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.