Or: How I Became a Legitimate Travel Writer In the Eyes of the Algerian Government
I awake in my youth hostel dorm in Almeria, and start to pack my bindle before I set myself adrift on the Mediterranean, with hopes of reaching Africa. It is to be my first new continent since I visited Colombia last year, and I am eager to try out my French and Arabic in the city of Oran, Algeria. The night before, I paid for an official Hostelling International card at the reception desk, where the night guard told me I could take pick up the laminated ID upon check-out. When I give the woman my key, however, the card is not yet printed and I have 45 minutes to make it to the terminal before the ferry check-in process closes. I stand hovering over the woman as she types in my information, and eventually she asks me if I would perhaps like to have breakfast while I wait. I do not want to annoy her, but seeing as I could miss my ship I figure haste was at the very least the order of my day. I did not feel hungry, but I conclude I can find a way to smuggle a part of the breakfast buffet out of the hostel for lunch.
Though simple, the buffet has toast, some sort of fish and nut pate, and slices of pepperoni, all of which I wrap in multiple layers of paper place-mats and conceal in my bag. No one expects a thing, or cares, and the only person who sees me is an elderly paralyzed woman in a wheelchair who, between accepting spoonfuls of yogurt from her husband, gives me a small, complicit smile. Or her face is just like that. I prefer to think the former is the case.
I wait by reception for another five minutes until the Spanish receptionist finishes, apologizing that the night guard doesn’t know how to make the cards which is why I had to wait around. I told her it wasn’t a problem, but I might need a cab to the ferry terminal. She smiles, picking up the phone, and presses a number.
“Si,” she says simply, putting the receiver down. “It will be outside in two minutes.”
Sure enough, no sooner do I set my backpack on the curb outside than a cab comes around the corner; I arrive at the terminal with fifteen minutes to spare.
I pick up my ticket at the booth with no trouble, but now have over an hour to wait until boarding starts at 10 am. I think that maybe I will loiter near the terminal, by the beach, as they prepare the vessel. When I step outside, a young African man calls to me and asks if I speak English. I tell him I do, and well enough seeing as I’m American. He asks me where the bus station is, as he is trying to get to a city called Roquetas de Mar. I tell him he is in luck, because the bus station is one of the very few things I do know the location of in this town, and it just so happens to be close to where I am going, which is absolutely anywhere as long as I can get back to the terminal within an hour and a half.
The walk to the bus terminal is twenty minutes, so I learn quite a few things about the man in that time. His name is Mohammed, and he is from the Gambia. He has been traveling for seven months through Senegal, Mali, Morocco, and Algeria, and he speaks four languages. Of the four languages he knows, English is the only one I have ever heard of before. When we come to the bridge that crosses over the train tracks to the bus station, we shake hands and I wish him safe travels. From there, I stop by the beach before returning to the terminal, wishing I had asked Mohammed to teach me a word or two in his native language or get his number so that I could reach out when I get to the Gambia, hopefully later on this year.
I spend most of the ferry trip to Algeria reading. The ferry is peppered with barefoot and besocked Algerians on blankets and bedrolls, intent on spending the day falling asleep to the Mediterranean sway. All the good sleeping places are taken before I decide I’d like to sleep as well, and so I have to make my own on the hardwood below a porthole. I have no trouble sleeping but when I wake up the arm I was using as a pillow is deader to the world that I have ever been. I shake it for about fifteen minutes, and the blood returning to my arm feels like a hundred tiny pin pricks. Outside, the water behind the boat churns in light blue and white, while the rest of the sea is only a shade lighter than open ocean. Light gray clouds shield the entirety of the sky, giving the whole trip an eerie undercurrent, as if a storm is brewing. However, not a drop falls from the sky, and in fact passengers begin to pour onto the deck to watch Algeria emerge from the mist.
When we dock at Oran, I am one in a line of only about thirty pedestrians from the ferry, and virtually the only foreigner. The port security officer immediately pulls me aside and begins flipping through my passport, presumably for a visa. I am told to sit down at a bench in the corner where I smile non-threateningly, as I always do while walking through immigration. I can tell almost immediately this won’t be any old border crossing, as the female border security officer calls more and more agents over to look at my passport. They don’t seem suspicious, just curious.
The last person who comes over introduces himself as Officer Salah, chief of port security. Though, he looks more like a detective. He is clean-shaven, and his muscular arms and torso fit perfectly into a beige buttoned-up shirt. He makes direct eye contact with me the entire time, yet manages to be amiable and affable. The officer asks for my phone, with my hostel reservation pulled up. He assures me that he is only here for my protection, and wants to make sure I get to my destination safely. I begin to get nervous when I realize there is only a phone number and a street name on my reservation, as I assume this will make me look suspicious. Who washes up on the shore of North Africa without friends, family, or even a complete address? Nonetheless, the female officer takes my phone in order to call the property and find the address. For the third time, Salah says he is “here to keep me safe, because outside the terminal it can be…” He trails off. I am not sure if he just doesn’t know the English word for what he wants to say, or if he is afraid to say what he really thinks of his city.
It is only then that I start to wonder what I got myself into by coming here.
They seem to be less afraid of me, and more afraid of what Algeria will do to me. No doubt, it is unusual for a white kid to wash up at the docks in North Africa, with no contacts but a 6-dollar hostel reservation that may or may not truly exist. A nervous shiver goes through me, and I hope I get through this. The officer asks me about my visa, an unusual 2-year visa not commonly given to tourists. He does not seem suspicious but rather impressed, asking me what I gave to the Algerian consulate in New York to warrant me getting a longer validity period. He explains that, generally, tourist visas are only issued for 90 days, so I must have made a good impression at the consulate. I explain that maybe the guy felt bad, as I had to go back to the consulate four times before I had the right materials to apply for the visa. The officer laughs, as if he knows bureaucracy well. He expresses his wish to travel to New York one day. He is a big Frank Sinatra fan and hears it is a beautiful city. I tell him it’s ok, but there are definitely better cities in America. Not to mention that New York, like a human body that replaces all of its cells with new ones every seven years, changes often to the point that the New York of Frank Sinatra was probably at least eight or nine New Yorks ago. I don’t tell him this part, both because he wouldn’t understand my explanation and because I didn’t want to let him down. Let him dream the streets are paved with gold; it’s no skin off my nose.
He asks what I do, and since I am no longer a student I tell him I recently graduated and am now a travel writer. His female colleague asks for my identification card, and I give them my student card which they look at admiringly. They show no interest in seeing my driver’s license. She whispers to him in Frerabic–the brother tongue of Parisian French and Arabic–how they think it is a Great American school. I was told having a UConn degree would open doors for me, I was not told that having an expired student card in my wallet would gain me the endless respect of Algerian customs and border patrol. Go Huskies, I guess.
One of the cops who doesn’t speak English joins me at the bench, and waves me to the immigration post where I am to collect my passport, school identification card, and cell phone which have all been circulating among a dozen fascinated border patrol agents for ten minutes. I stand there for five more minutes, as they argue back and forth whether to give me a tourist stamp or a business stamp, which regulation says I need for a two-year visa despite it being marked as “tourist.” In the end, I am not sure which side wins, but I offer a shukran and a merci and hope that I will not be questioned upon leaving Algeria for my suspicious stamp, courtesy of Officer Salah Port Division.
I go through the customs scan, and get frisked as the Officer walks in front of me. He asks if they do this in the US, and I say the patting down procedure is the same everywhere. He chuckles, as if he doesn't believe a great country like America would barbarically fondle foreigners. Once I clear customs, he walks me to a man leaning on his car in the parking lot. Salah gives a card with the Arabic address of my hostel to the driver, and instructs him to drive me to the bank and then to my hostel. His body language says that it is a personal favor to him, as he puts his hands sincerely over his heart. The driver agrees to take me, and I say goodbye and shukran jazilan to Officer Salah, who weirdly looks sad to see me go. I tell him I’ll catch him in New York as he waves goodbye.
The driver does not take me to the bank, which ends up being a wise choice. Instead, we go straight to the hostel located on Rue Zahdour Mohamed, the houses on which are marked by messy, faded spray paint. After asking three locals if we are on the right street, and where building number nine is located, we come to my hostel which has a cardboard sign with its name, in addition to a dark shadow of a “9” that once more clearly denoted the location. I give the driver 5 USD, as I have no Algerian dinars to my name. He seems content and drives away after ringing the doorbell and watching me safely enter the hostel as I am welcomed inside.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.