Life nowadays is generally quite predictable and comfortable.
Living in a modern society, everything seems to be set up so that I fall into a routine – from my alarm clock (well, smartphone) waking me up at the same time each morning, to going to my weekly dance classes and eating mostly the same food.
Even when I travel, I mostly end up in more ‘popular’ destinations that are more on the well-established path than anything. Chain hotels offer a convenient but predictable base and are set up with their (usually bland) generic restaurants, pools and other conveniences that ultimately discourage wandering.
All of these things are not why I love to travel.
Adventure, new experiences, discovery, seeing how people across the world live and think differently in the hope that it will inspire me to challenge my own thinking… these are things that excite me when I travel.
So when I was being interviewed for my current (corporate) job and they told me that my travels will not always be ‘popular’ destinations, I was excited rather than put off. I wanted to be sent to go to places I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to go to.
Algeria was one of those places.
I do not speaking much French (2 weeks of listening to language CDs in my car to and from work) or Arabic and very few people (even in big hotels) speak any English.
Then there was all that business of slaughtering lambs in the street that greeted me in my first couple of days – a stark notice that I was in unknown territory.
So come the weekend, as much as I wanted to discover the city, I was quite apprehensive. The hotel concierge said that it wouldn’t be safe to walk alone in the streets, which would no doubt be accentuated by my lack of language skills.
While I appreciate good advice, especially of locals, sometimes you have to keep your own counsel and throw caution to the wind.
With the help of trusty Google and TripAdvisor, I decided to head to the Kechoua Mosque at the foot of the Qasbah area. The Qasbah is notorious for its system of alleys and backstreets that apparently is a law unto its own.
Nonetheless, previous travellers’ comments suggested that the area around Kechoua was said to be safe enough.
So off I went, on foot in the boiling North African heat. It was an hour’s walk but I wanted to see what else Algiers had to offer, not to mention a distinct lack of taxis at midday on Friday.
First thing to notice was that the streets were almost eerily empty. Like ghost town from The Walking Dead town kind of empty.
Most buildings in Algiers were really badly maintained (appearance just doesn’t seem to count for much in Algiers) which added to the effect.
It was Friday.
Friday, being the holy day for Muslims, was the main weekend day in Algeria. Everywhere is shut at noon and virtually everyone heads to their nearest mosque (generally a stone’s throw from wherever you are) for prayers.
Seeing as I had a massive lie in that morning, it wasn’t long before the masses started coming out of the mosques.
Being quite literally the only traveller around (I guess everyone else heeded the warnings), it was no surprise that I was stared at quite a bit. But these were stares of curiosity rather than malice so I never really felt threatened. Nevertheless I still kept a constant eye on my surroundings, just in case.
A few people tried to engage me in conversation, but beyond my attempts at answering their Assalamualaikums with my Wa’alaikumassalams my lack of local language was a barrier.
Yet, I did manage to have a chat with an old man with a walking stick (fits the image) who spoke decent English. Within a minute, we had already dived into the topic of religion. I even got the traditional Arabic greeting of a kiss on each cheek.
Feeling a little less apprehensive now. And actually, it was comforting to have more people in the streets.
In Malaysia we have a word – lepak – to describe hanging around (sort of timewasting). That seemed to be the after Friday prayers activity of choice so the streets were now pretty much full of people.
Then I met Sahil.
Sahil was originally from Algiers, but has since moved to live in Germany. He was back to visit his parents for Eid al-Adha.
Between his limited English and my limited German (and extremely limited French), we got chatting. And when I told him where I was headed, he offered to come along with me as he didn’t have plans.
My first reaction was, of course, to be wary. In my experience (mainly tourist places), people who seem overly helpful generally want money (whether as a tip or by more sinister means).
But given that he unusually spoke German (and was dressed a little more ‘European’) and there were plenty of people around anyway, I figured that it was safe enough.
And I’m glad I did.
Not only did Sahil help me find my way and be someone to talk to, he got us invited into one of the old mosques* (visits not normally allowed on Friday) and got me permission to take photographs inside as well. We also had a nice cup of coffee with the mosque’s caretaker in a local coffeeshop that reminded me of the Chinese kopitiam my late granddad used to frequent with his buddies when I was little.
He also led me through some of the lower parts of the Qasbah (although again I was keeping a good eye on my surroundings), which I would not have gone into myself.
One of the random alleys we stumbled into led to some corrugated iron shacks that I associated with a mix between the slums of Delhi and the backstreets of an Arabian market. It really was a fortress city within Algiers with a different energy to the rest of Algiers.
That evening, we met up for dinner.
We went to a fair nondescript door on one of the main streets and rang a bell. Being that kind of place, someone opened some shutters to peer at us and have a word (maybe to ask for the secret password) before letting us in.
Up some stairs we went to find a full on bar with a few tables and a decidedly 90s playlist. In a place where I only expected to find alcohol in big hotels, that was unexpected.
What shouldn’t have been a surprise, but didn’t really even cross my mind was that everyone in there was male. (Sadly), a gay bar it was not – at one point a group of teenage girls came in and the shift in attentions was obvious. Come to think of it, it is ironic that Arab society, with its shunning of women and men kissing each other as commonplace, should be so anti-gay.
Starting with my introduction to Ricard (a French anise flavoured aperitif) followed by dinner and numerous drinks, the head was getting light headed. Sahil’s tales started getting wilder – from being a member of the German secret service to being a 4th Dan Aikido master and getting involved in the diamond trade in Africa. He even produced a pebble purported to be an uncut diamond.
And I believed it all.
Ok, not really. I’m sceptical by nature and by profession. Having practiced Aikido for a few years I asked him to demonstrate the unbendable arm for me, which he failed miserably on and also couldn’t show me some basic wrist locks.
Nonetheless, I’ll give it to the guy that he was a smooth talker. Almost Gatsby-esque, judging from the number of people throughout the day that he was seemingly able to engage in deep conversation. Myself included, I guess.
Still, it was all good fun so I played along.
It was getting late, and my head was getting hazy, so we left the bar. Waiting for a taxi, we chatted to a police officer (they are everywhere in Algiers!) who had the most perfect teeth and facial structure.
Half an hour later and still no taxis showed.
But in his typical manner, Sahil flagged down an already occupied taxi and started chatting to the driver and occupants. They were quite happy to give me a ride back to my hotel and Sahil back to his parents.
So my day of exploration in Algiers ended.
It might not have been hiking through jungles to discover ancient temples but it felt like a mini adventure to me, being one of the few who might have wandered around like that.
Here’s to hoping that I’ll have many more such unexpectedly great experiences on the rest of my travels.