الجزائر, al-Jazā’ir, week three
Week three has been great!
A bit too much being in a car, though, I must say. I am just not accustomed to it, and my friends here want me to see everything there is to see, toute de suite! I want to see it too, and with only 30 days on the visa, I’ve been letting them make tourist plans for me – in between days of cycling, that is. I will still trace a solid route clear across Algeria with my two wheels.
Algiers is big and bustling and spread out. Parties and tours and police checkpoints everyzhere, freeways and messy little warrens of one way lanes, broken slums and huge white buildings with sky blue trim built by the French.
I finally met up with Farid, who helped me with the invitation. Sahit mon ami!! I was installed in style with Saadi’s cousins Said and Lydia; and properly pampered for a few days.
After some wicked traffic on the autoroute out of town, I crossed into Kabylie.
This is the one region that scares everyone when I talk cycling routes. The US Embassy flat out said not to attempt such a journey, and it is well known that the few terrorists that remain in Algieria are hiding in the mountains of Kabylie. It’s a long story….
Though there are Arabs here, it’s really Berber country. I thought I would be fine with French in Algeria, and when it seemed disrespectful to start an interaction in French(the colonialists’ language), I figured I could use my bit of Arabic. But here; it’s a whole other level – “Don’t say salam aleikum, here it’s azul.” They’ve got the language; and the ancient pre-Arab history, and they’ve got a strong spirit of freedom and independence. I never expected such a rich African culture that wasn’t Arab. But it’s a nice surprise, a real adventure, especially since most of the fast friends I’ve made – they’re Kabyle Berbers.
Saadi gave me a cellphone, and his cousin Said kept tabs on me as I entered “his country.” He called a couple times, and I knew he was on the line whenever I needed him, but other than that I was still pretty solo.
I hit some really backed up traffic about 80 kms from Tizi Ouzou, cut some lanes of jammed up trucks and cars, skirted around the roundabout where everyone was turning around, and found myself on an empty road. Not normal. Ahead I could see a bit of traffic, and a huge plume of black smoke. An accident? A bike can go around; I kept going.
But it wasn’t an accident. It was a huge group of people, some wearing t-shirts around their faces, burning tractor tires in the road – now that’s interesting… But the strangest part was the fact that there wasn’t a cop or a gendarme to be seen! No cops?!? In Algeria?
I thought about stopping before I reached their civilian roadblock, but only to take a photo. I just wasn’t afraid, and I rolled up with an intrigued expression on my face. Everyone surrounded me, as usual, very interested, but I didn’t feel threatened.
I give that quirky hand signal that means “what’s this?” and ask “C’est quoi ça?”
Amidst the cacauphany of replies that followed, I only heard one word I recognized, “Amerikani,” spoken with a twitch by the crosseyed, shirtless, pale-skinned youth holding a huge dry palm branch. American… what? Are they waiting for an American? To kidnap him, or to welcome him? I decided suddenly I didn’t really need to know what they were doing there. Hopefully they think I am French, actually….
“Tizi Ouzou?” I ask quickly. “Tizi Ouzou, e” says one, and ushers me around the burning tires. “Welcome to Kabylie” someone said, trying out their English, and I was past.
They used to be the only place without terrorists. Kabylie was not so affected by the terror of the nineties. But after the death of Matoub, a most cherished Kabyle musician(which everyone says was blatant murder by the state in response to his critical lyrics), they went crazy with a million and a half person march to Algiers and the complete destruction of all police and military buildings. They actually forced the government out. Perhaps this was premeditated by politicians and generals, as some Kabyle claim, because then, the terrorists all fled the increasing military pressure elsewhere to the only place they won’t be chased – the rich forests of Kabylie.
We have the phone for safety. My friends know where I am. We decided not to meet the press and keep a lower profile. Stick the big roads, travel during the day. It’s been no problems – Kabylie and its people have been more and more beautiful and welcoming the longer I stay. I’ve seen forests and mountains, lakes and waterfalls, tiny Berber villages and black sand beaches – a gorgeous backdrop for stark Berber pride and humbling generosity. It’s a shame I will have to leave my new friends soon, but that’s life on the road – each goodbye signals a new adventure.