Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mission Civilisatrice

To briefly wrap up the story that my pollution-and-(tuberculosis)common-cold-addled brain is quickly forgetting…

There we were, stranded in Timimoun, car barely operational and a long, long bus ride through the early morning Sahara ahead of us. We had gone to the mechanic, who told us he couldn’t fix the car, had come back to the White Sisters’ place expecting to pack up and go, ran into the handyman who was fixing the pipes, he took us to his buddy who is a mechanic, they played around with the car, I road in the oldest Renault on the road (it shifted from the middle of the dashboard, a lever pointing straight out between the driver and passenger), and we ended up by leaving the car there with the news that they would have to send a chunk of the engine by plane to Algiers.

Thankfully, before Jean could get too stuck on the idea of taking the bus at some ungodly hour in the morning, we managed to convince him that the taxi collectif would be a much better idea, and that Marek and I could pay for it. So we found a taxi and hired it to Beni Abbes. It cost us about $60 for 6000km. Probably not too bad (but really, how would I know?)

We bid farewell to the Soeurs and dusty Timimoun and hit the road. At one point, in the middle of the desert with nothing around our driver started slowing down. He kept slowing and pulled to the side of the road, all without a word. In the distance I could see a truckload of his buddies driving over to beat, rob, and leave us exposed to wither and waste away in the desert...but it was just a mirage, you know how those things tend to happen in the desert. Really he was just pulling over to pray. He took his rug out, found a spot off the road and made his afternoon prayers.

After the most intense security check outside of an American airport we were let into Beni Abbes. The town is built on a river that flows from Morocco, and it was actually filled with moving water. It is a true desert oasis, right on the frontier between the “rock” desert and the “sand” desert. Climb a high dune near town and you can look forever east over the dunes, then turn west and see the river recede greenly into the rocks.

Well, I stayed there among the dunes and rocks and monks and ghost of Charles de Foucauld for a week or so. Marek started his Arabic lessons. Jean went back to Timimoun to wait on the car.

And I saw this:

Eventually I got a call from Jean that the car was going to take at least “many more days,” and took the opportunity to find a bus. That bus left at 5 in the morning and stopped at a cruddy little (but slightly bigger) town called Bechar where I had to find a new bus to Algiers. That bus left at 4pm. It took 16 hours. Don’t let any romantic notions about seeing the countryside or meeting the locals creep into that head of yours. Sixteen hours on an overnight bus is an uncomfortable sit among equally uncomfortable, angry strangers.

And that concluded it. I got a taxi ride home with the Angriest Man in Algiers; was momentarily locked out of the Glycines; took a long, hot shower; and went to sleep.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Post With No Pictures (just so you know how good you've got it)

I got three things today:
1) soaked
2) an umbrella
I took advantage of a brief lull in the intense Algiers showers to run out on some errands. I knew I ran a risk. The sky loves to rain here, and it had been pouring all morning. One of my tasks, yes, was to buy an umbrella. I managed to check that off the list, the wet, unreadable list, after the skies opened before I found a guy on the street selling one. So I bought the first umbrella I saw, and I dare say that I got the ass-kickin'est $3 umbrella this side of Bangalore. Or maybe not. I will send you a picture when I get them uploaded. I did manage to get the umbrella operational before the real deluge happened.

I was taking a short-cut through one of the hospital campuses when the rain fell harder than I have ever seen. Really. Even with the king of umbrellas I felt compelled, as did everyone else, to take refuge under the awning of a building. It lasted ten minutes or so and was like the kind of pressure you dream about for your home shower. And I'm not going to sit here and criticize the Algiers infrastructure for having senseless road design for a place that gets this much rain...sorry, I said "road." Riverbed would be more accurate. Or canal, as the presence of sidewalks (for the cars to park on) allows the water to be channeled more directly at pedestrians.

That was pretty spectacular, and I was happy to have witnessed it (and my feet stayed dry! Hooray for waterproofing spray!). But then I got to the other side of the campus, and the door was locked. I know, that sounds strange. Here in Algeria everything has a locking door and a doorman. The University. My home. Banks. Bookstores. The hospital. And this doorman had decided to lock up and take off. So there is a steel gate with slats, so both those wanting in and those wanting out could see where they needed to be but not get there. Really. Locked inside the hospital. I waited for about 15 minutes before finally deciding to scout the perimeter, which led me to find a guy by a door who let me out. He slammed the door behind me and when I turned to look it was just a little spot of steel in a four-story cement wall. But I was free! Its like they didn't want to let anyone out before they were sure we all contracted something horrid.

3) my récépissé
Which is like a receipt for the carte de residence. Or like a provisional carte. It is a piece of paper that says I can stay in the country for another three months while they fix me up a carte. It has my picture stapled to it, so you know that shit's for real. I'll get you a picture of that, too. What this means is that I get to successfully leave the country and, supposedly, successfully reenter. What I think this really means is that at the airport, when I want to come back to Algiers at the beginning of January, I will go to pick up my boarding pass and the person will ask to see my visa. I will present the person with this récépissé (it is all in Arabic) and argue through two and maybe three layers of hierarchy that it really says I should be let back into the country and it is really valid FROM Nov. 22, not UNTIL Nov. 22. They will not issue me a boarding pass in time for the flight, I will have to talk to some kind of "international desk" and various police/security officers will examine my paper. I will get frustrated but will keep calm. It will take 32 hours to get all straightened out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving all!

We should all be happy to know that one of the French papers I sometimes read (I forget which, exactly) today named Thanksgiving the best American holiday, as it managed to break free of the Great Commercial Cult that ensnares our other holidays.

Just so everyone knows, I did have a glass of wine with dinner to celebrate, but kept it to that as I've been spending – and plan to spend - the rest of the day in bed, sick. How many hours can one man sleep in two days? It was 18 yesterday, and we're shooting for lucky 13 today...I'll be sure to keep you all posted.

Anyway, the point of it all is that I hope that right about now everyone is stuffing his/her face with Thanksgiving goodness. Have an extra (piece of) pie for me...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Controlling the means of production

Since this is "the most popular blog that I have ever written for," I figured it would be a good forum for the dissemination of good music. Everyone should go download and love the new sungiant album: http://www.anachronatron.blogspot.com/ Really though, I've listened to it like seven times in a row now, and its friggin' great.

In other news, everyone should be happy to know that I have neither tuberculosis nor syphilis. I am now cleared (medically, not administratively) to live in Algeria. I also got to keep my chest x-ray, which is pretty fun. Does everyone have a family of pixies living in their lungs? I assume they are there to help...

Friday, November 16, 2007


Leaving Ghardia going south you start to get into a mixed rock and sand desert, driving along side of the Grand Erg Occidental (Ergs are the sandy dune-y parts of the Sahara). The sand is very fine and almost soft. This sand also blows all the way to the Canary Islands.

We stopped in El Goléa (also known as El Meniaa) to see the sights. The sights include a museum containing artifacts from archaeological digs around the area and a bunch of fossils from when the Sahara was a big lake. It is kind of a surprising museum, just in the fact that it exists at all. They play a one-minute loop of Beethoven’s Ninth all day long. No one goes in. In the lobby I did get a look at a coffee table book of all the different varieties of date palms, one variety per page. It was 400 some pages long.

We then drove to a shanty-town (almost) on the outskirts of the city. After plowing our way through the sand-dirt streets between the mudbrick buildings we finally made it to the abandoned (mostly) church and graveyard where Charles de Foucauld is buried.

(Briefly, de Foucauld was a French army officer turned missionary who was one of the first whities to go live out in the Sahara. He set up hermitages in Beni Abbès and in the mountains outside Tamanrasset, from where he studied languages and customs of the natives while making the occasional conversion. He also set all kinds of information about the defensive capabilities of the indigenous populations to the French military, had weapons storehouses and generally acted like an advanced scout for the armed colonization of the Sahara. He was killed in Tamanrasset by a group who wanted to steal his massive cache of weapons. Frère Charles de Foucauld de Jesus, indeed.)

He has a pretty nice grave, too, in a churchyard where everyone else gets a cement rectangle filled with rocks, and sometimes a bush of some kind.

We stopped off at the Soeurs Blanches for the catholics amongst us to have mass, and to look in the garden. Jean was surprised and disappointed that they didn’t offer us any lunch.

Cruising along nicely – Marek finally wrested controls from Jean and we topped 100km/h – when a funny (but not ha ha funny) noise comes from the engine. As we pull to the side of the road the car quits. Here we are, then, stuck on the side of some crappy road in the desert 1700km from Algiers, and 70km from Timimoun, the nearest town. The engine coolant container sprung a leak, we overheated and then the engine seized up in some way we can’t fix. So, like anyone out in the desert, we flagged down the first truck that came lumbering down the road. Jean had a tow-rope in the back of the car and we tied it off.

Jean stayed in the car to steer and press the brake, while Marek and myself rode up in the truck with the drivers. The two guys generally thought it was a riot that a Pole, an American, and an old Frenchie were out in the desert, just for fun.

It was tough making conversation, because one guy didn’t speak any French, one guy kind-of spoke it and neither Marek nor myself know Algerian Arabic. But here are some statements: the road here is very dangerous, due to, for lack of a better word, the Mafia. There is no law out here (he chuckled when I asked about the police and gendarmerie). Algeria is “shit,” as there is no work and no money to be had. He repeated this twice. If we want fun for tourism, we shouldn’t go to Beni Abbès or these little towns out here, but to the cities like Tamanrasset or Oran. Dude loved Oran. Tourists just end up “eating money.” People get killed out here on the road, really, its dangerous, just like the gas in the tanker behind us, “Pchwewww!!” (or some other exploding noise).

We had to stop a few times to readjust the rope, but the two guys took us all the way to Timimoun. We had to stop in the outskirts of town, because it is illegal for big trucks to enter the city itself. The guys didn’t accept any money as payment.

Jean had the phone number of the Soeurs Blanches in Timimoun, and while we waited he worked on the car, complete with help from nearly every Algerian who walked by. It was very important during this period that Marek and I “watch the car!” Even though there are only two doors and we were standing right there. So I stood against the back of the car and watched a full-scale football match in an empty lot. Played on sand/dirt and with a flat ball, the guys were good.

Jean got the car to run, although just barely, and we cruised down into the centre-ville. Keep in mind, centre ville is only a name, as this is a pretty little town. We got to see some of the sights (odd architecture down here, as Jean said “this is the Mali part of Algeria. The country is too big to have just one Algeria.”) Also learned that the people in this part of the desert long ago perfected underground water piping and water towers.

The Soeur Blanche showed up and we walked back to the house, as the mechanic was closed for the evening. There were three “sisters” living in the house, and they fed us and made us feel at home, which was nice because we could have still been pushing the car on the road somewhere. Marek wanted me to quote him: “We have no idea where we’ll be sleeping tomorrow, but hey, at least we’re still alive.” Now say that again in a thick Polish accent, its way funnier that way.

One last note: the good sisters in Timimoun have the best soap-holder I’ve seen. There is a circular magnet that one jams into the bar, which allows one to suspend the soap from a little magnetic gallows that protrudes from the wall. No wet mushy soap! No fumbling for the bar!

Monday, November 12, 2007

News Flash!

Canadians = Jerks. According to an article in the Nov. 5, 2007 New Yorker, Canadians still club baby seals, skin them, and sell the pelts. It is illegal to watch this without government permission. Yes, Canadians are seal-clubbers, and they don't want you to know it. What other dirty secrets will come out of the Great White North? The super-secret "Beat up a Baby Celebration?" The seldom-reported "Punch a Bunny Festival?" We'll have to wait and see...

Gotta be the Freak o' the Week

A note to start with: when you call a French guy on Tuesday to make plans to leave on a trip, and he tells you that you will leave next Thursday at 5am, what he really means is the coming up Thursday at 5am. Don’t be fooled, “prochain” is a slippery concept, both “upcoming” and “next.” And don’t be surprised, then, when on that coming up Thursday morning you are awoken by a Polish priest knocking on your door at 5:40am and then looking confused when you open it in your underwear.

But all in all it is not a bad way to start a trip you know nothing about. By the time you actually wake up and realize that you are on the road into the Algerian desert with an elderly French man and a young Polish priest, neither of whom you really know, its too late to have any preparation anxiety, and you can promptly fall asleep in the back seat.

Once it was light enough to really take a good look out the window of the 1970s-era Renault Espress we were in the mountains on the northern coast. Dense with vegetation, and soggy from the week straight of rain, the green mountain pass reminded me of the view from a distance of the Black Hills in South Dakota: so green, in so many shades, that you really could mistake it for some darker color. The drive through the pass was dramatic, as the rain clouds were stuck there, creating swirling mist and a moisture not yet coalesced into rain.

We had to take the route straight south from Algiers instead of the normal one that veers to the west because the roads in that direction had been cut off by flooding inland. While it does rain quite often here during the winter, the downpours we had were out of the ordinary.

Through the mountains we came down onto an arid plain, the Mitidja. The descent was too dense with fog to see much, but things got progressively less green as we leveled off and pushed south, kind of like you would expect, I guess. What I did not expect was that in many places it looked like the Badlands…so thus far in my sleep-deprived mind my personal Matrix-machine is malfunctioning and looping me back to a rainy trip back home from the grandparents’ house in Rapid City. I hate the sun!

We stopped and ate at the “Algerian McDo[nalds’]” as Marek, the Polish priest, says. What this meant was that we pulled off the road to a small building at which we ordered skewered mutton brochettes, french fries, and a spicy Algerian soup, all complete with as much bread (baguettes, as always) as one can eat. It was all pretty delicious, and fun since it was grilled literally right in front of our table.

The desert of rocks ¬– for we are not in the dunes as yet – is pretty odd landscape. It is a true desert, even more uninviting than the dunes, with nothing but flat-topped, squared-off hills of rock jutting up from the flat land.

After 10 hours in the car we made it to Ghardia, a city built into a ravine carved into the ground by a river. We actually drove down to get to it. You could look from the road across miles and miles of country and not see a thing, but as you approach the canyon reveals itself and there’s a city down there. It is a pretty fun effect, like you get to see inside the seams of the earth or something, and there’s activity down there.

The city itself is fairly divided between the “Arab” and Mozabite communities. The Mozabites are a Berber group that builds A-shaped minarets on their mosques. The men wear distinctive pants that are super baggy in the crotch and pleated, along with a white skull-cap. Once a woman gets married she can only leave the house when completely covered except for one eye. Only one, though. But at least we saw women, which was a first since we left Algiers. Really, I did not think it possible to drive through multiple towns, for 10 hours, and not see a single female, but it is. As our host in Ghardia said, “yep, it’s much different from Algiers out here.”

The town itself is very cute. The main square was filled with people getting ready for evening prayer, and the vegetable/fruit/food section of the market was pretty amazing. Especially the fish area. Fish in the desert, why not. The wonders of modern refrigerated container shipping. At night many of the mosques put a green light up in the minaret (green is the color of Islam), which is a pretty cool sight because the rest of the town is completely dark. Just moonlight and green-lit lighthouses. Make up any “steering people away from the rocky shores of impiousness” metaphor you want.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

There's Gold in Dem Der Hills!

25 hours of sitting on, and waiting for, busses later, I'm back at the Glycines. Let me tell you that night busses are not all they're cracked up to be, whatever that is. But stay tuned for more.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sand is everywhere

After three days of driving south, including 400km in a taxi after our car broke down, and old French man, a Polish priest-in-training, and I finally made it to the oasis of Beni Abbès. More after I get back to Algiers, In'cha'allah.