I left Karim’s place doing well, not knowing the madness that was ahead. As I left, his mother was upstairs on the balcony and wished me a good trip. My single interaction with her. The coast from Jijel to Bejaia is rather delightful, and I was looking forward to enjoying it. I managed to get 13km along the coast before I got to a police check point. I’d been through several before, and no-one had said anything, but here I was waved over. They asked to see my documents and made me stand at the side of the road while they made phone calls. After 15 minutes, I was told to follow them to the police station as they needed to do more paperwork. I followed along, expecting it to be a short thing, but it was not to be.
I was told to sit down in the entrance room, but after a while I got bored of it and the smell of smoke (so many men in Northern Africa smoke even though it’s definitely forbidden by Islam) so I tried to move back outside but this was apparently not allowed and instead their solution was to move me back inside, open the window and tell me to sit down. After more than an hour of waiting, the podcast I was listening to finished and I started to chunter about what was taking so long. This lead to me being escorted upstairs where I got to sit in the chief’s office where he held my passport and dictated things to a subordinate. They made two complete photocopies of my passport, and then eventually printed out the document that had been typed up. I asked about getting a copy, to avoid having to do this again in the future, but was assured that it was a one-off and I would definitely not have this issue again. How wrong they were.
After two hours, I was eventually allowed to go to my bike again and 4 policemen with body armour on started talking to me about loading my bike into their vehicle to drive me along. I explained how when I’d crossed the border, I’d been told that wouldn’t happen and I had the freedom to ride. If I let them put my bike in their van, it was starting a slippery slope where I was going to get driven everywhere ‘for my safety’. This caused what sounded like a heated argument between the police, and eventually two of them got in an unmarked car and said they would follow me to make sure everything was OK. It seemed excessive, but whatever, it was better than getting driven everywhere.
The escort began calmly, but after a few kilometres we hit a traffic jam. There was no traffic coming the other way, but our lane was blocked. They weren’t sure what the cause was, so being nervous made me follow behind them so that they could protect me. The siren went on and we went down the empty lane, which lead to some cars following us, and even some cars pulling out of our lane in front of us to go with the police. That proved a terrible idea, as the policeman jumped out of the car and shouted at them for doing so. It turned out that there was a tunnel ahead, and they were doing construction work. Nothing major, but it meant the already narrow tunnel barely had space for traffic to pass through. With the siren however, the workers made space and so we squeezed through, followed by cars eager to make the most of the police presence. When we got out the other side, the cars overtook us, including one that was a little close to me. This infuriated the policeman who decided that more than keeping an eye on me, he wanted to chase down this car and so sped off, leaving me to potter along. It happened too far away for me to see, but I can only imagine the earful that driver got from the policeman.
In the next town, the police car escorted me to the next police station, who again wanted my passport and made another photocopy. This time I only had to wait about 20 minutes for the formalities, and then it was onwards with another police car. They followed me to the next town, where the process repeated itself, and then one more time until we arrived in Souk el Tenine where I had decided to stay in the auberge to break up the ride to Setif. Of course before entering the auberge, it was time to go into the police station, have my passport photocopied and answer the same questions that I had already 3 times that day. Whatever. The auberge was 100m away, so a policeman walked there with me to make sure everything went OK. It was a couple of hours too early to check in, but I filled in the registration form and sat around waiting. My passport was taken by the policeman, who told me that I’d get it back the next morning when I went to the police station. I think it was done to make sure I actually went, and didn’t just ride off by myself. It would be the first of many encounters with the police.
Climbing up from Souk with the police I decided that I might as well let them carry my bags with the idea that it’d let me go faster, and so annoy them less. Also I figured I might as well get something out of it. There was one stage where I was not allowed to cycle, as there was a 6km tunnel where I was told that if I tried to cycle through I’d asphyxiate (thanks French for being the same for confusing science words). I pointed out at the very pleasant looking old road, that climbed up alongside the river but while I could go through on a bike they couldn’t follow me and that was strictly forbidden. They had orders to not let me out of their sight. Thankfully it didn’t prove too hard to get my bike in the van and considering the number of trucks, the amount of exhaust fumes and the fact it was a climb, causing an hour-long traffic jam (or longer if I did actually asphyxiate) was better avoided.
At almost exactly noon, I was entering into a town and starting to get peckish. I turned to the police car behind me to make a gesture about eating so they’d know why I was stopping. When I looked forward again, I was astounded to see a man walking across the road carrying a black plastic bag which he held out for me, inside there were two chicken baguettes! I sat down at the police station and chomped away feeling quite happy with my police escort. They were not only carrying my bags, and saving me from certain death in the tunnel, but also providing food and water for me.
My opinion of how useful the police would be going even higher, when I reached the centre of Setif. I had arranged to stay with a Couchsurfer, called Amine, and he wasn’t free until 5pm cos he had to work. When I had mentioned this to the police at the final handover before Setif they called him to make sure he was OK for me to stay with. Maybe because of this, but Amine then got in touch with a friend called Issam who came to the centre of Setif to show me around a bit before he got out of work. When Issam turned up, the police checked his ID and then called Amine to confirm that this guy was actually coming to see me. It almost felt like the guy needed security clearance to see me. It would be similar for the next 36 hours in Setif as even after having ‘handed me over’ to Amine, he got frequent phone calls to check up on me, and to hear my plans.
A day of wind where my main memory was, like every day, interactions with the police. The first being when Amine, my host, took me to the police station to get my escort and they said follow this way. I told them it was the wrong way, but they didn’t listen. We got to the bottom of the hill and were about to enter the main road when I pulled over and they came over to see what was up. I said that as I had told them, I wanted to go the other way. Both ways lead to the same place, but my option involved a stretch on a quieter road followed by the main road, instead of just pure main road. They tried arguing, but it was the first time I properly dug my heels in, and they accepted my plan. My first, but definitely not only, time persuading the Algerian police that I know what I want and will get it.
The other interaction came about because it was a Friday, the Muslim holy day. Their equivalent of the Sunday service is going to mosque from 1-1:30pm on a Friday. So pulling into a town at 12:30, the restaurants were of course all closed, but I was hungry and needed something before continuing to cycle into the wind. They told me that restaurants wouldn’t open until 2, but there was a restaurant for travellers in 10km (15km on my GPS) which I could easily get to in 30 minutes. With the headwind, rolling terrain, and fact it was 15km I knew it was more like an hour+, so let them know that option wouldn’t work for me. They couldn’t think of a better option, so I let them know it was no problem and pulled out a packet of dry pasta that I had bought just before leaving Tunisia thinking that I’d cook it that night.
The surprise on their faces was pretty amazing as I started to get my cooking gear out and said I’d look for a flat place, with some protection from the wind, and cook it up. It’d take 20-30 minutes, a vast improvement on their option. They at first seemed to not know what to say and so were going to let me do it, but as I started to look for a place I was told to wait a few minutes. I sat down, and within 10 minutes a baguette, mainly filled with cabbage and an orange turned up for me to eat. Problem resolved.
Sofiane, who invited me, turned up with two of his friends – Ali aka Mr Snake and Amine. They had driven two hours to pick me up, and then proceeded to spend a 4+ of the next 8 hours driving around more. The joys of a circular road trip. We went out for lunch, where I repeatedly heard the phrase ‘col col col’ which means ‘eat eat eat’ as part of the Algerian hospitality and belief that if I’m not eating then it’s not good. Said belief obviously lead to me feeling ridiculously full by the end of the meal. The other highlight, other than of course meeting these three wonderful people and not being anywhere near the police, was a visit to the beer shop. Like in Tunisia, alcohol is not legally banned but it is frowned upon as it is haram (forbidden by Islamic law). Amine had never drunk, but the other two both had imbibed before and so lead by Mr Snake we went to the industrial part of Setif where the alcohol shops are apparently mainly found and purchased beer and a small bottle of whiskey. The beers came in 250ml bottles, because the world is a strange place, but were reasonably enough priced for me although it would definitely be seen as a luxury here. After drinking them, the bottles were put in a plastic bag and then thrown out of the window. This wasn’t seen as littering, but protecting innocent minds because putting the bag in a regular bin could lead to someone seeing them and being offended. I’m not sure I agreed.
Leaving the hostel, I mentioned the police to the workers but they didn’t seem to mind. I was meant to be self reporting, and so having failed at the hostel I spoke to the first policeman I saw in the road. He got confused and told me to speak to his colleague instead, but when I tried his colleague was so surprised that he stuck a hand out, causing a car to slam its brakes on and get rear-ended by the van behind it. I kept going, safe in the knowledge that I’d be riding past policemen along the way and they could definitely make a phone call to someone if they felt the need. I rode for about 60 minutes, in a mix of hail and snow before I got to a nice descent, which was quite lovely … until a car overtook me, slammed its brakes on and then two men jumped out.
As I had known, the police would find me if they wanted to. They chuntered about me not reporting myself, and weren’t very receptive to me telling them I had tried so I just kept going down the hill trying to pretend I was still on my own. That proved hard as they twice decided we needed to have discussions on the way down the hill, making me stop. They were fine with my goal of going to Sour el Ghozlane but wanted me to take a 50km detour for ‘safety’ reasons. They wanted me to keep along the main road, which would be a little faster in a car, but on my bike would add hours to my journey and keep me on busy roads. I of course resisted, and they told me to keep thinking, but of course my mind was made.
I stopped at the bottom of the hill for lunch, and they tried to bluff me into taking their route by telling me that my option was very dangerous and I’d be by myself. The first sounded untrue, although the second one wonderful, so after eating I questioned them about why I’d get protection on busy roads where there was no security issue but they’d leave me alone on the dangerous roads. They didn’t say much, and for a short while I thought I’d be by myself, but of course they followed me as soon as I rode off.
The second village I went through there was a man who reached his hand out to me to shake it and while I was wanting to stop I already heard the beep of the car trying to protect me. From my experience, the guy would have spoken at me in Arabic for a while, I’d have got the point across that I was riding across Algeria on a BICYCLE and then either we’d have parted ways or he’d have offered me a cup of tea or coffee. As it is, thanks to my protection, I got nothing more than an almost high-five before I was forced to keep going. The one advantage to the stalking however was that once I established that they really were following me I could give them my bags, making my load lighter, although I was still slow as there was a fair amount of climbing.
Their opinion about my speed came to a head when I turned right and was immediately overtaken and told that I should have kept going straight. Having briefly researched the route before, I knew that wasn’t the case. Going straight was not only 10km longer, but also climbed higher than the way I was going, even still I double checked this on my phone while talking to them and was met with a response of “Yes, that’s true, but still, please go straight.” Apparently they had arranged for a handoff in the next town which was 2km if I went straight, whereas the route to the right didn’t pass through any towns for about 12km so they’d be with me for maybe an hour more. I repeatedly explained how that was complete nonsense, but they still persisted in asking me to go straight, until after 20 minutes of me standing my ground they accepted and so I turned right, much to their chagrin.
When we did eventually get to the next handover, there were 20+ men standing round shaking hands and talking about me. I’m pretty sure I’d have heard the Algerian word for pig-headed or at least stubborn if I could understand, but I thanked them for understanding and letting me go the way I had wanted. They looked happy, but it was probably mainly just relief from being done with me. The rest of the day continued without incident, until I got to the outskirts of my destination of Sour el Ghozlane when I was handed from the gendarmerie to the police. I was rather hungry at this point, and had spent the last 5km telling myself when I arrived I’d go and buy a litre of milk. This wasn’t allowed to happen as LETS GO LETS GO lead to the sirens going on to make sure I got through the lack of traffic and everyone stared at me while I did so all the way to the auberge. Thankfully, after being checked in and sat round for 20 minutes I persuaded the policeman that I was hungry and so he showed me to a nearby place where I wolfed down three plates of meats that I was then told were free by the guy who cooked them.
Woken up to a knock on the door, and invitation to coffee with the manager of the auberge and Djamel – a truck driver who also runs the museum (?). After coffee I got a tour, including being taken swimming, out for lunch and then after a nap was taken to the hammed – Turkish bath – by Djamel. My main thought in my mind was “no wonder torture doesn’t work, this thing is horrific”. On the upside, I definitely felt clean afterwards. Djamel said that he never showers, instead going to the bath every 3 days. They are split with women allowed in the morning, and men in the afternoon. The other part of the day involved driving up to the mountains I would ride through so we could make a snowman – because snowmen are wonderful.
Making a snowman