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.
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.