Cairo to Algiers: Part 4
Twenty years is a long long time
I really had forgotten just how mountainous Algeria was...
I was getting tired, the k's had built up since leaving Cairo more than a month before and I had hit mountains and rain at the same time - no surprise there tho
I was enjoying Algeria, I'd been both riding and taking lifts so I'd seen plenty and had really good times and now I wasn't too far away from Algiers, in fact with a reasonably big day I could probably arrive today. Just one more big push... So I had checked my map and with the 'assistance' of half a dozen guys in a café (while the 'discussion' was voluble and lengthy, I reckon we all only understood a fraction of what was said) I had taken a secondary road that appeared to offer a reasonable non-freeway/motorway route to Algiers
It had seemed a good idea at the time, but here I was grinding up yet another fairly solid climb! The road itself wasn't too bad, pretty good pavement, not bad alignments and cambers - tho the pavement edges were ragged with good sized drops to the dirt, wouldn't want to go off the edge. Plenty of others obviously also thought that it was a good way into the city, especially the drivers of the multitude of worn-out, smoke-belching trucks that were also grinding their way up the climb. I had even passed a couple of trucks on the climb! Me! And I hate hills, I'm really not a good 'mountain' rider. Anyway, here I was, in a steady stream of traffic winding upwards
One of the things that I had understood back at the café was that I shouldn't loiter around here, that I should keep on riding through the villages as they were "full of vagabonds" (think Islamist/Al-Qeda types) And then think of the recent past in Algeria. Doesn't much matter which version you believe, whether it's Al-Qeda slaughtering innocents or a government at war with it's own people, the outcome is an awful lot of death and destruction either way. I didn't intend to test whether or not the 'vagabonds' were as bad as they'd been painted
I didn't mind the light drizzle of rain when it started, tho the vast amounts of black smoke being blasted onto the pavement by the trucks did make the road quite slippery and a couple of times I had traction problems, but on the whole riding in the rain wasn't too bad. At least it wasn't until a mist started to roll in. Visibility dissappeared . Sorry! Silly pun... Anyway, I could only see a couple of metres (meters) in front of me and if I couldn't see then neither could those truck drivers and I was a pretty small blip on the road, even with my bright flags and flashing lights. It only took one near miss for me to quickly head off the road
Of course, I had stopped in a village
And, of course, I had stopped right in front of a line of almost identical cafés so what else was I to do but to go to a café. They really all were almost identical, all had a charcoal grill out front surrounded by a few tables with more tables inside but at one of the cafés there was a family siting at a balcony table so I chose that one and went and sat as close to the family as decorum permitted. Safety in numbers and all that. Sure enough in a minute or so a 'vagabond' appeared from within the café. How did I know he was a 'vagabond'? Easy, he had a full, straggly beard and was dressed in what looked like a Pakistani khameez, a form of dress that had often been pointed out to me as the 'trademark' of a 'vagabond'. He saluted me in very good French, my French is crap but I recognise good French when I hear it, and I returned his greeting in my best Arabic - in itself pretty awful, invariably I am told that I'm not talking Arabic at all, rather I'm speaking coarse Egyptian. Whatever! But my response had an unexpected outcome, the 'vagabond' silently turned and walked back inside the café and so I sat, and sat, and waited, and waited
It seemed like an eternity, probably wasn't, but the family up and left, the mist eased as the rain drummed down harder and I was the only customer in the whole line of cafés before the 'vagabond', accompanied by two other identically dressed men reappeared. They walked over to my table, one stood in front, one stood to the side and another sort of behind and to the side... Just what had I got myself into?
Yalla one said - let's go - flicking his head towards the back room
We wound or way, single file with me in the middle, through the tables in the inner room, through a store room into a kitchen, the back door was open. I was petrified...
As we passed through the kitchen the lead 'vagabond' stopped. He turned around to face me, the other two closed in behind me in the narrow kitchen
Then one of the 'vagabonds' took the lid off a pot and gestured for me to look, another grabbed a bowl and spooned a bit of the contents of the pot into the bowl, it was chorba frik. The spoon and bowl were given to me, eating motions indicated I should taste (it was damn good!) Another pot lid was lifted, another chorba, and another pot lid lifted, some sort of tagine, a nettle grabbed from a pile on the nearby counter and waved to indicate that it was some sort of nettle tagine and on and on (and on and on) it went! I must've tasted everything they had, soups, lentils, tagines, and at some point one of the 'vagabonds' had sliiped away unnoticed as he returned bearing a kebab of the smallest morsels of meat you've ever seen, but also some of the best pieces of meat I've eaten - turkey, having been in Tunisia I knew what I was eating
I really don't know how long we were in the kitchen, but I do know that I was pretty stuffed with food! When I couldn't eat another thing, I tried a diversion, I asked for tea. It was quickly apparent that my new-found friends believed that I should try the tea at their friend's tea shop rather than drink their tea-bag offerings so we trooped off down the street, the rain had cleared, to the tea-shop where it was decided that a fresh brew was required for the occassion. And what an occassion it turned out to be, the preparation of the sugared, green, minted tea was pure theatre, involving the whole room! With considerable laughter, a lot of shouted 'advice', repeated pourings from pot to glass and back (from a great height) finally resulted in a small glass being placed on a stainless steel try and passed to me. On my first, appreciative, sip, the whole room clamoured for their own glass of tea. A date filled pastry was pressed into my hand
The afternoon was wearing on, the rain had gone, it was time to move on so I reached into my pocket for some money but it was loudly and happily refused. I've been here before, so I asked about the mosque and the 'unfortunate' and so we all walked back up the road to a rather non-descript building with the smallest minaret I've ever seen where I stuffed some notes into a box. I then tried to explain that I had to leave as I had to be in Algiers that night. Everyone thought that this was a bad idea, Algiers wasn't a good place, but if it had to be, it had to be, and so the next thing I knew both myself and the trike were being bundled into the back of the rustiest, most decrepit blue van you can imagine
We wound down and down a twisty narrow road, a couple of sharp showers of rain caused the driver some bother but eventually we stopped, we did what seemed like a hundred point turn as the driver wrestled the van around to face back up the road we had just descended and then with some quick, and seemingly nervous good-byes, my trike and I were alone on the road. A short, wet, ride around a bend brought me to a military check point where I was held up for a long long time. But that's another story. Turned out really well, but it's another story
I've often thought about that day and those 'vagabonds' and in the end I always think that this little tale says more about me than those guys...