I had to wait until 9:30am for the phone shop to open, so I was looking for breakfast, but it turns out in Algeria that is pretty much an espresso and a vanilla slice if you’re feeling rich. A couple of each, and then a visit to the grocery store took up most of the time, and the rest was when I walked into a restaurant and they felt sorry enough for me that they made me a proper plate of food. Having sorted it all out, and googled for the nearest youth hostel, I was off for 100km of riding into some miserable rain and wind. It wasn’t quite the best introduction to Algeria that I could hope for, but knowing I had a hostel at the end of the night, instead of having to camp, made it easier. One man did stop his car to talk to me. He was a cyclist and gave me his phone number in case my route changed and I ended up in his town.
I arrived in Oum El Bouaghui and just before the hostel found a restaurant for dinner. I leant my bike outside, walked in and sat down at a table. French is the 2nd official language, and Algeria is the biggest French speaking country after France. That however turned out to not be quite as comprehensive as I’d been hoping and the order in the restaurant was mainly done with body language and me saying that I was hungry and would eat everything. This would end up being my regular way of ordering across Algeria. Aftere eating the large plate of food, I stood up and tried to pay only to be met by a handshake. They asked me where I was going, and were happy to hear I was off to the hostel. I was, but it’d be a bit harder than I thought.
Arriving at the hostel, it was already dark and the first thing I saw was a sign saying ‘complet’. Bugger. I’d not thought to phone, because why would I need to? I tried to explain to the man behind the counter that I had been cycling all day and the rest of the story, but it didn’t matter. The hostel was full. There was a group in town for a conference and that was that. He suggested the nearby hotels, but instead of 300 dinar they would probably be over 3000 dinar, way more than I’d be willing to spend. I looked around the town for a camping spot, and found one that would almost certainly have worked which I kept as my failsafe. I tried at the Proteccion Civil, where the firemen stay, but was waved away and told to speak to the police at the police station. I came up with a better plan, ride out of town.
As I had hoped, at the exit of the town was a police checkpoint who waved me down. They asked me where I was going, and I said Constantine – a city 80km away. They were horrified by the suggestion and told me that it was a terrible option. I didn’t know what was out there and it was a dangerous area. I told them that it was no problem, and well if I couldn’t do that then maybe I could put my tent up in the trees near their checkpoint. That idea was rejected because of some wild animals that they said would try to eat me. Most of the police that were talking to me would speak French, but one higher-up (captain?) only spoke to me in Arabic. It’s not that he couldn’t speak French, but I guess he hated the language. Having already explained that I don’t understand Arabic, and having spoken in French, he rambled on at me in Arabic and seemed rather annoyed when I calmly told him, in French, that I couldn’t understand. I was at the checkpoint for about 30 minutes, while people tried to persuade me to stay at the hotel, and me saying that I had been told that the hostel was full and had no problem camping, until eventually the captain told me to follow the car. As he continued to speak to me in Arabic I can only guess that was what he said, as he and a few colleagues got in the van and others told me to follow.
We arrived at the police station, and I thought that I was going to be given permission to sleep on the floor of one of the rooms. Before that could happen, I was sat down in an office with 4 policemen who were busy questioning me about my trip and what I was up to – with the goal of registering my stay in their city. There were issues with them trying to find things in my passport that weren’t there, like the names of my parents or my address, but are in Algerian documents however with some patience they eventually got it all sorted out. I mentioned my willingness to sleep in the corner of any room, but after they finished the paperwork it was back to the bike, and back to following the captain. We drove to the hostel, which was unsurprisingly still full, where the police and the receptionist had a 30 minute heated debate which can be summarised very simply as “This guy is going to sleep here.” “Every room is full. There is no space.” repeated ad infinitum.
It was the receptionist who broke, unsurprising because the captain seemed rather like The Black Knight from Monty Python who thought he could win even after his arms, legs and head were all chopped off. It was a good thing too because if not I think there’s a very real chance that I could have been there all night long just waiting. After the police went, the receptionist, who I thought would have been annoyed at me for the ridiculous situation (as to him surely it looked like I went to the police to get them to let me in, which isn’t quite accurate) asked me if I was hungry and showed me to the dining room where there were the leftovers of the dinner they’d given to the conference guests. I got to eat some pea-heavy soup while being questioned by a curious group of conference goers about my trip, and wanting a detailed description of the difference between Algeria and Tunisia, something that proved a little challenging after only 24 hours in the country.
The idea had been for me to sleep in the common room, but there were a group sitting there still talking even after I finished eating past 11pm, so the receptionist invited me to his room to chat with him and his 2 friends until the group went to bed. Two of them could speak English well, but one of them only spoke Arabic. They were smoking shisha, and talking about not only their love of alcohol but also how if I stayed for another night there was a big party where I’d get to meet lots of their pretty friends (not that they spoke very positively about Algerian women). Maybe because we’d been speaking of things that are forbidden by the religion, the Arabic-only speaker started to try to convert me to Islam. He first asked me what I knew of the religion, and then through his friends explained in great detail about all the advantages it would bring to my life. I listened, and it was interesting to hear what they had to say about Islam, but I’m quite happy with my current position.
18th & 19th
On the 18th my goal was Constantine, where I would be staying with Bilel from Couchsurfing. Making the ride I realised how I’d have had no problem finding a place to put my tent the night before if the police had called my bluff and let me go. Since Sudan split in two, Algeria is the biggest country in Africa and the population isn’t that high. There are large swathes of empty land, and plenty of opportunities for wild camping. As is, the weather was better but once again my main memory from the day was an act of kindness. I stopped outside of a restaurant for lunch, and the men in front asked me where I was going. I told them about my plan to go to Constantine, but first it’d be to that restaurant. The same conversation from the day before happened where I told them that I wanted to eat something, liked everything and would they please recommend me something. It had the same result, a plate of decent food, and then when I tried to pay being told that it was un cadeau (a present). OK, I’d been going to restaurants more frequently than I would normally because the normal price was only a euro or two, but two free meals in-a-row was definitely a record for the whole trip.
In Constantine, my Couchsurfing host Bilel welcomed me in to his appartment. He works in the oil fields in the south of the country for a month, and then has a month off. In his appartment he lived with his daughter and wife, and for these few days his mother was staying too – there would be a birth in the family that weekend. When I arrived, it was just Bilel and so I got cleaned up, and then was shown to the room where I’d be staying – the front room. A little while later, the other 3 people arrived home and even though I said the Arabic greeting of Salaam alaykum (Peace be with you) I was met with a slightly awkward silence from his wife rather than the traditional response of Walaykum Salaam (And upon you).
Even though his mother, said a couple of words to me, his wife seemed to be pretending I was invisible. Or well, at least as far as communication was going. She and her mother-in-law busied themselves in the kitchen to prepare coffee and snacks for me, but they were brought in by the young daughter (maybe 6 years old?). For example one time the next day I said bonjour to them all, and the daughter told her mother that I’d said bonjour (which she had of course heard and understood, being a French teacher) but there was still no reply. That evening Bilel took me to visit the wonderful bridges of Constantine – a city where the civil engineers deserve some serious plaudits.
The next day for lunch there were some kind of super thin filled panckaes. Bilel and I ate them in the kitchen, where his wife was preparing more, but my attempts to interact got nothing. It felt more like one of those conversations when someone is angry at you and tells your friend to tell you something, even though you are all in the same room. It was the strongest feeling of culture shock that I can remember from my whole trip, and would continue to be so for my whole time in Algeria.
I said my farewells to Bilel and headed off, towards the coast. My original plan had been straight west to Setif, but after Bilel’s neighbour had mentioned the coast being pretty and worth a visit I decided to go for it. I had enough time to do it, and was in no rush to get anywhere. I still had 4-5 weeks until I was planning to meet HS in Tangers, so a diversion of a few days was no bad thing. Especially as I’d already been in touch with Karim, a Warmshowers host who lived up on the coast, and he had no problem with me staying with him at such late notice.
The drop down to the coast was quite lovely in parts, and other than the scenery my strongest memory is when I stopped for lunch. I did my normal routine of walking in, explaining how I was hungry and wanted to eat something, and nodding when something was suggested. I ended up with a plate with half a chicken and some sides, which I wolfed down. When I tried to ask about paying, the owner shook his head and instead seemed to be trying to persuade his teenage son that he should ride a bicycle (that he didn’t have) and join me on my journey. The son wasn’t impressed by the idea, but I was again impressed with another person refusing to let me pay.
That evening I met up with Karim, who would host me for a few days. I was shown to the room I would stay in, and then he popped upstairs to the rest of the house. Later he brought down a bucket of hot water as the shower hadn’t been installed downstairs, and while I was getting cleaned up came down with a tray with my dinner on it. Karim mentioned on his profile how the situation would be, but it was still strange for me. He, his parents, his sister and his wife lived upstairs. I stayed downstairs, in an area that was barely furnished. It meant having lots of free time, and space, but also the isolation was strange. Having stayed with so many people, I’m used to almost feeling like one of the family for a few days, whereas no matter how kind they were, and how often they brought me big trays of food it felt bizarre.
Relaxing in Karim’s place in Jijel. On the 21st Karim was there so we could walk around town together, but on the 22nd he had to go to univeristy so I was left alone at home. His parents would be upstairs, but given the separated setup I was told that I’d have nothing brought down at lunchtime – no problem as the breakfast I was given was easily large enough for two – so you can imagine my surprise when his father came down around 1pm with a tray for me. We spoke a little, but then he vanished.
While at Karim’s, I asked about the separation. I hadn’t really noticed it so much in Tunisia. The places I’d stayed had either been predominately men, or a family. In the families, I met and spoke to the women and the interactions were limited only based on the common language rather than any separation based on religion. He told me that it wasn’t to do with the language barrier, and that if he had Algerian friends who came over, he would do the same. His wife was a shy lady, who doesn’t really talk much, and his mother couldn’t speak either English or French. Every country has gender-bias in societal roles, with women pretty much everywhere doing most of the domestic related jobs such as cooking, so that part didn’t surprise me, but in every other country I’ve been to I’d be able to at least say thank you, and offer to do the washing up (even if I’d not be allowed to), or at least hello. I can’t imagine it’d go down well in my family if my dad brought a colleague or friend home, expecting my mum to do all the cooking and she was basically locked away not allowed to even greet the person. And that’s ignoring the heartbreak that she’d feel from missing an enthralling conversation about comparative politics.