الجزائر, al-Jazā’ir, week four
I stayed one extra night at the tourist complex near Bejaia. Said and Nounou had to take off, and in the morning I said a final goodbye to Saadi. It was a little sad; he’s become a great buddy!
Alone again and headed for adventure, I pedalled along the paradisical coastal route towards Jijel. There were even ten kilometers or so of traffic-free construction zone, now that’s paradise!
Nightfall approached and I found a beach to camp on. As usual the gendarmes wanted to stuff me full of food and Islam – all I wanted to do was sleep, but there’s the captain in my way with his leg up on the railing, getting more and more excited about converting me to his religion. And he was the one who originally said “No no, don’t ask about that; he is a free man,” when his privates started in with the glittery-eyed muslim enthusiasm….
Finally asleep for maybe a half an hour, when the bigger boss arrives, orders me woken up so he can put me in a hotel back in town! “NO NO NO – NO HOTEL! I WAS ASLEEP ALREADY!” How completely degrading.
In the morning there wasn’t much Islam talk, but everyone wants me to rest. “I just slept 7 hours! Why would I want to rest?!?” I reply, jumping around a bit to make my point. But something isn’t normal, and they’ve got my passport hostage…. After a swim and breakfast the captain tells me that his boss has decided they will arrange an escort. After complaining a bit I concede, but where is this escort? I can’t believe I’m saying it, but “I”m late!”
An aggravating hour later, three green and white gendarme SUVs arrive. They give me my passport finally, and I just leave – if they want to escort me, they can catch up later.
And they did, making passes all morning, all the way to the border of the province. At least they were subtle.
A girl from Constantine had invited me to visit, but unfortunately she couldn’t host me, because her brother would have to chaperone and he wasn’t there. She set me up with some English-speaking college friends who were anxious to meet me, calling calling calling… do I really want this phone?
They met me outside of town and gave me some water. I declined a ride in their car, so they escorted me – and this time it wasn’t subtle. Just behind me, hazard lights on, snapping photos from the passenger window and drawing honks and yells from all the highway traffic that had to go around.
Constantine is at the top of a huge mountain, and the ascent is straight up, no gentle switchbacks. It was a brutal climb, in danger of overheating, dousing my head with water from my drinking bottle, nearly losing my momentum over the broken concrete, no end in sight… but most of the cars that passed and all the folks on the sidelines recognized what a challenge I was undertaking, and supported me with lots of honks and waves and shouts and “Bon courage!”
After hefting the rig up ten flights of stairs, a snack and a shower, we went down to meet the girl and her sisters. I wasn’t surprised that they were Muslim, but I was a little miffed when she declined to shake my hand; “I am sorry, I can’t touch you.” And then, after a two minute meeting in the parking lot, they left! Why did I come over all those hills again?!?
Well, Constantine is gorgeous. A city of bridges, build right on the cliffs by an ancient Roman emporer(and the French). My hosts were very hospitable and everything was taken care of for me, but my original plan to stay one night seemed to have been forgotten. “Oh but I made plans to do so many things!”
But I’ve been so rushed and pampered and celebritized here in Algeria that I really, really wanted to have one full day at the end, to process everything and do some writing. Sorry guys, I gotta go. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.
We met up with the sisters again the next day, still in the burkha body covering, who brought gifts and well wishes for me, and a pamphlet on “The truth about Jesus.” You know I’m not Christian, right??
The guys escorted me again, across the longest stone bridge in the world and out of town. I wish I could’ve spent longer there and learned some breakdancing, but I need to empty my cup before I can fill it with anything else!
The next day I was awoken by the 3 am a’dan call to prayer, because the village police put me right next to the mosque for the night, so I made it to Guelma by 11am. But Saadi called and mysteriously said I should wait, that there’s a gentleman coming to meet me and it’s important. Hmm…
I waited. The longer I wait in one place, this time a cafe, the larger the crowd grows. Four hours is a long time to practice Arabic and listen to Islam preaching from all angles, even if there is free food. Eventually I took off to meet this “gentleman,” thankful to have a reason to escape.
We meet at a hotel bar. I learn his name is Said, but before he can explain what this is all about, Saadi was there! “You drove all this way?!” What a surprise! Suddenly I knew I wouldn’t get my day of cup-emptying…
It was nice though, we went to a hammam in the country fed by a natural hot spring, and I was able to have a nice night’s sleep without mosque calls or police poking their heads in my tent. And it was especially nice to see Saadi one last time – he’s helped me so much, and his attitude is just golden. Thanks a million my friend!
The day I had planned to sit and write and process this crazy month in Algeria, I instead spent pedaling my ass off. Just after dark I arrived at a campground I had heard about, and pulled in with that exhausted-but-relieved aire about me. Finally.
But despite being called “Camp Africa,” it was prohibited to camp there. It’s actually a “vacation center.” But they told me I could camp anywhere I wanted in the national park; just not here. So I walked down the road a bit, and actually ditch-camped in Algeria for the first time, on my last night there. I found a nice sandy spot(under a tree to block the morning heat), well-hidden and comfortable, and slept until eleven.
Then I got up and went to Tunisia.
30 days in Algeria – what a wild ride!
Thanks for reading, thanks for your comments and messages! Thanks for the love and the joy and thanks to all the wonderful Algerian people! Sahit!