I reach Almeria with plenty of time to spare, and give my rig a tune-up on the rambla, amidst an angry protest against Israeli terrorism and Spanish arms manufacturing.
The ferry terminal has a little makeshift mosque. Huge groups of Arabs and a few Europeans; ninety percent take the ten o’clock for Morocco, leaving me feeling quite hard-core alone with the Algerians.
The midnight boat boards at one and leaves at one thirty.
A quiet walk on deck, harbor waves glistening and Spanish cliffs looming in the night. I say goodbye to Europe like a lover I know I’ll meet again. She was unforgettable.
A rough night’s sleep on a rough Mediterranean, and a morning greeting on the deck – ahead lies the port of Ghazaouet. An Algerian man tells me not to trust anyone…. I reply with “Even you?“
Entry protocols and hectic African queues. A copy of my invitation letter smooths things along nicely, and my gear is so weird that the aduane has no interest in searching. He lets me go with only a smile and a “Bonne route!” I breathe a sigh of relief as the entry stamp is sealed, and the police smile and say “Bienvenu en Algerie!” YES! I MADE IT!
No dinar. No map. No Arabic. Pure adventure hits me like a hot wave as I explore deeper into the town. Dark faces, foreign scripts, scooters and cars and trash. Busted streets, busted walls. Soccer graffiti. Everything falls into place, nothing is stolen from me, and I begin to remember the shwia arabia that I learned in Morocco. A teenager tells me, in cherades, that he wants to travel someday too. Yallah!
Mountains. Hydration. My enthusiasm carries me up and over with joy. A car accessory salesman gives me a bottle of juice, a pair of gas station attendants give me a string of Algerian flags.
The first time a car stops and tries to flag me down I am extremely wary, and only say “Salaam aleikum.” They drive past again and take phone-photos out the window. Everyone wants to take photos with me!
The first time I encounter a police road block I am extremely wary, and examine their uniforms and vehicles closely. They are happy I can speak French – English would be a big hassle – and wish me a “Bonne route!” The police are always nice to me here!
The mountains give way to big rolling hills, full of farmland and dusty dry grass. This is a country of big distances, as well; it reminds me a bit of Kansas.
A bag of delicious tomatoes and a pair of World Cup Algeria soccer scarves are handed to me from the window of moving cars on the autoroute. Ice is shaken in my waterbottles for me, and everyone wants to take photos with me.
After 140 kms that first day, the youth hostel in Ain Temouchent is closed down, but there are kittens and plenty of space for a tent. The guardian is very optimistic, but the slim little director with the weasly administrator’s attitude seems pleased with the opportunity to say “no” in his elegant French. I am exhausted and nearly cry saying goodbye to the cats, but return to the town center to search for a hotel. Full nighttime has fallen.
I find food first, but the proprietor of the restaurant won’t just let me take it and go – he’s offering proof that Allah exists, though I did not ask for it. Asleep on my feet and trying to be polite in French…. Finally he sends his employee with me to find the hotel.
But I can’t simply pay my 1200 dinar and crash into bed – all foreigners must declare themselves at the police station. A spoiled brat of a boss rushes to his car; I follow him on my bike. He waves out his window, “Hurry up!” He doesn’t say a word to my protests, only passes me off to the police so he can return to the television at the hotel. I am abandoned.
Inside the police station, the room quickly fills with curious officers. For the first ten minutes I am desperately frustrated – but then I realize that this is a different culture, different land. I relax and start to enjoy it. My bad French gets smoother as I let the answers to their questions roll off my tongue.
A grizzled sargeant enters with two stars on his chest, the only one with a pistol. His interrogation commands the scene, his questions continually interrupting my answers. I am beyond caring, and joke with him. “Don’t you think we should let someone else ask a question or two?” He picks up the phone and screams into it; this appears to be normal.
Finally I win him over, and finally the paperwork is finished. He escorts me back to the hotel after asking if I have any explosives.
The administrator kid expects me to carry my bike up the stairs. “No no no, you have to help me!” He doesn’t lift a finger, just gets someone else to help me push.
Finally I fall asleep to a random soccer game on TV. My first day is over.
On day two I enter the metropolis of Oran, without a clue. Nowhere to stay, no idea where to go. With intuition I find the right cyber cafe, and make some new friends. A Facebook connection comes through for me and I make a call to Saadi. He picks me up in his car and later tells me – “Those guys you were talking to? All thieves. But don’t worry! They won’t mess with someone who needs help.”
My previous notions of Algeria are wiped away.
There may be a few terrorists in the forest remaining, but they are not Muslim extremists fighting Jihad – they only want to keep the country closed, so it is easier to steal power.
The country may be 99 percent Muslim on paper, but there are bars and nightclubs, whiskey, prostitutes… it’s more lascivious than Morocco. I slowly readjust to the idea of having access to beer, between mornings of pushups and stretching.
In fact everything seems so very very different now that I am here. I look out over the Mediteranean towards Spain, and remember when I used to look out over the Mediterranean towards Algeria – and they are worlds apart, these two minds of mine. I haven’t had any spectacular revelations or any particularly enlightening culture shocks, but just by being here, just by experiencing it directly, I feel somehow bigger.
Algeria, c’est magnifique!