Outside in the wild Arab morning, I slip my keys under the door, walk to the main drag, and hail a cab, asking the driver to take me to the matar. He speaks little English, but points to his white knit kufi and says he believes in he codes of Islam in Frenglish, completely unprompted. I tell him that’s great, and the rest of the drive we chat about the beauty of Algeria, the food, and the people. He is nice, but charges me 1000 dinars for the 20-minute airport ride ($5.50 USD), as I forgot to tell him I believe in the code of the taxi meter. Thankfully, what he charged was not too far above market; I have been scammed for much more in taxi cabs the world over, from Vegas to Vietnam. If I ever go bankrupt, it’ll be because I was too lazy to negotiate a fare, or else forgot to ask the driver to turn the meter on. I come from the Uber generation, what else can be said?
I am happy to give the man my money, as I know I can’t unload my dinars at a fair rate anyway. In the airport, I pass through immigration and am welcomed to Algeria by the officer, despite leaving Algeria and not entering. Not once have I been welcomed to a place both on arrival and exit. Hospitality in Algeria knows no bounds and can even be nonsensical at times like this. Grabbing my passport, I enter the terminal before I realize that all of the restaurants, duty free stores, and exchanges were by the entrance, and I would have to be welcomed a once again back into Algeria if I wanted to get rid of my money. Thankfully, there is a man selling stale pain au chocolat croissants and juice by the gate, so I get rid of some of my dinar coins and eat until my Air Algerie flight to Barcelona begins boarding.
* * *
An almost comically short flight takes me to terminal two in Barcelona, and I thought about how no sane tourist would take the more expensive seven-hour ferry, as I had done on my way into Oran. However, I am no sane tourist. Before I leave the airport, I try to exchange as many dinars as I can into Euros, but they will not accept around 1200 of my dinars because the bills are ripped or the coins are in small denominations. Thankfully, the money does not go to waste, as there happens to be an Algerian woman behind me at the exchange who is happy to take my money for when she returns to her motherland. As for me, I am on a mission to find my mother. Both of my parental figures are off in a McDonald’s somewhere in Barcelona, sipping overpriced Cokes, so I head to the metro. Spain is hot, and the metro is hotter. I change trains three times, and wind up sweating profusely at the McDonald’s. The three of us grab lunch and I recount my last two days’ voyage to North Africa.
Barcelona, in the opinion of this cynical, sweaty American backpacker, gives the impression of being Spain’s New York, in the worst possible way. The next few days we spend eating overpriced food, and staying in an overpriced hostel, as the heat dries us like raisins. We spend a morning on the beach, which is practically the only free thing in the city, and watch the 2-Euro coldcervezacoldbeer-men duck behind the tanning, generally topless, tourists whenever the cops drive by on their golf cart. The days pass in Picasso-like abstraction as we three Bernabeis make the most of our remaining family time sipping reunion sangria and lamenting our having left the beauteous and affordable south and west of Spain.
The owner of the $6-a-night hostel where I am to rest my head is named Nadjib. I know this because it is written on a small slip of paper, along with a phone number, courtesy of Officer Salah. I do not expect him to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and to speak in a strong English accent, but he is and he does. He welcomes me into the hostel, and talks with me for practically fifteen minutes about pickpockets, bus lines, restaurants, and tourist attractions. When I tell him I have no local money, he tells me he will try his best to get someone with sufficient Algerian dinars to find me and exchange my 80 bucks USD at a fair rate.
In Algeria, the exchange rates at banks differ dramatically from the rates available on the black market, or marche noir. As a result, giving your money to some guy with a wad of bills, as opposed to a proper bank or exchange teller, can potentially get you more than 50% more dinars for your dollar. I even look up the most current black market rate on Google and it is still not as good as the guy I meet offers me, as is common when inflation is anticipated by these freelance money-changers. Ultimately, this also means that the hostel that Booking.com tells me will be 6 dollars per night is less than 4 dollars per night, the absolute lowest price I have spent for a hostel to date. And what I receive for that price is impressive.
The entire hostel, from floor to roughly shoulder-height, has been covered with exquisite geometrical tiling, a boon during the blazing heat of day. Not to mention the hostel provides a large Gatorade dispenser of clean water, rubber slippers for the shower, and toilet paper for tourists such as myself who avoid the Middle-East-style hose. A locker and lock are provided, and it immediately becomes clear to me that this is not only the cheapest, but also the best value hostel I have ever booked. At night, after a money changer is brought to my door to deal, I go to exit the hostel and learn my key does not work. A Turkish guy staying in the room next to me happily lends me his key, and it becomes clear that the people I have met thus far in Algeria have also been the nicest. Where else would someone give you their hotel key?
For dinner, I walk to nearby El Bey Restaurant, which serves upmarket Algerian food with French influences. I accidentally order an appetizer of “Brique Algerienne,” when I ask the waiter in Frenglish to tell me what the most Algerian food is on the menu. I am not disappointed, as what I end up getting is a sort of meat-and-soft-cheese spring roll. I also get a lemonade cocktail (without alcohol, as this is a Muslim country) which is better than any lemonade I have had in my entire life. The top is foamy, like they added sour mix, and the base is sweet with fresh shavings of lemon pulp floating like white confetti in a snow globe.
The night passes smoothly enough, and my roommate gives me little more than a salaam and a smile, from which I gather he speaks neither English nor French. In the morning, I set out to see Oran as a tourist. To get the city center, I have to take the #29 bus from Avenue 40 des Martyrs and get off at the last stop. I wait in the shade of a convenience store for around ten minutes until the bus arrives and I board. The teenager selling postage stamp-sized tickets collects my money and gives me my change as we rumble along, the bus shuddering with every pothole. The kid selling tickets scrapes his fist full of coins like a guiro, playing what sounds like his own rhythm despite the myriad coin-boys in the city playing the same numismatic instrument all day and night. A blind person could know they are on the right bus by these rhythms, and by the way each kid shuffles the dinar coins.
No one, man or woman, seems offended when the bus swerves and I accidentally bump into their hips, hands, or butts, and men and women sit together and interact freely. No matter what you have heard, Muslim culture does not necessarily mean segregation of the sexes, hijaabs, and covering up as much skin as possible. To wear the hijaab is a choice for many Muslim women, and I meet a few women in Algeria who practice Islam but choose not to wear it. While there are so many new delights in Oran, perhaps the most shocking thing is how similar it is to the United States. I often say that people are people anywhere, and we all have the same wants, needs, and fears. A crowded city bus in Oran is perhaps most strange because it is like a crowded city bus anywhere: hop on, pay your fare, and try not to accidentally grope anyone.
When I arrive downtown, I walk by the city’s cathedral, which is not very busy for obvious reasons, but a handful of people are sitting on the front steps where people are meeting for breakfast, tea, or just to say hello. Next, I make a stop at the Plaza of the 1st of November, commemorating the day in 1954 when Algeria first began fighting for its independence from France. It is beautiful, calm, and pristine, despite being a major tram hub, though is most memorably home to Oran’s Performing Arts Center, a former French Opera house. This ornate building was built by the French in the early 20th century, and looms over the Plaza as if to demonstrate that the French still have influence over Algeria, despite the latter country’s decades-old independence.
In Oran, I struggle to find locals who does not speak French, and often people speak it to me automatically, even when I greet them, place an order, or tell them in which direction to drive in Arabic. This is fortuitous because my Arabic is terrible, and my French is slightly less so. This happens in a small cafeteria downtown, where the owner greets me with an ambivalent bonjour. I order m’simin, a sort of rolled-up crepe, and bismus, a brownie-sized cake that reminds me of my grandmother’s zucchini bread. Both are soaked in honey, and when I leave with a shukran jazilan I feel I have gained the respect of the owner when he gives me an Arabic afwan instead of a French de rien.
The day grows incredibly hot as I approach the seafront, where I get my magnificent midday view of the Mediterranean. People are lounging on the esplanade in the shade, and I start to think that I should get lunch to get out of the sun. I go to La Comete first, a French-Algerian restaurant, and then decide it is too expensive. So, I go to the Mauritania Cafe nearby to ring in my first African lunch. The waiters are all dressed in white dress shirts and bow ties, and some French radio station is playing in the background with occasional commercial breaks. When Toto’s “Africa” comes on, I sigh at the on-the-noseness of it all. Why do they listen to "Africa" in Africa? If I was reading this, as you are now, I would think that I was making this up. I swear that I am not.
The Mauritania Cafe has practically the exact same menu as La Comete, but a touch cheaper, so I order what the menu misspells as “Tournedos Chaussure” thinking there might be some poesie in eating "shoe meat" in a Muslim country where showing the soles of shoes is a sign of disrespect. I do not feel disrespected and, in fact, in the near-empty restaurant I have three people waiting on me: one is in charge of food, one is in charge of drink, and a third is in charge of tableware. The snailed-topped ‘shoes’ are ok, but with the meal I am served something that I later learn is hmiss, a delightfully spicy appetizer of diced peppers and other vegetables. I can say nothing about the dish, other than this: if it was around when I was a kid, I most certainly would have eaten more vegetables.
It is the hottest time of day, so I return to park “Le Petit Vichy” which I passed earlier after the Independence Plaza. There are cement benches in the shade, and I watch the park for a half hour before curling up and slowly drifting off to sleep. A moment later, I am jolted upright by a stray dog who has appeared a few feet from my head, and is making a big deal because two stray cats have come from the shadows to stalk him. A young couple at the bench across from me tries to contain their laughter at my rude awakening. I make eye contact with them and start laughing, too. The dog trots off to find the rest of his pack, and the cats move into his territory with their litter to take a nap in the shade.
I am certain I will not fall asleep again on the concrete bench, so I creep along the shadows to the station, buying a lemon ice from a bodega before climbing the sunny hill to the bus stop, next hopping into the shade of the surprisingly cool bus. Another eleven cents gets me to my hostel, which is also hot, so I lay on my bed till nightfall loving (Kerouac would say digging) the cool shadows and blinding sun of this glorious Middle East. This contrast is unlike anything I had ever felt or seen in a place, but reminded me of the red rocks of Utah spread out below a clear blue sky, where everything is either one or the other. In Oran, all becomes part of the dusty earth, except the light blue sea and sky.
During my afternoon siesta, the hostel owner knocks on my door to ask how my day in Oran was, and to recommend a restaurant for that evening. It is only when I tell him I haven’t paid yet that he says “yes, I do believe we should take care of that, too, seeing as your leaving early tomorrow.” Another twenty minutes of chatting ensues, where I finally pay him, and he goes off to draw me a map to find his favorite restaurant. As he is walking me through the map, I pull out my phone, zooming into the block he is depicting and find his restaurant in all of thirty seconds. The restaurant name is only written in Arabic on Google, and Nadjib seems taken aback that I can read Arabic, smiling sheepishly at having drawn an elaborate diagram that I made useless. To make up for this, I implore him to give me instructions on how to get a cab to the airport in the morning, which should prove useful information. He recommends YAssir, which I think is either Arabic for “hey, sir!” or “hey, juice!”, which Nadjib describes as the Algerian equivalent of Uber. I try to test the app by taking a YAssir to the restaurant, but no one picks me up and I just end up hailing a cab. In Oran, every other car is a cab, and so I didn’t worry about finding someone the following morning to take me to the airport.
The sun sets in the twenty-minute drive to Chekhshoukh restaurant, and I am eager to have some real Algerian food. I have noticed in practically every part of the world, most people will not suggest a restaurant from their own culture first when recommending restaurants. A German will likely point you to a good kebab place before a biergarten, and in this way Nadjib gives me five or six French restaurants, pizza places, and burger joints before he finally gives me something I can use. Chekhshoukh not only has an exclusively Arabic Google page, but is also decorated with shin-high ottomans for sitting and long, elegantly-draped, red fabrics, giving the urban restaurant an intriguing bedouin vibe. The man there speaks no French, so I point to the dishes on the menu that I want and he tries to get me to try more and more. In the end, I get more of that blessed dip hmiss and lamb mfawar, which comes encased in Saran wrap and aluminum foil, where it has been marinating, steaming, and stewing so long that it dissolves into a savory paste as soon as I put it in my mouth. I thank the owner profusely ad try to tip, but he doesn’t accept.
I hail a taxi, manned by a guy more or less my age who happens to be dropping off his friend. The young man is smiling profusely and seems like he's itching to go as soon as I close the door. As we sit in traffic, I show him where I want to go on the map, and by the way he is fingering my iPhone screen I can tell he isn’t great with navigation. He speaks French, and having luckily just completed my Duolingo lesson on directions, I volunteered to translate Siri’s directions into French so he doesn’t have to look at the screen while driving. He happily invites me to sit in the front, and Siri and I happily join him. Over the next 30 minutes, I get a free language lesson from the driver, who points out buildings and tells me the local names for them. He has a mellow smile until another cab pulls up beside us and rolls down his window. My driver begins beaming, switching gears so both cars are going the same speed. The two drivers are friends, and hold a conversation for over a mile as we drive around 35 miles an hour. I introduce myself in Arabic, like I am introducing myself to a class, which gives the other driver a real kick. Not a lot of introductions are done between cars on one of Oran’s busiest arteries, though the quiet night is not a bad time to do it. My driver gives a casual wave, signalling we’re turning up ahead. In a few minutes I am stepping into the hostel, and a few minutes after that I am in bed.
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.