Sunday, November 17, 2019

Algeria Is For Algerians... And That Is Precisely Why We Love It

Day 1 Algiers

We were very fortunate to be joined on this trip by Alex , one of our Breakfast Buddies from the Iran tour, and a fellow early riser. He met up with us at CDG and we flew into Algiers on the same flight, arriving at about 2:15 PM. 

Met at the airport by our guide (and owner of the tour company, Fancyellow) Omar, who brought us to our aptly named hotel.

It happened to be a national holiday, the anniversary of the start of Algeria's revolution to end the 150+ year French occupation. The celebration was coupled with protests against the current government, about a block from the hotel. The vibe felt like it could have easily been a sports rally.

Most of the restaurants in the area were closed for the holiday, but we found a place owned by an Algerian American named Sofiane who had lived in Miami. We had shwarma and pizza that hit the spot.

By the time we got back to the hotel, Bhob and I had been awake for 34 hours, so we left Alex to his snazzy balcony and went to wind down for the night.



Day 2

After a great night's sleep, Bhob and I did our customary 5:30 AM walk in the deserted streets.

After breakfast, many coffees and a much needed shower, Omar picked us up at 9 for the grand Tour de Algiers.

Roman ruins in town

Palais des Rais


The official park bench of Algeria. The same style was everywhere.

The Tarzan Tree. It took us awhile to find it

Then a cable car to the Martyrs' Monument. I had thought that it was dedicated to the people who died in the war of Independence from France from 1954-1962. It turned out to be a huge museum dedicated to ALL of the battles for Independence from numerous invaders over the centuries.

While waiting in line for the cable car back down from the monument, some young men overheard me explaining to Billel about the American tradition of parents playing the Tooth Fairy. They approached us and wanted to hear more (and presumably practice speaking, English, which they did beautifully). They welcomed us to Algeria and asked where we were from. We have learned to just let Alex answer "Los Angeles" because no explanation is necessary, versus "Minnesota", which gets us blank stares and no acknowledgement of the existence of Bob Dylan or Prince (sorry, music fans). 

After the monument, met up with Adiib (a friend of Brandon's), who took us to Eldjazair, a  traditional Algerian restaurant, where we had the house specialty, chakchuka (homemade pasta in spiced tomato sauce with meat of choice; I chose goat) complemented by a non-salty buttermilk-like beverage. The waiter didn't speak English and we don't speak Arabic or French, so Adiib was feeling the pressure to "get it right". Well folks, he knocked it out of the park, because it was delicious, and soon we were stuffed. 

 * Billel is a fan of idiomatic American English Among my contributions to his lexicon: "Don't get your undies in a bundle".

Day 3 Algiers, Cherchell & Tipasa

Early morning walk

Day trip started in Cherchell, first at the archaeological museum

then to the Roman theater

Next stop, Tipasa

Popular destination for canoodling couples

Lunch at Restaurant Le Dauphin

Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania

On the way home, a tree had fallen across the road in the opposite lane. Traffic was backed up for miles

  Went to the manly man bar at Hotel Suisse for some drinks

And then got some delicious Syrian food at Arabesque

View from Alex's balcony


Day 4 Timgad & Constantine

7:30 flight to Betna delayed 2 hours.

Cheapest airport coffee in the world- 24 cents!

A pilot in training, Ryan (pronounced rye AN) who spoke English took us under his wing and kept us informed of everything that was going on. A little boy of about 6 kept gravitating toward Alex. I gave him a Spiderman toy that immediately started a war between him and his little brother (about 3, who I hadn't noticed was wearing a shirt with a Spiderman patch on it). Gave their Mom a salted nut roll to share.

Finally arrived in Betna. The police escort had already left because of the delay.
Greeted by our driver, Nabil. He didn't speak much English but managed to tell us some interesting stories about some difficult previous guests. He would occasionally ask us if we wanted snakes, and that we should let him know when we were ready for snakes. It took us a while to figure out that he was referring to snacks.

Medracen Royal Mauseleum.

I had no idea what to expect. The scale was unbelievable.
It covers an area about 90 hectares (222.4 acres), much larger than Pompeii, which is 64-67 hectares (165.5 acres). As a point of comparison, the Minnesota State Fairgrounds is 130 hectares (322 acres).

Perfect weather that day. High around 70

Farmers' Market

Because our airport pickup was at 5:30 AM, we hadn't eaten all day. Had a fabulous lunch around 2:45

Drove to Constantine
Should have taken 2 hours (120 km), but took over 3 (and felt more like 5) because of delayed and slowpoke police escort.

Carpe cafe!

Once out from under the friendly but nonetheless buzzkill police escort,  we got a stunning nighttime tour of the 8 bridges from Nabil, a native of Constantine.

Checked into our hotel

Had a quick drink at the bar and then a walk in the area immediately around the hotel.

Found a playground for my first chin up of the trip

Had a satisfying meal at Sky Food Plus (Merguez sausage for me) and then back to the Ibis.



Day 5 Constantine

Finally managed to get Alex up for a quick morning walk

And then breakfast at the best buffet on the trip. It included a salad bar with fresh fennel and red cabbage!
Reunited with Billel for the Grand Tour of Constantine. After a look at the exterior of the Ghazal Market mosque (which was a mosque and then a church and then a mosque, an oft repeated pattern in Algeria)...

.... started at the ahmed Bey Palace (where Billel had started his career as a tour guide).


Saw the gorge and many bridges of Constantine, this time in daylight.

Alex is a total bro magnet!


Made our way through the Casbah

Master coppersmith Driss Amine- Khodja (with a handsome Constantinian whose name I didn't catch)

My own custom-made djazoua! Billel waited an extra day in town so he could bring it to me in Algiers :)

See the coppersmith in action!

To the Cirta Museum

Took the tram to the Very Imposing Mosque. Billel patiently answered all of my stupid questions, like "Do Algerians go out for pancakes after Friday prayers?"

After a brief stop back to the hotel for (literal) battery recharging, had some drinks

 and then walked to Restaurant Igherssan for dinner.

One last look at the beautiful lights before winding down for the night.

Day 6 Constantine, Tiddis & Oran

5:20 AM walk

Quick drive to farther down into the gorge

One hour drive to Tiddis. I have to admit that after Cherchell, Tipaza and Timgad, I was afraid that I was approaching RRFS (Roman Ruins Fatigue Syndrome). I needn't have worried, as they all had a diffrent geographocal layout and purpose. The surrounding area was gorgeous, with very red soil.


Returned to Restaurant Rais for lunch, where Alex took one for the team and ordered the "taco".

Contents: ground meat, cheese and french fries

Currency exchange. After us, suddenly it was hopping! Did we start a trend?

Of course we had coffee here!

Afternoon flight to Oran. Arrived at about 10 PM and bought a desperate restaurant hotel meal of omelettes and Algerian burek.


Day 7 Oran

 Tour of Oran with Omar. Started at the top of the hill at Cidi Boumidian

Chin up!

Santa Maria

Santa Cruz
The fortress was closed. Omar joked that the ticket seller must have been hungover

Unfinished hotel

Palais de Achmed Bey

Spanish jail

Main theater

Cathedrale du Sacre Coeur , now the public library.

Went to a museum that was a memorial to all of the citizens of Oran who were killed in the 1954-1962 war of Independence.
The immediacy and focus on individuals gave it so much more impact than the memorial in Algiers (which seems to be more of a selfie backdrop than respectful, somber remembrance). These are the fathers and grandfathers of the people who live here now. The conveyed message was of the everyday events, not just a vague theoretical patriotism.

The emotional nature of it really caught me off guard, and I got pretty choked up. So many of those who gave their lives were just kids of 19, 20 years old.

Had a fabulous lunch at a very bustling place with an entertaining Yelly Guy

Tried in vain to find Bhob some pants to go with his gondora.
Walked around the city,

then back to the hotel until dinner.

Got a needle and thread to do a short term repair on a wardrobe mishap that had split a seam of my only pair of pants while stepping down from a wall in front of the mosque in Constantine. Side note: not a good week for pants. Alex had somehow left 2 pair in the hotel in Algiers.

The previous evening, Bhob had felt a cold coming on. It was full blown by this point, so while he took a nap, I went back out just to walk around and give him some solitude.

Dinner at Ambiance



Day 8 Oran & Tlemcen

Happy Birthday to The Prophet (PBUH)!!
Bhob slept in, so I did a morning walk on my own. Not nearly as much fun as with Bhob, and a couple of dicey moments when I wasn't sure if someone was warning me of dragons up ahead, or ending a night of drinking* by being a jerk and yelling out of a car window.

Omar drove us to Tlemcen
The main attraction was closed, so we went to the Musuem of Art and History which had  scale models and touch screen virtual tours of the closed attraction and other sites. It was especially handy as the 50°F temperature and 30 mph winds made a leisurely stroll less inviting.

Visited the calligraphy museum

Beautiful drive to the top top top

Had a memorable meal of french fry omelettes (ubiquitous in Algeria) while waiting for our next attraction to open.

Grotte des Ain Beni Add. Mind-blowing!

Stopped by the El Mansourah  before our visit was cut short by a gusty shower.

Drove back to Oran (total round trip over 400 km), the soundtrack for which was a YouTube concert via Omar's phone, each taking turns picking out favorites; Ben Rector and Illenium for Alex, ABBA for Bhob and me, Telstar by the Tornadoes for Bhob, and Enjoy the Silence by Depeche Mode (natch!) for me.

Omar had to deal with a dying tire and Alex was determined to hit the gym, so Bhob and I took a walk to get provisions for breakfast (since the next morning we were leaving for the airport before the hotel restaurant was open for breakfast) and get some fast food on the way back.

We got a little taste of 19th century urban life when someone dumped a bucket of what I can only hope was pure, clean spring water from a balcony directly above us just as we were passing below.

*Oran is the party capital of Algeria, the only place where alcohol is fairly common



Day 9 Oran Airport & Taghit

At 6 AM, went to the cafe behind the hotel which was a no frills manly man place that only served coffee ( in fancy little cups) and cake.


The 1 hour, 35 minute flight to Bechar was delayed 5 1/2 hours (type ATR 72--500) 7T-VUL
Originally scheduled for 9 AM departure, actually took off at 2:32

The brilliant Claes Oldenburg installation at the Oran airport

The other passengers were generally patient for the first 4 1/2 hours, but then started expressing some indignation. The airline kept sending out some poor, hapless junior employee to explain to everyone about the delays.
Fortunately, the only plan at our destination was to arrive at the hotel and relax, so we had no reason to panic.
We noticed that even though there were a lot of little kids among the waiting passengers, they were remarkably well behaved.
The flight was so delayed, they skipped the safety demo. First in my lifetime! It also included the Most Puzzling Airplane Meal Ever: classic canned fruit cocktail, a tiny flatbread with a shmear of Pizza Quick Sauce, studded with a single olive, a tiny slice of chicken served on a tiny slice of bread, served on a single leaf of lettuce, 9 kernels of canned corn and a miniature cornichon. We were starving so it was better than letting our stomachs digest themselves.

Landed at 4:32 PM and were picked up by Mustapha.

Finally, arrived at the hotel at 6 PM Even if it would have taken the same amount of time to drive as to fly, we would have missed the spectacular aerial views of the desert.

Walked around a bit...

Relative to everywhere else we'd been in Algeria, this area is really touristy, not unlike West Yellowstone, Montana. Lots of motor bikes and dune buggies.

...then splurged on dinner at the hotel restaurant

The family (including the 15-year-old Algerian Martin Starr) who was stranded with us at the Oran airport was staying at our hotel!

Day 10 Taghit

Chilly morning walk (45°F) with Bhob on the deserted main street.

 After a carborific breakfast

met up with our guide Ali at 9.
There was a young couple, Lyes and Sarah*, from Algiers (he currently lives in Paris) whose tour had been cancelled after they had booked their flights, so Ali graciously took them along on our day tour.

Ali's cousin drove us to the end of the road, which offered dunes, a man-made cave, a river and date palms.

Cue the Police song.....

Lyess reminded us of a young Jean-Luc Godard

Ali and his cousin

Had tea, lunch and a little rest in a tent. The weather was absolutely perfect, with a high of 71°F.

 Saw an abandoned village (ksar)

Went back to the hotel for drinks and to recharge our batteries, and then back out at 5 to see the oldest part of the village and watch the sunset.

Along the way, Bhob was able to finally buy a proper Sahara man scarf, after Lyes asked about the price and found out that it was 750 dinars, not 7500 as we had mistakenly believed.

After sunset, we wandered around looking for someplace to get a simple dinner. Alex used the Google to find a place (that didn't end up being the place that Google referred to), but it was exactly what we were looking for!

Pizzeria Zino! Food arrived in about 3 minutes

Went back to the hotel at 8 so we could get some sleep for an early start the next day.

 * Their presence was a blessing, as Lyes spoke English, French and Arabic so he was able to translate much of what Ali was saying that wasn't in English.


Day 11

Alex joined us for a 5:15 AM walk on the residential streets of Taghit. Got a proper coffee at Cafe Des Artistes

 before heading for the hotel breakfast/carb gantlet.


  Ali's brother Omar and our driver picked us up at 8:30 and we headed to Beni Abbas.

 It was a fairly flat 2 hour drive with several stops to check in with the gendarmes. Alex hadn't brought his passport, so he had to show an email with a scan of it and they took a picture of it.

Arrived in Beni Abbas at 10:30 and met up with Omar's friend Djamal. Stopped for some tea and a much needed toilet break, 

then proceeded to explore the old town



Ethnographic museum

Catholic hermitage and chapel, founded by Charles de Foucauld

Piscine publique

Didn't see much of the pool, as this little cuddlebum completely captured my heart

Checked out the freshly renovated Hotel Rym (financed with Turkish money)

Lunch at Mattaam Malek Farah

And the obligatory (for us anyway) Algerian coffee

Picked up our passports from the gendarmes at 3:30 and we were on our way back to Taghit. While stopped for the gendarmes in Ighli, some high school girls were getting all giggly looking at Alex in the car. The whole day had a very, very relaxed pace.

Dropped off some stuff at the hotel and immediately went to climb to the top of the sand dunes before sundown.

One unexpected pleasure was how soft the sand felt around my feet on the way down.

Dinner at Restaurant Paix

After these morsels of perfection, I am officially ruined for dates forever

Then back to hotel to wind down, shower and get ready for an 8 AM airport pickup the next morning.

Day 12 Bechar to Algiers to Gardaia

Early morning walk, coffee at Cafeteria des Artistes, carb loading breakfast.

Mustapha picked us up at 8:15 for the 70-minute drive back to the Bechar airport. It took less time than previously as we didn't require the gendarmes escort.

Uneventful flight to Algiers, followed by an uneventful flight to Gardaia. In between, had an airport snack experience that included a plastic fork that shattered on impact with a cream-filled gateaux.

When we arrived at the Gardaia airport and filled out our brown cards, the friendly airport cop was  horsing around and scolded Alex for his poor penmanship.

Picked up by Abdullah (a total character who spoke English very well), and our gendarmes escort, who stopped traffic for us so we could run across the motorway and take photos.

Dropped our stuff off at the quirky hotel

Got some fabulous dinner at Restaurant Djurdjura

And turned in for the night.


Day 13 Gardaia

Our attempts at an early morning walk were thwarted by the overly concerned owner/breakfast guy/night security (not sure if he was worried about us getting hit by cars, walking on uneven pavement in the dark, being disappointed because no shops were open or being attacked by thieving marauders), so we had an early breakfast and took our walk afterwards instead.

Of course we had coffee here!

Abdullah picked us up at 8:30 for what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of Gardaia and the surrounding villages, home of the Mozabite people .  I can't be certain, but I think that one of the 5 was closed for the birthday of the Prophet (PBUH).

The villages are all UNESCO heritage sites, and anyone wanting to visit the old parts of the towns is required to be accompanied by a registered guide. We were also forbidden to take photos of people in these parts (which is what I think makes a photo of a place more interesting, but I didn't want to be a culturally insensitive jerk. Oh well...)

In Al Ataf, the oldest town, our guide didn't speak English, so Abdullah managed to rustle up someone to translate from French to English. I enjoyed learning the history, but I enjoyed even more the guides' interaction with each other and their overall enthusiasm.

Francophone Haddj Samail Aissa and English translator Mustapha Boucetta, Bob Dylan fan

So much for not being a culturally insensitive jerk

Walked around the market before meeting up with our next guide.

The guide for the 2nd town spoke a little English but a young man (Mustapha) from Algiers was with us and helped to translate some of the French.

Went back to Restaurant Djurdjura for lunch, and stopped for coffee.

Gardaia was the only place where we got aggressively panhandled. Most are children from Niger and Nigeria. Abdullah thinks that half of what they collect goes to Boko Haram

After lunch, Bhob bought another man-scarf (or "shesh" in Arabic), and got a tutorial on how to wrap it.

The guide for the 3rd town spoke only French. Mustapha was with us again, but the guide spoke so quickly that even he had a hard time keeping up.

Luckily it was the same basic information about the layout of the town, the building materials and the social structure, so we just enjoyed looking around.

Did I happen to mention that Alex is a total bro magnet?

Abdullah drove us to all of the best vantage points for photos, all the while regaling us with stories about his various adventures around the world. This man seriously needs to write a memoir!

Abdullah: Raconteur, bon vivant and the Algerian Roy Scheider

Recharged our batteries and then went to dinner at Restaurant Kheima, where we were introduced to our new favorite dish, Zviti!

Back to the hotel at 8 to rest up for a 6:30 airport pickup.



Day 14 Algiers

Abdullah picked us up at 6:30 AM for an 8:15 flight to Algiers.

When filling out the obligatory brown cards, the Gardaia airport cop told Alex that his handwriting had improved, but we all got a mock scolding for not including our middle names and for not putting a line through our 7s.

Got to the hotel just before noon. Billel joined us for some random walking.

We saw a lot of parts of the city that we missed on our first go round.

Remains of the apartment where Ali la Pointe and his comrades were murdered by the occupying French

Inside the Ali La Pointe museum

Lest you think that I am an irresistible kitty magnet, immediately after Bhob snapped this photo, the cat spotted some guys eating sandwiches on a nearby bench and ran over to troll for scraps

About 6:30 we all met up with Adiib at Arabesque.

It was a perfect day!



Day 15 Algiers

Last day in Algeria. Took an early morning walk and finally managed to successfully order a triple espresso.

Pizza vending machine! We didn't try it.

Took a Wasselni (one of Algeria's Uber-type services)  7 km outside of town to the Carrefour hypermarket/ shopping mall.

Walked around the area

Proof of Alex's theory that nothing in Algeria costs less than 30 dinar. PS: Of course we had a coffee here!

and discovered a tram stop, which was perfect because it was Friday so the metro wasn't running.

 Took the tram to the yet-to-be-completed megamosque

Hopped back onto the tram to the end of the line and walked back to the hotel. Friday prayers were just letting out and the Friday protests were just starting. I was pretty hungry, so I got a sandwich and ate it in a park.

As we walked the rest of the way back, we were stuck in a downpour of rain and hail.

If I hadn't stopped for the sandwich, we would have made it back to the hotel before the rain and before the protest was in full swing.

But it was a damn good sandwich and I am not sorry.

After the weather cleared, went out in search of booze. Being as we were in a Muslim country on a Friday afternoon, I don't need to tell you that our efforts were for naught, but we had a lovely walk in the fresh air and got to see and hear more protests.

Chilled for a while in the hotel, then Omar and Billel picked us up for a traditional dinner at Val Street.

It was so delicious ( or "bneena" in the Algerian dialect; I got a lot of mileage out of that one!), but I was so sorry to have to say farewell to our new friends.

Did some pre-packing in anticipation of our (ouch!) 4 AM airport pickup, and then tried to sleep.



Day 16 Depart

Left the hotel at 4 AM for a 6 AM flight to CDG. Managed to spend some of my last Algerian money on overpriced airport coffee (360 DA for a double espresso, about 5 times the cost in the city, or even at the domestic terminal!!).

Bade farewell to Alex after disembarking and then caught the 10:20 non-stop to MSP.


Random Observations

Looking for Berber language, I was googling "Algerian alphabet", and discovered that there is a font called "Algerian". After that, it seemed like I saw it everywhere. 

Algeria has free health care and education. They have a clever way of making sure that there are enough doctors practicing in all of the necessary specialties: after students pass their medical school finals, they get to choose their specialty based on how they ranked on their final scores. All of the available posts are listed, and the top scorers get first choice. The lowest scorers generally get stuck with office jobs in epidemiology. Our new friend Adiib had just nabbed a great choice of Endocrinology. 
I think the US could use this method to get enough doctors to go into family medicine or geriatric medicine, instead of flooding the market with all of the high earning specialties

Algeria keeps economic ties with many countries to stay vital and connected/ protected (guns from Russia, etc)

An area about 200 km south of Gardaia has fertile soil and water underground, so lots of people are waiting for permits to start farming: US, China, Turkey, Qatar(?)

Nationwide, petrol costs around $1 per gallon

In the 1938 film Algiers, Charles Boyer never utters the line "Fly with me to the Casbah". Allegedly, this sprang from the mind of a Warner Brothers' writer for a cartoon featuring Pepe le Pew, who was inspired by the Boyer character in the film.

Seeing the traditional men's winter garb of the Sahara tells me that the costume designers for Star Wars used no imagination when it came time to create a runway look for the Jawas.

I'm not sure exactly how to phrase this, but there seems to be a collective affection for/caring of all children by all adults, whether acquaintances or strangers; if an adult passed a child on the sidewalk, quite frequently they would place their hand on his/her head, or touch his/her cheek. It was very sweet!

We didn't hear anyone express real hope or optimism about the prospects for the upcoming presidential election (hence, the weekly protests). A nation of dynamic young people don't feel like the standard-issue group of old white guys will do much to truly represent them, and that there was no difference between candidates. More than one person used the expression "five fingers, one hand".

Commonly heard phrase:  "Problem technique"

There were lots of people shooting off fireworks throughout our stay (particularly in Oran), I am guessing for the national holiday?

Inspired a new slang word that is disproportionately hilarious to me. Usage example: "My sandwich cost twice as much as yours. I feel like I just got facebouffed."


So it was a good trip then?


Why Algeria?

This one falls squarely on the shoulders of Brandon, the other of our Breakfast Buddies from the Iran tour. He visited there in October 2018 and posted some amazing photos on Instagram. That’s all it took. He gave us the contact info for his tour operator, Omar. We asked Omar to basically replicate the exact same tour for us.

Previous to that, my only familiarity with the country was from the remarkable film The Battle of Algiers, which I highly, HIGHLY recommend. Another well-made depiction about yet another of the many angles by which the French screwed North Africa(ns) is the 2006 film Days of Glory (original title Indigenes).

Thanks Brandon, for your inspiration, encouragement and advice!  And especially for never accusing us of being copycats, which we totally are 😊

What were your travel dates?

We left MSP on October 31st, and were in Algeria from November 1-16, 2019.


How was the weather?

Absolutely perfect. The high temperature never got above 77°F and the low never went under 42°F (and that was only overnight in the desert). It was generally sunny or partly cloudy. However, this must have seemed downright frigid to the locals, because they were wearing winter jackets (even in the daytime) while we were wearing t-shirts.

The only time the weather affected our day was the wind during our day in Tlemcen

and a 15-minute downpour on our last day.

Before leaving home, when I would check the weather in Algiers, more often than not the current conditions would be "squalls". It sounded so dramatic, I had no idea what to expect. It turns out that squalls are nothing more than what in Minnesota we would call "scattered showers", light spritzings that would last about 45 seconds.



How were your flights?

Internationally, we flew Delta (MSP to CDG) and Air France (CDG to ALG) which were punctual, with no problems. 

When first arriving in the country, we were each required to fill out an entry card that asked for name, date of birth, nationality, passport number, date of issue, local destination, reason for visit, duration of stay and the name and address of our hotel. This was not communicated in any way; we were just supposed to know. Because we had had a similar experience in Beirut, Bhob had the foresight to mention it while we were still in the passport line. I found the cards, scrounged up a couple of pens in my bag and we made full use of the Google translate app to figure out what the cards were asking.

We took 6 flights within the country on Air Algerie. When we were making our way to our first domestic flight, we were required to fill out an exit form with the same questions about our next destination. By the time we got to our second domestic flight, we had become experts at these forms.

Flights within Algeria included some other unfamiliar security practices. When we got off the gate-to-plane bus for the Constantine-Oran flight, all of the checked luggage was out on the tarmac. Apparently, we were supposed to find our own bag and put it onto the big baggage cart. Again, this was not communicated to us in any way; we were just supposed to know. The security screening in the terminal was fairly perfunctory. The thorough bag/pocket search and body patdown happened on the tarmac. I guess we were just lucky that it wasn't pouring rain.

All flights had assigned seats, though some were unofficially "choose your own seat". This was mostly OK except for the Bechar to Algiers flight where I got stuck sitting next to a guy with really bad breath


What did you watch on the transatlantic flights?

On the way there, absolutely nothing. The choices were slim and the engines drowned out the dialogue.
On the way back, the obligatory Will Smith feature was Aladdin. I attempted to watch it, but after being in an actual "Arabic" country for two weeks, the Disneyfied version purt near killed me after about 3 minutes. Instead,  I went for Meeting Gorbachev (riveting and quite touching), Ask Dr. Ruth (very entertaining) and part of Carmine Street Guitars (meh; interesting enough topic but I didn't like how it was presented)


How did you get around?

Because we were on an organized tour, we had a driver for all of our airport rides and to get to remote sites.
For traveling in cities, we walked, did one Uber-type ride and took advantage of the inexpensive (approximately 25 cents per ride) and efficient public transportation.


Is it safe?

Well, with all of the police escorts on the road, we certainly had no concerns between destinations. In the cities and towns, we never felt targeted or threatened.

I felt safer in Algeria than I would in Orlando, Las Vegas, any American elementary school, or at University and Simpson in St. Paul.


What's with the police escort?

For most trips from the airport to the hotel, and long distances between towns, we were required to be accompanied by an official escort. It would be the police in a city, or the gendarmes (a cross between a state trooper and military police??) in the more remote areas. In some cases we would be escorted by police until the end of their jurisdiction, and then wait for the next area's police to take us though the next segment (like a relay race). Sometimes they would hold on to our passports. Sometimes they would call ahead to the next town to let them know we were on our way and to make sure we got there. It was for our protection and to making sure that we didn't disappear rather than some sort of surveillance thing. We got used to it.

It seems to be somewhat arbitrary, and a holdover from about 15-20 years ago, when things perhaps weren't so safe for foreign tourists, and the Algerian government didn't want to get in trouble if something bad were to happen. It may have outlived its usefulness, but it is what it is. The only time it impacted our itinerary is when we had to miss Djamila because we were unable to coordinate the escort.

The one who suffers most is Omar, because he has to deal with it All. Year. Long.


How do Algerians drive? 

Skillful and more or less courteously. Most pedestrian situations were of the "Make your own crosswalk" variety, and motorists would generally stop.
In Oran they actually stop for red lights.
All over the country, speedbumps were quite common.
The  city streets, roads, highways/motorways were all generally in excellent condition (much better than the ones on St. Paul)


Is it pedestrian/bike friendly? 

For pedestrians, yes. We didn't see many bicyclists, and I wouldn't want to bike there.


How big is Algeria?


Big! It is the largest country on the African continent.



What were the highlights?

The people. Everyone was so nice and helpful. Quite frequently, if someone heard us speaking English, they would ask "Where are you from?" When we answered "America", they would always reply with "Welcome!!"

As friendly as the random strangers were, we were so well taken care of by our many guides and drivers. Omar was fantastic! We weren't merely treated with respect and politeness as clients; we were embraced as cherished friends. All three of us were especially delighted to connect with Billel. In addition to having at least a couple of shared interests with each of us, he is just a truly open-hearted guy and a pleasure to be around.

Any lowlights?    

Scroll down to the visa question


Any surprises?

Since we were on a guided tour, I had the luxury of not knowing anything about any of our destinations, so truly the entire trip was a surprise. However, if I had to choose a few places that blew me away, I would have to say Constantine was far and away #1,  followed by Timgad and the areas above Tlemcen.

What was it like traveling with a third person? 

Great! We all got along very well. Alex had his own room, so he had plenty of alone time. He is much more extroverted than Bhob and me, and was a good sport about riding shotgun and interacting with our drivers, many of whom didn't speak English, but were super friendly and talkative. 

We all have a similar travel style: getting off the beaten path, happy to just walk around aimlessly and always ready to have another cup of coffee.

The only downside was for my vanity when guides thought that Bhob and I were his parents. I wished I had learned the Arabic phrase for "Watch, it, buddy!"


Did you eat any memorable food?


Hrissa (or Kalb Ellouz depending on who you ask)- semolina,  finely ground peanuts(???), honey and orange flower water.

Djawzia- walnut nougat

Chakchuka- rolled pasta of various sizes ( little squares, tiny squares, shredded). Tomato sauce (a little or less, depending on who makes it) and butter. Usually served with choice of meat.

M'ghalaaaaaa (not sure how it's spelled, but that's how they pronounced it)- Flat bread filled with caramelized onions, turmeric and other spices. Kind of greasy in the best possible way.  We had it in a tent in the Sahara, and I'd wished my stomach was 10 times as big, because it was one of the best things we ate on the whole trip.

"Tacos"- I don't think anyone in Algeria has ever seen, let alone eaten an actual taco. It is a taco that was created after a long game of Telephone.

Zviti - toothsome pasta that has been pounded with cilantro, garlic and chiles and served in a tall, bongo-like thingie. 

The two times we had it, our guides were like "Oh, it's too spicy for me!". It was just the right amount of spice for my Minnesota palate, and pretty mild for my heat-seeking travelling companions.

Byrek/ Burek- Algerian egg-rolls, filled with ground & spiced lamb, cheese or spinach

Bstilla- Chicken, spices and almonds wrapped in a  phyllo-like packet, dusted with powdered sugar.

Coffee!! When it comes to coffee, these people are not messing around. While it is possible to get cafe au lait, cappuccino, americano, etc., when you order a coffee, the default is espresso. A single usually cost 30¢, a double only slightly more. Sometimes it was so concentrated that the texture was almost like syrup. Great flavor, sometimes bitter, always hot and ALWAYS hit the spot. 

While tea is the drink of choice in the desert, they make it really, really sweet, so we stuck with java.

Fritte Omelette- At most of of the fast food joints, there were seldom any meatless options for Bhob, so his default choice (which was standard on every menu) was a french fry omelette. There was usually a can of harissa nearby to doctor it up.
Don't knock it till you've tried it!



Did you drink the water? 

Yes! I generally did about half tap, half bottled. I considered it like an inoculation.
Around Day 5(?) I had about 24 hours of mild dodginess. Not sure if it was the water, or that at the Timgad restaurant I ate a piece of beef kabab that I had dropped on the floor (5 second rule!). Again, considered it inoculation, microbiome enrichment/ diversification.

What kind of toilets do they have?

The hotels all had Western style flush toilets with a shattaf on the wall next to them. Public toilets were mostly squat toilets with a hose, a bucket and a cup and rarely any toilet paper. I never quite got the hang of the bucket and cup, so I just carried toilet paper and hoarded napkins, tossing them in the trash when done.

For 7 months leading up to the trip, you prepared by climbing up and down the stairs by the James J Hill mansion. Was this worthwhile?

A resounding "Yes!" We thought that maybe we would need some extra stamina in the Casbah, but most of the cities and remote sites were really hilly. Algiers had stairs e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e, and Constantine is built around an enormous gorge.

I think that going forward, no matter what our destination is, we are going to train on those stairs in the months preceding. Can't be too prepared!

We also used the training as an opportunity to learn the numbers that are commonly used in Arabic speaking countries (which I believe are technically referred to as Eastern Arabic numerals). We would say them out loud to count each round of down and back up the stairs. We briefly got as high as 9 rounds, but that got really long and boring, so we settled back to 7, hoping that we wouldn't have to make any transactions involving any numbers higher than 7.

As it turns out, this was a complete waste of time, as we never saw or heard anyone using those numbers (and we had learned them in the Levantine dialect, so they were extra useless).


Did you bring Pearson's Salted Nut Rolls?

Yup! Gave away an entire case :)

Did you learn the National Anthem?

I sure did (the first verse, anyway)! It is my new favorite; it's peppy, mercifully short, and probably the most fierce, written by an Algerian imprisoned by the French Occupation, in his own blood.
These aren't just lofty words. They reflect real choices made by real people within the lifetimes of many current citizens.

I have never, EVER had such an enthusiastic reception to a National Anthem. I got to sing it a lot, and every time it was an honor. 

Moufdi Zakaria, writer of the lyrics

Did you hear any interesting music?

As is customary, our main source of music was taxi drivers. For much of the trip, Rai was king. In the Sahara, Taureg was the exclusive choice. Mustapha, our man to and from Bechar, was DJ Extraordinaire.  

The desk clerks at the Hotel ABC in Algiers favored classic rock, so we heard plenty of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Police. 

Honestly, the most ubiquitous music was Omar's ringtone, which was shared by approximately 68% of the population. And Abdullah's ringtone sounded like the intro to Having A Party by Sam Cooke, so that song was in my head for the second half of the trip.


Do most people speak English? 

English speakers were very rare. The Algerian dialect of Arabic (which comprises some Turkish, Berber, Spanish, each wave of invaders having left its linguistic imprint) was the most widely spoken, but pretty much everyone was also fluent in French.

What do Algerians look like?

In the north, Mediterranean. Some looked more European (including a Van Gogh lookalike), others had the more Berber features. Further west and south, we saw more darker skinned individuals.

A lot of the men (of Berber descent??) had an exceptionally tall, slender build. A model scout could have a field day here!

One noteworthy observation is that the young men all had really great Jonas Brothers, fashion-forward, high maintenance hair. Close cropped on the sides, thick, asymmetrical and gravity-defying on top.
I would have loved to snap some photos, but it seemed rude to just get in someone's face.


Do you need a visa to go to Algeria?

Yes! Applying for an Algerian visa is a lot like making macarons; there are many steps, and many things that can go wrong at every step. We had read several accounts on TripAdvisor of people being denied their visas right before their departure date. From the consulate's website: "Submitting all the required documentation does not guarantee the issuance of a visa. In case your visa application was not approved, visa office is not required to provide the reasons."

Because our return flight out of Algiers was November 16th, and the visa is valid for 60 days from the date of issuance, we couldn't take the chance of it being approved any sooner than September 16th. That's the day I mailed it, giving us 6 weeks, well over the 1 week minimum stated in the visa instructions. 

I had a tracking number for the USPS 3-Day Priority Mail SASE, so after 4 weeks of no activity, I called the Algerian consulate in New York. After 15 minutes of multiple attempts with a busy signal, 10 minutes of ringing phone, multiple trips through the "Press 204" loop, I finally got through to the visa office and spoke with a very nice man named Mohammed. After only 5 minutes on hold, he informed me that our applications were still "in process" (which I think is Bureaucrat-Speak for "Sitting on someone's desk"), and to check back at the end of the week.

That Friday, 22 minutes before their office closed for the day, I took a chance during my break at work and called. I got through right away, Mohammed answered, and put me on hold to check with his supervisor. After 21 minutes on hold, he came back on the line to deliver the good news that the visas would be mailed out the next day. Hurray!! 

I didn't give Bhob the tracking number at first, because I knew that he would be checking it obsessively. He subsequently signed up for text notifications.The following Monday (10 days before departure), I burned a hole in the internet by checking the USPS tracking number throughout the day, as late as 10:30 PM.

No action.

When I woke up at 5 the next morning, I reflexively checked again, and...wait....what is this delightful blue semi-circle?!?! The package was (finally!!) in transit. Wednesday, it had reached a regional facility. Friday (6 days before departure), it was scheduled to be delivered to its destination by 8 PM.

It never showed.

On Saturday, I called the 800 number and talked to an actual human who informed me that it had gone to a post office in the wrong zip code. It was then sent to the post office in the correct zip code, and we could expect it to be delivered on Monday. I should mention at this point that the package not only contained our visas, but our passports as well, so if it didn't arrive by Thursday, we weren't going anywhere. No Plan B. No Plan C.

On Monday, by 7:30 AM (3 days before departure) the tracking information still didn't say "Scheduled for delivery", so I went to the post office myself. The supervisor informed me that because the package had been missent, it might still be at the 55107 (incorrect office) and that I should call there when they opened. She said that if it had to be rerouted and mailed back to the sender (which was me), it could be 7-10 days until it was delivered. I didn't share this with Bhob until later, because why have two people worrying about a trip cancellation?

I called the 55107 office when they opened and spoke with a very nice woman who told me that because the package had been missent, the bar code had probably been blacked out so it wouldn't get stuck in a continuous 55107 undeliverable loop. The upshot is that the package was now essentially off the grid and untrackable.  She looked for it the old-fashioned way, with her eyes, but couldn't find it, which meant that it had been sent to 55104 (the correct office), and would be delivered right away. 

However, it had probably gone out after the 55104 trucks had already been loaded and on their way. When the mail came on Monday, it was not in my mailbox. I had two afternoon clients, so Bhob went to the 55104 office and talked to the manager. The manager said that it also might have been sent to the central processing facility in Eagan. He took my information, and said that on Tuesday morning, he would try to intercept it before it got loaded onto a truck, and would call me to let me know. 

In the meantime, Alex was leaving for his flight to Paris the next day, and was in just as much virtual limbo as Bhob and me. His Plan B was to cancel his Paris-Algiers round trip flight and hang out in Europe for two weeks. Without knowing whether or not we were going, he didn't even know which country/climate to pack for.

On Tuesday, a glimmer of hope: Bhob received a text at 3:31 AM that the package had arrived at 55104. This means that it was trackable again!!

The morning proceeded with no activity on the tracking, and no phone call from the station manager. We started to get that sick, helpless feeling again. I had an 11 AM client, so I just had to put myself in a a massage bubble and forget about it for 70 minutes. At 12:12 PM, Bhob received a text that the package had been delivered!!! I rushed to the mailbox, and there it was! I tore open the envelope and saw the most beautiful sight imaginable: two passports (ours) each with a bona fide Algerian visa! Arriving 2 (2!) days before our departure.

I immediately informed Alex (who would be at the airport checking his bags in fewer than 4 hours), and Omar (who had already booked our intercity Algerian flights- yikes!).

What's the wicked punchline, you ask? The visas were good for 90 days, not the 60 days described on the consulate website, so we could have submitted our applications a full month earlier and (potentially) avoided this maddening suspense.

How this could have ended up in 55107, I will never know

Lesson learned: when it comes to visas in the mail, always, ALWAYS go for the fastest, guaranteed shipping option, regardless of price. I would not have gone with USPS, but it is one of the requirements in the visa instructions of the Algerian consulate. That being said, everyone we dealt with at the postal service was very kind and helpful.

As it turns out, having visa problems is more the rule than the exception. Omar said that most of his clients, dealing with consulates all over the world, have delays and close calls. Some of them have had to cancel their trips because they received their visas late, or not at all.

I am including this detailed account of our visa ordeal because I know that people will have questions. All's well that ends well, etc., but this was a very upsetting experience that robbed us of our pre-trip excitement and anticipation. I don't want to relive by having to retell it. Please do not ask me about it.

Why does the government appear to be discouraging tourism?

Who knows?? A friend of Adiib had been there 3 times, and when attempting to apply for a new tourist visa, was told: "You've already seen everything. There's nothing left to see".
Some have theorized that the French are behind it. If the rest of the world embraces Algeria as a tourist destination, people might have more objections to France's exploitation of its resources, which were guaranteed under the Evian Accords


 Is Algeria an Islamic republic?

Nope. Most people are Sunni Muslim, and the culture/society reflects that, but the government is secular.


 Did you need to wear hijab? 

No. While most women wore a headscarf (lots in the north and pretty much every one in Gardaia), I wasn't required to, and I never felt scrutinized or scorned. It helped that it was Autumn, so I always had my arms and legs covered.
I did have to wear a loaner chador in the Constantine Mosque.

The unwritten rules are not that different from most of Western Europe, especially the countries that were Catholic for much of the last two millennia: just don't dress like a hoochie ( both men and women).

   Do Algerians smoke a lot?

They sure do. Everywhere. Even in an airplane cockpit.


What was the exchange rate?

Official bank rate is terrible, around 120 Algerian Dinar per $1 US. Everyone uses the black market, which sounds really edgy and dangerous, but it is simply a fact of life. There is even a weekly listing of current rates. 

In some of the places we visited, the men changing money would gather right in front of the main bank. If you don't want to avail yourself of the services of these gentlemen, every trustworthy guide  "knows a guy who knows a guy".

Are there ATMs?

Yes, but we never used them. We brought US$ and got utilized the services of the guy who knows our guy.

How much did it cost? *

Per person, for 15 days on the ground:

Airfare $756.65
Tour $1825
Visa and associated costs 183.36
Travel insurance 82.54
Meals not included in tour price $168.14 ($5.60 per meal)**
Coffee $11.14**
Booze $17.90**
Snacks $11.36
Extra ground transportation $4.25
Host gifts 12.50
Guide tips $200 (not required, this was our choice)
Souvenirs $58.50 (most of that was Bhob's gandora)
Psychiatrist bills for treating PTSD from the visa ordeal: TBD 

Total: $2572.69, with airfare, $3330.69
Cost per day on the ground, without airfare $152.32
(including airfare, $222.05)

* I kept track of expenses in Algerian Dinars. When it came time to do the calculations to report the dollar amount to you, Dear Reader,  I took the lazy route and used the xe currency exchange app, which converts at the official exchange rate of 120 DA per $1 US. We bought our DA for 160 and 177 per $1 US, so our actual cost was a bit lower. Some day I might take the time to figure out what we actually paid. 

Or not.
**Difficult to be exact on this one, as we all 3 took turns paying for meals, coffees and drinks. Historically, this is the kind of thing that would give me an aneurysm. When dining out in a group, I hate splitting the bill evenly because I always feel like I am subsidizing someone else's indulgence. However, everything was so cheap that it felt like I was hardly spending anything. I think the most expensive meal we ate came to maybe $18 each, though $5-7 each was more typical, and that would be for heaping helpings of food.


Any regrets?

That I didn't bone up on my French before the trip. I missed out on a LOT of opportunities for interacting with everyday folks, especially women. It would have been interesting to find out what life is like for them, as all of our guides, drivers and fellow cafe denizens were all men.  :(

Would you go back? 
Absolutely! We kept hearing about a lot of other interesting places that we wouldn't be getting to on this trip. It's a big place, with wonderful people and lots to see.


Who should go? 

Anyone who:
Wants to experience North Africa with virtually no other foreign tourists, in places that each have a life of their own versus existing solely for the convenience and amusement of tourists.

Has a strong enough set of nerves to survive the visa application process

Is willing to learn a little French or Arabic ( not absolutely necessary, as the tour agency and guides will facilitate the essential logistics, but very helpful for interacting with locals, ordering food, listening to airport announcements, etc)

Doesn't mind squat toilets and always keeping their pockets stuffed with toilet paper.

Is prepared to have a solid Plan B with the final segment to Algiers booked as a separate round trip.

  Who watched Stinkerbell while you were gone? 

 My dear friends/neighbors Rob and Jennifer.


  Did you buy any clothespins for your collection?

Why yes, as a matter of fact I did!

It's not just clean; it's Cha Cha clean!!


  1. Fantastic trip report, with great photos.

  2. Thanks for writing this blog. It's like a 1 hour vacation. Joe