It’s hard to say when it began, exactly; but at some point after leaving the States for Europe, I started imagining in what manner I would include Africa in this world bike tour. As a tentative “plan” – or let’s call it the most likely to happen of all the various possibilities – I decided on Northern Africa. I didn’t feel the need to ride Cairo to Capetown, or cycle the entire continent or anything(which would take forever), but I knew I wanted to do Africa better justice than a simple tourist dip into Morocco, and I’ve known, ever since that breakfast with my cousin Katie in Crystal Lake back on week one, that I wanted to see Egypt. Most importantly, though, I also felt somehow more intrigued by Arab Africa than by Black Africa.
There’s a thing… generally speaking… some thing, between the United States of America and the Arabic/Islamic world. It isn’t a good thing, necessarily, but there it is, undeniable. Arabs and muslims are considered to be “the enemy” by many Americans. In the past few decades, the US war effort has been concentrated against predominately Islamic countries – now that the Cold War is over, they’re the new “bad guys.” In movies and media alike, muslim goes hand in hand with the spectral menace of the new millenium: terrorism. And in the US we’re told that the feeling is mutual – that muslims think Americans are “the enemy,” and our existence threatens their way of life.
Obviously this animosity is exaggerated, but the mere existence of this… this thing, makes me want to investigate it. I want to explore Islam and see with my own eyes what the deal really is. Maybe I can even do something to show muslim Arabs that not all Americans are bad, and vice versa.
So the route for Africa was to be Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, along the Mediterranean coast. I tested it out for the first time on my sailing companions while crossing the Atlantic nearly two years ago, and received my first dose of negative reinforcement: “You know there are a lot of kidnappings in Algeria, and fake roadblocks set up by thieves. You won’t make it.” And that wasn’t the last time I had a poisonous wad of fear shoved down my throat. When I say I’m going to ride my bike across Algeria, no one ever mentions the gorgeous scenery, ancient culture, or deep tradition of hospitality – they only ever want to shoot me down. This reflex reaction of telling me the dangers and disasters awaiting me – without ever having even been there personally – this is the real terrorism, and makes my heart tremble more than any suicide bomber or Kalishnikov-weilding extremist.
But through all the put-downs and all the imaginary hazards people try to build up in my way, through all the attempts to convince me not to do it, I’ve remembered something my friend Berry in Norfolk couselled: “Always make decisions from a place of love, never from a place of fear. Of course there will be fear – I have my own inevitable daydreams of being kidnapped or robbed – but when it comes time to make a decision, I just don’t decide it, if I feel surrounded by fear. I choose to believe that the people of the world are 99.9% good, and you can just keep to yourself everything you’ve heard about Algerian terrorists. Repeating some fundamentally racist propaganda to me will only make me want to prove you wrong.
Once in Europe, I was subjected to other damp attempts to smother my adventurous, unplanned ideas for Africa. One very common example was trying to cross overland between Morocco and Algeria: “The land border has been closed for ten years and more; what you want to do is impossible.” And when ninety-nine in a hundred people tell you it can’t be done, it makes the people that say “Sure you can, it’s no problem,” sound like they’re just blowing smoke, even as they allow me a tiny glimmer of hope. The word impossible became anathema to my ears, and every time someone “enlightened” me with what they had read, or seen on the internet, I only wanted to go there and see for myself all the more. I got so pissed off at times like these – I mean, I’m sorry, but until you get on your bike, and do everything in your power to (legally) cross this border, I don’t want to hear your advice! It’s like being defeated before I even have a chance to make an attempt! When I felt cornered like this, coming back with, “But have you ever been there? Have you ever tried it yourself?” allowed me to retain some of my personal power, instead of meekly giving up, “…yeah… I heard about that….” and letting the idea shrivel up in pity.
Of course most times it was for my own good. For my safety, my sanity – people just wanted me to be informed. Which is good for my intellect, but bad for the dreamer idealist inside. It’s possible I need to balance them a bit better within myself….
I could have started the visa process – the real visa process, with passports and embassies and sick-to-the-stomach bureaucracy – sooner, but I put it off until I reached Madrid. Slowly, ever so slowly, I started learning about what it takes to enter Algeria as a foreigner. In Madrid the main objective I worked on was the “certificat d’hébergement,” an invitation letter from an Algerian citizen, which is required for the visa. After dozens of emails in French, a couchsurfer in Algiers put an official invite in the mail for me – but it never arrived, despite my best efforts at patience. Or was it procrastination, or distaste for bureaucracy? I did pass by the Algerian embassy in Madrid, once, when it was closed… but before I made any more progress, I had to leave town to meet my mother and sister in Morocco.
No problem – I had been encouraged, having now gained a helpful Facebook following of North Africans, to apply for the Algerian visa in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. I let it slide until my time with my family was over.
Once in Rabat, I stayed with a part Moroccan, part Algerian family. They were wonderful and helpful, but the Fear was prevalent, even there. The grandfather thought I was admirable at first, but when he realized I was actually serious about cycling across Algeria, he was more than a little discouraging. Grandma just thought I was crazy. And on top of that, the visit to the embassy revealed that foreigners cannot apply for visas there – something that would have been nice to know before, had I only possessed the smallest bit of ability to research or plan ahead. “Only Moroccans can apply here. Your next closest option is Alicante, in Spain.”
Alicante… okay. I got on my bike and started pedaling. Twelve days later I arrived, installed myself in a friendly anarchist’s flat near the beach, and began working the visa again, trying to remain “in Africa mode.”
But my contact in Algiers had apparently been procrastinating, too, because it took another two weeks to get my hands on the certificate of invitation – and just a digital copy this time, no snail mail involved. It was an aggravating time, full of waiting and hoping, and wishing I’d planned ahead, and writing “fingers crossed!” a lot. He took forever, he didn’t reply to all my questions. He sent a certificate with the wrong passport number. He sent a certificate without the official stamp. But then finally, with a “I hope this solves your problem,” I had the final piece of the application material.
At the consulate in Alicante, the staff were very friendly. “Aleikum Salam!” Everything seemed to be going splendidly. I smiled, my heart beating fast, as the clerk behind the window checked my documents. “Everything is in order here, now I just need your NIE.” My heart stopped. What in the hell is a NIE? Some sort of foreigner ID card…. “Numero de Identificación de Extranjero – you don’t have a NIE? Well it should be easy, look, just go ask the policeman on the corner where the nearest precinct is, and they’ll give you the NIE and you can come back. We’re open until 4 o’clock.”
I should have known it could never be that easy. I visited various government buildings until I was finally directed to the office for foreigners – a 100% police affair, which in Spain is quite a nightmare for a bearded bike hobo saying the word “Argelia.” Fascists, maybe yeah, that’s what people say. Assholes, definitely. Still, I did my best: “I’m riding my bike around the entire world, and sir, I need your help.” I think the madero behind the desk had already denied me the NIE before I even sat down. “You don’t need a NIE to apply for a visa. No, they’re mistaken at the consulate. No, no, no, no.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, I learned what it would take to apply for an Algerian visa in Spain – official residency. A friend wrote up a rental contract for me, and I obtained an official census residency status, but down at the office of foreigners again, this time on my birthday, we were only denied again, and more insultingly than before. It was the worst birthday ever.
To make a long, long story short, I would have to stay in Spain a long time to get that NIE, and pay money, and deal with endless red tape. And my heart was just not in it, after being denied that second time. I felt violated and powerless; there was something horribly crippling about being fucked by the cops, even if I wasn’t violently victimized.
I gave up on trying to apply in Spain, but I did not give up on Algeria, despite feeling like I was drowning in delays. Certainly not in “Africa mode” anymore, I gathered the requirements for a mail-order visa application to Washington D.C., sent it off with a flavorless “fingers crossed….”
I looked around. Still in same-old Spain, and two, three more weeks to wait….
It was a real test of my patience – and I have a lot of patience! I had spent six weeks or more already in Alicante, and despite having made some great friends, I had to move. I loaded up the bike and headed off towards the big city. On the way I visited an ecological farm collective in the mountains near Alcoi. It was my kind of place: impossible to reach by car, donkey power and solar cells, and they are breadmakers up there too, eighty loaves a week – viva la pasta madre! Then I stayed at a rural house outside of Valencia for a while, playing with kids and cats, learning about the dangers of patriarchy, and checking out the city a little bit. Good fun, but the deepening feeling of directionlessness only made me more delerious.
I had to make a change, but instead of finding a direction to go in, I decided to dive into the feeling, and just be without a direction.
I stowed my maps and compass away and navigated by intuition alone. I can’t tell you where I went, but for five days or so I was at peace with the waiting. I learned about my heart’s particular voice, and found myself in various astounding “coincidences.” I stopped smoking for good, and I started a routine of physical training and stretching. I was more free than I think I’ve ever been.
Then my mom wrote me an email saying that the embassy had called – “They gave you the visa, for thirty days, starting on June 7th.”
Intuitive traveling time was suddenly over. I figured out where I was, and headed back. It felt like going home. Now when I looked out over the landscape, I didn’t see Spain – I saw the entire world. The next day I did my first handstand ever. Indeed I felt like I could do anything!
And in the end, it turns out I never needed to come to Alicante at all. The visa application was mail-order, and I’ve decided to take the boat from Almeria instead of Alicante, so, why did I come here? But of course there are other reasons in this Universe than visas and logistics, and I’ve returned to Alicante to say goodbye. It seems a little strange to be throwing a party and cheering and smiling and hopping around with glee, just because I was awarded a visa for Algeria. That’s just not normal.
But for me it is a source of joy. For me this visa represents the opportunity to complete a circle, or to gain some closure, or let’s say, to finish the story. One way or the other, Algeria by bicycle is going to happen.
Now, before you have a chance to worry about the danger, take a deep breath.
I wrote this travelogue before doing the trip(something I rarely do) so you can come along with me, in a way. But be careful, please – one surely finds what one looks for out there, metaphysically speaking, so let’s not be looking for danger and catastrophe around every bend. Those are bad vibes I don’t want because they just can’t help. Instead, I will be looking for the goodness in Algerian people; the assistance, the solidarity, and the friendship.
Yes! The joy, the love – but never the fear.