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BandA’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 18 Nov 2007

Location: Algeria

MapChapter 4 Algeria

Many people have asked us: “Why did you want to go to Algeria?” We could give two answers. The first is the usual one: “Because we hadn’t been there before.” The second reason was that, once we were in Tunisia, we wanted to go to Morocco and Algeria was in the way!

As we looked into the mechanics of visiting Algeria all we found were obstacles. The first was that since 1991 when the army rejected the outcome of the elections, there has been ongoing violence, mainly against the current Government, but also against foreign interests on which the Government relies. A few weeks before our arrival there was an assassination attempt on the President. He escaped being killed but his bodyguards were not as lucky. A short time after our visit, terrorists blew up the UN offices in the capital, Algiers, with scores of people being killed. We had also been warned that Christians were not welcome. In fact the entire community of French Cistercian monks had been slaughtered, by their throats being cut, some 10 years earlier. So on the face of it, it did not look like the most attractive of tourist destinations. Our regular reaction to such scary situations is a reminder that far more people are killed in road accidents than by terrorist attacks and most people don’t cancel a visit to a country because of the danger of being killed on the roads. Of course if one stayed home there would still be an appreciable chance of being killed in Australia on the roads.

Having decided to be foolhardy or logical or brave, we enquired, though the Internet, about obtaining visas. One of the requirements to accompany a visa application was a Certificat de Hebergement. This was an invitation to visit from someone in Algeria and duly endorsed by the local Government Authorities. Fortunately we started making requests to three of our potential Algerian Hospitality Club Hosts some six months before our scheduled departure. One of the three, though offering hospitality, did nothing about the required certificate. A second kindly sent us the letter of invitation but failed to get it endorsed by the Local Government. Fortunately the third, after some five months delay, finally forwarded for us the required certificate. Unlike Tunisia, Algeria has an Embassy in Canberra, which facilitated the next step. We sent our applications there and were rather taken aback when the people at the Embassy asked us whether we realised what we were heading into and did we really want to go to Algeria. We said, “Yes” and so, finally, had our passports appropriately stamped with the Algerian visa. That was not the end of our “Challenges”. Due to the unstable situation in Algeria there are no regular passenger services between Tunisia and Algeria. (Perhaps they don’t think there is anyone mad enough to want to go to Algeria!) We were able to learn however that you could get a shared taxi from Tunis to Annaba, the first major town inside Algeria. Getting out of Algeria and into Morocco presented a bigger challenge. The trouble is that Algeria and Morocco are effectively in a state of war due to problems with the Polisario rebels in the Western Sahara so all border crossings between the two countries are closed. The only way to get from Algeria to Morocco was to fly.

Sunday November 18 (Cont.)
On our way to Algeria in our shared taxi A sat in the front and “chatted” in very broken French and English to our driver while B sat in the back with our fellow passenger and discussed religion, eating pork, Halal slaughter versus our form of killing, philosophy, agriculture, world peace, etc., in English, French, Italian and Arabic. Both the driver and passenger were very happy we were practising Christians and wished there was more dialogue between Christians and Muslims as well as between all governments in the various countries. They saw this as the way to world peace. We agreed. Given the warnings we had received about religious intolerance it was a very favourable introduction to Algeria.

About half way on our journey we stopped at wayside café and our fellow travellers insisted on paying for our coffee and provided chocolates and baklava for us. (Not surprisingly, B was the only female in the crowded café.)

At the Algerian Border our driver was obviously well acquainted with all the routine red tape and ushered us through with a minimum (about 30 minutes) delay. The Algerian Officials were likewise very friendly. We felt very sorry for the scores of truck drivers who had, apparently, been waiting hours to get though customs.

Once in Algeria our fellow passenger removed papers from his briefcase and began shredding them into small pieces which he scattered in small amounts along the road. Our curiosity about that was never satisfied as we could hardly ask “Why?”

We were very pleasantly surprised with the richness of the countryside through which we passed, obviously due to a much higher rainfall than that experienced by the countries we had previously been visiting. Here the land was undulating to steep with quite dense forests in parts. As we were close to the coast there were many large sand dunes but these were well covered with vegetation. We almost felt at home to see many sheep and cattle, haystacks of (square) baled hay and/or straw as well as lakes, swamps and large areas set aside for parkland and wildlife sanctuaries. The road was sealed all the way, with only a few stretches of 2nd class road. At one stage our driver wanted to overtake a slower car in front of us but couldn’t because of oncoming traffic. An easy solution! He just drove across to the left hand shoulder (Remember they drive on the right hand side!) and overtook that way. His comment was: “Tous les moyens sont bon!” (Whatever way works is good!). Due to the heavy oncoming traffic it took a long time to return to the correct lane.

Our original intention was to terminate our taxi ride at Annaba (the first major city inside Algeria) and there find a louage that would takes to Skikda where we had a Hospitality Club contact. As we approached Annaba, our driver asked if we would like him to continue on the remaining 75 km to Skikda rather than go by louage. He was only asking for an extra $25 and the louage would have cost us $6 each, so we gladly agreed. It would save lots of hassle including another taxi from the louage depot to our next “home” and we didn’t want to be too late arriving in Skikda. Our fellow passenger was stopping here so we would go on alone.

As we were entering the outskirts of Annaba we could see, outlined on the dominant hill, a huge church. This was such a rare sight that we asked our driver to stop so we could take a photo. “Not just yet, not just yet” was his reply. We were a bit frustrated, as we seemed to be missing the best position for a photo. However (after dropping off our fellow passenger) we wound up a winding road that took us right to the basilica itself. He explained that this detour was a cadeau (a present), as he wanted us to see St Augustine’s Basilica of which he was justifiably proud. When we stopped, we were met by (appropriately) two Augustinian priests, one from Malta (Fr Raphael) and one from Mexico (Fr Mario). They offered to show us around the huge church and explained that Annaba is actually the new name for Hippo, where St Augustine had been Bishop in the 5th century and the huge basilica was dedicated to him. Initially we were reluctant to hold up our driver but in fact he was more than keen to become our tour guide and proudly show off all the features of the church, including a prostrate statue of St Augustine that contained a relic of the saint in the arm of the statue. (You can clearly see this in the photo.) In contrast to the deconsecrated Cathedral we had visited at Carthage, it was good to see a real live church. We learnt however that there were no local worshippers; the only worshippers were Christian students from sub-Saharan counties currently studying at the local university.

Before leaving Australia we had received by email a warm welcome from a Hospitality Club Host, Karima , to stay with her and her family in Skikda, although she had warned us that she might not be at home when we visited as she worked in the oil industry and was often working in the field. We had been in contact with her by email in the last few days but, unfortunately, she had advised us that she would not be home. However, she assured us that her parents and brothers would give us a warm welcome, and that we should phone them when we arrived in Skikda. Therefore, when our taxi arrived in Skikda, our driver, kindly contacted the family on his mobile phone, and waited with us until one of the brothers, Nasser, arrived. Although he did not have a car of his own he came either with a friend or a taxi, we were not sure which. In either case it was a pleasant introduction to our stay in Skikda. By this time it was after 1700. We did not learn if our driver was going to return that night to Tunis, or if he might find some passengers to go back to Tunis the next day.

Nasser took us into the heart of the town and then, along the side of a small car park, we drove up a cobbled lane to our next “home”. All the buildings looking down on to the car park were 3 storeyed and opened straight off the street. Ours was built in 1927 and, to reach the apartment on the first floor we had to climb up a steep flight of stone steps in semi-darkness. Later, as we looked out our bedroom window onto the car park, we discovered that the parking attendants were deaf and communicated by sign language. When a driver did not obey their directions they could become quite violent.

On arriving at the home of our hosts we were offered a seat on a comfortable couch. Although there seemed to be many women (we never found out who they were) milling around making beds, cleaning the bathroom, etc., strangely, for the next half hour or so, no one came to talk to us. This was rather a relief as we could relax after what had been a strenuous day as we struggled to talk a mixture of French, English, Arabic, etc., for 8 continuous hours. Eventually we were ushered into our room, a large room with a very high ceiling and with two mattresses on the floor. It all looked very cosy and we were happy to settle in.

Over the evening meal of lovely soup and chicken casserole, we met the extended family. The Father was Ahcene who was a retired accountant but who had a bad heart. The Mother, Farida, we met only very briefly as she had to go out to care for her sick 79-year-old mother. There were four children. Karima was the eldest (she had excellent English but, as mentioned above, was working out of town on the oil fields). There were three brothers living at home, Abdel, Laurine? and Nasser. Laurine was married to Dorya and they were expecting their first child in July. Unfortunately none of the children (except Karima) spoke English, though Ahcene, had about as much English as we had French!!

Before leaving Australia we had received a warm invitation from a lady, Naima Cherbal, to stay with her in Setif, a city about a days drive away from Skikda. We had tried to contact her by email during the previous week without success so, after tea we were ushered down town by Nasser, the youngest son, to a “taxi phone” to try and contact her but, again, without any success. Fortunately we had arranged a backup by way of another Hospitality Club Host in Constantine, about 2 hours drive away from Skikda.

It was only a five minute walk to the “taxi phone’ but we enjoyed walking through a pleasant tree-lined square, decorated with a large multicoloured fountain, then down a side street.. It was dark, after 1900, and quite cold but there were many people sitting in the square, walking, or standing in groups and talking, obviously enjoying themselves. When B commented about the cold, our gallant escort took off his jacket and gave it to her while he survived in his shirtsleeves. He also took her arm to help her over gutters and up or down stairs. Doria, his sister-in-law later told us he was considered to be a real lady’s man.

Monday November 19
Ablutions this morning were achieved with the help of a huge bucket/basin of hot water. The bathroom was large and always filled with tubs and buckets of water. Apparently the piped water was available only a few hours each day so water for personal and clothes washing, for flushing the toilet, and for cooking and drinking had to be stored in vast quantities for such a large family. Once we were clean we were treated to a tasty breakfast of chocolate embedded croissants, orange juice and coffee.

After breakfast Ahcene took us for a walk through the town, initially to obtain some Algerian money. To our surprise the first two banks we went to would not change American dollars to Algerian Denars. Eventually Ahcene found a bank that was prepared to do business with us.

After having our wallets replenished, Ahcene took us to see one of the more impressive buildings in the town, the City Hall. The huge wooden doors were closed but an attendant answered his knock. After much quiet talking the attendant went off then returned to admit us. The inside was well cared for and had many attractive features. An added bonus was that a wedding was in progress with much celebration and ululating women. Outside, in a small garden at the front, was an impressive statue of Laocoon, rather like the one in the Vatican Museum and further along in the town was another pleasant garden, one of many, with a memorial statue of a national martyr—Amar Guenoun.

The town itself was in a lovely setting with the flat land, where you could find the main civic and business buildings, hugging the coast and the residential quarters climbing the steep hills further back. This meant there were many flights of steps rising from the main street which was crowded with people on foot, mainly men. It also meant that you were never far from the port and the sea.

Once we had completed our business and sightseeing we took a taxi (at Ahcene’s expense) to the fishing port, a kilometre or so along the coast, where there were magnificent views of the lovely Mediterranean and the mountains hugging the coast.

Back home for a great lunch of salad, stewed beef, delicious potatoes and the universal bananas. Number 1 son, Abdel was a chef with a French-Canadian firm so we were very well catered for at each meal. After lunch a welcome 1½-hour siesta and then Nasser took us in a friend’s car for a guided tour along the nearby coast where the road passed under a rock arch then through the fishing village and up the mountain for some million-dollar views of the breathtakingly blue Mediterranean.

It wasn’t only the views that were breathtaking but also the narrow road that climbed steeply round hairpin bends that were taken at high speed by drivers apparently hell bent on suicide, or murder! Most of the houses were simple and fairly primitive but one was built in the style of a castle with turrets, etc. That owner obviously had money.

After a lovely fish tea we presented the family with our personal calendar, which they much appreciated. We had a halting conversation with Dorya and she appreciated the little Koala we presented her for the July baby.

Tuesday November 20
We enjoyed a sleep-in this morning before a 0900 breakfast with Ahcene (all the rest of the family had disappeared) and then by taxi (again at Ahcene's expense) to the luage depot. As usual we relied on our host to find the right luage going to Constantine. Unfortunately we were the first two passengers so we anticipated a long wait. For security reasons Ahcene did not like the idea of us arriving at Constantine without someone to meet us, so he and A made a phone call to our Host in Constantine to tell him we were about to leave Skikda and arranged for him to meet us at the Constantine depot. By the time we returned to our shared taxi there were now 7 passengers and we were ready to leave Skikda and head for our next destination, Constantine, 65 km away.

The road from Skikda to Constantine was a very busy two-lane road with trucks regularly making a third lane when overtaking. The countryside generally looked very fertile with plenty of cereal crops. In places there were plantations of Eucalypts but, elsewhere, bare hills. In some areas on the roadsides there were dozens of pottery stalls, side by side, all selling the same style of products. It would seem so much more sensible to us to have found a section of road where there was no competition. Towards the end of our journey we began to move into very hilly country and saw many modern high-rise buildings towering above us. The closer we came to Constantine the steeper the terrain became then, as we entered Constantine itself, we were awed by the very deep gullies and the huge bridges suspended above them.

It is no wonder that Constantine, a beautiful ancient city is known as the city of bridges because it is split in two by a magnificent deep gorge and joined by a variety of bridges, 7 in all. The most spectacular—the modern suspension bridge at a dizzying height—takes your breath away. The city of Constantine is very much a mixture of the old and new. The old part with its narrow, busy streets and squares surrounded by grand public buildings contrasts greatly with the new section densely crowded with high-rise residential blocks. One redeeming feature of the new city is an attractive modern Muslim University and the Amir Abd El Kader Mosque with its magnificent slim, graceful twin minarets. At night it looks like a scene from fairyland.

The Constantine bus station was typical of so many bus stations with scores of shared taxis and luages, dozens of buses and hundreds of people. In all this chaos and confusion how could we possibly find Hacene , who was a Veterinary Surgeon and our host for the next two days? In fact it should not have been as difficult as it would seem at first sight as we must both stand out like Grannie’s tooth, as we were the only white Caucasians and, of course, B was just about the only female at the station. Well, we spent half an hour looking for, or rather hoping Hacene was looking for us, but without any success and when we tried Hacene's mobile phone number we only received a recorded message in Arabic. We tried explaining our predicament to some of the bystanders, in French as no one appeared to understand any English, but with very little success. In desperation A exclaimed in French: “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?” but there was no apparent response.

Much to our delight, however, a few minutes later three female students approached us and asked in English if they could help us. Apparently news travelled around the station very fast that an English speaker was required! They tried calling his mobile phone but with no more success than we had. Apparently his phone was turned off or out of range. Fortunately we also had Hacene’s address (Cité Filali Block 17) written down both in English and Arabic script so we were very happy when they told us that Cité Filali was quite close to the Station. Waving our little piece of paper with the address on it we found a taxi prepared to take us there. Finding Cite Filali was no trouble and even Block 17 was easy enough but within Block 17 there seemed to be dozens of big high-rise apartments. Our taxi driver must have stopped and asked directions to where Mr Hacene lived half a dozen times until finally we stopped at an apartment where it seemed Mr Hacene lived. Our taxi driver tried phoning him and “miracle of miracles” he got through. We understood he was in the building on the eight floors and would come down to meet us in a few moments. We waited and waited until, after about 15 minutes, a big van pulled up and it was our man. Apparently he had not been at home but had finally received our call.

He explained that he had gone to the bus depot earlier in the morning before our taxi had arrived. When we had called his mobile phone he was apparently out of range as he was working in the countryside. Hacene’s English was certainly a bit better than our French but left a lot of room for improvement!! We understood that because his sister was staying this night in his parents' home (his father had recently died) we could not stay there this first night. Anyway we were driven across town first up a hill to a friend who ran an up-market reception centre where we enjoyed the view and a cup of coffee and then to his brother’s pizza shop where we left our packs, etc., and enjoyed a morceau of pizza. (We imagined that we were probably going to stay there the night, but later discovered that this was not so!!)

We then drove back to where we had come from and picked up Hacene’s mother who had been waiting in the street. She was a French teacher, but that wasn’t much help! Anyway we took her downtown and after half an hour or so picked her up again and took her home. We then went, with Hacene, in search of a hotel for the night. We felt very much like mushrooms, being kept in the dark, but we weren’t even fed. The first two hotels apparently had no vacancies but the third, “Le Grand”, did and even was rated as having an en suite. No matter that that did not include a toilet, the shower did not work, and there was no hot water in the basin hot water tap. In addition the male receptionist was a rather surly individual. We did however appreciate the very clean sheets on the double bed.

We now went back across town to collect Karem, Hacene’s friend, who ran a driving school in Skikda, then to collect our packs before being taken to a very up market restaurant. As you can imagine conversation was rather difficult and certainly not facilitated by the very loud music or by our hosts periodically taking or making mobile phone calls, sometimes simultaneously. After the meal we were taken back to our hotel. Despite being very much being kept in the dark our hosts excelled in generosity in as much as we were not allowed to pay or contribute to the cost of the meal and indeed not even to pay for our hotel accommodation.

It had been a rather frustrating afternoon though it looked as if the following day would be very interesting. Hacene had promised that on the following day Karem would meet us at 0900 and take us with him into the countryside to see some of his clients. We were looking forward to this as, so far, we had seen nothing at close quarters of farms in North Africa.

We had been interested to observe that even more women were seen scarfless in the streets than in Skikda, although we were told that they would never be seen in the streets after dark—“Their place is in the Kitchen”. This even applied to Hacene’s sister and fiancée who were both doctors. We also learned that it was important to drive very carefully as a driver would lose his licence if he was not wearing his seat belt (drivers regularly undid their seat belts once they had passed a traffic policeman), was using a mobile phone while driving or, worst of all, come in contact with a pedestrian which, given the crowded narrow streets and the fact that pedestrians ignored the cars, was very difficult to avoid. In fact on the following day we witnessed two (minor?) accidents involving pedestrians. (The yellow van in the above photo is an ambulance.) Petrol was very cheap at $0.40 per L and gas half that. It was not unusual to see soldiers, armed with machine guns, behind barriers of sandbags. Rather than seeing bulldozers and graders working on road maintenance, the usual picture was one of wheelbarrows and shovels. As we drove round the streets that night we wondered where all the cars had gone as there seemed to be few if any car parks at the apartment blocks and few cars on the streets. One of life’s little mysteries!

Wednesday November 21
Hacene had told us that Karem would pick us up at our hotel at 0900, so we were up and breakfasted and waiting at the front of the hotel a few minutes before 0900. As it was impossible to park in the narrow, busy street we had to wait at the entrance where we could see the street. We knew the local scenery very well after 8 hours as we waited and waited for the elusive Karem. We weren’t able to go away and wander round the town in case we missed him. At 1200 we finally rang Hacene’s mobile to see what had happened only to be told that he was tied up with work and would be with us in an hour. At least this gave us a chance for a short stroll round the town. We were quite close to the main square of the city, Place de les Martyrs, and sat on some steps in a nearby quiet open area to eat our lunch of lovely fresh bread and bananas. It was a pleasant sunny day but otherwise very depressing as the square was very crowded with unemployed young men wandering around with nothing to do. Locally they are called “Hittistes”, literally wall-leaners. There were virtually no women in the square (“Their place was in the kitchen”) except, strangely enough, for the female traffic police! Nor did we see any women serving in shops, hotels, etc. Crossing the busy roads leading out of the square was quite a feat and we had to run at one stage to avoid being skittled. Shortly afterwards we were stopped by a Gendarme who warmly welcomed us to Constantine, asked where we were from, and then wanted to know B’s age. Perhaps he had been surprised to see a grey haired old lady run.

Back to our hotel by 1300 for our delayed “pick-up” but still no Hacene! At 1400 A rang again. “I’ll be there as soon as I have finished work.” Not surprisingly by this stage we were getting a little frustrated and impatient as we had wasted the whole day doing nothing. Had we known we could have had a productive exploration by ourselves.

Fortunately we had time to slip out for a quick walk across the ravine on a very attractive arched and curved stone bridge, Pont Sidi Rachel. From the bridge we could appreciate the depth of the gorge which actually had two levels as the river had cut a deep cleft in the gorge itself and, as we leaned over the bridge, we could see the water tumbling far below. From the far side of the bridge we were also able to see the old buildings which backed onto the ravine. At least we managed to see this in daylight. Later we heard that, during WW2 when the Germans took the town, they made the French soldiers march across the bridge first to make sure it was not booby-trapped.

At 1600 A rang: yet again “I’m on the way, in the road.” Still nothing! At 1700 another phone call! This time he replied: “I’m just behind the hotel.” Finally at 1745 he arrived. It confirmed our African motto: “If you wait long enough something will eventually happen!”

For the next one and a half hours we drove round Constantine. Because of language problems we did not know where we were going or why. We did find and collect Karem who explained that he had been busy in the morning so hadn’t collected us at 0900. Then we drove to a section of the town where there had been, until recently, a Jewish synagogue and Jewish cemetery. For many centuries, both here and likewise in Tunis, we learnt that there had been very good relations between the Jews and the local Moslems. We were also shown, in passing, a small Protestant church and another Catholic church that had been converted into Government offices.

Then we were taken to the top of a hill where, in a commanding position, we discovered the Arch of Constantine. Apparently, as seems to have happened in many places, the town was totally destroyed but later restored by the Emperor Constantine, 278-337 AD, hence its name. It was dusk but the view was still spectacular as we peered down into the valleys and watched the twinkling lights begin to appear on the many hills around. Throughout this evening journey round the various sections of the town we could see, lit up against the night sky, the beautiful minarets of the Amir Abd El Kader Mosque. Eventually Hacene took us to the mosque but, as it was closed, we saw only its exterior in the dark. We then drove again looking for a souvenir shop, as Hacene was very keen to buy us an expensive picture book of Constantine. Fortunately he couldn’t find a suitable one so settled for a few post cards. We were then taken to a very pleasant restaurant where our hosts once again refused to let us pay. By this stage it was late and we were tired and past eating but, in line with their unbounded hospitality, they kept ordering more and more food they thought we would like. Fortunately, even though we couldn’t eat, they had good appetites so none of it was wasted.

By now, as we were to have a long journey the following day, we needed an early night and expected to be taken to the home of Hacene’s Mother. To our surprise, however, after our meal and more driving round the town we found ourselves back at the same hotel from the previous night, and in the same room, as Hacene’s guests again.

Hacene was sorry that he had not been able to show us more of his town in daylight so said he would like to show us more sights the following morning. The trouble was that we had arranged to travel by bus to Algiers, a full days trip, in the morning. We reached a compromise that Hacene would pick us up at our Hotel at 0700, we would have an hour for further sightseeing and then Hacene would drive us to the bus depot to catch the 0800 bus to Algiers. Tune in tomorrow to hear what happened!

Thursday November 22
Up early and a specially arranged early breakfast so we would be ready for Hacene at 0700. We waited, standing in the marble foyer, with growing impatience till 0810, but still no Hacene. The “taxi phone” office was not open so we couldn’t phone him. Finally we gave up and took a taxi to the bus depot where we were fortunate to find a bus leaving at 0930 for Algiers.

And so ended a very memorable but not very enjoyable two days at Constantine. We later learnt by email from Hacene that on that final morning he had been very tired, had not heard the alarm, and had slept in!!

Algiers is some 320 km from Constantine and was an 8-hour trip in the bus for the very reasonable fare of $10. The two-way road was crowded with traffic, especially slow trucks, so progress was slow. We were however very impressed with the general level of courtesy shown by drivers, especially our bus driver. He would regularly pullover to let vehicles from behind overtake us. One section of the road wound its way through high red mountains so we were not surprised to learn that this area was named the Fort de Fer Chasm. We were in the front of the bus and, at times on curves, the front of the bus reached out over the drop to the valley below. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the front wheels were set far back so we were not really about to plunge to our deaths. However, we also worried about what would happen if we met an approaching vehicle on these sharp curves. As you can see we did survive the trip! The farmland consisted of large paddocks and was generally devoid of trees and, although it was late November, cereal crops had not yet germinated. As we approached Algiers we concluded that we were in an area where the rainfall was much better and the country hillier.

As usual we enjoyed seeing new country but it would have been much more enjoyable if A had not had to ask the conductor to stop the bus four times for very undesirable “calls of nature”, usually, but not always, protected behind roadside trees.

We arrived in Algiers at 1730 just as it was getting dark and in a fairly heavy shower of rain, the only real rain we were to experience on our trip. It was a huge bus station with all facilities. Given the security problems in Algeria we were not surprised to find that we had to have all our baggage checked as thoroughly as at an airport. After a long and stressful day we were half hoping that we would be met by our Hospitality Club Hostess on our arrival. No such luck!! However we had her phone number so rang her from the bus station. Apparently she was temporarily tied up but told us to go to her Mother’s restaurant in downtown Algiers where her mother would look after us until she, Sara , arrived. Of course we had no idea where her mother's restaurant was nor how to get there. Once again our Guardian Angel turned up in the form of a local taxi driver who spoke to Sara on the phone and learnt from her where we had to go.

On arriving at the restaurant we met Sara’s parents who ran a very up-market restaurant. They offered us the choice of the menu as their guests and B partook of hors d’oeuvres, fish soup, lemon meringue pie, red wine, etc., while A had to simply look on given the very unstable state of his inside. We had earlier understood via email that we were invited to stay at a beachside holiday home belonging to the family, but once again something went a bit wrong! When Sara arrived she explained that she had booked us into a hotel which really suited us fine. We were rather taken aback, though, when she told us she had booked us into the Hilton!!! She explained that she was able to get a good deal there and that any other (respectable) hotel would cost about the same. Although the nominal tariff was $500 a night we were only going to be charged $85. She indicated that the following night we would be staying with a friend of hers. After our experience in Constantine we were prepared for anything: “Once bitten we were twice shy”.

After B had finished her meal, Sara drove us to the hotel and promised to ring us in the following morning as soon as she got up. There were guards on the gates and Sarah had to park the car well away from the entrance. Once again we had to be searched at the entrance to the building. We would hate to live like that all the time!

Despite the hotel having a five star rating, the only hotel approaching this category on our holiday, we were very disappointed that the “hot” water was only lukewarm. We were very weary after a long day so enjoyed the luxurious king size bed and quickly fell asleep.

Friday November 23
As Sara had not rung by 0930 we tried to ring her but received no answer. At 1200 we rang again as we thought we should be out of our room by 12. This time we made contact and Sara said she would be with us in 15 minutes (we had forgotten all about African time!) and that we could stay in our room till 1300. At 1300 we left our room and waited in the hotel lobby and decided to check out of the hotel while we waited. There was another guest at the Reception desk who seemed to be making no progress but then B saw there was a special section labelled “Express Checkout” for people in a hurry to go. She went to that section but still had a 20-minute wait before being able to settle our account. Having eventually got that out of the way, it was now 1400 so we rang again. This time: “I’m two minutes away”. And within 5 minutes she did arrive in a car with her friend François . She later told us she had been at a party till 0500 in the morning and had drunk more than was good for her, so had slept in.

As on the previous evening when we arrived we had to pass all our baggage through an elaborate security check, even though we were now leaving the hotel. Actually we felt rather embarrassed with all our travel stained back packs, sleeping bags, etc., beside the spotlessly clean luggage of our fellow Hilton guests.

For what was left of the rest of the afternoon Sara and François showed us the sights of Algiers. Somehow it seems we missed out on lunch, but that suited A’s “tum”. As we drove along the foreshore François pointed out a jungle type garden on our left and told us that this was where the first Tarzan film had been made. B was immediately transported back to her childhood when she saw that film and, for a long time after, loved to be Tarzan swinging through the trees. “Me Jane, you Tarzan!”

The highlight for us was the large cathedral, Notre Dame de l’Afrique. Despite what we had been told about anti-Christian feelings in Algeria we were favourable impressed by the fact that our hosts made a point of taking us to see what we believe is the only Catholic Church still in use in Algiers. Not only was it still in use but there were in progress major renovation works. We doubt if our hosts had ever been inside a church before but they were very impressed and moved to see the inscriptions above the main altar: One said, Pas de plus grand coeur de donner sa vie pour ceux qu’on aime while the other said, Notre Dame d’Afrique priez pour nous et pour les Mussulmans”. They liked the values expressed there.

The Cathedral was really the only tourist spot we visited. We understood that one of the tourist highlights of Algiers is the old Kasbah which we saw from the outside but Sara said she had never been inside, apparently because she didn’t consider it safe. We were taken for drives along the seafront and along the higher reaches of the coastline to admire the truly beautiful Mediterranean.

About 1700 we arrived at the one bedroom apartment of François where we were to stay the night, so Sara was true to her word from the previous night. Once again, to our embarrassment, our host was insistent that he would sleep on a couch while we had the sole bedroom. The apartment was at the top of the building and was surrounded by a wide flat roof, part of which had a mini garden. Even better was the view from the roof as we looked into a neighbour’s beautiful lush garden made even more attractive by the autumn tints on many of the tall trees and then, in another direction, through more tall autumn trees we could see a high-rise apartment block with small gardens on many balconies. Inside there was a good sized living area, a well-equipped kitchen, “our” double bedroom, a flush toilet and a bathroom with hot and cold water. What luxury!

As we had an hour or so of daylight left we went for a leisurely stroll around the neighbouring streets. It was an area of rather up-market homes and big Government Departments and Embassies. We made a phone call to a Hospitality Club Host (Manel Belouzaa) who had previously offered us accommodation in Oran, only to find that she was unable to help us. After that, we wandered round a small shopping area looking for some goodies to take home for tea, but couldn’t find any food shops open. François had another friend, Nejet Mekkaoui , visiting him so she joined us for a meal of soup, rusks, chicken and a cup of coffee.

Saturday November 24
Up early this morning at 0615 as Sara had promised to pick us up at 0715 and take us to the bus depot from where we planned to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Oran, some 350 km further West. As it was a bachelor’s apartment, and a French one at that, there was very little in the larder for breakfast but our regular standby of bananas was much better than nothing! At 0715 we were all ready but there was no sign of Sara. François called her on her mobile six times but no responses. At 0745 François’ driver arrived to take him to work and kindly took us, quite a bit out of his way, to the bus depot. We were too late for the 8 o’clock bus but fortunately there was another at 0830, though our seats were not towards the front of the bus where we usually sat.

On the trip to Oran it was a great relief for A (and for B) that it was not necessary for him to get the conductor to stop the bus for an emergency “call of nature” as on the nightmare trip from Constantine to Algiers two days earlier. We were very impressed that when the bus stopped at mid morning and lunchtime for toilet/fuel stops the outside of the bus was thoroughly washed down. At one scheduled toilet stop a local Algerian befriended us and explained that his brother managed the toilets there and we were welcome to patronise them free of charge. Another example of the courtesy we met so often along the way. One of the mysteries we encountered as we encountered with the various toilets was how fat people coped with the small cubicles, especially when entering and leaving. B often had visions of disappearing down the hole as she tried to find a footing and swing the door open.

Along extensive sections of the road there were major road works. It reminded us of John The Baptist whose task it was to: Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley to be bridged, every mountain and hill levelled, windings to be cut straight and rough paths made into smooth roads. On the unimproved sections of the road there were no passing lanes and, as many of the heavy trucks were travelling at only 60 km/hr, we made slow progress. When we could stop driving the bus and look at the scenery, we saw some farmers sowing cereal crops by hand but most fields were quite extensive in area and cultivated and sown by tractor. Besides cereal crops there were huge areas of olives, vines, artichokes, fruit and citrus trees, and almonds. Where there were grazing sheep or goats there was nearly always an elderly man standing and shepherding the stock and we wondered what he would be thinking about all day!! Hopefully the young children who used to do the shepherding were now at school. Along the edge of the road we also saw lots of water pipelines for either town supplies or, at times, irrigation of limited areas. Time and again we saw large cement works which were indicative of the development in the country, financed no doubt by the booming oil industry. The quite sizeable towns, and even the smaller ones, tended to have high-rise apartment blocks which were, presumably, the destination of all that cement. Algeria followed Libya in this regard even though there was plenty of land available for low or medium density housing.

Another item of interest to us was the periodic presence on the roadside of armoured personnel carriers and sandbagged fortified military observation posts. We were pleased that at none of these was there any sign of current or recent action, though sadly some two or three weeks later there was a serious bomb attack on the UN Offices in Algiers in which many people were killed. Periodically as we looked out the bus window we would see what appeared to be pretty red flowers on the roadside. On closer inspection we found that they were in fact discarded red plastic bags caught on bushes!!

When we had been trying to arrange our Algerian visa in Australia, as we mentioned before, it was necessary to obtain a special letter of invitation (Certificat de Hebergement). After several fruitless months of trying to obtain this there seemed to be an alternative path, namely to provide evidence of prearranged hotel reservation. It was not easy to find on the Internet a reasonably priced hotel but eventually we successfully made a reservation at The Timgad Hotel in Oran, even though we had been hoping to stay with a Hospitality Club Host. Because, as we mentioned above, our Host had let us down we were glad we still had the reservation and this is where we headed after our arrival at about 1630 at the Oran bus station. As usual we enquired from someone what was a reasonable taxi fare to our hotel, so as to avoid being overcharged by an unscrupulous driver. We arrived safely and were relieved to find they still had the reservation waiting for us, especially as we had not been asked to pay any deposit on our reservation.

Our room was comfortable with TV and an en suite though, as usual, no hot water. A was very tired and B thirsty so A had a rest and B found her way through clouds of smoke, the only female, to the hotel “café” where, under what looked like disapproving eyes, she enjoyed a cup of coffee. While resting A turned on the TV to frustratingly see snippets of both John Howard and Kevin Rudd but, as there was no English sound, we did not know what had been the outcome of the Australian election which was being held that day except that Rudd’s smile looked broader than Howard’s. We ventured out into the town to look for an Internet Café and with the help of some very friendly people at an adjacent souvenir shop we found our way to one. There we learned two good pieces of news: Rudd and the Labor Party had been successful and what was equally good news there had been 30 mm of rain at Tanjam, our farm. There was also an email from Sara in Algiers to apologise that she had slept in and been unable to take us to the bus depot!

Back at the hotel it was time for tea. None of the staff could speak much English, apart from our friendly evening waiter, but they were very friendly and as usual we managed. B had a good meal of legume potage, omelette and dessert while A very cautiously tried a plate of thin fish soup. The Lonely Planet Guide had said that one of the features of this hotel was a talking parrot so, as we actually managed to communicate very well with our friendly waiter, during the meal we asked him where the talking parrot was. At first the waiter looked puzzled but then light dawned and to our amazement/amusement he replied, “We ate it!” Apparently to celebrate the Eid at the end of Ramadan they had killed and eaten the poor parrot. So much for their great tourist attraction!

Sunday November 25
The breakfast next morning was excellent and consisted of many choices, hot and cold, so B had a wonderful meal. When our morning’s friendly waiter realized that A could not eat much he bundled up rolls, croissants, jam, and fruit so he could eat something when he felt up to it.

In retrospect A was over the worst of his diarrhoea but was still worried about his situation. We enquired at the Hotel reception if they could recommend a doctor, preferably a gastro-enterologist. Half an hour later they contacted us and told us they had made an appointment with a certain Dr Hamani at 1100 and one of the hotel staff would, not only accompany us there, but their chauffeur would also drive us there in their car and collect us in two hours. What more could you hope for?

Waiting for an hour or so in the crowded waiting room it was an experience to see a different side of Algerian life. The doctor, a lady, had virtually no English and although B thought she was helpful, A was most disappointed. She said nothing about handling his diarrhoea and only talked about his mild haemorrhoids and prescribed various medications for them. The whole experience just confirmed A’s maxim that if you are sick, once you make an appointment to see a medico you will be well by the time you see them, because from then on A was well on the road to recovery.

After being escorted by the hotel lady back to our hotel, we had lunch. B had “old cow” (very tough) while A, feeling more confident, had chicken, carrots and turnips. After lunch we made another visit to the Internet Café to send birthday greetings to A’s sister Mary and a general one to the family to confirm that we were still safe and well. Unfortunately just as we were about to send the emails the computer “bombed out” and we had to write the letters all over again!

In the afternoon, despite some rain we went for a walk through the town centre. As in Carthage there had been a large cathedral during the French Colonial period, which had now been deconsecrated. It was currently hosting a large book exhibition so we used this as an excuse to go in and see what the building had been like. Amongst the books on display we found an interesting one: “Mary in Islam” which highlighted the often forgotten fact that Moslems have a similar devotion to Mary as many Christians.

The following morning we had a reservation to fly out of Oran to Casablanca in Morocco. The hotel had a sign at reception that they accepted Visa Card but apparently that was for show, as they wanted cash. Fortunately we were able to use up our remaining Algerian Denars and pay the balance with American dollars, keeping just enough Denars for the taxi in the morning to the airport. They had made no charge for arranging A’s visit to the doctor. The hotel staff kindly booked a taxi for 0545 to get us to the airport for our 0810 flight to Morocco.

We went to bed early in preparation for our early start the next morning, but unfortunately still no hot water!

Monday November 26
What a contrast driving through Oran at 0600 in the morning compared with two days earlier at 1630! There were no hassles at the airport. Even though at security A’s artificial hip bipped, he was just waved through. He could have been carrying a bomb!

Our next destination heading West was Morocco. By choice we would have travelled by road but, as mentioned earlier, political relations between Algeria and Morocco are very strained because of contrasting attitudes to the Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara, and consequently all land crossings between Algeria and Morocco are closed. Fortunately there was still an air link so we were able to fly from Oran to Casablanca . Although only a one-hour flight there was a hefty fare of $335 each.

And so ended our eight days in Algeria. Despite all the dire predictions given to us before our departure, we were very happy to have survived without any serious mishaps. We were a little disappointed with our experiences in Constantine as well as being let down by our pre-arranged stays with Hospitality Club Hosts in Setif and Oran but overall it was a very rewarding eight days.