Friday, February 26, 2010

Ça Gère l'Étagère!

And now, Tipaza. A small town 70km from Algiers along the coast, known for ruins from the Roman period. Back in ye olde times it was a fairly extensive port town, crashing down the hills to the sea. The site, the ruins still there at Tipaza, was much larger and more beautiful than I expected. Here are some photos:

And just a short skip from Tipaza is the Mausoleum of the Mauritanian, also called The Tomb of the Christian. No one knows when it was built or why. It is a big circular pyramid. We climbed to the top of it, of course.

That last picture features Ahcène crouching, Hilary the woman in the back, Mounira the woman in the front, and of course myself, the range of mountains off to the left. They too are Glycinards. It was a great day of sight-seeing in Algeria, completely unexpected.

Then some asshole rear-ended us at a stop sign. As it was a rental car and this is Algeria, this was not what you would think of as routine. Turns out the guy's insurance somehow doesn't cover accidents, or some such thing. So we had to have him follow us back to Algiers to the rental agency, where they would go over the damage and figure out how he would pay. Ok. What we didn't count on was the dude's old pickup breaking down on the way. After poking around for quite a while in the engine (alas, my Civic training didn't get me very far) we managed to take some identity cards as collateral and went on our way. Sitting in the car behind the broken-down truck:

So five hours and 60km after we got hit we were back home. So I can recommend without hesitation visiting Tipaza, but not renting a car or driving in Algeria. Maybe you can chopper in.

Ça gère la fougère!

Wow, how quickly a month goes by when you're not writing a blog. Amazing.

Went again to Oran, this time on the train. I do love to take the train to Oran, the countryside is beautifully green and varied here, with that iron-rich red dirt that we all love from Hawaii. At least I think it all comes from Hawaii. The visit was pretty standard: discos, cabarets, seafood, beer, with the addition this time of a nice program put on by an Algerian dance troupe in collaboration with the US Embassy. It was a blend of classical ballet-ish and hip-hop dancing, and was really cool. I met the two Americans, from a ballet (I think) troupe in New York called Battery. They were nice, and it was a great event. No pictures of it, though, but picture an old, small theater complete with deep red curtains and carved friezes and box seats. We sat in box seats. Here is a nice picture of the exterior:

And this is "Calentica:"

Calentica is essentially mashed chickpeas mixed with something else sticky and baked. Around 7:30am, when you're tired from a night of Cabaret-ing, you go to the working-class section of town and eat calentica in sandwich form, steaming hot and dripping all over. Oranis say it soaks up all the booze and lets you sleep when you would normally be getting up. It works, too. It is sold by an old man from a cart like this:

About five hours after eating the calentica, after a night at the cabaret listening to the best that the underground Rai world has to offer, we were on the train back to Algiers. Second class. First class is all of two dollars more expensive, but you're treated like a king. For essentially the same price, second class sucks. I slept all over the poor bastard who got crammed on the bench next to me.

Algiers has been more of the same. Some fun things: it was so windy the other day that a gust tore the vent/moon roof off of the bus I was on. You know that thing in the ceiling that is partially opened to allow some air through the bus. Right off, flew back into the street. Thankfully no one was behind us. We stopped and the money man jumped off, grabbed the thing, and just tossed it into the back. Ma lesh!

Also, I eat pizza or "covered pizza" from this little shop across the street from the Bibliotheque nearly every day, and have become pretty friendly with the dudes there. A slice of pizza or a square of the pastry/pizza/pie thing will run you about 30 cents, but you need to eat two or three, still the best deal in town and delicious. They put mayo on the pizza. I won't explain any further. The other day I was eating a bit late and there was no one in there, so I was chatting to the guy, and because I'm lazy I'll sum up by saying he was very disappointed that I won't be joining him in heaven, but remains open to helping me with the conversion process whenever I finally come to my senses.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Things proceed as normal here in the White City, although it is perhaps more of a gray these days. A good scrubbing could really make these wall shine. Maybe some new white wash. A little blue paint here and there. If one could only redirect some of that oil money out of various private Swiss accounts...

I've been at the National Library, where I was warmly received by all but the new guy - doesn't he know that I have a special relationship with the library and don't need a card or justification for being there or an escort to the seats? I mean, really, asking for identification and permission to use the archives? Good thing my old buddies were hanging out and saw me at the door, haggling to get it. But the new security and I made up, I bought him a coffee at the little cafe, and he now waves me through like the good ol' days. Ah Algiers, where there's little a friendly demeanor, a couple of cigarettes, and the implicit threat of predator drone strikes for casual misunderstandings can't get you.

But the press is all in a tizzy right now, as the number of scandals continues to mount. I won't go into all the sordid details of Algeria's loss to Egypt in the semi-finals of the Africa's Cup tournament - I'll only say that the generalized Algerian loathing for the referee of that match seems to be justified, as the African Football association is investigating him on charges of match fixing. Try talking to a stranger about something other than football, you'll get nowhere unless you bring up... of the other huge scandals rocking the elite here in Algeria: that of the new highway, where it seems that not only were contractors buying influence and winning contracts by giving gifts to the people in charge (something us Americans can relate to), and also the slightly larger scandal of Sonatrach, the national energy conglomerate (mostly oil and natural gas, but also now water desalinization plants and a number of other industries - they are well diversified). It seems that Sonatrach, the 11th largest oil company in the world and the largest in Africa, has been operating largely under the table as concerns contracts for everything from oil exploration to the construction of swimming pools. This is not surprising coming from the oil industry - the most corrupt industry on the planet? - but it is surprising that the press in Algeria has been going after the scandal so vigorously. We'll see if the coverage and popular discontent translate into anything like accountability or justice - few are holding out hopes: the oil industry essentially holds Algeria hostage, as the entire economy depends upon Sonatrach, so they largely dictate their terms. It is a national company, however, all the top brass are implicated, and there have already been new people appointed to leadership positions, so maybe there will be some kind of change. Probably not, though.

Sonatrach Scandal Fun for Americans can be found in the fact that one of the companies most implicated in the corruption is Brown, Root and Condor, a venture of Brown and Root company, which we all remember as a subsidiary of Halliburton, and part of Kellogg, Brown and Root. As we all remember, there are all kinds of scandals revolving around the BR label having to do with the Iraq war, when they won no-bid contracts and overcharged for oil and put in faulty wiring that killed a soldier in his shower.

It is also the company that tried to cover up the fact that a female employee had been gang-raped by her co-workers and then imprisoned in a shipping container. KBR somehow managed to lose the evidence and tried to deny the woman the opportunity to go to court because of the wording of her contract (they said it was "related to her employment" and thus covered by contract that stipulated she could not take them to court. Really). This was the case that led to Franken's amendment to withhold defense contracts from companies that don't allow their employees access to the courts for sexual assault and discrimination. The amendment was opposed by 30 Republican senators (including our buddy John Thune).

So that was the background to KBR and BR. KBR was also involved in a corruption scandal with Sonatrach here in Algeria in 2006, having to do with Natural Gas and price fixing. For their dealing with the oil sector of Sonatrach they dropped the Kellogg (the companies split when they split with Halliburton) and added the Condor, which indicated the Algerian partnership. And they again set about price fixing - exploiting loopholes in Sonatrach contract law, with the participation of the CEO and, allegedly, the Energy Minister who is in charge, along with a bunch of other guys.

In one of my favorite parts about the scandal, there was apparently a "consultant" who worked for a number of government agencies, who seems to have been involved in setting up the corrupt practices to begin with. This guy worked for a number of government agencies in the 1980s, was arrested and went to jail for 10 years (out of a 16 year sentence), and was immediately put in this "consulting" position to a number of agencies when he got out. No one said for sure, but it seems like this guy took the fall for a bunch of people in the government, and was rewarded for his discretion when he got out of the can. Now, he has a son who is the head of a financial services company in Switzerland, the same company that has allegedly been helping to launder the corrupt money into a variety of private Swiss accounts. The "consultant," upon the breaking of the scandal news, immediately fled to Switzerland. There has been no further word on if Algeria will try to extradite him to testify. Isn't it all too fun?

The Sonatrach logo also provides the press with any number of hand dollar-sign-like visual commentaries. Use your imagination.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

If You Aint the Lead Dog...

...the scenery never changes, says Lewis Grizzard.

The trip west, to Oran, while providing me with the chance to see a “real” Algerian cabaret* (unlike the poor facsimiles we have here in Algiers), also allowed me the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the north. I have previously taken the train to Oran, and there are some very beautiful spots, but the new highway stretches along a slightly different route, a slightly more gorgeous route.

There is a mountain pass that needs climbing, and at the top, driving in either direction, you are treated to views of lazy green plains – planted with a variety of grains, the slightly red earth of fallow fields contrasting sharply with the colors of the crops. These plains are framed in nearly every direction by mountains, and the effect is spectacular. Especially on the way back east from Oran, looking over my shoulder as the sun started going down, setting gently between the peaks and illuminating the fields below, I was struck by the extreme natural beauty that lies in Algeria. There is the coast, with beaches and the Mediterranean and hills spilling into the sea. There is the desert, whether rocky desolation or the undulating waves of dunes, broken only by the occasional oasis. But I am more partial to the mountains of the north, to the way they underline the landscape and enclose the plains. I spend most of my time in cities here, have only gotten away to see the countryside a few time, but each time I am amazed.

What is also amazing is that on my way to the library today, stopping as I always do at the bus stop to wait ten minutes and then walk on, a bus actually appeared. The right bus! What a treat it was. And I got into the library just as it started to rain. Then it stopped long enough for me to walk home. I'm starting to get suspicious...

*Note to those of you who raised their eyebrows at the mention of a “cabaret”: in Algeria, the cabaret is essentially a big room where people sit at tables and bands play and there is a small dance floor. The singer walks around soliciting money to play the songs you want. It is for fancy people. There is only bottle service. Everywhere you look is another be-suited energy minister or director of transportation or military brass. No sexy/funny show. No Liza Minnelli. The only thing reminiscent of 1920s Berlin is the booze, cigarettes, and generalized political corruption.

Monday, January 25, 2010

La Victoire

The country is again going crazy, as Algeria has just beaten Ivory Coast in their quarter-final match in the African Nations Cup. Ivory Coast was favored to win the whole thing, so it is quite an upset. For those poor souls out there who didn't get to see the match, it was quite dramatic, with Ivory Coast going ahead 2-1 with a few minutes to go, and Algeria tying it up to go to extra time in the final minute of regulation. Again, my photos are totally crummy, but here are a few short videos I shot of the turnabout right down the street about 15 minutes after the game. How many people do you think can fit into a two-door Renault? Don't forget about the trunk. Give up? The answer appears to be somewhere around 9...
Ok, the videos won't load, so you'll have to take my word for the craziness of the town at the moment, and I'll try the videos again tomorrow. 1, 2, 3 Viva l'Algérie!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

C'era una Volta il West

An hour into the trip we had finally left Algiers. Nothing like that 1pm Thursday traffic. But a trip to Oran for a weekend is always worth the journey, so we pressed on, rocking to all your old favorites: the Nuge, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, and a bunch of other, obscure ‘70s bands that seemingly only recorded for the Algerian market. Its like Hasselhoff being famous in Germany – ‘70s white-guy blues-rock is the coolest thing going for your not-so-casual Algerian rock-n-roll audience.

About two-thirds of the way into the trip – made nice and smooth by the new highway connecting (almost) Algiers and Oran (the world's largest current road-construction project), constructed by a Chinese firm (motto: “The new east-west highway strengthens the bonds of friendship between Algeria and China”) – we came to the point in the road where smooth sailing ended and construction began. Traffic on the highway was diverted to the old road, closer to the coast.

Or at least traffic that didn’t know any better. My friend, however, had heard tell that it was possible to bypass the blockade and get back on the completed section of highway. And indeed it was. We followed some trucks down a little dirt road, across a small bridge, and then back up to the highway. And there we were, a huge, open road with just us and construction workers completing bridges and off-ramps. On we sped, with no traffic to impede our progress, nothing in our way save the occasional huge chunk of concrete in the road, or a bunch of workers working, or the occasional truck barreling down on us – you know, the normal stuff.

It was interesting to see how the construction proceeded. The Chinese firm that won the contract arrived with all the tools and machines direct from China, and all the workers, too. The guys building the road lived in shipping containers stacked with bunk beds and set down by the side of the road. When one section of road was completed they just picked up the container and moved it along, keeping the workers right there in the middle of the action. We got glimpses of the containers as we drove through the uncompleted section of road, and we could see beds in one, and what looked like a little kitchen in another. There were satellite dishes on some of the containers, so I’m guessing they could watch TV. (And you thought shipping container homes were just for the green-homes set.) Power came from large gas generators plopped down next to the containers. I imagine the workers sign a contract and stay on for a year-long shift or so, moving with the work, sending their paychecks to families back home.

The unfinished highway eventually set us down right on the edge of town – a nice route as long as the police don’t stop you in there, or you hit a pile of rebar, or some other construction-related catastrophe. After having a little snack and a drink at a friend’s house we were off to the birthday party that brought everyone to Oran. It was dark, around 9pm, and as we drove the cars ahead of us started to swerve a little. A second later we saw the cause of the commotion: a man in a t-shirt dancing in the headlights. And I mean just a t-shirt. He was also holding a little plastic sack, but that wasn’t providing him with much coverage. A naked guy, dancing in the street. He seemed like he was having a great time, and the police van a few cars ahead of us didn’t seem to mind, either. O, Oran!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Break out your Tangos!*

A new report just found that violence after soccer games is much higher on the victorious side than on the vanquished. That is good, as Algeria just advanced to the next stage in the African Cup. How is this good, you ask. Because Algeria advanced with a draw. Phew. Not that you could tell from the fireworks, honking, and screaming that have been going on for three hours now. Too bad I can't channel this noise through the internets...if only there was some series of tubes I could use... In light of the aforementioned study, I can report that there seem to be no buildings or cars on fire, at least in the area of the city that I can see.

Since I'm too lazy to actually take pictures and upload them here, I'll post the following, from a friend who was here when Algeria first beat Egypt in World Cup qualifying play [edit: it turns out I'm not lazy, I went out in the streets with the kids, watched the show, but my pictures suck, and the following description is already written...ok, I am lazy]:

"When Algeria scored the first goal, the city went wild. We could hear people screaming in the streets, setting off fire crackers, and horns honking. Little did I know that this was only the warm-up act to what would follow. Long story short, Algeria won 3-1 and the minute the game ended, the city exploded. I don't use this word lightly. It was as though every single Algerian in the country had been watching and certainly everyone in Algiers because it was as though they had all been invited to a street party. People took the streets on foot and in cars, blasted music, draped flags on their cars and around their bodies, stuffed family members and friends (young and old, male and female) into their vehicles (and by vehicles, I mean their trunks, their hoods, and even on top of their cars). It was the most spontaneous outpouring of emotion and celebration I have ever seen. One would have thought Algeria won the entire World Cup, not some measly qualifying match. Because the women's corridor is street side, it was hard to even hear yourself think. So of course I had to investigate, although I must admit, I was a little scared because I have truly never seen anything like this in my life. I've included some pictures so you can get a small taste of what was going on here. And this was just outside the Gylcines. Not even in the center of town. This party of the people lasted from 10:30pm until 3 or 4am. Miraculously, I fell sleep somewhere around 2am out of sheer exhaustion."
And her pictures:

*Tango is Algeria's best** beer.
**"Best" means the one I can get readily.