It’s an understatement to say that the Balkans is a complicated place. Traveling even short distances can mean encountering fraught borders, de jure or not. Mailing items can be exorbitantly expensive, and unreliable to boot. Enter the people who will take packages, letters, and even passengers wherever they need to go. This piece detailing the Balkans’ informal transport networks, originally published last year by Kosovo 2.0 and released again by The Guardian this month, was a runner-up for a European Press Prize:
Sending packages by bus or taxi, by driver, friend or acquaintance, is one of the most functional social inventions in the Balkans. It’s as fast as the speed of a car or bus. And in a place where railway and airline connections have been all but destroyed or simply cancelled, it’s the fastest way to send or receive things.
One specific person—driver, friend or acquaintance—takes care of the delivery. It is a person you either know or have at least met, someone you’ve shaken hands with at some point and exchanged a few words. It seems in those 30 or 60 seconds a level of trust is built that is so much greater than it’s possible to establish with any postal service worker, hidden behind the counter with their promotional stock photos of yellow vans that always arrive on time.
Who would you trust more: a) a company with a slogan that guarantees your shipment will be delivered in the next 48 hours, and offers you the possibility to follow your shipment through a special code; or b) a driver who, when asked “When will it arrive, approximately?”—asked bashfully so as not to appear as if you are, God forbid, rushing him, because he has every right to get there whenever he wishes—first looks into the distance, inhales a smoke, and exhales: “It depends on the rush hour, but not before nine”? And they always give you a time that’s too early. Better for you to wait, than for the whole bus.
Somehow, for an astonishingly high number of people in the Balkans, the answer is b.