Although Algeria is not a place usually associated with tourism, when my boyfriend asked if I wanted to join him on his work trip there, I didn't hesitate. Although I usually travel solo, how could I say no to him!
Algeria is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. It supplies large amounts of natural gas to Europe, and energy exports are the backbone of it's economy. We arrived into Algiers, the capital and largest city in the country. Meandering the streets, it reminded me of an old, dirty and woefully neglected Paris. You could tell in it's former days, however, it must have been magnificent. We went to the Casbah one day, wandering around it's streets where local stands sell everything from food to women's clothing and household wares. The Algerian flag is proudly flown everywhere.
After a couple days in Algiers, although my boyfriend had to stay in the capital for work, I ventured off on my own down to the desert village of Timimoun. Carrying me was a small aircraft that had seen better days. Looking out the window the entire three hour flight, there was nothing but endless sand. I thought "I'm truly in no man's land here!" As we taxied toward the terminal, I started taking pictures of the airport. I was told by the Algerian man behind me to not take pictures here. As I exited the air stairs onto the scorching tarmac the red sand was whipping in the wind. I saw two policemen standing between the aircraft and the airport and had a feeling they were looking for me! The fact that they were staring at me may have had something to do with it. As you may have guessed, not a lot of tourists come to Timimoun or really anywhere in the Southern desert area of Algeria. The country borders Mali and Niger to the South. Since terrorists activity exists near the Southern border, great precautions to protect any tourists in this region are taken. And are taken very seriously, I was about to find out. As I walked by the men they stopped me and asked for my passport. They then led me to a small room in the airport and started filling out paperwork for me asking my plans, how long I was staying, where I was going, and pretty much what was I doing there. I felt marginally better when I saw an Asian man also being detained. They then took my passport and disappeared for about thirty minutes. Attempts at asking the officer "guarding" the door to the tiny room I was in, were not answered other than to offer a, "no problem, he's coming back". The man finally returned with my passport and stated he had procured an armed escort for me and the Asian man to our hotels in the village. We climbed in the vehicle complete with armed men and bounced along the sand filled streets until we came to the hotel I had picked out of my Lonely Planet book. It appeared like a mirage in the barren sand landscape. A beautiful red ochre colored mud building was the Hotel Djenane Malek. I walked through the broad gates and found myself the only guest in this beautiful place. Not only does Timimoun not receive many tourists, as it was August, the few people who do venture here, do not come to the desert of Algeria at the hottest time of the year! After checking into my humble yet adequate room, I asked if someone could show me around the village and take me out into the desert.
A couple hours later a guide appeared with his teenage daughter in tow. The three of us headed out in his 4x4 (necessary for any desert travel) and the daughter talked endlessly in near perfect American accented English. When I asked where she learned how to speak so well in such a remote area of Algeria she answered, American television! She loved speaking English so much, she wanted to become an English teacher. I encouraged her as she was a natural.
We first started off for a tour of the desert. Timimoun is the largest oasis in the Grand Erg Occidental (also known as a sand sea). An erg is a broad, flat area of desert covered with wind-swept sand with little or no vegetative cover. This dusty village located at the edge of an escarpment makes for breath taking views across a salt lake and out to the dunes. It was an endless sight of beautiful desert. We stopped several times to get out and walk around. The biggest annoyance was the wind which was fierce, kicking sand into our eyes and my camera lens. We did run into the occasional other 4x4 of locals enjoying the desert, some even having a picnic!
After a few hours of wheeling around in the sand, we headed back to the village for a look around. The most beautiful part of Timimoun is the fact that the entire city is completely made of red ochre colored mud buildings studded with spikes. The fiery sun of the desert "bakes" the mud making it rock hard. My favorite was the colonial-era Hotel de l'Oasis Rouge, originally constructed by colonial missionaries in the early 1900s. I eventually returned to my barren hotel to have a huge meal for dinner. The owner of the hotel came to join me after I ate offering me a drink of his personal stash of a Baileys Irish Cream like liquor. We chatted for a bit and he wondered why anyone would come to the desert in August. I said, it wasn't my choice as I had come with my boyfriend who was currently working in Algiers! I eventually retired for the night and slept well in the night time, cool desert air.
Once I was ready to return to Algiers I was told there were only two flights a week to the capital and they weren't going for several days. And so, I decided I would bus it back... 20 hours through the desert! Numerous people had told me it was not possible for a foreigner to take the bus as it was too dangerous, illegal even, but having taken buses all over third world countries, I knew they were only talking about high maintenance tourists, aka, not me! And so, I bought a very cheap bus ticket to the city of Ghardaia which was about half way and required to connect onto Algiers. All local buses in third world countries around the world are similar. All are overpacked, all have blaring music and all have material with fringes hanging above the windshield. It's the same every, single time! I hopped on and sat in the front seat as I like to see where we're going, and as self preservation in case anything happens I'm nearest to the door! We bumped along the dusty roads and as the day wore on it got hotter and hotter inside. We passed many check points and I was glad none of the police actually boarded just in case it really was illegal for a foreigner to take the bus! We eventually pulled into Ghardaia and the scenery was great. I walked around a couple hours waiting for the next bus to Algiers. I had some street food and restocked my water and snack supply for the continuation of the long journey. I was eventually on my way again and after many more hours finally pulled into Algiers in the wee hours of the morning.
After some sleep, my boyfriend and I decided to head to the Martyrs' Memorial; a concrete monument commemorating the Algerian War for Independence. Also known as the Algerian War, it was set between France and the Algerian independence movements from 1954 to 1962. It led to Algeria gaining it's independence from France. The monument was opened in 1982 on the 20th anniversary of Algerias independence. Impressive in size, it's in the shape of three standing palm leaves with an eternal flame beneath. At the edge of each palm leaf is the statue of a soldier, each representing a stage of Algeria's struggle. The monument was massive and reminded me of mammoth monuments I had seen in North Korea. After walking around this monstrosity we noticed next door what appeared to be a museum with tanks, aircraft and missiles outside it's doors. We headed over to find it was the Musee de l'Armee (Museum of the Army). Inside were many interesting displays of various conflicts throughout Algeria's history including the War of Independence. It was here that I learned that Elkader, Iowa, not far from my hometown, was named after Algerian leader Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri when the community was platted in 1846. The founders of Elkader, Iowa decided to name it for the young Algerian who was leading his people in resisting the French colonial takeover of Algeria. How funny to be so far from my birthplace to realize the town next door to where I grew up (and where my nieces and nephew live today) was named after an Algerian resistance fighter! After checking out all the museum had to offer, we eventually headed back to the hotel.
Our visit to Algeria was a shorter one as my boyfriends project wrapped up and we were soon on our way home. Although not at the top of my dying-to-go places, I did enjoy my time in Algeria. It had far more to offer than I would have expected.