll with me and I could see he wanted to really test himself against me. I had to decline as it was the end of the class and I was quite worn out already. I wouldn’t mind tapping to him, it was more the danger of being hurt while trying to defend against his youthful exuberance hunting for a submission. I did however enjoy watching him fight the higher belts and give them a hard time. I’m sure he’ll be making it somewhere in this sport if he keeps it up.
All and all it was a fun time training there, a few of the guys opened up to me after class as we were changing, a few even got pictures with me. Just another case of a gym being shy because of language barriers and Jiu-Jitsu closing that gap. To be honest I don’t know if they were more impressed by my stories of traveling and training all over the world or my tattoos all over my body, as I got equal amounts of questions for either. After all of this I ended up no pictures (I don’t know what happened, I remember taking some, but they must’ve gotten deleted or corrupted or something. Anyways, no pictures of this training experience, sorry) to post with this story but I can mark Tirana MMA Center as another place I stopped off along this Odyssey and made new friends.
The Abu Dhabi Experience…(14-16 Sept 2017)
Before I knew it my time to leave had come and I was on to my next adventure. My next stop was Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and that was going to be a long flight to get to. I found if I stopped off along the way I could find cheaper tickets, even including hotel stay. So with that information I booked a one night stay over in Abu Dhabi, with intent on getting a class in at non other than the ADCC HQ itself. My plans were I would fly in, get a nap, get out and maybe see a bit of the city before training, have a nice rest and catch my flight the next evening on my way to Yangon. Plans did not work out like that. In any way. At all. I did not get any training in and it ended up costing me way more money…
My flight heading out of Tirana was in the evening, an overnight flight to Abu Dhabi. I got not near as much sleep as I wanted and was dead tired when I get into the airport. Luckily I booked a cheap room at the airport hotel, unluckily I arrived at 5am and I couldn’t check in until 11 and had to wait until 7 before I could even check and see if, at an extra fee, I could check in early. There was a coffee shop next to the hotel lobby so I used the free wifi and grabbed a tea and waited. Finally it was 7 and I was was allowed to check in early, it was not a cheap extra fee but I desperately needed rest or I wouldn’t be able to train later. I paid the fee, got to my room and passed out for a few hours.
As soon as I woke up I began looking for class schedules or contacts and couldn’t find either. The United Arab Eremites Jiu-Jitsu Federation, or UAEJJF site, the main and as far as I can tell only site for the gyms in Abu Dhabi, is great for latest news in the federation and has a list of all the clubs in Abu Dhabi. But they don’t have any address or class schedule information, with only a name and phone number at most. My friend Aaron from Tokyo was helping me out to find a class and set me up with a contact in Abu Dhabi, but as it happens I had the misfortune of showing up on a Friday, which is their religious rest day, a day of prayer, not training. All this planning and I made the misstep of not even thinking about the gyms not having classes on religious days. I actually can’t believe I never thought to look into religious days of places I was visiting, especially a place like the UAE. After talking with the contact back and forth we found there was one gym open that day, but it was in Dubai, which is a 4 hr bus trip away that I would have to catch it in the next 20 mins. That was just not feasible. So I wrote and rested and although I was down that I would be missing training while in Abu Dhabi I at least got to relax in a nice hotel room for 24 hrs. I also had the joy of trying the McDonald’s chicken Big Mac, it was delicious and almost made up for everything. Almost.
The next morning I woke up rested and left the hotel ready to get going to Yangon. I went to check in for my flight and was stopped by the flight attendant. She asked me my final destination and e-mails for those tickets. Then she asked me for a Visa for my next connection. I was flying into Bombay and did not have a Visa for it. I wouldn’t need a Visa had I not had checked luggage but since I did and had to re-check in with a different airline there I would need a Visa to pick up my bag and check it in. This is something I did not account for as I had read different accounts that a transit Visa was available on arrival for making international connections without problem. The airline company did not have this information and could not let me board without a Visa. This was a big problem.
The flight attendants made as many calls as they could to try and get me on the flight and even tried calling the flight company that booked my flights to see if they could help, but to no avail. I would like to say that Quantas, although in my opinion messed up on this and should have let me on my flight have great customer service for trying to help me out and making many calls to make sure they weren’t making a mistake, although I really don’t think anyone looked it up and just gave their opinions. kiwi.com on the other hand is a shit service whose only customer service is starting and ending every sentence with “it’s not our responsibility” without attempting to help in any way. I have had the unfortunate experience of booking 2 flights with Kiwi.com and after those experiences I will say it is the by far the worse company out there to get cheap tickets. It’s like they intentionally make it an unpleasant flight for you that will most likely end in your paying extra for things they missed. I personally will never use them again and hope no one reading this uses them either.
So I was stuck in Abu Dhabi airport with no other choice but to buy a new ticket that included not stopping in India or any place I needed a Visa and which costed me an additional $700. I was no longer saving $300 in this stop and with no Jiu-Jitsu or even any sight seeing this was a very upsetting and disappointing stopover. Later, when I was making plans to head back to Europe from Asia I thought of stopping in Dubai to get in some training and make up for this stop over, but decided I’m better off not bothering with this hassle again, my budget was stretched thin and I wouldn’t be able to afford another expensive surprise like this again. One day I will return and see the United Arab Eremites and it’s beautifully constructed cites and top notch BJJ gyms, but not during this Odyssey.
And after all the adventures of traveling through Adu Dhabi I was done visiting Europe, for now, and on my way to my first stop in Asia: Yangon, Myanmar.
Until next time,
see you on the mats!
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