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.

Redux or Reflux?

I just flew into Algiers this weekend, and boy are my arms tired! Ha! Landed in the drizzling rain, made it through security (the guard, seeing that I'm American, said, "uh, wel-come, in Algerie," in English will a big silly smile, which was nice of him), walked through the full-body screener, and got some dinars out of the ATM - a new ATM I might add, and this time it didn't seem like I got the last money in the place. After navigating my way through the shark-infested waters of the airport lobby ("you need a taxi? I change money. you need money? taxi? taxi? taxi?") I found the official taxi stand and got in a decrepit old Renault. We got on the road. I haggled about the price, asked about the weather, and then something popped on the roof of the car. We pulled over to find that his taxi sign had come undone. He cursed. I got out the duct tape. We fixed the sign. He became friendly.

So I'm back at the Glycines. The internet finally works. I have a new phone ("sir, your account goes dormant after three months, and this SIM card hasn't been used in two years"), a new local ATM, and a new DVD store. Same Glycines menu, same little cell, same bottle shop, and same poisonous air. Not sure how to conclude this, so I'll take a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously said, "I think this is a good place to stop."