Adventure in North Africa

by Robert Rubyan

After my Moroccan excursion with my friend the Dutch antique dealer, I decide to go to my Study Abroad Class in Archaeology at Spannocchia, by train across Algeria, then a plane to Rome from Algiers.

To get a visa, it’s go to the local Algerian Consulate in a bureaucratic building in Arab Stalinist Cheap Cement, in the new town section. The rooms have walls of peeling stucco, with faded incomprehensible political posters. I sit on an aging orange plastic chair, beginning to crack. wait with a very few other visa applicants.

My turn comes surprisingly fast. A young woman who I assume is a secretary calls my name & leads me to a boxlike bureau office with open windows. The outdoor light shines in & illuminates the dust motes. As we enter I realize that the person I’m with is the consul. She is a stunningly attractive woman in her early 20s. Silky black hair, very pale skin. Her English was almost perfect with a charming slightly French accent.

She looks down on my open passport. “You know Americans are not popular in Algeria?” She taps my passport with an immaculately manicured finger nail painted pink. Suddenly, her beautiful face is angry.” I’ll give you 72 hrs., long enough for the train ride from here to Algiers, but if you overstay it’s jail. And I doubt you would enjoy your stay there.” She stamped my passport. I averted my eyes & mumbled agreement, leaving immediately to buy the ticket.

Didn’t have enough local currency for the fare, as a result, had to go to the bank, Wait through an never ending sweating, tooth grinding 45 minutes while clerks shuffled papers & filled out forms in quadruplicate, in Arabic. Finally I had my ticket.

Now I couldn’t get on the train because Moroccan border policeman couldn’t decide what the date was on my visa-the train was held up while this & other matters were straightened out. Now I was finally on the train, & an old friend, from my arrival the day before offered to change my dirhams into Algerian dinars.

He’s got an olive complexion (like yours truly), wire thin with quick darting movements & an ingratiating smile. Proudly sports his brass police badge strapped to his upper arm. Cocked at a jaunty angle is a red corduroy fez beret. I can’t figure out the money-changing angle. Is it legal? After waffling for a few minutes, slightly peeving the cop, I decide to trust my intuition & the positive gestures of the nice Arab family I shared the 2nd class train car with and change my dirhams to dinars.

Later, this enables me to buy a sandwich & 2 beers from the dining car.

The train ride is interminable. I doze most of the way past the Algerian countryside passing outside the dirty window  (it reminds me of a dilapidated version of California near Bakersfield, California). A tamer version of Spanish & Moroccan landscapes. The only people visible were farmers in faded brown jellabas driving donkeys loaded with bundles of brushwood for kindling on dusty paths near the tracks.

On the train, my appearance does not draw attention, once my pack is stowed. There are many   thick mustaches a la Saddam Hussein. No women. A snack in the bar car is stale French bread & a cup of black coffee the strength of paint remover.

The guy sitting next to me tells me about the Soviet cosmonauts who had died the day before. He shows me their pictures on the front page of the newspaper, explaining, in halting French, that their reentry vehicle had lost pressure on reentry.

We finally arrive at Algiers’ main train station a little after 2am. Not a cab in sight. No car traffic, no taxis, deserted streets. I circle around the station, a sign says Airport 22 km. I follow it ready to stick out my thumb if any likely looking vehicles should appear.

After a couple of miles walking a recent model American car (an early 60’s Chevy in good condition) approaches & pulls up. Inside are 4 youths, 3 in front & one in the back, who smilingly invite me in. In broken English they indicate they will take me to the airport. Their mood seems amiable, so I get into the back seat with the lone occupant. After a while the conversation turns to money. Apparently my “hosts” need some. The middle juvenile in front turned to face me & grins, rubbing thumb & forefinger of his raised right hand together suggestively. It’s one of those situations when seconds go by like long minutes. My mind rapidly goes through possibilities/alternatives  & I decide I’m going to bail, using my backpack as a cushion for landing on pavement at considerable speed. Just then, blue lights fore & aft. The youths slam on the brakes. Two cops appear on each side & jerk open the doors. The sergeant gestures to me with a thumb towards the air terminal behind him & a scowl over at the other back seat occupant who begins to cower. As I walk briskly to the terminal I look back over my shoulder at the cops dragging, pummeling, cuffing, arresting the 4.

Inside, I set down my backpack, sit down, quickly doze off, confident that I have met the timeline of the visa. No sooner than I hit dreamland I feel a vigorous tapping on the Vibram soles of my hiking boots. It‘s a local officer plying his truncheon as an alarm clock. He informs me that the ticket booth is now open & not to overstay my visa. He points to the large circular clock for emphasis. I immediately buy my ticket. Soon I’m relieved as Alitalia jets me to Rome, on the way to Spannochia, Tuscany.[/vc_column_text]