Where to start?
We’d had no idea what to expect from Algeria, a country completely new to us and unknown to almost everyone we’d asked in 18 months of planning, with people in the UK, France and Morocco all warning of its dangers.
It’s Landy’s 43rd birthday when we disembark excited at Ghazaouet, in slight trepidation, but ready to face anything that Algeria might throw at us.
Fresh off the boat we are greeted with a beaming smile and ‘Hello Mrs Land Rover!’ from the customs officer, a welcoming tone that is echoed by almost every person we encounter over the following two weeks.
Drive to Oran
Day one is spent getting our bearings and driving eastwards to Oran where we’ve been invited to stay with Fatima Mbarek who we met online via CouchSurfing – another new experience – and we haven’t a clue how the day will pan out.
Sizeable towns are being constructed along the brand new autoroute with service stations so recently built that half of them have yet to open. As the afternoon progresses the sky darkens and the Saharan sand whips overhead – reaching England – the rusty coloured rain scratching the windscreen when we use the wipers.
Passing the vast vacant towns on the empty autoroute with the ominous orange clouds gathering overhead and discolouring the landscape we are especially grateful for this morning’s warm reception.
Oran, Fatima’s house
Meeting Fatima on the outskirts of town, we follow her past flaming oil fields to her family’s apartment in Bethioua, a small town in an industrial area about 40km east of Oran, where we’re instantly put at ease by her wonderfully hospitable family: mother Halima, sisters Sihem and Ikram and brother Yahya.
The generosity of that household is unlike anything we’ve experienced before with copious quantities of food pressed upon us as well as presents of traditional Algerian clothing, Sihem’s home embroidered cushion covers – that will shortly be gracing the back of the seats in Landy – and woven plates being showered upon us, including a set of prayer beads from Mecca and a beautiful ‘khamsa’ to protect us on our onward journey.
Even the lovely next door neighbour Meriem comes by to wish us well and gives us small sculptures as gifts.
Fatima shows us around Oran, an attractive city with a Mediterranean feel akin to Marseilles or Palermo, some of the architecture appearing as though it’s been lifted straight out of Paris.
Just like the Algerian consulate on Hyde Park Gate, Oran oozes crumbling grandeur.
The prayer beads and a strip of cloth presented to us (for protection) in a local shrine now hang from our rear view mirror alongside other icons, charms and amulets that we’ve been given by well-wishers over the years – and a broken piece of the old differential so that Landy doesn’t feel left out. It looks awesome with the Moroccan cork and brass decoration – our car is definitely developing her own distinct personality and dress code.
En route to Algiers
Leaving Oran – with Fatima and Ikram driving part of the way with us so we don’t get lost – we continue along the autoroute, spending the night in the Landy at a service station. The sand storm has long passed but the wind is fierce and caught the passenger door as we’d packed the car so that it now refuses to lock. But the service station seems friendly and we park close to a wall, hanging the khamsa on the unsecured passenger door to deter potential intruders.
In the morning – still in the service station – we finally begin wiring a cigar lighter to Landy so we can charge our appliances, our open bonnet attracting offers of help from almost everyone who passes. One particularly friendly passerby gives us a handful of fuel coupons, the result being that we don’t have to pay for diesel for the rest our time in Algeria. We later discover that we are given change if we fill less than 50 litres and even manage to sell the last one back to a garage as we approach the Tunisian border.
Mustapha and Nissa’s house
We are staying in the family home of Mustapha and Nissa Chekchak, another CouchSurfing invitation, on their little piece of paradise on the outskirts of Algiers with their extended family, dogs, cats and brand new kittens and the scent of orange blossom wafting through the garden.
We are looked after as though by our own parents – better actually as we are not roped into any of the household chores – and fed sublime Algerian food: couscous, chorba, galettes and more. We learn that Algeria doesn’t export any of its food produce so nothing has to comply with export regulations and there is therefore very little wastage. Almost all the fruit and veg consumed in the country is locally grown, seasonal and organic. Artichokes and peas are currently in season and make the basis of some superb suppers.
Mustapha gives us a guided tour of Algiers and takes us to eat freshly caught sardines in Bellecourt, the quarter where he’d grown up. We walk through the crumbling kasbah, being invited into people’s houses and given pastries by complete strangers who bicker among themselves over who gets to give us coffee.
We have space to reorganise Landy’s interior, offload the broken diff we’ve been carrying around and to do some routine maintenance: checking the brake shoes and drums and readjusting the brakes as well as fixing the passenger door lock and attaching an additional bolt.
Mustapha’s sister Naima, a journalist working for a TV station, loves the concept behind our project and asks if she can interview us and film us working on Landy. And why not? This takes place in French which is all very well for fluent Anne-Laure but a bit more of a challenge for mono-lingual Lucy. The clip airs on our last night in Algeria – apparently there’s nothing more relevant to show two days before a presidential election – and we even receive some fan mail.
Naima has travelled widely throughout Algeria and knows the south like nobody else, the tales of her exploits igniting in us a passion to return and explore the region. Every Algerian says that the south is the most beautiful part of their country – which given the beauty we encounter as we drive through north eastern Algeria a few days later is really saying something.
We are treated to a hammam by Naima and Nissa who sweetly pack towels, sarongs, scrubbing gloves, flip-flops and washing bowls for us. After a couple of days with Landy we’re definitely in need of a good scrubbing which is exactly what we get, with a terrifying woman scouring our skin until we’re limp and ragged…and very very clean. Many people visit the hammam on a weekly basis here, the waft of Immac bringing this ancient tradition abruptly into the present age. There are women of all ages present including a bride-to-be – caked in Immac from the neck down in accordance with the tradition of having no body hair whatsoever on the day of your marriage. We greet her with the ‘yu-yu’ – a kind of whooping cheer – wherever she goes, all of us crying out in high pitched unison.
Wrapped in towels and being fed cake and juice, we slowly unwind under strict instruction that after a hammam it is essential to relax for the rest of the day. And we’re very happy to do just that. Algerians seem to have a healthy work/life balance, with a lot of attention paid to the importance of relaxation in your daily life and nowhere is this more apparent than at the hammam.
Algiers, staying with Ilhem, Nejma and Elizabeth
Moving into central Algiers for a couple of nights chez Ilhem, Nejma and Elizabeth in their fun and funky apartment, we meet up with a bunch of their friends for coffee – including Mustapha and Nissa’s son, Badis, who spends the afternoon with us, showing us downtown and the impressive cathedral Notre Dame d’Afrique – and find ourselves suddenly surrounded by mates: a mixed group about our own age who are open-minded and multi-lingual, and immediately accepting of us and our project.
As befits a vast geographical area, Algeria is a country of great cultural and racial diversity – people often think we’re Algerian, for example, whereas no one ever thought we were Moroccan – but we’re told that despite historical tolerance between people, a large chunk of the Algerian population is now divided between those influenced mainly by Arab culture and those more in thrall to the West, habits being projected onto the young by their families and heavily influenced by the area of Algeria from which they spring.
From our brief experience, however, we get an overwhelmingly positive impression from the younger people we meet who seem to take equal interest in Arab and Western culture – both booming from the ever present satellite dishes – but who first and foremost have an active desire to re-engage and learn about the rich cultural and historical diversity of their country and forge their own middle ground.
The internet plays a large role here, facilitating communication and bringing people together who would not otherwise have met nor shared ideas, breaking down internal divides through the exchange of ideas and cultural understanding…and sweeping straight into a ready made circle of Algerian friends we benefit from this too. Talking to our new CouchSurfing friends it’s interesting to note that they all find CouchSurfing within Algeria to be just as interesting as hosting and staying with foreigners.
The cultural scene in Algiers is young and vibrant with all sorts of things going on, much of it free of charge, however, there are many young up and coming artists who are struggling to break into the recognised Algerian cultural scene because the concept of ‘what is art’ is being carefully controlled by governing bodies. We search for La Baignoire, a pop up underground cultural project we’ve heard about that showcases the work of modern creatives who are not considered artists in the eyes of the establishment, and which sadly proves to be so underground that we can’t even find it.
We have a day in the capital to ourselves, spending hours sitting in a café sketching and catching up on diaries, visiting the Museum of Modern Art (MAMA) that has an outstanding exhibition celebrating the Mujahadinas – the women who had fought for Algerian independence (finally achieved in 1962). We also meet a completely different sort of woman, a Western dressed Algerian who seems very keen on marrying one of us off to her son based in Paris, attracted (she said) by our pale skin and lack of headscarves. She tells us that she doesn’t want her son to marry a woman who wears the veil but would be happy if he subsequently made his wife veil after marriage – i.e. it’s fine if it’s his choice but not if it’s hers.
Most of our journey time so far has been in the north on the rather bland autoroutes so we decide to take a road trip for our final four days to try and catch a glimpse of the interior.
The landscapes are out of this world as we head towards the gateway to the Sahara: green rolling hills transforming into bleak desert interspersed with oases, Roman ruins, canyons and craggy mountains – the variety is mind boggling.
We are now truly on our own for the first time in Algeria, and it’s interesting to experience how different people react to us.
One night we arrive tired after a long driving day to a nice looking hostel just outside a town, where we are instantly latched onto by a fellow guest – an Algerian woman about our age – who immediately installs herself in our bedroom. The proprietor warns that all restaurants in town are about to shut so we order ourselves a cab and in she hops… We’re getting a very weird vibe from her, not helped when she comes to sit on our beds, fingering our stuff. She seems slightly unhinged, and unlike everyone else we’ve met in Algeria she clearly has an agenda. We sleep badly with our bags shoved as far under the beds as possible and wake in the morning to find her sitting on the edge of her bed staring at us intently. She asks about our onward travel plans in detail and it becomes obvious that she wants to come with us, giving the proprietor the impression that we’re all such good friends that he hands our passports over to her. Retrieving them we make a swift exit, waving goodbye enthusiastically but not stopping until we’ve reached the other side of town.
One evening we are driving along a windy road when two men in a white van start behaving strangely: flashing their lights, overtaking us and then pulling over to let us pass. Feeling uncomfortable, we begin to think that maybe there’s something wrong with Landy – a flat tyre perhaps – so we pull over making sure both doors are locked. A guy rushes over and we open the window gingerly. ‘Welcome to Algeria!’ he cries, handing us seven packets of crisps, ‘But be careful – don’t talk to strangers!’.
The police have been particularly confused by us, often visiting our hostels during the night to check our passports. They sometimes insist on walking around towns with us trying to choose which restaurants we frequent and – when we politely ask them not to – they follow us from a distance instead. On our final driving day from Timgad to El Kala in the east of the country we are stopped by the police six times ‘for our own protection’ in different administrative districts. Our papers are checked again and again and the information laboriously copied down – often followed by questions you’d imagine were self explanatory for people looking at our passports: ‘What’s your nationality? Are you twins?’.
It makes their day when they find us on the side of the road reattaching a broken accelerator cable and when they leave after 15 minutes we think we’ve got away lightly…but no. They soon return bringing a further 10 police officers to gawp at us, eventually running off with our passports to the police station – and (in true Algerian style) buying us orange squash, coffee and water to keep us going while we anxiously await the return of our documents.
As evening approaches 150km on we are taken in person to spend an hour or so in a police station (missing our 5 minutes of fame on Algerian TV) and finally, 2km from our destination, we are mandated to proceed to our auberge under police escort – flashing blue lights and all. We giggle at the farcical situation we find ourselves in whilst waiting for our escort to arrive – but when bureaucratic complexities arise with the auberge and the policemen debate having us spend the night in the police station (‘for protection’ obviously…) our merriment peters out and we do battle with the forces of Algerian officialdom, eventually gaining our liberty.
We have to admit at this point that the possibility of being detained overnight against our will makes us appreciate the parental phone calls we have been receiving four times daily from Mustapha and Nissa since we left Algiers: help is never actually required but it’s suddenly reassuring to know that they are there.
The Algerian presidential election is being held as we write – it’s 17 April – and we have been told variously that the current president, Bouteflika, is absolutely guaranteed to win despite being old and very ill, that nobody ever votes, and that there is a rumour going around that he is actually dead. Apart from the posters on display in every town and quite a bit of TV coverage – with the president represented on TV by a framed photograph rather than appearing in person – we get the impression that daily life is not being hugely interrupted by this national event.
In the brief glimpse we managed to catch, we found Algeria to be an endlessly fascinating country.
There was a clear difference in perspective between how we view ourselves and how we were viewed by the Algerian officials, our opposing views on protection being a good case in point. Purely on gender grounds they were perfectly happy for us to share a room with the dodgiest person we encountered in Algeria but – despite having travelled thousands of kilometres from the UK – they couldn’t countenance the idea of us driving 2km along a decent road in the dark.
Algeria sees few travellers – we didn’t see another and our visa numbers are 23 and 24 – and it’s obvious that the police didn’t really know what to do with us. They enjoyed watching us tinker with the engine, and clearly had fun bantering with us, wanting to know everything about us even down to what football teams we support. We were held in the station for well over an hour with very little actually being done and it occurred to us that they might have just been keeping us there to liven up their day.
The ‘protection’ they stressed so carefully was if anything endangering us by drawing attention to us and by delaying us to the point that we were forced to drive along potholed cliff-side roads in the dark. And it was hard to imagine who or what they thought they were protecting us from.
The generosity of the Algerians is legendary: we stayed in the country for 14 nights paying only for two and our total expenditure for the whole fortnight was less than £300. We ate well, slept comfortably and picked up souvenirs wherever we went – everybody wanted to share their possessions and their culture with us. We only had to walk into a house, café or clothes shop to come out with a small box of pastries.
Algeria’s thriving petroleum based economy has made life relatively relaxed and affordable. Their working week is short, and health care and – government approved – cultural events are free. Economically, Algeria has little interest in tourism – although we were told that individuals working in the tourist industry in the south have lost their livelihoods as a consequence of negative international media coverage. With very few exceptions no one we encountered seemed to have any ulterior motive, no one tried to rip us off, and their motivation for showing us a good time was that they enjoyed us being there, not simply to generate future tourism to their country. We felt that people were nice to us out of a genuine sense of hospitality, neither needing nor wanting anything from us – and it was this that made our experience so special.
Algeria is far and away the most welcoming country that either of us have ever visited, and we know we have barely scratched the surface. We now have good friends to reconnect with and the vast and dramatic landscapes of the south are beckoning. And so – inshallah – we will definitely be back.