Day 34 Monday 7th JuneSpain – Algeria
Alicante is a 250km drive North of Vera so leaving at 8.30am we arrived at midday and began our efforts to negotiate a reduced rate for the crossing to Algeria.
Full price for a car and two passengers, with no cabin, was approximately 640 Euros, even more expensive than the crossing from Almeria. With the cheapest one-way ticket for one person being 119 Euros we were amazed at the number of people waiting to board. The hot and humid terminal was packed with Algerians of all ages and strewn with plastic and cardboard packaging abandoned as men stuffed mountains of shoes and other goods for resale in Algeria into large nylon bags and taped them together. Cars and vans already lining up to board later in the day were packed full with fridges, bikes, and bundles of all sorts strapped to the top and hanging off the back.
Our first visit to the port followed by much discussion at the ferry agent’s office in town and a couple of telephone calls to the ferry company in Algeria got us nowhere so we did as everyone else does from 2-5pm and had lunch. 9 Euros bought us a menu of the day each outside a restaurant next to the Hotel de Ville. We were surprised to find that Alicante was a pleasant town; the marina full of expensive yachts dominated by the fort high up on the hill above the old town.
Further discussions and negotiations from 5pm with the Spanish and Algerian ferry agents at the port resulted in a first class cabin and food for the price of a half-price cheapest ticket.
Once the Algerian agent learnt that we were planning to visit friends near his family home in Algeria his interest in our journey increased to the extent that he personally escorted us through the police and customs and into pole position on the car deck of the ferry ensuring that we would be the first to disembark. Onboard we were introduced to the Commissair, whose role we understood to be similar to that of a purser, who booked us into the restaurant for dinner, showed us our cabin and told the bar staff and an English speaking steward that we were his guests and were to be looked after accordingly.
We appeared to be receiving VIP treatment – a total contrast to the crossing from Melilla to Almeria. Our English-speaking steward, Boussad, introduced us to his friends with whom we had a very amicable chat about Algeria and the rest of our journey before the Commissair joined us. Despite being a large Greek ship with about 700 passengers there was a great atmosphere amongst the Algerian staff.
Other passengers were also friendly, pleased that we were visiting Algeria and full of advice about the much improved security situation, however all stressed that we must not drive at night.
Day 35 Tuesday 8th June 04Algeria
After a 6am breakfast of croissant, crisp bread and café au lait we were escorted to our car by Boussad, our steward, and Hakim, the ship secretary who also spoke good English.
Hakim then escorted us through a lengthy customs procedure, which involved completing papers at the first office then waiting in a hangar while more paperwork was completed, getting money declaration forms stamped, having the car searched, changing money and buying car insurance. It was reassuring that the Algerians we had met on-board were going through the same procedures and, if anything, with the assistance of Hakim, we were quicker.
Our Algerian contact, Abderahim, the cousin of a friend of ours in England, had arranged for a friend of his to meet us at the port and take care of us until he arrived from his home in Alger. A businessman we had met on board telephoned this friend, Nadim, to let him know we would be in the port until at least 8.30am when the insurance offices opened and the insurance office called Nadim to arrange for him to meet us at 8.45am at the entrance to the port.
Following our escort through Oran we were relieved at the ease with which we had arrived in Algeria. We were welcomed into the home of Nadim and his wife and joined by neighbours and other family members for a second breakfast of croissant (fresh this time), tea, café au lait and French cakes.
We could hardly find space for the impressive apple tart and Algerian almond pastries produced with juice and tea a couple of hours later by which time we were installed in the sitting room of his brothers apartment, but it would have been insulting to refuse. As well as the tarte, a belated birthday cake, Joanne was given a birthday present of a small couscous cooking pot and a perfum filled plastic rose by Abderahims neice, Wafa. We felt that we should have been giving them presents and felt even more uncomfortable when left in their sitting room while they were in another room. We did not quite know what to do. Is it polite to do our own thing or should we go to speak to them? Is it insulting to go to see them as they all sat in a bedroom? I popped my head around the corner of their room and attempted a few pleasantries, held the grandmothers hand and played with the children a little, thanked them for their hospitality and so on but felt decidedly awkward.
Abderahim and his friend drove us around Oran for a tiring two hours, determined that we see the beauty of their second city, though with Dire Straits booming from the car stereo it all seemed quite unreal. Plus, of course, we could not get out of the car and were not told why. Is it dangerous for us or does our host just not like walking?
Oran reminded me of a crumbling Marseille – some of the buildings, like the theatre and town hall built by the French at the end of the last century are classic French architecture, as are many of the streets and rows of houses but they look as if they have not come into contact with paint since before the French left in 1964. Just like Alicante the port is dominated by a Turkish fort on top of a hill. Oran, though virtually rebuilt by the French, was also occupied by the Turks and the Spanish – the bullring still stands though it was converted by the French into a sports stadium. A confusion of architecture that has been randomly supplemented by 1970’s now crumbling grey functional concrete blocks lining sorry streets.
We could not say anything to each other but both noticed how, while we were eating a meal of grilled meats and chips in the café owned by a cousin of our host, the TV channel was changed as soon as news images of masked men filled the screen. Abderahim and his friends are clearly keen to look after us but it is difficult to hand over responsibilty for our safety to men we barely know. I like to be in control and a discussion over when we would conclude the evening sent alarm bells wringing in my head. Their determination to give us a good impression of Algeria seems already to be at the cost of us having much say over what we do here. The language barrier does not help but it is more than that. They seem nervous and aware of the danger but determined to ensure that we are not at risk and, indeed, that we do not feel as if we are in danger. Already, therefore, it feels as if we are not given the whole picture. The regular police check points and checking of papers as well as the determination to put our car away behind closed gates as soon as possible, plus the TV channels being flicked as soon as we began to watch the news are for our benefit but are making us even more uneasy than we already were.
When Abderahim and his friends had completed a confusing swap of cars and vans that involved us getting out of the first car at a dodgy looking barely lit car park on the edge of town and getting into another with much discussion and handing over of papers, neither Tim nor I admitted to the other that we had not got a clue what was going on and wondered whether we were about to be kidnapped and bundled into the boot of one of these vehicles. It was most disconcerting, to say the least. At midnight, after a further car swap back at the café and farewells to the young men we had eaten supper with (no women), we finally made it back to the apartment where, greatly relieved that our first day in Algeria was over but deeply nervous of what lay ahead, we slept fitfully in the sitting room, the rest of the family in the two bedrooms.
Day 36 Wednesday 9th JuneAlgeria
We retrieved Florence from the friend’s courtyard where she had been secured for the night then followed Abderahim’s for 400km to his parents’ home in Algiers. As well as escorting us he was taking his sister-in-laws mother and neice home (en route to Algiers) and his neice and nephew to stay with his parents for a few days.
Filling the tank with 37 litres of petrol cost us about £5.
We passed through about 30 police checkpoints and were stopped at two but they simply checked our papers and those of our Abderahim then welcomed us to Algeria. It is difficult to know whether we would be as well received were it not for us being escorted by an Algerian but either way being stopped by armed police covered by army snipers backed up by armoured cars is not something we are used to and it is not something that puts us at ease about our time in Algeria. I ensured that a scarf covered my head, especially as we drove through small towns, and as we approached checkpoints and let Tim, as the man, do the talking, though I helped out when the discussion required a greater knowledge of French.
On occasions the road was dual carriageway but for the majority of the way it was two-way, rough in places, smooth and tree-lined in others, and passed through bustling town centres. Other drivers, including our host who we were following, were erratic and the chaotic overtaking was reminiscent of the infamous road from Casablanca to Marrakech.
Abderahims extended family who live in a suburb of Algiers really are incredibly welcoming and are pulling out all the stops to look after us as well as their limited means allow. I am conscious that writing my honest thoughts and concerns on the website diary may cause great insult because our hosts are determined that we enjoy their country but already the hospitality is claustrophobic.
Day 37 Thursday 10th JuneAlgeria
Having spent an interesting hour with Said Chitour, a media ‘fix-it’ man used by the BBC to organise visits by presenters such as Michael Palin and John Simpson, finding out what films and TV programmes he has been involved in recently, we went to try to arrange visits to the Red Crescent and the British Embassy.
As it was Thursday afternoon we were too late to meet anyone at the Red Crescent so will call them on Saturday morning, we had suggested calling them this morning but our ‘advisors’ had told us we should go to see them. We have already e-mailed and faxed and Said took them a fax from us but we do not know if any of this correspondence reached the right person.
The British Embassy was formerly in an old building in the city centre but has been moved for security reasons to the Hilton Hotel near the airport until a new building can be built. The Embassy therefore provides a very limited service and Algerians who wish to apply for a visa to visit the UK must travel to Tunis to apply in person. The Deputy Head of Mission gave us the FCO warning brief, much of which we had expected but the detail was interesting – Algeria is in a state of emergency, that we, as members of the evil coalition, would be prize targets etc - and he backed it up with references to recent newspapers that covered the stories of the soldiers who had recently been killed in a terrorist ambush in the Kabyle region, East of Algiers. He told us that we should turn around and go back to Europe to avoid Algeria altogether but, given that we were not going to do that he advised us to stay on main roads, to travel only in full daytime, to try not to stand out as British and not to go to the Kasbah. The Kasbah would be fascinating but, as members of the Embassy staff do not go there without twenty police guards and only drive there in armoured cars, it was not a place we could risk going – besides, no-one would take us!
Safely back at the family home in the evening Joanne was taught to make couscous in the Kabyle style with a red sauce of vegetables and lamb that we ate accompanied by Hamoud coke – the Algerian manufacturer has been awarded twenty gold medals from Paris and has been producing bubble gum-tasting cola since 1889.
It was only later as we talked over supper that we discovered that Ali Berhac, the former leader of the terrorist organisation, the FIS (forerunner to the Al Qu’aeda supported GSPC that still terrorises Algeria today), attends the mosque above which we are staying and had seen Florence parked outside when we first arrived. In fact, his bodyguards, provided by the state because there are so many people who want to kill him in retaliation for the tens of thousands of deaths that he was responsible for before he was imprisoned for eleven years, had taken pictures of the car – not surprising that Abderahim was keen to get it put securely away at a friends house. The fact that we had not been told smacked of hiding us from something that might worry us and was reminiscent of the way the TV channel in the restaurant in Oran was quickly changed as soon as I noticed that the weapon-touting balaclava-clad terrorists were getting several minutes air-time. We understand that our hosts want us to get a good impression of Algeria, and we are doing, but we would feel happier if we could be allowed to judge the risk to ourselves for ourselves.
Day 38 Friday 11th JuneAlgeria
Algiers – Algerian Wedding Party
“Vous croyez qu’il y a combien des Dieus?” I suspect that if I had not given the ‘right’ answer – that I believe there is one God – Abderahim’s father (whose family we are staying with) might have further intensified his efforts to explain the strengths of Islam. He used to work for the Ministry of Religion and, though he was not trying to convert us, he was determined to dispel the myths about Islam that he thought we held to be true. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told since arriving in Algeria that those terrorists who have long beards and kill people are not true Muslims, that true Muslims are good and respect all people regardless of colour or belief.
The family we are staying with live in what was built in 1903 as the Immam’s house so it’s rooms are above and behind the mosque of Kouba, on the outskirts of Algiers. If you peer through the windows from the kitchen courtyard you can see down into the mosque and looking through the windows from the rooms upstairs you see the pretty green and white minaret and domes.
Following the advice of our host’s father we covered up for our visit to Blida. Joanne donning black full length dress and headscarf belonging to one of the girls and Tim wearing a full length sleeveless shirt given to him by Abderahim (usually worn to the mosque) greatly amused the assembled members of the family. His advice, though, unsettled us as he told us that we should be careful not to be heard speaking English and explained that the family abandoned the large house in Blida, a small town 30km from Algiers, 15 years ago because it was too dangerous to stay there. They retreated to Kouba, on the outskirts of Algiers, yet even then, he said, people were being killed on the streets even here. So much has changed since then, clearly, but despite their efforts to reassure us, there is still a sense of insecurity here for locals, not just for us.
It is hardly surprising that we were still rather nervous when we attended a wedding on the outskirts of Algiers in the afternoon. We were very happy with the plan that we would watch the bride being collected from her parents home in Kouba by the grooms family, follow all the wedding cars to the party, spend ten minutes there then leave so that we did not draw too much attention to ourselves.
Unfortunately, this did not happen – despite our best efforts to blend into the background and spend only a short time at the afternoon party, we spent several hours eating cakes and drinking tea and coffee while the bride processed in and out in a succession of ten fancy outfits. Tim only just resisted being the only man not a member of the family dancing in the women-only party (yet Abderahim told him a few moments after encouraging him to dance that he should not have gone to the loo as someone might have seen him and as a non-family member he should not be there – rather contradictory advice?) and, try as we might, neither of us could get out of posing for a photo on stage with the bride and groom. So much for ‘blending in’! Luckily, as our host assured us protectively, everyone was friendly and the bridal couple were honoured that we had attended their wedding. However, given the warnings in the morning we remained rather on edge and were pleased to return to Kouba.
Despite our hesitation it was very entertaining to attend an Algerian wedding: the band that played from the back of a transit van as it hared along the motorway with the wedding party was hilarious (no health and safety here!), as was the grooms brother whose eyes were virtually popping out of his head with the pressure of trying to organise and direct the crazy chaos of cars wacky racing from the brides house to the party.
There was no ceremony, all the men drank coffee and smoked outside (except the brides brothers and Tim and Abderahim) while the women spent about three hours dancing or drinking tea, coffee and fizzy drinks with very sweet and sticky cakes while the highly made-up bride sat on the stage like a doll until her groom arrived when they both walked around the room together, posed for photos on the stage then exchanged rings and all went home. Almost half of the guests left before the groom arrived, perhaps they did not want the other men to see them un-scarved - Most of the women took off their scarves and long robes in the party room to reveal very glamorous outfits and stylish hairdos.
The couple had got engaged several months earlier in a ceremony presided over by an Immam. In the intervening months they had got to know each other better but, as is traditional, had only met during the daytime. After the wedding party the couple would begin their life together at the home of the grooms parents.
We felt honoured, if self-conscious, to have been included in the celebrations.
Day 39 Saturday 12 JuneAlgeria
Talk talk talk talk talk...men particularly do much talking here – at the mosque, over a cup of tea or coffee at a café, while smoking a cigarette on the doorstep or at a street corner. We, or rather Abderahim on our behalf, has done much talking today and frustratingly little, if any, action has resulted.
Meeting the Vice-President of the Algerian Red Crescent was a privilege and it was good to hear about the work they do in Algeria; it was also interesting to talk with the sole remaining representative of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Algeria, a Belgian who is finishing the programme to re-home the tens of thousands of people made homeless in the earthquake a year ago. The state now has responsibility for building new homes for those people still living in temporary accommodation.
Spending 45 minutes at the Central police station (where the corridors smell of pee and uniforms hang from coat-hooks rather than being worn) did not result in them signalling along the route to let checkpoints know we were coming, as we had been told. Instead they wrote down all sorts of details, told us the same things several times then sent us away with instructions to report to the local police station. Apparently if someone has foreigners staying with them they should report it to the local police station for the security of the foreigners and their hosts. The local police chief did not think this was necessary but clearly found us more interesting than confiscating catapults from young boys - he gave us one he’d got earlier as he could not find another gift for us. Another half an hour or so of talk and we headed back to the family home feeling tired and frustrated.
Over a welcome cup of sweet mint tea we exchanged gifts with our hosts – we gave Abderahim’s mother roses (she is blind due to diabetes so we tried to find sweet smelling flowers), she in return gave Joanne a Kabyle style silver ring.
We ate a very tasty traditional evening meal of la rechta (a bit like fine pasta) with a sauce of chicken, vegetables and black pepper, and finished our meal with apricots and mint tea. Just when we were thinking of going to sleep in preparation for an early start tomorrow morning, our host, his mother, father and brother decided to join us for yet more talking. As our bedroom was their sitting room and our beds the sofas all we could do was get ourselves organised and then tell Abderahim that we were tired and that he too was tired (he had been saying so all day) and should sleep. Beds made we were just about to turn out the light when Joanne was called to the kitchen – at 11.00pm our hosts mother was making traditional (semolina) bread and with the help of her daughters wanted to teach Joanne how to make it. Meanwhile, Tim was dragged off by Abderahim’s father for another tour of the house and a look at the mosque from a different angle, shame Tim understood only an odd words of the long explanation. After a few more photos and appreciative words we finally went to bed at 11.30pm, very grateful for the wonderful hospitality we had received but exhausted by talk!
Day 40 Sunday 13 JuneAlgeria
“POUVOIR ASSASSIN – VIVE LA KABYLIE – CRIEZ PAS NOUS SOMMES DEJA MORTS – LA GENDARMERIE LES ASSASSINS”– Graffiti declaring power to the assassins was even scrawled (in French and Arabic) on the wall of a police camp in one of the villages we passed through just beyond Bouira on the road from Algiers-Constantine.
The main road, which will be replaced by a motorway stretching from Morocco (assuming the border is opened) to Tunisia when it is finished in 2007, parallels the railway as it winds through the dramatic mountain ranges of the Kabylie region. On the Northerly side of the mountains lies the coast and Bejaia.
It was in the mountains West of Bejaia (North of our route) where 11 Algerian soldiers were killed in an ambush 10 days ago. Apparently, one soldier has been killed almost every day since then by the Islamic Fundamentalist organisation the GSPC.
Several people have told Joanne that she looks like a Kabylie, quite reassuring when this mountainous area East of Algiers called Kabyle, we were told at the British Embassy, is the area where the terrorists hang out. The Al Qu’eda affiliated GSPC have changed their tactics and instead of terrorising the local people they are now appealing to their desire for more freedom from the central government thus encouraging the locals not to report them to the authorities.
The Berber people of this region (with the same origin as the Berbers of the Moroccan Atlas and Tunisian mountains) are determined to retain their language as distinct from the official language of Arabic; the Government has agreed to hold a referendum of the whole country but as the Berbers are a minority this is little more than a token gesture and the language is highly unlikely to become officially recognised. They are generally fair with green or blue eyes and the women traditionally wear brightly coloured round-necked dresses tied at the waist with multicoloured tassled cord.
For several years this region refused to recognise the authority of the central government – in retaliation all state run services including education and police were withdrawn. It seems that the Gendarme National and the Army appear to be on the offensive; the soldiers killed recently were on a patrol in a remote mountain area when they were ambushed. It is true that of the ten checkpoints we have driven through in 300km from Algiers the majority were close to Algiers, there were few in the mountains. Still there were no false checkpoints manned by hooded terrorists ready to shoot unveiled women and foreigners just for being there. Besides the road was too busy for terrorists to have any sort of control of it. We focused on avoiding the homicidal driving techniques of the yellow Peugot taxis, the lorries and buses that dodge holes and over or undertake regardless of what is coming the opposite direction.
The police and gendarmes (like the French they have both here – one responsible for security and one for administration and papers) seem utterly disinterested in road discipline and driving on a dual carriageway is just like wacky races, undertaking even on the hard shoulder seems to be totally acceptable. They laugh at drivers who do stupid things , call them ‘les americans’ and then do the same thing themselves! Our Algerian friend is leading us in his Citroen and helpfully pulling out and flashing his hazards to encourage us to overtake other vehicles while he attempts to slow down whatever is coming towards us…all very stressful!
Members of The Red Crescent at Constantine were very hospitable but sadly, despite the assurance from the Vice-President of the Algerian Red Crescent that he would speak to the President in Constantine and facilitate our visit, they were unaware of our impending arrival and, without authority from their President who was away, were unable to show us any of their facilities, only offer us coffee and cakes and take us to a garage and accommodation for the night. A real shame.
The garage, opposite the apartment block where a friend of Abderahim’s lived and where we spent the night, was on five floors with a lift to take cars up and down. Apparently it is French and the only one of its type in Algeria so our guides (by now two Red Crescent men, Abderahim and his friend) were rather proud of it. Unfortunately, relations became a little strained when all insisted we hand over the keys to the attendant, because that is the rule: understandable but they simply could not understand that an attendant trying to drive our car around to allow other cars in and out is not possible. An old car such as Florence cannot be driven by someone who does not know how to do so. Eventually, after much insistence we parked our car in a space where it would not have to be moved and kept our keys.