Before parting ways with HS, I popped into the police station to ask about the Algerian border. Sayah, our host, had suggested it was closed to men in their 20s and 30s, and I didn’t want to go there and then have to double back if the Algerians had not wanted me to enter there. The police weren’t sure, but had heard of no problems so suggested that it should be just fine. I thanked them and stood up to walk away, but they suggested we wait a little. I was hungry, and wanted to get some lunch, but they were rather insistent. They wanted to see our passports, but we’d left them at the house so the only ID I had was my Mexican ID which I still carry. They wanted to know where we were staying, and so I said with a friend and gave them Sayah’s number. When I couldn’t say the address of the house (I knew how to get there, I didn’t know the address) and the number that I had given them didn’t work because our host’s phone was switched off they started getting stroppy and told us to wait. There were suggestions that I should call Sayah, with some strange suggestion that his phone would be miraculously switched on if I tried to call him, but they relented on that when I repeatedly pointed out how ridiculous an idea it was. Having been told to wait 10 minutes, I did, and then stood up to go. They said that we couldn’t and that we should wait longer.
HS was relaxed and just sitting there, but I wasn’t impressed with the treatment. I pointed out that surely if we had not done something wrong (which they confirmed we hadn’t) then we could surely leave as we hadn’t been arrested cos I was hungry and we wanted to go and get lunch. They told me that I could leave by myself to get us some food, but HS would have to wait to make sure I came back, something that I was not going to do. The argument heated up, and after a few minutes they decided that HS and I should get in a police car, and show them the place where we were staying. One of them tried to grab my arm to pull me towards the car, and found it hilarious when I told him to keep his hands off me, seeming to suggest that he would do something to make me complain about but then left me alone. We got in the back of the car even though Sayah’s place was faster to walk to considering the one-way streets, something they wouldn’t listen to, and we drove to his place.
Sayah’s place is down a little alley, that you can’t walk down, and so we had to park. His whole family lives in that area, and like to spend their days just sat in a plaza just by the entrance to the alley. They saw us being accompanied by the police, and said some words, but it was nothing compared to the tirade they said about the police to us when the police (who looked in the house for 20 seconds and then left us alone without a word) left. Sayah’s family were in no way fans of the police, and clearly expressed that to me.
Even though the police had told me that the border was open, I decided it made more sense to cross at the crossing further north. If for some reason they also said no, I’d be that much closer to the coastal crossing which was definitely open. It was an easy ride north, but it felt a little strange being myself again and I’d habitually check my mirror where HS would have normally been. I was stopped once by the police who wanted to check my documents and thought it strange that I was travelling by myself, but then let me go, and by the end of the day I was in the middle of nowhere – a perfect place to wild camp.
The next day, I kept heading north, and passed through the first town where I felt a bit of tension. Nobody seemed to say anything, but there was just a feeling I had. Maybe paranoia based on the knowledge that I had of the area. I was closing in on (though wouldn’t be going through) Kasserine, the one place where locals had told me not to go. It was where both the Arab Spring demonstrations, and those that had lead to the curfew imposed when I first entered the country, started. Those protests were against the government, and especially the most recent one had been about the economic issues of the country with people not being able to find jobs, 30% unemployment amongst the young – to the extent that the catalyst was a man who had been rejected when applying for a government job being electrocuted while climbing a pylon. Having said all that, a short while after leaving the town, I went past a man sat inside his garage eating his lunch who nodded at me. I said hello, and he waved me over. He invited me to sit down and share his lunch, and then introduced me to his brothers and friends that popped over. It’s why I always say hello to people!
After lunch, I climbed up to Bouchebka at the Tunisian/Algerian border. I wasn’t sure, but I was considering camping just before the border. It’d give me one more day in Algeria on my visa, and ensure that I crossed the border in the day. Things didn’t work out quite like that however. Near the top, I stopped by the side of the road to sit down for a while and look at the map. I’d been stopped for a few minutes when the police came up and asked me what I was doing, and let me know I most definitely shouldn’t be stopped there. Didn’t I know that this place was a terrorist stronghold? They wouldn’t leave until I got back on my bicycle, so I did and then they accompanied me the rest of the way to Bouchebka. There went the wild camping plan.
At the border, I was slowly stamped out of Tunisia, which took 20-30 minutes – compared to the wave of Tunisian and Algerians who kept turning up and being let straight through. I crossed the invisible line and was now in Algeria. Well, almost. I first had to get through immigration. That seemed to be going smoothly, and within 15 minutes I had my passport stamped and thought I was about to go when someone higher up turned up and saw that I was a foreigner on a bicycle. He had a conversation with the immigration official that was processing me like a normal person, and then the official apologised to me and told me I should sit down and it might be a while. He was right. It took long enough that the official came over and gave me a snack and drink during the wait. I was also randomly slipped 1000 dinar, about €6, by an Algerian entering the country who said nothing more than bonjour to me. After 4 hours, the security situation was organised everything and I was finally cleared. It was 9pm, and rather dark. The official who had been so nice to me seemed to suggest that I could pass the night there, sharing his room, but the gendarmerie had different ideas. They told me that I wasn’t allowed to stay, and that the next town was 40km away which I was ‘obviously’ not allowed to ride at night. There wasn’t any discussion to be had. My bike was going in one vehicle, and I was going in another. We were going to the city of Tebessa and I’d be staying in a hotel. Not quite what I was after, and also why I’d been thinking of wild camping before the border, but it was pointless trying to change it. Welcome to Algeria.
The gendarmerie were quite curious, apparently they personally are not able to leave the country while being in the gendarmerie. I don’t know if that’s a common rule across countries, but it seemed a bit crazy. They brought me to Tébessa, and were trying to talk about hotels, but thankfully I persuaded them that it sounded way too expensive. With some persuasion, they dropped me at a hostel, where I was given my own room and learnt the most useful thing about travelling in Algeria – auberge de jeunesse/youth hostels are super cheap. I was given my own room, and it only cost about 300 dinars (180 dinars to the euro).