Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Saturday, October 28, 2006 11:55:49|
Arabia 2006: 3 - Algeria
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The hotel had delivered to my room tea, orange juice, honey, jam, butter and a large, round Moroccan bread the night before, so I snacked on these while scrambling to get ready for my 4:15 AM pickup. I stood outside in the fresh morning air until 4:30, when I returned to the desk and had the duty clerk phone Soubat, my guide. We got him out of bed. There had been a misunderstanding, and he was set to pick me up to meet the 6 PM flight, so he went into scramble mode and was at the hotel in a few minutes. We still reached the airport before the check in counter had opened.
Procedures were straightforward at the airport - particularly the security check. The machines were on and working, and everyone duly ran coats and luggage through the X-ray, however there was no one there to watch the monitor. Those who caused the metal detector to beep just kept on going. A woman did finally show up for duty, but by then most passengers were through.
The flight to Casablanca was non-stop on a Royal Air Maroc 737-800, which took 1-½ hours instead of the 3 hours on Regional's turboprop. A light breakfast was served as I watched a spectacular sunrise over cloud-covered desert. Announcements on board were now tri-lingual, Arabic, French and English. The in-flight entertainment consisted of old silent movies with English sub-titles.
My 45-minute connection in Casablanca did not allow any room for error, but after we landed on schedule airport police directed me to the gate for the flight to Algeria - the boarding pass had been issued in Laayoune. I arrived at the gate in good time, but had no exit stamp from Morocco in my passport. Somehow my route had bypassed immigration, which was, what else - at the other end of the terminal. A quick jog back to get paperwork done and stamped still had me in line 10 minutes before boarding - in pouring rain. Most flights from Casablanca require transport to the aircraft by bus, then a line-up out in the weather.
My first look at Algiers from the air was a surprise - I hadn't expected the extensive freeway networks, the size of the city or the number of residential high rises. Apparently the population is around 4 million. Fortunately I'd been forewarned by the Canadian Government travel web site that it is necessary to declare currency - no one mentioned it at customs or immigration - I had to ask for the forms.
Driver Mohamed Faycal Chefat and guide Chevica, arranged by Bestway Tours, met me at the airport and drove me to the Sofitel Hotel, where security at the entrance went through the car's trunk and inspected under the hood each time we entered the gate. This is a nice hotel, with all amenities imaginable including very expensive wireless in room internet. After half an hour to get settled we headed off on a tour of Algiers, which included cathedrals, monuments and a drive through most neighbourhoods. An open speedboat was hired for the three of us to have a cruise along the coast and back - there were a number of jet skis and lots of yachts around.
Chevica is an excellent guide. She speaks Arabic and French fluently, English well and a little Spanish. She works 9 months as a guide in Algeria, then for the low season stays in her parent's apartment in Spain, which they bought 20 years ago. The whole family stayed at the apartment during the fighting in Algeria. We had some long conversations covering a lot of topics - she was a great source of information.
Algiers is a white city - the colour of most buildings. It is quite clean and litter free. Women's dress was a big surprise - most women dress in very westernized styles, with a minority in headscarves and few in veils. The trouble caused by fundamentalists and others in past years has apparently been thoroughly defeated. I'm told there is a considerable mafia presence here, so I imagine they would participate enthusiastically against fundamentalists to protect their prostitution business.
The Canadian Government's web site is wrong about Algeria when they say alcohol is prohibited. It is not only legal, but there are breweries in Algiers, including one producing Stella Artois under license. For dinner I worked my way through the list of local beers accompanied by a cheese plate and a large quantity of complementary bocas (snacks). The hotel bar is appropriately named "The Oasis".
The bad news is that my flight to Libya has been cancelled, and my tour rearranged for a 5 AM departure by car for Constantine. Substitute tickets were arranged to fly to Tunis at 4 PM, then at 5:30 PM the next day to fly to Tripoli. This didn't make any sense to me, as there is a direct Algiers-Tripoli flight on the 29th leaving Algiers at 6:30 PM, arriving only an hour after the Tunis flight, so I asked to be placed on that one. Much as I like Tunis, this arrangement will save immigration & customs in and out, transfers, plus one more set of airport security.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
A mad start this morning. The hotel did not make my wake up call, and my alarm clock was still on Morocco time - an hour behind. Fortunately I'd pre-ordered room service breakfast, which was delivered at 4:40 AM. At 4:50 AM a call informed me the driver and guide were waiting - so I choked down some food, chug-a-lugged the orange juice, threw my gear into my case and fled.
At reception a different guide greeted me. I was surprised, as Chevica had expected to be the guide, an arrangement that would have suited me. Faycal seems much more than a driver; he is very much in charge, so I certainly hope she was not in trouble for the frank answers she gave me when we discussed a number of topics that would be sensitive in a dictatorship.
The new guide, Leila, is a trainee in her first month. She has little knowledge outside of Algiers, where she was raised, had not been to Constantine before, did not speak English well and understood even less. Communication was difficult, with Faycal the source of any information when I asked questions in my limited French combined with English. It seemed she was along to learn about the area.
Between them I learned they had booked me on the Oct 29 non-stop flight to Tripoli, and that even though my tickets showed Tunis/Tripoli that they would work, as they are the same price. Poor Chi at Bestway, who will be trying to hold everything together and get the Libya plans reorganized, where I'm sorry to be losing a day.
The drive to Constantine was supposed to be 6 hours, but turned out to be 8 ½. It was pitch dark to start, but about 6:45 it was light enough to see we were driving on a 6-lane freeway through hills covered with pine trees. The freeway lasted about 20% of the way. Traffic was quite heavy in spite of the hour. The hills soon gave way to rolling farmland with olive trees and other crops - olive oil in used plastic bottles was for sale along the roadside, likely at very low prices. They tell me the altitude in this area is around 1,200 meters, and that the whole area including Constantine gets snow for much of the winter. That was a surprise - my preconception of Algeria did not include an Algerian with a snow shovel!
The villages we passed along the way had a lot of Communist Russia style 5-6 story apartment buildings. The newer towns looked the same as many of the towns and villages I have seen in the former soviet union. Most apartment blocks had small satellite dishes attached outside the window, making the building look like it was covered with giant mushrooms. There were frequent checkpoints along the road, and lots of police and military. In one area all houses and buildings, including those under construction, had been abandoned - apparently due to the uprising.
The long drive was very boring, and Faycal is a conservative, cautious driver. When the guide asked me how I liked his driving I said, "It is very slow". He must have understood, as he picked up the pace a bit after that. It was impossible to make much time due to frequent speed bumps, police checks and construction zones - but the roads were not in bad condition. The countryside is relatively flat and barren - a lot like driving through the North American prairies.
We passed by the modern, Russian designed looking city of Setif, which I'm told has a population of two million. It is the centre of the agricultural area, and has a good-sized university. The altitude here is apparently 1,800 meters. There are a lot of identical apartment blocks under construction - I think of filing cabinets for people.
When we finally got to Constantine the road was completely clogged with stopped traffic. After a wait the driver turned around, drove several kilometres back and approached the city from another side. There was still a lot of traffic, but we slowly made our way to the Panorama Hotel, where we will stay tonight. The hotel is old, and shows it, but my 6th floor room has a great view of the city, some of the bridges it is famous for and the deep gorge than runs through the middle of it.
After lunch we headed off to explore the city, which also has a population of two million. It has a beautiful Islamic university and many bridges of different types at different levels criss-crossing the river gorge. There are a lot of tunnels in the cliffs along the gorge. The city dates back to antiquity, but in the 300s it was named after the Roman Emperor Constantine.
The inner city is a fascinating maze of narrow streets, which would be fun to explore on foot if one had a day to do so. This is where most shopping is located, and the traffic was brutal. I only saw one traffic light in the whole city, and it was turned off. We did find a shop to replace a loose screw in my glasses - for which the proprietor would take no money even though he included glass-cleaning cloths.
Back at the hotel I bid goodnight to driver & guide, who don't let me out of their sight, and headed back to the room and make an early night of it. I planned to buy a plane ticket back to Algiers to avoid the long drive back, but Faycal came up with a good plan that will take us to the old Roman city of Djemila and break up the drive back. The bed was surprisingly comfortable, and I got my first good night's sleep of the trip.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Our start was at the luxurious hour of 9 AM, so I went down to send messages on the advertised internet, but it wasn't working. We all met at breakfast, did a farewell loop through the city in almost no traffic and headed out of town. Today is Friday, the Islamic equivalent to Sunday, so there weren't a lot of people around. On the main roads the signs are in Arabic and French, which would make it a lot easier to find the way than in Western Sahara, where they are in Arabic script only.
On the way out of town we stopped for gas - it is 31 cents a litre!
The towns and cities along the way look similar with their large apartment blocks, but now and then we passed through older towns that had some character. Some of the newer privately owned buildings also showed some individuality. The towns are close together - northern Algeria is where most of the 30-32 million Algerians live. There were a lot of hitchhikers, and as all cities in Algeria are numbered they hold up a sign with a number on it, indicating the city they are hoping to get to.
In the villages and smaller towns I had expected the dress to be very conservative, but it was similar to the big cities - most of the younger women dress to show their figures to best advantage, which suited me. Generally, covered women were older. Greetings here are borrowed from the French, the kiss on each cheek, and Algerian men greet each other that way as well.
Our drive to Djemila took about three hours - we got there just in time for a huge lunch at a nice restaurant near the ruins. We then visited the museum at the entrance to the ruins, and spent a couple of hours walking with a local guide through the large, ancient city, which was founded about 100 AD.
The excavation and restoration has been well done. There are palaces, a theatre to seat 3,000, the forum, the courts of justice, the public market, the baths, a sports centre, the alter for sacrificing animals, a temple to Greek Gods, a Christian temple, the jail, water storage tanks and the residential districts all in good enough condition to see what they were for. The city had a sewer system connected to a drainage system for the various pubic communal toilets (which are in good repair) and the water system for the baths. The mosaic tiles on the floors of the baths are still in good shape.
After leaving the ruins we stopped for tea, then drove to Setif, to spend the night at the Hotel El Kenz. The city is not much more inspiring close up than was from the road - most streets are lined with look-alike apartment blocks. The hotel is newer than the one last night with basic but comfortable rooms.
We walked to an internet café a few blocks away, but didn't get much done as the internet was so slow that mail would time out before being sent. Faycal left us there as he had some things he had to do, so Leila and I walked back to the hotel where we had tea then a light dinner. She wants badly to make a career in tourism, so we talked for quite awhile about what tourists look for in a guide. Her English, both spoken and understood, was better when she relaxed. I think part of her problem is nervousness - I suspect I'm her first assignment! There is no government support for tourism in advertising or education. To learn to be a guide it is necessary to do so on the go.
I've not mentioned weather, but it has been hot and sunny. This is amazing to the guide and driver, as it is rainy season here.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
My wake up was the call to prayer from a nearby mosque at 4:30 am. I'd been in a deep dream about our former home in Canada where we had animals, and when I awoke my thought was that the cow was in trouble! I couldn't get back to sleep, so caught up on the computer. We were on the road by 8:30 AM, and with a stop for lunch completed the tedious drive to Algiers by 3:30 PM. We headed directly to the Kasbah, which required a police permit for me to enter. A local guide, a jolly fellow, was retained to give us the tour starting from the top down.
I'd expected a bustling area, but after the earthquake three years ago wiped out a number of buildings and severely damaged others the population has decrease tremendously. With the decay in the rest of the buildings the entire area is at risk. The oldest mosque, build in 1626 is there and being restored, along with a number of other historic buildings.
The Turks built the upper Kasbah during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, and the Spanish built the lower section. The French then sliced off the Kasbah from the sea when they did road construction. Garbage pickup is by donkey, as no vehicle can get up and down the steps, and along the narrow passageways.
Faycal met us at the bottom with the car and we drove back to the Sofitel. They have laid on a tour for me outside of Algiers tomorrow, to take me up until airport time when hopefully my flight will still be scheduled. Dinner was beer and bocas again - I have to top up, as drought is coming!