The lair and the tortoise

A taxi driver eyeing the wrong curves gives David Whitley a ride to remember.

The taxi driver puts on his very best hurt face and says in a mock whimper: “No, no – it is an insult in my country. It means my driving not good.”

My crime? To attempt to put my seatbelt on. Why is it always the scariest drivers that get mortally offended by such things?

And he is very scary. From practically the first moment after leaving the Albanian frontier town of Pogradec, it's been both hands off the wheel and attention firmly on the bikini clad women to his left.

Pogradec lies on Lake Ohrid, which is shared with Macedonia.Those wanting to get into Macedonia by public transport need to get the bus from Tirana to Pogradec, then complete the six-kilometre ride to the border post by taxi. It's actually a lovely journey along the winding road, with the lake to one side and mountains to the other.

Alas, the only scenery my driver is interested in comes in the female form. He again abandons the steering wheel to make a crude gesture with his arm and grunt in the leeriest manner imaginable.

As the road gets narrower and curvier, it all starts to get a bit worrying. He veers along the white line in the middle – lane etiquette clearly being for lower life forms – and narrowly avoids plunging headlong into another taxi doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction.

Then there's the wildlife. Around one blind corner we encounter three enormous cows, all fully intent on standing their ground.

The journey slowly becomes more and more terrifying and the man behind the wheel is still oblivious. His prime concern is obviously to gee me into joining in with his caveman act.


And then he slams on the brakes, with the car screeching to a halt. He opens his door and rushes back down the road. I have no idea what he's doing. Is he getting a gun? Is he running from the law? Or looking for his exhaust pipe?

Just a few seconds later he comes back with a broad grin on his face. In his cupped hands is a tortoise. Dear heavens. First he tries to kill me, then he tries to transform himself into a safari guide.

He hands me the tortoise so I can have a good look and feel. It is immediately obvious that the tortoise is as scared as I am, and a trickle of liquid starts coming from underneath it. Ugh – my hands are covered in tortoise pee.

As I try to put the poor little thing back on the road, it becomes apparent the driver isn't all that much of a naturalist after all.

“No, no!” he says, grabbing my arm. “We keep.”

Ah. He wants to keep it and sell it, doesn't he? Or kill it and sell the shell. Eventually, I win out and let the urinating critter plod free.

Somehow, I get to the border in one piece. My driver gives me a card, asking me to phone him when I come back from Macedonia. Needless to say, it goes straight into the bin in no-man's land after I've cleared the Albanian checkpoint. Along with the tissue used to wipe up the tortoise's contribution to the whole farrago.