A day when I go crazy at the gendarmerie.
I’d told the police that I’d be ready at 8am, and this was agreed. I hung around for a while, waiting, and was told to wait a bit longer, went to a nearby café and to pick up some biscuits, came back, wait more. At 9:30 I was losing my patience, but was told that in 10 minutes they’d definitely be ready. 9:40 comes, no-one is there, but I tell them I’m leaving as they’d told me they would be ready by then. Inside 2 minutes I’ve got two police vans behind me and policemen telling me not to move anywhere and that it will just be one more minute. I use my phone to set a timer for 1 minute (takes about a minute to do so as I’m still not very good at it) but unsurprisingly enough by the end of it things are still not ready. I show this to the policeman who had told me to wait 1 minute, and start off cycling. There are many “s’il te plait” but I ignore them and keep going. It’s a slow climb for the first 60-90 minutes of the day, so I’ll still be in view even if they take 5 minutes to arrive, and the police vans follow after me.
10 minutes later, 4 gendarmerie vans (3-4 people per van) are around me and chuntering at me about how I’m supposed to wait. I told them I’d been waiting since 8am and if it takes them two hours to get ready that is not my fault. They chunter, ask for my passport (even though the police had just done it) and two vans follow me. 10km later, we get a gendarmerie changeover and so it’s time for another round of asking to see my passport and then not finding the information they’re looking for (there is no official mention of my parents’ names in my passport, or my address, and my entrance stamp was stamped on top of my plastic Algerian visa which meant it wouldn’t dry and is on the other page and not really legible so they’ve no idea when or where I entered the country). I suggested asking the other gendarmerie but they didn’t listen.
Went to a restaurant for lunch, got some soup and then chicken. Asked how much it was, was charged 500 (too high but I didn’t think about it straight away) and when I paid the guy said he should have told me it was 2000. The gendarmerie found that funny. Screw them finding it funny when people overcharge me. I’d already had someone in the morning trying to do it until I caught him short-changing me and asked him to break it down. The downside to not having a visible menu or prices on things in shops. I’m well up in the long run, but still.
Another changeover and more ask the foreigner the same damn questions due to a refusal to communicate amongst themselves (even though they have a handover procedure, including a shaking of hands and some cheek kisses) which I tell them is ridiculous. 15km later I stop to take a pee, and the gendarmerie vehicle that is behind me (usually one drives 30m ahead, one 20m behind being a pain-in-the-arse for all traffic trying to overtake) stops and ask me why I’m stopping. I say it is to take a pee, at which two guys jump out of the van with their guns and try to follow me. I go in a different direction and they keep following me, until I tell them to go the fuck away because seriously why do they need to watch me pee. I then decide to take a break and they tell me that instead I should keep going 2-3km more before taking a break. This was because, that’s when it was time for the next handover.
After the next handover, we go a few kilometres and I lay my bike on the side of the road and park my arse next to it. They come and ask me what I’m doing, telling me it is dangerous and I just shout at them telling them to leave me alone, stop being so completely useless and asking me the same question every few kilometres cos they refuse to speak amongst themselves. Stop telling me it is dangerous. Stop telling me to keep going. Just leave me alone. I then put my music on at a high volume, cover my face with my buff and lay down proceed to ignore them for about 30 minutes.
When my music finishes, one of them comes over and says they’ll stop asking me for my passport (doesn’t address any of my other concerns) and I continue to ride cos lying there isn’t going to get anything done. At the entrance to the next town, with the cars still ridiculously close ahead and behind, there is a JCB parked on the right-side of the road and a guy runs across the road towards it and proceeds to swing a leg at my panniers. I immediately stop, spin the bike around and shout at the guy. On another day I might ignore it, but I’m in a foul mood and let loose. He seems confused and even more so when the car stops and a man with a gun gets out and shakes his hand. I ride off in disgust rather than stay to watch the show, and it’s not for another 30 minutes that that 2nd car catches up. I’d normally have asked what happened, but still had no desire to talk so just kept going. To be fair to them, my passport didn’t leave my bag for the next handovers.
Arrived into the next town, where they kept trying to tell me I’d be stopping. I let them know that I’d not told a single person that I was planning on staying in that town so I have no idea why they thought that. There was no auberge, so it was going to be a camping night and the middle of a city isn’t the best for camping. They seemed confused by this idea, and chuntered a bit but as I wasn’t going to stop they followed me out of town.
By 6pm, with the sun going down around 7, I went past the next checkpoint and from there I was being followed by 4 4x4s and an APC. Why I could possibly need 15-20 people to follow me was beyond me and just made me more annoyed. It was quite ridiculous when I stopped at a café and my entourage all pulled into the same car park with their lights flashing. The customers had no idea what was happening, nor who I was to warrant such a following – something I’ve still not worked out. Just before the sun went down, I found a good camping spot and stopped to speak to the lead vehicle about my intention to camp. This was met by horror and many comments about how incredibly dangerous this area was – something I’d really not seen at all.
I let them know that I was going to need to sleep, and it was going to be in my tent and one guy responded saying there was a good place in 2-3km, so having climbed 5km you can understand why I turned around and shrugged my shoulders. A different man said 10 minutes, but 8km later, a distance I’d not cover even down hilling considering my love of the brakes, we had still not arrived anywhere. The explanation was that he had said 10 minutes, but I’m on a bicycle, as if the man (who had been looking at me, striding a bicycle) had been unaware of this when he had made the claim. I was told that it was no more than 2km, and so it’s going to sound repetitive when I say that 5km later we arrived into town and had this magical campsite was nowhere to be seen. What had happened was a changeover, at the entrance of the town, so the guy who found me buying a litre of milk in a shop had no idea why I was so frustrated and assured me it wasn’t even a kilometre to where I could camp. 3km later I got to a checkpoint, where two roads met, and that was apparently the place – just no-one had told the gendarmerie at the checkpoint.
It took them 20+ minutes of rambling amongst themselves to find me a place to put my tent, and then I put my tent up and went to sleep giving one-word answers to any questions I received. They tried to tell me it was going to be cold, and I could camp inside their little room but short of a flood there wasn’t much that could have persuaded me that was a better idea than my tent. I wanted solitude, and the tent could give me a little – especially after I got told that the police had called up the father of Sofiane – the guy who had invited me into the country – and shouted at him for not knowing where I was. Because of course even though I was within 20m of the gendarmerie at that point the police didn’t communicate with them.
Morning of the 2nd, the head guy at the gendarmerie (who I had explained my frustrations to) told me that I would no longer be followed by the gendarmerie. This was true. For about 5km, and then they were there again. Always there.
In the Ain Defla auberge we were watching the football and talking a little in French. The men (it’s almost only ever men in auberges) opened up a little, from telling me that they don’t like that their president is ‘handicapped’. For a little backstory, he won re-election for the 4th time in 2013 – having not campaigned at all as he’d had a stroke several months earlier but still managed to get 80% of the vote. People think it was fraudulent, and even if it weren’t there are a vocal group who think that a guy who basically never appears in public shouldn’t be president and someone else should get the job. The other thing that was mentioned to me was how I should go back to the UK, speak to Mr Cameron and ask him to come over and colonise Algeria to save them. Not sure Cameron rule is the best thing for Algeria, or anyone.
I got my 2nd night of sleeping in my tent, as the room had enough mosquitoes to stop me sleeping. I’d fall asleep and wake up 20-30 minutes later to a bite and then get to hunt that one. This repeated itself a few times until I put my tent up.
Day of cycling ignoring the police.
Got to Mossafa’s home, CS host – Talking to his mum, first woman I’d had a proper conversation with. She spoke about the difficulty of being a woman in Algeria due to having to do everything and not having the time to be tired because men do nothing (around the home) and it’s not like she just worked around the house, she was also a French and Arabic teacher before she retired.
I was asked why everyone thinks Muslims are terrorists, and I said they don’t. It’s a noisy minority but it is sad that it exists. Later on Mostafa told me that he hates Jews because “they are like snakes, they can’t be trusted”. He was unable to explain why having met a grand total of zero Jewish people in his life that viewpoint was acceptable, but the one that he thinks people have about Muslims isn’t. They’re both mind-blowing to me. I can’t say I don’t have stereotypes about people, or pre-judge people when I meet them, but I can honestly say that there’s no group of people that I hate. The gendarmerie are the closest right now and even that is more just them repeatedly driving me crazy and at least is based on my experience, and I don’t think that the individual officers are bad people.
The other intriguing viewpoint I was treated to was from his brother who suggested that the only reason that things in the UK are the way they are (driving on the left for example) is because we hate the French and want to be contrarian. A quick Google suggests driving on the left is linked to people being right-handed and so not only mounting their horses from the left (so not wanting to be in the middle of the road when mounting) but also because then their sword, which would be on the right, would be handily positioned.
Always the same
Highlight was arriving in Oued Rhiou, for the auberge, and meeting nice people because the gendarmerie weren’t there. First in a café where 6 guys stood around and spoke to me, and then later when I went to a restaurant for lunch and met the owner who not only gave me copious amounts of food but also tried to get me to marry his 19-year-old daughter. Not having a common language, or a bicycle, put a stop on that for me.
easy day to next auberge
8-9am, My Heart Will Go On repeating, like in Japan how supermarkets play Auld Lang Syne when they close
crazy side wind interspersed with short downpours
between towns, followed by the same car all day. easy to tell, it had Algiers plates instead of local ones
In town, a police van would sit in front of me and crawl through town, blocking all traffic, and sometimes turning the siren on
Arrived in Relizane, stopped on side street to work things out, stalker asked if I was lost – nope
I continued to where I thought the auberge was, nothing. standing around looking at my phone a man called Ali started talking to me and then invited me to eat at his pizzeria
First actual toilet instead of Algerian/Turkish hole
Normal conversation until I was asked if I were a Muslim, nope, when I said no and that I didn’t believe in God the other two men eating stood up, left their food and decided that I needed an intervention so I had 5 people putting their chairs around mine in a semi-circle talking to me about the Koran and saying that it is the only book that uses science to prove God’s existence. I continued explaining my lack of faith, but it stayed amicable. Was told the reason they were doing it (and others) is because if I don’t accept Allah and Mohammed then I’ll be judged badly and burn forever, they just want to see me in paradise. I was given a pack of baby wipes and a can of deodorant as a present by Ali
Rode out of town, towards the motorway, random car stopped to talk to me – no police = interactions – we chatted a bit in English and then they gave me water before I left.
On the other side of the motorway, I was stopped by gendarmerie who had not heard of me, and so chatted and gave me coffee, they called me in and within 10 minutes the car with Algiers plate showed up and chuntered about me being lost. I said I’d not been lost in the slightest and knew where I was going. Before I left I asked the gendarmerie what I should do with the empty paper coffee cup, he took it, and then when I left he got my attention and laughing threw it into the side of the road. I told him it was his country so he could do it, but it’s not mine so I wouldn’t do that.
Continued into the wind, at the next town the road split and I told the driver of the car that I was going to camp on top of the nearby mountain in the forest, he said to do what I wanted and that there would be no problem with that.
I climb up the dirt road, stop for a pee, 4 dogs run at me, the car spins its wheels and almost crashes into the dogs to protect me. Seemed massively excessive.
Keep going up, find a good spot, tell them I’m going to camp there, they say fine. I look around and find a good spot then sit down, enjoying the scenery and waiting for them to leave. Another gendarmerie car turns up and they have discussions, 30 minutes later a local walks up – apparently the land owner – and he says that I’m not allowed to stay but won’t give a reason and the gendarmerie start lecturing me about citizen’s rights. I sulk and again question the insecurity that I’m constantly told, am told that there are lions and dogs that will try to kill me after 9pm. Use the one Arabic swear word that I know. Leads to long lecture from the driver about using those words and respecting myself and also that this wasn’t a forest but I told them I’d camp in the forest. I sulk a bit longer, during which I’m told that they’ll leave me alone, and not follow me. I leave, they follow me.
I continue up the hill and find another place to camp. Not private property, in a forest, perfect camp spot. I roll the bike into the forest and sit down. Normally I’d start building the tent but doubt it’ll be accepted so just wait. After originally being told it was OK, and good night (but that it was dangerous, that I don’t know the situation but it was classified so they couldn’t explain what was dangerous), the gendarmerie huddle up and talk some more. The highest ranking of them comes up and sits next to me and apologises for the situation but asks me about camping there, and that his boss keeps calling to ask where I am and if I camp there then they all have to sit on the side of the mountain for the night. He talks about how it isn’t actually dangerous there, but that they can’t really let me camp. He talks about a hotel in the town that I’ve just climbed up from, and I explain about how I’d specifically said that I was going to camp in the forest and the driver had twice told me it was OK so what was this. Why are we talking about a solution at the bottom of the mountain that I’ve almost finished climbing up? I suggest the town on the other side, as that’s the way I’m going, but that would lead into the next state and therefore confuse matters.
As he is the first person that I feel has been honest, and been truthful about the security, I accept his solution and go back down the hill. I lead the way until we get to just before the dogs when the gendarmerie overtake me and jump out of their cars to point their machine guns at the dogs.
You might say that I should be nicer to the gendarmerie and they are just doing their job, but constantly being told that the country is dangerous is horrible and has started me looking in my mirror imagining that van that is stopping maybe wants to kidnap me. I don’t want or need that paranoid in my head and it’s there purely because of the constant crap from the gendarmerie. They might be doing their job in following me, but that doesn’t have to involve trying to make me believe that the whole country wants to kill me.
Escort through a town, note how the first car that overtakes me at the end is an unmarked police car
Lazy morning, left hotel room door (possibly made out of shipping container) around 10am and immediately saw the gendarmerie who were waiting for me. Lazy slow day riding to Mostaganem, the final auberge before Oran where I had a CS host lined up before my ferry on the 10th. Nothing particularly interesting happened all day as the gendarmerie kept their distance until I arrived at a closed auberge. Having told them that I was planning on staying there, they set about to finding me a place to stay, which of course meant going to the police station. I was accompanied there, with the siren blaring as usual, and then shown into an office where I was sat down and given a blue highlighter, maybe as an ice-breaker.
The drive to the next auberge also included sirens and police men yelling at other drivers to get out of the way. I get that they’re trying to help me, but there’s no emergency and stuff pretending there is and annoying the rest of the world. Especially ridiculous when stuck in traffic jam caused by a broken-down car that they were being aggressive towards. Checked into the auberge, and all good until later on when I mentioned I was planning to get some food and told that I most definitely needed an escort because it is a dangerous area. I ignored that and went out, went to a nearby restaurant which had just closed but found two people who were happy to escort me the 300m to the central area where I could find open places. Perfectly friendly and not trying to kill me.
A day of nothing. Ferry not until the 10th and didn’t want to arrive in Oran too early. Stayed in the hostel most of the time.
Relaxing cycle, no police as I left, got on the main road and randomly passed by gendarmerie who stopped to question me. They were surprised I didn’t have an escort, and told me that I wasn’t allowed to be on that road. After a few minutes they didn’t seem to care, and left me alone. A different gendarmerie car later on turned up to follow me for a bit, but they left me alone pretty much the whole time. There were a couple of handovers to civilian cars, but nobody who spoke with me the whole way to Oran.
Took the ring road to get to the other side of the city, which meant several roundabouts. Definitely the worst attempt by anybody to ever use a roundabout, even more so than those who just drive over the top of the mini ones. There were 3 or 4 lanes around the bigger roundabouts but the majority of the cars seemed to chose their lane based on nothing at all meaning people would be stopped in the left of the 3/4 lanes trying to get off then and so stopping all traffic behind them, and in the lanes they’re trying to cut across. At the same time, someone in the outside lane would decide to take shortcut to the inside lane. It was a completely ridiculous situation.
I was staying with Halim, on Couchsurfing, and we met up briefly at a café near his place. While I was waiting for him to turn up 3 people came up to me to see how I was, including one who stopped her car. having seen my bicycle, to ask if there was anything she could possibly do for me and to let her know if I needed anything. This was the kind of random kindness from approaching people that I’d heard about, which the gendarmerie had done their best to quell. Halim had go to work, but his roommate Sedif and friend Zainoon (from Jordan) turned up a bit later to keep me company. They are medical students too, and brought some beer and a bottle of spirits which lead to some quite ridiculous situations, mainly involving a lighter and Zainoon’s hair. The amazing thing is most of that was done by Halim when he came back, and he wasn’t drinking.
The main goal of the day was to buy a ferry ticket. I’d looked on the Algerie Ferries website and they had two prices, one in euros and one in dinar. The one in dinar was vastly cheaper than the euro price and meant that even though it was to Alicante, instead of Almería, and so further away from Morocco that was no problem. Halim and Sedif were both busy, but Z had time and proved a very interesting guy to talk to when I could remember what he was saying. He is from Jordan, but was the first person I had met born with Islam to have given it up and so did a great job of providing context and answering questions from an alternate perspective. He talks about Stockholm Syndrome and other interesting ideas when describing people’s acceptance of the religion.
The attempt to purchase the ticket saw us in the office of Algerie Ferries, where upon being told that instead of about €50 the price was going to be north of €200 (including €57 just for my bicycle), I got annoyed and argued with the lady. She was telling me that the dinar price was only for those resident in Algeria, but was unable to provide any paperwork to show this, even with me repeatedly asking for it. When I would ask for it, she would ask me if I had a green passport (like an Algerian) and when I said no then she told me that I had to pay the euro price. This argument went in circles for about 15 minutes, until someone eventually provided a printout with the clause and an Algerian who lives in London came in to buy a ticket and explained sounding much more southern than I ever could that he has to pay that price too even though he is Algerian. Ridiculous. There was no way I was paying that higher price, especially when I was still sure the bicycle price should have been €12 not €57 due to something in the paperwork that she refused to accept.